To Noveller's Sarah Lipstate, guitars are still quite relevant in experimental music
Catch Noveller and a host of other acts at this weekend's Goldrush Festival.
Noveller is the solo project of Sarah Lipstate, who had previously been in an experimental rock band from Austin called One Umbrella before she moved to Brooklyn to pursue music more fully. Upon moving to New York, she ended up joining Parts & Labor and played on that outfit's critically acclaimed album Receivers. After leaving that band in 2009, Lipstate focused on her solo work and collaborations, and before long, her imaginative guitar work using loops and creative sound manipulation struck a chord with fans of ambient music and noise.
Lipstate's most recent full-length, 2011's Glacial Glow, was released on the respected experimental music label Weird Forest, and her latest album, No Dreams, due out on October 22, is coming out on Important Records. We recently spoke with Lipstate about why she feels the guitar is still a relevant instrument in experimental music, how she became connected with David Wm. Sims of the Jesus Lizard and the circumstance in which she became friends with legendary avant-garde musician Rhys Chatham.
Westword: How did you become connected with Davy Bui of Weird Forest and release the vinyl of Glacial Glow through that imprint?
Sarah Lipstate: I believe he contacted me by sending an email to my account around the time that I was recording Glacial Glow, and he expressed interest in doing a release with me. Glacial Glow I released in 2011. The previous year, I put out Desert Fires. I kind of decided that I wanted to try releasing Desert Fires on CD and doing it myself.
That was the first time I kind of made myself fully responsible for doing press, sending out the promo copies, writing the one sheet, doing all the artwork and setting up the manufacturing. I really enjoyed that process, and I found out that when I reached out to these writers, bloggers and whatever, that they were really excited to actually interact with the artist. Maybe more so than just interacting with a PR person that is paid to push an artist.
I decided it would be cool to hook up with Weird Forest and allow him to release the vinyl of Glacial Glow. I had released a split LP and went through that whole process ourselves, and it was a nightmare. We had to send back the test pressings three times. It was a greater expense and everything. So I thought it made sense to kind of collaborate with Weird Forest on the release and see if that would help broaden the reach.
I have a new record coming out in October called No Dreams, and I am working with yet another label, Important Records out of Massachusetts, and I'm letting them release the CD of the new record and see how that goes. The official release date is October 22nd. For me, it's fun to work with different indie labels, and see how it goes, and see if it reaches different ears. I'm a solo performer, and I enjoy taking on these things on my own and having a lot of contact with the audience, the people reviewing the records and the venues booking my own shows. I think it's cool to do all of that as hands on as possible.
You did a split with David Wm. Sims of Scratch Acid and the Jesus Lizard for his unFact project. Was that something you worked out with him or was that more a label arrangement?
No, we decided to do that. He saw me play a show in Brooklyn and asked me via MySpace messages, because this was 2009, and he said, "Hi, I saw you perform last night. It was a great show. I play in a band called the Jesus Lizard. I was wondering if you want to come on tour with us? We're doing a reunion tour, and I was wondering if you'd be interested in opening for us for a few dates?"
I did end up playing four shows with them. He's the only member of that band that lives in New York, and we kept in touch, and we became really good friends. I think the thing he really liked about what I do is that he'd been interested for a while in doing a solo bass project but didn't really know how that would be possible. So he thought it was cool I was making this pretty big and interesting sound with just a guitar and some pedals. He was able to finally able to realize that solo bass project, and we did that split LP and some touring. We put that split LP ourselves a hundred percent.
Is that the split you mentioned earlier?
Yeah. It was a little crazy. He still has a few copies and I bought some copies from him to bring to Goldrush and for my Radiolab dates. It's a cool record. Some of my favorite Noveller material is on there. That was a fun project.
You mentioned Radiolab, and you're doing that tour this fall. What is the nature of your involvement with that tour?
Okay, so I was asked by Jad Abumrad if I wanted to join the touring show. Then they also invited a duo of Glenn Kotche of Wilco and Darin Gray [formerly of Dazzling Killmen]. They play together as On Fillmore. Glen plays percussion, and he's touring with vibraphones, three gongs -- just this incredible percussion set-up. Darren is playing upright bass, and he has all these cool, unusual instruments. The three of us form the live band for the show.
For the most part, we play the musical cues throughout their stories. We play these cues while they're narrating these stories. There's one interlude section where they said, "Start really quiet and then just build to this massive, cacophonous sound." The theme is the show is apocalyptical, so we get to really kind of go crazy. For the most part, though, we're just integrated into the show, and we're providing the live, textural, musical bed for the stories that they're telling.
It's an incredible production and our first show was last night. But the tour officially kicks off on October 2nd in Columbus. It's a 25 date tour with the last date on November 22nd. It's broken up into chunks with off time in New York in between. It's a really cool thing for me to be able to make the type of music that I make because Jad's a Noveller fan, and he wanted me to do what I do but be a part of this really cool thing that has an incredible reach across the country via NPR. So it should be a really exciting tour. We're playing Denver on November 1st and 2nd at The Paramount Theater.
You moved to Brooklyn from Austin? Did you plan in bands before relocating?
Yes. When I moved to Austin to go to the University of Texas, I studied film, but I was always doing music. Basically, any time I wasn't at school, I was playing guitar, and I met this guy, and he played drums and synth, and we started dating and formed a musical duo called One Umbrella. It was, you know, experimental soundscape stuff. But since he played drums, as well, there were some noisier rock elements. That set the stage for the beginnings of Noveller and the path that I would take doing that.
That was really cool for us, and we kind of got hooked up with the experimental label Table of Elements, and we got asked to play one of their festivals in Atlanta. That's where I played with Rhys Chatham for the first time and met him and Tony Conrad -- all of these amazing musicians.
That was in 2005. Then in 2006, we were invited to play CMJ in October. That was the first time I'd ever been to Brooklyn. We played an official showcase, and then we played a showcase in Manhattan. Growing headlined that night. We spent a week in Williamsburg, and that was when I decided, "Maybe this would be a good place to move and try to keep doing music."
I felt like there was an audience there for pretty much whatever type of music you were making. I was feeling frustrated with playing shows where it was the same 25 or thirty people coming to the show. I didn't feel like you could grow in Austin and take your project beyond being a local act.
That's when I decided to try out New York, and I moved there in January 2007. It was really starting with One Umbrella at nineteen that helped us make good connections in the experimental world that would allow me to continue. I've played with Rhys Chatham seven or eight times now. Every time I got to Paris, or he comes to New York, I get to see him, and that's all because we got hooked up with him in 2005.
Check this out. The night One Umbrella played in Atlanta opening and headlining was Rhys Chatham's Guitar Army -- which I've played in, as well -- but playing in between us was this little band from Atlanta called Deerhunter. It was before their first album came out on Kranky. I remember talking to them, and they were like, "Yeah, we're about to go on tour opening for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs." And I was like, "Oh, that's a pretty big tour!" But that was before they just blew up. It's funny looking back on that stuff. It was really a cool experience.
What set you on your path to creating fairly unconventional guitar music rather than something even as experimental as one of your earlier bands, Parts & Labor?
I decided I wanted to play guitar when I was sixteen and my parents were really reluctant to get a guitar for me. They had put me through piano lessons when I was a little kid, and then I played the trombone in middle school and high school, and they were really supportive of that. But, for some reason, they were like, "Oh, you want a guitar, whatever." They finally bought me an acoustic guitar, and I was really disappointed because I did not want to play acoustic guitar. I was listening to loud, crazy, dissonant rock music, and I wanted an electric guitar. I wanted to be loud and noisy.
So I had to get this crappy summer job and save up my money, and I was finally able to buy the cheapest guitar in the store, which was this periwinkle Danelectro, and I got this Danelectro Dirty Thirty amplifier. But that was enough for me, and it had a distortion knob on the amp you could get it kind of dirty sounding.
From the beginning, I didn't want to take lessons or anything. I was interested in alternate tunings. I loved Sonic Youth, and I knew they used alternate turnings, and I thought that was a more interesting approaching to just be able to come up with your own way of playing, instead of learning how to play classic rock or just messing around with guitar chords. I knew there was a right way to play and a way you could learn.
I did that with my acoustic guitar, just practicing playing all the chords to get my hands used to holding down the strings and playing. So I did start out with the rudiments of chords, but when I fell more into it, I was just interested in developing my own relationship with the instrument, and none of my friends in high school cared about music that much or didn't really play an instrument.
So this was something where I would come home from school and lock myself in my room with my guitar. My parents hated it because I would be in there for hours just playing and listening to my records. It was this very solitary activity. That's something that I came back to when I started Noveller -- just me and my guitar writing new songs.
The Parts & Labor thing happened soon after I moved to New York. A mutual friend of Parts & Labor and mine from Austin named Jesse Hodges [connected us]. They were looking for a guitar player, and Jesse was like, "Oh, this girl I know, Sarah, is a great guitar player, and she just moved to New York. Why don't you contact her?" I had seen Parts & Labor at South By Southwest when they had first started, and they were an instrumental band. They were noisy and electronic, and I liked them. I thought it was cool playing with this band I'd seen before and liked.
When I started playing with them, it was very much like they'd been around for six years and had all these songs, and I had to learn to play their songs. It was a very different experience for me because I'd never played in a full band like that before. It was really cool, and I had fun, but it was very different from what I do now playing on stage myself playing my own music. I was a little out of my element but I did try to grow and be able to be a part of that band and make it work and be a cool rock guitar player. But I think this is more the world that makes sense to me musically.
Do you feel that your film work and music have a similar aesthetic and do you feel the way you approach both are similar?
I think it's a very similar textural approach. If anything, my films are more abstract. I feel like my music has gotten to where there are melodies in the songs, and they're not so abrasive anymore. I feel like the film stuff can be pretty abrasive. It can be pretty to look at, but the most recent thing I did, I was sewing into clear sixteen millimeter with needle and thread and painting on it. There are puncture holes and these harsh lines and splashes of color. It can be a "what am I looking at" type of thing. Whereas my music has been more cinematic than my film work.
Some people in the experimental world seem to think guitar has been played to death in every way imaginable. But you, Grouper, Yellow Swans, Justin Broadrick and a some others are doing something very different from what most people would do with that instrument. What is it about the guitar that you still find interesting to use to make the kinds of sounds you want to make?
I think there's still a lot to be done, certainly for me. I'm always really excited when I'm messing around, and I come up with a new way of playing the guitar, or a new technique, or a new combination of using my pedals. There's so many cool effects and new technology that's being created for the guitar that's so exciting. I still feel like there's so much that I can do.
Lately I've started kind of incorporating as supplementary textures from stuff that I use in my film scoring work, like textural sound libraries that I have or some synth stuff to just flush out the frequencies. For the first time, I am kind of experimenting with incorporating non-guitar-based sounds into my set.
For me, that's really exciting, as well, combining these different elements. But guitar is still the instrument that fascinates me the most. There's so much you can do, and even if there are a million people out there playing it, or even if every sound that's possible has been created, for me, there's still things I find that keep me in love with this instrument. I think there's a lot more to explore.