The blues moves like a river. It rolls deep, and long ago breached the banks of its Mississippi creation myth. If you ask where the real blues lives today, you’ll find as many answers as there are street corners, but I see one version as a line running through the Kinks, Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, the Ramones, shouting back at Charley Patton, hollering towards Dock Boggs — anyone drawn to its punky bones, the rattlesnake shake embedded in its progressions.
Ezekiel Graves approaches his electric blues along this continuum, through the drones embedded in the banjo and guitar tunings he grew up around in western North Carolina, and these blues are all over Chthonic Journey, his new record of solo electric guitar available on bandcamp (http://ezekielgraves.bandcamp.com/). The songs are meditations, skeletal structures where rhythm lazily lopes after the beat. There’s no hurry, though the pieces are short, and the relaxed progress of the album satisfies and stirs. If you’ve ever wished Richard Thompson’s intro to Calvary Cross lasted longer than its fifty seconds, then this might be your record. Thompson is a key here, and Graves’s other work has shown his influence more directly — on Chthonic Journey, though, Thompson only occupies a room adjacent to a distinctly American blues.
But while I think there’s an honest authenticity of experience to Chthonic Journey, I’d hesitate to call the record or Graves’s playing American Primitive or Old Weird America or whatever the hell America was before it became less apparently interesting — that’s gazing on this music from a remove, an imagined distance of something past (and which plagues so-called “oldtime” music) — and besides there’s way more here that snaps and buzzes and denies, reminding me of the way Miles Davis played off Pete Cosey, snake charming riffs and using electrical wah itself as a voice and a texture, conjuring memories deeper, more present, than nostalgia. And still calling it blues.
Records like Chthonic Journey are elemental because they capture an artist in motion. It reminds me of the Billy Joe Shaver lyric, “moving’s the closest thing to being free.” I think Zeke Graves is moving, putting an edge to his map.
Some gracious insight from the artist himself:
What was the genesis of the songs?
I had been trying to adapt Southern old-time fiddle tunes to electric guitar–as an exercise and a way to introduce some new patterns and phrasing into my playing, but also as a jumping off point for improvisation. I liked the idea of starting with something very traditional and taking it to a completely different and out-there place. Fiddle tunes are typically comprised of two alternating sections (that can potentially cycle endlessly)–each a melody or riff that is enhanced by drones played on open strings. I thought this would translate well to guitar in an open tuning. It’s enough musical raw material to keep things interesting, but harmonically simple and static enough that you can go in a lot of different directions without worrying about a lot of chord changes or things getting too cluttered. This led to the first piece, “Twin Sisters” which is a haunting, modal fiddle and banjo tune from Southwestern Virginia.
I kind of abandoned the fiddle tunes thing at that point (although it will be popping up again from time to time), but I kept the idea of starting with simple, modal themes and improvising from there with an emphasis on space and dynamics. I wanted to hear how sounds began and ended, the attack and decay. Once I had that approach in mind, I would just get my guitar into a tuning I liked (mostly ones used by country blues artists of the 1920s and ’30s or modifications thereof), play around until I had a riff or two to start with, and let it spin itself out from there. I tried to be patient and be as much a listener as a player.
How did you record the album?
I did it all in my little studio loft at home. Initially, I was using a Tascam stereo portable recorder to capture things, just because it was easy to grab it and press record whenever I had an idea. I would record for as long as I felt like, and then transfer that over to my computer/audio workstation for listening on studio monitors. Once I realized I was working on a project, I switched over to recording with a Shure SM57 microphone running into Cubase software. As simple as things can possibly be.
Once I had a large batch of recorded material to work with, I had a few sessions where I would listen and take notes–marking down beginning and end times of sections that sounded compelling with brief descriptions of the sounds. I pulled those shorter sections out (there were maybe 20 or 30) and then did the listening process over again and whittled them down again to 9 or 10. I liked the extreme spareness of what I was hearing, but felt that some of the selections could use additional sounds. Not because I wanted to fill up the empty space or I thought something was missing, but because I thought another tonal color would actually cast things into sharper contrast and make the initial guitar tracks pop out at you even more starkly (to use a visual metaphor). For these overdubs, I would quickly get a sound I liked with my guitar, amp, and effects and then play along with as little premeditation as possible, focusing on texture, letting accidents happen. That’s pretty much the whole process.
Tell me about the title of the record.
I was reading some fiction that used a lot of mythological allusions. In researching those a bit further, I came upon the word “chthonic” (as in “chthonic deity”). It means “subterranean” or “having to do with the underworld”. I liked the strangeness of how the Greek word translates into English–it just looks and sounds wrong. It also sounds like a mispronunciation of “sonic”, so it’s kind of a pun. More associations came to mind. The trope of blues as the devil’s music or the fiddle as the devil’s box. Blues and folk as “low” music as opposed to “high” culture. “The underground”, as in underground music or movements. The idea that you have to go beneath the surface to find what is really there. So I ended up with “Chthonic Journey”, kind of a quest to find something that was lost or stolen. This is my first attempt in a while to actually release any recorded music, and I have been through some weird places during that gap…so maybe that has something to do with it.
Six of the tracks are called blues. Definitions, inspirations?
I overused the word “blues” in the titles to call attention to it and question whether any of this stuff could possibly be called blues, or whether a person like me in this day and age could play something you could call blues, or whether that genre name could mean anything so far from the social and historical conditions that created it. I wanted to show some self-awareness and a sense of irony or humor about my appropriation of these gestures, idioms, and techniques that I use in my playing. But I also wanted to leave open the possibility that blues is just an expression of life and feelings, and that sounds can go beyond anything material, political, or worldly.
There’s a lot here to think about, musical roots and branches. Are you working in a tradition?
I think so, or at least engaging it in different ways. I grew up hearing a lot of what you might call very traditional Appalachian music and still play it with my family and some different groups of friends. You could see it as being limited or anachronistic from the outside, but once you get inside it it opens up and you see how strong and deep and regenerating it can be. I learned to play banjo and some fiddle in the last few years and it has completely changed how I play and think about guitar. I’m particularly interested in these points where the traditional and the experimental music worlds overlap: raw and gritty timbres, drones, modality, open tunings, the spaces in between the intervals of equal temperament, rhythmic complexity rather than harmonic development. I don’t feel any conflict in bouncing between those two worlds and feel like I draw a lot of energy and inspiration from that dynamic.
Who would you consider your musical contemporaries?
Really, anyone who is filtering the traditional (or more broadly, American Music) through a personal prism and coming up with something of their own. In the past five years, I’ve played shows with Marisa Anderson, Chuck Johnson, Daniel Bachman, Glenn Jones, Jack Rose, The Black Twig Pickers, Steve Gunn, and a bunch of others who are roughly scratching in the same dirt. That is the kind of company I aspire to musically. I always want to play with and dip my toes into other sounds and scenes though, and am somewhat wary of pigeonholing myself into what is increasingly being written about as a sort of new “American Primitive” scene. That’s a whole other piece of fat to chew on though. When it comes down to it, I am just suspicious of genre names and always want to question why and how they’re being used.
Well, I have a bunch of songs that I’ve written over the past few years (like with singing and chord progressions) and I’ve started working with some other musicians to arrange those and have an electric band that can play out. The idea is to merge the original songs with the kind of guitar playing you hear on “Chthonic Journey” and also bring in some traditional tunes and motifs too. So I want to develop and then record that. It’s been a lot of fun so far and I’m excited to see where it leads.