Musician and composer Jon DeRosa has been making dark music for well over two decades, whether as Aarktica, Pale Horse & Rider, solo, or under various other guises. His music is often epic, ambient soundscapes, but he tempers them with dark folk that some might attribute to a goth background. Not that they’re wrong, mind you; his music simply doesn’t fit nicely into one pigeonhole.
His most recent record, We Will Find The Light, finds him in fine form, exploring ambient textures, chamber music, and a rich tapestry of melancholic sounds.
He has a new record coming out this week, entitled Paeans, out via the esteemed darkwave label Projekt. It is a collection of instrumental ambient compositions that is very cold, in a warm kind of way. Paeans is available now as a name-your-price download for a limited time; check it out here.
We Will Find The Light comes quickly, relatively speaking, since your previous album—and that record was nearly a decade before that. Are you a perfectionist, or does Aarktica simply take its time to birth itself?
I’m the opposite of a perfectionist, in the sense that I don’t like to dwell on things too much. Once I start making something I want to work quickly, sometimes impatiently, because what’s most important is capturing a moment. I think it just takes me a bit of time to work up the nerve to start, but once I do, it’s usually quite a fast process.
We Will Find the Light was actually written almost in its entirety from January – March 2022, recorded in a few months and released in the Fall, which is really a perfect timeline for me. To release something and have it still feel so fresh made me more inspired, more engaged in the whole process.
There have most definitely been some long gaps in the Aarktica discography, but during a lot of that time, especially from 2011 – 2015, I was making albums and performing under my own name. Having always listened to and been quietly influenced by Sinatra, Roy Orbison, Scott Walker, and so much 50’s and 60’s pop music, I was wanting to learn to use my singing voice more, and experiment with more orchestral arrangements. Those eponymous albums Anchored, A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes and Black Halo feature a sound that is atmospheric in a more orchestral way, a different way than what I was doing as Aarktica, although there are many of those ambient elements that still bleed through.
But I think what I’ve found, and what culminates in We Will Find the Light, is that I’m no longer interested in compartmentalizing creative projects. It’s all Aarktica, at this point. And that makes for a much freer flow for me, and hopefully a more interesting and adventurous output.
On the Aarktica Discogs page, it describes this album as “Spirituals.” Do you feel this is an appropriate description of your music?
I feel… that perhaps, someone well-intentioned may have effed up there.
If it said “Spiritual” I would whole-heartedly agree and think that it’s pretty great. “Spirituals,” to me, brings to mind the subsect of American Folk music associated with Black Americans in the late 1800’s that would develop into Blues and Gospel music. So in that context, I would not agree. But, “spiritual,” I like very much.
I’ve always felt that Aarktica had the curse of falling through the cracks of most genre categorizations. As a musician, I am actually very pleased about that, because I think it’s more interesting to be indefinable. However in a practical sense it doesn’t do the emerging artist any favors in most scenarios because people, playlisters, curators, writers, etc, love to label and contextualize so much. Most people need a new thing to sound just enough like an old thing for them to catch on. I’d imagine most artists feel this type of frustration to some degree about their work, so I hope I don’t sound like a cliche here.
When Aarktica released No Solace in Sleep into the world of late-90’s, guitar-based ambient, it was a time when releases like that were still considered by most to be a subgenre of Indie Rock or Experimental Rock, rather than “Ambient” because we were making the sound with electric guitars. I loved making that record, and could’ve made it over and over again, but it didn’t feel right or satisfying to do that. What made it interesting was that it was exploratory, and that wasn’t something I could replicate. Instead, Aarktica evolved with every album to incorporate more influences of what was really turning me on at the time. From my view, Aarktica always carried the spirit of post-punk, but musically it didn’t always fit the bill in an obvious way. It’s really a project that makes more sense as a whole discography, because each album is very much its own experiment and they build upon one another.
But all that being said, if someone wants to define Aarktica by a descriptor that is more about a feeling it inspires, that is absolutely fine and encouraged by me.
In your early years, you collaborated with the late LD Beghtol, a friend of mine. What was he like to work with, and what do you think you learned from working with him?
I met LD when I was 18 or 19 years old, through the NYC Indie Pop email list, which is kind of a funny thing to think about. It was right around the time 69 Love Songs came out, which had made him a minor celebrity, and he was looking for someone to back him up for a solo show he had scheduled. I had just moved to New York City and was up for anything in terms of finding musicians to play with, anything to start meeting people and making my way.
In a way, we were kind of the perfect oddball match. I was young and hungry, classically trained and played many instruments, into weird music, up to play whenever and wherever, and I didn’t really have the ego yet to need to control every little thing. LD was a bit older, had a lot of vision and experience, and enjoyed being the ringleader. He loved to surround himself with diverse and talented people that could help him execute his musical ideas, and he loved to make connections. “You know who you need to meet?….You would LOVE her,” or “Oh you don’t know so-and-so? You NEED to hear his new record. He’s AMAZING.” But above all else, I remember him just wanting to be an artist. “All I want is to make beautiful things,” he’d say. And that was something we had in common.
I became the guitarist in his band Flare, and remained for a good portion of its existence. And we of course became very close friends and were even roommates for a number of years, pioneering the Morgan L stop in Bushwick, Brooklyn several years before it became fit for any sane person to live there. There was always a place for him at the table at my family holidays in NJ, everyone loved him.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knew him that LD was not always easy to work with. One of his mantras in Flare was “This is not a democracy.” But it was admirable that he had such a unique vision, and truthfully, he was mostly very open when I suggested something creatively. For someone who was uncompromising about what he wanted, he surely had a lot of trust in me, and I actually came up with a lot of my own parts in Flare. He’d say “I like it but… make it more Vini Reilly…” or “…play that same riff, but with more self-loathing” and somehow I always knew what he meant. I think we rarely butted heads because I knew Flare was *his* project and I considered myself there to make it what he wanted.
When I heard LD passed, I felt very sad because we hadn’t spoken in years. We’d had a series of falling outs that just were never repaired.
I always had and still have a great amount of love and respect for LD. He was one of my most important musical mentors, and some of my proudest and most adventurous musical moments were with him and Flare. He was an extraordinarily intelligent, funny, creative and sensitive person. He introduced me to so much new music, art, literature. At his core, he was most happy turning people onto things that turned him on. I think that is one of the ways he connected with people. And through him I met many people that became lifelong friends, collaborators, etc.
We laughed a lot, we talked constantly. I got my real music education in the evenings, thanks to him (and Stephin Merritt and Dudley Klute), during so many nights poring over the jukebox selection at Dick’s Bar or The Phoenix (or the Lakeside Lounge, or…), and flowing snifters of Courvoisier. I was a rapt audience, always.
I was no stranger to the studio before I met LD, but the albums we made together — along with Charles Newman, Flare’s keyboardist and engineer/producer — informed my knowledge further about the process, from the inkling of a ukulele riff or a single written line, into a bombastic, orchestrated production. I think I learned how to be more visionary in that way from him, how to not be afraid to make something big, and equally, that a song or arrangement could sometimes be even more powerful if left to be small.
I also learned how important it is, as an artist, to believe in what you’re doing. He’d say “Flare is the best band in the world, why don’t people see that?” and I’d say “Really? You think so?” and he’d look at me like I was crazy and say “Yes, of course, you don’t think so?”
I thought it was just him being flamboyant and pompous, but as I got older I realized, it really is important to believe that what you’re creating is the most important thing out there. If you don’t believe it about yourself, why would anyone else? And if you don’t believe it about yourself, why are you doing it?
Will there ever be a new Pale Horse And Rider release?
It’s not something I’ve thought about recently, but I’d never say never…
I have been working on an EP of John Prine songs with some special guests that might have a similar appeal. We’ll hopefully see a release of it later this year.
You’ve recently become a member of Black Tape For A Blue Girl. How has that experience been?
Projekt Records was a very influential record label to me growing up. When I discovered it at age 13, it really opened up my musical world. I fell in love with artists like Black Tape for a Blue Girl, Lycia, Love Spirals Downwards… In hindsight, I think the ethos of the label spoke to me because of the introspective nature of the music, and that so much of it was dark and ethereal without being theatrical or tacky about it, which was something about traditional goth music that never really appealed to me.
So as an adolescent, I began a correspondence of letters and demos with Pat at Projekt Records, who had a band Thanatos but also did the booking for the label. It was through him that I managed to get on opening slots when Projekt artists would come through New York. I don’t think they realized I was 15 years old at the time, but… it was quite a time!
I reconnected with Projekt founder, and BTFABG main man, Sam (Rosenthal) several years ago when Steve Roach played in Los Angeles. We hit it off and did a collaboration together, an Aarktica / Black Tape kind of split EP. Soon after, Sam was working on new Black Tape material and asked if I’d be interested to sing on a track. I think he was kind of testing the waters to see if my voice would fit, and of course I was more than happy to give it a shot. We both really liked the way it came out, so when he asked if I’d be interested in singing on the whole album, which would eventually become The Cleft Serpent, I said of course. I believe it’s the first Black Tape album to feature just one lead singer.
The experience has been really great, I enjoy working with Sam quite a lot. He is in Portland and I am in Los Angeles (and our cellist is in Sweden!), so everything we’ve done has been remote, and I do miss the kind of camaraderie that goes with the studio experience. But we’re in touch often and I really have enjoyed getting to know him and work closely with him. Having been influenced so deeply by the earlier Black Tape albums going back 30 years, working with Sam in the present has only made me appreciate those albums more because I have gotten a more intimate glimpse into his writing process and that’s really been interesting to me.
It’s also been really nice after all these years to just have a project where I sing and don’t have to worry about anything else. Sam writes the lyrics and melodies, I provide the voice. And musically, it has allowed me to use my voice in different ways than I have on my own releases. Some of it has felt very operatic to me, partially because of the musical style which can at times be a bit neoclassical, and also because Sam is a great lyrical storyteller. It brought me out of my comfort zone and showed me what I’m capable of vocally. I’m really very proud of the recent album The Cleft Serpent.
What do you have coming up in the near future?
Aarktica has a new album Paeans coming out on Projekt Records on May 5th. Later this year we’ll also be releasing an out-of-print Aarktica EP from the early days. And just… keeping on writing so it’s not another decade before we get even more Aarktica music…
Purchase/Listen to Aarktica: Bandcamp
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