Jayson Gerycz, Jen Powers and Matthew J. Rolin’s debut album, Beacon, was originally released by Garden Portal last March as a cassette and was one of RCU’s favorite tapes of 2020. On March 12th, almost exactly a full year later, Centripetal Force Records will reissue the album on vinyl with a new mix and a bonus six-inch lathe cut. You can preorder a copy straight from the label’s Bandcamp and Cardinal Fuzz (if you’re in the UK) as of this morning.
I recently chatted with the trio about the album’s recording process and the challenges and changes that come with appending a percussionist into the established dulcimer and guitar sound of the Powers/Rolin Duo.
RCU: Jen and Matt, how does adding Jayson to the fold change the dynamic while playing?
Matt Rolin: Obviously the drums are an instrument I don’t normally think about when I’m writing by myself or when Jen and I are jamming, but I honestly don’t think it changes too much necessarily, because I’ve known Jayson for forever. And I know what he does or what he’s capable of doing. And really when we did Beacon, we had no fucking idea of what we were going to do at all, it was just for fun.
Jayson Gerycz: I thought you guys were just trying to make me feel included. I [originally] thought you guys just wanted me to record you as a duo, since I just recorded [Matt’s] solo album. I thought you were just including me so we could have fun.
Jen Powers: It was like, “Hey man, wanna hop in on this?”
RCU: So this wasn’t the first time you played with Jayson, right?
MR: Yeah, I was stoked because I had known Jayson for so long, but we’re not [as a trio] on the same recording until now.
JG: We had never jammed together before.
MR: Yeah, that was the first time that we actually recorded something together.
RCU : Ok, but this predated the Gerycz/Rolin Bandcamp release, October 2019?
JP: Oh yeah, they did that when they recorded in Ohio.
MR: That was two months before we went back up to do Beacon with Jayson.
RCU: So, apart from just hanging out and having fun, did any external factors influence the mood or the direction for the music?
JP: I think for Beacon it was pretty chill for the most part. The world wasn’t all fucking crazy at that point, relatively speaking.
MR: I was back in Cleveland, so I was full of anxiety about that, probably, but that’s about it. Jayson has this house that’s really awesome, so even though I had a bunch of anxiety about going back to Cleveland in general, it’s always like really chill to hang out at Jayon’s house.
JP: Yeah, it’s like an escape. A little vacation and we just get to kick it with our buddy. It’s always a good time.
RCU: Okay, so that escape helped to give the album its specific atmosphere?
JG: It took me back to when I was like 19. Back then, I would just sit down and make a song with a friend, and that would be our hang out. It kinda felt like that approach for me because we were just making a tape of whatever we did. . . I just feel. . .now there’s, like, a lot of steps. It’s like you’re writing or you’re learning, and then you’re playing it and trying to figure out exactly what you want, and then you go and record it or whatever. This is just like, I don’t even know what Jen and Matt are gonna play. I remember being like, “I’m gonna try to not to hit the kick drum” and I think I succeeded.
MR: I think, like, the recording of that was essentially just one of the most productive hang out sessions that I’ve ever had in my entire life.
RCU: Yeah, that’s great. So I was wondering if you think something like this session could be replicated right now. Could the feeling of this record be reproduced while being recorded remotely or over something like Zoom? On that note, are there plans for another trio album?
JG: I don’t know… We’re never going to make that record again. It was cool, we just listened to one another, and we just kind of drifted off and it worked.
MR: The main driving force behind the album was that we didn’t even know what the fuck we were doing at all.
JP: I feel like it was super important for all of us to be in the same room.
JG: The most discussion we had was like, “Okay, I guess I’m gonna bow a cymbal on this one.”
MR: Or like, “Let’s do a slower one, or a faster one.”
JP: Yeah, but definitely dependent on being in the same room. I feel like just because it was such an exploratory and. . . not directionless, but like, a chill wandering sort of session. To answer the other question, yeah there’s another trio record on the way. And that one is definitely more focused.
RCU: So hammer dulcimer is practically a percussion instrument. So, Jayson, do you find yourself changing your approach to drumming in order to play along with Jen’s instrument? Is this a challenge at all to play along with?
JG: The whole thing is kind of challenging, to put a drum set with two acoustic instruments like that. That’s why with Beacon, I’m mostly just using brushes and keeping it real mellow. . . As far as Jen’s hammered dulcimer, I just kind of let her cruise and dictate the rhythm aspect of it. I don’t think I played a beat once.
RCU: Were there any kind of qualities, like texture or tones, you sought out intentionally to compliment Jen and Matt’s sound?
JG: Oh 100%. Mostly with Jen though. If Jen’s dulcimer bowing sounds insane, I can kind of go there with a cymbal. I can get a similar kind of [sound]. I’ve never heard a grinding cymbal sound and a bowing dulcimer sound [together]. That’s super exciting, and Matt’s just playing beautifully. Like, man this is fucking wild.
RCU: That’s one aspect of the album that I loved right away. Everything sounds like it belongs together like it’s all coming from one large instrument. It’s incredible. You guys did such an amazing job.
MR: Everything on it is one take recorded to tape.
RCU: Yeah I was going to ask if there were any overdubs at all. I thought on one song there may have been a saxophone or…
JG: Yeah that was Dylan [Baldi]. That was really funny.
RCU: So was that added in later?
JG: Dylan was in town for some reason and I was like, “Oh yeah, Jen and Matt are coming over. We’re going to make a record, and we might want you to play on one of the songs later,” and he was just like, “Alright.” So he was just chilling in the house, just sitting upstairs reading books while we were making Beacon. We shouted up, “Alright, we’re ready for the saxophone!” and he was just like, “Ok.” I had totally forgotten he was there.
RCU: When you heard the recording for the first time, or just the new mix, did you notice anything in the performance that you weren’t aware of before?
JP: I’d say so.
MR: When Jayson sent it to me, I was under the impression that he had already mixed it or something.
JG: I just tried to balance everything really quickly so it was listenable, and then we could decide what we could do.
MR: This was a complete miscommunication. . .because he sent that to me and I was just like, “Dude, this sounds fucking amazing!” I didn’t even know what to expect, so hearing the recorded versions back I just thought this was incredible. I sent them off to Michael Potter [of Garden Portal] before Jayson was done. I thought he was done, but I guess he wasn’t.
JP: Yeah, listening to it after. . .when I’m playing just with Matt, I generally have an idea of what it sounds like as it’s happening. I’m dialed in on him, but when there’s two folks in the mix. . .I tended to focus on more of what Jayson was doing. . . So hearing it afterwards as a cohesive whole definitely hit differently.
RCU: Jen, when you play the very folk music-centered dulcimer, you utilize it in a way that creates a deeply cosmic atmosphere, and with your effect pedals in person, you completely fill a room with your sound. What inspired you to initially play the instrument in this way, and specifically along with Matt’s guitar?
JP: I started playing the dulcimer because I grew up playing piano and I learned it traditionally. . .I just got to this point where I had a horrible relationship with it and I resented it. I felt really stunted in a way, which was totally on me, I think. I basically abandoned it and music for a while. Eventually my friend came to me and was like, “Hey I don’t really know how to play guitar, but I’m doing this stuff, do you want to jam with me?” and I was like, “Sure, if I can bring over an instrument that I don’t know how to play, either.” So I brought my Dulcimer over but since I had no idea how to play it, it was really exciting. I was also pretty insecure about my lack of keeping a good rhythm. . . I kind of wanted to make it as least percussive as possible. So basically, I just started picking up effects pedals to kind of drag it out and make it more like a drone instrument than a percussion instrument. I have slowly been stepping away from that, and I think Beacon is one of the last things I’ve recorded with reverb. . .I had wanted to just wash it out and make it sparkly and pretty, but I’m realizing now that I don’t have to use effect pedals to achieve that.
RCU: So then for this album though, specifically, do you feel that your playing leans further into the worlds of jazz or folk or something totally different?
JP: I feel like folk and drone are still my two main go-tos. Especially for Beacon. I love jazz and I listen to a lot of jazz, but I don’t really look at what I do as jazz-inspired. Beyond just an improvisational spirit. So I’d say it leans more into the improv spirit of jazz, the timbre of drone and the melodic structure of folk.
RCU: Matt, do you find it easier or harder for you to approach an improvisation completely unplanned like this album or do you prefer to have a basic skeleton plotted out first as a launching pad?
MR: I don’t know how to improv at all. I’ve just been kind of faking it for a couple of years.
JP: Aren’t we all? I think you prefer a skeleton, like something minimal. Like, “Hey this one should be fast, and slower, and then we ramp up.”
MR: Well yeah, if we’re working on something, sure. The amount of times in my life that I’ve just been probably not sober with random people and musical instruments, and then play for no one may have helped me in learning how to do improv stuff, but it’s not a thing that I’ve ever really thought about until Jen and I started playing on a regular basis.
RCU: So my final question then was, originally, if anybody has a specific philosophy about improvising? But I guess that basically answers it. Unless Jayson or Jen have any other ideas on that?
JP: Yeah I prefer an improvised jam. I mean, that can maybe lead to more structure but as far as improvisation goes for me. . .I find that the most interesting things come from it.
Huge thanks to Jen, Matt and Jayson for taking the time to chat with us. Again, you can preorder Beacon on vinyl from Centripetal Force Records (or Cardinal Fuzz for our UK readers) today ahead of its March 12th release.