Natural Reverb: A Conversation With Evening Fires’ Kevin Moist
Since the new Evening Fires LP has entered the production pipeline, we thought we’d re-post an interview Evening Fires mainstay and Deep Water Acres label boss did at mratavist.com a short time ago … enjoy …
This is Appalachian space music, the violins adding a homespun feel, whilst the synths, bass and drums pulse in ritualistic joy, music for dancing around the fire, lazy days in the orchard, or home-cooked moonshine and mushroom festival with good friends and old spirits … Every time Evening Fires release a disc they become my favorite band for a while, and, by God, they’ve done is again.
The esteemed Terrascope Online wrote that about Holy Ghost Explosion and, by the same God as theirs, Evening Fires‘ have done it again on their new Live Spirits. That sentiment is not just for a single album, it’s about the whole … band (we’ll get to that later). Being in total agreement, why break tradition now and reinvent the wheel? Evening Fires is all about tradition as much as invention, and Live Spirits carries on their tradition of … Right there: that’s part of the problem any other group would sell their hard-won instruments for. The glorious problem of continually defying categorization while never worrying about being mistaken for someone they aren’t. And Evening Fires are many things, as well as many people. They encompass progressive rock, forward thinking wordless folk, freak-outs, lush drones and some of the most unlikely space rock to come down from any mountain. Kevin Moist says that “we’re so mysterious, even we don’t know who we are or what we’re on about.” If anyone knows without question what they don’t and can explain it, it’s Moist. A constant ember of Evening Fires and Deep Water Acres ‘label boss’, Moist is privy to a unique set of insider’s perspectives for a singular … band. Well, we said we’d get to that …
SOB: First off congratulations on the new album. For those unfortunate to not be in the know, how would you describe Evening Fires from the insider’s perspective?
Kevin Moist: Ha! If I find any insiders, I’ll be sure to ask them; we’re so mysterious, even we don’t know who we are or what we’re on about … Seriously though, that’s a tough question to answer, mostly because the answer is pretty mundane. We’re a loose (sometimes very loose) gang of folks living up here around the Seven Mountains of central PA who sometimes get together to play and record music. And then sometimes we take those recordings and try to shine them up a bit to share with other people who might be interested in hearing them. To try and detail it too much further would just be me putting my interpretation on things that I’m pretty sure are different for everyone involved, so …
SOB: You mentioned earlier that Live Spirits has various line-ups of Evening Fires represented. Is Evening Fires more of a ‘collective’ of like-minded musicians? The music certainly has that energy.
KM: Well, that’s also a tough one. We’re definitely not a “rock band” in any kind of conventional sense (though sometimes I have fun imagining us in a Monkees-type situation, all living together in some big house and having wacky adventures, which I imagine in our case would mostly take the form of drinking spiked coffee and trying to figure out where that loud electrical hum is coming from … ). I feel like the term “collective” also has certain associations, that aren’t maybe totally inaccurate in this case, though perhaps misleading otherwise.
There is a fair-sized pool of people (upwards of twenty I think) who have been part of Evening Fires over the years, and folks will tend to weave in and out as circumstances permit and as different projects demand. There’s a core of us who tend to be around most of the time and probably have more “steering” influence in terms of planning and arranging and production and etc., but the actual playing of music is pretty much a collective thing – any given musical “part” tends to be conceived by them what played it.
Those involved bring a whole wide range of different styles and backgrounds with them – from classical composers to folk musicians to punk rock and jazz and lots more besides. We’re incredibly fortunate to be able to work with such a great group of people, and I’m always a bit amazed how musicians with such different sensibilities find cool stuff to play together.
SOB: This is coming from about the most non-musical person on the planet, but here goes: Improvisation obviously plays a huge role in Evening Fires. As someone knee-deep in the process, do you see improvisation as exploring–spaces, sounds, boundaries—or does it function more as a dialogue between the musicians, a way to talk to each other in the moment, the right now? Or have I degraded the whole process by even asking?
KM: Heck, that’s a tough one too – either you ask hard questions, or I’m really bad at answering them!
Improvisation is at the base of everything we do – sometimes even in ways that don’t make much sense – and it takes lots of different forms depending on what’s going on, what we’re playing, etc. Sometimes it is about sonics-in-space, where the space itself becomes part of what we’re playing. Like, for a while there we were practicing in this big old 1920s barn that looked like an inverted ship’s hull, and the natural reverb in there was just insane. The sound would make a big collective cloud up towards the 40-foot ceilings, and we would practically be able to play along with our own reflected selves. But mostly it’s about just being there in the moment with each other, playing and listening at the same time (so that listening almost becomes part of the playing process), and letting the music evolve itself out of the collective exchange. In that sense, I think the group-improvisational aspect kind of keeps everyone from settling into whatever their default “comfort zone” might be – everybody has to be aware and alert and responding as it happens. Of course it doesn’t always work – as a great musician said to me years ago, “You live by the improv, you die by the improv …” – but when we do lock in, it feels pretty magical.
SOB: After the improv magic show then, what makes up the act of refinement for Evening Fires ?
KM: The refinement happens after the initial improvisation, in what we do with that raw material. If we’re working on stuff for a live show, we’ll try to take parts that “work” from the original collective improvisation, and organize or regularize them a little so that we have some idea what’s going to happen in performance. It’s still improvised, but along some agreed-upon guidelines. If we’re working on recordings, we might take one of those original improvisations and then build a piece on top of it, arranging an organized superstructure on top of a base that took shape out of the primordial void. Or something like that. We record just about everything we play, so there’s lots of raw material to work with.
Sometimes the pieces on our CDs have developed out of rehearsal improvs as we’re working toward a show; other pieces though are things that just happened that way, and we discover them later while going back through the recordings (“Molten Fingertip” on Light from on High was like that – we came up with it one day at the end of practice, as it appears on the disc, and then never played it again); still other times we’ll build a piece from the ground up, with one person creating/improvising at a time, such that the structure kind of accretes. There’s other methods too that are even more obtuse and harder to describe.
… we almost never actually talk about any of this… plants grow just fine without knowing anything about photosynthesis as an intellectual concept …
The use of the refinement language probably comes from some studies of alchemy I’ve undertaken over the years. It’s harder to talk about what we do in conventional musical terms – we don’t “write songs” or etc. – and while I guess that makes it a little arcane (and hopefully not too pretentious) it’s a lot closer to what we’re actually doing …
That said, it’s worth noting that we almost never actually talk about any of this. Except when we’re working on arranging or production we hardly ever discuss our music at all, and even then it’s mostly organizational kind of stuff rather than “music theory” or something. The language is basically just a way to try and verbalize something that essentially happens on its own. Like, plants grow just fine without knowing anything about photosynthesis as an intellectual concept, and if you could ask them about it they’d probably use language that wouldn’t necessarily sound like standard scientific lingo, y’know?
SOB: Evening Fires, for all it encompasses, is very ‘American,’ or ‘traditional’ in a loose way. Agree? Disagree?
KM: Well, we are who we are, and we come from where we come from, so I guess it’s no surprise that might come through in the music. As mentioned above, it’s not necessarily planned out, it just kind of happens that way. Certain types of influences are part of our creative DNA, and we just kind of let them express themselves as they like. There’s definitely a particular “Appalachian” culture that doesn’t really break down along borders on a map, and I think in different ways we all live there…
SOB: Evening Fires’ releases all have a live flavor, very immediate. Why a live album then? What does Live Spirits showcase, or rather communicate, that your studio works don’t?
KM: The live album started as a thing for another label, which as it turned out ceased to exist before the release happened. So we made a few alterations and decided to put it out ourselves. Strangely, for all we might sprawl out when we’re playing or practicing, our live shows are often pretty concise. I don’t know if it’s adrenaline talking, or just the outcome of having spent time practicing specific pieces, or the fact that we’re conscious of not overstaying our opening-set welcome … but we usually go into it with a pretty good idea of what we want to play – particular themes or changes that have come out of rehearsals – and then we just let it roll. We often finish a set feeling like we’ve totally stretched out beyond any reasonable limit, and then discover that we only played for half an hour or something … weird how time dilates. Anyway, I guess the live disc captures some of that.
SOB: Deep Water Acre’s catalog has a definite character. I think I likened it to ’small batch’ once. It’s tempting to say it’s tasteful, without being slight or caving into that word’s baggage. Much of it certainly isn’t ‘easy’ music by the usual standards. What do you look for in a DWA release?
KM: Well, a little history might be helpful here. Deep Water originally started back in the mid-1990s as a desktop-published print ‘zine, inspired by some of our favorites like the Ptolemaic Terrascope and Bucketfull of Brains. We mostly wrote about music (psychedelic rock, jazz, folk, noise, whatever we liked), but we also had some social/political pieces, columns, even a recipes section (which made us laugh too). We did about half a dozen issues (I think; mists of time …) over a few years. It lay dormant for the first half of the 20-aughts, and then got revived around 2005 through 2009 as an online publication. For this version we were honored to recruit some of our favorite writers to participate – Tony Dale of Camera Obscura records, and Lee Jackson and Mats Gustafsson of the Broken Face ‘zine in particular. Around that same time we started to produce concerts here in town (still going strong), and we also got the idea to start-up a Deep Water CDR label as part of the larger circus, probably inspired by labels such as Foxglove, MusicYourMindWillLoveYou, and others. It was that brief period before downloads took over when there was a massive explosion of small-run homemade CDR type releases, and at that point we were basically just joining in the fun. A lot of those labels are gone now, but we decided to make things a bit more formalized and keep it rolling.
The Deep Water Acres website got set up as a hub for all those activities. The name was kind of a play on references from the Terrascope, where editor Phil McMullen used to write about the goings-on at “Terrascope Towers,” and we jokingly created “Deep Water Acres” as an analogue to that. (Since then the name has gotten attached to the label via the transitive property of whatever, but it originally just referred to the website where all those activities came together.)
So the label began in the context of all that. If there’s any kind of consistent aesthetic, I’m sure it’s clearer from the outside than the inside. Given the amount of input we’ve had in getting everything together, it would make sense that some kind of personality comes through, but that’s likely to appear more obvious to those who aren’t directly involved. Put another way, we’re too focused on the process to think too much about what it looks like in the aggregate. The logic is probably pretty similar to how we approached the old print ‘zine, in which we’d cover what we liked, because we liked it. If the label has a personality, it’s pretty much just an expression of our interests and enthusiasms.
And we are genuinely enthusiastic about all of our releases; I love everything we’ve done. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with so many great artists over the years, and we’re honored to have had those opportunities. I’m hesitant to even talk about any of our releases individually because I don’t want to feel like I’m playing favorites. In terms of what we look for in a release, mostly it’s just about putting out music we like by people we like. Given the range of our musical tastes, I guess it’s not surprising that the catalog might lean left-of-center stylistically, but for us it’s all just sounds we love.
In terms of how we work, I think “small batch” is a good way to talk about it. We’re not intentionally obscure or “limited-edition”, but we also don’t have a real large overhead, and we’re much more interested in hands-on than in mass production. We’re limited a bit by circumstance and budget, but we try hard not to let that interfere in any way with the quality of the releases.
… one person’s immersive holy raga is another person’s never-ending tedium … you’ll only pick up the signal if your antennae are tuned in …
SOB: Here’s a potentially loaded question, or thought: Spiritual. Evening Fires, and for that matter, much of the DWA catalog has a very spiritual quality to it. Do you think that’s a reflection of much of it having a very rural, earthy base or is that more a reflection of execution?
KM: I don’t know quite how to answer that, and in part it depends what you mean by “spiritual”, for which there are lots of different definitions. I could tell you how I personally feel when playing the music, but that wouldn’t necessarily be very interesting. And I definitely would not want to speak on behalf of the rest of the group, or of the other artists on the label. I mentioned before that for Evening Fires, we don’t really discuss such things, and to be honest with you I don’t know what everyone else thinks about that.
I do think there are natural associations with certain types of trance states that accompany particular kinds of music, from Indian ragas to free jazz to psychedelia to electronic music, and I guess we wade into that in a more or less conscious way. The mindfulness it takes to do that sort of improvised music is a type of de facto meditation, at least on the playing side – you got to get yourself out-of-the-way in order to let the music come through – and hopefully some of that comes across. But it’s also a question of perception, of the mindset of the listener – one person’s immersive holy raga is another person’s never-ending tedium, you know? You’ll only pick up the signal if your antennae are tuned in …
As with just about everything else about Evening Fires, there is definitely no plan; some of our band members were raised up in the church in various ways, but others aren’t associated at all. You are unlikely to find us proselytizing, for anything really. I guess we do encourage some of those associations via song and album titles, though the balance of seriousness versus irony there is open to wide interpretation. Some of it is just situational too; there are ways of talking about things that are common where we live, and that will inevitably get reflected in how we present the music.
SOB: In regard to the above, most people think spiritual is ‘up there’ or in a more transcendent place than on the ground. Yet there’s a strong, earthy—almost woody—spine running through all of the DWA catalog, especially Evening Fires. I’ll venture a guess that the two aren’t considered mutually exclusive to you. Care to comment on that ‘relationship?’
KM: Well, not really. There are lots of great mystics from every spiritual tradition who talk about how the transcendent and the mundane are really all the same thing, and they have expressed that a lot better than I ever could. I think most of them would also say that here one runs into the limitations of language for expressing certain experiences, so it’s probably wiser to just let the music do the talking …