Besides Bob Dylan, have you tried emulating songwriters or novelists for source material?
At the beginning, you’re emulating whoever’s a mentor. The longer you do it, for better or worse, you develop your own vocabulary. I have a funny accent I’ve been told. I was born in the South, came of age in the Midwest, lived in New York and now Los Angeles. That’s corrupted my original speech pattern. I’m helpless to be conscious of it any longer. As a writer you get visited upon by any number of influences. You could initially keep track of how one has changed the color of another. At a certain point, it’s impossible to see that within a perspective. I find myself frequently inspired by art that has nothing to do with what I do for a living. I don’t reference other songs while I’m at the crossroads working on a piece in the studio. It doesn’t offer a new vantage point. But I may very well be revitalized and rejuvenated in a moment of artistic crisis by seeing a great movie or painting or read a great short story.
The plasma-gleaned galactic title, Blood From Stars, evokes many abstract meanings.
It came to me over the course of the work. I’m loath to attach meaning. I had an intrinsic response to it the same way I did to the photo cover or an image or line in a song. If I muse on it, it may refer to our desire to imagine some ethereal distant future and trying to embody it. People have short lives to make sense out of existence looking to the heavens. We try to make something real or concrete out of the imagined.
Is this album more thematic than past endeavors?
All my records are thematically connected within themselves. My desire’s to make a record that operates as a whole just like a movie instead of a collection of disparate, unrelated scenes. There’s definitely an overall environment that runs through. I’m past the point of touching every base on a record. I’m providing what the story needs, not a comprehensive evening’s worth of entertainment. If you need something upbeat or downtrodden, put something else on. I don’t worry about creating the right peaks and valleys. I want to form an arc.
Do you allow the experienced jazz musicians to dictate the mood?
Most of the musicians I’ve worked with frequently. There’s an unspoken bit of communication. To a large extent, I’ve dictated a tremendous amount of policy to the overall sonic atmosphere by inviting those people to a room. Everyone involved with the exception of pianist Jason Moran knew exactly what I was after. They know what excites me about the process. I’d never show up at the studio with something, in my estimation, that wasn’t fully realized. But I take tremendous delight putting my songs in front of people to see where they could go. I have no interest in having a preconceived notion of what’s sonically possible. Nothing makes me happier than when a song—within a few takes—identifies itself as being whole other than I’d imagined it. It makes me think the song had enough character to dictate its own policy. Then, I’m quite enthralled. I’m always encouraged by improvisation and generous creativity within the song structure. That’s your greatest resource as a record maker. I could go back to the demos if I get stuck, but why would I limit Marc Ribot? I want to hear what his contribution might be. I wanna hear Jay Belrose illuminate a song.
What was the most difficult arrangement to flesh out due to its complexity?
It’s about finding a way in. I don’t make fleshed out demos that suggest what the ensemble should sound like. I make the most basic demo just so I’ll remember the song. I don’t write music. Musicians know the basic song shape, words, and how many verses there may be. I’d much rather discover, mutually, in real time, what we sound like and where the songs may go as an ensemble. I love bringing in creative musicians and getting a take as early into the discovery process as possible. There are many loose threads hanging and nobody’s doing anything by rote. Everyone’s listening intently to each other. The only song we might have changed for awhile was ‘Channel.’ I’d just written it days before the session. I wrote it on the airplane coming back from New York. There’s a certain simplicity to it as a piece of writing. There’s a guitar figure that drones through it and a certain rock tonality to the chord changes that’s different from many of the other songs which might be more Tin Pan Alley in structure.
The trick was to find a way to play that still sounded a little unhinged or floating off the ground. I’ve never been interested in playing a rock song like a rocker. I’ve never referred to myself as a rock musician. Even though I was referencing a rock tonality the same way I reference a jazz tonality but would never pretend to hold myself up as a jazz musician. There’s certain strengths in those musical vocabularies. I tried to make ‘Channel’ as dream-like as the other material —true to itself but authentic to the whole piece. It got strange and unmannered—past the point of anything easily readable. It was very abstract, loud, and messy before landing in a way that maintained the simplicity of the writing but was appropriately unhinged and had enough weather in the room.