From Aural Innovations #8 (October 1999)
quarkspace - "The Hidden Moon"
(Eternity's Jest Records 1999, EJ0020)
quarkspace has had a hefty output of music since 1996, but The Hidden Moon is the first of what the band considers a regular studio release since their first self-titled CD. And speaking of hefty, this is a 2-CD set packed with over 70 minutes of music on each disc. From Columbus, Ohio, the band's lineup has remained stable and still includes Paul Williams on drums and keyboards, Jay Swanson on keyboards, Darren Gough on guitar, Dave Wexler on guitar, and Chet Santia on bass and vocals. Guest Stan Lyon adds guitar to "Teather" and has also added some fine work to a couple recent live quarkspace performances.
Eternity's Jest Records' motto is a dedication to freaky sounds and The Hidden Moon is packed full of all things freaky, dreamily flowing, and even fun. Right from the beginning we hear "attention alien aircraft!", and the disc one opens with "Prince", a song that has been a staple of the band's live shows for a while. This is a classic quarkspace journey packed with soaring cosmic space guitar licks that are like a musical meteor shower. Among the other highlight tracks on disc one is "Starbridge Freaks" which features the band experimenting more with samples. The song opens with a wild techno sample that provides the focus around which the band explores. "Starbridge Freaks" blends very smoothly into "Bone's Blues For Planet X", something a little different for quarkspace and one of my favorites on this set. The song is aptly titled as this is indeed cosmic blues. The song is a Wexler showcase as he trips along a solar Mississippi Delta. Things build to high levels of intensity with wildly shooting synths accompanying the space blues. "Krautball's' Demise" is, at 17 minutes, the epic of disc one. I'm a bit ambivalent about this track. On the one hand it's a classic quarkspace jamming journey with great sounds. But for this listener it doesn't quite justify it length. Too much else on Hidden Moon succeeds in retaining the quarkspace sound while managing to establish a sense of individuality.
Disc two opens strong with "I Bet He's Looking For The Spaceman", an ambient journey that feels like a quiet overture to a space symphony. True to the title we hear a sample of a boy's voice saying "I bet he's looking for the spaceman!". In the last few minutes the pace picks up a bit. A rapid fire percussion beat is accompanied by swirling synths and various other intermingled sounds. The pace continues to pick up until VERY abruptly cutting out... but we are led oh so smoothly into the "The Circle", a vocal track I'll touch on shortly.
Other highlights from disc two include "Nebula", another ambient journey piece but with more of Wexler's bluesy guitar giving it a bit of a Pink Floyd sound. On "Park Rangers" the band is once again world soccers' spacerock poster boys. Computerized electro samples lay the groundwork for this bouncy tune and Eternity's Jests' dedication to the freaky is most prominent. "No. 5" is a similar electro sample based tune but even more freaky. Actually it sounds somewhat like Bill Nelson from his post-Be Bop Deluxe electro experimental days. Disc two's epic is "Where Galaxies Collide", a spacerock opera of sorts that does really rock out as it moves through a number of movements and tells it's tale.
Finally, the band's melodic side is present on Hidden Moon as well. "Somebody Else's Dream" and "The Circle" are standout vocal tracks, and Santia's acoustic songs getting quarkasized are a trademark of the quarkspace sound. I had long known Chet does solo acoustic shows but only heard him for the first time recently. His is a melancholy Nick Drake style (though he hasn't heard Drake) and this type of dark, laid back, but passionate song style works well in the quarkspace universe. "The Circle" in my opinion has the strongest melody of any quarkspace vocal track to date. Wexler plays what sounds like a space country slide guitar and combined with organ sounds great. The first time I heard this tune was live with the Solar Fire Lightshow swirling on the band so it's really stuck with me.
A word about listening to Hidden Moon... to fully benefit from all that is happening on this disc I highly recommend headphones if you don't have a really good stereo. I heard it probably a half dozen times (NOT a good stereo) before putting on the headphones and it was like hearing it for the first time.
I visited the Eternity's Jest studios one Sunday morning to chat with Chet, Jay, and Paul about The Hidden Moon and the band's activities while listening to the new CD.
AI: Is the reason for making Hidden Moon a two CD set as simple as you've got a lot of good material.
PW: Yeah, it's because we're lazy. It's been three years since our last studio album so there's a little backlog of studio material. We didn't expect to release Live Orion. It just turned out that we did a really good set so we had to put the resources into releasing that which pushed us back, but at that point we had enough material for two so...
AI: This song [Prince] has been with you for a while hasn't it?
CS: Oh yeah, this is off a sampler tape we did while ago... Spacefolds 2.
PW: Well Original Royalty off of Spacefolds 2 was an original space jam that we did with some sample pieces that we had and we took the tune and composed it from that.
AI: You guys have been doing a number of shows this Summer, some of which weren't necessarily spacerock festivals. How was the UFO festival (in Indiana).
PW: The UFO festival was fun...
JS: Light turnout.
CS: Well it was good. I mean the sound was good. There was all different types of people, families and stuff like that, though it wasn't like it was overloaded with tons of music fans.
AI: If you count your cassettes you've really got a hell of an output. Do all these songs come easily to you?
CS: A lot of it's a function of... we just record every single thing that we can. Back in the days when we were first doing a lot of this stuff we were doing it on stereo two-track. Our technology has grown a lot. So some of the stuff that we're recording now is probably going to be a little bit more selective as far as just having the media available to continually be recording on. It's not the same. On the stereo two-track stuff every time we got together just to jam or rehearse we'd record everything. And then after a while you end up with all this material, so you have to weed through it all and see what sounds good. Improvisational pieces such as Prince started out as just a space jam and somewhere along the line one of us decides maybe we want to keep it in the repertroire so we try and recreate it. And if it lends itself to recreation then we will. There's probably a lot of stuff you'll never hear us do again because they're just model prints... y'know that's the way I like to look at some of the improvisational pieces. Artists do their paintings, or people that do lithographies... they do a huge painting, print it once, and then they'll go back and make a mark on the painting or a couple marks and then print it again. And they're known as model prints, and they just keep going. The basic structure is still there but they keep making different marks and different changes. Sometimes a few years down the road the thing is totally different.
AI: So sometimes a piece will work good as it is, but other times it might be good to keep working at...
PW: What Original Royalty was was the original sampler with Chet doing the bassline with no modulations or anything like that. No other parts to it. And then we took that, put a trippy middle section in... and Dave and Darren came up with the sort of Allman Brothers space guitar lines. Now this "Starbridge Freaks" is an improvisation that Jay, Dave, and Chet are doing. But then the loops and the reverb part are things that I had put together and laid out and put over the top of it. So its like the loop becomes one member of the group and we all just kind of improvise and play along with it... it turns out differently each time. It's fun.
CS: That's what's really cool about the sample pieces and the loop pieces is they lend themselves to this kind of reproduction. They're gonna change a little bit because none of us are going to play those lines exactly the same way you hear it on this [recording]. We'll play something close. We might even make the changes somewhere around the right time... [everyone laughs].
AI: When you say changes you mean when you're reproducing it live?
CS: Right. So if there's a major change that happens... and sometimes we'll make the changes and sometimes we won't [laughing]. Somtimes it goes in a different direction when we do it live, but that's fun, that's what's cool about it. It's an in the moment kind of thing'. It's not like every piece we do is written in stone and we're going to try and exactly duplicate it. Shit, if you want to do that put the fuckin' CD on...
PW: Can he say that? [everyone laughing]
CS: It gets really boring after a while if somebody comes and you gotta hear the same shit all the time. I mean a lot of the shows we've been trying to make sure that we change the set every show... either adding new songs. It's not that we've dumped anything from the repertoire it's just that we're under the impression that people don't want to hear the same thing all the time.
PW: Sure, that's why spacerock... it's inherent in spacerock I feel is that sonic exploration... that sonic changing and things like that. Spacerock isn't a dogmatic it sounds like this' and has to have this'. It's more of an exploratory thing in that it takes from a lot of different genres. At least the way we look at it.
AI: We've had these conversations before where you've got that mix between composed and improvisation...
PW: Yeah. And that's - to get back to the original point - that's why this is a double CD. We've had a lot of composed material that then we've been able to... I think this is the last two track space that will ever be released on anything other than some kind of archive release of things we've done in the past. We've got different capabilities now if we improvise the material. We can do overdubs right on top of them like what we did with "Teather".
CS: We try and keep the improvisational stuff intact as it is...
PW: Sure, for the most part.
CS: We try to limit the production to those kind of pieces to the very minimum amount. It's not like Dave's going to put more guitar solos over his guitar solo, or I'm going to put more bass over my bass. The only thing we're going to add is instrumentation that doesn't already exist. So if it doesn't have a vocal maybe we'll add a vocal part to it. If it's lagging in keyboards because it's got so much other sonic shit going on then we'll put an organ or just a straight piano track on. Something that's gonna flush out the texture without over producing the pieces.
AI: On the subject of limiting production, from one release to the next its been the more toys' thing, to use your phrase [Paul laughs], and you've shown me some of the cool software you've got for sampling. Does that provoke tempation towards production...
PW: Not necessarily production but more towards exploration.
CS: Cause those things are like cool little springboards. Especially when it comes down to improvisational stuff. Sometimes he'll [Paul] just pull shit out of his ass and you've got this thing just grooooovin' and you just GO! Boom! And it's fun. Cause for me anyways that's where the most fun is. When he pull stuff out that I'm totally not expecting and it just takes off...
PW: We're listening to "Starbridge Freaks" right now and that's what this is, it's like Here, I just got this software. Here's a new one. Here, it's in E-Minor. GO!'
AI: Now when you spring these things on them are you actually playing and then throw something in or...
CS: No. He'll just say listen to this I've got something new, and we'll build around that. And nine times out of ten it lends itself to some sort of creative exploration. Other times maybe we're just not in the right mood and it just collapses in on itself.
AI: So you'll use a sample as a potential springboard to something else...
PW: Yeah. "Recaesarian" on Spacefolds 5 is the same thing.
AI: Speaking of Spacefolds 5 [also a 1999 release], do you view any real difference between that and Hidden Moon other than Spacefolds 5's role as part of the series of journal releases and Hidden Moon being a studio release?
PW: Yeah. Spacefolds is continuing the tradition of 100% improv and no overdubs. Put it out as it is kind of like a budget release. That's why we don't want to put a lot of work into it to keep it so we can sell them real cheap just the same as the cassettes were. And then Hidden Moon is the studio. We're already talking about the next studio CD. So it's not like there's filler, we had to pare down.
CS: As far as the essence of the product... the Spacefolds 5 and The Hidden Moon, I don't look at them really as being any different. Really all part of the continuum. Like you were saying before, Spacefolds 5 was a continuation of the cassette option that we had before. And trying to keep this stuff as cheap as possible and as accessible to people as possible. I think the aim is to get this stuff out to people as much as we can. Most people you can't buy a double disc from them for under $20. And we're selling them for $15. And it's kind of like our little sub-mission for the record company, to subvert this whole thing and get music down to real prices.
AI: Not to get overly wrapped up in the business stuff but is that profitable?
PW: Well, theoretically. If you apply algebraic equations the numbers should come out. But there's this X'. You need X' to be bigger than X' is now. But we're doing alright. This year has been our best year by far for sales. But still, it's not like we're gonna be able to quit our day jobs any time soon, which is the goal. It's really nice to have no economic pressures on the music. We put as much time in as anybody.
AI: Is a good percentage of your live shows improvisation?
AI: So the shows will always be different.
CS: Right. And it's a lot more fun that way. Lately what we've been trying to do is integrate the audience a little bit. Ask them for a key. At the Porcupine Tree show we did that.
AI: Did you get a response?
JS: Multiple! [laughing]
AI: Other than Strange Daze, any other shows coming up?
PW: Sept 11th in Chicago. Unfortunately it doesn't look like we're going to be able to do the Orion spacerock festival because of band weddings and such. We're supposed to be doing Kenyon College this year.
AI: Any other projects, like National Steam?
PW: Steam was just something we wanted to work on with quarkspace not being able to get together as much during that period. We do some stuff with Stan [Lyon] here on the side. I've got some solo material.
AI: What do you call yourself again?
PW: Church Of Head. And then we also have this little thing that we might do as more of an anonymous musical project. With all this hype about the Blair Witch Project, there's a story where I grew up about this orphanage that burned down in the early 1900's. And when you go on the site at nightime you supposedly can hear the crying of the children and that sort of thing. So I thought it might be fun to do some music on that context like a Halloween sort of vibe.
CS: I've been playing at Ruby's on Tuesday nights [open mike at club in Columbus]. Playing my stuff, mostly original music. "The Circle" I play there. And I play "Somebody Else's Dream" [both from The Hidden Moon] and a couple other pieces that I've played with quarkspace.
AI: Do vocal songs with quarkspace typically start as one of your acoustic solo songs? The two you mentioned I could easily hear you playing solo.
CS: The past year and a half probably has been the most prolific time for me as far as writing. And I wrote a large chunk of material and then I came over one night and played a good chunk of it for him...
PW: I'm him'.
CS: [laughs] For Paul. And he pointed a finger at the ones that he thought would be good quarkspace pieces. That's how those ended up. But then there's "Galaxies" ["Where Galaxies Collide"] which he wrote, but for lack of a better voice I guess to do the parts that he wanted he had me sing.
AI: How's it been working out for you with Paul doubling as keyboard player in addition to being the drummer?
PW: I think it's fun because it's a way that we can cover the songs. Because if I get off the kit... from playing the kinetic type pieces... if I get off the kit and start doing spacey stuff... and then with loops it really frees you up to get really intense.
AI: So when you're playing live do you actually have to bring the computer with you?
PW: No, that's a sore subject right now. We had the Barq's syndrome last weekend and I lost my laptop. Root beer and computers don't mix. Especially the syrupy aspects of it. But what I do when we do reverb loops on stage... Live Rebirth is the software that simulates two Roland TB303's, a TR808 and a TR909. I'll just record the stuff to digital DAT... 2-track DAT. And we'll play along with that live.
CS: Provided his DAT is in a good mood that day.
PW: Yes! Luckily we're flexible and are able to shift setlists at a moments notice.
AI: Is timing an issue when you're kicking those off?
CS: Volume is an issue. [laughs]
PW: I think it's fun from a musical standpoint to occasionally have to play with pulse type rhythms like that. Y'know, rhythms that are quantisized perfectly just because it's a good musical challenge, especially if you're a drummer to have to give up the time keeping responsibilities to a computer and make sure that you... I mean I just think it adds a lot to our music when we play like that. It is a different kind of improvisation too because even though you think that you've got a structure that you can't get out of, you can flow all over it and approach it from different ways.
AI: Do you find that you're playing drums one moment and then moving over to keyboards...
PW: Yeah. Some loops I'll just play keyboards on and some of them.... I think on "Park Rangers" I'm essentially just playing my kit on.
AI: Any more talk of local shows [here in Columbus] other than the Monday show after Strange Daze?
PW: Hopefully that will lead to some stuff. You'll have to talk to our Columbus marketing coordinator Mr Santia.
CS: It's been a rather frustrating experience for me trying to corner people and get them to commit to something. The type of music that we play... I think our listeners are more apt to sit down stoned or get high listening to our music as opposed to sitting around drinking getting drunk listening to our music. And bars' bottom line is getting people in there to drink.
PW: It's all a conspiracy from the FBI!
CS: There's a couple of performance spaces downtown that have bands or explorational types of music, or even just fucking noise but they like to do it in the context of slide shows or an artist actually doing a painting at that time, or whatever they might do in realtime performance art. And they have music accompanying it. So I've been trying to work that side because I think going in that direction might be a little bit better for us. But then there's the other side that we've been talking about and that's doing fewer shows but concentrating on making them bigger productions. Having Jim Lascko and the Solar Fire Lightshow doing stuff with us has been really beneficial every time we've performed with them. I like working with that a lot.
AI: You guys are unique in that you've made a marriage of world soccer and spacerock. And it bears mentioning that you said the Queens Park Rangers know who you are and are asking for a copy of Hidden Moon.
PW: I think the fact that QPR knows of us and contacted us is so funny. Y'know, that we've got a London football club... they're aware of us, they want the CD and stuff, and we can't even get our local Columbus Crew team to pay any attention. They'd rather have lame ass cover tunes playing after all their games. Y'know, we've offered. We're season ticket holders...
You can visit quarkspace at their web site.