Jason Horodyski of Maudlin Magpie on literary influences and stories behind the songs.
Catch Maudlin Magpie (Katie Gold, from left, Jason Horodyski, Lander McLees and Luis Chavez) tomorrow night at Unit E.
Maudlin Magpie started out as the solo project of Jason Horodyski, but after two shows, Horodyski realized he preferred to make music with other people. The band went through different line-ups before settling with its current incarnation. What didn't change, however, is Horodyski's literate yet emotionally resonant songwriting. With the addition of a full-time keyboardist Katie Gold and a solid, reliable and expressive rhythm section in Lander McLees and Luis Chavez, Horodyski's songs and songwriting have reached their fullest realization. We spoke to Horodyski about his leap from writer and painter to musician, his literary influences and the concepts behind his songs.
Westword: You mainly did visual art in high school. Did you get into playing music around that time as well?
Jason Horodyski: I kind of did. In middle school I was into suburban gangsta rap stuff. Sometime in middle school, though, I discovered Smashing Pumpkins and [I loved] that expression and that sound and fury. My uncle passed away -- he was in a swami and a Hindu temple in Chicago and he used to do a lot of mantra and chanting with guitar -- and I inherited his guitar. But yeah, I got into it, and I took some lessons more so to learn some Smashing Pumpkins songs and Beatles songs. I tried playing in a jazz band in high school. I did that for about twelve weeks, and that was the only formal training I had. I think one of the guys from United Dope Front was part of that.
I kind of put it down. I did more art in high school and in college I did more creative writing, and it was kind of near the end of college when I started working for 1190. I did the A-Side/B-Side show for three years. I got progressively got more and more into music. I wasn't so interested in the screaming guitar solo side. I was more interested in the moodiness and the dynamics that some of the artists I discovered during that time: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Songs: Ohia and Carissa's Weird. That sort of moodiness is something I was attracted to, and I felt closer to that.
What attracted you to the moodiness of that music?
I tend to be a cerebral guy, always kind of thinking about stuff. To me, that was something where I felt more grounded. There's something about the emotional side, not just the self-expression, but the communion between musicians and people. Just playing with people. I started with self-expression, but I got burned out on that, and I feel like the shared experience and finding like-minded people that wanted to make music and play together was more interesting.
A lot of the musicians I've been attracted to lyrically, there's something that seems very connected to them. There's a lot that's sort of polarized toward a certain style of singing: people that sound like Cobain or trying to sound like Eddie Vedder. There is a uniqueness in the human voice that I think certain artists have tapped into that comes through that's very unique to their identity.
Yeah, like with, as you mentioned, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, and certain Bob Dylan, part of the appeal is not sounding "conventionally good." They're good by virtue of the individual sound of their voice.
Definitely. It took me a while to get Dylan.
You only started writing your own songs a few years back. What sparked your interest in doing so?
I think I tend to be more of a quiet guy in terms of what I really feel and what I think about. With music, it's something that feels innate to me and it's a way of communicating things that are very different from what you might expect. I'm a very even-keeled kind of guy. Just sharing in the pains of humanity and recognizing the commonalities between people and how we suffer, I think in a way it was helping the universe fit together for me. The way I talk about it, it sounds like my music is confessional but it's not autobiographical.
With the authors I'm really attracted to like Philip K. Dick, Annie Dillard, [Haruki] Murakami and David Lynch. There's a certain transcendentalism and a recognition of time as one recurring moment and just trying to capture that presence in your own life. Often I'll have characters interacting each other in a storytelling sort of way.
So your songs aren't fiction so much but perhaps striking at different kinds of truths by telling stories that speak to it in a more poetic way?
Yeah, yeah. Also, not necessarily pinning things down in one place. But just sort of that dance between worlds. That's what I really love about Annie Dillard. One of my favorite books of all time is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Another one she wrote, For the Time Being is also fantastic. She goes from talking about this beautiful, poetic, cosmological universe to talking about dead fetuses in a hospital and all the different sort of malformations that occur at birth. And kind of revealing the mystery of both the dark and the light.
I've had some really spiritual people in my life, and I've had, especially in my family, people who don't believe in souls and it's just this one moment. It's sort of interesting to me to play with the things we contemplate and the stories we create in different cultures and societies.
It sounds like you're navigating people's beliefs and perhaps observing that you find the perspectives of others even if you share it or not.
Yeah. It's a lot easier to see your prejudices but your loyalties are what's kind of tricky and that's one thing that really interests me a lot. Chris Steele, for instance, I feel he really explores so many different territories in a very Bob Dylan sort of way. Maybe in a movement people are trying to embrace what he's saying and he's like, "Look, I'm not actually not about that." When you're trying to speak truth or seek it out, you're probably going to piss off [a lot of people].
It's interesting what you say about what's tricky is your loyalties.
Once you start to strongly identify with something, it kind of twists you.
For sure. Your thoughts start to orient toward reinforcing a specific belief pattern.
The opening passage of Winesburg, Ohio [by Sherwood Anderson] where they say, and this is a paraphrase, something to the effect that people in this town had faith because there was a locus of truth to them but that the more that they closely identified with that, the more it kind of twisted them. That's such an interesting concept to me.
A lot of people will try to make their belief system more sensible by appealing to your own sense of reason by starting with the premise that their belief system is true in a very concrete sense. Arguing from a place where one premise is believe to be true makes it a tautology. It will not convince someone that doesn't already believe it.
So if you can't construct an argument for something on a more solid footing than insisting that an article of faith is a fact, you have no good case. You must begin with the idea that not everyone has to believe what you believe and consider why someone should believe it in the first place free of basing your whole argument to a non-believer on the aforementioned article of faith.
When you deconstruct the universe like that, you realize how groundless we all are. That's really interesting because I was watching Charlie Rose. It was an interview with a bunch of authors after Christopher Hitchens passed. I think faith in anything interests me whether that be a belief in nothingness or an inner sense of something.
When you first started playing out live, it was under your own name rather than the band name you currently use?
It was. I did that once or twice. I did a show with Ian Cooke and Emily Frembgen at Blast-O-Mat a few years ago. I did that and a show with Little Dead Things at the D Note. It was a little intimidating. I love music so much that I take it in and finding my own voice. I didn't like playing covers and didn't do the covers thing. I think the first show I played, I only had two or three songs. Then I just met friends and through Matt Struck I met my viola player for a while, Rocky Meza. I think I met Robin Walker on Craigslist, actually. We randomly played a show at Sara Century's old place, Megahouse. Robin is so proficient she can pick up anything.
Maudlin Magpie is an interesting and suggestive name for a band. How did you come up with that?
It was a joke between my friend Naomi Greenstone and I. Maybe it's sort of a self-criticism with the "Magpie" being kind of talkative and a little too wordy. The English side of me going from writing short stories and paring it down and saying something that I wanted to say was kind of tricky at first. The "Maudlin" side was interesting. I thought Nico said, "rigor maudlin'" but she's actually saying "we will go wanderin'" in "Venus in Furs." I just thought it was interesting because it was tied into Mary Magdelene who is often portrayed as an overly sentimental woman. It's also kind of a pejorative term used towards women at that time. It just stuck.
"Maudlin Magpie" as in sad bastard music, perhaps.
Yeah, "beat the critics to the punch" as [one critic has] said about the name.
What can you tell us about your current roster of collaborators?
I met Katie [Gold] after college through some mutual friends at Radio 1190 before she started playing with Becky [Christian] in Lady Parts. We used to hang out and just make up short songs together. She has such an innate sensibility for intricate melody lines that feel almost like lullabies and her voice is so ethereal and dreamlike. She joined Robin and I for a Larimer show back in 2011 and we've been playing together ever since.
Lander McLees and I started working together at the library last Fall. He is classically trained on the bass and brings these dynamically rich baselines that gel the songs so nicely. I met Luis Chavez through my good friend Adan Hernandez when we played together in Vuf-Alo last year. He has this really tight and subtly nuanced drumming that lends so much energy and space, opening up the songs in ways I could have never imagined. Getting to play with such exceptional musicians has completely invigorated and renewed my feelings towards music and the writing process as a whole.
Chris "Time" Steele and I have been working on songs for a concept album. It's a different approach for me to work within the confines of someone else's music and time signature, given that I typically spend a lot of time on my own songs, writing music to the melodies I construct in my head. We really challenge each other though and have been playing with less conventional song structures for this one.
The idea was to have Chris sing some sleepy choruses and for me deliver faster verses to work outside of the musical space we are more familiar with in our other projects. Chris has this intense and prophetic stream-of-consciousness way with his lyrics, so it's fun to take the songs off on whatever tangents can be found up there in the ether!
"Fando Y Lis Upon the Dull Earth" combines titles for an Alejandro Jodorowsky film and a Philip K. Dick short story. Why did you connect those two in that song title?
Adan Hernandez actually really got me into Jodorowsky. I kind of got obsessed with him for a while and saw all his movies. I read one of his books, which was a collection of interviews, called Psychomagic, where he talked about studying with a shaman in Mexico who was one of those miracle healers that didn't use anesthetic. He speaks in a very deep language of dreams. He has this school of therapy he sort of created that's really kind of Jungian, archetypal. That's what attracted me to Lynch and Murakami. That deep language that is kind of beyond time.
Like Holy Mountain because it's so steeped in the occult and other esoteric knowledge on a symbolic level connected to Jungian archetypes and he swirls it into one big allegory.
Oh yeah. And I was also reading a lot of Philip K. Dick. I think when I really strongly resonate with authors and films and art, I kind of take it in and it synthesizes in different ways for me. Philip K. Dick has been a big author for me. He spent some time in Colorado [and he's buried here]. In a lot of good sci-fi authors, you can really say this.
He has a way of looking really deeply into the human condition and the desires we as a society and as a people and sort of playing out the implications of the potential trajectories of those in a way that's really frightening. I think that ties back into dreams also -- what we subconsciously desire. Whether that be getting rid of this, eradicating that and purifying the other. It's such a slippery slope but to have that foresight...I just really resonated with that.
Jodorowsky speaks about one aspect of human consciousness one way and Philip K. Dick tends to be a bit darker in talking about the same thing. More dystopian. Jodorowsky seems to embrace all facets of the experience of human consciousness.
Yeah, and there's definitely a playful pastiche about it. Very 70s. I loved how he used interesting characters and people like circus carnies. Just interesting choices.
Maybe this is pushing the question too much but why those two specific works by both?
Definitely "Upon the Dull Earth" is my favorite Philip K. Dick short story. Fando Y Lys is definitely not my favorite Jodorowsky movie. Those would be Santa Sangre and Holy Mountain. I think for the Fando Y Lys part of the equation, those two characters are analogous to the way some of the characters interact in the songs that I write. There's a boy and a girl and he's carting her around because she can't walk. I don't think that's every explained.
There's a beautiful quote in the beginning that says something to the effect that, "What if I cut off your arms? Then I will become a dancer. What if I cut off your legs?" It's about the search for this time that was more like Eden. These two characters go on this journey together. There was something that I liked about where that story started. I didn't like the dynamic of the characters too much--I don't think he treats her too well.
Jodorowsky takes it in many different places. But for me the opening ten or fifteen minutes is really beautiful and I wanted to extrapolate on that. It's interesting because Jodorowsky said that when he was growing up in Chile, he and his art friends came up with these tasks for themselves.
One was to walk a straight line so you'd have to go through windows and houses and keep walking. I think I tied that into that song with Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. The idea of having singular focus. That song is very much a struggle with desire and how desire leaves you homeless in that Buddhist sense.
It also ties into the Philip K. Dick concept of the implications of what you desire.
Like the protagonist of that story who desires to have this girl back who really wanted to be taken into this separate realm.
"The Mariner's Rime" is obviously a reference to Coleridge. Why him?
One of the lines, I think in the first verse, is "As opaque as the Mariner's Rime" and I was thinking about how in that poem the Mariner is that frost that has hardened on his eye and it contains the entire story of his adventures and what got him there at sea. But also that limbo that he lives in now. For me that's very much a recognition within the context of relationships and things -- that limbo that you can find yourself in. As well as our own personal journeys that we take and the physical manifestation of that in our bodies.
Coleridge has a really beautiful way of not really using a lot of adjectives and saying something and having it really stand out. I think a lot of my work is very image based. I feel like, for me, it's a very visceral image in my head of a feeling or a certain expression that I really latch on to and weave within the stories I create for the characters in my songs.
Tell us about "Walt's Flute."
A friend asked if it was Walt Whitman but it's actually Walt Disney. It came from a conversation I had with a close friend. Her family remembers these really vivid stories that she used to tell when she was one and a half or two. Things where there's no reason why a kid that age could tell. Just really sort of uncanny and otherworldly sort of stories. For me it's a loss of innocence and they recognized a certain time when those stories started changing.
She had these elaborate characters she had elaborate relationships with. It was almost like they were past lives--that was their interpretation of it. But there was certain point where she started dreaming herself into Disney cartoons. It was that sort of lost innocence where socialization comes into effect and kids sort of lose that vivid dreaming that's separate from the rest of the world.
I refer to that process and phenomenon as "colonizing your imagination." That's obviously a politically-charged metaphor. But there is your imagination as it is drawing from your experiences or making up experiences. Then you encounter that has its own strong creative resonance that sometimes works to set a limit or parameters in your own mind.
"Colonizing" is a really good word because that's what we do on every level with minds, people, school and the subcultures we become a part of and the alliances we form between us.
You touched upon this earlier with saying how some people follow the example of someone like Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder. Rather than saying, "What I have is valuable too." It's your thing and in the long run it's going to be valuable to others to share and express. It's like a big metaphor for how things are in general. People appreciate something unique.
Growing up in Colorado I always loved the gothic country stuff like Sixteen Horsepower, Tarantella and Slim Cessna's Auto Club. Something a part of this region that was unique to this music scene. Souls of dead miners, you know? And how prophetic it was attracted me and the intensity. I think there's definitely moments where I connect with that when we play live.
So, "The Wind-Up Bird." That's clearly a reference to Murakami. What about his work resonates for you?
There's something very lonely about his characters. Again it's that dreamlike quality. It doesn't matter how big the book is, I end up finishing his novels fairly quickly. I'm not a fast reader by any means but I feel so much more sentient when I step out of his world. In so much anime, there's something that can be solitary and lonely about those worlds but still magical and beautiful. He's the only author I've ever read where I'll dream these crazy, lucid dreams and he affects me on a deep level that's not at all cerebral and logical. I think he speaks on a bizarre level for me that I can't explain. There's something about that suspension of disbelief that's not so far out that I'm picturing space ships flying.
Presumably the title of the album is significant as well?
As a child, my grandmother lives in Oswego, Illinois and my uncle lived there too. He had maple trees and we used to stick the seeds on our nose because they were sticky. I was reading Annie Dillard's book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and near the end she talks about maple keys and it's an allegory for our time in this life. How the fall from the tree to the ground, she talks about that sort of recognition of mortality and how we're spending our time. "Maple keys" is sort of that meeting of two people. I was thinking about that idea like with Arabian Nights and the author might suggest it's through stories that we prolong our mortality.
For me, it's that communion of people in the music and the art that I create. It's that two ships crossing in the night phenomenon and recognizing and honor the people that come into our lives whether that be some dead author [or someone we actually know]. She also talks about their upward motion being their spirit. It's a nice metaphor for our lives, I guess.
Why did you go with Katherine Rutter for your artwork?
I love her stuff. She'll use some dirty parchment that has a nicotine stain. In some of her pieces she'll try to grow a fungus and has that life and decay [in her art]. There's just something very interesting about that line that she walks with her art that's very beautiful to me. I gave her a CD, she really liked, and she wanted to do the album art and I was really happy when she agreed to do so. I showed her a passage from that Annie Dillard book I mentioned and from that she created the artwork with very little discussion of how I wanted it to look. I just trusted that she resonated with it in some way and I'm happy with [how it turned out].
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.