Interview: Wrekmeister Harmonies
The music of Wrekmeister Harmonies is far-reaching and cinematic, more often feeling like an epic narrative than a collection of discreet songs. It carries a maturity and penetrating emotional seriousness that sets it apart from other cinematic post-rock bands in the way that the works of Dostoyevsky or Cormac McCarthy stands apart from regular fiction.
About a year ago I was pursuing a music blog and saw a post about a new song from a band named Wrekmeister Harmonies. It was ‘Some Were Saved, Some Drowned’, a relentless heart wrenching earthquake of a song from the band’s 2016 release Light Falls. There was something so powerful and fundamental about it that I found myself listening to it again and again over the next few days. I sent it to anyone who would listen, mostly to a response that was something like: “You’re just hearing them now? Have you been living under a rock?” Apparently so.
The music of Wrekmeister Harmonies is far-reaching and cinematic, more often feeling like an epic narrative than a collection of discreet songs. It carries a maturity and penetrating emotional seriousness that sets it apart from other cinematic post rock bands in the way that the works of Dostoyevsky or Cormac McCarthy stands apart from regular fiction. There is a sharp observational obsession with the truth of things that leaves the listener sober, but better for it.
All this is a reflection of the creative vision of JR Robinson and his band-mate Esther Shaw. JR’s roots are in the Chicago arts scene and he is well known for collaborating with some of the great musicians in metal and post-rock. The band’s most recent work, 2016’s Light Falls, is based on the writings of holocaust survivor Primo Levy and is ultimately a meditation on mass disassociation and violence. The band has been touring primarily as a duo but occasionally as a full band with Martin Farmer, Dana Schechter (Insect Ark) and Timothy Herzog (GY!BE).
JR was kind enough to sit through an interview with Echoes and Dust before a show in Toronto where they talked about how he came his musical style, his collaborations and his new album in progress.
(((o))): I’m curious as to how you started and how you defined your craft.
JR: Mainly it was a compositional idea to create these sprawling epic pieces that would unfold gradually and reach a climactic point and then disintegrate further. So, I started to record templates for that at home and then I realized that I wasn’t proficient enough to do this on my own and would have to get help from other people. I’ve been around a while and am pretty old, so I knew a lot of people and am just lucky that I have so many talented people that can help me out.
Musically, I didn’t have any special training. But I’ve always been someone who researches things really exhaustively, and had talented friends who would expose me to great music. One good friend turned me on to Folke Rabe, which was my first intro to drone music. Late seventies synth stuff, that blew my mind. The subtleties were so…if you sat and actively listened, I was astonished by the micro tonal changes. That really got me and made me want to discover how to create music that had changes that were imperceptible in coming, but there are tells if you are listening closely.
(((o))): So, was your first work with synths?
JR: My very first work was actually because I went to see a Dan Flavin exhibit. He’s a light artist and I was really inspired by what he was doing, and I wanted to do the same thing but with sound rather than light. So, I came up with this idea to create tone fields and project them into museum or gallery spaces and have people walk through them and just do their thing while this records and reacts to the change in the motion and what the people would do. This sort of took off and I ended up going all over the world to do these exhibits.
So, I was doing that for a while and then I thought it would be interesting to take some of the recordings and approach some musician friends in the free jazz and experimental scene in Chicago, which is a huge pool of incredible talent. The people I talked to were into that idea as well and gradually that got to become more of a compositional structure.
(((o))): And that was around 2007-2008, right before the first Wrekmeister Harmonies record?
JR: Yes. The first record was called Recordings made in Public Spaces on Atavistic Records, a label based in Chicago that I loved because they distributed so much incredible music. Have you ever heard Joe McPhee?
(((o))): …No (I sheepishly admit)…
JR: Give him a listen, it will blow your mind (Nation Time). The first time I heard it I was like, wow, I don’t know anything! If I had heard that when I was 15 It would have changed everything. Anyway, then I did this big presentation at the MCA in Chicago with a film that I made and the score was the basis for You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me, which was the first Thrill Jockey record. It grew after that to Night of Your Ascension which was my most ambitious record and included 30 musicians. The thing is that record was a mind fuck, it really made me question if I’d lost my mind, haha.
(((o))): It was such an amazing record, though! I think it might be my favorite…tied for favorite. I like the new one (Light Falls) too.
JR: Thanks! I think the logical thing to do after that record though was to step down and smallify things. And that’s when Esther and I got in touch with some of the Godspeed people.
So that’s also the basis of the new record we are working on which will be called The Alone Rush, which tries to tackle the idea that we are all so connected and yet there seems to be this epidemic of loneliness. I read this essay called ‘The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us’ by George Monbiot and it really solidified this feeling I had of dislocation and disconnection. And yet we’ve never been more connected, with everybody staring at their hand-held device, everyone looking at their active consumer feed. At the same time, I’ve been reading a lot about palliative care and end of life medicine, and, you know, there is sense that we are all connected and everyone knows what’s going on. But, no, we don’t. We are all going to die alone. At the end, you’re alone. You’re going to die, I’m going to die. And we are all going to have to face that alone. And what does that mean? So that’s basically what we are trying to examine in The Alone Rush.
(((o))): Your music is some of the most emotionally heavy out there. What gravitates you to that as an outcome?
JR: I spend a lot of time in self-reflection. I also examine my environment and the art I come into contact with. True art is the mirror turned inward, at least to me. It can also be turned outward, but for me it’s more inwards and what comes out is something that’s pretty heavy. I guess no one wants to hear stories about pedophile priests (‘Run Priest Run’, one half of Night of Your Ascension addresses this topic), but I think about that sort of thing, and so that’s what comes out.
(((o))): Could you talk about the writing process, how you and Esther work together, and then also how the various collaborators you’ve worked with have influenced that process?
Esther: A lot of that starts with JR. He usually has a musical or lyrical idea. We spend a lot of time talking about ideas and emotions to convey and how to do that.
JR: But I don’t transcribe music for people to play, I will try to evoke a certain emotion and explain where its coming from. I’ve gone both ways, though. On the piece on Carlo Gesualdo I spelled it out to the people I was playing with, really explained the whole story whether they want to hear it or not (Carlo Gesualdo was a music obsessed Italian renaissance composer and prince who murdered his wife and her lover). But with Light Falls I decided to try something different. I had the idea of Primo Levy’s writing in mind, but I opted not to talk about it and instead wanted to see how the people I was working with would react with little to no information. And because Esther is so talented, because Sofie, Tim and Thierry are so talented that it came out really good anyway.
(((o))): So is Light Falls a bit more improvisational?
JR: Yes, there was more reaction to what I was bringing, the certain tone or shade to it. But conversely there was no escaping that I was playing with three members of a very successful band that does what they do really well. So, I think it was a really good bargain for me.
Esther: The two of us did a lot of fleshing out concepts and musical themes beforehand, though. And for them it was more listening to it and then reacting. It was very organic.
JR: So we kept options open because in the past I’ve operated with much more control, but, with Light Falls I already kind of knew how it was going to go. I know what they sound like, and I picked them to work with because of that. I knew I would be happy with them doing with whatever they wanted to do and I was.
(((o))): So, was Light Falls more enjoyable or at least less stressful to make than Night of Your Ascension, which included 30 musicians?
JR: Night of Your Ascension I felt like I imagine Francis Ford Coppola felt like when he was making Apocalypse Now. I watched Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of that film at the time and felt exactly like he did. I kept wondering if I’d made a huge mistake and wasted thousands of dollars and lots of people’s time.
But on the other end of that when you interact, work and tour with people, you have to be able to interact with their psychological makeup and that will influence how you create and how you play. It’s a lot easier to compartmentalize when you are working in an office, but not like that in a setting where you are trying to create something or a specific atmosphere or mood or experience. So, with Night of Your Ascension I knew we wouldn’t tour with it. There were too many people involved.
(((o))): And so, you are currently touring with music that will ultimately be in The Alone Rush. Is the band essentially the same from Light Falls?
JR: Basically. Esther and I are covering more of the bases and Tim (Herzog) wants to keep working with us. We’ll have more friends join in, but it will continue the trend of Light Falls in being a smaller group of people than with Night of Your Ascension.
Wrekmeister Harmonies will be on tour in Europe for much of August and I highly recommend checking them out if they happen to be in your area. You will not be disappointed.
04.08.2017: Robot – Budapest, HU.
05.08.2017: Beseda u Bigbitu Festival – Strážnice, CZ.
06.08.2017: OFF Festival – Katowice, PL.
08.08.2017: MTS – Oldenburg, DE.
09.08.2017: SO36 – Berlin, DE.
10.08.2017: K4 – Nurnberg, DE.
11.08.2017: Brutal Assault Festival – Pevnost Josefov – Bastion, CZ.
12.08.2017: Slow Club – Freiburg, DE.
13.08.2017: Leper Hard Core Fest – Leper, BE.