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In Extremis

Deeper Into The Void: An Interview With Asva
Kevin Mccaighy , January 25th, 2012 05:26

Asva released one of last year's most haunting and evocative records in Presences Of Absences. Kevin McCaighy speaks to bassist and founder member Stuart Dahlquist about the past, present and future of the group.

By the time of Asva's formation in 2003, bassist Stuart Dahlquist had already built up a reputation to be reckoned with, both as a former member of the legendary doom outfit Burning Witch (with Asva co-founder Brad Mowen), and as a key contributor to early classics from both Goatsnake (Flower of Disease) and Sunn 0))) (00 Void). Their debut came in the form of Caprichos 1-80/Rift Canyon Dreams, a heavyweight split 12" with Goatsnake. Expanding their line up to include luminaries such as Trey Spruance (Secret Chiefs 3) and vocalist Jessika Kenney, Asva released Futurists Against the Ocean in 2005 on Spruance's Web of Mimicry label. Its stirring combination of doom-oriented instrumental might and ethereal vocalization forged a pathway between Sunn 0)))'s tectonic fury and the occult pastoralism of the reformed Earth. They continued to explore this solemn hinterland territory two years later with the powerful follow up What You Don't Know is Frontier.

Having working in close collaboration with Kayo Dot leader Toby Driver, Asva produced one of the standout releases of 2011 in Presences of Absences. Its desolate and haunting expanses coalesced into a remarkable, transcendental experience. Hugely evocative of space and landscape, it was predominantly led by drawn-out organ chords that stretched outward to fill every corner of the music. As the band moves into 2012, Asva remains an entity with a fluid membership, with Dahlquist as its sole constant. He spoke to the Quietus about the past, present and future of the group.

When you began the group, what ideas did you have in mind for it?

Stuart Dahlquist: At the start the idea was to simply be heavy and maybe a little psychedelic. Brad Mowen called me up out of the blue one day and wanted to do something along the lines of what we had done with Burning Witch. I'd had a few bits and pieces of ideas recorded and strung them together, forming 'Caprichos'. He and I did the work through mail by cassette tape; I recorded the parts and sent them to him, he figured out what he would do, and we were tracking the song pretty quickly afterward. The following two full lengths were done similarly, through the mail - me writing the music, Brad figuring things out on his end. I'd fly up to Seattle and we'd track basics then look for people to contribute further. I kept moving further away from the doom template as time went by but the origins of Asva were really very straight forward. Heavy, slow... the criteria was very simple.

The clarity of the organ sound dominates every track on Presences of Absences. What drew you to using them as the dominant instrument for this album?

SD: Maybe a year before Brad asking about doing something together I had bought (very cheaply) a Wurlitzer organ and Leslie cabinet and been messing around on it quite a bit, trying to utilize the pitch perfect droning aspect of the organ and the drone/feedback stuff I could produce on bass guitar. The intervals would quaver and sometimes be off, but I found it pretty appealing and wanted to work the organ in.

After the first EP I started getting into taking operatic and chanting recordings, snipping little bits and phrases from them and trying to work those elements, along with the more involved organ textures, into the music I was writing for Asva. The organ has acted as a jump off point for a number of years in a lot of Asva’s music, simply because I like what can happen through experimentation while holding chords. By substituting different intervals beneath whatever phrase I'm playing as a primary theme, the sense of what that phrase represents, coloration-wise, changes dramatically. Guys who know theory already know this stuff... I don’t have much background in formal theory, but I do have a sense of what I'm looking for from an emotional standpoint. The organ - given that the note will ring for as long as you hold the key; I frequently tape the keys down - allows me the time to hunt, peck, and find what it is I'm after. Once I've figured it out I can move on to bass and the how the other instruments movement above and below will relate harmonically to one another, decide on syncopation, etc. It's also quite a lot of fun to play a full sized, fully operational church organ, the likes of which I've been lucky enough to have had given to me.

What space does the music you make occupy in your life? Can you listen to it afterwards once it’s finished?

SD: Once it's released not much attention gets paid to it, unless there's a tour and the music has to be arranged for a live setting. Dealing with interviews, business stuff... This kind of thing sucks just about all the energy I've got left over after the whole process of writing, rehearsing, recording, mixing, re-recording, artwork, and so on and so forth. Working on new music is much more appealing, and I can work on and listen to music in progress just about endlessly until it finally sounds like I've written enough, or simply given up and moved on to the next thing. I virtually never revisit released work unless I absolutely have to.

'Birds' has an almost ghostly aspect to it that brought to mind the work of Antony & the Johnsons or recent Scott Walker– that same fragility of a voice singing alone amid spacious, minimal tones. Did you have any clear instructions for what you wanted the vocals to convey?

SD: Toby Driver had 100% control over what he wanted to convey throughout Presences of Absences. I asked him if he would contribute because he has a way of singing that has spoken to me in a way that feels incredibly intimate. Ultimately there was no 'direction' from myself or Greg Gilmore to him, nothing asked at all, more an environment of trust and non-judgmental encouragement while we worked. Toby knew what he wanted to do and he's the one who felt straight away - before he even flew out to track - that 'Birds' was the standout track.

The album is titled after a line in Jayber Crow by the esteemed writer and man of letters Wendell Berry. Can you tell me what influence his work has on your work and life, and what relevance the title has for you?

SD: I like Wendell Berry's writing; his essays, letters, novels, etc... All of it seems to be honest and he exposes himself as a man who cares about the things and people that surround him and isn't the least bit ashamed to wear his heart on his sleeve. He thinks the way I think (I like to believe that) and we have a similar bond to land, to people, and see the beauty in simple things that have always been here. It's not that he's influenced my thoughts so much (I've loved for as long as I can remember) but this book in particular helped give me the courage to let go of the aspects of Asva that didn't seem genuine, that stuff that was meant to impress by sheer sonic muscle. Jayber Crow impressed upon me the power of subtlety, and his pacing in this story helped inform to a high degree the pacing of Presences of Absences.

To within the underground there appears to be more introspective atmosphere, with bands like Aethenor, Jodis and Mamiffer inhabiting more interior, more abstract spaces. Do you feel that what you’re doing with Asva has any common ground with those groups?

SD: I can't say as I'm not familiar enough with the bands you've mentioned. Asva is aiming for an interior dialogue but I don't believe Asva is abstract in any sense... Challenging surely, I mean 'A Bomb In That Suitcase' is on bass guitar a twelve tone progression, but emotionally we have more in common with songs like 'Moon River' or 'Candle in the Wind'. It's true, I am a sucker for sappy.

How were the parts for Presences composed, and how collaborative was the process?

SD: Initially the record wasn't collaborative at all. I was working alone and writing as ideas came to me, without really knowing where things would go, just doing what I like doing. Asva had an opportunity to play in Europe, and since Brad and the other members had quit I couldn't feel right playing music Asva had previously done, so I asked some of my friends if they would be willing to give the new stuff a shot, and get a trip to Europe in the meantime. The organ, basses, guitar... all of it was basically finished to the point that I was able to take things so it was easy to learn and the tour ended up being the most fun I've ever had on the road.

After the tour I felt the music could have more depth, like it was finished without really hitting the finish line... It simply ran out of steam halfway there. So I wrote for nearly a year ('Birds' and 'Bomb In That Suitcase' came to be in this period) and realized I could never call it finished without some help. Greg and I had toured Europe together and he was still really into doing Asva, so he and I dumped all the stuff I'd tracked from my portastudio onto his Protools set up, and he added drums. I wrote and recorded more parts for organ and trumpet and bells - we added just about anything we could fit. Toby came out and by the time he was done the mixing was so intense, like 200 individual tracks for each song. It was at this point that it really did become a collaborative effort as opposed to simply adding another voice. As a team Greg and I had to really whittle things down and make choices with regard to what kind of record we really were trying to make. We mixed and chopped for a year and finally came up with something that opens up enough to sound at times like a classical music recording, but still retains a good deal of our shared rock heritage.

Have you embraced playing other instruments whilst playing in Asva, or do you still get as much from playing bass as you’ve always seemed to?

SD: I think in a live situation I'll always stick to the bass guitar. I'm comfortable and generally confident being in front of people playing it and enjoy having my hands on the strings and the interaction within the group that the bass requires. Every now and then a fantasy of playing a pipe organ in a cathedral setting grabs me and if the chance to do so is there- if nobody is listening- I'll play but really it's only for myself unless recording. I don't think even my wife has actually witnessed me playing the organ.

Has Asva ceased as a live entity?

SD: I hope not but we've no plans of touring anytime soon. Maybe later in 2012 something will look good and we'll be invited over for some dates.

Has Asva lasted longer as a group that you expected it to, and what else would you like the group to pursue going forward?

SD: I've never really thought about how long Asva would last. It's always been up to me to write at least the outlines of the songs, and the evolution of the band has gone hand in hand with my own evolution as a writer. Moving forward is just a matter of writing music as it comes and figuring out where that music might find a good home or if there isn't a comfortable place for something building anew. I've been doing an awful lot of scoring these days and much of the resulting music won't work for film, but is certainly appropriate somewhere - Asva, maybe something else. Also there are tracks written specifically for Asva (two more full lengths are written), some scoring for dance (which I still can't believe I've been asked to do), a second full length with Philippe Petit (the first due out on Small Doses/Basses Frequencies), rock/noise stuff with another project called Brokaw (debut coming out Jan 2012 on Good To Die Records)... Honestly I have no idea where all this work will lead, because each reacts to everything else. Exciting times. It's a great feeling to be learning so much and doing so much at this time in my life.

Photo by Paul Dahlquist