Matt Valentine & Erika Elder hit the golden road with The Home Comfort Sound System
Words by Kek-w
It’s always seemed wrong to me that Matt Valentine & Erika Elder have ended up staying in Cultfiguredom County when less deserving figures were able to up-root and migrate to the Land of The Better-Known. Their relatively low-key profile in the UK seems doubly unjust, given the indiscriminate way that every sadsack US Nu-‘Folk’ troupe featured in the Friday Guardian gets gobbled-up by the gastropub-dwellin’, Spotify-trawlin’, Kindle-immersed masses of MittelEnglund.
You ppl know who and what I’m talking about here, right?
Sometimes, sad to say, it feels like the good guys – the MV / EEs and the Dan Haywoods of this world; the ones with something to say – seem to get left behind in the rush for fool’s gold. But no: quality will win on that last loooong final furlong; you can’t fucking fake The Righteous Stuff.
Okay, then: a recap for those of you who just wandered in late. Let’s quickly track the sun-bound trajectory of MV-EE’s astral / post-temporal take on Space-Blues and Disembodied Country, follow its cometary tail in from the musical Oort Cloud that was The Tower Recordings. (For the uninitiated): TTR were a virtual who’s-who of the late-90’s / early-00’s Psych-Folk Underground: MV, PG Six, Helen Rush, Tim Barnes, Samara Lubelski and pals… think: ‘loose’ / ‘lost’-era Neil Young broadcasting from the Voyager mission en route to Proxima Centauri; Carl Sagan’s ‘golden record’ playing Blind Willie Nelson at 1420.40575177 MHz (the wavelength of hydrogen); crackling nebulae of interstellar sound, wood-shed transmissions from the rural back of Planet Beyond.
But all good things come to an end and TTR finally disappeared into the ion-charged aether over Wantastiquet (aka the town of Brattleboro, Vermont). At some point round 2000 or 2001, maybe – the exact details are a bit hazy (see, I told you this stuff was post-temporal) – Erika makes the scene with her cocola Firebird, echoplexed lap steel and a collection of hand-soldered fx-pedals built by her Dad. The pair merge’n morph into The MV & EE Medicine Show and the Partch-ean sounding Child of Microtones label is birthed, quickly becoming the Ma ‘n’ Pa of a thousand jam-wrangled CD-rs and hand-milled cassette tapes.
The music becomes dustier-sounding somehow; soil-bound and rooted in the fertile loam of History, yet it still gazes longingly up at the Heavens. Those early / mid-00’s MV-EE jams are extended tonal-poems, hymns and paeans to Marginal America; they’re like a slo-mo audio slide-show, a zoetrope, a dream-machine processional; you can feel the energy building throughout that era, the images stacking up in your inner ear’s retina: bumpy, unpaved back-roads, abandoned shacks, chapels and trailers; the yellowing sheet-music of forgotten songsmiths, almanacs, shellac and Kerouac’s unfinished business; a dog called Zuma, a care-worn sofa left out in the open in an untended field or meadow. In MV-EE myth-space, your own back-yard becomes an observatory, your porch a time-machine…
“…the idea of America was born under endless, untamed skies; an impossible, unreachable canopy of stars…”
This… this Other America… it flashes past me when I play their jams, as if seen from an automobile / a railroad car / a Mercury space-capsule; it accelerates, blurs, yet somehow simultaneously feels measured and stately, never quite reaching escape velocity. (And that’s how it should be: music and art is about the reaching out, rather than the arriving; it’s all about the dreaming…) This place – this ‘America’ – that I thought I knew from poetry and pkd and a zillion biker and road movies and pilfered blues riffs, it’s a second-hand landscape, if I’m to be truthful: it’s vicarious – borrowed from someone else’s dream – but it comes back to life for me in Matt and Erika’s hands, is animated by them in ways I would never have anticipated. Their music peels back the painted surface from this false, sentimental, Edward Hopperised simulation of America that we’ve created in our heads here in Europe, strips it of cultural distance, of any artifice or clichéd affect that Hollywood have added. MV-EE infuse their rolling sonic landscapes with some restless, old / new cosmology that Dylan never quite cared to ponder. They make mythic America feel more real, yet also more illusory, more visionary. They induce a delicious, sleepy craving for What Might Have Been (but still could be).
In a MV-EE song it’s always October in the Railroad Earth.
Ah, but what a decade they had! There seemed to be no ceiling to their dreams. On albums like Fantastic String Music and Raga & Blues, mandolins and dulcimers meet micro-timbres and polytonal droo-o-o-oones; the spirits of La Monte, Pran Nath and Relatively Clean Rivers are invoked, summoning down a form of *ulp* borderless, bodiless, post-chromatic Sufi-Psych. Tibet and the Endless Eastern Drift-Void are accessed via tonal-portals in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Steinbeck’s dust-bowl. The holes in the centre of a 33 or CD-r become Crown Chakras, dharmic entry-points into The American Pure Lands, accessible to lo-fi nomads and thrift-shop dreamers wherever they may roam. On certain tracks, Time itself seems to elongate, lengthen and, ultimately, become irrelevant. Yay!
Aided and abetted by EE, Dredd Foole, Time-Lag Records boss Nemo Bidstrup and drum wizzkid Chris Corsano, MV re-entered the atmosphere without burning up, splash-landing with Creek to Creation – 2004’s most underrated algae-coloured vinyl album. C2C is heady stuff, man: a mixture of MacLisean ethnodrone, molecular folkforms, spaced-out Neo-Beatific burblings and cracked lunar Shakti Blues; it’s chocful / shot-through with vocal Dredd tomFoolery and imaginary Appalachian moon-shots.
Meanwhile, the MV-EE live-experience continued to physically expand and was augmented by a floating pool of pals and fellow (astral) travelers; mid- / late-00’s touring-units were designated as The Bummer Road, The Golden Road, etc, their membership determined not just by the availability of musicians, but by that season’s prevailing philosophical and aesthetic vibes, etc. As The Bush Years ground on, so the music heavied-up and a solid, hard-rockin’ sound started to underpin their explorations of Celestial Mechanics and esoteric Americana. In Feb, 2008, I caught a MV-EE & The Golden Road show at The Pump Room in Trowbridge with its miniature medieval minstrels gallery and, man, I swear it was the nearest I’ll come to seeing a mid-70’s incarnation of Crazy Horse playing in someone’s sitting-room – and by Crazy Horse, I mean Crazy Horse if they were channeling Sun Ra and Charlemagne Palestine…
Yeah, those albums on Ecstatic Peace came real close to pulling in a bigger audience; but these things are cyclical and so it was that 2011’s Country Stash LP felt like a change of emphasis, an upshift towards something more, uh, cosmic, I guess… it’s a more open and spacious-sounding joint, fer sure, but still very accessible; the music has more room to roam, but the vibe is warm, welcoming and downright sociable.
And that’s been a common theme throughout this journey: whether they’re playing live as a duo, a four-piece, a six-pack or an eight-wheeler, MV-EE consistently evoke a sense of intimacy and engagement. They take the audience with them. And so, with a fresh, incoming collection of jams called Space Homestead, and with MV-EE about to hit the UK-circuit with The Home Comfort Sound System (“A spectral sound & cinema show”), it seemed a good time to catch up with Matt and find out what’s going down…
Hey Matt, could you tell us about the self-powered / DIY sound-system approach you’ve taken with this tour?
MV: “THIS DIY sound system concept evolved out of our “spectrasound” set up in the states and a rural gig inside a village hall in campsea ash back in 2010. how’s that for a hybrid moment? tall james (the builder/designer/engineer of the PA for the home comfort soundsystem tour) brought an appropriate homemade system of his to that village hall and it blew my mind. it was an inspired gig and i immediately saw/heard the difference in vibe, reminded me of our live shows on our home turf and jams in our rehearsal space. those moments usually always sound cool, especially when we are using our set up to its potential. y’know let it loose and also harness alotta tones flyin’ around.
“you gotta dig we try and play all the time at home, jamming/rehearsing…concerts of all levels and sizes and the tones become geometric, we start to see the shapes, get inside the way it flows. we felt the best way to wrangle that kinda thing when we were away from our usual equipment was to get someone on board with us like tall and totally dial in the presentation to our standard. i’m lookin’ forward to the scene.
“y’know, we seem to develop a sonic meniscus with the room acoustics, it’s a pretty ephemeral thing. there’r always lots of elements running toward the realm of the unknown, slowly moving freakazoid tangents getting it on. it isn’t always gonna be what you expected. i LOVE that, always lots of improvisation and unique transitions at the concerts. that’s something we’re into, keeps us going…constantly searching. in many ways, for me, that’s what makes it cool. anyway, when it sounds “really” good, it helps us to play better, tall james’ system brought that feeling to the campsea ash gig and we thought, why not aim to do this kinda thing for a whole tour, do somethin’ a little bit more in tune with our sensibilities from home rather than make adjustments and compromises to be relative to some kinda field. so we rapped about it for two years…yeah two years of planning…came up with ways to “improve” the sonic totality and go for things just a bit beyond our reach. go figure. of course, decided to once again go way out on limb. yep, it was a leap for the budget AND we’d make MORE work for ourselves. sure, why not make every possible effort to “control” the parameters of the PA on a nightly basis. what better way than to have a custom one built and bring it along! so tall contoured the system specifically for this tour based on our instrumentation and spec transients, speculative fiction, spectra…ha. the reality is we’re gonna have 6 mono blocks each potentially containing a different signal. in many ways it is our “wall of sound” fantasy done on a grassroots level, 4 humans, lotsa love projection. for erika and i the sound is paramount and we want it to come across at the shows, it’s not a volume thing…it’s a fullness, fulfillment of being engulfed by the music and the depths therein. hearing what it is meant to sound like is a very spiritual thing. hopefully this tour will open up the senses.”
So, were you trying to find a fresh approach to touring here? (Actually, didn’t you and Erika move out to a plot of land years back with no electricity or just some sort of basic hydro-generator… is this a partial flashback to those days…?
MV: “we’re always trying to find a fresh approach to touring! sometimes a whole new basket of tunes is enuff, or extending sections/truncating sections of the “standards”, but like i was riffin’ on there are so many shapes and sizes -> that’s where “the golden road” comes in. we’ve gotten to a point now where we have an amazing “pod” of folks who know a variable plethora of the repertoire to join in. just having different lineups for different tours keeps the core duo fresh and makes for a very inspired combination of groups and group mind. i feel very fortunate that so many heads have contributed such great feelings, not to mention time, toward the music. it pushes erika and i to new frontiers as a duo and makes us aware that each group algorithm has its strengths and we try to capitalize on that, thus bringing new forms and harvests to every show.
“yeah, we moved out to rural vermont about 10 years ago. i lived up here for a bit before, but now we live together out in the woods. it helps me read between the lines, definitely “see” the intervals better. i get involved with the sound…i spend alotta time on that, always have. setting up the amps, tweaking pedals, reviewing tapes. i’m into it. we always “sound good” at home in our rehearsal space through our spectra system, which is basically us surrounded by amps/public address. the vocals are coming out of no less than 3 speaker sources all with different EQ’s and degrees of “wetness”. erika and I are using at least 2 amps each, there’s alotta mojo flyin’ around. this becomes increasingly more of a production to take on the road, challenging in the states and we’ve found nearly impossible to recreate properly overseas, until now, heh heh. long and short of it was we felt we had to deploy this sorta axiom in a real life situation when in the UK/europe. so after 2 years of planning/etc…we have been able to manifest the home comfort sound system for september 2012 at a glorious joint near you! the aim is to get away from the usual spaces and open up the possibilities of where these things “could” happen. a real life flashback to the good ol’ days of future wave.”
For the sake of any MV / EE newbies, could you give us a short definition of what you define as your ‘spectrasound’ concept / take on playing and audio… what sort of elements go into it?
MV: “spectrasound is where vivid is the criterion. the aim is for the sound to be moving around, dancing. take the concept from the ancient indian philosophy about money, keep it moving like the river…when it sits still it starts to stink. even when there are ostinato sections, or drones, we try to keep a boogie going sonically. move around within the modes, ride the circumstances. that sums up our take on playing as well, we dig keeping ourselves challenged…try to push the quadrille and hit the linoleum but keep a firm grasp on our roots, really just trying to stay as open as possible. there’r so many elements that go into spectrasound, it’s a hyper dimensional contemporary take on human quadraphonics at one of its chakras, or it could just be alotta cables and speakers, depends on how far you wanna go outta the corporeal.”
What gear are you bringing over with you – or are you using kit assembled over here in the UK…?
MV: “yeah, good question. we’ll figure somethin’ out! hard to leave behind our antiquated stateside midden of hypothetical semis/etc…but we’ll make do, we got all the essentials in tow, heh heh.
Is it just you and Erika – a duo-configuration – or a full band / pals coming over with you? Are you hooking up with any UK-based friends to bolster yr line-up, like Mick Flower and The Doozer…?
MV: “we’ll mostly be a duo on this run, tho’ we have tall james doing a pretty active mix at the controls and he and hogge (from the early days of the cube cinema in bristol) will operating a full on analog light show. so the four of us comprise the “home comfort sound system” and in a sense are a “band” or a “version”, tubby style, even tho’ it’ll just be the two of us “on stage”. no aversion to the quad mind. we’ve learned to be pretty ergonomic yet sonically expansive from all the touring stateside. since we last hit the UK terrain erika and i have expanded the repertoire considerably and go beyond what people might think is possible within our lil’ homestead, so be on the lookout for some new jams and some pretty major tonal surprises. mick flower is hooking up with us for a handful of dates, most notably hebden bridge on thru to glasgow and, of course, he’ll be at the wharf chambers show in leeds. we’ll aim to hook with the doozer for some CAM boogie. you just never know who or what might go down with our trip.”
So, where’re you guys heading musically at the moment? Country Stash sounded a bit ‘spacier’ – more open and bluesily cosmic-sounding – to my ears than the LPs / records that preceded it. You had a harder-rocking sound at one point in the late-00s. (Shame-faced, I had to admit to having not heard Space Homestead at the point of talking to Matt, but – man, oh, man – I have since seen the light…). But where are things heading towards on record / live at the moment? Is it Bummer Road or Golden Road or neither right now…
MV: “much obliged for the inner ears but man ya gotta check in with the space homestead, in many ways it continues the sound/concepts from my “what i became” LP and applies the harvest to a group formula. it consolidates all the strands of what came before, the bedrock of “the sound” is clearly there. we tend change it up nightly, it feels more cosmic to me live. who knows. we’ve been focusing on material from “space homestead” and some rarely played numbers from the back catalog, been thinkin’ of letting a few new ones run around the roses on this tour. there’s a new LP in progress that will hopefully get finished up this fall, it focuses on a more modal type of songwriting with the core group consisting of what i call the “home comfort wing” of the golden road. those are mostly our vermont buds, tho’ p.g. six came up to jam a bit. soundin’ pretty sweet to my ears at the moment.
When you were riffing earlier, you mentioned ‘speculative fiction’… I was curious: if the Home Comfort Sound System had a book-case in it, what books / authors would be visible on the top shelf? You’ve name-checked PK Dick before now, so I’m guessing he might be in there somewhere…
MV: “mos def have yards of dick near the bible. always sandwiched between rudy rucker who is also one of my faves. charles plymell, george bataille, kerouak. i’m also a huge fan of william blake. “
Also (and this isn’t really a question – more me thinking out loud) I was loving the way you explained both the actual audio-sound you make – ie the 6 x mono ‘blocks’ / multiple speaker array / p.a. sources – the describing of the people you play with as “pods” – and the way that the songs themselves seem mutable / infinitely extensible ‘blocks’… it’s like your body of work consists of a slowly-growing series of ‘modules’ that you can move around in fresh, ever-different configurations at each show, and these modules can be played / jammed-out in different ways by whatever ‘pod’ of friends is performing on any given occasion, can also be mixed and expressed in different ways by your system back at home, and now by your new Home Comfort tour-system…
MV: “yeah the sound should be fertile and have shapes. sound with hair… wet channel and blow out but we could still style in a cave. create a garden, that’s the aim.”
The songs are more like ‘seeds’, I guess – audio locus-points from which the jams grow outwards, organically – though, interestingly, you also use geometric terms when describing stuff, so I’m seeing in my minds-eye “building-blocks” of sound being moved around and also cones / triangles of audio projecting outwards and intersecting in the air at yr shows… pretty mind-blowing stuff…
MV: “much obliged kek! an isosceles love in within the duo exchange…that’s our math rock cross over appeal.”
MV & EE with the Home Comfort Sound System Tour Dates
|09/09/12||Styrsö, SE||Bratten Kök & Bar|
|10/09/12||Copenhagen, DK||Huset KBH|
|11/09/12||Berlin, DE||Festsaal Kreuzberg|
|13/09/12||Paris, FR||Crypte de L’Eglise Notre-Dame la Croix|
|15/09/12||Tilburg, NL||Incubate Festival|
|18/09/12||London, UK||Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club|
|19/09/12||Birmingham, UK||Custard Factory|
|20/09/12||Cragg Vale (Hebden Bridge), UK||The Robin Hood|
|22/09/12||Manchester, UK||Rowf! Rowf! Rowf! Festival|
|23/09/12||Bristol, UK||Polish Club|
|25/09/12||Cambridge, UK||Romsey Labour Club|
|29/09/12||Leeds, UK||Wharf Chambers|