Sunday, July 26, 2015

Interview with John Touchton of Severed + Said

Occlusions, the already-out-of-print newest release from Jacksonville musician John Touchton's Severed + Said, brings together profound mystery, analog synthesizers, and beats, daring the listener to dance through a lens, darkly. As with many instrumental electronic acts based around analog synth hardware, it's hard to separate the artist from a John Carpenter influence. Like Touchton points out below, a lot of the instruments composers in the 80s and 90s were using are still used today. That excludes many people who compose and make music on a computer, though, to be fair, the internet's a wild, dangerous place where no synth tone is ever truly hidden.

I got to meet John during International Noise Conference at Churchill's a few weeks after I moved to Miami while I was still shuffling around hotels in the area. The day after he played, we got into a thirty minute conversation about Philip K. Dick in Sweat Records and I immediately knew that he was another weirdo damned to spread the gospel of paranoia, just like me.

We caught up recently and talked literature, his newest tape, and upcoming music.

Jordan Reyes: Do you think science fiction has anything to do with how you make music for Severed + Said?

John Touchton: When I was doing Occlusions, I would have liked to think so. I’m not really a sci-fi nerd, though I appreciate it. At the time of writing, I was reading a lot of Haruki Murakami and Philip K. Dick. I thought I was channeling some sci-fi, but I don’t think the songs actually have much of a sci-fi sound. There’s certainly a lot of that profound, surreal mystery you’d find in a Haruki Murakami novel like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In Murakami books, characters are deal with a life-reflecting mystery. It's communicating something to them, but it’s so shrouded that it almost drives them to madness. They can see the signs, but not what the signs are pointing out.

JT: The same can be said for the Philip K. Dick that I was reading: I wasn’t so much reading his sci-fi books: I was reading the Valis Trilogy, which consists of Valis, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and then The Divine Invasion. Outside of that, Radio Free Albemuth actually connects more to Valis than the other two books. They were only considered a trilogy because he was dealing with something personally while writing books - a lot of disorienting mysteries where synchronicities line up in an effort to communicate. Valis is about Philip K. Dick and his personal experiences.

Photo by Rebecca Rose
JT: The album title Occlusions came about while I was in communication with Britt Brown from Not Not Fun. I was trying to pitch it as if it were sci-fi influenced. He suggested that we take our time with the album title. He was convinced that it was less of a sci-fi oriented album and more occult-influenced and explorative. As the release day was creeping up, we looked at the song titles, mostly Philip K. Dick references. The first track, “Occluded,” is an interesting word that implies being unable to see what’s right in front of you. You can be occluded from the truth. Even though Britt didn’t know it was a Philip K. Dick reference, he suggested we call the tape “Occluded” or “Occlusions.” I liked Occlusions.

JT: When we met, I was perusing the LPs at Sweat Records and I came across this obscure modular synth record, which appeared to be more like an academic exploration of modular synth. The album was called Occlusions! At first I was disappointed because I figured I’d have to redo the album title, and I was getting ready to e-mail Britt to relay the bad news, but then I thought maybe that was a sign for me. It started to make more sense that what I was feeling was the mystery. Maybe this was channeling something in my life that I hadn’t figured out. Maybe the music is an abstract interpretation of those mysteries. Through channeling those mysteries, maybe I can figure it out. I never told Britt about that album though (laughs).

JR: That’s really strange. I guess the sci-fi that I got out of it, and I think we discussed this when we met, is that it’s hard to think of sci-fi movies or, even beyond that, just movies of “the weird” without summoning John Carpenter. He’s sort of this overwhelming presence in how instrumental electronic music sounds and how horror/sci-fi movies look. Basically anyone doing that sparse, electronic instrumental music is automatically lumped in a little bit with him.

JT: Definitely. That’s what a lot of the comparisons that I’ve gotten have been. But even if I were to listen to a John Carpenter score or a Severed + Said album or an instrumental electronic artist, there are nuances. Maybe it sounds like a John Carpenter score that was never made. I understand the comparison. One of the keyboards that I use heavily is an early 90s Ensoniq. I actually just use the precuts because they sound so good. They sound like what I would hear from a John Carpenter film or that era of sci-fi/horror/David Lynch/Twin Peaks/Angelo Badalemente media.

JT: It has a lot to do with hardware. Those guys were using hardware rather than computers to make music, which is what people usually do now. But even on computers, the sounds emulate what was coming from those 80s keyboards. It may have to do with something more technical than someone trying to sound like that. But that’s great! I think John Carpenter is a better composer than a director anyway.

JR: Yeah, I think he’s more of the Stephen King of movies where the execution is secondary to the story. I mean, look, let’s put it this way: I’d never have anyone else direct a John Carpenter movie, but I’m not going to go into anything he’s directed with the expectation of understanding new things about film afterwards like you might when you see a Michel Haneke movie or a Kurosawa movie or a David Lynch movie or a Terence Mallick movie where you’re like “Holy Fuck! I didn’t know movies could do that.” But when I hear such an evocative and simultaneously cheesy soundtrack I can’t help but think it’s strangely effective and definitely new.

JT: And even without the film it stands alone. Like you said, it’s evocative: it can make you feel emotions even without seeing the context at times.

JR: Agreed. Anyway, how was your tour?

JT: It was good! we did eleven shows in eleven days. I don’t know if as many people would go as far as I did in such a short period of time. I didn’t want to book a long, extensive tour because I thought there was more risk of having to pay out of pocket. Matthew Moyer from PopNihil came with me, at first out of interest, but as I booked shows, there was room for him to play too. For the last month before I went on tour, I had provided backup sounds for Burnt Hair. We actually ended up putting Burnt Hair on three of the shows. He played in Athens, New York, and Savannah. I know he’s always wanted to play up North too so he got to fulfill that dream. It also meant that he wasn’t just tagging along, even though he had gladly signed up to just tag along.

JT: I really have to hand it to some of the promoters who were helping me out like Joe Mauro in Providence, who performs as New Bliss, called in a personal favor to Adam from Timeghost who played the Providence show. Craow played that show too - he’s another guy from Florida - along with New Bliss, and Mercy Gait, which is Ali from Power Monster. It was a really great show to be put on.

JT: I also got to play the Richmond, VA and Chapel Hill, NC dates with Holly Hunt and To Live & Shave in L.A. Tom Smith is such a nice guy and there's always Rat Bastard, who’s quiet, but has a strong presence. Additionally, there were two guys on tour with them: Graham from Atlanta who does Blossoming Noise Records and Patrick Spurlock. The last night of their tour was in Chapel Hill, which ended in an extended jam set between Holly Hunt and To Live & Shave in L.A.

JT: Barkev who does Bernard Hermann put the New York show on. We did it in the back of this bar called the Tandem Bar. It has a classic-looking back room area - seems like it may have been a popular cocaine bar in the 70s or 80s. That show was with Cienfuegos and a few others.

JT: Of course, there were a few shows that weren’t as well-attended. I can usually tell when the shows will be poorly attended if the people who are booking the show aren’t as communicative. The Atlanta show, for instance, was the first stop on the tour. I got in touch with what I guess is a fairly popular arts space called Mammal Gallery, but the guy I was in touch with expected me to round up the locals, which I did [laughs]. Matthew helped me get Death Domain on the lineup, which was awesome. There was no one there, but I played for Death Domain and Rin Larping, which is Lindsay Smith’s contact mic based experimental noise project.

JT: I also played in Dayton, Ohio, which is the only reason I went through Atlanta and Athens first. I’m sure you’re familiar with Dromez, which is Liz Gomez’s female-vocal based power electronics project. She used to be in Austin, TX. Her and her boyfriend John Maloney have a space together where they do intimate basement shows. She performed as her newer project Termagant - it’s more low tone, atmospheric, but still noisy and cacophonous. We got to hang out for breakfast the next day and she played me some unreleased Dromez stuff, which she described as more poppy than her other stuff, but I know it wouldn’t really qualify as pop music by any connection to the world.

JT: We also had all the costs covered too from tour. We didn’t make any money, but everything was covered.

JR: I feel like breaking even on a tour is a success.

JT: Yeah, me too. I realize how people can live life on the road. I’ve found that I wasn’t loafing off and spending money as I do in town while touring. I spend money when I don’t have something to do. It’s refreshing to see how that’s a viable, sustainable way to live. Selling merch, getting a little bit of money from the door, and putting it into gas and food.

JR: Did you sell many of your tapes?

JT: Yeah, I sold out of the ones that I had. I had forty of the Not Not Fun tapes and eighteen of the Crying in Dream tape from PopNihil. Some of them were traded for material. I would almost rather trade it because the person who gets it definitely wants the tape and I’m also getting something that I would like.

JR: I prefer to do things that way too. Record swaps. There are so many records that I really want to have. I’ll trade stock for them. I think that’s more fun and it’s a little anti-consumerist too: it proves that we can be a bit more collaborative in our society. There’s an element of hope in it too, I think. It’s a nicer way to have transactions.

JT: Yeah, it’s bartering. Maybe after the apocalypse, cassette tapes will be the new form of currency. And cassette players will be the ultimate commodity.

JR: I’ve got a walkman that I use all the time. That’s where I heard the Not Not Fun tape cause I can bring it to work when I’ve got office work. Actually, it’s how I heard the first PopNihil tape because when I first got to Miami, when we met, I was living in hotels and the only thing I had to listen to music was my walkman so I’d burn tapes all day. I listened to so many PopNihil tapes.

Photo by Rebecca Rose
JT: That’s awesome. I really like what PopNihil is doing. He must be getting close to his 60th release and he’s only been doing it for two years or less. He’s got a diverse catalogue too: he’s got obscure harsh noise, cinematic instrumental stuff, black metal, punk rock. As long as he keeps releasing the way that he has, PopNihil will continue to garner more respect and interest. I never met Matthew until I moved back to Jacksonville from California. Before I left, I put out a split tape with my last project Ascetic with Virgin Flower on another Florida label called Rainbow Pyramid. Matthew picked that up some time after I was gone. He knew that he wanted to put out Florida musicians. I’ve been doing music since I was a teenager, but I like to pretend most of those years didn’t happen (laughs). I’ve seen a lot of bad music and good music too that never got recorded or released. Since Matthew’s providing this outlet, at least some people will have their music documented. I’m really glad that my first release was on PopNihil, as far as Severed + Said goes. I remember when he came up to me after one of my first performances. I was just out of a long break up and because I had been in a band with that person, the band broke up too. After that break up I played the pre-INC show in Jacksonville of last year. Matthew was there and he came up after and said “I have dibs on your first release.” And, yeah, I was down. 

JT: It’s really only because of Ascetic, though, that I was put in touch with Not Not Fun. It was one of those things where Ascetic played a show in town after I moved back from California. And a guy at the show told me he really liked what we were doing and he told us a bunch of bands that he was interested in. I knew he wasn’t just a kook, but he didn’t necessarily have a ton of connections. And I was just like, “Yeah, whatever, dude.” So I sent him some stuff. And that guy got us in touch with Britt from Not Not Fun. We didn’t ever necessarily plan an official release, but we had a bunch of communication back and forth. Once we broke up though, there wasn’t really a reason to release anything. I never really e-mailed him back cause I was so disappointed. We had been working on material - in fact, all is done except for the vocals. After the PopNihil release, though, I sent him that and asked if he liked it. He didn’t confirm anything, but once I sent him the new material, he was stoked and we worked from October 2014 until the release date in May 2015.

JR: What do you have planned for the future?

JT: I have about twenty minutes of new material that I’m about to record. I talked to another band about doing a split and I talked to Britt about possibly releasing that split. I don’t want to say who or what cause I don’t want to jinx it, but I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a rad split coming out on Not Not Fun once I get my material recorded and once the other band gets their material recorded.

JT: For me, personally, other than that, I want to figure out how to do a set that I can travel more easily with. I want to minimize to the point where I’ll be able to fly somewhere to play. I’d love to go out to L.A. and promote some of my material from playing live shows. I have some friends in Oakland too and I’d love the play the venue Life Changing Ministries there - it’s a tiny church space that looks like a box with a small steeple. To avoid unwanted attention, they kept the name of the church and kept it looking like a church, but it’s actually a great experimental venue.

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