Of Making Deliberate Music: A Line in the Sand project

Posted by on December 4, 2014

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To think that A Line in the Sand – one of the year’s more ambitious and noteworthy projects headed up by core musicians Nathan McLaughlin, Joe Houpert, Josh Mason, and Cody Yantis – all started because of a surplus of empty tape cases lying around seems somewhat comical, but the creative spark can be found in the most unlikely of places.

That’s right, the seeds of this ambitious release series were planted a couple of years ago when Nathan McLaughlin and Joe Houpert were traveling through the Midwest and visited Brad Rose in Tulsa. Rose mentioned that he had a bunch of empty double cassette cases lying around and if they wanted to fill them up with their music, he would be willing to release it on his esteemed Digitalis imprint. On their 12-hour road trip home – a surreal adventure that, according to Houpert, “involved swarms of mosquitoes the size of your thumb and a motel full of eastern European truck drivers” – the pair brainstormed ideas on what they would want to include in this set. McLaughlin says, “We thought we should be pushing each other and pushing our music forward … really exploring it, which brought out this idea of making deliberate choices about the music that we’re playing, why we are playing it, how we’re playing it … really giving that some thought.”

Their conversations spilled into the ensuing months where talks of full-on solo albums, further Whale Fall material (for their sporadic series as Loud & Sad), and even a Prayer (Houpert’s solo moniker) covers album were all ideas being kicked around. According to Houpert, though, “ultimately [we] decided on asking Mason and Yantis to make it the four-way split that actually happened. This was all around the time of [Josh Mason’s] Timecode Beach and [Cody Yantis’s] American Surfaces, so when Nate mentioned including those two, it just really clicked. The four of us were already email buds and also had that strong Digi connection; it just made sense.”

As the four of them set out to work on this project, though, there was a shared desire amongst them to create something that was more deliberate and more collaborative in nature than, say, a standard 4-way split release. Josh Mason states that: “We all kind of worked really closely with each other. Even though we didn’t play on each other’s recordings, the collaborative effort and the back-and-forth dialogue is what really set it apart. This went on for two years. It was like one guy was recording while three guys were in the control room (so to speak), thinking of what type of critique or criticism [they could] offer to help further this person’s art basically.”

Cody Yantis agrees: “This was much more cohesive of a project in terms of being able to feed off of one another … There was that challenging each other aspect to it, not in some competitive way, but respecting each other’s insight and abilities and saying, ‘Hey, we can do something really, really wonderful if we just really push ourselves.’ I think there is something in our personalities where we are really driven.”

LineDrawings-CompleteBundleAs the recordings for what eventually became the Alice Sketches tape were nearing completion, Nathan McLaughlin had been in correspondence with Michael Vitrano of Desire Path Recordings about the project. Says Vitrano, “In describing the work, I was instantly interested in it, the sheer magnitude of it. They had most of the material recorded for the Alice Sketches cassette, which I loved, but I think we recognized how unfinished some of the work sounded (hence the name of the cassette!), so the Line Drawings LP was born from refining the direction of the pieces on the cassette and creating more of a finished work. I knew it was right for the label as soon as I heard it. From that point, everything began falling into place.”

The resulting Line Drawings album is a remarkably cohesive full-length effort, reinforced by the impeccable portrait artwork of Chris Koelle, which brings together a track from each of the artists on both sides of the LP. The tracks show a clear advancement and refinement from not only the Alice Sketches tape, but from their previous solo work as well. The album flows with a natural grace, highlighting their shared interest in texture, space, tension, and restraint in their compositional approaches. “Even though you can definitely hear our individual voices, it is conceivable that [these tracks] could have been written by all of us in one group. It all made sense together. It’s cool to hear little bits and pieces of each of us in the other’s works,” says Mason. “It’s hard for me to imagine these [tracks] existing without the other guy’s work bookending it.”

Given the collaborative nature of this project, it also pushed these artists into new directions sonically and, perhaps, emotionally. According to Houpert, “A part of it was just driving myself to the edge of madness. Going into the studio day after day and just trudging through stuff and taking tons of hours of recordings and whittling it down and finding something and running it through with a thread. If it wasn’t for me, this project would’ve been done 18 months ago. I didn’t want to let these guys down, which equals madness, for me at least.”

Houpert’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed by the others, either. As Mason suggests, “I could say that I’m not playing favorites, but I think all of us would be okay with that, but the stuff that Joe was doing, because it was so separate from the work he had done with Prayer and Loud & Sad, that it was maybe the first time, maybe even for all of us, that we got to hear Joe come into his own and find this cool little place that he carved out for himself sonically … He has some really interesting textural and rhythmic things that he’s doing on these recordings that I’ve never heard him do before and it was just really refreshing to be completely bewildered by that.”

As this project was taking shape and nearing completion, these artists wanted to extend the idea of collaboration and community-building further. Thus, the Studies split 7-inch series was born. Yantis states, “We felt that this could be a blueprint for something that could continue – a continuous series. Maybe the collaborative elements, like the 7-inch format, could be on-going.” With this series, then, each artist reached out to someone whose work they admired, bringing in additional contributions from the likes of Norm Chambers, Anne Guthrie, Mary Lattimore, Brad Rose, Olli Aarni, and Chris Koelle, and enhancing the overall scope and vision of this long-in-the-making project while laying the groundwork for future collaboration.

“I feel like the artists involved created a unified piece, symbiotic in nature, working off one another. In a way, it’s a collaboration, but working separately with the end result, and all the connected works, in mind,” says Vitrano. “It was a long process that involved contacting collaborators for the 7-inch series, having Chris Koelle create wonderful works of art for each individual release, coordinating the releases, etc. In the end, I’m enormously proud to have been involved with the project and I hope it just continues from here.”