A Quiet Interview with Cheval Sombre
“Kindness. Generosity. Music. Individuality. The sea. Beauty. Understanding. Certain cities. A few folks I know.”
Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me. First I’d like to say that you’re the one of the artists I’ve met who seems to stay in character all the time, which probably means that what we see is who you actually are. You do know that you come off as a living Robert Johnson?
Chris: I always liked his stuff very much. I can hear “Come On in My Kitchen” in my head like it was yesterday. Such haunting in that voice.
Speaking of another mystical one, you and Pete Kember [of Spectrum, and late of Spacemen 3] buried yourselves in a back room prior to the Williamsburg show where he played with you, while at Maxwell’s, where you opened for Dean & Britta, he hovered around the sound booth like a parent, giving instructions. Is it easy to put yourself and your visions in the hands of another?
Chris: No — it’s very difficult to surrender a vision or to give oneself over to another, but when there is a suited, sincere match — rare as they are — the risk of vulnerability becomes worthwhile, because something extraordinary inevitably arises. In a genuine collaboration, both are giving — it’s not unbalanced — one is not surrendering more than the other. It’s true that before gigs Pete and I often sequester ourselves — yes to get chords down but also to enjoy the sanctity of the music we make together. We were in the basement of Union Chapel once before a show, next to this soup kitchen, and Pete sat down at this old, wooden piano and suggested, while I sat beside him with the guitar, that we try “I Sleep.” We had never, not once, played the song together. After a few tries we were in, and you know, it was just blissful — like we had played the song for ages, there, amongst the commotion of the kitchen and backstage folks hanging out in the basement. We did it live that night, and it was gorgeous. I think it was the second time I played in London, and I had never done that song live. But Pete pushed me, and I’m glad for it, you know? All in a few hours something miraculous happened. Yes, at Maxwell’s I heard [after I got off the stage] that he took charge of the sound. But how can I say this? I was grateful he did. I implicitly trust his sense of sound. Pete’s playing can break my heart. There’s times when I’ve been so utterly moved by what he’s playing when we’ve been out there live that I have to shut my eyes while I’m singing to keep the tears quiet. His “hovering” round the sound-man is just like his playing an instrument. He plays sound. There is no other way of saying it. So no — I don’t feel infringed upon — not in this case, not at all.
“The melodies are somehow presented to me in my sleep”
I know that you’ve written poetry as well, do you find a different set of challenges writing verse as opposed to laying down lyrics for a song? And to that end, which happens first for you, the music or the wording?
Chris: I haven’t been working on poems much these days. Poetry always required a great deal of concentration for me. For years I woke before sunrise each day and sat down at any good table to work on poems, sometimes for hours, deliberating in the dark over every line, every word, each syllable. Working before dawn appealed to me because I could access a genuine silence, uncluttered by the noise of the world as it slept. My first book was a collection of those, written in the early hours. But music often comes to me in the morning, too. Often upon waking. The melodies are somehow presented to me in my sleep, and I wake with a song on my lips. Usually I’ll jump out of bed, hum it or whistle it to keep it going while I grab the guitar, and then get pen and paper and a recorder to set it down. Once I learn it on guitar, the words just seem to come, and easily, with little coaxing.
We once talked about an early band you had where you’d wander for extended periods of time with droning feedback and delay, yet you’ve now scripted yourself into precise vignettes that seem to go on forever, yet are rather short in reality … and for your music I use the word reality lightly.
Chris: Hmmm. It’s hard to say. The songs, in my mind, do go on forever. Often after a show, one is still in my head the next morning, and it goes all through the day. I can’t explain melody — and even if I could I wouldn’t want to — it’s intangible for me, ineffable. Not even in composition is it scripted — it just comes, as it’s meant to be, whole. I have little to do with the length of these songs — I’m just the capturer.
What inspires you?
Chris: Kindness. Generosity. Music. Individuality. The sea. Beauty. Understanding. Certain cities. A few folks I know.
Not meaning to get too deep, but would you say that there’s a common thread or theme running though your music?
Chris: I’ve always heard a great deal of longing in it…
Double Feature is a great label and concept, a label for musicians by musicians. This aspect’s been done before in the 60’s, I was wondering how you keep a balance being so caught up in a visionary directed atmosphere?
Chris: Perhaps it was just simply and naturally a good fit. I really couldn’t have felt more at home with a record label. Double Feature never imposed its vision on me. On the contrary, I would say that there were no impositions, but much courage and encouragement. In many ways, dare I say, it was absolutely ideal.
Much of your music is like magic, full of slight-of-hand and misdirection. You followed the lushly hypnotic “I Sleep” with “Hyacinth House” by The Doors, which has an enchanting backstory. Was this a conscious decision?
Chris: You mean the track-list? No — the tracks were ordered simply for, shall we say, flow, so one could experience the album as a whole in the least disruptive manner, in the most gentle way. Some songs do sit nicely beside one another though, and sometimes magically so. I experienced that, listening to Andreas Meyer master the album, crossfading and such — some mastering is indeed like magic. Deciding on the order was a wonderful adventure in and of itself. I spent hours on walks upstate by the Hudson River or in downtown NY listening to all the mixes, wandering in a delirious haze, discovering which sequence made the best sense. So very much goes into making a record, and each step truly is an opportunity for some previously unimagined adventure.
[laughing] You seem to need a lot of protection. How do you weave that cocoon and stay lost in the trance you create when playing live?
Chris: We all could use some protection, couldn’t we?
Would you mind relaying your connection to Dean & Britta, and Mr. Kember?
Chris: Not at all. You know, it’s like I said earlier about Pete — it’s like we had all been playing the same song in some other life somehow. When we all got together, there was hardly any talk — it was all instinct, just sound. Some of the first album is the sound of that unfolding. Playing with Dean, Britta and Pete was for me like being tossed into the arms of a lovely shore from the throes of the sea.
Britta [Britta Phillips] really is a force to be reckoned with isn’t she?
Chris: Britta is a massive, solid force to be reckoned with, but somehow she also reveals a very great poise and grace, which is a staggering concoction. She’s a lovely, generous soul. Among several things of note, her bass and keyboard and percussion playing are often dazzling, she did a precious, imaginative remix of “Troubled Mind” for Trensmat, and she turned me onto avocado sandwiches. She’s something else, that lady.
Let me step out of the music for a moment. You have an ever evolving series of posters, would take a few minutes to speak on them?
Chris: I own a few of them, fortunately. When I first started doing proper gigs, the posters often beat me to the venues. I’d turn up, do the soundcheck, and have a walk around and find them tacked to the wall, or for sale by the artist. Some of them were so surprisingly beautiful all I could really do was gasp. Strange to feel guilty for wanting to steal them perhaps, but I just couldn’t do it. I have a great respect for artists, and I’ve simply been moved that anyone would take the time to let folks know about the shows, even if I had no idea, prior. A lady called Flora did one for the 92Y Tribeca show I did which I don’t own, but wish I did. There were two gents from Brooklyn who did Death by Audio and Bruar Falls, which were top-notch. They did the first run of t-shirts as well, all hand-pressed. The above poster was done by Sharon Lock, in London. She does some of the most remarkable. She graciously did Offset, Union Chapel, St. Giles-in-the-Fields, Knitting Factory. We got in touch not long after the first single came out on Static Caravan. Another very humble spirit, talented beyond belief. She thoughtfully put a few aside for me.
Are you reading anything right now?
Chris: Not too much at the moment, no. Just bits of things, here and there. Was looking again at volume three of Nin’s diary.
How about visual arts, has the Steampunk movement caught your eye?
Chris: Steampunk? I don’t know it. When wandering around New York in the summertime, I often take refuge from the heat in museums. The Met is still the one which brings me back most. I have to say that the Van Gogh’s never get old for me. I like much of what the Impressionists did, and especially the Renaissance painting and sculpture. I confess that my knowledge of modern art is particularly limited. Growing up, I very much liked Billy Childish’s woodcuts though. Ben Javens, who did the sleeves for “It’s a Shame” and “I Found It Not So” is excellent. We worked together on the lp sleeve.
Do your songs sit under your bed, or on a shelf before you revisit and are pleased with the results?
Chris: I’ve learned not to put things to the side for long. Too much dust piles up as it is. No — once an idea comes I usually chase it down until it’s finished — everything else gets pushed to the side. Sometimes it takes an hour and other times all day into the wee hours. I will not sleep until I get a recording — it could be rough, but it needs to be representative of the whole idea. All the parts — guitar, vocals, percussion, keyboards — all of it. I have a great fear that if I don’t get it all down, by the morning it could be lost for good.
Would you like to re-record any of your material with a new attitude or vision?
Chris: That’s an interesting question. Dean and I talked this past spring about doing something, and he mentioned a track off of the first album. Dean’s playing is just so fluid — I was listening to what he does on “I Found It Not So” just the other day and it really gets me. Some of the things I’ve explored with both Gillian Rivers and Russell Simins have been really satisfying, liberating. In rehearsal we tried a few oldies in a new light, and it was just physical, sweat pouring down. I just heard from my old friend Darshan — he does Metro Area records, and helped me record “I Sleep” — and I’ve always though a project with him would yield something excellent, as we work in such different mediums. We could revisit some things for sure. Pete Kember came down to Dar’s studio in Bed-Stuy to do some work on the track I did for Sonic Cathedral’s Roky Erickson record, and we three hatched some wild ideas for a single. But that would be new stuff. I’m getting ahead of myself. Everyone’s busy, too. Time will tell.
[Jenell the fan talking here] I love the coloured vinyl 7” material, I do hope there’ll be more of that in the future.
Chris: Thanks for saying so — I love doing those records. Well there’s the one recently out on the GPS — that’s a white vinyl split with Spectrum. There’s another very special one in the pipeline that’s been a long time coming with Randall from Füxa, but more on that when all is set to go. Trensmat may do a forthcoming from the new album, and they do beautiful, excellent work. Would love to work with them again. Though nothing’s planned at the moment, it’d be a crime not to mention Geoff Dolman of Static Caravan. He did the clear lathe cut of “It’s a Shame” as well as “I Found It Not So.” His role in keeping vinyl a going concern cannot be underestimated. He was moving forward when most folks were bailing out onto to the mp3 thing. Great, great soul. He singlehandedly reignited my love for the post box, so generous he was with stickers, picture discs — all kinds of wax.
How’s the new material developing? And how did that split 7″ with Spectrum come about?
Chris: Most of the recording is finished, really. We did it in Brooklyn Heights. Nick Kramer and I got it going one day in that hushed, tree-lined hideaway. I wasn’t sure at the time if I had another album in me, but on that first day I think we did nearly thirteen tracks, vocals and guitar — Nick would know precisely. How wonderful it is to work with Nick — I feel very blessed. It’s far beyond engineer par excellence. I think we did a twelve-hour session. Then — well, it’s a long story which isn’t over yet….Regarding the split, Pete asked if I was up for it, and of course I was. He’s got a love for vinyl too, and “Mary” is a song I’ve become really enamored and familiar with, as I’ve heard Spectrum do it at the shows. Just thinking of those guys makes me smile — what a superb band, and some of the sweetest people on the planet. The version of “Red Moon” was something we had worked pretty intensely on at the time, and it seemed both a fitting compliment and contrast to “Mary.”
I know that prior to this interview you said you were going to disappear for a bit, I hope you have a wonderful time. Is there anything I’ve missed, or that you’d like to say?
Chris: Yes — have to get away every now and again. A man just walked by on the sand blowing into a conch shell. It sounds like a distant barge, warm, soft, vast. He’s got starfish for sale, too…Mostly I’d just like to thank you for taking the time to be so thoughtful and considerate with your questions. I really appreciate that.
Thanks for taking the time, where can folks see you anytime soon, and find you on the web?
Chris: I don’t know when I’ll step out again — I suppose when it feels all right. For anyone looking, it shouldn’t be too hard to find.
– Jenell Kesler
Dean is Dean Wareham, currently with Dean & Britta, late of Luna and Galaxie 500
Britta is Britta Phillips, currently with Dean & Britta, late of Luna and Belltower
Pete is Pete Kember (Sonic Boom), currently with Spectrum, late of Spacemen 3