Julian Lynch is a composer and performer from Madison, Wisconsin. Currently working on a dual concentration PhD in anthropology and ethnomusicology at the University of Wisconsin, Lynch has released a handful of albums while still in school, including 2010’s mysterious and meandering Mare as well as the more focused, driving Terra (2011), both out on New Jersey’s Underwater Peoples label. His next album is called Lines and is slated for a March 23 release date.
As a denizen of a quasi legendary Ridgewood, New Jersey high school music scene that spawned such successful groups as Titus Andronicus, Real Estate, and the Vivian Girls, Lynch still holds close ties with that cadre of musicians and songwriters; he often shares bills and band members with these bands and their offshoots. At the same time, where many of today’s popular groups with North jersey roots share a musical lingua franca of pop song structure and good-time party-dance rhythms, Lynch’s sound eschews these references to achieve an altogether different type of memorability—melodies that sneak up on you when you might least expect them and play on idioms from five centuries ago as opposed to five decades. BOMB caught up with Lynch to discuss balancing school and music, the recording/performing dichotomy, and different ways an artist can make use of an influence.
Andrew Aylward How was your first week of school?
Julian Lynch It actually hasn’t started yet but I’ve just been taking care of odds and ends before it begins next week.
AA So you’re doing anthropology and ethnomusicology for your PhD, right?
JL Yep, that’s right.
AA I didn’t you know you could do that. Is that like double majoring except for seven years?
JL Yeah, it’s basically like that. It’s called a joint PhD and it just took some fine-tuning with getting coursework requirements done for both departments. It’s been going pretty smoothly. I guess you could think of it like double majoring for a Phd.
AA I just saw you play at Glasslands last week and I was really struck among other things by the tightness and cohesiveness of the band. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect because I talked to a friend who said that the last time he saw you it was just loop pedal and saxophone.
JL Oh yeah, that was probably like four years ago.
AA I’m curious how your live show has evolved and if there is an ideal that you’re working towards or have already achieved.
JL No, I wouldn’t say there is necessarily an ideal. Each performance I like to think of as being a totally different thing. What I used to do is I would just do solo clarinet, like improv stuff, and then I started doing similar sets that incorporated a synth player, my friend Joel Shannahan who lives here in Madison with me. And from there I just had real appreciation for playing with other people a little bit more and started incorporating more people and doing larger improv sets. To the point where there were a few shows here in Madison that were five- or six-piece bands doing 25 minutes of improvisation. I tried that and thought about the structure of what we’re doing live a little bit more, and base it on the songs that are recorded but not try to sound exactly like the recordings. Especially because in terms of instrumentation and production and everything it’s kind of impossible to sound really anything like it. So I play now with the guys that you saw in New York and then there is a similar band here in Madison, not the exact same instrumentation but kind of filling in the same sort of parts. But it’s become the sort of thing where we rehearse when we can. Like the band you saw in New York we rehearsed twice I think before that show. Whenever we’re in town we try to get together. I’ve come to really enjoy playing with other people.
AA Would you say that you guys jam, or are you playing a song front to back?
JL Less so now. There used to be a lot more of that. I think the last time there were long sections of improvised stuff in a set was summer of 2011 when I was on a tour with a band that had 4 members and we just go to know the material really well and felt comfortable improvising a bit more on it. But I guess the amount of pure improvisations has sort of been reduced over the last few years of my life. We still do it a little bit but not too much.
AA Do you have a preference between the insular world of a composer and the collaborative nature of live ensemble playing? Is playing live a welcome respite from composing alone or is it more something you feel you should be doing?
JL The touring I definitely enjoy and find fulfilling in a very different way than writing and recording. I think if I could only do one for the rest of my life I would definitely without a doubt choose to record and write music. That definitely is thing that appeals to me more and that I find more fulfilling. But it hits a different spot to play live and play with other people. So as long as there are people that are willing to watch us play, and it’s nice that there are, I’m happy to do it. But I don’t want to play live too much. I don’t really do long tours or anything like that, I just sort of play a show here or there when I can.
AA That’s actually related to my next question. Would you agree that there is a new model for young musicians emerging wherein touring and performing far away from your home is taking a backseat to composition? It seems that you in particular had chosen a path where you aren’t touring or playing actively but you are still making an effort to perform when you can. I can think of a few other people today who do this, and I’m just curious what you think the reason for this is, and if it is a positive choice or a negative one. Are you saying no to touring or yes to something else?
JL I think that different people have different strategies to cope with the fact that being a musician is not really a lucrative career that way it once was. And it’s hard—I don’t think that I’d really be able to survive if I was just a musician. Obviously I’d probably have to tour a lot more. But I do know people who have taken the reverse approach where they’re touring through a much greater part of the year than they would have if they were playing in the year 1990 or something like that, just because, you know, record sales aren’t necessarily what they used to be. Obviously the strategy I’ve taken is that I’m not thinking about music as a career and because I’m doing other things I have a career. I just don’t really have time to tour. I have fun touring, it’s just a sacrifice that I’ve made. I could totally understand why other people would do it too. I think I would encourage other people to take a similar approach. I think music is a thing you can do parallel to another life that you are living as a career or whatever, if you’re a cop, I don’t know, whatever you do.
AA In terms of songwriting, do you ever create rules for yourself? For example, I had a friend who made an album where he didn’t allow himself to use “I.”
JL Yeah, totally. Especially stuff I was doing around 2007 and 2008 and 2009, I was definitely setting up a lot of little games for myself. Its kind of like, I can’t remember the term for it, but like constricted writing, a form of literature where you don’t use the letter “o” in a novel or something like that. I definitely like to set up little rules or play a game like that when composing. But also part of that is the fact that I record everything on an 8-track cassette machine and just because of track limitation—you can only bounce so many times between tracks. Part of the game is figuring out the puzzle—I have this musical idea and I have these parts I want on this piece of music but I only have so many slots to record in. So it’s kind of like putting together a puzzle of how you can accomplish a musical idea without an infinite number of instruments playing. I think it’s fun and rewarding to approach music like that.
AA Do you mix on your deck, like a Tascam 488, or do you dump it to a computer?
JL I used to use a Tascam, I use a Yamaha now. Typically I mix on there but I’m kind of actually opening up to the possibility that in the future I might start doing mixing digitally. Or even rather than bouncing internally, bouncing onto a computer. Just in the last week I bought a USB interface and I’m going to start playing around with maybe trying to do that instead. As long as it doesn’t take the joy out of recording which I don’t think it would. It’s not really something I’ve done before, incorporating digital equipment, but I think I might start doing it.
AA I hear a pretty eclectic mix of sound references and cultural musical ideas in your music. Would you say that came about from your own exploration, from working at Smithsonian Folkways, or from coursework, and also has fieldwork been a part of your ethnomusicology work so far?
JL It has a little bit. I did a few months of fieldwork earlier in 2012 and there’s definitely a lot more to come that will be part of my research. But in terms of the influences I’m drawing from, most of it is because I’ve listened to a ton of music in high school and college and playing a lot of music and learning to play in different styles. I played in the jazz band in high school and the orchestra in high school, and the jazz band in college. I listened to a lot of different types of music and tried to play them, sometimes unsuccessfully. And working at Folkways was great because one of the perks of working there was that I could listen to anything in their catalogue any time I wanted while I was working, which was great. I think in terms of what I do as student now though, I don’t actually work with musical materials that much. I’m being exposed to more music and actively listening, but it’s more of a personal choice.
AA What connection do you see, if any, between your academic and musical endeavors, considering the large academic project you are undertaking. Does one propel the other?
JL I’ve noticed about myself in terms of my recording output and the amount of music I am making, during periods of my life when I don’t have a lot to do, for example right after college a I was unemployed for a month I think, periods like that where I have a lot of down time and I don’t have a regularized schedule, I don’t actually record that much, I don’t get that much done. For some reason I think when I’m stressed out and have a lot to do, when I’m working long hours, those are the times when I appreciate whatever free time that I do have and I end up recording a lot more during that time. So, during the semester and things like that. I also record during my winter and summer breaks. A lot of it is about striking a balance. I’m consciously very, very cautious of not letting music making affect how I’m doing as a student, because I have to prioritize somehow. And that’s why I’ve made the sacrifice about not really touring or playing to many shows. I think just for me work and making music is about achieving that balance. In order to feel productive I have to be doing both to whatever extent I’m able to.
AA I’ve read here and there that you have a strong affinity for Washington DC and some of the music that has come out of that city. I’m from DC too, so I’m right there with you on this stuff.
JL Are you there right now? I noticed you were calling from a Maryland number.
AA I grew up in the city; my parents are divorced and my dad has the cell phones. I’m actually in Charlottesville right now.
JL Oh, really. I was just in Virginia. Do you know where Gainesville is?
JL My girlfriend’s parents live there and I was just visiting them.
AA Oh cool. Andrew Cedermark who played that Glasslands show is a friend of mine from Charlottesville.
JL I’m guessing you know Jacob Wolf then too?
AA Yeah, Jacob’s a bud. All those New Jersey dudes.
JL Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your question.
AA No, not at all. I’m interested in how you incorporate a somewhat diverse influence palette—punk, smoother jazz, world music. I’m also interested in how you incorporate influences in a not strictly aural sense. Beyond “I like this person’s music so mine sounds similar.” What are different ways an artist can use an influence?
JL You mentioned DC music. The stuff that Dischord was putting out in the 80s, hardcore and stuff, I’ve loved listening to that since I was in high school, and obviously I think my music doesn’t sound particularly anything like that in any real way, but it’s still had an influence on me. Sometimes in college, or even before that, in this band I played in in high school, I became super obsessed with the way a hardcore record sounds. There is complete continuity in terms of instrumentation and mixing and everything. I became really driven to have a band where there was, first of all, little dynamic range. If a song is loud, it’s the same loudness throughout the entire song and really throughout an entire album’s worth of songs, without any instrument changes. I played in this band in high school where that was really like the driving purpose of the band and just having some of that continuity. Beyond that, you know like, the chord progressions that hardcore bands use, I don’t really draw from that so much. I guess in terms of timbre … have you ever listened to the band Void?
JL The DC hardcore band—I can’t remember that guitar players name, but in terms of the sounds he made on his guitar, that’s one of the biggest influences on my guitar playing. I just loved the way his guitar sounds. There are moments on my records where I’m kind of approximating that, it doesn’t really happen that often. But things like that on a superficial musical level are things I think you can take away without sounding exactly like the band you’re inspired by. I think a lot of the bands I like the most, I don’t really make music that sounds anything like them.
AA Your body of source material is something of a patchwork quilt. Do you see any kind of tradition that you are coming directly out of either for composition of performance?
JL I guess several concurrently. I grew up listening to music that generally falls under the umbrella of alternative rock. That’s such a large, diverse, and potentially stupid term. I guess when I started playing music it was sort of the legacy of—I was really into Dinosaur Jr. I was really into making music that sounded a little more like that at times. That band that I was in toward the end of high school I was very much trying to write music like Brian Wilson. And I think that has also been a part of me in terms of songwriting and production: Brian Wilson has been a staple influence in my life in terms of how I’m making music. I guess that is part of a lineage of production and songwriting just in itself. But also Brian Eno on a similar note. Once I started listening to the way Brian Eno was writing music and recording music that really helped my focus on how I wanted to make music. So I’d say the combination of those two people is one thing I’m very much following. Other producers too, Phil Spector. I guess that’s more production. In music, the legacy I’d be following … I guess it’s a tough question.
AA No I thought the Brian Wilson/Brian Eno/Phil Spector was a pretty solid answer. One of my favorite Julian Lynch songs is “Travelers” from Mare. Can you talk a little but about the writing and recording of that track? There is such a soothing quality to the vocal melody.
JL Sure. Definitely that song … . I’m trying to remember all the songs on Mare … . definitely “Just Enough” … and maybe another one on there—there’s this beat-up guitar that’s at my parents house, a beat-up acoustic guitar that was just sitting in the basement, and only had three or four strings on it. And I was there my first or second year of grad school just visiting them and I had my tape machine with me and I thought the guitar sounded pretty cool. I was fooling around in open tunings with it, and this is how a lot of my songs get started, I find an instrument I like the sound of and I write some kind of pattern on it and record it and end up building upon it and using it, or not doing that and rejecting it or abandoning it. I usually don’t have guitar parts that are playing a double of the vocal melody but with “Travelers” I wanted to do that. So I recorded just a couple tracks of that guitar playing that melody, ended up writing words. That’s usually that last phase of the recording process. I can’t remember now if there’s organ on that song or not. I don’t think there is. On “Just Enough” I ended up recording some Farfisa organ over that same guitar. Then when I got back to Wisconsin I had gear in my apartment and finished off the track. Back when I used to use a Tascam 424 four track, you can double the tape speed with that machine, so I used to double the tape speed to record bass parts on a guitar that were an octave up and then reduce it again and then have my bass parts. A few months later I realized that song was among the few that I had recorded that would translate well live. That song has become a live staple; it’s a fun song to play live.
AA Yeah, I was really stoked that it made it into the set at Glasslands. Are there any guitar players beyond the guy from Void who really influences your playing?
JL Oh man, lots. Geez, I don’t even know how to narrow it down. There’s this dude named Tony Scally, he is the person I took guitar lessons from when I was in high school, and he also gave guitar lessons to Bleeker and Matt Mondanile from Real Estate, and a couple other people too from my town. Strictly speaking, that guy is the biggest influence on how I play guitar. I might be incorrect on this but my understanding is that he himself had taken lessons from the jazz player Pat Martino. Do you know Pat Martino?
JL He’s a jazz guitarist and I would say he’s an influence as well. This actually ties in with your question about musical lineages in a weird way. This guy Tony Scally was very influenced by Pat Martino and I in turn was very influenced by the way Tony Scally played guitar, jazz guitar mostly. I think in the most immediate way he is the biggest influence on how I play guitar now.
AA Do you use Spotify at all, and does digital music freak you out after working at Folkways? Are you a supporter?
JL No, it doesn’t freak me out at all. I mean Folkways has everything online. When I was working there one of the big projects was getting everything on iTunes. Which now seems like, you know, everything’s on iTunes. It was a big deal because of the thousands of albums they had to upload. I don’t use Spotify, I made an account once but I never ended up using it. To be perfectly honest I download music illegally but specifically they way I do that is I download music with the intention of listening to it and deciding if I want to buy it. So I just download stuff illegally from a blog or whatever and then I keep a running list of records I’m looking for. Based on that, if I end up finding them in a record store I’ll buy them. I don’t really think artists or labels are getting money from Spotify from my understanding.
AA No, they don’t. What is a piece of advice you’d like to offer to PhD candidates or to young composers?
JL For people who are doing any music related PhDs, I know a lot people do that who want to be musicologists or music historians, and love playing music, like really great piano players, but feel like they have to give it up because they have to write their dissertations of whatever. I guess my advice would be you don’t have to give up playing music just because you’re in a PhD program. You can do both simultaneously and still get by. It’s a little bit of extra work but it’s definitely very rewarding. My advice for bands of younger people that are just starting to play is that you don’t have to rely on music as a career. It’s the same advice as for PhD students. You can definitely do both. And don’t get discouraged if you’re not getting shows or something like that. No one really wanted to give me shows until like four years ago. It was like 10 years of playing music with no one paying attention. I grew up in New Jersey outside of New York City and no one ever wanted to give my bands shows or anything like that, which kind of make sense, they were like terribly unrehearsed high school bands. Music is not worth getting discouraged about. Keep playing, you never know, people might start paying attention.
AA My last question is: are you ready to reveal to the world the topic of your dissertation?
JL Yeah, weird question. I’ve been sort of tight-lipped about it and I’ll tell you off the record.