The Repository #5: Christian Kiefer

An interview from 2007 right after the release of his excellent Dogs & Donkeys album.

This week’s archival piece comes at the end of a bit of a breadcrumb trail. I was doing some research for an interview I’m doing next week with Tom Carter (for another publication) and ended up going down quite the rabbit hole of his collaborative works. In doing so, I was reminded of these two excellent albums Tom and Christian Kiefer did back in 2007-08, neither of which had crossed my mind in close to a decade. All of this made for a delightful morning. Eventually I remembered I interviewed Christian back in 2007 and that’s what I present here.

In the 14 (!!) intervening years, Christian has published many books, put out more lovely albums (including one collaborative effort on Digitalis that I still love to this day), and generally being great (he’s also one of my favorite follows on twitter).

I would guess that many of our readers are somewhat familiar with Christian Kiefer, especially after last year’s brilliant collaboration with Sharron Kraus. I’d been aware of him prior to that, but The Black Dove is the album that really made me pay attention. Well, as good as The Black Dove is, I was even more floored when Kiefer’s most recent solo opus showed up in my mailbox. Dogs & Donkeys is easily one of the year’s best. To take a subject like economics and turn it into a captivating song-based narrative as Kiefer does on the album is quite a feat. Add another host of collaborations (such as the fantastic record with Tom Carter) and 2007 was a banner year for Christian Kiefer.

First off, I have to ask about the “theme” of your latest record, Dogs and Donkeys. According to the press release, it’s “about” economics and, I guess in a way, class issues. And I see that when listening to the album and looking at the lyrics, but I want to ask you – is that an accurate description, in a very short and concise way? (As obviously the album is more than just strictly about economics)

Yes that’s indeed a relatively accurate description of the intent of the album. I wanted to address some economic issues that I see–that we all see–around me. I live in California and we experienced a sharp economic drop when the dot-com bubble burst. California is always thought of (and often rightfully so) as American’s last place. It’s a combination of disaster (floods, fire, earthquakes, etc.) and economic grandeur (Hollywood, etc.). It was interesting to see those two combine with Enron, the replacement of Governor Davis, and so on.

Plus I really didn’t know much of anything about economics before I started this project. I should put a caveat on that: I still don’t really know anything about economics. But I read and try to keep up with what’s happening in the world now and the research for this record certainly helped me get up to speed.

Of course, if dealing with an issue like this in any kind of artistic way the risk is making it a grand preachy soapbox statement. I tried to avoid that by telling two interlocking narratives: one about a man who is “downsized” and loses his grip on reality by dint of him losing his grip on his economic station. The other narrative is about two heroin addicts in Portland, Oregon whom I read about in the paper. A married couple who hung themselves on two ends of the same rope because they lacked the money to buy enough heroin to overdose. I think I was struck by how powerful economics can really be (and I know I’m simplifying the heroin story to an absurd degree, but that’s the element I hoped to highlight).

And really, what gave you the idea to do an album like this? I mean, this isn’t your first time approaching an album like this as last year’s wonderful Czar Nicholas is Dead has a Russian undercurrent running through it…

I’m also interested in working on extended narratives. I just finished up an instrumental guitar album–solo electric mostly–that is comprised of fractured blues. It’s the “story” of the last night of Kermit Roosevelt’s life. Kermit (senior) was Theodore Roosevelt’s son. He had an interesting life full of Rooseveltian adventure and exploration and military service and so on and ended up shooting himself in Alaska at Ft. Richardson. I’ve always been interested in such little demons of destruction.

Is it important for you to approach each new album with an idea like this in mind? Or is it just something that happens naturally for you?

I do approach albums with ideas like this in mind, and I suppose it’s natural for me to do so. I have an undergraduate degree in creative writing, but could never really write short stories. While everyone else was writing short fiction I was always writing novels. In poetry class most students brought in short lyric poems; mine were always pages and pages long. Likely pretty dreadful work too!

I also read that you recently completed your Ph.D. in American Literature – how much do your studies in that influence your music?

My studies influence my music almost certainly. I work in academic writing and publish in that field like all academics do, but whatever I’m working on, thinking about, or studying leaks into everything else. I made a conscious effort early on that I would attempt to approach knowledge from an interdisciplinary perspective and that perspective has, I hope, leaked into my art as well.

If I’m reading about Kermit Roosevelt, for example, and my guitar is handy, a piece or two might come out of it, and then another, and then another. At some point I either need to stop or do an album!

What’s the story behind the title of Dogs and Donkeys?

That comes from a lyric in the song “Taxonomy,” which is on that album and features the wonderful Garth Hudson on keyboard. The lyric is: “The point of taxonomy is all dogs and donkeys are overachievers.” It ended up being the image that cuts through the entire album. We adjust to change in one of two ways: we run and run away from it (like dogs) or we stubbornly try to stay put (donkeys). That more of less mirrors what’s happening in the album as a whole.

So what is it, overall, that you’re trying to accomplish with Dogs and Donkeys? I know you said that one risk is always that such an album will come out as a preachy, soapbox-y statement, but is there some sort of ‘grand statement’ you hope people might take away from this?

Perhaps the simple answer is “Yes.” But putting that into words is more difficult. We live in a complex world and it’s increasingly difficult to be aware of the forces that push and pull on us. I guess if there’s a message in this record its “Pay attention” (or try to). There’s real suffering in the world (Darfur, for one recent example) and instead of wallowing in your own suffering, maybe you could spend a few moments trying to ease someone else’s. Poetry can be found in the most banal places.

You worked with some really amazing people on Dogs and Donkeys – how did you go about assembling the people who played on it? Especially Garth Hudson – I was really impressed when I saw he played on there! (I’m a huge fan of The Band!)

The Band is my favorite musical group of all time, so it was a distinct honor even being in a room with Garth. He’s a pleasure–a voluminous knowledge of music such that I had to keep a pen and paper handy to jot down various things he said. Over dinner I asked him point blank what I should be listening to. He suggested a long list of ’30s and ’40s era music that I wrote down and researched and listened to. Last year he played a bunch of polka bands for me while we drove around Woodstock. Amazing. He and his wife have become dear friends.

As for how I assembled the guests – perseverance and luck. Most of the trouble is always scheduling. Musicians like Nels Cline and Garth and Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are busy, busy people to say the least. Usually it’s a lot of missed chances and almosts and suddenly you’re there in a room with them in some studio and it’s happening! Wow!

You say that it’s pretty natural for you to approach albums with these extended narratives in mind. Have you ever tried to purposefully approach something without an overarching theme/idea behind it, just play with shorter/smaller things? Or is that just not as interesting for you?

I wish I could do that, but I’m something of a long distance running (metaphorically). In undergrad I was a creative writing major and while everyone else was bringing in short fiction and short poetry I was always workshopping chapters from novels-in-progress and chunks of projected book length poems. Occasionally I’ll get an individual song out but for the most part I don’t even start writing songs until I have a purpose in mind.

Changing course a bit, you also recently did a record with Charalambides’ Tom Carter. How’d that come about?

Interestingly I got a copy of the re-release of Tom’s solo album “Monument” and his collaboration with Bardo Pond and those were the first things I heard by him. I heard Charalambides a bit later. I accidentally was on a bill with him in San Francisco at a tiny club and played an improvised set that I think he actually might have missed, but at least we met that night. He was living in Oakland at the time so it was relatively easy to get together. He came out to my house and we recorded live to my digital setup for a couple of days and then I spent a few months editing and making it sound like a record. I’m pretty happy with the way that one turned out by and large.

Do you and Tom have any future collaborations planned?

We actually have another album finished and being mastered as I write this. It’s called “From the Great American Songbook” and is comprised of our versions of public domain songs: folk stuff and Scott Joplin and Stephen Foster and the like. Of course, unless you knew what they were, you’d never recognize them. The first collaboration with Tom is just the two of us without overdubs but this one I “produced” a bit more, bringing in a bassist, Scott Leftridge, on a few tracks and the drummer from my current live band, Chip Conrad, on a couple of cuts. Chip and I have been working together on various projects since we were teenagers. The new album also has some guest percussion from Ben Massarella of Califone (who is now in the touring version of Iron and Wine as well). He plays some fantastic stuff.

And that’s not even the only duo record you had come out this year… Camera Obscura just released “To All Dead Sailors,” a record you did with Jefferson Pitcher. You all had a split release out a few years back, but how’d the idea of actually collaborating come about?

Jeff and I are very close. He had a song called “The Captain” that he sent me a demo of and I responded by sending him a song called “Burial at Sea” that calls out some characters by name (David and Benjamin and Turner). He responded with “Abraham.” It was almost unconscious that we were responding to each other’s songs (and I might be getting the order wrong, but the idea’s correct). At some point we decided that we would pursue the idea of an album about the sea. Jeff already had the title and the basic idea: “To All Dead Sailors.” He may have already had that song, actually.

We still trade songs and sounds back and forth via e-mail and send each other postcards and the like and talk every few days. We actually have a huge collaboration in the works right now that no one really knows about: 43 Songs about 43 U.S. Presidencies. They’re all songs written by Jeff and I and Matthew Gerken, who plays bass in my live band and in his own band Nice Monster. It’s to be a triple CD out sometime mid-next year. We have great guests on that one too.

And then there is, of course, The Black Dove, with Sharron Kraus, which is really one of my favorite things you’ve been involved with. Are you two going to do another record together?

I wish! Sharron and I are crippled by distance. We talked about recording last year but decided to just hang out and relax instead. She’s been super busy (like me) with numerous releases, including her new solo record coming out on Durtro. Maybe sometime in the next few years. There’s talk of she and I doing some shows together next year in the summer.

What is it that draws you to doing so many different collaborations? Not that I’m complaining or anything… but do you feel like you learn something new from each project you work on and the musicians you work with that then influences your own solo stuff?

Absolutely! Working with someone else uncorks a different bottle–one that you don’t even know about. It’s so easy to just write the same song over and over. In fact, my bandmates recently pointed out to me that I basically write the same three or four songs over and over again. Working with someone else or with a different form or in a different context changes things just a little. Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards serve much the same function for him and for the people who use them: We musicians need to get out of our own heads! And apparently we’re not smart enough to do it on our own!

A few basic questions to finish up… have you started work on your next album, and if so (or if not, even), any thoughts about what themes and ideas you hope to work with on this one?

I’m just buried in this Presidential project right now. I’ve not much thought of a proper album although I suppose it is on the edges of my mind a bit. I just recorded a solo guitar record that a micro label in Germany (Dauerblumen) will release in a super limited edition–like 75 or 100 copies only. Other than that I’m just trying to keep my head above water with the Presidents project. It’s logically complicated working with this many songs and this many various musicians, overdubs, mixing issues, etc.

And what’s your favorite record of 2007 thus far?

I can tell you what I’ve been listening to, but not all of it is from 2007. I like Thurston Moore’s new solo album very much. Midlake’s Vanoccupanther album is great. Preservation, the Australian label that is putting out the new record Tom and I did, sent me a stack of CDs from their catalog and they’re all fantastic so I’ve been listening to them a lot. Califone’s Roots and Crowns is great. Lately I’ve been listening to my dad’s old record of Rubber Soul and Leon Russell’s Carny album. That stuff kills. Barn Owl from Oakland is fantastic. I think you might have had a hand in releasing something of theirs, but all I have is an earlier EP that I like a lot. Ah! My favorite this year is probably Drunken Forest by Death Ambient, a kind of super group on Tzadik: Fred Frith, Kato Hideki, and Ikue Mori. I recorded some with Fred and Ikue last December in NYC. I think Death Ambient is more or less Hideki’s project–at least his name is all over the “assembly” of the record.It’s fantastic. Disturbing and very very beautiful.

Any closing comments?

I love you, Foxy Digitalis. How’s that for a closing comment?

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