Greg Weeks of Espers and Language of Stone Records Chats

Posted by Miss Ess, January 27, 2009 06:02pm | Post a Comment
Greg Weeks is an exceedingly multi-talented musician at the forefront of the so-called "Folk Revival" that's been going on for several years now with his solo albums, including this year's The Hive, and his band Espers. He is also single-handedly helping keep alive the art of analog recording with his studio in Philly, Hexham Head. AND he has his own label, Language of Stone, distributed by Drag City, for which he plays A&R man. Then there is also Greg's other baby, The Valerie Project, which involves a group of Philadelphia musicians who created a soundtrack to play along live at screenings of the 1970 cult Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and debuted back in 2007. Between all these various artistic endeavors, it's a wonder Greg had time to chat here! Read on to hear about the thrilling new projects Greg is taking on, where he finds inspiration, and what songs are currently defining his life, among other things.

Miss Ess: What was it that got you into music in the first place?

Greg Weeks: I'd have to say radio ... or the Solid Gold dancers. Probably radio.
ME: Can you describe the exact moment?

GW: No way! That's like asking what it was like in the womb.
ME: What records defined that early period of musical obsession for you?

GW: Ah, well, I had two sound designed LPs of Hansel and Gretel that were very much loved. I wore out the grooves on the bit where the witch burnes alive in the oven. The plate reverb on that part probably had a large impact on future production tastes. I listened a lot to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and the Sean Cassidy LP.

ME: Jumping to the future: any news on the next Espers album?

GW: We're recording it. Slowly but surely. Our drummer is hardly ever around, and that makes it challenging, but we should have a record out in the Fall.

Yes, Otto is fantastic, and consequently high in demand! What projects are you working on currently and what is coming up next for you?

Well, Valerie Project is likely going to be doing several weeks in Summer around Green Man. That will pretty much put the wraps on that project and allow us to get on with the biz of a second installment in the Project Series (though the subject is being kept under wraps). I have a project with Alison from Mellow Candle underway. She wrote a series of songs on dulcimer (with vocals) which I'm arranging for rock band treatment. Recording should begin soon on that.

Wow, I can't wait to hear that! You have your own label, Language of Stone. Is there any commonality between the sound of the artists you have chosen to sign?
Well, when you have one person designing the roster there has to be some through line linking the bands. My taste is somewhat diverse but there are commonalities, perhaps indefinable to some degree. It's all subconcious stuff really. Labels are a funny thing. We music fans often think of label signings as being a signifier of status and worth for a band, but in reality small labels are populated by administrators with fickle tatstes who pass up great bands all the time in service of their own whims and agendas. If Ben Goldberg hadn't picked up a copy of [Weeks'] Fire In The Arms Of The Sun for $1 in an Other Music bargain bin, it's likely that Espers, Valerie Project, Language of Stone and Hexham Head wouldn't exist. No other label was interested in that record. So, in a way, Ben Goldberg is a founding father of the psychedelic folk movement.

Thank god for the independent record store in that instance! What past and current labels are you inspired by or are favorites?

Dandelion, Harvest, Elektra, Virgin, Philips, Mellow, Si-Wan, really a lot of the re-issue labels and the modern day vinyl only labels.

Your solo album The Hive came out this past year. How do you choose what will go on a solo album vs Espers and how did the creation of the record come about?
My solo records are vastly internal affairs. I'm writing for me and largely about me, either specifically, abstractly, or about my feelings regarding the world around me. Espers records will by default have some of that same energy in the mix, but the works are written for larger forces. There is no ego in an Espers tune. We intentionally remove the "I" from our music. We attempt a more universal approach. The music follows suit because it mixes the energies of the three writers with the overall energy of the ensemble. The band in effect erases the individual's imprint to some degree.

You put out an excellent album with Espers, The Weed Tree, that is all covers -- what songs do you still want to cover sometime in your career? How do you decide what songs to cover in general?
Man, I always have a running list of songs to cover, and there's a good chance we'll squeeze another covers record out, but I hesitate to name names. People know too much nowadays. The excitement of the unknown needs to be cultivated, so I'll leave it at that. As far as choices ... personally I'm not interested in doing a straight cover rendition, so the tune has to lend itself to an interesting retelling. Manipulating the original intent is always a fun endeavor as well.

You are involved in so much. What aspect of your work within different musical fields is your favorite?
Touring would be last on my list. Playing music in front of people is incredible and rewarding ... and probably allows for the most spiritual of experiences, but touring is the least creative aspect of musicianship and the biggest time waster. And physically and psychologically it is very difficult. I most enjoy working with others at this point. Espers is great cuz for me coming up with arrangements to other people's parts is absolutely the most enjoyable aspect of music making. And certainly assisting other talented musicians in reaching their potential ... that's incredibly rewarding. If I could do that full time and make a living I would likely devote myself to it.
I read that your song was featured on Weeds! How did that come about and how do you feel about it?
Showtime contacted me through Myspace. Simple as that. I'm all for music licensing. It's one of only a few ways to make money from music. An artist needs to be selective, of course, but there isn't much out there that I wouldn't go for if offered. I live in this society. Every day within it I feed almost every aspect of its structure, good and bad, by default. If a car commercial asks me for a tune, I'm likely gonna give them a "yes." I drive a car. I'd be a hypocrite to hold out for moral reasons. If some throwaway Hollywood crap film wanted a song I'd likely say "yes." I slum bad Hollywood movies on tv all the time. But I'd have no trouble turning down $1,000.000.00 if offered by the US military or Haliburton or McDonald's or some such company that I am patently opposed to and resist supporting. With Weeds it was a perfect fit. Showtime hardly pays anything so I don't have any pressures to flee my destitute lifestyle and change my artistic orientation, and pot needs to be legalised, so I feel I'm supporting a just cause I firmly believe in by helping pot gain more mainstream appeal.

What is your most prized piece of music gear and why?
Oh, I would off the cuff say my Mellotron, but in reality its likely my '78 Gibson Les Paul Custom, the only electric guitar I've ever owned. I bought it for $400 in 1986 and despite its backbreaking weight I will own and use it till I become fertilizer for some grower's pot patch.

What is the musical scene like right now in Philadelphia and what makes it different than scenes in other major cities?
The scene is vibrant and ever expanding, so much so that even Magnet did a story on Philadelphia! I can't even keep track of the people who keep arriving, friends and strangers. I imagine the climate is much like that of Seattle in the early 90s with one exception; there is no major label cash influx to challenge the scene's foundations. Philadelphia is the last artistically viable big city on the East Coast that remains affordable. New York is untennable, as is Brooklyn. DC is dead, atomised into small loft scenes that are very strong individually but aren't able or interested in creating a unified scene. Baltimore is an amazing city with a lot of great people and a very healthy electronic scene, but it's too small and disparate yet to cultivate a unified scene able to support outsiders. And south of DC ... good luck. Like the midwest, there simply is no suitable infrastructure. It's like mainland Europe without the government interference.

Speaking of scenes, now that the "New Folk" movement has been around for several years, how does it feel to you now and how do you feel about the labeling of it that has gone on?
The labels exist for the simple reason that we need symbols to help us easily understand what we're discussing. New Folk, New Weird America, Freak Folk, Psych Folk ... none of it means what it pretends to say. I've always said that it's a movement based on personal politics. That the unifying factors are rebellion against what the megacorps project as being the mainstream: music megacorps, clothing megacorps, produce megacorps, lifestyle megacorps ... anything faceless and huge and not represented by the common man/woman. This music, in all its wide varieties, grew out of a network of individuals who slowly came together with a shared desire to create a world they believed ought to exist. It may seem relegated to a microcosm of indie music but the evidence shows it's part of a widescale sea change in attitudes. Or more so, a change in momentum wherein everyday people have found the inner strength to resist what is force fed them. We're seeing it in the natural foods revolution, the global economic meltdown, US political regime change, the crafts revolution and all sorts of things that, while [also] embracing new technologies, are taking us back to what was good about the world on the cusp of the industrial revolution. Music is a huge force for change, despite the fact that musicians are the most ghettoised of artists. Music has to a very great extent supported youth (those 40 and under) in this current movement towards change.
What has been the musical highlight of your life thus far?
The first Valerie Project performance ... my first solo performance at VPRO's Amstel Fest. Those would be the two highest ranking experiences on my list.

What have you been listening to lately?
Ys by Joanna Newsom. The first side of that record is one of the great works of art of the 21st century. Funnily enough, when I play it for the uninitiated, the first reaction is always "it sounds like a little girl singing." "Violence Grows" by The Fatal Microbes (thanks to Jeremy's Christmas cd smapler). A German gal by the name of Haruko. Frumpy's video for "How The Gypsy Was Born." There's an Austrian band by the name Graumahd that I really dig. And there's an ellusive Brit who makes the most incredible and melancholic music (available only on Myspace and YouTube) by the name of Chevalier of the Brazen Serpent. I wish someone would convince him to let me put out a record of his.

Name an album that you couldn't live without that you think more people should listen to.
Anything by Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes.

Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?
Er ... anything that a person enjoys hearing shouldn't really be considered a guilty pleasure. Though I guess enjoying an M.O.D. album should make me feel guilty.

It's interesting how often pockets of great music come out of one particular place and within one particular time period. Is there a musical scene, a particular place and time that you would like to go back to and insert yourself in?
I'd happily insert myself in Bearsville [NY in the late 60s/early 70s] right now! Europe in the early 70s was amazing straight across the board. Late 60s early 70s Italy would have been insane. Biglietto Per L'Inferno, Osanna, New Trolls, Saint Just, Mauro Pelosi, Dalton ... the list goes on.

What song best describes your life right now?
"If" by Bread and "Jesahel" by Delirium.

If you could cre
ate your dream bill, made of any bands/artists irregardless of time and space, with Espers as the headliners, who would you choose?

Supersister would have to be on there. Aside from that, a multimedia affair with artists largely drawn from the list of Favorites on the Language of Stone YouTube page would be a good start.

I've heard that you also are interested in making films. Have you had a chance to make one yet? What is it about and what was its inspiration?
I have long been wanting to make a film series dealing with modern day stone cults and centering largely around the push and pull between nature and humankind; how each side attempts to reclaim what the other has taken away. The problem is finances. All the participants and the creative team are lined up, but I'm not good at raising money, I don't want to cede creative control to investors and I want to shoot it all on 16mm. Any suggestions?

Since the economy is as bad as it is these days, I would say definitely don't put it on your credit card, even if that's what so many indie filmmakers have done in the past! Any idea when you will be back on the road touring?
Solo stuff, I don't know ... I'm not sure if there's an audience for me live in the US. I've never been in the position to gauge it. Espers will definitely be out there to support the next record.

Thanks so much for your time!

Relevant Tags

Interview (341), Greg Weeks (2), Espers (6), Hexham Head (1), Valerie Project (1), Language Of Stone (1), Mellow Candle (1), Otto Hauser (1), Drag City (14)