Vermont songwriter Chris Weisman has long maintained an air of mystery about his music-making. For years, he’s avoided interviews and playing shows outside of his hometown. So when his label, NNA Tapes, told us he was interested in doing interviews around his new album, The Holy Life That’s Coming (out February 26), we were surprised.
Chris insisted we do the interview over email. He wrote: “I’d love to do an interview, but I don’t want to do the improvised version; I want to do it by email. I like to be able to consider my answers, and also to shape my language in the form it will be presented in. I do, however, like a real time interview, prefer to respond to one question at a time.”
Ask and you shall receive, Chris. Below you can read our email correspondence. The interview was divided by three separate emails from each of us, they’re marked accordingly. We discussed Vermont, not playing shows, how the Internet is actually making culture slower, and more.
Where are you from originally? If you’re not from Vermont, how did you find yourself there?
I’m from New Hampshire, the Seacoast: Live Free or Die. I’ve moved around some but I’ve spent most of my days in New England. I ended up over this way in 2008 to live with my partner Ruth. My brother Kurt also lives in the area.
Do you feel like living in Vermont has an effect on the music? Why/why not?
I love Vermont but I don’t think it’s particularly important to my writing (I mean: everything is). I think the reason everybody thinks all the songs are ‘about’ Vermont and keeps asking about Vermont is like: if this music is really good, why didn’t he move to Brooklyn? Why doesn’t he tour? It’s like I’ve broken the fundamental rules of a religion: it’s the first thing on everyone’s lips. (I also, by the way, don’t think ‘selling out’ is a retrograde concept.) It reminds me of Zizek’s insight: that Americans picture the total catastrophic end of civilization all the time, but we cannot imagine an end to Capitalism.
What’s the Brattleboro music scene like?
The Brattleboro posh dandy scene is and is not of a piece with the Western Mass posh dandies: they are the planet and we are the moon. Northampton is only like 40 minutes south. And in between is filling in: keep your eyes on Turners Falls and Greenfield. I like it over here.
I think the reason everybody thinks all the songs are ‘about’ Vermont and keeps asking about Vermont is like: if this music is really good, why didn’t he move to Brooklyn? Why doesn’t he tour? It’s like I’ve broken the fundamental rules of a religion
Do you know a band called The Lentils? I think they’re from Brattleboro…I just saw them the other day. Not bad, reminded me of Television.
The Lentils are my friends. Me and Luke sing All-Interval-Tetrachord longtones every week. Peter put out Bentonia (Spooky Town Records) and recently digitized and mastered Chaos Isn’t Single—the album after Holy Life that’s coming out on Hidden Temple (Greenfield) in May.
When I read about how you stick to your Vermont digs, it makes me feel like the music is encased in these recordings, only experienced in person on the rare occasion. Can you talk about why you don’t play out that often?
I don’t like the whole shows hubbub very much. Lot of driving, lot of waiting, no money or worse. I’ll play a show every once in a while when I’ve got some new material at hand. My practice is as a jazz improvisor, theory weirdo (music theory, not the other kind), music teacher; the music I write—both the songs I tape and the music I put to paper—are like this indirect outgrowth of this life: bonus flowers. It doesn’t behoove me to remember them after they’ve been set down in whatever form. I could not play you a single song. I do, however, know a bunch of jazz standards I like to play on, but those are radically different every time… I have this sort of energy wheel going that cycles back into itself nicely as is. It does not include revisiting my songs once they’re done; on the contrary, it demands keeping my slate good and blank, staying open and agendaless like a good improvisor.
Who are the Backpack People?
I’m not gonna tell you who the Backpack People could be. I will say this though: it is not Vermont; it is more like a city.
[I do not want my answers to be chopped up or altered; I want them to appear as I’ve written them. If there is, for some reason, a space limitation, I imagine that this is important to know up front. Peace, c]
You got it, Chris. I think the reason I asked you about Vermont is because I spent two years in Vermont going to school, I heard you were from Vermont and I couldn’t not make that connection in my head to the music, so I was wondering if it was an intentional thing or not. It is in fact an interesting thing that you don’t play shows or tour, and the first thing I want to know more about because like you said, most musicians tour and move to cities where they are expecting greater success etc.
The way things are now with touring is insane. You’ve probably heard about Ornette’s or Monk’s legendary Five Spot gigs: they played in the same club every night for months. That was normal. You might fly across the country to a place but then you’d stay there for a while. Like weeks. The other thing was called ‘one-night stands.’ Now, with very few weak exceptions, it’s all one-night stands. Like Capital needs to munch faster and faster so sending its novelty around the globe faster and faster in this deadly fever. People travel further and more every year; touring is part of that. Now let’s train our mind back to Global Warming… Also, regular paying local gigs used to be totally a thing. Like that was a job you could have, not just in the megacities. The status quo is eating earth and eating musicians: look into their eyes. Even big famous-seeming people are barely breaking even out there (if that), grueling from port to port, playing only a few hours (at most) a night. Fuck that. I play all day. I walk to work.
You say you’re background lies mostly in jazz? How did you gravitate towards writing folk/acoustic songs, or are they more improvised compositions?
I started out as a songwriter in high school, making psychedelic tapes with my friend Ben. Then I went to college and did jazz. Then I graduated and did both. I live on the tension of that wire.
Do you feel like since you don’t revisit your songs after recording them it changes your relationship to a song as opposed to if you were practicing the song over and over and playing it more often?
It makes me feel like a salesman to keep playing the same song over and over. The only time I’ve really done it was my brief time in Happy Birthday: it drove me absolutely mad. It’s just not my style. Only jazz is open enough for me to keep coming back to the same song.
My practice is as a jazz improvisor, theory weirdo (music theory, not the other kind), music teacher; the music I write—both the songs I tape and the music I put to paper—are like this indirect outgrowth of this life: bonus flowers. It doesn’t behoove me to remember them after they’ve been set down in whatever form. I could not play you a single song.
What is Posh Dandy? Can you point us to some artists?
You know what a posh dandy is.
“Do I? I’m not sure that I do…” —my quiet thoughts after reading that answer.
“Everything alright? Throw me another.” — Chris, after it took me a while to respond
Sorry, Chris…lots to ponder here. Here’s another:
It feels like the music world is digesting and regurgitating all of it’s mediums (releases, press, shows, etc.) at a really fast pace. Sometimes I wonder if the rate at which we process information is affecting the actual music people are making, as if artists are fitting their music to the mold that has been set. When you sit down to write a song, is it because you feel like you have a song in you that you need to get out, call it an interior drive, or is it more an exterior drive, like “ok, I need to write some new stuff so I can record a new album”?
[No problem. Obviously these answers are long and full and I do want the total load to appear uncut: feel free to end whenever you need; don’t let me go beyond what you can print.]
I hope I don’t sound merely contrarian here, but I believe we’re actually getting slower. I don’t mean, like, elite consumers buying artisanal, I mean: culture is slowing down. I think the felt experience of speed is an ironic byproduct of hunger, lack. The Chinese have named Internet addiction Wangyin; many of us have more than a spot of it. The addict is on a constant very-dramatic up-and-down ride, but externally, the poor souls don’t appear to really be doing that much. I think Western culture (at least) reached an apex of culture speed around 1967; every decade since the 60s has gotten progressively slower. By many accounts, this sudden experience of deceleration was most depressing in the 1970s… Let me be clear: the outer poison-spewing machines of Capitalism, including demonic exponential wealth consolidation, are getting very fucking fast indeed; but my claim is that the good stuff, the ‘content’ as we call it now (like it’s some vitamin we’re deficient in), is coming slower. The Beatles made two albums a year. Think about them. Look at the average gap between albums now. Think about them. (Especially 90s) Hip-hop seems like a pretty heavy blow to this theory, and of course, I’d like to believe my own scene takes a whack at it (etc, etc, etc.), but: I’m not saying there’s nothing good anymore, I’m just questioning the Techno-utopian assumption that culture is speeding up along with the computers.
Let me be clear: the outer poison-spewing machines of Capitalism, including demonic exponential wealth consolidation, are getting very fucking fast indeed; but my claim is that the good stuff, the ‘content’ as we call it now (like it’s some vitamin we’re deficient in), is coming slower.
Do you feel less pressured to write music because you keep yourself somewhat removed from the popular music world? (By popular I mean even just having a Facebook page for your band).
I’ve been told more than once by people who actually make something like a living in the music business (all my money comes from teaching; I spend more (very little) making albums than I earn) that my work pace actually works against me, is confusing. I can see it: like some massive seething R. Stevie Moore pile of a thousand faces, all screaming for help. Man driven to the brink of clown. But this is just the abstract grasping hand of the frontal mind (see above); I believe the actual experience of my songs is like a warm soothing wind with just a little sand in it. A ghost happy to be already dead. I inhabit my music as a miracle of medicine. I’m lost without the void; my head teems up with noise. No wait I just found another voice: I am shooting music strong and steady from my northern outpost, with a bold and conquering spirit. I will calmly obliterate each wave of adversity. My songs will cover the earth.