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Q&A: Twig Harper on Baltimore’s Dreamworld Portals, Tape Loops, and the Human Instrument

October 29, 2009
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When we chewed the fat with sonic collagist James “Twig” Harper about his latest compositions recently, the Nautical Almanac co-captain and HereSee co-operator had a great deal to tell us-more than we could cram into the print version of our recent story. In the full-length interview below, Harper clues us in on his unusual recording methodology, the state of Nautical Almanac, an unlikely inspiration, what Max Eisenberg is up to these days, and much, much more.

City Paper: In an earlier e-mail, you said that Music for Higher Dimensional Consciousness represents a new direction for you. When you say that, what do you mean? Are you speaking in terms of composition?

Twig Harper: It’s not that it’s entirely a new direction, it’s that I feel as if I am finally breathing new air, standing on a hill built from years of struggle and experimentation. My solo music and the work with Nautical Almanac have more or less been about working with consciousness as an instrument. This is approached like how most bands use guitars; it is a navigable realm with specific shapes, sounds, ideas, and cycles. And since it requires an outside observer to interact with, it had to wait until everyone and all the cultural, social, and personal elements lined up. Now it’s that everything finally clicked and I’m past a threshold, and these ideas are blazing into the next cycle. It’s been an amazing ride and this is only the beginning of a new phase. Music for Higher Dimensional Consciousness is designed to be listened to with headphones; I am very happy with how it turned out. It works on me-I get shot straight up, to higher realms.

CP: 2009 seems like it’s been a prolific year for you: You’ve put out five releases so far. What’s on the horizon for you next? You’re on something of a tear.

TH: Last winter to this spring, I had just finished working and recording with a bunch of people-Sejayno, Needlegun, Lizz King, Salamander Wool, and others-and I just rode that bolt of fluid, creative energy into producing a bunch of solo releases, something which I hadn’t done in years. I felt a million suns exploding within a reflection of a dragon’s eye, and asked the white-hole-cornucopia speaker coils for blessings. This year at some point, too, I did a solo European train tour, dragging over 100 lbs of gear, merch, and stinky clothes on my back for two and a half weeks. Peeping into the future, there is a finished CD that Hanson Records is going to release soon, and I will be starting new and intense recording projects and finishing the ones floating over my head that I should have [finished] years ago.

CP: What inspired Inner Alchemy/Electric Water, and how did you go about making it? I’m finding that when I listen to this one at work I constantly have to keep getting up and going to use the urinal. Stretches of Possible Last Unknowns also strike me as especially “watery.”

TH: For Inner Alchemy, I took my portable DAT recorder over to the Gwynns Falls and set up a stereo and microphone lines that were further apart than any normal person’s head would be. I monitored with the headphone volume turned up loud and found all the sweet spots and hidden voices. Now, since I am hearing 10 times louder than normal, and with two ears placed a few feet apart, one become a new type of animal, senses set to a strange, watery new world. Since I am not a field recording purist in any sense, I took these tapes back to the studio and worked them over a few times, adding electronics and processing them into a sonic soup. Water is one of the greatest teachers; I’ve been getting absorbed and washing it out.

CP: At this point, what are the tools of your sonic trade? And have they changed, recently?

TH: I use whatever is in my reach: cassette-tape loops, lathe-cut records, analog tape manipulation, bowed strings, circuit-bent delay pedals, and ancient synthesizers. But that is really not that important to me. This is all very tricky. My approach has evolved to balance the device-as-entity and device-as-tool. In the past, I focused more cannibalized electronics with feedback systems, which created very specific voices. It was conversations between human and machine. So the device-as-entity was more forefrontal. But that’s just the beginning, because we too can become tools for higher orders.

CP: Generally, when you create a piece of music, do you do so with a specific goal in mind? Or do you follow your muse wherever it happens to lead?

TH: It is about using known methods that shift between states of be-ing and is-ness to achieve a desired goal. These ordered modes lead us to the edge. A musical instrument is the grounding point into matter: the human is instrument, and I tune into the music being birthed out from the sea of awareness. I honor this relationship by amplifying these mysteries that are encountered and integrated. I am a conductor and time traveler. You must embrace the dissonance.

How I do this is by using sounds that exist in the past but can changed in the present to affect the future-even if the future is that all possibilities become reality. Until this death, we dream. By cutting my own records in non-linear groove path ways, by using live prerecorded tapes of tapes, loops, fractal cut-ups, radio interceptions, recorded again and reprocessed hundreds of times into a field stoned soup. I use recordings that I had made 15 years ago and put them into the current mix. Nothing is profane: by accepting our limits, we gain more freedom.

CP: What’s happening with Nautical Almanac? Is the band gesticulating quietly out of view? I keep hoping to hear news of a new release and/or big national tour-I know you guys play often at Tarantula Hill in Baltimore-and I’m sure a lot of fans feel likewise, though I know that you, Max, and Carly are all busy with various projects.

TH: It’s slowly building back up, after a long slow down to a stopping in our tracks. Nautical is just Carly and I right now, and it’s been a “band” since 1994, and we hit a wall. So we changed our lives. It was the main focus for us, and we just ran it to the end. Carly realized that audiences were only able to go “so far” with us at that time. So she decided to focus on hypnotherapy and help people more directly. So much of what we do in our lives is about fusing Art, Science, and Spirituality together, so sometimes it’s good to rotate the manifestation of that triangle. Nautical Almanac is quietly building up to our vision for the next level. It requires a lot more work and more people and may not even be Nautical Almanac when we hit the goal. We know it will happen when it’s right, and it’s starting to feel that way. Carly has been working on the stage setting that is a moving amorphous sheet with levels of projections, movement, shadows, audible light triggers, and I have dreams of four-channel metabolic soundsystems.

CP: When and why did Max Eisenberg leave Nautical Almanac? What does he do now? I didn’t even realize he wasn’t in the band any longer.

TH: Most people think Max still is in the band since our visibility has been hazy when we do play out. He left because he was doing DJ Dog Dick and we all felt that it was better [for] him to have that to focus his ambitions on than the Nautical infinite tape loop of nowheresville. My memory is slipping about when he left, but [it] must of been in 2006? While I think the music we did with him was some of the most challenging for everyone involved, it was lost on most people and sort of slipped away.

CP: What projects is Carly working on right now?

TH: Carly is practicing hypnotherapy, planning a tour for next year, making urban wildcrafted flower essences, canning food, creating amazing light art, and just about a million other killer things.

CP: What are the most interesting two books you’ve read recently, and why?

TH: This is hard, I have been absorbing so many books as of late. My interest in human potential, psychedelics, and transpersonal consciousness has been dominating my reading time.

CP: It kind of threw me off kilter when, at the end of the first track on Music for Higher Dimensional Consciousness, you threw in a slowed-down, sinister bit of “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” What prompted you to do that?

TH: It’s a deeply ingrained tune. I think most people know the jingle and have some sort of relationship to it. After listening to 18 or so minutes of sweeping sound, it hits at a very base level. I did not premeditate that action; it appeared during the recording process, so I went with it, adding to it.

CP: How are you finding the economy-or the market, I guess-for underground music these days? Does it seem to you that sales and interest are holding steady for Heresee releases, or are things tough, financially and otherwise?

TH: Our purpose of the label was to get things out there; we have never been motivated by making a buck, and felt blessed to release so many things and make money back for more projects. Heresee never sold any more than 600 copies of any release, and we made mostly small runs of a few hundred. We put out our own music and things we were excited about that we thought needed to be heard by people we knew. Things are in flux right now and CDs are becoming almost worthless to a lot of people who enjoy deep music. So that means we actually produce less physical material for less money, and I am very happy with that.

CP: Who-or what-do you draw inspiration from?

TH: Baltimore. This city constantly blows my mind away. Do or Die Baltimore. We live it. This city’s blessing/curse is to live close to a heart pump of the dream/world portals-it flows very strong here. Birth can look a lot like death. Say goodbye to the rotting away. Peace shines out as we grow stronger.

Twig Harper plays the Bank Oct 31. For more information visit heresee.com.

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