High Lonesome on the Autobahn: Land & Buildings make cosmic Appalachian electronica
The Appalachian Mountains and the German Autobahn are diametrically different creations in myriad ways: Earth-made vs. man-made; steep vs. flat; curvilinearly mysterious vs. linearly hypnotic.
But the duo Land & Buildings bring the sounds of Appalachia and Germany together in a way that is as natural as a mountain range or racing on a European highway.
Dominick Smith and Kendall Babl combine the high-lonesome sound of Highlands-inspired music with the gurgling cosmic drone of Krautrock on their second Land & Buildings album, Huron River Eclipse, which conjures the image of Will Oldham and Neil Young covering Cluster. I legit thought Huron River Eclipse's "Brandywine Harbor" was a Neil Young demo from 1972, while the title track evokes Conny Plank's Berlin studio in 1976.
Smith and Babel met in Chicago during what was supposed to be an MFA year together studying sculpture at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and they've been playing music on and off ever since. But it wasn't until 2013 that Land & Buildings became a thing, and in that same year the duo released its debut album, Hibiscus.
With Smith in New York state and Babel in Washtenaw County, it took a while for Land & Building to create its second album. Huron River Eclipse consists of mostly improvised jams that were later edited down by the band and Fred Thomas, who released the cassette on his Life Like label. It's a truly unique and gorgeous collection of lo-fi outsider folk and electronics.
I spoke with Smith and Babel about their kosmische Appalachian electronica.
Q: How did the project come together?
K: Dom was supposed to be in my MFA year. He deferred a year and I became aware of him as nice fella who worked at a sandwich place in the Loop who’d hook you up if you came past, tho regrettably I never did. He showed up in the studios the following year, and we got to doing impromptu jams.
D: Kendal and I met studying sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kendal invited me to bring over my old Moog Rogue one night to play with him. He was living with a few other artists in a rundown single-family home in Pilsen. They had the whole house and Kendall had the basement full of amps, analog synths, and a wonderful Rhodes piano. It was a special place to play, really dark and dungeony and we could play all night long at full volume and we often did. It would be the start of a regular pattern of hanging out, taking drugs, and making noise for hours at a time. It was a blast from the very beginning. The house would host regular parties so we started putting on shows for our friends.
Q: Was there any particular discussion of a sound you were going for before you got together to record? Were the songs and / or lyrics written ahead of time?
K: The sound was strange and free. Having played in rock/folk rock projects -- Matt Jones and the Reconstruction, most recently -- and been ongoingly mixed up in electronic music, I was thrilled at the prospect of an Appalachian/Krautrock-kosmische sound: idiosyncratic and discreet, and belonging to the irreconcilability of thrownness in America and a preoccupation with troubling ancestral histories. At some point early on we appropriated the name from a real estate firm in the Haruki Murakami novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The name seemed to evoke the possibility of finding the ineffable within the ultra-mundane.
D: There was a lot of playing and there was a lot of discussion on what we were hearing but I don’t think we ever tried to sound like anything. I think that playing together came first and what resulted was electrifying so we would talk about it a lot. I was born and raised in west Georgia right on the border of Alabama. I grew up in a Southern Baptist family and was introduced to church music, folk, bluegrass, and country really early in my life. It was always around and I always loved it. My parents loved it, my grandparents loved it and It left a big impact on me. I had been playing folk music for a few years by this time. When I moved to Chicago for school I was introduced to ambient, noise, lo-fi, and other more experimental stuff. So when I met Kendall I saw an opportunity to stretch out in a way I hadn’t really had a chance to yet.
Virtually all of the songs we ended up recording resulted from improvisation. We would just play and play, mistakes didn’t matter, and it left us with a lot of room to try things out. I’m pretty sure we both have learning disabilities; we almost never repeated songs. It was meditative. Kendal and I would work ourselves into a frenzy with the 'boards and I would open my mouth to sing. I would go back and listen to what we had recorded and transcribe the lyrics into real words sometimes if we wanted to make them into repeatable “songs.” More often than not we would work with motifs; if we knew we had a performance we would just jam the way we always did and try our best to trigger each other into playing something like the recordings. It was a lot of fun.
Q: Tell us about the recording process. It feels like a few mics in a room. Were there any overdubs? Who else plays on the album? In addition to the keyboards, I heard guitar, sax, trumpet.
D: I think one of the single most important aspects of our recording process is place. We have always played and recorded in “scenes.” We started as a band playing in a dungeon that we called The Clarion. It was the basement of the house mentioned earlier. We improvised, we would meditate with the instruments, and I would place myself in a narrative that reflected the mood of the place we were playing. After the Clarion we would record in the laundry room at another one of Kendall’s places. They were never overtly sad places but they were certainly touched by time and the mark of regular human lives, and that always gave me a lot to sing about. We’ve recorded in an old pool house in the Appalachian Mountains, in a dead woman’s apartment in Greece, the clocktower on top of an old organ factory in the South Bronx, and a wood-paneled basement by the Huron River during a full solar eclipse, to name a few.
K: Place indeed, and that squares with us both being in the academic pursuit of sculpture, at least as a property of site. I think Dom would agree that each track bears the distinct trace of the harshness or ekstasis of the context of its capture: the Bronx stuff ("The One That Keeps You Awake") was for me sorta dire, holding the mood of frigid scarcity in the dead of urban winter; the Hocking Hills, Ohio stuff ("Center Line") retaining the easy continuity of frog song and the oxygenated optimism of beech-maple canopy in the Appalachian foothills.
The recordings were and are ad hoc: blankets and jackets in a tent configuration over a mic next to a washing machine, a bad patch cord making unwanted cameos. Also, weird impossible moments of capture and synchrony: Dom in some high lonesome hollow and my Nord, Rhodes, and Mono/Poly attempting some admixture of Rodelius and Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works and often landing somewhere short of a Star Trek: The Next Generation soundtrack [laughs].
Yes, we were lucky to have Daniel Woodward Bennett (NOMO) bring worlds of reeds to Fred’s edits of our sprawling takes, and Jason Lymangrover (Hydropark) write lyrical electric bass accompaniment the song "Brass Man." Dom occasionally plays trumpet in what sounds to me like the officious style of a 19th-century municipal band.
Q: I'm curious about a few song titles & whether they're references to actual events or places, such as "Fire of 1908" and "Clermont Motor Hotel"?
D: Some songs are more rooted in real things than others. "Fire of 1908" was written from a story Kendall told me about someone in his family. The titles help build an image for the mood of the songs but are usually not so literal. "Clermont Motor Hotel" is about the famous Clermont lounge in Atlanta; it’s the oldest strip club in the city. The song is about being near the end of the line.
K: My great grandfather was on a whaling ship on the Pacific, out of view of the city of San Francisco in 1906 when the earthquake hit, and as they returned, they saw a vast pillar of smoke in the sky before they could see the city and the catastrophe that had happened. He had been married with a young child and was unable to find them. There was some speculation in my family that his wife and child used the opportunity of the ensuing chaos to flee and begin another life.
Q: Is your first album, Hibiscus, available somewhere? How did the band / music change between that 2013 release and now?
D: I believe we’re going to reissue Hibiscus with some bonus material. That's TBD at the moment. Life Like would be the place to get it. As of now you can find a lot of our stuff on our Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
A lot of life happened between 2013 and now. The country has changed a lot and I think our ears and minds have changed. When Kendall and I started playing together it felt like a very special time in music. You had the hangover of the 2008 folk boom and people were getting weird again. Ariel Pink, John Maus, and Bradford Cox were all having a moment from my perspective and it felt like a lot was possible, especially in the lo-fi spectrum. Though almost completely unknown, I think we played our part and continue to contribute to that lineage of music.
I think every time we get together and play we learn more about each other and become more in sync as well. There seems to be less noise and more cohesive songs forming nowadays.
K: With Fred Thomas’ involvement, we’ve tended to compose and improvise with a clearer intuition for duration, phrasing, shifts, and generally bringing legibility to our very free impulse. I am expecting to broaden our orchestration, working with more instrumentalists, while continuing to drill down on stark electronic elements: Gavin Bryars vs. Cluster?
Q: Dominick, I love your voice. Have you recorded other music or do you play in other bands?
D: Thank you, Chistopher, I’m glad you like it. I’ve been recording odd projects since at least 2008. My solo project is called Mamma Faye; for now, it’s only available on SoundCloud. I also have a few songs up from a short-lived country band I was part of in Chicago called The Easy Jesus.
Q: Kendall, what are you working musically aside from Land & Buildings?
K: I play in an instrumental ambient project called UTICA with Chuck Sipperley (Hydropark). We have a tape out on Life Like. We will have another edition in 2019.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Land & Buildings' "Huron River Eclipse" tape is available for $9 from the Life Like label or digitally from Bandcamp. The band plays Friday, Feb. 15 at Trinosophes in Detroit and Saturday, Feb. 16 at Ziggy's in Ypsilanti.