Zelienople - Cinematic Rituals for Decaying Architecture
Zelienople is a Chicago trio that takes their favorite bits of atmospheric sound from the last four decades and places them in one big pot of simmering ambience. Their music glides elegantly through cinematic dreamscapes, urban fog, stretched-out tone clusters, free-flowing improvisations, corrosive string ceremonies and detailed mantras of fragmentized noise. Given their sonic focus, most of their output is surprisingly moody and melancholic; never letting things to slip away too far from the organic base they refer to as home.
What they do is to construct stunningly delicate and convincingly toned down sound sculptures, slow building, trance inducing improv and texturally challenging drone music that is packed with so much emotion and darkly seducing beauty that it sucks the listener in time after time. We got in touch with Mike Weis and Matt Christensen to learn how they're capable of turning blurry shots of empty city streets or natural landscapes into immortal music.
How did you initially hook up and what lead to the decision to form Zelienople? Who was in the band at this time?
Mike: Zelienople was started by Matt Christensen and Brian Harding back in ‘96 or ‘97. They started to get together to make 4-track recordings and began titling the cassettes "Zelienople" after they returned from an ill-fated trip out east. They took the name from the town where their car broke down at in Pennsylvania. I rented a practice space a few rooms down from them in this old haunted building above an antique shop on the far north side of Chicago. Most of the other rooms were occupied by shitty metal bands and Smashing Pumpkins-wanna-bees, so when I heard these incredibly loud drones coming from their room I was intrigued. We met and started as a trio shortly thereafter, spending loads of time on recording and jamming, finally venturing out three years later to play shows in Chicago.
Where did you all come from musically speaking?
Mike: At the time Matt and Brian were really into the ‘90s Space Rock vibe and heavy shoegaze acts like Flying Saucer Attack, Spaceman 3, My Bloody Valentine etc. I also think Matt was way into the ambient stuff like Eno and the early electronica scene like The Orb, early Aphex Twin, Orbital and others I can't remember. I was into all of this stuff too and at the time I was really getting into North African Sufi music after a friend took me to a Master Musicians of Jajouka concert. That show changed how I thought about music. Shortly thereafter, I started taking lessons from a master drummer from Ghana and eventually playing in his ensemble for a brief period.
It's fascinating to hear how much getting into North African Sufi music has meant to your own musical development. Care to describe what it was that initially caught your attention? Do you think it has influenced the sound of Zelienople in any way?
Mike: I was initially attracted to the hypnotic, ritualistic aspect of Sufi music. It was like a 1000 year old pre-cursor to My Bloody Valentine to my ears! I realized that the emphasis on that kind of music wasn't focused on one thing and separated so clearly by who was doing what. I really responded to that, it took the ego out of the group which was something that is so distracting to me in a lot of western music, especially Rock. It's like looking at a sunset and only admiring the fiery ball on the horizon instead of appreciating the whole landscape before you. With Zelienople, we're a somewhat conventional rock band because Matt is writing the songs and then he's presenting them to Brian and me but I still think it's an ego-less project because he's open to us to interpret his songs instead of mapping out the direction the song should go. Most of the time, the finished song is practically unrecognizable from Matt's initial demo version. The three of us contribute to the general mood and atmosphere of the song, which has always superseded any linear narrative or obvious rhythm which usually demands attention and focus. Instead, we spend much more time on sounds, textures a mood. Our individual parts end up sounding incredible subtle which can be frustrating for someone who is looking to scrutinize our technique.
Matt: Our first recording that we ever sent out or sold at shows was a 4 song EP called Green As A Feather. There were plenty of recordings before that, but nothing that anyone else has heard. We used to work on recordings and songs and not worry about using too many tracks or instruments in a song. If we'd use a different keyboard on each song, we wouldn't worry about it. It would get to the point where we'd either have a song that was near impossible for 3 people to do live, and/or require a full van-load of gear to take to a show. We were also doing a lot of programming and sequencing. With Pajama Avenue (our first label release), we didn't do any sequencing, but there's still plenty of synth on that record. That record was inspired by Talking Heads' Remain In Light and an interview with Peter Gabriel where he said that "Shock The Monkey" was intended to be a tribute to the Motown sound. I thought that it'd be cool to do a rhythm-heavy album. Sleeper Coach was another kitchen sink record, but inspired by George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. That changed when we recorded Ink. I really wanted to do some Phil Spector type recordings. We started to record live, and I switched from bass to guitar. As a result, our sound really started to change. It may not sound that way to other people, but it does to us.
It's interesting to hear that Talking Heads inspired that first album of yours as terms like ambient, drone and cosmic exploration would feel more at home when describing your slow motion grandeur at this period of time. Given the inspiration, what would you say makes it sound (in my ears) more like Landing or even Windy & Carl than... well... Talking Heads?
Matt: I can see Landing more than Windy & Carl. I don't know. I just remember thinking about that band a lot at the time.
Mike: We probably share a lot of the same influences as those two bands, we were just late to leave the practice space. Honestly, I never heard of Windy & Carl and Landing until someone noticed the similarities in our sound. That's kind of how I find out about new bands. I understand that someone would say that we have an affinity with those bands but I can't say that we were influenced by them. That dreamy, spacey sound probably comes from our interest in early ‘90s dream-pop, space-rock and shoegaze. All three of us were way into Spaceman 3/ Spiritualized, Flying Saucer Attack, Slowdive, etc. when we met in ‘95. Matt has always been obsessed with the Talking Heads album Remain In Light which Brian Eno had a huge hand in the producing and collaboration of that record. At the time, we were both crazy about anything that Eno did so we tracked down nearly everything that he touched. Our tastes have definitely broadened since then but I still go back to those records occasionally. There's been a resurgence of that sound lately but nothing seems very inspired to me with the exception of Grouper's last record which is absolutely gorgeous.
I totally agree with you that Ink somehow meant a slight stylistic shift for the band. I think I once described it as an album that elegantly glides through cinematic dreamscapes, urban fog, free-flowing improvisations, corrosive string ceremonies and detailed mantras of fragmentized noise. Given its sonic style it's somewhat surprising how organic and deeply emotional it is. Is that sort of effect something you intentionally aim for when creating music?
Matt: We do try to get the most "inspired" take of a song. To me, that's one of the most frustrating things about making music. You always want it to sound great, but that doesn't stop a fight between you and your partner, a cold, or just an especially shitty mood from affecting the outcome. All of those things I mentioned can also be a boon too. But sometimes there's no explanation for why something sounds dull, and that's the worst.
Mike: I think we subconsciously work towards a very emotional end result, even though the means might seem antithetical to what most would consider "feeling-laden" or "expressionistic". I mean we don't scrape and bow and produce ugly sounds for the point of making some kind of avant statement or to be overtly difficult, it's just a means to produce a record that you can sink into instead of study. I think our goal is to always produce a record that is beautiful and that you can respond to emotionally whether we're using guitars or home-made instruments, multi-tracking or free-improvising while the tape is rolling.
It's interesting to hear you describe how it sometimes is difficult to describe why something sounds dull, and I guess the same can be said the other way around. How significant is improvisation and chance to what you do?
Matt: Improvisation and chance are a huge part, but I think that inspiration would be a better word. You know, fuck it. You were right in the first place. There's been plenty of times where we'll really try to iron out a song to where the playing is right where everyone wants it and the recording quality is as good as it can be. 9 times out of 10, the recording quality is usually the only thing that ends up sounding better, with each subsequent take getting more and more limp performance-wise.
Mike: Yeah, the more we attempt multiple takes of a song the flatter it usually ends up. You always think, it can be better but then you end up beating it into oblivion and you've found that you wasted the night trying to recreate a once inspired moment that you lost and will never gain back. When I listen to past recordings of our stuff the best songs were the ones that seem impossible to recreate, that happened to occur quickly and luckily the tape was rolling. That said, we don't openly "jam" or improvise for hours, we usually have a pretty good idea of the path we want the song to go and just start playing and it might decide to take a totally different direction. That's why we radically change most of our songs when we perform them live because it's futile and boring to just play it like a cover song. Luckily our song structures are pretty elastic anyway so it makes for a more inspired performance when we fuck with the tempo or texture or even the instrument arrangement from the original recordings.
Matt: We try to come up with a new set every time we play, with revamps of our recorded songs. We also try to compose a new piece for every show. That doesn't always work, because we tend to change our minds about stuff right up until the last minute. You can really be into a song, but the next day realize that it's not up to speed. We do play live on a regular basis.
Mike: Well, "Moss Man" has been a regular in our sets for the past year and it's one of the few songs that we play live that is close to how we recorded it although the second half is always a free-for-all. Other than that, most songs get a live make-over...looser and more open so that we can adapt our surroundings and how we're feeling during the show. We also construct songs specifically for a performance that may or may not ever be played or recorded again. We've been doing this since we started playing shows. I like that quote from Eric Dolphy, "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again." We play out in Chicago quite a bit, at the most once a month but usually every other month. We don't get out of town much, a few one-offs in the Midwest and last spring we did a short tour out to New York with Xela which was a lot a fun.
How have you been received by the audiences that you have played to? Any special live anecdotes you'd wish to share with us?
Matt: Oh man, that really varies. I think that in general, most people don't like us. I think that some people get the impression that we try to challenge the audience or that entertaining the audience is low on our list, and the second half may be true by default. I hope that clubs continue to support us. In the last couple of years I've been happier with our live shows. We tend to walk away from performances knowing that we did what we wanted to do. We've had a few shows where funny stuff happened. Mike lost bearings for a little bit once on stage, and he walked over to Brian for some support. Brian ended up spitting water on his face (not intentionally) because he was laughing so hard. We opened for Mum once, and I was having some digestive issues. It was either try to make it through the packed house in the middle of the set (and in the middle of singing), or go in my pants. I decided to go in my pants (it didn't happen). I guess that these anecdotes aren't that cool.
Mike: I'd have to disagree with Matt about this one. We usually get pretty positive feedback from the audience. Most shows, people will just sit on the floor in front of us or lay down and stare at the ceiling. More people are coming out just to see us these days rather than the other bands on the bill which was the case for many years. The New York shows were really incredible with large turn-outs and very attentive listeners. I was kind of surprised by this. I thought New Yorkers were jaded but it turns out I think Chicagoans are probably the ones who have the "guilty until proven innocent" charge for bands.
Tell us about Stone Academy. How did that one come about and how would you say that it connects and differs to your previous work?
Matt: Stone Academy is definitely more song based than some of our more recent stuff. I guess that when I look at the timeline of the releases, Stone Academy was the start of a departure to more free-form songs. I guess I shouldn't really refer to one record being more song based than another, some songs are more conventional. We just started to get weirder around that time. I think that free jazz started to have a big influence in that record. Most people don't hear it, maybe I don't either, but I know that we were all thinking about it a lot more during that period. We also started to use our homemade instruments around that time. In general, the record was a collection of songs vs. a "concept album".
Mike: I think this album is where that elasticity of song structure that I was talking about began. Ink was a full-blown improvised experiment with the home-made instruments but Stone Academy is where we took this freedom and applied it to songs. Matt's right, we were really getting into free-jazz and improvised music in general around this point and finally found a way to include it into our vocabulary. Also, this is when we started recording stuff live straight to tape instead of the multi-tracking methods of our first two records. Again, this was a way of being more free with our approach and also a way to have more fun with the recording process. Multi-tracking can get pretty tedious. I also think the experiments with Ink opened us up to a wider range of sounds that we were capable of making just as a group in a room, making the most of the instruments in front of us instead of relying on overdubs.
Matt: I would have a hard time deciding, but I know that I listen to Land Of Smoke more than anything else. We were really all on the same page, and it reminds me of driving at night.
Mike: Stone Academy still surprises me, sometimes it doesn't even sound like us for some reason. I think there were some really inspired moments during those recordings. His/Hers is a very tight record, nothing to shrug off as filler.
I love the artwork for most of your albums. That sense of blurry urbanity somehow captures the spacious dream world that your music seems to occupy. Who is usually responsible for the cover art? Any favorites you'd like to point out?
Mike: Thanks Mats. For the most part, we've used my photos for all of our designs with the exception of His/Hers, the vinyl version of Stone Academy and Ink. I think my favorite design is the first one, Pajama Avenue. I shot photos for that album of solitary pedestrians among the architecture in neighborhoods of Chicago. I shot those in 2001 and five years later most of those buildings were gone. During this time Chicago went through a real estate boom and the tycoons were eager to put up condos in every crack of the city. It was a bad few years for architecture preservation. It's easier and cheaper to tear down buildings rather than restore them and of course the Real Estate companies have a shit-load of power in this corrupt town so they trumped (no pun intended) most attempts to save older buildings, especially in the neighborhoods. It's ridiculous, because the buildings that they replaced with the ones that they tore down in those photos were just modern imitations of the originals. Greedy people have no interest in aesthetics, now the neighborhoods are stuck with these eyesores and the ones who made these shitty buildings split for the suburbs. I'm sorry, we were talking about album art right?
Matt: I really like the Bachelor's Grove EP artwork too.
Do you feel a part of any musical movement?
Matt: We're not part of a movement. I think that if you had to define us, we're a combination of blues, jazz and drone. Someone once tried to convince me that "drone" wasn't a genre.
Mike: I can't say that we really align ourselves with any sort of movement although we've definitely formed some close relationships with like-minded artists within the last few years. We've met a lot of people via music trades, setting up shows and hosting out-of-towners. I guess one would say our common link is that we all seem to fall in the all-encompassing pile of the neo-psychedelic underground, even though this may refer to an expansive aesthetic, from delicate folk to harsh noise. There's definitely a community of us out there around the world that share a lot of things in common that bring us together to help each other out with releases and shows, etc. or to simply turn each other on to new music. It's funny, we've been a band in Chicago for nearly a decade but I've never really consider us part of the Chicago scene. I think we have more in common with what's going on in New Zealand or in Portland than what's going on down in the Wicker Park neighborhood!
When doing my mag and the small record label I have like you never really felt part of a local scene, rather part of some vague international concept of things that in one way or the other connect to one another. Even though that's the case I am still curious to learn more about Chicago. Tell us about the city and how you fit in there? Does your surroundings color your sound?
Mike: How do I answer this question without sounding like Jim O'Rourke! Let me say first that we've had great support from the beginning from Pete Toalson at the Empty Bottle. He loved our first demos that we sent him when he started booking at the club and he has booked us great shows ever since. Also, the local press here is really good for underground music. Most cities don't have a weekly newspaper that will give the same amount of coverage to experimental music as it does mainstream rock. We're fortunate that there are writers in this town that are enthusiastic and have a wide range of interests. On the downside, I've noticed that the days of mixing up the genres has kind of disappeared and everyone's back to the boring ways of sticking together in cliques. Back in the nineties, there was so much cross-pollination in the underground. You could see Gastr Del Sol and Peter Brötzmann on a bill together for example. The experimental scene coalesced more back then. John Corbett and Ken Vandermark were booking free-jazz shows at the rock club, Empty Bottle on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. It was great ‘cause it introduced free jazz and improvised music to a lot of indie-rock fans, myself included. Other venues that were open to this kind of vibe closed down, I'm thinking of The Nervous Center. Sadly, the jazz shows retreated to their own DIY bookings at various spots around town, which is totally commendable but they just kept an exclusive seal on the little niche that they were carving out for themselves. Same thing for the noise scene, the electro-acoustic scene, electronic and drone scenes, etc. It's nice that we live in a town that actually has this wide variety of underground music but 10 years ago it was all mixed up together and it was expected that you might have Vandermark playing on the same bill as Kevin Drumm and Frontier. Now the only time this kind of hybridization happens is when The Wire magazine curates their festival here for a week. Pete at the Empty Bottle tried to bring this back but I think turn-out was too bleak for them to keep that series afloat. I try to do this when I have the luxury of putting a bill together but few people seem to be receptive to it anymore, especially the free jazz clique.
As for how our surroundings color our sound, that's more difficult to answer. I was recently listening to Valet and Grouper, who are both from Portland, and immediately I get transported to that northwest landscape. Water and the ocean seem to be recurring themes in Liz's lyrics and the vibe of both Valet and Grouper has this dense lost in a pine forest sound. I was thinking that our music has a similar feeling but with a different landscape being portrayed like alleys and decaying architecture perhaps.
Matt: Mike pretty much summed it up. I would add that in some ways, I'm glad that we don't have as much of a "scene" here, although I am a little bit envious of Portland.
What's new in terms of recent/upcoming releases?
Mike: Root Strata recently released a very limited DVD-r called Land of Smoke, which is kind of like an ambient video of sorts in the vein of Eno's Thursday Afternoon. The Type Records sub-label, Rite will be releasing a long ambient piece that we intended to be used for an art installation of mine. This will probably be a winter release. We're currently working on a new album for Type. Other than that, there are some miscellaneous compilations coming out sometime soon they say: an A Capella 7" compilation on Root Strata, something on the Australian label Sound & Fury, another comp on the Seattle label Omiimii and we have a song on the audio portion of an art book called Signs of The Apocalypse or Rapture. There also might be a split 7" coming out later this year on Sound & Fury. Some side project releases coming out are the new Good Stuff House CD (which is me, Matt and Scott Tuma) on Root Strata, Scott Tuma/Mike Weis duo LP on Digitalis, Xela/Mike Weis LP on Digitalis and possibly the Xela/Matt Christensen collaboration will hopefully see the light of day.
Matt: Yep. That's enough for now. I'd like to add some more of our outtakes for free download on our website. I've been posting a few here and there in the last month.
Scott Tuma is such a criminally overlooked musical genius. How did you come to work with him? I just love the results on that first self-titled Good Stuff House disc. How do you think it turned out?
Mike: Yeah, I agree Tuma's solo albums are so incredible. He has such a distinct sound, very original. He has a way of adapting his vast knowledge of the history of American music into his own creation, stretching it out and blurring it. The whole Post-Rock thing took this idea of adaptation and made it a bit cheap. Just because your influences are vast and obscure doesn't mean you're creating something new, just representing it really. In a way, Scott's in league with Loren Connors who also takes the history of a tradition (with Connors it's blues) and constructs into his own statement. Both of them seem to arrive at a common end, which is highly emotional, melancholic music. We met Scott in 2003. I was putting together a show in town and I was really into his first solo album at the time. When I found out that he was from Chicago I tracked him down to see if he wanted to play on the bill, which he did. After that I organized another show at an old church in town and asked him to play and possibly collaborate on a song. I think that might've been the first time that we did an all-improvised live set. Things went well with that so we continued the relationship. I think initially the reason we got to together was to add some instrumentation to some of Scott's solo songs but it just kind of took off on its own direction so we decided to give the project a name Good Stuff House, which was the name of a Chinese restaurant near my house. I think Matt and I have learned a lot from playing with Scott. The experience has made us more comfortable with improvising. It's super easy to play with these two guys, it's effortless and the ideas just come quickly. I really love that first GSH record, I think the results really reflect the collective approach. The new album dilutes our separate styles even more and stands on its own legs a little better.
Matt: I don't have a copy of the first one any more, but I used to listen to it a lot. I need to burn one from Mike. Scott's great. Mike said it all.
Dreams for the future (except for a Scandinavian tour that is!)?
Matt: I'd love to do a film score. I wish that there were more places to play within 4 hours of Chicago. I'd like to get on the road a little bit more than we do now. It might be kind of cool to have someone outside of the band produce us too.
Mike: I'd love to tour Scandinavia, show us the money!