Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tanakh Interview

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jesse Poe, the brain behind the aurally stunning band Tanakh, who currently reside in Florence Italy. For those of you who are not familiar with their catalogue, get going, it's truly shall I say it "Scrumtrelscent"! Not only is the music amazing, but he is one of the nicest individuals in the music biz to boot. Anyway below you can read through his answers to some questions I asked him regarding his roving collective of musicians (band), his upcoming album, and what it's like living in Italy.

IWAI - I feel obligated to ask the standard question, and get it out of the way. So how would you describe your sound to a new listener considering your aversion to genre definitions?

JP - That’s kind of tuff, we do a lot of scrambling of sounds and genres, and with each record it seems as if the music I write moves geographically and stylistically, but I guess at the end of the day it gets filed under pop music, but hopefully a pop that is passionate and wants to make the world more beautiful. The end sound is I guess a bit different for each listener, but I think it, regardless of which genre a certain song might adhere to, all has warmth and emotion and a lack of pretension or conformity to expectation… My main goal is just to make something beautiful and share it with other people, like photographs from a trip…you see something you think is incredible and you want to bring back a slice of it to share it with your family and friends.

IWAI - What made you decide to move from Richmond (Virginia) to Italy?

JP - I had always wanted to live outside the US for a stint to expand my life and experience, to really know the world a little better and hopefully myself too, and at the time in which I left, America, especially Richmond, wasn’t such a great place. Our lovely government was preying on the fears of everyone and playing with not only our minds, but in the end also our lively hood, by changing the terrorism levels everyday etc. I was working as a waiter at night and a schoolteacher by day. And people just wouldn’t go out to eat if the terror color wasn’t the “safe” color; I was sitting there in an empty 4 star Italian restaurant with no customers and therefore no tips, i.e. no money to pay the bills. Luckily I also taught school not that that pays well either, but then there was the sniper scare in the Richmond and D.C. areas, and if you remember he was leaving threats to strike at schools so no one was sending their kids to school (rightfully so) and the schools would be closed 4 days out of the week. Finally I just decided that if I was going to live off of air that I preferred to do it somewhere really beautiful and somewhere that even if I was doing nothing at least I would be learning and enjoying life with the people around me instead of staying home in fear….so I left.

IWAI - What is the best part of living in Italy?

JP - That’s a hard one, I guess, that everyday is a learning experience and a chance to grow, being that every little thing is so different from the US, I can’t imagine how different it must be to move to China or Somewhere completely different from the US. Plus all the little things like walking to work, good wine for cheap, great food everywhere, the passion that everyone puts into everything.

IWAI - How would you say the climate is for music in Italy right now?

JP - BAD! Especially in Florence, there is almost nowhere to play in Florence. There are in other parts of Italy like Rome and Milan, but not in Florence, and overall there is not the same culture for music that you find in the US, really apart from the UK there is no culture for music like what you find in the US anywhere, and it is the one thing I miss the most. You just don’t have bands in every garage and when you do find music it is usually classical or cover bands.

IWAI - Currently who makes up the core of the band?

JP - Right now there are 6 of us here in Italy that are the core, I can never forget the other guys back in the states who still record and tour with us, they are also a part of that core as well. The 6 of us here are Cosimo Santi (electric guitar), Fabio Mannelli (bass), Viola Mattioli (cello), Jacopo Salvatori (piano) and Nick Liceti (drums) the US family includes: Michele Poulos, Curtis Fye, Darius Jones, and then there are a faithful cast of many who are always there to join in like Phil Murphey and Paul Watson, etc.

IWAI - Aside from yourself and the current six-member core band, I know you collaborate with a myriad of musicians when you record, on average how many people are there on a Tanakh record?

JP - There are usually about 13 at the table.

IWAI - How do you record your albums? Do you tend to record the albums in a live setting or in pieces?

JP - Well, a little bit of both, it usually happens something like this, I spend the year writing songs, pare them down to 15 or so, do some crazy gig to make money like medical studies, or selling one of my toes, etc. and then we get together and I teach the songs to everyone, we all play around with them and fill them out which is always fun for me because I am finally able to hear a sax line I had in mind or drum beat, etc. so I sing the parts I had in mind for the others to play and they take that and form it into their own pieces with there own personality and style and then we sort of pare that down and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Then we go in and record it live, and after listening to it I go back and add lines and melodies that I hear and try and get the others to do the same, it is always a blast and a very non-stop creative atmosphere, I always have the last say on stuff but I never shoot down an idea, we just record it and then we listen to it together and we all give our opinions on what we think works and what doesn’t. In the end I feel more like a sculptor than a musician/producer because there are so many wonderful ways that you could form a song and often it is just sculpting away all the excess until you find the true form….sometimes you might try on a 100 little black dresses but it is only one and the right color of scarf that finally leaves the house with you. (Not that I wear dresses, but just as a metaphor).

IWAI - Do you find it hard to keep the collective going considering the size?

JP - Yes and no, because of its size it is impossible to keep up with everyone like I would like to, and never have all of the members been free to play at the same time, that would be a dream! But do to the size it is a little easier to get together a handful of us to jam…if there was just five of us then if one was missing it would be a bit crippling, but with so many of us, any five of us can get together and make something beautiful, and to be honest I like this sort of chaos or random selection, it seems more like what you do has a sort of fate to it, in that those who come to play bring their own gifts and personalities and the chemistry between us all changes with each addition and subtraction, it is really exciting!

IWAI - Do you all share the same focus on the music stylings, being more important than defining yourself in a genre?

JP - Oh, yes 100% we all have our own gods and obsession and directions, but somehow everyone can sit down and listen to a record together and if one of us LOVES the record you can be sure all of the others dig it too, it is cool.

IWAI - Being that you haven’t gotten over to the US [apparently not true!] to give us a live show, can you describe what a typical Tanakh show is like?

JP - We actually did a 28-day tour of the US in April and May of this last spring (IWAI - I had no idea and I'm really pissed I missed it!). It was a great time, we totally did it D.I.Y. and I would love to do it again, but with the costs being so high, I would have to find a booking agency to book the shows for us, know any? But a typical show has songs from all the records and lots of improv within those songs and from one song to the next, it is a big sound full of energy and passion, and usually a cover or two that I pull out of my ass and surprise everyone with (which they are not always happy about, but I love the immediacy of music and collaboration especially within the structure of a song!)

IWAI - I know that you have a new album coming out this December, what can you tell us about it?

JP - (here is a picture of it) Well it was recorded the week before Ardent Fevers, in the same studio, with the same engineer (Bryan Hoffa), and with the same cast of musicians including Isobel Campbell (Belle & Sebastian) and Alex Neilson (Jandek, Will Oldham, etc.), It’s called, Saunders Hollow, and it’s not a collection of out-takes from those sessions, but a fully realized sister record to Ardent Fevers. Growing out of the song-writing explorations of Michele Poulos and myself. Saunders Hollow is a record focusing on the songs of Michele, who gave them to me in the form of thumb-strummed singer/songwriter demos. The results form a female Yin to the male Yang of recent Tanakh work. From the opening seconds of my tortured guitar squalling to the final seconds of fading footsteps, bowed bass and saw that seal the record, it’s a million sounds all gently gelling into the world of sonic beauty like previous Tanakh records, except for one thing… in our ever changing exploration of sound we placed the lead vocals and songwriting in the ladybird hands of bassist and erstwhile backing vocalist Michele Poulos, which left me in the musician/producer seat, dividing Michele's previous backing vocal duties between myself and Isobel Campbell. What results is warm bouquet of songs that range from poppy-jazz, through renaissance remembrances, sweet folk, to dark drones and dreamy electronics and even straight up raunchy blues. Saunders Hollow is a place full of inviting mystery and rich texture, with musical twists and turns of every type, leaving the listener in a state of remembrance of all things past, like a stroll amongst Proustian Gardens. Gentle bass, scorching electric guitars, lilting tablas, Asian-strummed ukuleles, swirling electronics, lamenting violins, pulsing vibes, regal harpsichords, gospel organs and juke-joint pianos, sex-driven saxophones, folky acoustic guitars, sound-scaped lap steels, pulsing drums, and honeyed vocals grow together in an immense garden of sound and color that populates the dream landscape of Saunders Hollow.

It is being released on Camera Obscura a great indie-label from Australia
and you can check it out on their site and also on myspace at

IWAI - What five albums would you say you could not live without?

JP - Today? Or yesterday? (laughing!) I am a bit obsessed with music and listening to it, even while I am sleeping I usually have music on. If I had to pick one record it would probably be Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, then after that it gets really hard, off the top of my head, Happy Sad by Tim Buckley, Exuma Self-titled record, Ghost 2nd Time Around, and a mix of songs from M.Ward and Mojave 3.

IWAI - Who would you say is your largest influence musically?

JP - That is another one that changes daily, I love to take an artist I admire and learn 5 or 6 of their songs in one sitting and try to understand how they write and how they feel the music, and these change all the time. I was overly influenced by the big gods when I was younger like so many people were, I guess it is all part of growing up; those were Led Zeppelin, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Tim Buckley. But as I grew they changed with the weather. Everyone from Alice Coltrane to Bruce Springsteen. I think there is something to learn from everyone, and I love to learn, not to study, but to absorb, if your grandmother knows a better way to get stains out, I am excited to learn it.

IWAI - In general who proves to be your muse for the beautiful music you write?

Who? Wow, it’s too personal to say who, what is my muse is easier to answer….cause it is really a mix of both. “What” would be those little things that you can so easily miss around you daily yet are there none the less, there are so many things that are beautiful everyday that go largely unnoticed, a grandfather’s proud approving nod as his grandson explains the workings of his toys, the person who holds a door for another, a seat surrendered to another on a train or bus, a refection of light on a building, those sort of things and the time of day, for me the clock never touches a time more beautiful than the early morning and the late evening, so I strive for that sort of feeling in what I do.

IWAI - What was the last book you read?

JP - I usually read two or three at the same time I just finished Hammer of the Gods last week, and a new book by Chris Leo which was great, 57 Octaves, and returned to Numbers in the Dark (Italo Calvino) that I was reading before I got sucked into Hammer of the Gods and Chris’ book.

IWAI - What is your favorite book you’ve ever read?

JP - Maybe Light in August by Faulkner or House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski or ohh I don’t know so many…the Tao te Ching.

IWAI - If you had the opportunity to sit down at dinner with three people (alive or dead) whom would you like to spend an evening with?

JP - Probably just my friends, but I would love to have a series of dinners with Joseph Campbell and just listen to all of his stories.

IWAI - Finally being that you are in Italy right now, Florence to be exact, what’s your favorite type of wine?

JP - Recently I have been into Sicilian wines like Nero D’Avola and also sangiovesi from here in Tuscany or Lachrime from Le Marche, all of which are full-bodied strong wines but not too expensive in general.

IWAI - My personal Italian favorites are Amarone and Barbaresco.

JP - Oh those are great, expensive but awesome! In Verona they make a risotto with Amarone that is to die for, in fact you want to die when they pour such a beautiful bottle of wine in a pan full of rice but the result is heavenly.

For Further Information Check Out:
Myspace Site
Tanakh Bio
New Album Info


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