Question: Your initial idea for the Wild Animus music was that it would employ one voice (your own) and one instrument (acoustic guitar/mandolin). You’ve said that what Blind Willie McTell did on “The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” influenced you greatly. Can you elaborate?
Rich: The song was challenging to listen to, but deeply rewarding. Blind Willie took bits and pieces of four or five different songs and stitched them together to tell a story. I loved the complexity, the ways in which the melodic fragments worked to portray specific moments. And I loved the surprises.
Q: Could a much longer story be constructed in a similar fashion?
RS: I embraced the idea that a mixture of song-like pieces and free-form pieces would work. There might be scenes where a typical song structure made sense. In Wild Animus, there’s a pursuit, or some continuous action or thought, and it’s accompanied by verses with a repeating melody and consistent meter. But then the action breaks up—it’s stop and go, or interrupted by internal reflections—and the music becomes fragmented. The fragments have accessible meter and melody, but they may not be repeated. Don Van Vliet was an inspiration here—master of the unexpected.
Q: Can you talk about the unique style in which Wild Animus is written?
RS: I thought it might be possible to use jolting and disconnected passages to convey a sequence of dramatic events. More recently, I heard John Zorn’s Spillane. It’s a soundscape, there’s very little speech, and you wouldn’t call it a story. But he uses loosely-connected bits of music to create a sequence of theatrical moments.Q: You realized early on that this music wouldn’t be for everyone. What made you stick with it?
RS: There will be people like myself who will go for it. The potential to expand the nature of storytelling is really exciting, and I believe others will share that excitement.
This has always been an experiment, and I want people to approach it that way. If this way of integrating words and music has potential, it will require people to look past its weaknesses and unfamiliarity. Are there moments where the experiment works? Does the story come to life in a way that would be otherwise impossible?
Q: For a long time, you couldn’t imagine how you were going to record Wild Animus yourself, much less get the contributions of additional musicians for the entire two-and-a-half hour experience. Can you tell us about the process?
RS: I’m not a performer. I didn’t have a band. I didn’t have a collection of musicians who knew my stuff and could walk into a studio and nail the pieces in a few takes. The free-form compositions were complex, and nothing was written down in a form that anyone other than myself would understand. Plus, the only parts I’d written were my own. I could imagine other sounds, other instruments. But I couldn’t figure out how to create them or integrate them with what I’d done. Digital editing technology evolved in the nick of time. And I’d spent all these years with computers, so I could understand the stuff. I remember being in Boston in the early 90s, hearing about Pro Tools and thinking, “this could make it possible.”
The biggest challenge was to get a group of musicians to contribute to the free-form pieces—without sheet music or written arrangements. The loop recording function played an important role.
The trick was to isolate each musical passage so that the musician could navigate it in an improvisational fashion. He could hear it over and over again, and immerse himself. You could repeat that for the next musician, do it for a whole piece, and then puzzle everything together. All of the musical contributions to Wild Animus were tracked one instrument at a time, and almost all of them were tracked against my solo recordings.
I looked for people who had musical sensibilities that seemed to connect them to Wild Animus. Most were people whose music I loved, apart from my project. On their side, they had to get comfortable doing something that was unusual, supporting someone who had no history or reputation in the music world. I love the idea that people from so many different backgrounds were involved. Over the course of the project, artists like Jim Campilongo, Jim Keltner, Hutch Hutchinson, Charles Bissell, Marc Ribot, Iva Bittová, and many others—over 30 in all—added their statements to Wild Animus.
Q: Why won’t you be touring to share the music of Wild Animus?
RS: I’m not a performer—never have been and never will be. I had a band in high school, and I got up on stage a few times. It wasn’t for me. I would never have been good at it. I lacked the consistency, and being on exhibition for a crowd felt incurably unnatural. Most people who are good performers enjoy being the center of attention. That’s not me.
I get a tic when I hear people lamenting the advent of technology. You know—“All these new tools make it possible for people who don’t have the chops as performers to make records.” They’re talking about me. I’m shy, and my creative world is a solitary one. I don’t have the skill or the personality to be a performer. I love ideas and words, and writing and music, and the technology has allowed me to make recordings. I feel fortunate that this is possible.
Q: So you’d say you approach music the same way you approach writing?
RS: I’m focused on creating it, and that’s it. What I’m doing lacks the penalties and hardships that go with touring, but it also lacks the rewards. My contact with people who appreciate what I’m doing is distant. A letter or email, or a personal comment. But that’s how it has to be. For now, at least.
I fantasize about being able to “cast” a lead vocalist in a future project, as you would cast an actor in a film. That would make performances possible, and it would allow me to spend more time writing, and less time recording. But with Wild Animus, that was too far to reach.
RS: I don’t think the music works without the book, for a few reasons. It’s too difficult to figure out what’s going on. A number of the pieces don’t make sense, except in the context of the broader story. Compared with what people are accustomed to with pop songs, the lyrics are wordy and complex, and my vocals are unrefined. If people approach the music with a conventional mindset—looking for a catchy tune, or a mood for the moment, or some new angle on human fashion or attitude—they’re going to be disappointed. If they approach Wild Animus as they would a film—as a story with character and action, and development from scene to scene—they may find it to be a meaningful experience. But that will require them to wade into the novel.
We live in an age in which so much art is deconstructed—where the absence of meaning is embraced. People are used to hearing lyrics that don’t make sense, and aren’t intended to make sense. I’m resigned to the fact that people may hear things that sound confusing in my lyrics, and assume that there’s no sense to make of them. But it ain’t so!