Born with the Same Amount of Unknowing: An Interview with Mark Nelson from Pan•American

In some circles of the technological elite, a new form of anti-decadent decadence is apparently gaining hold in the form of dopamine fasting. The story underneath this trend is quickly becoming a cliché. It’s a rebranding of old wisdom—in this case, the deeply human need for time without over-stimulation—packaged in the language of self-optimisation, and sold by the same people who brought us the overstimulated world we now struggle to escape. A fifth of the way into the twenty-first century, qualities like slowness and subtlety often seem like strange caricatures of what they could be. Not only are these qualities difficult to access in daily life, but often they’re presented in faddish, uncanny, alienating forms. How do we un-alienate ourselves, and regain access to these qualities in our lives?

The farmer Mike Madison writes in his book Walking the Flatlands, “Many people do not much notice the noise in which they live; it is like a chronic headache that one has got used to. One does not realise how bad it is until, suddenly and astonishingly, it stops.” That state of muted recognition has been present in Mark Nelson’s music for more than twenty-five years, first in his work with the band Labradford, and more recently in his solo work as Pan•American and in the group Anjou. Nelson has carefully cultivated a kind of sound practice that emphasizes reflection, calm, and fine-tuned attention to the strangeness of everyday surroundings. He’s become a master of subtlety, to the point where his new music shows him pushing away from understatement and seeking greater emotional directness.

The shift is audible on his new album A Son, which feels more like a traditional collection of songs than anything else he’s made as Pan•American. But Nelson’s ability to pair serenity and vulnerability, and to use little adornment in the process, still feels remarkably sane. This music speaks in a gentle and articulate tone, one that is familiar but often absent from modern life. Perhaps, in a welcoming way, it can help reintroduce some listeners to that register.

Nelson and I talked about A Son, and the arc of his musical life so far, over email.

U_: If I’m not mistaken, A Son has the most singing of any Pan•American record. How did it feel to focus more on your voice again? Was it a challenge to make that shift? What prompted it?

Mark Nelson: I was motivated at the beginning of working on this record to try and make the music and the message within it as clear as possible. It was also an effort to remove elements that didn’t make sense any more. I liked the buried vocals for a while—but in some ways they were an outgrowth of struggling to make my quiet (but not buried) vocals work live. When I toured in Europe last November by myself I found the vocals all of a sudden worked in the mix where engineers who were perhaps not familiar with my music were placing it. Plus I have more confidence in the way it sounds now. One way or another, I just kept pushing them up while mixing. I did some double tracking as well and enjoyed working on the vocals a lot. I’d like to develop that further as I go on.

Other than the vocals, the most notable stylistic change is the addition of the solo hammer dulcimer pieces. What qualities of that instrument drew you to it? How has learning a new instrument influenced the way you compose, or the way you play other instruments?

It went hand in hand with trying to start over—in practical and figurative terms. I had, in a way, started over with guitar as well over the previous years—replacing equipment and spending a lot of time learning to play in a different way. It may not sound like it, but I think my guitar playing is quite different than in the past. For both guitar and dulcimer my approach has become much more traditional. I like learning songs by other people and working on things like scales, theory, etc. I never really approached it that way before, in some ways it never even occurred to me to try to learn in an actual structured way—but it appeals to me now and I think it is reflected strongly on the new record.

What was your process for composing a song like “Memphis Helena”? There’s a certain simplicity to the song, but it also flows and builds quite naturally. Did you outline a structure at any point, or did the composition happen more in real time, as you were recording? For you, when does intuition in the composing process take over? Do you encounter a dividing line between intuition and planning?

I had the structure very much in place. Something that emerged in playing it over and over and over months. There are 4 sections that end up looping on each other and a melody line (semi-improvised) over the top. I work in what I think of as slow-motion improvisation. A little melody presents itself and through repetition over time it becomes more developed. Often parts run their course, but when something sticks it really is largely due to a commitment to spending the time and learning to love the repetition and the process.

“Brewthru” seems like the first Pan•American composition that could be performed as a pop-like song without significant difficulty. It’s strikingly unique among your compositions. How did it come about? What caused you to write in that direction?

I’ve been more and more interested in songwriting—particularly songs that have a central narrative that runs through the song. Maybe like Johnny Cash, for example—the singer is central and telling you a story within the song. I don’t think I’ll ever get all the way there, but I feel increasingly comfortable asking the listener for their direct attention and to follow me a bit. In the case of that song I had the lyrics, or at least the “story” kind of complete in my head and just tried to find a streamlined way to tell it.

I was drawn to simple 2 or 3 chord structures while working on this record—simple small structures that can repeat over and over. Sort of how folk music works, but instead of a dominant vocal line or narrative, a bit of that and a lot of other textures and colours. If it works it can both stretch the song vertically and also help it horizontally on a path through a few stages and towards a conclusion. In my past I would maybe even liken it to the first Labradford record where I really wanted moments of clarity (pop song moments) where the listener would be asked to pay attention to the vocal or narrator and then balance that with abstract moments that invite the listener to focus away from the centrality of song and into their own minds and spaces more. In a practical way, learning songs on guitar, like a Willie Nelson song for example, made me more comfortable with how a song can work that way and more comfortable with the idea that I might have a version of it to offer.

Your Facebook announcement about this album included a long list of personal influences, from Booker T & the MG’s to Frank Ocean. In these new songs, though, I hear even closer kinship with the music of other Chicago-area artists like Zelienople and Scott Tuma. How have your interactions with local artists influenced your music? To what degree is your music in conversation with a local artistic community?

I think that list was really a thank you to artists that had excited me to the idea of music and its ability to move through time and space and find the hearts that need to be found. Not necessarily influences in terms of sound or approach, but people who have made music that has found me and reminded me what the point of it all is. I have been pretty isolated for the last 10 or so years in terms of the Chicago music scene—I live a bit out of the centre of activity, plus have been focusing on family—but I’m getting back into it. I think I’ve played in Chicago more in the last 6 months than the in the previous 10 or 12 years, even with the Zelienople guys!

When you released your rendition of “Shenandoah,” you wrote that you started playing it in tribute to the heroism of the late Heather Heyer. What other extra-musical heroes live inside these songs, or in your larger body of work?

That’s an interesting question. I studied literature in college, so writers have always been important to me. Both fiction and nonfiction. So Muriel Spark is in there in a song title and inspiration. Rebecca Solnit’s books and her social media presence make her a hero to me. The sad death of David Berman has returned me to his poetry and I’m kicking myself for having not read it in years.

In a recent-ish interview with 15 Questions, you wrote about composition, “navigating between the overt and the subtle is always my challenge. I think I have a tendency to understate to a fault.” So I was intrigued to find another interview, this one from 1998 with Piero Scaruffi, where you wrote, “I think the goal with Labradford is to become more and more subtle, more and more discreet. Pan Am allows me to be a little more obvious and direct.” It seems like this line between subtlety and openness is a central tension in the music you make. How has your attitude toward this question changed from record to record? What’s led you to emphasise one quality or the other over time? What’s the value of navigating between these opposites, or putting them next to each other?

A tendency to understate is very much what I see as my enduring challenge. It could be getting older and beginning to sense time is not infinite for one thing, also in this age it’s so difficult to capture anyone’s attention and expect it to linger. So I think I work against my nature in that sense. I’m probably more comfortable hiding my intentions or preferring not to state them directly. I don’t see that as a fault per se, but I can’t then be upset that I’m ignored. So it’s a tension in all areas of my life really. But even if it’s not a natural fit, I do feel it’s important to try and assert my ideas. And try to make a record that rewards different angles of approach.

As for the quote above about Labradford, we really did try in a way to make the band disappear from the music. This was (I think) at a time when bands were doing a lot of big emotional crescendos, and we were mistrustful of that. We were more interested in seeing if a band could work the way a DJ works—more with subtle ebb and flow. Turns out the answer is pretty much no! Even a minor crescendo can swamp a whole city of subtle.

In the same 15 Questions interview, you wrote, “For me, if you have to know anything about the music to understand it before listening, it’s failed.” Knowing the story behind your version of “Shenandoah” does affect the way I listen to it, but it’s not strictly necessary. At what point might you worry that knowing the contexts of these songs would take away from a listener’s experience of the music? For you, when is it better to not know, and to let the mystery be?

Well, 2 things. First, I know I was speaking more about process there. And reacting specifically to the realm of experimental music where the process is inextricable from the end result. This can yield wonderful results—Frippertronics for example, but to me that works because Robert Fripp (or Eno, depending on the song) have enacted an emotional intervention to finish it. It may start as a generative process, but emotional and compositional gestures get incorporated. Sometimes in music though, the process is all you get. The modular synth world is perhaps an example. I’m often left asking myself, “But when does it turn into music?” Of course I’m speaking only for myself and my subjective reactions to things.

Second, I’m more comfortable now with myth surrounding things in our lives. Maybe the story of Deep Purple going to Montreux and the venue they were set to record in burning down the day before sessions were to commence is not 100% historically accurate, but I like “Smoke on the Water” a little more because I’ve heard the story. Again, maybe it’s becoming more open to different ways a listener can connect with the music.

Your music has a quality that reaches toward an unknowable presence, but that act of reaching isn’t overtly religious or spiritual. It reminds me of something I read in Ben Ratliff’s biography of John Coltrane, where Coltrane was asked in 1966 about his religious beliefs and he responded, “The truth itself doesn’t have any name on it.” There’s rigour in meditating on something unknown without giving it a name. As you’re making music, how do you think about your relationship with that unknown? In what ways has that relationship changed over time?

Well, thank you first of all. Underlying these conversations about overt vs subtle is also a question of when do we insert ourselves (either our artistic selves, or personal selves) into the stream of someone else’s life? It’s pretty intrusive! But I think I have something to offer that can help. It can be a resting place, or it can be a gentle nudge to look again for what may have been overlooked before.

My version of that Coltrane quote is recently “the truth has every name on it.” I’ve always felt that I respond most honestly in moments of being alone that gesture back towards an entry to the communal. Communal with other beings in our moment, but also backwards in time to the community of the past, the dead, the ancestors. One of the great causes of pain and anxiety in our world is it seems we think we’re moving into the future, but we’re actually moving into the past. We’re moving (like it or not) towards the place where our individual selves merge away from the daily hunger and into the unknowable eternity. In some ways especially in America we’ve built this imposing but structurally unsound cultural skyscraper tribute to the notion that an individual can trump (haha) the communal and that some unfocused future can defeat the past. But we’re all born with the same amount of truth, right? And the same amount of unknowing, too.

In advance of A Son, you released a 17-minute composition with Longform Editions. Did that piece come from the same period of recording as the new album? When you compose, what does a longer span of time allow you to do? Is there a point beyond which you begin to think about composition from an entirely different angle?

It came after the recording of the album, and is really its own anomaly. I have some doubts about how well it worked looking at it now. I think I work better in smaller, shorter moments. One idea at a time.

You’ve been recording for more than 25 years now, and in that time you’ve built a distinctive personal style. What continues to excite you about this way of making music? Outside of the immediate pleasure that comes from playing, what do you hope for this music to do, if you hope for anything specific? What’s the most gratifying response you’ve ever gotten from a listener?

Outside of family and close friends, this music is my contribution. That is what excites me, although it’s not upfront in my conscious mind. I think that knowledge fuels the compulsion to continue to do it. I want the music to find the people who need to hear it at the moment they need to hear it. It’s a random gesture I guess, but I know it happens.

I had a great experience in Berlin last year—I met a young woman who had come to the show from Poland. There wasn’t a good train connection from her hometown so her father drove her and a friend to the show, and they were driving back right after. Amazed by this, I walked up some stairs to the bar and saw an older guy with a tie and a v-neck sweater sitting alone at a table with a beer—looking out of place but serene. Neatly combed grey hair and a moustache. I knew it was her father and my eyes just exploded with tears. That man is my hero—and to answer further the question about extra-musical heroes above—he’s in this record for sure. I hope I get to do something like that for my children someday. I hope I notice when that moment comes.

If you could go back to the days when Labradford was beginning to develop a style and to record, what advice would you give your younger self about making music over the long term?

Let people trust you. Trust that they’re here with open hearts to build something from this moment with you and with each other. It’s fun to be here, even if it feels incredibly awkward sometimes.