Happy Place is an instrumental quartet from New York whose music falls somewhere between Battles and the Melvins. Their debut album, Northfield, was entirely composed by one of their two drummers, Will Mason; the band also includes guitarists Andrew Smiley and Will Chapin, and second drummer Austin Vaughn. (Get it from Amazon.)
Northfield is a continuous eight-part suite, composed while Mason was suffering from severe anxiety, stress, and insomnia. The pieces are built from small, repetitive melodic cells and dissonant almost-harmonies, with the double drums battering out martial rhythms that drive the guitarists forward with something between dispassion and cruelty. It’s a clattering, clanging music that has the raw-nerve feeling of sleeplessness and tension. At the same time, it rises to a crescendo—the 13-minute “Rapture!”—that’s intensely beautiful. Smiley is also a member of the out-jazz/noise-rock quartet Little Women, and there are some parallels between that group’s work, with its focus on the physicality of music-making, and this album. There are also elements that recall African guitar music, with fast-picked melody lines winding around each other as the rhythm goes on, and on, and on. (The tracks bleed into each other so seamlessly that the track divisions seem almost arbitrary.)
Watch the first video from Northfield, “Rupture!”:
Mason answered some questions by email.
The music was written under extremely unpleasant circumstances of insomnia, anxiety and general psychic torment. Did recording and performing it bring back memories of the creative process, and if so, why would you want to revisit that? Is it difficult to perform this stuff live for that emotional reason, as much as for any physical reasons?
There’s a way in which writing these pieces tamed the experience that they document, and so I generally don’t find performing this music to involve unpleasant reminders of being unable to sleep. The music is cathartic to play, and it’s also cathartic to have produced something that I find aesthetically stimulating in spite of this bizarre and somewhat paralyzing onset of sleep loss. Thinking about sleep loss by writing this music led me to some other conceptual areas that we now try to emphasize live; ritualistic, trance-like aspects of music-making, and some ideas about physical asceticism beyond sleep loss. I do try to get myself into that headspace before we perform because I think it changes the audience’s experience of the music. It’s certainly possible for a performer to feel that they’re going through the motions but for a listener to be profoundly moved; but I believe that if a performer can get into this kind of heightened experience rooted in something ritualistic or transcendent that it will reliably get transmitted to an audience.
You’re one of the two drummers in the group, but you’re also the primary composer. Do you play guitar, and is that how the pieces were written, or were they written on piano or some other entirely unrelated instrument?
I’ve found that I do my best work as a composer with pencil and paper. I don’t play guitar, and while I do play some piano I try hard not to write at the piano because I end up being limited by what I can play on the instrument. I do have a guitar by my desk that I use to check certain voicings and tunings for feasibility, but mostly this music was written in my notebook at my kitchen counter at 3:00 in the morning.
Given that guitar melodies and rhythms (much more often the latter) bleed straight through from one track to the next—for example, the beat continues unabated from “Knife!” to “Nurture!”—the track divisions can seem somewhat arbitrary. Can you explain the piece’s overall structure, and why it’s divided up the way it is?
The album is bookended by a very soft guided improvisation (“processional” and “as deer”) that is heavy on atmosphere but relatively light on melodic material; “processional” features a bit of just the guitars improvising, which Joseph Branciforte and I blew up in the mixing stage with digital distortion; and then “as deer” is the full improvisation with percussion added back in. I was reading Finnegan’s Wake at the time (to whatever extent that book is readable) and I liked the conceit of having the book’s end flow back into its beginning. I also found that image resonated with my feelings about sleep loss and anxiety, and I also liked that I couldn’t decide if I thought that cyclic image was a hopeful or a despondent one. It made sense to use it.
The six main tracks—”Fork!”, “Spoon!”, “Knife!”, “Nurture!”, “Rupture!”, and “Rapture!”—have a few threads that connect them. They flow into each other, so a lot of them have similar start/end tempos. “Fork!” and “Nurture!” are similar in terms of how the guitars and the drums interact. “Rapture!” is definitely set off on its own and it’s almost as long as the rest of the album put together. It’s partly a nod to the epic “Side B” tracks on ’70s prog albums, and it’s partly an unironic embrace of the same principle that I imagine guided those bands—the wish to conclude with something grandiose and somewhat demanding, something that felt satisfyingly absolute. A spiritual apotheosis.
Even though the album is meant as a suite, I do consider the six main tracks to be freestanding songs and we could conceivably play them out of order. “Rapture!” could easily be divided into three or four tracks but it’s important to me that it be heard in its entirety.
How did you choose the other players for the group, and how much input did they have into the music? Did it change much from your original vision, or did you just hand out scores?
Austin Vaughn and I were classmates at Oberlin before we both moved to New York, and we shared a practice room; we used to come up with little interlocking, hocketing phrases all the time to play together, and we also spent a lot of time listening to percussion ensembles from around the world that Jamey Haddad would show us—Balinese kotekan and Haitian rara music, for instance. Those were notable influences on this music and Austin was the obvious choice to helm the second drum set. Andrew Smiley was a part of my septet, the Will Mason Ensemble, and when I started to think about what I wanted this group to transmit he was an obvious choice—he has a very raw, direct way of playing and he also can read anything you put in front of him, which is important for my music. And then I wanted someone with a contrasting style and Andrew recommended Will Chapin to me; they play together in Empyrean Atlas and Will is another champion reader who also really got inside this music and understood what it was about in a sophisticated way. I find it easier to write music for people than for instruments, and this music was written with these players in mind.
But all that being said, the vast majority of this music is through-composed and the scores I handed out in the first rehearsal are basically what went on the album. (With the exception of the end of “Rapture!”, which was more fraught—I wrote about that a bit on my website.) There’s improvisation too, and those moments transmit the identity and aesthetic of the players in a meaningful way. But those improvised moments are generally not meant to draw attention in the sense of being particularly soloistic. Improvisation is not foregrounded on Northfield.
Is this a one-off project, or do you see Happy Place continuing onward? What else would you like to achieve using this compositional palette (two guitars, two drummers)?
This is definitely not a one-off and I’d like to make a lot more music with this group, though of course the programmatic narrative will change. We have some new music that we play live that experiments with some very strange guitar scordatura and in general that’s the direction I’d like to keep heading—especially toward some microtonal stuff, which is a part of my compositional language in some of my other projects. I’d also like to do more work with the recording studio. Northfield is a faithful documentation of what we sound like live, but if we had more time and resources I’d like to do some more work on the production side: unconventional mic and amp placements, recording parts in different sites outside of the studio, doubling parts with different instruments, that sort of thing. Lately I’m finding I care less and less about something I used to care about quite a lot, which is having the live experience of a band match the recorded one.
What can you tell me about the video for “Rupture!”? Where was it shot, and how do the visuals relate to the music, for you?
It was directed by Chelsea Burcz and shot out by Shelter Island. I’m not great at conceiving of ideas for music videos, so I have to give credit to Chelsea and Sebastian Slayter for the work they did. I tried to describe the song to them and asked them to convey what I took to be the band’s musical values: surreal, dream-like aspects; mania; abstract imagery; grotesque elements; etc. They took that and ran with it and made a really interesting video.