As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
“Lil Wayne explains a blade of grass.”
Kyle Field is a busy guy. First and foremost, there’s his work as a musician under the name Little Wings, which first made an impact in the early 2000s with a number of albums released on K Records. Prior to that, Field was a member of the band Rodriguez along with M. Ward. Since then, his music has generally fallen into a sweet spot between easy-going folk pop and more idiosyncratic personal concerns—instantly familiar, yet difficult to pin down. Little Wings’s newest album, Explains, is his first for Woodsist Records. It’s a subdued, sometimes haunting album with tremendous restraint. Field’s crooning warble drifts over a series of melodically flowing compositions that veer from confessional to pastoral.
Field also makes visual art; a visit to his website turns up a host of surreal illustrations, some of which make impressive use of confined spaces. Field’s art and music are two sides of the same creative spark. Perhaps it’s a freeform characteristic that unites them, a dreamlike impetus yanked into the light of day. Both sides of his work were up for discussion when we spoke over the phone shortly before he left California for a brief tour in Japan.
Tobias Carroll I remember reading an interview from a couple years ago where you cited Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth as a big influence on your album Black Grass. Is that something that’s continued to be an influence on the music you’ve made since?
Kyle Field I imagine so, but maybe it’s only one of my ingredients. It’s something I already absorbed, you know? So, it’s not on the tip of my brain anymore. I just felt comforted by the unification of all myths. I would definitely say it’s still in there.
TC Do you feel like the music you’ve made since then, from Black Grass on, is particularly different than the work you’ve done before?
KF I would see any evolution as just building on the past, no matter what. I don’t know if you can call evolution change, maybe it’s just growth. And I’m not sure I find a significant overall difference. Hopefully, it’s gotten denser, if anything, and that’s intentional, or just practice and writing more, or being more inspired to branch out as far as subject matter goes.
TC In terms of that density, would you say that’s connected more to your songwriting, a change of approach in the studio, playing with different musicians, or something else?
KF Probably all the above. I think rap has a lot to do with my songs getting a little more lyrically dense, because that’s one kind of music I just keep coming back to. I really like being overwhelmed by it, and I feel like it sharpens my brain to try to grab at all the words, try and learn them, then sing along. It’s like being on a treadmill that’s much faster than I would normally go, faster than I would normally make music. I feel that listening to rap has sped up my mind a little bit.
One of my frustrations with the Last album—not Explains, but the album titled Last—was the fact that it wasn’t keeping up with the music I was enjoying and listening to. It seemed slower than the speed at which my mind was working. I think I corrected that with this new album, as far as having earworms and sounds and overdubs, and having every sound find its place. It’s as if the sounds, words, and tones are coming along on a conveyer belt, and you just have to process them as they come.
TC What is some of the music you’re listening to when you’re not making music?
KF I’m not a total head. I don’t go that deep with tons and tons of artists. I’m more of a repetition listener, because I’m into memorizing. I’ve said this a few times over the last four years, but I really like Lil Wayne’s mix tapes. I actually don’t really know his studio albums, so I’m not a comprehensive fan or listener, but those mix tapes have been really stunning and astonishing. His word play and where he’s able to go with poetry—I think it’s opened up my understanding of where I can go. He’s been kind of a younger role model for me in a way.
It’s not a new, but there’s a song called “Cadillac on 22s” by David Banner I really love, and that used to kind of raise my spirits. Lil Wayne, David Banner, Devin the Dude—a Houston rapper who’s actually about my age. I think filtering those influences through my slightly more lazy style has kind of informed part of the aesthetic I’ve arrived at now.
TC Was there a specific area—whether it was the songwriting or something in the studio—that you wanted to change after Last?
KF I think, in a sense, I changed almost every single approach between that record and this one. Last was the last record I played every note on. I played every instrument. I wanted to do Explains as quickly as possible, where it felt as fresh and new as possible.
Before we recorded, I started playing with two musicians, friends I’ve known for a really long time, who both have their own bands and are both singers. In a sense, I didn’t think it would be an option to involve them because I figured they were all wrapped up. But they were eager to play shows, and so we started doing that, just playing the songs that we had up until then, before the material for Explains was even written. All of it was filtered through that trio: Tommy McDonald, Zeb Zaitz, and me. I felt this cohesiveness I hadn’t felt in a long time, and it was because, I believe, all three of us are singers, and so we don’t trample the singing musically. They’re great listeners. A new confidence came out of those shows.
At the same time, I was sitting down with a guitar at home, writing chord progressions that I wouldn’t get tired of playing and not worrying about the words at all. Three of the songs on this album didn’t have any words when we went to record, so we just did them as instrumentals. Three weeks later, we came back to do an overdub session—keyboards, backup vocals, this, that, the other—and those were born in the studio. Another thing is that I didn’t have a single song born in the studio on the previous record, and my goal was to have at least one here. Those are often my favorite songs on a record. They’re a little bit fresher than what’s written in a notebook and played over and over again, then recorded. The spontaneity of a song being born in the studio is my favorite thing.
TC Are they changing at all when you play them live?
KF They are. We’re staying fairly true to them, which feels good, but they change a little bit. We’re probably louder live, but I like the intimacy of the record, and I wouldn’t change that. I just see the record as a private listening experience—kind of one-on-one with the song. For the live band, it’s exciting to have the songs be bigger, just big and soft. We have a seven-piece band at times: there’s keyboard, pedal steel, three guitars, bass, drums, and everyone’s singing at times. That feels great. I just sing in that band. I don’t even play guitar.
TC When did you first start working that way? Is it something that’s fairly new, or have you tried that configuration out before?
KF I’ve never tried it before. What happened was that I got back from a little Pacific Northwest trip with Lee Baggett, who I’ve played with for years. We will do duo shows where it’s just the two of us, you know, playing guitars. And we got that to the level where it actually felt like a show, not just sitting or standing up there, making banter or this or that. The show never lost momentum the whole way through. I was so excited when I got back from that trip, and I had three shows in California booked—but Lee lives up in Washington, and it’s not convenient for him to be onboard all the time. So, I kind of called up everyone I’d been playing with in different situations. Some had never even met each other.
Basically, through text messaging one night, I just asked all these people if they were in. Like Aram Stith, who played in the Anomoanon and with Will Oldham. He was in Hawaii visiting his brother, but we got it all worked out within two days. I rented a van, and we just did three shows with the big band. There was so much camaraderie. It was a really nice group of people to travel with, which is huge. Then the spirit survives.
We just played yesterday, and the two days before that, up in Big Sur. I added Lee Baggett to the band for those shows—like the extra-deluxe version. He’s like the guitar wizard. We get these showy solos occasionally, and it’s really fun.
TC The first thing you hear on Explains is the opening of “By Now,” which is this sort of sung laughter. It’s a little disorienting at first.
KF Oh, “Hee-hee-ho-ho-ha-ha-ha.”
TC For me, that was a really striking way to open. Was that a line you always had in mind to start things out?
KF You know, we didn’t have the order worked out at all, and I don’t think many people probably do. You’re just working on it song by song. That song was one of the instrumentals that I didn’t have any words for, and “he-he-ho-ho,” that part, was tacked on at the very end. Tommy and I were there, and everyone else had gone home, and we spent three days overdubbing, doing this and that. I basically improvised the lyrics to “By Now,” kind of singing them to Tommy. It started with “By now I know you probably think I should have told you everything,” which is the original beginning. We played it back, and there was a space, and I think, to achieve that density of rap music, I wanted it to start with a confusing lyric or something that would perk your ears up. But it makes sense lyrically because I sing, “Ho-ho-ho,” which is like Santa Claus, right? So, I sing, “He-he-ho-ho-ha-ha-ha, bearing gifts like old Saint Nick.” It’s like a little announcement, a reggae-style boast or something. (laughter)
TC I wouldn’t necessarily have made the connection to hip-hop or reggae, because it doesn’t feel like an awkward blend of two disparate musical styles.
KF That was one of the challenges for me, to feel satisfied that I was doing my version of rap without copying a voice that is not my own.
TC Where did the title “Old Apocalypse Style” come from?
KF I think it was in Artforum once—a scan of the back-inside cover of Raymond Pettibon’s notebook. He seemed like he was constantly generating lists of titles at random, without involving them with the works, maybe so he would have a batch of ideas to work from.
I was just writing rhymes one day and slapped that title on it. It’s almost a reference to older, darker songs in a way, something I feel like I’m trying to move past. I was kind of dipping into the past for that song, and so I wanted to state it as such: Ye Olde Apocalypse Style.
TC When did the title Explains come into the mix?
KF That came from looking at the list of song titles. Most, if not all of the songs were explanations. Lil Wayne explains a blade of grass. They were going to be like lectures or lessons. I was looking at this list thinking, How can I explain this? And a writer friend of mine said, “That’s really funny, because the current thought in literature is that you’re not supposed to try to explain things.” I liked that, and I liked the word itself, and I kind of likened it, in a way, to Bob Marley’s Exodus. It starts with the E and ends with the S. It’s also maybe a reference to me explaining why the Last album was not my “last” album.
TC You mention Raymond Pettibon, who’s also someone with a foot in the music world and a foot in the art world. For you, did your art-making start around the same time as your music-making? Did one spark the other?
KF I started drawing at a young age, like a lot of people, and never quit. I always loved music, but didn’t learn how to make it until I was probably nineteen years old. So, definitely, the visual thing came first. But I’m learning that the songs are like pictures a little bit, too. There are nouns and strong visual imagery, which put a picture in your mind.
TC Have there ever been any instances where you’ve drawn something, then thought: Okay, this absolutely ties in with this particular song of mine?
KF You know what’s weird? I don’t know if I’ve ever had that feeling. Maybe someone else could see that, and I’m not sure why I can’t, but, in a way, the two activities just feel like totally separate practices. For instance, if someone asked me to illustrate one of my own songs, it would be like getting assigned impossible math homework. Like seventh grade. If the song is good enough, hopefully it doesn’t need a demonstration.
TC How long do you generally take to work on a particular piece of art?
KF I can make a drawing in a morning, over two or three hours, if it’s an 8.5 x 11 wacky illustration thing. Other, bigger pieces I’ve made,“fine art,” take days to realize. But to be honest, I haven’t been doing as much of that over the last three years or so. I’ve shifted more into music.
TC Looking at your website, I noticed art that looked like cave paintings. Where does something like that come from?
KF Cave People of the World, Let’s Talk! or something like that? I think that might be like a ten-year old drawing. I have no idea! (laughter) I liked the quality of this new Pigma Micron 005 pen and then … well, sometimes I’ll just stab into a piece of paper and start drawing a shape or curved line, and see what happens, and try to make it funny or compelling in any way.
TC What’s a typical day for you?
KF Nothing interesting. Making coffee, checking my e-mail or whatever. Maybe going out to the coast, if that’s the right thing to do. And writing. I really like working on art or writing in the morning.
TC Is that songwriting or prose writing?
KF It can just be rhymes too. I’m not always writing melodies. Sometimes, I really just like writing words without the music, filling up a notebook so there are ideas in there.
TC Where did the cover image for this record come from?
KF You know, it’s kind of a spoiler—because it’s one of the best photos I’ve ever taken, in a sense—but it was clearly just happenstance. My girlfriend, my mom, and I were down at the beach. That morning I had asked to borrow a point-and-shoot camera for the day. This was before we had recorded anything, but I realized that I wanted my album cover to be a photo and not a drawing.
I was taking pictures of the lifeguard’s stand and of rocks, seaweed, and such. Then we looked up ahead, and there were people gathered on the beach. It turned out to be a wedding. We were kind of coming up behind this wedding, so we hid behind some rocks. And they said “I do!” and “I do, too!” The wedding’s over, and they’re like, “You guys can keep walking through.” So we did, right through, and about fifty yards away was a horse trainer just holding a horse. The newlyweds were going to get on the back of it and ride down the beach for a photo-op, I guess. (laughter) So, I got right parallel to that horse, turned and clicked, then kept the camera right there. The horse turned around, and I clicked again, so the back of the record is the horse turning away. We were super lucky.
After the fact, I realized my grandfather—he passed recently—was a cowboy. In some sense, the photo is him transposed onto the West Coast, because he had a horse like that. I really got into the idea of just reading into it—there’s that mythology coming back, in a way. My grandfather and his horse, and I’m a Sagittarius, too.
TC You said you were going to Japan tomorrow. Is that the first international tour you’ve done?
KF No, I’ve been everywhere over the years. I’ve been to Japan six times, to Europe eight times. I have seven solo gigs over there. It wouldn’t be practical at all to bring everyone, but that’d be so much fun. Over there, I just ride the train. If you took the train, the fastest Japanese train, you could get from San Francisco to LA in three hours. You cover so much ground. The longest commute on this really smooth train will probably be like three hours or four hours. It’s super high terrain, and I just love it. And the crowds are really quiet. No one talks. (laughter)
TC When I first encountered your music it was your work in Rodriguez and the fact that you’d played with Calvin Johnson that were my first points of reference. How do you find that people come to your music?
KF It probably just happens in every single random way. These days there’s such a multitude of channels. It’s interesting we’re having that conversation, though, because somehow there seems to be—and I don’t if it’s an albatross—a perception that I’m this underground artist who wants to stay underground. I’ve always tried my hardest to write the songs I thought worked best, you know what I mean? I’ve always tried to get it out there, but I haven’t been very good at that in the past. Woodsist, so far—just the real-time response is more than I’ve ever had with any record, as far as putting out one song as a single and people responding to it. It’s definitely a leg up I’ve never had before, and that feels great.
TC Is there anything else in your most recent recording session that may see the light of day, or are you looking ahead to the next thing?
KF Yeah, the next record is three-quarters written, lyrically. I’m definitely looking ahead. I have another covers record that’s kind of secret. I won’t reveal what those covers they are, but that’s halfway in the can, and then we’re almost done with another Be Gulls record, which is our weird side-project band that is largely improvised in the studio. It’s been a really good year. I wanted to make three records in one year, essentially, so I just started one right after we finished Explains, then another, and another.
TC Did you find that there was any cross-pollination between them?
KF I think mostly just in terms of vibe or confidence. To see Explains go from nothing to something fairly rapidly was inspiring. As far as the execution on the next two, I just didn’t feel as much pressure, you know? It’s like I was getting ahead of myself in a good way. I think Explains was like ramping it up, then it set a bar, and the next ones are coming a little bit quicker. I don’t know. It just put some juice in the rocket.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and writes frequently about books and music. His short story collection TRANSITORY will be released on Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.