This interview originally appeared on Pitchfork. Reprinted with permission.
As best as he can remember, Glenn Jones has been playing guitar since 1967, when he was 14 years old. Despite four decades spent behind six strings, though, he still talks about the instrument like an infinite terrain– not only for himself but also for the current crop of new, young guitarists following the sounds of his calloused fingertips. He discovers and sometimes discards new tunings almost constantly, and his best tunes sport the sense that they were considered and carved with the diligence and patience of some elaborate wooden trinket.
“It was a gradual process that came from a lot of time and hours and weeks and months and years playing guitar alone and being alone,” says Jones. “Eventually, it’s to say this is mine.”
The Wanting, Jones’ first full-length album for Thrill Jockey, is a collection of tunes for banjo and guitar that explores dozens of different ideas within its hour run-time. From the redolent moan of the title track to the withdrawn sigh of “Even to Win is to Fail” and from the gentle climb of the opener to the elliptical expanse of the 17-minute closer, Jones has made a record that twists and turns through both feelings and techniques, impressing even as it empathizes.
Pitchfork: Even more so than with your previous records, I was immediately taken by The Wanting. I kept needing to hear it. For you, what’s different on this record than your other LPs?
Glenn Jones: I’m not sure if it felt that different going into it. I’m not a fast writer. It takes me about two years to write enough material for an album. Generally, that two-year period is just a reflection of where I’ve been during that time, new tunings I’ve uncovered, and how I’ve navigated the twain of those particular tunings. The only thing that feels different about this one is that I spent more time with the banjo in the past two years than I had going into Barbecue Bob in Fishtown, which had a couple of banjo pieces. Also, the duet I recorded with Chris Corsano is a little bit of a departure, at least for my solo guitar records. It’s not so unusual maybe to Cul de Sac fans. That may be the extent of what I think is different. People tend to look for new directions, and I’m not sure if there is a marked new direction rather than a further exploration of what I’ve always been interested in.
Pitchfork: I’m not sure the average listener understands tunings and the effect they can have on what you write or play. How do you find a new tuning that interests you?
GJ: Sometimes accidental. There are a number of pieces on the new album that use the standard C tuning, but I’ve monkeyed around with a different color or a different tonality– and the use of partial capos. I don’t mean to sound like some techno nut case in talking about this, but it is hard to talk about it without doing that: I use a lot of partial capos, just to bar certain strings and leave other ones open. That, over time, has become a real aid to writing for me. I started using them in Cul de Sac, mostly as a way of changing the tuning of the guitar without having to retune on the stage because the band would be real impatient with me. That’s before I saw Sonic Youth and realized it’s OK to have 30 different guitars onstage, all with different tunings.
Pitchfork: When does a new tuning feel like something you have to use?
GJ: It’s usually just a gut feeling or an instinct or something like that. There are some tunings that, at least for me, don’t yield much. I can’t find the germ of an idea in them. Those pretty quickly get abandoned. With others, there’s something to them. They make me feel a certain way, or I like the sound of them so I’m drawn to keep working in that tuning. It’s basically an instinctive feeling about the tuning in particular.
Pitchfork: Did you discover the idea of alternate tunings by accident, too? Did a guitar simply slip out of tune and sound better?
GJ: The first person who I was aware of that was using open tunings was either John Fahey or Elizabeth Cotten– I’m not sure which because I discovered their music right around the same time. For a long time, I didn’t even realize that you could do anything other than standard tuning. There were very few instruction books when I started out, which was 1967. From reading the liner notes to one of Elizabeth Cotten’s records or one of Fahey’s records, I realized you could tune to an open chord and that’s how a lot of bottle-neck guitarists retuned to get that sound. But it is accidental: This weekend, for instance, I did a show opening up for Yo La Tengo. On the new album, there’s a track called “The Orca Grande Cement Factory at Victorville”; it’s the last track, the one with Chris Corsano. That song I think of as one that can only be performed as a duet with someone else. I’ve done it live with Helena Espvall of Espers, and I did it the other night with Yo La Tengo. I asked them if they would join me for a song. Ira from Yo La Tengo returned the favor by asking me to play on their encore. They gave me an acoustic guitar, and while we were rehearsing it during soundcheck, I tuned the guitar randomly to something that sounded like it fit with what Ira was playing. It was only after soundcheck that I asked the roadie for the guitar so I could figure out what tuning I had put it in. It was one I had never happened on before, so between sets, I quickly wrote it down, and I’ve been monkeying around on that tuning. It definitely has potential. You think you’ve found all of them, but there’s no end, it doesn’t seem like.
Pitchfork: You’ve mentioned your music being somewhat about the places you’ve been. How about the titles?
GJ: In instrumental music, pieces can be titled anything and they can be about anything. They can be about nothing– just instrumental pieces of music that you play, in the way that John Coltrane played “My Favorite Things.” But I basically title the pieces after the places I am when I’ve written the song or places that have meant something to me recently or after people or after events or feelings I have. That’s only so that the song retains the connection to something that I was feeling at the time I made the song. When I perform, I don’t want to become disconnected from my own material or be dispassionate about it. For me, having something that says, “This is about the Great Pacific Northwest” makes me think of places I’ve been there and friends I have there when I play the song. It’s a way to connect myself to the feelings I had when I decided to dedicate a song to a place. It’s a way to keep myself engaged.
Pitchfork: You’re such a good and experienced player. When you’re onstage, are you able to focus more on the people and places than the material? Do the songs just play themselves?
GJ: A little bit of both. You can’t forget what you’re doing, or you’ll very easily get lost. That has happened to me a number of times, where I get so captivated by my own thought process that I forget where I am in a song and tend to fumble. But if you play a song enough, it becomes like muscle memory. Once you’ve developed that confidence, you can play with it emotionally– slowing it down, speeding it up, playing with the resonant space of the room you’re in. If I’m playing in a church or something that has a lot of natural reverb, I tend to play differently than if I’m in a noisy club. You don’t even have to articulate or intellectualize that process; it’s just what you feel. Some things work better in certain spaces than other things do.
You want to know the song well enough that you can play it without too many mistakes, but you also want to be flexible enough within that playing that you can keep it somewhat fresh– fresh for yourself, and hopefully that will give it a certain freshness to the audience. When you’re playing something, you’re trying to communicate something to people who are open to it. That’s one way of trying to do it. I don’t want to hit people over the head with what I’m doing, and I don’t want to impress them with technique. I want to impress them with something a little deeper than that. That’s one way to do it– to be aware of your surroundings and what you had in mind when you wrote the song.
Pitchfork: One way a musician tells an audience a story or a connection is obviously through lyrics, but you make instrumental music. Do you feel the need to tell your listeners the story behind these wordless pieces?
GJ: On the new record, there’s a piece called “The Great Swamp Way Rout”. In the liner notes, I talk about the fact that I’ve lived on this street in Cambridge for 25 or 30 years. It’s always said in little letters under the street name “Great Swamp Way,” and I’ve never really thought about what that meant. But I found out from a cab driver on the way home from the airport one time. He knew a lot of about local history, and he was telling me there was a huge swampy area where my house is now back in the Civil War days. When they were conscripting people to fight in the Civil War, a lot of them that didn’t want to be conscripted– draft dodgers, if you want to think of it like that– hid out in the swamp. They had to send in the militia to catch them and put them into a prison where they trained them. They put them right from there onto trains down to the South to fight in the Civil War. I thought it was an interesting bit of history that I never knew about.
When I wrote the banjo piece, I was thinking about the fact that so many banjo pieces tend to be descriptive. They describe fires or floods or drunkenness or rowdy behavior. I thought this could be a musical depiction of what my street was like in Civil War days. There are four or five sections in it. When I play it, I don’t know that anyone hears it but me: “These are the Irish being chased by the militia through the swamp.” There’s almost like a martial quality to the second section and a scurrying quality to the first. It’s a little bit ridiculous and pretentious, I suppose, to attach too much musical picture-making to that, but that’s maybe the most extreme example of something on the record that does have a real connection to local history and events where I live.
Pitchfork: You made an interesting point about just playing instrumental music, devoid of emotional content, as with Coltrane and “My Favorite Things”. Even with that piece, which is a standard, it doesn’t seem like the material is being divorced from meaning.
GJ: Maybe “My Favorite Things” isn’t a great example, because there’s a lyrical version of that and I’m certainly not comparing myself in any way, shape or form to John Coltrane. He is a musical giant. But I remember a quote by the saxophonist Lester Young, who said that, when he plays his ballads– and they are all American song book songs, like the songs that were covered by Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra and people like that– he thought about the lyrics while he played. He never really divorced that. It wasn’t just the musical notes. He was thinking about a broken heart or a lost love or a place; he kept that in his mind as he played these ballads to give it some emotional resonance.
But even when you take someone like John Fahey, who is a huge influence on me, John had a great sense of drama and a great sense of narrative. He never stopped thinking about his childhood and the events of his life and how it shaped him. Those became the subject matter, at least of his song titles. Whether you know where the Sligo Creek was or where the Banks of the Patuxent were, you didn’t have to know them to get the sense that there was some kind of narrative or a story-telling there. In some of the best instrumental music, and not just jazz or classical, that comes out. If you think of some of the instrumental music by Can or Faust or Neu!, there’s a sense of adventure, of travel, of being taken somewhere else. It’s not just about how well you can play the arrangement of a song; it’s about how that song can be a vehicle to go somewhere else.
Pitchfork: Cul de Sac definitely had that sense of movement, too, so it seems like something that’s always been a priority for you.
GJ: I guess it was something that was natural for me to follow because the records I loved so much growing up were records that took me somewhere else. I got my first guitar after I heard Jimi Hendrix’ Axis: Bold as Love. I started bugging my Dad to get me a guitar. To me, that record still feels like a voyage. The same thing goes for those Can records and Stockhausen records and whatever I was listening to– world music records, certainly. I think there was a record with Jaki Liebezeit from Can, and he said, “All great music is psychedelic. It takes you somewhere else.” Who wants to listen to music just to stay in the same place you’re in?
Pitchfork: How did your 17-minute collaboration with Chris Corsano here, “The Orca Grande”, come about? And why does it often seem that the epic is the appropriate album closer?
GJ: In 2003, I did this festival in Brattleboro, Vermont. It was the first Free Folk Festival. So far, it’s been the first and only. At that festival, I first heard Jack Rose and met Jack for the first time. Jack became probably my best and closest friend and the person I’ve done the most touring with. At that same festival, I heard Chris Corsano for the first time. I was absolutely blown away by him. Here was a guy that looked all of 15 years old. He still looks really young. But he was playing with the confidence and agility and originality of someone that was several decades more experienced as a musician than he was. I had long wanted to do something with Chris, but I wasn’t really sure what. This piece came about because, at my friend Reuben Son’s house where the album was recorded, we had a poster for the Gastr Del Sol album Upgrade & Afterlife hanging on the wall. I said, “You know, I really love that record, and I love their version of Fahey’s “Dry Bones in the Valley.” It’s a piece that has an intro and then an ending section that sounds like it will never end.
As I was saying that, I realized I had these two little snippets that I’ve been playing for the past year that I don’t know what to do with that kind of do the same thing. There was an intro and then there was this other part that, once I get into, I don’t know how to get out of. I can’t seem to go anywhere else. I hadn’t known what to do with those pieces. I told Reuben, “Just run tape. Let’s see what happens.” I played the intro and went to that second section and decided in my mind that I would keep playing until I made a mistake. The mistake is what you hear at the end of me going to the wrong part and me asking Reuben what he thinks. After I had recorded it, I thought, “I don’t know what to do with this exactly. Is this something I really want to issue? Is this just a funny little experiment?”
As I listened to it, I thought that maybe it was too long for just solo guitar and that maybe this was the piece I should invite Chris Corsano to play on if he’s available. Chris plays a lot and tours a lot, so I wasn’t even sure how available he would be. I sent him an e-mail with the piece of music as an attachment, and, less than two days later, I was getting ready to go to bed at 2 a.m. when I hit the “Refresh” button on my e-mail. There was an e-mail from Chris with a link to the recording he had made with the track that I sent him. I called my girlfriend in and I said, “Oh, Chris has this thing ready. Let’s listen.” We sat down at the computer, and 17 minutes later, we both had tears in our eyes. To me, it’s absolutely beautiful what he did, and it makes me sound better than I have. There is something about it that just emotionally destroys me, so there was no question in my mind that it was going on the record.
Using it as the last song was kind of an homage to Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. The last song on that piece is “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, a sidelong piece. I viewed this as the “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” of this album. Nobody would get that; it’s just a conceit that I had in mind.
Pitchfork: One of my favorite songs here is “Of Its Own Kind”. I love how every change and every new part feels like an incredible surge of energy. It’s a song that seems sort of like your anthem. Do you get the same sense at all?
GJ: As the song came together, I did have the sense that it was something special. I do think it’s one of my best compositions. I’m very proud of the song, but I didn’t expect other people to respond to it as widely and positively as they did. That’s great. It was due to the feeling that it was something special and out of the ordinary that I gave it the title “Of Its Own Kind.” It’s not like anything else, and it’s in its own special place. I tend to use that now as the final song of my set.
In terms of its emotion, I’m not really sure I can put my finger on it. It didn’t give me the sense of particular place or person, but it certainly had a kind of feeling. It has four or five distinct sections, so it’s kind of a long song. There were more sections to it than that, but I started editing the stuff out that I felt didn’t maintain the feeling or the mood or that distracted from the emotional qualities the song had to me. There’s not a particular image I can say the song is about, but it definitely felt special and in its own category. That’s why I gave it that title.
Pitchfork: What about the song felt so different and right?
GJ: It’s just that it has a certain coherence, and it makes sense over its whole length. Sometimes when you’re writing a piece, you know that you have a good A section and a good B section and maybe that they will connect as well as you would like them or maybe they feel a little too pat or maybe they’re just a good way to get from A to Z or maybe there’s a different way that I could have found but didn’t. But on this song, I felt like everything was right. Everything dovetailed in a really nice way.
Even in the recording of it, I made a mistake. There are four or five sections, and they all repeat twice. Initially, they all repeated twice in the same order. When I recorded it, I froze up and forgot one of the sections until I already played two or three of the other ones. What is the last section before the ending in the first part comes rather early in the second part, only because I forgot the part I was supposed to go to. But even that makes compositional sense to me that was unintended when I recorded it. I now perform it in the same way I recorded it. That was an accident that I was happy about.
Pitchfork: I get the sense from you that your advice to any young guitar player would be simply to play and see what happens– to worry less about results than the attempt.
I think it’s good if any musician can be open to that kind of stuff. There was a time when I wanted to get the perfect take and thought that the way I conceived of a song was the only way it should be played. Since making the Cul de Sac album with Fahey, for instance, which was a psychodrama of failed expectations and having to redraw the album from ground up and having to give up so much in order for that process to happen, I’ve become much more open to the idea of accidents and serendipity entering into the process. The last studio album Cul de Sac did was called Death of the Sun. It used a lot of sampling and a lot of electronic sounds and processing. When it came time to record my parts, I discovered that what stood out the most and had the greatest contrast was stuff on the acoustic guitar rather than electric or electronic instruments. That got me back into playing acoustic guitar again. A lot of the parts I came up with were written in the studio and very spontaneous. Basically, the samples we had told me the direction to go, rather than going into the studio with the songs already written. A lot of it was an act of self-discovery on the part of everyone in the band. We didn’t go in with, “Here’s what the album is going to be. It’s going to be this many minutes long, and it’s going to be this many pieces.” For that reason, when I listen to that Cul de Sac record again, it’s one of my favorite albums because I hear things in it I never noticed before. We didn’t try to carve every single detail. We left a lot of things blurry or accidental or a little confused. We left the mistakes in.
Pitchfork: You’ve never been shy about your influences or your heroes, and you’ve not only recorded with Fahey but you’ve also been very open about what he’s meant to your music. How do you think Fahey affects the young fleet of guitarists recording right now?
There are so many young guitarists out playing now. Look out all those Imaginational Anthem anthologies and the various solo guitarists. It seems like every other week I’m getting a file sent to me via e-mail or Facebook or someone is mailing me something in the mail to check out– a homemade CD or a project they’ve done. Some of them are quite interesting. There are a lot of decent guitar players out there. Some of them I don’t think are all that great. But it’s interesting reading reviews of some of these things because so many people mention Fahey where I don’t really hear a Fahey influence. When I think about the music of John Fahey or Robbie Basho, it isn’t so much the technical stuff of what they play. It’s the fact that they were willing to explore the emotional feelings that they had and that music was their vehicle for doing that. One of the reasons Fahey is so compelling is that Fahey viewed music as a cathartic exercise. The emotions Fahey expressed on guitar were not just positive or happy emotions or just sad emotions. There was also anger, futility, dread, fear. There was bitterness, but there was also exaltation and joy and triumph.
I feel like the reason Fahey’s music stands up as well as it does is because he was willing to look into himself and face all the best and worst qualities of himself and try to express those things musically. It’s very hard– not just for musicians, but for anyone– to look at the things about themselves that they might not like very much and express those things publicly. A lot of the musicians that have come along that cite Fahey as an influence, yeah, I’m sure they’ve heard Fahey’s music. But no one is going to beat Fahey at his own game. If you’re going to try to approach that musical depth, you’ve got to be willing to face the depths of yourself. I feel a lot of people are very superficial. They genuflect in the direction of emotion, but it doesn’t feel like a hard-won or particularly deep emotion.
In my case, music isn’t the same cathartic exercise for me as it was for John. But it still has a very important emotionally resonant quality. I like what’s mysterious in music. I like what you can’t understand or is hard to put your finger on or what makes you come back to it. I look for music that seems to say something but isn’t that easy to understand. For me, the music that has taken me the longest to understand is the music that means the most to me today. The music that I understood right out of the box doesn’t mean so much to me today because, once you got it, you’ve got it. There’s no place else to go with it.
I am very proud to consider myself part of the American Primitive tradition that people like Fahey and Basho were in. Those guys kind of gave me permission to explore music on the guitar in the way I am now. They found their own voices at incredibly young ages. Fahey and Basho were teenagers or in their early 20s when they found their own voices. I wasn’t the genius they were. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I felt like I was composing music that was my own and playing in a style that I could call my own and feel proud about and not feel like I was copying anybody else. Some people get there a lot earlier than others, and some people never get there.
The other thing that worries me is that Fahey was such an iconoclast and was somebody that you couldn’t put into a box or a category at all. I’m afraid that, with all these people coming up and name-checking Fahey, they are nailing a bird to the wall. “Well, there’s the bird. But he doesn’t fly anymore.” I want to resist putting them or myself into too much of a category. You still have to be able to fly on your own and with your own wings, if you’ll pardon me exhausting the metaphor.
— Grayson Currin