interviewed by Nick Bensen
Musician and writer Patrick Porter works in a style that combines hushed settings with devastatingly honest observations and stark images of everyday life. His music has the sense of literary pacing, and an isolated interior quality that draws the listener deep into the songs. Porterís writing career started when he was a teenager in the small town of Bailey, Colorado. He finished high school two years early and then promptly had several of his stories published. The cassette Lullabies For Bleeding, Porterís first musical project, was completed when he was 18. Many of the songs from that cassette were reworked for his 2002 solo album Reverb Saved My Life (Camera Obscura). In between those two projects, Porter recorded songs with Josh Wambeke under the band name Phineas Gage. The spacey and quietly majestic Phineas Gage CD Reconsidered was released by Camera Obscura in 2000. Porter also had several books of poetry published during that highly creative period.
Since I did a fairly comprehensive interview with Patrick Porter for [Bensen's own] www.freecitymedia.com in 2002, this new round of questions and answers mostly focuses on his recent work. Porter has been prolific and inspired over the last few years with several new CDs added to his discography. The limited edition Maybe Waltz EP is part of the Evelyn Records Subscription Series. Skylan MO was put out in a handmade edition by Asaurus Records. The excellent, and somewhat uncharacteristic, blues-rock ballad ďA Better ThingĒ appears on Free Cityís Further Adventures of the Telepathic Explorers compilation. Patrick Porterís most widely available recent release is Lisha Kill on Camera Obscura. Very private and stripped down yet punctuated by outside noises and disconnected voices, Lisha Kill refines the poetic tension at the heart of Patrick Porterís music.
NB: Who do you consider to be your primary musical and literary influences?
PP: Any sound I hear starts to morph into a song after a while, and anything I see into scribble. It all influences me, whether I like it or not.
NB: You distinguished yourself as a musician and writer at quite a young age. What do you think motivated you and how did you manage to get the artistic momentum going from a small town in Colorado?
PP: I donít know. I wanted to be a truck driver, marry my hometown sweetheart, and breed a catholic brood. But then something just started bending me to the rails and I had to go with it, so I started obsessively taking it all down. I had some luck with blindly submitting my stuff, just mailing it out and forgetting about it. In a lot of cases my stuff has just fallen into the right hands; people have been interested in sticking a bar code on it and sending it out into the world. Thatís OK with me, if people like it.
NB: How did you end up moving to Schenectady, NY for a while?
PP: I started dating a girl who lived out there, in Rotterdam, but she was moving to Schenectady. I just said, ďwhat the hellĒ and took a train east. Iíd never heard of it, I couldnít even pronounce the name. The girl was beautiful, the city was not so.
NB: What was it like living in Schenectady?
PP: I liked Schenectady, but itís a slum. Those rust-belt cities along the Erie Canal, theyíre mausoleums. I felt sorry for the place. It seemed violently discarded. But I didnít mind it there, I like those towns. The only thing that made me anxious was the violence. A lot of that around, and I wasnít used to seeing it so up close.
NB: Did you drive to and from New York from Colorado? If so, did you have any memorable experiences along the way?
PP: No, I canít drive. I have a driverís licence but Iím a lousy driver. Iím blind in one eye and really nervous about being behind the wheel, so I usually take the train or the Greyhound, depending on how much money I have. I really love the train out to NY, Iíve taken it a million times. Usually I just sit in the handicapped car with the old people and stare out the window for two days. Iím in love with the American landscape, if not the people. All those little towns at night are still devastatingly mysterious to me. Then at Sears Tower someone always tries to steal something from me. I get a lot of writing done on trains. Other than that Iím pretty boring when I travel. I just sit there and think.
NB: How's it going back in Colorado?
PP: Iím doing a lot of work. It doesnít make for the zeitgeist, but itís an inevitability, these homecomings. I lay low and wait for the next thing. As long as Iím working, I donít much care about whatís going on around me, in my fishbowl.
NB: Your guitars have a rich, warm tone. The acoustic sounds on your CDs catch just the right emphasis on the low-mid range. What kinds of guitars do you use, and do you do anything in recording specifically to bring out a certain tone?
PP: Generally I use whatever guitars are around. I have a tough time keeping equipment in good shape, I tend to abuse guitars pretty badly and then discard them, so most of the equipment on my records isnít mine, itís a friendís, or a roommateís, or just some guitar that happened to be in the room at the time. On the NY albums I used my girlfriendís acoustic, a purple Alvarez with butterfly stickers all over it. It had a sort of woodiness to it, nice and aged. and then Iíd just mess with the EQ until it sounded like butterscotch. I also tend to double-track the basic guitar track, as tight a photocopy as I can get it, so that it sounds bigger, though not pointedly double-tracked. On the new stuff Iíve been using a 1968 Guild acoustic that I bought in December and have been treating very nicely, so far. So maybe Iím changing my ways as far as guitar destruction.
NB: Some of your recent music seems to create a singular tension between laid-back structures and bursts of guitar, noise, looped voices, etc. Is that a conscious dynamic?
PP: Iím not really consciously leaning toward anything when I record. Iím just fiddling around in the sandbox. My frame of mind at the moment dictates it, for better or worse. I'd like the discography to act as a seismograph of my mental rumbles. Directly enough that I can sit around and play Krappís Last Tape with íem when Iím old.
NB: While a lot of music conjures a party, a live show, a travel soundtrack, a psychedelic trip, etc., your recent CDs seem to have more in common with the emotional impact of books than with any of the regular musical conventions. The feeling I get from these recordings is of being alone in a small comforting space while my mind drifts away to experience the chaotic the outside world. Do you think that's a fair interpretation?
PP: Yeah, I think thatís an accurate way to look at it, especially in regard to the recent albums. Theyíre based on inhalation, on rooting around internally, deeper and deeper until you run out of rope and have to come up for air. I wouldnít think any of my albums would make a good soundtrack to anything external. Iíve heard íem played in record stores, on the overhead speakers, and I think they sound horrible there, like diary entries posted on billboards. As much as Iíd like to be making some kind of superficially exhilarating music that people could apply to their outer lives, I have to admit that what Iím really doing is making consolation music for frightened people in small rooms. I just want to make sad and scared people feel a little better, maybe even happy, or free for a second. Iím just trying to repent.
NB: Do you plan albums as whole projects or do you record individual tracks and see which ones go together later?
PP: Life has all those little epochs, theyíre usually so mundane that you hardly notice them come and go until youíve piled up a bunch of songs, then there it is. Whenever I feel like a certain little era of my life is over, the album is over. I remember that I finished recording Lisha Kill when the ice cream stand down the street closed for the fall. The album just suddenly seemed done.
NB: Your musical output has been increasing with several new CDs in the past year or so. How would you describe the different qualities of your recent CDs, the approaches taken, and the settings in which they were recorded?
PP: All of the last three albums were recorded in the same room on the same microphone dangling from the same ceiling fan, but my brain felt different. Lisha Kill was the first one, recorded in the summer, too hot to do anything else, I lavished a lot of attention on her between ice cream cones, I was nervous, but also happy and full of energy. Life had that tint to it, a little renewal. Maybe Waltz was recorded in the fall, with spirits lagging a little. Skylan Mo was recorded in the dead of winter, and I was trying really hard not to go nuts. One day I took apart all the furniture in the house with a wrench and threw all the debris out on the lawn. That's when I knew it was time to stop recording for a while.
NB: Is Skylan, MO a real place? It didn't show up on the road atlas.
PP: No, the name Skylan Mo comes from a motel that was down the street from where we lived, called the Skyland Motel. It was a pretty sleazy place and a bunch of the letters in the sign were broken, so at night itíd blare neon through the windows of our apartment: SKYLAN MO. I always threatened to name one of my albums the same, just for the hell of it. I never thought about the Missouri abbreviation until later on, when people asked me for directions.
NB: Two of the songs on Skylan Mo ("Very Goodbye" and "On Yr. Hands") break out pretty far from your usual style. What inspired the arrangements?
PP: Yeah, ĒVery GoodbyeĒ is weird. I donít know what the hell I was doing there. I think I just found a keyboard in the trashcan at the Salvation Army, took it home and put some batteries in it, lo it worked, so I tried to make a song with it. I put ďOn Yr HandsĒ on the LP because everyone said it was really annoying and I thought it was funny. I think it sounds like the Vaselines but with Link Wray drums. Anyway, both these songs probably shouldíve been jettisoned on the final draft, but I have a shaky hand with the scalpel. I have this horrible compulsion to just leave everything.
NB: Are you doing any more experimentation with different styles and genres?
PP: Iíve always wanted to make a country album, just stumbling covers of old sad obscure songs, like the Red Sovine cover on Lisha Kill. But somehow I doubt Iíll get around to it.
NB: Are you working on a new CD?
PP: Yeah, Iím working on an album called This Machine Kills Bathos. Iím recording little by little at this big fancypants recording studio where I sometimes work as a factotum. That is I play reverb drums and cheeseball guitar licks on peopleís demos in exchange for free studio time. Iím still using all the junky old equipment I found in NY, and Iíve been using trash cans and TV sets etc for percussion, so thereís a delicious incongruity in all this weirdness being captured on billion dollar microphones and a soundboard bigger than my apartment. It sounds good though. The engineers thought I was nuts at first, but theyíre starting to get into it now, they play the CD for their audiophile buddies and hem and haw. Anyway thatís the main project. Iím also working on an EP with my friend Eric (who has given me permission to name-drop him as from the Apples In Stereo) producing, which is more pure, acoustic type stuff. and I recently completed a double-CD monstrosity called Alcoholic Geographics, Continents M and N, but itís really ingrown and 4-tracky, so I donít know if Iíll put it up for release or not.
NB: Are you performing live these days?
PP: Not much since the gigs in Europe, but I should be performing pretty soon here and there. When Iím in Colorado I donít play out much, Iíve made the rounds ad nauseam around here and thereís not much doing. In Colorado everybody wants you to play loud 57 Chevy rockabilly or to dance around the stage wearing a costume. If you just go up there and play songs quietly nobody gives a shit, youíll be drowned out by the Broncos game on the TV. But Iím going to play around America a bit this summer and then in the winter Iím going to go to Europe again, some gigs in Ireland, England and Scotland. Iím really looking forward to the Scotland gigs, thatís my favourite place to play.
NB: What's new on the literary front?
PP: Iíve written two novels and 3 manuscripts and a huge collection of short stories. I like them, Iím proud of them, but I haven't submitted anything to be published in years. All that putting manuscripts in manilla envelopes and writing cutesy query letters and SASEs and dear Mrs. so-and-so, etc, it brings on the nausea. Iíd rather have all my manuscripts waiting around in a dresser drawer until the time comes where I don't have to do the soft-shoe. So they'll have to snap their gum in limbo for a while.
Interview took place in June/July 2005 © Patrick Porter and Nick Bensen, portions © Terrascope Online 2005.
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