You are from Louisiana, a state known for its musical heritage. Can you talk about how the South and southern music inform your compositions?
Unfortunately, I didn’t really grow up with music in my household. It was not something that was important to my family. The only time we really listened to music was when we were doing something like a family road trip to Florida. My dad would put on Jimmy Buffet CD after Jimmy Buffet CD. It was sonic torture. Even when I was a kid, I could not get down with Jimmy Buffet [laughs].
I shouldn’t say this…there’s a lot of music out there that I don’t like, but there’s very few things I hate. But I hate Jimmy Buffet.
Yeah. I don’t think there’s any in between. You either love it or you can’t stand it. I fall in the latter category [laughs].
It wasn’t until I came into my own at the end of high school. I was eighteen and my parents would let us got to New Orleans for JazzFest or something like that. Music was something that I had to discover through my own means. Maybe because of that, it’s more precious to me. I felt like something that was my own. I was able to form my own identity around the music I was into.
There is so much great music out of places like New Orleans, but if you go there, most spots are twenty-one and up. So you can’t get in if you’re a kid. There’s street musicians. Anyone can hear it, and that’s cool. But most of the culture is a bar culture. A lot of it is inaccessible to younger kids. Showing up and hearing music live is one of the best ways to experience music, especially that type of music – it makes it hard for young people.
So you went on your own discovery in your late teenage years. How did that happen?
The way that I was able to learn about music was to listen to the radio. I got really into this band from the Dallas Forth Worth area called The Toadies. Through listening to their music, I was able to learn about more underground artists. They would do covers at their shows. This was at the very beginning stages of being able to get music on the internet, so I’d go to music forums and talk to music fans that way. AudioGalaxy and stuff like that. I learned about The Pixies and Talking Heads through this band The Toadies, and that made me realize that there was all this other music that you just weren’t hearing on the mainstream rock station.
Then I started working at the one independent record store in Lafayette, the town where I grew up. The great thing about that job was that as an employee I was allowed to open any CD in the shop and listen to it. I’d be working there by myself, and when things were slow, I’d just go around and pick something out. I’d say to myself this looks interesting or I like this album art, and then I’d listen to it. So I had access to a wide array of music to educate myself. It was really powerful for me at that time.
When I graduated from high school, I went to college at University of Texas in Austin. Being in a city like that, you had everything at your fingertips. Things really exploded for me then. My freshman year of college, I went to a live show almost every night. I made friends with older kids who had cars, and we would just go. Even if I didn’t know who the band was that was playing, I just wanted to go. That was how I became a music fan. It was a super exciting time for me.
There’s nothing quite like discovering the world outside mainstream music, however you choose to define that. The music is great, but the thrill of discovery is equally great.
It’s amazing that I was able to find out about all this weird music , coming from a place like Lafayette, Louisiana. There just weren’t that many outlets for it. It did feel really special to me. But it also felt isolating. My friends at school did not care about those types of music at all. It made that much more liberating when I got to Austin. I connected with a lot of people who were into the same stuff as me. I felt this huge sense of freedom, like the world was my oyster.
When did you start playing guitar?
When I was seventeen. I’d been talking to my parents about wanting to play guitar for about a year. So they suggested I get a summer job to make some money and do whatever I want with it. I got the crappiest job. It sounds cool. I was working at a musical instrument store. But my actual job was to work in the shack behind the store. You know, they have all the guitars and the cool stuff up front. But out back was where they kept all the high school band instruments that they rented out.
My job was to clean the dirty trumpets and trombones so that they’d be ready for people to rent again. I saw the grossest stuff come out of these instruments. Cockroaches. Disgusting stuff. So my job was to sit back there and clean these instruments. I got paid $5.15 an hour, and at the end of the summer, I had saved up enough money to buy the cheapest guitar in the shop. It was a Danelectro electric guitar and a Danelectro 3030 practice amp. It’s still sitting in my living room now. I still have it. That’s when I started playing.
I rarely have the time to just sit and listen to music. I’m usually doing something else like driving, typing, or mowing the grass. How much thought do you give to what your listeners will be doing when they hear your music? Your music is so cerebral – how do you think about grabbing people’s attention?
My whole process is trying to find what sparks my own interests and grabs my own attention. If I get really excited about the way a composition is developing, I automatically assume that the people listening to it will have the same experience.
I rarely think about the listener. I’m a photo-artist, and I record my music by myself in my home studio, so it’s all such a personal process. It would be weird if I tried to break out of that and think about the outside world. The process is so intense and subjective. I play guitar a lot, and it takes something special to get me excited. To get me to decide to take this melody or this pedal sound that I came up with and turn it into a developed piece of music. And then record it and then put it out into the world. So I figure that if something is worth investing that time and energy, hopefully it will grab other people when they’re listening.
I do think about if people are going to listen in headphones or on vinyl. Are they going to listen to it in their car? But all of this happens later. After I get the masters back, I love listening to the music in the car. Most people listen to music when they’re driving around. I had the most intense relationship with the music I loved as a kid. I remember driving around at night listening to Slint’s Spiderland. And the world made sense to me. It was this really beautiful experience. So I figure if the music sounds good in a car, then I’m good. It’s good to go.
How does this approach change when you take your music to the live setting?
For my live performance, I come up with arrangements for the music on my records. I’m preparing for the set of live shows I have coming up, and I’m coming up with live versions of songs on A Pink Sunset for No One. It’s really fun for me. For a lot of these songs, I started writing them at the end of 2015 but I’ve gone through probably twenty different guitar pedals since then. I’m always getting new and amazing new pedals, so I trade in my old stuff or give it away to friends. So I’m learning my older songs using new tools. I don’t even have the same guitar that I was using to write those songs. That’s a bit of a challenge, but it’s also exciting. I sometimes think the live version of a song is going to sound even better than the recording because maybe a new pedal has the perfect tone, or something like that. I like to come up with basic structures for the songs. Some are more defined than others. I’d say, in general, if you came to see Noveller three nights in a row, you would have a different experience each night. The songs and the performance would be different. It would not be rigid and tight like you’d expected to see from a rehearsed rock band. But it’s also not completely loose and improvised. There’s a structure that I follow and let myself become immersed. And it happens the way that it happens.
I’m excited to see you translate it to the live setting during your gig at McColl Center in Charlotte. It doesn’t look like it’s part of larger tour but rather a quick trip to our city. How did it come about? Have you ever played Charlotte before?
I think this will be my first performance in Charlotte. I’m really excited. After the Charlotte performance, I fly up to New York for a record release show in Brooklyn.
I’m also excited about another project I was involved with up there. Last year I was commissioned by the Ethel Quartet to write a piece for them. They commissioned me and some other musicians, and they’re premiering these pieces in Brooklyn on March 8th. I’m not going to be performing, but I’ll be there to hear them play my piece for the first time live. I’ll get to work with them a little bit before that too. They’re a really innovative quartet and they’ve commissioned songs from a really diverse range of musicians. So that’s the other reason I’m making the trip.
But I’m excited for the Noveller shows, to see people who either already know my music and are excited about it or other who are just interested in hearing something new.
I recently saw that you’ll be on the same bill as Wire in L.A. at the end of March. Have you played with them before? Do you have a favorite Wire album?
Okay. I love Pink Flag, but I think Chairs Missing might be my favorite. I played with them at this really big, awesome festival in the Netherlands in 2015. I was booked to play this festival and got a call from my agent that Wire had requested that I open for them on the same stage. And also to join them when they did the Pink Flag orchestra at the end of their set.
I’m a huge Wire fan, so I was really excited. When I got there, Colin [Newman] and Graham [Lewis] came into my dressing room and said they were psyched to play with me. We really like your stuff. It felt similar to the way it did with Iggy [Pop]. You realize that these musicians you grew up listening to and that you admire so much, they actually care about the music and the experience they’re providing for their audience. They care about the entire evening. It’s not just an off the cuff thing. It’s not always that way. I’ve heard that sometimes you'll get booked to open for a band, and they never even come and talk to you. It’s like a business. But with the guys from Wire, it felt really warm and personal. We were all staying at the same hotel that night, so we hung out into the early hours in the morning and had the best time. When I played in Brighton, Colin came to my show there and was really sweet.
I think they had caught wind that I’d moved to L.A., and I’ll be in town when they’re here for a mini-festival. It’s going to be so fun to connect with those guys again and play this show. They’re celebrating forty years. How amazing is that?
So last question: my favorite Wire record is Pink Flag. What am I missing? Why is Chairs Missing better?
I’m not going to say it’s better. I had both records when I was in college. It’s just a feeling. I associate it with that time in my life. I think I spun Chairs Missing just a little bit more.