“Inspiration, move me brightly
light the song with sense and color
Hold away despair
more than this I will not ask”
The recent passing of the Grateful Dead’s lyricist, Robert Hunter, sent shockwaves throughout the world. Hunter’s poetic words have touched a multitude of lives over half a century in ways that few other songwriters could. As a result, both casual and diehard fans alike have been expressing their grief, gratitude and love for the wordsmith and his works through creating art themselves. For cosmic troubadours and self-proclaimed Deadheads, Joel Berk (ragenap) and William Sol (AKA Prana Crafter), the instinctual response to this news was to pick up a guitar and improvise their own space rock soundscapes.
“That was a heavy day!” Joel exclaimed when I caught up with him earlier this month. “I knew he’d been having some health problems, but it was still pretty shocking to hear he’d passed. I found it hard to listen to the Dead that day, but was unable to stop thinking about the dude and how he so selflessly shared his (probably selfish) quest for truth with the rest of us…I spent most of that day reading about Hunter and talking to Will, and knew I wanted to make some noise when I got home from work.”
“The music with Hunter’s lyrics somehow feels outside of space and time, yet deeply familiar, more so than other music that is equally good in other ways but lacks his lyrical genius,” Sol explained to me. “So, because of my energetic connection to Hunter’s landscapes as dream-memories, his passing felt a bit heavier than I expected, like the artist that painted memories in my mind was gone, and it just felt strange, not like he was gone tragically too soon, or was someone I knew personally, but the loss still felt heavy.”
Later that night, the two friends each individually recorded a sprawling memorial jam at their own homes—without any sort of input from each other—and yet the two tracks ended up being amazingly similar and of a nearly identical length.
“[My track was] 100% improvised. The only preconceived idea was ‘what if those four notes from Wharf Rat were floating in a cloud?’ I’ve always loved the way the Dead eased back to earth with a Hunter ballad after exploring the cosmos, and I guess I wanted to try to capture some of that transition zone. I had no intention of releasing anything, or even sharing with anyone…the evening just felt [like] one where I should play. I don’t play as often as I should, but some nights feel right and that was one of them. I wanted to be patient and let the track develop on its own. There was no real process. I just put my zoom recorder in front of my amp and hoped for the best. Everything you hear was done live with zero intention of anyone else ever hearing it (except for maybe Will),” said Berk
“When we talked the next day we both mentioned our jams and realized we had been under the same spell and that these should be released together and should be dedicated to Hunter,” Sol continued.
The two songs, “Beggar’s Tomb” and “Nightfall,” certainly feel related to each other, as if Berk and Sol were psychically linked as they let their emotions out in their jams. They both draw heavily on glacial drones, heavily distorted guitars and astral atmospherics.
Sol described his process as such; “The night of recording the improvisation that became ‘Beggar’s Tomb’, I was processing the stuff I mentioned about what the words of Hunter meant to me, and what came out is the guitar work you hear, which is kind of a melancholy exploration. The synthesizer loop you hear is kind of a deconstruction and remix of a longer synthesizer piece I developed to do live and what you hear on this track is actually a mix of a forward and backward loop together. In a way I feel like ‘Beggar’s Tomb’ is a sonic fairytale of our beloved alchemist of language traversing some inner liminal landscapes on his way through the Bardo between death and rebirth, with the heavier sections representing the heavier, darker, aspects of such inner travel, and the return of the mellower guitar work after represents how such inner experiences pass like smoke rings and dissolve back into the air (which is the main theme of the song).”
It might seem odd to some that musicians would pay tribute to a man known for his lyrics with instrumentals, yet Berk and Sol have captured the very essence of the worlds that Hunter created with his words, much in the same way that Jerry Garcia and the rest of the Dead would do on stage during their lengthy jams. In fact, the two guitarists here say more in these two instrumentals than most poets could ever say in several pages of prose. There is a universal sense of profound loss, acceptance and most of all, respect and admiration in these recordings. Anyone with ears could understand what these pieces are about.
“I don’t sing and find most lyrics to be garbage, so what could/would I possibly say that wouldn’t make me cringe later? Nothing,” admitted Berk. “I also mostly listen to instrumental music, so am pretty fascinated by how to tell a story without words to bog you down or be too direct. I think instrumental music connects to something more primal within us that, for me, helps to make sense of the chaos that is life…Unsurprisingly, I’m most inspired these days by long-form/hypnotic instrumental music…stuff like the Necks/Natural Information Society/Bitchin Bajas/75 Dollar Bill/etc.”
“If we thought about it ahead of time, I think naturally we would have thought we would have to play one of his songs or think of some words, but because it happened the other way around…it was like the songs happened first and then we became aware [of what the songs were].” Sol elaborated.
Then, once it was decided between Berk and Sol that they should team up and release their tracks together as a split release, they brought it to Baked Tapes, who put it out first on cassette and digital last November. From there, Mike Mannix from Centripetal Force Records wanted to release it on vinyl (with UK distribution going through your friends and ours, Cardinal Fuzz). From inception to final release, No Ear to Hear brought like-minded heads from around the globe together out of a shared love of the legendary songwriter. To say that he touched the lives of these artists and music lovers, and millions of others, would be a vast understatement.
Sol summed this sentiment up perfectly: “the lyrics of Robert Hunter have always been among my absolute favorites, really no competition. I love the words of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and others from that era, but Hunter’s lyrics had this really special, potent, liminal quality that seemed to alter my consciousness just slightly in the sense that put me in touch with this imaginary world, ever so familiar but at the same time tinged with magic and the dream-like. And because I spent so much time listening to the Dead in my formative years, I really felt connected to these places Hunter created. I felt like I had been out in the Fennario sitting around a fire, been sitting in a smokey card room and picked up my matches just as a flash of déjà vu hit me, been at sitting at the old wooden out in Bigfoot county, or been scrambling out of bed to make it to the Cumberland mine…I mean these places are very real to me in a sense, they have a quality that they existed in my past, some remote dream-past outside of time, maybe an archetypal past, but strangely tangible.
“I heard an interview with Andrew Weatherall where he was trying to explain the intangible quality that attracted him to music whether it be old rockabilly, techno, psych, or whatever, and he said he realized it was about ghostly feeling that he would get from certain music, an other-worldly feeling, which for him he said often came from reverb guitar. For me it’s similar, I’ve said before when asked in interviews about what I look for in music, and I always come back to the same thing: some mystical energy, some actual phenomenological experience of the music beyond just whether I like the sounds and structure, it’s something a little deeper and harder to explain; what Weatherall called ghostly I tend to call mystic, but it’s the same thing, its something energetic that comes through along with the music, and I think Hunter’s lyrics and imagery were a big part of the gestalt that created the Dead as a band that had that very special energy. The music with Hunter’s lyrics somehow feels outside of space and time, yet deeply familiar, more so than other music that is equally good in other ways but lack his lyrical genius.”
You can order No Ear To Hear from Centripetal Force Records today (and I suggest that you do before they sell out!)
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