Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It Sound interview

As someone who has recently invested on a new pair of hi-fi speakers, I have to admit that I do appreciate music with good production values. There is no denying, though, that some of the most gratifying music in rock history was made on the cheap, with beat-up instruments, in makeshift studios or even bedrooms, in glorious lo-fi.

The spirit of DIY is still going strong three and a half decades after the punk revolution and in this feature it is our pleasure to introduce you to someone who skillfully put the theory into action and crafted his own sound with nothing more than a Danelectro guitar, a Korg drum machine, percussion and a Tascam 4-track. Meet Jesse Damm, the New York-based creator of the experimental bop sound which you can hear in "Hard Pop for Blue Trees" his debut album as It Sound. Jesse talked to us about his background, where he picked up his first guitar, what are the basic ingredients of his hard pop sound and how he hooked up with Pascal Le Gras, the artist behind some 30-plus album covers for The Fall. I should also point out that the photo you see above is taken by George Seminara, director of several Ramones videos and producer of the documentary "It's Alive". Here’s our little Q&A:

"Hard Pop" is your first album as It Sound. Any previous experiences in music making you’d like to share? 

It Sound is the beginning, though there were seeds planted in the past. I played drums with Rob Vasquez of Night Kings and Dawn Johnson of the Gorls and the ManTeeMans, along with her brother Kim, in a short-lived band. And then Dawn and myself and their 6-year old girl had a band for a bit after that. Then, It Sound started in 2008. Seattle is filled with friends in bands. I did other things while they made music. Now, I make music and many of them do other things.

I’ve read that you were born and raised in Seattle, Washington, but you learned to play guitar in Varna, Bulgaria. What’s the story behind your travels and did you happen to visit Greece while in the Balkans?

I like a good shakeup. I decided to move on impulse to a place I knew nothing of. I wanted to consider seasons more often than seconds. I got this by living in Bulgaria, where I remained for 2 years. I wrote. I painted. I walked. I grilled mackerel and ate tomatoes and cukes. And I bought a guitar and began transferring philosophical ideas on processes and art and life to a musical instrument, a new mode of expression for me.

I made several trips to Greece. One of the most memorable was a spent alone in Kavala and onward to the island of Thassos, where I hiked and swam and ate fish every day for about 10 days.  This was after the tourist season, so by that time the island was mostly locals. I also spent some time in Thessaloniki, and Mount Olympus, plus the monasteries of Meteora. I’ve always wanted to live on Hydra for a year or so. Hopefully, this happens at some point in time. Greece is one-of-a-kind. Very special.

What are the basic ingredients of your "experimental bop" sound?

Instruments, mood and minimal takes. Where some people have guitar sounds in their head growing up, I definitely heard beats, and my music reflects this. But the sound originates in the instruments I use (Korg drum machine, Danelectro guitar, percussion), a willingness to push all the knobs to their extreme and taking a cue from the emotion I am feeling at that moment. Never is the aim to be esoteric. Quite the opposite, in fact. I want to make each song as catchy as a Tommy James song and then see where I end up. Usually, the song ends up in a very interesting place that’s entirely my own. I truly believe in rock and roll and its power. I’ve had so many experiences of pure elation by hearing a killer song. It’s transformative.

You’ve recorded the album on a 4-track recorder. Is this the choice of a lo-fi enthusiast or is it an economic necessity?

A friend gave me his Tascam 4-track. I started It Sound the next day. I recorded 20 volumes of work on it. Now, I’m recording digitally because the 4-track started acting up. I don’t prefer one over the other, really. I just like getting things done. I will add that Weasel Walter did a great job mastering my tunes for vinyl and digital.

Apart from a contribution from Rob Vasquez, "Hard Pop" is basically a one-man show. Does it ever get lonely writing and recording by yourself? Any plans on expanding It Sound’s line-up in the future?

By the way, having Rob Vasquez on the record came from an idea to have a scratch across the vinyl like you would find on a used record. But it would be by an artist. In this case, a punk, a misanthrope and a legend. More people need to hear the catalog of his from Night Kings to Nights and Days to Ape Lost to The Gorls to Right On to ManTeeMans to The Look to Pissed Off Zombies to Nice Smile. An original. That’s very hard to find in rock and roll. In regards to the question, I don’t ever feel lonely. Don’t know why. There are always people around. Perhaps a live It Sound will show up someday in the future though. I’ve got some ideas.

You have some very interesting collaborators in the art department. What’s the story behind the collaboration with Pascal Le Gras, a man responsible for some of my favorite Fall covers?

Pascal has been a part of my imagination since I was a teenager. His covers for  The Fall and Jazz Butcher seemed to meet the artists at a middle point instead of just decorating their music. They weren’t just cool, they satisfied me. I contacted Pascal and sent him my record. He responded positively and with a desire to work together. Ever since, we’ve been doing It Sound and some other projects, as well. It’s an honor, as I see his paintings and video work to be enormously forward thinking as well as primal. They resonate with people across borders and seemingly across time. Plus, they’re beautiful. I never dreamt of making a record as a kid, but I did think about interacting with Pascal Le Gras.

The album is available digitally and on vinyl but not on cd. Do you think the cd's days are numbered?

If I had to prioritize musical formats, it would be 1) vinyl 2) digital 3) a yet to be created method of distribution 4) cds. Nothing against them. I own lots. But vinyl does visual and sound better and digital does ease-of-use better.

Favorite albums and bands past or present? What would be your choice for Album of the Year?

Some favorite albums: All Leonard Cohen records. The Hook - "The Hook Will Grab You". The Chiefs - "Blues" 45. Night Kings - "Increasing Our High" LP. T. Rex - "The Slider". Plastique - "De-real" 45. Traveling Circle - "Handmade House". The Bizarros - self/titled LP. The Fall - "The Infotainment Scan" LP. The Apostles - "Hymn to Pan" LP. Felt - "The Strange Idol Pattern and Other Short Stories".

And my favorite album of the year would have to be Ariel Pink - "Before Today".

It Sound – "Hard Pop for Blue Trees" can be found on iTunes, eMusic,, Vinyl can be bought at


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