AMN Interviews: Damon Waitkus (Jack ‘O The Clock)

DSC_1290We recently sent a few questions to Damon Waitkus of the critically-acclaimed San Francisco area band Jack ‘O The Clock. He was kind enough to reply at length. Previously, we reviewed their most recent release, All My Friends.

The group is playing on on 11/8/13 at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, CA, with Inner Ear Brigade and Chuck Johnson.

Your music has been described using references to Henry Cow, Gentle Giant, Sufjan Stevens, Frank Zappa and others. Are those individuals and groups your actual influences as well? What other influences do you have?

I was into first-generation progressive rock as a teenager and those guys were in there for sure, but I also loved melodic, lyric-driven music like Paul Simon and (a bit later) Leonard Cohen, also The Smiths, David Bowie, and early R.E.M., among a whole lot of others. In my early 20s I discovered Henry Cow and Laurie Anderson, who were gateways to Modernism and contemporary experimentalism. Then I found Charles Ives, Morton Feldman and Gyorgy Ligeti, became “serious” about composition and foreswore songwriting as a guilty habit every two weeks or so. Scott Walker and David Sylvian helped me find my way back a few years ago. Around this time Nicci Reisnour, who was also studying composition at Mills, said the only sort of rock or pop music she thought would be worth making might sound something like Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan album, I thought that was good enough for me and we founded Jack O’ The Clock.

Kind of a caricature of 20-odd years of listening, but it does the job. I’m speaking only for myself here. No one else in the band except maybe Jason had any sort of prog rock listening background, and everyone has other influences, including some folk across the board. To paint the others’ backgrounds with an even broader brush, Jason’s coming from metal and improv, Jordan from jazz and improv, Emily and Kate from the classical and new music performance world. Kate’s trained as a conductor as well as a bassoonist.

The avant/progressive rock community has been very supportive so far and that has probably one reason that pedigree turns up. And of course Fred Frith has had a huge influence on the band as a musician and mentor, so you often see us described as a RIO band even though we have little in common with that very specific sound, which is also true of a lot of Fred’s music for that matter. If it was the singer-songwriter community that responded to us, I think you’d see a different list of reference points.

When I talk about influences I sometimes feel that I’m drawing an arbitrary line between music and other art, and ignoring huge tributaries of aesthetic information. Kafka and Beckett are impossible to ignore. Also Chekhov, Grace Paley, J.M. Coetzee, and Raymond Carver. And films by Charlie Kaufman, Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog, Atom Egoyan, Coen Brothers, Stan Brackhage, Jan Svankmajer, Harmony Korine. There’s a spiritual heft to much of this stuff that’s hard to find in popular music.

Compositionally, are Jack ‘O The Clock’s tracks the work of one or two main writers, or are they group efforts?

I’ve done most of the writing so far, with Jason contributing some music to the second two albums. The simpler songs we put together in the usual singer-songwriterly way: by ear, with my guitar or hammer dulcimer providing the chords and backbone, the others working out their own parts, sometimes with a notated head or detail-idea also coming from me. More involved pieces like First Of The Year I often bring to the group unfinished–there won’t be a full score, but there will be some fully notated passages, some passages where I furnish chord changes, and others which we work out together by ear, and all of this will be subject to change as we rehearse and see what works. Seeing how my ideas are transformed by other musicians is one of my favorite things in the world, and it’s distinctly different with an open-minded band than it is with “composed” music in that the band takes ownership, feels free to improvise in places, vetoes certain ideas, changes certain harmonies: you don’t go back and rewrite endlessly as the composer, the music is just given over to the band at whatever stage it emerges and evolves because everyone is free to tweak what they want without breaking protocol. It does mean you have slips of paper half x-ed out all over the place and no score, but who cares about that, we’re usually trying to get it to memory anyway.

Lately though our composing has been more truly group-oriented, with Jason and Jordan beginning to bring notated music and initiating ideas. Emily has also provided harmonic material for a couple songs we’re just beginning to perform, and we’ve composed-out ideas based on recorded improvisations. Often the lyrics will make certain demands of the basic structure, and those are still coming from me, though the music can put pressure on the lyrics as well. This material isn’t recorded yet, but is some of the most comfortable-sitting, fun to play, organic music we’ve come up with and I think that comes across live. Our live sound engineer, Sarah Howe, has also been getting more involved in the new pieces, recording and triggering samples that become integral parts of the songs, and is additionally working on a video for The Pilot.

I’ve been talking about the live band. I have a somewhat heavier hand in the recordings because there are always several songs on each album that are composed for the studio, like Old Friend In A Hole and Blue Tail Fly, where I take advantage of certain instruments and effects in ways that would be impractical live. The rest of the band has an enormous influence on these too, but they contribute a bit more blindly, adding parts as the pieces are recorded without hearing the as-yet-unrealized sections of them, and I see them through myself.

For the most part, All My Friends sounds highly composed. Do you improvise as well, either in the studio or live?

Yes to both, though you’re right that it’s not the way most of the music is made.

Well, I feel like free improvisation and improvisation within a song are two different questions. Jason and Jordan are brilliant free improvisers and play out regularly in that capacity with other musicians. Jack O’ The Clock has done a little of this, usually circumscribed pretty strictly by song or set, in the tune Analemma for example. I have been slow to admit to myself that different standards of pacing apply to songs than apply to free improvisation and instrumental art music, but for some reason when you introduce words and melodies, it’s very difficult to then drone convincingly for twenty minutes. As I’ve moved away from writing instrumental music (and lain off the Feldman a little bit), I’ve found myself tightening up the songs, and this probably accounts for an increase in brevity and density since Rare Weather. I find myself bringing different pacing standards to bear depending on what sort of music I’m listening to, and a nicely-paced free improvisation can be sublime, but I try to keep my songs as fat-free as possible. Half of them still can’t fit through the door.

As for improvisation within a song with a predetermined structure, that happens all the time, both on recordings and live. Usually not by me.

The lyrics to All My Friends are evocative, touching, and a bit creepy at times. Aside from perhaps friendship, are there any major themes therein?

Thanks for asking about the lyrics: they are half of the experience as far as I’m concerned, but the music gets most of the attention, which may be my own fault to some extent for insisting on such dense arrangements.

I think I’m coming to the end of a long period of writing preoccupied with alienation, isolation, decay, and the end of life. Over the past decade or two I’ve watched a striking number of people from my parents’ mostly Catholic, working-class social and familial circle succumb to alcoholism and mental illness in their 50s and 60s, and it has thwarted a lot of my expectations about the predictability of the arc of life. It’s hard for me to extricate the increasing dominance of fear I observed in my parents, which led to self-isolation and self-destructive behaviors, from their arguably self-defeating rightward political shift, all of which seemed to precipitate early decay. In the background were their stolid, often difficult, strong-willed immigrant and first-generation parents, who worked hard, were engaged in politics and community, and lived long, more or less healthy lives. I got to know my grandparents’ growing up, and the difference between the two generations has become increasingly apparent to me as I’ve gotten older. Songs like All My Friends Are Dead and I Watch The Planes canalize voices from that older generation, whereas Shrinking and Fire At Noon are more focused on the middle generation. There are a lot of mysteries there, and with a lot of my lyrics for the first three albums and the upcoming one, I’m trying to put a wedge into those cracks, to attempt to better understand, but also to concretize those uncanny feelings in hopes that others can experience them. Most of my impressions are of an emotional and spiritual nature, so it is usually more important to try to create an experience than to say, “see, this is what I think is going on here, here’s the cause and here’s the effect…” I hope to keep the narratives from being moralistic or polemical. Many of the lyrics are dreamlike because they actually do derive from big dreams or waking fantasies that incorporate unconscious elements. The album covers are cut from the same cloth, selected from boxes in attics and thrift stores because they seem so scintillate with similar unanswerable questions about the past.

All My Friends feels sunnier to me than much of the earlier work, including the bulk of the new album we’re working on (which includes a lot of older writing from this same period), maybe because it’s beginning to turn towards the present a bit more, introducing lateral friendships even as those darker, vertical obsessions persist. I like a little bit of a gothic patina from time to time but I’m wary of fetishizing the underbelly of life. Even What To Do In Our Neighborhood and Old Friend In A Hole, which deal with depression and suicide, include some sort of apotheosis, though it’s an uneasy one.

Listening to your three releases in order, a progression from a more experimental-folk approach to a more avant-rock approach can be heard. Do you see the band continuing along this path, or taking a left turn or two?

Stacks of steel strings and vocal harmonies are two sounds I’ve never been able to get enough of, I don’t imagine they’re going to disappear completely from anything Jack O’ The Clock produces, but hand in hand with the band becoming itself as a band and collaborating more readily is a desire to let the live band sound take center stage a bit more. Also, there are aspects of the “folk” that came out of left field as far as I’m concerned, organically enough because I don’t remember deliberately trying on any hats, but which I’m not as enamored of as I apparently was, fast-pickin’ banjo tunes for example. I’m not a big fan of camp or of museum-piece music, and some “folk” gets under my skin for being too precious or sanctimonious. I like the sounds and respect the virtuosity of serious players, but reverence is boring.

Your releases have received quite a bit of acclaim. How does that make you feel?

Good! It’s also good practice for seeing the ego for what it is, because you never get exactly what you want, whatever that is. But I’ll take it, I’m glad someone’s listening.

Any plans for the band to play somewhere other than the west coast?

A trip to the UK or mainland Europe would be fabulous, not to mention the East Coast, but I can’t say anything definite yet. It’s all logistics and money. We’re a bunch of professional musicians and teachers and everything we do is self-funded on a shoestring budget, no label.

When can we expect to hear new material from Jack ‘O The Clock?

Something will have to have gone seriously wrong if we don’t have a new album in 2014, maybe relatively early. I was compiling an EP’s worth of tunes that were either too bizarre for one of the earlier albums or couldn’t find a comfortable place in the sequence of songs–they get mad at me when I call them outtakes–but the set kept feeling incomplete. Maybe it was because there was no guitar or dulcimer on any of it and I couldn’t take it. So we’ve been working on recording a couple more songs from our live sets to add to it as well as a few new in-studio productions and making a full-length out of it, currently called Night Loops. They’re all nocturnes, pretty haunted.

What do you do when you’re not composing, practicing or playing?

Emily and I have a 17-month-old daughter whose development has been indescribable to watch. We spend a lot of time together, and I’m sure she has had a hand in bringing about a shift away from past-orientation and deathmongering. I also teach music, do some volunteering in the mental health field, try to practice yoga, and go poking around in the woods whenever possible.

Aside from anyone mentioned earlier, what have you been listening to lately?

The new album by ex-Books’ Nick Zammuto is beautiful and stunningly produced. Dirty Projectors do things live that others struggle to fake in the studio, and their latest album has some of the best melodies I’ve ever heard on it–that have the ghost of familiarity about them while being far too idiosyncratic to sound cliched. It’s so rare in rock to hear sunny, ebullient music with so much punch to it as those two artists, and I find them both really open-hearted, along with Sufjan Stevens who we’ve already mentioned.

I think Joanna Newsom is a tremendous songwriter, maybe the best I’ve heard of our generation, and is only getting better.

I also listen to a lot of solo guitar: John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Bill Frisell, Tom Lattanand, Chuck Johnson.

Others I return to periodically: Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure, Randy Newman, Japanese Gagaku, Eric Dolphy and a host of other 60s Blue Note recordings, Fairlight-era Kate Bush, Gil Scott-Heron, Bach, Bulgarian Women’s Choir, Ghazal, Art Elliot, The Band, Chimney Choir, The Cardiacs, late Coltrane, Malcolm Dalglish, Cassandra Wilson, Anthony Braxton, Elvis Costello…

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