MMM:042 – Justin Walter
When I first heard ‘Lullabies and Nightmares’ the 2013 debut LP from Michigan based artist Justin Walter I was stumped. There was something about the sound that was markedly different from anything I had heard before. I later discovered that Walter is an exponent of an instrument that would be considered unusual even to the most well learned of music fans such is it’s rarity. The Electronic Valve Instrument is a wind controlled analog synthesiser from the 1970s that is half horn, half synth. The Ann Arbor resident utilises both the EVI and trumpet in his live performances and studio recordings, looping and sequencing the instruments to incredible effect. Walter recently returned with his sophomore full length ‘Unseen Forces’, released on April 21 via legendary Chicago imprint Kranky. It truly is one of the finest works of the year to date and I am thrilled that Justin was happy to mark the occasion by putting together a selection of his own works, including some exclusive unreleased material.
Whilst Justin’s music might not immediately resonate as Jazz, it is within the improvisational ethos of the genre that his music emerges. Much like his debut LP, his second release ‘Unseen Forces’ focuses on improvisations and intuitive creative practices. Like many great artists Walter’s intuition is his greatest asset and the one which he builds out from. ”There was a definite process used to create this music but at no point was any music ever written or composed” he notes. What’s remarkable is that the results feel so beautifully balanced. Each particular sound has it’s own space to breath and yet there’s always an underlying energy compelling each track forward. The title track, an achingly elegant piece of music with desolate horn work set aside the most enchanting piano, showcases Walter’s immense talent to create deeply evocative and transcendent musical moments.
It is this track which opens his wonderful Métron Musik Mixtape. An irresistible sixty-plus minute compilation of Justin’s own music, including two tracks from the aforementioned new LP. As well as half a dozen tracks from his debut LP, including a live performance of ‘Dream Weaving’, and a number of unreleased cuts. It’s an exceptional body of work spanning half a decade or more. The beautiful tonality of the EVI evoking a sense of nostalgia throughout, that contrasts with the oft otherworldly nature of his soundscapes. We’re really honoured to be able to showcase Justin’s music and would encourage you to pick up his new release from Kranky or your local record store.
I got a chance to speak to Justin about his plans for 2017 and how ‘Unseen Forces’ came to pass. Check out what he had to say below.
Thanks so much for the mix – talk us through the process of selecting these tracks?
I’ve got most of my recorded music on a few different playlists in iTunes. I just went first thought best for this mix. I rarely listen to my older work, so it was actually really nice to go back and hear these songs.
Unseen Forces is such an incredible record, I understand that the record is built mostly on intuition and improvisation rather than traditional writing. What makes this approach appealing to you?
Thanks. I suppose it’s because I can. I mean, if you could just play the music you wanted to make, why bother trying to write it out so that you could read it at a recording session later? And also, the goal of all of this is to find, through experimentation, something that you could never have written anyway.
Is the title a reference to intuition?
The title is a pointer to that which is only felt. So yes, intuition is a part of that.
The title track, which you kick off your mix with, is one of my favourite pieces of music of the year so far, extraordinarily beautiful. Can you describe a little how that track came to pass?
Thanks. Sure. On a Saturday in August of 2015 I drove to Chicago and spent the day recording at the home of Erik Hall. He had just inherited his grandmothers Steinway grand and it was my intention to see what could come of using the piano as a sound source. I don’t recall if it was the first thing we recorded, it probably wasn’t. We recorded a LOT that day and this was the only thing that I continued to have an interest in. The rest is just part of the process. So I first played the intro, just some major chords. They sounded nice and I really enjoyed the feel and decay of the piano, very beautiful sounding chords ringing out. After that I sampled the chords and sequenced them. This process was random, as is the length of the sequence. We recorded a pass of the sequence and then I thought I’d do a pass with the EVI, which is what you’re hearing as synth bass. After that I thought I’d take a pass with the trumpet and that was that. Obviously I did a lot of mixing/production on those, but the material itself was recorded in three single take passes as simple improvisations. After sitting with it a bit I recorded the sequenced piano track through a tape delay and while it was recording occasionally ran my finger on the tape, but that to was random as I wasn’t listening to the music while it recorded. So then the original and new tape tracks were mixed in a way that I thought felt simple and musical. There were additional parts and layers that at one point I added but in the end it was the simplicity of the original recording that spoke to me.
The new record has this kind of loose, jazz like quality to it, which I guess might be a reflection of that improvisational process – I’m curious as to how much Jazz music has influenced your musical output?
Well I am a jazz musician. I’ve been actively playing jazz trumpet my entire life and am happily involved it the jazz community here in Ann Arbor. In my mind, this is a jazz record. To me, jazz is about exploration. In this world, we do have tradition and there is a lineage and language that we grow and hold on to. The way music evolves, what sticks and what get’s left behind. Also the feeling that this is the music I or we identify with. This music is a commentary on all of the music I’ve ever felt value in, most of which happens to be part of the jazz lineage.
What do you have planned for the rest of 2017 now that the record is out?
I do have a few shows coming up that I am preparing for, and a couple of recording projects that will start up in the fall, but what I’m really looking forward to is just walking through the woods and listening to the birds.
What have you been listening to lately and do you have any recommendations of some stuff that we might have missed?
My favorite album of all time is Mile Davis in Concert – My Funny Valentine. Everything you’d ever need to know about music is on that record.
Tracklist: (All tracks by Justin Walter)
Words & interview by Jack Hardwicke