MUSIC AS CONVERSATION Hiss Golden Messenger

Erstwhile
The Court & Spark frontman MC Taylor’s new message sounds golden.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

The way MC Taylor sees it, he made life-long friendships and
enduring musical connections in his previous band, the critically acclaimed San
Francisco-based The Court & Spark. Other than that, though, “everything
else about that band was a failure.”

 

A harsh verdict, yes, and one that sidesteps the varying
quality of four full-lengths of roots-tinged, ‘70s-flavored rock TC&S made
— but an accurate verdict nonetheless by almost every other “success”
yardstick. Typical of the band’s fortunes, for instance, was a 2006 four-act
bill in Charlotte, N.C. – including Dead Science, Carla Bozulich’s Evangelista,
and Shearwater — that this writer and maybe a dozen others enjoyed in a club
that can hold 1,100 people.

 

“The show that you saw us play, that was the story of that
band, really,” Taylor
says now, with a rueful chuckle. “Low turnouts, long drives, playing to nobody,
not selling any records, the people in charge of selling our records having no
idea what we were trying to do.”

 

So Taylor, now 36, did what you do in the Internet-era: He
disbanded and turned to a self-contained project that costs him much less,
rarely plays out or tours, and runs at its own pace while hewing to its
artist’s vision more so than ever before. Now operating under the spiritually
significant moniker Hiss Golden Messenger, and celebrating a wonderful new
release called Poor Moon (his fourth full-length
as HGM), Taylor
has come to terms with the place music holds in his life.

 

“I’m making this music primarily for myself,” says Taylor. “My illusions of
making a living off of music are sort of gone – if they’re not gone, it’s not
something I’m considering anymore. I have a different way of being at this
point in my life. So what I’m trying to do is make music that makes me think,
and that makes me work, and that makes me a better person beyond the music.

 

“Sure, I would love to make some money; I’ve been doing this
so long and only ever owed money, and
there’s something wrong with that equation. But generally speaking, if you take
away a heavy financial motivation and the allure of just being on stage and
being in front of people, which is really an incentive that can’t be discounted
for a lot musicians, just that sort of public recognition, I don’t really give
a shit about that anymore, you know?”

 

That’s not the only change Taylor’s gone through over the last five
years. He left the Bay area for North Carolina
and earned a Master’s in Folklore from the University
of North Carolina, Chapel
Hill. With the birth of his first child, Elijah, two years ago, Taylor’s shift to a more
home-based musical enterprise and limited release-runs made sense from every
angle.

 

His music certainly hasn’t suffered from its lack of outdoor
activity. The move to Carolina, with its
proximity to the wellsprings of rock music, has inspired Taylor to explore those elements in full and
leave others by the way (HGM’s 2010 record, Root
Work
, offers a left-handed hint). The first Hiss Golden Messenger release, 2009’s
Country Hai East Cotton, set the new
template by stripping back some of the dub and Krautrock references from The
Court & Spark’s moody and atmospheric country folk  for a more direct — if no less meticulously
crafted and textural — palate.

 

Focusing thematically on the spiritual search that often highlighted
Taylor’s work,
the results may sound like they tilt more rootsy now. But they still reflect Taylor’s broad crate-digger interests: the autumnal melancholy
of Bare Trees-era Fleetwood Mac; the laid-back
wah-wah of Topanga
Canyon and NoCal twang; the
warm, Obscured By Clouds and Spirit of Eden atmospherics; the
Traffic-like horn breakdowns; the occasional Canned Heat boogie flavors. Taylor’s laconic vibrato
carries over as well, as does his connection with TC&S alumni (and consistent
collaborator) Scott Hirsch and Tom Heyman.

 

That collaborative familiarity, and the music-wonk’s
inherent curiosity, is what makes HGM records such rewarding listens. In other
hands, those deep-catalog references and inspirations too often result in dusty
Smithsonian-worthy artifacts or, as is the case with young acts that haven’t
grown into their own sound yet, cheap knock-offs. For Taylor, it’s essential that HGM remain a
“contemporary concern” no matter how deep or obscure his music’s lineage.

 

“In the kind of realms of music that we’re working in,” he
says, “it seems like there is that Civil War re-enactment thing that can
happen, where you’ve got your bellbottoms, you’ve got your long hair and your
beard and your turquoise jewelry, and then the music starts and it’s like, ‘wait
– that’s it? That’s all you’ve got?’ So I’m not interested in re-enactment at
all.”

 

It seems strange then at first glance that, for Poor Moon,
Taylor has hitched his wagon to the North
Carolina start-up label Paradise of Bachelors, his
first label since The Court & Spark days. The label’s purview, after all,
began as an archival house. But in choosing Poor Moon as their first
contemporary release, the label owners – run by Jason Perlmutter and Brendan
Greaves, the latter a fellow UNC folklore alum – chose wisely not to become an
artifacts-only factory themselves. Their mission, Greaves wrote in the latest
issue of the Carolinas’ music quarterly Shuffle, is dedicated to “releasing under-recognized musics of the Southern
vernacular, regardless of vintage.” Their offer didn’t come as a big surprise,
says a thankful Taylor.

 

“Those guys are encyclopedias of music, so I can actually
sit down with them and we can really, really geek out,” he says, insisting that
both label owners are just as well-versed on contemporary music, too. “That’s
something that’s very important to me in my life. That’s something I like. That
knowledge isn’t something that I lord over people in any way, but it’s part of
what gets me off. I like to talk about weird stuff, I like to acknowledge this
sort of obscure music in my own way in my own music.

 

“If we think of music as a conversation over time, then I
need to be doing that to keep my music in touch with the past and what’s to
come.”

 

***

 

Note:
If you’re in the North Carolina region, the
release party for
Poor Moon will be held at the Nightlight in Chapel Hill
on Saturday, Dec. 10. Opening will be Lambchop guitar whiz William Tyler,
who’ll also be sitting in with Hiss Golden Messenger.

 

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