A Supersonic Mosiac – An interview with Wrekmeister Harmonies' JR Robinson

There are many things a potential interviewer plans in his head before actually talking with the living, breathing being he intends to speak to. And there are many maneuvers one tries to shift a conversation to a place they feel familiar with, interested in, or in any way productive or fertile. Not many of those panned out the way I planned in my conversation with JR Robinson, the mind, spirit and discipline behind the mammoth-sized Chicago-based experimental-metal project Wrekmeister Harmonies. The result of this apparent mishap, or misunderstanding, or failure, if you will, is what you could call an uneven read.

Photography: Drew Reynolds

Photography: Drew Reynolds

However, when I say "uneven" I don't mean it in the same way that most people engaged in varying degrees with writing about music mean it. For those people, "uneven" is the verbal cop-out that one can easily revert to when one doesn't seem to have a definite thing to say about the subject of their piece. They liked some parts, didn't like other parts, and hence "uneven." No, that's not my "uneven," not in this case.

In this case my conversation with JR Robinson is as "uneven" as life is, as every day is. As uneven as a hill, or a swamp, or an autumn day, pardon the triteness of my similes. Uneven as everything that worth experiencing, in other words. And, finally, as uneven as Wrekmeister Harmonies' music – winding, rising, crashing, moving, and inspirational, precisely because of this sense of life. So, things didn't really go the way I wanted to, or at least not in the way I thought they would, in this interview. And how happy am I that that turned out to be the case. Enjoy.

What were some of the artists that growing up really kind of inspired you, do you remember a special moment with an artist, like a performance or an album that really inspired you into thinking that you’d like to be a musician yourself?

I would have to say probably Black Sabbath’s first record. My older brother put it on, and that blew me away. I remember just being very scared by the album cover, the artwork, and the sound itself, it was so heavy. I’ve never heard anything so heavy and ominous, and it really had an effect on me.

Sometimes when you hear something that heavy for the first time, you don’t realize that that’s what it is, that it’s heavy, you just think that it’s scary.

I was just like ‘These guys are frightening.’ I mean up until that point i had been exposed to like The Beatles and The Stones and stuff, and Motown music, and classical music, and that was the first band that I had ever heard that was just like ‘This is strange, this is ominous.״ And I really, at the time, looked up to my older brother and he was going through changes himself, he was becoming a darker person, you know? That album really had an impact on me.

Is that something that, from the get-go, you wanted to achieve yourself when you were making music? Something that achieved that kind of effect, that kind of feeling on people?

No. What I’m trying to do with my music is just…. I appreciate larger forms of composition. There’s a handful of artists, I mean, there are certainly artists out there that do what I’m doing, I just wanted to incorporate these larger and heavier elements and put that into a compositional form. That’s essentially what I’m trying to achieve. I’m not very good at writing four- or five-minute-long things, you know.

Is that something you’ve tried to do?

I tried, I mean, sure, and it’s just that I’m not good at it. You know, plenty of people are, there’s so many people who are just good at that, I’m just not one of them.

Where you ever in bands, when you were younger? Short-song bands?

No, nothing spectacular. Nothing that was satisfying, so no. I fucked around, and being involved with various projects, but nothing that would indicate that that’s what I would end up doing, no.

Could you say how Wrekmeister Harmonies came about, then, or what led to it coming about?

I made a film and I wanted to create a soundtrack for the film, and so I was trying to capture in the audio form what I had achieved in the video form. And so to do that I knew I needed to incorporate certain or different elements of musical styles. So, I just approached a number of musicians here in Chicago. You know, Chicago has a very deep talent pool of various musicians, be it experimental, classical, black metal, you know, anything. So, I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time and have access to all these musicians.

So, I approached all these musicians, I got a screening for my film in the Museum for Contemporary Art here in Chicago, and we did a performance, and it was very satisfying. So I decided to record that, and the results of that recording was the first album, “You’ve Always Meant so Much for Me.”

I understand that despite the fact that it could seem like a hectic enterprise, because there are so many people involved, kind of a revolving door, they come in they come out, each one contributes his own part, but in fact the compositional part is pretty much done by the time those people arrive?

Yeah, it’s pretty much done by the time the people arrive, but you know it’s very much a collaborative effort.

But, I mean how does that… I mean, I know you did that Noisy doc, the one about the one-man black metal bands, which I understand is how you met Wrest [Jef Whitehead, AKA Leviathan], right? So, if there was an opposite from a one-man black metal band, it’s Wrekmesiter Harmonies, because there are so many people. Was that a point of reference?

Yeah, it wasn’t a conscious reaction to the documentary that I did. The documentary that I did it was that I was hired to do a job, so I did a job. And, you know they hired me because I was pretty well versed in the whole work of Xansthur and Striborg and Leviathan. So, I mean that was why I did that job, you know. But, as a result of doing that job I struck up a friendship with Wrest, and he’s into collaborating, so it worked out pretty well.

You talked about a deep Chicago talent pool, and there seems to be quite an extensive, apart from maybe the classical or even jazz even, or unique Chicago scene when it comes to experimental metal. Bands like Indian, Locrian, Yakuza, and a lot of people who are in your project, and it seems to be a kind of definite Chicago experimental metal vibe, whereas the people who participate in your project, it’s almost like a coalition of Chicago experimental…

You know what, it’s not just  Chicago. I collaborated, I’m currently working on some new material with Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubauten. I’m working on some new material that has contributions from The Body. Tomorrow I’m flying out to Montreal to work on a recording with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor I just did a show in New York with Amos from Om, David Pajo from Slint, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix from Liturgy playing. So, it’s not just a Chicago thing anymore. I was utilizing the people who were available to me in my community, and now that community has expanded. I can see that continuing to grow.

That community expanded because of the project?

Yeah, definitely expanding because of the project.

What I meant though was, other than the fact that most of the people were from the Chicago area, there seems to me a conscious effort to have different types of musical style working against each other in the project itself. You have a guy like Wrest, and then you have Bruce Lamont, who’s kind of a distant relative of the kind of music Wrest is doing, but different. That was a conscious effort to get guys to do different things and see what happens when you mix them up?

No, I knew what it was going to sound like, there was no element of guesswork involved. I knew what it would sound like if I used these people along with other people, you know? I know what it’s going to sound like when I go record with the Godspeed people this weekend, I know what it’s going to sound like. There’s very little in the way of guesswork, you know? I don’t wanna go in there and guess, like “Wow, I wonder if this is going to work.” That would be just a colossal waste of effort and time. I’d like to be sure that things are going to work, so that’s kind of how I approach that.

Other than knowing that you’re working with the people you want to work with, which I guess is one way of knowing it’s going to work, is the other way the pre-writing, the pre-composition? Arrival at the session knowing what you want to play, not improvising or anything like that?

It’s a real fine line, it’s a real fine balance. I mean, you put on a record by…let’s just say you out on a Yakuza record, right? Say you’re really dialed in on that vocalist, right? You’re like “I know how this is going to sound like, and I could tell this person this is what I want and then they could do it. You can listen to The Body, and you know how this is going to sound like, “I know what these guys are like, I know what this is going.” You could be like “This is what I played, this is what I’d like to hear.” And you know what you’re going to get. You’re not going to approach The Body and expect them to play like Liberace or something.

So, it’s not necessarily note by note anticipation, just kind of you know who you’re dealing with?

Exactly, exactly. Like, I wouldn’t, I mean…. If I wanted to approach, let’s say I’m all of a sudden like “I really want to hear what Bobby Shmerra sounds like on this track,” then I would be like “Yeah, this is what Bobby Shmerra sounds like.” “I wanna really hear what Toby Keith would sound like on this” – “Here’s Toby Keith.” I wonder what Rachel Bargel would sound like on this” – “Here’s Rachel Bargel.” You know?

It’s kind of a cool thing, you know? You get to do whatever it is you find interesting to do.

Yeah. I feel very, lucky. Yeah.

As a side note, I feel the same way exactly just by doing whatever it is I’m doing right now, so.

Yeah. You and I are running on very parallel fashions. You found what you really like to do, you get to talk and explore and probe and find out from various others who had influenced you, and you in turn get to create a piece of art about that. I mean, of course. I understand what you’re saying.

I wanted to ask you if, other than the fact that you were hired to do the Vice thing, did you find yourself learning something about your relationship about music? just by kind of hanging around those people?

Not really. I mean, their three unique individuals, they kind of approach creating in the same way, I was aware of their output, I understood how they put it all together, but I didn’t learn anything. I mean, I got to see it, I got to see it up close. Of course I’m inspired by it, I’m inspired by it because it’s intriguing, it’s interesting, it’s unique, it’s all of these things, so I was definitely inspired by it and it was a rewarding experience.

Just by being there,I guess.

Sure, man. I mean, if you’re a fan of Leviathan or Lurker of Chalice, and you get to go see up close and in person how that person creates, that’s a pretty great experience.

I know you talked about how Wrekmeister Harmonies began as something like an art installation in a way that got recorded, and then you you went straight to record. Is that how you view the future of the project, as keep doing one-off recordings? Do you ever consider touring with it or doing regular performances with it, or is it a series of these unique projects?

The way I look at the project spans from anything from doing that documentary to doing sound installations, to doing solo performances, to doing performances with just maybe a trio, to doing performances with like 30 musicians, you know? Doing performances that take place outside of the normal concert venues, continue to push out, to expand outwards, not get locked into a continuous pattern, but to grow and to collaborate. That to me seems like natural growth and that’s where I’m most interested in.

What are some of the artists that you are inspired by today, other than the people you work with directly?

You mean just like what am I into?

Yeah

Listening to right now would be Ruins of Beverast, Lightnin Hopkins, Elmore James, Om’s “Variations of a Theme.” I really really like that Boboby Shmurda track, that’s fucking great. Jim O'Rourke, the new Leviathan is great, Anatomy of Habit. Reading-wise I just finished Alex Ross’s “Listen to This.” And then, I finished “The Man with the Golden Arm,” by Nelson Algern. Movies, I’ve watched “Wings of Desire” and “Tokyo Story.”

I had one more question, but I always think it’s a strange question,

[Laughs]

I never know whether to bring it up, so I’ll try, and if you have no answer then you have no answer. I’m kind of fascinated by dynamics in music, and by dynamics I mean that in recent years there seems to be…I’m younger than you, I suppose, but I’m not the youngest I can be, and when I grew up the heavy music I was listening to, the dynamics were usually generated by the fact that it was really violent and short. So, by the time it was done, it twisted and tuned, and then it was over.

But over the last maybe ten years, heavy music has really taken a kind of deep experimental turn, drone music, doom, sludge, whatever it is you want to call it

Yeah

The emphasis on dynamics is different. That a song or a composition has a lot of parts, not just one, and that it can go quiet for what you used to be eternity. And I think your project is a perfect example of that, because you’re basically talking about one long song for each album or one long composition, and you need to keep that interesting.

I agree with you.

So what is your take on how to make that feel like a life force that keeps going on? What is it that makes it live in a way, that you can listen to it for 38 minutes straight and not get bored?

It’s not a strange question, and the way I would answer it is it’s about evolution, like having the piece evolve, having it change without you noticing that it changed. You know? Sort of like how you go through your day, moment to moment, and there are things that happen to you and you change. And just like you go through your existence, and you go from day to day, month to month, year to year, you’re evolving and you’re changing, and sometimes those changes aren’t perceptible, but they are very interesting and they are very unique to you.

That’s how I would answer that question, that’s, you know. Dynamics, things evolving, it’s all part of natural existence, right? And in art it’s like a reflection on life, right? So, that’s what I’m trying to achieve here, I’m trying to engage you for 38 minutes, or engage you for 32 minutes, or engage you for 26 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever. I’m engaging with you, and you’re listening to this thing, and it’s constantly evolving, imperceptibly, you know? It’s like life itself.

Is that why you found shorter compositions frustrating, or that you said you weren’t good at it, is that part of the reason? That it didn’t have time to develop or evolve?

No, I think I just wasn’t interested, I think I just wasn’t interested in making short statements. It’s nothing against that. Like, you were referencing hardcore music. You know, hardcore music is great for communicating a very violent attitude and a mindset that is full of agitation, and I can appreciate that. I can appreciate that one- to- two-minute burst, I can appriciate that energy, I can get into it. I’m just not good at emulating that, that’s not what I’m interested in, I’m not into creating that. You know, there’s a difference between being interested in creating something and appreciating something.

And, Ron, you can apply that to any musical genre you’d like. You can apply that to hip hop music, you don’t live their lives, you don’t know what their daily existence is, but you can appreciate hearing about it in their art, right?

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