Naturalismo: Last May, two friends and I drove from Boston to see Espers perform at the Hockhocking Folk Festival in Nelsonville, Ohio. It was also quite a treat to see Meg playing traditional folk songs like Barbara Allen around the campfire with some of the local musicians. Despite the drunk guy that kept shouting at Chris, how did it feel playing a show like Hockhocking where your contemporary take on folk music stood out from the more traditional artists?
Greg Weeks: It felt cold. Really friggin’ cold. Aside from that it was hard to say, being that after Guy Clarke cleared out much of the old school folk audience went with him. As such reactions from the core Hockhocking audience were a bit hard to gauge. It felt like home to us though, even if we don’t have the words “Chocolate Covered” in our name.
N: In general have you noticed fans of that more traditional sound enjoying your music?
GW: We have noticed that being the case. We go over quite well at folkier events. I think people are excited to see an interest in tradition wed with more modern innovation. Not to mention that most of the older eschelon folk fans came of age when experimentation and psychedelia were common place within all music, including folk.
Chris Smith: It always feels good to play our music for anybody keen to listen. There are some really hardliners in terms of accepting what is and isn’t “folk” music and just dismissing the stuff that falls outside their version of an established parameter. You can go the route of justifying your connection to a folk tradition, you can say “WE don’t think that of ourselves, THEY do…” or you can just show up and do your thing as pro as possible and attempt to enjoy yourself, entertain and connect. Hockhocking was terrific in that the fans and listeners there were openminded as can be and wanted to dig new or new-to-them sounds. The whole thing went down like a family reunion with a family you never met. Meg and I toted along about 6 of our dear friends and set up camp with them. We immediately hit it off with Tim Peacock, Junebug and the Nelsonville-area gang associated with the fest – a real first class group of musicians and enthusiasts. Snoc was there being Snoc, keeping us all warm with his vibe and know-how. The fire never went out. Meeting Jerry from Black Swans and talking endlessly about Larry Jon Wilson, Tony Joe White, Eric Quincy Tate and our addiction to the southern souled-swamped three-namers (also to Iris DeMent…) and realizing the right-on dude dressed like one of Sun Ra’s soldiers who sold you a stack of “how did I find these in rural Ohio?!?!?” records was none other than record legend Paul Tescher. These things all added up to a unique experience and very different from other festivals we have played. I feel like we sank in organically. I could go on and on, Guy Clark’s entire arrival vibe was so intense…Ok I’ll stop. But yes, the fans of the “trad” music at that fest were very receptive to our sounds. It happens a lot, more often than I usually expect it to.
N: I recently asked this same question to Alela Diane, but I am very curious to hear your take on it as well. Espers seem to be a band that is heavily influenced by traditional British Isles folk but with the influence of psychedelic rock and distinctly modern flourishes. In the digital age, it is becoming harder and harder to define what “folk music” is. Historically, a culture’s distinct folk styles were borne out of their isolation from outside influences – typically anonymous music that was an expression of the life of the people in a community. Today, it is impossible not be exposed to other styles. Pete Seeger once said that he “Wanted to turn back the clock to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” Can “folk music” survive technology, or does technology perpetuate it?
GW: Most younger music fans and lazy journalists assign the term folk to anything acoustic-guitar based. Or acoustic and rootsy in sound in general. That’s one of the issues. Lack of intelligent definition of a genre. The traditions of folk live on in communities of musicians and enthusiasts that are as small and isolated from influence as the original villages that nurtured what was “the music of the people.” But trad folk is identified not only by region. Even regional folk traditions owe a debt to the countries that spawned the original ideas that people took with them when they emigrated. What altered the original music was the exposure to new influences. Its not so different from today. We are taking traditional music and altering it accoarding to the world around us, much as villagers altered their hand me down songs based on their new surroundings and experiences. Those small villages of Seegers’ exist, only more in the mind now than in physical reality.
N: Philadelphia has risen to prominence in the past few years as a hotspot for exciting new music, both in folk and avant-garde genres. Is there anything special about the city’s cultural climate that has fostered this proliferation?
GW: The biggest part of it is the affordability of the city. It isn’t entirely gentrified, so there are pockets that allow for artists to live and work without the difficulties presented by most large cities. Second tier to that would be the supportive community. People here are more than willing to lend a hand or support each other, perhaps not in attendance, but in more psychological and spiritual ways.
N: The Valerie Project came about as a score to the Czech classic “Valerie a týden divu.” Clearly, this is an instance of one medium influencing another. I know, for me, a visual component to music is often very helpful in understanding the “tone,” “mood,” or “setting” that the musician intended for his or her music. To what degree do you feel a musician’s “image” – both the manner in which they carry themselves and the simulacra which they use to brand themselves – alter the listener’s perception of the music itself?
GW: I’ve always felt that music has the upper hand in defining the emotional meaning of an image and not the other way around. With Valerie it was always a question of altering the emotional content of the image through composition rather than questioning how the musical meaning was conveyed in relation to the filmmaker’s image and its attendant content.
N: What was the inspiration for starting the Language of Stone label, and what common grounds – sonically, lyrically, or otherwise – do LoS artists share? What do you look for in new artists?
GW: I had gotten tired of trying to convince labels to put out amazing yet ignored up and comers, so I kept chipping away until I found someone willing to work alongside me in creating a label. The common ground is my tatse, obviously, but if anything links the music/personalities it would be their own ideologies, since these inform who they are as people and musicians.
N: In a recent piece on NPR, [Chris] said Michael Hurley “was almost like my Bob Dylan, like our Bob Dylan of my friends. Where he was so American to a point where it was accurate, but it wasn’t based on a decade or an era.” What do you feel defines the “American spirit,” and how does Hurley’s music compliment that?
CS: I can’t define that spirit personally, though I feel like i experience it sensually/philosophically in ways I’m currently at a loss for words or ideas to do justice. It’s a matter of evockation, something spoken next to, in proximity and alongside with, not “about” with bookends. I feel it through dreamers, pros, crack-pots and the likes. The border-crossing feeling, both in geographic terms of country/state and in emotional terms of entering and exiting so many lives in our crowded country, how you attach and make it real and say your piece to the people. Lost among strangers and feeling cool about it, making it funny, precise and not quite lost anymore but a trail on a map to get there with you. Snoc is the master of this. I feel the same when I listen to Terry Allen. I guess I feel it a lot, though Snoc speaks to me very personally.
GW: America is one thing, but collectively likes to idealise that it is another. Hurley represesents the spirit that Americans like to think defines their country. He is the last old school itinerrant songwriter. He is the last truly free musical soul from the early years of popular music. This is what makes him a touchstone for folks like us. The lack of pretense, of image or facade. He is true to himself and presents himself as such to his audiences. I don’t think his modern day equivalents are able to have so pure an identity.
N: The band covered Hurley’s classic Blue Mountain on The Weed Tree, and it has been reported that [Greg] has said that the band is recording an album with Hurley. Are these rumors true? If so, how has it been working with Hurley? If not, what is the status of your next album?
GW: We started recording some tunes way back when, but Hurley was sick and the stuff didn’t really come alive. It would be nice to address the project again. We’re about to start recording on our next record.
N: How has Espers’ current “vision” or “style” changed since its first incarnation? Are there any stylistic avenues that you might be exploring in future releases?
GW: We started as a trio, so there are some clear alterations in style. We try not to plan our trips. None of us are complacent to rest on tried and true compositional styles so we leave it to our collective subconcious to guide us through new and exciting sonic environs. That and we do what our dog Sam tells us.
CS: Greg and I have been feeling the Aloha from Hawaii vibe from Elvis’ sick band and personality of that time. Who knows?
[download] “Cruel Storm” from II
“Grandmother’s Theme (Live)” from The Valerie Project