Samara Lubelski: In The Valley

Navel-Gazers #35 is an interview with Samara Lubelski who is going to talk to us about In The Valley. Released in a limited edition in 2003, this was an early experimental solo album from an artist probably better known for hazy, psychedelic pop. And for our discussion here on Navel-Gazers, I was tempted to cover one of her more user-friendly albums such as Spectacular Of Passages or Parallel Suns, perhaps as a subtle concession to our readers but as much as I love those records, something about ‘In The Valley’ beckons me stubbornly and demands the treatment. As its title suggests, this is music which occupies its own niche, seeming to transact in a language all of its own, while never quite eschewing melody or harmony or losing track of the listener. Over the short course of its 6 tracks we’re witness to a procession of various sounds and textures all of which are distinctive, and most of which are the kind which make one ask: what’s that? Samara herself will need little introduction to many of our readers, with a prolific career reaching back to the early 90s.. certainly if you ever frequented the scene in New York chances are you’ve seen her live or heard a record where she plays the violin. Yes, I’m guessing she has some stories… let’s go down in the valley….

AC: Thanks for joining me on Navel-Gazers! So… 2003, it seems as good a place as any to start. It must have been an interesting time to play music in New York. What do you remember about that period? What was going on in your life at the time?

Samara Lubelski: Thank you for asking to do the interview and the lovely intro.

There was a lot of transition going on in 2003. Hall of Fame (my band of the previous 7 years) was breaking up and finishing a last LP (Paradise Now). The Tower Recordings were also pretty much broken up. I had spent the winter and spring of 2001 - 2002 at the Metabolismus hq in southern Germany. It’s a farmhouse with an attached studio in a small village. I started tracking the first solo LP, The Fleeting Skies, there. I had learned enough at the Metabolismus studio to track on my own and when I returned to NYC, Nicolas Vernhes, from the Rare Book Room in Brooklyn invited me to continue working there. I think I spent a lot of 2003 doing that - more tracking (including 'In The Valley') and generally learning the ins and outs of the studio. I remember going to see White Magic quite a bit. It was a great band and Andy MacLeod’s guitar playing sometimes reminded me of Lee Underwood (of Tim Buckley’s recordings).

AC: White Magic was a great, Jefferson Airplane-esque band!

Samara Lubelski: Yeah, I’m a fan of The Great Society - As Often As I May, and that wild cover of Nature Boy always get me.

AC: So that studio, does it still exist and is/was it actually a rare book room?

Samara Lubelski: The Rare Book Room had two locations, neither was an actual rare book room. The second one was a former factory in north Williamsburg. Nicolas Vernhes has since moved the studio to the California desert.

AC: Let’s talk about ‘In The Valley’. What’s the background, where did it start, what came first? Had you set out to make a specific album?

Samara Lubelski: Yeah, So I had learned a bit about engineering and Nicolas left me on my own at the RBR to figure things out, and I was doing overdubs on The Fleeting Skies. Matt “MV” Valentine, from The Tower Recordings, and I were quite tight (still are). We had done a lot of home style playing and I had been in The Tower Recordings since the late 90s. Since I had studio access, MV asked if I would like to do a solo violin record for C.O.M. - his CDR label with Erika Elder. We would record at the RBR, I would engineer, he would produce, and the violin would be the only instrument. The rec was meant to be improvised and MV would give me constructs on the spot, i.e. improvise a piece using only particular notes or do a percussion track only using the violin.

AC: Wait so are you saying the entire thing is single takes on violin? If so that’s quite a revelation as the soundscape seems very layered and only occasionally sounds like a violin!

Samara Lubelski: Oh, sorry, not at all. There were loads of overdubs, but if memory serves me right, apart from the vocals on All the Tired Horses, and the vibraslap, all the sounds came from the violin and all tracks were improvised first takes.

AC: It’s still surprising to me as I’d not even recognised most of the sounds as violin. For example at 1:04 of I Love Thowlth there’s a sound I could swear was…. a bass clarinet? What is that??

Samara Lubelski: 'I Love Thlowth' is a composite of all/most of the other pieces on the record. Most of the sounds are backwards, slowed down, or heavily effected.

(interjection from Matt Valentine): wow early aughts, that was a long time ago...hard to flashback there when a being was just reacting. i remember being deep, immersed and immediate. pretty sure knobs on lexicon PCM 42 were grooving in real time to get that sound while samara was doin her thing, extended technique style. maybe stacked with a memory man/varispeed...

AC: Ah that explains it. Thanks for bringing in Mr MV here!

Samara Lubelski: ..the work was very focused. I would go in ahead of MV to make sure everything was working technically, he would arrive and give me instructions for the next piece, and I would set up and play. He knew my playing well and had always been very good at drawing the best out of me. He chose 'All The Tired Horses' to cover. I went in ahead and did the “string section”.

MV had an excellent vision, and grip on the whole record, and we never went down any rabbit holes. I don’t recall the exact timeline, but I think it was a week or so in total. I found myself dreaming about the sessions in between.

AC: Intense.

Yeah another track that’s got a lot of unusual sounds is Speedway of the Winged Shuttle…, there are springy bits, squeals, thumping sort of like a tabla.. what a trip! What can you tell us about this one?

Samara Lubelski: The tabla sounds are def me tapping the violin body (with pick-up attached). There were no windows at the RBR and it was easy to lose track of time/place and slip into the zone.

(interjection from Matt Valentine): we left alotta live mics up and on. i love the incidental sounds on this & i always love the vibraslap photo bomb. king tubby at the controls was channeled to the heart of the moon. you are THERE vibe

AC: Indeed Matt! So Samara you mentioned earlier that you’d done a lot of “home style” playing. The term caught my eye, could you elaborate on it? Do you just mean playing at home or are you referring to some sort of ritualistic practice, or perhaps some local cuisine?

Samara Lubelski: In the late 90s/early 2000s, I lived in the Lower East Side (NYC) with Theo from Hall of Fame.

We had a small railroad apartment in a very run down tenement (drugs dealt, bathtub in the kitchen, many vacant apartments). One room was dedicated to playing. We had loads of instruments, amps, drum kit, and a Tascam 4 trk. We played and recorded every day and never got any complaints. We also cooked a lot and were record fiends. MV had pretty much the same vibe going on about 8 blocks west and north in the East Village. We did a good bit of 4 tracking (and some 8 tracking), eating, and listening to records at each other's homes. MV turned me on to Tyrannosaurus Rex - one of my many debts to him (and I still live in that same apartment).

AC: How serendipitous you mention Tyrannosaurus Rex, I literally just walked past Marc Bolan’s childhood home - he grew up around the corner from where I live in London. Those records are incredible and I hear the influence on your work.

Samara Lubelski: Very cool. I've heard it said that coincidences are in affirmation that one is in doing the right thing at the right time.

Did you read the Tony Visconti book? He wrote that Bolan was the most talented of all the musicians he worked with.

AC: I’ve not read the Visconti book, that’s counter-intuitive and fascinating!

So those 4- and 8-track recordings, what became of them? Any old shoeboxes we should know about or did everything get released?

Samara Lubelski: Hall of Fame had the 4 track always recording when we played. The cassettes and reels were culled through pretty carefully. I believe almost everything of merit was released - primarily on the first three Hall of Fame records, though, there might be a couple of HOF goodies that didn't make it out at the very end. And there was some demo recording for what later became MV's Space Chanteys.

AC: I wanted to pick up on another comment of yours from earlier - you said you lived in a “railroad apartment”? Do you mean like in Annie Hall with the train rumbling overhead? New York is so loud, has the urban racket ever been a logistical consideration on your recordings?

Samara Lubelski: No, a railroad is an apartment where the rooms are in a straight line - no hallway. I don't live next to the train, but have a few friends whose spots are tuned into those sounds. The tenements were pretty cheap housing back in the day (late 19th/early 20th century), and low on privacy. In terms of exterior sound, the street I live(d) on was pretty much a no-man's-land, and quiet by NYC standards. HOF had a Radio Shack PZM - a room mic - and we were into picking up on extraneous sounds and playing off of them when they showed up. Most of HOF was momentary/improvised playing and somewhat subject to our environment - particularly the feel of a room.

Most of the solo records were done in south Germany (in a valley) and highly influenced by the surrounding countryside. In The Valley was recorded in that large, concrete room with no windows. Sometimes during the sesh we would shut the lights and get extra zoned.

AC: You mention you were "in the valley" at Metabolismus in Germany, I suppose you're drawing a connection to your title. The titles here are really evocative: Odyssey Rider, Cave Dweller Open Your Door! etc., where did they come from? Generally speaking, how do you approach the framing around a record: titles, visuals, presentation? Is that stuff important to you?

Samara Lubelski: Yeah, the Metabolismus studio in Degenfeld, Germany. It's a bit of a drop-out scene with an escapist and adventurous mind set - surrounded by some pretty sophisticated technology (and mountains). I thought the In The Valley recordings went to that feel as well, and the titles tried to capture that, though 'Cave Dweller Open Your Door' was more of a "hey man, let's get out of the dark and join the human race" kind of thing.

Yeah, all presentation is a very big deal for me, both as creator and receiver. The art, language, and the music all make up a particular time and space - a world you're living, either in fantasy or reality, that you want to convey. The record covers that I've usually been most intrigued by are the mysterious and/or slightly edgy ones. MV and EE did all the art for In The Valley.

AC: Kudos to both.

The culture of recording and releasing music has certainly changed since the days of ‘In The Valley’. Production, distribution, everything’s treated as instantaneous and effortless now so the amount of material getting chucked out there can seem overwhelming. What’s your take on this brave new digital world? Are these ultimately positive developments?

Samara Lubelski: I don't think it's positive or negative - more of a continuation of how it's always been - that constant symbiosis between music and technology - both adapting to the tools of the trade. Great studios sound incredible, and a total turn on to work in, but can be intimidating and unaffordable. I've experienced a fear that I would lose control over the intimacy of the work in those spaces - that the connecting threads between players and the music would be cut or diminished. Even live shows could wreak havoc on some projects. That particular sensitivity to the moment, and the desire to protect it, resulted in some very lo-fi work amongst me and my peers (but no holding back on choosing to release it). Yes, tape has its stunning warmth, but I believe in a by any means necessary approach, and digital has come a long way quality wise.

AC: Yeah I agree…. everything comes out in the wash really.

I never ask any artist this, the question always seems too generic but you come across as quite an avid music listener. What are some of your favourite records?

Samara Lubelski: Ahhhh, that's a tough one. I'm in a bit of a listening break, and this would be different if you asked for artists or songs, but some of 'em - in no particular order:

Le Stella di Mario Schifano - Dedicato A...
Love - Forever Changes
Margot Guryan - Take a Picture
Sagittarius - Present Tense
Beard of Stars - Tyrannosaurus Rex
Moby Grape - S/T
Fairport Convention - S/T
Gene Clark - With The Gosdin Brothers
Neil Young - S/T
Their Satanic Majesties Request - The Rolling Stones

AC: This is reminding me I lived in Philadelphia throughout the oughties, people were really dinging on stuff like above at that time. And the gigs… Arthur Lee doing “Forever Changes” at the Troc, Incredible String Band with Clive P at the North Star, Espers at the Khyber, Jack Rose at the Standard Tap.. it was all like some kind of time tunnel!

Samara Lubelski: I think I prefer the time tunnels in some ways...

AC: Same. Sometime back then you crossed musical paths with one of our other Navel-Gazers Graham Lambkin.. curious what you recall about that?

Samara Lubelski: I met Graham through Willie Lane (guitarist extraordinaire and fellow C.O.M. artist). Graham asked me to play on a track for Softly Softly Copy Copy. He sent it along and accompanied it with a very detailed and compelling backstory. In the end, the track that was released with the violin was something completely different from what he had sent. I thought it was impressive - to go that far to get the track he wanted. It was far outside my usual experience.

AC: Sounds cerebral... parallel universes collide!

Anyway we're well out of the valley now on tangents but before I let you go, one other question. Generally speaking, why do you do music?

Samara Lubelski: It's the ultimate turn on and the ultimate solace.

AC: Right on.

Well thanks very much for talking to me. Do you have anything current or upcoming you’d like our readers to know about?

Samara Lubelski: There are a few releases in the works. Live stuff - U.S. west coast recordings with Marcia Bassett from 2019, a trio with Bill Nace and Thurston Moore from The Stone (2018), and a solo live score for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

Thanks so much for asking me to do this - the pleasure was mine.

Samara can be found at her website and at Bandcamp.

Image credits

1) Matt Valentine
2) Samara Lubelski
3) Samara Lubelski
4) Steve Thornton
5) Samara Lubelski
6) Samara Lubelski
7) Tara Jane O'Neil
8) Samara Lubelski

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