I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
A banjo-playing cab driver and slipping the rug out from under the listener.
For twenty years, Jason Lescalleet has been making electro-acoustic sound work, using all manner of source material to engage listeners in both site and narrative by providing a rich and physical sense of place. In addition to recently completing a trilogy of collaborations with the artist, composer, and performer Graham Lambkin, Lescalleet has been touring his project Trophy Tape, in which each of the thirteen pieces from his 2012 solo release, Songs About Nothing, is paired with videos made by a different artist.
Trophy Tape was presented at Anthology Film Archives in April and will be presented in July as part of Breathing Artifacts in Chattanooga.
Ben Hall Can you talk a little bit about how Trophy Tape came about—how the collaborations developed?
Jason Lescalleet It’s still a work in progress, actually. The goal of it, once I got the thirteen pieces together, was to screen it in each of the thirteen hometowns of the thirteen artists. I accomplished most of that. There are a few artists that are from far away; that has made it a little bit of a challenge, so I still need to show Trophy Tape in Minneapolis, Finland, and New Zealand. But otherwise, I’m pretty well covered in getting it screened in all the different cities.
BH Have you been doing Q&A’s at each show?
JL Not at all of them, but most of them.
BH How do you feel about that? It’s very different from being a performer.
JL I like it a lot. It’s been the most rewarding part of the experience, actually. To go back to your first question quickly: this project started accidentally and organically. Aaron Dilloway made a video for me just as a fun thing to do, from one friend to another. He made a video based on the first track from the CD, “The Beauty of Independent Music,” and I kind of used it as a promotional tool and put it on YouTube. We used it to announce concerts and the sale of the CD and stuff like that. Then I noticed that people had started to put videos on YouTube from my album—all they would do was put a picture of the record cover on the video, rip one of the tracks, and put that on YouTube. I decided that if people wanted to have my videos on YouTube, they should be more legit, so I started talking to artists I knew who made video and asked them if they were interested in doing it. And it wasn’t even with the idea of making a complete project at first; it was just select videos from select artists. But the more I did it, and the more it continued to grow, it just got better and better and the idea came up that it should be one long-form piece to represent the whole record.
BH Had you done other collaborations outside of music like that before?
JL Well, I have collaborated with other artists outside of music, but in a concert setting—maybe with dancers, or other artists like that. But I had never worked with video before. I experiment with it myself, but it’s nothing I’m ready to put out into the world and say, I’m a video artist. I’m not that comfortable yet with what I’ve done. But I’m working on it; eventually, I’ll get there. In the meantime, I’ve asked for the help of friends and it’s turned out really well.
BH I like to collaborate and I’ve noticed that it’s a weird thing for me though, because the one-to-one relationship of the music, even in the collaborations, of how I feel as a listener, is really physical. And by putting it in the room, it kind of takes me out of the room a little bit more—
JL I’ve found that the only way I can reconcile my feelings with the way this has turned out is to consider it as two separate projects. I agree with you; the listening experience of that CD especially is completely different from what happens when you watch it as a video. I don’t want to say I prefer one to the other, because they’re different. That’s also why I named it Trophy Tape, instead of Videos for Songs About Nothing. The original title was actually going to be Videos about Nothing.
BH (laughter) When I listen to Annihilate This Week, the collaboration you did with Joe Colley, it’s so directed toward a domestic world. It’s weird, now that Robert Ashley has passed, to think about what the TV means and what the viewing experience means and what the room means. But, I think on that record the listener hears you walking into one room, and then a second room—and then all of a sudden, it’s on. Rather than thinking about it being recorded directly from the board or cabinet, you really get the sense that, Oh, I’m in this room with these two dudes. I think, especially with “The Pilgrim,” that you really feel that kind of—I hate to use this word, but primacy. It’s super primal. I feel like you’re sliding the rug out from underneath me a little bit.
JL That was the goal, so I’m glad it worked. It’s always been my goal when using field recordings to use them to either bring the listener in—to where I am—or to take them somewhere that they’re not.
BH I think I’m saying that you’re doing the reverse for me now by providing the visual component, in that I’m always so focused on—I really treat these things as very long loops, like a record, because of the nature of the iPod or the CD—the recording just plays it over and over again, and doesn’t really have a beginning point. But at that moment when I’m in the car with you and Lambkin and the taxi driver, and he’s talking about, “I wouldn’t bring my fucking banjo,” it’s—
JL Right. That’s one of my favorite sections of that record, too.
BH It’s a weird kind of slippage for me because this has always been very much mind-to-mind, one-to-one, and now there’s this visual aspect whereas before I was so focused on the sound, especially when I listen to it on headphones. It’s just you and me, one-to-one, and then all of sudden there’s this visual component—it’s like a weird interloper. That kind of pulls me out of the moment in a really interesting way. You’ve spent all these years pulling the listener into the room—using the room as an instrument. And how do you replicate that on recording? That’s always been really successful. So it’s a weird, transgressive move to say, I’m going to make videos, these collaborations which are going to attempt to displace that intimacy.
JL That’s exactly why I said that Trophy Tape was a different project altogether than what it was when I made it a record. I actually have gone through different levels of comfort with it, too. I questioned releasing it for a while. I wasn’t sure if I should do that. I liked the randomness of having them just appear as videos on YouTube, but I think the main reason I decided to formally compile them and to release it as a video document was to give credit to the artists who made great videos from my tracks.
BH I guess it’s that friendship thing again.
JL That’s exactly why I wanted to show it in each of their hometowns. I really felt like there was a relationship that grew while working with these people. I was already close with some of them and not as close with others, so it was nice to have this experience together.
BH You’ve said before that you were surprised at how easy your early collaboration with Nmperign was. I’m sure it’s not so easy all the time, but it seems like all of the collaborations are really fruitful. But then you have this solo career—it’s a weird thing, again, to have this kind of intimacy and then displace it by having a solo career, which is strictly one-to-one.
JL That’s for sure. My solo work is definitely much more isolationist. To expand on what you were saying about my relationship with Nmperign: that was a real eye-opener for me. The ease with which we collaborated, and how it did work so naturally, I didn’t know how special that was—in Nmperign especially, but with Graham, too. I have to work harder with Graham than with Nmperign, but it’s also more challenging work. With Nmperign, it’s based on improvisation initially, and then later we go back and fix things—we edit and sometimes change things around in post-production. But with Graham, we’re building things from scratch compositionally. That’s hard work, but he and I are very fruitful working together. We see eye-to-eye on everything.
BH With Graham, I’m wondering how it started. Initially you tried to trade tapes through the mail?
JL Yeah, we were trading cassettes back and forth and working almost strictly with loops at the time. More than now, that was my main, almost exclusive tool, just using tape loops and tape recorders. Graham had a similar approach, so we were just trading tapes back and forth; it wasn’t really getting anywhere. All we were doing was collecting all these interesting little tape loops, but not really finding good ways to collaborate or put them together. It just sounded meandering—lacking in spontaneity and focus. So I went to his house and spent a weekend there, and being in the same room working together made so much more sense. We almost totally abandoned the idea of loops. We used a few on the record, but we started really branching out into better forms of composition.
BH (laughter) Better is an interesting word. Is that setup-based, or sound-based, or just getting rid of the loops?
JL When I say better, I mean an improvement on the structure. Being together in the same room, we didn’t have to rely on tapes; we were doing a lot of field recording, and I brought all kinds of interesting microphones which we used in his house. That’s when the whole concept of domesticity blossomed.
BH I think it’s on Air Supply where you’ve slowed him down and he says, “Is that the one with the VCR tape?” It’s a really classic moment, because it’s not just exposing process, it’s exposing that attempt to communicate what a lot of us go through when we’re in collaboration.
JL That was fun because we were using VHS tapes to record as well as audio cassette tapes. I like the sound of it— mastering onto the VHS tape.
BH I remember those days where no one could afford a DAT or ADAT so you’d record onto videocassette because it was so much higher quality than anything you had easy access to.
JL That’s why we did it. It was fun to have that nostalgia, using the VHS tape, but it does sound good as well.
BH I feel like in some of the earlier collaborations nostalgia wasn’t such a big deal. Obviously naming something Photographs and having it look like a photo album—it seems that’s coming more into your collaborations. I’m wondering how you talk about that with your collaborator? Obviously, you have The Pilgrim as the kind of pinnacle of intimacy and nostalgia, and also domesticity—where people live, even if it’s in the hospital. How do you get to the point where you’re opening up that much with collaborators?
JL I think that I don’t have to, actually. The Pilgrim was its own thing and it was very specifically related to the event that happened, that caused it, and what I was doing. The trilogy with Graham Lambkin just developed naturally. My personal approach to art was evolving at the same time that Graham and I were evolving as artists together—in that dual capacity. So it’s just more a coincidence of development than me letting someone into what I’m doing. It just so happens that we were both working towards that same area at the same time. I haven’t had other collaborative efforts where that has happened—really, just that trilogy. It is a large body of work, so maybe that’s what’s making you feel like you’ve seen more of it—I look at those three albums as one project. It just took six years to make.
BH (laughter) It’s not so long in the scheme of things.
JL (laughter) Yeah. Six or seven.
BH On Photographs, you guys each travelled to each other’s homes?
JL Yeah. The Breadwinner was recorded at Graham’s house, and all the material on the album was exclusively recorded there, and then I did a lot of post-production in my studio. We did Air Supply at my house. That was when the concept of the trilogy really kicked in. The Breadwinner is just in Graham’s home; but for Air Supply, we went outdoors a lot. There was a lot of recording in and around my home and in my neighborhood—driving around in my car and stuff.
BH Lots of windshield wipers. (laughter)
JL There is some windshield wiper, yeah. With Photographs, we went to each other’s birthplace, where each of us grew up. In Graham’s case, we went to Kent, in Folkstone. Folkstone is the town and Kent is the county, I believe, over in the UK. For my portion, we went to Boylston and Worcester, in Massachusetts. We recorded all around those areas, not just in the homes. That’s why there’s the cab ride.
BH I love that cab ride.
JL (laughter) Yeah. Awesome. And that was such luck, too. There’s a nice clip of Darren Harris calling the cab for us—Darren from the Shadow Ring. It’s nice that we got the Shadow Ring element on the record. (laughter) We get in the cab, and I just had the tape rolling just in case. It could’ve been a dud, a boring ride. But instead we get this interesting cab driver who wants to talk about music and gigs that he played and his banjo and everything. It was really fun.
BH Yeah, he’s a pretty happy guy, too. You do that in Nmperign, too—bring in a little more of the comedy of things. A lot of people from a distance would think that you make serious, “composer-type” music. I see a kind of split between that lineage and Alvin Lucier—which, in its own way, is kind of funny. If you think about him sitting in a room—
JL Yes. I always thought there was humor involved with that piece.
BH Ashley is, I think, really almost Mel Brooks-level comedy, just extremely dark at the same time.
JL That guy was fucking bizarre, wasn’t he?
BH (laughter) There was so much stuff that popped up that I hadn’t listened to in fifteen or twenty years when he passed. Facebook was flooded with, “Oh, have you thought about this?” These long discussions about which Al Green track is playing in “Automatic Writing.”
JL That was such a trip. I think it was Greg Kelley who first introduced me to Ashley. He played The Wolfman for me and I didn’t really get into it that much. It didn’t hit me right, but I understood that he was doing something important. There was a large body of work out there and it was constantly evolving; he was never really doing the same thing twice. As I listened to his music, I kept coming across really strong pieces, and they always had a certain level of discomfort. It was always uncomfortable and challenging in a way. That’s what I liked about his work; I didn’t listen to it for pleasure, like you usually do with music. That doesn’t happen with Robert Ashley. It’s not pleasure-based.
BH Someone had mentioned this to me before: it’s like the too-long Christmas dinner, where people who are too unfamiliar with each other have gotten a little too drunk. They’ve gone through all the pleasantries and they don’t really have much patience left. Even when you see it live, some of the stuff he was playing a couple of years ago, when there was a short renaissance—I saw all the stuff at The Kitchen twice—you just walk out of the theatre feeling so stoned, like you’re on the wrong kind of drugs.
JL I had to ask myself, Why am I listening to this? What’s the purpose of this? And there was always a level of satisfaction. It may not have been pleasure, like I was saying earlier, but it definitely was satisfying to feel like he had accomplished something artistic that was that strong and moving. His work is a big influence on me. I hope that I can create art that has an impact on people the way that his had an impact on me.
BH One of the things I noticed that’s very different about what Ashley does is that it occurs in space and you get that sense of narrative, whereas you’re bringing the space actually into the recording—that’s the Lucier move.
JL Yeah, that’s a good observation. I am quite influenced by sound art. A lot of people don’t like to use that term, but I don’t mind it. I am influenced by the classics, like Lucier’s works, so I am involving more of a sonic experience than what Ashley was doing. Ashley was working on a different level. I’m kind of combining the two, to make sure that it’s an atmospheric experience as much as a dialogue or a mental experience.
BH I only recently started thinking about that, mostly because of the domestic issue: personal versus domestic versus family versus neighborhood. When you and Graham are talking on the record, you realize, as a listener, that you’re a part of the collaboration too, and it’s not some kind of formal exposure of process. It reminds you, This is where we’re at, this is what we’re doing, this is how we’re actually making these things together. When you hear a band, and particularly when you hear noise, you don’t think of that “many hands make light work” approach to art.
JL That’s a good point. In a band, it’s just taken for granted that you know it’s a group of people working together. And in this form of sound art, that isn’t always taken into consideration.
BH It’s not dualistic, but it seems like one of those things where you and Graham both have pretty big musical and artistic personalities, but you’re able to not tamp those down, and rather find the places where they work together.
JL Definitely. There’s a synergy between me and Graham. We definitely don’t lose our individual identities while working together in a duo.
BH Nmperign is also collaboration on paper that seems like it shouldn’t work as well as it does. Part of that seems post-production, especially on Love Me Two Times. There’s so much information in there—it’s like a barrage.
JL You’re right. That is something that we were able to figure out fairly early on—that my role in that collaboration was to let them work together as a unit, and then find my way in and around that sonically. Then, subsequent to that, they find ways to improvise with whatever I’m producing from that exchange.
BH How does that affect what you do with your solo work? And what kind of materials you bring out—not that you reserve them, but—
JL No, I actually do, in a way. I enjoy collaborating with other artists because I find that it helps me grow as an artist—I learn about the craft, and it’s a satisfying social experience as well. But I feel that the work that I produce as a solo artist is what I find to be most vital and important to what I’m trying to say as an artist. The things I do in collaboration are more about learning to be an artist. It’s hard, but I have to do those other things; they’re good to do. They introduce you to more people; they introduce you to different audiences; force you to perform in different settings than perhaps you would if you were playing solo. These are life experiences when I collaborate with other people. And the solo works are very personal statements that have to be solo experiences.
For more on Jason Lescalleet, visit his website.
Ben Hall is an artist and composer in Detroit. He recently installed a vegetarian restaurant in the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit with his longtime collaborator Jason Murphy. On June 4th, Hall presented a performance for concert of bass drum and voice at Malraux’s Place, coordinated with Jacob Kassay’s exhibition.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee