Life Is But A Dream: An Interview With Infinite River

Infinite River’s debut album, Prequel, will carry you away to a calmer place. There’s a drift-like feel to its six improvised tracks, with the band’s four members — Gretchen Gonzales Davidson (guitar), Joey Mazzola (guitar), Warren Defever (harmonium and tanpura), and Steve Nistor (percussion) — adding what they can to keep the music moving forward and then dipping back below the surface, building on each other’s contributions without taking over.

A soundtrack-like affair, the opening track recalls one of those serene time-lapse sequences in a film, where colors and shapes pass quickly across the screen but the changes are subtle and mostly textural: whooshing cymbals evoke wispy clouds parting or patches of fog lifting, guitars stretch and yawn in sleepy slow motion like they’ve just come out of hibernation. But nowhere is this dynamic of calmness in a state of flux more impressively executed than on the third track, where long wavering cries of electric guitar eventually splinter into gleaming squeals of feedback without disturbing the droning drift at its core. This must be what Davidson, who’s joined in this interview by Defever, means when she says that she likes to keep her bandmates on the precipice of a breakdown with her contributions.

Prequel is out now on Birdman Records and Space Mirror is due on August 18th. Both can be ordered HERE.

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As we like to do at Foxy Digitalis, I thought I’d start by asking about your formative musical experiences. Did you always want to play music? Was there a band, record, or person that changed your relationship to music?

WD: I started performing when I was five, with my grandfather’s band, The Westernaires. They were mostly older gentlemen who moved from the prairies of Saskatchewan and western Canada to Ontario when farming became unsustainable during the Dust Bowl. The first music I played was polkas, waltzes, square dances, country, and Western music. My earliest memory is being handed a full-size 127-pound accordion by my grandmother and everyone laughing. It was definitely a formative experience performing at trailer parks, old folks’ homes, hospitals, and weird old decaying dance halls. I’ve blocked out most of it but occasionally a terrifying memory will resurface of drunk or passed out (or dead) elderly people coming back to life as the first few notes of “The Beer Barrel Polka” or “Roll Out The Barrel” rang out from my grandpa’s clarinet. I was playing music onstage before I even knew what music was, had ever heard a record, or listened to the radio.

GGD: I’ve never known a day where music wasn’t tied to every part of my existence. My mom used to say when I was a kid, that when I broke a plate I did it in rhythm and I feel like that moment has defined me as a musician, where I thrive in the tension of making and breaking sound apart. And then there was meeting Joel Rash, the guy that threw the all-ages shows in Flint, MI. That was a lucky find, and set the stage for my time at MSU where I met John Olson. Soon after, John, Bryan Ramirez and I formed Universal Indians and would record on a Walkman basically every day.

The band members have known each other for a long time. How and when did you first meet? Did you collaborate at all prior to the Seedsmen To The World sessions?

GGD: Warren and I are childhood pals, in fact, he was my first babysitter. He later co-produced Slumber Party and we toured with His Name Is Alive. Around 2010 we started working and playing on my husband Ethan’s records. 

I feel like I’ve known Joey forever. We’ve sailed the Mediterranean Sea, even became the house band on a Turkish cargo ship that crossed between Ancona and Turkey. We walked the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar and roamed underground tunnels in the cistern under Istanbul. We even drank tea and absinthe with Mike, the king of Istanbul. And it all started in my living room in Hamtramck. 

WD: I’ve had a long series of weird jobs. My autobiography is likely going to be titled, Things I Did For A Hundred Dollars. One of the darkest days in my life was when my parents sat me down and said it was time for me to get serious and get a job when I was only ten. The manager of the hardware store seemed to take my application for the stock boy position seriously until I fell on the ground crying, collapsing in a pool of tears and sobbing until my mom and aunt disappointedly picked me up and dragged my sad lifeless body back home. I didn’t get hired but shortly after my parents got me a job working in a cornfield, then it was carrying old people’s grocery bags to their cars, then it was cleaning Federal Express offices down by the airport at 2am, then it was babysitting for neighborhood kids only a few years younger than me (including Gretchen), then it was working at studio when I was 16 where I met many Detroit musicians and helped the Gories record their first album. I think I met Joey around this time before he moved to LA during the metal years. 

Whose idea was Infinite River? I’m curious if the name or the music came first given how evocative it is of the record’s contents.

GGD: To us, Infinite River is an onomatopoeia to the sounds that we make together. The name came as the music flowed out of us one early dawn at El Studio 444. It rained the night before and there was a river flowing through the yard in the pitch that we just recorded. Through Covid, Joey and I would meet up to play guitar, and amid our twiddling, we decided to press record. We started out improvising our sessions with counter melodies and then realized we needed someone who specialized in droning so we called Warren. Soon Joey started bringing structured songs so we called Steve Nistor to hold it down. 

WD: I left a piece of paper next to the computer at Gretchen’s home studio with instructions on “how to record” including which power strips to turn on and a reminder to tune first. I thought one of Wolf Eyes came up with the name Infinite River, but maybe that was a dream I had. It’s hard to tell what’s real anymore. Anyways they couldn’t figure out how to record right without me so I got drafted as engineer but Gretchen’s husband Ethan had a tanpura (four-stringed Indian drone instrument) in the studio so I started playing it with one hand while engineering the sessions with the other. On the first couple of albums, the songs didn’t have too many chords so it was easy to drone along but the third album goes deep with really complex chord structures and progressive rhythms, so now I play mellotron and Moog synthesizer.

Tell me about the title, Prequel. Prequel to what? I take it we should expect a follow-up?

GGD: I’m glad you asked. Space Mirror comes out on August 18th and will be followed with the more rocking Tabula Rasa. Be prepared for a lot more releases as we are a band that is in a moment of major inspiration. 

One thing that I love about Prequel is how it maintains so much activity and interaction instrumentally while remaining such a calming listening experience. Was it as laid-back of an experience to make as it is to listen to? How much of it is improvised?

GGD: It really was very natural and organic. Infinite River practices daily and we create a space for moments to happen where we are no longer individuals but a true unit creating a sound that is fluid between the three of us. The way you feel is exactly the way we feel. We’d dim the lights and just hit record!  Prequel and our upcoming album Space Mirror are improvised.

You come from fairly diverse musical backgrounds. How does this play into the collaborative experience? How does Infinite River fit in with what you’ve done before?

GGD: You might think we are from diverse backgrounds but we all love Sun Ra, Michael Morley, and Lee Ranaldo… and it was when we discovered this that we realized this project had to happen. Joey’s structure is the force that holds us together. 

I like to keep them on the precipice of a breakdown with my contribution. As you may know, Warren lives in the spectrum, which is a nice balance. You’ll hear more of the structured side of Infinite River in our third album, Tabula Rasa.

Part of me cringes for bringing it up at this point, but given that Prequel is a pandemic record, I’m wondering how you all fared during the pandemic. Besides making music, what did you do to get through it? It seems like it was an extremely productive time for you creatively.

GGD: During the pandemic, we spent more time than we ever spent making music together. We currently have enough music for 37 records, and we’d have more if Warren didn’t always forget to press record…. We ate, lived, and breathed music, and we would often fall asleep in the studio with the fuzz of the pedal and guitar through the amp, cradling us in a sonic bliss. We are still making music and will have to figure out what to do with it. We’re also lucky to have a big backyard and a swimming pool. I was able to get a lot of steps and my three boys were able to drive us thoroughly crazy… Homeschooling was tough on everyone but we also had a sweet bubble of friends.

Prequel has a distinctly cinematic feel to it. Are there any movies or soundtracks that you took inspiration from? Or any other influences you’d like to mention?

GGD: YES! So glad you asked, Infinite River is totally inspired by films and the soundtracks around them. We are inspired by Harry Smith’s experimental films, the 1931-1934 Fleischer brothers’ Betty Boop shorts as well as Ganja & Hess and the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. As far as composers, of course, there is the contemporary of ours Johann Johannsson, may he rest in peace, and the incredible inspiration that is Gil Mellé. I wouldn’t say Prequel was influenced by one in particular, but who doesn’t love a good soundtrack… I gotta mention Popul Vuh’s soundtrack for Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I actually went into labor with my first son while watching it. 

A couple years ago I worked on a soundtrack for the rescoring of the 1921 silent film The Golem, presented as a sonic improv for its 100th anniversary—a webcast on Halloween, 2021… The film was broken into 8 parts and each piece is a different musical accompaniment including Universal Eyes (which is me, John Olson, and Nate Young), Threshing Floor (a collaboration of me, John, Nate, Alan Licht, Rebecca Odes, and Warren), with other tracks by Michael Morley, Sharon Gal, Steve Berlin, Steve Drozd, and Eye from the Boredoms. Pretty sick lineup if you ask me 🙂

Infinite River played a record release show at UFO Factory in Detroit somewhat recently, and a couple of shows in London. How were those? How does the live version of the band differ from the recorded version? The clip I saw of the Detroit show sounded more rocking than Prequel.

GGD: The live sets are much heavier than Prequel! Wait til you hear Tabula Rasa, the record that comes out after Space Mirror. What we love about Infinite River is the versatility of the three members and our secret weapon Steve Nistor. Our music is a reaction to the world around us… may it be more bombastic or more cerebral. 

Any plans to tour? 

GGD: YES! We’re still doing sporadic shows with like-minded musicians. One of our record release parties is at the Stork Club in San Francisco with Wolf Eyes and Bill Orca this summer. We have a few shows lined up in Detroit too. One-offs have been nice for us so anyone out there that wants us to play… 

Leigha Bianchi is credited as “architendress” on this album? Can you tell us who Leigha is and what an architendress does?

GGD: I work with Leigha Bianchi on a bunch of projects so Warren dubbed her with the title Architendress. If it wasn’t for Leigha, it is safe to say that none of this would happen. We’re just musicians lost in the night and she is able to help us come together to make new sounds. An architendress is an ancient term, and she comes from a long line of them. Without giving too much away… let’s just say they’ve been in the healing trade since the beginning of time. 

Lastly, I’m curious what you’ve learned about yourselves and about each other collaborating on this project? 

GGD: That Row Row Row your boat is absolutely right and that life is but a dream. 

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.