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Norfolk & Western
an interview with Adam Selzer by Matt Dornan

(Unedited transcript)

Your web page sees Winter Farewell described as 'an intimate collection of folk songs, ambient instrumentals and lo-fi beauty.' Do you feel that description encompasses your musical ambition within the N&W framework?
There are elements of folk music on the record, as well as instrumentals, and there are moments of 'lo-fi' - "beauty is in the eye..." - but the lo-fi is there to offset the hi-fi. I like how sounds are relative to each other. Variation in the texture and sound is just as important to me as variation in mood or tempo. I think I tend to be overly self-conscious about boring the listener. That's why there are instrumentals, and snippets of home recordings, and sounds that only appear briefly. My goal is to make records that people will continue to explore over time by changing approaches to song structure, instrumentation and recording techniques, though that inherently alienates a lot of people. At the same time, I think its important to maintain some sort of cohesion, but that just seems to work itself out naturally. When you're trying out different approaches, there will inherently be songs that people will dislike, and if some people end up liking the whole collection of songs equally, as a whole, then you're lucky. But from the writing perspective, I don't think I'm doing anything too radically different from song to song. I wish I knew how to do so. So I feel like the aforementioned description is as accurate as any other description I've seen or could come up with myself, I mean, how can you really describe music anyway? I like the 'intimate' part because that makes it seem more personal.

Likewise you are compared to Songs:Ohia, Sparklehorse and Ida. Are we to assume that you are not averse to comparisons or are they a necessity in the increasingly overpopulated world of independent music?
As much as it would be nice for bands and artists not to be compared to others, I think it is very necessary. Like you may have implied, independent music is so overpopulated that it is impossible to sift through all the articles and reviews to discover new bands. There wouldn't be any time to read anything else. But if I see a band compared to a couple or a few bands I like, I'm a lot more apt to read further, and even try to seek it out. The down side to that is that I've come across a lot of reviews or articles that make the band seem very appealing to me with descriptions and comparisons and then I'll hear the music and wonder how the writer had possibly made those connections. There seems to be a lack of good writing when it comes to popular/independent music, so I would just assume go by the comparisons than the witty, clever -and annoying- anecdotes that fill a lot of the magazines.

'Evergreen' boasts some touches of classic 'Americana' in the instrumentation, backed up by the voice of Richard Buckner, for better or worse pigeonholed in the unfortunate '' category. 'Your Sunday Best' could almost be a Gram Parsons song... Would you say you employ a country music influence in your music or that by utilising instruments associated with country music (pedal steel, banjo etc) the link is indirect and superficial?
I've come to regret the name Norfolk and Western a bit. At the time I named the project, it never occurred to me that people would associate the name with country and western music, but now, I realise it does have a bit of an inherent association there. It's actually a train line from Virginia. We're often cited as being 'alt-country' or 'Americana' which is a little frustrating but I understand the need for people to catagorise music... there is just too much out there. I know we have some country elements, but no more than folk, or rock, or ambient, or whatever else is in the stew. With Buckner it seems like every review mentions the fact that he's on the record. But he sings on only one song, and a few lines at that. I asked him to sing on it because he was in town and I love the sound of his voice and I thought it would sound good on that song. When people go to review the record, it gives them something to grab onto, something they're familiar with but, in reality, it has very little to do with the song itself let alone the record. I'm glad he's on there, I think it sounds very nice, and maybe some people give it more credibility because he's on it, but that just says more about our obscurity than it does about anything else. 'Oh look, Richard Buckner sings on this record, it must be pretty good.' Its not like he's a star or anything, or a seal of approval. But he is one of the nicest guys I've ever met and he makes beautiful records. Regarding instrumentation, I love the pedal steel, those sweeping overtones are something that no other instrument can achieve. I was talking to a guy who plays pedal steel the other night - he actually manages some hip-hop acts - and he was talking about playing on a hip-hop song and I'm sure it will sound great. I don't think people will call the song 'country hip-hop', it will just be a hip-hop song with pedal steel, which it should be. And the banjo is another folk/country instrument that we use a lot. But I just like the sound, how the sound feels. If people call it more country, or more anything else because of it, that's fine. If it makes the song sound better to us, it will be there. That's the only criteria.

'Winter Farewell' is clearly more of a band project than 'Centralia'. What were the benefits and downside to relinquishing some 'control'?
The benefits highly outweigh the downsides. For this record, there were times when I felt more like a coach than a player. I would lay down a guitar and a vocal track, and then have people play whatever they want over it, and most of the time I would like it. If not, I would suggest something else. But the people that played on it are all people I know and respect musically, so it came together pretty easily. There were a few songs that were already worked out in the band for live performances, so everyone more or less played their live part unless we had ideas that might sound better for a recorded approach to the song. Live music and recorded music are two totally different expressions so we always try to keep that in mind. Usually we would play less than we do live so we could leave more room for other instruments. It was very nice to have other people play larger roles because I think it makes the music sound more varied and interesting. The only downside to relinquishing a lot of instrument duties is that I wasn't able to play as many instruments this time around which is always fun, but I know it turned out better this way. I don't think any of the vision was lost by doing it this way. On the contrary; I think more was discovered.

How did it affect your writing?
I never consciously changed my approach to writing due to the band being more a part of the recording process. But the songs did take on new forms when they were introduced to the band if we were working them out to play live, so that had a lot of impact on how those songs were 'written' or worked out. I usually just start playing a song in practice and everyone figures out a part, then we go over the parts until everyone has had enough time to come up with something they're happy with. I'm sure that's how it is for most bands.

To what extent was the record the result of synergy and improvisation?
There were a few songs on 'Winter Farewell' that were a direct result of those qualities. There are a couple that are very short, 100% improvisational numbers, then there is The Things We Do On Sundays which was somewhat worked out off the bass-line. That would be the 'synergy' number. Local Posts was that way too. The greatest thing about having a band is working off of each other, and I'm very fortunate that the people in Norfolk want to play with me. I feel akin to all of them musically, and they're all very good friends of mine, which is the only way it can be the way I see it. When you're in a band with someone, you spend more time with them not playing music than you do playing, even if you only see them at practice and on tour.

What insight do you gain from recording other artists?
I've learned over the years that everyone has their own way of expressing themselves creatively in a studio environment, and my job is to facilitate that. I tend to enjoy the projects where the artists aren't really sure what they're going to do next. They let their mood and instinct dictate the next move. That seems much more natural. With bands, its a little different, because a lot of them have worked out the songs over time in the basement, and want an accurate representation of that, and that's great too. It's just that I don't get to see the creative process, I become a 'documentarian' rather than a facilitator. But really, recording is not too different from seeing an act play live. It's the same thing, but the process is a lot slower. So the insight isn't anything remarkable as far as I see it.

Have you picked up ideas that you've been able to then utilise within Norfolk and Western?
Not really. When I record other bands, I tend to think of the studio as an office -albeit a creative one- and when I'm recording Norfolk, I view it as a laboratory. When I'm recording others, I'm getting paid, so I'm constantly dealing with technical issues and trying to achieve what people ask of me, trying to get the sounds artists are trying to describe to me. With Norfolk, the technical side comes last, and I don't spend too much time on it. I assume I'll figure out a way to make things sound interesting when I mix it. It's more of a challenge that way. Sometimes an artist or myself will come up with some crazy idea that I'll later find myself using in the Norfolk sessions, but I definitely don't use bands as lab animals for my own endeavours.

Do you have set production methods or do you take a collaborative approach?
I always ask what the band or artist wants. I have no set methods of any kind. They tell me what they want, and if they don't know, I'll tell them the different approaches we can take and let them decide. Usually I can tell if someone wants a suggestion about instrumentation or other production values, but I'll always keep my mouth shut unless I'm asked for an opinion. If I'm recording someone I know someone really well, then I'll throw out ideas all day long, and I know they'll be comfortable saying "that's a shitty idea". If I don't think they're comfortable with that, I'm mute.

You told Pennyblack Music that when you've written a song (on acoustic guitar) you "try to change the approach so the record doesn't end up sounding too singer/songwritery." To what extent does this approach entail utilising less conventional instrumentation and your desire to avoid falling prey to traditional rock/indie idioms?
There are certain sounding instruments that I love the sound of, regardless of popularity in any segment of music. Vibraphone, Mellotron, piano, cello, banjo, viola... I don't tend to think, "what would make this less indie or less songwritery?" If I have access to a pedal steel player and I think the song will sound great with a pedal steel, I'll use it, even if some people might think it makes it sound too country. Or a piano might make it sound too schmaltzy to some. I just like all those beautiful sounding instruments, and the more I can use them on records, the better. I also like the idea of using instruments in a place you might not expect it. I think I need to experiment with that aspect a bit more. And then there is the challenge of making sounds that nobody has ever heard before... that's always fun. Tony is really good at that.

Tony Moreno is credited on 'Winter Farewell' with a variety of sounds - 'the uncanny', 'undefined elements', 'oddities' etc, or his instrument has been 'manipulated'... how much of what he brings to Norfolk & Western surprises you and how much is him reacting to your sonic ideas?
Tony is completely in his element at practice. He's like a scientist in his own laboratory. He always has his head down and sometimes he won't utter a word all practice. These noises ooze out of his speaker that seem to fit right in there. He experiments a lot at practice and I guess he works it all out when it comes time to perform because it always sounds right. Maybe he's just an accidental genius, I don't know. He has little note cards that give him clues for each song. He's very organised back there. We've known each other for a long time, so we both know where we're coming from musically. It's unspoken. His sounds always surprise me. Every practice he brings in some new toy so he's constantly keeping it fresh. He likes to challenge himself to not be repetitive.

The desire to avoid cliché in your music suggests you may have song ideas that you consider too 'predictable' or formulaic. Do you find ways to integrate ideas like this into less conventional material? For example, the vocal melody of 'All The Towns Near Boston' is memorable but the 'wall of sound' at the track's end makes for a more 'challenging' listen.
That's a very interesting question because I feel that I'm a bit contradictory on this subject. On the one hand, I love simple folk music. It is the ultimate goal to be able to pull off writing great songs that are beautiful and powerful with just a voice and one instrument, or very little instrumentation. In fact, I listen to more 'stripped down' music than music that is more textual and fully arranged. On the other hand, I love being able to arrange different sounds within a context of a melodic structure, i.e. folk-based structures. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I have a fully-equipped recording studio at my disposal and sometimes its hard to know when to show restraint. I get excited to hear new sounds entering the soundscape. I like to take sounds away and put them back, sometimes replace them with other sounds. In the larger picture, my [objective] is to strike a balance between these two ideas. To have a few songs that are very sparse, and others that are very fully arranged. It makes their inherent qualities more apparent that way. And it makes the record sound more like a complete project, a fulfilled vision perhaps.

Do you thrive on these kinds of 'musical marriages'?
Yes and no. Sometimes they work very well, and other times they completely fail. And sometimes I'll make the wrong decision regarding this idea. If it sounds forced then its wrong. It has to sound natural. But since most songs derive from the acoustic guitar - I usually know how it sounds that way - then it's just a matter of figuring out what will make it sound better. For some songs, I'll know it doesn't need much at all, then, for others, the structure may just act as a guide and not sound like anything special at all on its own. It's a vehicle for all the textures.

Does working in close tandem with John Askew encourage a more relaxed approach to the records you make? Does it help knowing that you have the support and respect of your label 'boss'?
I've known John for a very long time; we're very close friends. I know he'd respect anything I'd do. I'll usually give him some songs, or even the complete record, and I won't hear anything from him for a few days. Then he'll call me and say, "I've been listening to your record a lot. I'm really getting it." He and I are in the same boat musically. We both make music that seems to take a while to really get into. But we would never make music differently if we were on any other label. We'll just make records and if someone wants to put it out, great. If not, we'll figure something out.

To what extent do you buy in to the FILMguerrero 'manifesto'? What additions would you make to that 'mission statement'?
I don't think there is much to add really. The label is about people making music the way they want to make music. That's all it should ever be.

CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002