My DC: A Conversation with The North Country
Photos by Mark Hoelscher for DCMD
If you had a dream of George Harrison playing country songs, what would it sound like?
This is the (mostly figurative) vision that served as inspiration for The North Country’s Andrew Grossman in writing and creating In Defense of Cosmic Altruism, the collective’s third full-length recording. Although Grossman’s previous efforts have relied upon a primarily Americana backbone, Cosmic aspires to be something more of a psychedelic expansion, a release in which he sought to challenge himself to explore musically “unchartered territory” while retaining the group’s traditional, folksy influences. I met with Grossman last Saturday in Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park to talk about this process.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You currently live fairly close to Meridian Hill / Malcolm X Park, as well as within the vicinity of the greater Columbia Heights neighborhood. Do you find yourself in the park often?
AG: I do come here often. I like to come here on Sundays particularly. I’ll be here at least five times a week, just walking through. I rarely bring an instrument here and play it, but I would say it is a source of inspiration. I think it just has a great energy, there’s all different kinds of people just hanging out.
Do you come on Sundays because of the drum circle?
AG: Yeah, exactly… I love it. I remember after the shit that went down in Charlottesville I was feeling really awful about the country and how people treat each other. Coming here and seeing the drum circle, seeing all kinds of people of different races just connecting in a really beautiful way, was very necessary.
When did you move out to Columbia Heights? What motivated you to move to this specific, primarily residential part?
AG: I lived in the original Bathtub Republic on 11th Street and Irving, so that was the first time I lived in Columbia Heights, then we moved out to Brookland. I moved back here to move in with my then-girlfriend, who is now my fiancé.
Congratulations. Besides the park, what else do you enjoy about the neighborhood?
AG: Well, it’s very diverse. It’s gentrifying for sure, which is upsetting, but it’s also difficult to divorce yourself from that… it’s a good community, there’s young people, old people, different colors of people. When you go on tour, you go to places where it’s all white and there’s no diversity, and it feels weird. You don’t realize how unique living in a diverse community is until you go somewhere very homogeneous.
Let’s talk about your forthcoming release In Defense of Cosmic Altruism. You recently debuted the single, “E-meditation (Forever, Forever),” which seems like a departure from some of the hard-Americana and folksier elements of There Is Nothing to Fear and You Can Never Go Home Again. Would you say that Cosmic aspires to be more psychedelic and spacey than your previous releases?
AG: That is correct, yes. I think of the album in general as a collection of experiments. There’s probably a similar thread that runs through all of [the songs], and I think we’re definitely trying some new things with this album. But that’s what excites me most about making music, learning something by trying it out as opposed to hitting well-worn territory. Like the stuff that I know how to do well just isn’t as exciting as trying out something new, I guess.
So specifically what would you define as the ‘uncharted territory’ in Cosmic?
AG: Cosmic was recorded differently than our last album, I had a batch of songs that I knew i wanted to record. I got a group of musicians together, specifically for that collection of music, to record. We had a few practices, played maybe two shows, and then we went in and banged out all the live tracks. So that was kind of a new experience.
I think in terms of an emphasis on tone and song structure, I don’t think there’s any kind of singular thing through all of it. I think each song is it’s own little experiment, trying out something new. Like with “E-meditation,” the song is structurally really simplified. It’s four chords that repeat throughout the whole thing. The changes that would’ve taken place with a chorus and a verse are played out with dynamic changes, kind of adding in more sounds and then taking them away. It’s more of a drone.
I’m really curious about the inspirations of the lyricism for “E-meditation,” in particular the lyric, “I feel the infinite touch, I see the unending everything.” It reads more metaphysical than your earlier songwriting.
AG: With that song, I knew I wanted to simplify. I knew there was a feeling in that song… with [E-meditation], the lyrics just kind of came out as they came out, I’m not sure I even know what they mean. But I feel like they made sense, so that’s what they are. There was something spiritual about the chords, the repetitive nature of it. For some reason I equated my own sense of spirituality and a sense of the infinite through the means of our senses. So “I feel the infinite touch, I see the unending everything,” that’s how we connect with one another through the senses, but that spiritual thing we are connecting with is the infinite.
The music video for “E-meditation” is pretty wild too, featuring an animated zoom out of a couple having a picnic, and then a zoom in on the same couple down to a microscopic level. Can you talk more about the footage used for this video?
AG: Yeah, for that video I found an old digital copy of this film made in the ’70s titled, The Powers of Ten. After I saw it, I remembered seeing a remake of it at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum when I was a kid. I studied physics in college and have been always drawn to science, that method of learning things. I remember seeing that particular IMAX and being filled with a sense of wonder. I think when I found it again there was a similar sense in the song. “E-meditation” is trying to express a similar sense of wonder that I felt there. When I made the connection, I knew that had to be the video.
Additionally, I’m really interested in the album artwork for Cosmic, which appears to me as a Bernini sculpture in front of a solar eclipse. It’s kind of an esoteric image and I wanted to know specifically how it played into the content and style of the album.
AG: The album artwork was done by a dear friend of mine. Her name is Abi Kallushi, a really fantastic artist. She did the artwork for our first album as well as some other albums I have made in the past. The way we do it is I’ll send her the finished album and she’ll send me a bunch of images–I’ll say, “I like that one, can you change the font a little bit?” And that’s pretty much how it’s done.
I’m not sure what it was that drew me to that one, but it fits the tone, it fits the music. I like the classical nature of the statue, it evokes a former time. I think the album has a thread of traditional songwriting, while the space and the eclipse evokes a broader, maybe psychedelic expansion.
Cosmic’s most recent single, “Respectably, Desperately” features a really gorgeous horn section led by Jonathan Parker. What was the process like writing and recording that song?
AG: Yeah, JP was playing in the band for a while. He recently moved to Brooklyn, but his specialty is really in jazz octet. He has an octet with a five/six piece horn section. I sent him a demo of the song and asked him to arrange it–he wrote this beautiful arrangement. He drew up the charts, called up three of his guys, went into the studio and put the charts in front of them. In two takes, that was the song. It was pretty impressive to watch.
Did Jonathan Parker write any other arrangements for the album?
AG: The album opens with a horn intro, which he arranged, and there’s another song, which didn’t make the cut of the album but we will probably release in a few months on an EP, called Anhedonia, which was the original title of the film Annie Hall. It’s a medical term meaning the inability to derive pleasure from things usually found enjoyable.
Can you talk about some of the other personnel featured on Cosmic?
AG: Yes, so on drums we have Leah Gage, who you may know from BRNDA and Stronger Sex, a really fantastic drummer who just has a great sense of music in general and great sense of musical taste. Aaron Glaser played bass (one of my favorite bass players) Nick DePrey on keys, really fantastic piano player. Most of the songs we recorded drums, bass, guitar, and keys all in a room, live, and banged out the majority of it in two days at Lighthouse Studios with Peter Larkin.
It’s been two years since There Is Nothing To Fear came out. Were you writing sporadically over those two years, or was there a motivating factor that lead to the writing and recording of most of the content on Cosmic?
AG: So in a lot of ways I feel There Is Nothing To Fear strives to be big and bombastic, and I think this album strives to be small. Those kinds of songs required a specific group of people, like Leah, Aaron and Nick.
But in general, I don’t know. The songs kind of just come out as they come out, and you can choose to pursue them or not pursue them. I try not to force a square peg in a round hole, so to speak.
Did you find yourself shifting to certain inspirations to create a psychedelic feel for this album?
AG: When we initially started recording, the phrase I had in mind was, “if you had a dream of George Harrison playing country songs.” But I don’t think that’s what the album ended up being. I think I also wanted it to feel like The Band in that it felt warm and organic, like people playing live in a room together, while also incorporating interesting textures and sounds.
You have an album release show at St. Stephen Church that’s being booked as an “audio visual experience featuring Zak Forrest.” Can you speak more to what we can expect at this show? How will the sounds and images play together?
AG: Zak and I are putting together a visual component to the music, which Zak is doing through his incredible laser-projection system that he has devised. He’s a really interesting guy who has done some really interesting things with lasers and sounds….the visuals will be there as an accompaniment to the music, the visuals exist to amplify the mood.
After the release, what else can we expect from The North Country in 2017 and onwards?
AG: Yeah, we’re playing a bunch of shows out of town and we’re going on tour, playing a bunch of places in Western Massachusetts, hitting Richmond and Baltimore. And we’re working on new material already, like right now, which we’ll be playing at the album release show, too.
The North Country will celebrate its album release show tomorrow at St. Stephen Church. Doors 7 p.m./Tickets $15