Chris Schlarb: Are You Creative?
“ We asked these kids,"raise your hands if you think you're creative" and not one kid raised their hand. There were twenty-five kids. ”
Guitarist and producer Chris Schlarb has been at the heart of creative, underground music in Los Angeles for a number of years. His involvement in bands like I Heart Lung and the fifty-member collective Create(!) has resulted in improvisational music of great imagination, no little dissonance and undeniable beauty, as witnessed on the outstanding albums Between Them a Forest Grew, Trackless and Quiet (SAA, 2007) and A Prospect of Freedom (SAA, 2006)
His first solo album, Twilight & Ghost Stories (Asthmatic Kitty, 2007), a four-year project with recorded contributions from fifty artists, is a collage of field recordings, music and voice which exerts a strangely hypnotic effect on the listener. It may be too early to call it a classic of our time, but it is at the very least a work of tremendous imagination which connects strongly with the emotions and stirs memory.
Chris Schlarb took time out to talk with AAJ's Ian Patterson about this fascinating project, and speaks about his independent record label Sounds Are Active, the underground scene in America, and the power of music as a catalyst for personal change.
All About Jazz: Let's start with your first solo album, Twilight & Ghost Stories, which is an unusual solo album in a number of ways, not least because there are contributions from fifty musicians. Can you take a deep breath and tell us how this album came together?
Chris Schlarb: I was going through a separation from my ex-wife, my family. She'd taken our children and moved away. I was still in the same home all of us had lived in. It was totally disorienting. I had basically quit my job, my entire family was gone. When you take out all of the things give you structure, order, you know, I honestly did not know what to do with my time.
Slowly, I cut off all interaction with the outside world. I was picking my kids up once a week at that point to see them, or I had them every weekend. But during the week I was completely alone and getting unemployment checks. I just totally stopped interacting with the world altogether.
And then a massive rainstorm came through town. You know, in Long Beach, California there aren't really any seasons other than summer [laughs] so when it started raining, and it rained for two weeks straight, a massive storm by southern Californian standards, the constant rain again altered the structure of my day. I ended up setting up two microphones, one on the north side and one on the south side of my apartment, and I just recorded forty minutes of rain.
When I went back to listen to the recording, which is exactly as it is on the album, I started thinking: "I could put something at twenty minutes, and then I could put something at seventeen minutes, and thirty-five minutes, and I started thinking I could compose one piece of music and throw linear time out the window, which was an interesting analogy for how I was feeling at the time because I had no centre.
So I sat down at the piano, which ironically had been given to me by my ex-wife's family, and interestingly, the first thing I really recorded was that kind of intro, that first section.
AAJ: That piano intro is very beautiful, and it sounds to me like rain.
CS: Yeah, maybe there was that kind of subliminal, sympathetic ear that came together with the guitar and the piano in that first section. It was interesting because I had actually tuned my acoustic guitar to a standard C tuning, so I was playing it in a tuning I'd never played before. And then I started messing around a little bit, and I recorded another piano part and another guitar part and then I brought them all together and that's really what you hear in that first section, parts recorded separately from one another.
AAJ: Would you describe this process as a kind of catharsis then?
CS: I didn't set out for it to be that but it definitely turned into that. I figured out over time that by asking all these different people to participate with me it was two things: in one respect it was an act of faith, I was hoping that people I had no relationship with would have enough faith in my idea, this construct that I was giving them, to send me something; the second thing was it was a way that I was able to interact with people and they wouldn't judge the situation I was in. I had stopped going to church, and I'd stopped mingling with friends because every time it was, "What's going on with your family? or, "What's going on with the divorce? I didn't want to have to keep repeating... you know?
AAJ: You didn't need to be reminded all the time?
CS: Exactly, and this was a way I was able to begin dealing with it. There are recordings on the album of my ex-wife in conversation with me, with our children, recordings of my wife Adriana, there are recordings of my children playing, my son's heartbeat is on there when he was still in the womb, and there's also a recording of my wife Adriana when she was a little girl.
There's commingling of all these things and at different times it was difficult to listen to these things, but I felt it was really important that history not be erased. So that, combined with all the music, is the underlying narrative.
AAJ: I've listened to the album a lot, and to me it sounds like an evocation of memory.