MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger Chats

Posted by Miss Ess, June 12, 2009 05:40pm | Post a Comment
MC Taylor is a certified California boy, born and bred. After growing up in Southern California, he rocked the San Francisco scene for many years with his popular band The Court & Spark, and was long a seminal part of our fine city's musical fabric. Then, one day about two years ago, he packed it up and moved to North Carolina to study folklore at a local university. Taylor has since emerged with a new project, Hiss Golden Messenger, and a new album, Country Hai East Cotton, which has very recently been released. Here, Taylor chats about his new life in the South, where, aside from creating music, his time is taken up by barn stompers, tending to his garden, and, oh yes...obsessing about and being inspired by an ever-changing musical array.

Miss Ess: What is Hiss Golden Messenger?

MC Taylor: Hiss Golden Messenger is the name under which I make music, usually in collaboration with Scott Hirsch and many of our friends in California, Texas, North Carolina, and New York. HGM is not so much a band as a musical approach.

I think of golden messages—like sky songs—as tunes that appear out of the blue and hang around your head, waiting to be sung. Some singers of gospel music I have talked to refer to these as “gift songs” that come from above, but I believe the more skeptically inclined can receive and sing these songs too. For example, I get a lot of golden messages while I am singing my son to sleep; they’re usually silly and I forget most of them. But some I remember and I record them later.

ME: What is the music scene like where you are in North Carolina?

MCT: The musical scene in North Carolina is great. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming, and there are a lot of great musicians and venues where I live here in the Piedmont region as well as in the mountainous region (Asheville, et al) to the west. People are very easygoing here; there are a lot of house parties and cookouts with people playing music outside, and that is really nice. During the warm months my wife and I host parties on our farm that we call Groover’s Paradise where we cook up a bunch of food and have different people perform. The most recent Groover’s Paradise featured D. Charles Speer (of NNCK and D. Charles Speer & The Helix) and Marpessa Dawn. It was good. I drank too much sake. In the last month I saw Ghost and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy perform near my home, and they were both fantastic. And I got to meet Ash Bowie not long after we moved here, which was a special event because he is one of my guitar heroes.

I should be clear, though, I’m not exactly an authority on musical happenings here, considering my proclivity towards hermititude and the fact that we now have a three-month old with us. But I try.

ME: What has it been like, as a Californian obsessed with folk and country music, to move yourself fully into part of the cradle of it all in North Carolina?

MCT: It’s been really interesting to be living in a place where bluegrass, old time, blues, and country music seem to be a part of the vernacular. Folks here seem to be somewhat more versed in those musical genres, and are genuinely proud of the contributions that North Carolina has made to them. It’s been very educational for me to be living here; although I’ve spent a lot of time digging through crates of country and folk records, I’m far from an expert, and here I’m surrounded by bona fide scholars. It’s a good position to be in.

ME: Through your work studying folklore, did you discover any musicians that you particularly love and hadn't heard about before? Or any particularly interesting musical mythologies?

MCT: I’ve had the good opportunity to work with some incredibly gifted and knowledgeable teachers since I arrived in North Carolina. This past spring, I assisted a singer named Alice Gerrard in teaching a class called “Documenting Traditional Music.” Alice performed with another singer named Hazel Dickens as part of a duo called Hazel & Alice that are very well-loved, and I can’t think of anyone more knowledgeable about bluegrass and old time music than she is. During the course of the class, we invited many of Alice’s close friends in as guest speakers; some of these included Art Rosenbaum, a gifted artist and documentarian who is responsible for assembling Dust-to-Digital’s Art of Field Recording box sets (one of which I believe just won a Grammy award), Dick Spottswood, one of the foremost experts on 78s (and boyhood friend of John Fahey), and Mike Seeger, who is arguably one of the most important musical documentarians and old time musicians of the late-20th century. Hearing Mike talk about finding Dock Boggs in the hills of West Virginia after years of living in obscurity, and of learning to play the guitar from Elizabeth Cotten (who worked for his family when he was a boy) was pretty mind-blowing. So that was an experience that really deepened my knowledge of folk music writ large.

There are also a lot of legendary musicians from the Upper South—performers like Tommy Jarrell, E.C. Ball, Etta Baker, John Dee Holeman, George Higgs, The Blue Sky Boys, Nimrod Workman, Luther Davis, Ola Belle Reed, and many others—that I probably would not have had the opportunity to really dig into had I not moved to this area. Old time music can be a real black hole of knowledge, and I have a hard time keeping all the names, tunes, and regional styles straight in my head.

How has the move from SF to NC influenced your own music?

Well, the cost of living is less expensive here, and things, generally speaking, are a little more easygoing in the South, so I think my stress levels have dropped some. Where we live is very nice; we’ve got a house in the country that we rent from a gentleman named June Sparrow, and I spend a lot of time working in our garden (where we grow a lot of our own vegetables) and recording music. We can make as much noise as we want out here, and Scott Hirsch has come down several times for recording sessions, which we do right in my living room. It’s so nice to be able to do this. A couple weeks ago, we arranged speakers outside in the woods late at night and played a bunch of stuff we had already recorded through them, which we then recorded with a stereo pair of mics we had set up out there. We got this beautiful, ghostly echo and the sound of rain dripping through the trees and humming cicadas. I miss San Francisco so much, but none of this is stuff I ever could have done there, at least not with the degree of freedom that I have here. 

What was the songwriting process like for you, working somewhere new and with a different project from the one you had been involved in for so many years previous?

Well, the songs on Country Hai East Cotton were actually written while I was living in San Francisco, although Scott and I were still wrangling with them when we both moved to the East Coast. Knowing that this project would be largely about following whatever path the song took us on was very liberating. And I believe in anticipatory memory—sort of like future memory, which P.M.H. Atwater writes about—and I think that, even early on in the making of this record, I knew that I would eventually be living somewhere more open, and I was subconsciously making music to suit that coming situation.

Where was the album recorded and what was the concept behind its production, if any?

Hmm. I guess we just wanted to make a record that sounded good and moved us, and we ended up working with people that we felt had the right feel for the music. John Hofer, who played drums throughout, was pretty critical; he’s such a gifted musician, and knew pretty much exactly what each song was asking for right off the bat. When the project was still in the planning stages, I gave him copies of a couple records that I really liked the drumming on, specifically Traffic’s The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys and Fairport Convention’s Full House; both of these albums feature rock solid drummers—Jim Gordon and Dave Mattacks, respectively—that really swing. But I’m pretty sure John didn’t even listen to these records, even though he probably was familiar with them. He just knew the deal.

The majority of basic the tracks were recorded to 2” tape at a studio called A Different Fur Trading Co, which is in the Mission District right next to the Lexington Club. It’s a beautiful sounding studio where Herbie Hancock recorded some of his most killer albums, like Sextant and the first Headhunters record. Dr. Patrick Gleeson, who played all the intense patched synths on those records, founded the studio in 1968, and that really drew me towards the place. After these sessions, we took the tracks to the loft that Scott was living in in a converted Sears building off of Army Street, and finished them there.

Going back, when did you first start playing music and what was it that got you going enough to want make it a big part of your life?

When my Dad was in high school, he had a band called The Settlers that played around California opening for John Denver and things like this. My dad has a gorgeous singing voice and is a beautiful guitar picker, and some of my earliest memories are of listening to him play guitar and sing.

There was also always music playing around the house when I was a kid, and I think that taught me that music was important and transcendent. My dad really liked, among other things, Buffalo Springfield and John Stewart’s California Bloodlines, along with The Beatles and The Byrds. He actually told me that he saw The Beatles and The Byrds on the same night in Los Angeles once, which is truly amazing to me.

What has been the musical high point of your life thus far?

Every summer we throw a big party in Upstate New York at a farm belonging to our friends Julian and Juliette. They have an old wooden barn behind their main house, and a bunch of folks play all day and into the night, and then we have a big bonfire to burn off all the detritus from the previous year, followed by an early dawn swim in their pond. It’s definitely the musical highlight of every year for me. Last year featured HGM, P.G. Six, Meg Baird, The Family Band, and Endless Boogie, and this year D. Charles Speer & The Helix is going to be joining us up there along with most of the aforementioned acts. It’s a good time to catch up with old and new friends, eat delicious food, ingest a bit of psilocybin, and listen to really good music.

Name an album you love that you think more people should listen to and why.

That’s a tough one. People that collect music sort of specialize in this kind of question, right? I suppose I’ve always been a big fan and advocate of Peter Rowan. He’s made some strange, possibly unflattering career choices, but his music is so good and he’s so talented. That record of him with his brothers, just titled The Rowans (on Asylum from 1976), is so great, almost like a companion piece to Gene Clark’s No Other-- an epic Buddhist country record. My friend Brendan was recently in correspondence with Terry Allen (another musical and artistic legend), and Mr. Allen sent him an incredible mix tape called Border Burn that was full of Peter Rowan’s stuff with the Free Mexican Airforce. I was pretty stoked to hear that. And I also read something Peter had written somewhere about going to see Bob Marley & The Wailers’ first tour of the U.S. He said he smoked a big joint and laid down under Carlton Barrett’s drum riser and listened to the whole set from there. That is heavy!

Augie Meyers’s Augie’s Western Head Music Co. is also a classic country rock record from the golden era, and I’m always surprised that more people don’t know about it. Augie is so rad; my dream would be to record with him someday. He was Doug Sahm’s right-hand man in the Sir Douglas Quintet, and his sound is so unique and awesome. HGM are in the middle of finishing a cut from this record called “Roll Some Inspiration,” which is about exactly what you’d think.

I also really love Gib Guilbeau, and think he’s sadly underrated. His first, self-titled solo record is awesome. And Keith Hudson. I think everyone should own some Keith Hudson records, particularly Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Ronnie Lane’s Anymore For Anymore? Is there anyone who doesn’t know Ronnie’s music? I shouldn’t even get started with this. I could just go on forever.

What have you been listening to lately?

Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley, Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, Augie Meyers’s Augie’s Western Head Music Co. and Live at the Longneck, King Sunny Ade’s Juju Music, J.J. Cale’s Really, Gary Stewart’s Steppin’ Out and Little Junior, Joe Higgs’s Life of Contradiction, The Beach BoysSurf’s Up, Mickey Jupp’s Legend, Sleepy LaBeef’s The Bull’s Night Out, Travis Wammack’s Not For Sale, Gerry Rafferty’s Can I Have My Money Back?, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung and Heavy Horses, Merle Haggard’s Back to the Barrooms and Rainbow Stew, The Grateful Dead’s Live at the Baltimore Civic Center 3.26.1973, Popol Vuh’s Nosferatu, Burning Spear’s Man in the Hills and Dry & Heavy, Bert Jansch’s L.A. Turnaround, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Beware, Sharon Van Etten’s Because I Was In Love, Tanya Tucker’s What’s Your Mama’s Name, Willie Lane’s Known Quantity, MV&EE’s Drone Trailer, Tompall Glaser’s Tompall Glaser & His Outlaw Band, Alice Gerrard & Mike Seeger’s album from 1980 on Greenhays, that self-titled record by Henry Flynt & Nova’Billy, Mel Tillis’s Me & Pepper and Live at the Sam Houston Coliseum & Birmingham Municipal Auditorium, the McDonald & Giles album on Island, the latest Arborea album on Fire Museum Records, Chris Darrow’s first record, the album by Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point 4th Grade Class on Reprise from 1972, Mac Gayden’s Skyboat, D. Charles Speer & The Helix’s After Hours, Augustus Pablo’s Rare Dubs 1970—1971, Lee Perry’s Double Sevens, Don Cherry’s Brown Rice, Sammi Smith’s Help Me Make It Through The Night, David Allen Coe’s Spectrum VII, Michael Hurley’s Parsnip Snips, Gib Guilbeau’s first self-titled solo record, Willie Nelson’s Honeysuckle Rose soundtrack, Junior Murvin’s Police & Thieves, Ike Turner’s Bad Dreams, Ike & Tina’s ‘Nuff Said, Mickey Hart’s Music To Be Born By and Rolling Thunder, The Wild Magnolia’s self-titled record on Polydor from 1972, Herbie Mann’s Muscle Shoals Nitty Gritty, E.C. Ball with Orna Ball & the Friendly Gospel Singers’ album on Rounder, Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra, Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War, Terry Riley’s Descending Moonshine Dervishes, George Strait’s Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind, Gwigwi Mrwebi’s Kwela, Eric Clapton’s Backless, Ronnie Lane’s Anymore for Anymore and One For The Road, The Rowans’ self-titled record on Asylum from 1976, Taj Mahal TravellersAugust 1974, Ola Belle Reed’s My Epitaph, Brand Nubian’s One For All, Count Bass D’s Dwight Spitz, The Orleans Gunn live jams up on Myspace, and a bunch of Link Wray. Oh, and Traffic’s Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys. I listen to that one a lot.

What song best describes your life right now?

“It Is Good” by Burning Spear or “Don’t Blame It On Me” by Michael Hurley. 

You live so far away now! But what has been your best find at Amoeba?

That’s a tough question! I’ve done some serious record shopping at Amoeba in my time, so it’s hard to remember specific titles. I’ve spent hours and hours in the reggae and country sections alone.

Years ago, I watched a copy of Ian Matthews’s Valley Hi collect dust for months before finally buying it. I don’t think it’s a particularly rare record, but I love it so much. And I’ve bought maybe 10 copies of Traffic’s Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys in the dollar bins. Whenever I’d see a clean copy of it, I’d buy it because it’s my favorite record.

What’s next for you?

In the immediate future I need to do some weeding, pull up the kale that has bolted, and put in some pole beans. I also plan on doing a lot of hanging out with our baby boy, Elijah Lee. Musically speaking, Scott and I are in the middle of finishing up a HGM EP that we recorded most of with Irene Trudel in NYC for broadcast on WFMU. Irene is one of radio’s heroes, and she was gracious enough to give us the tracks to continue working on. We’ve also been working on a very sprawling new record, but we’ve still got some serious work to do on that. We’re having a good time.

I should also say, if anyone is interested in purchasing a copy of the Hiss Golden Messenger record Country Hai East Cotton (and can't get to Amoeba!), visit our label website here or our blog. Thank you Sarah for asking me to do this, and thank you everyone for reading. God bless Amoeba Music.

Thanks for your time!