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QRD #35 - January 2008
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Interview with Jon DeRosa of Aarktica
January 2008

I’ve known Jon DeRosa since 1996 when he was still in high school.  We’ve both watched each other grow up & buy-in/sell-out over these twelve years.  So it’s always exciting to hear what he’s working on & get a little in depth about it.  While Aarktica started as clearly indie ambient, over the years it has had more & more pop elements added.  His new album Matchless Years came out on Darla in late 2007.

QRD – Maybe it’s just me, but on Matchless Years “Arms” reminds me of Glenn Danzig’s “She”.  I know you’re a huge fan of his & have been listening to his stuff lately, do you feel the new album is more influenced by him than previous ones?

Jon – I remember a thread on the 7th House/Danzig message board a few years back where this kid posted that “Twist of Cain” was about cocaine, thus the lyrics: “Twist of Cain, drives my brain, Twist of Cain makes me come alive...”.  Which I always thought was really funny & obviously completely wrong, since if you ask anyone that’s ever played with him, they’ll tell you Glenn has never really done any drugs.  So when I was writing “Happiness Boys,” which is entirely about cocaine use & partying, I thought about that & decided to kind of model it after “Twist of Cain.” But with horns & strings. 
I guess “Arms” has that vibe too, since it refers to “the fall” & a demon girl who dances among living women, seducing men.  So yes, I think in content & sound this album was more directly influenced than previous albums where I may have just hinted at it. 

QRD – It seems on a lot of the Aarktica stuff you kind of have one or two songs that are identifiable as “the singles”.  Do you do this intentionally & do you see these poppier songs as more important or a cop out to hook people in?

Jon – Growing up & being into more experimental bands, I always really found myself loving the more accessible tracks on a more leftfield album.  I loved hearing the bands I respected do their take on the pop song.  Remember, when we would talk about tracks like Bleak’s “Grey Clouds” & Lycia’s “Nine Hours Later” or “Pray” or something?  For me – it was a few years later – Hood’s Silent 88, the whole album is just brilliant from start to finish.  But “The Field Is Cut” for me remains the pinnacle, the most “accessible” song on the record in a sea of strange noise, cut-up breaks, samples, pastoral drones....
It used to be that I’d have a good 1 or 2 pop songs in me per record, versus 8 more experimental/instrumental tracks.  Then it was like 2 or 3, & as I made more albums, my “songs” now outnumber my “pieces”.  Probably because as I did some work with Stephin Merritt & realized that I had strengths in my vocals & songwriting that I didn’t really think I had before.  But you know, some people have never forgiven me for starting to sing on my records.... What can you do? 

QRD – Every so often somebody wants to know about the stuff you did as Fade when you were in high school.  Have you ever thought about recycling any of these songs to fit into Aarktica?

Jon – It would be interesting to listen to Fade now, as it’s been many years since I’ve even *heard* those tapes.  I think... it would be really difficult for me to escape back into that mindset, enough to adapt the songs for use now.  That was almost 15 years ago, which I can’t even believe.…  It’s kind of insane.  That was a different person completely.  I think those songs are good for what they are, which is a completely pure example of adolescent angst.  They may be more interesting sociologically than to listen to for pleasure. 

QRD – You often say No Solace in Sleep is your best record.  It seems to me that you haven’t really tried to approach any of your other releases in that same style as far as not being song oriented.  Is there a reason you haven’t tried to do another album in that style if you like it so much?

Jon – To me, NSIS is really just a perfect personal work in every way.  & I don’t say that boastfully, I don’t say that in the sense of its place in the indie music world, etc.…  I’m talking, existing in a vacuum, as a personal document, as a journal entry, as a time capsule, it is the work that I define myself with to this day.  & that’s why it’s my best record.  It’s the last time I got things exactly right.
Up until the time that NSIS was released, there were really not that many bands doing the drone/ambient thing in an indie context.  There was Windy & Carl, Amp, Flying Saucer Attack, Charlambides....  But around 2000, there was somewhat of an explosion of those type of bands becoming popular, & when I got offered to do a “bliss out” album for Darla Records, I knew that doing another pure guitar drone record might just pigeonhole me as that type of artist, which is what I didn’t want.  So for better or worse, I tried new things, using elements of drone & tape delays, etc, to varying degrees of success. 
I haven’t tried to do another album in that style because I never really felt I could do better.  But, recently I started work on some new pieces that will be a sequel to NSIS.  It’s not a carbon copy, but similar in approach & recording style.  I hope to release it on the 10 year anniversary of NSIS

QRD – The last couple of albums you’ve done have leaned towards really clean production.  Where do you think lo-fi belongs in music? 

Jon – I really don’t know anymore.  One of my favorite albums of all time is Bee Thousand by Guided By Voices & that is as lo-fi as you can really go, & it’s brilliant.  But I don’t know how much of that brilliance would disappear if it weren’t recorded on a 4-track.  Some?  None?
I know that I cannot afford to record in a proper studio anymore, because my sales don’t necessarily cover the recording costs.  & I know that if I’m going to record at home, I would much rather use a 4-track cassette recorder than ProTools, & I know that there are other artists that feel this way.  So maybe after years of hi-fi or at least home-fi, we’re going to see a return to more low fidelity recordings, which hopefully will be more inspired than those done in a sterile studio environment.

QRD – You had a live line-up for Aarktica for several years, do you think it was represented similar in feel to the albums or was its own entity? 

Jon – The ensemble for the Bleeding Light album was very much tailored to the album itself.  Mike Pride, Seth Misterka, James Duncan... all free-jazz royalty in their own regard, helped add/translate the recorded songs to something much more powerful on the live stage.  Having Chris Carrico on second guitar also allowed me much more freedom on vocals as he held things down & laid the backdrop for songs.  There was an intuition amongst everyone that was magic to me. 

QRD – You recently moved from New York City to California.  How do you think it will effect your music? 

Jon – I hope I will be more inspired in different ways.  I’m not sure yet.  I know that living outside of the distractions of my life in New York City (i.e., drugs, alcohol, partying) can only be helpful. 

QRD – With how the music industry has changed over the past ten years, what do you see as the benefit of working with a label instead of just handling a release yourself?

Jon – I don’t know if there’s much of an advantage at all.  A lot of the artists who have become most popular in indie rock (or beyond) lately are young kids who are not particularly talented, but have struck some sort of chord in youth consciousness &/or come up with a witty hook, & with a little dedication on MySpace or whatever, have become huge buzz artists.  There’s a trend toward young music fans equating musical incompetence with the ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist that we are experiencing now.  One of political uncertainty, fear, a global identity crisis for us Americans, a need for comradery.…  That stretches far beyond simple “indie cred,” which was all it used to be.  Bands like No-Age have obtained this.  It’s raw power & frenzied energy, geared toward live performance versus recorded output.  Go see any Todd P show in Brooklyn & this is what you will notice, with the exception of a handful of bands like Child Abuse, who I would consider actually musically brilliant. 
Because the live performance is now more important than it ever has been since the early-80’s hardcore era, record labels have limited ability to tap into the subculture that *really* identifies with the bands they may be working with.  A lot of the burden now falls on the bands themselves.
I can honestly understand the appeal toward musical primitivism, because I like a lot of these artists & feel that they do indeed represent a very scary time for our country & our world.  But as an artist like myself, who is musically trained, writes proper “songs”, does not necessarily tap into a global political community, it can be frustrating.

QRD – Is Pale Horse And Rider still in existence?

Jon – I wouldn’t rule out doing another album, but it’s not really where I’m at right now. 

QRD – You recently did a film score.  Do you see it as being done by Jon DeRosa or Aarktica?

Jon – On the credits, it says “Aarktica,” but we did that simply because I thought it would be more memorable & recognizable to read in print.  In actuality, I wrote the score & had some players add their parts later.  When I release it as a soundtrack, I’m not sure if I’ll credit Aarktica or myself. 

QRD – With the score did you work on the music with finished scenes in place or write things based on the screenplay & ideas of the director?

Jon – It was done a little backwards as the director was editing the movie *as* I was writing the score.  So the initial cut she gave me was around 3 hours long.  I was scoring to a 3 hour version, as she was cutting it down to around 1 1/2 hours, so this made me slightly crazy & provided plenty of sync & edit issues for us on the music end.
I got around this by writing ideas & “themes” based around certain characters & scenes, & then doing variations of them, with different instrumentation & varying lengths & edits to accommodate different scenes & whatnot. 
I might add that it turned out beautifully in the end, but took a lot of patience & communication, as this was obviously a very personal work for the director, & music is always a very personal medium for myself.  So, it took time & conversation to really realize her vision, as well as come up with sounds that I was proud of. 

QRD – I guess it’s ten years or so now since you stopped doing Brighter Records.  Since then you did some work with Silber & now Darla.  Are you thinking about starting your own label again & how would you make it different from others based on your experiences?

Jon – Brighter was not a label like Silber was... it was just a vanity label for some of my own & local releases.  I would probably just use my experience from work with Silber, & now Darla, & be smart about the way I do business.  As an adult, I think making money is important.  I think being smart about money is important.  I would not work with an artist unless I thought it would be mutually beneficial financially & for their career. 

QRD – If Jon DeRosa 2007 met Jon DeRosa & Brian John Mitchell 1996, what advice would he give them?

Jon – Spend your money wisely.  Be realistic.  Stay away from substances, they will ruin your body & your mind & put you in debt.  Women will do the same, so be careful who you spend your time with. 
On the other side, I’d say have the best possible time you can have.  Depression & anxiety are of no benefit to you.  Be grateful for what you have.  Be honest always.  Be positive always.  Negativity will attract negative people & they will be of no benefit to you. 
Be humble.  Speak carefully.  Never think that you know everything.  Never think you are above anyone.

Official Aarktica Website
Aarktica on MySpace

Other QRD interviews with Jon DeRosa:
dead leaves rising interview (april 1997)
Aarktica interview (may 2000)
Aarktica interview (june 2002)

I Heart FX
Jon DeRosa (dead leaves rising/still./aarktica)