Monday, August 19, 2013

Christian McShane interview

Begin by talking a bit about how you and Charlie first met and began playing music together.

Back in 2000, I had just started working with Aaron Molina in Duluth, MN, on what would become the band "if thousands". An old friend of mine named Elliot Harris stopped by our practice space one night and wanted me to listen to a cassette he recorded of a guy named Charlie who was new in town. I had no idea anyone played that kind of music anymore, much less as honest as I heard. When Elliot told me it wasn't some kind of archival recording and Charlie was indeed alive and lived in Duluth, I didn't believe him.

I'm fairly sure the first time I ever played with Charlie was on King Earl. Charlie and my own band (if thousands) were performing a lot around that time, and we were both beginning to get reputations around the Duluth & Minneapolis music scenes on different sides of the fence: Charlie on the folk/blues side; and if thousands on the rock/experimental side. He had all our albums up to that point (which surprised the heck out of me) and we had all of his (which surprised him). To this day, I'm sure he's still the only musician of his genre that's an if thousands fan. Usually, musicians from those two sides of the fence are repelled by one another. Still, we became friends regardless of what kind of music we played (which is the way it should be, anyway).

Back to King Earl. Charlie knew I used a theremin in if thousands. One day, he said we should play together. He on resonator, me on theremin. I told him he was crazy. I said it would never work because they were too dissimilar instrumentally. Charlie said his resonator was from the 1920's and the theremin was from the same era, so it would be fine. He convinced me, even though I thought it would sound awful.

We began recording "Miner's Lament" in the same fashion that I would revisit on many future recordings. There was no practice, no rehearsals. Just an "ok, let's go!" from Charlie and down goes the record button with me grinding my teeth in front of my theremin, hoping I could keep my hands steady enough to hit solid notes. That was "Miner's Lament", as well as everything else I've ever recorded with him thus far. One take, no practice (because there's never enough time anyway) and that's it.

There's an immensely simplistic beauty in recording this way. Most musicians record a song to death in order to get it "right", and in the end, there's something lost. If you beat a song to death with retakes, overdubs, effects, and recording tricks, it loses it's original fire. Charlie though - - what you're hearing on his albums is first takes. Real Charlie, always. If a second or third take actually gets on an album, it's because something major was awry like recording problems, broken strings, dogs barking in the background, etc.

Rooster sounds very different than King Earl, I would describe it as maybe broader or more expansive. Was creating a more diverse sounding album something you guys talked about before the recording sessions?

Yes. Those days were some of the best times I've ever had in my life, musically speaking. I also haven't laughed as hard since. At the time, Charlie and I were working together a great deal on a side project called "Devil's Flying Machine". In the end, I think we accidentally influenced each other a little without trying. At that time, Rooster ended up being broader and expansive (like if thousands). A large chunk of if thousands' album released at around the same time (i have nothing) ended up being largely acoustic (like everything Charlie does). To this day, I continue to accent more on acoustic instruments over electronica in if thousands, and it seems like Charlie has at least one drony, intense song on all his albums. It's just one of those nice things that happens when musicians collaborate in the right way. Or maybe I'm just full of it.

Which Rooster songs did you perform on?

Ukelin on "Dead Cat On The Line."
Cello on "Bethlehem."
Rhythm guitar on "Wild Bill Jones."
Rhythm guitar on "Ellen Mayhem."

This Ukeline discography has an entry for your (or the devil's) Ukelin. What's the story behind that instrument?

The Ukelin is a bizarre thing. A friend of mine, Haley Bonar, was working in an antique shop in Duluth around that time and called me to let me know that a weird instrument was in her store. Of course, I went as soon as I could and bought it for $50. I had no idea what the heck it was, but it looked old and cool. It smelled like a farmhouse basement. After researching (and trying to play it) I found out that the Ukelin is a beastly amalgamation of a ukulele and a violin from the early 1900s. It's nearly impossible to play. No, actually, it's definitely impossible to play. I've heard sound files of "professional ukelinists" and it still makes you squint. People find them all the time in the rafters of old homes and stuff and think they're worth a bunch of money, when in reality they're worth about $50. There was a reason why the last person hid the thing in the rafters.

However, you can also make some of the most ungodly teeth-grinding, crappy sounds with it, which is all I can do with it. If you could bow a dying seagull, it would sound like a Ukelin. Charlie insisted I use it on the album. On "Dead Cat" there's a strange sound in the background that starts around 3:00 and sounds like feedback from Charlie's resonator. That's the Ukelin. Since then, it's come unglued and nearly snapped in half, so I glued it back together and bought a special clamp to hold it in place. My wife wishes I'd throw it away but I can't seem to part with it. Charlie nicknamed it "the devil's own ukelin". I believe it truly is from hell.

The Devil's Flying Machine was mostly active around this time period. Can you talk a little about what you and Charlie were trying to accomplish musically with the band and how that project evolved?

The band name comes from a recording from the one & only Reverend J.M. Gates called "Devil In A Flying Machine". Charlie & I were driving around one day listening to an archival recording and thought it would make one of the best band names ever, so we made a band. It was originally meant to be a drone-inspired project, focusing on the somewhat creepy, dark, death-heavy underbelly of old folk music in the vein of Doc Boggs and the like. We practiced honing this idea for quite some time, but we found that audiences went crazy whenever we played the super fast foot stomping stuff, so we gravitated in that direction and grew farther and farther from the original idea. Not long after, we added David Frankenfeld on drums and an old gas can instead of a snare. It's an old worn-out yarn, but we really had no idea the band would get as popular as it did. We thought everyone would ignore us. Near the end of the first hiatus (around 2007), about 300-500 people would show up whenever we performed. Then we took a break, as Charlie's touring schedule became more intense. We decided to give it another try in 2012 with a much larger band. Charlie, myself, a drummer, upright bassist, violinist, harpist and a washboard player. The audiences went crazy, but it was a bit too much. We barely fit on stage and it was even farther away from the original idea. The Devil's Flying Machine is currently on yet another hiatus until we figure out what the heck we want to do with it.

Any other memories or stories from the Rooster sessions you'd like to share?

"Wild Bill Jones" was a total accident and wasn't originally planned to be on the album. I heard Charlie perform it once on stage and really liked it. We were sitting around waiting for Tom (Herbers, the recording engineer) to set some things up and I told Charlie we should give it a try just for the heck of it. We did just one take of the song. The scratchy vinyl record sound to the song is actually Charlie's finger picks hitting the banjo head while he's playing.

Finally, tell us about what you've been up to lately and whether you'll be working on some new if thousands material in the near future.

if thousands will be releasing their first full-length album since 2005 this Fall (2013). It will be available for free on our website. My wife, Jessy, myself, and our son Payton currently live on a small hobby farm where we raise heirloom chickens and red wattle pigs. We're signing the papers this week on a 40-acre farm about an hour southeast of Duluth and we'll be moving before Thanksgiving this year. In addition to what we currently do, we'll also be raising turkeys, sheep, milking goats, and cattle in due time. With any luck, moving closer to Duluth will allow me to perform more often like the old days!  

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