Ever since Mirza disbanded, Steven Randolph has ploughed his four-track for a hand-full of EPs and a half-dozen brooding full-lengths. He surmised his solo music in a pithy sentence in one of his e-mails: "It's mostly just working with sound and putting certain things on top of other things and trying to find things that I'm happy with." Well, he is consistently pleased with songs that evoke a dark night in a huge field -- the music is grand, a little creepy, and it makes you wonder if you need a coat.
Glenn is much less consistent. He partners up with a revolving cast of musicians for different projects such as Knit Separates, The Birdtree, Blithe Sons, and Skygreen Leopards. Glenn says he starts from the edges -- with a song title, an album cover or a band name -- and works his way toward a set of full-fleshed songs. Each set is very different but also very close to perfect; you've got the pastoral twanging of the Blithe Sons, as well as the sparkling jangle of the Skygreen Leopards.
Glenn and Steven, still smarting over Mirza's sudden end, rounded up another quartet in 1998. For Thuja, they enlisted the fantastically prolific Loren Chasse and Rob Reger, an old friend from Fullerton who also went to school in Santa Cruz. (Reger, incidentally, is the creator of the comic Emily the Strange.) Legend has it they improvise for hours, playing with broken guitars, bicycle wheels, cat litter and more regular junk. How do they get these far-out sounds to coalesce? Steven is tight-lipped: "Playing with them is just very natural and really easy. Really, we're just friends who have known and played music together for years."
The Glenn and Steven musical mystery grows even larger when it comes to Thuja. We asked Steven for a picture of the band playing, but instead we got two pictures of thuja trees. We asked Glenn if the band's name referred to the type of cedar, but he also pointed out that "it's a beautiful word, and it fits the forests of sound we are trying to create." We asked Glenn to tell us more about Thuja's three new albums, but he said he couldn't really describe two of the albums.
Anyway, we tried. We checked in with Glenn and Steven separately to see how they conjure up their music. Here's an edited transcript of our phone conversation with Glenn, followed by a month-long e-mail exchange with Steven.
Glenn Donaldson: I had roped Loren into doing the interview as well, but he hurt his back this weekend recording under a bridge.
Now, I know from Loren's website that he does a good deal of recording outside. What about yourself? Were you with him?
Glenn: Loren and I do a duo, Blithe Sons, that we put out on our own label, Jewelled Antler. We did an album that was a mix of studio stuff and field recordings, and the second album was pretty much all live outdoors. It's just the idea of getting different textures. Sometimes the studio space is fun to work with, other times it just sounds fake. There's all this rich sound that you can create under a bridge or in warehouse.
For Thuja, we've incorporated some outdoor recordings within the albums. Once, we found this beached fishing boat on a sand bar up north, and we played on the boat and incorporated the chain of the anchor and the sound of the water. But Thuja pretty much plays at Rob's warehouse. It's kind of a space in itself; it's really part of the music. He has these birds that are always chirping and sometimes you'll hear them in Thuja. Certain pitches will set them off and they'll just start singing in response to the sounds.
The recording on the boat, what album did that make it into?
Glenn: We put out these two three-inch CDs. They were these limited editions, which are actually gone, but they were called Thuja Museum No. 1 and Thuja Museum No. 2. We packaged them in these boxes, one with a small lichen encrusted stick, the other one had an ocean theme. We filled the box with shells and crab claws. The boat recording was on the ocean one.
So you had done a few albums prior to The Dear Lay Down Their Bones?
Glenn: We've been playing since late 1998 and Dear Lay Down Their Bones came out in 2000, so we have a whole backlog of material spanning from 1998 to now. We record pretty much everything we do, but we pick certain moments where particular sounds collide in ways that sound like songs. The three new full-length records coming out span pretty much our whole time together. And actually, I just kind of edited a fourth one.
Steve lives in Los Angeles now, so we often play in trios. Two of us will go down and play with him, or the three of us will play up here. We rarely play as a quartet now. He recently came up to play a show with us, so we have this great really long recording. I'm probably going to edit that into another album some when.
So you get together at this warehouse and improvise. I guess you bounce ideas off each other and listen out for what others are doing. Can you tell me more about the process?
Glenn: All four of us have our own obsessive ideas about music. Each person in the band has their own solo projects and different desires for what they want out of music. For instance, Rob was doing a lot of piano and we told him that maybe we had enough recordings with piano. The next week he started playing bicycle wheels with violin bows. It sounds like a wild drone sometimes, it's almost like a wind instrument. In Thuja, the only ideal is to create this mood or these moments. To me it's very mysterious and I like it that way.
Thuja is more like, "Hey, does anyone feel like doing Thuja today?" And then we just go over there, haphazardly carrying weird instruments. We sit around, make key and then go into these sound meditations or whatever. Something happens when we get deep into this music. Loren described it in a Wire article as doing weird yoga, and I can't think of a better way to describe it than that. It just feels really good and dreamy and strange and mysterious. We always leave feeling really...relaxed.