Saturday, August 24, 2013

Interview - Jerry Vessel (Heirlooms of August, ex-Red House Painters)

(Photo by Ryan C)

Jerry Vessel served for 15 years as the bassist for legendary slowcore pioneers Red House Painters before RHP-leader Mark Kozelek called quits on the band to pursue different musical projects.  Now leading his own ensemble, the aptly and marvelously-named Heirlooms of August, Vessel has stepped forward as frontman and primary songwriter.  We chatted via email about his inspirations as an artist, the magic of working with the right collaborators and why it's unlikely that you'll see a reformation of Red House Painters.

“Down at the 5 Star” is the second record you’ve released under the Heirlooms of August moniker.  How was its creation different from the debut record (2011’s “Forever the Moon”)?  It feels fuller and more realized.

The writing process was very much the same. The recording process is what differed. Many of the songs that appear on ‘5-Star’ were written in 2010/2011. The microphone I used for vocals was a 1962 AKG C12. I feel certain that this was a huge factor. I also recorded many of the songs ‘live’ this time; voice and guitar together. With the exception of the bass, everything was recorded in Bruce Kaphan’s studio. I think this probably added a great deal to the consistency and quality of sound.

What was the impetus for you to move from a collaborator and backing player to the leader and songwriter of your own band?  Was it challenging to shift gears?  

Living in solitude and the young life of my nephew Andrew were the biggest factors. It had been years since I had written a song. When he came along, he brought me a great deal of joy and inspiration. The songs began to come and his life continues to inspire me. At the time I began writing songs that would be on the first album, I was simply attempting to express myself. There was never a plan to be a ‘leader of the band’ so it never especially occurred to me that I was shifting gears.

I view Heirlooms of August as a collective rather than a band at this point. It is a platform for me, from which to present my songs. It is a reason for me to seek out people whose sensibilities I trust and attempt to enlist them in contributing.

Your songs have an economy of language that reminds me a lot of Hemingway, while also utilizing imagery that very clearly strikes a universal chord.  Who are some of your influences as a writer?

I have especially liked reading Mark Twain, Jack London, Tom Robbins, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Bukowski, Edward Abbey, Irvine Welsh, Pablo Neruda, Taras Grescoe, et al. Thanks for mentioning Hemingway;  haven’t read his work in ages . I love reading National Geographic.

That’s a nice little collection of writers!  I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?

‘Andrew & Emma’ is a special song to me, from the first album. Simply a song about two little kids who make me happy.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  Who inspires you musically?

I’ve become something of a Youtube junkie over the last few years. So rather than digging into my music collection, lately I’d rather watch old live performances. I am always mesmerized watching Ian Curtis perform with Joy Division. Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Live at the Old Quarter’ is remarkable. Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ album always takes me places. I bought a little record player recently. It is really nice to listen to vinyl again. Have been listening to Narciso Yepes play recently; I found two of his albums on vinyl at a second-hand store: “Joaquin Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez” and “Fernando Sor- 24 Etudes”, love them each.

Ian Curtis and Townes Van Zandt definitely share a knack for authenticity (even if musically they seem pretty far apart).  I haven’t heard Yepes’ work but will definitely check it out based upon your recommendation!

You’ve been given one “musical wish” – to work with any musician/songwriter/producer – who would you choose and why?

That wish has already come true in working with Bruce Kaphan. He is one of those rare humans who seems to do everything well. I enjoy his company. I appreciate that his intellect and many great talents are always presented with such modesty. He never simply goes through the motions. He cares about a job well done. I love the way he plays pedal steel. It is Bruce and my brother Terry who are responsible for my recording live takes with this album. Terry had mentioned to Bruce how he sometimes preferred my really raw, drunken, home- recordings to studio versions. Bruce nudged me in the direction of ‘making myself at home.’

Yeah, the way Bruce plays pedal steel has always amazed me…his work in American Music Club and on the “Slider” album was transcendent.  He and Greg Leisz are the guys that made me love the instrument and see how it could be used in a way other than simply playing country licks.

And now for the obligatory RHP question…there seems to be a lot of overlap with your musical ventures (Anthony played on the debut, Mark has released your records, you’ve toured with Sun Kil Moon).  Is it simply a matter of not wanting to revisit the past that keeps you all from “getting the band back together”?  You clearly seem to enjoy each other as musical peers.  

That seems accurate to me; not wanting to revisit the past. Mark has a solid career with his music/label. Anthony has a solid career in real estate. Phil and I have day jobs and are trying to carve our own musical niches. Perhaps if RHP had been mainstream and Mark’s other musical efforts had not been successful, then regrouping for a money-making tour would make sense. This is not the case though.

What’s on tap for you next?  

I have songs enough for another record. I am working on two new songs now. I am sure that when they are complete I will be anxious to take them to the studio. I plan to work slowly and hopefully have another album out in a year or two. 


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