Published on Sunday, 09 October 2016 20:59
Interview with: J.R. Robinson
Conducted by: Evceles
J.R. Robinson has released an album each year from 2013 working with many different musicians under the name Wrekmeister Harmonies. Known for long compositions and unorthodox show locations; this year there was a change in the wind. Now with the release of his fourth album Light Falls (read a review over HERE), JR has broken from tradition to produce an album with shorter tracks and a tighter group of musicians from Godspeed You! Black Emperor. In this interview we discuss the new album and the last few years leading up to it, including working with other artists, elusive characters, favourite locations, sources of inspiration, mantras, mushroom hunting and dealing with the big hairy bullshit.
Evceles: What were you doing before starting Wrekmeister Harmonies; and what inspired you to start the project?
Evceles: What is some of your favorite music to listen to; and what are you listening to these days?J.R. Robinson
J.R. Robinson: I pumped gas, worked in a hardware store, drove a milk truck, was a stagehand in a theatre for a while,... read some books, watched films, walked around a whole lot.
Evceles: You have performed live in many interesting places. Do you have a favorite location to date; and what would be your ideal location for a live performance?
J.R. Robinson: Favorite location to date was this church in Bruges that had a pond inside. Maybe it was a reflecting pool but it wasn't deep. I think the ideal place would be in a dark alley of a crowded night market on some side street in Taipei.
Evceles: I have seen that you play the guitar, do you play any other instruments and do you have a preferred instrument for your compositions?
J.R. Robinson: Guitars seem to work best.
Evceles: Your music has a very organic sound and progression. Do you use the natural world as inspiration for your compositions?
J.R. Robinson: Not really. I recently went camping and had zero inspiration. To be honest I hadn't slept in a tent in about twenty years so the expectations were very low.
Evceles: Your bio on Bandcamp states; "Lightness fades into darkness, while innocence succumbs to the evils of the modern world". What do you think are the major evils of the modern world?
J.R. Robinson: I'm sorry to report that upon waking on any given day it seems like I'm confronted with a multitude of major evils, probably just like you. It's how you deal with them that matters.
Evceles: Even though you use different musicians and ideas, the end result is always identifiable as Wrekmeister Harmonies. Is texture important in your music?
J.R. Robinson: I think so. I try very hard to have different layers and textures that attempt to communicate various emotions, with or without words. Sometimes it works out.
Evceles: In your compositions, is there any wiggle room for the musicians to improvise or is it strict adherence to the composition?
J.R. Robinson: The best thing about collaborating is allowing space for improvisation. Trying to maintain too much control of the situation would not be very productive.
Evceles: You seem to have a certain way with people as you get to collaborate with so many great and sometimes elusive artists, have you ever had any conflict working with others?
J.R. Robinson: I had a job tending bar once and the boss was always drunk. It seemed like every day there was some sort of conflict with that guy. What a pain in the ass... always criticizing and once he called me on my day off about some completely inane bullshit. I had to quit. That was a real drag because I really needed that job but in the end it was for the best. Artistically speaking I've had no conflicts and I'm very grateful for that... although Thierry Amar would sometimes give me a hard time about not being interested in playing along to a click track while recording Light Falls. But when that happened I would just pay attention to his dog Oscar who he brought along to the sessions and pretend like I didn't hear him.
Evceles: I have seen the documentary you did for VICE; 'One Man Metal' and I found it to be fascinating. You are probably one of only a handful of people who have ever gained access to the inner worlds of those three musical projects; Leviathan, Xasthur and Striborg. Is there anything you can tell us that stood out about each encounter with these artists that we did not get to see in the documentary?
J.R. Robinson: Surprisingly Wrest was the most normal. Malefic was always threatening legal action. Sin Nanna seemed genuinely lonely. Personally, I needed about a month to regain some semblance of emotional balance after completing the project.
Evceles: Was it you that got a tattoo of Leviathan's; Howl Mockery At The Cross album cover from Wrest himself?
J.R. Robinson: Yes.
Evceles: It seems you are mostly inspired by strong themes or concepts of which the music is based on. How does your music usually come to you?
J.R. Robinson: I like to read books. I visit the library here in town quite often. Sometimes I just sit there for hours and pretend it's my office. There's usually a handful of bums (like myself) hanging around although mainly they're just there to watch shit on YouTube. The librarians are very friendly and sometimes we talk about books but not always. Recently a new librarian showed up on the scene but she's kind of reserved and doesn't say much. They also have a chess board that's oversized with giant pieces but I haven't touched it. I think it's for children but most children suck at chess. At about four o'clock I'll pack all my stuff up and head home. It's a short walk up a hill, but I'm old so I take my time.
: My hearing is quite terrible. There was a period of time where I had a job working at an airport. Obviously it was a very loud working situation and it was a small airport so there were no OSHA people keeping track of whether you were wearing hearing protection and most of us did not. Also working as a stagehand I was often subjected to loud working environments. These days I hear a very high pitched buzzing in my head that is difficult to ignore. It goes away when I'm asleep and on some days its pretty mild. So that's what I've been listening to these days.Evceles: In what state do you see the world in the modern day; how do you envisage the world will change over the next few generations?J.R. Robinson
: Mostly I wake up and look out my window and see the Columbia River with a very picturesque backdrop of a mountain range. I prefer it when there's a moderate amount of fog and cloud cover. I look out over the downtown area and notice not a whole lot is going on, maybe a logging truck or two going in or out of town. I make some coffee and then step out on the porch and smoke a cigarette and then go back inside and have the first of two twenty minute meditations of the day. That's about as far as I can go with my view of the modern world, to contemplate future generations would be torture. Evceles: How has Wrekmeister Harmonies changed since the inclusion of Esther Shaw?J.R. Robinson
: Esther Shaw is the smartest person I know. She's also an expert mushroom hunter. As a matter of fact just today we went out to Coffinbury Lake and took a two mile walk around the thing identifying and cataloging various mushrooms. At one point a loon took flight out of bush near the water and nearly scared us to death. Esther also has the largest bread baking cookbook I've ever seen and last night we made a batch of pizza dough and I'm quite happy to report that the forecast for tonights pizza dinner is looking very favorable. At this moment she's at the piano playing a Liszt piece, I'm not sure which one, but it sounds great. So, needless to say she's a human with many talents.Evceles: Why did you break from tradition with Light Falls to produce a more typical album structure with seven shorter tracks rather than one or two longer compositions? J.R. Robinson
: Sometimes you think to yourself "I'm pretty goddamn tired" and yet you can't fall asleep. For some reason, all my life, this will often occur on a Sunday night. This one time I was living in this giant place, much too big for one person but the rent was dirt cheap, and one of these insomnia ridden nights descended upon me. Misery. I was exhausted but I knew I'd be up for hours, until the dark would peel back into grey dishwater dawn and traffic would start humming on the boulevard outside. What I would do (and I know this isn't exciting) was pace back and forth up and down the long, gloomy hallway, smoking and thinking, sometimes talking out loud to myself. And this one night, I remember very clearly, I said to myself "I've GOT to do something different!"Evceles: Did this require a different approach to composition and production?J.R. Robinson
: This one was different because we went to Montreal to meet up with the rest of the band. Neither Esther or I speak French but luckily Sophie and Thierry are fluent. Timothy lives there but like a true American refuses to learn the language, which, to be fair, isn't really a problem since everyone will speak English to you but it just makes me feel incredibly dumb for never learning another language. I also asked if we could go by Leonard Cohen
's place but they just snickered at me, so then I also added feeling like an amateur to feeling dumb. The caretaker at the place we recorded at was a kind old grizzly bear of a man and he didn't speak any English at all. We got along fine though because he liked to stay up very late and we would watch Hockey Night in Canada together. So, yeah the language barrier was a bit of a challenge but not insurmountable.Evceles: The track; "Light Falls I - The Mantra" seems to be a rather monotonous expression of life. What theme were you developing with this track?J.R. Robinson
: In transcendental meditation a mantra is very important. During the instructional period you're given a mantra that's specific to you and you must never say it out loud or tell anyone. Meditation is a great tool that can be used to combat depression and the stress of everyday life. Depression and anxiety are nothing but anger and rage turned inward, everyone knows this. And the distractions, they're fucking endless!! For example, as soon as an infant has developed the basics of fine motor skills someone shoves a screen into their tiny hands that flashes colors and makes noise. That goes on until you're dead unless you take drastic steps or have a lot of money to go to a Waldorf school. It just makes good sense to have a period of time twice a day free from distractions and a mantra is very important element for that goal.Evceles: The track "Some Were Saved Some Were Drowned" includes the lyrics, "there is no God". What are your thoughts on spirituality and religion?J.R. Robinson
: I think my views on spirituality and religion are pretty clear from that lyric.Evceles: The guitar tones and drums featured on Light Falls sound awesome! How was it working with Godspeed You! Black Emperor?J.R. Robinson
: Thank you. We only worked with Timothy, Sophie and Thierry and I can say that they have an incredible rehearsal space. Very often Thierry would be looking at his phone and wondering when he could leave.Evceles: I felt a lot of pain within this album, is that an emotion that you were intending to convey?J.R. Robinson
: Yes.Evceles: I can see that the album cover resembles light descending into darkness; life into death. Are there any more subtle messages within the album artwork?J.R. Robinson
: The artwork is by the artist Nick Blinko. I would highly encourage you to check out his band Rudimentary Peni. You'd have to ask him about the subtle messages but from what I gather he's not so much into communicating with the outside world.Evceles: Do you have a favorite Wrekmeister Harmonies album?J.R. Robinson
: I always seem to like the one I'm currently working on the best.Evceles: What does the future hold for Wrekmeister Harmonies?J.R. Robinson
: Tomorrow I think I'll be heading over to the library, then come home and practice.
Wrekmeister Harmonies links: Official website, Facebook, Twitter