Two weeks ago I went to see David Stith perform at Chicago's Empty Bottle. Though his demeanor was unassuming, just sitting down with his guitar, there were times when his three-man band seemed a full orchestra— quieting the prattling crowd with their ethereal tones. Between songs he seemed tired, as he should be; in addition to playing shows he teaches foundational sculpture at Indiana University and is working on his MFA in graphic design there, as well. Not to mention producing one of the most celebrated albums of the 2009, Heavy Ghost, released on Sufjan Stevens's Asthmatic Kitty label.
I had the chance to talk with him on the phone several days later, after he'd spent the previous night getting bloodied up in a bicycle accident...
Fire of Birds from Heavy Ghost by DM Stith is used with permission.
DM Stith: I hope you don't mind— I'm eating breakfast while we talk.
Wunderkammer: At noon? I'd like to be eating breakfast right now, too. Did you just get up?
DM: I got up at about 11:15. Late morning.
WK: Did you get some good sleep though?
DM: Yeah, I did. At 4:30. I feel rested; I feel good. All that's left now is to do laundry—my sheets are soaked in blood.
WK: Sleeping in blood, that's... that's lovely.
To get to it: how are you enjoying the success of your album?
DM: It's been great; really exciting. I've been so busy with other things. I'm at school now, so I'm only able to celebrate with certain people. Less with my family and friends, because I don't get to see them often. I'll get emails telling me I'm in NME or NPR, but I'll be on my way to work and need to put it out of my mind while I'm teaching or taking classes. I hope this summer I get the chance to read all of the press.
WK: So do your students know of your success?
DM: They know I'm a musician, and they know my record came out. For record store day, I did an in-store [concert] at Landlocked Records here in Bloomington. Several of my students came and were a little creeped out, I think, at seeing their teacher sing. They told me they called their friends in Italy to find out if they got my record. And they tell their parents about me, I guess. What do they call me? I don't know... um.... “Rock Star Teacher”?
WK: Rock Star Teacher, wow. You have an international following—are you looking forward to your European tour?
DM: Yeah, actually in Europe things are going much better than here. Sales are much higher. The press has been more consistently positive. I mean, it's been great here, but it's been phenomenal over there. I'm gonna be playing to audiences that are specifically there to see me, which will be a new experience.
WK: Why are Europeans connecting so well with your music?
DM: I think that's how music trends are. I don't think they usually match up in Europe and America. The big records now are from Animal Collective and The Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear and those albums, for whatever reason, aren't as well received in Europe. Maybe it's just the different pop tradition. They had the Monks forming things in the sixties, and we had bands that were smaller. They have more of an acceptance to classical gestures in pop music—like string quartets and the like. To them that still means something. Whereas, over here, those become just another production technique. At least that's the sense I get. I don't know. I don't really know how to speak about it. I've been trying to figure it out, and I don't have the answer.
WK: So here you are written off as weird and over there it's more accepted?
DM: Yeah, that's a good way of putting it. It's really interesting. Actually, a lot of reviewers have used the word “weird.” Probably a third, which I feel is an extreme number. It's such a stupid word: weird. It doesn't describe anything, but a lot of people here have resorted to it. “Well this guy is sort of other-than. Just different.” There, in Europe, they've been much more descriptive. In Germany, of course, they're inventing new words. And the French... the word over there that everyone is using over there is “angel,” or “angelic.” They're treating it like it's heavenly. Pristine.
DM: Yeah, sacred, but here it's just weird. It's certainly a line that I want, but it strikes me that America has chosen weird and Europe has chosen angelic.
WK: That's gotta be exciting to go over there then.
WK: Um, go ahead, sorry.
DM: Oh, I was just eating something. [laughs]
WK: Heh. Alright, so why did you call your album Heavy Ghost?
DM: I didn't know what I was going to call it right away. I waited until after I'd mixed the record. I think it was even after I mastered it, another three weeks. We finished mixing it at the very beginning of July, and we mastered it at the end of July. I was throwing around a bunch of names—I started by making a long list, about fifty names. A lot of them took lyrics from the record and from the EP. That's where Heavy Ghost came from—the last song on the Curtain speech EP. It came out in December and had the line, “Heavy Hammer, Heavy Ghost, fire bird, fire bird.” Originally, the title was “Heavy Hammer, Heavy Ghost.” I sent the names to my friend Michael, who runs Asthmatic Kitty, and he latched onto Heavy Ghost right away. Initially I rejected it because I didn't know what it meant. To me, now, it means something very specific: it means finding a body. It means making things real, in a way. Which is what I felt what I was doing: I was trying to find my body. I was trying to find connection. I think I have always felt a bit like a drifter. By doing this, by deciding to make a record, to get someone to put it out, publish it, and publicize it, to answer phone calls [laughs] and talk about my record, to tour and play live—all things I had never done before—I was making that choice, to make it real. To me, it was a little like committing to...um...being accessible, being a physical being.
WK: Throughout the album, you use symbols like fire and water and when you say “the body,” you seem like you're disconnected from your own body. Were you using these words to create an arc to develop throughout the album, or did it just happen?
DM: It all sort of happened, but there is an arc. I think the micro-process, for me, has been: “let anything happen.” But I was very interested in shaping the record as I went. I say, “The body, the body” in “Pity Dance,” and I'm talking more about a group of people. I grew up in a Christian family, and they would always talk of the Church body and that's what I'm singing about there. So, the arc that I was going for had a lot to do with my creative process. I was struggling with writer's block last fall, not this past fall, the one before—just before I started writing the record. I had been told that I should make a record, but I hadn't been told that it would be put out by anybody. It seemed to be completely inhibiting my creative mind. I couldn't sit down and make anything. I didn't know what to make and I was worried about what people would think. I had this fear and, consequently, I wasn't sleeping well at night. And then I started reading. I was trying to understand what was going on inside me. So I read this book about the Internal Family System, which is a psychological method developed in the last 30 years. It says that we're all made up of a bunch of parts. Many people use it as a metaphor and others say it's more factual. It's a psychoanalytical method where a psychologist or psychiatrist sits you down and you look into your mind and you find other beings in you. These beings at some point in your life take over yourself and they change the way you behave in certain situations. It's used to explain phenomena like a return from college, visiting your parents and finding yourself lapsing into old vocabulary or acting like a child. It's as if we slip into roles, and the roles are explained by these other parts of self, those formed by traumatic events. We have a host of these personalities, and they argue and polarize each other and sometimes they work together. And the whole goal… this is really long. I'm sorry.
Pity Dance from Heavy Ghost by DM Stith is used with permission.
WK: Oh not at all, continue.
DM: The goal of the system is to meet and understand all of these parts that you're made up of and talk with them, to find out how they affect your life. Why are you angry when you talk to your boss? You find out when you can isolate the parts that are angry when you talk to him. Ultimately, and what I like most, you can't get rid of these parts. The best you can do is to try to make them work with each other and cooperate and then you have access to all of their special traits. For example, when I am recording, I feel like a child, in a way. My music writing brain may have some part associated with it which is a very young part, almost baby young. And it was a part that was afraid of failure. So, I have to convince that part, “we're just going to have fun. It's not about failure.” And if there's a general feeling of acceptance and joy, then creating is no problem. Is this making any sense?
WK: Sure, it's a fascinating concept.
DM: There's a lot of language in the album that draws right from all this; the second to last song “Braid of Voices” is entirely about that idea, the idea of accepting the experiences you are comprised of and that make you who you are. And “braiding them together,” letting them work together. That is what is important to me because that is how I am able to work. I make a sound, and even if it seems like an ugly sound initially, it's all about context. It's about the vocabulary around that sound. For me, the entire album is about accepting myself. That's the process that I was trying to go thorough. For me, it's evident in the record. I don't know what other people take from it.
Braid of Voices from Heavy Ghost by DM Stith is used with permission.
The lyrical content came mostly from dreams and memories and the like. As I was singing, these memories came back: biblical stories learned in church, memories of music from my youth. I had these memories that I was working with as I went. I put large pieces of paper over the walls of my studio or bedroom, and when I had one of these memories, or a vision, or I realized something about the way I work I would grab a sharpie and write it down on the paper. And so by the end of the writing process my walls were just covered in text and a lot of it was just trying to connect stories: why does that cloud formation mean something to me? And why does the sound of the water striking against a boat mean something? Why are these the memories that I kept? Songs like “Fire of Birds” and “BMB” and “Pigs” are taken directly from those sheets of paper. The album came from lining up these different memories and finding how they interact with each other.
WK: You've mentioned that on Heavy Ghost, a lot of songs are about the struggle of accepting yourself. There also seems to be a great deal of struggle with faith or God. Would you discuss this?
DM: I struggle with it. My family is very devoutly Christian; they're evangelical. I struggle with that. I have a hard time with it. The way I was raised, I was very, very sheltered. I've told many people I was shy. I was extremely shy. It comes from how I was raised. There was an emphasis on not speaking unless it was going to be the most important thing being said in the room. I struggle with Christianity not because of its tenets, but rather how I was raised in it. I think there may be some chemical imbalances. I begged my parents throughout middle school and high school for aid with it. You know, “I'm suicidal and I don't know what to do about it.” The only answer they had was, “Just pray about it and you'll be taken care of.” I can understand the beauty of that to them, but for someone like me, it wasn't enough. I'm through it now—I've faced it. But the rest of my family is still avoiding the idea. My family links many small things to their faith, that certain answers to life's problems are too worldly and don't respect the way God works and must be avoided. I think Christ's message was much simpler than that, simpler than many Christians make it. I don't consider myself a Christian, but I'm still very interested in the ideas. I feel I understand his message more now that I've given up going to church and trying to be good. [laughs]
WK: In your liner notes you wrote, “The necessary tension of a creative person is to forget your pursuer long enough to invent a thing you yourself pursue.” Is that pursuer God, or is that something else?
DM: I don't know. I like to think of it as God. I think I do believe in God. It's not something I think of until I am doing creative work and then there is a feeling, when I'm working, that I have let things happen rather than make them happen. At least, that's my experience. I've talked to a lot of people that have had the same experience. I think the creative experience is the only time I have this feeling of a “mysterious other.” And at first it's shocking to me that when I'm being creative these ideas are coming fully formed out of the air. It really feels like sort of a spooky thing. It's the anxiety of the entire creative situation that I feel as a pursuing force initially. Eventually I give up and let it happen, let that force exert itself and do what it does, whatever that might be. I even think in some way that is what I mean by Heavy Ghost—this sort of ineffable, scary thing.
WK: Do you think that's why you're able to enjoy your album a little bit more than other musicians? Because you don't think it's of you?
DM: Maybe, yeah, “Braid of Voices” and “Fire of Birds” were written in the last two weeks, as we were mixing. I had them started; I had recorded string parts, but I hadn't written any lyrics, and I had no melodies. It was coming down to the wire, and I had three days to finish these songs or else they weren't going to be on the record. And then a few days later, I had a finished record. It took me a few months to get used to the record: “What is this thing?” I try not to have any specific expectations of my work. I try to steer completely away from genre; genres aren't of interest to me. For me, it's about experimentation and surprise. I think that helps me keep my ego out of it.
WK: Have you enjoyed being a part of Asthmatic Kitty?
DM: Yeah, I totally love Asthmatic Kitty. I wouldn't have made the record if they hadn't asked. I don't know if there are many records labels that I would feel comfortable working on. Theirs is just the most approachable and encouraging and thoughtful. It's really great. It helps that people like Shara Worden [My Brightest Diamond], Rafter and Castanets, and Sufjan [Stevens] are also on the label. They are people that I admire musically and have learned to admire personally.
WK: A lot of them collaborated on the album with you?
DM: Yeah, I wrote string parts for Osso, the string quartet that Shara put together and that Sufjan used in Illinoise. I collaborated with all of the people that lived in New York while I was recording. And then Rafter mixed my records in San Diego; he contributed a lot to it, as well. There is an openness to it. I didn't know a lot of musicians, so I wanted to use people I had access to. A lot of it was Sufjan, I guess. He has an office space where he has a piano, a writing space. I didn't have access to a piano. He gave me keys to his office, and I did my string recording sessions there, and a few small other things; that's where I recorded him. The people at Asthmatic Kitty like to facilitate people; it's not just business. There is real desire to formalize the idea of a family. We all understand that it's hard. It's a hard business.
WK: How does your non-Asthmatic Kitty family enjoy your album?
DM: Oh, they love it. They don't listen to a lot of new music. I played a few of the new Antony [and the Johnsons] songs for them. I showed them some video. My dad was horrified by his voice. My mom was horrified by the rip in his shirt. She couldn't believe that he was performing with his shirt ripped. They don't really get new music. They love my record, but part of that is simply because I made it. I play them music I think is far more amazing, but their son didn't make it.
WK: Were they bothered by the themes?
DM: No. I think they can see it as a healthy thing. When I interact with them individually, one on one, I'm able to maintain myself; it's not the parts. When I talk to them individually, my ideas align with theirs perfectly. They understand what I think. When they are grouped together though, they get the “save our son from his liberal mind” mentality. But they have been very supportive. My mom said that for a while, she listened to my album twice a day at work, every day. They check in every other day to see if there is new press I can send to them. They love seeing those things, and they love telling people that I'm making music. To them, that's unexpected. I was the only “unmusical” Stith. I was the only Stith not into music. I was known by my family as “the shy one.” I was the one with no direction. Now they get to tell people I'm going to Europe to play to the crowds. They love it. They get a kick out of it.