Making “Our Severed Sleep”

It’s difficult to explain the feeling in retrospect, but Daniel Wyche and Ryan Packard comprised one of my favorite experimental and rock acts beginning in autumn 2014. Playing at first under the auspices of interpreting one of Wyche’s tape compositions, Packard and Wyche also incorporated a new series of compositions into their live set, including a spectacular, physical performance for the Mathias Spahlinger series in Spring 2015. Here Wyche and Packard reduced rock to its noisiest elements, expanding brutal hits into a longform exposition of feedback and menacing loudness. It is often said of several Chicago acts, including [perhaps most notably] U.S. Maple, that rock can be deconstructed to its most raw and primal elements, and in this case if Packard and Wyche achieved such a feat they aimed for the medium of compositional experimentation, rather than the pop song.

These performances laid the foundation for Wyche’s 2016 release, Our Severed Sleep, which propels the visceral emotions of that live set into a textured and dynamic atmosphere. Packard joins Wyche on percussion once again, here providing frequency manipulation that complements the guitarist’s optical feedback. The intimacy of that room at Constellation, or the urgency of that performance, imprints the compositions on Our Severed Sleep, forcing the listener to brace for the loudest kick-ins and yearn for them throughout the softer textural passageways. This is improvisation and composition, rock and experimental noise blended into a confrontational emotional experience; not confrontational in a violent way, but confrontational through its immediate experience rather than reflection or rumination. It utterly destroys genre boundaries in this manner, given the extreme openness of Wyche to communicate with popular traditions through experimental formats. Perhaps this is overstating the case, but Our Severed Sleep becomes a legitimate album to consider in some kind of grand “future of rock” feature, where one can readily see this type of noise infiltrating itself more generally into common popular music a generation down the line. This revolution, if hidden from sight, is more demanding than the previous noise strains that undergird “indie rock,” and its physicality and hidden qualities are both strong enough to convey the dream states of the composer, and form the delicious unconscious of pop rock formats. As players, Packard and Wyche are hence unchained.

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Earlier in spring 2016, Packard and Wyche met for an interview about Our Severed Sleep. For now, I am focusing on the making of the compositions, and also the direct influences that both musicians describe for this project.

Our severed Sleep is currently available digitally, and in CD format from Eh?.
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Talking about listeners who really care about frequencies & audio:

DW: It’s like a treat for them, because if they have a really good stereo they’ll be able to hear it, compared to if you’re just listening to it on earbuds or out of laptop speaker–- although I don’t know if anyone like that would be listening to this sort of thing, anyway, you know what I mean? Maybe on computer speakers? With decent headphones at least, I hope.

[…]

DW: I feel like there are all these little things where, I listen to it in my car and this sounds good. Then I’ll listen to it on my stereo and I’ll go, “whoa, cool,” there’s all this stuff you can’t hear in the car. If somebody puts it on their decent stereo, there are some treats for you. Which are mostly like [high-pitched noise] and [low-pitched noise] sounds.

[…]

NZ: When you’re constructing these pieces, did you think about the frequencies then, too, or is this something that developed as the process goes along?

RP: Um, you should start since these are your pieces, and then I’ll talk about how I painted over it.

DW: Yes, absolutely. Thinking about different frequencies was an important part of writing this material. It’s kind of interesting, because for “William’s Song,” I got this new distortion pedal, and thought, “wow, this feedback sounds awesome, we should make something based on this feedback,” and a really good friend who was around at the time encouraged me to pursue it. Then, I had this idea to do a song with a bass transducer on a big bass drum with bells on it. I was like, “how can we put these things together?.” So, in some strict sense William’s Song is just “about” frequencies: It’s “about” guitar feedback, but it’s also “about” this really, really low rumbling sound producing this high-pitched, shiny sound, and then kind of fitting in things between there.

On a bass transducer:

DW: So there’s this bass transducer I got, it’s one of those things that if you ever hear a car go by with the bass so high that it rattles and sounds like shit, it’s one of those things. You screw it into the bottom of your car so it turns bass into—

RP: It’s a bass shaker. The low vibrations are used to sympathetically resonate the bass drum head.

DW: It’s about the size and shape of a horseshoe crab, and to me it looks like one, especially with the wires coming out of the back. They sell them for cars, and for people who are hardcore gamers. So if you’re a hardcore gamer, you screw it to your chair, and then when you blow somebody up, or something, it rumbles.

DW: So we took that [bass transducer], and Ryan had this big, orchestral bass drum, we put it on top of there and it was pretty heavy. I had that plugged into the auxiliary [output] on my amp, so anytime I hit a certain type of low frequency, it would cause that thing to shake the bass drum —

RP: Probably below 60 hz, or something.

DW: — Yeah, pretty low. So then we had these jingle bells, from Andy’s [which is now Worlds of Music], and I had to go in there and figure out what was the best deal, bells per dollar. So we got all these bells and put them on the drum with the transducer, then hit the transducer so it’d vibrate really low and jingle the bells.

RP: Yeah, it was a sympathetic vibration. Essentially, you have this natural and organic feedback throughout the track. So feedback has these [senses of swells], from high to low, so there are all these oscillations and frequencies. Drumming is kind of like that, for me, I took it as this sort of density, where the cymbals and the drums oscillated back and forth, but as patterns.

DW: My favorite part of that piece, “William’s Song,” is this middle part, where I kind of cut out, and it’s just Ryan doing these thumb rolls —

RP: — yeah, it’s like you’re entering this void.

NZ: I was wondering about that, I found that kind of tough to listen to at first, because I was trying to wrap my mind around what was happening. It’s not necessarily apparent, the exact elements of what you’re doing, so I like that there’s this sort of alien aspect to what you’re doing. It’s very clear, someone’s playing but what’s actually happening there?

RP: Yeah, it’s mainly super-close mic’d thumb rolls, so it’s just rubbing on the instrument.

DW: Then, there are these loud booms in there, which I was controlling by sending really low frequencies from my guitar. I was smacking the pick-ups, so it would kind of go “BLUHHH.” Then there’s a rhythm to that, it’s pretty, the spaces between it are kind of long, and in the middle [Ryan’s] doing these textures.

RP: But it is this massive sound, it’s pretty climactic, because you’re literally falling in space, with this void.

On the track name and Constellation performance:

DW: So, the other track, which I hadn’t really named before, a name came to me in a dream, because that happens all the time. I have this sleep disorder, and I have these crazy dreams. It’s a long story – I thought I had sleep apnea, but I was able to do this positional therapy and I had these surgeries so I can breathe properly when I sleep, but my brain still wakes up because of these things called “micro-arousals”–which is actually a symptom of narcolepsy, so that might be what’s going on but it’s not clear. So anyway, the point is, I wake up all the time, which means I wake up during REM, and I remember all this pretty vivid shit from my dreams.

So I had this dream about a book, or a paper, called “I Give My Language to More Than History.” And I was like, “this makes so much sense,” so I wrote it down. Then when I read it later, I thought “this is total fucking nonsense.” This is gibberish. Anyway, I figured I’d name a song that, because it came from beyond.

NZ: And I thought about, for your performance at Constellation, didn’t you have a song about Jimi Hendrix?

DW: The Constellation performance was for “William’s Song,” so it’s a whole other set of themes. But regarding the Hendrix stuff and William’s Song, there is that side of it, the feedback side of it, which had a lot to do with Hendrix, who I was thinking about a lot at the time. I think I was talking to Andrew Clinkman a lot about this, because I had for whatever reason gone down one of those YouTube holes, and there were several complicated steps, but I ended up several steps down this YouTube hole of Yngwie Malmsteen videos, and interviews with that guy. He’s a complete fucking moron, one of the stupidest people ever. One of the reasons I am fascinated by him is that he represents everything I hate about guitarists, and 80s guitarists especially, which is that he specifically tried to position himself as some type of heir to Hendrix. He has the same white Stratocaster, and all this other stuff. But the things he thinks are great about Hendrix are fine, but not the most important thing about Hendrix. So, there are all these people who, if you read guitar magazines or go on gear forums, which I do a lot because I love to torture myself, there are all these people with the basic assumption that Hendrix was good because he could play real fast. Or that he could move his hands in really complicated ways. Which is true, and is amazing, but it’s not why Hendrix is great. Hendrix is great because he was doing so many interesting things with sound, with feedback, with noise. In a way, playing a kind of prepared guitar in a certain sense. So, in a way, part of the thing about that was there’s this line in one of these Yngwie Malmsteen videos where he’s like, he’s kind of dissing Hendrix in this weird way. He’s like, “I didn’t really learn anything about music, because there was no music, there was only noise.” Dude, you just completely missed the point of all of life, if you think that. So I was just really interested in this at the time, and I had just gotten this new fuzz pedal that has these new old stock Fuzz Face components in it, and the feedback is incredible. And like I said, I was thinking about doing something specifically with feedback, at least with the guitar side of it, as a way of talking or thinking specifically about Hendrix. So I don’t play the guitar in the entire piece of music. I hit it a bunch, and I scrape it, but I don’t touch any notes. Ryan is the virtuoso on that. It’s like a meditation on Hendrix.

NZ: I love all that. So, I thought with the title “I Give My Language to More Than History,” that’s a great throwback to the Hendrix piece.

DW: Oh, but that’s another song, though. The one I’m talking about is “William’s Song.” But that has a lot of feedback, too.

RP: They’re kind of paired tracks, they’re very similar.

On classic rock as noise. “Forget everything you know about classic rock, classic rock is noise.”

DW: Some of the best stuff from that period, [noise] is exactly where those people were pushing those types of boundaries. I was just watching, there was some previously unreleased footage of Hendrix from the late-60s

RP – Yeah, I saw that –

DW: It’s just a fantastic –

RP: — it’s so good –

DW: It’s so noisy, the band is amazing. It’s interesting to think about who the audience was and how into they were. I think a lot of that gets chalked up to, “whoa, psychedelia,” or drugs or something, but I think people were getting a lot more out of it than something simple like that. It’s like a cultural watch over. This is something that maybe people talk about too much, but I think Hendrix’s performance of “Star Spangled Banner” is one of the most amazing pieces of music I’ve ever seen. It’s so fucking cool. And this isn’t something he did in some esoteric, academic setting, or an art setting, it was at this huge concert, there were tons of people there, he was interviewed about it on all these talk shows later. It had the impact that it should have: all these people were scandalized by it. Or They were fascinated by it. So much of what’s cool about that is he’s coaxing completely unheard of sounds out of the instrument. I don’t think people had heard those types of sounds before, at least not in that type of venue, or with that type of audience. So a lot of that is a reflection on that, for me.

NZ: So it is clear this seems like a well planned release from each direction: language, music, composition. This gives your listener a lot to play with.

DW: To me it’s definitely a rock record. Even though there are only two – sort of sonically, they are “my pieces” in that I had some ideas about sound, but Ryan’s compositional voice is obviously really, really important too. Because I don’t know how to play any drums. We were talking, when we were recording with Brian [Sulpizio], and Ryan asked “what do you want?” And my response was basically “I don’t know, you’re better at the drums than me, do something cool, make some cool decisions.”

NZ: How do you make decisions when you’re given free reign like that?

RP: I’ve been playing with Dan for a while now, and there’s this sort of communal build we find together. At some point, we just reach a breaking point while we’re playing. I’ve taken a path to create these patterns that slowly evolve and build on themselves, and get elongated. So phrases get more and more elongated, with more density, so they won’t start simple, they’ll start quite complicated and quiet, and [in an additive way] build things on top of themselves. Sort of like if you watch a tabla player doing ragas, throughout the variations, they’ll add extra parts that will cycle on top of themselves and just keep going and going and going, and that’s the way of building compositional ideas. But also with the feedback that Dan’s guitar is playing, it sort of builds this musical tension. I was also listening to a lot of modern jazz like Ambrose Akinmusire, there’s a lot of that, and a lot of revisiting the Merzbow box set. I think those two very different things were working with each other.

DW: Where did that additive thing come from for you? That complexifying itself, adding more and more and more…

RP: — I hear a lot of free playing that takes ideas and chucks them out, doesn’t really build on them, sometimes it’s just moving through material. And there’s slight variation in that material. I like the idea of holding on to something the whole time. Really, that’s consistent, it’s like there’s this glowing orb, where material can be adjusted in some many ways, but this orb itself is kind of fluctuating in and out. It’s how I think of Coltrane. Coltrane exhausted these little motifs. Look at Sun Ship, which I think is my favorite Coltrane. Every little thing, every little minute detail is flipped, turned over, motifs were just explored endlessly. It’s just like little things are held off, little cells, which are blown out of proportion sometimes.

DW: I think we could say the same thing thematically about both of these pieces of music, where they were trying to exhaust one little thing. For me, it was “what can I do with feedback for 20 minutes?” and see where that goes.

RP: I wouldn’t call it minimal, though.

DW: It’s pretty maximal. … “I Give my language to more than history” has some absurd number of guitar tracks on it, like 12, or something. Some of them aren’t really doing anything big, they’ll just be adding this rise or fall.

RP: I have to admit, that’s a lot to compete with. The mixes are so fleshed out, and there’s a little tiny pocket.

NZ: So do you add the drums over that [overdubbing]?

RP: It’s one take. Except for some of the thumb rolls.

DW: In “William’s Song,” we did two takes, and they kind of overlap one another.

RP: There were two [takes], but as far as the drumming goes, there was a single drum track.

NZ: How much is improvised? How much is compositional? I’d be interested to know how that affects the recording process.

RP: Our take was totally improvised, my take was totally improvised. [Dan: Yeah] [To Dan] You had a set plan that you wanted me to follow [Dan: Yeah], it was a larger form that I had to play in, but what I did within that was totally up to me.

DW: Yeah. I feel like that’s where we sit when we play together, and that’s kind of where I want to sit when we play together, is somewhere between improvisation and composition. Especially these songs, rock songs. [These songs] are structured improvisations, so there is a plan. The plan is drawn out, the plan is a score that sets where the parts are, and there are a couple of points in each of these pieces where we are completely synced up. So there’s an early section of “William’s Song” where we do these hits together, and that has to be completely [synced up]. We did those hits live, we did the performance live and it was really amazing. There’s a video of it [Ryan: there’s a video of it?] There’s a video from someone’s cell phone, a snippet of it, when we were doing that we weren’t even looking at each other, that was amazing.