It’s hard to believe how long I’ve known Steven R. Smith (going on 20 years), but even more incredible is how, through all that time and before, he’s consistently written and released such good music. In the past decade or so his solo output has morphed into an entire family tree of narrative sounds and emotive angles. From Hala Strana to the Ulaan projects, from collaborations with Gareth Davis to the lengthy discography under his given name, Smith’s work always tells a story. His newest, Spring, is out tomorrow via Soft Abuse. In a long list of crucial releases, it still stands out with his oblique whimsy and sonic yearnings for something bigger, something different. Spring reaffirms everything I love about Smith’s writing and his approach to the guitar.
So first things first, how have you been holding up and getting through the last few years?
Well, my day job is working in a library and so when we closed up at the start of covid, a lot of us, because we work for the county, were repurposed and shuffled over to the Dept. of Public Health. So I became a contact tracer for a little over a year—calling people who tested positive and trying to get in touch with people they may have possibly exposed to the virus. That was, at times, really hectic, particularly during the surges when we were really getting hit with those high numbers. Just crazy stress, so that was pretty hard. But I’m grateful I was able to keep working and was at home so I was safe. I can’t really complain. But on the music end of things, I recorded more music than I’ve ever done in that same amount of time. Just lots of ideas and the time and focus to see them through. A strangely productive time.
Alright, let’s go a lot further back. I always love to hear about people’s earliest memories of music and how those experiences kind of set them on this path. What were some songs or albums that made a lasting impression on you at a young age and have kind of stuck with you through the years?
Ah, man, I hate to age myself here, but I was born in 1971 so my earliest memories of really liking music as a child was classic rock, the good and the bad, but particularly Cheap Trick. I basically wanted to be Tom Petersson–he just looked so cool on the covers. But yeah, I was a little kid and my friend David had an older brother who hipped us to some of this stuff. You know, just looking at album covers, they’re these mythical gateways, right? But, more importantly, one thing I remember was this video game at the 7-11 by my house. Everyone would hang out there on the way to school, this is like 4th grade or something, and school was up the street but the 7-11 was in-between so everyone made a pit stop there. I never had money to play the game but we’d watch whoever was playing, older kids usually, and one of those games had a killer guitar riff, like some Black Sabbath ripoff and man I loved hearing that. I was obsessed with it. I think that’s when I knew the power of rock. Hahaha.
Then a bit later, like middle school we started getting access to some choice post-punk and whatnot—the Smiths, New Order, Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, etc., and then we traced that back to punk rock and everything kind of opened up. That’s the music that really became an influence on me actually trying to make my own music.
How did you first get involved in playing music? Was guitar your first instrument?
I badgered my parents so much for a guitar OR a bass OR a drumset…anything. I wanted to try all of it. Just the idea of a band seemed so amazing. We had The Monkees reruns going. You know the whole idea of music is so potent. But my parents were pretty hesitant to throw down for an electric guitar and I know they didn’t want a drum set around. But anyway, I eventually saved up for an electric guitar, my dad made a deal with me: if I could save up half, he’d pay the other half which was a pretty awesome thing for him to do. That was 7th grade. By 8th grade, I had gotten a band together.
Besides guitarists you admired or that made you want to play, who were some non-guitarists that have inspired your playing and approach to the instrument?
Wow, that’s an interesting question that I haven’t thought much about. I don’t know how this might have affected my guitar playing specifically, but I’ve always loved the “non-rock” instrument that sometimes shows up in an otherwise standard rock situation–like if we’re still talking about music I heard as a little kid- this would be the bagpipes in AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top if you Want to Rock and Roll”, you know what I mean? Like, what the fuck is that doing in there? And it sounds great…kinda ridiculous, but great!
But regarding music that has influenced my own music in this way, I’m talking about things like how Dog Faced Hermans would bust out an electric viola and trumpet sometimes…or again, John Cale’s viola with VU, Warren Ellis in the Dirty Three, Swans using zithers and bells, Movietone with the clarinet and their homemade instruments, Long Fin Killie used a variety of stuff, and bands like Einsturzende Neubauten, or even the Art Ensemble of Chicago and what they called the “little instruments” they used. Organs, piano, horns, vibes…I just love it when there’s more in the mix than just guitar, bass, and drums and so all that influenced me to not only try and use instruments that were a little more unusual but to even make them myself and really try to get at some new colors. I think the way all these instruments blend together is really important when recording. It’s an obsession.
I interviewed you in I think 2004 or 2005 – almost 20 years ago, goodness – and we talked about a lot all the various bands and projects you were involved in at the time, but over the past while your heavy focus has been on solo projects. Why this shift?
You know, after Thuja stopped, I had become a parent and had moved to Los Angeles and sort of withdrew a bit. Some of it was just the time and focus of parenting, there wasn’t much free time to commit to a band situation, but also, if I’m being honest with myself, I have really bad social anxiety and during that period in particular there was a lot of that. Looking back I can see it didn’t take much to encourage me to sort of become a bit hermetic. And so just doing music at a solo level worked (and works) for me pretty naturally. I was doing a bit of that anyway, even when I was in bands, I could do it and was perfectly happy working away on my own in the studio.
Why all the different iterations and monikers for your solo work? I ask this as a person who, also, has multiple solo monikers so I love hearing others’ thought processes behind it. And how do you determine what project a recording is for – is it determined before you start on something or is it more ephemeral than that?
Ha, yeah, I know you know quite a bit about this. I almost always know what name of the project is before I get started. There are exceptions but I almost always work on one thing at a time and focus on that until it’s done. Besides being fun to do–thinking up the name and the sort of vibe and artwork that will go with it–the different names really help me focus and give it all some direction. It helps to put some boundaries around a process that can easily spiral out of control and become almost paralyzing with all the options there are. And it’s only gotten worse with digital recording tools, where you really can do almost anything you want and manipulate audio in a million ways. Having too many options can be a kind of straightjacket for me.
So by saying, for example, Ulaan Janthina is going to be focusing heavily on keyboards and the rhythms will be generated by my homemade instruments, there’s going to be no guitar–we’re already starting to see what this can be and that’s before writing any music at all–and then because the Janthina name implies the sea and ocean, instruments like organs and electric pianos that are kind of watery…this all helps it take shape. Sadly, in the end, the music still sounds like all of my other stuff. Hahaha. But it all helps the process and like I said, it’s fun to come up with these ideas; but I get it, I can see how it’s kind of annoying to someone who isn’t interested in wading through all of that.
You’ve got this new record, Spring, on the way later this month from Soft Abuse that has you working with Gareth Davis once more, which is fantastic. I’ve loved your collaborative works so much through the years. How’d you and Gareth first meet and start playing music together?
Ah, that’s great to hear. Thank you. Gareth got in touch with me out of the blue sometime around 2008 or so, he introduced himself via email and proposed that maybe we might record something. He travels a lot as a musician and was going to be in Los Angeles doing a symphony thing and thought we could work well together. It was really out of character for me to be like “yeah, come on over!” but I listened to some of his music and I could see immediately that it would be a good fit. And he’s a totally nice guy and is an amazing player. If you look him up you’ll see he’s collaborated with everybody. He’s really great to work with-easy going, has lots of great ideas, and he was super flexible as my son was a little toddler at the time and so we couldn’t record at night here. He’s an interesting character in that he plays with orchestras and symphonies and does soundtrack gigs, but yet also can just play really out there noisy stuff, plays with Merzbow, can do all these extended techniques, etc. He can do anything really.
When you were writing the songs for Spring, had you always intended for this to be a record Gareth was heavily involved in? And what is it about his presence and playing on Spring that is so vital?
Well, so it had been a long time since we’d done any music together, although we’d kept in touch. But when I started recording this record, I just really wanted some form of woodwinds, like really bad. I couldn’t hear the songs any other way. It was just a color that needed to be in there, and so even though these tracks were more “song” oriented compared to the more abstract records we had done previously, I just thought, “Rather than having to hire someone here in LA to come play on these tracks, maybe I can get Gareth to do it if he’s interested.” Thankfully he was really into it and just said “send me the tracks, I’ll see what I can do!”. That was right when covid hit, and I think he got stuck in Japan for like three weeks cause the planes stopped running, it was a little weird, but anyway, when he finally got back home he recorded his stuff. The great thing with him is I didn’t have to write anything specific or really tell him what to do at all, I just gave him the songs and let him do his thing, and it was all perfect. It’s cool to hear him play in a more melodic kind of mode.
Something about your music, especially the albums under your own name, that has always hit me on a pretty deep level is that this music always feels like it has a real narrative to it, often something very personal or private. How do you approach your music when it comes to creating a narrative thread that runs through it? To my ears, it seems real prevalent on Spring.
I’m really glad to hear that. I think at the individual song level, I always try and have something upfront and on top that could act as the “lead vocal” even though these are almost always instrumental songs. There’s usually always some sort of lead melody line. Even if it’s pretty vague or meandering, it’s still there for the ear to follow. Maybe that’s part of it? Also, I still approach these as whole “albums” even though I know that’s a dying concept these days.
So what else is happening for you the rest of the year? Any chance Hala Strana ever makes a return?
Ah, it’s funny you mention that. I actually tried to do another Hala Strana record and I just couldn’t make it work. I think it’s true, the saying “you can’t go back.” I recorded a handful of songs of what I thought a new Hala Strana record could be, and then I let a few trusted ears hear it and they all said “I think it sounds more like your recent solo records than Hala Strana” and I agree with them. It wasn’t a waste though and that stuff all ended up being the record called In the Spires which I really like a lot. It’s a good record. But it’s weird that I just couldn’t get that same feeling happening like I did so long ago. Not sure why that is. Some intangible thing that isn’t here now.
But otherwise, there’s lots of music coming down the line, after this Spring LP there will be an Ulaan Passerine record which I’m really excited about because there I think 8 different musicians playing on it, including some old friends like Glenn Donaldson, Brian Lucas, Gareth Davis, and a bunch of others and instruments like French horn and alto flute. This, I think, really gives it a different flavor which I’m excited about.