Seeing Ghosts And Christmas Lights With Emeralds
Henry Rollins is famous for proclaiming “Life is pain,” and for following that with the solution: “I want to be insane.” In contrast, James Dalton, the legendary cooler from the classic film Road House, once said, “Pain don't hurt.” While Rollins wanted to combat pain with insanity, the mystic Dalton (who studied philosophy at NYU) was completely immune to the stuff, which is partly what made him such a well-rounded and highly-regarded cooler.
The experimental/instrumental/drone/ambient trio Emeralds probably think Rollins and Dalton are both idiots, and possibly even “nihilists.” Emeralds just wanna feel anything, even if it is pain. That's why their new Editions Mego album is called Just To Feel Anything. What's bugging Emeralds is the lack of every feeling whatsoever. If you got some pain, they'll gladly take it, 'cause feeling pain is better than feeling nothing.
Anyway. I had a phone chat with two members of Emeralds on two different days. First I spoke with Steve Hauschildt, and then a few days later I spoke with John Elliott. (Mark McGuire, the first baseman for Emeralds, was unavailable.) We talked about despair, ghosts, wastelands, zombies and Clark Griswold. Here's how it went down.
NOISEY: The new album's called Just To Feel Anything. There's a lot of despair in this title. Is this a despairing album?
STEVE HAUSCHILDT: I think some parts of the album evoke despair, but I also think, within some of the songs, there's a sense of hope within the drowning of despair. The environment of the studio where we recorded, in Akron, Ohio, played into the overall feel of the album and the kind of moods the music evokes.
Does this title refer to the desire to feel anything, even if it's pain, or the impossibility of feeling anything ever? Or neither?
It's hard to say. It's an ambiguous title, so it can be interpreted in a number of different ways. But it's definitely more about wanting to have any kind of sensation, whether it's good or band. And it's about a culture and environment that suppresses certain kinds of moods and feelings. I think music, in general, is one of the last vestiges for certain ideas and feelings to still be communicable.
Do you think we live in a culture that suppresses certain types of feelings?
Yes and no. Exposure to that kind of subjugation is--I don't know--it's kind of like, you have to bring yourself to it. I think people that are aware of certain kind of factors that actually do limit and stifle people's creativity--I think people can break away from that, and I think our music can carry that message. It's not necessarily a negative thing, but you can actually escape from this kind of suppression.
So do you see this album as providing a solution to the lack of feeling, or expressing the lack of feeling?
It's more of an expression, I think. The school of thought, and music, that I think we come from has more to do with an expression of, or an extension of, personal thoughts, feelings and emotions that come out in a variety of ways because the full spectrum of human emotions is very vast and there are so many shades within that spectrum. I think, or at least I hope, that the record is able to cover some of that ground.
And you think music is one of the last things that can provide a solution to all this fucking despair?
Well, yeah, a little bit. It's not intentionally supposed to be an escapist album, so that people have to listen to it to escape the mundane. Wait... I just lost my train of thought... give me a second.
Okay. That question aside, I just noticed that the first three digits of your phone number are 666.
I know. I wish I asked them to do that, but they gave it to me for free. I didn't have to pull any strings to get it.
Do you ever feel like your phone might be cursed?
I do. Sometimes when I call people that don't know my number, I think they're more hesitant to pick up the phone because they think Lucifer might be calling.
That's hilarious. NO FUCKING WAY I'M PICKING UP THIS FUCKING 666 BULLSHIT.
Yeah... I just remembered what I was gonna say. It's not supposed to be an escapist thing, but the music serves as a way to transfer feeling or thoughts. It's just a medium between us and the listeners, and we hope it affects them in some way.
One of the darkest moments on the album is “The Loser Keeps America Clean.”
It's a Shining reference. Shining references are very cliché, but there's a point in that movie when Shelley Duvall's character says that. We reworded it and slightly re-contextualized it, but the feeling of that track is definitely dark. It's a fitting title. This song is a reflection of a run-down, hollow city with dilapidated buildings.
And the losers are walking around picking up everyone else's trash.
We were doing some weird experimenting in the studio, and on this track we were doing a lot of improvisation. While we were doing it, there was a microphone that was plugged in, and it was capturing this really strange sound. I don't want to use the word spirit, but it was more like a presence that wasn't haunted or wasn't a ghost. There was a sound happening that was creating a strange texture, and at the end of the track, you hear this strange clicking sound. No one was making it, and it's just a sound of some presence, or maybe the space itself. We were like “Oh shit, we have to record this and use it somehow.”
Was that the first time you encountered a strange sound like that?
We've come across some weird sounds before. But it's not like we went out to make a field recording or anything. It just came to us.
Regarding the song “Search For Me In The Wasteland.” How did you end up in a wasteland?
I don't know. Mark presented that title, and I liked it a lot. Maybe it has to do with entropy and decay. Those two concepts might lead to a wasteland type state, or the features of a wasteland presenting themselves in the different places we've been, or choose to go. It's not about apathy. Maybe it does show a little bit of helplessness and defeat, but I think the overall message, or at least one interpretation of the album, is the triumph of the human spirit over terrible environmental factors or cultural developments that have made things into a wasteland. You can find a paradise or a wasteland no matter where you are. It's like a state-of-mind. Music is one art form that can actually change your mental state or comprehension of those types of surroundings.
When you're making this music, do you feel like you're leaving the wasteland behind?
Yeah, when we play live it's a very cathartic experience. We've done a lot of traveling, and we've seen a lot of beautiful places, so we're not trying to leave those places behind when we're playing, but it is a cathartic experience. For me, personally, it's almost like music is as vital to my life as air or food or shelter. It's a very important thing to me, and it has been since I was very young. I feel very privileged to be able to make music, and to put it out there and to have people feel anything from it.
- - - -
Conducted via telephone three days later, my conversation with John Elliott begins here.
NOISEY: When I spoke with Steve, he told me about a strange sound you encountered in the studio while working on “The Loser Keeps America Clean.” What do you think the sound was?
JOHN ELLIOTT: It was a ghost. We weren't really touching anything, and the mixer was freaking out. It kept changing, and it was just the sound of the microphone in the room making this fucked up paranormal noise. It sounded like recorded bad vibes. It was really scary, so we tried to capture it real quick. Out of context, it might just sound like white noise, but knowing what we know about it, it has a much deeper meaning than that.
Do you think it's normal for ghosts to communicate with the living in this way?
I'm not sure, but it was one of the weirder communications that's ever happened to me. It was fucking scary, and it was something outside of us that was planning to do something.
Did it give you goosebumps?
Definitely. Like a week later we were in the studio at like five in the morning, all the lights were off, and I got this really strange feeling that somebody else was in there with us. I was walking around in the dark with this lighter making sure the door was locked, and I did that for like 20 minutes looking for someone else. There wasn't anyone physically there, but it felt like there was.
Do you dare speculate on what this ghost was trying to tell you?
I don't know. I didn't think much about it because I just wanted it to leave at the time. It was probably saying “Get out of here!” There's a lot of strange stuff that happened in that building, but I don't know of anyone dying in it. I know cars have slammed into it multiple times. The studio was right on the corner of an intersection, and a car had run into it twice. We watched the movie Click with Adam Sandler, and that didn't make it any better.
I'm not familiar with that movie.
It's like an acid trip. Check it out. Dude, it'll make you feel like you're on mushrooms.
Did this experience convince you that ghosts exist, or did you already believe in them?
I definitely believed it before, but I'd never had an experience like this. This ghost was really confrontational, and I've never felt that way before. The whole recording session was strange, as if there were extra energies there, and they were right up in my face.
Do you think this has anything to do with the fact that the first three numbers of Steve's phone are 666?
Maybe that triggered it. Maybe that unlocked Satan. That'd be amazing.
Steve mentioned that the studio where you worked in Akron influenced the despairing mood of the album, and from what you just said, it sounds really bizarre. Can you describe the place?
It's in the middle of this fucking fried neighborhood in Akron. As soon as you step outside there are just people walking around the block all day. The same dude would just stand on the corner all day, and they were all really disengaged. If you tried to engage them, they'd be so fucked up. It was next to this really scary pizza place, and it was just really dismal. It was not a good neighborhood. It was just a white building in this shitty area with a white cactus sign hanging from the front. We made the commute from Cleveland, which sucks, to Akron, which really sucks. It was a fucked-up experience, and I don't know why we did it.
Why did you do it?
The studio was actually really nice, and the gear was very accommodating. We wanted to record in the studio, and use the studio as an instrument. That was very appealing to us this time. But what we didn't take into account was where the studio was located, and the people we'd be around. Steve and I stayed down there most of the time, but we worked until five in the morning and slept until five at night, so we didn't really see the sun. If we had to leave to go do something, we'd just crack open the door and all these crackheads would see the light and start coming to it. We had to learn how to navigate with all these freaks around. One extra fried dude kept showing up and told us he was looking for a drummer and wanted to book time at the studio. Some of the people there were zombies. They just weren't alive. Being there really lowered moral so much.
How do you think this environment impacted the album?
I think it made the album really bleak. I think there's a lot more weight to it than people can see at first glance. We tried to make it more simple, but with heavier emotional content. I think we succeeded in conveying the things we were feeling. I think you can hear that it was made in a very stressful environment very late at night.
The album has a strong doomsday feel to it. Even the songs with beats sound as if you're just trying to get the hell out of wherever you are as fast as possible.
Definitely. That's true. We just feel like everywhere in America is a wasteland. It doesn't matter where you go, you're just going from wasteland to wasteland.
When it's time for the next album, will you do it at the same studio?
I don't think we're ever going back there. Nothing against the studio--it's an amazing studio--but we're never going back.
Maybe you should go to a nice Villa in Italy and then you'll make a really happy, romantic album.
That might be a good idea. Maybe we should record in Hawaii with Walter Becker and do a bunch of blow. But I don't think you can ever take all the depression out of us...
John? You still there?
Yeah. Sorry. I just got distracted. I have a Clark Griswold issue going on outside right now.
What's going on?
My neighbor is tripping out over this Christmas display right now. He's dangling off the roof and he looks like he's gonna die. He's pretty high up. He's putting Christmas lights up, but they're all flashing really weird. It's insane. But, yeah, maybe we should record somewhere tropical next time. But we'll probably just end up recording in Cleveland.