Beauty Only Lingers: A Conversation With Warren Defever

One of this year’s surprisingly well-received albums is All The Mirrors In The House (Early Recordings 1979-1986), a collection of home recordings from His Name Is Alive‘s mastermind Warren Defever. Though it predates the beginning of the band–who came to prominence with 1990’s Livonia, released on 4AD after label head Ivo Watts-Russell received a copy of their self-released cassette, I Had Sex With God. Diving into this new album of newly found recordings, though, is a whole other experience. By himself, he made quiet, hushed, haunting musical soundscapes–many found on the record are quite brief, but a mixing session turned them into two long, contiguous pieces (if you bought the vinyl) and fifteen brief but beautiful passages that flow seamlessly from start to finish. While these recordings are decades old, they sound positively futuristic, a sure sign of a talented young man. We’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Warren over the years, and it’s always a pleasure–and this conversation is no exception.

 

What prompted this trip into your vault?

it’s not so much a vault as a plastic grocery bag and a cardboard box. I was recording Wolf Eyes and their UK label guy, Matthew at Warp Records tracked me down. At first I thought it was a prank. Some of our old tapes are on YouTube and he asked about releasing those on their side hustle reissue label called Disciples. I vaguely remembered having six or seven new age  or ambient recordings that never really got released so I got Shelley from Tyvek to do the transfers for me. I really can’t listen to much of that stuff, like the tapes of me adding harmonica to Bob Dylan songs that didn’t have harmonica when I was 12 or all the U2 covers. She did a great job and didn’t judge me too harshly. We’re still friends. I owe her one. I felt pretty good when they suggested hiring Mike McGonigal to write the liner notes, he’s written some great pamphlets, he lives in Detroit and he’s a good friend plus his dog Clayton is such a good dog but then in the liner notes he implied the recordings had been faked. Next thing you know the music journalists are hiring audio forensic scientists to determine the exact age of each recording (two of the fifteen are fake apparently)

Were you surprised at what you found? Are there any tapes that you heard that impressed you? What were your expectations before you began reviewing them?

I had hoped there would be enough material for one album and there was very clearly three albums in there–one being fully ambient, one noisier, mechanical and industrial and one of later stuff that leads directly up to the Livonia recordings. I was impressed by the durability of those cheap low bias blue Kmart cassettes; having been stored in a basement, a garage and under a bed for thirty plus years, they played back fine. Generally I remembered tracks being longer, I thought “Echo Lake” was the entire side of a tape , it was six minutes and most other songs fall between 30 seconds and two minutes

I think the most surprising thing about this album is hearing these really sophisticated, really complex instrumental pieces coming from someone so young. What were you listening to at the time? Who were your influences, and were these pieces your own exercises in trying to recreate the work of people you admired?

“Complex” maybe isn’t the word I would use. Generally, the tracks have one or two instruments and two chords on the fancy ones and just the one chord on the others, mostly you just get the one thing and it repeats for a minute or two. On one of the upcoming releases you hear me cover a Cramps song and also the day I heard the Jesus and Mary Chain I recorded a song that is 50% surf music / 50% feedback, so I think it’s fair to consider them influences. Most of the home recordings honestly are rockabilly and surf music, which I have no plans to release at this time. Also there’s plenty of tapes where I’m just playing guitar along with the radio so it’s sloppy teenage fuzz guitar soloing over Prince, The Yardbirds, Pat Benatar and The Rolling Stones. I started performing when I was five so I did have kind of a headstart with some of this stuff. I thought the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil were the dreamiest thing I ever heard and wanted to be in that dream. After that rockabilly never really connected the same way. I guess I was psychedelicized.
For the vinyl release, you’ve programmed all of the individual tracks into one continuous piece. Did this rather seamless continuity come naturally, or did you spend a great deal of time programming them into one big piece?

Took me about an hour to connect the dots and you’re hearing the first draft on All The Mirrors In The House. Shelley had a great system for notating which tracks were ambient or had echoey guitar so it came together really fast. Some of the upcoming releases took a little more effort. The producers job is to help facilitate the artist in realizing their dream, and I kind of remember what that idiot kid had in mind thirty or forty years ago when these were originally dreamed up so i’m able to honor that original creative vision and smooth over some of the rough spots.

What kind of equipment were you using? Were you modifying or creating your own gear and recording techniques? Were you solo on all of these tracks? Also interesting to note is that while you were making these pretty sounds, you were also playing some down and dirty rockabilly with Elvis Hitler, as well as making some heavy Sabbath-style metal as well. When did the name His Name Is Alive come into being, and what prompted you to decide to explore these darker ambient styles with a full band instead of by yourself?

My interest in recording started when my father brought home a fancy cassette deck at some point in the late seventies. The earliest tapes in this series were recorded in 1979. It had a lot of buttons and switches and I was curious about all the features. When you pressed record and play at the same time this machine produced a deep, very satisfying “thunk” sound. I wasn’t much of a creator or modified but fully explored weird sounds and techniques. I started working as a corn detasseler in the summer in Canada at age ten and would save up all summer (three dollars and thirty cents and hour, Canadian) and then buy musical equipment like an echo pedal, a peavey bass amp and a phaser. I was already messing around with half speed and double speed nonsense but as soon as I got a four track then I could flip every sound backwards and then add backwards echo to everything too. I was sick a lot as a kid so it was normal for me to mess around at home alone. My grandfather believed music died with Hank Williams in 1953 and everything after that, including “that yeah yeah music” was terrible. I do not agree and music is pretty much music no matter how fast or slow you play it. i’m gonna pass on any conversation about the significance of some minor divergence of styles in western popular music in the last two hundred years. the bell is struck, the air vibrates and if you’re lucky your ear catches it and you feel something. end of discussion.

 

I’ve been impressed with how well-received this album has been. Do you think this trip into the past has influenced/will influence the music you’re making now? Will you be performing this material at your upcoming live appearances? Are you planning on a second volume?

I don’t wanna spoil the ending, but maybe there’s a tape of me playing guitar along with the radio released soon called 6teen Ok (Radio Tapes 1985-1986)” and then a record called Return To Never (Home Recordings 1979-1986) before the year ends.

What’s next for you?

There’s a secret record called Infinity Mirrors Inward Reflections that comes out soon but I’m not sure exactly when. It was recorded half live and half in a dream. Its one of those hard to explain situations but when you hear it I guarantee you will freak the fuck out. We play LA on Sept 12 and NYC Sept 16 and I’ve been getting into that “all this old material is weighing heavy on my mind” zone. To clarify I can’t really figure out how I played what on those old tapes but there’s a vibe for sure, there’s a vibe…

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