Thrill Jockey 20th Anniversary: Dan Friel: Interview
“I wanted those heavy, otherworldly textures that I got from listening to noise and psych and industrial stuff, and I wanted to learn how to write a simple, good, moving melody.”

Thrill Jockey built its cache on sterling albums by Chicago groups like Tortoise and The Sea And Cake in the mid-1990s, but over the course of 20 years, the Chicago-based label’s reach has expanded much further, encompassing jazz (Fred Anderson, Rob Mazurek), metal (Liturgy), punk (Gaunt, Nerves, Bobby Conn), folk/Americana (Freakwater, Catherine Erwin, Black Twig Pickers, Jack Rose), electronic music (Oval, Mouse on Mars, Nobukazu Takemura), and forward-looking rock (Eleventh Dream Day, Fiery Furnaces, A Minor Forest) from all over the world. Starting this month, the label is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a slew of reissues, a poster series, a comedy LP, and a handful of shows (hosted in Portland, Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and London). We thought we’d join in the celebration by talking extensively with several new Thrill Jockey signings and chatting with label founder Bettina Richards. [Next: Man Forever]

Electronic musician, songwriter, and composer Dan Friel was one half of the team that started early-aughts noise-rock darlings Parts & Labor, whose slew of LPs, CDs, and singles were the gateway drug for a pretty significant swath of oddball music fans. Now he’s on his own. Not only does Friel have an EP titled Valedictorian/Exoskeleton out in October, but he also has a forthcoming, as-yet untitled LP on Thrill Jockey in the works for February 2013.

Dan Friel will be performing at two Thrill Jockey anniversary shows: one tonight (September 13) in Baltimore and one tomorrow (September 14) in New York


From what I understand, there’s been a sort of shift in sonic direction in your solo work of late – is that correct?

I think that the EP is pretty different from Ghost Town (Important, 2008), but part of that has to do with the fact that more than half of it is remixes by other people, while the forthcoming full-length will be a linear connection to the previous record. The EP was a chance to put out a couple of new tracks and have some fun with them as well. This was the first time I’ve ever had anyone remix any of my music, ever. I am a big fan of both Garrett and Peaking Lights. I can totally understand how it would seem different.

There’s intensity to your album-length work, but the EP by comparison seems more drawn-out and spare.

Yeah, that’s true – and it makes me happy, because in advance of the full-length coming out, I’ve been grossly misleading in terms of what people can expect. That’s a good thing!

Sometimes those who write about music are the last to know as far as the artistic intent is concerned.

There’s a reason that “Valedictorian” was picked to be a single, because it’s the most single-like. The first track on the album is 13 minutes long and heavier than anything else I’ve done. I would say the full length will be a bit more diverse than the EP, which just distills a couple of ideas.

Ayler was huge for me in high school – that’s a great example of something that, when I heard it, it was “yes – this!”… I’d been getting into free-jazz at that point, but he was an example of someone who took the things that moved him, combined them, and not giving thought to the boundaries that people might apply.

Could you talk about what is being distilled and how you chose those particular works?

The first track, “Valedictorian,” I thought was a logical follow-up to Ghost Town. That album had shorter songs and a similar feel to it. “Exoskeleton” is kind of an oddball, because it won’t be on the full-length, it’s just something I was working on, and I wanted to put something special on the EP that might be on the opposite end of “Valedictorian.” It’s creepier and weirder, you know. Beyond that, we wanted a remix of one of the original tracks so I talked to Garrett from Moss Of Aura about doing “Exoskeleton,” while Peaking Lights remixed it from the forthcoming full-length.

It sounds like this work has been in development since long before Parts & Labor, too. Is that correct?

I wouldn’t say long before – the first solo thing I put out was in 2001, and I’d recorded that over about a year. We started Parts & Labor in 2002, and the way that the band started was I had been doing solo shows and I began to think I needed to do something with other people. It developed into a band, and BJ [Warshaw] had the same idea, so that is where it all came from.

Neither is a blueprint or a basis for the other – they existed pretty independently, as far as I understand it.

Well, there were a couple of songs on the first solo record that turned into Parts & Labor songs, so they started from a similar place. The first few shows with the band were actually developing the solo pieces from a group standpoint. Then the band branched off and became its own thing, while I would do a solo show every couple of years.

Certainly there is a rather “pop” sensibility to both approaches, added to music that in another sense could be quite challenging. Could you discuss that a bit?

It wasn’t a conscious decision to bring those two things together, necessarily, it was just that I wanted to hear music like that. It was something that I wasn’t finding too many places, either, and I love a lot of extreme, harsh music – that’s what got me into music, playing in noise and grindcore bands in high school – but at the same time, I’ve always loved very simple and purely melodic music. As a child, before I even remember listening to music to any great degree, my favorite music was the soundtrack to The Harder They Come with Jimmy Cliff [with Toots and] The Maytals, and that kind of stuff, and that’s pretty pure, major-key, beautiful pop music. That doesn’t show up in an obvious way in my work, but I wanted those heavy, otherworldly textures that I got from listening to noise and psych and industrial stuff, and I wanted to learn how to write a simple, good, moving melody.

I guess my tastes in terms of “songs” tend to veer toward the fuzzed out, in-the-red, tinny or garish, too.

Well, I have no illusions about this functioning as pop music and filling the same place for people that pop music does. I guess that I just view it as music that I want to make, where[as] pop is an element and an influence, and it holds equal ground with noises and sounds that are interesting and unique to this music.

It’s like Albert Ayler saying he wanted to “play music that people could hum,” and his tunes do have that aspect, even if they’re far out.

Yeah, Ayler was huge for me in high school – that’s a great example of something that, when I heard it, it was “yes – this!” I’d been getting into free-jazz at that point, but he was an example of someone who took the things that moved him, combined them, and not giving thought to the boundaries that people might apply.

Having that sensibility but also offering people something they might not have heard before is challenging, and with Parts & Labor – and not to draw too much on that – it was an opportunity to set up a songwriting structure that’s very clear, along with presenting explosive ideas and challenging textures. As I understand it, is the group on hiatus, or is it totally over with?

Well, we’re done indefinitely. We’re all good friends but we’re spread out geographically, doing other projects. That became a problem, and I bet we’ll do something again down the road, but we’ll give it some time.

Specifically, two records I’ve thought about a lot, where I put down my guitar and started thinking purely about electronic music, were Oval’s Pre/Commers (2001) – that was huge for me, along with Mouse on Mars’ Niun Niggung (2000). That’s how I started thinking about electronic music.

With the solo performance at Thrill Jockey 20, will that be just you or will you bring other people in to collaborate? What can people expect?

The solo shows will just be me, at least for one of them. The way I perform is that I have a backpack full of stuff and I sit with the equipment in my lap. I used to have this giant suitcase that would open out, but I’ve managed to narrow it down and I just walk to shows with my pack on. I have a viola player who sometimes joins me, and she’s on one of the tracks on the forthcoming album. She’ll be joining me in Baltimore and possibly New York. Sometimes it’s fun to stretch out and play off of the ideas, but some pieces there’s just not enough room to do that. As far as expectations – I’ll be doing music from previous records as well as the EP. It’ll probably all be really loud and blurred together! [laughs] I will do a few pieces that haven’t been performed live before, though.

I guess the full length is complete but not totally assembled, right?

I only gave them the full tracks the other day, and we’ve set a mastering date so it will be available sometime in the near future. On a nuts-and-bolts level, I had it basically done when we (the label and I) started talking about working together a few months ago, but they couldn’t put it out this year because it’s their 20th anniversary and there’s so much going on. So we set the release date as February and worked back from there. We decided that we could fit in the 12” in October. It functions as a preview of what the album is like in a very microscopic way. But I recognize that it’s hard to see one tiny piece of a much larger picture.

Over the years, Thrill Jockey has done a lot of EPs, and it varies whether that is a self-contained thing or a piece of a larger work. How did you get involved with Thrill Jockey?

The idea to talk to Thrill Jockey was due to the fact that in the last couple of years, they’ve been hopping around friends and peers of mine whose music I love, starting with a bunch of Baltimore bands – Jason Urick, Future Islands and Double Dagger, for example. And then the New York folks like Justin Wong, whom I’ve collaborated with, and obviously Man Forever and Guardian Alien. Almost exactly a year ago we did a show that had myself along with Dustin and Guardian Alien at a place that did live trapeze acts with all the bands, and that was far out. Suddenly we’re all on the same label together.

It was a way to work with a label whose music totally shaped what I have done for the last 10 years, but also had a lot of my friends involved. Specifically, two records I’ve thought about a lot, where I put down my guitar and started thinking purely about electronic music, were Oval’s Pre/Commers (2001) – that was huge for me, along with Mouse on Mars’ Niun Niggung (2000). That’s how I started thinking about electronic music.

Oval’s approach to electronic music is very tangible and hands-on. The textures are relatable to someone coming from an acoustic perspective, and I felt like when Thrill Jockey put those records out it was almost from an instrumental approach. You could feel the humanity in it, and maybe it was an easier access point than some other electronic artists might have provided.

I’ve found a lot of their electronic music more relatable, for sure.

[Photo: Marie Rossettie]

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