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Greg WeeksListening to 'Awake Like Sleep' is like getting lost inside a dream. One you remember after you wake, long after. Greg Weeks' latest record is a strange, dark journey through a haze of mellotron and Moog-soaked melodies, guided along by Weeks's quiet, understated voice. Its tone betrays the melancholy of its creator, which should surprise no one who has had the fortune of hearing his previous efforts, 1998's 'Fire in the Arms of the Sun' and 2000's 'Bleecker Station' EP. While the move away from the acoustic guitar-based constructions of those records may quiet the Nick Drake comparisons, the new sonic explorations of 'Awake Like Sleep' reveal the depth of Weeks's songwriting talent. Unexpected details - a pensive flute solo, a few falling piano chords, a pregnant pause - command complete attention, dream-like.
by Mary McDowell / pictures by Laurent Orseau
"Sleep, those little slices of death. How I loathe them"
The epigraph to 'Awake Like Sleep' is a line by Poe, whose work evokes a certain claustrophobic intensity not unlike this album. Although the writer has not been a direct inspiration, Weeks admits that
"that particular quote has stuck with me since grade school, where I first heard it. The idea that someone could blame sleep for being like death was shocking to me. Shocking because I had never before then made the connection, and it was a frightful realization."
Also brilliantly disturbing is the record's cover: Greg sits in a stark white field of snow beside a bloodied knife. A few footprints away lies another Greg, face down in a pool of blood.
"I was trying less to be self-reflexive with the cover image than faithful to my love of the horror genre," he explains.
"The cover is destined to be misunderstood, but I never meant for it to be a suicide theme. It's all about destroying parts of yourself that you despise or otherwise wish you could tear down or disown. Well, that and red blood on white snow. Heh."
On the album he also quotes Louis Malle's 'The Fire Within'.
"I think film holds great sway with indie musicians in general," he offers when I ask how his interest in film informs his songwriting.
"There are so many examples. Take Stereolab's use of the obscure Japanese film 'Emperor Tomato Ketchup', or Pram's nod to Maya Deren on Meshes, for instance. For me, a film experience can be as valid as a real life experience, provided the internal change within the viewer is an honest one. And since I'm interested in writing about what's happening within myself internally, inevitably there'll be mention of the artform in my material... [The songs with film references often] relate to images that kept with me after the lights went up. Like with Tin Angel Of Death, off the first record, the image of the female lead from 'Travolta And Me' burning down her parents' store, and the entire ice-rink scene kept nagging at me. It was as if I needed to process the images and related emotions through songwriting in order to shake them loose of my psyche.'
If these images have stuck in his mind, so have certain live performances been particularly affecting:
"Smoke performing at the Cooler after a Cat Power show was one instance. This show was the live debut of the 'Moon Pix' material, which in itself was the single greatest Cat Power show I've ever witnessed, so the atmosphere was already charged, but I dare say that Smoke upstaged Cat Power that evening. Benjamin has since died, and the band has broken up, but the intensity of Benjamin's delivery, his raw, honest emotions, and the seemingly telepathic exchanges between the players had me in awe of the entire spectacle. Slant Six at the old Knitting Factory back in '94/'95 was another high point for me. There was a lot of energy at that show, and it was absolutely contagious. Plus, so much seemed possible through music back then. It was as if every band was a possible saviour, or a champion of the scene."
I ask if he intentionally changes his approach with each new release, or if any departures from his previous material are a more natural consequence of his musical development.
"A bit of both, really. I get bored very easily with a style. I'm always anxious to try new sounds and approaches. To an extent I do this within each song, sometimes experimenting by eliminating breaks or bridges, and fashioning a solid, repetitive melody line throughout; or by setting a structural goal for myself, and seeing how close to the goal I can come. It's easy for songwriters to get stuck in the verse-chorus-verse rut, and I like to think I avoid that stagnancy through the evolution of my abilities, as well as through a forced reassessment of what a song should be. It's not easy to follow this line of style transmutation, though, because you constantly feel the pressure of expectation. Every time you evolve stylistically you risk the loss of past fans. And when you work on a microscopic indie level - a level I'd say even the major indies qualify as inhabiting - every supporter is valued, almost on a personal level. Letting down fans can be crushing. I used to avoid performance for fear of fucking up, now I'm terrified of giving fans a bad show. It's hard to live with yourself after something like that."
If the stylistic changes on 'Awake..' have
"some old fans scratching their heads a bit", those fans haven't had a chance to witness the live performance of 'Awake...' in all its Moog-infused glory. Gig-wise, Weeks has attempted very few of the album's songs
"due to their difficulty in reproducing live. Mellotrons and Moogs are in short order, given their expense, and string players don't come cheap either," he laments.
"In the studio I beg and borrow musicians and instruments - not to mention engineers - which leaves me floundering in a live scenario. Still, I've got some talented friends, and I seem to manage some interesting line-ups for playing live in different areas. Most of my shows consist of unreleased songs, stuff for forthcoming records."
"[There were a couple of European shows] in relation to VPRO, the Dutch radio station based in Amsterdam. The first performance was for Amstel Fest, and it remains the highpoint of my brief career as a live performer. The audience was phenomenal, the other bands were excellent, and the atmosphere was magical. That show gave me the momentum to move forward in a live capacity. It also gave me the courage to shoot for music as a career. The second performance was for Crossing Borders, and that didn't go so well. I felt a lot of pressure to live up to people's expectations, real or imagined, and that ultimately stifled my abilities as a performer. However, surviving the emotional fallout of that gig pushed me into assembling larger backing bands, so as to greater realise the sonic possibilities of the material in a live setting. Also, more folks on stage means less pressure, more fun, and a better performance. So, I feel I'm in a good head these days, regarding performance. I'm ready to win over the hearts of millions."
Given the shift in instrumentation on 'Awake Like Sleep' away from the guitar-based melodies of the previous records, what new freedoms have keys-based instruments given his songwriting?
"Writing on a keyboard is just a world away from composing on guitar," he says.
"It's a mood thing. I'm tapping into another part of my brain when I get a keyboard drone going. It's just a different set of sounds and dynamics involved. The first time I seriously tried to write a song on a keyboard I was like, 'Woah, I've never sounded like this before. And now I can do this with my voice. Wow.' And for someone like me, who mostly writes through an instrument - as opposed to a pre-existing mind melody - the medium has a profound effect on the end result of composition."
This is evident from Weeks's vocal delivery on 'Awake Like Sleep'; the way his voice interacts with the Omnichord on Past Four Corners is particularly striking. To this listener, some really interesting moments on the album also occur when he harmonizes with himself, and there are almost chorale-like elements in The One True Song. Does he see himself experimenting more with vocal harmonies in the future?
"Yeah, those are some of my favorite moments as well. I love doing vocal harmonies, and experimenting with voices in general. That's why I think Dave Fischoff is so amazing - the stuff he does with his voice on record is completely inspirational. So, sure, I'm always up to the challenge of making a vocal track more complex and perhaps bizarre, but the studio is a funny place. One tends to get conservative in the face of the unknown, and it's not always easy to let go and make yourself vulnerable in that situation."
'Awake Like Sleep' achieves a definite cohesiveness which suggests it was written during a very specific period, and Weeks acknowledges that
"the majority of the material was written on a shit-brown chord organ in my microscopic East Village apartment. They came together very quickly, though I don't have a concise recollection of whether it was weeks or a few months. Made was an afterthought, written a day or two before entering the studio. I needed an acoustic track to break things up a bit."
The cohesive dimension also suggests that these songs all came from the same place emotionally:
"Yes, one of abject misery, I'm afraid to say." Not least, but not exclusively, due to the acute arm pain which handicapped his guitar playing.
"Health issues overall had been getting me down. A general unhappiness with my life at the time didn't help. I was disgusted by NYC living, and on top of it all I had my sole means of processing through these problems taken from me: my ability to create and perform music. But, I managed to switch gears, and I think I've struggled from that point on to not let any physical or emotional issues deter me from my ambitions."
Do lyrics come easily?
"Yes, in that I write them straight away and tend not to revisit most of the material. No, in that even if I wanted to revisit some of those lines, it's almost impossible for me to reevaluate and reconfigure lyrics. The more I think about lyrics the less I seem able to get from them."
Are lyrics necessary?
"I think they're necessary in terms of engaging the audience. Not to undermine the value of instrumental music, but most listeners relate more closely to songs with a distinctly human component to them. This is why there are very, very few instrumental pop hits. Popcorn and Frankenstein are the two which come to mind. The value of the lyric is that it acts as instrument and touchstone. No other instrument - aside from the Theramin, perhaps - can make that claim."
What is the most beautiful sound?
"Wind through tall grass or trees. Second to that would be a snowfall on a still winter's night. Third would be rain against any surface, or the lapping of water on a lakeshore."
Sounds which are pretty alien to NYC life (well, except the rain). He is now living in upstate NY, and I ask if he is happy there. Was the move to get 'back to nature'?
"I wish I was getting back to nature. Currently I reside in a city smaller than NYC, but a city nonetheless, and I'm not so happy about it. The trade off for city living should be access to culture, and I'm not getting the level of access I'd prefer. And if there's no culture involved, give me a cabin in the woods. Preferably with a fireplace."
To this writer's knowledge, the Mid-East has no fireplace, but Greg Weeks will be playing there as part of this year's Terrastock in Cambridge, Mass. There's also an upcoming EP for Spain's Acuarela label and a few compilation appearances - including a song on 'Surrounded by Sun', which was released in late March by fine Finnish label Fonal Records. The title of that song, by the way, is Howling For Blood.
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002