This is the second instalment of a three-part conversation in which Underscore chooses fifteen nouns as prompts—five places, five people, five things—and Andrew Weathers uses them to chart the porous territory between music and daily life. In this instalment we focus on the effort to make music that can’t easily be separated from the location where it was made. The conversation took place in July over Skype, with Andrew at his home in Littlefield, Texas (which is on Comanche land) and Underscore’s correspondent in Sonoma County, California (which is on Pomo, Coast Miwok, and Wappo land).
There’s some unintentional good timing with the publication of this feature. Just a few days after Underscore published the first part of this conversation, Andrew released a digital album called , and the five pieces on the album are all about rethinking place and moving beyond what Andrew calls “the mentality of the conqueror that permeates Western culture.” That’s what this part is all about. Below we talk about authors, organizers, gallery spaces, and parks, but everything returns to the urgent importance of connecting with the particular places where we live, and some ways art might be useful.
THING #2: ORANGES
U_: Over the years you’ve talked a lot about the orange as an important personal object. In one of your pamphlets you wrote that oranges can symbolize strength, energy, and personal development. I’m curious if your thoughts on the meaning of the orange have evolved since then.
AW: I think the orange will always be a powerful figure for me. But at this point it’s a little hard to articulate. Because initially it was this outsider-art thing with that, as I looked into it, turned into a way to understand American westward colonisation. All of this awful, terrible shit happened in order to bring water to the LA area, in order to grow oranges and other produce. This thing that doesn’t really even make sense—it’s incredibly destructive on every level, and has blasted the State of California ecologically, and I think is starting to fall apart economically too.
At this point, the orange is just a favourite food and a powerful symbol of where I’ve been before. But I don’t know yet what the orange is going to teach me for where I live now. We’re probably going to try to grow some citrus, probably it’ll have to be indoors because it does get cold here, and I imagine that that will be the thing the orange teaches me.
It’s like anything else. You generate symbols and conceptual objects that you accumulate understanding around, and those things reflect on everything else. The orange has been a big one for me.
PLACE #2 (& #2.5): FLIPS TAVERN IN LUBBOCK, CO-OPt RESEARCH + PROJECTS
I’m trying to start super local and gradually move outward. You go to Lubbock a lot; Lubbock is the biggest city nearby. It seems like there’s a handful of places that are important as gathering spots. The one that I’ve been to most at this point is Flips Tavern. It seems like a natural congregating spot for people you know. When you think about the places that are most important in Lubbock, what meaning does Flips have for you?
It’s hard to say right now because I haven’t been there in six months. The reason Flips feels like a congregating place is because there aren’t really any other bars that feel welcoming to, well, hipsters, for lack of a better term. It’s kind of the only bar we go to. We don’t really go to bars much at this point. But most shows end up at Flips, after or before. If we’re going to go hang out with people, it’s usually at Flips.
That said, since we started the gallery CO-OPt Research + Projects, CO-OPt has kind of circumvented that role. Now that we have this space to do things, that’s where I book shows, that’s where all of our friends do talks and performances. Gallery openings are one of the few social events that we make the journey to go to. CO-OPt isn’t the only game in town, but it’s my favorite one because I’m biased. But also we’ll go there just to hang out, to see our friend Eric and talk about our conceptual black metal band, and try to work that out. CO-OPt kind of co-opted the role of Flips for us. And you know, it’s nice to not hang out in a bar. It’s nice to hang out in an art gallery.
One of the things I’ve grateful for in recent months is that there hasn’t been any pressure on me to go to a bar.
As much as I miss my friends, I don’t actually miss playing shows. I miss going to a place and seeing people I know, and seeing people I don’t know that I know will be interested in something cool. But a life without FOMO that this whole thing is offering us has been very powerful.
Living here, there are only so many things to go to, and so when there’s an opening at CO-OPt, we have to go because it’s something that’s happening. And we just want to be participants in the community in Lubbock, because there is stuff going on, and it’s really growing and becoming something that I think is interesting and unique, and we want to be there for it. But not having that pressure has been really nice. I’ve actually worked on my own music. I’ve worked on music that’s not Andrew Weathers Ensemble for the first time in a couple years.
I know the new Andrew Weathers Ensemble album is the last one. Putting these albums together has taken a lot of work organising everything, just because there are so many people involved. But it doesn’t feel like group efforts are being replaced by small-scale individual things. It’s just that the group effort is being transmuted or coming from a different place. Like the Llano Estacado Monad Band. When you think about having finished this last album, and when you set that alongside these newer projects where you’re collaborating with people in a different way, what’s the difference to you?
One of the elements that led me to want to stop doing AWE is that it felt like it had codified to me. There were aesthetic elements that weren’t really allowed in there, or that had to be in there. And I’ve found that those aesthetic elements maybe don’t interest me quite as much as they used to. I think I did what I can do with the things that make up AWE.
I didn’t really intend for it to be “Andrew Weathers Ensemble.” I didn’t intend for it to be about me. Because the thing that started it was going on tour and not wanting to be alone, and inviting friends to do it. That music we made was fairly collaborative, but I was doing a lot of the logistical legwork of touring and recording and releasing the recordings, and so it kind of naturally became my personal project.
I’m going to make solo music. I enjoy doing that. I enjoy having ideas and executing this stuff. But the thing that’s important to me is working with people, and cultivating community out of the thing that I can do, and that’s music. And so things like Llano Estacado Monad Band and Co-OPt just feel more vital because they involve a lot of other people but aren’t dictated by my own aesthetics or my own desires. It’s about all of us doing something that we all want, not just what I want. And that seems more important to me at this point.
LEMB takes a lot of time and is really fun, and CO-OPt takes time, and running Full Spectrum takes time. And the AWE records are huge fucking ordeals to do. They’re really time consuming and emotionally consuming because they’re the only thing I know a significant number of people are going to listen to.
Is there anything about that process—as labour intensive as it has been—that you might miss? Or things that, when you listen to this last set of recordings, have a particular quality that can’t necessarily be captured in what you do next?
Yeah. One is the process of making largely improvised recordings that were dictated by a few elements I would always tell people in the process of making this work. I would write scores, but they were always just chords, and I would say, “Just move through the chords, don’t play too much,” and that’s how we’d go about it. I don’t think I will do that again with anything. And I’ll miss that because it’s a very comfortable space to be working in for me, because I’ve done it that way since I was twenty. And I know the results, and I know how to work with it from a production point of view. And so I’ll miss that.
For a while in Oakland we had AWE band practice with the group of people there, and I loved that. But that can also be fulfilled by band practice of any band. Obviously I miss those particular people a lot, and I miss playing music with those particular people. But we also have together with the exact same people. It will still exist. It won’t ever be exactly the same, but that’s okay.
Have there been any moments in the last year with these newer group efforts—like CO-OPt, Llano Estacado Monad Band—where it felt like, “Okay, this is the right thing for me to be doing, this is where my energy should be?”
The big thing has been putting on shows in Lubbock. I’ll give two examples to be concise, because there’s a lot more.
We had come through in November, and he did a show with his Nakatani Gong Orchestra, which involves gathering about ten people and having several hours of rehearsals with Tatsuya, and he teaches you his very specific, idiosyncratic bowing gong technique as well as some hand signals to move the performance along. And then you do the performance. And that we did through CO-OPt. It wasn’t at CO-OPt because CO-OPt isn’t physically big enough to do the Gong Orchestra, as you can imagine. But we did the show at the [CASP] in Lubbock. It was pretty incredible. CASP didn’t charge us rent. They didn’t ask for anything. They just said, “You can have the space,” and unlocked the door and let us do it. And that kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore, essentially. It’s not a DIY space, it’s a very well-funded venue.
We gathered a bunch of musicians and artists from Lubbock and Amarillo to play—some people that were familiar with improv as a technique and experimental music in general, and some people that weren’t but are talented musicians or artists otherwise. But I think everyone really took to it and made it a killer performance. We had a big audience, and we just had a really good time.
CO-OPt isn’t funded. We’re funding it ourselves, and we have enough people invested in making things happen to do something like that. And Tatsuya knows DIY, and he knows it’s not like when he plays at Lincoln Center. He knows it’s a different thing, and he can adapt accordingly, which is important. And that just felt really good—that we did this show, a lot of people put effort into it, and we actually had an audience in Lubbock, where things like that don’t necessarily happen. That was really moving.Second to that is a performance we did with LEMB that was also at CASP. It was an installation performance where we improvised with a video installation made by , who’s an artist in Chicago. We made a live score for her video installation for three hours during First Friday, and we were invited by an artist named , who didn’t play in LEMB then but does now. And we’ve done a couple performances like that, where LEMB interacts with visual art in some way. That’s something that’s important to me, that’s something that interests me. Creating interdisciplinary action outside academia is, I think, something really valuable. LEMB is not necessarily people who are musicians, they’re not necessarily improvisers. And it’s just nice to be invited to something and have it taken seriously, and to get to play with my friends for an audience of people that aren’t free-jazz heads or noise heads, and to make this kind of wild noise music and not be run out of town.
I feel like the best reaction that I’ve seen playing a show is when someone comes up and asks, “What do you call that?”
“Where can I find more?”
Where someone is clearly encountering it for the first time. Which seems so much more valuable than trying to appease someone who has a very specific set of expectations.
Oh yeah. That’s kind of why I insist on touring the way I have in the past, where I’ll play Lubbock, I’ll play towns that don’t have a very established avant-garde music scene. Sometimes it doesn’t end up as well as you want, but when it is satisfying, playing for people who aren’t aficionados is so much more satisfying that playing for people that come at what you’re doing with a preconceived notion.
PERSON #2: JOE HILL
When I was touring after Build a Mountain Where Our Bodies Fall, a lot of those lyrics came from , and many of those were written by Joe Hill. I tried to talk about, before the show, Joe Hill and who he was and the fact that he was set up and framed and executed by the state. Essentially for being an organiser and an activist and an outspoken person.
That album came out a few years after Ferguson, in which we were consistently seeing Ferguson organisers being killed under mysterious circumstances. And that was something we were seeing a lot of. And it wasn’t really being talked about, and it’s hard to talk about because it’s really easy to write off as being from a kook or a conspiracy theorist. And we continue to see that happening, and it’s essentially not being taken seriously that young Black organisers are being killed or are dying under mysterious circumstances and being written off as suicides, accidents, etc. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
We want to think of people like Joe Hill as historical figures that are unrelated to our current situation. And so, in talking about Joe Hill before the shows, I was trying to make that connection, but it’s obviously complicated and difficult to talk to a room of people drinking beer about this. And it doesn’t always come across. I maybe don’t explain it well enough. But I just think if you just look at the history of the Wobblies and the things that they were fighting for and the ways that they were fighting, things aren’t really that different. The technologies and the means are pretty different, but the actual struggle we really haven’t come that far. So don’t forget Joe Hill, is the main thing.
I know you talk a lot—and it’s clearly very important in your music—about labour and the history of organising. What got you interested in those histories in the first place?
I was really lucky where I grew up. In Chapel Hill there’s an anarchist bookstore called Internationalist Books, and it was right next to the record store, CD Alley. As a teenager I would skateboard over there, and I regularly ended up in the anarchist bookstore. It’s not like I was involved or anything like that, but it was a place I was going. I had access to a good amount of anarchist literature, and so that was something that I started to understand from a pretty young age.
My understanding, and my ability to express it and see the ways in which labour organizing or class struggle or civil rights struggles affected my life and affected the people around me—I don’t think ever been able to articulate in a meaningful way until the past few years. And even still, I struggle with it. So it’s kind of been a constant, and I think kind of like the orange, it’s this nugget of a thing that has existed for a very long time, that I’m just accumulating things around and trying to understand holistically.
And I think histories are a big part of it. Because, sure, you read A People’s History; it’s a vital text that we need—these alternative histories. That’s essential. But you can see the ways in which white supremacy, colonialism, racism, etc factor into a regular history book. You read about the history of the Llano Estacado and West Texas, and even though most of the books available on that subject are written by old white men with bad attitudes and bad perspectives who are racist, you can read between the lines—it’s really easy—and still you can learn a lot, even if it’s not an accurate perspective. And I think that that is something that’s really important to me. Because it’s not even like I read broad-based history of the US. I read books about the West, and it shows up in the music and it’s really strong, and you can just see the collapse of America in the history from the 1800’s.
PERSON #3: WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON
I love , and it was one of those books where multiple people in a short time were like, “I think you would like this book.” So I picked it up, and it’s about the road and travelling and trying to understand these pockets of the US that are out of the way and forgotten, and trying to come to those places on their own terms.
The book of William Least Heat-Moon’s that affected me the most is his book , which focuses on Chase County in the Flint Hills in Eastern Kansas. But he comes at that with this idea—it wasn’t his idea—of the Deep Map, which is attempting to create a map of a place through intersectional and interdisciplinary means. So it means a political history, a geological history, an anecdotal personal history, a literal map—looking at the map. For me, I was interested in this idea of mapping a place, or using all of these different angles to understand a very specific place. And I think the analogue is really easy to say, “You need sound. You need the soundscape, and you need to hear people talking and telling their own stories in their own words, in order to really do the Deep Map.” So that concept has stuck with me. It’s somewhat related to psychogeography, in a way of using place as a container for memory and history. It’s just very interesting. Place to me is kind of the last holdout against techno-fascist capitalism. Place is the one thing they can’t take from us. I’m immediately thinking of criticisms to that statement, but I think place is important. Thinking about place is essential and is something we are kind of losing sight of. I think the Deep Map and William Least Heat-Moon’s writing provides a pretty easy gateway to those ideas.
His book —he boats the rivers from the Hudson River to Oregon, horizontally, across the US. It’s a big ordeal, and it doesn’t really make any sense at all. It’s kind of a stupid idea. But I think by looking at place—thinking about the river and its place and history—and kind of looking at it from a perpendicular angle is just a valuable concept in my music and my music in general.
What you were saying just reminded me of something in Ted Gioia’s book , where early on he mentions people who would use a particular song in order to guide them across a large space to a very small and hard-to-find cave opening. There are so many examples of things like that in the history of music, but there’s been an active effort to forget that music can do something like that.
Playlist culture, algorithmic culture wants us to think of music as an accessory or as a background thing. But it’s really an active element in our lives and should be treated as such. It points us in a lot of directions.
THING #3: PRAIRIE GRASS
Speaking of place, prairie grass shows up as a motif in some of your work. And in contrast, I know you have some opinions about modern American lawns. Grass is so much more than a lawn. Lawns can fuck right off. We shouldn’t have lawns, essentially. Lawns are like a colonisation of an ecosystem. Everywhere that Westerners went in the US, we destroyed ecosystems, we destroyed ecologies that weren’t wilderness, they were ecologies managed by the Indigenous people in large part. We came, and we imposed European values on biomes that didn’t really—those things that were imported from Europe didn’t apply to them. Lawns are this holdover in a desire to control and oppress things.
I know you asked about prairie grass, but this is where I’m going…
No, this is good! It’s good to get…
…the whole picture. I’ll get to prairie grass. The way we treat lawns and the way so many people associate their own pride in their home with a lawn is oppression. It’s stomping down biodiversity and taking away a home for a multitude of beings that need a home.
That said, that’s a lawn. Prairie grass is extremely beautiful. Prairies were something like eighty percent of this country. Huge swaths of this country were grasslands. And now we’re down to a tenth of what it was before European colonisation. Some of that is preserved here. In large part it’s agricultural land because prairies lend themselves to ploughing up. It’s an easy thing to do technologically. It’s something that is really upsetting to me: that so much of this country was this unique, beautiful thing, and we just don’t have it anymore. It’s been destroyed for essentially the sake of people making money.
Which leads into the fact that Europeans were given the land in this part of the country and kind of manipulated into colonising this place because they wanted people here in order to keep the Comanche out. People were taken advantage of for the gain of an elite class, and thus tore up all the prairie grass.
In terms of going back to things we’ve lost, we’ve dammed up so many rivers and flooded canyons that we’ll never see again. We’ve destroyed towns. We’ve destroyed entire biomes for nothing, essentially. And the fact that that has been historically the norm and entirely mundane, that these decisions were made by a very small group of people who didn’t have to listen to the desires and needs of the people who were directly affected by the flooding of Glen Canyon—it’s obscene and really upsetting. Just knowing that so much of this country has been entirely destroyed. It was people’s homes, and they’ll never be able to go home to that place. Not only will they not be able to because they don’t have access to it, but that home doesn’t exist as it did—speaking here specifically about Indigenous people, of course.
And all of that is tied up in prairie grass, somehow. The prairie grass and the existence of this really diverse biome that was easy to take advantage of and easy to completely destroy any evidence that it ever existed is a really powerful thing to think about. I think about all of that when I think about the grass—and more specifically, a lack of it, unfortunately.
PLACE #3: CAPROCK CANYONS STATE PARK
Caprock Canyons State Park is occupied Comanche land, and it’s a little ways north of here. It’s a Texas State Park. The canyons here are really interesting because we live on the Llano Estacado, which is a large plateau, essentially the size of Minnesota. It’s a huge, huge area. The canyonland is just the edge of the Llano. There aren’t so many rivers here, but the rivers have cut into the land and created these pretty vast canyonlands.
Caprock is called Caprock because right underneath the topsoil there is a layer of gypsum…which is drywall. So you go to Caprock and see the edge of the canyon, and there’s this white band in different strata in the earth there. And you’ll be walking along and see, just in the ground, basically a collapsed geode, where topsoil has worn down from people walking on it or erosion or whatever, and the caprock couldn’t take it and collapsed in on itself. It’s really beautiful.
There’s not enough public land in Texas, and so we only have easy access to a few things, Caprock included. And being outside is important to me, obviously. So Caprock is where we go often to hike and camp and that sort of thing. It’s underutilised because it’s really isolated, and so you rarely see people there. You’re lucky to see people even in the park, much less on the trail, which is a really nice feature of it. And it’s just a nice place. I really like it.