If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
I met harpist Mary Lattimore in January of 2012 when I got the tip off that she needed a roommate, and I wanted to move out of a living room I was sleeping in. During the majority of the time we lived together, Mary was off the road and working on her first LP for Desire Path Recordings. The Withdrawing Room features multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer Jeff Zeigler on the first song, forging the duo that that now appears on the collaborative record, Slant Of Light, out September 23 on Thrill Jockey. I eventually met Jeff at our Fourth of July party, where he was the grill sergeant for most of the evening. Dude can cook. I’ve been lucky enough to see the duo perform a lot from early on (maybe even their first show) to now, and I’ve also toured a bit with the two of them. It’s been a pleasure getting to know both Mary and Jeff. The new album is also a complete pleasure to listen to and I couldn’t be more excited to ask them a few questions.
Mary Lattimore This is fun.
Jeff Zeigler We should do everything on Skype!
ML I just love watching Daniel relaxing. It’s cool, relaxing together. I like your poster. I’m trying to look at your room.
Daniel Bachman I’ll show you, it’s real nice. Look, I got a bed.
ML Oh cool. (laughter)
DB Okay. Let’s do this. Some of these are pretty standard questions, but I don’t know the answer to them.
DB I know how I met both of you guys, but what year did you meet, and under what circumstances?
ML Well Jeff, take it away.
JZ Well, I’ll tell you. I guess we probably knew each other from meeting at whatever standard vibe spot, like Johnny Brendas, initially. We had mutual visual artist friends. I guess we were both friends with them separately.
The first time we ever really, like, hung out at all was when I was doing sound for Kurt Vile, who was touring with Thurston, and Mary was touring with Thurston Moore. I think that was like two years ago?
DB You guys both knew that you lived in Philly.
ML Oh yeah, totally.
ML But barely. I didn’t know anything about Jeff, really.
JZ Yeah, likewise.
ML I guess, we started playing together. Did we ever talk about—
JZ Well, there was your record.
ML Yeah, yeah.
DB That was like December of the next year.
ML Exactly. I was living with you, Daniel, at the time. I talked to Jeff at that time, because he’s the guy to go to to record in Philly and in the world, really. I asked him if he’d be available to work on my solo record with me. I had just finished touring with Thurston and I wanted to focus on my own thing. That whole band had projects—John Maloney and Sunburned Hand of the Man, Samara Lubelski and her beautiful solo stuff, Keith Wood and Hush Arbors—so they all really encouraged me to pursue something harp-centric on my own.
DB I think you had just like come off a bunch of heavy dates. And that record was the project that came out of that.
ML Yeah, after I finished touring with Thurston, I needed something new to work on, so I approached Jeff, and then he played synth on the whole first side of that solo record. Then we just decided to do more, play more shows. That lead to this new record, Slant of Light. It was all really natural.
DB On that first record, The Withdrawing Room, there was only really one track, the extended first piece, that was fully collaborative?
ML Yeah and we weren’t even in the same room for that.
JZ I was in the control room and she was in the tracking room, which is really kind of weird to do, but it worked.
ML He added stuff, and I had no idea what it was. It was like being blindfolded because the door was closed and I couldn’t hear him very well. (laughter) I just trusted you, whatever you wanted to do in there.
JZ There was some extra processing stuff too—I ran all the harp sounds through a stream of effects, and some other filtering stuff too. It was all over the record, but it’s kind of subtle. Then I just played synth on the whole first side. That was—I didn’t really know if that was going to work or not, but it’s cool.
DB I still remember the night that we listened to the mix all the way down.
ML You, me, and Meg Baird?
DB Yeah that was fun.
ML Yeah that was so fun! That was so helpful.
DB So let me back up a bit. I’m getting ahead of myself. So that first record’s done. I’ll just move chronologically. These notes are just, like, fucked. Just stuff scribbled all over the back of some card. (laughter) So when did the performing come? Was that first gig at Chris Forsyth’s album release party?
ML Was it?
ML Yeah, yeah, at Vox Populi. That was the first show.
DB Oh God, okay. I got all this stuff down. I’m nervous guys!
ML Are you? (laughter)
DB I know you guys, I’ve gotten drunk with you guys, but I’ve never had to do this before!
ML Guzzle a lot of water.
JZ Or straight vodka.
DB I’m getting lubed up. (laughter) Alright, so what’s the time span of recording this new one?
JZ It only took two days. I think we just holed up—it was during the last major snowstorm we had in Philly—and we just started recording one day and kind of assumed that we were going to hole up and try to get the record done in a few days, and just bang it out. We’d gotten together a few times before and worked through some improvisations, and they were kind of getting there, but it felt more like a mishmash. This two-day span of just being holed up and working on the record really felt cohesive, and we just left it like that. The whole thing is just the first tracks that we came up with over those two days.
ML It was supposed to snow really heavily that night—so I packed a bag to stay over at Jeff’s because I knew that if I left and came home I would never come back because I’d think of an excuse: “It’s too snowy,” or “It’s too icy!” I just decided, I’m not going to give myself a reason to make an excuse. I’m just going to sleep in the control room. It was so dark down there, there was no light. It was the darkest, hardest sleep, with all of those twinkling lights of the machines.
JZ Yeah, there’s no natural light down there. It’s intense. I’ve slept there before.
DB You’re talking about a totally desolate, snow-bound city outside.
ML Totally. Jeff has some great roommates and I came out of the dark studio to find his roommate Mike and Mike’s girlfriend Nicole hanging out upstairs, making pancakes. It was cheery and we could see the deep snow piled up in the little side yard. Then we found out that a friend had passed away the night before, so it was a pretty intense two days of not leaving and just digging into the music heavily.
DB After listening to the record and knowing that you guys just holed up and probably drank some drinks and went at it for two days, it’s the proper vibe.
JZ Yeah, for sure. It’s kind of perfect.
DB Mary, did you have some ideas that you wanted to expand upon?
ML No ideas. (laughter) We’d just start off with a little nugget of a thought. I would start playing this thing and Jeff would be like, Okay, I’m going to learn this on the guitar and double it, or add a layer with the melodica. And that was the beginning. There were little kernels that came out of improvisation. We just sort of expanded those little kernels and then played them a second time to see what shape they could take. Three out of the four songs are second takes, and the other is the first take.
DB Yeah, that’s another thing I wanted to ask you about after listening to it through, which I did on the car ride back down here. Are there other instruments in the mix?
ML Oh yeah. The new instrument—the melodica!
JZ Just synth, melodica, and the giant vaporizer, basically. (laughter) Harp, synth, melodica, guitar, and that’s pretty much it.
DB Is there some kind of percussion on the last track?
JZ No, that’s my guitar through a ring modulator.
JZ Yeah, it’s real clangy sounding. It’s all guitar.
DB It’s nice.
DB That last track is pretty far out.
JZ Yeah. It’s like a good bad trip.
DB (laughter) It’s like when you’re really having a bad experience and your stomach’s in your throat and then you kind of settle back in, but then it leads you along again, and you’re like, I’m not out of it yet.
What’s up with the title of the first song, “Welsh Corgis in the Snow”?
JZ Tell him Mary.
ML No! I do not like that name! (laughter)
JZ Seriously? Where did that name come from? I don’t even remember.
ML You just named it that!
ML Yes you did. Jeff just named it that.
JZ I totally don’t even like corgis. They’re weird little dogs. They’re probably too energetic. Yeah, I don’t know really. I came up with that name?
ML Oh yeah.
DB Everything was conceived of in those two days—even track titles?
ML “Welsh Corgis” and the “The White Balloon” were. For the other two, we each took a song and found a name for it. “The White Balloon” came from this black and white photo I’d just seen of this airship, taken by Lena Herzog. The flight of the airship was documented by Werner Herzog in his film The White Diamond. It kind of reminded me of my friend who had just passed away, too. “Echo Sounder” came from me thinking the song kind of sounded underwater, so I figured out the name of the instrument that measured the deepest parts of the ocean. But “Welsh Corgis” was definitely Jeff!
JZ It’s majestic! But it’s not as majestic as like, “Horses in the Snow.” They’re these little goofy dogs in the snow. It’s cool.
DB No it’s playful, it’s nice! Is the album cover taken from the same larger print of The Withdrawing Room cover?
ML That’s a good question. I think it’s the same house.
The album cover was done by the same cool girl, you know Becky Suss, as The Withdrawing Room, but it’s a totally different painting. I have a feeling though, that it’s from the same house? It was her grandfather’s house.
DB That’s how it seemed. That just totally works so well, visually, with the records side by side, too.
ML Did you see the little dog hidden in the cover? On the carpet?
DB Yeah! So the record’s out in September?
ML Yeah. I can’t wait to hear your new record. Is it out?
DB Oh yeah, I just got them. I’ve just been getting boxes and boxes of shit. It’s all just been sitting in the heat all day and I haven’t even opened them yet to see if they’re okay or not. But yeah, I’ll get you guys everything.
I want to know about the time between the recordings—because you guys have played a number of live shows since that show at Vox and Johnny Brenda’s. How do you think the way you play together has changed? Obviously you know each other better now, but is there a similar vibe between the stuff you’re releasing and what you’re playing live? Or are you just going for it? Would you take the opening harp part and recreate that, whether shorter or longer, for a live set?
ML We are going to, yeah. We’re doing a show next week with two dancers and we did it once in New York, and it went well, so we’re doing it again. One of the dancers is Thurston’s niece, Elle Erdman. That’s how I know her. We’re going to try to do the first two shorter tracks, and they’re going to choreograph something to those—so we’re going to try out playing the songs. But other than that, we’ve never done anything like that—played certain songs—really. It’s usually just improvised.
JZ Well, I think when we did the film scoring stuff in Marfa—we wrote a score to Philippe Garrel’s 1968 film Le révélateur—that actually changed things a lot, in terms of how we’d approach writing and improvising, too. It was far more melodic than what we were doing before, and so I think just figuring out parts together to score that film ended up opening things up more melodically in general, at least for me.
ML Yeah, that’s a really good point. We also did this soundtrack for this other film by a local filmmaker, J. Makary, and just by doing those it made that easier, too. We want to get into film work, too.
DB Is it because you have such strict time restraints? How long was the piece you did in Marfa? Were you trying to create something from start to finish?
JZ It’s a fifty-eight minute long film. Or an hour. (laughter) Fifty-eight minutes twenty-three seconds!
We just picked certain sections that we’d try to come up with a theme for, so it was basically blocked out into recurring musical themes and specific pieces for a given section.
ML Visual cues would cue different themes, and then we’d bring them back around in a different iteration or version.
DB But it structured the way you guys are playing together in general?
JZ Yeah. Also, it was semi-improvised, pretty loose but with a basic melodic structure, which we would then expand.
ML Before, when we were playing together we’d do sets that were just making a lot of noise, and were very loud and abrasive. Focusing on making cool sounds rather than on melodic lines. Now we’re focusing less on purely cool sounds and are trying to incorporate that unhinged weirdness into something melodic and beautiful.
JZ It feels a lot less random to us too, to play and then probably also to listen to. I feel like it doesn’t sound as much like a medley. I feel like there were times before where it was either this full on drone or we’d switch gears really drastically so it was either a bunch of things happening in a short amount of time, or one thing happening for like twenty minutes.
DB Yeah, that’s important.
JZ The balance has sort of jelled a bit. Which is interesting because we never really write anything together, but it all naturally falls into place over time. I’ve never really experienced that before, just playing with somebody for that long and just kind of figuring it out. It’s like putting a puzzle together.
DB Yeah and just getting to know each other in that sense, because you’ve been playing together for over two years at this point.
DB Which is pretty wild, too, that the time’s moving that fast.
ML When did you move?
DB August of 2012.
ML Wow. That’s crazy!
DB Well, so what’s coming out? Are you guys hitting the road or anything?
ML Yeah, we’re trying to set up film screenings for Le révélateur. And we’re going to play it in Chicago and then Philly at the International House, and then other places. And then we’re going to try to hook something up in Europe, I think. We are going on tour with the amazing Steve Gunn band in October, our homies! What about you?
DB I’m doing long weekends, and going overseas twice a year and I’m just chilling. You guys should just fucking come down here.
ML Okay, great. Okay let’s do it.
JZ The film thing is cool but I’m also psyched to do regular shows too.
DB I’m fucking pumped guys. Do you guys have any other stuff going on?
ML Jeff has a solo project!
JZ Yeah, I’m working on it slowly but surely. And then, I don’t know. I’ve been out playing solo stuff too, and I know Mary’s been doing that as well. That’s about it. And studio work all the time.
ML I got this residency at this place The Rotunda. Not the room that we usually go to see shows in, but the crazy room that is always locked, the actual rotunda. It’s a sanctuary. It’s insane, empty and huge and crumbling, like a haunted church that they rarely open to the public. They’re opening it up for one weekend for different musicians and sound installation artists who had to apply. I’m doing this project with this dude James Plotkin. We’re going to play in this beautiful, weird place and we are going to make a harsh, twisted harp and electronics piece. I’m looking forward to it.
DB Cool. When’s that start?
ML It’s going to be the end of October. For a weekend. It’s gonna be good. I’ll see you at Hopscotch, right?
DB Yeah, I’ll be there. I just talked to Nathan Bowles to see what we’re going to do. And I have go up to Blacksburg, Virginia, and then he’s going to come down here.
ML Are you guys going to rehearse?
DB We’re going to try to do fifteen minutes of acoustic stuff. He picks out the songs, I pick out the songs and then we’re going to do a long, kind of fucked up, electric bluesy, boogie kind of thing. We might get somebody else to sit in with us too. Are you guys sticking around for the whole festival?
ML Yeah. I got a pass.
DB Yeah, me too. But I’m seriously just chilling here, killing time going to flea markets and mouth breathing until that starts. (laughter). Until I come to Philly on the twenty-third. It’ll be fun. Just the same old crew. But fucking Motley Crüe is that night in Camden, so attendance might be a little rough. (laughter)
Mary Lattimore and Jeff Zeigler’s Slant of Light is out September 23 from Thrill Jockey Records. The duo is on tour now, check Thrill Jockey’s site for details.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.