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Jaime Fennelly of Mind Over Mirrors on Approaching Art Practice as Environment

Welcome back to Soundfly’s weekly interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft.

Jaime Fennelly is the prolific composer, synthesist, and harmoniumist behind Chicago’s Mind Over Mirrors, a project which has grown from a solo effort to a full band with their last release, Undying Color. Along with Janet Beveridge Bean (vocals/percussion), Jon Mueller (percussion) and Jim Becker (violin), Fennelly spent the last three years working on the band’s latest collection of work, Bellowing Sun, an interdisciplinary project originally commissioned for a site-specific performance by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. With its rich, insistent work on the Oberheim SEMs and cutting, yet almost listless vocals, the single, “Matchstick Grip,” feels like some jittering, liminal version of 1920s ex-pat Paris, but on a Stanley Kubrick set.

Mind Over Mirrors’ new LP, Bellowing Sun, is out today via Paradise of Bachelors, and will premiere live on April 6th and 7th at MCA Chicago with rotating, kaleidoscopic installation and performance in-the-round.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Evan Zwisler

How did you approach melody on this album? With the reliance on synthesizers, especially arpeggiated synths, you seem to be going for more of an impressionistic, fluid and perhaps “collage-like” experience, with traditional melodies taking a back seat. How did that affect the songwriting process?

My own compositional approach begins by working with harmonic tunings, tone, timbre, rhythm and generative synthesizer and electronic processing programming, rather than melodically-focused considerations. I’m thinking about how to best create an atmosphere or environment or dramatic landscape that has a sonic character with its own uniquely layered personalities, altogether symbiotically creating a certain mood. It’s often that once I have developed an aural terrain for a composition that the individual instruments begin to reveal the linear movement of the work.

How does Bellowing Sun depart from your previous album, Undying Color? How do you feel yourself growing as a musician and visual artist (or perhaps the project at large)?

Rather than “depart,” I think about expansion. I started conceptually working on Bellowing Sun in the Spring of 2015, which included at that very early stage identifying the specific future band members (Janet Beveridge Bean, Jim Becker and Jon Mueller) and general visual ideas (a large zoetrope spinning above the band, with the audience encircled around us), as well as even the name, Bellowing Sun.

Undying Color was a part of this process of expanding my solo work as Mind Over Mirrors to an ensemble, and was a necessary part of the larger Bellowing Sun project, even though as a body of music it exists completely separately. That was a necessary experience and album to create as it gave me all of this immediate feedback — of how to work with the group. I not only gained a greater understanding of what their individuals musical personalities were like in their own work, but I learned what their own personalities sounded like within the context of Mind Over Mirrors, and how they responded to each other. This directly impacted my own compositional approach in my studio in creating skeletal sound structures.

I have no way to test this, and perhaps it’s obvious, but I believe that Bellowing Sun couldn’t have been made without first making Undying Color. I think working in this scale of duration of a project is particularly interesting to me as a musician and artist as it really enables one to have an idea and push it and continue to push it, beyond what one may have originally imagined. That is a really challenging process to be in the midst of, but certainly (and thankfully) rewarding.

The visual component of your show is centered around the cylindrical, colorful zoetrope featured on your album cover. How did you build that? What was more difficult for you, writing and producing the music, or building the visual component?

The large cylindrical object is a kinetic light sculpture that I designed and fabricated in collaboration with three other artists, Timothy Breen, Eliot Irwin and Keith Parham. Breen is a visual artist and designer that I’ve been working with since 2011 on a myriad of Mind Over Mirrors documents, including stop-motion animations, textiles, album artwork and screen printed posters. We collectively came up with conceptual idea of having an abstracted zoetrope spinning above the band and enlisted the brilliance of metal artist, Eliot Irwin to help us figure out how to design and build such a thing.

I spent several weeks assisting Irwin in his shop in North Carolina last Spring, fabricating the aluminum frame and later the motor assembly that spins the entire cylindrical structure. It is 15′ in diameter, 4′ tall and is wrapped in projection screen fabric that has been fitted perfectly to the size of the frame. Breen spent last summer painting the fabric and transforming it from a blank white canvas into this beautiful colorful textile. Sadly, lighting designer Lenore Doxsee, who I had worked with on a number of projects over the last fifteen years and who had agreed to work with me on Bellowing Sun passed away last May, losing a four year battle to ovarian cancer.

Beyond the personal loss, I couldn’t really imagine how to proceed. But in a complete unexpected introduction facilitated by Yolanda Cursach, Senior Performance Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, I met Keith Parham who literally said upon meeting that he had been thinking about and desiring to work on such a project. Parham, Breen and I hit it off on personal and artistic levels and through three different week-long development residencies in the theater at MCA, we were able to work together, creating compositional structures that complimented the Bellowing Sun pieces. I feel like it is important to note that the creation of the kinetic sculpture happened during all stages of the creation of the music, and I believe they both really influenced each other into what they each became and how they will occupy performative space together.

“I don’t want to be on some separate stage area apart from an audience. I love the experience of having listeners standing or sitting close by, seeing what I’m doing and being part of a larger energetic mass.”

You perform this album “in the round” live, why?

I’ve performed almost every single solo Mind Over Mirrors performance in the round, typically on the floor of the club, venue, gallery, etc. facing the PA. This not only addresses sonic concerns in an architectural space where I can hear exactly what audiences here, and respond accordingly, rather than relying on a “stage” version of what is being pumped out into the front of house system, but it also addresses performance concerns where I don’t want to be on some separate stage area apart from an audience. I love the experience of having listeners standing or sitting close by, seeing what I’m doing and being part of a larger energetic mass.

When I began performing with a quartet this became more difficult in club shows for the obvious reasons, but it was my intention to continue my preferred performance configuration from the early planning of Bellowing Sun.

Can you talk a bit about Henry Beston‘s text and why that speaks to you?

Writer, Henry Beston, built a small cabin on the outer beach of Eastham, in Cape Cod, in 1925 to witness and write about his experience of a full year of weather, ocean, sand, migrating birds and occasional interactions with the coast guard. His book, The Outermost House, was published in 1928 and has become widely celebrated as a naturalist writing masterpiece. His poetic descriptions of the sound of waves through various seasons or the transformation of sand by winter winds, for example, spoke directly to me for a number of reasons.

Chicago and its hinterlands along Lake Michigan are now the geography I’ve spent the most time living within as an adult. Even though I live just a couple of miles from the largest body of fresh water in the world, existence in this urban environment can sometimes feel really far removed from the natural world. What a drag! Fortunately, previous to my time here in Chicago, I had an opportunity to live and work on a small and remote island in the Salish Sea between Washington State and British Columbia for three years and had an experience not very dissimilar to Beston’s.

Living on what felt like the edge of the world, I slowed down to begin witnessing these dynamic forces, constantly shifting and changing. It’s certainly not a unique situation within the larger narrative of human civilization, but it is a rarity in a post-industrial society where capitalistic ideologies can easily dictate how and where we spend our lives. I think that independent of where anyone chooses to live (or is often, forced to live) awareness of these greater forces is humbling, and pausing to consider them regularly would likely impact our experience in the world, both personally and collectively.

“Time” and “light” are pretty large concepts to tackle in the span of a single set of sonic material, how did you look to infuse the music with this evocative subject matter?

That’s a really interesting question that I’ve been thinking about throughout this process. I think the complimentary integration of the music and album to the live production is significant in translating these concepts. I am in no way approaching my work as a form of scientific study; meaning that the execution of the electronic and acoustic instruments, lighting, sculpture aren’t scientifically process-driven. I tend to approach my own work and these concepts from a poetic, humanistic approach — again not dissimilar to Beston’s own observational writing. I think these ideas manifest themselves in my work through approaching my artistic practice as environment; creating a “theater of sound” or kinetic sculpture with light that evokes a transformational experience.

“If Jon, Janet or Jim were not involved in either of these two records, the work would exist differently.”

The personnel on your album has some serious Chicago pedigree! What is your creative relationship like with these musicians? Do you do most of the composing or do you present the group with an idea and then collaborate?  

I’m very appreciative that Janet (Beveridge Bean, of Freakwater and Eleventh Dream Day), Jim (Becker, of Califone and Iron and Wine), and Jon (Mueller, of Death Blues) have been so supportive, and have been up for being so integral to my own musical explorations, even when I was still trying to find my way. I typically spend several months working by myself on material in my home studio (or in different residency-type locations) before sharing it with them and often, but certainly not all of the time, have some propelling concept, even if it is a basic instrumentation approach.

I think the process in working with them is really a collaborative process. For example, on Undying Color, I recall asking Jon to play predominantly a marching snare drum, concert bass drum and toms — no cymbals, and also no drum fills. When I began sharing what would become Bellowing Sun, based on how rhythmic my harmonium and synthesizers parts were, he responded by suggesting he go a different route than we approached Undying Color by introducing a more traditional drum kit in order to meld and push my rhythms further, which made perfect sense.

Once we began working on material, I thought playing the kit with a sheet covering the drums to create a particular deadening and less reverberant sound would work well in a couple of pieces, and Jon was receptive to that idea. I was really open and trusting of his input and certainly aim to exhibit those traits as a composer/musician as I’m really most interested in the unique approaches of each individual. If Jon, Janet or Jim were not involved in either of these two records, the work would exist differently.

Bellowing Sun feels very much “beyond” pop music, yet still sounds like something I could put on in the car while I’m driving with a bunch of people. What are some of your influences, and is this something that’s important to you (i.e., blending a sense of the avant-garde with a wide appeal)?

That sounds like a nice car ride! I would add the following to your mixtape:

Popol Vuh, Cluster/Harmonia, Brian Eno, Laurie Spiegel, Pelt, Jon Hassell, VU, Tony Conrad & Faust, Franco Battiato, Terry Riley, Lino Capra Vaccina, Robbie Basho, Moon Dog, Sacred Harp Singers, Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane and Eliane Radigue — once you’ve pulled over and turned the car off.

It is perhaps cliché to say this, but all musics, I believe are for everyone, and what I think is important, particularly now, is inclusivity. I’m continually surprised about how closed-minded some people can be about what is one thing and not another. Who cares? I have an interest in music that extends and connects both avant-garde and vernacular musics, and I think this comes from my own interest in expansive and communal musics.

At Soundfly, we love to use the term “Incorrect Music” to describe the things an artist does that go against people’s assumptions, or even their own instincts, but which yield exciting and unique results. What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?  

Acknowledging that these binary ideas of “correct/incorrect” as mere constructs is undoubtedly correct, without quotation marks. I don’t think every idea is worth sharing with the world, and knowing how to edit your own work is an invaluable skill, but trusting your creative practice and being consistent with it is the only way to yield any results. Knowing when you need to take a break, although unpopular by some standards, is also essential.

“Beyond your instrument, which could be as simple as your clapping hands, all you “need” is a way to record yourself, and even that can be really open-ended.”

As a total gear head, I was so excited to find out that you used an Oberheim on this album. What other synths or gear did you use that you really loved? What gear surprised you? 

Yes, I absolutely love the Oberheim sound, and these, as mentioned before, were specifically chosen for their complimentary sound to the brass reeds of my harmoniums.

When I started working on Undying Color, I actually bought one of the first Two Voice Pros which Tom Oberheim started producing again, which would have given me four SEMs in total, but after working with it for a few months, issues with the programming of the sequencer and some other unusual tuning issues (I’m told those old issues have been fixed) forced me to replace it with an OB-6 when those start getting manufactured by Dave Smith.

Although I was sad to have had to send back the Two Voice Pro, the OB-6 has really opened up my sound palette, while still mostly retaining a particular sound and technical setup similar to the SEM, but with a lot of updated digital control. It’s a super reliable synth. The only piece of modular gear that I’ve use is an Audio Damage Sequencer 1, which replaced my Doepfer Dark Time Sequencer. I absolutely love the Seq 1 and use the three built-in LFOs to control a number of other filters, including a Lovetone Ring Stinger, which is primarily used to rhythmically filter my harmonium. What is otherwise known as a supportive, droning instrument, has become an animated harmonic palette that can lock in perfectly with any of my synthesizers.

The one piece of equipment I bought specifically to be able to perform Bellowing Sun was a clock divider/multiplier as there are a couple of pieces that I recorded over a few months using different tempo sequences within one piece. I realized later what I had done and needed to be able to play poly-tempos, so I had to be able to send different versions of a clock signal to my equipment. It’s fairly rudimentary, but I think that’s truly the best way to determine if a particular sound tool is something you actually need. And the word “need” feels like a strong word. Beyond your instrument, which could be as simple as your clapping hands, all you “need” is a way to record yourself, and even that can be really open-ended.

I recorded the first two Mind Over Mirrors albums on a Tascam cassette 4-track, and I love the way they sound today next to Bellowing Sun which exists on the complete polar opposite of recording technology. I also really love my Fulltone Tube Tape Echo.

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Evan Zwisler
Evan Zwisler

Evan Zwisler is a NYC-based musician who is most notably known for his work with The Values as a songwriter and guitarist. He is an active member of the Brooklyn music scene, throwing fundraisers and organizing compilations for Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Violence Project. He started playing music in the underground punk scene of Shanghai with various local bands when he was in high school before going to California for college and finally moving to New York in 2012.