Meeting in a quiet diner in the heart of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood was the perfect setup for an interview with J.R. Robinson. It’s here that the sound composer behind the experimental drone project known as Wrekmeister Harmonies has lived and worked for a number of years, often flitting under the radar and spending a lot of late nights creating the epically winding and dramatic opuses that have become his trademark.
His latest, and arguably best, is called “Night Of Your Ascension,” comprised of the 30-plus-minute title track and another shorter piece, “Run Priest Run,” that are respectively inspired by the lives of 16th century musician and murderer Don Carlo Gesualdo and disgraced priest Father John Geoghan, one of the most significant perpetrators in the sex abuse scandals that plagued the Catholic Church the last two decades. Musically, both characteristically feature a combination of peaceful choirs and graceful string sections that quickly degrade into guttural howls, crashing cymbals and assaultive guitars. An assembly of 30 musicians collectively helped Robinson bring the album to life—a list that includes members of Einstürzende Neubauten, The Body, Indian, Bloodiest, Cave and Come, as well as harpist Mary Lattimore and indie folk singer Marissa Nadler.
There’s reason why folks like these—and members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor who will be featured in an upcoming project as he explains below—flock to Robinson. He’s a musician’s musician, a guy who scouts for talent at choral concerts, blurs the line between classical symphonies and contemporary metal and records in crematoriums for effect. Yet he’s also multilateral, a visual thinker able to see the full picture (with short films that often accompany live performances) and a storyteller who makes you understand the narrative woven into his score without ever uttering a word (his music for the most part is lyric-less).
Though the first two Wrekmeister Harmonies releases—2013’s “You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me” and 2014’s “Then It All Came Down”—were impressive starts, it is perhaps “Night Of Your Ascension” where Robinson solidifies himself as an auteur. It was released though Thrill Jockey on November 13th, Friday the 13th to be exact, which is perhaps more coincidental for being the same day as the national release of the film “Spotlight,” which follows the Boston Globe’s exhaustive coverage of disgraced priests like Geoghan, and also the same the day Robinson finally checks out of Chicago and picks up the next part of his journey due West where everything eventually sets.
Check out “Run Priest Run” before our full interview with Robinson:
Interview by Selena Fragassi
Selena – So let’s start by talking about the two characters—Don Carlo Gesualdo and Father John Geoghan—who you say inspired this album. What was taking your attention about them that made them the focal points of the music?
J.R. – Don Carlo Gesualdo wrote this really challenging music for his time; he was developing a tonal scale that wouldn’t be touched on again for almost 300 years by people like [composer Arnold] Schoenberg. His madrigals were really complex, and he spent a lot of time developing them and getting the best musicians of the time to work with him. Then, there was this whole other storyline to him, how he brutally murdered his wife and her lover, which spawned more interest than his music. [Werner Herzog’s film “Death for Five Voices” tells the tale well.] Even in Italy right now, you talk about Gesualdo and people get spooked. He got away with these horrific murders because he was a nobleman and gave lots of money to the church. So all that was really interesting to me. For “Run Priest Run,” I was fascinated with John Geoghan because I grew up in Boston and understood how huge the Catholic Church was. This guy was abusing the trust of people who needed help and abused 150 children and the Church just continuously turned a blind eye to it and shuffled him around from parish to parish rather than saying this is bad, this man is ill. It basically brought down the Archdiocese of Boston to where people who had faith in the Church didn’t anymore. So he goes to jail and is supposed to be in protective custody but he was brutally murdered by another inmate. … [Religion was] the line I drew between the two, Guesaldo and Geoghan. One was able to transcend crimes through purchase power, and one brought it down through the inattention and inability to deal with scandal.
Selena – Interesting timing since there’s also that that movie coming out, “Spotlight,” about all the Boston Globe investigations into the Catholic priest abuse scandals and Geoghan.
J.R. – Yeah. I read all those pieces as they came out. When I was a kid the Catholic Church was a big fucking deal to a lot of people. I never got it. I went and was involved to a certain degree but never got it or bought into the idea of God, this omnipotent person that controls everything. But yet these two events on opposite ends of the human existence timeline both had to do with organized religion. That discovery was interesting to me and I wanted to look into it.
Selena – That’s some heavy stuff. How did you go about communicating all those emotions musically?
J.R. – There were stages. I tried to capture the beauty and opulence of Gesualdo’s life and his love for his wife in the first part of the “Night of Your Ascension” piece with Marissa Nadler singing this beautiful aria she came up with herself. Then as it transitioned to the string and choir part, I took an actual madrigal of his, and with the string quartet, we rearranged the score so it wasn’t so clashing and chaotic and made it smoother but also a challenge to listen to. I applied the same theory with the 15-person choir. I pulled the vocal phrasings out and layered that. Then for the final section, where I wanted to communicate violence and suspicion and fear, I started off with a low, creeping sound with the heaviness coming in. I was imagining changing locks on a door, spying on people, and then had it crash over to sounds of total violence and fear.
Selena – Your last album, “Then It All Came Down,” was also inspired by a piece of writing Truman Capote did on Charles Manson accomplice Bobby Beausoleil. Do you think your music needs to have a character?
J.R. – I don’t think it needs to have a character, but I definitely like to be motivated by my discovery of these things. I wasn’t so into Gesualdo, but in discovering him, I wanted to react to that. Same thing with Geoghan. With Bobby Beausoleil I was interested in this idea of charisma, this light airy attitude masking this idea of complete depravity and murder. I recently recorded with some of my friends from Godspeed You! Black Emperor and one of the pieces was based on the Primo Levi book “If This A Man,” which presents this idea of how depraved humans were towards other humans during the Holocaust, and I tried to wrap my head around that. So yeah it’s an interesting question.
Selena – In addition to being a zealous reader, I know you also like to write and included an essay with the last album. Will you be writing anything this time around?
J.R. – I do like writing. People have asked me to write some stuff for them recently, but I haven’t done so yet. The last thing I wrote was when I interviewed filmmaker Béla Tarr [where Wrekmeister Harmonies gets its name from] for “The Quietus.”
Selena – So this new album took a year to make, which seems like the normal timeline for you. What goes on in that year?
J.R. – I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get 30 people to do anything like I did in creating this piece of work, but it’s an adventure in itself. At one point I was like, “Have I actually lost my fucking mind, is this a bad idea?” It had gotten so big, and you can only hope everyone understands what you’re trying to do. I had to communicate what I was trying to accomplish to so many people, like I had to tell the Gesualdo story 30 times. I was also putting together these two pieces simultaneously, so it took a long time.
Selena – You could have very easily kept Wrekmeister Harmonies a solo project like you had in the beginning. Why was it important to you to have this huge assembly of musicians involved?
J.R. – I think it was because the idea of these two pieces seemed so complex in my mind and demanded that. Especially reworking [Gesualdo’s madrigal]. I knew it was going to be challenging and I needed to be careful with it. The choir part too. I couldn’t do it with one or two singers, I needed 15. But hopefully I won’t try to accomplish working with 30 people again. That was crazy.
Selena – Where were the choirs pulled from?
J.R. – I was into this thing of going to see choral music about a year ago. I got in with that crowd. [laughs] I proposed this idea and they were into it.
Selena – Did you do the recording virtually or were you in the same room together with all the musicians involved?
J.R. – The only people I wasn’t in the room with was Marissa Nadler who recorded her stuff in Boston and Mary Lattimore who was in Philadelphia, but with both we talked beforehand and they sent me a variety of work to choose from. Same with Saul Walker who did some of the bass lines. So those were the only people I was not in the room with. Everybody else we were in Chicago together at various places. We recorded the choir and string quartet at the crematorium at Bohemian National Cemetery and did some other recordings at Electrical Audio and Minbal with Cooper Crain.
Selena – Do you know Marissa from Boston?
J.R. – No I don’t Marissa from Boston at all. I’ve just been a fan of her music for a long time, I fucking love her music. I know she sang on some Xasthur records, but he kept her so buried in the mix and I was like he should bring her out more.
Selena – David Yow also had a part in the new album, right? What did he do?
J.R. – David is a great visual artist. More people know him for being in The Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid. But he was somebody I could talk to about these ideas, and it wouldn’t freak him out [laughs]. So I came up with this idea of looking at hands, I got obsessed with looking at photos of people’s hands and what you could do with the shape of your hands. We talked about that and he sent me samples of photos of his own hands in powder and it looked great [and ended up as the cover image]. We shot some video footage too.
Selena – Can we talk about the time he almost died at a Wrekmeister show? Didn’t you almost kill him?
J.R. – Yeah! That was crazy. One of the first-ever performances I did as Wrekmeister Harmonies he was involved in. It was at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. I remember picking him up from airport in Chicago and he didn’t look so good; he looked pretty grey, just terrible. We practiced in town and then we drove to Pittsburgh and by the time we got done doing the show he was in the hotel room saying, “I don’t feel so good.” I took him to the ER and they knocked him out and reinflated his lung that had collapsed. It was scary as fuck.
Selena – That’s insane! In addition to Yow, you’ve been growing your list of people you work with over the years I know from being involved in the music scene, but are there artists on your bucket list that you’d like to work with in the future?
J.R. – Lately I’m really happy working with Tim Herzog and Thierry Amar and Sophie Trudeau from Godspeed You! Black Emperor and [violinist] Esther Shaw. We’ve been getting together over the past 6-8 months, playing shows together and recording a whole album’s worth of material. I’m really happy working with these four people because the breadth of musical sounds I can get out of them is mind-blowing. I’ve always been a huge Godspeed fan for their epic, cinematic recordings, and we work well together. So I’m really interested in seeing how that plays out and developing it.
Selena – You’re known to play pretty interesting venues, from graveyards to museums. Do you have any unique concert halls on the upcoming tour?
J.R. – No. I don’t think there are any this time. But I am looking forward to playing this material with the Bell Witch guys [who are also playing an opening set] and Esther Shaw. She’s an amazing multi-instrumentalist—violin, piano, her synth setup is crazy. She’s able to create such an atmosphere and has a beautiful voice so that part is handled. And Bell Witch, those guys just crush it. We’ll play both “Then It All Came Down” and “Night of Your Ascension.”
Selena – Out of curiosity, what do you do outside of this dark cavern of music?
J.R. – I’m boring. I’m the most boring person you know. I’m a bookworm. I see a show every now and then. I went out to breakfast with [musician] Mark Solotroff, I’m having lunch with you, that’s eventful enough