A couple of years ago, when I was really getting into making photos with my Holga camera, I came across the fantastic work of photographer>"/>
A couple of years ago, when I was really getting into making photos with my Holga camera, I came across the fantastic work of photographer John Argetsinger, a twentysomething Alaska native who creates his images primarily with Holga, Polaroid, and Hasselblad film cameras. I was drawn to the composition, color, and tone of his shots, and his work is consistently evocative, haunting, and soulful. Anyway, we struck up a friendship and talked about photography, and as it turns out, Argetsinger is as talented a music maker as he is a photographer. He recently released his debut full-length album under the moniker The Scarecrow Frequency -- it's called Somber Atlantic (as is the name of the label he co-runs), and its slo-core/shoegaze guitar-centric sounds are atmospheric and arresting. After two years of traveling around the country -- with extended stops in Texas and upstate New York -- Argetsinger is moving to Seattle next month. After the jump, a very lengthy, insightful, honest interview with Argetsinger about creating music and photography, "sleezecore," art scenes, moving to Seattle, and much more.
All images courtesy of John Argetsinger
What are your feelings now that the record is done and out there, and you've had some time removed from the making of it?
Now that it's complete, I definitely feel like it captured a lot of what was going on inside when I wrote it. I don't think I'm ever objective about my music or most things. Musically, I can barely keep it together. Same goes for most things, but I work with what I've got, which is just a few bass lessons when I was 14 and a lot of fucking around. As for my ideas on what I could improve, I'm always looking for ways to improve my "art." I think that's the only area that I've ever been a perfectionist regardless of whatever raw outcome there is.
Did you go into making this album with any specific plan in mind as to the sound or mood or arrangements, and if so, did the end result match those first plans; did it go in completely different directions; or maybe a bit of both?
Well, before I started working on the album I was living in San Antonio, and to be honest I have never really been serious about music. My two best friends there play in a band called Big Soy, and after I burned a copy of some of my material for them and saw their feedback, I guess I sort of decided I wanted to do something that was a bit more serious. It gives you a boost when people you admire musically and as as people can compliment something you do. After seeing how much they liked the super-raw material, I decided I wanted to make an actual record. When it was being recorded, my life was in transition. I had just relocated up to New York and everything was new. It was winter and there was that winter darkness aspect that I feel is most ideal for making music. I think that played a big role in the sound. I was also having a lot of major panic attacks and anxiety at the time, so being able to sit down and record stuff was really soothing for me. I was playing on a new guitar and was actually using an effects pedal. Before, it was just me in my parents' garage thrashing out on a Squire Strat that had seven-year-old strings. So nice guitar sound really added to what I had been wanting to do for years, and I think that's what drove the record's sound.
What are you the most proud of about the album?
Probably the mastering job I did. Records have gotten louder and louder over the years, but I wasn't really interested in any of that. It's not like this is cock-rock mainstream radio material. I just wanted the sound of the record to flow somewhat well together, and I think it works OK. I just got some mastering software and started screwing with it 'til I figured it out. But overall, what I like most about the record is that it only cost me like 10 dollars in cassettes to actually record. I know most bands go into some studio and shell out a bunch of money, but I just like to keep things low-key and do them by myself.
So, what were the hardest and easiest aspects of making the album?
Well it was pretty hard trying to find decent public domain audio that I could use for some of the instrumentals. Seems like I spent just a couple days trying to find stuff, mostly turning up short. I was happy when I came across the [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] "I Have a Dream" speech, though. What was easiest about the album was using a nicer guitar, just a Mexican Tele I bought on eBay, and being able to work with a delay pedal and shit. I used to have this effects pedal that would only work if I balanced a 20-pound weight on it perfectly, but it would always fall off, and trying to get it right involved a lot of cursing and throwing things around, so I mostly stuck with acoustic material in the past.
Did you write all the songs in a short period of time, or did you have ideas and snippets in your head for years that worked their way into these songs?
I think this sort of record has been in the back of my head for a long time. I always figured I would do something a bit more focused someday, but never really got around to it, seeing as music was always something I did when I was bored in the wintertime in Alaska or just bored in general. I did most of the material in about three months, and I was really focused on it. As soon as the snow started melting and it started getting hot outside, I wasn't feeling it as much. As for the actual feeling of the songs, it's not something that I really have to try for, it all just comes out like that on any given day.
In terms of writing songs, do you start from being in a specific mood and trying to transfer that feeling into music and/or lyrics; do you just mess around with chords and build from there; or does it work another way?
The whole baseline to the way I make music is kind of destructive, in a way. I have friends who are musicians, I guess more traditional musicians, and they will write a song on an acoustic guitar and write all the lyrics down and are good at remembering the chords. These are performers. The way I make music is by sitting down and pressing record before I have even made anything up, and just start playing something. I'll listen to it, rewind the tape, then re-record it. After I get a rhythm part or just any sound, really, I'll go in and layer that 'til I have something that's nice and full. There aren't a lot of transitions in the music, it's all really basic. I don't read music and couldn't even name you any chords. I just sit down and play stuff, making it all up on the fly. The only problem with this is that once it's all done, I don't remember what I was playing. As for lyrics, I usually just get a piece of paper and write something in five minutes. I think the music fills in a lot of the emotion that lyrics would replace. Usually, it's just something abstract. The only lyrics about people or relationships on this record are just about my girlfriend. No dramatic break-up heartbreak songs or anything like that.
Are there certain bands that you drew inspiration from as far as the actual sound of their instruments, their production style, or the mood they created?
I think my biggest influence would be the band Duster. Clay Parton of Eiafuawn/Duster has been a major inspiration on my music and art in general over the years. He has sort of been an online mentor to me in the home recording/tape process. I actually based the mastering levels on the record off of those on 1975 which helped me justify not getting all psycho on the compression. The guys in Duster and Helvetia seem pretty DIY, and I've always admired that about them. When Clay found out I was interested in tape a couple years ago, he even looked around his house for an old four-track to mail me, he's a really cool guy and really a master of four-tracks and the whole analog recording process. I grew up listening mostly to Nirvana though -- I know Seattle is probably tired hearing about Nirvana, but in earlier years that was it for me. Bedhead is also another big influence. When I first started talking to Clay, he told me my music sounded like Bedhead, so I bought all their CDs and ever since, I've been really into them. People tell me some of my stuff sounds like Bedhead, probably the nasally voice and sparse guitar. I've always really been in love with the band Low, as well as Phil Elverum's projects. Overall, though, I don't listen to a lot of music anymore. I'll listen to stuff that The Static Cult Label puts out, but while I was making the album the only CD I was listening to was Mogwai's BBC sessions.
Is the act of recording ultimately a frustrating or satisfying thing? You know, the whole notion of getting an idea from your head onto tangible form (i.e. tape) ...
I think recording for me is ultimately satisfying. A friend of mine was recently comparing recording to photography, saying recording is great because you are building from nothing and you have almost total control over the music when you're doing it alone, whereas with photography, so many other elements shape what you're trying to create. I think that's true, but there are times when I get so pissed I have to just set shit down and re-group, or start the entire process over. That happened a lot making this record. If I couldn't get something right, I'd record over it. Many songs were lost that way. There were a couple songs I re-built from the beginning. Like the song "West Texas Daydream" is actually the fourth version of the song I did. It can take a lot of time.
Do you set any rules for yourself in terms of recording -- the equipment or the techniques you use -- or does anything go?
I feel like the blend of tape and digital works well for me. I record the music on tape, but I can put it all on my computer and add in sound clips for added atmosphere. I also do the vocal tracks on the computer so I can reverb them. It wasn't 'til recently I started running a mic through an effects pedal and doing shit on tape. I found this great mic for two dollars at a thrift store. I couldn't really see myself doing anything in a ProTools studio. I've always had shitty equipment. I think without the whole DIY aspects, my music wouldn't be what it is. It comes out of being able to sit in a relaxed environment alone, and the ability to take things slow. I think for this next record, a prominent Alaskan musician named Erik Braund of the band Sleep Machine is going to be doing the drums in his ProTools studio, and I'll take all the sounds he makes and drop them in my $200 dollar eight-track. So I'm pretty much down for most things as long as I'm in total control of the process. It's probably not a good idea to start a band with me.
Are you ever afraid of overworking songs?
On most songs I will work on them for about 10 hours straight. I will slave away at them until I get them right. But I've found that if I start trying to get too "experimental" that I'll wake up the next day and listen to everything and scrap it all. My music works well with simplicity. I don't like to try and get too fancy. Mostly because I can't, and complex music has never really made me feel anything. I like music I can listen to while driving and daydreaming. High school was a different story, though. I used to plug my bass into a distortion pedal and run a mic through an amp and just thrash out and scream by myself until I could barely talk.
Was sequencing the album tough? And is that even important in the iPod "shuffle" age?
Yeah, I don't know, the digital age definitely has its ugly claws upon us. For me, sequencing was pretty important. I spent at least a week playing with things. I think sequencing is really important on an album regardless of the fact that people want their instant everything these days, including music. I still buy CDs and think supporting artists and labels that way is important. I wanted the album to feel like a slow glide through the desert, and I think things work pretty well together. I don't think you will find it on iTunes anytime soon, though. A couple friends of mine here in Alaska have told me that when they put the album on in their car that all of a sudden it was on the tenth track and they were at home, that they completely lost track of time and had zoned out the whole way home. So I knew I did a good job with the song order.
Do you try to integrate the photography and music, or keep them separate? By that i mean, does your photography influence your music and vice versa, or are they completely separate disciplines?
I think they relate to each other on feeling alone. My photography isn't really about nice flowers or pictures of bimbos with no clothes on. In my photography, I also tend to keep things pretty simple. I don't use any real studio lighting or do much flash photography, just desk lamps and natural light. I used to work only in the Polaroid medium, so that relates to my use of tape, but I still only work with film. I like things to feel real. My photography isn't very showy or dramatic, it just is. Same thing with my music, it's all very bare-bones. I am also self-taught in both, so I think that kind of drives how I feel about each one. So much experimentation is involved with each discipline that I think it's probably a whole different experience for me to create than it is for kids who aren't self-educated. There's something magical and rewarding about achieving things on your own without anyone sitting there and telling you how to do it. Clay Parton told me one time that art has no rules, and I truly believe that. Seems like it takes all the fun out of it to go to school for both. Often when I'm recording music I'm thinking about places I've been, and I usually have pictures of those places so that can help in remembering.
In what ways do each mode of creativity, photography and music, satisfy a certain part of you and frustrate a certain part of you? Do you need a balance between doing the two, or could just one of those art forms keep you happy?
I think in my photography I am capturing the surface of my existence. but in my music I am putting out there what is going on internally, so they both serve a valid purpose. I think there is a balance with the seasons. In the winter months, when the light is flat and depressing and it's darker, I feel most inspired to make music. When it's summertime, I mostly take photos. In general, though, I obsess more over photography than I do music. It's what's going through my head almost all hours of the day. Like most photographers, anywhere I go I am constantly seeing the world in photographs.
Did you know from a young age that you were musically inclined?
I remember when I was about 10 I was in music class, and I would always sit there and just stare at the music sheet. Every class, everyone would sing, and I would just sit there feeling awkward and depressed. The teacher would always try and make me sing or point out that I wasn't singing to make me feel bad. Sometimes she would try reverse psychology and tell me I had to sing or I was going to get sent to the principal's office. I'd always choose the principal's office. Childhood tended to be pretty depressing, so that was a pretty shitty intro to music. But around that time I already had Nirvana and Beastie Boys records and I'd listen to that at home. I started out in school band playing the trumpet, and then later the baritone. I used to take it home every weekend and blast away on it in my room. I think I liked it because it was so loud. I picked up the bass at like 14, and later on I got a guitar. I eventually got drums. I always just liked to fuck around with guitar. My guitar work is mostly just bass lines anyway. I do what I do, but I've never been able to play a cover song. So I guess I've only really ever been inclined to be creative, just not very groundbreaking.
What do you think of the response, some of the reviews or whatever, that your album has gotten?
It's just kind of interesting to see something you made in your apartment, that you were only half serious about, have things written about it that seem more meaningful than maybe it actually meant to create it in the first place. So just to be on the end of buying tapes at the drugstore to seeing some place write a review of it and say nice things is kind of weird. I've liked my girlfriend's reaction, too. A couple weeks ago she was heading off to a Built to Spill show and took some of my CDs with her without telling me, and handed them out to Doug Martsch and some other guys in Built to Spill. I hope they made good beer coasters.
Are there certain comparisons you get or musical categories people tend you place you in, and do you think they're fair, or does that kind of thing annoy you?
Lately, people have been calling it shoegaze. I didn't really know what that was, so I looked it up on Wikipedia one day and I guess it makes sense. I don't really pay attention to that shit. This one kid wrote me an e-mail a while back and said that "us shoegazers need to stick together." Which I thought was pretty hilarious. Some other kid wrote me all pissed off that i had shoegaze listed on my MySpace. Whatever, though. To me my music isn't a category, it's just something that comes out when I hit record. i am particuarly fond of "slothcore" though, as well as "sleezecore," the result of some hilarious late-night bullshitting.
Do you think that the next batch of songs you do would be in any way a reaction to what you've already done, or the way people perceive you, or do you plan just to write whatever kind of music comes to you regardless of any of that stuff?
I think I'm pretty true to myself, and I'm not going to let shit go to my head. I think the way I make music now is too much fun to not continue doing. I've got some ideas. but I think whatever I do won't be dictated by what anyone thinks or any direction people think I should take my music. I'm just not that kind of person. Besides, when you try and work too hard at something or give to much of a shit, you lose that raw, innocent energy, and things turn ugly pretty fast. You have to be loose with things, and just go to a quiet place.
Is now a particularly good time to make music in terms of the fact that you can record cheaply and promote yourself on MySpace and other online sites, rather than rely on record labels? Or does the fact that so many people are doing it make it harder for you to get noticed? Is that something that concerns you?
Not really. My only goal with music was to release an album and give it to my closest friends, which I have done. I was perfectly content with recording music and showing stuff to my brother and having him like it or dislike it. He's really honest, so it doesn't really take much to keep me happy. MySpace is a wasteland of bands that I don't care about. What the people who are closest to me think about my music is all that really matters to me.
If you had to choose, would you want to be known for your music or your photography? Are both equal passions for you?
As of late, music has been playing a bigger role in my life. But photography is still my main passion. I would like to be known mostly for my photography, of course, but given that it hasn't really gathered any attention lately, I feel like maybe it's kind of outsider or something, so I've been working harder at it. Not harder at making it more appealing, just focusing only on taking photos, not of trying to think about it taking me anywhere, and if something comes along down the road, that is fine with me. I think I will always make music. It's a good release. If I can make art out of some of the bullshit going on inside and have people like it, I think that can be positive.
Do you envision doing any kind of live performances or touring in the future? Is that something you're working toward?
I'm pretty much a hermit, and trying to be a serious musician and not playing shows doesn't really work at all. I have thought about the idea, but figure I couldn't tour behind an album. I'd probably have to write all new acoustic shit that I could tour with, and people probably wouldn't like that as much, but it would be something. Doesn't really seem worth it. Plus, I'm really lazy. It's easier for me to meet people and go out and take portraits than it is for me to get jazzed about going on a tour. I was reading this interview with Ariel Pink last night from a couple years ago about how he would get booed a lot trying to play shit live, since he was so recording-focused, so I think for some people, their recording sound is more powerful. I think that's where the Internet comes into play for me and getting some sort of voice.
Why the move to Seattle? Do you think Seattle will be inspiring to your artistic endeavors, and if so, how?
I would like to make a living off my "art" someday. But I don't think putting a bunch of creative people in one place leads to better art. I think it can lead to a lot of hot air in general, and my art is all very personal and self-based as well as recluse-oriented, so I don't think I would benefit much from being around other artists, but that whole prospect is kind of new to me anyway. My reason for going to Seattle is that I love the feeling I get from it. There's just something about it, a certain energy and buzz to it, it feels exactly like a developed Alaska, something I have never felt anywhere else in the lower 48. I have some close friends there I have known for a long time who I love deeply, so I think that is why I am moving to Seattle. However, I do feel that my art would go down in Seattle better than it would in other places. But having too many artists in one place also just seems like it's more of a fight to get exposure, so I don't go there with big dreams or anything. It just feels good to me, and it's only one plane ride away from Alaska. If I had my preference I'd be living out in the middle of nowhere in southern Utah, which is where I truly feel at peace. So I'll just see what happens. Mostly I'll just stick to what I'm doing. I think I'll always be an "artist." No place is going to shape that.
So do you have a certain definition of "success" regarding the music? Do you set goals, or do you just make the music and then just roll with whatever happens?
If nothing else ever happened from this point on with my music, I seriously wouldn't care. I was content pissing off the neighbors across the street beating on my drums late into the night, so anything else that comes along is fine by me. Success shouldn't define you as a musician. Your music should define you as a human being.