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In the Absence of Light: JR Robinson (Wrekmeister Harmonies)

Wrekmeister Harmonies
Photo by Katie Hovland

“To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one…” ―Primo Levi, ‘Survival in Auschwitz’

JR Robinson gestures towards the empty ballroom. “You want to talk in here?” Robinson and I are winding our way through a labyrinthine backstage area. We seat ourselves on two stools in front of the stage, in near-complete darkness. Though it’s hot as Hades in here, I run and turn off the industrial fan to better hear Robinson. This muggy hall seems the perfect place to discuss Light Falls (Thrill Jockey), the new album by Wrekmeister Harmonies. The title comes from If This Is A Man by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, a book more commonly known as Survival in Auschwitz.

Impossibly tall, gray of beard, black-clad, with soulful eyes and unkempt hair, JR Robinson could be a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel. His image alone suggests a few nights spent in the post-apocalyptic underbrush. For Robinson, there is no prehistory, no former bands, no biographical information to unearth. Like a mythic western character, he simply appeared one day, fully formed and ready to coax a sound as big as the desert from his fluctuating cast of extreme music all-stars. Without flinching, Wrekmeister Harmonies tackles subjects like child abuse and murder, the kind of stuff few acts would dare approach.

Light Falls moves like a procession, heavy to be sure, but more quartz than steel. Boasting ample dissonance, primal drum pounding, and Cale-esque string squawks, the album sometimes resembles a sludgier Velvet Underground. JR’s infrequent vocals sound rich, bleak, and human, simultaneously foreboding and life-affirming. He instills every moment of the record with a sense of European tragedy. As the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, I find it more than a little moving to see an influential underground artist like Robinson cite the late Primo Levi’s work. Exchanging pleasantries, I quickly notice that – in direct contrast to his musical output – Robinson is warm and amenable. It’s easy to talk to him and even easier to listen to him talk.

Let’s start with Levi.

He observes everything that’s going on. He observes the completely horrendous treatment, the suffering of his fellow inmates and prisoners. But there’s no judgment in it, right? I think it’s because he’s a chemist. He’s a chemist first and foremost so he’s got that detachment. What I find amazing is how you detach yourself so much from that kind of suffering. ‘Cuz I don’t think I could. I don’t think many people could.

For the ones who made it out, there was both luck and the ability to steel themselves.

The survival instinct. Everything it took to survive there. There’s a passage in the book. I’m just going to sum it up: If you get tired of living, you can just go over and touch the electric fence. It’s always there. You could take a few steps out of line and be shot. If it’s too much. It’s pretty fucking horrible but everybody kind of keeps going, right?

The tacit awareness that all you would have to do is just walk over. To surrender.

Just being surrounded by the constant horror would be enough to drive anyone mad. The absurdity of it all, like having a marching band playing as you straggle in from work detail. The horror in that must add such a bizarre prism to the suffering.

Do you see yourself as a composer, performer or some combination of the two?

When I think of a composer I think of someone like Philip Glass or Stravinsky. I don’t have any formal musical training. I think of myself more like a reactionist than anything. I read or research something and become so focused I identify with it. I react to that by creating music. I’m not really good at doing three of four-minute songs because that’s not enough time to say what I want to say. It’s more important to establish a mood. So I guess it’s all in your interpretation of what is a composer.

The new record plays with shorter forms than your previous releases, though most tracks still hit the six and seven minute marks.

I think I said all I needed to say or accomplish within the format of thirty-two minute songs. I didn’t really want to revisit that. I think it was necessary to change and evolve and still try and communicate an emotion or feeling. I kind of wanted to dial it back and work with a few people. Instead of it being a thing that just went on forever, for months and months, living with it every day, I had a very finite time window when I wanted to get this done and we just did it.

So, it sounds like this record has been in the can for a bit. Would it be safe to say you are always a few projects ahead?

It was done, done – like mixed-done – since November-December, so it’s been a while. I suffer from that thing: always keep moving. We’ve been lucky that we’ve able to go on this tour and play this thing we’ve been working on.

So what is Wrekmeister Harmonies? A collective? An idea?

I think Wrekmeister Harmonies is Esther [Shaw, violin, keyboards and vocals] and I and whoever we choose to work with, whatever we’re trying to say. I don’t think you could say Wrekmeister Harmonies is a band. The only consistent members would be Esther and I, and for a long time it was just me. As it contracts down it’s getting easier to communicate what I want to communicate and to focus. And not having to deal with multiple people and their complex lives and their complications.

Or different countries in the case of Godspeed, You Black Emperor. You worked with some members of that band on Light Falls.

Yeah and the Godspeed guys. They’re wonderful people but they have their own set of complexities and complications in their lives and stuff. You would think it would be super easy to arrange something – but it’s not.

Vocals play a minimal but important part in the music. Who are your vocal influences?

I really love Leonard Cohen quite a bit. Whenever we were in Montreal working, I’d ask the Godspeed guys, “Have you ever seen Leonard Cohen?” and they were like, Yeah, one night he came into the Hotel Tango, the studio they have there, and everything just stopped. It was like ‘Leonard Cohen is here.’ [I] Love Lee Hazlewood. Those would be the two I would reference.

Your music seems deeply sensitive to timbre. Do you consider the texture of instruments first and foremost?

That’s kind of the way I think about music – in textures and layers, colors and emotions and feelings. I don’t get too hung up on, ‘Is this sequence of quarter notes gonna work together, or can you play a pizzicato thing here?’ It’s more like creating a mood for stuff to go down, and allowing that to happen. And when you’re in the mixing process, staying pretty close to the line you had about establishing a mood or emotion. You circle back to that.

Blues and classical influences permeate Wrekmeister’s music. Do you see any common ground between those two genres?

None. None, whatsoever. Again it’s just a question of feeling, emotion, color. There can be like extremely sad, somber, beautiful classical pieces and there can be obviously extremely somber and sad blues music. I listen to all kinds of music. Those are definitely the two genres that affect me the most. Like, I love hip hop. Hip hop’s great for certain moods, if you’re driving late at night or something or you need to get some shit done (snaps fingers) it’s great. If you’re feeling particularly edgy or angry you might want to throw on The Freeze [Cape-Cod, Massachusetts, punk-band known for their song “I Hate Tourists”].

But as far as creating. I’m lucky that I have Esther to play with. She’s been playing since she was like five and she has such a deep, deep canon in her head. She’s played at the Kennedy Center in front of the fucking president. So I can communicate with her about classical stuff.

Where Have You Been My Lovely Son?
Where have you been my lovely son?
have you gone too far away from me to ever be held in my arms again?
every night I stand here looking at the sea
wondering, waiting and worrying will you come back to me
all I want to do is hold your face in my hands again
where have you been?
I’m older now and all the walls I’ve had have come come crumbling down
and all I want to is hold your face in my hands again
where have you been?

The album release bio mentions that “Where Have You Been My Lovely Son?” (which references Muddy Waters) deals with a fractured relationship with your own son. Has that situation changed, improved?

That’s one question I really can’t touch on, if that’s OK? It’s fine. It’s out there. You have every right to ask the question.

Compromise seems to be nonexistent in your musical approach. Are their ever sacrifices in the studio or in the transition to the stage?

From the last record, Night of Your Ascension, “Run Priest Run” had to be edited down so it could fit on the vinyl format. I wasn’t really cool with that. That kind of fucked with me for a couple weeks and that was like a serious point of contention. What I finally did was, I just stopped resisting. I made it and it’s up to them to put it out there.

Tell me a little about the public reactions to your music when you’ve played in unconventional environments like Pompidou Center or the Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago. Were these shows open to the public? Did the uninitiated freak out?

You play in museums and you get a lot of this: “Oh, yes, that’s interesting.” People like going to unconventional places and seeing art presented. There’s been some police hassle and noise complaints but overall, not that much.

So is there any subject too taboo for Wrekmeister Harmonies?

I feel like once you touch on pedophilia and the holocaust, you’ve gone there. People don’t want to acknowledge those things about human behavior.

Your discography includes appearances by so many seminal artists. Is there anyone you still want to collaborate with?

I always thought it would be fun to work with Diamanda Galas. That’s about the only one that comes to mind.

You’ve toured a lot with Bell Witch. Is Dylan from that band a kindred musical spirit?

I was listening to Four Phantoms a lot when it came out. Dylan’s writing is on a completely different plane. We did a show last summer in Seattle. That was when Adrian [Guerra, former drummer in Bell Witch] was still alive and in the band. We hit it off. Ended up we had the same management. It was time to do a tour and they thought, ‘Why don’t you guys go on tour together?’

How are you enjoying life in Astoria, Oregon, your new hometown?

Love it. It’s so suited to our temperament. It’s incredibly easy to think there. There’s not a lot going on. We were living in Chicago and looking to get out to the west coast. We were looking at Northern California and that was prohibitive on a number of different levels, so we continued working our way up the coast to Astoria and found it really to our liking.

Any guilty musical pleasures?

Guilty? It’s just pleasure. I’m not ashamed to say I can get into a Gwen Stefani song. I don’t think there’s anything guilty about pleasure at all. Just embrace it. There’s a reason why six billion people love that shit.

Do you have any particular spiritual beliefs?

I have no theism. I don’t have any spiritual beliefs. I don’t believe in god. I think organized religion is many things. It offers comfort, I understand that, and ritual is really important. I get all that but there’s a lot that I don’t get about it.

How was your experience interviewing Bella Tara, who directed the film from which your project got its name?

First and foremost, I was really fuckin’ scared because most of his interviews I’ve read have been with film people and they were kind of harsh. Harsh and difficult. I was like, yeah, this is gonna be unpleasant. He’ll probably make fun of me and shit, but actually it went really well. He talked to me for an hour and a half and he was such a cool guy.

Was he aware of the band?

I brought it up to him and he was like, ‘I’ve heard the music. I’m totally OK with it.’

(The sound of headliner Marissa Nadler checking drifts into the room.)

Will you and Marissa be playing together at all tonight?

No. It’s just Esther and I on this tour. Marissa’s doing her thing. She’s very focused and very dialed into what she’s doing and it’s super professional. She’s not fucking around.

In your current press release, you mention Primo Levi’s belief “that inhumanity comes about when things change slowly and people begin accepting things that they would normally find reprehensible.” What are your thoughts on how this relates to our current political climate.

Levi talks about how everyone thought Hitler was absurd and how quickly that was embraced. Subtly and rapidly embraced, until it became this dehumanization process that everyone was seemingly OK with. People were struggling and hurting and it’s easy to say, well that guy. Just get rid of him.

But the part that’s fascinating to me is like, how do I dehumanize you? How do I go from, you live two doors down, you own a shop, I go there every day and we’re friends. And then all of a sudden I’m gonna smash your window, take what I want, humiliate and dehumanize you. How does that work?

And yet you’re kind of seeing an echo and reverberation of that currently. The face of neo-fascism right now is no better summed up than a reality TV-personality-slash-casino operator. Does it surprise you that that’s the face of neo-fascism? It shouldn’t. People that support him are like, “He’s tellin’ the truth.” No matter how you feel about this current election – I’m mean, I’m not a fan of Hillary Rodham Clinton at all – but at least you know with her in four years you’ll get another chance to vote again. I don’t know if you can actually say that with any degree of certainty that you’ll get another chance.

Things could be really fuckin’ weird. Very bizarre things could happen. I truly feel that. Part of me is fascinated by that. It’s inescapable. Every day in the Times the first five stories are about something fucked up that Trump did or said or reacted to. It’s creating a feedback loop. If all you’re throwing up in front of people all the time is Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, the person in the voting booth who’s not so stoked on Clinton and sees his name all the time, thinks why not?

We wrap up our conversation and shake hands. I walk out into the late afternoon sun. My eyes need a minute to adjust to the light. A few hours later, I’m under the ground again, watching Wrekmeister Harmonies perform. In front of a rapt audience, they create 30 unbroken minutes of musical catharsis. Just as quickly, the towering enigma and his multi-instrumentalist foil descend the stage, leaving Robinson’s mystery wholly intact.

“Here we are, docile under your gaze; from our side you have nothing more to fear; no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgment.” ― Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

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