Conrad Praetzel

A Conversation with Conrad Praetzel (continued)

CP: Well, it occurred to me that, being sort of a gypsy himself, Sukhawat would be the perfect character for this song, perfect to play the part of the gypsy. The song, because of the modality of it, almost has an eastern feel, like songs from the east that are based around a raga scale. When we tried something with the song, he just jumped right into it. He was riffing right along with the recording, and it was almost a first take, that's what we kept. At the beginning of the song, he comes in singing in his Qawwali Sufi style voice, and he's the gypsy riding through the woods "singing so loud and merry-o," witnessed by this young girl who eventually leaves everything for him. When Wendy's vocal comes in, she's singing about this gypsy that the girl falls in love with and then leaves her husband for--not hard to imagine for a sixteen-year-old mom with a child, maybe married to a guy twice her age. And then Sukhawat sings again on the tail end of the song, when the girl is sleeping "in the arms of the gypsy laddie-o."

The song opens with an atmospheric section, before Wendy starts singing, to set the mood and environment of the story, the woods where the girl sees the gypsy. There are a variety of sounds, some electronic, some real, including several tracks of ebow pedal steel, a very processed arpeggiation using sampled Javanese percussion (which also provides the bass), and crickets and birds taken from one of my favorite spaghetti westerns.

PM: Which western is it?

CP: Once Upon a Time in the West. The train in "Calling Trains" also came from there.

PM: You wear a lot of hats, and so far in this interview you mostly seem to be a producer or engineer and the one who contributes electronic rhythms and odd combinations of sounds. Do you think of yourself as a keyboard player--are you a guy who could sit down at the piano and play "Misty"--or is there a label you give to your approach to music?

CP: I'm less of that type of keyboard player than I've been in the past, and I'm very rusty, so it might take a while to learn to do "Misty." Also I don't read music. I used to really enjoy playing country, blues, and rootsy stuff on a piano, but unfortunately I don't have one right now. With synths and samplers, usually I'm just playing single parts and I almost always spend more time creating the right sounds than actually playing the keyboard. For pleasure, I'm way more into playing guitar, dobro, or mandolin. I guess I have sort of a schizophrenic musical personality, in and outside the studio. This CD helped to bring those sides together.

PM: As we're speaking today, I'm looking once again at the incredible artwork on the sleeve of the CD. Who is this amazing artist you're featuring here?

CP: The photographs were taken by Clark Thomas, of artwork made by a man named E.T. Wickham. He lived outside of Nashville, Tennessee, near Clarksville. He was a tobacco farmer who retired and at around the age of 70 decided that one of the main things he wanted to do for the rest of his life was build these memorials and statues all over his property. Something for people to drive by and trip out on, you know? What you see on the front cover is what's left of a statue of Tecumseh, the Indian warrior.

PM: The statues appear to be huge. How tall are they?

CP: I've seen pictures of E.T. Wickham standing next to them, and they're a little larger than life size.

PM: And the title of the CD, Of My Native Land, is in fact the last line of one of the inscriptions carved into a piece of his art?

CP: Yes. I don't know for sure if the words are his or not. I've been very curious to find out but I haven't been able to yet.

PM: I'm going to have to go out to this location and see the art for myself. It's really, really amazing.

CP: Unfortunately, as you can see from that photograph, it has been sadly desecrated. The statue on the cover is missing part of one arm and looks damaged in the center. Actually that picture was taken about 20 years after the statues were made, and that was 1974. I imagine that now the statues are probably in worse shape, being right alongside the road.

PM: It's a shame. He was obviously an astonishing primitive-style artist and these should be state or national treasures. We'll have to look into that and see if they've been taken up as such and cared for. I hope so.

CP: I read that they have been, to some degree.

PM: Well, since your project is one of the best records we heard all year and we're fascinated by it, let's take another song and look into it a little. There's a great vocal by Ora Dell Graham on "Pullin' the Skiff." What's the story there?

CP: That vocal was recorded by John Lomax, the famous field recording archivist who has documented so much American folk music, in around 1940. And Ora Dell Graham was a grammar school student, singing to her segregated, black grammar school class in the auditorium. I guess you'd call that a skipping rhyme that she's singing. One of my favorite parts of that song is when John Lomax kind of interrupts her and asks her where she learned that song, and she says she just learned it by singing it, of course.

PM: [laughs]

CP: And then he asks, "What is that mm mmm mm mmm part?" As soon as he says that, the class just bursts out in laughter, you know, to hear him saying it. Of course they laugh when she sings it too, but--

PM: But when the white guy says it, it's really funny. [laughs]

CP: Yeah. I don't know if you know the record Giant Step by Taj Mahal?

PM: What a fabulous record. I haven't heard it in a long, long time.

CP: He does a song called "A Little Soulful Tune." And he says he remembers this song that they used to sing around the dinner table, and to piss his parents off they would just kind of go off on it, and they'd go, [Conrad doing a version of Taj's rhythm vocalizing] "Mmm mmm mm mmm mm mmm mm mmm mm, mmm mm mmm mmm mm mm mm!" Remember that one?

PM: [laughs] Kind of.

CP: It's very similar to what Ora Dell Graham sings on "Pullin' the Skiff," just a playful little nonsensical thing.

PM: So you guys took this fabulous moment that John Lomax captured, with a school child in front of her class just souling out, and you decided you were going to do your beats trip to that. What can you tell me about the process from that point?

CP: Well, the essential part of that was just adding the beats and the playfullness of the bass and the harmonica, to get into the mood of what she's doing. Just playing along and feeling like you're supporting her vocal with as similar a spirit as possible.

PM: It says in the credits that you're personally adding "beats and buzz bass." What's a buzz bass?

CP: It's a synth bass that was so distorted that it makes a kind of wash of low noise. There's a strange melodic twist she takes with her vocal, so I was trying hard to follow that.  continue

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