Chuck Johnson isn’t new to this. But his new album is nothing like you’d expect.
He’d already been around since the nineties, playing with various acts and under different aliases, before embracing his given name and releasing the classic A Struggle Not A Thought in 2011. The equally powerful Crows In The Basilica followed in 2013 and his American Primitive triptych was completed with 2015’s lovely Blood Moon Boulder. Those three albums are as good as any for an introduction and exploration of the American Primitive sound.
For those that aren’t familiar with American Primitive Guitar, simply put, it’s something like the deconstruction of the Delta and Piedmont fingerpicked blues styles married to the avant-garde composition stylings of modern classical and experimental composers. The name was coined/genre created by John Fahey in the 60s. After a period of dormancy, the sound returned in the 2000s with the masterful Jack Rose and may be reaching a zenith today with Daniel Bachman nailing the typical style and guitarists like William Tyler, Ryley Walker, Steve Gunn and Cian Nugent (and many others) taking the genre in electrified and unexplored directions. Chuck Johnson was immediately recognized as a master of the form and a leading figure in the renaissance that seems to be happening.
After those deep American Primitive explorations, last year’s Velvet Arc found Johnson plugging in and leading a full band. The fleshed-out sound suited him well. It’s a strong record and a rewarding listen but, at the same time, felt somewhat transitional, like Johnson was on his way somewhere, he just didn’t know where yet. He found that sought-after destination in the pedal steel guitar.
If you’re not a fan of classic country music, you might not be too familiar with the pedal steel. Maybe because it’s notoriously difficult to play or because of it’s unique wailing tones, its use is almost always confined to country or the like. Johnson found his new direction in the pedal steel – but this is not country music. The effected, looped, tranquil, dreamy and ambient pedal steel guitar is the medium for his melodies this time and it is a transcendent listen.
Astute listeners to Johnson’s catalogue might not be too surprised by Balsams’ sound. Blood Moon Boulder’s closing track, ‘Private Violence’, is a slow-moving meditation that makes prominent use of a pedal steel in tonal conversation with an electric six-string. Johnson reworked the song for Velvet Arc creating ‘Anamet,’ where cymbal swells, a sweeping string section and a synth outro buoy the guitars’ double melody. In retrospect, those songs sound like harbingers of the sound to come.
The songs on Balsams float over you like a slow-moving wave but they never bore. The pedal steel tone can be as piercing as it can be gentle and the lovely melodies maintain interest and drive the songs forward. Though this is instrumental music, his lead playing has the sort of lyricism that stands out in your mind. The guitar excursions and melodic forms repeat, subtly ever-changing, until they become a sort of transformative mantra. Soft buzzing modular synthesizers adorn the background and light touches of synth bass ground the listener while the pedal steel paints impressionistic soundscapes flush with tonal blends and wavering sonic constructions.
The pairing of the pedal steel and ambient vibes feels so stunningly perfect and natural on the album, it’s surprising that it’s not a more common collocation. Johnson isn’t the first to make the connection but he might have perfected it here. Balsams feels like an instant classic, an album that begs to be pulled off the shelf even years later. An album that fits as well with after-dinner drinks as it does with early-morning coffee. It’s a calming journey into an aural astral plane and it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.
I had the pleasure of electronically chatting with Chuck about Balsams, his influences and relationship to the guitar. He mentioned so many great artists (many that I love, some that I hadn’t yet discovered) that I decided to make a playlist of them. I recommend listening while reading, eating dinner, driving around late at night, washing the dishes, and walking on the beach or wherever your journey takes you from here. It’s 4 hours long and it’s lovely.
First off, tell us about your relationship to music. What were the albums that had the greatest effect on you as a young person? Who inspired you to start playing the guitar and as you’ve progressed, who has been your biggest inspiration?
I am sure everything I heard as a kid had an influence in some way – from the Led Zeppelin 8-track tape my aunt gave me, to the organ drones at the start of church services, to the schmaltzy Christmas albums in my parents stereo cabinet. And I grew up around country music. Grand Ole Opry was often on the radio, Hee Haw on TV, and country was always in the background at extended family gatherings. I was buying records (mainly disco 7-inches) as soon as I was old enough to earn an allowance, but I would say the first records to have a big impact on the way I think about music was probably the Beatles catalog that I collected obsessively when I was 12 and 13. I pretty much derailed my piano lessons at the time and insisted that the teacher help me learn Beatles songs. I didn’t actually start playing guitar until I was in college, and a few years later I became aware of Elizabeth Cotten, who grew up less than a mile from where I lived in Chapel Hill, NC. She remains to this day an avatar and mentor. And through her I found other Piedmont Blues and ragtime players like Etta Baker, Brownie McGhee, Algia Mae Hinton, Gary Davis and so on.
Have you always been drawn to the guitar or do you play other instruments? I just started learning the piano in addition to the guitar and it’s striking how different the approach to playing and writing music is on each instrument. Do you feel like the indirect/non-linear layout of the guitar, as well as the opportunity to play in different tunings, leads you down different creative paths?
I know what you mean. I studied piano as a kid, but for some reason piano never felt like a platform for creating my own music. I am self-taught on guitar, and that means I think about it in a fundamentally different way. Rather than notes on a page, it’s more about muscle memory, shapes, movement, and sound. Making feedback was one of the first things I wanted to figure out when I started playing guitar. Using different tunings is a natural extension of that – I mostly play in altered tunings and I don’t consciously think about the names of the chords or notes I am playing.
Speaking of alternate tunings, tell us a little about what you used on this record. Are there particular tunings you’ve been drawn to recently? How often do you play in standard? Do you ever experiment with creating your own tunings outside of the typical Open D, Open G, DADGAD, Orkney, etc.?
I rarely play acoustic guitar in standard tuning, but I generally stick to open tunings that people are familiar with in folk guitar and the Takoma school: variations of Open D, Open G, Open C and modal tunings. When I played electric guitar in rock bands i used to favor Drop D, so in some way my guitar playing has always involved drone from open strings. With pedal steel I use what is pretty much considered standard tuning for that instrument: E9. It’s the pedal steel tuning you hear on pretty much every country recording since the 60s. The interesting thing about steel guitar is that the notion of being “in tune” is very fluid. Not only does the playing technique involve gliding between notes, but the way players tune the open strings varies a lot, in a microtonal sense. Some players tune in regular equal temperament, but most use some flavor of tempered tuning (where the pitches are fudged a little so that certain chord voicings are more sweetly tuned) and some use just intonation. All this is a way to say that an “E” or a “major third” can mean a lot of different things, which to me is one of the most fascinating things about music in general.
You’ve used pedal steel guitar on your previous albums but mostly just as a compliment, something to flavor the edges rather than take the lead. This album is a pedal steel showcase – though not in the manner we’re used to hearing it. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with the instrument? Who are your inspirations on the pedal steel and is it really as fucking hard to play as people say?
First of all – yes it is really that fucking hard to play 😉 Seriously, learning the instrument has been one of the most humbling things I have ever tried to do, and I am certain that I will be learning it the rest of my life. It’s a guitar in name only – sometimes it sometimes feels more like operating machinery than playing an instrument. As for my approach to playing it on Balsams, I would say that it is defined as much by my technical limitations as it is my desire to coax from it the sounds that drew me to it in the first place. But I could say the same about my solo guitar playing too. What has always attracted me to the pedal steel is its ability to sustain notes with bell-like clarity, and the way it allows notes within a chord to glide in different directions simultaneously – milking the consonances and dissonances along the way. No other instrument can do that.
I have so much respect for people who have really mastered the instrument – whether in a conventional way or not. Within country music, I prefer the swing and bright tone of Bakersfield players like Ralph Mooney and Tom Brumley. Of course, Sweetheart of the Rodeo wouldn’t be the same without the contributions of Lloyd Green. Watching old videos of country singer Barbara Mandrell playing pedal steel is a reminder not only of how freaking talented she is, but of how important the idea of showmanship was back in the day.
Players were expected to play this extremely complicated instrument in a virtuosic yet deceptively simple way, and they had to smile and make eye contact with the audience while doing it! Listening to Buddy Emmons is like listening to Charlie Parker – a true master and innovator of modern music. And Jerry Garcia inspired me on many levels, especially his respect for the pedal steel and his modesty about his own considerable skills on the thing.
The pedal steel, with its buttery, wistful tone and potent portamenti, is a powerful and unique instrument. But it’s usually only associated with and used in country and roots music. Do you feel like an ambassador for the instrument, showcasing its potential and possibilities in a different genre?
That’s a great way to describe the sound, by the way. Although I may never be able to play hot country licks on the steel, it doesn’t concern me that much because I can’t do that on a 6-string guitar either! I don’t consider myself an ambassador for the instrument at all – I think of myself as a composer, and this instrument happens to have a palette that I enjoy working with. That said, if people hear my music and realize that there is potential to listen to the steel guitar beyond its idiomatic roots, then that makes me very happy. One interesting thing about pedal steel is that everything about it – from the tunings to the mechanics of the pedals and levers – was designed to play a very specific style of music. And I don’t personally stretch its use very far beyond those limits. I play chords and bend notes a lot like you would in country music – albeit much more slowly, and with a lot of focus on the sustain, decay, the long glides between notes. I don’t use extended techniques or go very far into dissonant or purely textural playing, although there are players who I admire that are very good at that – Susan Alcorn, Heather Leigh, and BJ Cole come to mind.
Without trying to pigeonhole a complex and deep album, Balsams definitely seems to fall under the ‘ambient’ banner. Are you/have you always been a fan of ambient music? What are some of your favorite albums of the genre?
Applying that term to Balsams is a little tricky for me, but I can see why it is being described that way. Although all six songs are very slow and textural, the melodies are actually very prominent. I think that pushes it a bit more into the foreground and into more of an active mode of listening than the role of ambient music as Eno described it. Incidentally, I love everything Eno has released under that banner – it should come as no surprise that Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks was an inspiration for this record. And I think that era in the late 70s and early 80s when Eno’s ambient period extended into the work of other artists like Laaraji, Harold Budd, and Daniel Lanois was a very rich time, and there are still a lot of ideas and sounds to work with there. But when I think of contemporary ambient music I think of the recent work by Japanese artists like Hakobune, Chihei Hatakeyama, and Rhucle, or the more dynamic textural guitar stuff like Noveller – where it’s really about textures and atmosphere, very musical and tonal, but with much less emphasis on melody compared to Eno’s crew. And for me, all the disparate stuff that falls under the “ambient” heading is a sort of tonal minimalism, and within that larger category are some of my most important teachers and influences: Elaine Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Tony Conrad, Terry Riley etc.
On the other hand, your first couple albums definitely gave a strong American Primitive vibe, with the acoustic fingerpicking led by a driving alternating thumb. American Primitive Guitar has been making a serious comeback as a genre lately. Were you influenced by John Fahey, Jack Rose or other fingerpickers of the style? Do you ever bristle at the term (often lobbed as a facile comparison) and was moving away from that label a part of the reason you’ve changed your sound on the last few records?
These days I bristle at the term “American” in general, for obvious reasons. We are in a collapsing empire, after all, and “America” seems determined to bring the rest of the world down with it. I do relate to Fahey’s use of the term “American Primitive Guitar” – and to the sarcasm with which he infused it – and I think it’s a pretty concise way to describe a style of guitar music that has a foundation in North American folk traditions, is largely self-taught, but has the audacity and pretentiousness (ha!) to fuse with global influences and modern classical and then present itself as solo concert music rather than as accompaniment for vocals. I stumbled upon Fahey records soon after forming an affinity for Elizabeth Cotten, and I recognized the connection to Cotten but I also heard a deeper pathos and a drive towards abstraction and self-expression. And it was clear that his motives were very different than the those of the “folk” musicians at the time. I have deep respect for Jack Rose, and I first met him when our bands would share bills in the mid to late 90s, quite a few years before he started putting his solo guitar music out there. I think he really became the post-Takoma torchbearer for our generation, and he specifically picked up the Fahey mantle by stamping a very heavy and immediately recognizable personal style on the music – especially in his approach to syncopation and swing. It’s a testament to how hard he worked at it, as well as to how large and forceful his personality was.
I don’t see my solo guitar work as something I am trying to escape or get away from. It’s more like Velvet Arc and Balsams are an organic progression into some different sonic territories – like different streams but from the same spring. I have come to see the three solo guitar albums I released – A Struggle Not A Thought, Crows in the Basilica, and Blood Moon Boulder – as a triptych that stands on its own and as a document of something I was and still am very deeply connected to. But I also think those records connect very organically with the music I released before and after them.
You’ve done a fair amount of soundtrack work. I’ve always been curious about that process. I imagine it’s different for each project but, typically, are you watching the film and writing music for specific parts or do they just ask you for a certain vibe? In general, what’s your approach to creating a soundtrack and how does the process differ from your other music?
It really does differ from project to project, but in general the main distinction is between scoring television vs film. When working on a film, it’s more likely that I am composing to specific scenes and durations, making sure that transitions in the music sync up with what is happening visually. But with television the production cycle is so fast that I usually don’t have the luxury of time to score that way. In some cases the editor will describe the scene and ask for specific vibes, and I am composing before I actually see any footage. But it varies a lot.
I would say soundtrack work differs from my other music in that the nature of it requires me to be less attached to what I am producing, because it may very well be “rejected” or revisions may be required of me. It’s a good exercise in ego regulation, because I am aware that ultimately the soundtrack music is meant to be part of a larger whole. The music (and sound design) can serve to support the image, or it can also work against it, to push or pull the viewer’s experience in some way. But in the end the music has to align with the vision of the filmmaker.
Judging from your instagram, you’ve been on a 35mm b&w photography kick recently (and hanging out on lovely Greek isles.) Do you shoot strictly film or do you ever use digital?
It’s true, I have recently rediscovered my love for analog photography. When I was a teenager I shot on film and developed photos in my high school’s darkroom, but until this year I hadn’t shot film in over fifteen years. I do shoot digital sometimes, but the experience is so completely different. I think we are all accustomed to having immediate feedback on the screens of our phones or digital cameras. But when I take a photo on film all I have to go by is what the meters might tell me, or in the case of a rangefinder camera I might not even have meters and I can’t see directly through the lens – it’s a crapshoot, an educated guess at best! I don’t know, there is just something really fun about not knowing what the image looks like until I get the film back several days/weeks/months later. By that time I might not remember where I was, or what I was thinking at that moment, and I enjoy that element of surprise.
How do you think photograph and music, as art forms, are similar or different? Do you ever find yourself making interdisciplinary discoveries of connections and insights between the two seemingly disparate art forms?
Since I started using film again I have been thinking a lot about the parallels between photography and music/sound – especially in the analog realm of both, where so many compromises have to be made in order to work with the medium. The limitations they impose can foster creative thinking and create fun problem-solving scenarios. The act of taking a photo is a lot like playing improvised music – where the composition comes together (or fails to) in that brief moment as you’re trying to capture it. And then the post-processing possibilities with both imagery and sound once it’s in the digital realm opens up the potential for even more composerly tweaking or conceptual framing. But the important difference between photography and music – at least for me – is that I am not an inherently visual thinker. So walking around with a camera, viewing the world around me through a small frame, and creating these little spontaneous compositions… I’d like to think it’s helping me develop a new way of thinking and a new appreciation for what I can experience with my eyes.
On the subject of the analog/digital divide – on this album, you make extensive use of both tape loops and ProTools. Analog experiments then processed and edited digitally. Do you feel that we lose something when we create art in a solely digital environment? Is the analog component something essential that we might be losing in the swift-moving river of progress and technological advancement?
With Balsams, the tape looping was used as an effect – specifically for the sound of tape loops degrading over time and building resonance – and the loops also form a compositional backbone for most of the songs. I record digitally using Pro Tools because that’s what works for me based on my needs for flexibility, editing, compatibility with other people, etc. I do use analog tools like outboard processing gear because in many cases that’s the only way to get the sound or effect that I want, and because I much prefer twisting knobs over using a mouse. And I always mix using an analog console, so my recording process is very much a hybrid and I don’t think too much about the so-called divide between analog and digital. I just try to use the tool or technique that will work in service of the idea.
At least as far as audio is concerned, analog seems to be alive and well and new boutique gear companies are starting up all the time – many of them doing inventive things with classic designs. But as the digital tools improve a lot is being lost for sure, like the importance of capturing a really good performance before you edit the crap out of it, or the fact that a lot of people who are running studios now have never spent hours of every recording session aligning tape machines, calibrating analog consoles – ie doing real “engineer” stuff. With photography, there is a very real risk that the companies who manufacture film may decide that it isn’t worth doing any more. But as long as there are Lightroom and Photoshop filters that try to simulate the look of film, and there are digital audio effects that add “analog color” I think people will always be curious enough to learn about or seek out the real thing. I think it’s also worth noting that, even though a lot is being lost as the analog era fades, digital does open up modes of expression and suggests aesthetics that no one could have imagined 30 years ago.
How was your writing/creating process different on this album, compared to your previous work? In the future, do you see yourself continuing down the path of edited improvisation and the semi-controlled chaos of tape loops and the like? Or do you miss the control that composing in a more straight-forward manner allows?
This was my first album where the songs were actually created using studio techniques – editing, processing, etc – as opposed to recording tunes or compositions that were already worked out beforehand. It is a labor-intensive way to work, but I enjoy it, and I imagine I will be spending more time with the pedal steel setup and with the same approach to recording I used for Balsams. I have a project with Marielle Jakobsons that is mostly based around Fender Rhodes and pedal steel, and it will definitely have elements of both of our recent solo albums.
I’m happy to tell you that the staff of Blocland has found your record to be our #1 wake-up-and-make-some-coffee-and-eggs album of the year. What are your go-to albums when you’re up too damn early?
Wow what an honor! That’s interesting because I think of Balsams as being more suited for the opposite end of the day, especially if one has insomnia. When I have to wake up earlier than I would like, morning ragas by Nikhil Banerjee can provide the right blend of tonal bliss and get-up-and-go energy, especially once the jhala kicks in. Buck Owens always puts a little pep in my step. Recent music by Sarah Louise and Mary Lattimore can find a sweet spot in the morning as well.