December 15, 2020
Culture & Music
If you’ve not heard David Pajo’s name before, it’s certain you’ll have heard something he created. His presence in music has taken many guises, from the revered Slint, to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and then Billy Corgan’s post Pumpkins, Zwan, plus his evolving collaboration with childhood friend Will Oldham.
What stands out in all this is the subtle magic he brings to all his work, some visceral quality that both stirs or soothes but always sticks with you, from the sweet tension of Slint’s Spiderland to the tender subtlety of Aerial M. It’s rare to find an artist that combines humility with his level of musical dexterity but as we learned there’s a lot to his approach that’s driven by intent, trust and a little fate too.
In person he’s softly spoken and thoughtful, sonically he comfortably flows between soft layered sounds and powerful noisy expression and it’s this contrast of intense focus and lightness which becomes a common theme in our conversation as well as the beautiful results of it.
His early work was shrouded in the sort of mythology the pre-internet world allowed, where whispers of how things were created often were amplified and took on notions of their own. With Spiderland the rumours always hinted that the emotional intensity of the record had shaken it’s creators in some way, but in recent years a Lance Bangs documentary ‘ Breadcrumb Trail’ showed things in new light and painted the band including Pajo in a new light, turning the idea of them as “tortured dark teenagers” on its head. What the film reveals is how amongst their regular lives in Louisville, they created an extraordinary record that’s resonated with people for decades. Part of the lore comes from the sense of pace and anticipation within the album, and speaking with Pajo, it’s clear its creation was as much born of the dedication of “at least a year of non-stop practicing” and daily routine, as well as something lighter, as he puts it, “mostly we were just having fun, though of course, there were glimmers where our personal darkness would come out. “
Some of the lightness around it manifests in their approach too, practice was a daily routine “It was not like we had a goal in mind either, it was just part of what we did. We weren’t even thinking about a record at the time. I didn’t even realise until after Lance’s documentary, that we spent so much time writing and then we recorded it in one weekend, from Friday evening to Monday morning. I guess we hadn’t even thought, when we had rehearsed for so long, why didn’t we take our time recording? We just had such a low budget and limited time.”
The mood of the record is palpable, with lyrics that hint at ancient untold stories and unspoken endings. Reflecting on it he says “There is a little bit of maturity to that record, it’s like when you’re transitioning from no longer being a teenager and starting to grow up and so you become more mature but as you get older the record stays with you. I still get the chills on some parts of that and I’ve probably heard it way too many times but there is something about it.” The straddling of worlds is something he credits to it’s appeal spanning generations but he also acknowledges something deeper “It seems unusual but it works, there’s an atmosphere to that record and some sort of weird magic that I could never do again.”
Somewhere the weird magic is most evident, is the flow of tension as you listen, with the structure contributing to the building intensity. This leads us to his approach for crafting an album in a sequence and its significance, “For me, you can’t just listen to one song at a time in some jumbled order. It wouldn’t have the same impact. The way it’s set up is you enter into a world and then this world sustains for the length of the record, you go through some hills and valleys and by the end of it you feel like you experienced something. All my favorite records were like that, Nick Drake or Neil Young, Wire when I was younger and it felt like I’d been on a journey.”
This notion of a purposeful journey is something that could easily be applied to his career, though without any hint of calculation and driven largely by curiousity. “The desire to explore was there, and in that way I think people magnetically attract each other. In the early 90’s the only two bands I liked were Tortoise and Stereolab, and then I ended up playing with both of them which was like a dream come true.” This sense of fate and magnetism is also a red thread of his narrative as we’ll see.
One of his more surprising collaborations was Zwan, but the story there is as entertaining as it is unusual. Pajo explains, what began as a simple request to “ Get me in on that” to his long time friend Matt Sweeney, became an invitation to the Chateau Marmont where his sole intention was to go swimming. What followed was an accidental audition with Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin, which he describes as him shredding on an unplugged guitar whilst Billy spoke about his vision for the band “whilst he was talking, I was doing all my Yngwie Malmsteen licks and I remember Billy and Jimmy looking at each other Like “Holy shit” and nodding their heads and my impression is they’re thinking “ This guy can play! Even though it wasn’t plugged in.”
They shook hands and the next thing he knew he’s in the band. What followed was a few years touring that he describes as a great experience. “I got to meet Paz Lechantin and hang out with Matt. That part of it was wonderful but the whole other part of the music business I was kind of disgusted with. I feel like that was maybe their take on it though, the Beastie Boys probably had a more humane way of doing things or Bjork for example but the Smashing Pumpkins world is pretty slimy.”
In speaking to Pajo, two things are palpable, the measured cadence of his voice and the gentle way he observes the world, most notable when he speaks about friends where it’s clear the small details of how they interact with the world are what’s endearing to him. Even any snark is delivered without malice, and more for comic effect or contrast.
This shouldn’t be surprising though, there’s always been a nuance to his work, a tender subtlety that makes you feel like you’re experiencing a soundtrack, as though the work itself reads the emotions you’re feeling.
His work as Aerial M is one place where this is stands out, I ask how deliberate it is, to ask people to intuit things from the music in a way that requires no explanation and he says it is “ I feel like I’ve had different projects where I’ve tried not to have any information about me and that’s especially true with Aerial M”
He also views that project as an evolution of his previous work “For me I really liked the ideas in Slint, and I wanted to do something to explore my favourite ideas which were the more tender ones. The rock was great but lots of bands rock, but not a lot of bands explore the other side.. At that time emotionally I was into exploring my feminine side, just in the sense of feminine emotions, I wanted to take all the machismo out of what I was doing and just try to find a non gendered place, that something that anyone can relate to as a human.”
The ability of purely instrumental music to hint at something more significant is part of why he loves it “ I didn’t like the idea of a singer or some words holding my hand and walking me through the song in a certain direction. Why not just let the song create a narrative but it can be different for every person who listens and hears it. The wording could be different in their minds. Much as I love lyrics and only listen to lyrics myself most of the time. I feel like they’re a little bit manipulative, even though good lyrics are something I want to be manipulated by.”
That’s not to say his work lacks narrative, as has been clear from his early work some of that is informed by his personal interests “I do love the written word, I always love reading, and in terms of my own music I already thought of it as stories. I had this whole narrative in my mind, so this thing happened here, so I get to go this direction. These two things clash together and then everything falls apart and that was always written into the songs but not lyrically.”
As well as story, mood and sentiment are also an integral part of his work, and he’s also known for making much louder, noisier music. I ask if this is driven by his own moods or who he’s working with. “Now it’s more based on mood, but I also think there was a time where I got fed up with indie rock. When I lived in New York, everyone was so cool, and I’m so used to feeling not cool. I liked the metalheads, they seemed so consistent, trends would go past them and they’d stay the same. They all looked the same, they’re like the cockroaches of music, they’re gonna survive a nuclear war. I love that trends could move on and pass them by, there is a dumbass-ness to it, like this is true metal and this is not. I was so over the coolness of indie rock. So I got into aggressive music again. I thought I’d moved passed it and that part of my life was gone, but everyone has a point in life where they need loud drums, and a feedback guitar with somebody screeching. For me though, it’s all about dynamics. If you’re only loud it gets tedious, if you’re only quiet it does too. Emotions are more varied and flexible than that.”
This sense of contrast is one of his secrets, that innate understanding that the juxtaposition of two extremes makes both seem amplified. As a person he also acknowledges that can be true, “ I used to be kind of an all or nothing guy, now I’m more mellow”. Given a tumultuous few years, involving divorce, a gnarly bike accident and most recently cancer, his composure is admirable but to understand that, it really comes back to his craft and the lens through which he views the world.
I ask what informs this, if it’s the naive optimism that drove the creation of Spiderland or something deeper and the simplicity of his response stands out. “In one of my spirituality books that I’ve had over the years, there was a line that says “the greatest of things happen with a light heart” and it’s really true. It’s just been proved to me over and over, Spiderland was achieved with a light heart. We just went in there and were getting the songs recorded before we ran out of time. We weren’t thinking about changing the world or recording a masterpiece. We were just stoked to have a record on Touch and Go. When I asked Matt, “ let me in on that” with Zwan it was a really cool experience for a few years and I would never trade it. That’s why you can’t force the light heart, it just has to be there.
The last example of this he cites was “Scream with Me” a bunch of Misfits covers he recorded at a friend’s sublet and then left behind, until somehow it surfaced via a network of friends. He attributes its success to it being made with “ no intention to make a record or sell or promote anything”. The result was something that “ For some people, it’s their favorite stuff I’ve ever done -because it’s so low fi, it’s endearing. “ It’s in this gentle absence of motive that something special occurs, allowing the work to find it’s own home in the world. A light sense of trust coupled with good intention which is typical of his music and, on reflection, why that endearment is equally a huge part of his personal charm too.
David Pajo performs as Papa M on December 22nd, with a special performance at Henry Miller Library. Tickets and more details here.