Exploring Earth Magic with Gravers Lane

Listening to Gravers Lane is like stepping into a spooky dreamscape reminiscent of Martin Gore’s solo work or Julee Cruise’s songs on the original Twin Peaks soundtrack. Lush synth pads coupled with a strong lead vocal combine to tear holes in day-to-day reality and reveal something—perhaps sinister, perhaps inspiring—shimmering on the other side of quotidian consciousness. For a glimpse into the philosophy and artistic process behind the music, I caught up with Kerri Hughes, the driving force behind the project, and asked her how she does it…

FestPosterYou just played a set at the Good! How Are You? mini-fest in Philadelphia. How did it go?

It was a wonderful time when I played the first day at Tralfamadore. It’s one of of my favorite Philly show houses run by my friend Matty Klauser. The vibe is very professional but chill. I used to have a residency there, so it was great coming back to play.

All the artists I played with were amazing.  Some notable ones for me was Cardinal Arms, and I think Kelsey Cork and the Swigs bring this great whiskey rock sound with a powerful female fronted vocals.

It’s interesting to see you perform, because it’s just you on the stage, but you have a full sound—a far cry from the stereotypical singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. For the gear-heads out there, what’s your live setup? Or, to put it another way, how do you translate the sound of your recordings to the stage?

Ah, my little setup. For awhile it strictly my Boss-VE5 vocal loop station, but now I use a TC-Helicon E1 delay pedal, Korg Volca Beats, Microkrog, and my new child, which is the Novation Mininova synth. I run everything through a Mackie ProFX 8 channel mixer. I have a bunch of other gear I will sometimes add in, depending on the song, but this is my standard set up.

My songwriting approach is not very traditional. A lot of my songs have come from improv jams, and many songs are all vocal loops with no instruments. I practice a little bit obsessively, so it’s sort of funny to me that I make improv experimental, ambient like music even though it’s pretty tight when I play (I try my best anyway). It’s easier to get the sound that I want live, than recorded. I have a background in audio production and I use Pro Tools 12 to mix songs I record in my lil “studio,” but even with effects and all that, I prefer the live aspect because, above all,  I really want to create a meditative atmosphere with my music.

There’s a distinctly spooky sound to your music—lots of reverb with haunting vocals. On one hand, I get a strong David Lynch vibe from your music, but I also get the sense that there’s something deeper there, almost spiritual. Am I crazy, or are you trying to tap into something primal with your music?

You are not crazy to think that, but I might be a little—ha! Making music is extremely spiritual to me, even when I played in bands I felt it. Playing just on my own has forced me to really deeply, deeply explore myself. It goes back to a lot of songs coming from an improv. A lot of times I am surprised by the sounds I create because I didn’t know that sort of darkness or more mournful feelings were in me like that. I often get into a trance-like state when I am performing my songs.

I grew up Catholic, and while I appreciate the teachings of Jesus, my spiritual beliefs are much more earth-based, and I think that translates a lot into my music. I have spent a lot of time this past year with meditation and exploring Wiccan beliefs and fairy and earth magic. I feel like my music ends up being a conscious, or many times subconscious, nod to those kinds of beliefs.

How did that sound evolve? And who are your influences?

Originally Gravers Lane was called Red Lips, and it was me recording with a Zoom H2 and mixing with GarageBand. I attended Montgomery County Community College and graduated Temple University with a focus on audio production, so I was able to evolve my sound and make it all crazy sounding with Pro Tools effects. After college I was in a few bands, and during my band time, I bought a used microkorg, then later I began to add more gear. I actually never even planned on playing out in the first place, but my friend Molly Campbell (Datadrift) gave me an opportunity to play at Synth Cafe last spring and I have taken that opportunity and ran with it. I am so thankful to her because playing shows, even to just a few people, is a really magical experience, every time.

I keep my synth playing very simple since I have never had any instrument lessons, but I do have a hefty amount of years of vocal training. Growing up in church and being involved in chorus and theatre, I think has really influenced my vocal style. I like doing very dramatic, operatic vocals. My number one influence and love is Bjork, then Julianna Barwick. The Disintegration Loops  by William Basinski is high up there as well and  The Caretaker. I looove ambient and goth music (especially Coldwave) and, while I don’t know if I would classify my music as goth per se, I’ve been part of that scene for over a decade so it definitely has influenced my musical aesthetics.

And though your music isn’t overtly political, I still get the sense that there’s something subversive about it—in the sense that you being you in pubic and in a world that increasingly frowns upon anything even slightly out of the ordinary is, in itself, a political act. Is there anything political about your art, or am I just reading too much into things again?

While not exactly political, you are hitting the nail on the coffin about some more conscious thoughts I put into my music. My music is a good outlet for me in terms of my feelings about the female experience in a world that doesn’t really seem to like women. While I absolutely am fortunate for the privileges I have, and upmost love and support from my family (my parents are truly the best), friends, and girlfriend, I sometimes find it hard to navigate in the world in female form, especially being someone who is a bit more sensitive. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I have never been able to try to feign coolness or emotionlessness that I, unfortunately, see a lot of people do (I get it, the world is hard and it’s a defense mechanism).  I am a big advocate for anti-street harassment and I am an outspoken feminist. I learned early in my life that being a woman can be dangerous, and although I live a very healthy and happy life now, Gravers Lane is real therapy for me. Playing music makes me feel like I belong in this world.

When you’re not performing as Gravers Lane, you also play with New Speedway. What’s your role in that band, and how does the sound differ from what you’re doing in Gravers Lane?

New Speedway was such a fun experience! Unfortunately I had to dip out because I was burning the candle at both ends. I played keys and did backup vocals though. The mastermind behind New Speedway, Rocco Renzetti, is a really dear friend and talented human. New Speedway had a more indie rock sound, but there were a lot of similarities as it turned out. Rocco and I both really like a lo-fi sound, drones and loops, and creating a space musically. The latest album Behavior: Ceremony incorporated layers upon layers of synths, sometimes one layer just being a key or two being played. That is definitely the approach I make with my music as well. I like to keep it simple, while eventually creating a complex and lush atmosphere via layers.

Are there any other bands you’ve worked with—or would like to work with?

Previous to New Speedway, I played with a psych rock band Hex Inverter. It was a really great experience being able to play venues on the East Coast and perform on some mini tours. I learned a lot of valuable things from all the band members, but Mick Mullin (guitars/keys) really encouraged me to pursue my music and work on it. He actually bought me the delay pedal that I use. We recorded some great covers together, including a Siouxsie and the Banshees and PJ Harvey song.

As far as working with other artists, I have been lucky to collaborate with some of my favorite female Philly producers like Dentana and Stateschoolgirl. I am always excited to work with anyone, especially if they are genuinely good people. It’s great if you are a talented DJ, musician, producer, etc. but I think none of that really matters if you aren’t kindhearted. Luckily Philadelphia is filled to the core with kindhearted artists.

Any shows coming up or projects you’re working on? What are your next steps as far as you music career is concerned?

I have some very cool stuff coming up. My song, Slither, was curated by Merideth Hayden (Stateschoolgirl) into a soundwork for the art exhibit Sanctuary, at The Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church. My work was featured alongside SPT (End Result Productions), and I was ecstatic to be featured alongside two very talented Philly artists. I will be playing again at Tralfamadore June 24th, and it will be a killer show.

My ultimate goal is to record an album, and I would love to get on Projekt Records. My dear friend Tom Scott (who runs an electronic music producers collective, Brother.ly, which is worth checking out), let me record my song Withering at his personal studio. I realized, however, there are so many good producers in the city that I would love to work with to make this dream a reality and I want to pay them for their work. Unfortunately, I don’t have the funds right now, but I’m working on it and have some really great people who have given me some awesome opportunities so far.

Anything else you’d like to share with your fans (or potential fans)?

Really just a huge and humble thank you to everyone who has listened to my music, booked me for shows, come to shows, wanted to collaborate with me, all of that. If I had a bouquet of flowers I could give to everyone who has done these things I would, seriously. Philadelphia is really a wonderful city for artists, and I am grateful to live here. <666

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More Sketchy Thoughts on Slaughterhouse Five

A while back, I posted some thoughts on whether or not Billy Pilgrim is hallucinating when he’s visited by aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I’m teaching the novel again this week, an my thoughts have turned to the issue of free will in the novel. The reason this came up is that a student asked whether Vonnegut believed in predestination. Here are my thoughts…

I don’t think Vonnegut personally believed in predestination. He was a humanist and an atheist. Since humanism asserts that people should work to benefit society, my guess is that he also believed that people had free will, since working to benefit society (as opposed to choosing not to do so) requires a decision.

Nonetheless, predestination is a major theme in Slaughterhouse Five. In fact, much of the novel reads like a debate over the legitimacy of free will over predestination. On the predestination side of the argument, there’s Harrison Starr’s theory that writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel; i.e., war, like glaciers, is inevitable, so there’s no sense in trying to stop it (3). But on the “free will” side of the argument, we have the fact that Vonnegut ignored Harrison Starr’s advice and wrote an anti-war novel anyway.

Yet this act of free will — the decision to write a novel that might influence its readers to reject war — is itself haunted by doubt, as exemplified by the Tralfamadorians’ understanding of time and space. The Tralfamadorians, we learn, find free will to be a foreign concept because they see the past, present, and future all at once (86). At the same time, though, there’s something terrifyingly absurd about that vision: they know how the universe will end, and they don’t do anything to stop it. From their perspective, it had to be done.

Professor Rumfoord, the military historian, echoes this sentiment when he tells Billy that the bombing of Dresden “had to be done” (198). Of course, the fact that it’s Rumfoord telling us that it had to be done — and that Rumfoord is described as “a hateful old man–conceited and cruel” suggests that we’re not supposed to agree with him (193). That Billy stands up to Rumfoord by saying “I was there” suggests that he’s exercising some degree of free will, just as Edgar Derby exercises free will when he stands up to Howard Cambpell elsewhere in the novel.

I’d also argue that Vonnegut’s concerns over free will can be seen in the idea that Tralfamadorians see humans (and all creatures) as machines (154). I want to complicate this image a little bit by suggesting that we can replace “machines” with “computers” or “robots,” and that the actions of the kinds of machines we are (in Vonnegut’s view) are therefore dictated by software or a kind of code. In other words, while some things are hardwired into our physical makeup (e.g., instincts), something else is responsible for the decisions we never really think too much about. That “something else” is the set of cultural norms and assumptions into which we’re born (comprised of many things, like myths, religion, manners, attitudes, and unspoken rules).

This “software” (our assumptions) causes us to see the world in a certain way (or frames our perceptions). Building on the idea that Vonnegut is not in a position to judge his characters as good or evil (or as heroes or villains), he’s basically recognizing that each character’s definition of “good” or “true” hinges on the “software” that his or her culture has been installing since birth. Thus Billy doesn’t judge Rumfoord’s assessment that “It had to be done” because that assessment is “true” to Rumfoord based on everything he’s ever read or been taught to believe.

The challenge that Vonnegut poses to us, I think, is asking us to recognize that even if we are machines, we have the capability to reprogram our software. In other words, by writing a book like Slaughterhouse Five, he’s saying that once we recognize the cultural assumptions that dictate many of our actions, we can question and eventually change those assumptions in a way that will allow us to avoid the fate of the Tralfamadorians.

Is Billy Pilgrim Crazy?

Slaughterhouse-five+by+Kurt+VonnegutA student of mine recently asked whether Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist (for lack of a better word) of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, has, within the context of the narrative (such as it is) really experienced a close encounter with aliens or simply lost his mind.

The question is certainly valid. When I first read the novel over twenty years ago, I took the story at face value. When Vonnegut informed me that Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time, I went along for the ride. Yet the more I thought about it, the less willing I was to suspend my disbelief. After all, how did the Tralfamadorians get around if their bodies were shaped like toilet plungers?

Eventually, however, I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter whether the aliens really visited Billy or he imagined them. What matters is that he believes he’s been visited by aliens, and that this belief – along with all of the knowledge they allegedly impart to him – provides the framework for Billy’s understanding of the world.

Throughout his oeuvre, Vonnegut echoes the Shakespearean sentiment that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In Mother Night, for example, he writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Bluebeard, he adds,  “Belief is nearly the whole of the universe whether based on truth or not.” In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut expresses this notion in financial terms: “Frames are where the money is.”

On a literal level, of course, Vonnegut’s reference to frames explains what Billy does for a living; he’s an optician, and most of his money comes from selling protective eye ware to employees of the General Forge and Foundry Company of Ilium, New York. Figuratively, however, Vonnegut is letting us know that context (i.e. how we frame information) is everything (or, more colloquially, “where the money is”).

The idea that stories shape our sense of reality saturates Slaughterhouse Five. Early on, Mary O’Hare is furious with the author because she suspects that the book he’s writing will glamorize war. Later in the novel, Roland Weary makes sense of his experiences behind enemy lines during World War Two by imagining himself as a member of his own version of the Three Musketeers. Later still, a dying colonel convinces himself that he’s a hero by adopting the nom de guerre “Wild Bob” and picturing a cookout he’ll never get to enjoy.

The list goes on and on, but the most imaginative and explicit example of the power of stories to frame reality in Slaughterhouse Five is a novel by the fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout titled The Gospel from Outer Space. In this novel, a visitor from outer space figures out that the reason Christians can be so cruel is “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament.”

The trouble with the New Testament, the alien realizes, is that its underlying message belies its intent. Whereas the message of the New Testament is to be kind and merciful, the Gospels actually taught this: “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.”

To rectify this problem, the alien writes a new Gospel in which Jesus is “a nobody” whose crucifixion is so repugnant that God adopts “the bum” and issues a warning to all of humanity: “From this moment on, He will punish horribly anyone who torments a bum who has no connections!

Needless to say, the underlying premise of The Gospel from Outer Space echoes the dominant theme of Slaughterhouse Five: stories shape reality, a notion borne out by life in the “real” world whenever anyone claims a monopoly on virtue by citing the foundational document of their choice, religious or otherwise. (If you have time, take a look at the Patton Oswalt video at the bottom of this post for a funny take on this phenomenon. Fair warning: It’s a little racy.)

In the context of the novel, then, Billy Pilgrim’s belief that he’s been visited by aliens is no different from anybody’s faith in God or, for that matter, faith that the framers of the Constitution had everything so perfectly worked out that there’s no room for interpreting the document in anything but the most literal fashion.

Moreover, the vast range of stories, big and small, that Vonnegut describes throughout Slaughterhouse Five serves as a warning to those of us whose skeptical tendencies might tempt us to feel superior to religious fundamentalists, strict constructionists, and other people who, like Billy, build their lives around such stories.  Sure, they’re crazy. But so are we – because no matter how sophisticated we imagine ourselves to be, we all invent or subscribe to narratives that allow us to make sense of the world.

In one way or another, we’re all Billy Pilgrim.