Mind Over Mirrors by Steve Gunn

Performance, improvisation, and chasing the perfect drone.

Mind Over Mirrors 1

Jaime Fennelly and Haley Fohr of Mind Over Mirrors. Photo by Shawn E. Hansen. Courtesy of the artist.

I met Jaime Fennelly, the man behind Mind over Mirrors, in 2007, when I shared a bill with his old band Peeesseye at a small venue in Brooklyn. At the time, we were both playing in improvisation-based trios and performing at various venues in NYC. I was impressed and drawn to what Jaime was doing in his band, providing an anchor of drones and soundscapes with harmonium and various effects. He told me that he was planning to leave the city, and I didn’t see him for a few years, until we reconnected at a venue in Chicago. Jaime was newly playing as Mind Over Mirrors. His playing on this new project still compelled me; now his music had a much more panoramic view, a sharper focus. I wondered if his time away from the city had affected his musical thinking, perhaps laying groundwork for a more deeply realized sound. It seems that a combination of different landscapes and a quest for a focused sound landed Jaime in a very nice place, producing expansive, satisfying sounds.

I spoke with Jaime about developing this sound, his collaborations with choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, and the new Mind Over Mirrors album, The Voice Calling, out September 18, 2015, featuring vocals from Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux.

Steve Gunn The first time I met you was in Brooklyn at that venue on Broadway…

Jaime Fennelly Goodbye Blue Monday?

SG Yeah. I was playing with the band GHQ, and you were playing with Peeesseye. I sort of knew your band mates. I knew Fritz [Welch] because I had a friend who looked up to him as an artist, and I knew his music a little bit, too. I also kind of knew Chris Forsyth—that was the first time I met him also.

JF Oh, really?

SG I sort of officially met all three of you there, though I was aware of your band and all. Also, at that show in particular, I was drawn to what you were doing with harmonium, creating the anchor of the group as far as the drone goes. It was interesting because all three of you had separate things going on, but it really worked in this cool way. I think Fritz and Chris offer singular musical identities. It was a really interesting group to see, get to know, and watch develop. A few years after that you moved to a remote area of Washington, to a small island?

JF Yeah, it was actually the next month that I moved to the island. That tour was the last Peeesseye did as a trio in the US. Chris and I did a duo US tour as the Brothers Peeesseye a couple of years later, and the trio toured in Europe in 2008. But that Goodbye Blue Monday show in 2007 was really the last NYC show before we each started moving out of Brooklyn.

SG I can’t remember the next time we met, but it must have been quite a bit of time in between.

JF It must of have been at The Hideout after I moved to Chicago in 2010. I can’t recall if we played there together once or twice.

SG I was playing solo at The Hideout, and that’s when you gave me the first official release of Mind Over Mirrors. I wanted to talk specifically about that music because what I saw you doing with Peeeesseye and what I heard you doing then—it seemed like you took it to this next level. When you moved to the island, was this an opportunity for you to be alone and really work out what you wanted to do musically?

JF Yeah, but my move was firstly, and in many ways, to just get the hell out of New York—and also, very intentionally, to take a break from playing live music. I grew up in New York and had returned to Brooklyn for seven years, and at that point I was in my late twenties and just got to this breaking point, I guess. I felt like: Okay, I can keep doing this in this way, or there can be a major interruption or a pause. It was more about me as a human and having a different experience, as opposed to leaving New York to have this other experience to suit my music. Of course, that was going to happen, but it was not done intentionally for the music, but rather, in order to survive. I packed up a bunch of equipment and had it in my cabin for those years, but I wasn’t necessarily aiming to have some kind of musical residency or anything.

SG When were you able to really realize this project? Did you already have the sound, your instrument—it seems like this one harmonium is very important to the music; it seems like a special instrument.

JF That I bought after I moved to Chicago. I was on the island for three years, and when I was playing music it was predominantly on my smaller harmonium, though the last place I lived there had an upright piano, which I also used. There was very limited electricity because it’s all off the grid, with a very basic solar-panel system. It was like: Okay, it’s sunny out, so I can play my power monitors for an hour and work on some music without having the generator running. (laughter) When we moved to Seattle it was that typically taken-for-granted thing, where there was limitless electricity and also other people around making music. It was really great to be part of a different musical community. Likewise with Vancouver.

SG Who were the central musicians you met when you moved to Seattle? Did you already know some people?

JF I knew a few, like Scott Colburn, but it also just took going to some shows. I knew Josh Stevenson, who lives up in Vancouver, from about five or more years before. He’s totally rad. And Daniel Presnell, who is from the US, but moved to Vancouver like ten years ago. Those guys are total gear heads and record collectors. We have family in Vancouver and would go up there, and I’d hang out with those guys, play music, and just geek out on gear and stuff.

SG Yeah, that’s one thing I’m really impressed with—your command of the gear. It’s unique stuff and kind of timeless. Putting on one of your albums, just from the way that it sounds, someone might not know what year it is from. I’m also really impressed by the way you command your performances to sound good. Especially with this kind of music, you have this very purist perspective on how you want the music to sound and how you get to those sounds. When did you start figuring out your set up?

JF It’s funny because when we met in Brooklyn, I was playing a no-input feedback mixer, adding drones with the harmonium, and playing through a variety of different speaker setups. My music was really raw and chaotic. It wasn’t about the quality of the sound; it was about the action and movement of the sound. When I started working on Mind Over Mirrors, really putting it together and finding out what the instrumentation was, I wanted the pedal harmonium as an integral part of the project. But my intention had changed—I really set out to make it sound amazing. I wanted it to be very rich and lush—with a deep, panoramic stereo field that is fully immersive.

SG I think we both know a lot of musicians who work on records for a long time, but sometimes I feel that people don’t take the time to care about this sort of thing. And that is what I was really impressed with when I first heard The Voice Rolling from 2011, your first official album.

JF That album has some of the very first Mind Over Mirrors recordings I made on it.

In Peeesseye, my role was pretty ethereal; it often felt like, “What is Jaime doing!?” But I mixed almost every album we did, archived all our shows, and was always working on what we sounded like in the recorded medium—of course, with a ton of input from Chris and Fritz. That roll of seeing the full picture and mixing, really getting in there and deciding where sound is placed, was really important to me over the course of Peeesseye. I feel like that experience really informed the development of Mind Over Mirrors and allowed me to integrate what I wanted to do from a studio perspective and transform that into a live performance.

SG So your acquired the harmonium in Chicago or Seattle?

JF In Chicago, a few months after I moved there. I had seen a picture of it online a year before, on this Indian website, and thought it was kind of amazing. The traditional way of playing harmonium is to have one hand dedicated to pumping, and I just wanted to be able to do other tasks. So I put in an order for the foot-pedal harmonium, and it was maybe six months or more before it arrived.

SG With the organ itself—this is a bit of a rig rundown, but I’m curious—you have contact pickups inside, or is it microphones that you are using?

JF There are two little condenser microphones on goosenecks that are lodged in there above the keys. Those go to a pre-amp that has separate volume outputs for each mic, then that goes into—

SG —delays and oscillators? And you process the sound?

JF Yeah. Probably the most consistent thing the harmonium is being run through is the tube tape delay and a phaser. The synthesizers themselves are kind of running on their own signal, separate from the harmonium. But I did just get one of those Lovetone Ring Stingers. They are an English company that made pedals in the mid to late ’90s—and this one ring modulator that’s now pretty hard to find. It’s awesome, and I bought it with the intention of using it specifically for the harmonium because it has CV inputs, so I can control the filtering. The sequencer is controlling the pitch and rhythm of the synthesizers, and I can lock into those same rhythms with the harmonium. That’s been really awesome to work with lately.

SG Whoa, I can’t wait to hear that. I have a few questions about your live performance. How much of it is improvised? Obviously you have threads that you run through the pieces specifically, but do you extend certain things or improvise certain parts of it, or is it usually this kind of mapped-out piece?

JF It does vary. For the show that we just played together at The Empty Bottle, Haley [Fohr, of Circuit des Yeux] and I rehearsed the set once before we played. Basically, I came up with this repeating sequence that played the entire set, so it was a very slow moving raga-like piece, very drone-based, with movement. There wasn’t a lot of structural information beyond just saying that. Whereas the set that Haley and I were doing last February, which was right after we finished making this most recent album, The Voice Calling, was coming directly out of those sessions.

SG Hearing that record, there are some parts of it that are almost song based, as far as what Haley is doing.

JF For that set we were actually playing three, sometimes four, pieces from that album. I had just bought a new sequencer that enabled me to save the different tunings of different songs, so I could have tuning presets and we were able to navigate several pieces in a row. It was the same set every night and very mapped out.

SG And what about Haley? How did she end up accompanying you? I find her an extremely impressive singer, so to me it made a lot of sense that you were collaborating. Were you looking for another aspect to add onto this music?

JF Last year I toured from late January to May, so it was three or four months of traveling by myself in Europe and around the US. I finished those shows right after you and I saw each other at Austin Pysch Fest, which Haley was at as well. After I got back, I was like: I can’t do that again.

SG I know, I’ve been there as well.

JF I was just super-fried and took the summer off from shows. Matt Christensen sings and plays guitar in Zelienople—we’re buddies, so we started working on duo stuff for Mind Over Mirrors. That was great, and we played two shows together in Chicago. That was when I first started recording ideas for this album and thinking about there being another instrument. So I could lay back a bit and not have to have this lead voice through a whole album or the whole set. Matt was doing a lot of repeating, looping guitar lines and awesome E-bow, long, sustained, Frippertronic-style playing. That was really great, then there was some scheduling stuff that came up, and Matt wasn’t able keep working on stuff in that way.

A month or so passed, and I continued working on these recordings, still wanting another voice. Haley and I had met at the Psych Fest, and I was blown away by her performance. We started emailing around that time, and I think she was feeling similarly to me—like it would be nice to play with other people, rather than constantly doing the solo thing. So it evolved out of that, both of us really enjoying each other’s music.

There are a lot of times that I would play shows and people would be like: “Are you using samples of voices?” And I’d say: “No, I’m not using any samples!’” So I felt like, abstractly, those types of sounds were already in the music. I wanted to push that idea farther.

SG Obviously you aren’t using a sampler. People just assume you are taking the easiest possible route sometimes. It happens to me. People are like: “Man, I really dig that looped guitar playing. That looper is cool.”

JF What are they thinking?

SG People think I’m looping a guitar line, then playing on top of it. But I’m just playing straight guitar with a few effects.

JF That’s crazy. I could see that with my stuff, because I have so much equipment. Some people have no idea what they are even looking at. “It looks like he’s flying an airplane.” (laughter)

SG It does look like a control booth, or a cockpit.

It seems to me that you have this very acute awareness of where you’re playing, incorporating yourself in the space in certain ways that are interesting and different from most performers I know. How important is this to you? Also, another aspect of your performance is the fact that you are moving the whole time. With the harmonium pedals, it’s kind of a lot of work, and I’m wondering how important that movement is to you as far as the music goes. And I have another question about your work with [dancer and choreographer] Miguel Gutierrez, but first let’s talk specifically about your solo performance.

JF I think those three things are definitely related because I have an awareness of my physicality in space that I tuned into through working with Miguel. I’m playing in a club venue, as opposed to a theater or dance space, but there is still a certain physical intentionality that I think is important. I kind of go back and forth, sometimes playing in traditional rock club venues… It’s tricky because I don’t feel like my music always works best in that type of space.

SG Sure. Every space is different, so you really need to adapt.

JF Definitely. And the audience is a really important part of that. There are places in New York, like Union Pool, or in Chicago at the Empty Bottle, where I think the people who come to a show know what to expect—in that it’s not your usual rock set that happens on the stage with drums. I think my music just has a really different intention. My location in the space is a really big part of it. It has to do with me setting up on the floor and playing through the PA.

SG It’s really interesting to witness. I think it’s a surprise to some people, “Oh wait, this guy is on the floor, what’s happening?” I think the fact that you’re not up on the stage and people can sit around you and be pretty close to see what you are doing is important. And then there’s the fact that you just aren’t just sitting there, but moving. Some people are hunched over and turning knobs, and it’s not interesting to watch, but you offer something else.

Also, what you have gear-wise is also extremely interesting. You are working with an acoustic instrument and aren’t just hardwired into a board. You put yourself on this display this way. It’s something that people don’t expect, but it adds another element to the experience. To me, it grounds it, and makes it more real. There’s a sense of detachment with certain music, where you could pay attention or you couldn’t. Particularly with the kind of music that is somewhat panoramic or atmospheric—I don’t want to use any stupid terms—but if they are up on a stage, you can engage or not engage—not be committed to it, but still experience it. You are working hard to have people really pay attention.

JF Yeah, a big part of it has to do with setting up on the floor with my gear, what it looks like, and my movement with the harmonium pedals.

SG You become more conscious of experiencing this with everyone, rather than just individuals standing there and everyone looking up, feeling completely solitary. It creates this group experience.

JF That’s totally where traditional harmonium music comes from, even when the European harmonium got transformed into an Indian music instrument—it was designed very intentionally to be played while sitting on the floor. The people who are playing with you are also sitting on the floor, and the audience is sitting on the floor, and that was meant to really level the playing ground.

I do go back and forth about being on the floor and being on the stage, though. It’s really difficult to set up everything on the floor, then to finish and move everything away quickly, and usually in the dark. Sometimes I think I’m totally insane for doing it, but being able to sit in front of a PA and really adjust everything that I do based on the information I’m getting from the speakers that everyone else is also hearing—I feel like that really ties into my desire to make the experience sound great.

SG That is such a gamble because you are up on the stage and don’t necessarily hear what is coming out of the PA. You are kind of at the mercy of different people working the soundboard.

JF And they could be really great at their job, but they don’t necessarily understand what my intention is with a certain layer or frequency. It’s so nuanced with all of the controls that I have with my set up. Literally, tiny turns can make huge changes to the sound, and it’s hard to expect that someone with control over my sound in the PA will understand my decisions.

SG Did you ever have a sound guy who wants to have some fun? And you are like: “Whoa dude, what are you doing with this three-second delay on the input?” (laughter)

JF (laughter) I haven’t encountered that.

SG In terms of you setting up on the floor and really trying to incorporate yourself into the people who are there to see you perform, was that something that comes out of your work with Miguel Gutierrez?

JF It certainly does. I’ve been working with him since 2001.

SG You met him when you were living in Brooklyn and kept in touch?

JF Yeah, we met in North Carolina in 2001 at this dance festival. I introduced myself to him and we started working on a student project there at Duke University. I moved into his space in Bushwick right after 9/11. That shifted so many things for me. From there I met Fritz Welch, and it just snowballed from that point. But we lived together for four years with a dance studio in our house, where we were working on our duo project called Sabotage, and on three or four evening-length pieces that were performed in New York, Europe, and elsewhere.

SG That’s funny because I moved to New York at exactly the same time, right after 9/11—a very strange time, obviously, but it was interesting, too. It was such a rich community and really changed my life. I met so many inspiring people that put me on my path. I just slowly started to experience things, meeting people and going to spaces.

JF It seems like New York always demands being intentional. It’s not like you are there because it’s beautiful or affordable. People live in New York because it’s a very rich cultural and social city with tons of great stuff going on. Especially after 9/11, it really required a lot of work to be there. I thought about moving out of New York right after that because I was like: For what purpose am I here? Moving to Bushwick really reinforced why I was deciding to live in a total urban wasteland. The building was super rich with people coming and going, rehearsing and making work. John Jasperse had his dance studio on the same floor. Lots of really talented people were making work there. And Fritz lived a couple of blocks away on Bushwick Place, in that carriage house.

SG Back then, I felt like there was this really interesting, amazing community of performers and artists. I was pretty young and just kind of soaking it all in. It took me a long time to realize the value of the experience. I did struggle, and there are years that are just kind of a blur. (laughter) At the same time, I made that sacrifice and was working toward something, though I didn’t exactly know what it was. But now, to look back on it and remember these experiences and people that I met, I feel it was a good time and worth it.

JF I would be surprised if I had an experience like that again in my life. It was so purely unique. My existence now looks so completely different then it did then. Certainly for the better! (laughter) But also there was a willingness and a feeling of not knowing, and being okay with that.

SG This is the age-old New York City conversation, but people had space—and I know that that still exists—but then there was a bit more availability for things to happen. Maybe I’m just out of the loop. I’m also kind of a changed person for the better as well. I still live here and actually have a rehearsal space in Bushwick, but I don’t feel all that stuff is still there.

What started this discussion though was your work with Miguel. I saw you guys perform a little over a year ago and felt you have this really powerful connection. I was really impressed with the control and power he had over the audience. That was really moving. It’s interesting to hear that you have this long history and how he’s been an inspirational figure to you. He is not primarily a musician. He’s a dancer.

JF Yeah, his work has really evolved since we first met. I think the thing that really joined us together was this immediacy and urgency in our performative approach. I feel like, in many ways, it’s very much a big part of what I do in Mind Over Mirrors. I feel like his work has evolved in other directions beyond that, into more deeply personal performance narratives. But we still tap into that place together—it’s not even something that needs to be discussed.

SG It’s interesting for me to experience the collaborative performance with Miguel, because I’m not that familiar with his work. It completely made sense and felt totally natural. It was pretty powerful.

JF I really love performing with Miguel. There are no questions. You know things are going to be taken care of. (laughter)

SG There’s this element of improvisation in music that people talk about and discuss all the time—pontificate on it. And to see it with a physical improvisation—I’ve seen it in jazz performances and more on the dance side of things, but I don’t usually think about it too often, because I’m immersed in my own brain about music. It made me rethink some things and have this other perspective on it.

JF I’m trying to recall what show you saw. Was it at Abrons? That was the American Realness Festival—a while ago, maybe two or three years ago.

SG My sense of time is pretty skewed. (laughter) So now you are working with Haley. What is the next project or the next direction?

JF I’m doing these shows in October, and I’m just starting to work on a larger project.

SG Larger instrumentation?

JF Yeah.

SG You know, I once saw you with a band at ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn, a collaboration between Mind Over Mirrors and the band Zelienople. I always wanted to know if you were going to do that kind of thing again, with a band backing you up.

JF I don’t have a full instrumentation worked out yet, or know how many people will be involved yet, but essentially there are going to be a number of people and an album and a premiere. I think the major difference for me is that I’ve been really focused on recording my albums in my home studio by myself. I love the way they sound, but I’m fairly limited in terms of tools and in recording sounds—a lot of my stuff is recorded direct.

SG So you’d have to go into a studio. Chicago is the right place, there are so many great engineers there.

JF Totally. I’m excited for this project and to see how it evolves.

SG I can’t wait to hear it.

The Voice is Calling is out now on Immune Recordings. For more on Jaime Fennelly and Mind Over Mirrors, including information on upcoming performances, visit his website.

Steve Gunn is a musician and songwriter based in New York. His latest album is Way Out Weather, available now from Paradise of Bachelors.

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