Bringing the Sexy and Listening to Space - Tanakh's Outernational Music

Tanakh, floating Among a whole weekend of high musical points, one of our favorite experiences at last April's Terrastock 6 in Providence, RI was the festival's opening set by Tanakh. Their recently-released CD Ardent Fevers had really spun our heads, & it ended up being one of the real recorded highlights of 06. Tony Dale summed up our feelings in his 06-roundup rave, calling it "a sensory overload of songwriting classicism and rock dynamics, tightly controlled pop-songs and explosive guitar freak-outs ... Shattering the paradigm of the psychedelic underground, Ardent Fevers is a release that deserved to be heard by millions." So we were especially interested to see how they would work this stuff live, and fought our way through various (mostly self-created) potholes to be sure we were at the AS220 club in time for them to take the stage.

And man, they really took it. We quickly realized we were seeing some expanded version of the group, as a line of ten musicians filled the small stage from one end to the other. We later learned this was the literal first meeting of the US and Italian contingents of the group (the latter coalescing since singer/leader Jesse Poe moved to Florence a couple of years back), onstage opening the festival... So we had a rock-band lineup, plus horn section, cello, lap steel guitar, and two basses (one acoustic, played by a tall lanky Italian guy; the other electric, played by a petite poetess from Virginia). Not to forget of course the designated jaw harpist.

From a public performance point of view, it was a move that took some cojones, especially since most of the detailed arrangements necessary to keep a group of that size non-cacophonous were in fact improvised on the spot. It was also one of those amazing musical moments, 10 people each doing their own thing, and at the same time doing this one larger thing all together... Just flying, like a flock of birds... and not just any old flock of the same bird, but some open-ended association of city birds and country birds and jazz birds and red wine-drinking birds, all doing a big aerial-show dance as much for their own pleasure as ours. As high as we were by the end of their set, they seemed even higher...

So we were especially chuffed (as our Anglo friends say) to already have an appointment to interview the group that weekend. We met up with the infectiously energetic Mr. Poe, who had the excellent idea of getting the whole band involved. Most previous Tanakh articles had focused on Jesse (the best of those definitely Mats Gustafsson's piece at the Terrascope online), though he always referred to the group as a "collective" operation as much as possible and wanted to see if we could capture some of that in the interview.

So on Sunday afternoon we convened an assembly, and the whole group hunkered down in a crowded noisy basement of AS220 for the interview. Everybody was there, and we'll introduce them as they show up (though for the record let it be noted that Umberto Trivella [electric guitar] and Jason Andrews [jaw harp] were present but mostly quiet). In spite of the difficulty of rendering here the conversational dynamic, which often flew around like the flow of their live music, they all had some pretty ace things to say, and I think we got a lot of that. They started out laughing about the oddness of meeting one's bandmates for the first time onstage...

Tanakh at TerrastockJesse Poe (singer, guitar, director): Yeah, we got here five minutes before the sound check...

Paul Watson (cornet): These guys all just met one another. I was trying to get people to not shake hands on stage... It makes the promoters nervous...

DW: Was it a little weird?

Oretta Giunti (drums): No (laughs), because I didn't have time to realize what was happening...

Phil Murphy (lap steel): I think the nice thing about working with a collective is that hopefully you'll never experience the same thing twice, every night it's a different situation; and therefore it makes it pretty easy, you go in with no expectations and everybody does the best job they can, and you learn very quickly, it's a baptism by fire up there...

We spent a while discussing that "collective" aspect of Tanakh. Much of the publicity surrounding the group has understandably focused on Jesse's role as singer, chief songwriter, and guiding presence. But equally important is the group's status as a group effort, where each of the members contributes something of their own to the final outcome.

DW: Is the balance between songwriting and improvisation a key to understanding Tanakh?

Jesse: For me it's essential. I love improv music, and when we started Tanakh it was just Phil and I and all we did was improv. There's something so beautiful about a song, but then there's something so free and in the moment and exhilarating about improv, testing yourself and pushing yourself higher and higher. But then it's a song that kills you, you can sing it and put it on a mix tape... At least for me, I don't make improv mix tapes... So putting the two together, that is the reason to play music for me, that tension...

Phil: Jesse has the uncanny knack for being able to select co-conspirators, he just knows who is gonna fit together, and that inspires some confidence and the uncertainty is abated.

Jesse: I read that John Woo dreams about, not his movies, but what actor with which gun, and I lay in bed at night thinking "this guy on this instrument" "that guy on that instrument, that would be so cool..." A lot of it is the dynamics between people. I've been playing a lot of solo shows recently, and it does well but I don't like it. I mean, I enjoy doing it, but having somebody else out there, it raises the bar for you, gives you something else to jump on top of...

Tanakh - Ardent FeversOn the first two Tanakh CDs, Villa Claustrophobia (2001) and Dieu Dieul (2003), Jesse wrote most of the songs himself, and constructed the arrangements with various collaborators in the studio. They both deservedly got a good bit of favorable attention within the frame of a "new psychedelic folk" thing, though they also included drones and ethnic and experimental influences too. And indeed, the self-titled third Tanakh release ended up as a double-CD of extended free improvisations, with a large group including Pat Best of Pelt among others; Jesse says, "It was kind of orchestrated, I was trying to run around and point at people and different instruments..." But Ardent Fevers (like the previous three released on the Canadian Alien8 label) was largely co-written with guitarist Umberto Trivella, the first time Jesse had written collaboratively in depth, which opened up new avenues, incorporating all the group's previous directions within an especially focused and forthright set of songs. The new CD Saunders Hollow, just out on Camera Obscura, was actually recorded at the same time as Ardent Fevers with much of the same expanded group. It takes the collaboration idea even further, made up entirely of songs written and sung by electric bassist Michele Poulos, with Jesse in an arranging and production role. More on this one below.

We asked about the sources of Jesse's songwriting, which seem to draw on American folksinger roots but stretch out into a variety of unexpected territories. Jesse acknowledged that, but stressed the openness and incorporative possibilities.

Jesse: Phil and I picked the name together, the T and K right, and the one part is the prophetic part - which might sound really arrogant, cause we're not prophets, leave that to Sun Ra - but prophetic in the way that, the way I see the future going is globalization, that everything is becoming one. For me it's like being able to put sounds from all over the world together and make one thing... Not like fusion, but... the Japanese do it so beautifully - consume everything and put it out as this new thing - Ghost is marvelous at that. I always say it's like "outernational" music instead of "international" music, just taking everything and trying to make something beautiful out of it...

Darius Jones (saxophone): It has this universal thing happening... I think we come from so many different walks of life, but at some point we all connected, and that's the place where Tanakh is - this place where everyone comes together, like church... And even if we don't listen to the same exact things when we wake up in the morning, it doesn't matter... It's really just the love of music, of sound.

Phil: Not to sound corny or whatever, but if you look back at American history there's this "melting pot" they tell us, so it only seems natural that you put together a group of people from all around, with different origins, they're all gonna come with something to contribute... So our sound, it's kind of American but it's also got so much more to it because it's coming from so many different angles and different backgrounds... The songs are like an incubator for it...

DW: So, how do those songs get processed by the group into the live experience?

Matteo Bennici (upright bass): We had to study from Jesse's songs and rebuild the core to play live. And for example with the rhythm section we made it as open as possible, so you can see every aspect of the songs, not only the American tradition and sounds but also something else... You don't know what will happen, so you have to be very open-minded, and what you play can be shaped and molded into anything.

Viola Mattioli (cello): In other groups, they might have cellos or strings, but they're not always this important thing, and they're not really given much room, they're just there for the chorus or to strengthen the song. But I'm happy that in this group I'm given a chance to really be a part of the band rather than just an addition, not just playing a set part but there's room to experiment and improvise as well.

Oretta: The thing that I like best when I play these songs is that they bring me to listen. You can be very open, you are stimulated while you are playing...

Jesse: Yeah, I listen to the point that sometimes I fuck up what I'm playing (laughs)... Sometimes people just blow me away, I turn around and I'm like "Wow!" I'm so happy with what they just did, that I forget what I'm doing...

Darius: That's the beauty of sound, it's everywhere and happening all the time if you just listen, but as a society we don't really do that. But when you get musicians together, we're really listening to one another hard, and more from the heart too: "What are you really trying to say?"

Jesse, rolling and spielingJesse: I have a hard time keeping my eyes open when I play, ‘cause it's just too much to try and take in that other sense. I prefer to have my eyes shut, not in some poser-ish shoegazer way, just because it's too much to hear what everybody is doing, and it's all inside your head and corresponding... Think about somebody like Mingus, who's playing and while he's playing is telling you what he's gonna play next, playing his bassline and he's singing the next notes. And I think everybody, if they're really playing right, is kind of thinking the same thing - "Oh, what he just did is shit-hot, I'm gonna hit on that"... So you're hearing twice, and that makes it impossible to see anything... I would go mad if I had to look out there at the same time; if I'm doing that I'm not playing the music I want to be playing - it's about listening to space... Really though, I like D's definition of it:

Darius: It's just hot! (laughing) It's all about THE SEXY! That's all we said all the time we were in the studio for this record - "You gotta bring the sexy man!"

Jesse: That was a big motto during making that record, and Michele's record...

Darius: That was even hotter...

Michele: I must have heard that hundreds of times... (sighing and shaking head tolerantly...)

DW: So then, it's about bringing the planning of a good song together with something more primal?

Jesse: Yeah. That's why I liked Avarus so much (referring to their short and wild set at Terrastock), they were doing improv but I thought it was so raw and animalistic, I found it really sexy...

Paul: He was humping my leg the whole time...

Jesse: I felt like they were doing the same thing we were doing, but we were doing it with songs and they were doing it with just straight-up madness!

Darius: You have the craft, and at some point you have to lay that down and go back to the human thing. I think that's what's happening with this record (Ardent Fevers) - we've got great tunes, we've got great song structures, but then we just pissed all over it, shat all over it, spit on it, fucked on it, slept on it... Everybody I've played this record for, they just can't get enough of it, and I think the same thing is gonna happen with Michele's record, that was some special special mojo going on...

Jesse: Sometimes I feel a bit hindered by the manqué we've created. Sometimes it's really shitty, because I like all kinds of music, I like hip-hop, I like Ethiopian music... So with Michele's record it was awesome because it was a Tanakh record but it wasn't, so we could do whatever we wanted. It's all over the place because there was none of that boundary.

Tanakh - Saunders HollowMichele's record is of course the brand new Saunders Hollow, where she steps to the front of the group for the first time. Michele has a long music-making history in her family - mother sang with a girl group called The Bobby Pins, aunt with another called the Pussy Cats - and she had been playing and writing music for years when she met Jesse and joined Tanakh back in 2002, playing bass on their first two CDs.

Michele: So when we came together to make Ardent Fevers, I'd already been working on some songs and we thought, since Jesse was going to be here in the states with Isobel and Alex (that's Isobel Campbell and Alex Nielson, who guest on both AF and SH), we should go ahead and record the songs I'd been working on. So I mailed Jesse a CD of the material, he thought the songs were pretty good, and we decided that he would take the role of producer, as well as musician, and basically put his spin on them, or shape them, which he did. The way the sound came together was pretty typically Tanakhian - which is to say, I think we may have practiced them a few times, but the recorded version of what you hear is all pretty much live. We, of course, go over some tracks later, like the vocal tracks, but the actual sound is very much a live sound - it's very much improvisational, like the other Tanakh albums.

If Ardent Fevers represents Tanakh at its most focused, Saunders Hollow finds the group in a playful and expansive mood, dressing up Michele's songs in a bunch of different outfits ranging from moody folk to jazz to dark drones, from the soundtrackian title instrumental to the harpsichord-led girl-group pop of "Longer Than Sorrow", and even a couple of numbers like the sultry "Kept" that make one feel dirty in the best possible way. Jesse details the strenuous coaching required to keep the sexy at effective levels during the recording sessions:

Jesse: (laughing) One time Michele got so fucking pissed at us... She was singing, and it just didn't quite have the sexy, and we kept saying, "You gotta bring it harder than that!" She was wearing this cool girly hipster sweater, and I was like, "No, no, take that shit off and wear my shirt..." It's like with Dr. John - the first thing he says is, "They call me Dr. John," and after that you just believe him. She switched shirts and afterwards she was the shit, she was just like a different person, it was amazing...

Michele: It's true. There was something about changing the outer that changed the inner too, it was a simultaneous transition...

Michele is also a published poet, currently working toward an MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University (displaced there from New Orleans University when Hurricane Katrina hit), and that literary background had an influence on Saunders Hollow as well.

Michele: I'm writing a lot of poetry lately - it's incredibly stimulating and complements songwriting in profound ways. When you listen to poets read their work, their words, like Robert Creeley or Bukowski, you're listening to music, the beats, the way they accent particular syllables or phrases - they use their voice as an instrument, and it has the same effect as if you were listening to a song or a particular musical phrase. When I write poetry, I have to read it aloud, many times. Poetry has to sound good; it must sit in the ear like a good chorus. However, when I write a song, I don't begin with words - I begin with music, or even before that, I begin with an elusive or inarticulate emotion, for lack of a better phrase. It seems when I sit to write a song, I'm grappling with some incredibly vague notion or feeling, one that needs expression somehow that words alone cannot convey. I think that's where my songs evolve from - an inarticulate emotion or desire. I think words are very important in songwriting, don't get me wrong! But for me, they are probably the last part of the entire process.

DW: So what can you say about Saunders Hollow?

Michele: Saunders Hollow is a place in Connecticut near where I grew up, in Old Lyme. The song "Saunders Hollow" was actually written a long time ago, when I was living in New York going to film school. I could give you the really long story of why I wrote a song called Saunders Hollow, but it's incredibly sad and tragic and I don't really want to go into it - suffice it to say that I lost two really good friends there. So initially I wrote a song for them, their memory, but it's also a magical place filled with mystery and wonder. Okay, I recognize that I'm now sounding like a brochure promoting a vacation to Hawaii or something, so I better stop while I'm ahead.

Tanakh liveSince the recording of both discs and the Terrastock gig, the collective has continued to develop, with most of the working European lineup having switched out, and only the sweetly muscular cello of Viola Mattioli continuing from Terrastock. The current roster also includes: Jacopo Salvatori (piano),Cosimo Santi (electric guitar), Nick Liceti (drums), and Fabio Mannelli (electric bass). "And of course," Jesse adds, "for our new record you can count on finding Mr. Jones on sexy sax as always, Phil, Watson and Michele and other of the usual suspects popping up here and there." According to Jesse, the latest Tanakh material has been taking a much heavier rock slant than in the past.

Jesse: We are hoping to record a new record this spring, but that is based on finding some money to do so and the right producer. I have always produced our records and I really want to work with someone this time... P.J. Harvey is my first pick, I think she could really bring out the intensity of what I am hearing in my head and wanting to communicate, and above all I know that she would not only preserve the integrity of what I have done in the past but she would raise the bar for me and challenge me to do more, give more, expect more, and leave no emotion inside but to spill all of it good and bad right onto the 2 inch tape, and that is what I think a producer should be/do...

The group is also planning a few European shows, and Jesse has some solo gigs lined up as well. In addition to the new album, recordings by Tanakh can also be heard on a pair of upcoming compilations, including a "France"-themed disc on the Ruralfaune microlabel, and the long-rumored Carnivale-themed comp promised from Camera Obscura. We'd encourage you to check them out.

(initial interview conducted April 2006 at Terrastock by KM and NR; additional information added later from Jesse and Michele via email)

Note: A late missive from Jesse tells us that as of March 2007 he's decided to try going full-time with Tanakh, quitting his day job as a teacher to devote all his time to music. To that end, he's trying to book shows (solo/duo/band) "all over God's green earth, anytime, anywhere". Anyone desiring more info can contact Jesse via a special website set up for booking purposes. We wish him all the luck in the world.