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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websterx – “blue streak”

– featured image courtesy of damien blue –

websterx is a slightly enigmatic figure who holds court in milwaukee, a sometimes-overlooked yet increasingly vital hub for rap music in the midwest.  he’s also been rather quiet for the past year; his last single, “kinfolk,” an invigorating collaboration with fellow midwesterner allan kingdom, arrived in october of 2015 and was followed the next month by his kidx ep, but there’s been radio silence – in terms of new music – ever since.

“blue streak” endeavors to do a couple of things.  one is to saturate a fanbase parched of thirst after eleven months without another websterx track; the other is to usher in the next chapter of his career.  after culling a following based off of the strength of singles and vivid videos alone, websterx has signed a distribution contract with chicago-based closed sessions as he looks towards releasing his first full-length album.

websterx links with the producer four giants on “blue streak” for an end result that’s as rigid and militant as can be spacious and pensive, an amalgam of aesthetics that simultaneously seems to reject any sense of genre confines.  the title and release date of his debut album are pending; for now, float away with websterx on his long-overdue – and much-welcomed – new single.

 

premiere – adoptahighway

photo courtesy of david szymanski

call it a premonition, call it intuition, call it a lucky guess; after hearing adoptahighway’s magnificent a fault earlier this year, we had a feeling that barry paul clark had something else up his sleeve for 2015.  the milwaukee multi-instrumentalist has been working closely with filmmaker wes tank and milwaukier than thou’s adam carr to create a series of visual accompaniments for each of the eight tracks found on a fault, and we’re thrilled to premiere the second and seventh installments on dimestore saints today.  the series will be released in a convex fashion; parts one and eight are already floating around in the ether, and are in stark contrast to the bucolic settings found in both “defiance” and “the day after the days after.”

we recently caught up with clark via email to chat about the genesis of his video project and the unsung landscapes of milwaukee, which appear extensively throughout the series.  check out the transcript below, and be sure to pause reading to experience the stunning visual works embedded in between questions.

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for those unfamiliar with milwaukier than thou, what is it?  how did you connect with adam and wes for this project?

milwaukier than thou is a photo-based blog organized by my friend adam carr, who i first met several years ago when he was working for 88nine radio milwaukee.  he has since moved on to a lot of community development projects and currently is active with the milwaukee neighborhood news service.  adam has an interesting and unique eye to milwaukee, which led both wes and me to want to include him on this project for the various environments and lesser-knowns about our city that could be included to help the narrative.

wes has been a long-time friend, musical companion, and unparalleled creative force that i’ve had to pleasure of working with in various capacities. as adoptahighway, i’ve remixed some of his work from his experimental performance group oculi, and i’ve also had the pleasure of playing upright bass on the tracks “blend modes” and “reconsidering (featuring milo and safari al)” from his 2014 wc tank release almost forever.  aside from his amazing output as a musical performer, he also is a very talented filmmaker, so when i knew i wanted to have a visual accompaniment to a fault wes was right there with me.

what’s the goal with this visual counterpart to a fault?  mirror imagery seems key, and i’m starting to pick up on a potential storyline.

the goal of the visual accompaniment for a fault is to supply a narrative that expresses some of the emotions and themes that went into this record: the longing for inspiration; the doubt and uncertainty of expression; the existential dilemmas that accompany an artist and their work; authenticity in your actions.  we’re releasing the videos, one for each of the eight tracks on the record, in a mirroring fashion so it leads convexly into the center of the record, which is the title track and what i intended to be the most frenetic and powerful point in the overall expression of a fault.  so as each track has its own video treatment and can be viewed singularly, the final, full sequence of film will follow a narrative inwards to the center and back out to the end, which is also where it started.  the convex shape is a very relatable journey for an artist, but also unique to the individual.  i’m hoping these videos help express that.

both of these videos feel warm and pastoral in comparison to their predecessors.  what is their place in the narrative?

parts two and seven were filmed at havenwoods state forest in milwaukee.  it’s a beautiful environment on milwaukee’s north side that was once land for a house of corrections, and then turned into military barracks and missile housing after world war ii, but was eventually abandoned in the 196’s and remained that way until it was officially made into a state park in 1980.  it’s a strange separation from the neighborhood that surrounds it, and as far as trying to express a desire to find something within yourself, a longing for inspiration and overcoming doubts, it lent itself quite beautifully.

what’s your plan for the rest of a fault?  will videos for the other tracks be surfacing anytime soon?

parts three through six of the a fault video narrative are complete, and they will find their way into the ether soon.  adam, wes, and i actually had the pleasure of screening the full video narrative for a closing reception at usable space gallery in milwaukee in mid-july, but before that finds its way into the brains of those who weren’t in attendance that evening, we want to complete the shape of its convex release. 

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parts one and eight of a fault can be viewed by clicking on their respective links.  we’ll be keeping tabs on the arrival of the other installments; the end result should be a spectacle to behold.  in the meantime, revisit a fault and visit adoptahighway via the social networks below.

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interview – adoptahighway

photo courtesy of david szymanski

sometimes incredibly thought-provoking music is simply dropped in your lap.  such was the case with a fault, the dark and disorienting new album from experimental artist adoptahighway that showed up in our inbox early last month.  we recently caught up with adoptahighway’s mild-mannered alter ego, classical musician barry paul clark, via email to talk about a fault, influential composers, and the experimental music sub-culture that has firmly entrenched itself into milwaukee’s expansive music scene.  check out the transcript below.

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there seems to be a lot of disjointed and competing rhythms throughout a fault, especially on tracks like “qualmness” and “defiance,” and those rhythms mirror the disjointed and aggressive undertones of the record really well.  can you talk about your inspirations while writing this record?

the inspiration behind this record had a lot to do with defining and obtaining inspiration – where it is, what it is, how it comes to be, whether or not it can be harbored or contained, and the spectrum of conflicting emotion and self realization that presents itself within that journey.  i know a lot of artists deal with these issues in different ways, so everything i expressed on the subject within the record is very personal.  i’m still unsure if i’ve answered any of my own questions on the matter, but at the very least i made what i consider my most honest material.

i did some internet digging and found out that you spend a considerable amount of time playing classical upright bass in various ensembles.  how does that experience translate to your electronic music, or are do you tend to compartmentalize the two?

yes, i studied and graduated with a degree in classical music performance on upright bass, so outside of adoptahighway, i spend my musical efforts in a handful of regional symphonies, smaller chamber ensembles, jazz and improvised music outfits, and a string quartet i co-founded called the tontine ensemble, which is dedicated to new music performance, mostly by wisconsin composers, as well as our own compositions and improvisations.

i don’t think I necessarily compartmentalize adoptahighway and these other efforts, although i do get a bit of a surprised reaction when i say i’m a classical musician who makes experimental electronic music, or vice versa.  some musicians are totally dedicated to a single craft, which is absolutely amazing, but i use each musical outfit i’m in to express a different part of myself.  it keeps me happy and excited to be able to do that.  i do feel a constant, direct correlation between my classical training and electronic music would be the composition techniques and theory/orchestration studies that I’ve taken part in translate into my work as adoptahighway.

are there any particular composers that have heavily influenced adoptahighway, either throughout the project’s existence or on this album in particular?

i’ve always been inspired by the extreme emotional output of the romantic era to early twentieth century composers.  some of my most fond performance memories, and composers i listen to regularly, are tchaikovsky, mahler, sibelius, and ravel.  i’m also very keen on minimalist composers like glass, reich, cage, john adams and lamonte young; the ability to say very much with sonically very little is very impressive.  i also have a close group of friends through the wednesday sound collective with whom i’ve developed heavily as an electronic musician: my pals lorn, dolor, and 18andcounting.

another project you’re involved in is unrehearsed mke.  can you talk a bit about the experimental music scene in milwaukee?

unrehearsed mke is a project that was started by my longtime friend and frequent collaborator, percussionist devin drobka.  it’s a monthly event here in milwaukee where we, along with the help of composer and saxophonist steve gallam, put together groups of musicians from all fields and disciplines – many of whom have never met or played together before – and ask them to create music on the spot, improvising in a performance setting.  we’ve been doing this for just over two years and it has really brought together and developed a brilliant community of improvisers and artists.  i always equate improvising with speaking.  you’re using the language of your instrument or craft to communicate an idea, just like how you would in any day-to-day conversation.  it’s about speaking clearly, without judgement, and without ego.  there have been some unforgettable and brilliant performances that have taken place this way and part of the magic is that it will never happen again, in light of it being improvised with no prior meeting of the musicians beforehand.

this is only a small facet of experimental music in milwaukee at the moment. another great contributor to the scene for the past several years has been a series called melt, that showcases electronic musicians in a performance setting, curated by my friend the demix.  he’s done a brilliant job advocating and getting support for the actual performance of original electronic music, and not just djs stuck in a booth in the corner of a club somewhere – which is unfortunately what often gets equated with “electronic music” for some people.  melt has been amazing in giving an outlet for many experimental musicians who would otherwise be confined to their studio spaces.

i could talk for hours about more goings on, but i guess the bottom line is that there’s a strong and healthy community of new music happening in milwaukee; you just have to be willing to seek it out.

wisconsin is the rightful beer and cheese capital of the country, and milwaukee especially embodies that stereotype.  what beer and cheese combination do you think would pair best with a fault?

ha!  i haven’t really thought about an edible/drinkable comparison to the record, so i guess i’d go with personal preference of dark beers.  i’ve heard reviews of my music as being dark and heavy, so a porter, stout or black ale seems to make sense.  my girlfriend really enjoys edam cheese, and she enjoys my musical output as well, so there’s that – dark beer and wisconsin edam.

do you have any immediate plans for adoptahighway, in terms of touring, new music, or both?

i don’t have anything necessarily planned outside of a show coming up in milwaukee at the end of march as adoptahighway.  maybe once the snow melts and there’s sun again i will try to string together some shows and hit the road.  i’m looking forward to getting into new music now that a fault has finally been released.  i invested so much time and emotional energy into this record, i felt that i couldn’t move on until it was released and out into the world.  i get very much involved in the concept and expression i’m trying to reach each time i write, so a fault really latched its teeth into me.  it was like exorcising a demon, really, and now that that’s off of me, it’s time to let the next one in.

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the show clark refers to is a stacked bill at cactus club in milwaukee on march 27th, part of the relaunch of melt; if you’re in the area, strongly consider attending.  in the meantime, you can stream and download a fault through the bandcamp link provided below.

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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

good night & good morning – narrowing type

“heavy rotation” is a new monthly long-form piece designed to infuse dimestore saints with more intellectual writing.  while much of the content on this website is dedicated towards brand new and impending releases, music from previous years still carries a lot of merit.  each installment of this segment will examine an album that has been listened to frequently over the past month.  i’ll try my best not to ramble.

it’s kind of hard to ignore a supreme offering of ambient-infused post-rock these days if, like me, you live in a climate where said artist’s melancholy and pensive timbres perfectly complement bleak forecasts that are frequent in the early months of the year.  ironically, i first dug into good night & good morning’s narrowing type in the middle of last summer; the hazy reverb and the slow vibrato pulse of the vibraphone was incredibly soothing during the excruciating heat, and the album was best experienced late at night with the windows open, letting in whatever breeze there was.  even before the temperatures plunged into the subzero abyss, i knew that narrowing type was a dual-edged sword: an emotive album that was highly pertinent at any time of the year.

good night & good morning started out as a duo nearly a decade ago, with champaign/urbana residents ryan brewer and pat elifritz creating a lo-fi musical and visual aesthetic.  after a couple eps, the two decided to enlist milwaukee native sahan jayasuriya to play drums on narrowing type, the band’s first and last album.  my colleague at heartbreaking bravery summed up the essence of this record quite concisely in his 2012 review for popmatters, honing in on key influences and the glorious apex of the album that is “median i” and “median ii.”  after seeing narrowing type pop up on quite a few year-end best-of lists in 2012, i decided to seek it out myself and confirmed what everyone else had already learned: good night & good morning had created a true masterpiece capable of leaving a strong lasting impression on virtually any listener.

it’s a shame the band came to an end, but the three members should take solace in the fact that they created something so monumental.  narrowing type kicks off with “jill,” a brief introduction that molds passive static with a hesitant melodic figure.  piano drives most of the song, with hints of guitar fading in and out along with sparse, percussive interjections.  this foreshadows “philadelphia,” immediately defined by jayasuriya’s understated but firm 6/8 feel on the drums.  brewer’s voice enters relatively uninformed by the triple meter, instead elongating many of his syllables and blending their delivery with his arpeggiations on guitar.  everything is slow and hazy and full of nostalgia; this only becomes more evident as the song progresses and more instruments are added in, most notably the vibraphone counter-melody and the sparse string arrangement towards the end of the song.

arguably, the most quintessential good night & good morning track is “key studies,” but that opinion comes with the concession that a convincing argument could be made about any of the tracks on narrowing type.  personally, the more commanding guitar melody and vibraphone interplay make this song extremely appealing, and the subtle percussion provides a sturdy foundation for brewer’s ethereal vocals, which loop the dreamy phrase “i’ll turn up in boston” for most of the song.  after firmly establishing their presence, good night & good morning embark on a twelve-minute quest towards the climax of the album with “median i” and “median ii.”  the first installment begins incredibly subdued, with vibraphone swells that eventually crescendo into a mountain of guitar feedback, supplemented by cymbals and additional white noise.  this bleeds seamlessly into the second part, which marks the return of brewer’s voice and guitar lines.  jayasuriya’s drums enter around the two-minute mark in a similar fashion to his work on “philadelphia,” but his purpose is to give the song forward momentum that culminates in the grand wall of distorted feedback supporting an insistent vibraphone melody.

after such a taxing endeavor, the band takes the final fifteen minutes of narrowing type to cool off.  “japanese thread” contains a stagnant, pulsating guitar arpeggiation that rarely deviates from its initial declamation, regardless of the amount of feedback it has to combat, and “abroad & neutral” is one of those rare moments of delicate beauty that has the capacity to completely swallow up an audience for the entirety of its ten-minute duration.  even though narrowing type is only seven tracks and forty-two minutes long, the album still contains a substantial amount of imagery and landscape to unpackage.

oftentimes, ambient music emits a decidedly desolate tone, and it’s often evident that the artists are intentionally trying to evoke that state of mind.  while listening to narrowing type in all of the correct hypothetical circumstances could inevitably lead to a depressed state, i personally take away quite a bit of warmth from this record.  guitar arpeggios are like a second language to me, and there’s something about the timbre of the vibraphone that makes me feel safe, like i’m enveloped in a cocoon of chimes.  my first in-depth experience with good night & good morning was during the hottest months of summer, when the haze in the sky matched the haze on the record.  listening to narrowing type alone on long walks in the brutal wisconsin cold is a different experience in some regards, but that association with warmth always makes me a bit more content.