Into the Important Garden With John Brien Jr.

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Important Records has been a pillar of experimental music and sound for over two decades. John Brien Jr. has championed countless artists and released so many crucial records (and rescued others from the maw of history via reissue) that it’s impossible to keep track. Impressively, Important (and its sublabel Cassauna) continue to evolve and uncover essential new gems. Further, his solo project, Eleh, is a monolith of its own. Experimental art would not be the same without the lineage Important and Brien have forged.

However, this interview isn’t about any of that. John is also an avid gardener who has cultivated quite an oasis at his home in Massachusetts. Learning about his motivations and approaches to gardening reveals another side of him, but the connection between music, the label, and the garden is clear. 

All photos are of John’s gardens and were taken by him. Visit Important’s website for a treasure trove of delectable sounds.

How did you first get interested in gardening and growing things?

My earliest memories are living in the woods in a quiet town full of old houses with lots of trees and old gardens. The first dollar I ever spent was at a greenhouse down the street from me. I bought a spider plant for my room. This was right around the time I got a little boom box so I could listen to the radio and play tapes. 

I always had some kind of yard project going; typically with the aim of creating a pond for frogs and turtles. This never quite worked out so I’d hike around looking for ponds, swamps, streams, etc. At some point, I started noticing and appreciating trees esp. in the fall/winter when the evergreens stick out and you can get a good look at the structure of the deciduous trees. 

What kinds of plants do you most like to work with? (i.e. edible plants, flowers, etc)

I love working with perennials and trees. What excites me is the yearly growth and change. The more you pay attention the more you notice and the more you plant the more you have to notice. 

I cleared out a small overgrown lot attached to our house and discovered a swamp and a healthy brook. When I was working on my barn, turning it into the Imprec office, I had started transplanting tons of ferns and pachysandra over into the side yard while developing the base hardscape for a massive garden. Frogs have moved in and the stream has brook trout and eel. Beaver are around and hopefully they don’t block up the culvert. It’s a nice place to go when I need a break. 

I’ve also created some smaller-scale succulent gardens and planted/transplanted various types of my favorite trees and evergreen shrubs. Some trees I let grow on their own and some I keep short and weird like a slightly larger scale Bonsai 

Perennials have been our main focus for the last few years and are probably my first love when it comes to plants and gardening. Every year I’m convinced they’re not going to come back, and every year I’m wrong and it never fails to… I don’t know if I’d say inspire me or give me hope, but it’s something in that zone, something with the permanence of it all. I think part of it comes from this memory of my mom thinning out her iris beds when I was a kid and just tossing the extras in the empty lot across from their house. 30 years later – even though there’s a house on the lot and it’s been landscaped – those irises keep coming up every Spring. Anyway, this is longwinded but I’d love to hear about some of your favorite perennials and what the appeal of perennials is for you?

YES to all of the above. 

Perennials definitely give me hope for the future. I look forward to the spring when my plantings will come out of hibernation and start to thrive again. Because I’ve planted so much ground cover each passing year means more ground covered and less weeding to be done. When I started planting pachysandra I ended up going back through and planting a second round because I knew that whatever I did would multiply so the more I do now the better it’s going to turn out. 

Sometimes when I’d plant the excitement for the future was almost too much to bear. How can I possibly wait for these to root and grow!? When you reach a certain age the passing of years can be sad because there’s so much loss associated with it but there’s also growth and planting perennials or trees gives you an obvious kind of beautiful growth that you can rely on. 

I love noticing the accidental gardens that sprout up where people dump their yard waste. I think my family is sick of me pointing that stuff out while we drive around. So cool to hear you mention it. 

What do working on your garden and working with plants do for you?

Everything about it focuses and relaxes me. The physical exertion, the opportunity to think OR quiet your mind, and the creative collaboration between nature and the gardener – after 15 years of living and working here my yard finally looks good to me. Up until this point, it seemed like separate projects without unity but because everything is growing suddenly everything looks united or cohesive. Before this year what I saw was my work – now I just see a beautiful natural space. It’s easy to break my back gardening because I know the results will grow and develop for years to come. 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten related to gardening? And what’s your favorite advice to give to others?

The best advice might have been in the form of encouragement. Family members, friends, and neighbors commenting on my work certainly encouraged me to keep going.

My favorite advice to give is in the form of a joke my wife made up. When’s the best time to plant a tree? Answer: Ten years ago. 

What have been some of the biggest challenges for you?

Until recently finding some kind of balance between yard work and life has been a challenge. I’ve been working on my yard for 15 years and for the first few years it was clearing space, then it was getting some basic hardscape work done – like building banks, berms, clearing trees, planting trees. At the same time, I was establishing hardscape I was also uncovering interesting elements. The biggest challenge is NOT gardening. 

Do you ever find there’s any overlap in the ways and in the mindset with which you approach your plants and your gardens compared to how you approach either your own music projects or the label?

Absolutely. There’s obvious overlap and inspiration but the revelation I had was this: I’m pretty sure I’ve blown off a ton of work to garden over the years. I’ve done this because gardening is a lot easier than sitting in front of a computer handling the minutiae of a complex small business. I got burnt out because I was constantly worried about not getting everything done. Now I reflect on my gardening and think, well, if I managed to keep things going while spending so much time doing yard work I must be able to manage my business, too. So, it’s given me confidence in my own ability to focus and complete a massive task. It’s taught me that I don’t have to rush and that I have time to get things done. Plus, it gives me a nice spot to visit when I need a break from my desk. 

When you say you were uncovering ‘interesting elements’ – what do you mean? What kinds of stuff? My mind is going to all sorts of wild places here – ha!

Most significantly is a 75-yard long retaining wall constructed out of random stones in the 1950s. I had to excavate some of it but I needed the dirt and was able to use it to level out a trail along the wall. The stones create lots of good spots to sit or climb and the crevices between the stones are perfect places to plant. What was once weeds is now overflowing with ferns and pachysandra. I enjoy the idea that I’m collaborating with people who are long gone and never knew what purposes their retaining wall would serve in the future.

Besides running the label, you also make music yourself. When you’re working in your studio, are there any particular plants you keep in there? Is there any specific reason for those specific plants?

My studio is plant-free. It wasn’t always this way but as my studio grew the space for plants was reduced and they’re messy enough that I figured it was time to go plant-free. We have a lot of house plants. 

I’d also like to use this interview as a platform to say that I’ve seen enough precious Instagram videos with a couple succulents in geometric containers, a little modular synth, and a tape machine. Enough already. 

Can you tell me a story related to one of the plants or parts of your yard that is most special to you?

The first that comes to mind is a Ginko tree I planted in the fall of 2021. I’ve planted a lot of trees over the years and many have a story to tell but I bought this Ginko in the rain on my way to my parent’s house on the day we told the doctors we wished to discontinue my father’s cancer treatment. We Skyped the doctors while the tree sat in my car and I planted it as soon as I got home.

I read that in Japan the Ginko can represent death but also hope and life which made sense to me especially at the time because that’s exactly what I was intending by planting it. I’m excited to watch this fascinating tree prosper while I reflect on life, loss, love, etc. The entire garden project has been reflective in this way.

What is something you’d like to grow that you haven’t yet? What’s next for your space?

My daughter nicknamed my work “John’s Creek” and that’s pretty much what it is. I plan on continuing the creek around a corner and along the brook. In the spring I’ll get a couple of trucks of dirt, move some trees and establish a berm to keep garbage from flowing down into the creek while smoothing out the contours of the creek. I’m sure I’ll do more planting but my only real plans for the moment are hardscape and evergreens.

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