Those who know the spastic, minimalist skronk-guitar mayhem dished out by No Wave-inspired outfit Birthing Hips – 2017’s Urge to Merge is well worth seeking out – are aware of the string-bending heroics guitar polymath Wendy Eisenberg has wrangled from her instrument over the last several years. The very busy guitarist has emerged as a creative music force to be reckoned with, as evidenced by two wildly out-there new records.
Released nearly simultaneously late this year, in what Eisenberg calls “a happy accident,” Its Shape Is Your Touch (via premier solo-guitar label VDSQ) and The Machinic Unconscious (on John Zorn’s Tzadik imprint) are at opposite ends of the sound spectrum. The former is a master class in forward thinking, ear-piercing yet ethereal steel-string improvisational twang. The latter documents an off-the-rails, sonically gnarly assault that finds Eisenberg backed by two world-class improvisers, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Ches Smith.
Eisenberg credits the late, great British free-improv guitarist Derek Bailey as hugely influential; John Fahey not so much, but she plans to rectify this, in part because VDSQ label boss Steve Lowenthal is a scholar on the subject. She further cites her teacher, guitarist Joe Morris; pianist Ran Blake, for whom she once served as a teaching assistant; and composer-improviser Ted Reichman, who recorded Its Shape Is Your Touch. Quick to turn the spotlight off herself, she focuses instead on her vibrant local scene in Western Massachusetts—and particularly guitarist and songwriter Chris Weisman, who will make a rare NYC appearance alongside Eisenberg on December 22 at Prospect-Lefferts Gardens music hub the Owl Music Parlor.
National Sawdust Log spoke at length with Eisenberg just after she wrapped up a rehearsal with Editrix, her new collaborative rock trio, to talk about the two albums just out and more on the way, as well as future plans. These include a possible recording with improvising double bassist extraordinaire Damon Smith and Flying Luttenbachers drummer Weasel Walter, with whom she toured recently, and a Stone Commissioning Series concert scheduled for Sept. 25, 2019, at National Sawdust.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You just finished rehearsing with a new band?
WENDY EISENBERG: It’s a new rock band called Editrix, with Josh Daniel on drums and Steve Cameron on bass. It’s the first time I’ve ever sang in a rock band. We’re all really into the Country Teasers and the Fall and it’s just really fun to be in a rock band and sing. We’re working on finishing up a demo, and we have a little basement show on Sunday. This has been the year of trios for me, for some reason. It’s cool to have a trio that I feel equal with.
I’m thinking Editrix is way different than the music you play with Trevor Dunn and Ches Smith on The Machinic Unconscious.
Definitely the approaches inform each other, because this is closer to what I did with Birthing Hips than it is to that. But there are going to be certain aesthetic landmarks that will be commonalities—like I’m going to play guitar the way that I play guitar, even if I’m trying to play pop music. But this doesn’t really sound like pop… I don’t know. I don’t really know what it sounds like. It kind of sounds like Nomeansno.
Is Editrix sort of getting back to your DIY punk, noise-rock roots of Birthing Hips?
[Laughs] The thing is it doesn’t really feel like any of those things are that separate from what I’m doing with Ches and Trevor. I feel like what unites us three as improvisers is that though we do have our feet in certain jazz and downtown scenes, we all came from something that has more multiplicity. So it feels not so much like I’m getting back to it, but like I’ve been doing this simultaneously to all of the other projects.
Where are you based? One gets the impression that you live in New York, because it seems like you play here often.
I live in Western Mass. and no one knows that, so I get asked to play local shows all over the east coast, which feels really cool. So…Western Mass., like at the top of it, kind of close to Brattleboro, Vermont. I just go to New York and Boston for shows a lot, and recently been playing more in Portland and other places. It’s weird, because it’s centrally located but also far away from everything. So before every show, I get to log endless hours in the car listening to music.
How is the music scene where you are in Western Mass.?
There’s a lot going on, and there has been since the ’90s and 2000s, a huge experimental and noise kind of aesthetic here that I don’t really find almost anywhere else… I feel like some of the best music I’ve heard in my entire life and I didn’t realize was unique to this area. Not just Western Mass., but the non-city parts of the northeast are just really underreported. I almost could have taken it for granted if I hadn’t realized that it’s so rare.
There’s this lady, Andrea Pensado—she lives in Salem, and she’s the best modern composer I think I’ve ever heard. I’m saying that with total weight. She does improvised-noise things, and there’s an element of performance to it. Then there’s this band, Fat Worm of Error—they stopped being a band a while ago, but another one of my projects is with the rhythm section of that band, and with a singer named Ruth Garbus, who is probably one of the coolest people, and Andy Allen, who is a great sax player.
There’s a bunch of stuff happening out here. I sound kind of vain because it’s all me-related, but it’s not at all. It’s experimental and the real noise shit, as far as I’m concerned. The thing that’s happening here, and it’s been happening forever, is that the rent is cheap and there’s beautiful, spooky nature, so people just do creative shit all the time and it’s beautiful.
Recently you played Nublu to celebrate the release of The Machinic Unconscious. It must have been tough to get you, Trevor, and Ches in the same room, given how busy you all are.
It’s so funny that you say it like that, because I bet we all do a comparable amount of work, but I think that certain alliances artistically have made it so that more people are aware of what they do, which is really cool, and those two are some of the most vital, incredible performers. It was a little difficult, but we have some stuff going on in Europe next year. It’s really hard to get all of us going on, because who knows who has to do what next. And Ches is a dad so it’s a very elaborate scheduling thing. Honestly, it’s been happening more and more where I have to be thinking months and months ahead, rather than just getting a text from another punk saying “Yeah, does Editrix wanna play a show tomorrow?”
John Zorn’s Tzadik released The Machinic Unconscious. How did Zorn first get attuned to your playing?
I think he was first aware of my work when I was doing my master’s at NEC [New England Conservatory] and I was playing some Naked City music and doing Cobra and another one of his trios. They had a 60th birthday retrospective of his stuff and I did some heavy guitar shit, and he was proud of how I did it. We kept in touch and had been circling each other, and he would invite me to some cool things and just sort of keep tabs.
Then almost out of the blue he asked us to do this record together and I think it’s because I had played one of his improv nights—Trevor was playing bass and Ches was playing mallet percussion that night. It was just a lot of fire, and it sounded really beautiful. I think it was the second-to-last night of the old Stone. I think he remembered, and then he was like, “Let’s do it.” He kind of got wind of me and kept his eye open, as he’s really capable of doing—which kind of blows me away.
When were you first introduced to Zorn’s music?
Well, it was weird. When I was like 11 or 12, I heard them because of this guy Alex that I was in a prog kind of rock band with. I just started playing guitar and it came really easy. I did this little after school rock band thing and Alex was this guy who showed me Mr. Bungle and Naked City and made me all these sick prog mixes. He was amazing, a total lifeline, because I was really into the band Collective Soul when I was eight, so Alex saved my life. He showed me Trio Convulsant.
Is The Machinic Unconscious completely improvised?
It’s all improvised, and Zorn produced it [artistically]. It’s just totally improvised, which is kind of strange to me because I’m a new artist and to have him have such a faith in our vision as trio musicians and to put me in and to recognize that I’m of equal caliber to these really established players is really major for me.
Switching gears to your VDSQ record, Its Shape Is Your Touch, you’re playing a record-release show at the Owl Music Parlor this weekend.
Yes, but the show is really about Chris Weisman, the guy who’s opening. It’s very community oriented. He’s from Brattleboro, Vermont, which is twenty minutes north of here. He’s the best American songwriter. He doesn’t have a computer or a cell phone. This show for us is particularly exciting, because while he is pretty much a bedrock of the scene in some ways, he hasn’t performed live in a very long time, and he hasn’t recorded in a few years either. But this is after recording like 10 records that he released, then other records that are just as good but stay hidden. He’s just a crazy guy with a four-track, and a rippin’ guitar player who’s obsessed with Kurt Rosenwinkel, which is so funny. He writes songs about his thing with that, and wrote liner notes to his most recent record, I think.
He wrote liner notes to Kurt Rosenwinkel’s record?
Yeah, he’s just a freak. He’s a totally brilliant music theorist and guitar player and singer. He kind of sounds like Chet Baker playing these poetic, epigrammatic songs. I think it might be his second show in New York ever. Chris has a record on NNA Tapes [The Holy Life That’s Coming] and many [records] on this label called OSR, but my favorites ones are on Autumn Records.
He is going to play before me, because it is a VDSQ record release as far as I’m concerned. But I think that what he’s doing is gonna trigger something in me to play not just exactly VDSQ-informed material, like the solo guitar style that I had developed for that one, but this thing that I’ve been trying recently that’s an integration of that improvisatory thing with songs that I write.
How did you meet VDSQ label chief Steve Lowenthal?
I met him via email because of my friend Sarah Louise, who heard me playing at a DIY show in a pop-up store in Boston, when I was living there doing my master’s. Coincidentally, this is the night after the first time I hung out with Chris Weisman as homies and not like worshiping his music—which is crazy, because I think I just put that together like a few weeks ago! I met her and I played a set of probably one of the first times I’d integrated the songs with the improvised music, and she was like, “You’re amazing. You should be touring Europe.” So she said, “Email me and I’ll send you Steve’s email and we’ll see if he’s interested because you’re amazing.” She just really went to bat for me and hooked us up. I sent very shitty quality recordings to Steve, and he was like, “There’s something here.” Then I went over to [Ted] Reichman’s house in 2017 in the spring, right after everything fell apart, and played some music. It was the best, he believed in it, we chose some songs, and there we have it.
A bit of time separated the recording and when the record was actually released.
There were some things because it’s a dual release for VDSQ with Arian [Shafiee, Guerilla Toss guitarist]. It was some timing stuff for both of us. And it’s a little tricky actually for me, because I had to really celebrate the releases of two wildly different records.
Yes, you have two records that are polar opposites that came out virtually simultaneously. One is unplugged and the other is shredding—although the word shred is frowned upon a bit when it comes to guitarists.
I don’t really hate it; I think it’s kind of funny. I think all words are amazing, except for some words. Sure, my “shred record.” It is a little funny, because I feel like it complicates the narrative but I feel like that kind of speaks to something that I’ve always wanted to do and prioritize anyway in my work. Despite the certain number of biological factors, I’m not going to fit in with a master narrative of who gets to be a musician. But in other ways I’m very much textbook conservatory rat and basement rat going-to-be-a-musician person, so that complicates it, too. The bookworm part of me is like, “Oh this is cool. This is sort of how it should be,” because aside from these two records, most of these are improv records. They’re super compositional in their aesthetic but the songs I write, those are art songs, those are things I work on and the rock band songs that I write with everybody, those are experiments in democratic form creation and had really developed material with other people. They’re deeply collaborative. Those are like “Hell, if I released two of those at the same time, what would happen?!”
But these two records are a good representation of your multifaceted nature.
I think that now more than ever, the aesthetic required for these times is one of complexity and duality—and more than that, even, you don’t want somebody who’s capable of only one thing, because then we’ll be wedded to a super-undisciplined lack of nuance that we’ve got in our discourses. Some people are just freaks and they need to do the one thing perfectly and we’re all the better for it. But I don’t think I’m that, and finding a model for that has been really difficult. And I’m really glad that this happy accident can serve as somewhat of an ethos. Ultimately, having it all come out at once is a really huge statement that I feel really lucky to be able to have the skill to back up.
Was the VDSQ record in the works while Birthing Hips was still active?
Yeah, while. I mean, we were on the decline, sure. All of these things are pretty much always done simultaneously. It’s definitely somewhat of a YOLO mentality, in the sense that the guitar as a lot of people are dealing with it is super boring. Somebody does something cool, and then it gets derivative almost immediately if we’re not careful. The way that I challenge myself to stay aesthetically sharp is to be like, “Well, what’s the opposite of this one thing that I’m doing? Let’s do it with other people. I’ll have a rock band and a free band and a million other things to do.”
Was the VDSQ record all improvised?
I had ideas, but I worked on my concepts for a very long time before doing it. With Ted [Reichman], I recorded two hours, maybe more, of improvised material pretty much straight, like the whole day. I like to function like that because there’s something tantric about it, like once things stop intervening, then the concept comes out as it should. And the choice is emotional, as if you were to write it, if you’re performing it solo and it’s yours. These are techniques that I’ve developed. In a way, I also think this is almost like listening to me play chess, just making a game and fighting with it, winning it or losing it.
Joe Morris was one of your teachers. Have you played gigs with him?
We’ve recorded a record. It’s in the pipeline.
It’s a guitar duo record?
Yeah! I have two guitar duo records: one of them is with Shane Parish of Ahleuchatistas out of Asheville. He’s rippin,’ he’s terrifying. He’s amazing. So we have that, and we have [the one with] Joe.
What did you take away from Joe as your teacher?
His multidisciplinary thing is huge for me and I like how he is kind of a systemizer. He listens to music and he tries to understand it. A lot of people just listen to music or they just try to understand it; he does both. Joe Morris was huge for me. The biggest takeaway from Joe that I want everyone to know, always, is his thing is he just doesn’t want to ruin you. He sees one thing that’s weird that maybe somebody else would want to beat out of you, like an aesthetic turn, and he’s like, “Let’s build shit up around that that makes your technique a context for whatever you want to give to the world.”
Wendy Eisenberg and Chris Weisman play the Owl Music Parlor on Dec. 22 at 8 and 9pm; theowl.nyc
Brad Cohan is a music journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in the Observer,Village Voice, Time Out New York,Vice, and Noisey.
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