An interview from 2009 with the (former?) Sunburned Hand of the Man mainstay as the band unleashes a new piece of hellfire…
It seems fitting to post this a few days after Three Lobed released Sunburned Hand of the Man’s first proper album in ages, the stellar Pick A Day to Die. While I am hoping to have a review of that ready for next week’s issue, I have to mention one of my favorite records from the mid-2000s experimental folk zone, Valerie Webb and Paul LaBrecque’s Trees, Chants, and Hollers. I remember vaguely reviewing it back in 2005 (before it got a beautiful reissue from Eclipse, which I no longer have a copy of unfortunately!) and writing about how it was this slightly unsettling, but utterly enchanting journey through time. It totally holds up. Anyhow, this interview was from 2009 and it seems like a good time to get it back into the world. Also, check out this killer duo record he did with Ghazi Barakat in 2019 while you’re at it.
Paul LaBrecque is most well known as a member of Sunburned Hand Of The Man but besides that, he also makes psych solo records (check out the beautiful banjo LP ‘Mortagne’ that came out on Ecstatic Yod last year) using the moniker Head Of Wantastiquet.
by Joeri Bruyninckx
I’ve seen you playing solo a couple of times: once as a support for No Neck Blues Band in Diksmuide, once at De Dolle Mol in Brussels and once at the AudioMER-festival in Hasselt. When I saw you play, it was never clear to me how much of a song is rehearsed and how much of it is improvised.
Diksmuide, huh? I remember Michiko, at the end of No Neck’s set, throwing pieces of metal off the stage onto the empty pit. As the rods would hit the concrete floor, they would bounce away in these odd, almost recognizable rhythms, each one it’s own specific note, each note reflecting and reverberating the energy of the bounce as they were thrown, rather violently, at the feet of the mystified flat-landers. About 18 of them, if I recall correctly.
But to answer your question: it’s never that clear to me, also! If I play solo, I try to prepare a framework of motifs that I can fall back on if I feel that it’s getting too boring or repetitive. From there, I try to let the situation (the room, the people, the sound system) determine how the motifs will play out. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Most of the time, in the middle of playing something prepared, the Trickster shows his face. It can be something as simple as feedback from the PA, or a cluster of notes that appear that I haven’t heard before and from there, I’ll try to improvise around this unexpected circumstance.
When I saw you in Diksmuide, you played using your own name. Later on, you started using the moniker Head Of Wantastiquet. Why did you decide to use a moniker?
There must be a little confusion. I played in Diksmuide as Head of Wantastiquet.
That show was a stop on my first solo tour. When I play with other people, I will usually use my name but as a rule, when I play solo, it’s under Head Of Wantastiquet.
I didn’t know what Wantastiquet meant. I looked it up and found out that Wantastiquet is the name of a mountain in New Hampshire.
Yeah, Wantastiquet is in New Hampshire but it’s best view and biggest impact is in Brattleboro, Vermont, where I spent some time in the summer of ‘05. The name itself is kind of a mental road map to the burial cairn of the only familiar I ever really had, a large grey and white male cat who was with me for 7 years. He died on September the 11th, right before the Red Sox won the World Series. That was The Sign, in retrospect of course. Soon after that, I was thrown into a spiral of uncertainty that follows me to this day.
On your Myspace, you wrote “forêt et ferme” (forest and farm) as the description of Head Of Wantastiquet. Do you really live in a forest, on a farm?
Ya, if the animals were college students and the forest was the Esplanade.
There’s not much wilderness in Louvain-la-Neuve (Begium), but my mind is always in the forest, even though I don’t get there as much as I’d like.
In fact, Anne and I just moved back to Brussels and live very close to the Forêt de Soignes and I hope to be able to find my little hide-away there once the weather warms back up. I like the woods in the winter but I prefer when the trees and bushes have leaves on them and hide things from the path.
Didn’t you used to live in Brussels before?
So why did you move from Brussels to Louvain-la-Neuve?
We moved to Louvain-la-Neuve to simply get away from the city. We were living near the Gare du Midi and the neighbourhood was too intense for me. All the buildings around us were being taken down, the small shops were closing and people were being forced out. The final straw was when we witnessed a stabbing in front of our house. That was it for me.
And even before that, why did you move from the US to Belgium?
For the love of a woman! What else?
Do you think that the place where you live has an influence on the music you make?
Certainly. Art can sometimes be a reaction to your surroundings, positive or negative. If I feel calm and in my place, the music flows out much easier. On the contrary, if I feel uncertain and uneasy, it’s very hard for me to sit down and write. Our new house has a sense of home already and after finishing the major work here, I hope to be able, very soon, to start recording a new record.
Back to the music. I saw you playing as one half of a duo a couple of times. The first time was with Bram Devens (Ignatz).
Bram was the first friend I met here in Belgium. Our playing seemed to fit in an odd way and he came out on the road with me when I did an Aether Myth’d tour in 2006. We haven’t played together much this last year but we still get together when we can to drink some beers and tickle Casper (Bram’s baby son, jb). I really love Bram’s approach to music. He is really fearless and uncompromising but the final result is, to my ears, very calm and mannered. The first tape I received of his was on the tape player in our room and we would set the alarm clock to play it in the morning. A great way to wake up!
The second time was with Mauro Pawlowski.
Mauro and I played together at the request of Dennis Tyfus. I wasn’t familiar with Deus or any of Mauro’s solo stuff so the concert was very much a blind proposition.
I like doing that from time to time. No expectations whatsoever, just pure improv.
And the third time was with Thurston Moore.
Playing with Thurston at Recyclart was a gas. I met him when I was living in Western Massachusetts. It took me a long time to get up the courage to talk to him. I mean, ‘Daydream Nation’ was the record that set me on my path and the Youth were, and still are, held high in my list of influences.
Thurston has been nothing but supportive of what I’ve done over the past few years and to play with him is such an honor to me. One of my most cherished musical moments happened last summer when Sunburned was invited to play at the opening night of the Sensational Fix exhibition in St. Nazaire, France. We played the first half of the set, the five of us, and then we were joined on stage by Thurston, Steve Shelley, Lee Ranaldo and Michael Morley of the Dead C. That was a fuckin’ jam alright! 6 guitars, 2 drummers, Sarah’s electronics and a lot of serious laughter!
About the ‘Mortagne’ LP you released last year. You mostly used a banjo instead of a guitar for that record, right?
In fact, for the first year or so that I was here in Belgium, and for a lot of the recording of ‘Mortagne’, I didn’t have my banjo with me at all. It was still in the States. All that I had was my Starfire. Over the course of the first year, I bought a balalaika and a homemade lap steel, and those two instruments figure heavily on ‘Mortagne’. Most of the acoustic guitar that is on the record is actually the electric guitar, mic’d up to sound like an acoustic.
When I finally got the banjo here with me, I went back to some of the tracks that I thought were finished and did some overdubs with it. From there, the mixes turned out completely different than they started.
Did you make the ‘Mortagne’ recordings totally on your own?
Totally. I used the same setup that was used to record ‘Trees, Chants and Hollers’ and ‘West River Realizations’ : Protools, an Mbox and just one Oktava Mic. I’m pretty self-sufficient as far as recording goes, although I’m starting to think that it would be nice to work with a producer in a real studio with real mics and a piano, and nice amps. I’d like to try to have someone there pushing me along, working within time constraints, maybe getting me to use my voice. But if that doesn’t materialize, then I know that I can still do it on my own.
Does ‘Mortagne’ refer to Mortange-au-Pêche (France)?
Actually, it refers to another Mortagne that isn’t on the map. I have a friend who lives in northern France, near Amiens, and the area is locally known as Mortagne. There’s a crazy spring behind his house that has been there since neolithic times and the region was populated by Merovingians. The place is very powerful and full of local folklore.
You recorded this record in the summer of 2007.
‘Mortagne’ was recorded during the summer, fall and winter of 2006/2007, in the barn of the Ferme du Biereau. It’s not as season specific as ‘Trees, Chants and Hollers’, which was recorded in the late fall and early winter of 2003.
The tape was recorded at Blueberry Honey Studio in Brattleboro, Vermont, on a really hot night. When I finished playing the piece and went to have a cigarette, there was a woman standing outside the building just looking up at the window of the studio. She said she heard the music from her house up the hill and wanted to come down to see me and say thank you. I felt like the pied piper!
You also run the Wooden Finger Recordings label.
“Run” is kinda the wrong term. It’s more like “walk”. I’m really embarrassed by my lack of motivation. I still have an R.O.T. master sitting on my desk waiting for me to pay it some attention, among others.
I started the label to release the ‘Trees, Chants and Hollers’ CDR in 2003 and then put out a few other things over the years. Now, I can’t seem to find the time to sit down and finish what I started. Sometimes, I need someone sitting over my shoulder telling me “get it done now” to finish things. But I’m working on improving that part of my personality.
On the Wooden Finger Myspace, there’s this line, under ‘influences’, that says: “Everyone who fights to put music on the table and food in their mouths”. Is it a struggle to make your living being a musician, making the kind of music you make?
Yeah, of course it’s a struggle. It’s nice to get paid but I can’t really see myself making a living off of it. In my wildest fantasies, yeah, with my music I’d be able to pay the bills and buy a car etc. but with the state of the music business today, it’s enough for me to know that I can play some shows and sell some records and get to travel and make some new friends.
I ask you this because I remember seeing a DVD about John Fahey. In this DVD, the interviewer asks Fahey the very same question: “Is it a struggle to make your living being a musician, making the kind of music you make?”. Fahey answers: “No it isn’t. The solution is not making a lot of money with your music. It is: keeping your costs as low as possible.” Fahey lived in his car at the time.
I can understand his position. He wasn’t in the best shape at the end of his days, living in his car and cheap hotels, scrounging second hand stores for Classical LPs that he could sell to put gas in his car and feed himself. The man put out records for nearly 40 years and saw a lot of ups and downs.
Me, I’m not an extravagant person. I’ve had the same electric guitar since 1995 and all the acoustic instruments I have are cheap as shit. Mostly Harmony brand stuff that you used to be able to find in thrift stores for 20 bucks. If you don’t make a lot of money, you can’t spend a lot of money, you know.
I first heard about you as a member of Sunburned Hand Of The Man. It was in a short documentary about Sunburned for a Dutch TV show called R.A.M., in 2004. What fascinated me about Sunburned in that documentary was that Sunburned seemed more than just a band, it was almost a way of living.
That’s what it was like at the loft, really. The place always had something going on there. Before Sunburned, it was the home to Poon Village and their activities.
It was a gathering place for a lot of friends and many great things happened there. Sunburned is still more than just a band. Even though we are spread out all over the place, it’s still about the family. We get together when we can and make music when it’s possible. They’re like brothers and sisters to me. They’re the first ones to tell you the truth and the last to judge. I don’t think that there’s another band on the face of the earth exactly like it. We’re all in it to the end.