Interview with Wrekmeister Harmonies
A true live music lover in Chicago has seen bands play everywhere from crowded basements and converted garages to large-scale theaters and public parks, but very few have ever had a chance to attend a concert in a graveyard (a fully authorized one, anyway) until this Saturday night when Wrekmeister Harmonies celebrates the release of its latest album, You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me (Thrill Jockey) with a moonlit performance at the Bohemian National Cemetery.
Wrekmeister Harmonies has been the project of filmmaker and sound artist JR Robinson since 2006. A longtime Chicago resident, Robinson has collaborated with musicians across a wide spectrum of the city’s often genre-focused artistic community, piecing together seemingly unlikely groups of musicians based on the atmosphere and sounds he wants to bring forth in his work.
In 2009, Robinson released the first Wrekmeister Harmonies album, Recordings Made in Public Spaces, Volume 1 (Atavistic). The record featured field recordings Robinson made in famed art museums such as the Guggenheim and the Andy Warhol Museum and musical collaborations with David Yow (Jesus Lizard/Scratch Acid), Mark Shippy and Pat Samson (U.S. Maple), Azita Youssefi, John Herndon and Jeff Parker (Tortoise), Keefe Jackson, Fred Lonberg-Holm and Ken Vandermark. Subsequent musical projects have included work with changing casts of artists on live scores for avant-garde films including Beyond the Black Rainbow by director Panos Cosmatos, Wavelength by director Michael Snow, and Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising and Scorpio Rising.
You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me began as a film project shot in harsh environmental settings in the Joshua Tree Desert, Detroit, New York City, and Tasmania. In order to create a soundtrack that echoed the brutality and beauty captured in his film, Robinson put together a 12-person ensemble of some of the Chicago’s most widely-recognized heavy metal and experimental musicians including Sanford Parker (Minsk/Corrections House), Bruce Lamont (Yakuza/Corrections House/Bloodiest), Mark Solotroff (Anatomy of Habit / Bloodyminded), Jamie Fennely (Mind Over Mirrors), and many others. The resulting score is a long-form composition that builds gradually from subtle, delicate drones into a soul-punching, anguished climax before rescinding into an ambient abyss
Wreckmeister Harmonies debuted You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me at the Museum of Contemporary Art in December, 2011 as part of the museum’s Face the Strange music series. The concert, which included a rare appearance from the notoriously self-isolated black metal musician Jef Whitehead (a.k.a. Wrest), was viewed by many in the metal community (in and outside of the city) as an iconic moment in the Chicago’s heavy music history, not only for the caliber of its lineup, but for the unusual juxtaposition of one of the world’s most decidedly outsider forms of music performed in front of a diverse audience in one of the city’s most celebrated cultural institutions.
For the soundtrack release show, Robinson expanded the original ensemble to include members of Indian and Bloodiest, and chose an even more eyebrow-raising setting than the MCA; outside on the grass near the cemetery mausoleum during a full moon, actually a “supermoon,” the annual occasion when a fill moon seems larger and brighter than any other time of year, due to its close proximity to Earth in its orbit.
Along with the show on Saturday, Robinson is also working on new recordings with Wrest, prepping for a July 12 concert at the Empty Bottle opening for Come, and has plans for a fall tour with Grails and a string of collaborative performances with Alexander Hacke (Einsturzende Neubauten) and Chris Brokaw (Codeine/Come), so even if you can’t make it this weekend, there are plenty of interesting Wrekmeister moments to look forward to in the upcoming months. Still, this is going to be one for the books (Did we mention it’s in a cemetery?!?).
ChicagoMusic.org spoke with Robinson about the making of You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me and how tapping into the city’s creative community has helped him realize some of his boldest artistic visions
CMO: Let’s talk about the MCA performance. I remember being really bummed I couldn’t make it that night. People in the music community were talking about it and a number of people considered it to be a defining moment in Chicago metal, in terms of people outside of the heavy metal community looking at it as a valid art form. Did you go into it looking to change perceptions?
JR Robinson: I went into it solely as, “I’m doing this film I created.” I spent a lot of time working on this film. To create the sound that I envisioned for it, I had a certain set of individuals I wanted to use and I didn’t really put too much thought into how the music community in Chicago would react. I was simply trying to get this sound out of my head and into the space, that space being the museum. If anything, that byproduct was incidental.
CMO: With the type of art that you do, you must always have a variety of reactions to it. Was it surprising to hear that later on?
JR: It was very surprising to me because they put me into this theater at the MCA. I was kind of nervous, I was thinking, “Oh great, thirty of my friends might come to this thing,” and that’s what I geared myself up for. I left and when I came back I was completely shocked to see it overflowing with people. There were people sitting in the aisles, people sitting outside the theater… I was made aware of a lot of discussion going on about it afterwards, and I was really surprised.
CMO: What do you think it is—whether it’s metal, or any type of experimental art—that a big name cultural institution makes it acceptable for more people to listen to it, and vice versa, why isn’t a basement show or a small gallery not seen as a big enough deal?
JR: I don’t really understand that whole concept. I know the museum people thought it was unique that there were black metal people in their venue, and the black metal people thought it was unusual that they were there.
To get someone like Wrest, who never comes out–I understood that it was kind of a big deal. It was a big deal for me because he is a friend of mine and he was agreeing to do this. So you have him, and you have Sanford Parker, and you have Mark Solotroff, and all of these guys, and there was a curiosity factor going both ways between the people at the cultural institution and the people making the music. Jamie [Fennely] from Mind Over Mirrors—he’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s played in museums many times, so this wasn’t out of the ordinary for him. It was nice that there was a lot of people, but the curiosity factor was definitely there.
CMO: With the film, which I obviously haven’t seen because I wasn’t at the show, the list of shooting locations included Detroit, the Joshua Tree Desert, etc. Knowing you wanted sounds to vibe with your images, I’m imagining concepts of life cycles, birth and death, ruin and decay. Is that what you were looking at in the film, and if so, were you exploring some personal things, or was it a reflection on places you were visiting?
JR: The film was my own take on structural filmmaking, like the director Michael Snow, who made this incredible film called Wavelength. It’s a classic example of structural filmmaking, where the camera does all of the work for you. There were long, static shots in Joshua Tree, Detroit, and New York. Nature doing its thing to nature, and nature doing its thing to man. So, that was my starting point for what I wanted to hear sonically. Detroit is completely unbelievable. It’s nature doing its thing to these man-made structures, and the same thing–I have this shot from New York on this brutally cold day from this rooftop in Long Island City, looking at the brutally cold element of nature along this particular set of skyline in New York. And also in Tasmania, of nature consuming itself, and the same thing in Joshua Tree where it’s sun-bleached earth. Nature doing its thing to nature, regenerating itself, and it is unstoppable.
That’s what I was trying to do sonically. Reach into a palette using these musicians and try the best that I could to recreate that feeling in a sonic way. I feel like I came really close, but there’s nothing that can compete with seeing things with your own eyes or what you experience with your own ears.
CMO: Sonically speaking, how do all of those images line up with the composition? The beginning of it is very subtle compared to the part in the middle, and then it returns. Were any of these experiences more brutal than others?
JR: I lined it up very much in the way that I shot it. It was just this cyclical thing. There’s a shot of these flowers in a field in Tasmania, The winds are blowing and some of the flowers are breaking apart, but they are so very, very beautiful. There was a wheat field, where I kind of fucked with the timing to make it run faster or slower. Then there were sections of the film in Detroit or Joshua Tree that were brutal and they had this very harsh impact. That’s what I was feeling when I shot it, and I wanted to communicate it sonically.
CMO: You’ve worked with so many musicians in Chicago. Did you mostly pull these people from your personal friendships, or people whose work you were familiar with and who you wanted to collaborate with on this project?
JR: Some of them I do have friendships with, and some of them I don’t. I feel very fortunate that I have a vast pool to draw from and that they’re able to understand what I’m trying to say to them. It’s like I would say to you, “You know what, Jamie? I can’t fucking write a paragraph about anything, but I have this great idea and I want to communicate it. Can you write this paragraph for me? Can you help me? This is what I want to say but the words are all fucking mixed up. Can you put these words I have into language that really goes deep?”
So that’s how that works. Some of the people I’m good friends with, some of the people I’m just passing acquaintances with, but what we have in common is that they’re able to understand what I’m trying to communicate, and it’s interesting enough to them that they want to give up their free time and be involved. There’s no money in this–nobody is getting any fucking money. And it’s difficult to get a large group of people. Getting 10-12 people to do something for next to nothing, you’ve got to have a good idea.
CMO: Is that the same process you used to put together your first record?
JR: Yes. I don’t know Ken Vandermark, but I got in touch with him and communicated the idea, and he thought it was great idea. Frank Rosaly, same way. Some people like David Yow I do have a personal relationship with. Pat Samson and Mark Shippy from U.S. Maple, I have a relationship with. Fred Longberg-Holm, I’ve been lucky enough to know for years, and he’s been completely generous with his time, when he’s available, and his talent. Chicago is really lucky to have guys like that here that are just willing to play all the time.
CMO: It seems like you’ve collaborated with musicians way across the spectrum in Chicago, compared to some musicians that stay within their own scene.
JR: I’ve had this thought that people here are really comfortable with being here and being in the community that they’ve forged for themselves. That’s admirable, and that’s great. This is a hard city to live in. Culturally speaking, it’s kind of insulated. If somebody gets really fucking good at what they do in this town, whether it’s writing, or singing, dancing, or acting—anything creative—as soon as they reach a certain peak level they leave. They go to Los Angeles and either go further, or hit their ceiling. And if they do return it’s never the same as before they left.
But then there are people who’ve stayed here for a long time, and create a very comfortable existence for themselves. That’s a very admirable thing too, but I’m not interested in doing that. I like to pick from a very wide variety of people, and I’m lucky this city has such a wide variety of people to work with.
CMO: How did you get into live scoring films?
JR: I’ve always been into music. I’ve always been into film. I never went to film school or art school. I’ve never taken a music lesson in my life. I can play some music with some degree of efficiency. I was lucky enough to have this mentor 15-20 years ago who told me, “You don’t need an education or a million dollars of equipment to make a film.” I shot all of that stuff on a Sony handheld camera and showed it in a museum. Make art. Just point the camera. Make a sound. Do what you’re feeling and make an experience out of that.
CMO: That’s the same as the original intent behind punk rock; everybody is valid, everyone has an expression.
JR: Yeah, and I was able to understand what he was saying to me because I was of that generation. You don’t need gear, you don’t need access to a studio, you can just do it. I recorded the first fifteen minutes of the soundtrack of You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me in practice spaces, or apartments, or wherever, and just assembled. it. When it came time to record live musicians, I had to assemble them somewhere, and Electrical Audio ended up being the place.
CMO: Tell me about your upcoming performance at the Bohemian National Cemetery.
JR: I’m really excited about it, and I hope people are excited about it. If I saw there was a show in a cemetery, I would go to it. It’s not something I’ve seen done around here. The atmosphere of being in a cemetery at night with the full moon… I think there will be a lot of energy around the full moon and I’m trying to take advantage about it.
When I think of Chicago music in the summer months, I think about the street fairs. They’re closing down the streets, and you have to stand in a dusty field and get burned in the sun. I thought I would offer up something a little different; a peaceful, tranquil graveyard at night time. You won’t get sunburned, and there will be some interesting vibes happening. And you’ll see an interesting performance.
CMO: Are you going to have a screen with the film as well?
JR: We’ll have a screen with the film as well, and Acteurs with Jeremy Lemos (White/Light) and Brian Case (Disappears), and I was really lucky to get Rob Sevier from the Numero Group to come and spin between sets. He is the only person I know with a vast New Age collection and I was very interested in having New Age music playing between bands. He and I would have some really good talks about New Age music and he’s turned me on to a lot of stuff over the years, so it was my natural inclination to ask him to play, and he was glad to do it. I’m so super psyched for the evening–having Jef Whitehead again come out of his self-imposed exile, Sanford Parker is going to play, Mark Solotroff…
CMO: Will it be everyone from the MCA gig?
JR: It will be an augmented lineup. Everyone from the MCA lineup, Dylan [O’Toole] and Ron [DeFries] from Indian, and Eric [Chaleff] from Bloodiest, so it’s kind of beefed up on the black metal side, and there are two additional string musicians too. I believe the overall impact of the performance will be a very wonderful experience. I’m looking forward to it.
CMO: Was it hard to talk the cemetery owners into letting you use the space? Do they have any idea what is coming?
JR: I originally approached them about doing this last fall. I had the idea of doing it for the fall solstice, and I got so far as getting their permission. I pitched this idea, and they did some looking into me and had me come up and talk to them about it. Then I approached Elliot Dicks who owns a sound company [Elliotsound] and is very knowledgeable. We went up there to talk about sound gear, and he began bringing up these things, “What are you going to do about a projection? Security? Portable toilets? Who is going to sell tickets?” I became overwhelmed—I can’t handle all of these logistics!
That’s where I feel extremely lucky. The Empty Bottle handled the logistics for the Beyond the Black Rainbow screening, and when I told them my idea [for the cemetery show] they agreed to come on board and handle all of the logistics for it, so that’s really great!
CMO: It’s cool to see local companies doing these things—It’s a risk!
JR: I have enormous respect for Bruce [Finkleman] and everybody at the Empty Bottle. They could just sit back and put on great shows and open up really great restaurants for the foreseeable future, but when an interesting idea comes along they’re not afraid to tackle it. They’re into it for the same reason these musicians are into it. No one is going to make any degree of money, but they are willing to do it because it is a cool idea. Ultimately, that is what’s great about being in this town. I feel so, so lucky to know all of these people and have all of these people be able to get into an idea I have and help me fully realize it.
CMO: As many people that move away, there are always people that come here from smaller towns looking to get into the creative community here.
JR: That’s right, for every person that leaves town to do something else there are two or three more people coming to take their place.
CMO: What are some things you tell people who have just moved here and want to get involved?
JR: It’s a very cold and very hard city to get into, and it is a scene that at times can be very insulated. If you don’t pay attention to any of that, and just do your work and keep creating and don’t stop, eventually it’s gonna pay off. There will be some benefit to it. It’s the people that come here solely to be involved in a scene that don’t have any ideas, that don’t have any work, who just want to mimic what they see around them and cop other people’s ideas…
CMO: Aside from the music community, do you think the people coming to your shows in Chicago are more open to new ideas and thoughts than in other cities you’ve performed in?
JR: Yeah, I think there is a great degree of freedom to do whatever you want here. It’s a big city. There is plenty of stuff going on down in Pilsen and Bridgeport that people are unaware of. You can see a band like Dope Body playing a basement show. Those experiences are irreplaceable. You can’t get that anywhere. It’s great that the city has that. If you pay attention long enough, you’ll find something.
CMO: Obviously with twelve people, touring on any scale is probably out of the question, but are you going to do any one-off’s in other cities or with a smaller ensemble?
JR: With twelve people it is nearly impossible to get everyone to tour together unless I was in a position to write everyone a check that would allow them to miss their job, but there has been talk of putting one on in New York, and another in Los Angeles. We’ll see what comes of it. I’m not opposed to it.
CMO: I always think about the people who put on the World Music Festival and everything they have to do to bring these huge ensembles over. It’s hard even within a city to do something like this.
JR: Just to get this cemetery gig going, and I also have a recording project and another gig at Intuit this Thursday…The personnel juggling and dealing with everybody’s individual circumstances can be a little mentally exhausting sometimes, I’m not going to lie. The end result is all that matters.
CMO: Would you say that creativity, as much as you have to have an open mind about things, in order to actually be able to do anything it becomes a very task-management driven type of activity?
JR: Yeah. I meditate twice a day. I try to keep an open mind and try not to put negative energy out into the world. I think as a result of that these types of projects come a little easier. To do these types of projects you have to retain an open mind about things, and by having an open mind you have to yield some greater results you weren’t anticipating. That’s one of the benefits of operating like that.
Wreckmeister Harmonies performs at the Bohemian National Cemetery on Saturday, June 22. Buy tickets here.