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Seattle-based Jherek Bischoff is equal parts songwriter, producer, performer and composer. He has also been called a "pop polymath" by The New York Times, and "the missing link between the sombre undertones of Ennio Morricone and the unpredictability of John Cale" by NME.
In his 30 odd years, Jherek has played with numerous bands and musical configurations including Parenthetical Girls, Xiu Xiu, The Degenerate Art Ensemble, The Dead Science, Amanda Palmer, The Wordless Music Orchestra, David Byrne and more. Jherek is an instinctive collaborator who has done so since his formative days, trusting himself to be his own best teacher. Indeed, all this music-making has largely been self-taught.
Question: Are you a composer? A producer? A film score professional? A performer? Do you have some succinct vision of where this is all going?
Jherek: No, I am all of the above, and I love the idea of not knowing what I am. I work on music all day everyday and it seems to naturally evolve. If you would have told me that I would have an orchestral record with David Byrne and Caetano Veloso singing on it four years ago, I would have thought you were crazy. I just keep teaching myself new skills and keep moving forward.
There is a part of me that wishes I was one of those artists that does their one thing extremely well. But I have never been satisfied being in one band or working on one project. I realized a few years ago that being in more than one or two serious touring bands is not really very good for my health, and actually is really frustrating because I tend to work on music at least eight hours a day at home, and on tour you only make music for an hour a day. So I realized that with producing records, doing soundtracks and collaborating on music for dance, I could be creatively involved with a ton of exciting music, but don't have to then go on tour with the project and let it have its own legs.
Q: Am I talking to Yoda? How old you are?
Q: Did you start playing Bach on piano at age three?
Jherek: I wish. Piano is my worst instrument. I started playing bass at twelve.
Q: Can you explain how and where you made your new record? Orchestras are big and expensive. Are you a rich eccentric who lives in a warehouse? Were you funded by a Russian oil oligarch?
Jherek: Well, here are some things I might want emphasized about this record:
All of these songs for composed were written on ukulele and were then arranged for orchestra.
This record was recorded with one microphone, an Mbox and a laptop. I recorded each individual musician of the "orchestra" in their very own living rooms. I then layered each instrument (sometimes one violinist playing one part twenty times for instance) until it was the size of a huge orchestra. I spent the summer bike riding from house to house recording each musician. I then took a road trip and recorded all of the singers except Caetano and David.
I composed, produced, engineered and mastered the record.
When writing the material for this record, I heard very specific voices singing the songs. Some of these were good friends and some were people I didn't know. I continued writing these songs for these specific voices as if they had asked me to write them a song, but never in a million years thought I could get them to all sing, but it all ended up working out in a very organic fashion.
When I set out to start working on this record, I wanted to pay very close attention to all that I have learned through working in so many capacities. Up to this point, I had done everything myself... everything. But this time around I wanted to just focus on the things that I feel great and confident about doing and get other people to do things that I always struggle with and that they are really good at. Those things mainly are singing and lyrics. This also really organically falls in with the last point. It seemed very natural to collaborate with these voices I heard. So this is the first time that I did not bulldose through my feelings in order to learn new skills, but instead listened fully to my heart.
Q: Oh, ok. I guess that means you don't know any Russian oil oligarch arts patrons...yet! So much for that. Also, did you just use the word "bulldose"?
Jherek: I meant bulldoze. That was a typo.
I am happy to talk more about the recording process. I have found in the past that when you make an orchestral record, people automatically expect that you have TONS of money and are super privileged and stuff. With this new record, it will especially be that way with all of these singers involved. But I'd really like to convey the completely DIY style of doing it...
I was raised on a diet of rock and experimental music. I have only ever seen a real symphony two times in my life and only have seen one opera and that was six months ago! I am doing this all with a passion. This music has burst out of me and I am not sure how it came to me, because I have no experience with it other than just doing it! I have told friends before, I wish I had been in a youth orchestra or something at some point, but the only orchestras I have ever been in have been my own! I did not know all the musical terms or crazy music theory, I had to teach myself all of that in order to execute the ideas for this record...
Blah blah blah.
I just remember when I was working on Parenthetical Girls' Entanglements record (also orchestral) everyone was like: "Fuck this, this guy obviously has way too much money to make records."
We made that record for 500 bucks!
Q: Cool. Well, tell us more about the process of writing the music for this thing?
Jherek: I feel that the music and process of this record is very classic.
Musically, I wanted to keep everything strictly orchestral. No drum set, no electronics, just a classic orchestra. I broke this rule only when collaborators like Nels Cline and Greg Saunier offered their playing. I feel like most of the time with the current indie/classical collaborations, it is really just a rock band with an orchestra adding some extra lushness. I wanted to try to make pop music using only the orchestra -- no guitars, no drum set, really no chordal instruments providing the harmonic content but just a bunch of single note instruments playing melodies creating the harmonies.
In terms of process, it is a classic concept to have a songwriter and a lyricist, and a singer. I like this idea. I come from a background of doing everything myself, but I wanted to try a new approach. I found that most music I listen to is really old and artist these days are many times expected to be a rad singer and producer and songwriter and everything all at once. There are times when that is amazing, and many times when it is not. I liked the idea of making sure of getting the people that I knew could kill it at every element. Lyrically, vocally and instrumentally. I had done several orchestral recordings of just myself playing every instrument, and that is fun, but I knew that I wanted to get real rippers to play the parts this time around.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your personal life? Like, do you have one?
Jherek: I don't know if I really want to bore people with the personal stuff right now. Like what am I going to say: "I was raised on a sailboat and traveled the world..." Because that's actually true and, for sure, I don't come from a normal background, but I think the exciting part is the process of this record and the music itself.
I will say I was raised in a musical family. We brought along all of our instruments on our boat and while traveling would go to shore and meet local musicians and be their backing band for as long as we were in that port.
My brother and I played in the band The Dead Science together, and my father played drums in avant-garde bands in the 60s and 70s. His band Amra Arma's main goal was to summon the spirit of Conan! They would wear loin cloths and put on those big old-fashioned scuba helmets that they had retrofitted with analog synthesizers that they would play with their tongues while bashing on their drum sets!
I probably don't need to talk about that...but it's pretty rad!
- Strung Out In Heaven
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- Jherek Bischoff tours with Amanda Palmer and speaks to NPR
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- BBC Radio 1 'Label Of Love' feature online now
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Citrouille animated video LIVE ARCHIVE
View previous performances