Jeph Jerman: Soundhouse

Navel-Gazers #44 is an interview with Jeph Jerman who is going to talk to us about Soundhouse. Self-released exactly 20 years ago, it’s just one entry in a vast discography of DIY soundworks spanning back as far as 1981… yet it’s one which for me seems to stand out from the rest as though this is the eye of the hurricane. Perhaps it’s the trope of a “home recording”, a convention so familiar here at Navel-Gazers, which seems to resemble a whole new artform when processed through Jeph’s peculiar, observational sensibility. ‘Soundhouse’ unfolds over 65 minutes like an audiological survey of the titular house, with titles such as “Metal Bedframe In Shed” and “Amplified Soup” attributed to specific dates when each segment was recorded between 2001 and 2003. And while the house itself is ostensibly the main performer here, it’s always Jeph’s presence which breathes life into ‘Soundhouse’, not only audibly at certain points by his intermittent participation and manipulation of materials, but always in the more subtle formative elements of the composition: things like the selection of what and when to record, the positioning of the microphone, the arrangement, the titles, the visuals, the framing… those same essentials which make any album what it is. But then what is ‘Soundhouse’, really? Well let’s go to the source…

AC: Thanks for joining me on Navel-Gazers! 2001-2003, that was a particular era and a good place to start. What was going on in your life at that time? And where was the Soundhouse? Was it your house?

Jeph Jerman: i had moved from Seattle to Cottonwood Arizona in 1999, and spent a lot of time exploring the area around town. we're sort of surrounded by desert here, with a lot of old Indian ruins.

yes, it was the house i lived in for the first 6 or 7 years that i lived here. it was a tiny one bedroom cottage behind the main house at 1664 Camino Real, very close to the local high school, but not close to much else. it's sort of a "suburban" part of town.

I remember not being able to tolerate hearing music at all for quite a long period during that time. Whenever there was music playing it blocked out everything else that was going on. It seemed like an intrusion.

AC: Did you know anyone in Cottonwood? What was your intention in going out there?

Jeph Jerman: The only person we knew was my then girlfriend's sister, who had moved out there earlier and procured a place for us to live. we had driven through Cottonwood a few years previously and thought it might be a nice place to stay. we were both tired of Seattle-the rain, the traffic, the general running all the time. i guess that aspect of it outweighed the art and music scenes.

AC: Were you keen on the creative possibilities of being someplace more remote, or did that just happen?

Jeph Jerman: To be honest, I had thought about not doing any more creative work at all when we first relocated. that didn't last very long though. possibilities sort of presented themselves.

AC: It looks like ‘Soundhouse’ was around your 10th release starting from 1999. What was the nature of those other projects leading up to this one? Were you collaborating with anyone at that time or playing live at all?

Jeph Jerman: Perhaps the tenth release after moving to Cottonwood, yeah. I was very into doing serial projects for some reason. One was all recordings of abandoned buildings. I also made a series of 12 tapes, one for every month of 2001, each of which consisted of a field recording of one thing on each side of the tape. I'd pick a tree or other plant, or some man made structure sounded by the wind and record it uninterrupted for 30 minutes. I was collaborating with people through the mail, involved in various projects with Doug Theriault, and others with Eric Lunde. When people would come visit we'd often play together, too. Greg Davis would come hang out every so often. I've only ever managed to play live in town twice, there's no audience for what I do here. I may have traveled elsewhere to perform.

AC: How uninterrupted or unadulterated are the recordings on ‘Soundhouse’?

Jeph Jerman: they were not made sequentially. They were made at different times and collected together for that compendium. A collection of domestic recordings as it were. I did think of them as a series , yes. there is also a second volume which consists of longer recordings. The short bits on soundhouse were mostly edited from much longer recordings. A sort of overview. I didn’t do anything else to them though, no processing or anything.

AC: What caught your ear about the recordings? Because you use tape, do you find that you end up with something quite different to the original sounds?

Jeph Jerman: The overall sound puts me in mind of old radio broadcasts, and I really love that no-fi sound. Beyond that, I find the rhythms and timbres really interesting, they hold my attention. Especially now, while I've been listening to them again after 20 years. I'm also enamored of the fact that there is very little human agency at work, with the exception of my setting up the recording, and whatever incidental sounds I make. It's like paying attention to a small aspect of what's happening around you and amplifying it.

I just love the sound of cheap electronics. A lot of those recordings were made with crappy home-built contact mics. Some are straight recordings directly from the mic, and for some I attached the mic to something outside the house and plugged the cord into a small battery powered amp inside. I do this a lot, and have one set up in my studio. There's also a baby monitor in the garage that broadcasts to a receiver inside. It pulls in sound from the neighborhood, echoing off the houses and distorted by the device.

Having made recordings for a very long time now, I pretty much know what a tape recording is going to sound like, a flattened representation of whatever you point it at. I am sometimes surprised though, especially with recordings of live performances. I've also become very fond of malfunctioning recorders because it's harder to predict the outcome when I use one.

AC: The track “Two Amplified Long Strings” strikes me as different from the others. What’s the story with that one?

Jeph Jerman: That's two lengths of (I think) fishing line strung up between the house and the metal shed alongside it. Contact mics were clipped to them and again amplified inside the house. I've got a couple of recordings of that, using different thicknesses and lengths of string. It's something that I think could go on all day. It was my attempt to replicate the sounds made by an old telegraph wire that used to cross the highway between here and Sedona, which I had recorded previously.

AC: ‘Soundhouse Sunset’ is my favourite track here so I wonder if we could dissect that one too.. what sounds we’re hearing, what prompted you to record, where the device was positioned, anything else you recall?

Jeph Jerman: There were two amplifiers inside connected to two different outside sources, and a baby monitor. There are also sounds that I'm making inside, I think maybe I was starting a fire in the wood stove. You can hear the difference in sound quality between the distorted outside sources and the clearer inside ones. I also think I hear a camera shutter click at 1:23, which means I may have a photograph of the occasion somewhere. There is the sound of some appliance humming for a few minutes, I'm not sure what that was, possibly the refrigerator. I probably made this recording because it was the first day of the year and I wanted to mark it somehow. I used a really good professional cassette recorder to capture the sounds, but I don’t remember what mics I used, or where I placed them. Probably somewhere equidistant between the sound sources.

AC: So for our readers’ consideration, it sounds like you’re saying on both pieces you contact mic’d and amplified certain sounds, and then the device just picks those up from various vantage points as part of the Soundhouse soundscape, along with the other, non-amplified sounds. I find that quite inventive but is it a typical approach for you?

Jeph Jerman: Yes, that's right. I don't know how typical that approach is for me. It's just one way of working. My methods always grow from the situation, and I was enjoying the mix of sounds and wanted to document them.

AC: Next I wanted to ask about the cover image, what is it? I see a pinecone!

Jeph Jerman: You're seeing the image that's on the you tube video, yes? That's not my photo. It was uploaded by whoever uploaded the audio. I haven't a clue who it is. I can't remember if I actually sent out very many copies of soundhouse. That channel has a lot of my old work on it, and all of the accompanying photos are someone else's. Makes me wonder if they have physical releases or just files. In any event, I think it's great that all that old stuff is available somewhere for people to listen to.

AC: Yeah I was curious about the image on Youtube and figured that was the case, but I was actually asking about the image on Discogs.

Jeph Jerman: Ah, okay. That's a very large pine cone, that I sometimes play with a violin bow. There are also some desert grasses, a few pottery sherds, a prickly pear cactus pad, some large stones that I collected in a dry wash near Tucson AZ, a toy xylophone and a few shells. Those are all things I sometimes used to play, and used them in performance as well. I still use some of them to this day. That photo is one of many I took around that time, of things in the house, ostensibly to be used for CD-R cover images. All of the soundhouse CD-Rs had a different image on the front. My copy shows a very dim lamp in my darkened living room.

AC: You and I had a think about what album to discuss here. It’s dawned on me why I may have been drawn to ‘Soundhouse’… my own first experience with experimental recording was at this old house in the woods in a remote part of Vermont, at around this same time, 2001ish. Reminiscent...

Jeph Jerman: that's interesting. I'd love to hear more about that.

AC: …do you often get people who are drawn to some specific piece of yours which resonates with them?

Jeph Jerman: I'm sure that happens, though I can't think of anything or anyone specific just now. People have told me which work they first encountered. This can sometimes lead to very fruitful collaborations.

AC: Generally speaking how do people react to your work?

Jeph Jerman: Mostly favorably, some very enthusiastically so. I'm thinking that I generally don't hear from people who have a negative reaction though, so my perspective might be skewed.

AC: Maybe everyone just digs it!

Jeph Jerman: That would be nice.

AC: Well wrapping up here Jeph, it's been great talking to you about 'Soundhouse'. It's such a distinctive work, among many. Any further thoughts, or current or upcoming projects you'd like to mention at the moment?

Jeph Jerman: Thanks very much for your interest and enthusiasm Andrew. Had you not asked about this specific project, I probably wouldn't have delved into it as deeply as I did. It brought back things I hadn't thought about in a long time.

There's a lot of stuff coming down the pipe, but much of it won't appear for a while, and I don't want to jinx anything by talking about it too soon. The newest music I have out is a collaboration with Joachim Nordwall, called Topology (on New Forces). There is a tape that Ted Byrnes and I recorded, The Passenger (on tsss), which just became available. And Steve Jansen and I just put out a box set, released by his label Unhinged.

Jeph can be found at

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