The hope persists that we’ll have many more of the type of listening experiences – deep, immediate, strange and lovely – in our lives as we have when listening to the “Ashram to the Stars” album by Herbcraft.
More than once, we have attempted without success to describe the music of Herbcraft. Let’s do it one more time. Or perhaps … let’s not. Listen: they’re called Herbcraft, and their second album is called “Ashram to the Stars.” You’re kind of either in or you’re out with just that much in your dossier.
And if you’re in, you’re in all the way. After listening to “Ashram to the Stars” for the first time, you may find yourself unable to resist listening again, immediately. After listening for the second time, you may find it sounding differently than you remembered. After listening for the third time, you may find yourself contemplating the practicalities of time travel – because you’re reasonably certain that between the dead-heavy bass line march in the opening track (“Fleet Guru”) and the penultimate track, a 12-minute distorted devotional known as “Mass,” you had escaped completely from the illusion of time.
And after taking a little break, you may find yourself returning to “Ashram to the Stars” yet again. You may confirm to yourself that there are moments within this album that make your eyes well with tears. You may not be able to discern whether it’s the beauty of the music, the utter ease with which it seems to have been made or – a less poetic but no less reasonable reaction – just the way the music reviews and reveals whatever portions of your own head it intersects with from the very moment it enters your big, goofy, growing-older-by-the-minute ears.
And after listening precisely thirty-three and one-third times to “Ashram to the Stars,” you may decide to ask a few questions of its creator, Matt Lajoie, and thrill to the clarity and honesty of his answers.
When considering your own development as both a musician and a music listener, is there a certain period of time for which you feel the deepest connection? If so, does that period of time coincide with listening to a certain artist or group of artists? Or do you feel you spend more time looking forward as a musician, rather than looking back?
Really everything that I do is in the context of what’s revolving around me and what I’m digging at the moment. I’m constantly searching for new stuff and everything that crosses my path leaves its mark. But there are lots of things from my early childhood that still resonate with me today – my father was a guitarist in bands when I was growing up, and I still remember huddling around record players and tape decks with him, listening to CCR and Beatles and Young Rascals records while he worked out the chords and lyrics. Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac were two artists that I remember my parents playing around the house and in the car a lot, and they remain two huge influences. I was also raised Catholic and a lot of the gothic religious aura that has carried over into Herbcraft comes from the feeling I had as a child trying to understand these huge unknowable sacred concepts. That may still be the biggest subliminal influence on what I’m doing today. The next step in getting furthur-out happened in my early-20s, when I was learning Mbira and West-African and Afro-Cuban music and dance, which also coincided with interning at Time-Lag Records and learning about so much far-out music from Nemo. Those Satwa and Marconi Notaro records he reissued around that time were the most essential platters to my budding interest in esoteric music.
What was your first experience playing music with other people? How do you think that experience – and those that have come after – impact the music you are creating now with Herbcraft?
When I was about fourteen my friends and I formed our first rock band, doing cover songs in the garage, playing summer festivals and stuff in our hometown. It’s a tiny town, so we were really the only young band doing rock tunes. We were really committed to learning songs, like getting the tablature from the internet and playing along with the recordings till we got it right. After a couple years of that, I really wanted to start writing our own songs but no one else was really interested, especially since people in town liked us because we played stuff they knew. So that led to me borrowing friends’ 4-tracks and starting to write and record songs solo with overdubs, even though I was the worst guitarist and worst singer in the band, haha… And that’s really the space that I come back to when the group trip becomes a hassle to organize; the solo mind is my sanctuary. I know the music sounds better when there’s a full band contributing, but it’s tough to organize schedules and I don’t particularly like rehearsing. I think of solo Herbcraft and full-band Herbcraft as two separate things entirely – if i tried to do an album that was half-solo and half-full-band it’d be a disaster.
The biggest difference with Herbcraft compared to the earlier bands I was in is that now I require a heavy quotient of improvisation in both live shows and on record. It’s become the only kind of music that really excites me. Perfection in a traditional sense is the absolute most boring thing in music, it’s the danger and “wrong-ness” of improvisation that makes things interesting.
How did Herbcraft come to be in its current state? Did you have any experience playing with the band members in other projects? How has the concept (for lack of a better term) of the band evolved over time – or has there ever been anything as defined as a “concept” for Herbcraft?
Originally Herbcraft was just me recording by myself in my bedroom, as a totally solo venture. Of course, as soon as I wanted to play live shows that all changed. The current Herbcraft band are all folks I’ve played with for years. Nick Barker (drums, synth) and Corinna Marshall (dulcimer, flute, vocals) have a band called Tempera, which I’ve occasionally played with over the years. I met Ian Paige (bass, guitar) when I first moved to Portland and he had a band called White Light that I sometimes contributed to, and when we met CK (vocals, percussion) the three of us started a project called Planets Around the Sun, which sometimes included Dawn Marna (organ, synth). While this was going on, Cursillistas was primarily my solo project that then blossomed into a full live band including most of the folks now playing in Herbcraft at various times, gradually officially becoming a duo with Dawn. So we’ve had a lot of experience together in various incarnations, each project with a significantly different point-of-view, and being comfortable in all those different settings helped us evolve as collaborators to where we are today with Herbcraft. But probably the biggest underlying factor to our group dynamics comes from the fact that we’ve all been sharing a house together in Maine for years. So we’re constantly around each other, turning each other on to new music and concepts, letting it all ebb and flow naturally into one giant pool of influence to draw from, and you know, like, making dinner together.
What is the significance of the name Herbcraft for you? How often do you receive email requesting assistance with plant-based medicinal solutions?
That hasn’t happened even once yet! But we’d be prepared to answer some queries for sure – especially Corinna, who has studied it extensively and possesses a vast wealth of herb-knowledge that she is always willing to share. We all have a deep respect and admiration for the gifts the plant world provides for us, and since the days of Cursillistas we’ve taken herbal tinctures before shows and recording sessions to calm nerves and enhance non-verbal vibrational communication. Sacred basil (which we named one of our side-projects after), damiana, kava, California poppy, valerian, sage, nettles, etc. are utilized regularly in our lives, and frankincense and myrrh are often burned ceremonially during recording, rehearsing, and performances. When the first Herbcraft recordings were coming together, it felt important to me to choose a name that had a deep spiritual and emotional resonance with our everyday life, but also a name that could be reasonably believed to be a long-lost psych band from the 1970s. I was actually kind of surprised that the name had never been used before, so I snatched it up and didn’t really think twice about it.
Your recently released album “Ashram to the Stars” is by any measure a stunning piece of work. Was there anything in particular you were looking to accomplish or communicate with this release differently than Herbcraft had on previous efforts? Is it appropriate to think of the song “Get Esoteric” as a command to the listener – or to the world at large?
I started recording Ashram shortly after the first several reviews of the “Herbcraft Discovers … Agartha” LP came in, when I was kind of surprised that that album was consistently being called “stoner music” and “blissed out” and things like that. To me it was a very serious, dark, heavy record, but it somehow didn’t come across that way. So I wanted to make an album that took the spiritual concepts I was interested in seriously, but in a more-direct way, one that was edge-of-consciousness but couldn’t possibly be considered blissed-out. In that spirit, “Get Esoteric” was an inversion of “get comfy”, and was intended less as a command for the listener or the world than as a personal mantra, one that I hoped would give listeners a hint as to how to read the album. I got curious about Aleister Crowley and was listening to Alan Watts lectures constantly, studying astrology and reading books like Steppenwolf, The Tao of Wu, and Shambhala, and these all coalesced into the album’s overall themes. It’s probably the loneliest album I’ve ever made, in large part because Dawn was on the West Coast and I was missing her a lot, but it’s also explicitly about personal liberation thru solitude, and how that can in turn prepare you for exhibiting compassion for the outside world. The album was meditation for me, inward psi-travel as a contemporary Westerner into ancient esoterica with the intent to communicate what I learned as naturally as possible, which meant almost total improvisation. Most of the music and lyrics–whether sung or spoken–were improvised on this album. For the spoken-word sections I would induce a trance-state and then rap a stream-of-consciousness sermon, and it didn’t matter to me if the words couldn’t be made out because I was into it being sort of like a positive subliminal message. Somewhere in-between Father Yod and Sergius Golowin or something. The trance is easy to get to when I’m going off on a guitar solo, but getting there is much tougher when I’m trying to use language. That was a major difference from the first album – I used Admiral Byrd’s diary for all lyrics and themes for the “Agartha” LP, and they were all written and planned out before I started recording. This one was totally off-the-cuff.
What can you tell us about the significance of the album title? Historically, an ashram has been a place used not only for spiritual retreat and learning, but also for direct instruction in academic disciplines and even warfare. In what areas – either musically, personally or both – did you learn most about during the construction of “Ashram to the Stars”?
I actually had the title months before I started working on the album – it was a phrase that came to me in a dream. It didn’t have an exact meaning to me until the recordings were coming together. During those months I spent most of my time alone in my room, reading, studying, listening undistractedly to records, playing guitar, watching smoke rings curl, learning how to breathe properly, enjoying silence. I didn’t have a car at the time so I was walking everywhere and time just seemed to expand and slow down. I was learning to break myself from the concepts of “time” and “work”, and once you’ve done that there’s no turning back. We’re caught up in a latticework of imaginary frames and goals and restrictions, but the more you divorce yourself from the outside world and realize the limitations of following a straight path, the universe begins to open. Improvised psychedelic music is the best way I know how to commune with the universe, and I was practicing this concept from the sanctuary of my bedroom, so that sort of gave meaning to the title.
The specific areas of music I was studying at the time were 70s Japanese psych-rock and 70s-early-80s dub and reggae. Though the dub influence is nearly non-existent on a sonic level, its abstraction of the song-form was supremely liberating to me in creating the “songs” on this album. It’s also a big reason why this is the first Herbcraft release to feature bass guitar. The Japanese rock element was important in refracting Western rock & roll and free-jazz thru a specifically Eastern spiritual/mystical lens; bands like Taj Mahal Travellers, Far East Family Band, and especially the album “Ceremony~Buddha Meet Rock” were all hugely influential.
Would you care to comment on the rumor (the rumor that I am attempting to start right now) that you are currently recording a krautrock-influenced alternate soundtrack to the Disney children’s film “The Love Bug,” to be released under the name “Herbie-Craft”?
What music have you been listening to lately? Push comes to shove, what is your favorite Ash Ra Temple album?
Lately it’s been a lot of Funkadelic, Sandy Bull, CCR, Love, dub & reggae, and old soul singles. I love the stuff from 70s Ghana that’s been reissued recently, specifically Marijata and Psychedelic Aliens. The newly-released archival Bobb Trimble LP, “The Crippled Dog Band,” is killer. I’ve been playing the new Peaking Lights and Woods albums a lot, and MV & EE are constantly on the turntable. Man, I don’t know if I can pick a single Ash Ra album … “Join Inn” probably hit me hardest most-recently. I love them but theirs is a particularly deep trip, one that I’m not prepared to take on a regular basis.
A quote from Henry David “Don’t Call Me Thor!” Thoreau –
“Men profess to be lovers of music, but for the most part they give no evidence in their opinions and lives that they have heard it.”
What does this quote mean to you? What evidence do you hold inside yourself for how music has, in effect, changed and defined you as a person?
Well, since Thoreau never lived thru the recorded music era, let alone the pop music era, it’s tough for me to get to the bottom of his meaning and apply it to today. What I think he means is that music, as a form of art, should put people in touch with concepts of grace, majesty, emotional resonance, freedom, open communication, extrasensory zones, experimentation, improvisation, etc. but most people still live their lives with total disregard for these concepts. To be fair, this applies to most musicians as well as listeners, it’s across the board, sort of just part of the modern human condition. Music is art and entertainment in one package, which is tricky – some people care way more about the art side and others are in it purely for entertainment, and you can’t expect everyone to have their lives changed by a Pharoah Sanders cut. But my life was changed by Pharoah Sanders, and King Tubby, and David Crosby, and hundreds, even thousands of other musicians… any time someone gives themselves up to the unknowable void that inspires creation and sends a transmission back, that’s like contact with the divine, and my soul requires it. But most people are just too distracted and bound by the web of worldly desire to care about any of this, they just kind of want background noise, or a pop song that’s essentially a greeting card or diary entry that substantiates their own trip. It’s cool, religion’s not for everyone either. But I bet Thoreau woulda gotten down with some Pharoah, and you better believe it’d be on vinyl.
What’s next for Herbcraft?
Unfortunately we’ve got two major members leaving the band today – Ian and CK have moved out of our house and are taking Planets Around the Sun on the road indefinitely. So it’ll take a few months to figure out where to go next. But before they left, we recorded an entire new album and then some, so the next Herbcraft LP will be an all-analog full-band affair that we’ll work on finishing up through the rest of this year. We’ll keep playing shows to support “Ashram to the Stars” for the next few months and I’m sure the next direction for the band will reveal itself and unfold naturally.