interview – apollo vermouth

– featured image courtesy of the artist –

Alisa rodriguez has been building sprawling, droning landscapes under the moniker of apollo vermouth for the better part of a decade now.  armed usually with little more than her guitar and a sampler, rodriguez sculpts titanic walls of sound that are often as pensive as they are crushing.

after a rapid-fire succession of releases between 2012 and 2014, apollo vermouth’s output slowed considerably; crashing into nowhere, rodriguez’ first full-length in more than three years, came out last friday via orchid tapes.  its seven songs should supply familiar touchstones for long-time followers of the milwaukee-based artist, but a handful of new tracks meander into new territory with wondrous results.

we recently caught up with rodriguez via e-mail to chat about the evolution of songwriting, milwaukee’s experimental music scene, and translating ambient albums into a live setting.  check out the transcript below.

to the casual observer, milwaukee seems to have a flourishing music scene, and especially, a vibrant experimental/ambient niche. what’s your perception of the scene? what kind of cog is apollo vermouth within that machine?

i have sort of a love/hate relationship with milwaukee’s music scene.  it’s really hard to stand out with the music i make, but i think that can definitely be a good thing.  i try not to be afraid of coming off vulnerable.  i want people to have a reaction to the music, but it’s tough in milwaukee because it’s such a party city.  people have a tendency to turn a show into a social event and treat the music as background sound.  most experimental musicians i talk to around here feel the same way, especially at bar venues.  it’s sort of a great excuse for us to play louder.

your newest album, crashing into nowhere, is out on orchid tapes.  how did you connect with the label for this release?

i’ve known warren for years.  i first heard about his project foxes in fiction in the mid-2000s via a deerhunter fan message board.  i was a huge fan of his first album, swung from the branches, when it came out and have been following orchid tapes since he started it back in 2010.  we finally met in person in chicago when he was on tour opening for owen pallett.  warren is one of the most humble and sweetest musicians i’ve ever met.  about a year later, he contacted me about putting out an album on his label.  i was so flattered and practically jumped out of my chair when he asked.

has your songwriting process changed over time?  do you perceive any marked evolution?

definitely, yeah.  i took a break from songwriting after putting out fractured youth.  even where there were instances where i wanted to make music, i’d try, but i wasn’t making anything worthwhile.  i started questioning ending the project, but i didn’t feel comfortable ending apollo with an album like fractured youth.  it also feels like apollo vermouth will never really end; it’s sort of something i feel like i’ll always come back to, even when i’m taking a break working on something else.

it took about three months to make crashing into nowhere.  i recorded a few tracks at my practice space and the rest of the album was done at my house.  i typically use the first take with each track i work on, but this time i wanted to do the best that i could.  no more amateur hour.


“always there” and “reflections of” feature prominent vocals, a bit of a departure from this project’s vernacular.  “reflections of” in particular feels like a very singular component of your catalogue.  what was it like to approach a few apollo vermouth tracks from a collaborative standpoint?

after finishing fractured youth, i thought a lot about collaborating with other musicians i’m good friends with.  my boyfriend has always been my number one collaborator, but i wanted to work with friends that i admire a lot.

travis johnson of grooms is someone who i’ve admired for years, even before we became friends.  travis has such a distinct voice that feels like you’re listening to your guardian angel singing.  he’s a big influence on me, musically and spiritually.  i was excited to have him on board to sing on one of my songs.

i got one of my oldest, best friends, eli smith, to work on the song “reflections of.”  i gave him my guitar track and told him to do whatever he wanted with it.  he came back with something out of this world.  i was so pumped on his part and couldn’t get over the orchestral samples. he’s without a doubt the most talented musician i know.

the dense textures of ambient and drone music sometimes necessitate an approximation in a live setting, but i get the sense that your approach to composition is already often pretty minimalistic.  does the gear you use to record differ much from the gear you use when performing live?

not at all.  the only thing that’s slightly different for the live shows is that sometimes i can’t always emulate the recording due to me not remembering how to play a certain part, or even the whole song.  it’s partially my fault for only recording a song on the first take and ending it there.  i always admired the idea of certain musicians like william basinski and electronic artists who only play new music live or take songs to another level, like changing the progression.

you were actively plugging the documentary who took johnny” a year or so ago on twitter.  it’s an incredibly profound film that i don’t think i would have discovered without your social media connection, and you seem very invested in the issue of missing and exploited children overall.  does this advocacy extend to and become intertwined with your music?

yes.  it’s something i care a lot about and it can sometimes be emotionally challenging.  i won’t get into personal reasons why, but i think it’s important to help people.  a month ago, i was driving towards downtown milwaukee and i saw a billboard that read, “wisconsin is the 3rd highest in the nation for sex trafficking.”  it made my heart sink.

it’s sickening how big the trafficking industry is.  it happens in places you’d never think it would happen; it could happen down the street from your parents’ house.  it’s messed up.  who took johnny really opened my eyes to this terrible part of society.  i have a tendency to even get frustrated with people who don’t open their eyes and look around. it’s like i’m roddy piper from they live, with the sunglasses.  no one deserves to be taken advantage of, especially young children.

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eluvium – “fugue state”

– featured image courtesy of the artist –

matthew cooper’s work as eluvium has marked him as a clear standard-bearer of ambient music in the twenty-first century; a direct descendent of brian eno, cooper has been manipulating tape delays and layering mountains of tones for the better part of two decades now, creating vast, affecting drone compositions in the process.  after pausing to make two albums as inventions – a collaborative project with explosions in the sky guitarist mark smith – cooper will circle back to his solo moniker for its eighth album, false readings on, out september 2nd via temporary residence.

alongside the album’s announcement today comes “fugue state,” a sprawling seven-minute return to form.  cooper uses one definition of fugue to inform another, inverting arpeggios at various tempos and moving them through different timbres – including a particularly haunting, cavernous vocal passage – to create an agitated soundscape that teases a serene resolution but evaporates before it can be reached.  take a listen below.

 

port st. willow – syncope

port st. willow syncope
out november 20th via people teeth

an album this intimate needs only a few choice words of context.

port st. willow will forever occupy an important plot point on my musical development chart.  nick principe’s first full-length under said moniker, holiday, was the first album i discovered via twitter recommendation, thanks to a dutiful tweet from the antlers, and it was one i physically rediscovered eighteen months later in a bin at my local record store on the cusp of a particularly brutal midwestern winter.

i marveled at the cohesion of holiday, at principe’s mournful falsetto, at how percussion could be titanic yet somehow not impede the development of a beautiful soundscape.  it’s also one of the few albums i own that actually irritates me,  but only because i have to get up and flip the record so many times instead of being able to listen to it uninterrupted.

syncope follows the basic formula of its predecessor closely: it’s an album best-digested in a single session, and principe continues to favorably manipulate what should be a dichotomous relationship between thundering rhythms and tender melodies.  yet syncope feels strikingly more improvisatory than holiday; discernible songs eventually materialize, but they’re routinely padded by and birthed from extended passages of patient ambience.

moments of wandering and moments of clarity are both executed beautifully.  lead single “ordinary pleasure” dissolves into an aqueous solution aptly titled “an ocean we both know,” which in turn gradually morphs into “atlas.”  principe’s meticulous attention to the growth and detail of his ambient interludes is commendable, and he reaps the benefits of his work on “motion,” the pulsating centerpiece of syncope replete with a whistled motif that may be the closest thing to a hook that principe has ever offered.

the explicit momentum of “motion” quickly recedes back into the guarded textures from which it originated, setting the stage for the album’s second half.  the b-side of syncope feels even more exposed and vulnerable than its counterpart; acoustic piano peeks through the textures of “orbit back, my garden home” for a brief but prominent feature, its sparseness and preciseness juxtaposing the white noise that eventually resorbs it, while the discernible words amidst principe’s fluid cooing on closing number “opal” are decidedly lonely, a longing gaze out of a window.

syncope has had a relatively quiet rollout, but it’s already proving to be an integral component in the port st. willow canon.  navigate away from the dimestore and immerse yourself in this beautiful piece of art.

apollo vermouth – fractured youth

a2075354742_10in one of those rare musical moments, alisa rodriguez has created a masterful body of work with little more than a guitar and copious amounts of personal reflection.  fractured youth is rodriguez’s latest effort under her ambient guise of apollo vermouth, but this album strips away most of the salient, dreamy traits of ambient music in favor of an ominous, distant barrage of noise.  it may be the milwaukee resident’s most profound collection of songs yet.

although the album is broken up into specified tracks, fractured youth lends itself well to continuous, uninterrupted playback.  chord changes are slow, and any sense of harmonic motion is usually obscured by the layers of white noise that accompany each song.  after two comparatively quick tracks, the album settles in with “aftertaste” and “never ending,” a one-two hazy punch serving as the centerpiece of fractured youth.

both songs flirt with the six-minute mark, the former falling just short while the latter spills over, yet each establishes and represents a fairly concise, contrasting element of rodriguez’s music.  “aftertaste” has a sense of urgency, its busy progressions hinting at explorations of pent-up emotions, while “never ending” paces itself more methodically.  harmonics from the drone tend to have more emphasis here, and the back half of the song seems especially stagnant.

after increased tension on “vacant lots,” fractured youth comes to an appropriate close with “drift,” a gorgeous coda that evokes an oddly distinct feeling of being lost at sea, perhaps a metaphor for dealing with a foreign situation.  together, the album’s six songs comprise a half-hour of minimalist, reflective music just as useful for falling asleep as it is for deep, serious meditation sessions.  fractured youth is out now via bridgetown records.  don’t miss out.

8.3/10