An interview with Hiss Golden Messenger
November 2, 2009
Written by Nate Baker
Dylan said heâ€™d know his song well before heâ€™d start singing. Jai Little Diamond (one Mike Taylor) isnâ€™t in a hurry to sing any half-learned tune. When his celebrated alt-country band, The Court and Spark, darkened several years ago Diamond and fellow Sparker, Scott Hirsch, wrote some tunes, gathered together a roadworthy band and played some dates as Hiss Golden Messenger. Fast forward to the summer of 2009; Diamond is resettled in rural North Carolina, Hirsch is in NYC and their first album, Country Hai East Cotton (reapandsow), is signed, sealed and delivered.
Boasting a lineup of A-list sidemen — Tim Bluhm and John Hofer (The Mother Hips), Matt Cunitz (Brightblack), Greg Wiz (Autumn Defense), Patrick Main (Tarnation) and Tom Heymen — itâ€™s eleven songs bear witness to Diamondâ€™s eclectic musical spirit. Anyone who has ever followed his â€œDream Chimneyâ€ knows him as both artist and fan, an obsessive vinyl digger who might talk Jamaican sound system one minute, Cat Power the next, then drop science on private press record labels from 1940â€™s Appalachia. I wrote him some questions recently and this is what appeared in my inbox a week later…
Your record sounds simultaneously old and new. Were you born too early or too late?
I think I was born at the right time. Iâ€™m glad to be living right now.
The songs have a “lived-in” quality–like they would look good on any wall. Do they evolve greatly over time or write them and move on?
Iâ€™m still tinkering with some of the songs on Country Hai East Cotton; weâ€™re getting ready to put a live EP of some of the songs that we recorded at WFMU with Irene Trudel. But generally speaking, I like to write a song quickly and move on if I can get away with it.
HGM isn’t a steady band. What will HGM look like for the next album? The next year?
The two constants in the group are Scott Hirsch and I; we have always been the core of the group despite our geographies. Scott lives in Brooklyn with his lady now, so itâ€™s not hard for us to meet up either here in North Carolina or up there. I think this arrangement works well; Iâ€™m in a really rural area, and heâ€™s in the city, so we bring each of our particular situations to bear on whatever weâ€™re working on. There are some other folks, both in NC and NY, that are becoming regulars on a lot of the recordings weâ€™ve made over the past couple years. It can be fun to play with new and different people.
As for the next record, Iâ€™m kind of feeling something a little more concise, maybe less instrumentation, less drugs, more of a country vibe. Itâ€™s hard to know though, I feel like I say that all the time. Sometimes you just need some saxophones.
How has North Carolina influenced your music? What about the intensive study of ethnomusicology?
Itâ€™s been really nice to be in a wide-open space with lots of room to walk around. I feel like that in itself has psychically changed the way I make and think about music. People out here like their â€˜rootsâ€™ musicâ€”they take a lot of pride in old time, bluegrass, blues, and country; a lot of the music that forms the canon of these genres comes from this region, and this type of music seems to be much more a part of the vernacular here. Itâ€™s been great for me, Iâ€™ve learned a whole lot since I moved out here.
And, long story short, although I intended to work with music as a part of the Curriculum in Folklore, I ended up writing my thesis about lowriding, which meant that I was hanging out with a lot of lowriders, mainly in Alamance County.
Itâ€™s especially hard to pin down your influences. Lately I’ve been name checking Dennis Wilson, John Martyn and King Tubby. Is this a fair assessment?
If youâ€™re asking how you might describe HGMâ€™s music, Iâ€™m not sure. Some people have said Talk Talk or Traffic or The Grateful Dead. But if youâ€™re asking what kind of stuff forms the basis of my listening habits, Dennis Wilson, King Tubby, and John Martyn are definitely in there. I love those dudes. Thereâ€™s too much other stuff to name. I can tell you I just scored cherry copies of Keith Hudsonâ€™s Flesh of My Skin, Blood of My Blood, and Farlan Gradyâ€™s Pure County (produced for Mike Nesmithâ€™s Countryside label) on the cheap, and I was pretty psyched about both of those. And Iâ€™ve been on a Ronnie Lane bender for a while now. Also: Sic Alps, J. Hawkins Band, Candi Staton, the new Raekwon. There is just so much good music out there.
If you could record at one historically significant studio which would it be?
I love fantasy questions like this. I love the home jamming vibe, so I guess Iâ€™d have to say either the Raccoon Records studio in Point Reyes (which was owned by The Youngbloods, who put out records by Michael Hurley, Banana & The Bunch, Jeffrey Cain, etc) or the Harmonia house in Forst, Germany, where Michael Rother, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and Dieter Moebius lived together. Actually, Rother still lives there. I read about John Martyn making One World at Chris Blackwellâ€™s estate, mainly outside, and that sounded like a good time. And I would have loved to have seen Lee Scratch at the original Black Ark controls. That would have been mind-blowing.