[ there's no place like home ]
by Edgar Ortega

I don't think I'll ever see through the music of Steven R. Smith and Glenn Donaldson. Regardless of whether they're playing by themselves, as Mirza or Thuja, their music always seems like an unwieldy yarn. Mirza's long-winded psychedelics are too oblique to count as epic, Steven's gray lonesome strumming is too cluttered for melancholy, and Thuja's music is too precious to cast off to the wide ocean of abstract improv. Their music jumps above the adjectives, dissolves when you think you've put your finger on it, and burrows if you try to look at it coldly.

Earpollution thought a brief visit with Steven and Glenn would reveal the hidden thread to their music. Perhaps after a conversation we would be able to hum along to their distended guitar lines, or know where a Thuja song will go after its opening minute. But we're still at a loss, unfortunately. Although they speak frankly about their music, we're short on answers.

First, a little music history. They grew up in Fullerton, California, and went to college together in Santa Cruz. They moved to San Francisco, started a small label, Autopia, and a tremendous band, Mirza. "We still had high hopes of being in a rock band and going on tour and stuff," says Glenn. "Me and Steve kind of shared that dream growing up, and then we just saw the reality of having to deal with different people and having to get it together for rehearsal."

Sometimes they speak of Mirza as if its jacked instrumentals had been instead the straight-and-narrow jams of a rock band. "We had a practice space and we played regularly. You know, paying the bill for the space, going to a studio to record," says Glenn. Yeah, but what about the unhinged guitars and feverish feedback? What about the roundabout songs that climbed higher and higher with a bang and a clash? Glenn looks back with skepticism: "We thought an album had to fit a certain idea, and so we let go a lot of the more jagged material."

Mirza faded away before its time when Brian Lucas suddenly moved to Spain and Mark Williams headed for New York in 1998 (Mark now lives in Thailand). It was all too sudden for Glenn, who for two weeks this year sifted through 50 old Mirza recordings and compiled a posthumous album. "Last Clouds was the closest to what we sounded like in the practice space, naively trying to reach some sort of bliss through insanely loud, free-form music," said Glenn in an early e-mail.

[ thuja - ghost plants ]
[ give a listen! ] "Track 03" MP3

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.

[ thuja - thuja museum no. 1 ]

In the warehouse, Rob has all these great plants, all these succulents and cacti that look like Doctor Seuss plants, so these are surrounding us as we play. He also has this huge moldy painting of a Viking ship going out to sea. I feel there's this fictitious journey that we're trying to create with the music.

You mentioned Rob playing bicycle wheels with a bow. What are you playing these days?

Glenn: I tend to play this Ace Tone organ, but I also play the bouzouki, the violin, the accordion, an electric guitar. We have so much junk that we haul over there. Rob has all these broken guitars; he's got maybe four acoustic guitars each with maybe four strings. You play them and they sort of ring and rattle. We just collect junk and instruments and try to incorporate them. Often times I hear the recordings and can't tell which instrument is which. To me that's an exciting recording; I feel like I'm listening to a new band that I just bought.

With all these instruments that are and they're not, does it take you a while to warm up?

Glenn: We've been doing it for a long time now and sometimes it just starts happening right away. We record pretty much everything we do, though only portions of it make it to the albums. I'm all for improv groups that have one session be an album -- that's great. But we decided to glean only the best moments. So what you hear on the album is maybe ten minutes of one hour-long session. We all really like improv, but we also really like songs and so we pick certain moments, or collisions of certain sounds that kind of sound like songs.

How do you edit the pieces together?

Glenn: We never really created any rules for ourselves. Me and Loren do the bulk of the editing, just because we're more obsessed with that type of stuff than the other two guys, and they're doing other projects and don't necessarily have the time. But yeah, we all have an input.

There's very little editing done. Sometimes you're hearing a passage that goes on for five minutes, or you'll hear two minute-long sections that overlap slightly because we liked one part but there was an annoying crash in the middle. There's no overdubbing, and occasionally there's a little equalizing or compression or reverb just to get the texture right. We do some crafting, but mostly we're using the raw material. There's only one microphone.

What music are you listening to these days?

Glenn: I do a lot of music writing, so I listen to different music all the time. I'm really into some of the stuff on this label from Finland called Lal Lal Lal. They're just doing this beautiful, free-form music. It sounds like mad peasant dances with crazy noises and mysterious artwork. I find it really inspiring. I feel it has a lot in common with what we're doing, especially with Thuja, but also with the Jeweled Antler label. There are these groups called Avarus, Kemialliset Ystavat, and a group called The Anaksimandros. I just like the mystery they weave with their music and artwork. I think it's pretty great.

In one of your e-mails you mentioned the possibility of Thuja going to Finland.

Glenn: Yeah, we kind of have this dream of going to Finland. Some of the guys are really into hiking and traveling and seeing forests and vistas and coastlines. We've made contact with these really nice people in these bands, and just have this fantasy of going there, but I don't know if it will happen. We actually had an offer to play in Stockholm, Sweden. We've put the idea in our heads to make the trip. We also have an offer to play in this gorge out in Oregon. So maybe we'll get a van and go camping and just try to make some recordings as we make out way up north to Oregon. We've actually done quite a bit of that around here. So maybe we'll turn that into a "rock tour" but, you know, only on campgrounds and national parks.

Are all four of you equally interested in this idea of recording outside?

Glenn: Well, three quarters of us are. You can ask Steve about that. He's more of an indoors guy. I'm not sure if he's actually ever been camping. Rob, Loren and I are really into the outdoors and derive a lot of our inspiration from that. Steve, I think, is more into imaginary landscapes than real actual ones.

Is this a point of contention?

Glenn: No, but you should ask him, it would be interesting to see what he has to say. Usually the trips take place without him. We haven't tried to harass him into doing it. He's probably afraid he'd get his boots scuffed up or something.

[ thuja - the deer lay down their bones ]
[ give a listen! ] "Track 12" MP3

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