Stripped Down, Center Focused: An Interview With Tilth

Photo by Seth Chrisman

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Nathan McLaughlin and Cody Yantis both have their own singular vision and creative practice, but when they come together as Tilth it is a sonic extension of their close relationship. The music always flows, whether at a trickle or a flood, but it’s secondary to the friendship the two have built over many years. It’s no surprise, then, that so much of Tilth’s work becomes an expression of closeness distilled into sound. The quiet, considered spaces end up speaking the loudest.

Tilth released their third full-length (and first in seven years), Rock Music, on Round Bale Recordings earlier this year. Nathan can be found via his website HERE and Cody can be found via his HERE.

Alright, there’s a lot I want to ask but I’m going to start with a fairly obvious question – how have you guys been holding up these last two years?

Nathan: These past two years have been hard on folks on many levels, I have survived because of the type of work I do and the kind-hearted people around me and I am grateful for all of it. That said the work I do (human services) has been incredibly challenging during this time with many harrowing experiences! I feel the disconnect between the daily realities of people’s lives and the economic focus of our country has been laid all the more bare. 

Cody: I’ve been able to work remotely since the start of the pandemic, and I’ve also remained healthy, as have my family and closest friends. So, I’m incredibly fortunate, and I take time each day to appreciate this as well as look for ways I can use this privilege to try to ease some of the struggles in my community and beyond. But it’s still been quite the journey psychologically and emotionally. Far more than I used to, I take things one day at a time, and I don’t foresee that changing much in the future. This moment is really all we’ve got, and, in spite of everything, it’s an absolute wonder.

Okay so we’ve known each other for quite a while, but I don’t think we’ve ever talked much about our earliest memories and experiences surrounding music and all that. So what are some of the first things you heard – songs, albums, environmental sounds, etc – that caught your attention in a way things hadn’t before?

Cody: My earliest memories are musical. Like, I remember riding around in a car seat in my mom’s old Subaru when Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” was on heavy radio rotation. I was completely obsessed with my Playskool Talk’nPlay–a cassette player with four primary-colored buttons that allowed you to change the dialog or music in a story. My favorite was “In Search of the Planet Cobalt.” There was one song in particular, as they’re flying through the outer reaches of the Solar System, that was the ultimate sad banger to my 4-year-old self. And my mom still reminds me that I would throw a fit if she turned movies off before the credits ended because I loved to figure out the melodic lines of the theme music on the piano.

Nathan: I grew up surrounded by music at home with a large organ in the living room, so I have many memories of the sound of piano and organ filling our house. I also had the good fortune to grow up in the middle of the forest and be surrounded by the sounds of nature, something that is still quite important to me. Those were the experiences I was born into and were meaningful. The first thing that truly changed or shifted my perspective on music that I came to on my own was electronic music my sister would bring home with her from going to raves in Baltimore in the early 90s. I actually still have a few of those tapes and that music transported me to a completely different (urban) place I knew nothing about and I could begin to hear and feel the stories that must be in there. While I never immersed myself in rave culture because that is not really my zone as an introverted person, this was my entry to electronic music and to music that called to me deeply – that music could take me somewhere else. My sister was essentially offering me a portal without knowing it, and I gladly entered that portal. 

Do you remember what the impetus was for picking up an instrument and learning to play and then, eventually, starting to create your own music?

Nathan: Going back to electronic music I had a feeling I could make that music and as a techie person I started looking into it around age 20 which added a new dimension to what a computer could accomplish. As a kid, I had played some music in school but I was way more into sports and did not stick with it. At age 20 I discovered I could begin creating some of that music I was hearing, and that I had in my head, so I dove into the world of synthesizers and such. I met a friend that year, Chris, who also opened up a world of music for me, and together we started what was my first band while living in York, PA: Tuner. The music from those years (2000-2003) was pretty foundational, it has actually held up pretty well when I listen back to it. 

Cody: I’m super lucky that my parents started me on piano lessons when I was 3 or 4. I’ve never been too inclined to excel at art/music formally, but those piano lessons developed my ear early on, which gave me a fairly solid musical footing. As for creating my own music, my second grade teacher was the unfortunate recipient of my first solo release, a boombox dubbed cassette of voice and piano called “Surfboard Bait.” I’ve been composing and recording pretty much ever since. (In honor of my debut tape, Tilth’s next LP is actually called “Surf Music”…kidding)

So how did the idea of Tilth first come about? And what’s the story behind the name? It’s funny, when I hear the word ’tilth,’ I imagine something that sounds like early/mid-period Dischord type stuff, like a Lungfish side project or something, so I kind of love how – at least for me – you all have always played with preconceptions and stuff like that.

Cody: Well, Lungfish is a top ten band for me, so I think you may be onto something, Brad… 

Nathan: In May of 2011 Cody purchased some music from me, his name was familiar and I looked him up and listened to his music. I was really interested in finding collaborators and like-minded people so I wrote to him. Through those exchanges, which at the time had a lot to do with the music of Bill Dixon and the poetry of people like Richard Hugo, Tilth was born. I was running at 120% in life and was often really tired, so we focused on an album concept around fatigue (Angular Music). The name Tilth is a reference to the cultivation of land and soil, what we were doing was heavily rooted in being human but also being a part of the Earth. The similarity to Dischord was unintentional, I had never thought of it but perhaps it was subconscious as that music is important to me!

Building off that, I still think ‘Farmer Jazz’ is the best description/invented genre. Well, ‘Frog Jazz’ is a new one I heard this year and I love that one too, but even if it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, what does ‘Farmer Jazz’ mean to y’all? How would you describe it?

Cody: I love the “Frog Jazz” label for CC Sorensen’s recent tape. It’s not only a spot-on description, but that album is just incredible–really singular music. I was actually joking with some of the Full Spectrum crew that Tilth and CC should do a Farmer + Frog Jazz tour.

Nathan: Yes I am in favor of a Frog/Farmer Jazz tour. We were trying to figure out how to describe what we were doing at the time. I was living on a farm and liked to think Angular Music was rooted in jazz more than anything else. I enjoy the concept of rural people playing jazz because it is so often associated with urban life so we put the word or genre in a new place. Neither of us live on farms anymore and neither of us were ever farmers anyway so it is a bit of fun, but it sounds better than rural jazz. 

So, what is the process like for you all, though, in terms of setting out to make a record and talking through concepts and ideas to get the finished music on tape? 

Cody: As purposeful and deliberate as we try to be, the genesis of Tilth records are actually a lot murkier. Usually, there’s just a spark or two–one of us gets a new instrument or we discover we’re both currently obsessed with the same record or genre–and then we start trading stems that, often only vaguely, draw from this new inspiration. It tends to take a little while before we land on a clear way forward, though the process of blazing that new trail is always fun. But, yeah: there’s a moment when things click, and it tends to be warp speed after that. Over the winter holidays in 2020-21, Nathan and I laid down nearly thirty tracks, though I think Nathan had started a good dozen before I even contributed a single sound.

Nathan: Cody describes the process well, I would add that we wait for the moment. We do not rush our music or try to keep up with anything else happening in the music world in terms of keeping Tilth relevant. It will happen when the time is right and often when that moment hits we both know, and a huge amount of music appears. I send Cody a fraction of what I create for Tilth, and I am pretty committed to the delete key. Most of my ideas are deleted from my computer, deep archives of cut tracks do not exist for us so don’t hold out for any “expanded versions”! I should also mention that making music with Cody is easy to me, in that we have an easy and open communication about our music, and feel I could literally send him anything, and him to me. That freedom is important and unique. 

I find the progression of your albums so fascinating and love to think about how the various locations and environments you inhabit influence them. With each of you moving recently-ish, that obviously plays a role on Rock Music, but how, more generally, does your environment affect your music and creative practice?

Cody: However you label it, place/environment/land is crucial to both Nathan and me and, along with Bill Dixon, was among the first things we bonded over (he was living in rural Minnesota at the time, and I was about to move to SW Colorado).

While place has been the most constant source of inspiration and investigation for me, it’s definitely ever-evolving. Richard Hugo said: “If I could find the place I could find the poem.” That’s a pretty good summary of my approach when Tilth began a decade ago. Now it almost feels like the opposite: “If I can find the sound I can find the place.” What is the resonance of this place in this moment? Time–ephemerality, immediacy–has become an even more crucial element, as has space–which, depending on how you look at it, is just a synonym for place.

Nathan: My move to Hudson nine years ago was jarring but necessary. I then spent a few years barely recording because I could not make total sense of where I was or what I was doing here, and that has finally shifted. Cody mentions Richard Hugo and that quote describes why I love Hugo so much – he can feel and internalize a place. His well-known poem Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg describes places the same way I tend to feel them, they get into my bones, and then I have a reaction to them in sound. Some places scream that out at me and I get it right away, other places like Hudson, NY are so complicated and layered that I am still trying to figure them out.

Rock Music was a long time coming and you all say that it was finished in a flurry of activity in 2020. I’m guessing there are obvious reasons for that (2020 being what it was), but how did turning your focus toward finishing this album help shape (or alleviate, perhaps) some of the experiences you had during that time?

Nathan: As I had mentioned before we sort of wait around for Tilth music, we never force it and push through anything in the way. So in this case many more years passed than I realized I guess because Cody and I are in touch and friends regardless of our recording activities, I figured it had been 4 years and was surprised to learn it had been more! We could release 2 more albums this year, or maybe none and see you in five years. I value much more that Cody and I are friends and have other things to do with one another, and that Tilth represents this other part of us that speaks to why we first met and becomes our “unified voice”. When we do the mixing and track ordering, we try to be aware of how the tracks represent us both.

Cody: Fun fact: the guitar line on “Jimmie Dale Gilmore” is 10 years old at this point, so it even predates our last LP, Country Music. We definitely laid down some initial Rock Music tracks right after Country Music was released (2015)…and then life just kind of took over. Nathan and I still chatted regularly, hung out IRL a couple of times, and even played a Tilth show in the Hudson Valley, but we weren’t actively recording together for a few years.

Early in the pandemic, Nathan started working on his fantastic Planetary series, and he pegged me to collaborate on the Moon pieces (still some of my fave things we’ve done together–they also foreshadow a bit of what we’re up to right now). Looking back at the emails, right when we wrapped up Moon, in a forceful (and, thus, un-Tilth fashion), I basically cornered him and was like: “Dude, we have 29 minutes of Rock Music that’s been untouched for years…let’s finish this.” I sent that email on May 4, 2020, and by May 18, 2020, I sent Dave Perron at Round Bale Recordings an unmastered version of the album. But it wasn’t like we just tacked another track or two on to what we had–we completely reworked the entire album and also added new pieces, “Salt & Blood” being one of them. So, while the roots of Rock Music went nearly a decade deep, it was also among the most rapidly recorded albums I’ve been involved in.

As to the why and how, all I can recall is that the instant we got back into this material, it was like a dam broke loose. The early days of the pandemic were certainly ample cause for a creative and emotional release, but reconnecting on the Moon music also sparked something. As Nathan’s mentioned, Tilth is a sonic extension of our friendship, so getting back to work on Tilth projects is always a very welcomed chance to resync and brings with it a potent sense of restoration and renewal.

I love that you all mention/quote Bill Dixon in the description of the record, too, and apply ‘going to the center’ concept with ‘rock’ music. How did you all settle on that idea? I mean, applying Dixon’s ideas to a lot of things would probably do a lot of those things a world of good, so…

Nathan: In my view, Bill Dixon should have his own section at the record store, granted it would not be a huge section but his music feels singular to me. Here is a little clip from Bill’s Tapestries for Small Orchestra that explains it perfectly in under a minute:

His music is powerful, thoughtful, and never ornate. In terms of the music I make, Tilth is my effort to make music described in that way. I enjoy music of all kinds but I think plenty of other people are making ornate music in a way I never could, this stripped down center focused music that I feel I can offer to the world that is unique. Bill’s recordings and approach put words to it in an effective way so I have often cited him and that little Vimeo clip! His music has many familiarities like jazz or contemporary classical, but what it has that nobody else has is Bill Dixon. Other folks have embodied this as well, Paul Winter and Mark Isham come to mind. So I have often challenged us in Tilth to make Nathan and Cody music. 

Cody: I was looking back through our early correspondence, and Nathan references Bill Dixon in our very first email. The idea of “going to the center”–that the abstraction of something is its essence–has resonated with us since the beginning of Tilth. The instruments, the sonic palette, the environments, the life circumstances–these have shifted, often dramatically, for us over the years. But working and reworking and paring down in order to reveal the “abstraction” of a piece remains central to the Tilth approach. 

What’s been the biggest adjustment for you all living in less rural places? What do you miss most? Least?

Cody: This is an interesting question, as the distinction for me isn’t nearly as stark as it once was, and I think this is due partly to pandemic-induced isolation but also to being a lot more deliberate about how I spend my time and energy these days. A couple of years ago, I would’ve called out “space”–environmental, physical, social, emotional–as lacking here in the city. But over the past couple of years, I’ve mostly been able to cultivate the meaningful aspects of my time in the mountains right here amid the urban sprawl. Turns out it’s more of a mindset than an actual location. (Though the early days of the pandemic did find me in the backwoods and atop peaks most weekends, so…)

Nathan: Just recently it has become clear to me and it is material – I enjoy good food and culture. The longer I live here in Hudson the more I appreciate being around those things, and the longer I would have stayed in Minnesota the more I would have missed it. It is hard to find good Thai food in the middle of nowhere. That said, I miss the hum of the forest and the full starry skies, this is really missing in my life right now. My stomach is full of good food right now, so there is a trade-off.  

What’s next for Tilth? 

Nathan: We were joking with David Perron from Round Bale about what a visit to him would be like these days compared to our last visit, neither of us drink anymore and are into our 40s. My linen pants and herbal tea years have arrived, we probably will not party until 3 am anymore. I think the future for Tilth is one rooted in the comfort we have with each other, we have built up a lot between us over the years and I am excited to see where that goes. We are in a new phase. 

Cody: The momentum from the Rock Music sessions hasn’t hardly waned. We’ve finished another album that should surface this Fall and are well into another. It’s been interesting to hear the new sounds arising in the wake of Rock Music–they’re different, though I think they’re still arguably “Farmer Jazz”! Not sure whether to blame it on the state of the world or the fact that Nathan and I are now both in our 40s, but there are unabashed electronic and New Age vibes to this new work.

What about the various other projects, solo and otherwise, you all do – what’s in the works?

Nathan: I will very soon release the last chapter in my Planetary Music project, bringing that to a sort of close. Next month I will perform those pieces live in a new way, backed up by MIDi for the first time in maybe 15 years. I have a solo album coming out later this year as well (Optics // Motion). If I had all the time to do my thing I would probably take Planetary Music on the road as an ensemble or travel to each city the collaborators live in to perform, this is but a dream but one I think of often. Sometimes dreams come true. 

Cody: Tilth has been absolutely crucial to my musical output recently–definitely a priority, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I recently acquired my first ever synth as well as a bass clarinet, so I’ve been alternating days in the studio wrangling one or the other.

I’ve also been working more closely with Andrew Weathers and some of the Full Spectrum crew on several collaborations, ranging from recordings to live performances to multimedia and site-specific work. I expect that to ramp up as performances and travel continue to return. And a number of sound friends have recently moved to Denver, so I’m hoping that will lead to some new and renewed collaborations and happenings here along the Front Range.

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