One of my favorite interviews yet.
My mom says that my first word was radio. I probably made my first mixtape [radio to cassette] in the first grade and still have dozens of them at my mom’s place. At ten I began playing flute in my middle school orchestra, thirteen I played safety cones in a band with my buds because I couldn’t afford a drumset at the time, and fifteen marks the beginning of my audio journals of which we’re discussing now. These audio journals have chapters, phases, and threaded cycles interwoven throughout them, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is a fading projection of the last few years of my life rooted in tape hiss, coming into individuality, and falling in love with humanity.
The story of how I became Philip Seymour Hoffman is documented on tumblr, but the quick version is that I’ve always admired his name for how royal and knightly it rolls off the tongue. One morning we happened to be bicycling alongside each other, and in my 8am starstruck fantasy I for some reason told him that I made music using his name. He looked like he was on his way home after a long night, so there’s no way he had any comprehension of what I said… but when I went home that evening I made a myspace and posted a few sounds in case he checked. To this day I’ve never heard from him, though his personal assistant for Jack Goes Boating came to a house show that I played and was a super supportive sweetheart.
2.Walk me through your songwriting process. Which element comes first? Last?
I hesitate to call any recordings “songs”, when getting to the root of a modern song I feel like these dominant forms of western music adhere to this historical-traditional format. But since the organization and realization of sound has become such a hot commodity, today’s “song” in context feels much more like a meditation on what once was. A simulation of sorts. But we’re within an evolution - a growth period - of how we approach the construction of sound. This approach is very much collaborative, whether it’s the absorption of obscure canon or the literal acts of remix and constructing with other people. I apologize if that’s a bit messy, but it’s also an appropriate anecdote for where my sounds stem from. I like to start with concepts or feelings, because those notions are far closer to me than scales or musical shapes.
For a straightforward answer, my songwriting starts from reading, drawing or conversing, really any kind of activity. If that activity happens to resonate with a spiritual chord inside of me then I try my best to document that precise feeling. Recently I’ve been doing so through vocal loops, moreso to explore this notion of the body and everything that we alone are inherently capable of. But to keep everything exciting all the time I make sure to never fall into a routine - i don’t think that any Philip Seymour Hoffman piece has been recorded the same way twice and I certainly don’t intend to ever fall into a comfortable recording process. Stay weird forever.
3.How would you describe your writing, lyrically? Who are some of your favorite poets/songwriters (still focusing on lyrics)?
If we’re talking modest icons rather than contemporary lovebirds then I’m eternally fascinated by the prose of Buckminster Fuller, the imagery of Tom Fec [tobacco / black moth super rainbow], the delivery of Meredith Monk, and the sincerity of Paul Baribeau. My own writing, lyrically, is super spontaneous. I’ll usually record an instrumental throughout a single night and when I’m real delusional around 4am I’ll hit record and sing-speak the first words that come to mind. I also scribble odd phrases on scraps of paper more or less all of the time and love piecing those together. With this project, authenticity means everything, I rarely record second takes both with the instruments and vocals. I want every track to exist in the very moment that it was conceived.
4. Did you imagine Your Loving Brother as a whole, or was it more so a collection of songs written separately?
Your Loving Brother was recorded as a whole, with the exception of “my favorite shirts don’t fit anymore” that I felt grooved with the overarching theme of collective aging in alienation. The album was intended to be the story of Ash Ketchum as he leaves pallet town to follow this personal potential that he know he is capable of; involving a huge reimagining of the world around him. After recording “leaving pallet town” I realized I was recording an album about myself, and reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as well as a few Murakami novels ended up steering my “songwriting” in the direction of revealing my own critical consciousness. Like Ash, I left my single mom and everything / everyone I knew to move to new york for the pursuit of education. That self-alienation and intentional displacement was a huge step to take at eighteen, but we wouldn’t be having this enlightening conversation at this moment if I hadn’t.
Your Loving Brother is also a reference to the letters between Van Gogh and his brother which spanned through Van Gogh’s lifetime. Van Gogh was financially, emotionally, and spiritually supported by his brother, and really had no one else in his life. Most of his letters to his brother he signed “your loving brother” at the close. In my life, all I have are my friends and my mom, my fmly, and everything I do is in the pursuit of creating a better world for them and for the buds I wish I could know long after I’m dead. These are my aural postcards to be sent wherever someone needs to feel.
5.Did you record/produce the album alone, or did you have some support? If so, who, and in what capacity?
I did record and produce this album on my lonesome, but would have never felt like doing it if not for the support, love, and encouragement from my buds. I enjoy the process of solo recording, but by no means does this feel like a solo project. The sharing of experience from my friends and the world around us is what this album is, and if not for that I would have no desire to record sounds in the first place.
6. Looking forward, what do you see for this project? Touring? Recording? Vinyl release?
Well, this might be a good time to share that I’ve reached a sense of closure with this project and intend to start anew. Nothing radical, just a new name as I’ve been exploring new concepts the last year that never felt right as Philip Seymour Hoffman. These psh recordings started towards the end of my teenage years, and since then I’ve fallen in love with so many new experiences I hardly feel like the same person that I was at the beginning of this. As I reach one hundred shows, it’s time for a new chapter to begin.
I’ve been fortunate to tour Europe, release cassettes and vinyl, and play with Tobacco, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Lucky Dragons, Ramona Cordova, Paul Baribeau, Dustin Wong, R. Stevie Moore, and a long list of the people who inspired me to believe that music can serve a greater purpose than principles of pleasure. Looking forward I hope to explore the intersections of sound and philosophy, technology, community, healing, activism and wherever new ideas want to take me. I’m working on a long-term project to restore the acoustics of holy sites from around the world and create immersive sound environments from the historical moments which have taken place. It’s an out-of-pocket project though, so it’ll definitely occupy the greater portion of my lifetime.
I also just want to thank everyone who has ever let me sleep on their floor, come to a show, helped book a show, shared my sounds, sent me a supportive email, bought any form of anything, or just sent positive vibes to anyone anywhere anytime. Y’all have changed my life and I have no idea how to share this love that I have for you… but I’m working on it. We are one together, forever.
7. Do you think that music (or art in general) is more powerful to the artist as its being created and performed, or to the audience as its being received and interpreted?
If an audience can become empowered to participate or engage themselves as part of a performance, that is incredible. That communal act of teaching and sharing is by far the most powerful experience, and I hope that in 2012 we see a greater blur in the segregation of performance and audience. I’m sorry that my answers are getting shorter - between grad school and fmly fest I’ve hardly had any time for personal pleasures such as this interview, and I hope that everything that I’ve shared has been of some value to you or whoever comes across these words.
Bonus Request: any new bands/artists to recommend?
No. Sounds speak for themselves, and you’ll find them on your own when your body needs them. My best recommendation is to stop investing time in systems which alienate you - and embrace those which offer collaboration. I have vegetarian beef with the concept of music blogs, but only when they operate on a fucked scale where the individual is both praised and objectified. However, sites like Awd Castle, Get Off The Coast, Impose, No Fear of Pop, Stadiums & Shrines, and so on handle themselves as people interacting with fellow people. There is no authority, there is only the sharing of a genuine personal belief. If you want some sweet sounds to groove on, take the time to speak to these folks and discover who resonates with you and for what reasons. The sounds they have to offer and share directly with you will certainly develop your own being into a more well-rounded person. But even better than that, be your own band. Anyone can do it, seriously.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, it means a lot.
Thanks for giving me an outlet to express myself. I don’t have time to reread any of this, but it feels real good to share.
—Z. Saint James, 1.28.11