Interview by Tobias Carroll
Over the past decade and a half, Jon DeRosa has released smart, affecting music across a number of genres, from the expansive drone of Aarktica to the pastoral, country-influenced Pale Horse & Rider. His new EP, Anchored (you can listen to the title track here), is his first work under his own name. It’s also is a fine collection of lush pop songs that suggests a newfound focus in his work. We talked books, bartending, and cover songs via email; read on for the result.
You’ve released music over a number of names over the years; Anchored is the first to come out under your own. What led to this decision?
I think when you’ve been making art or music for 15+ years you most likely have had your hand in a few different pots at different phases in your life. In the formative years, I was releasing goth/folk music as Dead Leaves Rising, but…remember I was like 17 years old when I started that! And then there were a few country-tinged albums as Pale Horse and Rider with pals of mine in my 20’s. But, truthfully, I’ve always really considered Aarktica to be my focus, my primary sound “identity,” so to speak, over the course of the last decade.
I think that after all those years, I was feeling a little bit limited, or maybe stifled, by the framework and persona that I’d created as Aarktica. Almost like…it was one facet of my personality, but didn’t really entirely reflect the person I’d become creatively over the years. I started Aarktica at age 19 and I’m 32 now. I needed to start with a clean slate. I didn’t want to make music based on an expectation of what I’ve released in the past.
Was there a different approach for writing this group of songs?
Sure. I mean there were some similarities in the melodic approach, but overall these songs rely more heavily on structure, orchestration, and especially lyrics, whereas Aarktica tends to be a bit more instrumental, and have a “freedom within a framework” kind of thing. After a lifetime of studying classical composition, and then Indian music with La Monte Young and Michael Harrison, all of a sudden I’m studying Frank Sinatra’s repertoire, Robert Wyatt’s orchestrations, and Ian McCullough’s vocal nuances. It is a very big leap.
I give a lot of credit to my ex-Flare bandmate LD Beghtol, who was very helpful and encouraging in the beginning stages of the album writing. He’s a great songwriter and really gave me some helpful direction in this new approach. He was the one who introduced me to the writings of Charles Schmid, “The Pied Piper Of Tuscon,” upon which “Ladies In Love” is based.
The biggest difference is: the song needs to be “finished” before the recording begins, because there are other players involved and they need to know what they’re playing! In Aarktica, I often played all the parts, so I only had to make sure I knew what was going on in the song. I had to learn to convey that to others this time around.
In the last few years, you’ve recorded covers of songs from The Chills and Danzig. What qualities do you look for when covering a song?
The cardinal sin of cover songs is: Don’t cover a song if 1) it’s already perfect the way it is or 2) you can’t make it better, or at least more interesting than the original. That’s why I will never be able to cover Harry Nilsson.
What I do look for: a good song that has been unjustly ironicized over the years, to the point that the original message has been completely lost. That was the case with my version of “Am I Demon?” by Danzig from Aarktica’s In Sea album. It’s a great song, it’s a dark song. When it came out in 1988, it was serious and the imagery was scary and intense. But, because Danzig has chosen to parody himself and make cheap sounding albums, as opposed to good records over the past decade, anything “Danzig” tends to have this label as irrelevant or ironic to most people. I resented that a little. Danzig is and always has been a huge influence to me, despite his recent output. I wanted to put that song in a new context and make it dark as hell, and haunting in a different way than the original.
I also look for songs where, the song itself is “there,” but perhaps the orchestration, performance, recording or execution did not fully do it justice. Thus was the case with “Submarine Bells.” The song itself is incredible. The recording from 1990 mucks it up with a meandering “orchestra” of dated synthesizer sounds. I have a lot of respect for writer/singer Martin Phillips, and all I could think about was how I wanted to do an arrangement that would blow his mind. That was my primary inspiration there. From what I’ve heard from his manager, he is extremely pleased with the way it sounds.
I think The Blue Nile is next in line for getting the cover treatment from me. Though Paul Buchanan’s voice is sublime, and I don’t think I could touch it, a few songs on A Walk Across The Rooftops could be beautiful with live orchestration.
What have you been reading lately?
I tend to opt for historical non-fiction, noir, New York history, biography and always topics of a more extraterrestrial, paranormal or mystical nature. For instance, Technology Of The Gods by David Childress or Hollow Earth Theory by David Standish. I am also a huge fan of Ray Kurzweil. I haven’t yet read his newest book, The Singularity is Near, but I did recently see his new documentary The Transcendent Man, and I look forward to picking up the book. His Age of Spiritual Machines is one of my favorites of all time.
I read A LOT of bar/cocktail-related books, and have most recently enjoyed David Wondrich’s Punch, as well as his previous book Imbibe.
What are some of the books that have stayed with you over the years?
Just about everything by DashiellHammett and Raymond Chandler. Low Life by Luc Sante; The Devil’s Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square by James Traub; Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx; The Joy Of Mixology by Gary “Gaz” Regan (which effectively completely turned my focus to bartending from a career doomed to music administration); The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson; and What To Listen For In Music by Aaron Copland.