Photo by Dave Ewald
DAMA/LIBRA is the result of a collaboration by email between Joel RL Phelps and Stuart Dahlquist. Phelps is probably best known for his tenure in Silkworm, though he’s currently leading the Downer Trio; Dahlquist was in Burning Witch, occasionally joins Sunn O))), and is currently part of Asva. The two men sent parts back and forth for roughly 18 months, until they had an album: Claw, out August 12 on the Northern Spy label. It’s a mix of melancholy art songs, somewhere between modern classical and avant-cabaret, with a few somber instrumentals punctuating its patient, enveloping flow. Burning Ambulance is proud to premiere “Destroy,” an instrumental track from Claw.
Dahlquist and Phelps agreed to answer a few questions by email.
The last track on the album, “Thine,” was the first piece you two collaborated on. How did it influence/inspire the rest of the record?
Stuart Dahlquist: When Joel asked about trying something with what became “Thine” I was flattered and intrigued; I’d not thought of the possibilities available that the two of us might have in working together. I’d send Joel a song and without fail he’d elaborate with additional music, singing, and send back something that surprised me because his take was so inspired, utterly unexpected, and such a joy to hear. Our collaboration continues to develop after three years…it seems to have wings all its own.
What is the significance of the project’s name—DAMA/LIBRA?
SD: Joel pulled it out of his hat but until he did I’d never heard of the term DAMA/LIBRA and still know very little about it. The idea though, of matter that is theoretically everywhere, in and around us all, that was always there if you only knew where and how to look… I can think about Joel and I and wonder if our DAMA/LIBRA couldn’t have always been here right in front of us (we have known each other for 20 years, after all) just waiting for us to discover and embrace. It’s got a nice ring to it too.
Joel Phelps: The particle detector experiment is located at Italy’s Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso, an underground particle physics lab about 120 KM from Rome. I mean, it’s space, right? So it comes with a bit of built-in Auto-Cool. Beautiful, creepy, untouchable, inescapable, all the good stuff.
Were the lyrics entirely Joel’s department, or were all aspects of the album collaborative?
SD: Lyrics are entirely Joel, the music collaborative.
The music seems to be more art song than rock, metal or indie—are there any particular antecedents or inspirations you can cite?
SD: Pärt, Goreçki, Penderecki… These guys continue to inspire aspects of my process in a big way. I love going with my father to Compline, the Sunday night service held in Seattle’s St. Mark’s Cathedral. It’s such a positive environment to be in and so beautiful; we made a similar effort to accommodate our listeners, to welcome anyone who wants to take part or simply be there. I have this idea that our live shows might be imbued with a similar welcoming energy.
JP: Yes, all these things. For me, who knows? I guess a bunch of things. I’ve been thinking lately about how I haven’t yet tried to describe the music to anyone. Not because it’s (shudder) “eclectic” or indescribable or a genius departure from this, that or the other thing or anything. It’s nothing new under This Sun. Stuart put it nicely many months ago. It’s just the sound of certain things. It feels like a natural, simple expression of my personal take on things, with many obvious influences but without very much formal lineage. I mean, obviously something like Pärt’s music isn’t a formal compositional influence for me because I’ve never studied or attempted anything like that (and couldn’t). I don’t know anything about orchestration or formal composition that hasn’t come only from listening or performing. Osmosis style. So silly as it may sound, I just try to make it how I/we might like it. Like other music I’ve made, the fact that I don’t speak the language hasn’t prevented me from trying to use some of the sounds and gestures.
What role did each of you have in the creation of the track we’re premiering, “Destroy,” and what can you say about it?
SD: “Destroy” began—like three other tracks on Claw—as part of a ballet I’d been asked to score. That lilting 4/4 was something I’d envisioned for years after seeing a ballet performed on crutches (which I can’t seem to find for reference… Darn it), an absolutely beautiful assembled movement that to my ears and eyes demanded something like that, a sort of stuttering flow that seems to be stepping on itself, tripping but never quite falling, never quite fully erect either. The ballet director wasn’t taken with what I was delivering… “War drums!” he kept asking for and after two months’ work I quietly dropped from the project. I’m still not sure why they hired me in the first place… I don’t do “war drums.”
JP: The lyric is easy to remember.