English-language version of Damon Waitkus’ interview in Chromatique,

published 7/30/18, by Jean-Philippe Haas.

Jean-Philippe: To begin with this interview, please tell us about the genesis of Jack O' The Clock. What are the roots of the band ?

Damon: I was writing songs and had a band in high school, but took several years to focus on contemporary (instrumental) composition, which I was studying at Mills College in 2004-5 when I met another composer named Nicci Reisnour. She expressed an interest in starting a song band inspired in part by Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan album: folky and melodic but with a diversity of sounds worked into thoughtful, deliberate arrangements. We started simply, she playing harp, melodica and wine glasses and I playing acoustic guitar, hammer dulcimer, and singing, Emily playing violin, baritone violin and psaltery. A very folky, acoustic project at first. I was listening to a lot of 20th-century Modernist and contemporary composers like Morton Feldman, Charles Ives, Lois Andriessen, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Gyrogy Ligeti, and many others by day and singer-songwriters like Joanna Newsom, Leonard Cohen,  M. Ward, The Band, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, etc. by night. Nicci was also into Feldman and Gamelan music. Emily had been working on a lot of Modernist string repertoire at San Francisco Conservatory and Mills, and she and I also used to do a lot of free improvisation. That’s where the early band came from, some bizarre triangulation of all those disparate interests.

When Nicci left to study Gamelan in Bali and Jason, Jordan, and Kate joined (in 2008), Jack O’ The Clock really became a band. It became exponentially more exciting and satisfying to have a rhythm section. I almost hadn’t admitted to myself until then that that’s what I’d wanted all along. When that happened, my latent progressive rock influences, which were huge for me in high school, awoke. We never set out to become a progressive rock band per se, but I also can’t deny that  bands like Jethro Tull, Joni Mitchell, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, and later Laurie Anderson, Henry Cow, Zappa, Kate Bush, National Health, Hatfield and the North, Soft Machine, and others—the more expected pedigree, I guess—were all inspirational at one time.

Jean-Philippe: Jack O' The Clock mixes very different genres, I would say an “american folk basis” with a serious avant-garde side. So how would you define your music ? What are your main influences as a composer ?

Damon: I try to avoid defining our music, for better or worse—I leave that to others. Your definition works fine as a thumbnail to describe us, as long as we hold the terms lightly and don’t overthink it. I don’t owe anything to genres, just individual musicians and groups I’ve responded to over the years.

I once asked a songwriter after a show where her enigmatic songs came from and she answered “a lifetime of experience,” which was irritatingly irrefutable. I love actually trying to answer that question though, because I think I can retroactively identify, up to a point, the sounds that broke new ground in my ears and became foundational, but because they come from a lifetime of listening and living, most of which is only unconsciously registered, I can never answer the question exhaustively. For example, I love the sound of a major third with a minor second on top, particularly when the notes come in and out in of alignment in a seemingly random pattern. At a certain point in my 20s I revisited a seaside cottage my family used to stay in when I was a kid and realized that the three dominant foghorns you could hear from the cottage sounded on Eb, G, and Ab, and thereafter I started picking up on places I had been using that combination of intervals unconsciously in my writing.  Things like that happen all the time. Sometimes it’s not other music at all but the rhythms and pacing of a natural phenomenon, the cant of speech, the contrapuntal texture of a crowd of people talking, the memory of surf, any number of things all of which carry a particular association and strike a particular chord in the body. I believe that kind of thing folds into a listener’s preferences, along with temperament, as much as listening history.

As far as directly musical influences are concerned, at the very beginning, I had my parents’ record collection at my disposal. I loved the sound of vocal harmonies in a lot of the 60s stuff they had—Simon and Garfunkel, The Bee Gees, Moody Blues, Beatles, Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull—all music that was resolutely melodic. Voices always did it for me, drew me out emotionally more than instrumental music alone—when you could shuttle back and forth between the poetic reverberations of the words and the somatic experience of the music (along with the music’s own semantic content) and find some sort of mysterious, beautiful resonance between the two. I didn’t have to get the words as a kid to connect to that mysterious resonance on some level.

I also studied piano as a kid, and Bach’s contrapuntal sensibility got into my body indelibly, along with Debussy’s harmonic sensibility. I’m amazed at how foundational these two composers feel when I teach or listen to them today—so much so that I can almost not notice it. They’re like water.

In more recent years, alongside the jaunts into progressive rock, Modernism and so-called avant grade music, I became mesmerized by certain other music from around the world—Japanese Gagaku, Burmese folk music, African guitar-based music like Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen, Balinese Gamelan, Andean music, Arabic music, Bulgarian and Georgian choral music, the Iranian-Indian group Ghazal. It goes on. I’m basically omnivorous these days. There is great, great music happening all over the place, and like what Chris Thile (of the Punch Brothers) says: in so many words, that when music is at a very high level, it tends to transcend genre. Or genre and tradition sort of fall away into the background and to become less relevant, a means to an end, which I believe is some sort of spiritual transcendence.

Jean-Philippe: How did you meet Fred Frith (he seems to be very enthusiastic about your music !) who played on “Repetitions of the Old City” ?

Damon: I was really into his work in the early 2000s (especially the solo guitar album “Clearing,” which I still listen to regularly today, the large ensemble set “Traffic Continues,” and Henry Cow, among other things), and when I discovered he taught composition at Mills College in Oakland, I decided to try to study there. Emily and I moved to the West coast in 2003, Emily went to San Francisco Conservatory (and then later Mills), and I went to Mills and met not only Fred but eventually all the future members of Jack O’ The Clock, except Kate, as well as many of the other people who have played on our albums and shared bills with us over the years. So the band literally wouldn’t have happened were it not for Fred and the music he was making.

I actually didn’t come out of the closet as a singer/songwriter and form JOTC until after I finished my composition degree. In my insecurity I kept it a secret from Fred (and most of Mills in general), but Jason went and played Rare Weather for him behind my back. The next time he saw me he said “I’m pissed at you! Why didn’t you do this while you were at Mills?” On some level I’d felt I needed to finish what I started by getting the avant chamber music I’d been working on realized, but Fred recognized immediately that I put a hell of a lot more heart into songwriting.

In any case, Fred has been a pillar of support since then, recording with us, setting up shows, helping spread the word. And of course Jason and Jordan and Fred have become quite close, recording and touring together as the Fred Frith Trio.

Jean-Philippe: It's quite obvious that it's some sort of a concept album. So what story lies behind “Repetitions of the Old City” ?

Damon: Well…It certainly looks like a concept album, I admit, but I don’t think of it that way. I don’t really like working from a concept, in the sense that a concept is a top-down, idea-driven project—I want my mind out of it as much as possible. I tend to have a lot of songs underway in parallel—some almost done and being rehearsed with the band, others just words, others just moods, still others just musical fragments, and gradually they seem to group themselves into proto-albums. Mostly it is a range of lyrical preoccupation and mood that defines an album—not just what I happen to be working on at the time. There are songs Jack O’ The Clock hasn’t even played live since 2009 that are on Repetitions II: their moment finally came.

Most of our albums have more of a spirit than a concept behind them. All My Friends was loosely about, well, friendship, because I just noticed I had a lot of songs kicking around that seemed to relate in various ways to that theme, but it was never a decision which began with the idea that I subsequently filled in with songs—the content was there first. Night Loops, same thing: I seemed to have a lot of nocturnes kicking around.

I can tell you that Repetitions II is the younger of the two parts psychologically, and is thus in a way more prequel than sequel. Many of the songs concern adolescence and young adulthood, either topically or because, in a couple of cases (My Room Before Sleep and Unger Reminisces), they were actually written almost twenty years ago. The big pieces too—Miracle Car Wash, Sick Boy, Fireplace, Island Time—are old Jack O’ The Clock songs, written back in 2009-10. As such there is relatively less of my contemporary self, psychologically and spiritually, in this one than in Repetitions I. I almost waited too long to get songs like Miracle Car Wash recorded. It was like I didn’t want to go back there, but felt I owed it to my past self and to the rest of the band. I am proud of how it all came out in the end, though.

Very loosely, Repetitions as a whole is about the complexity of intergenerational development, the difficulty of overcoming traumas from the past, both intra-personally and culturally. I used to be more fatalistic about the endlessness of repeating, so some of the sentiments on Repetitions II in particular can feel a little heavy to me now. But that’s how my own adolescence and 20s felt, and may be more private association than written into the work itself. In a sense I had to have some of my nightmares come true to come out the other side of it and realize I was stronger than I thought. I have much more faith in healing than you’d think if you only knew Repetitions II. But maybe I overstate it—the unconscious has a way of insinuating itself at all times, and I found myself changing the spin of a lot of the older work in subtle ways as I worked on it. At the end of the day I have no idea how the end product will go over with others, it’s out of my hands.

Jean-Philippe: There are some very short tracks as well as very long ones on “Repetitions of the Old City part II”. Your music also mixes complexity and simplicity. For example, “Island Time” is a very quiet and simple track, while his following, “Errol At Twenty-three” has a much more complex structure. As the main composer, can you explain your creation process  and the contributions of the other musicians ?

Damon: Repetitions II is more heavily my work compositionally than Repetitions I and most of the other albums. It just worked out that way for some reason. There was a fair amount of compositional input from the others, particularly Jason and Jordan, on Repetitions I.

I like to use a variety of compositional methods to produce the music, and I think that contributes to the diversity of sounds and textures.  Sometimes I notate a piece almost completely using a notation program, guitar and keyboard at hand for reference. Sometimes I bring a song in a more singer-songwriterly way, just guitar and voice, and the others feel their way into it by ear in rehearsal. And sometimes I record something first, ostensibly composing in the studio without regards to practical/performative restrictions (I did this a lot with Night Loops) and we figure out after the fact how to play it live (or not). Many of the Repetitions I pieces I brought to the band in incomplete form, and then Jason would write a section, Jordan would write something to go over that, or I’d work out a melody to go over some doublestops Emily came up with on the 5-string. Sometimes we record improvisations in rehearsal and that leads to material. Everything but the I-Ching. Most often, however, I have a heavy hand in determining the ultimate form of the pieces since I write the lyrics and these make certain demands on the mood and pacing.

When I notate music, there is usually some back and forth with the members of the band, checking in with them on the ergonomics of the lines and the specific tonal qualities of the instruments. And if something sounds hackneyed or something, they’ll let me know—good melodic hooks and cliches hang out at the same watering holes, so it helps to have other ears weighing in to keep me in good taste. I’ve both gotten to know the instruments better over the years and loosened up my composerly insistence on things being a certain way. I’ll never understand the bassoon—some notes are always sharp, others always flat, and a G will have a totally different timbre from a G#—it’s a goddamn nightmare unless you like a certain amount of unpredictability and chance in music, which I do.

I should add that I have never notated the drums—you can always tell when a non-drummer notates the drums, it sounds stilted—but usually present Jordan with verbal textural ideas and time signature charts.

Something like Guru on the Road, which is newer, is on one extreme methodogically, being almost entirely notated, except where the violin and bassoon trade 4s and one section where the bass part leaves planet Earth—you can probably spot it—which I couldn’t possibly have come up with.   

On the other end is something like “Island Time,” which was one of those rare songs that seemed to be born whole, lyrics and music at the same time, no revisions. I sank into its world for 48 hours as a retreat from a crisis that was happening in my family, and the sad spirit of depressive wholeness pervades it. I gave it to Kate to sing.

“Errol” was a totally different process. In 2014, a friend and fan of the band, Zak Hannon, enticed me into trying Immersion composition—you set aside 12-hour slot one day and set an absurd goal—like try to write and record 20 completely new songs. No predetermined ideas, no revision. It does something for the creative process, to be sure. I did one day writing lyrics, a second writing music (I couldn’t bear to deal with both on the same day), with Jason doing his own immersion simultaneously. “Errol” was a product of that process, along with three other ideas (four was the best I could manage in one day) which have not seen light of day yet. At least one more of my ideas and Jason’s will likely appear on future JOTC albums.

In any case, the only idea I had going into “Errol” was textural: I wanted to start a song with voice and guzheng in unison, and it went from there. The funny episodic nature of that song is a direct result of the pressured process: Ok, that happened, what next? Uh, I don’t know, how about some sort of surf rock? Not the way I usually work at all, but it produced such a lovably goofy result to my ears that I more or less didn’t touch it compositionally when I brought in the rest of the band. As far as the recording was concerned, I left all of the original guzheng and guitar parts in there and had the foresight to record with a click, then overdubbed the others to flesh it out.

As for the varying length of the songs on the new album and by the band in general, that’s just what was called for in each particular case by the lyrics, the mood, etc. Some are just a slice, a moment in time, and don’t need to be drawn out. Others seem to want to become more of a journey. The 3-minute pop song was after all the result of the mechanical limitations of the first mass-produced recorded media and that that set the aesthetic standard that we all subsequently got used to and came to accept as if it were the “natural” length of the song, not the other way around. There’s nothing holding us to that standard now except cultural inertia. Its interesting to dig up traditional folk songs that have been recorded by contemporary musicians and discover there are fifteen verses that didn’t make the record, because the song would have had to have been three times as long. On one hand I appreciate a good 3-minute song and it’s not something I seek to deliberately subvert, but when something wants to be another length, I go with it.

Jean-Philippe: Another particularity of the music is that the electric side (mostly the bass guitar) coexists with the acoustic side : string instruments (violin, banjo…), sometimes unusual, like the hammer dulcimer or the ukelin, strongly grounded in America but with foreign origins. That's really the brand of the band, to my opinion. Is there a specific reason for using these instruments - in connection with the album's themes, or to show the multi-ethnic origins of american culture, for example - … or is it just that you like playing them ?

Damon: Closer to the latter. I like the sounds and the way they work together. I’m something of an aural omnivore—if I hear an interesting sound, most likely I’m plotting a way to work it into a Jack O’ the Clock piece. It’s only a matter of who happens to be in my orbit. My friend, the songwriter Art Elliot (Marty McGinn), happens to work as an organist in a church, so several times I cajoled him into letting me set up microphones and record him playing pipe organ, sometimes music I’ve notated and sometimes just improvising. You can hear a beautiful improvised organ passage of his in the opener to Repetitions II, Damascus Gate—he should get compositional credit for that. On more than one occasion we dragged some cranky priest from his bed to shut us down.

If I knew a good harmonica player, I’d have brought some of that in. Pedal steel is a sound I love, and I just discovered that our mentor and mastering guru Myles Boisen has taken it up, so there’s most certainly going to be some of that on the next JOTC record if I can help it.

That said, it’s not arbitrary. Each instrument carries a lot of cultural associations, residues of the ways it has been used over the generations. The bagpipes are supposed to carry across the Scottish moor, they’re going to bring something of that scale and grandeur no matter how you set them. An instrument owes another part of its character in my opinion to its ergonomics, putting the player’s body through certain types of gestures that have particular emotive imprints. This contributes to how the player feels about the instrument, which in turn influences the mood of the music that comes out. This part can almost feel archetypal sometimes. 

I don’t split hairs about needing to know all of the idiomatic associations of a particular instrument, because it’s more or less bottomless. I experience idiomatic associations as lovely flashes of resonance, flavor, color, but the moment they become more than a whiff, they fall flat,

By a similar token I’m not that much of an enthusiast for approaching virtuosity dogmatically, from the inside—I much prefer an approach I picked up from one of my former teachers, David Wessel, which is do dive into the deep end with a new instrument, feel out all the noises it can make and play with feeling right from the beginning. Include whatever extended techniques you stumble upon in your expanding lexicon, there’s no need to wait until you’ve learned your scales first. Spend enough time with the instrument—you still have to put in the raw, focused time—and you’ll develop your own weird autodidact’s virtuosity that no one else will be able to imitate and it will be so much more interesting.

Jean-Philippe: Your albums are self-produced. Is it a deliberate choice ? Isn't it a hard job being such an unusual band today ?

Damon: What do labels even do these days? In this little niche, I don’t know that a label would do anything for us, but I could be wrong. And the labels we would have been interested in seem to be going under, so I stopped bothering. If it were possible to reach a larger scale or I thought a label would open doors for us, I’d certainly consider it. But I have no regrets. I’ve been able to get seven albums out over the past ten years, develop as an artist and hone my skills as a producer and composer in a way that I never would have been able to if I was dependent on a label’s timetable. All that said, I suspect I’m being a bit stubborn for some reason about not asking for enough help getting the word out. I may change my tune on this.

This band still doesn’t pay for itself. It might almost do that if I stop producing physical CDs—continue to record, but release albums only digitally. I’m seriously considering that, for the aforementioned reason and because the world could stand to have less new plastic added to it. It seems a certain number of people still want the physical object, and I certainly understand that fetish, I feel it myself—I miss the trips to the record store, the whole ritual of it. But I can accept that it’s over. I have to trust that enough people will voluntarily pay me something for my music.  Many do when they don’t have to, which is both wonderful and necessary to keep this thing going. They’re musicians themselves a lot of the time.

Jean-Philippe: What's your point of view about the current music industry ? Do you think a band can do without a record company ? What do you think about crowdfunding, as a mean to stay independent ?

Damon: I’m hardly in a position to pronounce on the business as a whole as we’ve never really been a part of it. Jaron Lanier, many of whose ideas I find very compelling, has said he suspects the disappearing music industry is a bellwether for the entire economy. It is rough, what Spotify and Youtube are doing to musicians, to be sure, and I don’t know what can be done about it other than a radical retooling of the way the whole internet is structured. Good luck with that.

There may be a future in crowdfunding. We haven’t gone that route yet—some of us still feel weird mobilizing group funds for something as trivial in the grand scheme of things as our pet art project, but I suppose if I conceived of it as more of as a new model for equitable remuneration for musicians than as a charity, I might be able to get behind it.

At the moment, it makes a huge difference to us if listeners download our music, ideally through Bandcamp, rather than streaming it, not only because of the difference in financial model, but because the sound is hugely degraded when it’s streamed, whereas through Bandcamp our music can be downloaded at 24-bit, which is superior to CD quality.

Jean-Philippe: What are your immediate projects for the band ? Is there any touring planned in the next months ? (I don't even dare to ask if you think you will ever come to Europe !!)

Damon: Ah, I still hold out a fantasy that we’ll play in Europe some day, in some form! But no, playing live is not on the docket for the immediate future.

The band is in an uncertain place, to be honest, and we’ve come to the end of an era whether we like it or not. Kate has been in New York since 2016. We were able to bring her out to the West Coast for a little tour last summer and got a good recording of the final show in Seattle which we are going to release as a live album in the not-too-distant future. We have also worked as a sextet with Kate’s parts being covered by our longtime collaborator Ivor Holloway on saxophones and singer Thea Kelley, who joined us on Repetitions II.

Right now we’re starting rehearsals again as a pared-down quartet as we begin work on some new material. We haven’t rehearsed since last August, which is the first extended break the band has taken in ten years—a necessary one for various reasons—but I am ready to get something going again. I’ve been writing some new songs, in fact seem to be in the middle of a new rush of ideas (so glad to be done with Repetitions II!). I hear a tighter, more spare sound, fewer instruments, more economical writing, making more room for the lyrics, but we’ll see where we end up. I find myself really valuing vulnerability, directness, and gratitude. I’ve been on this layered, slow trajectory with all the older music for so long that what we release is often years old by the time others hear it. For once, I’d like to write a short album which really represents the present moment in our lives as closely and economically as possible.

I also have a number of wilder, unfinished recorded ideas a little more in the kitchen-sink avant vein somewhat more like Night Loops that I’m interested in bringing the other players into, so we might have one more avant-progressive boondoggle in us too,  but at the moment I’m prioritizing new work and the prospect of functioning live again. 

Regardless of what form we land in next, Jack O’ The Clock will likely continue as a recording and performing entity of some sort.

Jean-Philippe: Beside  Jack O' The Clock, I guess the musicians all have a “day job”. Isn't it difficult to handle both ?

Damon: We all teach music in one way or another, except Kate, who has a corporate/tech job in New York City, although I’m also training as a psychotherapist and have been doing increasingly more work in that area. Emily plays in a number of local orchestras and works in a violin shop. Jordan and Jason also gig a lot, sometimes paid, sometimes not. It’s a stretch for the four of us that live in the increasingly gentrified San Francisco Bay Area, and I suspect the era of creative music happening in this area may be coming to an end because of the mismatch between the cost of living and what it takes to be a working musician in this country.

It can be difficult, requiring sacrifices on both ends, but there is also balance to be found in living this way, at least for me. The psychotherapy work which I’ve been moving towards requires personal growth which in turn feeds back into my creative work. That creative work—which has been focused largely on the band for 10 years—in turn has slowed the process of becoming a psychotherapist a little, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The same can be said for starting a family: the growth that that has required has deepened and changed me, and though it’s taken some energy away from my composing and writing, it has also deepened and changed my composing itself in ways that I wouldn’t want to reverse. It’s all of a piece. One learns to become efficient and to focus on what really seems alive.

Jean-Philippe: One last word for our readers ? Something to add ?

Damon: Oh man, if you’ve read this far, thank you! Thank you for listening and for being interested. It means a ton to me to discover that people get something out of our music. And thanks to you, Jean-Philippe, for all of your support. Where would we be without channels like Chromatique for discussing and promulgating interesting and challenging work?