When avant-garde guitarist Robert Poss set out to make a new solo album, he initially envisioned it as a rock record in the vein of his former group Band Of Susans. But the resulting ‘Frozen Flowers Curse The Day’ ended up being a much more diverse collection of music. There are ambient tracks, experimental compositions and also vocal-driven rocks songs. In a phone interview, Poss explained how the album came together and discussed his creative process.
How did the new solo album come together?
Robert Poss: “This record is really a compilation of things I’ve been doing for the past few years. It includes some music I did for some of the modern dance companies I’ve worked with. There are some instrumentals, almost ambient and atmospheric things. There are also some more conventional, more rock-oriented things that are a little bit more similar to some of the Band of Susans stuff that I’m mostly known for. I wanted to summarize where I was at this moment. So, I would say there’s a range of material. It’s not all guitars, either. Some of it is more orchestrated and some of it is a bit more abstract. It’s a little similar to a prior solo record, which was called ‘Settings’ and was again a compilation with a lot of music I’d done for dance companies and some other things.”
Did you consider creating a new album as a whole, as opposed to the compilation approach?
Robert Poss: “When I initially set out to do a new record this time, I originally thought I was going to do a Band of Susans-esque guitar record of primarily rock songs. But as I started working on it, I was drawn to a lot of this solo performance stuff I’d been doing. I had been doing the solo guitar/electronics performances in the New York area for the last couple of years. I also had this backlog of unreleased material I had recorded that didn’t really fit into a single category. So, I decided not to do the sort of rock record I was planning on doing. Maybe the next one will be that. Part of it, I think, is that I’ve gotten older and I’ve collaborated with more people and done music for three different choreographers. I’ve become less interested in just writing rock songs and more interested in the atmospherics and the architecture of sound. But it wasn’t all that reasoned. At a certain point, I said, I have this material and I’ve been sitting on some of it for a while, some of it is brand new. I think one of the tracks on that record was recorded just the week before I finalized everything. I thought that I wanted to get something out.”
What is the creative process like when you work with dance companies?
Robert Poss: “With the dance stuff, it wasn’t a situation where I would give the dance company music and then they would choreograph to it. It was actually the other way around. Especially with Alexandra Beller, whom I worked with the most over the last ten years. She would be working on a piece and developing it, and I would come to rehearsals and watch the development. In her case, it’s a very complicated, intellectual process. It involved improvisation and discussion and a lot of her dancers have this sort of thematic and sometimes textural elements. I would come to rehearsals and sometimes I would bring a bass or a guitar with me; sometimes, I would just watch and listen, and sometimes I’d make little videos on my phone. But the idea was that I was trying to actually make music very specifically for the dance. I would say, ‘You know, this dance evokes in me this emotion and this emotion makes me think about this orchestration or this melody or this texture.’ Then I would give that back to her and we would try it out and she would give commentary. Sometimes, what I did was perfect right off the bat; other times, I would come in with a recording and I would play it for the dancers to work with and I knew immediately that it was garbage, that it was totally inappropriate, so I would go back to the drawing board. But my process for everything has been somewhere in between improvisation and composition. I can sit down and write a three-minute rock song and I’m reasonably good at it, but I much prefer setting up a drum machine pattern or starting the recording and improvising a few things and then from there, deriving a structure. I’ve been doing it so long and I’ve done so many records that I’m a pretty decent critic of my own stuff. I know when to throw stuff out and when something is worth pursuing. But certainly, I record a lot of things I just never pursue, as not every idea I come up with is brilliant. Once I have the germ of the idea, I often orchestrate it fairly methodically. I think about the different parts. I’m not musically trained, but I suppose it’s like someone working on counterpoint or orchestration. It’s sort of that process of how I augment this beginning idea.”
As listening to an album is a different experience than hearing music with a dance performance, did you do any re-working or re-interpretation of that music?
Robert Poss: “Of course. Someone who’s buying the record or hearing it on the radio, they’re not going to know that. So, I did go back and revise some of the original dance material and tighten it up a bit and changed it. I’ve also asked Alexandra Beller, the choreographer, to make a video for ‘Bitter Strings’ that uses film she has of her own dancers, her own choreography. Some of it was filmed at the ICA in Boston where we did a performance. I’m releasing a video that will bring the two things back together. In other words, it will be a video of dance done to the music I wrote for her company. But yeah, it is a little different. I’m hoping to do more videos. I’ve done a few, but I’m not very adept at them. I’m hoping to do a bunch for this release, partially because these days it’s very often easier to get someone to check out a YouTube thing that it is to get them to listen to Soundcloud or something. For some reason, people want some kind of visual. I may also be working with a great visual artist named Jennifer Coates. She’s the one who did the painting that makes up most of the back cover. She’s interested in doing some videos, so I may do a second video that is art-based using her paintings, maybe animating them or something. There’s a piece on the record called ‘Timeframes Marking Time’ that’s for another choreographer, a woman who actually died a few years ago. Her name was Sally Gross. She was a great minimalist, austere choreographer, and I worked with her company for about 10 years. He stuff is fairly sparse, and I decided to include an excerpt from a live performance I did with her dance company. But of course, there are no dancers, and I don’t have a video for that. For me, it translates, but it is something different to the average listener. Unless they read the credits or read an interview, they may not understand that it was written and performed for dancers.”
When you’re compiling this existing material, do you ever find that it inspires new work?
Robert Poss: “It’s sort of situational. It’s sort of what I’m in the mood to do. There’s a track on the record called ‘Sketch 72.’ I’ve played this sort of 5-string Keith Richards open tuning since the early 70s before anyone else besides Keith Richards was really doing it. Before I was ready to finalize the record, I said I wanted to do this 5-string sort of ‘Exile on Main Street’-ish song with the 5-string tuning that I love so much. I set a drum machine pattern going and I improvised a rock song. I decided I wanted to put slide guitar on it because I hadn’t really done slide playing for a while. I self-consciously said I wanted to do a real rock thing. I was originally going to put vocals on it to make it into a song, but I decided I wanted to leave it somewhat unfinished, which is why it’s called ‘Sketch,’ and ‘72’ is a reference to 1972, which is when I first started playing this open tuning. It was also a reference to the Rolling Stones circa 1972. So, in that case, it was self-conscious. I also have a backlog of Band of Susans’ material that didn’t get recorded or sketches for songs. Every once in a while, I’ll go back to that and listen, and wonder if there is anything I can adapt or expand upon. Or, if there is anything that inspires me to do something new. I’ve never been good at strategic composition, other than writing for dance companies. I tend to just go with whatever mood I’m in, what equipment I have lying around, maybe something that’s inspired me, but it’s fairly spontaneous, I think.”
What effects has that evolution of musical technology had on the way you work?
Robert Poss: “It’s affected me a lot in the sense that in the Band of Susans’ era, we always recorded on 24-track analog tape machines, 2-inch tape on these great big Studer tape machines which only recording studios had. So I might do demos on a 4-track cassette, which is what we had back then, but when it came to making a real record, you would have to go to a studio and pay money and you only had 24 tracks generally, though theoretically, you could bounce tracks down. But you were primarily limited to 24 tracks, so you had certain constraints, which in some respects, were a limitation but in other respects, it was great because you had to think a bit more about stuff and wait for the tape to rewind. You couldn’t make everything perfect. You couldn’t go there like you can with a computer and change every tiny little thing. After the band broke up and I was on my own in the 90s and digital technology was just becoming affordable, suddenly you could have these digital recorders and eventually do stuff on a computer. It took me a long time to adjust to doing stuff inside a computer because my interest and my experience was all on hardware and mixing boards and outboard equipment. The great advantage now of having my own stuff in my own studio, and even anybody who has a laptop now, is I could essentially have my own studio, so I didn’t have the time constraints. You don’t have to think, ‘Well, I only have four hours to,’ or ‘I can only afford 12 hours to record 3 songs.’ You can sort of endlessly redo things and that, of course, is a blessing and a curse because you can get so bogged down in trying to perfect things that you can leave stuff sounding sterile. I choose not to perfect everything, and there are some mistakes on this record. I wrote notes that I played or notes that maybe I would have done differently. I could have gone back and fixed them all, but I like mistakes and the human element of having things imperfect. I’m also not super great at sound editing. I’m good at sound editing for certain areas, but I’m not the kind of person who sits there all day and edits every snare hit or lines up everything into a grid. I’m still using my digital recorders, whether it’s a computer or a hard drive recorder. I’m still basically using it as a tape machine. I use Logic as my main software, and I do go in there and I fool around with stuff. It’s definitely changed the way I work. The other thing is, you can save every Iteration. In the old days, you’d do a mix and something would be perfect but something would be bad, and then you’d do the next one where you fix one thing and something else wasn’t quite right. The beauty of the current system is that you can save all your various iterations of things. I actually like that.
“In the old days, if you wanted eq on 12 tracks, you needed 12 eqs. If you wanted different compressors on every track, you needed to own those different compressors. The plugins were originally terrible. The original digital emulation of hardware was really just awful. The pictures looked good but the sounds were not good. The actual computer technology of emulating things like compressors and equalizers and reverb units has really gotten sophisticated. So, it is great now that if I have 13 tracks of something, if I want 13 different compressors, as long as I own the plugins, I can use 13 different compressors, or I can have 13 of the same compressor or the same eq. That’s changed the way I work in that I have access to an almost unlimited amount of equipment. Whereas in the old days, I’d either have to own the equipment, go to a studio to use it, or rent the equipment. Now for a hundred bucks, you can buy a plugin. Since I’ve used the original equipment, I know what they should sound like and I know how they should work. They’ve gotten really, really good. So, that’s been really fun. It also allows you to do experimental things, to change the speed and the pitch and reverse things and edit things together. You can do a lot cinematic-style editing of the sounds and combine sounds. There’s a lot of things you really couldn’t do with tape. So, I enjoy that. There’s a certain experimental element I like.”
How do you tend to divide your time between your solo work and other projects?
Robert Poss: “My day job, so to speak, is that I do sound for television. I work primarily for European public television in the New York area, though I do some traveling. I’m the guy with the boom pole and I’m the guy miking up people. Let’s say there’s someone walking in front of the United Nations, some diplomat, and there’s a cameraman. We’re walking down the street like we’re walking backward and I’m recording the sound and the camera person is doing the visual. That’s a job I really like. It’s all freelance, so I work a day here, a day there, a week here, a week there. It allows me to divide my time in a way that is different than someone with a 9 to 5 job. People approach me for either short-term collaborations or they want me to do a remix or they want me to play on their record or maybe just come over and talk to me about equipment. I tend to be sort of haphazard in my scheduling, but the freelance element makes that possible. I’m not currently working with any dance companies. That was a big organizing factor for a long time because we had performances and schedules, we had rehearsals, we did some traveling. Now, my time is freed up a bit more, which means I probably waste more time getting into political arguments on the internet or looking at pictures of guitars or cleaning the bathtub. I think a lot of artists are procrastinators. ‘I’m not in the mood to do this’ or ‘I just don’t feel quite right’ or ‘I can’t face redoing this drum part because it’s too tedious.’ I spend too much time playing with distortion boxes and reconfiguring my pedal board and trying out different guitars I have in different tunings. I’m very good at wasting time in a creative way, let’s put it that way.”
Are you performing the music from this solo album live?
Robert Poss: “A lot of the material on the record is composed in such a way that it doesn’t lend itself necessarily to live performance. But I have been doing a bunch of live performances recently, and I will do some in association with the record. I’ll do some live in the studio radio things as well. That may involve using some backing tracks on a laptop or something else. A lot of what I do when I perform live is material related to what’s on the record in a similar vein but it’s more improvised, maybe more free form. I also play in a couple of different bands, sort of art-rock bands. There’s one called Heroes of Toolik that I’m a part-time member of. That band in one of its incarnations had Billy Ficca from the band Television as the drummer and Ernie Brooks from The Modern Lovers and this great guy Arad Evans, who’s a fantastic guitarist. There’s another band called the Whimbrels, which is the name of a bird, actually. That’s sort of an on-again-off-again thing with some of the same cast of characters. We play local gigs in the New York area. That keeps me out. Like I said, I do some solo guitar and electronics things. I want to get into doing some more duos and trios, because quite honestly, it’s more fun for me to perform with other people, even if it’s just improvised, than it is for me to haul out all my electronics and everything to do a solo thing.”
For more info on Robert Poss, visit robertposs.com.