Playing in the Sandbox: An interview with On Fillmore’s Darin Gray

Happiness of Living, when I listen to that, I can hear the heat on my skin. I smell the room that I was in. I see my friends’ smiles and feel their presence.”

By David Bernabo

Darin Gray. Photo: Brea McAnnaly

I’m driving in the mountains of Tennessee listening to Bill Frisell.” I call bassist Darin Gray while he’s driving to Knoxville, TN to perform at the Big Ears Festival. Darin is pulling double duty at this year’s festival. Chikamorachi, his improvisational duo with drummer Chris Corsano, is joined by special guest Jeff Tweedy for an afternoon set. The next day, On Fillmore, the 18-year collaboration between Wilco’s Glenn Kotche and Darin, performs.

On Fillmore recently released their new album Happiness of Living on Northern Spy Records. Recorded in Rio and Chicago, the record beautifully combines the ominous environments of recent releases with the rhythmic workouts from their earlier efforts. But this new record also has vocals and a number of guest musicians, which help propel the music to new levels.

Over the course of an hour, Darin and I discuss the new On Fillmore record — the use of collage, the removal of context from sounds, and how a long-term band can change over time. Below is a lightly-edited transcript of our discussion.

For more on the background of making the record, check out Peter Margasak’s wonderful Chicago Reader article.

David Bernabo: On Fillmore’s early efforts felt like experiments with rhythm and repetition. Minimal composition and mood took over on Sleeps With Fishes and Extended Vacation. Happiness of Living seems to bring both elements to the table. What was the approach when composing this record? How much is improvised?

Darin Gray: On Happiness of Living, everything except three pieces is improvised, but I wouldn’t use a capital “I” in the word “improvisation.” It felt more like playing — like friends playing together in a sandbox — more so than any kind of idiomatic improvisation. We had about six to eight hours of music, of us playing in the sandbox with our friends in Brazil. We brought that music back to Chicago, and I sat with our friend Pat Burns, who did the last On Fillmore record and who does all of Glenn’s [more recent] solo work — and we widdled down the recordings into something that could be called song-esque. That might mean putting this riff against this riff and so on. So, that was a little over an hour of material.

Then Glenn and I went into the studio, and we overdubbed on top. We would overdub melodies, percussion — like we needed anymore percussion. We had so much percussion it was ridiculous. But the [additional] percussion was more of a glue or thread to tie things together and to highlight certain passages. That took a few days. Then Pat and I went back into the studio for mixing — I’d say overall, eight full days of mixing, but not back to back.

The funny thing is that this thing that sounds really organic, like people playing music together, is really not. However, the essence and the joy of creating that music is retained.

Also, I knew from the beginning [of making the record] that I wanted to use vocals, and I wanted to use the actual mellotron — they have a real mellotron at The Loft in Chicago — to double and harmonize the voices. I wanted this very real voice, like Gabriela [Riley]’s voice, doubled with this almost saccharine mellotron choir of voices.

DB: How did you approach the vocals? Were they all done in Rio?

DG: Yes

DB: Did you write out the melodies?

DG: Oh, not at all. There was an older vibraphone piece from Sleeps With Fishes that we redid with Gabriela. The main melody on that piece was her learning the vibe melody. But the rest of the album is her singing or playing along with the music — pushing and pulling along with the music.

On Fillmore: Darin Gray and Glenn Kotche. Photo: Nathan Kaey

DB: Can you talk about the approach to collaging on this record? On Fillmore has worked with collage — specifically adding field recordings — in the past, and I’d say the process of overdubbing on this new record is a type of collage.

DG: For me, those collages are more like an aural mobile than just a layering of things, like things floating around each other, like a Calder mobile. You know, these are things that keep popping up when people ask us about On Fillmore’s music, and I understand and appreciate that, but some of [our process] is really a very simple thing. There are only two people in this band, and the simple answer is [that we are] fleshing out ideas. I don’t think Glenn feels this way, but I feel [that the overdubs, the field recordings] are a third member of the group and not always a friendly member of the group.

With field recordings, I have made those since I was a little kid and so has Glenn. It was one of the things that drew us together. I would record my parents having dinner. I would record things like cartoons, Sesame Street, records I was listening to, conversation. And then I would sit in my room and listen to these things, and they would be cut-ups since I was just pressing stop and record. And it’s really not that much different now.

I know that some people are very serious with field recordings, but for me, when making a field recording, the sound always comes first. I never go out and think, “I’m going to make a field recording today.” When I’m out, especially on tour — I spend a lot of time on the road — I think, “listen to the way this street sign is dying.” I’ll record that. That’ll be on my phone, a micro-cassette, whatever I have. Those things may make it to a record or not, but for some reason, I’m compelled to record that. I’ve never went out to [purposefully] record the sound of an engine or the sound of bugs or the sound of birds, but I have recorded all of those things.

DB: It seems like a matter of efficiency. Say I go out to the forest and think I’m going to record some birds and a stream, you have to search that out, but if you just come across those sounds, it is much more efficient.

DG: Yeah, I think that is a huge part of it, and I never thought of it that way. If I’m out in my woods, I just want to be in the woods. I don’t want to think about recording. My general thing that I do when I’m on the road is take a long walk if I have time before the show. During those walks is when things happen and I hear sounds and I record them. And you’re right, it probably is an efficiency thing.

DB: Along those lines, I’m interested in this idea of dislocation. Since a lot of the record was tracked in Rio, refined in the American Midwest, combined with field recordings from all over — is it ok that sound is removed from its original context and original location?

DG: The goal for me in making those collages is making a non-specific place that you can visit. I don’t want it to be like, “oh, they’re by a pond or near a train station and here comes a train.” I never want it to be that specific.

Happiness of Living, when I listen to that, I was there in Rio. I can hear the heat on my skin. I smell the room that I was in. I see my friends’ smiles and feel their presence when I listen to that music. With the recording, I’m trying to make a place where those types of things can happen for the listener. It’s a tall order, and if it ever succeeds, I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t really care. All I know is that I’m trying to do that, and in that “trying” I have found a lot of life changing and, certainly, work-changing things.

For instance, the way I came up in music was that you practice your music for a long time and that can be years. Then you go into the studio for a day or two and you play the songs that you’ve honed perfectly for years. I was never happy with that. I never experienced joy from that. My bandmates and I were never quite happy with the result.

So, what I learned from the process of working things like On Fillmore is that you have to add and subtract things. That [practice, perfect, and record] process doesn’t account for things. It doesn’t account for smell and sight and the feeling in the room. You’re just accounting for two ears hearing sound. The end. And there’s way more to it than that. Does that sound crazy?

DB: When I listen to Extended Vacation, and it might partly be the cover art, I feel swampy. I feel humidity.

DG: That’s great, and all of that record was made in a studio in Chicago. Caroline Bittencourt did that cover and she did the new cover, too. She’s amazing. Her photography — it’s like one of those things where you go to a place that you fall in love with, and you see a photograph that captures that feeling. It’s never like a Nat Geo photo — and I totally geek on those kinds of photos — but it’s never those photos that capture our imaginations about the places that we love.

DB: You and Glenn have been performing as On Fillmore for 18 years. In that time, each of you has played with a bunch of musicians. Glenn plays in Wilco and has been composing for a number of first-rate chamber ensembles. You’ve been playing with Tweedy, William Tyler, Chikamorachi, and any number of duos and improvised settings. Has that changed the dynamic in On Fillmore?

DG: It’s changed completely and not at all. It’s still Glenn and I in a room making each other laugh. That deep connection that Glenn and I have rhythmically and musically was there from the first moment we played music together. We were put together by Jim O’Rourke, working on sessions that became Eureka. It was immediate. Jim has a way of doing that with a lot of musicians. He has a way of putting people together that can create something magical. He can hear what they are going to sound like together before they play together.

So, that connection has grown over the years. And we’ve completely grown as musicians. I’m so proud of Glenn — the way he has grabbed life and ran with it. The work he’s done in classical music and his playing in Wilco. It’s ridiculous. It’s incredible. It’s one of my biggest inspiration and that feels good to have your best friend as your biggest musical inspiration — it’s very cool.

Musically, On Fillmore has changed quite a lot. We were a lot more heady in the old days. We were much more concerned with — and I still am concerned with minutia, but I go about it in a different way now. We don’t make ourselves sick anymore. Glenn and I, in the old days, didn’t necessarily allow ourselves to enjoy the live shows. We enjoyed it overall, but there was a tightness, a tightness in the chest.

DB: Because of self-induced pressure?

DG: Yeah, because of the pressure to make the music right, which I think actually kept us from making it right. We didn’t let things be what they could be. We forced things. But honestly, maybe the result, aurally, is exactly the same. But that process felt different [than our process now.]

Now, we enjoy the process, and we now allow other people in.

DB: It’s nice to hear “Cave Crickets” come back and be re-energized with these new players.

DG: Yeah, we still play that song. We always add different elements every time we play it. That’s the benefit of doing something like On Fillmore for so long. You can grab music from 18 years ago and play it with new people and breath new life into it. Good or bad, it’s a cool process, and it’s super cool to hear other people play your music, especially when they really attack it.

Catch On Fillmore at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, NY on April 8th for the Happiness Of Living record release show. Gabriela Riley, percussionist Stephane San Juan, and guitarist and composer Rafiq Bhatia (of Son Lux) will join Darin Gray and Glenn Kotche for the On Fillmore set!