For those who aren’t already familiar with the name Villages, it is the solo guise of one Ross Gentry. Currently residing in the heart of Asheville, North Carolina, Gentry has become an integral part of a swelling underground movement in the western part of the state. Nestled amongst the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountians and along the French Broad River, a nook of experimental and ambient artists are congregating and feeding off of one another, thriving on a handful of local imprints including Bathetic Records, Diatom Bath, Headaway Recordings, and Harvest Records, and hosting a revolving door of interesting shows at sweet little venues to include the Foogmess festival (which highlights more regional and unique musical acts around the same time as Moogfest as an alternative for Asheville locals). And of course it doesn’t hurt that down the street from these quaint venues is the infamous Moog factory, and that the rich historical arts culture of Black Mountain College is only a stones throw away. Villages has released music on all four of the aforementioned labels, and it makes perfect sense that Gentry’s upcoming LP will soon be released on the increasingly amazing Bathetic imprint, a label that has been making a big name for itself with an all star lineup of artists like William Cody Watson, Angel Olsen, Pandang Food Tigers, Difference Clouds, and Lee Noble. It’s no surprise that Villages has found a home with the label.
After a double LP on Harvest Recordings, a slew of choice cassette and CDr releases, and a recent summer tour and split 7-inch with fellow Asheville artist Merryl, it’s about time we heard a new long player from Gentry. I first heard Villages music in 2010 at Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN when Gentry opened for Ben Frost and William Basinski. It was an astounding set (far better than Frost’s), and a perfect precursor to Basinski. Both Villages and Basinski really set the mood just right for the Terry Riley performance later that night. Needless to say it was a monumental show experience for anyone in attendance, and really affected the course for all of the music I listened to and made after that point. We’ve been fans and collectors of Villages ever since. I got in touch with Gentry via email to chat about the upcoming LP, Theories of Ageing, and to get a little background on how Villages came to be, the things that influence and inspire the artist, and to chat about other projects he has in the works. Read on and you’ll be rewarded with a mix created especially for Foxy D’s readers for “dangerously wandering on train tracks at night while wearing headphones…”. Then pick up a copy of the LP here.
1. How long have you been making music?
I purchased my first 4 track 15 years ago. It was a floor model Tascam from one of those big chain music stores. There wasn’t a manual or anything so I took it home and jumped right in, not having the slightest idea what I was doing, completely expecting to create this amazing piece of music. I remember this unexpected feeling of excitement when I failed miserably. Like it wasn’t a big deal. I could just go back and try it again. That’s the part that really grabbed me from the beginning. Even with very little equipment and no idea what I was doing, it seemed like there weren’t any limits. I’ve been recording pretty regularly ever since.
2. How long have you been making music as “Villages”? Where does the name come from?
The first villages recordings were made in 2005. I first started the project as an outlet to try to create these really big environments or narratives using just a few instruments, some effects pedals, and a looper with an extremely slow fade out. It was a lot of looped a.m. radio static and tape noise with some sustained guitar and synthesizers. I had some circuit bent keyboards back then as well. Those recordings were always so much fun to create. Completely improvised, every instrument running through the same effects chain. It was definitely more about the process at that point. Starting from silence and slowly bringing in these very little sounds and letting them exist and grow together to form sounds almost unrecognizable from where they were when they began. I still record a lot of my music the same way, only now I use those methods as more of a starting point rather than an ending point. For the last few years I’ve really been focused on writing and recording shorter pieces that work best within the confines of an album, then creating transitional phrases that can kind of tie everything together almost seamlessly. But the more refined pieces are completely formulated out of that beginning stage of working out ideas from a blank slate. Setting up processes, picking up every instrument around and just playing. It may be my favorite part of the entire recording process. I constantly make mistakes that eventually end up kind of laying the ground work for entire tracks. I love imperfections in music. I love when I can hear and feel hands at work in a recording. I don’t necessarily need that human element to fully understand a piece of music emotionally. But it certainly helps.
The name “Villages” materialized through a photograph a close friend of mine took of a television some years back. It was a really bright and colorful, beautifully distorted photo. The only thing that could be made out from the image that was on the screen was the word “villages”. It looked like what I wanted my music to sound like. It seemed appropriate to use the name.
3. You’re currently living in Asheville, North Carolina. Are you from that area originally? If not, how did you end up there?
I’m not from Asheville originally. I was born in Kentucky. I moved here in the winter of 2004. I was living in Murfreesboro, TN at the time, going to school for recording. I was slowly figuring out that studio style recording really wasn’t something that I had much of an interest in, and I felt like I was gaining much more useful knowledge about home recording from experimenting at home and from my friends. So I dropped out and decided to move to Asheville because I had a couple of friends from high school living here at the time. It was just a few days between deciding to move here and actually living here. It’s probably the most impulsive thing I’ve ever done, and the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s home now for sure.
4. Your first LP was on Harvest Records, and your new one is being released on Bathetic. Did you make a conscious effort to work with Asheville-based labels for your larger releases? Do you prefer working with local labels in general, or are you indifferent?
I definitely make a conscious effort to get my music to these labels first. They’re my friends. It makes sense to me mainly because I’m really into sharing my recordings with my friends first and getting feedback. That’s always been the best way for me to assess what I’m working on. To put it on fresh ears that I trust to see what kind of response I get. It’s easy for me to become slightly detached from a recording once I’ve been working on something for a long period of time. After hearing something a thousand times I feel like I can lose a grip of what it really sounds like. It’s really helpful to be surrounded by such inspiring people doing such great things, who aren’t afraid of being honest or critical.
I haven’t really sent demos out to labels or anything like that. My non-Asheville based releases for Hooker Vision and Kimberly Dawn happened in a very personal way as well. Those releases basically happened after meeting the people who run the labels face to face, either at shows or through the small community of like minded artists that live in the region, and just striking up a conversation, sharing ideas and figuring out the best way to work together to make something happen.
5. The artwork for the new LP is dark and striking, and the imagery seems very nostalgic. Who did the artwork? Are the photos used from your own life or collection? Is there any special meaning or story behind them?
When Jon Hency and I were originally talking about ideas for artwork we knew we wanted to use photographs. Old photographs, specifically. It just has that feel to it. Nostalgic is the perfect word to describe the artwork. And the music too, I think. We would talk about the recording and sort of use the same words you would use to describe an old photograph. It’s faded, gray, grainy, but not completely stark or desolate. It has a hopefulness to it. At least I think it does.
The images are taken from a book called Summerhill: A Loving World. Its a book of brilliant photographs and writings by Herb Snitzer documenting his time spent at an alternative school in England in the early 60′s. It was published in 1963. I came across the book at a thrift store around the time I started talking seriously with Bathetic about doing an LP. Not being a visual artist myself, I was having a really hard time envisioning a cover image that would fit the music. Then this book, tattered and buried in a pile of other random, thrown away books, appeared and completely blew me away instantly. Once I saw these photos and placed them in context with the music, I just couldn’t separate the two. They’re such strong, simple images. Innocent and haunting at the same time. It’s a really incredible feeling when something so simple can be so striking. Turns out Mr. Snitzer went on to photograph some of the most iconic figures in jazz over the next 40 years. And he was incredibly supportive of us using his images for the record.
6. The title of the album, Theories of Ageing, has a very poetic sound to it. Why did you choose that title?
I originally struggled with the idea of titling the album Theories of Ageing. I wasn’t sure if it would actually make sense to anyone other than myself. I saw the phrase a while back and it just kind of stuck with me. The phrase itself has a very definitive meaning. It’s used to describe the ways in which elderly people adapt to and cope with the idea of approaching the final stages of life and eventually death. It’s a pretty heavy concept to think about. Some withdrawal completely from society, choosing to basically fade away unseen. Its called disengagement. The other side are the people who completely embrace those final moments, celebrating their lives until the end. I don’t remember what that one is called. I just remember feeling for sure like i was the disengagement type.
When I read the phrase originally and decided to use it as the title of the record, I didn’t really have the text book meaning in mind. To me it felt like a way of abstractly looking at how we choose to live based on that ever present knowledge of mortality. I’ve always wanted to make a recording about aging. It’s such a universally heavy and powerful thing. We all think about it all the time. But it’s also really simple and absolute. It’s just what happens. I wanted to try to create a musical narrative that could represent that feeling of getting older. But I definitely didn’t want it to be an entirely pessimistic concept. I turn 30 next year, and to me getting older has been all about dialing in my existence. Sort of weeding out the less important things and really trying to stay focused on the aspects that truly matter to me. And I’m still young. It’s cool to think about getting older and dialing it in even further. Creating a truly personalized existence. I think that’s the real beauty of aging.
7. Your new LP features some sounds not previously heard on your other releases, such as the less-effected guitar sounds appearing early on the A-side. Can you describe the instrumentation and processes that went into the recordings?
I love playing my acoustic guitars, especially in open tunings. It’s always been really therapeutic for me to just sit around and play. I also have a banjo that I’m obsessed with as well as a really beautiful sounding
pump organ. Those three instruments work so well together. I wanted to use those instruments, along with piano, to create the overall mood for the recording, and also the space for other instruments and processes to work within and around. I also used a lot of subtle percussive instrumentation like bells and shakers and random household items and surfaces to create some rhythmic patterns to help move everything along. Beyond that, I used electric guitar, bass guitar, cello, glockenspiel, juno-60, tapes, voice and field recordings.
I always use multiple formats for recording so I can find which method works best for a particular sound. Some of the tracks from this record were recorded to 1/4″ tape initially, then re-recorded into Ableton and edited from that point. While other tracks were recorded digitally first then bounced to tape and processed that way. I make a lot of tape loops and play with tape speed constantly. I really get into the back and forth of digital and analog recording. I’ve never favored one over the other.
8. What is your favorite instrument to use/play?
No matter how many instruments I collect and enjoy trying to figure out how to play, I always come back to the guitar. It’s been the basis for everything I’ve done musically. It’s my comfort zone.
9. I know you have at least one other music project your working on, Williams. Can you talk a little about this new project? Are there any other projects you’re working on?
Williams is a collaborative project between Will Isenogle and myself. Will makes this really engaging and immersive, noisy, melodic drone music with his outstanding solo project Merryl. My first name is also William so the name seemed fitting. We’ve been laying the groundwork for our first recordings through the shows we’ve been playing recently. It’s really cool because it’s kind of the opposite approach to the way I make music and perform as Villages. So far it feels like a really honest hybrid of both of our sounds, which aren’t entirely dissimilar. It’s really dense and methodical. Low and slow. Southern style. I think we’ll have something finished by the end of the year.
I have another project called Distances with multi-instrumentalist Chelsea Hall. She wrote and played the amazing piano part on the Theories of Ageing track “The Narrows”. We have a tape coming out on Headway Recordings in the fall. Its based around Chelsea’s piano pieces recorded through multiple tape delays with field recordings and some digital processing. It’s a really minimal, haunting and pretty recording. The new ideas we are laying out for our next recording are much more involved musically. Chelsea plays piano, cello, and violin and I’m playing some guitar, organ and banjo among other things. It’s a really fun project.
10. Your live performances are just as interesting and captivating as your recordings. What is the difference in your set up and approach (if any) between the two? Do you prefer one over the other?
Performing is a completely different world for me musically. It’s an entirely different approach. Sometimes I feel like its a totally different project altogether when it comes to my shows. And I really love that about it. I use a pretty minimal setup. Electric guitar with effects pedals, some tape decks and my laptop. Occasionally I’ll bring in some other instruments, but that’s the basic setup I’ve been using for a while. It’s much more of an open ended, in the moment thing. I’ve never tried to recreate something I’ve recorded in the live setting. I use elements of my recordings for sure, but I don’t play entire pieces. I’m not sure I would even be able to. I usually have a starting point and an ending point in mind going in to a performance and the rest Is just trying to create an environment that I and anyone interested can get lost in for a little while.
I’ll always prefer recording over performing. I get so much enjoyment out of sitting down and recording for months on end, piecing together tracks and putting together completed recordings. Finishing a recording is the best feeling ever.
11. If you could record music anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I hope I’m not jinxing myself saying this, but in the next two years or so I really want to record an entire album while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a shipping freighter. I’ve been researching it all pretty seriously and I think it’s something I can pull off. It’s about a 14 day trip from the southeast US to northwestern Europe. It only stops 3 times. I’ve always had this desire to record an ocean based album, but it would be really hard to accomplish that honestly living in the mountains of western North Carolina. I figure the best way to go about this would be to completely immerse myself in it. And doing so on a giant freighter ship creeping across the ocean could give it this deep, dark mechanical ocean sound. I don’t know. Sounds cool. Also, I’ve never been out of the country, so I think it would be cool to go to these extreme lengths to do it for the first time.
12. What musicians/composers have influenced the “Villages” sound the most?
I will always have to name Brian Eno and David Lynch first when it comes to this question. They have such a big influence on so many people for a reason. They’re the artists I discovered as a teenager that really changed the way I heard and viewed things. Specifically Discreet Music and Eraserhead. Both that record and film found a way to sort of seep into my underexposed, typical childhood and open so many creative doors that led me to discover so many other influential artists that I may not have found out about otherwise. Some years later I discovered recordings by William Basinski, Janek Schaefer, Philip Jeck, and Steven R. Smith and became completely obsessed with the enveloping nature of their albums. I wanted to try to create my own sounds that could make me feel the way those recordings did.
13. What other releases do you have planned in the near future? Any upcoming shows you’d like to mention?
I recently released a split 7″ with Merryl on Headway Recordings, and very soon I have a new cassette titled Sun Controlcoming out on Sacred Phrases. I also should be finishing up a new full length cassette for Headway very soon. Also, I’ve been recording a soundtrack to an illustrated story by my friend and brilliant artist Alli Good. It’s a pretty dark story about a nature cult who start sacrificing one another after eating a particular psychoactive flower. It’s going to be packaged as a really cool book/cassette combination.
I’m planning on playing a release show for Theories of Ageing sometime in October, at Harvest Records in Asheville. Beyond that, I’m really just looking forward to the colder months settling in so I can start focusing on multiple collaborative recording projects and a new Villages LP.
14. Besides making music, what else do you do you enjoy doing the most in your spare time? Could you create a mix for doing that thing to?
Making music certainly occupies the majority of my spare time. I read a lot and bike around and cook at least one meal everyday. My house is basically right across the street from the French Broad river and ever since I moved here 4 years ago I’ve often gone on these night time walks along the train tracks that run parallel to the river. It’s a really great way to clear my head and decompress. I just listen to music and kind of wander around.
So here’s my mix for dangerously wandering on train tracks at night while wearing headphones:
1. A_Symetric Minds – Dunce Meditation
2. Janek Shaefer – To Oval To Cologne
3. Tod Dockstader – Myst
4. Philip Jeck – Chime Again
5. Labradford – Pico
6. Valet – Tame All The Lions
7. Svarte Greiner – The Boat Was My Friend
8. Steven R. Smith – Black Paper Scrim
9. Richard Skelton – Pariah
10. Hala Strana – Nepdal Tarogaton
11. Rachel’s – Night At Sea
12. Stars of the Lid – Requiem For Dying Mothers (Part 1)
13. Stars of the Lid – Requiem For Dying Mothers (Part 2)