Field Guides, “Marco/Polo”

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Choral bonds and indie operatic harmonics.

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Sjimon Gompers | October 28, 2014

Field Guides, photographed by Natasha Ryan.

Explore the landscapes, surfaces, and textures of the world with Field Guides as your companion, on the debut of the sad but serendipitous, “Marco/Polo”. What began as a solo act by Brooklyn artist Benedict Kupstas has now grown to include members from Cloud Becomes Your Hand, Future Wife, Helado Negro, Landlady, Tiny Hazard, Tigue, Wilder Maker, etc, to complete the patchwork quilt-sewn sound. The album title, Boo, Forever pays tribute to the melodramatic mysterious familiarity found in the writings of Richard Brautigan and the collected field found sounds of birds, brooks, and all nearby natural audio sources. With Field Guides debut album available November 11 on Muir Woods, Kupstas and friends give you the following early invitation to experience the world as heard according to their own hearts and ears.

A song of emotion wrung sport, “Marco/Polo” swims into being on an introduction that sounds like an old tinny radio or a rusty music box. Benedict likens relationship games to blinded rounds of the game Marco Polo, engaging all available senses to search for the other person that is slowly drifting away. Field Guides seek a common sound, the foundation of a solid ground, while containing raw sections of exchanged distrust; “Every time you breathe in, you taste the lies that you spoke, and every time you breathe out, it sounds like something is broken.” Together the collective makes a choral sound of family band style baroque, documenting the distances of separations and the close approximations between unbreakable bonds. The retreat of, “I’ll be hiding in the corner, you’ll be going where it’s warmer,” comes around to the, “tell me what you want to hear” meetings that hint toward new shared dialogues. Benedict Kupstas gave us an unique, inside look at the dynamics of Field Guides in our interview after the following premiere of “Marco/Polo”.

Describe the decade long process of writing Boo, Forever, along with the expansion of growing from a solo project to a band of rotating musicians.

Well, it wasn’t such a discrete, conscious process. It only looks linear in retrospect, I guess. The actual recording of the album took place over a single weekend last February, and a couple of the songs were written in a quick spurt during the preceding weeks, but a few date back a decade, or had existed in very different iterations. Field Guides was born a few years ago as a little distraction from another band I was in at the time, and all the initial songs were written about a single relationship. It was an entirely personal project and I only shared the songs with that person and a handful of friends. I think she may have hated those songs, but a few people were encouraging.

A good friend asked me to play a show last year at Pete’s Candy Store, and so I recruited some friends to play with me. We played a Smog cover at that show and my guitar strap kept breaking, forcing me to stand on one leg like a flamingo for most of the set. Then I started writing songs about other relationships. And I started digging up older songs—about older relationships—that I’d forgotten in the intervening years.

Since then I’ve lost count of how many drummers we’ve had, and the lineup has expanded and contracted. We had three guitars and a trumpet for a spell. But it’s been pretty stable for the last few months. We’re thinking of bribing our current drummer with foot massages and sexual favors so he’ll stay in the band, because he’s fantastic. I feel so fortunate to have some insanely talented friends, and for the album we just invited a bunch my favorite musicians into the studio, including people from some of my favorite bands, like Cloud Becomes Your Hand and Tiny Hazard and Wilder Maker.

It ended feeling like a real culmination or the closing of a chapter or something. The songs came from all these different experiences spread over a decade, but a bunch of friends helped me make them into something cohesive. Some of it is almost embarrassingly personal, but it doesn’t even feel like the songs are mine anymore. Which is sort of cathartic. Phillip, who plays guitar in the band, wrote this while we were working on the album, and it sums it up better than I can: “There’s no greater palliative than making something that feels true to the lived experience of it… That process is like a bulwark against whatever life is throwing your way. It’s your chance to push back against the limits of being a person.” After spending so much time with the recordings, it’s hard for me to listen to the album now, but when we were mixing it, hearing Jamie’s violin on certain songs felt better than any drug.

What are some of the group dynamics that gets everyone on that same valley plain of sound sort of wavelength that you all have?

We rehearse in the old Pfizer pharmaceutical factory on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn, and it’s a truly bizarre place, full of hazard signs, enormous pill mixing machines, contamination showers and eye-wash-stations, and lots of eerily vacant corridors… Our studio gets ridiculously hot and odorous, and we have sweating competitions to see whose clothes get the most drenched. I’ve won a few times.

We all have pretty disparate musical backgrounds and proclivities, but I think one thing that maybe coalesces is our general attitude toward music. I’m not really sure what that attitude is, but it seems like we all share it. Some of my best friends and favorite people in the world are in the band, so I think that goes a long way.

How did you approach fusing your own music with field sounds sourced from Ithaca, Montana, Pennsylvania, South Korea, etc, into this natural-arranged harmony?

One of the ideas that I keep revisiting about what I should do with my life (when I grow up) is to become an ornithologist. I record a lot of sounds when I travel. I take a lot of photos, too, but I really enjoy capturing ambient sounds if there’s a place I want to remember. A month or so ago, I was on this walkway in a marsh upstate along the Hudson, and it was a place and a moment I didn’t want to let go of, so I recorded a few minutes of the sounds on my phone. The cattails swaying, the floating walkway creaking, the wind, the water… Those sounds will probably be on the next album (which is already written and is, surprisingly, about another relationship).

I have recordings from all over—mostly water and birds—on this little digital recorder, and some of those made their way into the songs. Booker (who plays drums on the album) and I were in South Korea a couple years ago and it was an intense time. We visited a Buddhist monastery a few hours outside of Seoul and I recorded some sounds while we explored the mountains. That’s what you hear at the beginning of the album.

I read something recently by this writer Sharona Muir. She calls herself a posthumanist. I like that. I always turn to animals as handy metaphors, but I also feel like they’re almost inherently neglected as serious subjects of literature or songs. We all instinctually project so much onto them, whether it’s through anthropomorphism or aesthetic connotations, but we usually trivialize or even stigmatize (“cat-lady”, etc.) the relationships we have with them.

The band always teases me about how many of the songs contain cameos by different birds—sparrows and swallows and cedar waxwings and terns, etc.—so it seemed appropriate that some birds got to have their say in the field recordings. But don’t tell them we used their voices or else they’ll probably sue. Birds are litigious little buggers. At least I think so. But I haven’t gone to ornithology school yet.

Give the name Boo, Forever and purported C86 affinities via the press and so forth; how much of a impact did the Boo Radley’s lesser sung Boo! Forever EP have on this musical creation?

I hadn’t actually heard of the Boo Radleys’ EP until now, but I’m listening as I type and I like this song a lot! I’m assuming—since their band name is also a literary reference—that they borrowed the name from the same source that we did: the poem by Richard Brautigan. Brautigan is one of my favorite writers and “Boo, Forever” is one of my favorite poems of his. It is heartbreaking but still has his trademark humor. The album has a lot of sad-sack heartbreak behind it, and Brautigan is inspiring because he always takes those potentially melodramatic sentiments and bends them into something novel and mysterious but still familiar, which is the sort of alchemy I’m shooting toward.


What have you and the band been listening to lately?

Tim and I were listening to Cocteau Twins and Adam Ant over coffee yesterday. The new stuff from Tiny Hazard almost hurts my brain/heart it’s so absurdly great. I’ve been listening a lot to my friend Ben Seretan‘s brand-new self-titled album. And Hank May, Leverage Models, Helado Negro, Tayga Tayga, Janet Jackson, Alex G, She Keeps Bees, Queen Jesus, Vashti Bunyan, James Brown…


Other observations, foot notes, and annotations worth noting?

We are looking for people to come dress up as ghosts and do some synchronized dancing at our album release show at Silent Barn on November 16. If you’re interested, please get in touch. We’ll feed all the ghosts pizza and pumpkin pie.

Field Guides’ Boo, Forever will be available November 11 from Muir Woods.

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