The Secret Songs of Herbcraft

April 16, 2012
By Brad Rose

It’s hard to believe that it was almost seven years ago that I heard the first ever Cursillistas release, Rotary & Gems. I was pretty much immediately smitten with the sonic world that Matt Lajoie had in his head and was sharing with the world.  Seven years and a dozen plus releases later, Lajoie is showing no signs of slowing down.  His latest efforts are with Herbcraft, whose third LP on the Woodsist sub-label, Hello Sunshine, is due out soon.  The project continues down similar terrain that Cursillistas carved out, but has developed into something that is very much its own.  Beyond his own musical meanderings (of which there are others, including the fantastic new project Brainshadows), Lajoie operates the excellent L’Animaux Tryst label as well.  He’s got a lot of stew brewing up in Portland, Maine and it’s all well worth your time.  Herbcraft hits the road this week as well (tour dates at the bottom of this article), so if they’ll be in your town – go out and say hello!

Alright, so explain to those who don’t know why you started Herbcraft and how it differentiates from Cursillistas?

Herbcraft started probably just a few months too late, to be honest. When Dawn joined Cursillistas and we went in all these new directions for the Joint Chiefs album, we’d briefly discussed changing the band name at that time to mark the new zones we were interested in exploring. That album really didn’t have a lot in common with the more straightforward song-based folk I’d been making solo as Cursillistas up to that point, and in a way I kind of think of Joint Chiefs as the first Herbcraft record. Having Dawn join the band and bring in a lot of her influences was key to breaking Cursillistas out of its past (which had started to feel a little stagnant). When we toured in support of Joint Chiefs, we were kind of struggling against something – we were supposed to be a folk band but all we really wanted to do was lay down some drones and get crazy on wah pedals. By the time I got back from tour, I was ready to cut ties with whatever weight and expectations had accumulated under the Cursillistas name and go full-on into a new project. Ironically, I go back and listen to that first Herbcraft record now and realize it’s not all that different from what I was doing before, but it felt like a radical change to me at the time. It was more of a psychic change that needed to happen.

Is Cursillistas officially dead?
Officially, there are no plans to make any new recordings under the name Cursillistas, but there are some recordings from the recent-past that have been collected and will be coming out soon. In January, I’m releasing the long-delayed final Cursillistas “studio” album Observe Ember Weeks on L’animaux Tryst as a limited edition vinyl, and there is a live album from the Joint Chiefs tour that Blackest Rainbow is putting out at some point. Those are intended to be the final chapters in the story.

But back to Herbcraft, when exactly did the project first start?
Winter Solstice, December 21st, 2009. A few weeks earlier Dawn had turned me on to the hollow Earth theory and Admiral Byrd’s secret diary of his trip to Agartha, and somehow that had seeped into my subconscious. In a dream from the night before, I had discovered an obscure private press 70′s psych-prog-rock concept album about Byrd’s Agartha trip. I thought maybe I’d already heard of this record and had just forgotten, but after some internet searching the next morning I found out that the record really didn’t exist yet. So I decided to make the album myself as a Christmas present for Dawn, and just sort of went non-stop caffeinated out of my mind until it was finished. Pretty much everything on that record was a first take either improvised or recorded immediately after writing it. There was no time to second-guess, and I wanted to capture that energy of the first burst of inspiration as long as it lasted.

How have you been influenced by all your recent/semi-recent travels & touring in the last few years?
The music I’ve made more recently is a lot less “rooted”, if that makes sense… I had never experienced the sensation of cutting ties and drifting for awhile before that big Cursillistas tour, and I’d never known the way that drift makes you live a bit more in the present. Playing music for people used to make me nervous, so I’d do my best to try to zone out and forget they were there; now it totally makes me zone in to something, like a hyper-reality bordering on a synesthesiac experience of the present moment. It’s a brief flash, but when I come out of it everything feels fresh and electrified. I would say it’s a completely selfish experience, but when I see or hear other performers tapping into that completely alive improvisational moment, I get swept into it as well, like a spontaneous group meditation led by sound waves. I’ve always loved that aspect of MV & EE’s live shows, and two bands we saw live for the first time on that tour–Barn Owl and Expo ’70–are total masters of creating that experience. I started wanting to make music that had a little bit more impact in a live setting. Cursillistas shows sometimes fell flat–we were too quiet, or timid–so I came out of that experience wanting to make everything feel more alive and electric, like a frantic homage to the ever-changing present.

And how did you hook up with Fuckitttapes / Hello Sunshine? I like that all the releases so far have basically been on the same label…
A few days after I finished recording the first Herbcraft album I emailed it to Jeremy @ Woodsist, totally on a whim. I’d sent him a couple demos before and nothing had come of it, but for some reason I had a feeling he would dig this new thing, and I really had nothing to lose: I didn’t originally intend for it to be officially released anyway. Jeremy wrote back a day later, asking about the record and telling me he was planning on launching this new Woodsist vinyl-only sister-label Hello Sunshine for more experimental stuff, and he wanted this to be the first release. The timing was perfect, because a lot of that album was inspired by Relatively Clean Rivers and Phil Pearlman’s earlier projects, and this new label was named after one of my favorite RCR songs.

I love the title to the first record, “Discovers The Bitter Water Of Agartha.” What’s the story behind it?
In Admiral Byrd’s diary, while he is waiting to meet with “The Master” in Agartha, he writes about a mysterious beverage that he is given to drink, which he says tastes like nothing he’s ever tasted before. I like thinking that there were some psychotropic qualities to the drink, almost like a psychedelic initiation or communion, so focusing on that part of the trip for the title seemed appropriate based on the sound of the record. For some reason, the phrase “Bitter Water of Agartha” came to me as a description of this drink, so I wound up using it as the title… to me it kind of sounded like it could’ve been the title of a King Crimson record or something, and I liked that.

So you all have a new(ish) Herbcraft album out – what’s the biggest difference between it and the first one? To me, the sound of it sounds a lot more developed and, obviously, further removed from what I think of when I think about Cursillistas… was this just part of the natural development of the project or was it more of a conscious thing than that?
It had to do with figuring out how to make a bedroom solo project translate in a live setting, and that wound up naturally affecting the kind of stuff I recorded for Ashram to the Stars. I knew I definitely didn’t want this to be a solo thing live, so I’d put a band together to bring Herbcraft on the road, and those wild, freewheeling early live shows convinced me I needed to mine some more heaviness and rhythm in the sound. While Agartha had been the first bit of pushing myself in new directions, it was still a bit of a timid first step, and I agree it doesn’t sound too far removed from the last few Cursillistas releases. My goal was to finish recording the second Herbcraft album before the first was ever released, because so much had developed in those six months (between recording Agartha and its release) and I wanted to capture where I was at in the moment without the influence of the reviews of the LP. But in the end, I did get to read some commentary about Herbcraft before Ashram was finished, and I was definitely put off by all the stoner/drop-out/bong references in all the reviews of what I considered a pretty serious album. So the most conscious decision in making Ashram was that I wanted to make something that couldn’t possibly be taken lightly, something that was really personally meaningful: heavy, psychedelic, searching, cosmic, meditative. I wanted to make a guitar record that somehow carried the weight of a Pharoah Sanders piece. Pharoah’s actually one of the biggest influences on my guitar playing on that record.

What’s next for Herbcraft?
We’re eager to hit the road. We’ll be doing some brief tours in April, May, and July in the US, and hopefully hit the west coast and maybe even Europe when the new record is released later this year. We recorded the upcoming LP with our friends in Mmoss, at their farmhouse in New Hampshire, all analog to 8-track reels. Matt Valentine is mastering it in Spectrasound at the moment, and it’ll be released in the Hello Sunshine / Woodsist family in 2012.

And now you’ve got Brainshadows as well – tell me about the project. The new single is really fantastic – up there with my favorite stuff of yours. Do you have any concrete future plans for the project?
Thanks! Brainshadows is what Dawn and I are doing as a duo now that Cursillistas is over. Brainshadows is really her baby, and she conceptualized the whole gutter-art, high-trash aesthetic we’re working with. It’s sort of an homage to the kind of art we really dig deep down, mostly due to Dawn introducing me to the stuff she’s loved for years: 70′s horror, motorcycle, and blaxploitation films, mono fuzz-garage 45s, deep-funk, dub-reggae, adults-only comix and trashy sci-fi. We want to put out a few more singles before doing an album, but lately our time and energy has been going to our other projects (Oracle Offering for Dawn and Herbcraft for both of us). We have a 3-song EP, Community Bread, nearly finished and are looking for a label to put it out as a 7″ sometime this year hopefully. We’d like to figure out how to perform live as Brainshadows, but we just haven’t had time to work on that yet.

What’s happening with L’Animaux Tryst in 2012?
A few more full-length vinyl records (Concord Ballet Orchestra Players, Altered Gee, White Fir), a few tapes, and hopefully a 45 or two. I try to pick up label projects when Herbcraft stuff slows down, and it’s looking like 2012 will be busier than the last couple years, so I’m keeping it kinda loose. Life is full-on improvisation these days.

Favorite records so far this year?
Mohawk Park! Man I honestly haven’t heard many new records so far in 2012, spent most of the past few months catching up on 2011. The Jovontaes record that came out last fall got tons of play all winter. I got to hear the upcoming MV & EE record Space Homestead which is killer but won’t be out for several more weeks. I’m really looking forward to SpaceGhostPurrp’s LP on 4AD, I think he’s genius. Stoked for Plankton Wat’s Thrill Jockey debut and two new Mmoss records in 2012. Feels like a lot of good stuff coming up.

04/18 – Waltham, MA @ Frat Cave *
04/19 – Brooklyn, NY @ Big Snow Buffalo Lodge !
04/20 – Worcester, MA @ The Firehouse *
04/21 – Portland, ME @ Strange Maine *
05/12 – Jamaica Plain, MA @ The Whitehaus ^
05/13 – Brooklyn, NY @ 285 Kent (MV & EE record release show) ^
05/19 – Biddeford, ME @ The Oak & The Ax ^
05/28 – Cambridge, MA @ ZuZu (Night Of The Living Deadhead)
05/30 – Lexington, KY @ Al’s Bar #
05/31 – Morgantown, WV @ 123 Pleasant St. #
06/01 – Brooklyn, NY @ Big Snow Buffalo Lodge #
07/07 – New Sweden, ME @ Thomas Park (Arootsakoostik Festival)
07/14 – Asheville, NC @ Grey Eagle (Inner Mountain Festival) ^

* – w/ Tracey Trance [and Cave Bears (4/18); Baylies Band, Zerfallt, Gay Shapes, Friendship Ceremonies (4/20); Janane Tripp (4/21)]
! – w/ Kid Millions, Ancient Ocean, Chris Forsyth
^ – w/ MV & EE [and Mmoss (5/12); Steve Gunn (5/13); BR Garm, Jeff Beam (5/19); Dredd Foole, Willie Lane, Samara Lubelski and Aswara (7/14)]
# – Hello Sunshine Tour w/ Jovontaes [and Woodsman, Dustin Wong (6/01)]

L’Animaux Tryst
Hello Sunshine

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