Away From the Darkness With William Fowler Collins

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There is beauty and fragility in William Fowler Collins’s dense expanses. This is doubly true on his latest, Hallucinating Loss. So much of his music is visceral, intended to mine our unseen emotional channels for a connection or a response. That’s the space where I find an attachment, where it pushes me to investigate further. Hallucinating Loss is a crucial entry in Fowler Collins’s discography and is out now via Sicksicksick and Western Noir. Grab a copy HERE.

First off, how have you been holding up through these last few brutal years?

WFC: It’s been dark, hasn’t it. I certainly have more to be grateful for than to complain about, so I try to focus on that. I bought this place in the countryside outside of Albuquerque in the summer of 2020 and set up a studio here. There’s peace and quiet, and I can work whenever I want to, basically. I’ve finished a few projects here so far, and I’ve started several others. I’m just trying to keep myself sane and healthy like everyone else, and then I can be in better shape to also support people close to me when they need it. 

Alright, let’s go back even further than that and talk about your earliest and most formative memories when it comes to music and sound. What are some songs or albums (or even environmental sounds) that you heard that left a mark?

WFC: At home, I heard lots of music and sound growing up. I might listen to a record of drag racing sounds (some weird field recording we had on vinyl) and also Jimi Hendrix, Pavarotti, Dylan, of course, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Eventually, I found my way to Neil Young, Decade, in particular… Hendrix was the one, though. Hearing the recordings of him performing at Woodstock, creating sounds of war with his guitar. That was it for me. I needed to pursue that. I was 12, I think. As far as environmental sound, we lived in various parts of rural Massachusetts, so the environment outside of the house was quiet for the most part. Peaceful. Frogs in the summer, crickets… the long, dead silence of winter.

When did you start learning to play an instrument and write your own music? Were you in bands and stuff as a teenager?

WFC: I was about 14 when I got my first guitar. Yes, I immediately sought to create a band, and we mainly wrote original songs with an occasional cover. Some slightly older friends, punks I met through my friends at school, we’re creating all the time, and I just invited myself into their musical fold. I informed them – literally before I could play guitar – that I wanted to be in a band RIGHT NOW, please. I had no idea what I was doing yet, but they accepted me because they said I had the right attitude. That’s part of what punk was to me. To create within a community, outside of what the marketplace dictates. It was really pretty special, looking back. Before I was old enough to drive, I could go learn to play music with these friends (punks and quasi hippies and other assorted freaks) who were living outside of whatever could have been considered “mainstream” in the small towns we lived in. 

So let’s talk about the new record, Hallucinating Loss. It’s such a beast of an album from beginning to end. I want to ask about that opener because when the guitar punches through, it’s like a kick to the gut and really pulls the listener immediately into this narrative soundworld. How important is sequencing to you regarding your work, especially on this record, in achieving this cinematic feel?

WFC: “Opening Scene” is one track of guitar, recorded live in my studio. Before Blackhorse created his visual response to the music, I’d been thinking about the painter Cy Twombly when I listened back. Sequencing is essential, I feel. Most often, pieces will come together independently of one another, and then once they become a body of work, the ideas and feelings start to emerge, and they are reflected back to me. That will usually guide me toward what the work might be about. There isn’t usually a literal narrative to follow, but sometimes more abstract and/or nonlinear narratives come into focus. There could be several storylines woven throughout the album. Sometimes they intersect, sometimes not. It isn’t unlike trying to decipher and find meaning in my dreams, I’m finding. I may get a sense or intuitive feeling about what they could mean, but usually, they’re never completely deciphered in my experience, and that’s why they’re beautiful. Even the nightmares.

Hallucinating Loss is one hell of a title. What’s the story behind the name?

WFC: I think the title is, in part, about personal transformation, transformation within relationships… the grief that comes with that, and fear, but also the beauty. Stories about love and loss are woven into the music. I recently found some notes I wrote down when I was thinking about the meaning of each track. From beginning to end, the music seems to meditate on various themes such as release/death as a release, preparation before a significant transformative passage, people and how/when/why they might come in and out of our lives, soul and soul connection, grief, love. 

Photo by Marylene Mey

Thinking a bit more about the transformational aspect of the album, that’s an aspect that connected with me on a pretty heavy level. For me, music and sound are one of the best (only?) mediums to explore and process things that I don’t necessarily have the language for in other ways. How has music helped you in this way, not only with this album but in a more general sense throughout your work?

I think other mediums can do this, but music is also the medium that works best for me. I’ve been thinking about this recently. Growing up and discovering music as a child who didn’t understand emotions yet, I learned that music could be used as a way to comfort and heal. If there was conflict between my parents, for instance, one of them would often put on music afterward. I made the connection. We lean on music all the time to help us get through. I’m an obsessive listener, and I’m learning that part of my constant listening has to do with the fact that I feel somehow comforted listening to music. 

In terms of creating my own music, it is, in part, an attempt to express, exorcise, process, and share whatever is happening within. In that way, it does help me process things from my life. I try to develop whatever my personal musical language is and to try and speak/sing what I truly mean with that language. Silence is part of that language. Being present is also important, particularly as an improviser. Listening deeply, obviously.

In some way, it seems I am just scoring stories or events from my own life. That could mean scoring memories or “scenes” from my own imagination. And that can happen in real time if I’m improvising on guitar. Like accessing a streaming series of nonlinear, possibly unrelated scenes and settings and people running through my mind as I play. Depending upon what I’m working with, that can be a way, as you say, to process things where words or other methods fall short.

With this album, even though the circumstances in my life were at times difficult, I wasn’t following a script to “document” the experience. I was making music as I usually do, with several different people involved this time, and trying to make sense of what was reflected back to me. And it did help, I think. It’s a process that can heal, in my experience. I’m grateful for music because of what (and more importantly, whom) it has brought to my life.

The collaborators on the new album are incredible. It has some of the best vocal performances I’ve heard all year. When you’re writing, whether specifically these songs or more generally, and you’re working with a vocal collaborator, how much input do you give them, or is it more of a situation where you’re composing this music and then giving them freedom to do their thing? I’m just blown away by how it all comes together here.

WFC: They are incredible, I agree! In this case, I gave the vocalists freedom to respond. With “Death Acquires A Different Meaning,” I sent guitar music to Johanna, and they responded with several different takes. I used all of them in the end. Stunning. So amazing to imagine several of them singing this at once. Johanna’s vocals, to my ears, really made that piece about leaving the earth. Soaring peacefully up and into the sky. 

I sent Valentina a mix of “Preliminary Rites,” and she just did her thing for that. I think she recorded the particular vocals for that track in a hotel room while on tour. Passionate and beautiful. The other recording she made was the vocal/harmonium music for “Return Visit.” I couldn’t imagine messing with that at all, so I didn’t edit it. I responded to her, in this case, by adding my own parts for the second half.

For the instrumental collaborators, the process was a little different. In the case of working with Heather and Jeremy, they live here, so I was able to talk with them in person about what I was thinking and also leave room for their responses. That was fun, and they’re such great players it took just 1 or 2 takes. Aaron Martin and I had been trading ideas for a while, and I asked him if I could use some of the recorded material generated by our efforts, which I then processed a bit. That’s how his music came to be part of this one. 

Specifically, I’m curious how you came to work with the incredible Maria Valentina Chirico. Her music and ability blow me away, and I feel lucky to have stumbled onto her work. What has working with her meant to you?

WFC: I think we connected sometime in late 2019 after I returned from touring in Europe. I saw that she performed professionally and had a background in baroque, classical, and contemporary music. This was before she had her folk music out there. We exchanged a few messages, and I asked if she’d want to try singing on a mix I was working on. She was into it, so I sent her mixes, and she sent me her responses. We would also connect via Zoom during the pandemic and talk about music, film, literature, and art. And we would laugh a lot, despite the circumstances. She’s this angelic, fairylike being. It’s an honor to work with her. We have so much more music to make together. I tried to return the favor by writing some music for her. That is finally done and should be out fairly soon as a Tapeworm release called Alone Inside the Walls of Night.

I love hearing about these collaborative processes; they add an interesting context to those pieces. Can you talk more generally about how collaboration pushes and inspires you and why it’s essential to your practice?

Sure. As I mentioned, when I first began making music, I was doing it with my friends. We formed bands and created our own songs. It was collaborative from the beginning. While studying at Mills College, I focused more on my own work, but I was still collaborating a bit. It’s hard enough, especially as we get older, to coordinate with even one other person to work on something together. Schedules, location, and complicated lives make it difficult. But, I still crave the experience of making things with others. It’s been a way to form new friendships in some instances. It also provides a new space to try things one might not try within their own solo practice. And the geographical distance between collaborators can also shape the nature of a project. For instance, my collaboration with Margarida Garcia. She’s in Lisbon and has this immense, powerful voice on her instrument, the electric contrabass. Do you know her music? It’s amazing and intense. Performing together as a duo, in person, will bring one type of result – and we may get to do that next month in Portugal, but when we are sharing material remotely, it can become something much different if we want it to. Other instruments can be added, and we can try all sorts of things. It’s a studio project vs. a documentation of a live, free improvisational interaction. Maybe just my electric guitar and her electric contrabass are all we find we need and/or want in the end, but in the meantime, I feel there is also the opportunity for us to go beyond that, to experiment and see what’s out there. So, for me, collaboration is social, and it also offers opportunities for growth and learning. And building a community of artists from around the world with whom I can work on music is important to me. And it’s fun work. 

What challenged you the most in making Hallucinating Loss?

WFC: Making the music was challenging in all the right ways, I think. There was a lot I was going through personally at the time, and I was going through that alone for the most part. I have distance from it now, but I think that was probably more challenging than making the music. Making music helped me through that time, certainly. Initially, and fortunately for me, I was able to share the early music and ideas with someone as they took shape. A community of myself and one other person, basically. And I’m so grateful for that. The pandemic hit right as I finished, and then eventually, I shared with more people and finally planned a release with Raven. The real challenge with this project was actually in the vinyl production. And that is a fucking understatement. But it all worked out in the end.

You’re putting this out on your own label, Western Noir, in conjunction with Raven Chacon’s Sicksicksick label, and you two have worked together for a long time. First, how’d you and Raven first meet and start working together?

WFC: We met in 2006 when I’d just moved to New Mexico from San Francisco. I got in touch with him and sent him a CD of my music. He invited me to play a show, and then we just started working together right away. He was constantly organizing shows and running small venues. That inspired me, and around 2008 I was also able to manage a cool space at the university where I could host concerts. And it had these giant subwoofers, which were donated by a planetarium. They were 7 or 8 feet tall. Mesa Ritual got started in that space, basically. Anyway, in that space, I ran a concert series. I hosted Barn Owl, Sun Circle, Metal Rouge, Malcolm Goldstein. Raven and I would open the shows as Mesa Ritual occasionally, and he would also sometimes help with the door. Some amazing underground shows have happened here. 

And second, any new Mesa Ritual stuff in the pipeline?

WFC: Yes, a new album is in progress. There is a lot of material we have to work with, and I look forward to doing more with it now that some other projects of mine are slowly being completed.

You’re heading out on tour this fall over in Europe. When was the last time you were out on the road, anyway? What are you most excited about?

WFC: The last tour was in Europe in the autumn of 2019. I’m excited about all aspects of this trip, actually. Challenging myself to grow musically. Playing for some bigger audiences, getting to see friends and meet new ones. Actually, getting to spend time with close friends who I rarely get to see outside of touring is high on the list. That is really important to me, especially as we are all getting older and life goes so fast. The chance to travel to different parts of the world with good friends and then watch each other perform each night is a gift.

Tour Dates with Aaron Turner. Official ticket links at SWAMP

14/10/2022 Porto PT Amplifest (William performs)

15/10/2022 Porto PT Amplifest (Aaron performs)

16/10/2022 Vitoria-Gasteiz ES Cosmic Fest^

17/10/2022 Toulouse FR Le Dada

18/10/2022 Paris FR La Marbrerie^

19/10/2022 Tilburg NL Little Devil

20/10/2022 Bochum DE Die Trompete

21/10/2022 Berlin DE Silent Green*

^ with Anna von Hausswolff
* with Johanna Hedva

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