Freak Folk Shmreak Shmolk

Never mind the Banharts, here's the Jewelled Antler. Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying (About $$) and Love the Bomb

Saturday morning: A light but persistent rain falls. I am settled into a classic art deco club chair tucked into the corner of a spacious living room near Dolores Park. It's a place of intriguing objets d'art, abstruse music instruments, and well-worn vintage furniture. Across the coffee table sits this musician dude with sharp, smart eyes and a well-carved countenance; his name is Loren Chasse; he lives here. Sitting across from both of us -- completing our triangle -- is Chasse's friend and creative collaborator, the brown-bearded gentleman Glenn Donaldson.

Since about 1998, these two have been the principal architects of one of the Bay Area's most vital but seldom-mentioned underground music and art projects, this thing called the Jewelled Antler. It's a phrase that began life as the official nomenclature for a CD-R label that Chasse and Donaldson started because they wanted to release records by their newly formed experimental free-folk group, Thuja. They were disaffected, according to Donaldson, by just how aesthetically conservative most American indie labels had become by the tail end of the '90s. In response, Chasse purchased a CD-R burner, which is capable of burning up to 100 discs at once (depending on the model), and the first carefully handcrafted Jewelled Antler releases (in editions of 20 to 50) began trickling out of Chasse's pad in '99, distributed via the always-supportive Aquarius Records and the Jewelled Antler Web site.

"You have total creative freedom with CD-R labels," Donaldson tells me. "It's total anarchy because you don't have to market it. You can just create art and music however you want, and it doesn't matter if anyone is interested in buying it." Although this demanded that Donaldson continue working part time at a nonprofit (helping to raise money for the state park system), while Chasse taught at Fairmount Elementary School here in the city. But that was so totally fine with them as long as they got to keep making their music.

The Blithe Sons head off into the sunset.
Loren Chasse
The Blithe Sons head off into the sunset.

As time went on, however, the tiny little JA label gradually became a noteworthy component of a global, underground network of obscure experimental musicians (from Finland to New Zealand) who were all releasing wonderfully weird music through their own CD-R labels and who were all making contact via the World Wide Web. A new subterranean depth to underground music was mined.

Nowadays, though, the demand is just a little too much, and Chasse and Donaldson -- with only so many hours in the day because of their hectic schedules -- are just a little too preoccupied with making new sounds to be releasing it all themselves. So established indies, hip to the amount of excellent music coming out on CD-Rs, are now releasing most JA discs -- labels such as Emperor Jones, Catsup Plate, Soft Abuse, Family Vineyard, Jagjaguwar, and Music Fellowship. (However, Chasse and Donaldson still design all packaging.) None of this means that either Chasse or Donaldson has quit his day job. In fact, these two may be hardest-working musicians in San Francisco who have yet to make a cent from their music, not that that bothers them.

The actual phrase "Jewelled Antler" is primarily used these days as a catchphrase referring to the collective of bands and "friends" (as Chasse calls those with whom he collaborates) who create a sweeping but like-minded range of folk-based experimental sound, delicate folk-pop, and environmental field recordings. For example, you might call a band a Jewelled Antler band for one the following reasons: 1) Chasse, Donaldson, or both are in it; 2) musicians from other Jewelled Antler bands are in it; or 3) Chasse and Donaldson released a record on their label by said band. Then again, I have come to learn that I basically made these rules up. In actuality, the JA is a kind of shadowy ethos that's reflected in Chasse's and Donaldson's methodically constructed cover-art aesthetic resembling hermetic symbolism and mystical nature imagery -- a mysterious design sensibility that looks gravely significant but for reasons unknown. It's a running theme you will be reading much, much more about.

Returning to our triangle, I ask Donaldson to give me the official history of the Jewelled Antler. "We started our first group, Thuja, with our friends Rob [Reger] and Steve [R. Smith]," he says. "Thuja were actually around before we started Jewelled Antler the label and --," Donaldson stops, sighs, then languidly exclaims, "This is so totally boring."

Later that evening, hours after Chasse and Donaldson generously handed me a tall stack of CDs and CD-Rs by over a dozen JA bands that they are in, I carefully surf the Internet attempting to taxonomize these myriad projects: the Franciscan Hobbies, Hala Strana, the Ivytree, the Birdtree, the Child Readers, Blithe Sons, the Skygreen Leopards, Coelacanth, Thuja, and many more. I possess a need to give order to this muddle of incestuous projects that Donaldson and Chasse have most thoughtfully created. "Each band expresses a different part of me," Donaldson reveals. "They all have similar threads, but the point is to be free of genres. It's about the idea: 'What is the Jewelled Antler?' It's a mysterious totem that hints to certain things inside each record."

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