23 June 2024
0 11 mins 3 weeks

In order for this digital world to keep accelerating toward oblivion, the promise of instant gratification must be upheld — even if the sensation feels smaller and dimmer the faster we go. Where does Lungfish fit into that? The enigmatic Baltimore band stopped making its fractal punk music nearly 20 years ago, but the albums the group has left behind continue to feel regenerative and increasingly profound. For Lungfish’s most devout followers, that slo-mo gratification has a lot to do with vocalist Daniel Higgs, who stands as one of the most singular lyricists in the greater punk tradition, eternally growling into the margins of science, esotericism and reality in all its forms. His bandmates, however, remained earthbound, with guitarist Asa Osborne often settling on a single circular riff, then rolling it like a boulder from the start of the song to the finish.

If you’ve never listened to Lungfish, now seems like a fine time to ask yourself what you have planned for the next 30 years. That’s a rough average of how long three notable Kentucky musicians have been listening — acoustic guitarist Nathan Salsburg, multi-instrumentalist Tyler Trotter of the band Watter and singer-songwriter Will Oldham, whose songs as Bonnie “Prince” Billy have been both venerated in the underground and covered by the likes of Johnny Cash.

Together, the threesome have made “Hear the Children Sing the Evidence,” a new album of Lungfish covers. Two Lungfish covers, to be precise. The story goes that Salsburg had been singing a Lungfish song — “The Evidence,” an astonishing sort of Appalachian raga from the band’s 1994 album “Pass and Stow” — to his infant daughter at bedtime when he found himself fascinated by its flexibility. He began to wonder if any Louisville scene friends might be interested in helping him stretch some Lungfish songs toward the 20-minute mark, and after he enlisted Trotter and Oldham, they chose “Hear the Children Sing” from Lungfish’s 2003 album “Love is Love” as the album’s flip side, with Salsburg and Oldham inviting their own children to sing on the track.

That symmetry is a nice wink — a song sung to a child; a song sung by children — but this trio’s fundamental understanding of Lungfish music goes deep. By expanding these songs, they somehow get to their essence. In three separate phone interviews, Salsburg, Trotter and Oldham spoke with me about that paradox, as well as the band’s live sound, its durability and its significance in relation to the legacy of Steve Albini, the late recording engineer with whom Oldham had worked intimately over the years.

In the spirit of Lungfish’s ambiguity and concision, the Q’s have been removed from the following Q&A, and the A’s have been lightly edited for clarity.

Nathan Salsburg: I taught myself “The Evidence” in 1995 at summer camp, and at the end of 2021, I’d been singing it as a lullaby for my daughter, Talya. I could play it on the guitar with one hand and hold her with the other, or rock her in her bassinet. And, of course, Lungfish songs can be sung over and over. Maybe they are being sung in perpetuity, somewhere in the universe. Anyway, it just kept going until I went to Chicago to make another record, but I had recorded maybe five minutes of “The Evidence” in case my wife needed to use it while I was away. A couple months later I found that tape and thought, “It’d be cool to have a record of this.” I guess literally.

Will Oldham: When Nathan invited me in, I was gleeful. I couldn’t wait to be inside of these songs in this way that he was describing — pulling them widely apart, temporally, so that there’s lots of room to explore. Each take would allow for multiple iterations of each lyric, walking around the lyrics and observing. “Oh, this passageway leads here. This staircase leads here. If I pull this curtain aside and blow the dust off this word, I have access to a whole new level of significance.”

Tyler Trotter: How I got involved and how I got into Lungfish, the two kind of tie together. I bought my first Lungfish record, “Sound in Time,” at a record store Nathan worked at.

Salsburg: Oh yeah, me and some friends had a record store in the back of a skate shop in ’95, ’96. I don’t remember Tyler buying that record, but I’m glad he did!

Oldham: I’m not 100 percent sure where I first heard Lungfish, but when I’m compelled by a piece of music or an artistic entity, it’s usually because there’s a sense that there’s a potential for years of reward and unpacking. Lungfish is a peak example of that kind of experience. You know right away that you’re circling something that is awesome and byzantine and complicated and resonant.

Trotter: I saw them on that tour for “Sound in Time,” and then a couple times with Fugazi. They were repetitive, almost atmospheric, and it put you into a place.

Salsburg: I love [Lungfish guitarist Osborne’s] restraint, and really, the whole band’s restraint. For a while, as a guitar player, I was allergic to the idea of making repetitive music, so I always packed elaborative stuff into my songs. But Asa’s guitar parts are exactly what’s required, and the bed he lays for those lyrics, it’s just Goldilocks stuff: not too hot, not too cold, not too hard, not too soft. Higgs’s lyrics stick the way they do because they get drilled into our brains through these incredible mechanisms, these riffs.

Oldham: When he was touring after Lungfish, Higgs would stay at my house, and those times were very special. Sitting around with him was an extension of his work. I hesitate to use the word “integrity” because it sounds like a choice, and I don’t think it is a choice. It’s a consistency. They’re very different human beings, but people like Ian MacKaye, or Dan Higgs, or Steve Albini, or even in my experiences with Johnny Cash — they are not different in their different manifestations. Knowing Higgs [personally] is all the more fulfilling because it’s not coming from a superhuman, it’s coming from a super human.

Trotter: So Nathan had been singing “The Evidence” as a lullaby to Talya, and we just thought, “Let’s play off that repetitiveness, slowly build and take away, and enter more of a trancelike, put-you-to-sleep sort of thing.”

Salsburg: On a Lungfish record, nothing ever really goes over five minutes, but the songs feel so much longer. And they resonate for so much longer across space and time.

Oldham: Marvelously, [the meaning of these songs] is not quantifiable at all. It’s there to behold and partake in. It’s like that classic Magic Eye metaphor where you’re looking at something that doesn’t look like anything, but you keep looking, and it begins to take shape. But it’s still trapped inside of what it is.

Trotter: “Hear the Children Sing” started with programming the beat into a LinnDrum [drum machine], but when we all got together to play, it sounded weird. So we tuned everything down on the LinnDrum, and that sounded weirder, but we thought, “We could groove on this.”

Salsburg: I can’t remember if getting our kids involved was Will’s idea or mine. His daughter Poppy Jo is 5½. Talya is turning 3 soon. So Talya loves Poppy Jo, and Will was like, “Let’s set these microphones up and see if we can get them singing together.”

Oldham: This is a really strange record. There are artists right now writing songs at the minimum length for streaming services, people writing these 30-second songs, and here we are, idiotically doing the exact opposite. I know I keep coming back to Steve Albini, but he made people feel that if we stood by him, he was doing work for us. And now we have to do that work. Part of that work is saying, “Let’s put out these 20-minute songs and double down on the things that we understand have value.”

Trotter: We originally got together in the studio for two days, and then we sat with what we’d recorded, and figured out ways to add and take things away. I naturally want to add all kinds of little melodies, but that’s not what this music is about.

Oldham: It doesn’t push all of its rewards out at once. No matter what you do, it trickles out like a honeysuckle. “I’m going to pull the blossom off, gently pick the end off, pull it out and get that less-than-a-droplet of honey — and it’s going to satisfy me enough to maintain this sense of wonder that I have with the world.” Listening to Lungfish is like that. Getting a little bit at a time, each time.

Trotter: I think Lungfish has something for everyone. You might have to be a little patient with it at first, but sit with it. Give it time.

Salsburg: I feel that all the music I make is, in some way, an act of reverence — to the spirit that moves us to create music, and the possibilities of interchange and communion. But I’m already so excited about the response to this from old friends, new friends, non-friends, people for whom Lungfish has played a really pivotal role. I knew people felt this way, but I didn’t expect this spectrum. It feels like we’re building a community out of our mutual reverence. So it’s a way of saying thanks to them and for them.

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