Espers’ otherworldly, space-charting, folk grooves require context, a backdrop that is just as transcendently, freak-inducingly, beautiful as this six-person collective’s work. So it made sense that, on a Saturday not too long ago, the Krautrocking folkers found themselves surrounded by giant images of planets, stars and comets as they embarked on their cosmic drone at the Fels Planetarium at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.
The show, set in motion by Joey Sweeney of the band The Trouble with Sweeney, was intended to celebrate the 51st anniversary of The Franklin Institute’s giant heart. “Meg and I are really big fans of Derek Pitts who is the science ... planetarium guy…” Espers’ founder Greg Weeks remembered, struggling for the right word.
“The chief astronomer,” co-founder Meg Baird put in.
“So when the idea of a planetarium show came up, we thought, wow, Pink Floyd, laser light show—that’s two of our favorite things in one,” Weeks finished. “We were like, ‘Hell yeah, dream gig.’ And it was. It was the best show we ever played.”
Photos of the February 11th gig show the band dwarfed by dramatic images, the stage in near darkness, while gigantic, brightly colored orbs reach toward the ceiling. “We were able to use their stock planetarium footage that they use for educational tours,” Baird explained. “Giant moons and planets. It went pretty far back. We were encouraging them to use some images that have been retired for a while.”
Vermont’s Feathers opened, and hometown friends came to sit in on the flashback-inducing performance. Charles Cohen, a long-time acquaintaince, brought a rare Bucla synthesizer to the show, generating eerie sound effects as the band tuned. “It was just this kind of seamless event where the mood was never broken,” said Weeks. “The spell just remained.” Espers dedicated its astronomically-themed “Moon Occults the Sun” to Pitts, and it sounds like, with even the slightest amount of encouragement, the band would launch an all-planetarium tour ... tomorrow.
Traditional folk meets Black Sabbath
The Fels show, along with Espers II out in May on Drag City, showcase a band that is evolving fast. Since its first album, the band has grown from its original three members—Weeks, Baird, and Brooke Sietenson—to a drone-folk chamber orchestra numbering six. Today Espers incorporates cellist Helena Espvall, drummer Otto Hauser and bass player Chris Smith. Along the way, the band’s sound has turned electrically intense, with howling intervals of amplified sound bursting through pristine folk-picking melodies.
Asked about the dramatic contrast between folk-tranquil “Dead Queen” and the eddying vortex of “Widow’s Weed” that follows, though, both Weeks and Baird reject the idea that there’s an opposition at work.
“Maybe it’s more of a figure of contrast rather than being a schism or a duality,” said Baird. “Even a symphony will have movements that go from cacaphony to the piccolo solo. It’s still the same piece of music.”
Moreover much of the difference comes more from instrumentation and production, rather than pure songwriting. “‘Widow’s Weed’ is not traditional folk, certainly,” said Weeks. “Still, if you went into the mixing room and took down all the other instruments and left the acoustic guitars up and the vocal, it would sound a lot closer to traditional folk. It’s just when you crank everything else up that it sounds like Black Sabbath ... maybe traditional folk meets Black Sabbath.” He added, “It’s all just a continuum, which is what’s so nice about music. People carrying on what they’ve heard and changing it in their own ways.”
Traditional folk is, anyway, more of a touchstone than a straightjacket for this band, an influence alongside Krautrock, jazz, prog, acoustic singer songwriter and many others. “Some of the songs, like “Widow’s Weed”, would not fit to certain folk modal structures,” said Baird, “And sometimes we do things like that, where the songs go off into chords that wouldn’t exist in certain types of what we characterize as folk.”
Added Weeks, “In 1965, Pete Seeger would have put an axe right in my head if I had pulled out the guitar for ‘Widow’s Weed’ during the Folk Festival. There are certainly people who would say that we’re very far removed from any kind of original folk purism.”
Yet the songs are also grounded in older melodies and older language. Even their titles “Dead Queen”, “Dead King” and “Widow’s Weed” have a whiff of the archaic in them. “It’s kind of powerful to make songs that sound as though they’re older than what has just come out. It almost feels like more people are saying this than just the writer,” said Baird. “It’s kind of like being able to create the sensation that these figures have this mystery and weight from having kicked around for a long time.”
Weeks added that some of the anachrony of “Dead Queen” came about because it was written as a companion piece to Baird’s “Dead King”. Yet even so, folk melodies demand a certain kind of lyric.” If you’re writing a certain type of music, there’s some imagery that fits well with that type of sound and other imagery that doesn’t. The song has to tell you what it wants to be about as well. If you’re a fan of these kinds of older music, you’re going to pick up on a lot of that imagery as well,” he said.
Drone and overtone
The melody and words dominate Espers records, but live, a mesh of drone and overtone becomes a whole other element to its sound. Espers music reverberates in fascinating ways as sounds from many different stringed instruments—guitars, bass, cello, dulcimer—react and affect each other on the fly. “Tone is what we’re after,” admitted Baird, when asked about how much of this interaction was intended and how much accidental. “When you’re not controlling it and seeing what’s happening and also when you try to manage it.”
Weeks added, “We’re all really into weird experimental music and also modal music and Middle Eastern stuff. A lot of that is all about drones, and Ligeti, and how you can create overtones that exist only in the human ear but don’t exist actually in the sound outside of it. These are all things that we’ve been interested in in the last 10 or 15 years of our record-listening lives. So they naturally come out as stuff we want to explore in our own music.”
Songwriting, as such, is only a starting point for Espers’ music, a foundation over which its intricate textures can be laid. “The loose bones, or structures of songs get brought in to the band,” said Weeks. “Then various permutations of the band get together and start fleshing it out. Everybody adds their own layer of muscle or tissue or skin to the bones that someone else has brought in. It’s definitely a metamorphosis of an original idea into a group formed idea.”
An expanding universe of influences
Today, members of Espers listen to a very wide variety of music, encompassing everything from Sun Ra to Elton John. Yet coming of age in the early 1990s, before the Internet, it took Weeks and Baird time and effort to find the music that eventually shaped their sound. Weeks recalled hearing rumors about an obscure record called Parable of Arable Land by Red Krayola. “It was just this kind of mystical record that you heard about, heard talked about and to go into a dusty shop and find a $50 copy. But you couldn’t hear it. None of this stuff was available,” he said. So instead he explored Krautrock and prog, and found folk through their interpretation of this kind of music.
Baird said she was drawn to folk early on, but was similarly stymied. “The path to finding that stuff was mostly just motivated by liking a certain sound or aesthetic and pursuing it further, to its source. It’s just a natural curiousity, for a person to be drawn to do that,” she said. A box set by This Mortal Coil, with references to Tim Buckley and Big Star, was the start of one search. Weeks remembers hearing a goth-industrial band called the Pain Teens cover Leonard Cohen, initiating his forays into acoustic singer-songwriters like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Cohen himself.
Today, the Internet connects music lovers with obscurities instantaneously, so that Weeks and Baird are often stunned by the mixes their youngest fans have on their iPods. “It’s nice when you see a 15- or 16-year-old person who likes music a lot, and you’re like, ‘Wow, you have that already? It took me years to figure that out.’”
Dancing in the wings to Stereolab
When we spoke, Espers had just returned from a tour with Stereolab, a pairing that I found surprisingly complementary, but for reasons that were hard to articulate. “The common connection is Krautrock,” explained Weeks.
“It made a lot of sense to me. Big ensembles,” added Baird.
“And synthesizers,” Weeks expanded.
Maybe, or maybe we were all just intellectualizing. The best proof of fit came towards the end of Stereolab’s set at the Northampton show, where against the lights at the edge of the stage, Weeks’ could unmistakenly be observed jumping wildly to the music, along with a few others who may or may not have included Baird, Otto Hauser and various members of Feathers. There were no big planets in the background, but, even so, the stars were definitely aligned.