When I sat down for coffee with Nick Podgurski – the vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and lyricist of local left-field experimental trio Feast of the Epiphany, best known for his free-improvisational and metal leanings – the last thing I expected to hear was how Waylon Jennings and the style of Nashville guitar influenced Practicing Loss, the group’s most recent album. After all, there’s not much hint of outlaw twang running through the four haunting and heady through-composed pieces that make up the record.
Instead, the sonic architecture that Podgurski scuplts, together with guitarists Caley Monahon-Ward (Extra Life) and Andrew Smiley (BLOAR), is both heavy and meditative, and laced with a ubiquitous feedback-drenched rumble that dizzies and entrances. Their aesthetic is a Casio-driven wall of drone, where elements of folk and prog seep through the dystopian fray. Envision a melodic Sunn O))) with impassioned speak-sing vocals that are both hushed and soaring, guided by what sounds like an evil church organ.
We caught Podgurski during a busy stretch. A few days prior to this interview, he subbed for drummer Jason Nazary in a gig by rising punk-jazz heads BLOAR (formerly BLOOR). At the time, Podgurski was also prepping for a now-completed European tour with GRID, the gnarly doom-improv trio he shares with bassist Tim Dahl and saxophonist Matt Nelson (both of the Flying Luttenbachers). That trio was celebrating a just-dropped collaboration with No Wave queen, Lydia Lunch.
Here – in advance of a Roulette concert on Nov. 20 featuring a solo set and a group performance – Podgurski sets the record straight about Feast of the Epiphany being a collaborative vision and not a metal project, despite his many collaborators and peers from that world, as well as Smiley’s Nashville guitar sound, the distorted drone he gets from his Casio, and more.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You’re about to leave on tour with GRID. The last GRID record came out in 2017. Is there a new one in the works?
NICK PODGURSKI: We have a new one that’s going to be out in the spring on NNA Tapes. We’ve got two albums basically recorded: we’re doing a live cassette, and there’s going to be a Lydia Lunch collab that we did where she did a spoken word thing. That’s coming out in advance of the tour.
And then you’ll be back for the concert at Roulette. Who’s playing with you for that release show?
Feast of the Epiphany is me, Caley Monahan-Ward, and Andrew Smiley. Caley was in Extra Life with me. He was the violinist originally, and then the guitarist at the end of Extra Life. Andrew Smiley is the other guitarist, from Little Women, and then [bassist] Tony Gedrich, also from Extra Life.
Feast of the Epiphany seems to have been an evolving outfit over the years, with the perception being you’re its sole constant.
That is the band. This music is really specific to the players. It’s not the sort of situation where I composed the music, and they played it. I wrote the things that I would play, then we spent six years to make this record, and that was a large part of the reason. I started out doing [Feast of the Epiphany] alone; tt’s now me and other people. There’s no way that Practicing Loss could exist without the other people that were involved in it.
The pieces on Practicing Loss have been in your canon for a while, right?
We had someone else playing bass in it, then we did two performances. There was a lot of shift, plus six months to a year of downtime. The nature of the music is that none of it has ever been notated, so that was a big thing: only working in a room together, just playing and using our ears and intuition and seeing how it develops.
Was Practicing Loss based on improvisation at all?
It’s not improvised. The composition is generated from improvisation in the moment, but then it’s codified and maintained through an intuitive means, I’d say. But that takes a lot longer, because we didn’t record much of it and we didn’t notate anything. The first part of the piece is 16 minutes long. It’s a lot of information, a lot of sections and ideas to be interacting with, so it could mean a lot of several hours of rehearsing that yields like 15 seconds of composition for one person, maybe.
That kind of slowly developed over the course of six years. Originally it was just Caley and I, for about a year, then Andrew entered picture and it was the three of us. We actually had eight different people that we played with on bass guitar, trying to fit them into the picture. At one point I started writing bass-guitar parts. Now we have Tony playing bass.
So Practicing Loss is a collective effort.
I couldn’t call this, in terms of composition, my pieces or my band, because it’s really those guys bringing what they do. All I really did was guide the intuition—like, “This is what I’m feeling with it, but I see what your thing is.”
How did it evolve over the course of six years? At what point did you feel it was ready to record?
Early on, I think we started demoing in the writing process because we had a lot of these… at the time I considered them false starts. Now, I think they’re sort of developmental stages. But at one point it was just Caley and I, and I had a keyboard part. Since Caley is a recording guy, it was really easy, because he has a studio and we’d be rehearsing there. But beyond that, there wasn’t really working demos; it just developed the whole time. I think at one point early on, before Andrew entered into the picture, we were entertaining this idea of weird percussion—non-drum set but percussion elements including electronic percussion, like kind of “new-musicky” sounding stuff. We tried it out, but it didn’t really stick.
In a way, that’s how Andrew entered the picture: it was in a conversation with Caley, talking about, elementally, what to use for percussion. Caley has a really deep background with country and bluegrass music, so we were talking about how different instruments in bluegrass ensemble occupy different roles, including a percussive role. There’s like high-end instruments. I think Caley mentioned, really offhand, about Nashville guitar. It’s the top set of strings from a 12-string, the ones that are an octave up but strung onto a six-string guitar. In bluegrass, somebody just kind of plays the chords like [motioning as if playing a guitar] “chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka” along with the song. So you get percussion, and that was the context in which Caley brought it up.
At the time, I had been improvising with Andrew. Immediately, this thought clicked that it would be really incredible that there’s this opportunity with that instrument, because around the same time also I was thinking about trying to have Andrew fit in the group. But having this keyboard and Caley’s guitar and a bass all slammed into the same range, it would be too muddy, so it didn’t work. In that instant that Caley brought up “this Nashville guitar playing percussion,” I was just like, “Oh, if you had somebody playing really interesting harmonic material an octave out of the way, then it would work.” And Andrew is that person, because his guitar playing just consists of incredibly unique and challenging chord shapes. Immediately, I just saw the place for him.
I’d never connect Practicing Loss with a Nashville or countryish sound.
[Laughs] No, but for me a huge influence on it is country music and Richard and Linda Thompson. This stuff to me feels very folk-oriented or country in its structure at times.
There’s a folk element to it, too.
That, for me, is a huge part of what we were doing. Again, at the time I was considering fitting percussion, but it yielded this conversation that Andrew plays on the whole record [in the style of] “Nashville guitar” except for the third movement is a duet with he and I, where he plays a regular guitar. But his role in the group is “Nashville guitar,” and doing exactly this thing where he’s able to do what he does.
How challenging was it to record without any of the music being notated?
Not challenging. Recording, in fact, was easier than performing it at that point. The benefit of never writing it down is that when it gets set into our muscle memory and mental memory, after a couple of rehearsals that might have initial difficulty, but when it comes back, it comes back very strongly. That was part of the reason that we didn’t notate it, because I feel like one aspect, at least for me, is when I interface with a piece of something written, I’m only superficially interfacing with it, right? It’s like, “Oh, I see these notes. Okay. I played the notes on the page. Moving on.” I didn’t really unpack each one. I’m not necessarily present and inside of what’s going on with the rest of the group. I feel like that takes a lot longer and, in some ways, written music gets in the way; we just take that out from the beginning.
That was sort of the theory with the beginning of this—like, “if we take it away from the start, what are we left with?” Aspects of that we found out were right; aspects could have been easier, and we could have notated some things, but it was really working with that idea of just having the strongest sense of intuition of the music. One of the outcomes for certain, though, is that intuition, muscle memory, and just human memory at the end of working that way is very strong. So, going back, we had a few rehearsals to get prepped for the recording, but it was like, “Oh, this is great. We don’t need to work at it.”
Earlier, you mentioned influences like Richard and Linda Thompson and Nashville guitar. Plus, bands name-dropped on the press release are all over the map, like early Genesis and Tangerine Dream. Attempting to pinpoint the sound of Practicing Loss is no easy feat. It could be labeled drone, folk, prog, or metal. It can fall into so many different categories. It also strikes me as a mood piece.
I think everyone has their own way that they’ll hear it, and I’d rather be open to that then close down any interpretation of it. I know, for me, I love all of those things that are listed in the influences. There’s this tendency to twist our ears to hear something that’s our influence, and what we’re making that other people might not hear. To me, the three huge artists that I was really loving during the making of this was Richard Thompson, Waylon Jennings – Live 1975, especially – and late Wipers—the more melancholy Greg Sage stuff, and some of his solo records, too. I think in a way mood is the interconnector there. You hit something on the head that this might be my struggle to pin the tail on that donkey or whatever. It’s like, who hears that in there? I don’t know, because I love that music.
You don’t see this record fitting in a metal subgenre? It does have the ambient vibes of, say, Kayo Dot or Stern, and past and current members of Feast of the Epiphany include musicians from those bands and STATS.
No, not at all. I think if people hear that, it’s 100 percent valid; that’s not how I hear it, and it’s definitely not the place that I’m coming from. That being said, there’s metal I love, and I’m definitely drawn to aspects of that. But the aspects of the metal that I really fall in love with are aspects that are in other music, and are maybe even more prominently in other music. I really love harmony and melodic sounding stuff in metal, but that’s also found elsewhere.
I think just because there’s a distorted instrument, the influence is not metal. I think Theo [Nobel] from Kincsem Records, in talking about it, said things that I really loved, like calling it “ambient but cubist.” There’s a scale of listening that we participate in. If you’ve ever listened to a really long piece of music – maybe a Morton Feldman piece or something that’s like four hours, or go to the Dream House – one way of listening is, “Oh, we’re going to trip out,” and it’s just this long thing. But what actually happens also, to me, is that we enter into a new sense of time and new things become the focus of our attention. There are tons of details there to be heard. To me, that’s no different than something that’s proggy or metal and really fast and noodly; it’s just that it requires a shift of our attention to evaluate it that way.
So, the distortion in this music is playing this role that’s mediating these two worlds where in one sense you can listen to it zoned-out. But you can also listen to it in this more-broad stroke and (be) sensitive to small details rather than what we would normally hear as, “Oh, the notes are changing and that’s what I hear, hearing textural shifts and things like that.” It’s one type of listening, almost the way that we would hear ambient music or we can struggle and fight to hear the folk song underneath it. I think generally the distortion is sort of mediating those two worlds and allowing for two of these experiences to be held in front of us and then the practice is to see both of them and pick one and feel the different experiences. The idea that there’s this distorted quality going through unflinchingly over the course of the whole piece is more for that reason than that it’s attached to the idea of a genre, or metal or something.
That distorted keyboard sound that runs through the piece is totally hypnotic.
It’s not there to be a trope. On a fundamental level, the instrument that I use sounds really nice. I think it sounds really nice with that distortion. It’s an old Casio keyboard. I wouldn’t really use it for anything else. I happened upon these sounds and I just love it. That [sound] was an accident and that sound has been the Feast of the Epiphany sound for a while now. Tony [Gedrich] and I were recording somewhere, and he brought some pedals to the recording session and left them there. I had a keyboard that was used for an overdub and I started fiddling with it, and that’s just been what I’ve gravitated towards.
Feast of Epiphany doesn’t seem to play around that much.
We’ve performed this piece, and in a way this is like an extension of the answer to how it’s developed—the course of its development. We were working, and we would think we had somebody to play bass with us that didn’t work out. Then we’d wait a while, and it would be six months or a year before we pick back up. Eventually I wrote bass parts, and then we’re like, “Okay, now we need to figure out somebody to play the bass parts.” Then we were up and running and we did two performances in… I want to say it was 2015, and Keith Abrams played bass in those two performances. We did like nine months of rehearsal and then two performances with Keith, and they were great. It was awesome.
At that point [after Abrams left the band], we were back to three, and what do we do? We sat on it for a while. At some point we realized since we didn’t notate or record anything, the parts and information were living in our heads or in our hands. So, we were like, “Okay, we’ve got to record.”
My impression of Practicing Loss is that you can perform it at Roulette or Saint Vitus, and both would be appropriate.
Well, I agree. I’m not discounting it as being accessible to metal people, but that’s certainly not where I’m coming from with the intention behind it. It’s not to draw anyone in or push anyone out. One of the gigs that we did when we performed this music a few years ago is we performed with Krallice. That gives the perception of what it sounds like, but that’s why it felt really exciting to be able to present this now at Roulette.
You’ve also performed Practicing Loss without the distorted effect of the keyboard—“unplugged,” for lack of a better term. Do you have any plans to do that in the live setting again?
I think we’ll do the distorted versions, but we had entertained doing that for this Roulette gig, initially. In May we did versions of the pieces with no distortion, so all the information was kind of exposed. That mediating factor of the distortion being stripped from it really reveals the songs underneath it, which is great.
Nick Podgurski and Feast of the Epiphany perform at Roulette on Nov. 20 at 8pm; roulette.org
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.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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