Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Interview with Shelley Salant about 'SHELLS 2'

Shelly Salant's guitar arrangements are much more active than what you'd conceive as ambient music. The way a brook would babble its way through the wilderness, or a buzzy chorus of scattered cicadas, her twice and thrice-looped guitar phrasings crest over each other in a dizzying harmony. She's able to craft something that's calming, even when it's swelling into a storm.

Because these songs are instrumental, and because she's managed to leave each always about halfway-open to improvisational renovations, they naturally evoke the qualities of resplendent, roving daydreams; fitful sonic reveries that manifest themselves free of constraining structure. But they are not structure-less. Salant has been performing her solo guitar adaptations since 2011, and released a full-length, In A Cloud, in 2013.

Tonight (Friday) her performance at Trinosophes celebrates the completion of her latest: SHELLS 2, a follow-up to In A Cloud, produced with Fred Thomas.

To see Salant perform, it might seem like she's in a sort of trance; fittingly, what she's able to do on the fly with a modest pedal board and one guitar, is sufficiently entrancing in itself. Our interview tries to unpack her techniques, which aren't tethered by traditional forms, yet still wind up intertwining surprising and beautiful melodic patterns.

But Salant holds such a storied spot in the Michigan music scene. She's been in bands for more than a decade, all the while diligently attending and supporting countless other artists' performances across the region. She founded her own music label (Ginko Records), she spearheaded The Local Music Show on U-M's WCBN FM in Ann Arbor, and she spent more than a year (and logged a good amount of touring miles) as a member of Tyvek back in 2010-2011.

But between 2011 and 2016, she was also in a band with Fred Thomas (Swimsuit), as well as a trio with Autumn Wetli and Amber Fellows called Rebel Kind. I haven't even gotten to all the shows she booked, and then subsequently promoted; not just with individual show poster designs, but through tireless cataloging of upcoming calendar dates via her culture blog Michigan Happenings. Oh, and then there's the time she spent working at Encore Records in Ann Arbor; you can currently find her at Hello Records here in Detroit.

We've got a lot to talk about!

So, what's your songwriting process? How do you approach it?
I pretty much just let it flow. I'll just play a lot..., and if I come up with an idea I keep returning to, then it will become clear that maybe that's something I want to record. The songs kind of make themselves known. I have a lot of pieces and ideas that are not recorded yet, or that are forgotten... I have many hours of recordings that I haven't gone through and probably never will, but it's all part of the process.

What was your first show as SHELLS?
So, I've actually played guitar since I was 12, but for the first 4-5 years that I was playing in bands I always played drums or bass. I mostly played guitar by myself. I wanted to do a solo thing, but I wasn't sure what I would do. I put out a tape of psychedelic guitar stuff called Old Night. I gave one to Warn Defever and he liked it and asked me to play a solo guitar set at Noise Camp, I think it was in 2011. He put Shells on the flyer, and that was the first Shells show. I realized I could just focus on playing guitar and that was really helpful.

It's just you and your guitar, but there's a lot of effects going on... Can you talk about your set up and about what you're seeking, when it comes to the experience or affect of a song?
I keep the setup pretty minimal, just my guitar, delay/looper, and amp. I'm interested in seeing what I can do with just these elements. This project is my attempt to transmit emotion directly through the guitar. I've always thought that ideally, my live sets would be half totally improvised and half songs/ideas that I return to and play off of. Sometimes I'll play a set that is all improvised and sometimes a set that is just songs. Recently I've been playing more sets that are song based, but the songs are really root ideas that I play off of.

What was it like to shift more towards pre-arranged songs, or pre-determined progressions, melodies, etc...?
I used to think it was boring for me to play the "songs" and not newly improvised stuff... But, over time I've realized it's okay for me to play what I consider to be my best material. I like to use the looper, but I usually don't do more than one or two songs with loops in a set. I just remembered that when I started playing solo shows I always sat down, but now I basically always stand. I've played on really varied bills with this project and I adapt what I'm doing to the context I'm in.

Lots of songs on SHELLS 2 have outdoorsy/nature/travel/location-related titles... Did you write or think up these songs on tour? Or, where is it that you tend to find a formative amount of inspiration?
Nature is always a big inspiration to me. In between the first record and this one, I did a lot of traveling around the country that wasn't touring, so I had a lot of time to explore different areas. A lot of times I take a child's acoustic "travel guitar" and some of the songs start off that way. I have a hard time putting my thoughts into words, and so it's hard to name the songs. The titles named after places are not necessarily written there, but my memory of the place fits the vibe of the song. It's hard to sum up the overarching theme, but this record is definitely very influenced by the places I've been and the people I've known.

So let's get technical... What is on your pedal board? What do you love most about the effects that you do use? Are there prevailing sonic adornments that you are more drawn to than others? In what ways can echo, delay, or reverb...enhance what you're trying to express, musically?
I pretty much just use delay/echo and reverb. I love playing the guitar itself and I don't have the patience or temperament to mess with pedals that much. A lot of people who do instrumental electric guitar stuff have a huge pedal board, but that's not my style. I never use distortion pedals but I like to overdrive the amp. My main setup is just my Kalamazoo guitar through a Line 6 DL-4 pedal, which has a bunch of different kinds of delay and a loop. But these pedals are notorious for breaking so when mine is broken, I have used other delay pedals. I love using real tape delays especially the Echoplex, which I have been fortunate to play and sometimes borrow from Fred. That said, on the new record I used a lot more effects/pedals and different guitars and amps.

What's it like working with Fred Thomas?
Fred is my favorite person to record with because he gets it; he has good ideas and he gives great feedback. I'm a huge fan of all his work, and we have been close friends and collaborators for about ten years now. He's a huge influence on me. I think it's really important when you record to have someone who you trust giving you feedback. Some people when you record with them, they just say "Sounds cool...." no matter what, and it's not very helpful.

The first Shells LP came out on his label, Lifelike...
Shells: I was honored when Fred told me he wanted to put out a Shells LP, and also surprised. Before then I never would have believed in myself or this project enough to think that it was worthy of an LP. I originally thought that the LP would basically be a document of a live set, that I would sit down and record it all in one sitting with no breaks, but that wasn't really working out. I recorded at least 20 hours of material on cassettes, and then I brought some of what I thought was the best stuff to Fred. He helped me edit it and do some post production stuff and some minimal overdubs. Pretty soon it was done and that was the In A Cloud record.

So, in terms of production, what distinguished SHELLS 2 from In A Cloud...?
Shells: Fred suggested that we record it together. I realized that the Shells records and the Shells live shows can be different things. I still use a pretty minimal setup live, but that doesn't mean I can't use other stuff on the records and expand it a bit. I trust Fred, and I was open to trying ideas he had for recording. This record has a lot more multitracking and some other instruments. The first record had very little overdubbing, and the last song has drums but it's mostly just guitar. This new record is still mostly guitar, but a lot more guitars! And some songs have drums and synths. To a "normal" person it probably still seems minimal, but to me I was like "Maybe I went overboard here, maybe this is like Loveless". There's a lot more going on than on the first record.

You live in Detroit, but you're still hosting the Local Music shows on WCBN back in Ann Arbor... And you're still keeping busy with Tyvek...
Yeah, so I still host the Local Music Show on WCBN in Ann Arbor; it's a project I care deeply about. I've also been playing in a punk band/art project called The Vitas for the past couple years. I used to make monthly show calendar flyers and put them around town, and, after a few years of a break from that Greg Baise and I recently started making them again. There's always a lot of great stuff happening in the area, and we want people to know about it! I used to book a lot more shows, and I still enjoy doing that, but in recent times I've been focusing more energy on my own projects.

What is your earliest memory, your most formative moment, in terms of 'getting into the local music scene...'? What set you down the path...?
Shells: One of the first memories I have of going to shows was going to see Fred Thomas, Kelly Caldwell and Eliza Godfrey at the Halfway Inn in Ann Arbor, in March 2004...I was pretty depressed as a teen but going to shows really helped me feel a part of something. I would pretty much go to whatever shows I knew about. So after a couple years of going to shows I wanted to contribute in some way, and so I started booking shows at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor. Pretty soon I graduated high school and was booking shows at my house and pretty much wherever else would agree to do them. I started playing with Charlie Slick and we played a lot of shows. Then I started playing in other bands (Tyvek/Swimsuit/Rebel Kind). 

One last question. Another memory question. Not your first memories, musically... Just, what's your most lasting memory? Something you've never forgotten, something profound, and why it stuck with you...?
I always remember this one: When I was working at Encore we had William Parker play in the store. That was the first of what has now been many in-store shows, and William Parker has in fact played a few more times. This first time was in a trio with Tom Rainey on drums and Tony Malaby on sax. After the performance William Parker was talking to some of us younger folks, and he said "It's alright if you only play note - you just gotta make it your note." 

SHELLS 2 - Release Party on Fri, Dec 8
with Bonny Doon and Kathy Leisen

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