“Angular Music” is one of the best albums from the last half year, but in this era of micro-pressings, lathe cuts, and handmade cassettes, it would be easy not to notice. Nathan McLaughlin and Cody Yantis, the duo behind Tilth who crafted the album through a long distance collaboration, have developed a natural musical dialogue that goes beyond notes and noise to include a common idea of process and intent. Bristles of static, streaks of fiddle, spiraling tape loops, and plaintive guitar melodies flicker through “Angular Music,” creating a tapestry of sound that is difficult to categorize, but easy to immerse yourself in. The duo use tape and amplifiers not only as devices to capture and broadcast sounds, but to bring out texture and emotional resonance within the units themselves. That they do it so deftly is a testament to their collaboration, like they’ve tapped into some intuitive logic that makes sense even when it shouldn’t. Now with a third member, violist and drummer Joe Houpert, Tilth has further plans to continue exploring this fertile terrain.
“Angular Music” stands as active, enveloping music that can be splendidly melodic and alluringly ugly when it has to. The result is an album like few others and one that should find many more listeners than its mere 100 copies will allow.
For a limited time the LP is on sale at Experimedia.
With being in different states, how was the album created? While in the same room or a long distance collaboration?
McLaughlin: This was a long distance collaboration from start to finish. Cody is in Colorado and I am in Minnesota, and we had connected over a mutual appreciation for rural life and found that as we peeled back the layers we had an incredible amount in common. The very first track we did, “First Breath,” was just a trial to see if beyond these mutual interests if there existed an ability to make music together.
Yantis: Until I traveled to Minnesota for the shows in support of the LP release, I’d never met Nathan nor Joe in person. Joe and I had only swapped emails, and Nathan and I had emailed quite a bit and occasionally talked on the phone. That said, from the start of our correspondence, it was apparent that Nathan and I had a lot in common, not just in terms of music but also in our outlook and approach to life. But in many ways, the music was our real introduction and initial dialog.
Along with that, one of my favorite things about “Angular Music” is how it feels at times really composed and others freely improvised. Which was it? How did the pieces come together?
McLaughlin: Freely improvised with the ability to replay the parts. The music itself is pretty simple, so playing those melodies back is not too difficult. The arrangement of those tracks in real time, via reel to reel processing, becomes the challenge for me when playing live. Anyway the pieces came together out of our own individual studio practices, finding pieces that would go well with the mission of Tilth and then building them. You might tell from the record there is a fair amount of reel to reel processing, as there tends to be with a lot of my recent music, and that is important to mention. Tracks might go back and forth, then solidify with their tape counterparts because I do not use the tape as an effect or treatment – it is a compositional tool that should complement the human played music. I did all of the mixing on the album, so the masters would sit with me and I would send out mixes until we had settled on the right one that was within our mantra.
Yantis: Some tracks came together in a matter of days, others took the better part of a year. As “Angular Music” progressed, a structure in how we approached, edited, and arranged the pieces – and also some motivating themes and ideas – became apparent, and we continue to build on all of this as the second album comes together.
Nathan, you’ve collaborated with Joe in Loud & Sad before. How did the string of shows go with him as a member of Tilth? Any idea where his addition will take future recordings?
McLaughlin: Joe brings a certain energy to live performance that is beyond my ability. When I first started working with Joe back in 2005 or so, it started because my solo live shows were a bit dry and bringing him into those made them something more real and human. While he has that ability to go crazy and flail around, he also exhibits ability as a musician and improviser that are well beyond my own and in that he elevates everything. The show he played with us in Mankato, MN is proof of this, I wish there were a video of this because Joe needed a lot of stage space to get his job accomplished because of the energy he brought up there. I would say that show was a wild success, having a musician up there who can double as a drummer and a violin player is a special thing but having an anchor up there who kept kicking up the dial on intensity meant a lot as well.
Our new recordings feature Joe heavily, and the new ones seem a bit more grounded or less ethereal. His drumming is free but can be the underpinning a track needs, and his melodic contributions via violin round out our normal guitar and banjo set up nicely. Much like that live show, Joe cranks that intensity knob on the recordings too and is a force that pushes us forward.
Yantis: At one point, in the middle of a horn and percussion duet at that Mankato show, Joe kind of taunted or provoked me (vocally and musically), and I let loose in a way I’ve not really done before. The sonic results were wild – quite different from “Angular Music.”
Do either of you have formal music training?
Yantis: I have a decent amount, as I started playing piano when I was three, and I had about eight years of saxophone lessons beginning when I was around ten years-old. However, I’ve always been much more inclined to play “by ear” rather than reading and scoring music, and in regards the guitar, which I suppose is my primary instrument, I’m self-taught. It’s been in the last five years that I have really focused on creating music that is predominantly improvised, both in terms of performance and recording.
McLaughlin: Music lessons in elementary school, lots and lots of free time in college and some basic theory classes too. My mom is an organist, so I was lucky to have grown up with a lot of beautiful keyboards around the house.
It’s been said that Bill Dixon’s idea of “going to the center” was an influence for the “Angular Music.” How exactly did that direct the album?
Yantis: In regards to how the music actually sounds, Dixon’s influence may not be as clear, but there’s a lot of space and silence in Tilth, which often arises from Nathan’s and my musical dialog, as we grapple with and consider what the other is doing (“consider” is a very Dixonian concept). This is probably the most overt musical reference to Dixon, particularly when you think of his solo work or albums like “Vade Mecum I & II” that focus on the interactions between just a few musicians. That said, the use of space also comes from Nathan’s and my shared loved of nature and vast, open landscapes, such as the high desert of Colorado and the Minnesota prairie.
McLaughlin: One of the first things Cody and I discovered about each other was a passion for so called free jazz and country music. I had become pretty enamored in recent years with this idea of going to the center, Bill Dixon being the musical representation of that for me but in other parts of my life as well through the writings of John Woolman and Rudolf Steiner and how to apply that to daily living with regards to self development and my understanding of the world… and even my “work” when not making music.
Applying this concept of “stripping away” counters the direction we head as a society, it is swimming against the stream. That “less is more” has become a bit tired and abused, I find this idea of going to the center to be more effective as a means to find out what is really behind something. It does not necessitate that something be minimal, for example Dixon recorded plenty of music that was not minimal and I have as well. For example in the recording of this album we would find ourselves 8 tracks deep on a song, and realize the essence of the song really existed on only one of those 8. I would mute the other 7, and rebuild from there often times leaving behind the very tracks that originated the song. Sometimes you have to build up walls and layers to be shown the true essence, then be bold enough to dismiss what came before it for the purpose of progress, allowing our improvisations to enter into a compositional process.
When we think about the making of the album in the context of our personal lives, we had been focusing on this idea of fatigue as a means of going to the center for this album. Pushing yourself when you feel at the end, as a way to find the truth. For me it was knowing I had less patience when tired, and would not really tolerate unnecessary sound. It was also a product of just being in a really busy and intense environment, and trying to figure out how to have a private life within that requires this sort of “centering” exercise.
What’s the significance of the title “Angular Music”? There are moments that are surprisingly smooth on the album, so I wonder if it’s more of a conceptual approach.
Yantis: It comes from the writer John Haines, who homesteaded outside Fairbanks for 60+ years. The phrase “Angular Music” has to do with meaningfully rendering nature into words, a struggle and process that seemed kindred to what we are after in Tilth as we use sound to work through a range of ideas, motivations, and experiences. Haines has impacted my life and art over the past few years, and I think I’ve got Nathan hooked on him now. His writing is grounded, purposeful, and pared down, and he often speaks of reading one’s environment as though it is a book, believing that its narrative – which strikes him as “angular music” – holds crucial answers. Nathan and I are both drawn to nature not as an escape, but as a guide to being more engaged and observant in all aspects of life, and Haines is a great example of this. There’s a lot in Haines’s writing and life that echoes “going to the center”: pare down and banish waste so as to be more direct, honest, and meaningful.
McLaughlin: What we were doing at the time was heavily rooted in nature in that we both lived in rural areas and spent a fair amount of time outdoors. We shared our nature experiences with each other, trips from a canoe trip or a snowshoe hike. We had become friends, no longer acquaintances, involved in this sort of dance with nature. This was not your typical “I need to return to nature” sort of discussion, both of us had done that and did not need to rant about that too much as that is well traveled territory in these times of urban glorification. We did not escape to a cabin in the woods or go rogue, nothing antisocial. But more about what spoke to us in nature writing (for me with regards to John Muir and Richard Hugo) was the music in that life, the flow of things and and my own struggle to understand what was going on in the wider culture in this country compared to what was going on in the subculture I find myself involved with on a daily basis. – Ryan Potts, Experimedia