Chosen One: Date Palms
Interview with Gregg Kowalsky, Date Palms.
“For us, this album is a road trip album; Death Valley and the Yuba River definitely affected us in some way being out in the desert miles from no one or in the Yuba River surrounded by nudists playing congas and shenai like it was 1974. It definitely felt that way when we were there. So, the imagery of the Dust Bowl and the West falls into Americana landscape and culture that I think some of our sounds tap into. Dry desert heat. The good times we had with friends on these roads trips around California is essentially the glue that holds the album together.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Date Palms are the core duo of Gregg Kowalsky (keyboards, electronics) and Marielle Jakobsons (violin, flute, electronics). The band’s latest album, entitled ‘The Dusted Sessions’, conjures up the sound of the great American west – the vast desert plains surrounded by walls of towering mountain ranges – that fuses drone, ambient and psychedelia to beautiful effect. ‘The Dusted Sessions’ is the core duo’s third full-length effort, released earlier this year on the pioneering independent label, Thrill Jockey. A new chapter is very much arrived at here, as the band have evolved into a new entity – now a quintet – where the expanded lineup consists of Ben Bracken on electric bass, Michael Elrod on tanpura, and Noah Philips on electric guitar (the first for the band). Previous Date Palms records – ‘Of Psalms’ (Root Strata, 2010) and 2011’s ‘Honey Devash’ (Mexican Summer) were wonderful sojourns into drone and ambient domains, whereas ‘The Dusted Sessions’ delves further and deeper into new trajectories of sound. Like the dustbowl and the American west Date Palms draw inspiration from – Yuba River, Death Valley and beyond – ‘The Dusted Sessions’ expresses something truly cosmic and unique.
Kowalsky has released ambient albums on Kranky, and Jakobsons has released music on the Digitalis and Students of Decay labels. Both artists have been long-associated with ambient music, which effortlessly seeps into their collaborative work as Date Palms. The mesmerising melodies centered on hypnotic bass guitar lines, accompanied by keyboards, violin, flute coalesce together, amidst swirling electronics, and with newly added elements of electric guitar, provide daring and compelling soundscapes. Date Palms employ traditional rock instrumentation to create music informed by Indian classical music, country, minimalism, and spiritual jazz. Artists such as Alice Coltrane, Henry Flynt and the sound of the Americana tradition radiates majestically from the divine instrumental opuses, from the opening rays of ‘Yuba Source Part 1’, to the dark, eerie shades of album closer ‘Exodus Due West’.
As described by Kowalksy, ‘The Dusted Sessions’ is the “tropical heat meeting the cool waters.” A gorgeous ebb and flow runs throughout the album, much like the endless flow of the Yuba River, which encompasses both dark and light terrain. Part A of the record – based around ‘Yuba Source I’ and ‘Yuba Source II’ – is the score to the dawning of a new day, as bright tones and embellishes of violin and keys are prominently placed in the foreground. Part A marks the beginning of the twilight before sunrise, as the cosmic bliss of drone-based ‘Six Hands to the Light’ diffuses weak sunlight, as the sun itself remains below the horizon. ‘Yuba Source II’ forms a beautiful cohesive whole of soothing violin, keys and plethora of immaculate instrumentation (electric bass, guitar) that could represent the moment when the torching sun appears above the horizon. A therapeutic quality lies deep within this gradual music crafted by Kowalsky, Jakobsons and co.
‘Night Riding The Skyline’ forms the album’s centerpiece – a song that Kowalsky and Jakobsons first wrote before entering the studio – containing an infectious bassline groove, soaring electric guitar notes, and sprawling blues of rhythmic keyboards. A symphony is born here that heralds the arrival of dusk, as the darkest stage of twilight in the evening has descended upon us. The mood has altered on Part B, as a brooding quality emanates from the distorted guitars and emotive strings. ‘Dusted Down’ feels just that, as the electric guitar soars majestically amidst the swirling drone of keys and violin. The large expanses of Death Valley and surrounding Mojave Desert is similarly matched by the vast space inherent across ‘The Dusted Sessions’, which is ultimately a roadtrip of epic proportions.
‘The Dusted Sessions’ is out now on Thrill Jockey.
Interview with Gregg Kowalsky, Date Palms.
Congratulations on the incredible new album, ‘The Dusted Sessions’. It is a stunning tour de force where the music encapsulates the vast beauty of the American West and beyond. Please discuss the influence of the dust bowl and American West and how it filters into your music?
Thanks! In the past 15 years, I’ve lived in South Florida, NYC, Barcelona and Oakland, California. All of these locations have had some affect on the art and music I produce. Marielle is from Ohio, so California is still an exotic place to us even though we’ve lived here for almost 10 years. In that time, we’ve taken loads of roadtrips up and down the California Coast with stops in Death Valley, Yuba River, Tahoe and other incredible locations. We live in California, and Date Palms especially has been influenced by these trips. For us, this album is a road trip album; Death Valley and the Yuba River definitely affected us in some way being out in the desert miles from no one or in the Yuba River surrounded by nudists playing congas and shenai like it was 1974. It definitely felt that way when we were there. So, the imagery of the Dust Bowl and the West falls into Americana landscape and culture that I think some of our sounds tap into. Dry desert heat. The good times we had with friends on these roads trips around California is essentially the glue that holds the album together.
I love how the Yuba River is central to ‘The Dusted Sessions’. Can you shed some light please on the three instrumentals, ‘Yuba Source Part I’, ‘Yuba Source Part II’ and ‘Yuba Reprise’ contained on the album. The ambient pieces for me reflect the flow of the river itself and serves the gorgeous blood-flow to the record.
The material for those three tracks definitely flowed from one source. We composed Part I and II together, originally played one after another in sequence, but Reprise was actually composed during recording of the album at Lucky Cat. As with many Date Palms tracks, it started with a bassline, then the violin melody and keys followed. The feeling of morning rising is central to these pieces, and they are all connected in mood, key, and conjuring a sort of tropical heat meeting the cool waters. Recently in our live performances we’ve been opening the set Yuba Source 1 followed by Six Hands to the Light, and then Yuba Reprise, so allowing the container of the Yuba to take on a slightly different flow!
This album represents an extended lineup of musicians to include electric bass, electric guitar and tanpura. The core instrumentation of violin, flute, keyboards and electronics remains at the heart of the cinematic soundscapes. Please discuss for me this new incarnation and the new sonic terrain in which you find yourselves in. I think the presence of guitar is the first for Date Palms?
Well, the only instrument that is new for us on The Dusted Sessions is electric guitar. Our songs have always been some combination of bass, violin, fender rhodes, tanpura and electronics. Marielle and I wrote all the bass lines on the first two Date Palms LPs. She also played bass when we would perform as a duo, switching back and forth from violin to bass. We started performing as a trio with the addition of a bassist, so Marielle could flesh out her violin and flute parts. We knew we wanted to record The Dusted Sessions in a proper studio.
Prior to the studio sessions we had some local shows that our friend Noah Phillips would play electric guitar at. He played on one of our tracks from Of Psalms that we wanted to play live, so he joined us. It was during rehearsals for the local shows that the demos for The Dusted Sessions were written as five piece. We wanted to play these songs live in the studio. On our two previous LPs, Honey Devash and Of Psalms, Marielle and I wrote and played everything ourselves in our studio. So, the five piece came together organically, for lack of a better word. Just kind of happened. We went into the studio with the demos, which I really like, btw, and came out with The Dusted Sessions which was recorded live by Phil Manley.
I love the diverse array of influences rooted in your beguiling sound; from drone, ambient and psychedelia to spiritual jazz, country and Indian classical music. Can you discuss the records and musicians who have inspired you to create your own unique blend of music?
Sure thing. I’m ok with dropping our influences, because we take so many different influences, throw them in a pot and stir, ending up with a unique hybrid of all of the genres you mentioned. So we wanted this album to be steeped in the Americana tradition of music. Most of what we are influenced by came out of the 1960s and 70s; especially country music, spiritual jazz, minimalism and Indian Classical. If I were to list the albums that were on heavy rotation during the period of producing our album I would list: Anything by Henry Flynt (esp. Graduations and Novabilly), Les McCann – Invitation to Openness. We might take an idea like using the Tanpura as a rhythm component like it was performed on Alice Coltrane’s – Journey to Satchidananda.
Please discuss the recording of ‘The Dusted Sessions’? Did you envision from the outset that there would be an extended lineup? Also, I was intrigued to read one of the sessions took place during the annular solar eclipse of May 21st, 2012. I think this symbolizes fittingly your music.
Yes, kind of by accident, but totally appropriate that our final day of recording was the annular solar eclipse. We spent the day in the studio and when we walked outside there were all these weird shadows cast all over the place. Everything seemed strange, the light, the shadows, each other, the music.
It reminds of the Neil Young’s Shakey where he talks about scheduling a recording session during each full moon. He would record, then blast the recordings from a huge sound system in his barn. He would go in the center of the lake with a rowboat facing the barn and listen to the recordings made earlier.
It was a special day, and a great opportunity to tap into the cosmos…
‘Night Riding The Skyline’ is my personal highlight. I love the brooding quality that radiates throughout. The hypnotic rhythms and groove is sublime. Can you talk me through this song please?
Night Riding the Skyline is the bridge that connects our previous LP Honey Devash to The Dusted Sessions. It was the first track Marielle and I composed prior to going into studio. It’s also the only track on The Dusted Sessions that uses TR-77 drum machine, which was on both pieces from Honey Devash. We ran the “Rock 2” beat through a Space Echo and dubbed it out live. We usually will start off with a drone to hold everything together. Then, after adding the beat, we added the bassline, next comes violin and fender rhodes. For me, the funnest part of writing Date Palms songs is coming up with the bassline. Night Riding was previously released on a 2 x LP compilation on Immune Recordings for Record Store Day. Since it was recorded in our home studio, we took it into The Dusted Sessions and re-mixed the track so it would run through the same effects chain and mixing console as the other tracks from the Sessions.
I love the sequencing of the album, where the opening half is the dawning of a new day and closing half is the gradual looming of nightfall. What is the process involved in sequencing the album?
Yes, there is a definitely and dawn to dusk vibe on the LP; side A being Dawn and B being Dusk. We also make the connection to morning and evening ragas in Classical Indian Music.
We tried sequencing a bunch of different ways, but in the end, we liked the idea of having two different moods on the album. Without being too melodramatic, all of us in the studio during the 4 days of Sessions were going through personal stuff, love lost, etc. at the time of recording, and I think that feeling of impending doom was right around the corner lending the brooding quality of the second side of the LP. Also, both Marielle’s and my solo material use tension quite a bit; slowly building tension, but also with a sense of hope thrown in.
For me, I look at the two side of the LP as road tripping. Side A is a roadtrip through the desert with the hot sun above, while side B is more of post-apocolyptic, night time, Mad Max kind of ride.
What is next for you?
We have our Record Release show in Oakland on the 14th of June, followed by dates in the Bay in early September, then off to the East Coast and Europe for a few weeks of tour. After that, I imagine I will attempt to start working on solo material again before revisiting Date Palms. But, right now, my mind is focused on Date Palms material. Marielle is due for some solo music making as well, which I’m sure she’ll be working on over the coming months.
‘The Dusted Sessions’ is out now on Thrill Jockey. Date Palms tour US and Europe this September, for full dates please see here.