by Elisabeth Fuchsia
On March 1, 2016, I listened to Wren Kitz's then-recent album For Evelyn for the first time. I know the date because I sent him a text about it; I told him it was "good." Fifteen months later, looking back at the short text thread between us that day, I was at first surprised at how vague I was about it - it’s an album that soundtracked some of the most important moments of the past year for me, and was far and away one of my favorites from 2016 - before remembering I'd probably put it on while making dinner, in the other room, and probably was only listening enough to decide that I liked it.
My initial weak praise of "good" also makes sense, retroactively, because it's not necessarily music you can tease out on the first listen. This type of comment can sometimes seem like a backhanded compliment, like the music itself isn't enjoyable at face value, or that it demands a level of commitment from the listener that doesn't always pay off. Kitz is capable of making music that is somewhat closer to those categories, with sharper edges and noisier noise, but that’s not what I mean here. His new album Dancing on Soda Lake, building off of the stylistic world he created with For Evelyn, is an initially approachable dream/soundscape that pays dividends in transcendent, previously hidden harmonies, newly perceptible bits of texture, and buried snippets of field recordings revealing more of themselves with each repeat play.
Since I found out about the existence of Dancing on Soda Lake a few months ago, I’ve been checking in with Kitz every so often, trying not to seem too weirdly excited about it, for news. We had the chance to talk a few things over about his new album last weekend.
EF: First off, who is on this album? There’s a lot of stuff going on and it’s not just you, but it is being released under your name.
WK: It’s this funny thing because we never came up with a band name, so it’s always just been my name, because I’m the one who asked this group of musicians to start playing my songs... I started dreaming up this group in Burlington that would maybe be interested in performing this textural song music that I’d been thinking about for a long time, and unbelievably enough, the three people I asked to join me were just like, “yeah sure!” So that was Lauren Costello, Ross Dorée, and Lee King.
When we started playing together, I didn’t have parts written. It was more like this really vague suggestion, like, if I were on my own, without a band, I would go to the river and make a recording of that, and add that into it. That was kind of the idea of a band for me at the time - what are the strange sounds these instruments can make?
We recorded in Burlington with Ryan Power, and that was great. After the fact, I came down New York to record with Elori Kramer, who has played with us a few times. Then there’s a couple additional voices you hear that are just like, friends who were visiting, or who were around when we were working on something and we were like, “Let’s get another voice on here.”
EF: It did seem like there were more developed vocal harmony parts than your previous record, specifically the end of “Hold Him” comes to mind, but it’s all over.
WK: Well, so, Toby from NNA Tapes, had reached out to me at one point. I got really excited about that, I’ve always really admired the label, and have been lucky enough to be friends with Toby. He was saying some intimidating shit, like, “If we’re going to put something out, it has to be the best thing you’ve ever done.” That’s a crazy thing to say! I want it to be the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s going to be different than anything I’ve ever done, but who’s to say? What does that mean, the “best” thing you’ve ever done?
I gave him some demos that weren’t really all the way mixed, and when I’m mixing, I hate my voice, so I’ll turn it down a little bit. He was very honest with me about how he thought the vocals were such an important part of the music, and that how they were now was lackluster, or there was something more that could happen, whether it was re-recording, re-mixing, doubling, adding other voices. So it was really cool to have someone who’s like, the label person, but also someone I’m friends with, who I know is a really talented musician giving me musical feedback. I was able to take that feedback, go and restructure the way I was thinking about the vocals, and spent a lot of time on them.
EF: When you told me a while ago that you had a new record coming out, I asked whether you recorded it yourself, and you said you didn’t but you added some stuff on later. Was that just Elori and the vocal stuff you were saying, or some tape things as well?
WK: I also added some samples and stuff. Usually when I have a song close to being done, I’ll be listening to it and find a spot where it would be fun to grab a tape and see what it sounds like.
EF: And you were drawing from like, a library of tapes you have for that?
WK: A library is one way to say it, it’s more just like, a shit pile in my closet of crappy cassette tapes. I could grab five or six unlabeled tapes and throw them on the tape player, and like, find a recording of a bell buoy, which would sound really cool at the beginning of this instrumental song... so there’s that kind of thing. Or sometimes it will be more like, it might be cool to have discombobulated voices in the way background of this song, strangely panned, pitched down or up, so then I’ll open a book or my journal, and read it onto a shitty cassette player, dump it onto the track, and bend the pitch around to create a whispery thing that you hear behind everything else.
EF: So, the whole album feels kind of like it’s in the same harmonic environment, and kind of flows together, which I guess could feel boring, but in this case it feels more meditative. Was this like a conscious choice, or did it just happen that way?
WK: The whole idea with Dancing on Soda Lake was to make an ambient record that also was songs. So a lot of it is meditative, or repetitive, or droney, or wash-y, or whatever you want to call it. There’s chords in there, there’s beats in parts, but it’s definitely supposed to be something that flows from beginning to end. It doesn’t so much highlight any idea of structure, and what I was interested in trying and I’m still interested in trying more is kind of, melody happening, perhaps more on this record, specifically vocal melody, over something that is just like an ambient wash of noise, and something that is a little bit more organic, or, “oceanic” is this word that keeps coming to mind.
EF: And that word, “oceanic” is in one of the instrumental song titles on the album, “Oceanic Rah.”
WK: Yes. It all comes from this thought in my head of how to capture improvised music that feels compelling to listen to - there’s a mix of stuff going on, there are parts that this core group of the four of us had arranged, that we perform, but every time that we play there would also be different things going on. I’d been listening to a lot of ambient music and noise music at the same time like, Neil Young, or Tom Petty, just like, rockers, singers. So, I wanted to still write “songs,” but was also interested in this other kind of musical expression, and wondered if there was a way to combine the two. Maybe I just want to like, make an ambient record and then make a song record? That might be fine, but this was kind of the first try at really melding them together and seeing what would happen.