a world of sound -
Aarktica and beyond
Jon De Rosa is a man who absorbs music in every pore, utilising a wide range of influences to produce the beautiful and haunting pieces that grace ‘Bleeding Light’ the fourth album from Aarktica. When he is not fronting the band Jon finds time to help run Silber Records, play in an alt-country band, collaborate with musical friends and study with La monte Young. Add to this a claimed desire to work with Britney Spears, plus a life-long love of the Misfits, and you have someone who follows his musical visions with clarity, passion and a sense of humour.
|How did you become interested in playing /
composing music? Are there any specific influences you can point to?
Summer of 1988, I picked up the guitar after seeing Poison’s video for “Fallen Angel” back-to-back with Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.” I was nine years old. Since my mom, who was a folk guitarist herself, wouldn’t let me study strictly rock, I ended up taking classical and flamenco guitar lessons. My little fingers bled a lot and got strong, learning on a steel string guitar. I liked flamenco and the Fernando Sorr/ Andres Segovia studies, but gravitated toward early lute music. It was more lyrical and the drop-D tuning was so resonant on guitar. You could strike the D at the beginning of each measure or two and it created a drone throughout the song.
In 1991, when I was about 12, I found a copy of Misfits’ Walk Among Us while cleaning out my grandmother’s garage in Lodi, NJ. It was very powerful visually and musically, and then I realized they were from Lodi too. I’d picked up Danzig II: Lucifuge just a few weeks before and made the connection. This idea of someone with multiple bands, reinventing oneself, shrouded in evil, in the occult. That really had an impact on me.
I was in my first band at age 13, I sang and played guitar. The rest of the guys were older, 17 and 18. It wasn’t so much that we were bad, as it was that I lacked experience and they lacked focus and creativity, but I guess we weren’t very good. We opened up for death metal bands in NJ, even though we weren’t at all death metal. We were slow and sorry. I also had a Misfits cover band in 8th grade with friends from school.
In around 1994, I put out my first solo demo tape under the moniker “fade,” which was really over-the-top brooding teen-angst folk goth, influenced by Projekt Records artists and limited to l about 150 copies. Since that has some vague semblance to what I do now, I’d consider that the first real document of my music for what it’s worth.
You started Aarktica after you went deaf in your right ear, how does this affect the recording process, is it a question of imagining the stereo effect?
It took me a while to get used to. But…I’m blessed with a unique perspective on sound, and I try to convey that in Aarktica.
Then there are the auditory hallucinations, buzzes, beeps, electrical sounds and sensations that occur in that ear, which I can’t decide if I like or not.
There will likely never be a way to regenerate dead nerves, as that’s akin to resurrecting a corpse, but doctors are currently doing research with cell implant therapy. The idea being, if you implant new nerve cells in the inner ear, they grow and learn to function as the old ones did. I look forward to that, but having perfect hearing at this point would be a shock to my system. I don’t know how I’d react.
Could you tell us a little bit about your recording process, how does a song evolve on it’s way to becoming a finished piece? Are the lyrics added afterwards or are they integral to the music?
It’s different for every project, every album and every song.
Bleeding light is your fourth album, do you see it as a natural progression from your earlier albums, or do you treat each album as a separate entity?
It is a natural progression and a separate entity.
You recently studied with La Monte Young and Michael Harrison, how did this come about, and has it affected your music in any way?
I started volunteering at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House sound installation in New York City right after graduating from college. I’d monitor the installation for extended periods of time and really try and absorb what was going on. That is where I first got into La Monte’s work. I told him about my deafness, and he felt that studying raga might help bring back a better spatial characterization of sound, considering the phases, vibrations and tuning of the tambura drones…
It wasn’t about making my ear function better, that would be impossible. It was about being perceptive to the effects of drone have on one’s body, and to the vibrations that come from within you and from outside of you. It was important that I met him when I did.
Michael Harrison is a former disciple of La Monte Young, as well as of Pandit Pran Nath, who was La Monte and Terry Riley’s guru. My studies with Michael have been very important, humbling. Michael just completed work for called “Revelation,” for piano in his own harmonic tuning. I think it’s a very important piece of music.
I have the utmost love, respect and admiration for my teachers. They are wonderful people, I’m honoured to be their student, and my music is certainly influenced by their ideas and teachings.
You have also collaborated with various artists including Escapade, Aaron Spectre, and Rivulets/Marc Gartman. How did these come about, and are there any other artists you would like to work with?
We’re all friends and musicians…it’s more like hanging out than collaborating. Really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg…I’m sure there are hours and hours of recordings out there of different collaborations, Sunday afternoon jams, drunken noodling…
I think collaboration almost always leads to something enlightening…not necessarily something important, or even beautiful. But even at its worst, playing with others ends up being more valuable a lesson than any conventional means of learning.
I like it because it allows you to expand your personal boundaries a little, and at the same time learn what you do best. I was never comfortable limiting myself to one style of music. Pale Horse and Rider worked from the model of classic country. I played very orchestrated chamber pop with Flare for a few years. At present, I play drums in my roommate’s noise band Warslut. I recently laid down some vocals for Stephin Merritt’s (Magnetic Fields) new album Two Chinese Operas. And I have plans to do some playing with Stephen Brodsky (Cave In) again in the coming months. I’m never in the least bit bored.
People I would like to work with but haven’t yet…The list would be long and include a lot of pop icons like Britney Spears. Off the top of my head I’d like to work with Ingram Marshall, Paris Hilton, Hood, Glenn Danzig, Mia Doi Todd, Loren Mazzacane, Bruce Springsteen, Ben Chasny…
On “Bleeding Light” there is a beautiful video, produced by Jake Hensberry, which really captures the essence of the song in a visual way. Is this something you would like to continue doing, as your music certainly seems to blend perfectly with the visual images?
As long as I don’t have to be on camera anymore. I didn’t like that very much.
Given that your music is very textural, with many layers of sound, I am interested to know how you approach a live concert. Is there a need to use pre-recorded material or do you treat the live experience as a chance to improvise?
The Aarktica live collective ranges from 4 – 7 members at any given time. Guitars, drums, sax, trumpet, harmonium and whatever else. Nearly everyone has another band or project, so it’s very loose. It is almost entirely live. I like to have players that are seasoned improvisers, since there is a lot of room for improvisation, but that room exists within a pretty structured song environment.
If I’m playing solo, I adapt to the situation at hand. It’s an opportunity to try new skeletal material, improvise or just play what I feel like playing at that instant.
You recently played a gig with Hood; how did it go?
First, I think Hood are pretty much the most important band around and have been so for the past 10 years. So it was really special to get to perform on a bill with them.
I tend to be a little uncomfortable in crowded spaces, and this was a very crowded space, but as performances go it was good. After Aarktica performed, a friend spilled liquid nitrous oxide on my shirt, thinking he was doing me a favor. On an unrelated note, I later spilled whiskey on Hood’s merchandising guy, which I’d like to apologize for.
Moving away from Aarktica for a while, you are also involved with Silber Records, a label that seems to maintain a consistently high quality with their releases. How did Silber start and is there a working philosophy behind the label?
I met Brian John Mitchell in Chicago at Projekt Records’ first festival in 1996, I think…I was about 17 years old, and he was a few years older. We were both there to see Lycia mostly, I recall. He had just started the label around that time and was also doing this great zine called QRD. At that point, Silber was mainly cassette releases and things like that.
We wrote letters and exchanged tapes for years. When he was finally ready to take it to the next level and start doing more CD releases, he contacted me about releasing some pieces I’d been working on, which at the time didn’t have a name or a goal or anything…That ended up being the first Aarktica album No Solace in Sleep.
Brian’s philosophy is rooted in the desire to build a sonic community, with honesty and morality playing large parts in this framework. He’s a man of impeccable character. What I love about Silber is that the label is starting to release albums by artists who inspired its existence in the first place, like Lycia for instance.
Two of your albums have been released on Silber, and the others on different labels, was there any reason for this, or is it just the way it happened?
James from Darla Records had approached me about doing an instalment for the label’s Bliss Out series after hearing No Solace In Sleep. It was intended to be a one-off, but I guess things went better than expected, and we decided to continue working together. In the meantime, I did the Morning One EP for Ochre Records in the UK and another album for Silber (Pure Tone Audiometry), which Darla manufactured and distributed.
From bitter experience I know that naming a band/musical project can be a frustrating experience. Aarktica seems to be the perfect name for your music, did you spend many hours thinking of different names or did it just appear?
I don’t remember it being a very deliberate process. Sometimes you need to make up words to express certain things. That way you avoid context altogether.
Could you elaborate on that for me?
All words have connotations that people relate to them. When you create a new word, it may hint at or remind someone of something, but there is never a direct mental or emotional response to it. It’s a new word. It’s a new entity. It just sort of exists outside the parameters of language.
Please name five albums that you are currently enjoying, and explain what it is you like about them?
a) Pandit Pran Nath – Rag Yaman
I think this was given to me by Michael Harrison or La Monte Young, never actually been released. I’ve listened to it daily for the past couple of years, and still each listen reveals new shapes and secrets that I didn’t hear before. Pandit Pran Nath is regarded for his highly evolved sense of pitch, even within the Kirana, which in itself is known for being the most pitch-conscious of any other school of raga.
b) Michael Harrison – Revelation
Michael Harrison’s extended work for the harmonically-tuned piano, influenced by Young’s “Well Tuned Piano” but really a distinguished work with its own singular sounds and shapes. Again, a work that reveals itself in a new way each time I listen.
c) Eyeball Skeleton - #1
Eight-year old JJ Brown and ten-year old Charlie Brown make incredible stream-of-consciousness garage rock with the help of their dad. Some people might call it gimmicky, but I can’t wipe the smile from my face while listening to it, making it invaluable to me. My favourite track is ‘Smoky Turtle,’ about a turtle
that gets so hot someone fries an egg on its back. In Egypt, the turtle does a variety of dances on the tip of a pyramid including the Chihuahua Tornado and the Jelly Doughnut.
d) Marty Robbins – The Essential Marty Robbins 1951-1982
One of country music’s most versatile performers…incredibly smooth tenor voice and a truly gifted songwriter. He’s probably remembered mostly for his gunfighter ballads, but his more pop oriented songs like “White Sport Coat” are really special as well.
e) Misfits - Collection 1
I never really stopped listening to the Misfits, but I recently had to revisit this album for something I was writing and I just don’t think there’s any way to improve on a formula like this.
A very wide-ranging list of musicians, something, I imagine, many of the Terrascope readers share. Do you still get the same thrill when hearing something good for the first time?
I think so…though it’s always in a place or from a source where I’d least expect it. The mystical ways of inspiration…
Written by Simon Lewis, produced by Phil McMullen. © Terrascope Online, 2005. Thanks to Jon for his patience and participation. Photographs are by Rennie Solis.
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