I had forgotten how much music creates family. When I got started, I was thinking of each performer as their own bubble, who’s interests and loves would span the globe. But the best thing about music is playing it with other people, and meeting Balthrop, Alabama has pushed that point home. They pointed me to Caithlin De Marais and Kyle Fischer, both of whom have recommended El May. I was looking for recommendations the way I get them from friends, and these folks are friends – and of course, admirers of each others work. And I like knowing that they don’t only admire, but love the people themselves…it makes getting to know the music feel more like getting to know the family.
Kyle Fischer particularly caught my eye because I found him on his blog, which talked about his work with Buddhism and the Union Theological Seminary. Music doesn’t exist in a bubble – it is filled with our lives and experiences, and people with interesting lives tend to create interesting music. So I couldn’t wait to hear more about how a talented musician and songwriter ended up in Seminary…or the other way around.
How did you get started playing music?
I joined Band class at school in the 6th grade. For some reason I decided to play the drums. I don’t know why. I think that the brass instruments seemed too complicated. I didn’t start playing the guitar until I was 20 years old – late bloomer!
The Band teacher – Mr. Allen – was a real long-suffering servant of mankind. (Don’t fret! I use that gendered pronoun knowingly and full of winks). I think in order to be an effective teacher of any kind requires a certain type of humility. And to teach elementary or middle school music classes requires a special type of person. I think we almost killed him.
What was the first recording you ever purchased?
With my own money? It was this band called GTR. I loved their song, “When the Heart Rules the Mind.” I used to watch MTV and wait and wait and wait to see the video. The song wasn’t that popular–according to Wikipedia it only reached #14 on the charts. So I had to sit there for hours at a time. They were always playing “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, like every five minutes. At the time I didn’t understand songs like that and it drove me nuts.
How would you describe the music you play now?
Since the release of my abandoned masterpiece Black Milk I have not been playing very much music under my own auspices. I play a lot of lap steel guitar on other people’s music, and record and produce records and projects for my other people, mostly friends. Therefore I would describe the music I am playing now as “ambient steel overdubs!”
You attend Union Theological Seminary – do you feel there’s a connection between your theological study and your musical creations? How does your music and spirituality connect?
Union Theological Seminary is this amazing place, a totally independent seminary where all of these different people get together under one roof and try to figure out the best way to serve others. Social justice issues are foremost on people’s minds. The students are working for peace and justice in almost any medium, and religion is the mode in which the work occurs. for most folks, the form that religion takes is Christian (or in some cases “post”-Christian, a label that was big I think in the 80s or 90s), but there are also atheist students, Buddhists, and other things.
Improvisation plays a large part in classroom performance. Something happens and you are called to respond to it in a way that communicates something of value to other people. Just as on stage, a move in the right spirit sets everyone in harmony and really beautiful things can happen.
Actually, I’m not studying that much “theology” per se. I do a lot of work with Tibetan Buddhism and the classical Tibetan language. I am working to become a Tibetan translator so I can help in translating the Tibetan Buddhist canon into English, and with things like the Buddhist Literary Heritage Project and the Asian Classics Input Project.
Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical? A painter, building, dish of cereal?
Translation makes a fine analogy. You have something–in the case of music, an idea, or a sensation, something inside you–and you have to transmute it into something which is intelligible to other people. So you find a series of symbols people can relate to, musical notes to represent it, and hope that the people on the other end receive the message intact.
Who would you consider your musical inspiration?
Caithlin de Marrais, Josh Kaufman (Rocketship Park), Pascal Balthrop (Balthrop, Alabama). Seb Leon is a major driving force behind the work I’ve been doing lately. He is always coming up with amazing projects like the MMIX installation we did.
If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?
No show that had me as a headliner could have a perfect lineup! That is a hilarious notion.
What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?
It’s ability to open me up into something I’m not sure I’m ready to feel.
Who is one person I should be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?
El May‘s record is SO SO beautiful. She would be my first choice for right this very minute. I can’t believe the whole nation isn’t lined up for her shows yet, although I think they will be.
Take a listen to Kyle Fischer: