Q&A: Pillars & Tongues

Pillars & Tongues: The Pass and CrossingsPillars & Tongues: The Pass and Crossings (Endless Nest, 6/28/11)

Pillars & Tongues: “The Making Graceful”

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Incorporating clusters of percussion, classical accompaniment, and swelling drones, Chicago-born trio Pillars & Tongues generate a unique conglomerate of folk, chamber, and gothic musical styles. Baritone vocalist Mark Trecka, violinist Beth Remis, and bassist Evan Hydzik explore melodic frontiers, reshaping Pillars & Tongues’ origins of the former soul-folk band Static Films into a project of dynamic and organic experimentation.

The past several years of extensive touring have done well to feed Pillars & Tongues’ musical curiosity. With the release of its third full-length album, The Pass & Crossings, the group continues to produce myriad tonal colors and textures.  ALARM caught up with Trecka to discuss the band’s years-long touring stretch, composing, recording, and the new record.

With 300 performances in the past three years, Pillars & Tongues has been described as a “transient force” and “in near-constant motion.”  Do you ever get weary of continuously being on the road?

Of course we get weary of continuously being on the road, but anybody can get weary of anything.  I personally haven’t kept a residence in the past two years, but when I last did so, I got weary of that from time to time and wanted to be in motion.  I’m not sure that I can say for certain which state, at its weariest, is more wearisome, but stopping isn’t really an option for me at the moment.  There are those among us who are pretty certain that the road is the most wearying state of being and so tend to resist it, I think.  And some of us find home and road equally wearying; that is to say, whatever way we go, we all end up in the same place.  And like Beth says about touring, it’s cheaper than just driving around.

Having performed at a variety of unconventional venues churches, galleries, basements, bookstores how do those performances differ from those at a more traditional concert venue?

Those unconventional performance situations differ from conventional ones in as many ways as there are unconventional performance situations.  There is no way to talk about this in blanket terms, because there are whole bewildering universes of experimental methods out there.  It is a beautiful and curious thing, for sure, to travel the world and find oneself performing in such varieties of situations, but it can also be, in large part, a frustrating enterprise.  Our sound engineer, Mike Usrey, likes to make a differentiation between DIY and DDIY (don’t do it yourself).  I love unconventional performance situations, but we can’t do our job properly if the situation is a total disaster and the people supposedly doing are not actually doing.

We have often played at a space in Baltimore called 2640, which is a former Catholic church well, formerly a Catholic church in function, but still a Catholic church in structure and it is a remarkable place for music, as you can probably imagine.  I always look forward to playing this space.  But the truth is, beyond that sort of really remarkable venue and those that are executed properly, we are not gunning to be poster children for unorthodox concert scenarios.  In many European countries where there is government funding for the arts, those spaces tend to be interesting amalgamations of conventional and unconventional, which, again, is both good and bad you know, like, punk squats with stage lights and fog machines.

How many of your performances and how much of your albums are improvised?  Why is improvisation a frequently used technique for Pillars & Tongues?

I can’t really say.  We don’t make improvised music as a category, but I suppose there is far more improvisation in what we do than in a lot of performances that you might witness on any given day.  The jams are sort of feral.  Well, free range, anyway.  As for why that is, I mean, everything is improvised to some extent.  Save for contractual agreements, it’s rare that between two or more human beings, definitive parameters are established in terms of what’s going to happen.  And even when they are, it’s pretty dubious.  Perhaps that’s why.  Perhaps it has something to do with the hazy mess of bewildering scenarios and confused, uncomfortable positions in which we often find ourselves.

What do you find beneficial about recording material live versus recording in a studio setting?

We have released a grip of material that was recorded mainly live, though often edited or added to after the initial tracking.  But the new record was executed via a “studio” vibe.  We definitely don’t champion one over the other.  Tracking live has been a pretty organic and reasonable option for us because we have always played, jammed, practiced together in a room together.  I mean, it’s never been a recording project more than a band, in the sense that some bands are born at the four-track or whatever.  We fall in love with rooms and the way that sounds blend in certain spaces, but we don’t exclusively record live, not by any means.

What is your procedure for composing and writing songs?  Does your first inspiration for beginning a song take the form of an instrumental melody or a set of lyrics?

That too varies depending on the song and the season.  Sometimes, it’s a very traditional exercise: I might write a song and bring it, as an infant, to my cohorts, and together we play the song until it grows and eventually starts to notice hair in strange places and begins to have urges it doesn’t understand.  Next thing you know, the song is making out with other songs, and they’re touching each other in the shadows. Sometimes it’s all nasty thrills, and sometimes it’s tender in morning light, but no matter what, it’s beautiful and terrible and wholly unstoppable in the end.

Considering that The Pass and Crossings was recorded in only two days, were you, Beth, and Evan more confident with your goals and aspirations for this album as opposed to the others?

We spent a lot more than two days on this record.  I don’t know who started that rumor.  If it was me, I apologize.  It may have been me.  I have a great memory most of the time, but at other times it fails me entirely.  If I willfully started that rumor, I apologize for that too.  And as long as I am apologizing for things, I may as well go ahead and apologize for any other difficulties I may have caused in terms of the transference of information — and I don’t just mean in terms of interviews.  Among the myriad curious positions I have found myself in, speaking on my own behalf has to be one of the most bewildering.  We speak for ourselves, and the words we say stand for ideas that we allegedly have, but we ourselves stand for what?

In any case, there was no greater confidence in goals or aspirations on this record than in the past. I would say that we either know what we are doing or are fully aware that we don’t know what we are doing. You know that Robert Wyatt song, “Free Will and Testament”?  There’s a line that goes: “How can I say what I would be if I were not me? / I can only guess me.”

How was The Pass and Crossings supplemented by the contributions from fellow Chicago band This is Cinema?

We made the record at their house, which is Theo Karon’s studio, Hotel Earth. He engineered the recordings along with Usrey, and Ben Babbitt played a bit on the recordings.  All around, those dudes fully contributed in spirit.  And well beyond contribution, Ben has joined Pillars & Tongues in a major way. Imagine if Shuggie Otis had actually accepted The Rolling Stones’ invitation.  It’s nearly impossible to imagine that The Stones could have been sexier.  It boggles the mind.  For sure, one can’t go around living one’s life thinking about what might have been, but my god, how things would be different.  One has to imagine that if Shuggie Otis had accepted, and joined The Stones, people would actually be having sex differently.

As your third full-length album, how does The Pass and Crossings further define Pillars & Tongues?

If you’ve ever read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there’s that one passage where Frankenstein sees the Creation cruising across the tundra at inhuman speeds.  Maybe he’s cruising up a mountain; I don’t really remember.  But it’s a truly terrifying moment in the narrative.  I think he cruises across tundra and then up a mountain.  In any case, it’s more than terrifying. It’s also this really incredibly complex moment because, for Frankenstein, though he’s completely shaken through and steeped in regret for having “played God,” for having birthed into the world this motherless, experimental monster, he must feel kind of amazed with what he’s done.  I mean — and again, I can’t recall the precise wording in which the Creation is described in its movement — but it’s all at once graceful and revolting.

The point is that I wonder what it actually means for someone’s creation to define her or him. Hard to say.  If you mean in terms of how I view Pillars & Tongues in light of the new record, I can’t really tell you that, because it’s kind of private and undeveloped, and would be basically useless information for you to have.  If you mean in terms of the way that the rest of the world feels about the new record, obviously, I also can’t really answer that. I just hope I don’t have to chase it to Antarctica to hunt it down.  Actually, that would be fine with me.

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