Chimney Choir on junk percussion, field recordings and its use of homespun samples
On the surface, Chimney Choir is an Americana band with the usual roots in folk, some country and the like. But anyone who has seen the band live can tell you, there's a lot more going on in the band's songwriting and ideas for music than merely evoking an old-timey sound. Rather than limiting itself to thinking about music inside a circumscribed aesthetic, the trio employs electronics and a collage approach to composition for a not-at-all-obvious recontextualization and appropriation of sound resulting in warm and catchy songs. We spoke with David Rynhart and Kevin Larkin about the band's history, (ladder), the outfit's latest effort, as well as what Carl Sorenson brings to the band and why a synthesis of aesthetics is at the core of what the band does with its songwriting.
Westword: You met Kevin Larkin in 2002, right?
David Rynhart: 2001 or 2002. We were really geeking out on Irish music, and we would go over to Conor O'Neill's. They have a session there on Sundays for people to just get together and ramble off Irish tunes for hours. And the scene was really fucking good back then. They still do that. It's been going on for, like, fifteen years. There were a bunch of great players. Everyone was really young, and it would go until two thirty in the morning when they would kick us out, and it started at seven.
I moved away and lived in a bunch of different places after that. We loosely kept in touch, and then Kevin was doing an album in 2010, what, eight years later? I was living in Denver then, and he asked if I would play piano on his recording, and we were just kind of like, "Oh, you're cool. I like this music." His album was Detached released under Pineross, his solo thing. It was so good.
Kevin Larkin: We actually both put out recordings that year and did them at the same exact time. You put all the work into the CD, and you're done and you get into that "Now what?" phase, and we were both in that phase at the same time.
DR: I'd been touring with singer-songwriters at the time. Niall Connolly was one, and I was doing stuff in Europe with him. I'd come back to the States and tour with Gabrielle Louise, who has done a ton of stuff. But I hadn't been doing any of that, and the albums were done. I'd done a little solo touring, but not really, and I was reluctantly going in that direction because I didn't know what else to do with my life. Kevin was already doing that pretty strong, so he invited me down to Mississippi to do some stuff. We did Mississippi, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee that September. Looking for gigs, we would send people both of our Myspace pages.
KL: Which is a horrible way to book a tour. "This is a project we don't have a name for or any music for, so hope you like it!"
DR: Yeah, we did like eight shows down south, and for the most part, they were kind of lame, but we had no promo material, and we had a great time. Kris Drickey, I had been hanging out with here in Denver, singing a little bit together -- not professionally. She spontaneously bought a ticket to North Carolina when we were going to be there, just to hang out while we were going to be on tour. She was there, and she was a great singer, so we just had her do some harmonies, and really liked the synergy of it. Shortly after that, Kevin packed everything up and moved down to Denver, and we started doing the Chimney Choir thing.
The name Chimney Choir is a name that suggests various meanings. And obviously you all sing. Was there an inspiration for that name?
KL: We had a notebook filled with band names, and Chimney came up a few times and Choir. I wish we had a better story for this.
DR: We've got to come up with a better story, some mystical kind of revelation thing. But it was really just the typical situation where, "Okay, we're really doing his project now. We need a name. What is it going to be?" We were doing a little tour after Kevin moved here, and went out that December and did stuff around here, like Salida, and we went to New Mexico, and we didn't really have a name. But we had a deadline.
KL: The singing, I definitely think, is related to "Choir."
DR: But we were desperate. We were just pairing words together that were interesting. It still hasn't worn off yet. When you're in the what's-the-name-of-the-band phase you're looking at everything like, "Oh, Aloe Plant. That's an awesome band name." You think "band name" about everything you see, and we still do that to this day. "I Forgot" was one we thought of recently.
There's a track on your album called "(the ballad of julia's accordion)" -- is that a reference to Julia LiBassi of the Raven and the Writing Desk?
Both: It is.
KL: Actually, there's a debate on the track because my accordion is so out of tune that we needed an accordion, and Julia had just bought one from this guy in Thornton. I was with them at the shop when they got it, and they went back to the East Coast to see some family, and Scott's aunt had an accordion in the closet.
So we were going to call the track "Scott's Aunt's Accordion." But Julia plays it. But the reeds got knocked out on the plane, and they had to take it back to get it repaired. Unfortunately, she informed me that after the show another reed had fallen out. I hope it wasn't David and me. But Julia loaned us the accordion for the recording.
Why did you go with a live album format instead of something more, for lack of a better word, traditional or even a straight live recording that's chopped up and edited?
DR: Mm, yeah. We had done the two EPs. We did an EP in May and one in August. We made them downstairs in a room in the warehouse, and they were very homemade. The whole project is homemade, and we like that. I think the homemade thing is going to prevail in the end. The homemade bands will inherit the earth. But we also saw that the limitations we were facing with doing things at home were limiting. So we were thinking we get a good response at shows and then feel like the way we did studio recordings wasn't capturing what we were doing at the shows.
So that was the initial inspiration to try to do a live album. I've always been inspired by the first time I heard a band called Shakti with John McLaughlin when they recorded their first album. Nobody had ever heard any of the material before, and they booked the gig, and they recorded it all live. It was all new material done live. I've always loved that idea.
And then Tom Waits has Nighthawks at the Diner, which is the same kind of thing. But then it was even more inspired by that because I think I was reading about Tom Waits, and for that show, I think they had twenty people in the studio, and they were mostly friends and family of the people that worked at the studio.
Tom Waits didn't really have much of a following back then. I was just really intrigued by that and by how we would feel such a chemistry live, and then just doing everything separate when we were recording it ourselves and wondering if we were losing something with that. So that was the initial inspiration to try to do it live, to get whatever it was that felt magical that was happening when we would play live and try to record that.
KL: We wanted to do it straight through at first and have the whole thing. But we change instruments so much that, when we listened back to the mixes, we thought, "Oh shit, we should just take all the funny parts and the in-between stuff and chop it up and make it seem like you're listening to it live but trip it out a bit.
DR: That was the idea. When we heard the master, there was so much awkward space between the songs there was no way we could have it as this, you put on the CD, and it's like you're at the show, and you just experience the show, you know. We could have done that because maybe there are some awkward pauses at the show, but that's not going to translate so well to the CD.
The solution to that is that you hear the song and you hear the applause. We just made a compact collage of the banter and things that happened throughout the night, so hopefully, we preserved this concert experience throughout the recording. But then we just took some liberties with that and did some trippy things too. Some interesting collage work.
Then the premise came that we wanted to make an art project, and the basis of the art project is this moment in time of having made this material; we were going to play this concert in this space, and we invited these people on this day and at this time. That's the material we have to work with to make this album. We all had to let go of a lot of what our vision was for the songs because it just doesn't turn out the way you think if you try to record an album all in one take like that.
So we had to be really flexible with that. But it was a great experiment and a great experience, just as artists in being loose and flexible like that, and letting the project take its own shape, and "Okay, it's not what I thought it was going to be but it's still cool." There were some great moments with the banter, so we were able to take that and incorporate it all into the project.
Did you record that here or some other venue?
KL: David's worked with the guy a bunch, but it was at San Luis Sound in Broomfield. It's in the middle of the suburbs, straight up. But in the back of his house, this eccentric couple in the '70s built a pipe organ chapel -- like the guy built a chapel just to put his pipe organ in. So Joe [Turse] ended up buying the house, and they took the pipe organ out but there's stained glass from 1904, and it's just this beautiful space. We actually filmed it, and we're going to a DVD with the collages. But we made it all part of the night.
Why was Carl Sorenson cited as your spirit animal?
DR: I think I just said that off the top of my head.
KL: I don't think that banter made it into the actual interlude.
You're right. It's not in there.
DR: Carl is just so present and so in the moment and so uninhibited when it comes to playing music. That's what I think I meant by that.
Was the junk percussion his idea?
KL: It's just been this thing that's settled on. He'd been collecting cans, making homemade shakers, David had a ladder and bike wheel for one of the EPs.
DR: We had the ladder and the bike wheel for the show before Carl was there. But Carl teaches a percussion group class at a school called New Vista in Boulder. There he will use trashcan lids and whatever. He'll know the rhythms and give them to people to play, but they will make them on household objects, so he just incorporated that kit into this show. We love how it works together. It's great for him, too. I think it's the only project where he can use that kit. He's got a huge Jameson bottle now, which is a good addition to his set.
KL: He's got flywheel, too, from some kind of giant truck that weighs like ten pounds. He's so adaptable and his soul emanates rhythms.
DR: I've played with him in so many different contexts. When I first met him, I was playing with Gabrielle Louise -- very much in the singer-songwriter vein of things. If there's percussion in that, it's going to be really subtle. But that's when I first met Carl. I'm pretty sure he had just moved back from Boston, and he was maybe 21. His first gigs getting paid were with Gabby, and I was just starting to work with her at that point, as well. We did a wedding or something in Evergreen in July 2007, I think.
I worked with him personally in a band called Eleanor. I was in it briefly but Carl was a big part of that band. Then I was playing with Kris Drickey in a band with her brother, Ryan Drickey, who is an accomplished violin player. We had this project for a while where we were doing Swedish, Irish, folk music, fiddle music and old time tunes, for the most part. It's this kind of far out folk music stuff. Then we did some gigs at Vine Street Pub, and we hired Carl for those. We didn't even tell Carl anything, we were just like, "Hey Carl, want to come play?" We would be playing these weird 9/8 polka, Swedish rhythms, and he'd be right on it.
We also did a show with Science Partner on a night at the hi-dive. Carl played the first slot with a friend from Portland or Austin. Then he played with us, and then he played with Science Partner afterward. And it was like, "Who is this guy?" I couldn't believe that he was playing with Science Partner that night because I'd never heard him do stadium rock kind of drums. His arms were flying everywhere, and he was just giving it everything. I thought, "Wow, I'm not worthy of this guy."
Yeah, when Eric Halborg told me they got Carl to play in the Swayback I said, "You're lucky. You're very lucky."
Both: Yeah! Yeah.
One thing about your music that really sets it apart from what some might assume about the "genre" of music that forms part of your background is your use of field recordings, synthesizers and acoustic instruments together in really innovative ways. Why did you want to incorporate all those things into what you're doing?
DR: I always wanted to but I didn't really know how, but Kevin was really just a wizard.
KL: Yeah, I don't know. It was just a natural progression. I like everyday sounds that aren't musical that can be musical. I think it's more of the hip-hop influence because those guys would just take a little bit of everything and make it into a sound.
A big part of it is Ableton and just messing around with it. [Part of the inspiration came from] a friend in this great band from Saint Louis called Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, and they're just this ragtime, straight out of 1920 band.
But they had this alter ego of these rap stars that they never performed live. They could rap, though. The first time I tried Ableton I remixed Waylon Jennings, Carla Thomas who had a Stax recording from the 1950s with Latin percussion on top. It was just a project but I got obsessed with it a little bit and did it more and more.
I had an uncle on a radio show in the '40s, and I got a hold of his recordings and chopped them up and put them into songs. It's still a work in progress, especially pulling it off live because adding the computer adds so many different technicalities, and it can fuck up way more than your mandolin or guitar. It's still fun doing it. With the synth stuff you think, "How do you make it cohesive if you have this big sound and then we do more acoustic-y stuff." The cool thing about this project is that everyone is open to pretty much everything.
DR: With the computer, too, the sky is the limit. You can have all kinds of sounds. I love drones, and I love trance-ing out to music, and it's really easy to do when you have big, thick computer sounds. Especially if we do something at like Walnut Room or the hi-dive where they have the amazing sound system and you just really shake the room with those sounds and there's just nothing like it.
KL:And we've been trying to use relevant things for the interludes for that new album. It all happened that night so it's like you're sampling the night. Even "Turtle," we were sitting around in my parents' basement in Michigan and we turned on the TV and it made this specific sound so we recorded that. We try to make it more personal instead of just grabbing something random. At least it's more personal for us and hopefully that will make it more meaningful for everybody.
DR: We try to use samples that we personally experienced. I feel that that's the best way to do it. Anything is at your fingertips with the Internet. Anyone can get any kind of sound.
KL: We're also huge Pink Floyd and the Who fans, so just the sound '70s synthesizers I've always just loved.
And of course Pink Floyd uses a lot of samples on most of their albums.