Mind Over Mirrors Go From One-Man Operation to Full-On Band
Beginning with his days in the classification-defying, noise-making trio Peeesseye (with guitar hero Chris Forsyth) in the early-aughts Brooklyn DIY underground, Jaime Fennelly has found himself on a nomadic quest, venturing forth to realize his singular, sound-disembodying otherworld as Mind Over Mirrors. It’s taken soul-searching stints on a secluded island in Washington State and in Wisconsin’s Driftless region, but Fennelly’s vision has ultimately been manifested through the Indian pedal harmonium-fueled dronescapes perfected on his recently released stunner, Undying Color (Paradise of Bachelors).
However, Fennelly would need to bolster his already imposing arsenal in order for Undying Color to reach its gloriously droning sonic heights. For the bulk of Mind Over Mirrors’ oeuvre, he’s been the sole ringleader of his operation — that is, until 2015, when Haley Fohr (of Circuit des Yeux and Jackie Lynn fame) cameoed on The Voice Calling. Now, on Undying Color and an upcoming tour, Fennelly has embraced the full-band concept, and alongside Fohr, has enlisted an all-star cast of fellow Chicago comrades, including Janet Beveridge Bean (Eleventh Dream Day), Jim Becker (Califone) and Jon Mueller (Death Blues).
That full-blown Mind Over Mirrors band experience has resulted in a feathery and trance-like sound-world that bubbles over with psychedelic and folky textures, and patterns that are positively mind-bending. The swooshes, buzzes and hums that Fennelly gushes from his harmonium and synths freely meld into Becker’s twangy fiddle, and Bean and Fohr’s angelic voices prove dreamlike yet unsettling, as evidenced by the ecstatic barn dance "Restore and Slip" and the slow-burning, 12-minute dirge “Gravity Wake.”
CLRVYNT called Fennelly at home in Chicago to talk about his transition from one-man band to the quartet he’s going to be touring with soon, fitting into the Chicago scene and how Becker’s fiddle was such a natural fit in Mind Over Mirrors.
You assembled a stellar lineup of fellow Chicago mainstays to play on Undying Color.
It’s a really awesome band, and since we’ve recorded the record, now four-fifths of the people on that album have been doing live shows together. It’s been really cool figuring out how to play the music as a cohesive band.
Is this the first time you’re branching out into a full-band as Mind Over Mirrors? I know that you and Haley have played and toured together.
Yeah, after I finished the last record that Haley was on, we did two one-to-two-week-long tours in 2015; then I did a three-week solo tour opening for Tortoise last spring.
I saw you open for Tortoise at Littlefield in Brooklyn last year. You were set up on the floor in the middle.
When I play solo, that’s what I usually do. But with the full band, and when I was doing that with Haley, we’d set up on the floor. But figuring out how to do the sets that are more related to Undying Color with the full band, it’s like a whole other beast. Jon Mueller and Janet Bean are both playing drums, so there’s a double drums thing going on.
Did touring with Tortoise inspire you to use your own two-drummer setup? Those guys use two drummers in their live set.
I wouldn’t say it directly inspired me. I’ve been a big fan of Tortoise for a long time, and I like bands that have multiple drummers. I think that the major reason that that came up was that Jon recorded all the drums on Undying Color, and he did a lot of multiple takes. When we started talking about how to play the sets live, and Janet had already been involved in the record, it was a really easy thing to figure out. It was like, “Janet can play the drum parts along with Jon, and they can do them together,” and therefore it’s not like a super-stripped-down version of the drum parts that are on the records, and we can actually play the drum parts pretty much as dense as the record, if not even more elaborated on.
Did you record Undying Color in a piecemeal sort of way? Like everyone recorded their parts, and then it was spliced together? Or was it recorded as a band live in the studio?
I recorded all of my own harmonium and synthesizer material right before the studio sessions. There was a two-week period of time in December 2015 going into January 2016 that I spent [at] our friend’s property in the Driftless region of Wisconsin in this cabin. I whittled it down to six hours of material over the course of recording my own material for a year, and then started communicating with everyone about what tracks I thought I’d want each person to be on, and what I was thinking that maybe they could contribute to each track. Then, in the studio, each person recorded their contributions one at a time. Then there’s some brass, French horn and trombone on “Gravity Wake.” Those two things were recorded together. But, yeah, it was pretty piecemeal.
Did you initially have the band you wanted to play on Undying Color in mind, or did it just fall into place because they're all in Chicago?
I strangely did actually have them in mind from the beginning. I obviously had been working with Haley already, but I had been talking with Janet and Jim about working with them in some capacity in Mind Over Mirrors. So, when I started making the material for the record on my own, I started thinking of expanded instrumentation beyond Haley’s vocals. Jon and I had also started working together in a project of his already, so we had been formulating our own working musical relationship, as well. It was obvious that Jon should definitely be involved in this; we’re together already.
Why did you think the timing was right to let more musicians into Mind Over Mirrors? It’s mostly been a one-person operation.
It was kind of a gradual process that was also really quite organic. I think it was also through economy. When I first started working on Mind Over Mirrors, it was solo because I moved off of this island in the Pacific Northwest, and I was living in Seattle for a little bit less than a year before I moved to Chicago in 2010. So, there was a time in Seattle, and then moving to Chicago, that I wanted to have an outlet of my own that was not necessarily connected to making work with other people because, in part, I wasn’t really connected to any specific community of people at that time. In the early 2000s, I played music, and was one-third of this band Peesseye, and I also collaborated a lot with Miguel Gutierrez, who’s a contemporary dance choreographer and performer. I always made work in relationship to a greater whole, rather than as my own entity. So, when I started Mind Over Mirrors, I wanted to really focus on what I could do on my own and develop that. I did that for the first few years, but all along the way as I was making that music, I was always hearing other instruments within that music, abstractly.
What was it you were actually envisioning?
I was imagining trying to make sounds that seemed as if they were choral vocals, but without using voice or fiddle; bow strings, but without having a violin or fiddle player that I’m working with. It’s a process that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, and when I met Haley, it was really clear. She’s such an amazing performer and has such a incredible range in her voice that I was like, “Oh, we should definitely try this out,” and both her and I were like, “Yes, this is really working quite well.” That was the beginning of that process. Along the way, before meeting Haley, I had also been playing with some other people and trying things out, but nothing really stuck ... in a long-term meaningful way. When I started making this piece, I knew I wanted to expand upon what I’d been doing, bringing in Haley with her vocal contributions; I was thinking about doubling up on vocals. At the time, I had been working with Jon with some of his music, and I felt like there was a musical kinship, and his solo performances are also quite stunning and performative and immersive. He also seemed like a really obvious person to bring in, and Jim I’d been playing with on and off, here and there. It was pretty organic; I felt really connected to where I was imagining things going, but hadn’t yet really figured out how to realize it yet.
It seems like you’ve fit into the Chicago scene. Did you not find that elsewhere, such as your time in Seattle?
It was just so short, my time there. I had some good friends up in Vancouver, and there was a few people in Seattle that I was friendly with and whose music I enjoyed. But it’s that whole thing when you move somewhere and, especially as you get a little bit older, it takes, I feel, a little bit longer to find the zone that resonates with you, rather than, “Oh, I’m up for whatever.” I moved to Chicago when I was 30, and I definitely feel like it took three of four years before it started feeling like I had started figuring out what my own presence here meant to myself. When I was making Mind Over Mirrors music, it was so inspired by this time that I spent in the Pacific Northwest, specifically on this island in the San Juan Islands. At a certain point, I really started also thinking, “Well, what does it mean to be making work that’s always referencing back to this period of time?” That’s not the only meaningful experience that I’ve ever had. It was quite profound when I was there, and it left a deep mark on my consciousness and soul. But that experience can also be found elsewhere. I think it’s also important to be present where you’re at. Chicago is a really much more balanced city than a lot of places that I’ve lived before, just because, like, when I lived in Bushwick, you know, Brooklyn is Brooklyn, and it’s expensive, and you always have to move and find the right deal, do crazy hustling, which is where it is. In the Northwest, I moved to a different type of island, like a real island, and that was this whole other scene that was fantastic, but also culturally not really connected with my past.
How difficult is it to adapt to a full-band situation going from the solitary existence you’ve led for some time now?
When I was playing solo, it would be a range. I’ve definitely done European and U.S. tours where I’m driving around by myself, which can be super-intense. It’s also really cool to relinquish power, to delegate, to trust people, and to be able to play music with other people. I kind of crave the scenario and the environment and various ingredients. I’m not trying to operate in this really strict way. It would be impossible to do that in the way that I was doing that.
Haley played on the last Mind Over Mirrors record, and she plays on Undying Color. Do you credit her with kind of broadening the band and its vision into what it’s become now?
She was the first person that I really had a substantial working relationship with in Mind Over Mirrors, so seeing how that could function and what [her voice] does to the music, it was like a step-by-step process. It definitely helped inform how I could move forward in working with other people, for sure.
The fiddle on Undying Color really melds seamlessly into your harmonium-driven sound.
Jim’s a total powerhouse, and knows how to play everything from really super-deep drone music to barn dance-style, old-timey fiddle music. I don’t remember which piece it was, but we were talking about it afterwards and he’s like, “Yup, playing all these barn dances really makes it a lot easier to play all these fast, rhythmic fiddle parts for really long periods of time.”
Did you think fiddle could work within your sound-world?
Oh yeah, definitely. Jim and I, at some point in the last couple years, got together here at my house and recorded a piece that I was working on that was the piece that I was playing, like when you saw me at Littlefield. Part of that set, he and I also recorded together at my house. It was the first time that we played together, playing my material. It was just really immediate. We were both like, “Yep, this totally works. We should be doing this a lot more.”
You’re going on tour this year. Will it be a full-band thing?
We’re working on dates now. Got a couple of dates in the spring, we’ve got a record release with Brokeback in Chicago, and then we’re doing a couple dates with 75 Dollar Bill in Chicago and Milwaukee. Those dates will be full-band. I’m aiming for the live dates for a while to be full-band dates.
Do you plan on alternating between a quartet and a one-man band thing?
As of right now, it’s really focused on the quartet, and I haven’t signed on to doing any solo shows for the time being. If there was the right opportunity and it didn’t make sense to bring the whole band, then I would consider doing the solo. I still love playing solo; it’s just not necessarily what I’ve been focusing [on] over the last year. I did with the Tortoise tour, but in terms of the record, I think it’s cool to push it further with the group and see what happens as the group starts playing a lot more together as a working band.
So, you’re not retiring the one-person band permanently just yet.
No, but there might be a pause. For all I know, something could pop up tomorrow, like, “You wanna do a solo tour with whoever?” And I would consider it. In terms of my own ability to push things forward, I’m pushing for the full-band experience.
MIND OVER MIRRORS on TOUR
Apr. 6 — Milwaukee, WI @ Acme Records - w/ 75 Dollar Bill, Sue Garner
Apr. 8 — Chicago, IL @ Hideout - w/ 75 Dollar Bill, Sue Garner
Apr. 29 — Louisville, KY @ Dreamland*
Apr. 30 — Asheville, NC @ the Mothlight*
May 1 — Raleigh, NC @ Kings*
May 2 — Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter*
May 3 — Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda’s*
May 4 — Brooklyn, NY @ Union Pool*
May 12 — Chicago, IL @ Empty Bottle - w/ Kikagaku Moyo
* with Brokeback