Step Right Up: Justin Walter
Interview with Justin Walter.
“A lot of what is happening here is more a response, or reaction to what first took place. Sometimes it’s a very intentional response, and other times it’s a mix of intention and chance.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Released on the world-renowned Kranky label last year, Justin Walter’s ‘Lullabies & Nightmares’ LP heralded a new and singular voice in ambient music exploration and contemporary music as a whole. The Brooklyn-based, Michigan-bred artist and composer creates utterly captivating, multi-layered compositions, primarily based on the Electronic Valve Instrument and held sounds of the trumpet. In addition, windswept layers of electronics and kalimba are wonderfully interwoven in the music’s rich tapestry. Having been a trusted companion this past year, ‘Lullabies and Nightmares’ endlessly reveals new insights and meaning upon every visit. Walter’s dreamlike tour-de-force is a resolutely unique record from a highly gifted composer and musician.
Walter was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the United States. His most recent explorations are centered around the Electronic Valve Instrument, a rare wind controlled analog synthesizer. Prior to the latest Kranky full-length release, Walter released two (equally) exceptional musical projects on the Life Like label: 2012’s ‘WALTER’ double cassette and the ‘Dark Matter’ 12″ later in 2013. Justin Walter is also the longtime member of renowned Michigan-based eight-piece NOMO — signed to the Ubiquity label — whose visceral and energetic rhythms are influenced by such diverse sources as free jazz, Afrobeat, street performing artists such as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and post-rock luminaries such as Tortoise. Additionally, Walter has also worked with numerous bands and artists over the last decade including: Iron & Wine, Wild Belle, His Name is Alive, Saturday Looks Good to Me, Skeletons, Megan Byrne and Randy Napoleon.
About the making of ‘Lullabies & Nightmares’, Walter has previously stated:
“I set out to record an album of completely improvised music that fused my experiments with the Electronic Valve Instrument and my love of held sounds on the trumpet. In recent years I’ve come to see the trumpet as an instrument that speaks in slow and long sounds, with meaning coming from the shape and inflection of each note. The process for this was fairly straight forward, record lots of improvisations. Of the songs on the album, most are one take improvisations with the only overdubs being drums.”
The enlightening world of ‘Lullabies & Nightmares’ represents the latest chapter in this special composer’s journey as boundaries are blurred between the organic and synthetic — light and dark — across the album’s eleven heavenly tracks. While Walter quietly weaves his singular art and navigates his own personal dreams and nightmares across ‘Lullabies & Nightmares’, he manages to conjure up and confront both our brightest of hopes and darkest of fears in the process.
Interview with Justin Walter.
Congratulations on the stunning debut album ‘Lullabies And Nightmares’. You set out to create an album of completely improvised music with the fusion of your experimentation with the Electronic Valve Instrument and held sounds of the trumpet. The results are staggering where a dreamy, surreal atmosphere is captured that effortlessly fuses light and dark textures. Please discuss for me the process involved in recording these compositions and how you have developed your unique blend of improvised music?
JW: Thanks Mark. The process I used to record most of this material was fairly straight forward. I’ve found over the years that when I write something and then go to record it, it never quite sounds how I imagined it, or intended it to sound. And so with this, the process involves either first take improvisations, or first thought add ons. A lot of what is happening here is more a response, or reaction to what first took place. Sometimes it’s a very intentional response, and other times it’s a mix of intention and chance. On some of the songs, you can hear a simple melody at first, the rest of the song is created by sampling and sequencing this melody and then manipulating that material to create form, tension, variation and so on. Most of the time it ends up being something that I’m not really interested in aesthetically. I’d say that the music that made it to the album represents around 10% of what was recorded. I wasn’t really interested in going in and making things happen after the fact, or even composing anything for that matter. I’ve been recording music in my bedroom this way for a long time and I find that the real spark for me comes on a first take. There’s something that’s tangible, a risk and a sense of truth when you just play what you’re feeling. But, like I said, most of the time it’s just this process of trying. It’s a long process this way, learning ways over time to direct things, but still failing most of the time.
You have been intensively exploring the EVI, a 1980’s synthesizer/horn hybrid. This instrument forms the intricate framework to ‘Lullabies And Nightmares’. Take me back to first discovering the EVI; your fascination and love for this particular instrument, and the possibilities sought?
JW: Initially I sought to play it like a trumpet, linearly. It’s very hard to do that and I gave up even trying a long time ago. There are some great players out there though that have put in the time and can really get around on the instrument. What became fascinating for me was when I first realized that the underlying structure that the instrument operates on is not really like a trumpet at all, or any instrument for that matter. It’s very easy to play a simple melody and alter the melody up and down 4ths, 5ths, and octaves in a way that seems more intuitive that conscious. And with the exception of a couple notes, moving around in 4ths, 5ths, and octaves generally sounds really good. So you can alter, or embellish melodies while playing them and not lose sight of the basic melody in your head. This would be impossible to do on most instruments. This was sort of the beginning for me and from there it became more about what I wanted to do with that, in terms of saying something that means something.
I must say the intricate detail and range of instrumentation — the fusion of the synthetic and analogue — creates a deeply immersive journey that becomes more meaningful each time I venture down ‘Lullabies And Nightmares’. For example, I love the use of live drums (Quinn Kirchner) on certain tracks (‘Plastic People’, in particular) and the pristine production by Erik Hall. Can you talk me through the challenges (if any) of capturing the special spark of spontaneity as you added layers of instrumentation to these tracks, and the complexity that must be involved when fusing electronic elements and acoustic sounds of trumpet into a composition?
JW: I’ve been playing with Quinn for a number of years now and I knew that having him come over and put his voice on what we (Erik Hall and myself) had been working on would be great. At the time, we didn’t have anything finished, just a ton of one takes, most of which ended up in the trash. Quinn must have played on 12 songs or something. I spent a number of weeks going through what had been recorded and basically picked out what I wanted to use. There’s definitely an intent there. Layers, tape echo layers, all sorts of top secret drum stuff. 🙂
The title for me is such a fitting testament to the record’s sonic journey: it really captures the ethereal, mysterious atmosphere (that is brilliantly sustained throughout the eleven tracks) and the wonderful contrast between light and dark. Please discuss the title choice and indeed, the themes of ‘Lullabies And Nightmares’ and what it means for you? I simply love how you feel an out-pour of emotion being unleashed from the sonic timbres and textures across the record’s awe-inspiring sonic terrain.
JW: Thanks Mark. The title is really just about life. Sometimes it’s really great and other times it’s really bad. So there wasn’t really any decision made about having an album with titles that were about dreaming or anything like that. It must have just been were my head was. All of the songs were titles with the first thing that came to my mind, and that was that. ‘Sister Sleeper’, for example. I’m not sure what that means, but the words popped in my head and I liked the imagery they created and so that was that.
My personal favourite must be the album’s title-track. I have listened to this sprawling opus innumerable times, and still find new meanings and hidden details. The moment that layers of uplifting brass sounds arrive into the forefront of the mix is nothing short of breathtaking. The song is built on several distinct movements, I feel, where a wonderful dynamic and feel is forever sweeping before your eyes. Can you shine some light on this piece please, Justin? Which parts first came into the picture and how did you manage to coalesce it together in the end? It’s a stunning tour de force.
JW: The opening bit was recorded in the first few days at Erik’s place in Chicago. It was just another take, if I remember correctly it was the 11th take we did. From that I did a pass with the sequencer and that was the form. I had a few beers and did a pass with the trumpet. Had a few more beers and did a pass with the EVI and then the next day added on some horn section style parts. I agree that in looking at it first and all at once, it seems fairly epic, but it’s really just a few first takes that are all responding to the thing that came before them. I don’t know how it happened and I’m not sure I can recreate it. I do know that I wanted it to be simple and beautiful and that’s what I tried to do.
I love the held sounds of the trumpet. It reminds me of Colin Stetson’s work and some of the releases from the ECM label. Can you recount for me your memories of first playing the trumpet and how your technique has developed?
JW: My first trumpet was given to me by Louis Smith. He’s a great Blue Note recording artist and a wonderful man. I’d say that early on I was mostly influenced by him and the more traditional jazz icons. I wanted to play like Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis. I wasn’t really that great of a trumpet player though, so I tried really really hard and often did more damage than good. I moved to New York to study with Laurie Frink, who just passed, and she helped me figure out how to play the trumpet. Now I really do know how to play the trumpet exactly how I want to play it, and it’s really fun for me. After spending most of my life trying really hard to become great at something, I’d say that now I really don’t think about it too much. It’s definitely freed me up to pursue things like this. But yeah, at first it was Miles Davis and Bebop, now it’s just whatever comes to mind.
‘Lullabies And Nightmares’ is home to the peerless independent Chicago-based music label, kranky. This in itself is a fitting testament to the music you have created. That must have been quite an honour? What records and, indeed, composers/artists have inspired you significantly in the pursue of your own art would you say, Justin?
JW: It is an honour. The label puts out amazing music. For this recording I was mostly inspired by Colin Stetson.
Interviewing Koen Holtkamp of Mountains earlier in the year, he explained, when discussing the music-making process: “…allowing for more experimentation in the studio and letting things find their place versus having a preconceived notion of what we wanted to do beforehand.” I imagine the former is (more) the case for ‘Lullabies And Nightmares’? Also, have the pieces you have composed been fully realized in your mind prior to the recording/producing/mixing stage of the album? Or are you very much open to changes at this point due to the nature of improvised music?
JW: A bit of both. There’s magic in an improvisation, but sometimes, if it so close and just needs a nudge then it’s time to nudge. I had no idea what I was going to play until the moment I played it.
What is next for you, Justin? How do you envision the follow-up to ‘Lullabies And Nightmares’ to sound like? Any other projects on the horizon?
JW: I’ve been working on a lot of new music. It’s really just what I do when I get off work. I’m working on things in a similar way, but this time it seems to be darker and more complex. A lot of material I’ll spend a month or two with and then just let it go. It’s the process of creating and looking for new sounds. I’m not sure when my next album will be done, right now it feels like I’m working on a series of paintings all at the same time and none of them are finished. It’s not a bad place to be.
‘Lullabies & Nightmares’ is available now on Kranky.