Julian Calendar is not your standard rock’n’roll band. Based in Charlotte, NC, the band is led by Jeremy Fisher, who has been doing this for a bit. Last year, after writing some instrumental music, he approached two friends to provide some lyrics to some demos. One, Amy Bagwell, is a poet and artist; the other, Jeff Jackson, is a novelist. As Fisher notes, they did more than provide lyrics, they brought with them melodies and other ideas about shaping the songs. And Jackson joined the band as singer. Neither Jackson nor Hannah Hundley, who also handles vocals, have never been in a band or performed before. Scott Thompson plays basically whatever he wants or a song needs (guitar, bass, drums, percussion, accordion, cello, etc.) and Lee Herrera, the drummer, joined after the album was complete.
The new album, Parallel Collage, was recorded at Fisher’s home studio in Charlotte, ‘with fairly basic equipment and a lot of time, patience, and feedback from friends.’ Fisher is clear that he is not so interested in musical genre or being pigeon-holed in any way, shape or form. He says that:
Working with two “non-musicians” (I only use that term loosely because they are incredible musicians in reality – Jeff and Hannah) in collaborating and writing, I wanted us to have the freedom to explore and follow whatever sound came out as we wrote. We’ve gotten feedback that there’s some Sonic Youth, Pavement, arty late 90s DC music scene type sounds, but here’s how my writer collaborator described it when we posted it: garage punk, gothic Americana, electronic ballad, melancholy folk, Sonic Youth rave-ups, etc. However it’s labeled, we are more interested in exploring ideas about sound and songwriting than trying to abide by a certain style.
The ideas behind the formation of Julian Calendar and the recording of Parallel Collage interested me, to be sure. I came across the band via Jackson, who is one of my favourite novelists. His first book, Mira Corpora, is a dystopic tale of feral children, mysterious cassettes of music and a reclusive rock star (perhaps a bit of foreshadowing for Jackson’s own world). His second, a novella, Novi Sad, is particularly dystopic, set in the ruins of a city at some vague time, could be in the future, could be in the past. I read it three times.
I arranged for a sit-down with Julian Calendar, the band as a whole. This is our Q&A session.
Politics/Letters: Jeremy, tell us about your background in music, how you got into it, previous bands/projects, etc.
Jeremy Fisher: I started playing music around the age of 13-14 starting with bass. My favorite bands at that point were Metallica (good Metallica – early stuff with Cliff Burton), Red Hot Chili Peppers, AC/DC, like any red-blooded American teenager in the early 90s. Then I found Nirvana and music opened up a little bit. I wrote songs and played in a series of bands with a good friend in Statesville. That’s basically all we did for years, because it’s Statesville, NC. He’s (Brent Fuscaldo) now a part of a really great experimental trio called Mako Sica out of Chicago. He introduced me to a bunch of shoegaze bands; Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, etc., to early 90s Chicago scene stuff; Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, etc., and to stuff like Fugazi and Sonic Youth.
I went to college to study music after high school and ended up at Appalachian State University studying music theory and composition under a student of a student of Arnold Schoenberg. The time I spent in Boone under Dr. Scott Meister was incredibly important in my musical development. He introduced me to John Cage, Edgard Varese, Milton Babbit, Steve Reich, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and of course Schoenberg among many others. I remember being completely astounded listening to recordings of prepared piano pieces from Cage and not understanding that it wasn’t the sound of a percussion ensemble. I got really into jazz and free jazz during these years too. The weirder, the better.
After studying music on a highly academic level for awhile I got really burned out creatively, so I stopped writing for a long time (years) and went to school for architecture. I occasionally played with other people and wrote things here and there without any direction. Then I slowly got know more people in the Charlotte music scene and discovered all these really cool, interesting, and creative folks. The first Charlotte band I was in was called Hair Supply, I played bass. Then I joined the last iteration of a band called Moenda, again on bass.. I played bass in a band called Numbo for a short period. Most recently I played guitar in the Ghost Trees Big Band and I’m now currently in TKO Faith Healer, where I play bass, and Julian Calendar. AND that’s my life story.
P/L: Jeremy had the idea for Parallel Collage’s new album to have two friends of his, a poet and a novelist, contribute lyrics for the new album. What led to this?
JF: I’ve written music for a long time and I’ve set lyrics to music (mostly children’s poems which are really fun to set to music) but I’ve never written words. I don’t think I’m a strong writer of prose or lyrics. I never wanted the music I was creating to suffer from terrible lyrics, so I never wrote any. At some point, I got out of my creative rut and had the idea to write some songs and set some poetry to it. As I thought more and more about it, it seemed better to ask someone here in the Charlotte scene to write the lyrics. The first two people who came to mind that I really admired were Jeff and Amy not only as writers, but as creative people.
P/L: Amy Bagwell is the poet, what was her involvement in the song writing process and the recording?
JF: Without stealing too much thunder from Jeff and Amy’s experiences, they both have really different approaches to setting lyrics to music. Amy needs more of a finished piece of music to create the world for the lyrics, Jeff needs something more loose. I’ll let them both expand on that.
Amy and Jeff both came to the table with ideas about the music and about the melody the lyrics should have. I was open to let them both run with it. On the recording and in the band, I wanted Amy to sing, but I think it was too much of a time commitment, which is perfectly understandable when you realize all the things she does for her own art and poetry, teaching, her family, and her contributions to the art and music scene in Charlotte.
P/L: Jeff Jackson is a novelist of some repute, what was it like to write lyrics? How did you approach writing lyrics as opposed to fiction?
Jeff Jackson: It’s a very different skill set, though I do write the lyrics from the perspective of a character or persona. Initially, Jeremy asked me and Amy to write lyrics to fit existing instrumental compositions. Amy was able to do that, but I found it impossible. Having no musical training, it was like trying to do a crossword puzzle in a foreign language.
Inspired by the minimalist lyrics of bands like Wire and Vulgar Boatmen, I found I could write simple words that were flexible enough to fit various musical contexts that Jeremy devised. Along with the rest of the band, I’m interested in many musical styles and I hope the lyrics reflect that. I never attempt to make anything “literary,” but I do want the words to carry some complexity – or the right amount of stupidity. I lean on rhyme and form, trying to find phrases that signify and sound good aloud. Per The Fall, I also pay special attention to the “three R’s”: repetition, repetition, repetition.
P/L: And Amy Bagwell is also a poet of some repute, very well known in and around the arts scene in Charlotte and beyond. What was it like to write lyrics? How did you approach writing lyrics as opposed to poetry?
Amy Bagwell: Most lyrics are also poems, and most (of both) are shitty. Only with poems, shit words mean you’re sunk, while a song can transcend them. I’ve been humming “Should I Stay or Should I Go” all day. Nobody wants to read that poem, but it’s a good song. So, in a way, there was less pressure in this.
But there was also more. The words had to match something written by and important to a person who is important to me. I never think about anyone else when I’m writing my own poems. I didn’t want to fail Jeremy or force him to find a nice way to say, “Man, thanks, but…” (He’s a nice person.)
I picked a few songs he’d written for which I loved the tension/ contrast in the structures and what felt to me like vocal melodies. I listened to them each about 100 times and then started hearing some words that matched the songs. My brain is a rock tumbler. I’ll work over words in my head hundreds of times before they start to feel like poems and I put them to the page. For JC, I sang the words over in my head hundreds of times, driving, singing to the music, driving, singing without the music, singing while not driving, until they felt like songs. It was fun and bizarre and I’m really happy to have been asked and to see them taken over now and done right. I’m especially glad he likes them. But I couldn’t do it again.
This is true. I grew up near Ft. Benning, the Army base. When I was 13, my dad entered me in a shooting contest there. (He’s a psychotherapist.) I was the only girl, and I had never touched a gun. Someone handed me a rifle. I nailed the target and won my age group. I haven’t shot since and never will again.
I got lucky, or something, and I’m happy to leave the shooting to the shooters.
P/L: What is it like for Hannah to sing lyrics written by someone else?
Hannah Hundley: I love being able to sing songs written by people I dearly respect and am honored to call friends. I get excited to learn songs and add my own little nuances to the performance; it’s closer to acting than karaoke. This is the first time I’ve gotten serious about creating music; my s.o.[significant other] and I have written & recorded a few songs together (he was actually in Hair Supply w/ Jeremy many years ago!) but my method of lyrics-writing is very rudimentary cut & paste (I wrote a punk song about the Donna Tartt book “The Secret History” using cut up Dylan Thomas poems).
P/L: What was the process that led a novelist to becoming the front man of a rock band?
JJ: It came out of the songwriting process. Things worked best when I had a set of lyrics, Jeremy picked some riffs, and I’d improvise potential vocal melodies over his music and we’d adjust from there. The initial plan was Jeremy would be the singer, so I was very free in trying out melodic ideas. As we went along, I found that I really enjoyed singing (something I’ve never done previously!) and Jeremy kindly encouraged me to sing lead for the project. I’m a lifelong music obsessive and feel like I have good instincts, but I’ve never performed in a band. I feel very lucky the way things have worked out.
P/L: What was the song-writing process like for this album in general? Who wrote the music? How were the lyrics chosen to go with the music?
JF: Generally, I wrote the seeds of the music. Jeff and Amy wrote the lyrics, melody and selected which lyrics and music went together the best. I would nudge that here and there and offer insight and some shape from my perspective. We all contributed ideas to the arrangements and musical parts and pieces and general attitude and flair in much of the songs through the performances on the recording, especially Scott and Hannah. I want to make it very clear that the songs wouldn’t be in their final presentation without a balance of all the factors above and everyone’s enthusiasm and effort to make this thing. Lee wasn’t in the band at the time of the writing and recording, but he is just as involved in contributing ideas and parts with all the new material we are creating currently and helping shape the live versions of the recorded material.
I’ve come to really cherish collaboration and genuinely enjoy the fresh perspectives I get from people who LOVE music, but may not necessarily be “musicians” in the narrowest sense of the term.