The Natural Order: An Interview With Dave Heumann of Arbouretum

Jennifer Kelly

With a spiritually-engaged, elementally-fuzzed guitar aesthetic that sounds like a collaboration between Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, Arbouretum’s Dave Heumann has found a rhythm over the course of three albums. Now with his fourth, The Gathering, he adds a new influence to the mix, the pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

“The feeling of being out in nature and disconnected from the man-made world can create different thought patterns. It can generate a different state of mind,” says Dave Heumann the songwriter for Arbouretum. “If I’m out in the woods and go to a quarry for a swim and hike around, my mental state is going to be qualitatively very different than if I sit inside my apartment and screw around on Facebook all day.”

Aptly enough, Heumann is walking through the woods when I ask him about his connection to nature. Yes, he’s on a path in north Baltimore, not an Appalachian trail. Yes, he’s on his way to a coffee shop, not about to cook porridge over a flintlock fire. But the fact remains that he’s in a forest, which is exactly where you’d expect Heumann to be after hearing even a fragment of Arbouretum’s guitar-wrenching, distortion-fuzzed take on rustic rock and roll.

Heumann is the kind of songwriter who, when he slips in a lyric about a tree or a bird or a running river, seems to have actually observed such objects, not just read about them in books. There’s something elemental about his fuzzed-drenched, Americana-infused anthems, something both grounded and deeply mystical. His fourth and latest album, The Gathering fuses the guitar heroics of Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young with the weathered calm of Kris Kristofferson or Michael Hurley. It also includes a good helping of the otherworldly, partly inspired by a fascination with Carl Jung and his Red Book.

“A lot has been made of my interest in The Red Book,” says Heumann. “I would caution against reading too much into that. But at the same time, it was an influence in the writing of the lyrics, more so than the music.”

Jung began writing The Red Book in 1913, following a sort of breakdown. A successful psychiatrist and, with Freud, a pioneer in psychoanalysis, Jung found his own subconscious breaking through into ordinary life. Seeing visions, hearing voices, increasingly alienated from the rational world, Jung felt that he might be losing his mind. But instead of trying to cure his malady, Jung began to explore it though a process of active imagination; he plunged into his visions and wrote about them in a series of journals. These writings (and illustrations) were eventually collected into what Jung called his “Red Book,” a mystical, spiritual compendia that was never formally finished, and which Jung’s heirs suppressed from his death in 1961 until late in 2009.

Heumann says he first became interested in the Red Book after reading an article about it in the New York Times. “I thought, ‘How interesting. Here’s this thing that was hidden in the family for several generations and it’s finally made public,’” he recalls. “Here’s this amazing art work, and this sort of expository writing that detailed the kinds of experiences he was having that led up to the writing of it.”

There were some parallels, too, between Jung’s situation and Heumann’s own. “This started happening to him when he was roughly the same age as me,” he adds. “I was kind of going through a bit of a writers’ block. I was thinking, how inspiring...this idea of inner transformation.”

Some of the imagery in The Gathering echoes themes in The Red Book, for instance the white bird who appears in opener, “The White Bird.” Heumann insists, though, that no one should use The Red Book to decode the meanings of his songs. He himself can’t even remember how Jung used the image of the white bird, and anyway, likes the flexibility of the metaphor. “A white bird doesn’t have the same religious or social implications as if you were to say 'dove,'” he says. “It avoids bringing in connotations like hawks versus doves or the Christian implications of the dove with the olive branch. The white bird avoids that, so I used it.”

A Shift In Personnel

For Arbouretum’s fourth album, Heumann made some changes to his ensemble. Daniel Bond, who had played drums on the first three Arbouretum albums, was increasingly tied up as Beach House’s touring drummer, so he was replaced by J.V. Brian Carey. In addition, the band eliminated second guitar player Stephen Sternmeyer and instead brought in Matthew Pierce on keyboards.

“As far a Steve goes, that was more my decision, because I just found it hard to express what I wanted to express with another guitar player in the band, particularly a really active one,” Heumann explains. “I still like the idea of having something in there, in that range, but something that wouldn’t compete with my guitar playing.”

Pierce, who primarily plays a Fender Rhodes, was brought in mostly for texture and density. Although you can hear Pierce playing a variety of synths on tracks like “Highwayman,” he often disappears into the mix, playing chords that thicken rather than change the basic sound.

And that’s okay with Heumann. “I like that his approach isn’t so much detail oriented as it is structural,” he says. “I like to do a lot of little melodies and leading passages on guitar. The fact that he works more texturally frees me up to do that. Often when there’s another guitar player in the band doing melodic passages, it becomes like a running commentary on whatever the vocals are doing. And that’s kind of an aesthetic that I’m not crazy about in this music.”

Photo By Brian Dubin

Structured Covers and All-Out Jams

With the new band in place, Arbouretum recorded The Gathering in New York, with Matt Boynton, the engineer for the band’s second album Rites of Uncovering. “The two albums were years apart, and both Matt and I had a lot of different experiences since then that shaped the way we approached things,” says Heumann. “Still, I think we still found a commonality with the past. There’s a return to the questing lyrical bent that Rites of Uncovering had.”

The album also connects with 2009’s Song of the Pearl in that it, too, includes a cover of a nearly forgotten 1960s classic, this time Jimmy Webb’s “The Highwayman.” The song’s most famous version was performed by the Highwaymen themselves, a convocation of outlaw country singers that included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. It has also been covered by Glen Campbell.

The song is an odd one, tracing the multiple exploits of a bad guy, who dies at the end of every verse but ends the chorus with the words, “But I am still around.”

“You don’t really hear too many country songs that have reincarnation as a subject matter,” says Heumann, who says he was attracted by that eccentricity, as well as a strong melody. Still, he didn’t feel like any of the versions of “Highwayman” did the tune justice. “As much as I love Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and those guys, their version, I thought was a bit cheesy,” he says. “The Glen Campbell version goes to great lengths to change the way each verse sounds in a way that I thought was a little bit overwrought. I thought, well, why doesn’t somebody just do a really awesome straightforward version of this song. So we took it upon ourselves to come up with an arrangement that we liked.”

“Highwayman” is, by far, the most tightly constructed, verse-chorus-oriented song on The Gathering. Other cuts seem to sprawl out of unbridled jam sessions, none more so than closer, “Song of the Nile.”

Heumann says that that song came out of unofficial practice sessions before the new line-up had been formalized. He and bass player, Corey Allender, had begun getting together with new drummer J.B. Brian “Bucko” Carey at his apartment. Carey’s roommate, Matt Pierce, sometimes came down to play keyboards with them.

“We were pretty much just jamming when we recorded ‘Song of the Nile,’” says Heumann. “We would make recordings, and I would listen to them in the car and I say, ‘Well, that would be cool if this part went up against that part.’ The song was probably more collectively written than anything on the album.”

As we speak, Heumann is finalizing details for the band’s spring tour with Endless Boogie. He is working on videos to promote the new album. Both his side projects, the wonderful dual guitared Human Bell with Lungfish’s Nathan Bell and the more expansive Coil Sea, are on hiatus for the moment. The business side of Arbouretum’s music has taken over for the moment. “When I’m writing material for an album, then I’m dedicating all my energy to that,” he says. But once that’s done, it’s everything else. Touring, videos, emails, booking agents, promoters, doing interviews like this one. There’s so much to do.”

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