The guitarist and co-founder of the legendary ’90s band told The Post Rocker about his return to the stage and the legacy of his brief but compelling discography 20 years after the separation of the band.
In 1998, a little over 20 years ago, a small band originally from Lousville released their third and penultimate album with a prophetic title: Four Great Points. That is, four big points, in reference to the compass rose and the cardinal points.
Why prophetic? Because drummer Doug Scharin, guitarists Sean Meadows and Jeff Mueller and bassist Fred Erksine would end up living in each of the ends of the United States as a now dismembered band.
This complex situation led them to abandon the project in late 90s, prior to the release of their most experimental album, Anahata, to become one of the legendary bands whom critics says help to coin the term “post-rock”.
But what is it that these four men who are in their 50s, living on opposite ends of one of the biggest world countries decide to revive the very band they had decided to finish?
“It seems fair to say none of us thought we were going to play together again,” says Meadow, the man in charge of moving his fingers in a resounding and cacophonous way on his Telecaster strings to give June Of 44 the sound so characteristic of the scene they shared with other emblematic groups such as Slint or Bastro. And apparently something as simple as a friendly invitation to play in Sicily, Italy, was enough for these four rock pirates to decide to raise anchors and sail again back to the stage. Meadow himself reports that last year they were invited to the 30-year celebration of the Italian band Uzeda. This party gave them the impetus they needed to meet after almost 20 years of hiatus and dust off their discography of four albums and two EPs.
“Nobody could find a good reason why we should not accept. I really felt like an honor that Uzeda wanted us to play our music for them. Conceptually, the perspective of interpreting this music in this context really fell deep in us. In short, it just felt good”, the musician adds.
Despite being a band that had just five years of career by then, June Of 44 is to this day one of the projects that laid the foundations of post-rock, math-rock and even certain edges of post-hardcore. In retrospect, Meadow himself recognizes genre labels were never taken seriously and that it all sounded like a kind of joke.
“My high school punk band used to label our own music as ‘Post-Retro’. When I first heard about ‘post-rock’ in Europe in the 90s, I thought it was a joke. We laughed about it. However, in retrospective, it adapts well to our music now. No doubt it describes the sound we made at that time. The term ‘post-rock’ makes more sense to me now than in the past. It is true that I do not care much about gender labels. I like the music that speaks to me, and like a weirdo, music could originate almost anywhere. I’m fine with the term now, but if you asked me to describe our music … We’ve always considered ourselves an ‘experimental rock and roll underground band”.
Your debut, Engine Takes to Water, has a lot of Slint’s Spiderland vibes… But I think this wasn’t the only record you were listening, what albums do you consider were essential influence for that album?
Jeff (Mueller) is from Louisville and is closely connected to the scene that produced Slint so that influence is there but the rest of us were not involved in that early Louisville scene and so, Doug (Scharin), Fred (Erskine) and I had, all of us, very different back grounds. I was exposed to a ton of new music (new to me) through those guys. With the passing of Mark Hollis a few weeks ago I was reminded that on our earliest tours we all listened very studiously to Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock by Talk Talk. I remember feeling a kinship with the heaviness and ambience of those records, and thinking this is something we should aspire to. I also remember that the funky, klunky, groovy, experimental sounds of the CAN records really were a road sign for us. With as different as all our styles of taste were and what we were all interested in I remember everyone in the van being happy and grooving to Monster Movie by Can.
Well, the 90’s was a decade where a lot of bands reached an incredible creative peak… What difference can you see between the 90’s and today music? (speaking both of an underground scene and the more popular scene).
I’ve always been interested primarily in underground music so most of what i have to say about popular music is dismissive. The internet has radically changed the world, politics, economics and music too. The early 90’s was the end of the pre-internet world so the structure of the underground was what i would call basically academic. You had to study this music and culture to understand it and through out the US and Europe there were people who did this to varying degrees and they all seemed to be at little epicenters of scenes which were part of a collective network. Finding your way in to that community of humans and exploring it was an intoxicating possibility as a young musician and fan of music. For me what seems to have shifted is “the underground” is more of an abstract idea now where as in the past it was a place, populated by personalities. Now it seems your band has to have a movie made about it in order for it to be considered important. So for me there is an irony in that the more connected the world is now-it has actually led us to a place where things appear to be operating 2 dimensionally. That’s my perspective anyway, a huge difference for me is 20 years ago you wouldn’t play to an audience of humans staring at their cellphones. When you step on a stage now, through the internet anyone in the world might see a 2D version of your performance. For me that’s a Radical paradigm shift.
Anahata was a kind of controversial album when it came 20 years ago. I remember Pitchfork wrote a very good review about it, but some other bloggers said it was your weakest release. Why do you think that happened?
That’s a good question, I wish I knew the answer. I’ve often wondered myself. That record was experimental for us from start to finish. And honestly in the end I don’t think any of us were happy with it. I’ve tried to get everyone on board on multiple occasions to attempt to re-mix it all. Which even now, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. We worked really hard on that record, we probably over worked it. If Four Great Points was effortless then for Anahata we really labored over not repeating ourselves so we got really experimental. We’d recorded a live jam set at a friends loft party in Boston and Doug made a bunch of really cool loops. So we used those odd loops as the basis for writing some of those songs which was really awkward and unnatural feeling. In retrospect perhaps we should have just put out the loops. Computer editing software was brand new at that time and no one in our band had ever worked on a laptop. In my mind that record is kind of a caveman version of the way music has been made since then. There were no computer screens in studios at that time, if I remember correctly about six months after that every studio everywhere seemed to have computer screens working through audio problems with a new visual tool kit. With anything experimental the risk is supreme failure. I’m proud of our approach and that we were trying to push ourselves and make something unique and new. In the end it feels like we weren’t able to frame all of that experimentation in to a cohesive form. The result is that the record feels a bit directionless which we genuinely were by that time.
Directionless? Something like shipwreck? Well, most of your albums have themes related to the sea and ships …
Yes. I supose is something like a pleasant representational form of a vehicle? A nostalgic idea of a time gone past? When we set out playing this music I think we certainly all shared a sense of adventure. To this day I’m aching to see new places in the world, to meet new people, to hear new music.
What inspires you to keep playing and doing music?
For me music is a passion. I love listening to the music of others and I find a sense of balance in making music myself. Music is the language I choose to engage my fellow human beings.
Are you writing new music or do you want to write new music? (for June or side-projects).
When we played last year we re-structured some of our arrangements to our songs that seemed to make them make more sense to us now. As far as new music goes, we all have a lot of material we’ve worked on separately that could potentially be synthesized in to a new record. But we live from coast to coast spread out across the United States so getting together to put the proper time and effort in to doing this might not be feasible. Our record label Quarterstick Records is not currently involved in putting out new music so I don’t know where we would find the funds to embark on such a journey. We’re all still involved in music to varying degrees but I’d rather not go in to “side-projects” as I’ve always felt talking about side-projects tends to fracture the focus on the band. In short it would be cool to make a new record but I have no idea if that is actually possible.
Do you still read Henry Miller?
I read all of his work in my teens and early twenties. A few of the titles I’ve revisited and read again. A few years back I had a job driving across the U.S. from New York City to Las Vegas. We made 6 trips back to back, Peter Simonelli and I. Who ever wasn’t driving would read out loud in the stretches we were resting from listening to endless music. Somewhere in the middle there we read Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller. To me that book is still really timeless and beautiful. Not only is it a book about being a struggling artist trying to find a voice, or being an American trying to come to terms with a broader humanity in an emerging global capitalist framework willing to mill cultures in to dust in order to house all our desires in shopping malls, it’s more a book about being alive. Truly alive.
Henry Miller is famous for his salacious early novels but if you read his later work you won’t find the raunchy material many people associate with his name. You’ll find a poet still at play, you’ll find a monastic hermit in contemplation. You’ll find an artist attempting to have a dialog across epochs with thinking from antiquity through to the 20th century. What was always most attractive to me about Henry Miller was not the stories about his carnal exploits. What was most attractive was with this intelligence, this man tried to turn his life in to a work of art. It would appear to me the formula was maintaining an unpretentious child like sense of play and brutal honesty. As an older man riding in an airplane, the hum of the engines and the white noise caused Miller to remark that he had heard The Music of the Spheres, by which it is believed he meant the music of the planets and sun emanating through out the cosmos. Maybe it was only Tinnitus but it seems to me he tried to live not just his youth but his entire life free from convention. At my age now I realize I’m involved in a sort of projection but I still find him inspiring. The harmonic structure of the Universe has been commented on plenty and studied widely. See, The Cosmic Octave by Hans Cousto. The Universe isn’t built by war or with money, apparently the structure is musical.
Sean gave us this exclusive photograph that had never been published. It was taken by filmmaker Anne Misawa in Catania, Sicily, during one of her last shows in 1999
You can read the interview in spanish here