Chimney Choir on junk percussion, field recordings and its use of homespun samples
On the surface, Chimney Choir is an Americana band with the usual roots in folk, some country and the like. But anyone who has seen the band live can tell you, there's a lot more going on in the band's songwriting and ideas for music than merely evoking an old-timey sound. Rather than limiting itself to thinking about music inside a circumscribed aesthetic, the trio employs electronics and a collage approach to composition for a not-at-all-obvious recontextualization and appropriation of sound resulting in warm and catchy songs. We spoke with David Rynhart and Kevin Larkin about the band's history, (ladder), the outfit's latest effort, as well as what Carl Sorenson brings to the band and why a synthesis of aesthetics is at the core of what the band does with its songwriting.
Westword: You met Kevin Larkin in 2002, right?
David Rynhart: 2001 or 2002. We were really geeking out on Irish music, and we would go over to Conor O'Neill's. They have a session there on Sundays for people to just get together and ramble off Irish tunes for hours. And the scene was really fucking good back then. They still do that. It's been going on for, like, fifteen years. There were a bunch of great players. Everyone was really young, and it would go until two thirty in the morning when they would kick us out, and it started at seven.
I moved away and lived in a bunch of different places after that. We loosely kept in touch, and then Kevin was doing an album in 2010, what, eight years later? I was living in Denver then, and he asked if I would play piano on his recording, and we were just kind of like, "Oh, you're cool. I like this music." His album was Detached released under Pineross, his solo thing. It was so good.
Kevin Larkin: We actually both put out recordings that year and did them at the same exact time. You put all the work into the CD, and you're done and you get into that "Now what?" phase, and we were both in that phase at the same time.
DR: I'd been touring with singer-songwriters at the time. Niall Connolly was one, and I was doing stuff in Europe with him. I'd come back to the States and tour with Gabrielle Louise, who has done a ton of stuff. But I hadn't been doing any of that, and the albums were done. I'd done a little solo touring, but not really, and I was reluctantly going in that direction because I didn't know what else to do with my life. Kevin was already doing that pretty strong, so he invited me down to Mississippi to do some stuff. We did Mississippi, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee that September. Looking for gigs, we would send people both of our Myspace pages.
KL: Which is a horrible way to book a tour. "This is a project we don't have a name for or any music for, so hope you like it!"
DR: Yeah, we did like eight shows down south, and for the most part, they were kind of lame, but we had no promo material, and we had a great time. Kris Drickey, I had been hanging out with here in Denver, singing a little bit together -- not professionally. She spontaneously bought a ticket to North Carolina when we were going to be there, just to hang out while we were going to be on tour. She was there, and she was a great singer, so we just had her do some harmonies, and really liked the synergy of it. Shortly after that, Kevin packed everything up and moved down to Denver, and we started doing the Chimney Choir thing.
The name Chimney Choir is a name that suggests various meanings. And obviously you all sing. Was there an inspiration for that name?
KL: We had a notebook filled with band names, and Chimney came up a few times and Choir. I wish we had a better story for this.
DR: We've got to come up with a better story, some mystical kind of revelation thing. But it was really just the typical situation where, "Okay, we're really doing his project now. We need a name. What is it going to be?" We were doing a little tour after Kevin moved here, and went out that December and did stuff around here, like Salida, and we went to New Mexico, and we didn't really have a name. But we had a deadline.
KL: The singing, I definitely think, is related to "Choir."
DR: But we were desperate. We were just pairing words together that were interesting. It still hasn't worn off yet. When you're in the what's-the-name-of-the-band phase you're looking at everything like, "Oh, Aloe Plant. That's an awesome band name." You think "band name" about everything you see, and we still do that to this day. "I Forgot" was one we thought of recently.
There's a track on your album called "(the ballad of julia's accordion)" -- is that a reference to Julia LiBassi of the Raven and the Writing Desk?
Both: It is.
KL: Actually, there's a debate on the track because my accordion is so out of tune that we needed an accordion, and Julia had just bought one from this guy in Thornton. I was with them at the shop when they got it, and they went back to the East Coast to see some family, and Scott's aunt had an accordion in the closet.
So we were going to call the track "Scott's Aunt's Accordion." But Julia plays it. But the reeds got knocked out on the plane, and they had to take it back to get it repaired. Unfortunately, she informed me that after the show another reed had fallen out. I hope it wasn't David and me. But Julia loaned us the accordion for the recording.
Why did you go with a live album format instead of something more, for lack of a better word, traditional or even a straight live recording that's chopped up and edited?
DR: Mm, yeah. We had done the two EPs. We did an EP in May and one in August. We made them downstairs in a room in the warehouse, and they were very homemade. The whole project is homemade, and we like that. I think the homemade thing is going to prevail in the end. The homemade bands will inherit the earth. But we also saw that the limitations we were facing with doing things at home were limiting. So we were thinking we get a good response at shows and then feel like the way we did studio recordings wasn't capturing what we were doing at the shows.
So that was the initial inspiration to try to do a live album. I've always been inspired by the first time I heard a band called Shakti with John McLaughlin when they recorded their first album. Nobody had ever heard any of the material before, and they booked the gig, and they recorded it all live. It was all new material done live. I've always loved that idea.
And then Tom Waits has Nighthawks at the Diner, which is the same kind of thing. But then it was even more inspired by that because I think I was reading about Tom Waits, and for that show, I think they had twenty people in the studio, and they were mostly friends and family of the people that worked at the studio.
Tom Waits didn't really have much of a following back then. I was just really intrigued by that and by how we would feel such a chemistry live, and then just doing everything separate when we were recording it ourselves and wondering if we were losing something with that. So that was the initial inspiration to try to do it live, to get whatever it was that felt magical that was happening when we would play live and try to record that.
KL: We wanted to do it straight through at first and have the whole thing. But we change instruments so much that, when we listened back to the mixes, we thought, "Oh shit, we should just take all the funny parts and the in-between stuff and chop it up and make it seem like you're listening to it live but trip it out a bit.
DR: That was the idea. When we heard the master, there was so much awkward space between the songs there was no way we could have it as this, you put on the CD, and it's like you're at the show, and you just experience the show, you know. We could have done that because maybe there are some awkward pauses at the show, but that's not going to translate so well to the CD.
The solution to that is that you hear the song and you hear the applause. We just made a compact collage of the banter and things that happened throughout the night, so hopefully, we preserved this concert experience throughout the recording. But then we just took some liberties with that and did some trippy things too. Some interesting collage work.
Then the premise came that we wanted to make an art project, and the basis of the art project is this moment in time of having made this material; we were going to play this concert in this space, and we invited these people on this day and at this time. That's the material we have to work with to make this album. We all had to let go of a lot of what our vision was for the songs because it just doesn't turn out the way you think if you try to record an album all in one take like that.
So we had to be really flexible with that. But it was a great experiment and a great experience, just as artists in being loose and flexible like that, and letting the project take its own shape, and "Okay, it's not what I thought it was going to be but it's still cool." There were some great moments with the banter, so we were able to take that and incorporate it all into the project.
Did you record that here or some other venue?
KL: David's worked with the guy a bunch, but it was at San Luis Sound in Broomfield. It's in the middle of the suburbs, straight up. But in the back of his house, this eccentric couple in the '70s built a pipe organ chapel -- like the guy built a chapel just to put his pipe organ in. So Joe [Turse] ended up buying the house, and they took the pipe organ out but there's stained glass from 1904, and it's just this beautiful space. We actually filmed it, and we're going to a DVD with the collages. But we made it all part of the night.