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Escape Velocity

Tripping With Good Weirdos: An Interview With Midday Veil
Joseph Stannard , October 17th, 2013 05:09

Joseph Stannard catches up with the Seattle cosmic voyagers to talk recording in extraterrestrial-inspired geodesic domes, cathartic improvisation and the city's current musical community

Photo by Marleigh Atherton/David Golightly

Since their formation in 2008, Seattle's Midday Veil have built up a sturdy reputation with a series of limited cassette releases, an intriguing full-length debut in the form of 2010's Eyes All Around and a gig schedule that has enabled their evolution into a live beast of fearsome potency. Initially a duo comprised of Emily Pothast (vocals/synth) and David Golightly (synth), they've since been joined by Timm Mason (guitar), Jayson Kochan (bass), Sam Yoder (percussion) and Garrett Moore (drums). Together, they have developed a strain of psychedelic rock with considerably more to commend it than the crude Hawkwind/Can/Floyd pastiches currently clogging up the bandwidth. Even when they're voyaging deep into the unknown, Midday Veil stimulate the synapses with dynamic arrangements and the kind of melodic sensibility that eludes the majority of their peers. They bludgeon, seduce and inflame.

Produced by Sunn O))) collaborator Randall Dunn, Midday Veil's newly released second album The Current - released via Emily and David's label Translinguistic Other - draws together all the various facets of the group into a single sonic entity, expertly blending improvisation, astral drone, soulful songcraft and muscular repetition. In search of appropriate comparisons, I might gesture towards the soundtrack-ready electronic rock of Pittsburgh duo Zombi, the sci-fi diabolism of The Wyrding Module and the spiralling synthadelia of Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom. But these namechecks do little to convey the group's uniqueness. Midday Veil's music is not a cynical agglomeration of hip retro influences. This is not the record collection rock too often served up in the name of psych. It is singular and self-contained. Crucial to the group's impact is Pothast, a frontwoman of immense power and authority whose commanding tones eclipse the faux-druggy mumble adopted by the majority of modern (invariably male) psych vocalists.

Let me offer an example. The Current's 11-minute closer 'Great Cold Of The Night' is without doubt one of 2013's most compelling pieces of music. Built upon Golightly's stroboscopic synth pulsations, it lures the listener through murky subterranean catacombs and multiple fiery crescendos before taking an abrupt left-turn into shamanic disco territory, Pothast's cosmic diva vocals radiating fiercely from the eye of the vortex. The first time I heard this song, I didn't know what the hell had hit me - whatever this thing was that had left such a sizeable crater in my consciousness, I wasn't even sure that I liked it. Nevertheless it drew me back, time after time; soon enough I was hopelessly hooked and gibbering wildly about it to anyone within earshot. The rest of The Current is equally bewitching, and best appreciated as a whole rather than carved up into discrete chunks of psychedelic ear candy (although if that's how you roll, that'll work too). It's immaculately sequenced and perfectly paced, each track building inexorably towards the devastating climax of 'Great Cold'.

In conversation, Pothast and Golightly are models of lucidity and erudition. Like their music, they communicate expansive ideas with precision and focus. Fearless cosmic voyagers they may be; they're also rather lovely people. Or, as Golightly puts it, "good weirdos". The Pacific Northwest city they call home also happens to be the location of the docked UFO commonly referred to as the Space Needle. Keep that in mind as you read on. It may prove significant...

How important is Seattle to Midday Veil?

Emily Pothast: We are all from different places originally, but we all ended up here, so at the very least Seattle is what brought us together.

Can you give me an idea of the city as you have mapped it out for yourselves? What are your sacred sites?

EP: Everyone in the band lives in the Central District or in nearby Capitol Hill, which is where a lot of the venues are located. When we were starting out, we used to play a lot of shows at The Comet Tavern, or at a DIY space called the Black Lodge; recently we've been playing at Chop Suey quite a bit, which is a slightly larger room that still has a nice intimate vibe. Wall of Sound is our favorite neighborhood record store.

As for sacred sites, I'd say that Seattle itself is a sacred site. We're surrounded on all sides by massive volcanic mountains, old growth forests, the Pacific Ocean, and continuously inhabited native lands. As soon as you come here and realize how dominant the natural world is, everything that happens here makes more sense. You can't help but be informed by a sense of scale that's greater than the human scale. We're up here in the Northwest corner of the continental US, and in many ways, we're the terminus for the pioneer spirit that drove Europeans to North America. Westward expansion pressed as far as it could, and in Seattle, you can definitely feel the wilderness pressing back.

You're good friends with Norm Chambers aka Panabrite, who's based in the same region. Is there a strong, supportive network for psychedelic music in Seattle?

EP: Norm is an incredible musician and a great guy. There's a strong network for all kinds of art and music here - lots of people organising interesting events, lots of tiny labels popping up here and there. In addition to our label Translinguistic Other there's Eiderdown Records, Debacle, Alterity 101 and Draft/Gift Tapes, just to name a few labels run by friends. For the most part, Seattle is still largely an indie/punk town, but there are a handful of bands here that we feel a real affinity for, like Master Musicians Of Bukkake, A Story Of Rats, Low Hums, Rose Windows, Brain Fruit, and more stuff on the experimental/electronic end of the spectrum like Panabrite and Brother Raven. Portland is only three hours away, and a lot of our friends are based there like Swahili, whose debut album we put out last year.

David Golightly: Perhaps due to the rainy season, Seattle has a great supportive crew of indoors tinkerers and knob-twiddlers and makers, good weirdos who go out to shows and just eat it up when the music gets really out there. Another big influence is Randall Dunn, who is an incomparable force as a producer. He brings so many amazing acts to town to record with him, across a wide array of backgrounds, and there's a great local scene of musicians who work with him too.

As psychedelic as your music is, it also exhibits a strong tendency towards hooks and melodies. Do you consider this aspect of the group as important as the experimental, improvisational side?

EP: Hm, interesting. In Midday Veil, I'm primarily a vocalist, and most of the music with vocals that has engaged me through the years tends to have that aspect… not necessarily pop hooks, but definitely the gesture of a line of language set to rhythm and melody. Leonard Cohen says that he became a songwriter so people would pay attention to his poetry. Kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it's true: I don't think there's a person alive who hasn't forged a deep and meaningful connection with at least one good poem set to the right melody.

For us, I think that melodic tendency extends beyond the parts with words. On the improvised EP Subterranean Ritual II, there is a moment in the first jam, 'Moon Temple', when the dominant melody first asserts itself. It's a bit unsure at first, but by the time it comes around again, it's strong, almost triumphant. I love capturing those moments when a melody first comes into being, because it's like observing the development of an embryo, pinpointing that liminal moment when undifferentiated potentiality first takes form. Years ago, a visual artist and writer friend compared listening to Midday Veil to "watching the birth of humanity from space." I love that image, and it's something I still like to think about with regards to improvisation and songwriting.

It's a tight album, too. There's no waste, no filler. This contradicts received wisdom concerning progressive and psychedelic music…

DG: Well thanks, though I suppose that's a matter of opinion - there are lots of stretches of the album without vocals or a clear foreground element, that serve to build atmosphere, but also keep this record far from pop hit territory. I think we're all very conscious of the purpose of every second of the recording.

Emily, your vocals are immensely powerful and dramatic. Can you describe how your voice has developed over the years?

EP: Oh wow, thanks. I grew up in a tiny town in Iowa, where I had piano and voice lessons from a young age. My family moved to Texas when I was 11. Choir is huge in Texas; I was a choir singer in junior high, high school and in college, I had a music scholarship that involved singing in a Presbyterian church choir. We performed a lot of oratorios and big choral works. I'm not religious, but I appreciate the ritual and the feeling of being one voice in a choir. The experience is spiritual in and of itself.

As far as making my own music, I was in a couple of garage bands in high school, but I didn't start to take music seriously until later on, after I had gone to grad school for visual art. For me, the catalyst for getting into music was twofold. First, my parents were killed by a drunk driver in December 2005, the week of my birthday and Christmas. I was very close to them, and to say that the experience disrupted everything I was doing at the time is an understatement. When I started working again, it just made the most sense to work in music, which is not just the art of sound, but of time and memory as well. All of the grief, all of the uncanniness of essentially having the same voice as my mother, and all of the strange, transformative comfort that comes from confronting mortality - all of those experiences definitely inform what I'm doing now. I think a lot of the "power" that you are responding to arrived at that time. It wouldn't have made sense for me to become this kind of artist until I'd had some difficult life experiences to channel.

The other catalyst was meeting David in 2007. I remember when we met, he told me he was a "wayward musician." He had gone to music school, but at the time he was mainly concerned with becoming a self-taught computer programmer, working his way into a programming day job that would allow him flexibility to be a working musician, too. In 2008 I played a couple of solo shows and it became evident that I was interested in working on something more complex and dynamic than what one person can accomplish alone. So from there it just seemed like a natural progression to collaborate with David.

David, you studied composition and electronic music in Germany. How did this come about, and how does your formal education inform the music you make with Midday Veil?

DG: I grew up homeschooled in small-town Kentucky, immersed in classical music and opera. We didn't have any good music on the radio or record stores in town, but at night I was able to pick up new age music from a nearby college station, which got me interested in electronic music and drone. I then studied composition at the University of Louisville, which had an exchange program with the University of Mainz in Germany, where I lived and studied for a year. While there I spent a week at the Karlheinz Stockhausen Courses which inducted me into a parallel universe to the "serious" classical music world I knew.

Stockhausen, one of the most respected composers in the world, played as a young adult for a traveling magic show, then advanced the technique of serialism, initially a somewhat dry, academic approach to composition. The 12-tone row for him became a generative seed, a kernel of the material that could then be spun out into the full work. Later on he became increasingly visionary, and the system of arranging 12 tones became a sacred-geometrical, almost kabbalistic metaphysics that extended through all time, space, and energy, which you see in his monumental 7-day opera LICHT. There are three main characters, Eve (green), Michael (blue), and Lucifer (red), but instead of there being a "right and wrong" hierarchy or a definitive victory of one over another, they are all seen as an interconnected equilibrium whose permutations unfold into the complexity of the cosmos, an "eternal braid" as it were - atonality as metaphysics! Even beyond LICHT, which consumed the last 2 decades of his life, he had a plan for a piece for each unit of measurement we use: a year (SIRIUS, based around the signs of the zodiac appearing as alien visitors), a day, an hour, a minute, a second. The mythic worlds of each work are not the same, but together they present a multiverse of the interwoven fields of music, time, cosmology, metaphysics, and human life.

Though we have a lot of other influences outside of Stockhausen, and our approach is quite different, Midday Veil explores a similar conceptual territory; I like to think when we're successful we can play multiple genres, media, timescales, parallel universes off one another, which is something I think you can hear on each of our recordings all the way from the beginning, and has also been an inspiration for our live performances. Each piece has to have its own distinct sound-world; it's only by taking in the totality of the work that the coherent picture comes into shape. Stockhausen was also my gateway into Can, who I'd never heard of until I saw an interview in Germany between Stockhausen's biographer and Holger Czukay (a Stockhausen protegé), who convinced me that it's ridiculous to draw a hard line between "serious" music and "fun" music; that music, done properly, is just about the human experience.

It's now three years since the release of Eyes All Around. How do you feel about the debut album in light of The Current?

EP: There were four of us in the band at the time of Eyes All Around - David, me, our guitarist Timm Mason, and our original drummer Chris Pollina. It was the first experience that any of us had trying to make an album like that in the studio, so I think there's a certain naïveté to it. In some ways, that freshness is really exciting, but there are also spots where we all know what we'd do differently now. Which is a good thing. You try things, you learn, and if all goes well, you get better. But overall, I'm proud of that album. It's definitely a good document of a formative stage in our history.

What's the thinking behind the album title? It seems to suggest lines of ancient energy to be tapped into…

EP: Ha! In a nutshell, yes. Currents are quite evocative.

A few years ago, there was an exhibition at SFMOMA called Brought To Light: Photography & The Invisible. I have a copy of the exhibition catalog in my library; it's full of early photographic attempts to capture images of phenomena that tend to elude the naked eye. I'm particularly fascinated by a group of images by the French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. They are generated without a camera, by directly exposing photosensitive plates to brief bursts of electrical energy. The resulting snapshots reveal forking, infinitely self-similar patterns that resemble tree branches, vascular systems, neural networks, rivers, lightning - basically everything in the universe whose structure is determined by growth, movement or the transfer of energy.  

I think of The Current as the process by which potentiality becomes form, and by which form evolves and transforms over time, both physical and metaphysical. In the case of an individual, it's the narrative thread of "self" that connects isolated moments of experience and gives rise to meaning. For an artist or band, it's the enduring identity that can only emerge over time and multiple releases.

Is there a group philosophy? Common ground on which you all agree?

EP: Haha, I don't even have common ground with myself from day to day. David?

DG: Emily, you're being too modest. I'd say the group adheres to the approach that sound contains a microcosm of the workings of consciousness and therefore of the cosmos, which consists of a self-reflective feedback loop giving rise from the void of silence to a pulse or drone, which is the signal to which the signature of life gives its modulation. And then beyond that, there's a seeping sense of the cosmic abyss, from which it all arises and to which it inevitably returns - the Great Cold of the Night, as it were.

EP: Ah yes. The seeping sense of the cosmic abyss. That's common ground for everyone!

You recently released a compilation of your videos on a limited edition VHS tape entitled Midnight Movies. What was it about the format that appealed to you?

EP: Two of the videos on our VHS release were shot during a residency at the (now defunct) Experimental Television Center in New York. There are qualities to the analogue feedback that are lost when you encode it digitally, but it looks perfect on VHS. The movement is more fluid and there are no artifacts of compression. Everything looks more sculptural and infinite on tape, so it's definitely the ideal format for certain kinds of video. But in general, we love analog formats because they function as art objects and imply a ritual beyond clicking a link.

Robert Beatty's artwork gives the album a highly distinctive, non-cliched look. The nearest comparison I can make is the Hipgnosis design for Black Sabbath's Technical Ecstasy. How did you come to commission him?

EP: The first time I saw Robert's artwork was on the debut LP by Ga'an, and I've been following his work ever since. I had an idea for the composition of the cover of The Current that I worked on myself for a while (the swooshes and faceted square in the center bear remnants of the original sketch that I sent him) but I finally realized that what I really wanted was something in Robert Beatty's style, so I contacted him. Robert is super cool and great to work with. He took the idea in a different direction than I had imagined, but in the end it wound up in a place that I really love. I agree that it's totally distinctive. It looks like a classic album.

I get the impression that a lot of thought goes into your visual presentation, from videos to album artwork to t-shirts. Do you consider this an important part of the band's identity?

EP: Sure. If you have a band, having some kind of visual presentation to it is pretty much unavoidable, so we definitely try to use that aspect to complement the music or the performance as much as we can. In my case, I started out as a visual artist and made the move to music, so I do tend to obsess over the artwork decisions, but David and Timm have both been very involved in making video art for the band, too. The experience of making the video for 'Great Cold of the Night' with [director] Steven Miller was a personal highlight for me. It was a big multimedia affair that brought together a bunch of amazing performers and visual artists to realise a vision that was far beyond anything that we could have achieved on our own.

The closing epic 'Great Cold Of The Night' travels through several movements and ends the album in an impressively bold fashion. How did you go about composing it?

EP: Historically, we have recorded our rehearsals and I have listened back to the jams looking for rhythmic ideas I can develop into songs. The synth/drum groove of 'Great Cold of the Night' originated between David and Chris during a rehearsal. I wrote the vocal part to go with it (the words are adapted from a Pygmy death chant), then my bandmates spent a good amount of time working out the instrumental parts at the end. It's a weird song for us, but an important one for sure.

Your tape releases Integratron and Subterranean Ritual I & II seem like therapeutic, cleansing exercises. Was there an element of this to the recording sessions?

EP: Yes, that's a good way to put it. For improvisations, we're interested in setting up an environment and then exploring that environment with sound. Some of those explorations can get pretty cathartic.

You recorded Integratron in a geodesic dome in the Mojave desert. I'm particularly interested in the 'extraterrestrial guidance' said to have assisted in its construction. Can you tell me a little about the dome and its architects, earthly and otherwise? Did you experience anything unusual during your time there?

EP: The Integratron was built by a former aircraft mechanic named George Van Tassel who moved to the desert near Joshua Tree in the early 50s. In 1953, he started hosting meditation meetings in the desert and, later that year, he believed himself to have been contacted by travelers from Venus. He believed that the aliens had given him secret rejuvenation techniques for healing the human body. In 1954, he started building the Integratron and spent the remaining 24 years of his life working on it.

To me, the most unusual thing about the Integratron is its acoustic properties. There are some spots that are very resonant, and some spots where it seems like the sound is being "thrown" somewhere else. Other spots are totally dead. We only spent one night in the Integratron, but I get a sense that learning to play inside of it is like learning to play an instrument. If and when we go back, we'll bring a lot more mics and experiment with a more spatialised multichannel recording.

Have any of you ever had a Close Encounter, as defined by Dr J Allen Hynek?

EP: Nope. Haha, I think the aliens are too busy visiting our friends Swahili in Portland!

Do you by any chance have an interest in the paranormal, the uncanny, the weird?

EP: Oh yes. Especially the uncanny. If you're paying attention, there's no escaping it.

The other night David and I watched a video of performance of Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre. I think that particular opera is one of the highest achievements of western art because of the way that it marries, so intensely, images of desire and consumption with images of decay. Simultaneous attraction and revulsion creates an intensity that heightens the effect of either extreme experienced alone. I am most interested in art that manages to be intensely seductive and uncomfortable at the same time. I think that's another bit of common ground, actually!

Midday Veil's The Current is out now on Translinguistic Other. Click here to visit the band's website.