Seymour Glass speaks with Michael Morley about his new double album Heavens Idleness Awaits. As the publisher of the seminal underground zine Bananafish, Glass first wrote about Morley when his work with the Dead C and as Gate first crossed the pacific from New Zealand and made it's earliest ripples in the American underground...
Michael Morley has been consistent, even when deviating into stylistic culs-de-sac, as a trafficker of a peculiar thickness, in atmospheres of imposed lethargy. The halting cadence that dominates Heavens Idleness Awaits gently but firmly nudges aside demands for specific melody and clean harmonies. It’s a grabby maze of quasi-harmolodic fur, and it has been conquered.
The delicate crackling of the recordings and touching sluggishness of Morley’s acoustic guitar-playing — “my first 12-string acoustic, a modern generic Fender,” he says, “It is nothing ostentatious, just functional” — underscore the geographic and, to some extent, cultural isolation inimical to New Zealanders that residents of large continents have the option of taking for granted. The pacing is literally uninterested in hurrying to get anywhere. After all, one can only go so far before having to turn back. His improvisations are uncluttered, yet fill the room with dusk. No big moves or flashy changes are needed to hold the attention; still, the tracks here are bold, persistent, and unhesitatingly lengthy. The tick of the clock seems to fade away as Morley’s churning, distant chords progress. One is encouraged to get inside each ploink without worrying about when it will end, and to absorb each moment fully rather than anticipate the next one. Time and space conclude without devolving into stasis. —S. Glass
Where’d you make this album?
At My Pit — the same studio I used for Moonrise and The Lake, and a bunch of other releases from the last few years…. [Everything was] recorded on the 8 December 2016, from about 1 PM through to about 3:30 PM…, in the sequence that is on the 2xLP. I had been concentrating on recording 90-plus-minute sections of acoustic guitar from October through to December. I had about ten hours of material to review but wanted to keep the daily sessions together if I could. I chose two different days of recordings and sent them to Peter Kolovos for his response. I had no way of gauging what anything sounded like by that time.
I have developed a technique of changing the conditions for each recording session, changing the microphone placement in the room, changing my position in the room, using different chairs for different seating positions and different ways to hold and support the guitar. So while the basic structure remains the same for each session, the conditions under which they were made … change[d] for each session. This approach is not “gear-heavy.” One or two microphones and a guitar. There are no amplifiers, no effects, nothing to distract from that tone of the 12-string acoustic.
You choose to record at specific times intentionally, I assume.
Recording takes place all the time in my house. Sometimes it’s an early morning session, sometimes it’s an afternoon jam, sometimes it’s a late at night situation. A lot of times it is about how empty the place is. The kids do not like me making noise, so I prefer to record when they are out of the house. I have another space now away from the house where I can record at anytime. That has helped. Fatigue is always good for recording. I become more introverted and focused on the problems of my own practice. Isolation is a constant where I live. That may also help, although some may say that is a huge disadvantage. I have no idea.
What brought you to where you are in terms of making this album?
I was feeling really depressed. I felt that my work as an artist has amounted to nothing and that any attempt to shake that feeling was to make a lie of that feeling. A general existential crisis of existence and meaning. The day job doesn’t help, it inserts a pervading feeling of failure in every aspect of my daily life, and trying to figure out what options I even have. Recognition that it all means nothing, and then what do you do as a response to that.
What is your day job?
I really don’t think I can talk about the day job. I enjoy some of it and I am depressed by some of it. Luckily it is not a daily activity, so I get some relief.
Externally, there have been some amazing revelations. I can think of some performances from others that have made me feel happier than I deserve to be. I don’t usually have the opportunity to see and hear a lot of music, so I put that feeling down to the uniqueness of the experience. I wanted to make something that I had not heard before.
I have been listening to a lot of older recordings of Spanish guitar, records made in the 1950s and 1960s that I find in junk shops. They have been instructional in terms of how to play the guitar in a different way — channeling that experience of listening to strange guitar sounds into trying to make a recording that I had not made before. I play an acoustic guitar every day as mental exercise; it allows me to not be so dark about the world around me, allows me to be happier in the world, makes me think about the potential for making something new, despite the limitations, or because of the limitations. There is hope.
Did you go in seeking out recordings of Spanish guitar from the ’50s and ’60s?
There are a number of thrift stores in the South Dunedin area, where the records are stored in no apparent order and in fact are … arranged in categories that don’t apply to the contents listed on the shelves. For example, in the gospel section of one store there are no gospel records at all. It is mostly filled with Val Doonican and Nana Mouskouri and James Last. In the country section I discovered a treasure trove of Niccolo Paganini. The insanity continues down the street where, in the free box outside one store, I found the piano works of Frederic Chopin, 27 LPs worth of piano music. So I can get quite side-tracked within the collections.
I have a general rule that I will look at everything and then filter once I have amassed the ten or twenty records that I think I can buy for that day. The acoustic guitar records are mostly rare in these collections. They can range from records of composers through to general purpose España. Some of these are really amazing, primitive recordings of unknown people published by obscure labels that claim to represent the music of Spain. There are also some real finds, 18th – 20th Century acoustic guitar music from Spanish, Mexican and South American composers (De Fossa, Ponce, Lauro, Barrios, Pujol, Albéniz, Falla, Villa-Lobos, etc.) and also more traditional classical guitar composers like Schubert, Haydn, Scarlatti, etc.
The selection process for me is pretty arbitrary. If I know the composer, then it’s a general “yes.” If the cover looks okay, then that’s another “yes.” And if it is weird enough from a combination of artwork, printing quality, record label, the unknown composer or unknown / known performer, then that will also be a reason to buy it.
Everything from these recordings has been influential in the making Heavens Idleness Awaits, but I don’t have lot of 12-string guitar material — only Robbie Basho, and I can’t say that he has influenced me at all. The primitiveness and the elegance of the guitar has been the most influential part of my interest in the acoustic guitar.
I [should also] mention my slight obsession with Windham Hill Records from the late 1970s and early 1980s. All of the acoustic guitar records they released that I keep finding in my thrift store travels, there are some 12-string things in there — Daniel Hecht, Alex de Grassi. Other classical guitar players, Alirio Diaz, Liona Boyd and John Williams, I listen to a lot of that. And folk guitar players like Bob Hadley, I found his On The Trail Of The Questing Beast LP last year [Kicking Mule 1980], with the booklet of tablature! In addition to my admiration for contemporaries Bill Orcutt (New Way to Pay Old Debts [Editions Mego 2011]), and Sharon Van Etten (Tram Demos [Jagjaguwar 2012]), these things have inspired me, too.
And I have a growing obsession with the oud, and so have been collecting anything that I can find in that area, mostly Hamza El Din, Munis Basheer, Naseer Shamma, Dhafer Youssef, and others.
Is it my imagination or is there an apocalyptic undertone to the album?
I seem to be always aware of and observing the slow decline of the civilization that we are all part of. I think I am a note-taker, so the titles are a reflection on observations of events already in play. The apocalyptic tone is due to the circus of the everyday that we inhabit. The absolute finality of the titles is a response to the absolute finality of our collective culture. I’m observing it, so that allows me the role of the note-taker. There is something nauseating about the vacuousness of popular culture, the endless cycling of empty tropes. I may be observing it but I also want to make sense of it, or at least respond to that emptiness with something that approaches a feeling or an understanding of the other. I don’t want to call out the culture for its lack of substance, but I am forced into the situation because there appears to be no choice. I might be completely wrong here, of course. Maybe I just don’t get it and therefore I have no understanding of anything, and therefore [have] another reason for the overall tone. I am on a desolate beach.