I first encountered Moonwood last year, reviewing the River Ghost LP. That LP’s progressions from expansive sketches to dense song structures — built prominently around guitar and gourd flute. Jakob Rehlinger follows up River Ghost this year with a new CD, The Strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the Strength of the Wolf is the Pack on his Arachnidiscs imprint.
The overriding mood of The Strength of the Pack is the Wolf… is similar to that of River Ghost. However, Rehlinger employs more instruments and more structured, diverse songs to deliver his vision. While the disc might be most striking in its sparse, shimmering moments, some of the new, funkier elements provide a unique contrast.
I recently caught up with Jakob via email, after being captured by the new tracks. Jakob is currently busy with several current and forthcoming Arachnidisc tapes, as well as two new albums by his other project, BABEL.
How do you use improvisation with the layered elements in your recordings? Are there certain elements that you prefer over others to begin your improvisation?
The recordings almost always begin with the idea that I’m going to record a solo guitar improvisation with either no accompaniment or some minimal background textures. I have this erroneous notion each album is going to be somewhere between Robbie Basho and Pelt and somehow it completely gets away from me.
I’ll either begin by laying down a drone with an analogue synth or a bowed guitar and then improvise over top of that, or I’ll simply improvise a guitar line to a click track. Usually a collection of riffs based on some new scale I’ve discovered while randomly noodling.
How does your writing process or preparation of songs or themes change over time?
It’s mostly influenced by a new instrument or piece of gear I’ve acquired. A lot of Aubade was based on Terry Riley-esque delay loops, River Ghosts was all about the gourd flute and a Romanian lap harp and The Strength of the Pack is the Wolf was very much shaped by the acquisition of a small gong and a glockenspiel.
Guitar tunings also impact what I do a lot. The Strength of the Pack is the Wolf is all D-A-D-G-A-D tuning whereas the earlier recordings used mainly standard tuning. This of course impacts the whole texture and feel of what I play.
The equipment I use to record has a huge impact on the whole shape of the recording. For whatever reason, I find using 16-track digital instead of cassette 4-track changes the music on a conceptual level much more than it does the fidelity. Probably because of the ability to punch-in as much as being able to add four percussion and three flute tracks or whatever.
Also whatever I’ve been listening to naturally bleeds into my music. One half of The Strength of the Pack is the Wolf is quite obviously influenced by Turkish and Thai psych-funk compilations and Jack Rose and Pelt the other half. It’s obvious to me, at least.
You draw from a lot of different musical styles on The Strength of the Pack is the Wolf. How does each style follow your basic approach?
My basic approach remains the same. It works for any style, really. Be it krautrock or freak-folk, I record a simple guitar line then add to it. The only difference is whether it’s a kraut drone or an Asian scale or something with an English folk feel. Then I add the appropriate textures. Though I think in the future I’m going to do more with East-West crossover. That’s what interests me with the music on those world psych-funk compilations. It’s how they were trying to play James Brown or something but were using their traditional scales. It sounds off but in a really good way.
Lately I’ve been playing the pentatonic blues scale over ragas and sort of Middle Eastern drones and I enjoy the discordant effect. Not harmonic discord but cultural discord. It’s not a new idea at all, but I feel like in the past people have tried to make round pegs out of the Eastern sounds so they fit nicely into round Western holes. I want to leave the pegs square and have them not fit in the holes at all. That’s more interesting, I think. It’s where I was subconsciously going with “Fireflies Trapped in a Cracked Pint Jar” and “Hyenas Know The Dead” I think, but it could be taken much further.
What is the role of the desert in your music? What concepts do you draw from to create the prevailing mood on The Strength of the Pack is the Wolf…?
It’s the romance of the desert. I’ve never been to a real desert—I grew up on the Pacific Ocean and I now live on the shores of the Great Lakes—so my notion of the desert is entirely from films and books. It’d be more accurate to say Saharan camel trains and cowboys dying of thirst in Death Valley play a role in my music, but the desert itself does not. I love the idea of a solo mournful Arabian flute playing somewhere behind a sand dune. Or rattles in some peyote ritual and a harmonica in the distance as the sun sets behind sagebrush and cacti. It’s romantic, comic book stuff. The mood of the desert that has nothing to do with the reality of it, I’m sure. I hope to never see the desert for this reason. I know how banal the Pacific northwest is though I’m sure it’s very romantic to someone who’s never left Arizona. I’d hate for the desert to lose its magic for me.
Is there a specific tradition of spirituality that informs your ragas or use of funeral music?
No. I’m a complete and total atheist. And I identify as a philosophical Taoist so to me the concept of “Death” is inconsequential. I find the idea of ritualised funerals a little baffling. Though I understand how they’re important for people who don’t share my beliefs. We recently lost a very beloved cat and it was important for me to touch her body, completely breakdown, and say goodbye. But after those few terrible minutes, I felt closure. I felt no need to hold a service or write a funeral piece for her. Actually, I did try. But it felt terribly insincere so I abandoned the attempt.
Mainly I enjoy the sombre mood of funeral music from various cultures, especially Asian cultures. A lot of good smashing of gongs blended with drones and minor key dirges. Fantastic stuff. As far as ragas, I simply enjoy the scales. I don’t actually know much about the tradition behind ragas, what their intent or cultural purpose is. I just love to get lost in a drone, really.
You have a very distinctive guitar tone — how do you capture your electric and acoustic sounds?
My guitar sound is partly due my improper fingering technique and my stubby fingers. There’s definitely something wrong with how I physically play the guitar. It was a major problem when I had hair metal aspirations but it suits what I do now quite well.
I record straight through a preamp, I never mic amplifiers. And live I plug my pedals directly into the soundboard. But I don’t think that effects my tone overtly. When I play through an amp (rarely) it sounds about the same. For acoustic guitar, if I want it to sound like an acoustic guitar, I record using a condenser mic. I use a pick-up if I want it to sound like a vintage hollow body (i.e., “Hyenas”; “Geedoodles”).
What is the most recent instrument you’ve added to your arsenal? Is there a specific element you used just for the new recordings?
As I mentioned earlier, the gongs and bells were an important element to shaping the sound of the new album. I haven’t picked up a new instrument in a while, but I’ve been getting frustrated with using a bow on guitar so I might pick up a starter violin of some kind. Though I’d really prefer a cello or a Chinese erhu.
The next album is going to be recorded with Jacqueline Noire on gongs, flutes, glockenspiel and vocals. So that should change things a lot. I also want to record an album of actually unaccompanied solo guitar. But I doubt my ability to hold to that.