English-language version of Damon Waitkus’ interview in Clair Et Obscur

published 11/16/18, by Pascal Bouquillard.


Pascal Bouquillard: The instrumentation of the band is really one of a kind: bassoon, violin, viola, clarinet, saxophone, hammer dulcimer (and more) in addition to more traditional rock band instruments like drums and guitars and bass guitar. Do you see JOTC more as a rock band or a chamber music ensemble?

Damon Waitkus: I see it as a rock band at the end of the day, because of the sorts of venues we play. If the music were instrumental we might have more flexibility, but soliciting chamber-type shows, applying for grants and whatnot, hasn’t been my approach so far. There do seem to be people who move relatively easily between the worlds, so it's probably something I should consider at some point. 


Pascal : If you had to choose, which side would you pick?

Damon: Both have their advantages and disadvantages. To generalize, you have perhaps more attentive, detail-oriented audiences in the concert hall, and better sound. With most rock bands, the guitarist’s amp is part of his or her electric sound, but because we play primarily acoustic instruments, amplification is not a native part of our sound itself but more of a necessary evil. The live sound becomes a different animal from the recordings in which these instruments can really speak acoustically—we’ve found a way to make it work, but it’s kind of a different band from the way we sound recorded, even before overdubs. (That’s one reason we’re eager to release a live album.)

I’m also not temperamentally wired to thrive in the world of late nights, noisy bars, unhealthy food, constant travel, etc.—it was over before it began with me, almost. 

That said, when I’m actually on stage at a rock show, I love it. The concert hall is no substitute for that ritualistic energy. It’s an altered state. I think I’ll always want to return to that, no matter what I do.  


Pascal: You have mastered the improbable balance between rock music and chamber music but one could argue that this might be the reason you lose some rock fans that are disoriented by your classical approach and some others who would expect some more rocky beats. Would you be ready to make some small adjustment to reach a bigger audience and what is the opinion of the rest of the band toward such a goal?


Damon: The short answer is no. 

Long answer, more of a maybe: it depends on what adjustments I’d have to make, and why I was making them. People can always sniff out inauthenticity. “I betcha thought we couldn’t do it” didn’t get Gentle Giant anywhere with fans of the Ramones. I’m certainly ready for a change, but I have to be able to grow into the change organically—it takes too much effort to bring something to completion to waste energy on anything that isn’t as close to exactly what I want to hear as I can make it. 

The rest of the band is, I think, in agreement on this. 

I’d welcome a bottom-up change at this point, though. I’m no more a fan of deliberate obscurantism and complexity for its own sake than of “dumbing down.” And in fact, the five or six songs I’ve written over the past year and have started recording and rehearsing with the band are a good deal shorter, punchier, and in a way more straightforward than most of Repetitions. There is a minimum of notated content and a premium on directness, leanness, and honesty. It’s not “prog rock,” and could well turn out to be a more accessible collection than much of what we’ve done in the past. When it comes time to start molding this set of songs into an album, I’m interested in setting some limitations on style and mood. I have some work that I know won’t fit—too experimental or proggy. That may see light of day eventually too, but for the moment I'm curious about the generative potential of limitation. 


Pascal: Thanks to 70 progressive rock we find nowadays more open minded listeners that will appreciate a more complex approach to rock. It seems to be less true with classical music listeners when one remembers how poorly welcomed was Frank Zappa when he crossed the line toward classical music. Would you agree with this? I know you have already crossed the line. Have it reached classical audience?  Is this something you would like to do more?


Damon: I think you’re right that there was more conservatism in the classical world than the rock world, almost by definition. Frank Zappa did seem to have a tough time being taken seriously, for no good reason as far as I can tell. But that’s changing a good deal now, isn’t it? A lot of young and even not so young composers of so-called New Music claim some rock influence, and its nothing new for them to have played in rock bands. There are certainly still some silos of self-appointed elites, particularly in academic music, but they’re tautological nonentities as far as I’m concerned. 

 

Pascal: I had the feeling that you had left more room for the other musicians of the band creativity in your previous album “repetitions of the old city I” compare to the latest. Is that true? What happened?


Damon: Both albums were recorded at the same time, so it’s not like it was a progression from one to the next. I guess I was most eager at the time of Repetitions I to showcase the stuff we’d all written together, and those particular songs happened to flow well and work well together thematically too—in any case, the more collaborative songs happened to end up on one album, and the rest of the songs, which were more me, ended up on the other. But it’s not as if I decided to restrict others’ input at any point.


Pascal: In this album You write, compose and even come up with most instrumental parts.  That is a very classical approach and it gives an amazing coherence to the whole but Aren’t you afraid that minimizing the other members’ musical freedom could end up being a problem for the band?


Damon: Jason and Jordan both compose extensively for other projects. JOTC couldn’t accommodate the range of what they each want to do, nor would it be the best outlet for much of it—we all have our strengths and weaknesses. When Jordan or Jason have had an idea he’s thought appropriate for JOTC, he’s brought it in and we’ve worked on it. This is true of Emily as well, who has contributed a few violin parts that have become lode bearing elements in songs. Kate doesn’t compose but has been integral in making structural and practical decisions about pieces while we’re workshopping them countless times. 

I discovered over time that in order for this to feel like a coherent project to me, I needed to be sovereign in two areas: lyrics and production. Those are my territories. I’ve also had de-facto control over song forms, largely because the lyrics make certain demands on pacing and length, and I still end up doing most of the composition, but I’m not controlling in that area. Being a lover of counterpoint, though, I can’t always farm out the composition of the individual parts to the players—some of the material has to be composed whole. 

There isn’t a struggle in this department as you might imagine, and in fact I think the others like working this way. It can be anxiety-producing not to have a leader—and in the past I’ve even erred too much on the side of deferring decisions I was perfectly capable of making in order to make sure others didn’t have alternative ideas. When someone has an idea, we always try it out, and much of the time we go with it. I don’t hold onto my parts with an iron fist. Drums I almost never compose on paper for, because I will never write as naturally as Jordan plays, I just give him a chart of the meter changes and verbal ideas about general texture or feel. This is true of a lot of the bass lines as well, and certainly of the violin parts—we are constantly adjusting Emily’s parts to make them sit better, and often the parts I compose derive from thematic material the players developed themselves in rehearsals. 

 

Pascal: In your wildest dreams would you like to play all the instruments of all tracks like Mike Oldfield used to do in “Tubular Bells” or do you see the other members of JOTC as full partners of the compositional process?


Damon: I’m not really in a hurry to play everything myself, at least with conventional instruments, though I hold that option in my back pocket for a future time in which I don’t have such excellent musicians around me. I’ve done that sort of recording in the past, simulating a rock band with overdubs, and the drums in particular just end up sounding sub-par. One person can’t do everything as well as specialists can (unless you’re Stevie Wonder). I’m always amazed at the life other players bring to my recordings—when something starts languishing, that’s when I call in a guest, a new instrument, a new personality. Each individual contribution to a recording literally adds a dimension, a new perspective on what’s happening. 

If I did do that sort of album in which I play everything, it would be unconventional instrumentation and orchestration, focusing on what I can actually play decently. I’ve thought about doing a long-form “symphonic” hammer dulcimer piece, for example, composed-out, lots of overdubs. It’s something I haven’t heard that I’d like to listen to, so I might have to make it. But you probably won’t hear me simulating a rock band all by myself, that’d be embarrassing…

 

Pascal: The connection between what you described in the lyrics and the overall feeling that the music gives to the listener who does not read the lyrics is kind of a far stretch. Is this something deliberate?" is that there is sometime a disconnection between the feelings the music gives to the listeners who does not pay attention to the lyrics and what the lyrics actually describe. I am referring to the 'into the fire" ( an absolute nightmare but not only) and I was wondering if it was deliberate or if it happened only because the lyrics and the music came at a different stage of the creation process.


Damon: The resonances and tensions between words and the music are exactly the purview of songwriting. That’s why people do it instead of writing pure prose or instrumental music—there is something to be exploited in precisely this area, and more than that, something magical and inexplicable. You certainly have songwriters who err on one side or the other. Bob Dylan is a classic example of a songwriter who has much more subtlety in his lyrics than in his music—but even there, you can’t deny that his best songs are the ones in which the music (including his too-oft-maligned singing style which I think is quite expressive) does impart a unique torque on the words. On the other end of the spectrum, you have 99% of art songs from the contemporary concert music repertoire, which grab great poetry and murder it with melodies that bulldoze over the subtle lyricism native to the poems themselves, or take a totally inappropriate tone. Emily Dickinson doesn’t deserve the drubbing she’s gotten through thousands of “art songs.” 

I’m kind of a songwriting purist in that I don’t believe in setting poetry (though Ives’ “Serenity,” which we covered, is one exception—there are always exceptions), and by the same token I have never been really into reading printed lyrics, except to get clarification.

When I’m writing, it’s exactly these tensions (as well as resonances) between the words and music that make me want to write a song in the first place. “Fireplace” was written so long ago that I frankly don’t remember how it started, but it’s a good example nonetheless because it does illustrate this fruitful disconnect. I wouldn’t say it’s quite a “deliberate” process because that word implies that I can precisely explain the mechanics of what I’m doing—dissecting a song is more like dissecting a living being than a machine—and I view my process as much more of an unconscious than a deliberate one when it is working best. 

Still, I’m well aware of any tensions and usually trying to play them up, to work with them. With “Fireplace,” I found something compelling about having a tightly-metered, playful, almost nursery-rhyme like text to relay a story about self-immolation. Maybe it helps bestow a sort of mythic quality, breaks it out of the strictly literal world of prosaic storytelling. The music does similar things. It’s a party scene, and the music’s density and speed recreate the fast-paced, undigestible complexity of a roomful of competing conversations and billowing emotions. Seeming incongruities between the music and the lyrics can bring humor into a piece as well, which is certainly a part of “Fireplace,” albeit a sort of black humor. 

Oh, I could go on forever on this subject, this is the very heart of why people write songs! That tension and its resolution is what it’s all about.


Pascal: What does the title “Repetitions Of The Old City” mean?


Damon: I don’t like to pin it down. It’s a phrase I found written in an old journal, and don’t remember its origin, but I found it takes me places. There’s something holy about repetition—it’s ritual, but it’s also habit, unconscious repetition, repetition compulsion, it has the capacity both to free us when deliberately yoked to a redemptive practice, and to draw us down to hell. As Bowie says, “there is no hell like an old hell.” The city is also a holy thing, a living human creation that outlives generation after generation, that evolves but also has its foibles, ghosts, characters. An individual human is a sort of city too. 


Pascal: The lyrics of your last album make me think about Peter Gabriel’s lyrics on “the lamb lies down” where “afraid of fucking” would be “counting out time” and “into the fire” would be “the lamia “. I heard that Gabriel was very much into the automatic writing in those days. To what extend your approach is similar or different?


Damon: Repetitions is far less conceptual than the Lamb, and the moods are very different to me, though on the surface I guess I can understand how “I’m Afraid” can be seen as a sort of comic take on adolescent desire like “Counting out time,” and “Fireplace” can be seen as a sort of Dionysian underworld encounter a little bit like “The Lamia.”

 I’ve almost never done automatic writing. Both of those Peter Gabriel lyrics are way too consciously organized to have been produced by automatic writing in any strict sense either, though he may have been doing that elsewhere at the time, like in the liner notes, I don’t know. 

I certainly want the unconscious to have a good deal of sway over the lyrics at their inception, but the words go through lots of revisions before they get to the finish line most of the time. “Island Time” is an exception—that one I just wrote, words and music more or less together, in one sitting, and never wanted to touch. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to stream of consciousness recently. 

 I like the term one of my creative writing teachers introduced of “controlled ambiguity.” It’s not a matter of there being a definitive meaning to the words, but I do think the writer is responsible for knowing as many of the publicly-traded associations and cultural resonances of the various words he or she uses. You have to know where your words can have multiple meanings and take responsibility for all of their freight—you can’t say “no, I meant this but not that,” or it’s sloppy writing. 

 

Pascal: The lyrics of your last album describes some kind of post apocalyptic nightmare. Is this kind of stories something you like to read in novels or watch in movies? If so, could you share some of these novels and movies?


Damon: There really was a blizzard in the Northeast in 1978—it was large but not properly apocalyptic. What you get in Repetitions II is a dreamscape, a condensation of dreamlike images and emotions, and indeed a lot of it came out of my actual dream life. Snow carried so much weight in my unconscious for such a long time and I found myself writing about blizzards so frequently that I realized that I should try to group that work together and see what coalesced out of it. (“Fixture” from our “Night Loops” album is one that I cut from the same cloth, but it sneaked out early.)

The blizzard imagery is from my own experience growing up in New England. Repetitions is from my own dream life far more than anything else. When I was in my 20s I was having a hard time coping with my parents’ alcoholism and early dementia, but lived a continent apart from them. A weird epiphenomenon of the isolation they fell into, which is a feeling I struggle with myself to this day, is that the house they lived in, the house I grew up in, almost seemed to become a living character in my life. I would visit it in dreams, usually in the dead of night when they were asleep, and be comforted by its automatisms—the radiators breathing into life, the old familiar kitchen clock.

I know some people say that sci-fi is “truer” than life in its purity of fantasy or whatever, but for me it is too escapist; I’d rather encounter a claim on real experience that endeavors to really wrestle with the weirdness that people experience every day, because it’s certainly there. 

The stuff that I got really excited by when I was wrangling with the darkest part of the era that generated Repetitions was Kafka’s short fiction and Beckett’s plays. Kafka is on one hand hopelessly and fatalistically caught up in his family and heritage and on the other almost clairvoyant in his connection to archetypal information. “The Cares of the Family Man,” one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing, is endlessly enigmatic. You can’t put it in its place with theory or biographical information, not completely. You can’t even do it with archetypes—the thing still scintillates. Wish I could read it in German. 

Emily got me a great collection of video productions of Beckett’s plays years ago. “Krapp’s Last Tape,” directed by Atom Egoyan hit me hard, as did “Happy Days” and a many of the others. Beckett does death-in-life very well, which was always a subject I was sensitive to, but there is a transcendent element in there as well, partially in the language itself. He’s deeply musical in an incantatory way, and this comes out in the plays more than in the fiction. And I believe his work to be deeply spiritual as well, though that’s a slippery word. I thought it paired well with Morton Feldman’s music, that Feldman truly got him. 

In movies, it was the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman that did it for me during that time, most notably in his masterpiece “Synechdoche, New York,” which could even be called sci-fi if it wasn’t so deeply, truly dreamlike. To make art that is truly dreamlike is hard—it’s not “anything goes” by a long shot. There is a deja-vu familiarity to it, as I suspect there will be in the experience of death. You can’t fabricate it, you just find it. You get it in Lars Von Trier’s best work too: “Melancholia” (there’s an apocalyptic one), “Breaking the Waves,” and “Dogville” being my favorites. A true reckoning with dreamlike truth is what I’m after in movies and literature, and in my own work if possible. 


Pascal: Do you see yourself more as a writer, a composer, a singer or a stage performer?


Damon: That’s funny, I think you more or less got the hierarchy right there. 

I love all of those things, truly love them, but once you get down to singing and stage performance you get into territories that come a little less naturally to me than writing and composing, which you’ve heard me blab about a lot already. 

I work hard at singing. I like my voice and feel I am often the only one I want delivering many of my lyrics, but I don’t have as broad a palette in the vocal department as some singers. This is one reason I like to have other singers in the band. I’m able to bring a greater diversity to my recorded sound by experimenting with radical EQ’ing, choral multi tracking effects, harmonies, contrapuntal vocal textures and whatnot, but I love all those things to begin with and would do them with other singers as well. 

The singing is where the real performative pleasure sits for me: the emotion and human connection, the connection to the words, the reason the whole thing exists. It is what drew me into my parents’ record collection when I was young—rich vocal harmonies—and what led me to take part in choral singing in college. Without at least one other solid singer to harmonize with, I don’t feel complete performing live. I might like to start a new project at some point in which there are several strong singers, in which more of the structural heft of the compositions is borne by the voices, as is the case in some of our recordings but hasn’t ever been quite possible with the live band. 

To the last part of the question: I really appreciate a good stage presence when I see it. Theatricality is not my factory setting, and I tend towards introversion and understatement in interpersonal interactions. I know you’re supposed to exaggerate gestures on the stage, but it hasn’t felt authentic for me to do that. At the same time, performance electrifies me inwardly and I can’t help but think that when my mind gets out of the way some sort of quiet intensity does come across to the audience. 


Pascal: What was your musical life before JOTC?

Damon: I took piano lessons for ten years as a kid and was self-taught on the guitar. Played piano and percussion in high school jazz and symphonic bands. In early high school I joined my friend’s grunge band as a drummer, then later poached members from that group to form my own little acoustic-prog quartet, Queen Maud Land, which lasted a few years and was quite a bit like JOTC in high school rock band form, come to think of it. 

In college I commandeered an 8-track reel-to-reel and recorded an album more or less by myself, of which I made maybe ten copies, “One Light On In Sentinel Wood.” I also sang in choirs at the time and worked a good deal formally at my voice. I wanted nothing more than to get another band going, but I had no confidence. At the end of college I found myself drawn to “serious” composition, in part just to learn my craft, though I was also opening up to all manner of diverse listening experiences. It was a time of exploration rather than coalescence. At this time I also became involved in a free-improv group in Boston that met weekly and improvised in total darkness, which I found very freeing. I then went to Mills College to get an Masters in Composition, and subsequently started a PhD program at University of California, Berkeley but left after a year, deeply turned off by academic music and the life it spelled out before me, and that’s when I formed Jack O’ The Clock!


Pascal: Is it possible to imagine you as part of a project that you would not have initiated?

 

Damon: I’ve contributed relatively recently to recordings by my friends, the songwriters Art Elliot and Eli Wise, also remotely to a project called Colouratura, and also performed several times in Moe Staiano’s guitar-ensemble piece “Away Towards the Light,” not to mention contributing to some of Jordan’s large-ensemble performances. 

I love collaborating, particularly on recordings, but don’t foresee getting involved in any invested long-term project that I don’t direct or at least compose for, if only because of limited time and energy. I’m not a capital-I instrumentalist or soloist in the sense of many jazz players—my strengths are composing and writing. When I want to get involved in music at the deepest level I’m capable, I probably have to initiate the project. 

 

Pascal: What are JOTC / Damon next project and what about the other members of the band?


Damon: At the present moment, something’s got to give. JOTC has frankly been on unsteady ground since Kate left for New York back in 2016, despite our having continued to play a few shows with others and bringing Kate back out to the West Coast last summer for a little tour. Although we have rehearsed some new material both with Ivor and Thea (saxes and voice) and subsequently as a quartet, the future of the band is uncertain. I don’t know if we’re likely to have another period like the one in which we wrote all the Repetitions material, with all five of us getting together twice a week for years and really honing the material as a band. That’s a bit sad for me to say because I love the other band members and miss spending all that time together, and now know what is possible for us. But there is a mysterious alchemy to a band that has been a little out of balance for us since Kate left. 

We all have to grow—I have had the slowly-snowballing feeling in recent years that I could continue working with the members of JOTC indefinitely and continue learning from them, but that I might be compelled to grow in more radical and unexpected ways if I didn’t have the band as a vessel. What I’m feeling right now as I enter middle age is a lot of other parts of myself coming up and saying “uh, if I’m ever going to develop into something, you might want to give me some attention soon.” Emily and I are starting a family, I’m becoming a therapist, and there are also other parts of my creative self that want to engage with other art forms. We’re also very much feeling the need to move away from the increasingly-unaffordable Bay Area and probably away from cities in general—JOTC has kept us here frankly longer than we would have stayed otherwise.

All that said, I’m kind of optimistic, even about JOTC itself, which sounds totally contradictory. We have so much old material that we can in theory get together at any time, with enough planning, and play a festival or do a little tour. We like each other’s company, so I imagine there’ll always be some motivation to do this from time to time, even if we live in different places. There will be more recordings as well. At present I’m recording the new material we have been working up as a quartet this fall as well as a couple of songs from the Ivor/Thea era. I’m also trying to get the guys in on a handful of other older unfinished recordings which veer more towards the experimental. When all is said and done, we’re talking about at least two more studio albums, plus a live album from 2017, in the coming years.  

Beyond that, I’m waiting to see how I want to continue engaging with music. I have some intimations of ways I could go which I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this interview—I will continue in one way or another, that is pretty certain—but it’s too soon to say specifically. 

Jason and Jordan are both continuing to be active in other projects, including the Fred Frith trio, and I don’t doubt that they will keep working together as well as separately. They are both powerful musical minds individually, and their musical partnership is also a formidable entity of its own. They are really one of the greatest two-headed-monster rhythm sections I’ve ever heard, let alone had the pleasure of working with. Jordan has been composing a lot and leading other bands, mostly instrumental. His large ensemble BEAK just released an excellent record through the nascent Geomancy records, which I highly recommend checking out. Jason has a heavier side and is developing a new project with a member of the Residents. Emily has formed a string quartet, which is a very old and deep musical love of hers. Kate too has returned to playing more classical music, and has recently been involved in an opera in New York.