Given that you’re from the Philadelphia area, I’m guessing you’re a Philadelphia Eagles fan?
I am an Eagles fan, sort of by family proxy. My dad had season tickets for like 20 years, so I grew up going to the games in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. And the Eagles were so terrible. I have all these memories of the Eagles losing and losing and losing. But also memories of having fun. My dad had a pretty wild group of friends, so I was this little tyke hanging out with these guys who were tailgating and partying. It was a pretty cool experience to see all those games, so I have a pretty deep, ingrained affinity for that team. When they won, it was kind of unbelievable.
It was strange. I was actually playing a show the Saturday before the game in New England. I was kind of behind enemy lines. There were all these people with Patriots stuff on, and I was thinking, “This is terrible.” That team in general represents something more than just a football team, so I was very eager to see them lose. It was a weird feeling to be among all those Patriot fans. I didn’t have any Eagles gear on, but I was there.
Where did you end up watching the game?
My plan was to get down to Philly, but I got stuck in too much traffic. I live in Brooklyn, so I came back here and ended up projecting the game at my place. We had just a few people closely watching it at home, which was perfect.
An intimate, controlled setting.
Yeah. It was comfortable. It ended up working out pretty nicely.
I’m a Panthers fan and had a similar experience to you, growing up going to games. We lost the Super Bowl to New England in 2003. So I was watching the Eagles game this year, and I was just so jealous. We had been there. We took it to the end and lost on a field goal. So I felt like if had been the Panthers playing this year, that Ertz touchdown would have been overturned. We have bad luck like that.
That’s the same thing with Philly. The Eagles have been good so many times and then their star player gets injured and they fizzle out at the end. I was dumbfounded this year. I was shocked. I was prepared to lose. I’ve been prepared my whole life [laughs]. So when they won, I couldn’t believe it.
If you were in Brooklyn, that means you weren’t with the rowdy fans in Philly climbing the telephone poles and punching the police horses.
Or eating the horse excrement? [laughs]. I don’t know if you saw that.
I did actually. I heard about that.
It was perfect for me because I don’t have the energy to go out and rage with a bunch of boneheads.
Speaking of Philly – it’s not always recognized as a great music city, but a ton of talented musicians are there and it has such a rich history. Do you have a favorite artist or era?
Sun Ra is definitely my favorite musician. He’s not from Philadelphia, but he moved there. Marshall Allen, the band leader now, is from Philly. And they all moved into his house in the 1960s or 1970s. The presence of that band and those people in the city is something that I discovered when I was like nineteen years old. It continues to inspire me. I just saw them last weekend, and they still blow my mind. Marshall Allen is 93 years old. I saw them at a community center when I was in my late teens. It completely changed me. I followed them around and got to meet a lot of them. They were playing all over the city, and it was really important. Those musicians are really dear to me, and it’s so cool that they’re still in top form touring.
So you would follow them like on Dead tour or something?
Oh no. I didn’t get in a van or anything. I just saw them every opportunity I could.
Another band that’s been a mainstay for me, that I really loved when I was young and are still going strong, is Bardo Pond. They were a band, similarly around that time, that were playing around Philly a lot. I got to know them a little bit. It’s great that they’re still doing their thing. They were a pretty important band to me, too.
I find it interesting that Philadelphia has this great history, but in the early 2000s, you moved away to New York. What was it that drew you to New York when you had this rich music culture around you already?
Philly is so close to New York, and around that time, I started going up to New York a lot. There were a lot of great clubs and a great music scene up here. A lot of free jazz stuff, different kinds of experimental music. I’m from Philadelphia, I grew up there, I come from a big family that’s scattered all over. I wanted to feel anonymous and do my own thing, and New York felt like the right place for that. I got a great job right out of the gate, working for an art gallery. I was doing similar work in Philly, got a good offer in New York, and made the move. And I haven’t left.
When I listen to your records, look at your album art, read old interviews - it becomes apparent that travel and exploration are very important to you. Have you travelled anywhere recently that made an impact?
I recently went to New Zealand and Australia for the first time. That was a place I’d been really wanting to go. Not only for music history – some of my favorite bands are from there – but because it’s just an incredible place. It’s so far away, but it’s an awesome place to play music. There are a lot of people who come to shows and listen to records. They know the music, which is really great. And it’s such a far distance that people are appreciative that you’ve come all this way.
Did you do any surfing?
I didn’t. I wish. I did go to the beach, but the ocean was pretty rough. Particularly in New Zealand. I’m a wannabe surfer anyway. [laughs]
Me too. I’m a soul surfer, not an actual surfer. I like to float in the ocean. The surfer ethos and the scene is cool.
Exactly [laughs]. Me too. I’m a poseur.
Related to travel, I’ve always enjoyed the non-western influence in your music. Mongolian music. Indian raga. Gnawa music from North Africa. They’re all very different from one another, but I’m curious if there is a common thread in these styles that captures your interest? Is there a central idea that draws you to it?
I think so. I got to a certain point of playing the guitar where I just started learning stuff by ear. I began to be drawn to things that weren’t played by a traditional rock guitar player. I didn’t want to play hair metal or flashy leads. I love Hendrix but I didn’t want to do heavy rock blues riffs. For me, listening to Indian classical music and different kinds of scales and styles made me want to learn it. Just by ear. After locking myself in my bedroom for hours on end, trying this stuff out, it kind of stuck in my current map of the guitar. So now when I play, it just kind of comes out that way. I listen to a lot of music from all over. I’m not trying to copy anything. It just comes through.
It seems that a lot of this non-western influence is spiritual music. Are you a religious person? Does spirituality guide your approach to playing and songwriting?
I’m not a religious person per se, but I’m drawn to spiritual music. Music that is more than just face value, that has a deeper meaning. Like Sun Ra. An even better example would be Pharoah Sanders or John Coltrane. That music really speaks to me. I don’t necessarily practice religion, but I’m interested in meditation. I try to practice that, and music is one outlet. One form of it. Sometimes I get into that mindset as a player where I can let myself go a little and see where the music takes me.
I’m a singer and a songwriter, so I can’t just play freely. There are constraints. But I get into a mindset to let the music take over and see where I can take it. Especially when I play solo. I’ve been stretching it out a little more. It took me a long time to figure out how to take those risks, and it takes a lot of practice. It doesn’t come naturally, but it’s definitely something that I strive for. The musicians I’m drawn to are tapping into that source.
You told Amanda Petrusich of The New Yorker, ”I don’t like to make music and then live in the music—I like to make it, and then remove myself from it.” Are you seeking some kind of transcendental experience when you play?
A little bit. Yeah. I also mean that sometimes music today can be a shallow and selfish undertaking. People become these characters. They live these privileged lives, but they sing about their love life or how bad their life is. They personalize these characters they’re trying to create. For me, I can’t put myself into it like that. There’s so much more you can offer to people in songs. I like to give that away, even if it’s just stories about other people or characters that aren’t specific.
For me there’s an intimate experience, particularly when I play solo. I like to connect with the audience. I don’t like to put myself on this pedestal or anything like that.
One of my favorite records last year was Michael Chapman’s 50, which you produced. He called it his “American record” in an interview. What was that recording process like? How much experience do you have as a producer?
I had pretty much no experience as a producer besides working on my own albums. But I did work in the studio where Michael recorded that album, so I did know a lot about it. I wasn’t the engineer, but I know Michael well and I knew how he could adapt to that particular studio.
That was Black Dirt Studio, right?
Yeah. Michael and I have become pretty close, and I kind of understand where he’s coming from and how he works in a studio. He’s obviously been doing this for a really long time, and he has this cool, old school approach to things. I’ve learned a lot from him.
But when you’ve got a group of five or six people in a studio, sometimes things can get a little crazy and you have to figure out the best scenarios for the music. You have to get the arrangements down and all that.
I also really just tried to help Michael get into a good place with his singing and his playing. He’s still really, really good.
How did the record come together?
Everyone involved in that record is such a huge fan of Michael’s. We loved his music so much and were always saying, “We should really make a record with him.” We had been talking about it for a number of years. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but we eventually pitched the idea to Paradise of Bachelors. They’re big fans of Michael’s as well. And of course Michael had been writing some songs, so it all just kind of happened naturally. He came over to the US, and we spent a week at the studio. We all knew each other, and everyone knew Michael. So there was no question about how we were going to approach the songs and support him. All of us were already so close and Michael is one of our heroes, and everyone was already so close to him. So it was this really intimate thing.
I’m going to be working with Michael again really soon, which I’m really excited about.
Is there anything in the works or is it still at the conceptual level?
Michael has been sending me demos, and I’m going over to England next month. I’m going to his house to work on stuff with him. This is not going to be his American record. It’s going to be an American coming to his house [laughs]. I want it to be him solo. He’s such a strong singer and player, and I really want it to be about him. I’ll play on it, and we might get some of his friends who live in the area. There’s this guy named BJ Cole who is an amazing pedal steel player. He’s played with Michael since the 1970s, so he might come up and play. It’s going to be really low key.
One person involved in the 50 sessions was Nathan Bowles, and you’ll be traveling to Charlotte with him for the gig next week. How did you meet him? When did you start playing music together?
We met first and started playing together a little bit later, but I met him through Jack Rose. When Nathan was a young buck. I can’t remember how old he was, but he was playing with Jack when he was recording and touring with the Black Twig Pickers.
Was that before or after those two were playing in Pelt?
That all was happening around the same time. I was a fan of Pelt when I was a teenager and would see them when they played Philly. But that was before Nathan was in the band. Jack was in Pelt with a guy named Pat Best. Mike Gangloff was also in the band. So I knew Jack from Pelt, and then he started doing his solo thing.
Nathan came along a few years after that. We became friends, and then I started playing with the Black Twig Pickers for a little bit. We made a record for Thrill Jockey a few years ago. Nathan and I just remained close, and then after Jack Rose passed away, a lot of those people [that knew him] became closer through that whole experience.
I never met Jack Rose, but I have read a lot about him. He seems like he was just one of those guys who brought people together.
He really did. He was such a supporter of other people doing their thing. He bridged the gap between Blacksburg, VA, and Philly. He was living in Philly but had a lot of connections down there. And speaking of Michael Chapman, I met him through Jack as well. He was such a conduit during that time.
Last question: do you listen to music via a streaming service or are you opposed to streaming in general?
I’m guilty of using Spotify – just because I like listening to all different kinds of weird stuff. I do streaming to a certain extent, but I don’t let it affect my record buying. But I’ve become such a jazz nerd lately, and I like to listen to entire catalogues. For instance, the Blue Note catalogue. I’m not going to be able to own all those records. I might not even want to own all of them. But I’ve been learning about all these different bands and musicians. So I like to catch up and listen to different things.
It’s changed my record buying a bit as well. I’m going for more quality over quantity, buying more obscure records and spending a little more money at record stores. Whereas before I’d say, “I’ve gotta get the new something or other,” now I’m more focused. Yesterday I bought a record by a saxophone player named Joe McPhee. It’s an old record from the 1970s. A solo saxophone record called Tenor. It’s beautiful. It’s just him playing in a barn in Switzerland.
Anything else you think people reading this would like? I always love to get music recommendations from people who know more about it than I do.
Speaking of avant-jazz, there’s this label called Eremite Records.
That’s Joshua Abrams’ label, right?
Yeah. His record [Natural Information Society] is amazing. I’m a big fan of Joshua Abrams. Eremite also reissued a record by a guy named Khan Jamal, who is also from Philadelphia. He’s a vibraphonist. He made a record called Drum Dance to the Motherland. It’s a live album but it sounds incredible. They use all these effects, like echo and delays. A lot of it is improvised. It’s amazing. Eremite just did a repress of it. Check it out.