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.

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.”

I soon stumble across an e-zine dedicated to “wyrd music and arcane acoustic music” that has constructed a chart to the “Jewelled Antler Collective.” It is a total product of left-brain logic. Each JA band and the musicians it shares with all the others are assiduously connected via a latticework of pixilated arrows. It's the kind of computer-generated visual aid that a corporation would require new employees to examine during orientation. But as I scan it, I remember Donaldson's comment that my line of questioning was “so totally boring.” It was boring (as is this chart). But more important, my questioning failed to understand the Jewelled Antler because I was talking objective facts about something that is an intentionally cryptic mythology or mystery. This means that I first have to accept then lose myself in this mythology before I can attain a kind of intuitive and subjective (right-brain-based) understanding of what the Jewelled Antler does (i.e., you just gotta buy a piece of what they're selling in order to put your head in the proper mood). [page]

“The Jewelled Antler is an alternative to being in a single band rehearsing and recording the perfect song,” Chasse intimates from back in the triangle again. “We pick friends up and go places with a car full of instruments. When we are outside, we amplify acoustic instruments with little toy amps and get weird electronic effects. The fact that we record outdoors and in old abandoned structures” — like the deserted Army bunkers peppering the Marin Headlands — “defines our recordings. You get strange spatial effects. You can put bows to old cracked pipes and amplify them. You play the actual space. It's all very imaginative.”

And Donaldson supplements this with, “When you get people together in a setting like the outdoors this is the kind of music played. It's modal, mysterious, and free. It's a very natural way to play.” Thus, Jewelled Antler bands are not defined by what they sound like, but by their family-gathered-around-the-campfire collective attitude, which is even extended to their live performances. Most JA bands prefer playing warehouse spaces, galleries, and strange outdoor locations such as this gigantic drainpipe that Thuja performed inside of during a trip to Wisconsin last summer. JA bands occasionally travel to another state or country for special performances, but they do not tour per se because, well, because the family around the campfire would not tour.

As Chasse puts it, the Jewelled Antler is “more of a way of playing rather than what we are playing,” informed and shaped by: the musicians' sincere passion for spontaneous improvisation; the psychedelic imagination; abstract sound; direct commune with nature and friends; Eastern music and thought; the deconstructing of traditional folk music; recycled flea-market-bought instruments; and explorations of new recording techniques. The Jewelled Antler places bold technological experimentation in the service of nature-mysticism similar to the way the Zoroastrians of ancient Persia used mathematics as an aid to merging with pure nature (but please forget I wrote that).

On Thuja's Suns, for example, this fusion of science and nature adopts the form of 10 cavernous cosmic drones, from which fractured string-picking, softly resonating piano chords, and a wraithlike rattling regularly emerge then subside. Thuja possesses this uncanny ability to alchemically manipulate its recordings until the band has forged a sound that is so otherworldly — so totally free of origins — that no one, including Chasse and Donaldson, is capable of deciphering who is playing what, when, where, and how. This is not music for passive appreciation; this is an egoless, collectively generated om ideal for temporarily erasing the internal hard drive. (The answer is yes, I have attended three yoga classes to date and will attend more.)

The aforementioned qualities feel even more palatable on Coelacanth's hypnotic disc, The Glass Sponge. Coelacanth is Chasse and Jim Haynes, and I have not a chance in hell of explaining how these two bore the tones and timbres herein. According to the JA Web site, their last performance utilized “tape, shortwave, voice, rust, clocks, etc.” To these ears, this music thrums and murmurs like the unified pulse of all aquatic life, but, then again, how do I know what that sounds like?

I don't, really. So, let me mention a few JA bands that sound more overtly folksy (but still warped): the Child Readers (Chasse and Jason Honea), Blithe Sons (Chasse and Donaldson), the Franciscan Hobbies (Chasse, Donaldson, and “friends”), and Hala Strana (Steven R. Smith with help from guess who?). Each one of these bands crafts a unique and often eerie amalgamation of plaintive, minimalist folk-hymns buried in a heavy field-recordings vibe. The Franciscan Hobbies' new disc, Walls Are Stuck, is totally shattered, hobbit-noise, free-folk rock that can also drift and ripple like an Indian raga. Meanwhile, Hala Strana's two-disc set, Fielding, is a massive collection of reworked Slavic/Balkan traditional-folk ingeniously grafted to field recordings evoking lonely street scenes from archaic Hungarian villages.

Now, somewhere back in paragraph No. 6, I mentioned delicate folk-pop, and that referred to the Skygreen Leopards (Donaldson and Donovan Quinn), and their latest release, Life and Love in Sparrow's Meadows. Here's the skinny about the Leopards. If the Jewelled Antler aesthetic generally comes off rather sober and contemplative, à la the mysticism of William Blake, then the feathery, slurred falsettos of Donaldson and Quinn are ecstatic and wholeheartedly wasted on nature's splendor, à la the romanticism of William Wordsworth. The Leopards (who often record out at some East Bay ranch) blissfully twang and strum their guitars and pick 'n' pluck away at the strings. A tattered nest of rattles, flutes, mouth organs, wood blocks, hand drums, and tambourines maintains an impish, acid-electric pace. These tunes feel old, as if they were actually crafted before their influences, the classic jangle of the Byrds and the Monkees. In fact, they sound so off-the-cuff spontaneous and beyond time that the Leopards surely lifted them from our collective unconscious. (And I apologize for my cosmo-mystic babble, but in the words of the Leopards themselves, “I don't mean to seem like some 15th-century king/ I just want to sing of these flowers and things.”) Anyway, I truly believe this is the quintessential modern Californian pop album for getting stoned to on beautiful days and wandering Highway 1, Mount Tamalpais, and (my fave) Point Reyes, just like the Dead's American Beauty and CSN&Y's Déjà Vu must have been the quintessential albums for our hippie ancestors doing the exact same things.

And finally, there is this intense little disc titled Winged Leaves by the Ivytree. The Ivytree is Donaldson somber, quiet, and alone with his quiet falsetto, which resembles that of a medium channeling. Wounded, broken phrases repeatedly evaporate into a choked, dead-of-night cry, the backdrop being a compacted blend of barely picked six-string, banjo, and baroque touches of tambourine, whistle, pitch pipe, and bells. Throughout the disc, these vocal-lead trances alternate with equally expressive instrumentals: minimal but dense layers of muted organ, softly crackling radio static, and accordion. I turned numb on my first listening as I reached the disc's midway point. So I switched on my computer and began typing, “I know who the best acid-folk singer in the Bay Area is and his name isn't Joanna Newsom or Six Organs of Admittance it's –,” and I stopped because that sentence is so totally boring; it doesn't understand the mystery. So I just closed my eyes.

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