Thalia Zedek & E Are Making Some of Guitar’s Gnarliest Noise
Thalia Zedek, Gavin McCarthy and Jason Sidney Sanford are sitting on a bench beneath an old stone tower outside of Boston as the last rays of dying sunlight set below the hill behind them. It's summer in the city and the three have a new band, the unsearchable E, and they're sitting down to talk about their debut album, the self-titled and similarly unsearchable E.
Zedek's résumé stretches back to No Wavers Live Skull and '90s heavy noise outfit Come; her newest solo album came out in August. McCarthy was in art-core cult heroes Karate. Sanford plays with long running noise-sculptors Neptune. Together they make a cascading assault of dissonance and melody that pushes forward rather than wallowing in complacency and nostalgia.
E captures the malignancy lurking on the edge of 2016 and channels it into an intense and challenging piece of music. E is a piercing, propulsive exercise in the fine art of guitar rock, a collaborative experiment in tension and release that explores the pantheon of punk guitar noise. E will release E November 11 on Thrill Jockey.
When did the three of you start playing together?
Thalia Zedek: It was very organic, right? It was really slow, but I felt really good about that. I didn't want to rush it. We had this guy, Alec Tisdale, who is a very talented drummer ... He's a little accident-prone, as well as being a nationally coveted projectionist, so when he wasn't at various film festivals in Tahoe and Telluride and places like that, he also had a broken elbow and a broken leg.
Jason Sidney Sanford: "Accident-prone" isn't a euphemism. He was actually having accidents.
TZ: Then we ended up parting ways, because he was really busy with his projectionist career. Me and Jason, we wanted to tour, and he never wanted to tour. Then unbeknownst [to us], we were like, "Who should we ask?" And [leans toward Gavin] you used to come to our shows ...
Gavin McCarthy: I was really into them. I was like, "It's so weird they don't have a bass player." I think one show, I was watching them rocking out, thinking, well, "What if I played bass for this band?" I was imagining sauntering up to Jason and suggesting that I join the band as a bass player, because at the time, I wasn't really in an active band.
Within a couple weeks of that fantasy, I guess you'd call it, Thalia texted me and was like, "Do you want to come play drums?" Which is good, because I'm actually a drummer and not a bass player, so I sort of know what I'm doing playing drums. Bass, I would be flubbing my way through it.
How do you guys go about writing songs? Where do your songs start?
JSS: It's collaborative and organic, and I would say there's no fixed method, really ... It's not about, "How do we write a song?" It's just about a process of us asking ourselves, "What does this song mean?" It's really about each song, and letting the song come to life.
GM: I think it's cool, because it's a very specific way of thinking about songwriting. You're not going to have a songwriter, per se. Obviously, it's totally different in sound from, say, Thalia's other songwriting, which to me seems more like a traditional approach. She writes and takes it to the band. I don't know, but in this, it has to work the other way.
JSS: It's almost conversational in the way that the tone voices interact, if that makes sense.
GM: When someone says it's conversational, I always think about a jazz player soloing and trading off; it's not really like that per se, but the writing process is kind of conversational.
TZ: I think we're also — at least me and Jason — I think we're pretty conscious of not playing what the other one is playing. It's not always that common, each [guitar player] having separate parts that work together.
GM: It is a little unorthodox sometimes, at least sitting there watching those two. I like this band because it challenges me to [be] like, "Okay, this is the way it's going to go." There's no bass player for me, the drummer, to take in and play along. I almost have to think more about orchestrating a part for myself, as opposed to an accompanying drum role. I want to have a part that's one-third, as opposed to being an accompanying instrument, the rhythm section.
The album sounds ferocious. Where did you guys record?
GM: We recorded with Andy Hong, a friend of ours, and Kimchi Studios. Kimchi Studios in Cambridge [MA]. Andy's not a quote unquote professional engineer. I mean, he's got the skills of a professional engineer, but that really isn't his job.
JSS: He's been a professional engineer in the past; he's just not currently a professional. He's like a professional everything, actually. He's done it all. He's a pretty amazing guy, and great to work with. I had a really good time.
GM: [It was] really stripped down, in a sense. Our record really does sound like our band playing live. He didn't overdub guitars, except for maybe once, and the vocals, we didn't multi-track vocals, and he didn't make the drums sound bigger than they actually sounded. It just sounds like our band, like in a weird, almost uncanny way. Turn the record up really loud — that's really exactly what those drums sounded like. Any problems with your tone or whatever is all on you, you know?
JSS: "Home studio"'s a weird [term] to apply to Andy's studio. It's got a 500-pound soundproof door with a magnetic seal. I mean, it's not like a typical home studio.
TZ: There's home studios, then there's home studio. It's a home studio in that it's a studio in his home, but it's not a home studio as in, like, someone with their laptop. It's a professional-level studio. He works with Tape Op [magazine], so he's always got tons of equipment in and out of there.
GM: I've heard Andy described as an archivist, actually. He's there to get what the band sounds like. He's not there to be artistic with his plug-ins, for instance. He's there to capture what the band sounds like, and he does it.
You have some intense guitar tones. What are you playing these days?
JSS: Well, I use my homemade guitar. I split the signal and send it to a bass amp and a guitar cabinet. On the record, you hear those two signals pan very slightly from each other, and then live it gets mixed back together. It's supposed to be a very full guitar sound, because what I'm getting is kind of a clean low end, and then a crunchy high end. Then, when that's mixed back together, it's real full; it's got some bite. That's the concept to my guitar sound.
Then I also have a couple little devices. I have a bass oscillator that puts out a real low electronic note, and then I have a bass pedal that's actually something that I stomp on, and it's just got a hacksaw blade inside of it that, when I stomp on it, it vibrates in front of a guitar pickup, and that's tuned to a low E ... I'm playing multiple instruments when I'm stomping on stuff. They're very simple, one-note instruments.
I've tried to expand my thinking about what stomping can do. I mean, stomping's a really natural thing to do when you're playing music, and when you really get going ... a lot of people, they stomp on their stomp box and they turn on a distortion sound, but there's much more that the gesture of stomping can convey, sonically.
TZ: My guitar setup? My guitar sound isn't ... it's secret. It's secret; I can't talk about it. No, my guitar sound is not nearly as interesting. My setup is pretty standard. I play through a Fender twin. I have some pedals that I use. I play a Hagstrom. The Hagstrom 1 is a big part of the sound. It's a unique-sounding guitar. Yeah, I don't have any tricks yet. We need Jason to build me an instrument.
JSS: What do you want?
TZ: I was using a metal chopstick for a while. Will you be able to work it into anything? Yeah, I don't know. Something that makes a big loud noise. Maybe someday I'll get something more interesting. I feel like what I'm playing is — I'm playing very differently from the way I've played. I'm not using anything that you probably couldn't find somewhere else.
JSS: You are using a lot of somewhat subtle, varied textures in terms of distortion and effects.
TZ: Yeah, I have a lot of different types of distortion going on; and I saturate certain things, yeah.
JSS: That's something I don't do much of. I just have this complicated initial setup, but then it's just ... I'm not switching stuff on and off. I have a distortion pedal that I use sometimes.
TZ: You weren't playing your setup when we first started playing together, and I wasn't playing my setup either, so I think through the course of playing with each other, I acquired a few more pedals and got rid of some other stuff, and Jason acquired a few, made a few more instruments.
JSS: We co-evolved.
TZ: I've seen how that stuff's evolved from other art things that you've done. Jason has this gigantic array of instruments that go way beyond just guitars and stuff that he plays. His solo stuff is just crazy stuff. The stuff that he plays in E is the tip of the iceberg.
JSS: We're trying to be ... we're a stripped-down band in that way.
TZ: We try to keep it raw, and not get too arty. There's definitely some things that Jason's been pretty adamant about, like no one play anything prerecorded, not use any samples or anything like that. On the rare occasion that we do use loops, they're always done live, and they're never saved, so everything that happens, happens as played ... I think we challenge ourselves to make things sound interesting without a lot of trickery. I love playing in this band. It's been really, really fun for me, it's really very challenging, and definitely it's ... I've grown a lot as a musician.