“It’s very hard to get lost in America these days, and even harder to stay lost.” - Heather Donohue, The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The music of North Carolina duo Lost Trail evokes the Mythic America glimpsed in such films as The Blair Witch Project, American Movie and Cropsey - a haunted landscape steeped in folklore, as unknowably vast as imagination itself, and every bit as dangerous. The Outer Church’s first contact with Lost Trail came with the discovery of their excellent October Mountain album via Bandcamp. Further investigation revealed an outfit with a self-contained and highly immersive DIY aesthetic encompassing music, photography and film. We’ve been toying with the term ‘Disembodied Americana’ as a means of describing husband and wife Zachary and Denny Corsa’s spectral manifestations. In truth, categorising their marriage of sound and vision is considerably less rewarding than surrendering to its evanescent glow. The following interview with Zach and Denny was conducted via the white magic of electronic mail and is accompanied by an exclusive mixtape entitled Music For The Woods And Fields…
Tell us about the mix you’ve created for The Outer Church…
Zachary Corsa: ”I called this mix Music For The Woods And Fields, for reasons that will probably become apparent later in the interview. Essentially it’s a collection of pieces that inspire us either atmospherically or musically, sort of the ingredients that go into this big stew of influences that is our work. As expected, you’ll find a lot of woodsy-naturey sort of themes, and a lot of broken machines breaking down further.
“The Belong piece I included because October Language is an indisputable masterpiece in my opinion, and when I first heard this song in particular, it proved a fine example of the haunting beauty of taped music disintegrating as you listen. Esmerine is a fantastic Godspeed offshoot, much more chamber music inflected than Godspeed itself, and this piece features some incredible use of static as tension-builder and contrast. Mount Eerie’s album with Julie Doiron and Fred Squire, Lost Wisdom, is probably my very favorite album, if I had to choose. Phil Elverum’s imagery and whole extensive mythology is a gigantic influence on Lost Trail and on myself personally. Forest Swords is a newer project from Liverpool that has a perfect name, and the dude evokes his landscape musically very much the way we aim to ourselves.
“Library Tapes is an obvious pick, because David Wenngren is the reason I began Lost Trail. We started out very much in pale imitation of him, except I’m no pianist. Jean Ritchie is one of my very favorite mountain ballad singers, and delivers absolute chills with precision. Six Organs Of Admittance fall into a similar category as Mount Eerie, in terms of thematic influence. Tim Hecker is an obvious totemic inspiration to any experimental musician, and this piece particularly has a lumbering sort of charm, like a Wendigo blundering through a northern taiga. The M83 piece is a frozen tunda wasteland of a song in all the right ways, and if hard-pressed, might be my favorite song of all time. Mountain Man was included for their gorgeously spine-tingling harmonies. Pitchfork once described them as sounding like the practitioners of some lost backwoods cult, and I think that’s a very apt description.
“Set Fire To Flames (another Godspeed family band) were a huge revolutionary inspiration to me when I first discovered them, and I expand on that a little more later in the interview. I included one of my favorite Chopin nocturnes because it’s Chopin and thus it’s amazing. Boards of Canada have great nostalgic implications for me, as well as being one of the first gateway drugs I had getting into experimental music growing up. My friends and I used to drive back into the haunted woods behind my best buddy’s house at 2am, and turn off the headlights, and listen to ‘Gyroscope’ in the dark. No song sends me back to those times like ‘Gyroscope’. Finally, Sacred Harp singing is one of the most beautiful expressions of faith and wonder you’ll ever hear, and is an ongoing obsession of mine. Nothing we ever create musically will be as perfect as Sacred Harp singing.”
How and when did Lost Trail come about?
Z: ”I had been in a number of bands since moving to Raleigh after finishing college. I knew I wanted to pursue music as a career, but my years living in Raleigh and Durham and playing in more traditional indie bands just didn’t feel right. The prevalent scene in central North Carolina was, and still is, folk-inflected indie rock, and I began to feel more and more that it wasn’t what I was meant to play. I felt no creative spark making song-oriented music at that point. When an alt-country sort of band I was in shared a bill with Andrew Weathers (at Nightlight in Chapel Hill), it literally changed everything. Andrew was an experimental composer from Greensboro making music unlike anything I was familiar with at the time (he’s since moved on to Oakland, to study at Mills College under Pauline Oliveros). I remember our cellist in that band confiding in me that she didn’t ‘get’ that kind of music, and that was the moment when I knew that this was the kind of music I wanted to make. Challenging, intellectual, with the ability to make a listener think as well as feel. It was a revolution for me. I come from a very small eastern NC town, and before college, and the rise of blogs and the like, I really had no exposure to what I’d call ‘deeper’ music (other than maybe Radiohead).
“I continued on from that band and played in a post-rock band for awhile in Raleigh, went on my first tour with that band, and eventually decided to try and do everything myself. With the exception of adding Denny to the permanent lineup in our second year, which was inevitable given the amount of field recordings and production choices she was contributing to the band, its been something we’ve held fast to, that DIY ethic. We have great friends who help us out with instruments we can’t play once in awhile, but that’s all. Now its been two and a half years, seven or eight tours, a dozen albums, and an absurd amount of splits, EPs, film scores, B-sides collections, compilation appearances, and the like. Meanwhile, we’ve started a tape label, held some memorable house shows here in Burlington, and I’ve continued writing for blogs like Decoder, MTYMNHKA, and A Closer Listen, something I’ve done for most of a decade.”
What inspired the project’s name?
Z: ”I was in Cincinnati on tour with the aforementioned post-rock band, and I was already formulating the idea for my own project in my head. I asked Denny via G-Chat if she had any ideas for the project name, and she didn’t, nor did I. We moved on to a discussion (I don’t recall the context) about a bit of land she owns in the little southern Virginia town of Clover. The property includes a collapsed house, an even-more collapsed barn, and a trail that’s long since been lost. When she suggested ‘Lost Trail’ it seemed perfect, a summation of the intended mysteriousness of the project, coupled with our intention to keep the themes of the band grounded in nature. At times it hasn’t been the easiest name to deal with (people very much seem to want to pluralize it, and the amount of bad Lost Trail jokes I’ve heard is stunning), but it’s still very much in line with the overall mood of our band, so it wins on that account.”
You’ve already amassed a considerable body of work. Why release so much material?
Z: ”In a number of ways, primarily Lost Trail, I’m involved with music full-time. No day job. It was a decision Denny and I came to in the early days of the project, that if I was going to make a go of this career, I should focus all my attention on it and work as hard as possible (another reason for that DIY ethic we maintain so fiercely). I record almost every day, and over the past few years I’ve morphed from someone who valued my lazy time to someone who gets restless and uncomfortable if they aren’t working. I’m not just going to sit around all day eating cereal while my wife goes off to her day job. So I record. And if I spend my time on something, I’m going to at least toss it up on Bandcamp, whether I like it or not. Even the mistakes are worthwhile to share. It’s all a learning and growing process. This project started out very rough and unsure, as an experiment in making music on an instrument I didn’t know how to play (piano, very much thanks to that Library Tapes influence), and listening back to those early recordings makes me cringe in the best possible way. As its shifted back towards guitar drone and noise collage, we’ve learned more, but we still have a long way to go. Basically, I like sharing the process. That’s why we keep our old Bandcamp open for B-sides collections and the stray side project. A few people who’ve reviewed us or whatever have questioned us maybe ‘over-saturating’ with our output, but I can’t change my nature. My feeling is, if I spent time on it, I’m not just going to throw it away. I’m not a self-editing type of person. By now our fans know the difference between wayward experiments and the stuff we value enough for albums.”
What would you recommend as a good point of entry for the uninitiated?
Z: ”People’s favorite full-lengths of ours thus far seem to be A Stained August For The Jetcrash, which was released on cassette by Sunup Recordings (Minnesota), and October Mountain, released on cassette by Felt Cat (Iowa). October Mountain was full of a lot of atypical experiments for us. I think our most cohesive and representative work is definitely Jetcrash, though there’s an album we just completed, which I’m calling Blacked Out Passages at the moment, that might be better. We set out to deliberately record a concise summation of all our sounds and themes, and I think Passages achieves this handily. Also, the split we released with Theo’s Mystic Robot Orchestra, on Sarcastic Magician (Kansas), is a good entry point, I’d say.”
Denny Wilkerson Corsa: ”Eerie Light, Eerie Woods would also be a good entry point. That’s an earlier self-released album that I happen to like a lot. It was one of the first albums, and also one of the first ones I worked on. It was when Zach began to use more drone guitar in the music, so that was the album where the current sound of Lost Trail really began to take form.”
What do you consider your most successful release to date?
Z: ”Jetcrash and our score for our film Traumatic Attachments have probably gotten the nicest attention blog-buzz wise. Personally, I’m never entirely satisfied with anything we’ve done. There’s much that makes me wince and regret decisions I’ve made, looking back. We have obvious equipment limitations with the way we choose to do things, and that’s probably the most frustrating part of the process. But I’d say Jetcrash is probably our ‘best’ work.
“Honestly, I don’t know how healthy it would be for us to ever be entirely content with one of our albums, anyway. The struggle against financial and technological restraints drives this band, and I think we need to maintain that underdog sort of status in order to produce our best art.”
D: ”There’s so many ways you can define success. It could be what sells best, or what people rave about the most, or what we personally like the most. Each album has been successful in many different ways.”
How would you describe your hometown of Burlington, North Carolina?
Z: ”Burlington is a small city of about 50,000 people in the very middle of the state. It’s very 50s-esque, it’s not considered a ‘cool’ place and it lies immediately between two larger and more cosmopolitan areas (The Triangle and The Triad). Neither of us are from Burlington; I grew up partially in western Massachusetts and partially in eastern North Carolina, and Denny is from Durham and Chapel Hill. We moved to the area because we wanted a large, old house to record in, and found a beautiful, spacious 1910 home for next to nothing. I wanted an escape from the indie crowd that I was surrounded in back in Raleigh and Durham. I never quite fit in with the people there, which is a shame, as I moved to the area specifically for its music scene.
“I’ve met some amazing folks on tour other places, but in my experience, the central NC music scene isn’t the most welcoming to outsiders. There’s unwritten codes and rules that I just didn’t match up with as a person. I may share most music and art tastes with those kinds of folks, but that’s kind of where the similarities end. If you make this kind of music in this state, unless you’re in Asheville or maybe Wilmington, it can be a real uphill battle. Local press coverage, reliable crowds, even band solidarity, is very hard to find. It was a very lonely time, living in the Triangle, especially once I changed to making more experimental music. Having house shows in Burlington, too, is always a challenge; most Chapel Hill and Durham kids are very reluctant to spend a night out here. There’s definitely a sense of superiority to towns like this; they have their own preconceived notions of what we’re like. But I’m glad we’re here, around authentic, genuine small-town people. That’s the kind of crowd I like to surround myself with.
“Our reviews always seem to make the point that we’re sort of mysterious, shady figures, but I think that’s largely because we live in a town that isn’t a major arts scene sort of city. We tour a lot because hitting the road and getting great crowds beats playing here to slim ones. The one real exception is Nightlight in Chapel Hill, which is one of the only places we play in central NC anymore. The 919 Noise folks, led by Bryce Eiman, are fantastic. Greensboro, too, has its bright spots; the house show/DIY scene there is stellar and growing fast. But essentially, I struggle with feeling like an outsider as a ‘weird’ NC musician. Probably always will.”
D: ”Burlington is a town that grew around textile factories, particularly sock factories. It’s busy and full of sprawl, but it also has some great parks. Burlington City Park has some great rides, such as a historic carousel and train, and they hold some cool special events for the people of town, such as a large Halloween event with fireworks. Burlington was originally named Company Shops, and now there’s an organic food co-op downtown called Company Shops Market. As far as I know, they came up with the name ‘Burlington’ at random.
“Socio-economically, Burlington is definitely poorer than the surrounding cities, such as Chapel Hill and Greensboro. The biggest employer currently in town is a company called LabCorp (blood testing facilities). There’s many beautiful old houses in Burlington, and I certainly wish more people would move here from the surrounding areas and help bring life to some of these houses, and also to the old factories in town.”
How important is Burlington to your work?
Z: ”Well, to continue from the above question, very. Burlington itself is a fascinating city, which is something people really miss out on by not checking it out. Its story is similar to a lot of NC towns; at one point, Burlington was the very center of the hosiery business in America. Textiles, namely sock-making, built this city. Of course, jobs have gone overseas and what we’re left with is some hardcore industrial abandonment and blight. While a sane person wouldn’t find that appealing to live in, that sort of decay, it’s absolutely ingrained in our music, and the atmosphere has been incredible here for creating our art. Aside from that, this town is full of genuinely kind and decent people, and downtown is coming back in a big way. The more people that move here that care about making things better, the better Burlington will become.
“This town definitely has a mysteriousness to it, an eeriness. It’s something our touring friends always note when they come through to play our house. It’s a very David Lynchian sort of vibe. You know the theory how there’s some places where the fabric of reality wears a little thinner? Burlington is one of those places. I call it ‘Other Burlington’. There’s like a surface Burlington, and then you’ll turn a corner into an unfamiliar neighborhood and you’ll know you’ve crossed over the threshold, into ‘Other Burlington’. Some of our music is very much inspired by that. After all, Burlington’s most famous resident is a female serial killer who poisoned numerous lovers and family members. This is definitely not your typical Mayberry-like small town.
“This band didn’t really start, in my opinion, until we moved here. And there’s some pride in the fact that we’re a band in a small town, making music no one else in this town is making, absent of any real music scene (aside from a couple really good punk bands). I’d like to think it would attract people to us, that we’re not just another Brooklyn/Portland/Austin/whatever band.”
Which local sites are especially resonant for you? Can you reveal a little about Burlington’s local mythology and folklore?
Z: ”My whole life I have found abandonment and decay achingly beautiful, especially industrial decay, and in Burlington you can’t turn around without tripping over an abandoned textile mill or collapsing old Victorian house. Burlington is very much haunted by its past, still in the shadow of the serial killer I mentioned, and in the shadow of its past prosperity. It’s literally in the shadow of a towering, grand abandoned Army missile factory, a great and rusting old hulk east of downtown that’s appeared in our album art and film works a number of times.
“This town is very much tied in with the culture of its river, as well, the Haw. The Haw is a lovely little body of water thats largely bounced back from years of mill pollution. We find it an inspiring feature to Alamance County. Really though, I’d say the most crucial locale in Burlington for us is our house, and all the history that goes with a home over a century old. Each day, I discover a new feature I hadn’t noticed before that captures my imagination further.
“This part of NC has deep roots in its history; Alamance County was the site of one of the first Revolutionary War battles, and there’s Quaker roots here going back to long before America was an independent country. North Carolina as a whole is beyond haunted by its past, more than anywhere else I’ve been in America. We wouldn’t make the same kind of music if we weren’t from here; we’re definitely a North Carolina band, and the past has a hold on us, too.
“We love camping at Cedarock Park and exploring the old mill village of Glencoe, in northern Burlington. Someone who lives on a steady diet of shitty indie-rock shows and nights at bars would undoubtedly find Burlington boring, but I think we have enough imagination, and enough of a love of history and the natural world between us, to think otherwise of this city.”
There are references to the paranormal scattered throughout your work. Are these employed solely in a metaphorical sense or do they reflect a genuine openness to the unknown and the uncanny?
Z: ”Both. I think one reason the idea of ghosts and hauntings is so prevalent in ambient, experimental and noise music is that its the most powerful analogy for loss imaginable. Still, we aren’t setting out to make endlessly dark or enduringly sad music, just truthful music.
“On the literal end, I’ve had more than my share of unexplainable occurrences in my lifetime, and the other world outside of this one has been a lasting theme in my family history, as well. There’s moments as you get older where you look back at different events in your life and see the things that’ve happened to you, and you realize that it was a forked path, and you went one direction as a result of those experiences, and it colored everything that happened afterward. For me, that was a supernatural experience the summer I was sixteen, and the lasting fallout of that is very much present in the work of Lost Trail, as well. There’s ghosts everywhere, both literally and metaphorically, and some of us just feel their presence deeper than others.
“As I’ve said, Burlington, the state of North Carolina, even our old and crumbling house, are all full of ghosts. Our music is a reflection of that, but the moment you bring up that subject matter people either default their thinking to ‘Goth’ or ‘Metal’. We’re probably cheerier, sillier people than our music implies. ‘Dark’ and ‘Sad’ are unimaginative, reductive descriptions of any form of art. Human emotion is so much more complex than that. Thus so is our band’s music.”
Your music often exudes an unsettling atmosphere of fogbound desolation. Is this an effect you aim for or something that just occurs naturally?
Z: ”I think it comes naturally to us. The contrast is important; uplifting music has to have a counter-weight of melancholy or it loses meaning, and vice versa. I’ve never tried to make music that’s bleak or merciless, or unrelenting in its dourness. It’s just what I naturally gravitate towards in my sounds. Complicated emotions in art make that art richer and more invigorating. It’s the art that people remember; people don’t remember just standalone sunshine and rainbows, they remember raw emotion and complex shades of feeling. Sometimes life is desolate and fog-bound; sometimes it’s incredibly moving and awe-inspiring, in equal measure.
“What can I say? It comes from ‘out there’. I’m just a conduit. I begin playing and this is what happens, for better or for worse. And for her end, I think Denny contributes some levity to the proceedings with much of her sound and production work. She’s an inherently cheerier sort than I am, and her contributions have a lighter touch. It makes her efforts more than essential.”
D: ”I feel like that’s how drone music often is. Besides, I’m not cheerier than Zach – he always makes up jokes about everything and is generally not a very serious sort (except about his art). I don’t feel that the music is very unsettling overall, just that drones can sound somewhat haunting.”
Then again, it’s also oddly comforting at times…
Z: ”That’s what I hope for; a comfort, a catharsis, a way of working through difficult feelings or a reflection of stirring moments. I always view our work in landscape terms, describing a place or a feeling evoked in our minds. God knows music is a comfort and a cathartic release for me, so I can only hope it is for other people. When someone writes to us describing a transformative or emotionally resonant moment listening to our work, that makes it all pretty worthwhile. As selfish a pursuit as music can be, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t also want to affect people.”
D: ”I guess hearing extended notes is comforting because it sounds a bit like a calming hum.”
One of your songs is entitled ‘Hauntology’. What does this term mean to you? Do you feel it applies to the music you make?
Z: ”Hauntology is a concept from Derrida, that goes with our ideas and impressions of how the past impacts the present. The concept is that when the end of history approaches, people will orient themselves to the ideas of past living, i.e. more agrarian roots, more community involvement. North Carolina is in a constant state of hauntology, and for every shopping mall or new freeway this state builds, they can’t escape the implications of this state’s past on the present. That’s NC to me, a place struggling against the past by forcibly inserting itself into the future, almost as a scoffing sort of denial. But it’s like a double exposure; the original is always lurking there at the boundaries of the frame, beneath the newer image. No amount of Applebees and Best Buys can change that. And I think that plays into our music as well, in that we try to operate in those spaces where the wild and natural world intersect with the grimly man-made. Suburban sprawl in North Carolina gives way at a moment’s notice to dense, rolling forest and black swamp. This state will never stop being old. It’s one of the things I love about my home.”
You have stated that Lost Trail make “Music for the woods and fields more than for the city”. Can you elaborate?
Z: ”As people, nature and the natural world are far more important to us than cosmopolitan city life and all its artifices of culture and sophistication. I find more rewards of experience camping than I do in some teeming throng of khaki-clad IT workers drinking at some nightlife magazine-sanctioned hot spot. That seems false to me, a shell covering reality. Trees and rivers and mountains are the real world to me, not highways and driving ranges and appliance stores and office parks and chemical plants. That all seems false. Maybe it’s the New England in me, but this land is deeper than any of us, and it’s the land I respect. We’re bound to it, and as much as we try to dilute our connection to it with iPhones and Lolcats, it’s always there. When the Puritans settled here, they saw an endless forest full of hauntings and unknown monsters. What’s changed about that except we’ve tried to keep it at bay with Arby’s and Sam’s Club?
“We like our small-town life, we fit in here. The music exists for nature and places on the edge of nature, not steel and glass and concrete. I can respect musicians for whom the city is a fascinating landscape they wish to evoke (Burial is a great example of this), we’re just sort of the opposite. I was raised by a wildlife painter mother first in the shadow of densely-wooded northern hills, and later along a windswept beach, communing with nature by trails and salt marshes and nights drinking with friends in lifeguard stands. That’s my background. I can’t shake it. Nature was always emphasized as the true reality to me, not the messy life of cities.
“One thing that had a great impact on me culturally prior to Lost Trail was the years I spent at college, at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Mountain culture is an unavoidable presence there, and it has this uneasy time-warp intersection with the more modern culture of the university. My time in Boone was a tapestry of surreal immersion in that culture – from Thursday night bluegrass jams at the local community house, full of old-timers who couldn’t hold a pen anymore but could play expert banjo or dulcimer from memory, to just driving into dark woods and hills late at night, looking up at stray little campfires lost in the wilderness. It’s an ominous, almost-frontier landscape there, very isolated, and communing with nature isn’t really a choice, it’s mandatory. Old time music has a huge influence on Lost Trail, even though it isn’t readily apparent in our sound. I listen to more Carter Family and Stanley Brothers, more Almeda Riddle and Sarah Ogan Gunning, than I do any ambient or drone music.”
D: ”When I think of city music, I think of loud nightclubs, people driving by playing music loudly. Things that one hears in crowds. Drone music is more appropriate for calm listening, maybe while watching what might be out a window in a country house – deer, trees, rolling hills, ponds, rivers, creeks. There’s a certain calmness required to appreciate experimental music, particularly drone, and it’s hard to find that calmness in cities full of traffic, movement, and noise – it may be fruitful to record and use those sounds in future recordings, but they can also be distracting.”
What led you to make the film Traumatic Attachments? What does the title refer to?
Z: ”I’ve always been interested in film; my great hobby outside of music is photography and film. It goes back to loathing that falsehood, that Apple culture ideal of digital perfection and false reality. I like damage and decay in my art, it seems more organic and real to me. Cassettes, Polaroids, Super 8 film, VHS, Holga… all of that is genuine to me. It’s full of unexpected variables and elements that can’t be controlled. It isn’t an ironic love, it’s a genuine affection for a scratched and corroded aesthetic. The thing I love about doing everything ourselves in Lost Trail is that our photography, our film, our poetry, all ends up within Lost Trail, whether it be film projections or album art or what have you. I’ve been thrilled with the renaissance of this ‘obsolete’ technology, as I was already there years ago. Our music is very colorful and visual to my synesthetic brain, so film and photography are just a natural extension of that. I take photographs when I want to relax; it’s a simpler, more uncomplicated form of art than music.
“We wanted to make a visual representation of some of our themes, mainly what I’ve discussed above, this idea of North Carolina as an unsettled territory on the border of suburban sprawl and the natural, depthless void. So we drove around shooting short, un-narrated bits of digital video, as Super 8 was too expensive to process at a feature length. I usually detest digital technology as a rule, but my digital camera shoots very poor quality video, with a lot of focusing errors and lighting errors and stabilization errors, so it seemed perfect for this sort of fragmented reality we were trying to represent. I like limitations and challenges, and working with what you’re given. There’s a purity in the sacrifice of not having everything be perfect.
“The film score aspect was something I wanted to try, because I’ve always said I’d love to move into doing more film scores eventually. We’re a very improv-based band, we don’t write ahead of time, we just sit down and the music comes out of its own accord. So having to write music specifically for images was an enjoyable challenge, and I hope we get to do more film work.
“As far as the title goes, Traumatic Attachment theory is the psychological idea of dependence on someone in an unhealthy relationship. It seemed an apt metaphor for that uneasy relationship between natural resources and the exploitation of land for human consumption. In its most developed areas, NC can often seem like a wasteland of logos shouting for your attention. We wanted to capture that in the film, but also in a way that was respectful of the strange, abstract sort of beauty that man-made spaces sometimes obtain. I have a fascination with electric lighting, and the shapes of certain shopping centers, and the strange grasslands and ponds and roadways you see surrounding office and industrial parks. These places are destructive, an evidence of consumerism gone awry, but there’s beauty in nearly everything. People sometimes need to adjust their stereotypical expectations of what constitutes beauty.”
What is the difference between feeling (heart) and thought (brain) when it comes to making music?
Z: ”My biggest gripe with a lot of experimental music is that it’s very cold and clinical. It can come off as a scientific exercise. Sometimes there’s no discerning a human face within that icy sheen. I think playing experimental music with the heart more than the brain means trying to bring back an imperfect sense of raw punk ethos into the work, an unbridled passion. If there’s one thing I hope people never say about Lost Trail, it’s that we sound dead and cold and emotionless. We don’t sandpaper away our mistakes, we don’t edit out happy accidents that don’t go according to plan. We don’t ‘plan’ much in general. One thing I can’t stand about the current indie generation is the irony, the cold and sneering witticisms, the refusal to admit that yes, we’re human beings and we love things and hate other things and genuinely feel things and cry and get pissed off sometimes. I’m a heart-on-sleeve emotionalist, and I’ll never consider that a negative trait or uncool thing. I refuse to couch my humanity in witty too-cool irony. I mean, I love Pavement as much as the next dude, but fuck that lazy slacker attitude. I love music and I care about music, and I care about this world around me. I’m not going to hide that fact.”
D: ”I briefly learned how to play other instruments as a child (piano and clarinet) and thus learned how to read music, but this did not stick in my brain. I think if either of us knew better how to read music, then we may be more mathematical in the writing and recording process. However, we don’t, and that seems to work better for us. We can include sounds that we’ve recorded that don’t line up perfectly with the music we’ve written, but that fit well. Sometimes music sounds better when someone makes it up as they go along, and puts thing together that seem like they work together rather than planning things and making sure things are on beat.”
You seem fascinated by images of neglect and abandonment. How and when did this start?
Z: ”It’s been as long as I can remember. I grew up in a decaying industrial town in New England, and I find myself in a similar landscape as I near thirty. I don’t think it’s accidental. I find a lot of things beautiful in the natural world that others would agree with, and I also find many things beautiful that others consider an eyesore. Personally, I fail to see much of a difference between the woods and an abandoned factory thats been reclaimed by the woods. Once people are done with using a building for economic or living purposes, it takes on a whole new context.
“It’s fascinating the way nature reclaims a place; when I was on tour in Detroit, I found the ‘urban prairie’ situation there absolutely fascinating. It’s the closest thing we have in this country to ancient ruins, our Industrial Revolution now decaying as our Tech Revolution will one day decay. When deer and badgers begin to take up residence behind the Genius Bars of Apple Stores, or in the stockrooms of Jamba Juice, I’ll find that gorgeous as well. Remove things from their context, out of any ethical or social ideology, and the world opens up its beauty to you. It may be a pretentious ideal, but hey, it also happens to be a true one.”
This element of decay and degradation is mirrored in your music, of course…
Z: ”And it always will be. I’m not going to suddenly become uninterested in urban exploration, that giddy thrill of going into a dark place that no longer functions as was originally intended, at twenty-eight years old. Musicians that claim their personal lives and quirks don’t influence their music are frankly full of shit. Our music is a reflection of who we are as people, and that’s as it should be. It isn’t something that should be fought. If it isn’t coming from some part of yourself that loves and feels certain things, then why even do it? Art is a way of presenting yourself as an individual to the world, and your perspective on that world and its interactions. I’m not going to present a fictional character, and I couldn’t make our music fictional if I tried. Lost Trail is a way of working out emotions, a way of commenting on what we see around us, in all its otherworldly and transfixing glory. Truth is, I’m an introverted, passionate, moody young artist in America. I have a specific perspective on the world that’s unique to my culture, time, and personality. Why pretend to be anything but who I am? Authenticity may be overrated (so says Pitchfork), but I haven’t seen enough authenticity yet, and music has never been an excuse to wear a mask or become someone else to me. Rather, with music, I become the most distilled and accurate representation of myself, if anything.”
Where does the medium of cassette tape fit into all of this?
Z: ”Lo-Fi is definitely an aesthetic affectation, not gonna lie. Part of it originally was poverty, and part of it was that I’m no good at tech stuff. I’ve never used a proper mic or a mixing board or phantom power in my life. That stuff is utterly gibberish to me, and I like how we do things, so I have no interest in learning ‘proper’ techniques. I don’t play guitar the ‘proper’ way, I play it the way I like to play it, so recording is no different. Studios are sterile and bland in my limited experience with them; I like recording in an old house where accidents can get caught in the mix; a train passing by, or a fire engine, or someone talking on the sidewalk. When I first heard the Set Fire To Flames albums, with all those little bits of incidental, accidental sound left in the mix, it expanded my mind to the possibilities of doing things differently. That seems real and organic to me. The fact is, I like the way cassette sounds better than anything else. The warmth, the hiss, the warbling, it creates an immediate nostalgic sense memory that goes with both our ideas of decay and abandonment and our ideas of the past and being haunted by the past. Digital recording’s icy glare just can’t accomplish that. We’re purists that way, nearly Luddites, and hell, I grew up with cassette so it means a lot to me. The first attempts I made at recording were with a four-track Fostex in my childhood bedroom. The album is important to us, the track sequencing, the art, the font used for the liner notes, all of it. You can manipulate tape recorders in a way you can’t manipulate digital machines, and unlike digital machines, each tape recorder sounds different. Our music would not be the same if we didn’t use tape. Static, damage, all of it is important for our work to sound ‘right’ to me. I always say I want our music to sound like it was found on a mangled tape dug up from the forest floor after twenty years of neglect. There’s that intersection of abandoned and obsolete technology with nature again, of course. No one’s ever going to wax nostalgic for the sound quality of mp3s, are they?
“It isn’t like we’re pioneers with this, of course. A lot of people influenced me on this end, growing up and recently. Boards of Canada, William Basinski, Belong, Set Fire To Flames, Tim Hecker. Nothing to me sounds as beautiful as guitar or piano on a damaged cassette tape. So we’ve made the move to doing almost all our recording on cassette, even the field recordings. I won’t say we never use digital pocket recorders, we do. And our mixing is done on Logic, by necessity and ease. That may make me somewhat of a contradiction in my ethics, but frankly, that’s the nature of modern America. Trying to find someone who has high ideals but isn’t also a little bit of a hypocrite is impossible. The system is slanted against independent living, period. And I think human beings are natural contradictions by their very nature, in the end.
“Cassette is just part of who we are as a band, our irrevocable identity. We have thousands; I buy them in bulk from a store called Scrap Exchange in Durham, the world’s best junk store. I find wonderful things on them for sampling, especially the hundreds we’ve dug up from the Edgar Cayce Past Lives Institute in Virginia Beach. If I got a nice fat recording advance from Drag City or Temporary Residence tomorrow, I wouldn’t spend it on a mixer or a new guitar or better pedals. I’d buy more tape machines, and maybe an Edison wax cylinder recorder or wire recorder while I’m at it. If there’s a new frontier for Lost Trail’s fetish for imperfect-sounding recording, it’s going back to even more ancient technology. The grittier our music sounds, the more real it sounds to me, the more naturally oriented. And tape sounds more like a forest floor than digital ever could.”
Static is a recurrent texture in your work. Why do you think this is? What effect does it have on you as a listener?
Z: ”Static is a great way to represent tension and disquiet, and it contributes that counter-balance I mentioned earlier, when matched with a conventionally pretty guitar or piano melody. It always makes a song sound ‘fuller’ to me. I love shortwave radio static for all its whines and whistles, and I especially love vinyl crackle of all varieties. It just makes everything sound more ancient. The effect can be subtle or jarring, depending on whats required within the framework of the piece in question. There are times where I could just listen to different flavors of static and nothing else.
“I find static to be a comforting sound; it reminds me of growing up by the ocean. I remember a time of great stress once, years ago, when I turned on AM radio static to comfort me and calm me down. Static can be soothing, violent, or both, all at once. It’s a very dynamic element.”
What role(s) do found sounds and field recordings play in your music?
Z: ”It rounds out the sound as well as static does, and it adds another element of emotion and intrigue that the music wouldn’t attain on its own. Listening to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, the implications of someone’s voice and what they’re saying over a beautiful bed of strings can really add a layer of depth and feeling that the song wouldn’t have otherwise. Because Lost Trail is a primarily instrumental project, I find they’re an effective way to get across certain themes we want to communicate in a subtle manner. I delight in finding obscure dialogue samples to record, whether from YouTube or record fairs or just on the shortwave. As Denny’s gotten more involved with the project, she’s contributed the counter-balance of more nature-based samples, which really has rounded out the work. That’s how Denny joined Lost Trail as a permanent member; we would go out so I could record, and she’d get involved and find it great fun. Eventually I gave her her own pocket recorder, and she started bringing back some stellar stuff. As a non-musician, she has an instinct for sound and production ideas that I don’t have, having played guitar my whole life. She’s a great second voice and a superb second editor, and this band really began taking shape when she began to contribute more. As time goes on, we’ve begun to utilize her lack of experience in playing instruments as well. It’s always valuable to have someone playing guitar or keys or drums who doesn’t ‘know how to play’. It’s healthy for the creative process. There’s no ‘wrong way’ of playing things in our universe.
“Certain themes, as you’ve mentioned, come up in our work time and time again, and mostly through samples or song titles. As an instrumental band, song titles are very important to us, both the meanings of the words and just how they sound phonetically. I’m very synesthetic when it comes to both words and sounds as colors, and field recordings are no different. Religion/the fierceness of belief, travel accidents, the supernatural, these all seem to come up regularly in our work. It tells me something about myself, about subconscious obsessions I didn’t know I had. How they tie into the greater whole remains to be seen, in my opinion.
“One thing I’d like to do is try to incorporate more ideology-minded content into our work. We’re both passionate about progressive causes, it’s a big part of our lives, but finding an artful way to integrate that into our music without seeming preachy is a tightrope challenge. Godspeed pull it off remarkably, of course, but we’re no Godspeed. So we’ll see what happens.”
D: ”It’s possible I’d never heard of found sound before I met Zach, but this is definitely a major part of Lost Trail’s music and what brought me into being part of Lost Trail. I carry around a little recorder and record things like lawn mowers, giggly kids, construction sounds, or whatever else I might hear while out and about alone or with kids (I’m a nanny). However, regardless of the fact that found sounds are relatively new to me, I enjoy recording various things, sharing them, and imagining how Zach will use them in songs later. One of the children I care for has even mentioned some sounds she’s felt I should record when I’ve had my recorder with me.”
Improvisational strategies vary from artist to artist, group to group. How would you describe yours?
Z: ”Our work basically is improvisation. I record bits of music on the spot that sound interesting, throw them all together on a screen, and move them around until they sound good. I very rarely overdub in the traditional sense; I’m much more interested in the accidental and messy collision of notes interacting with each other than I am with playing things to any sort of beat or mathematical, precise pattern. That’s part of the excitement of how we work; it’s unexpected until the end. When elements happen to mysteriously line up in interesting ways, it’s heaven. You can almost hear the click, like a puzzle we’re constantly working to solve.
“It’s well-known among our circle that I don’t love playing live. I find it very hard to reproduce what we do recording-wise in a live setting, since I obsess over the recordings for days until even one piece is close to ‘finished’. This music is very hard to get across live; people talk over you or complain about the noise, and it’s very hard to find an attentive audience and a receptive venue (not to mention, working purposely with shoddy, cheap equipment is always risky). We don’t play in bars or traditional clubs much; I find our type of music just doesn’t mix with alcohol, and I prefer anyone of any age be able to come if they want to. I remember being seventeen and pissed off that I couldn’t get into local punk shows; the idea of someone being a less valuable music fan because they can’t spend drink money at a bar is beyond insulting to me. Some of the best, most rewarding shows we’ve played have been to rooms full of teenagers. So we just tend to fit better at art galleries, house shows, DIY spaces, coffeehouses and the like.
“And as time goes on, the stress of live performance and the shortcomings of our sets have given way to renewed excitement, as we pretty much always perform improv sets now. Gone is the disappointment at not being able to reproduce songs live; we just do something new every time, and its become very rewarding. Lost Trail live is a wholly different entity than Lost Trail recorded. That’s as it should be. I don’t see a band live to hear them accurately reproduce their album to the letter. I’d much rather stay home and listen to the album on the couch, in that case.
Are there specific works of art, literature, photography and film that have a totemic value for Lost Trail?
Z: ”Absolutely, too many to list. All forms of art are as equally important to me as music; to me they’re just different views of the same face. I went to school for Creative Writing, so literature is an extremely important part of my life. Not every writer I love has specifically influenced Lost Trail, of course, but a few that have include: Don Delillo, JG Ballard, Algernon Blackwood, MR James, Sylvia Plath, James Howard Kunstler, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Delillo’s ‘White Noise’, especially, probably my very favorite novel. I’ve read four or five copies to tatters. For art, being raised by a professional artist, I was exposed to a great deal of visual beauty growing up. Matisse, Magritte, Goya, Bacon, and Bruegel the Elder come to mind as a few influences. There’s an obscuring of reality and of traditional features that I’ve always found deeply intriguing in Magritte’s best pieces.
“Photography-wise, I’m really into Justine Kurland, for one. One of her photographs is my very favorite album cover (M83’s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts). That landscape, the highway coursing through the snowy patch of woods, really strikes a personal chord with me, and all of her work in general, these almost spirit-like female figures lingering at the edges of suburbia, in those wild places. Also Todd Hido for photography, and Weegee, Arnold Odermatt, Jason Koxvold, Francesca Woodman.
“For film, well, film is a huge deal to me as well, really only second to music, so that’s tougher to answer. I have a deep abiding love for slasher films from the genre’s Golden Age (roughly 1978-1984). I grew up with the better known ones but thanks to YouTube I’ve tracked down pretty much every obscure C-movie slasher in existence. I’ve seen literally hundreds. It goes with the sense of nostalgia, and the music, the atmosphere, all of it. Slashers tell us a great deal about that time period, the sociology of the eighties, and about memory itself. Horror films in general are a real treat artistically when done well, which they so rarely are. It’s a frustrating genre to be a mega-fan of. Outside of that, I’d say Michael Haneke and David Cronenberg are HUGE influences on Lost Trail aesthetically. There’s references to early Haneke films in the names of some of our first recordings. Also, David Lynch, Atom Egoyan, Harmony Korine, early Todd Haynes…those are the ones that jump out at me as having a big influence on Lost Trail directly.
“Denny, for her part, is a fan of a lot of contemporary folk music, and is a devoted abstract painter herself. If only I could get her to share my love of all those cheesy horror films…”
Lost Trail is to all intents and purposes an entirely self-sufficient unit. Is this a point of principle?
Z: ”Indeed. As I said before, I like the way we do things and for someone else to come and try to change that, that would be a problem. I wouldn’t be able to operate any other way. Lost Trail partially came out of being fed up with the artistic compromise of being in traditional bands…the petty power struggles, the constant schedule problems, same old story. I knew I was serious about music and that I would rather do everything myself and have artistic control, as egotistical as that sounds. Now I have a great partner I trust with artistic input and whom I consult on all decisions, but really, I can’t imagine being in a band with someone not my wife again. Temporary collaborations, yes, that’s different and fun.
“It’s just how I was raised. The only reason I’m pursuing art as a career is because I was brought up by a single mother who fought like hell to make art her’s. I wasn’t raised with the kind of cliched parental practicality bullshit that can snuff out so many young talented artists’ futures. I was always encouraged to pursue art professionally if I liked, but with a real business sense and a real independence. I trust myself to work harder than anyone else I could hire to help out. I know I’ll work hard at the film projections, the web design, the producing and mixing, the booking. It’s a kind of hardcore punk ethos I think we strive to maintain despite being an entirely different kind of music, and it’s just how I prefer to operate. I’m so used to it now, I have no urge to change. The last thing I’d ever want is for some record label slick to bully me into things I’m uncomfortable with, like working with an outside producer or recording in a studio. The only thing we farm out is mastering, and that’s because I can’t afford the equipment.”
Lost Trail are part of the Living Room Visions collective. Who are the other members and what ties them together?
Z: ”I became involved with Living Room Visions through Marcus Eads, who runs Sunup Recordings in Minnesota. He favourited one of our tracks on Soundcloud and we became friendly, and soon enough I was part of this growing online scene of label owners, musicians, and artists that was really exciting. To have that kind of online family, that community, when I was lacking an in-person scene here in NC, was really rewarding to me. We really do support each other like a family. We love each other, and we help each other along as much as we can. There’s no competition, it’s all for furthering each others’ works. It’s interesting that with the Internet shrinking the world so much, music scenes have gone from city-based to more web-based, but I like it. We all have this general aesthetic of experimental, usually lo-fi, outsider sort of art. Most of us don’t live in the major cities, we’re freaks in our small towns doing something different, looking for folks to support it. Those who do live in the major cities are not on the cusp of the ‘scene’ there, either. But we have each other. And if we do find the success as a band that I strive towards, it will entirely be thanks to LRV. Our audience multiplied absurdly once we joined that group, and for that I’m eternally grateful. Having a family to back you up, a name recognition that means quality, has been such a blessing. More and more, people are catching on that LRV is one of the most exciting collectives of young musicians, labels and artists around. As far as membership itself, LRV is made up of a rotating cast of labels like Sunup, Ailanthus, Carpi, Holy Page, Sarcastic Magician, Lava Church, Illuminated Paths, and our own little label Wood Thrush Tapes; artists like us, Lasership Stereo, NYKDLN, Brandon Locher, FAVRTSM, Public Spreads The News, Lockbox, Clear Winner and folks like Joshua Rogers, a filmmaker from Broken Machine Films. His work is absolutely brilliant.”
You’re both Quakers. Can you explain what this means and how it informs your work as Lost Trail?
Z: ”We haven’t been Friends for very long, but I won’t pretend it doesn’t affect the music. Denny was raised Presbyterian, and I’ve been agnostic bordering on atheist most of my life, with Catholic background on both sides of my family. I suppose I’ve always felt some spiritual tug, but never thought there was anything out there that matched up to my beliefs. Denny began to miss having a spiritual community to count on, especially being fairly new to Alamance County, and so we began to look into the Friends, who happen to go back to the 1700s around here. Historically they’re very important to the county and to North Carolina in general.
“We attend a meeting called Spring Friends in the little town of Snow Camp. It’s an intimate meeting of about twenty to thirty regular people, which was ideal for me as I had no urge to be overwhelmed by a giant and intimidating spiritual situation. These people have been beyond welcoming to us; recently we suffered a break-in in which we lost some valuables and musical equipment, and the Friends have really pulled together and rallied behind us to help us out. I’ve never seen a community, faith-based or otherwise, that has each others’ backs so firmly. I can only hope that the younger Quakers continue the tradition, as it seems to be sadly dying out.
“I was shocked to find a faith that matched my personal beliefs to the letter. The idea that God is a light existing within everyone was so refreshing. There’s no need for some self-righteous asshole condemning you hypocritically from a pulpit. Everyone is on equal footing. And the use of silence is very calming and centering, something I need in my life. The broadness of ideals, the emphasis on simplicity, all appealed to me. I’m the most un-materialistic person I know. Stuff means literally nothing to me; I try in all I do to reject the trappings of a consumerist culture (well, as much as one can in 2012 America and still survive). If I had a way to live self-sufficiently at this moment, entirely off the grid in a cabin somewhere growing my own food and making my own clothes, I would. Maybe we’ll get there someday. I’d like to think so.
“All of this matched with the fierce progressive ideals and dedication to social justice that comes with a traditional Quaker meeting, and I knew I’d found a match. It’s enriched and deepened our work in Lost Trail, given it an entirely new cast it lacked before, a greater context. Our music has always seemed very spiritual to me, which is why so many of the faith-based field recordings seemed to fit, even if I didn’t absolutely believe in what was being spoken. It was more the idea of the power of belief itself, the passion in these peoples’ voices, their inflections. Lost Trail very much seems to turn on the axis of powerful belief, which I never expected at the start of it.”
Is your label Wood Thrush Tapes a straightforward extension of the Lost Trail aesthetic?
Z: ”No. Wood Thrush Tapes is largely a hobby, and a way to release our friends’ work in small runs for our own reward and theirs. Essentially, I like to keep busy. I’d love to have the money and time to develop it into a proper label, but alas, not happening. I never intended it as a vanity project to release our own work, but as an outlet for friends who needed short runs of things. What we’re hoping to experiment with in the future is unusual ways of releasing things. We’ve got a lot of stuff planned on the horizon that should be interesting to fans of odd releases.”
I’m fond of the track ‘Videoroom’ from the Longing album. But I’m intrigued - what exactly goes on in that room?
Z: ”It does sound a little sinister doesn’t it? Sometimes we really do pick track names just for how they sound. There’s an eeriness to the idea of a ‘video room’. Your mind doesn’t go to nice places when confronted with that image, it immediately reverts to the darkest option.
“It seemed a very Cronenberg type image to me at the time, I guess. Cronenberg’s early period (through maybe The Dead Zone, which is still the best King adaptation) really inspired that sense in Lost Trail of the frightening possibilities of dying technologies, how they take on almost anthropomorphic qualities, and usually in a forbidding manner. Videotape only seems eerier and eerier in its flaws and peculiarities as time goes on. It’s almost always disturbing or luridly illicit in its implications. Videos become like this hidden, shameful art form, full of blurs and warps and damage that just unsettle the soul. That’s one reason we love VHS so much. Technology, especially obsolete technology, may be made by human hands, but it’s colder than human, that’s for sure. And VHS will always be associated with voyeurism and wickedness on one level, and golden-tinged nostalgia on the other. Those two meet in very intriguing ways.
“Part of that return to obsolete technology I’ve mentioned, this fetishizing that we’re guilty of, of venerating VHS and Super 8 and Polaroid and the like, is definitely a reaction to the hollowness of perfection-craving digital culture, I think. Yet it’s an uneasy admiration, because as things age and disintegrate, they naturally take on a foreboding sort of light. Decay and the passage of time will always unsettle us, as it means mortality, death. The usage of VHS in the horror genre has gone absolutely insane lately. There’s definitely a sociological reason. An album like The Disintegration Loops is almost a technological genocide in its implications.”
What are your plans for Lost Trail over the next few months?
Z: ”A lot going on, as usual. We just had a little 20-minute split tape with FAVRTSM come out on Sunup. Early in 2013, physical copies of another full-length that was recorded way back at the start of 2011 are finally coming out on a splendid new Alaskan label, Tired Sounds. Also another full-length next summer on Visceral Media, a music and film project coming out soon on a label I’m going to keep under wraps for now, new EPs for Birch Grove Recordings and Benadrone Tapes, and another full-length after that, probably late in the year, label pending. Additionally, there’s some film score projects planned, a collection of some of my poetry we’re working on music to go with, an 8” lathe cut release and a Minidisc EP (yes, Minidisc) that we’re putting out on Wood Thrush Tapes at some point soon, a straight field recordings collection, a couple of awesome collaborations planned, and a whole bunch of compilation appearances coming up. We’re also heading out on an East Coast tour with our bud Sebastian (Proud Father, a killer noise project from Jacksonville, Florida) in the fall of 2013, and at some point soon I have an IDM/tape loop side project, Cobra Mist, that I’m trying to finish up. Lots of releases coming up on Wood Thrush Tapes, as well, the first of which is a Linear Bells album /// in a run of 20. So, much going on! Keep up with everything we’re doing at our website and the Wood Thrush Tapes Tumblr, on Twitter and Facebook.”
Esmerine Why She Swallows Bullets And Stones
Mount Eerie w/ Julie Doiron & Fred Squire Lost Wisdom
Forest Swords Hjurt
Library Tapes But Now Things Were Different, With Birds Unable To Speak
Jean Ritchie There Lived An Old Lord
Six Organs Of Admittance Eighth Cognition/All You’ve Left
Tim Hecker Chimeras
Mountain Man Mouthwings
Set Fire To Flames Omaha
Frederic Chopin Nocturne #20 In C Sharp Minor
Boards Of Canada Gyroscope
Alabama Sacred Harp Singers Shelburne