When you listen to any of John Kolodij’s releases under the High aura’d moniker, American Primitive mixes with scorched blues rippers, subtle drone freakouts, and dark ambient excursions. For fans both old and new, Kolodij’s latest LP, and first for Seattle’s Debacle, No River Long Enough Doesn’t Contain a Bend, is as accomplished a record as he’s ever released. Save for the final track, featuring Angel Olsen’s vocals, No River is an understated showcase of Kolodij’s acoustic and electric guitar instrumentals, coupled with adventurous experimental song-scapes.
In the run-up to the release of No River, John and I emailed back and forth from his current home base of Ohio, discussing the history of the project, his work as a chef, and how his home state’s natural beauty inspired the new record.
I want to focus primarily on the here and now of the High aura’d project, but tell me a little bit about yourself, and how the project came into existence?
I’m 44 years old. I grew up in Trumansburg, NY, right outside of Ithaca. The Finger Lakes — what people toss off as Upstate. I’m married to a wonderful, creative woman, who is also the mother of our three girls.
High aura’d began as a duo, but then quickly became a solo path. I had always been in bands, and still clung to the idea that I needed someone to bounce ideas off, and fill space with. Due to an imminent tour with Barn Owl, and some new technology, I quickly fleshed out my ideas and was able to get the density of sound I wanted by myself.
Listeners have the High aura’d discography to sink their teeth into, but what is your view on the evolution of the project? Any releases that would have surprised you when you first started?
It’s purely an evolution.
My earliest work was more meditative in conception, and I’ve been feeling a need to reclaim that, but again, it all represents who I am, and was at that time. That day.
I don’t think I’m surprised by anything I’ve recorded. I’m truly grateful some people enjoy listening to my work, and I always will be. I’ve been very lucky to work with some fine people and have their support and encouragement.
In a 2015 interview with Decoder, your previous collaborator Mike Shiflet mentioned that you were a chef. I would love to hear more about it. Are you still a chef, and what kind of foods were/are you specializing in?
I was a professional cook. Chefs are owners. This all comes from the military system of rank. Chef being “chief.” I did not attend a cooking school, but I did unpaid stages for a chef in Boston where I was living, for a year on the weekends, and she offered me a job and I ran with it. I had just wanted to learn how to cook like someone’s great-grandmother, to intuitively know what to do and how to put ingredients together, to think seasonally, and cook from a whole food prospective. I’d always gone to farmers markets as a child, and we had a decent vegetable patch at our house.
I’ve always been into Japanese and Vietnamese cooking — all of the places I cooked were New American (minus one very high end Italian place, which was trying to push that envelope) — local-sustainable, worked with local farmers and purveyors to raise and butcher or source as much as possible. We also had the flexibility to incorporate new techniques and ideas. But now, I have four clients, and I try to keep that as happy as possible. I still aim to cook like an elder would, just maybe one from Hokkaido, or a Buddhist temple cook. I try and stay up to date as possible regarding what’s going on in food trends, and I’ve got my various noodle soups locked down. My pho is pretty on-point.
When you say, “to intuitively know what to do and how to put ingredients together,” I can’t help but think of music, composition, and songwriting. Do you see any connections between the way you approach cooking and music?
In as much as they are, or should be creative crafts, yes. I’m often drawn toward minimal ingredients presented in their finest way; Pickled mackerel, a foraged mushroom. A tomato in late summer, with fresh basil that grew next to it, dressed in great olive oil. I only eat tomatoes when in season. I hate the false flavor a hot house tomato brings. I listen to tons of dub in the summertime, drink more tequila then as well.
Are these linked?
Your music, especially the new album, combines established sounds of blues and Americana with drone, noise, and other modern flourishes. Blues and roots music is associated with travel, migration, and movement. With a recent move from Rhode Island to Ohio, how did you approach your songcraft with your lived experience of migration?
I think unless you’re trying to push your art in an unnatural direction, it’s always a reflection of the sum of your experience up until that point. I’ve moved around a good deal; Ithaca, NY, to Providence, Rhode Island; Brooklyn, NY, and Boston for a dozen years; Narragansett, Rhode Island, for two years, and now right outside Cleveland, Ohio, going on three years.
I’ve been in bands since I was 13, my first being a ridiculous thrash-metal band. My next bigger band was super shoegaze, and then next was a slowcore-/country-influenced quartet with a cellist [ed. note: The Pines of Rome]. I feel like all that is in me at anytime.
A lot of this record is done with acoustic guitars at the core, but there’s still oversaturated electric guitars, pedal steel, piano, and even acoustic drums, so it’s just me.
No River contains traces of both classic tropes of Americana, but mixed with modern drone and ambient composition. How do you balance carrying on the traditions associated with acoustic and blues guitar, while finding new ways to push the boundaries of fans’ expectations?
Robert Johnson was probably my first guitar crush, from probably the most embarrassing point of entry, the 1986 Ralph Macchio vehicle, Crossroads, which featured sweet shredder Steve Vai as well. America was in love with hair metal, but I got this Robert Johnson boxset for Christmas, and I was hooked. I’ve always dug Bukka White, Blind Willie Johnson, John Lee Hooker…and this eventually led me to John Fahey, which led me to Gastr Del Sol, and then to Loren Mazzacane Connors and Keiji Haino which led me… all without The Interent!
But on a parallel line, Sonic Youth led me to Bill Frisell, Bad Brains led me to Scientist, Led Zeppelin led me to Annie Briggs and Fairport Convention, King Crimson led to Fripp & Eno, Coltrane led me to Alice Coltrane and beyond…
I don’t feel I honestly consider fans’ expectations, or part of a musical tradition. I just try and hone in on whatever interests me in my work and dig out and polish what I like and present the truest version I’m able to.
Debacle wrote that you “dove into discovering the old forest and rivers of Steelhead Alley” after your move to Ohio. Did you find that exploring the surrounding natural area spilled over into your songwriting?
I’d hope it has. Cleveland has the worst reputation nationally, and it’s completely undeserved. The people (as much as they are human, which is to say, as much as any other place) are open minded and kind. The natural wonders around here are spectacular. The forests are grand, the rivers wondrous, and the sky is intense. I’ve become an avid fly fisher, catch and release, and it’s truly amazing being out in the middle of a river and only hearing & sensing the natural world.
I often try, when working on a piece to envision myself, somewhere else: in a desert, at the edge of an ocean, nighttime in Sonoma, crossing a footbridge in Miami, wherever feels evocative, and then trying to score that moment. I’ve been in love with cinema forever, and I just try and score everyday life.
A lot of cinemas host screenings with live or newly composed scores. Have you had your eye on a film you feel you could do justice with your sounds?
I love snowy films. John Carpenter’s The Thing, Paul Schrader’s Affliction, even Tarantino’s The Hateful 8, The Revenant, Fargo, A Simple Plan, The Shining… So perhaps something like that? Most of those are rather perfect as they are.
I have performed quite often to films others have made for me, often over-saturated color rich impressionistic pieces. I love doing that.
When you lived in Rhode Island, were you playing live often? Was there a venue or scene you were associated with? Have you established a new musical space or community in Ohio?
I did play often, perhaps more in Boston at first, but I got out at least every 2 months on average. I played at Machines With Magnets quite a bit, bringing some shows there. I played a bunch with Work/Death (Scott Reber is simply the best). If you’re asking if I was down with Fort Thunder, I was down with Fort Thunder in real time.
As far as Ohio, I’ve been playing out less, much of last year, as High aura’d because I wanted to focus on freeing my guitar playing up, and trying to expel learned or histrionic playing — I wanted to get free.
There’s a wonderful music scene here with multiple layers and venues. I’ve been playing with some more improv/free people, which is well represented here by New Ghosts and venues like The Bop Stop and Dan Wenninger’s monthly nights. There’s the classic experimental people like John Elliot, Prostitutes, Machine Listener, Chromesthic, Talons, & Trouble Books. And great suppostive record shops/distros like Bent Crayon, Hausfrau Records, and Experimedia.
As a listener, it’s fitting to dive into No River Long Enough Doesn’t Contain a Bend as fall kicks into high gear. Do you have ideal conditions or times of day well suited to working on and recording new High aura’d material?
I like to try and work on music as early in the day as possible — my mind is as uncluttered as it’s going to be at that point. I do also enjoy relaxing, later at night, and watching really slow movies with grand cinematography and just free associating on an acoustic guitar.
Is most of the material on No River based off of improvisation? How long did you spend on this project?
If you mean recorded improvisation that became a song, 3 songs on this would qualify. Most others were worked on, over the course of 2-3 years. The move to Ohio, slowed me a bit, not that I’m swift to begin with.
Finally hearing it on vinyl was the kicker. Helge Sten, who’s work at Deathprod and is a member of Supersilent, mastered the LP, and he just added this magic sheen. It has this warmth that I was always hoping to hear; and the art, which is photography of mine, but treated by Kevin Gan Yuen and incorporating the work of William Cody Watson; it’s a beautiful, singular package that I hope will make people want to own it, and not just download. Music was meant for more than laptop speakers.
I’ve seen how other writers, labels, and musicians play drone and noise music for their kids, whether as a way to help put them to bed, or just to see how they react to it. How do your children respond to your work? It’s always strange to think of what our parents do as “cool,” but I imagine hearing some blaring guitar and drones growing up can make quite the impression on a kid.
When our first child would need some help falling asleep, say while we were out doing something, and they were tired, but no quite there yet, we’d put on Tim Hecker’s album Harmony in Ultraviolet, specifically “Chimeras.” It would always do the trick. Plus it’s like another favorite, Aphex Twin’s “Stone In Focus,” it just has this glorious decaying motif.
They love music, and they’ve all just recently started playing instruments they chose: ukulele, viola, and guitar. We never forced anything on them, they just have always had access. I’m sure to one degree they think my work is strange, but they also are keenly aware of all the spooky music in television and films. And they mostly think it’s too loud. My kids were more responsive to the band my wife and I had together, a fuzz/pop band called WORKING. They love pop music, and we listen to a bunch of that constantly, but I listen to a lot of hip-hop and soul, and they humor me there. Also, spare bits of metal.
I think everyone enjoys spacing out on Arvo Part or Ryuichi Sakamoto, no? I know they enjoy it to some degree. My eldest daughter’s favorite record for a while was John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, so I did something right.
How did No River find its home on Debacle? Sam [Melancon, Debacle’s founder] has wide ranging tastes, but there are several records in the catalog (Hayden Pedigo, Elkhorn, Daniel Bachman) that, like you, take American Primitive and blues outside the box. Where do you see your place within the label and its ability to document varying scenes and movements within underground, D.I.Y. communities?
I’ve long admired Debacle’s streak of representing what they like and giving at a physical manifestation. Their varied tastes are easily viewed, from records by my old friends Kevin Gan Yuen, Golden Retriever, and Daniel Bachmann, to Total Life, and Chambers, which features Gabriel Saloman of Yellow Swans. [It] reminds me in all the best ways of my former label Bathetic, who purely pushed what they dug, simply.
With the record’s impending release, do you plan to tour? What’s next for you and High aura’d?
I don’t plan on touring, but I do plan on getting out, radially, from here. I’d like to hit Chicago and play with some friends along the way. As far as what’s next, I have some great collaborations finished, looking for homes, one with Matt Christensen of Zelienople, and a brewing LP2 with Mike Shiflet.
I may retire the High aura’d moniker, or keep it strictly for more sound/drone recordings. I hope to start work on a new collection soon. I feel like this year has had numerous wonderful records released and this is a glorious time for new music.
I’d like to collaborate sincerely and seriously more in the coming year, and keep growing. And to do so freely.