LOMA’s brilliant debut was recorded in a remote house about forty-five minutes outside of Austin. The place is dubbed the Moon Phase, which is quite a far-out name for a farmhouse. But in this case, a very apt one. The record conceived here over the course of last year feels akin to some celestial body of sorts, with three satellites – Emily Cross, Jonathan Meiburg and Dan Duszynski – orbiting around it.
The rhetorical question of LOMA’s chimerical opening cut ‘Who Is Speaking?’ – written by Cross prior to the sessions – remains unanswered throughout. Instead, each musician transmits their emotions, instincts and concerns onto this uncharted world. Sounds and words grow, entangle and manifest on its fertile soil in surprising, sometimes confronting, ways. Musical terraforming, in a prosaic sense, was LOMA’s main objective throughout – if there was even an objective to begin with.
Which isn’t to say these deep and cathartic emotions weren’t reduced and broken down after breaching Planet LOMA’s atmosphere. In fact, such oblique playing field only compels its composers to – in some ways – be even bolder than within their own respective projects. Hypothesizing about life’s biggest choices and outcomes – like not wanting children or the prospect of dying – can potentially have a purging effect on the psyche. For one, it forces you to act. But sometimes it requires some distance from reality to take that leap of faith. In Twin Peaks for instance, local hotel mogul Ben Horne reenacts the Civil War, and depicts himself as Robert E. Lee, to get over his own depression. Of course, that’s a bit of an extreme example, but the point is: full immersion into a single, very specific thing can potentially unshackle a troubled mind.
A lucid dream can do that, or in LOMA’s case, making a breathtakingly rich record in this super intuitive way. But for Cross, who records under the moniker Cross Record, making an album was simply one of many preoccupations in a very restless year. Once she stepped outside of LOMA’s insular realm, she in turn became a caretaker for others, alleviating their fears, needs and desires. Signing up to become a death doula was like a self-imposed – but completely selfless – intervention.
Cross: “A death doula is like a death midwife, a person who helps you adjust mentally and spiritually to the prospect of death, just being there as a support system. I felt called to do this work. I was halfway in the process of recording this album when I started to train for it. It was right after my divorce from Dan, and I was doing a lot of reflection and therapy, thinking about my life. A good doula is like an empty vessel, being that person who can hold their worries, their emotions, their anxieties. I could talk about this for a really long time.”
It helped Cross in return as well: her strong desire to tend to others in such an arresting way has “fed every aspect” of her life, both creatively and emotionally. “I actually started my own business last year called Steady Waves End of Life Services, which is what I’m going to be focussing on after touring with LOMA. I started organizing these events called Living Funerals, for people who are not even necessarily dying. It’s basically for anyone who wants to have that experience. It’s all about going through this a simulation of your own death.”
Living funerals are already praxis in South Korea, Cross says, and that’s how she discovered them. “The government there actually uses them for their workforce and companies. It’s tool to help workers with their mental health, because the labour culture over there has such a high suicide rate. A living funeral helps employees realize that their life isn’t just a meaningless sequence of workdays. It helps people crawl out of some really dark places. I didn’t see anyone doing them in the US, so I started my own here. I hope to be focussing on that a little more (after touring), but for now, I’ve just been slowly rolling it out.”
Just like an ersatz funeral can pull someone from a deep bind, a band can exist for that very same reason. After one album, LOMA is still in this incorporeal flexible phase; it can become anything the core members wish. A clean slate. Bands that have been around for a number of years are more tethered to the past; tethered to expectation from their audience, and to themselves to some extent. That can feel like a burden. How can you keep that creative fire from dying? How do you keep your work meaningful in such rapidly changing times? Jonathan Meiburg, two decades in as the brains behind Shearwater, can empathize with those questions. The Shearwater catalogue is expansive, ranging from sparse, contemplative works (Rook) to visceral immediacy (Animal Joy). No matter the stylistics and perspectives explored, the inherent gravitas of Meiburg’s vocals always made Shearwater a familiar entity.
Shearwaters’s latest album, 2016’s Jet Plane And Oxbow, personified Meiburg’s synthesis of the bleak 1980s Reagan era. “It was this weird transitional time in music and it was that way politically too. Things got very dark. By the end of that year, it felt like all the anxiety of that record had come true. I didn’t enjoy being right,” Meiburg reflects over Skype. Fortunately, in the summer of 2016, before more darkness has set in, the first seeds for LOMA were already planted. Shearwater was on tour across Europe with Cross Record, who released their excellent album Wabi-Sabi that same year. Ever the curious, vigorous soul, Meiburg knew it was time for another a change of pace. He was drawn inexplicably to Cross Record’s more subdued, moonstricken spells. At the time of their tour together, Cross Record were still in their touring infancy, not tethered to the same expectation as Meiburg’s pivotal band. Beginning LOMA suddenly meant nothing was fixed. And therefore, the band became an opportunity for Meiburg to reinvent and reassess himself.
After standing on the soapbox for a good year, Meiburg wholly embraced the more impressionistic nature of LOMA. “I had to let go of creative control, which was mostly a pleasure… but every once in awhile I could feel myself resisting it. This record is so much closer to the ground (than Jet Plane And Oxbow). LOMA’s music concerns itself with human emotions like love, longing, and fear, but in a way that songs generally don’t treat those kinds of things. You don’t want your choices to just be ignorance and despair. Regardless of what’s going on politically, as terrible as Donald Trump is – the erosion of democracy, rise of fascism, and xenophobia around the world – people still have to live their lives. People still fall in love, break up, have children. You’re still finding your own way through all of it. Even against this grand backdrop of all this turmoil.”
It made sense that, with a mutual love for animals and nature, Meiburg, Cross and Duszynski would settle to someplace remote and rural, with no outer distractions. According to Cross, the writing dynamic between the three was mostly implicit. “All three of us had a strong drive to work. Specifically Jonathan and I, we’re both workaholic types,” Cross explains. “We both have an insatiable drive for productivity. I’m not necessarily saying this in a positive way. I think (working too much) can definitely make us feel bad. But there was no real separation from how we were living and how we were making music. Music was always our main focus. We would just be in the room, have food breaks, and then work on whatever we felt like. And it all kind of melded into one place. It felt pretty casual. I think that’s actually pretty miraculous. I’m pretty proud of that. Of course, it wasn’t always a super chilled situation. “
Cross is alluding to, among other things, her marriage with Duszinsky falling apart over the course of the year. “It was a very hard thing to endure, because sometimes it’s not clear how a relationship should be. I think everyone goes through that confusion sometimes, when you might need a really good friend. Even a best friend. But the line sometimes gets blurred a bit. You think: ‘Well we’re so perfect, we work so well together, maybe we’d be good as a romantic couple.’ And later you find out it only works so well when you’re just friends in a platonic sense. In a nutshell that’s what happened between us.” Cross considers working on LOMA, for the most part, a separate process from working out her personal life. “I mean, of course (everything we experienced outside of the recordings) made it in there somehow. I think you can’t completely separate the music you’re making from your experiences. But it wasn’t out intent to explicitly use that.“
“Like any work of art, making a record can be funny. It reveals itself to you over time,” Meiburg ponders. “I didn’t even know the divorce was happening until Dan called to let me know. By that time, the record was about two-thirds of the way done.” Meiburg says it briefly hung in the balance whether LOMA would actually finish the album after the divorce. But he’s relieved the three of them decided to push through. “When I listen to the record in hindsight, I hear this tension, the kind of tension you feel when you're in the midst of a breakup. You feel this friction between the person you used to be and the version you are going to be. They pull you in opposite directions, and it almost feels like you’re being torn in half, which is uncomfortable. But ultimately, it can make you feel very alive too. ”
By embracing the act of creating itself over a results-driven mentality, LOMA’s music sounds exotic. Even though the sounds come from grounded objects and physical spaces, these songs feel more like a proxy of reality, rather than, you know, real. ‘Sun Dogs’ shimmers like the spiritual successor of Talk Talk’s ‘The Rainbow’, embracing silence to further magnify the music’s Gordian majesty. But not everything on the album sounds pristine: there’s plenty of discord and decay as well. For instance ‘Relay Runner’, with its erosive pulse, evokes a machinery of sounds that feels very much anatomical. Despite scrapping the melodic piano motif the song was written around, it’s LOMA’s most accessible and (arguably) experimental track at the same time, oddly enough.
All these intricate sonics, both calculated and accidental, were conceived within the most “economical” of means. Meiburg describes some of these aural excavations in detail: “Very quickly, we started chasing sounds that were interesting, regardless of where they came from. There was one, the pots we used to cook breakfast in, four of them, they all sounded really neat when you hit them with a certain mallet. So we used those. There’s a chair solo on ‘White Glass’. You hear this squealing sound, like someone blowing into a saxophone or something, but that’s, in fact, the sound of a chair being dragged across the concrete floor. And it holds this beautiful note. The feeling of the sessions, in general, was basically: everything was permitted. ”
One of the recurring sounds were the dogs that lived around the house. “If you start recording when dogs are around, you live in constant fear of them walking through the equipment,” Meiburg recalls. “But the three of us decided: well, fuck it, we’re going to go about it the opposite way. If the dogs made a sound during a recording we had to include it, no matter what. That’s why the dogs keep popping up throughout the record.”
Field recordings of the direct environment instilled a tangibility to the album, a sense of time and place that would otherwise be lost. “My favorite aspect of it is that I can really feel the surroundings, the environment of the record. Because we used so many sounds, I can really feel the places present. I can hear the wind, I can hear my dogs, I can hear the dried grass, the frogs,” Cross tells us. She can’t even recall anymore who exactly played what on the record. But instead of hoarding ideas, everyone was decisive enough to propel things forward smoothly. Meiburg: “We joked about that each of us represented the three branches of the government. I think we decided that I was President, Dan was Congress, and Emily was the Supreme Court.” Meiburg explains how this rock-paper-scissors dynamic allowed the songs to take shape fairly quickly and organically. “There was a sense that this synergy wasn’t going to last, that we needed to capture it while we still could. It had a fragility to it. We would often not even talk about what we were making. We didn’t want to jinx it.”
Some collaborations were more concrete than others. Meiburg: “I played a lot of the drums on the album. I’m not nearly as good a drummer as Dan, but he very patiently edited some of my drum parts. Dan can play rings around me on every instrument, but he kept encouraging me to play, and then he would edit it down. It was not only fun for me, it made me do things I would never do ordinarily.” The dynamic between Meiburg and Cross is equally compelling, if not more so. Instead of writing lyrics for himself, Meiburg wrote them to accommodate Cross’s voice. Or, more specifically, the voice Cross chose for this record. Cross: “We accidentally recorded ‘I Don’t Want Children’ at the wrong speed. So when we put it at the right speed, my vocals were pitched down. It became this strange vocal take that sounds like me from the future. But also slightly like a man… it’s a very complex song if you really think about it critically. It’s funny because if a man says ‘I don’t want children’ it’s entirely different than when a woman says it.”
Meiburg: “We actually slowed her voice down on most of the record. But Emily’s reaction when listening back was fascinating. She immediately told us she identified with this voice more than her own. I loved that; it’s just not what most people would do. So we proceeded to use that lower voice on almost every song. That gave us freedom to work with this third character that was somewhere between Emily and me, but at the same time neither one of us. I think of ‘I Don’t Want Children’ as a love song. It’s weird, I was talking to this interviewer the other day who thought of it as a breakup song. So music can become like a Rorschach Test, depending on who’s listening to it. But to me, this song is about several different kinds of love.“
Like any great lyric, ‘I Don’t Want Children’ can hold a prismatic quality that can be interpreted from radically different angles. Both Meiburg and Cross were both acutely aware of this when the song manifested out of thin air. “Maybe it’s changing now, but the general thought is: it’s bizarre that a woman wouldn’t want to go down that path,” Cross muses. “Maybe she’s isn’t sure, she will eventually change her mind… she will regret it. It’s interesting that this decision is regarded as a strong statement. In my opinion, there are much stronger things one could declare, things that aren’t viewed as extremely by society.”
“I just never heard it expressed in a song before,” Meiburg weighs in. “A friend of mine looked it up, and there’s no song ever recorded or registered called ‘I Don’t Want Children’. But that song is not a manifesto about not wanting children, it’s about all the feelings that come with it. The thing about that decision… it’s a life decision that’s binary in nature. You can’t – kind of – have children. You either choose to have them or not. But the character in the song has made that choice. By describing it, it brings to light all those complexities that come with making that decision.” Cross: “It’s such an interesting song: even though the words came from Jonathan, I interpreted them in a way that’s maybe different for him. But I also really related to the words, singing them with a conviction that comes from my own mind.”
Meiburg could finally relinquish the weight of his own voice, channel it through Cross’s and hold his thoughts into a different light. And by doing so, free up more creative and intellectual space for his many other interests. Duszinsky’s deep friendship and creative partnership with Cross survived, even if their marriage did not. And Cross eventually reawakened, and found a new purpose in her life. Furthermore, the band is still evolving as we speak, with touring members Emily Lee and Matt Schuessler bringing their own flavour to the table.
Ultimately, LOMA became a place – a process – of letting go. Meiburg: “That’s the wonderful thing about working on a record, and what makes art so addictive. It understands things you don’t even understand yourself. It’s bigger than you, smarter than you. The more open and receptive you are to it, the more you can serve as a channel for the energies around you, instead of imposing whatever it is you think ought to happen.”
Loma is out now via Sub Pop. For information about LOMA, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit: Bryan C. Parker