20 Aug 2014

The Silver Thread - Stone Breath's Timothy Renner Interviewed

Photo by Meghan Weaver
Interviewed by Amanda Votta and Grey Malkin

Stone Breath’s newest album, "Children of Hum", will be available on August 26th. It’s a wonderful, inspired album (review here) —and one that inspired Amanda and Grey Malkin to ask Timothy Renner a few questions about it, and the path he and Stone Breath have taken over the past nearly 20 years of song.

You can preorder the album via Dark Holler (http://darkhollerarts.com/product/stone-breath-children-hum/) or on Stone Breath’s bandcamp page (http://stonebreath.bandcamp.com/album/children-of-hum)

Amanda: In the past, you’ve referenced a silver thread, the most obvious examples being the album titles "A Silver Thread to Weave the Seasons" and "The Silver Skein Unwound". Here, you sing about the silver thread in “Always All One, All Ways Alone” as something that is always there, that winds around and down your paths. What is the silver thread to you and why is it an image, an idea, a way of describing, that you return to again and again and for so many years? Is the “hum” of the album connected to this silver thread?

Timothy: This idea of the Silver Thread, something which has proven to be a guiding spiritual concept in my adult life, came from a comic book. It turns out, upon finding the back issues and re-reading them as an adult, I greatly enhanced the idea in my mind. I remembered it with more detail and symbolism than the actual story ever had. But the seed was from a comic book I read as a child. A Thor comic book actually. I probably would have been embarrassed to admit that until somewhat recently, but now I just see it as a beautiful example of the thing that hums getting through. The thing that mattered stayed with me and my mind elaborated on the concept.

So, in the original story, Baldur is given the thread that represents his fate by the Norns and thus he gains control of his own fate. That's about all that happened. In my mind, I changed this memory to Baldur receiving the thread and it turning to silver in his hands - and this became a wonderful concept to me - the idea that when we take our fate into our own hands it becomes something precious - and we begin to then weave our own story as opposed to letting it be woven for us. I still love this idea - and so I often use the symbolism as looking back and seeing these trails of threads weaving and winding about each other, and sometimes going off on their own.

As powerful a guiding image as the Silver Thread has been, perhaps more powerful yet has been the HUM - and this, as I explain in the album notes, came from Prydwyn - and it is a beautiful and simple way to just describe our search for meaning and spirit and inspiration - without trying to justify our ways with maze-like meanderings of reason and belief - or apparently confusing labels such as I have used in the past (e.g. Marian animism) - and it is this: Some things hum. Some things do not hum. We follow those things that hum.

So, maybe it's the thread that we hold in the present and trail into the past, but it's the hum that is in all times and guides us forward and back. Hopefully, anyone reading this will understand I am in the process - and have been my entire life - of building a personal mythology and I am not in any way trying to set down a dogma - this is not "they way things are" - but only a series of symbols which are beautiful and meaningful to me. I would encourage others to follow whatever hums to their ears.

A: In the statement you made about this album, you talked about how your beliefs have been misinterpreted, misunderstood and misrepresented by people over the years. So, if you’re comfortable discussing it, maybe you could talk a little about what it is you believe and how this evolved over the years and the history of Stone Breath. How do your beliefs play a role in the art you make, and what role is it they play? Is it an active part of what you create? Both your illustration and your music.

T: Much was made in the early years of the band of us being a pagan or even "wiccan" band. I was always an animist. I guess that is a form of paganism to some, but it's not wiccan to my knowledge. There was a fellow in a band we used to play with occasionally who would insist that I was/am wiccan. At least three separate times he came up to either me personally or the band as a whole and said "You guys are wiccan" - or "you (meaning me, personally) are wiccan." When I would say "No, I'm not" - he would say "Yes you are" - and we would continue this dance until he would finally just smile and nod and say "O.K" like I was pulling his leg.

Prydwyn and I were both raised Catholic and in some sense I still consider myself culturally Catholic - and I do quite love the Blessed Virgin Mary. I am beyond the point of caring if She is a symbol, a real holy being, or some form of the Goddess. I simply don't care anymore. All the dogmatic shit that goes along with organized religion - and the way people use it to control others - I throw that right out the window. The same is true of Her son - I find the idea of a human sacrificing himself for the good of all mankind to be just beautiful and powerful - and though I did, for a time, call myself Christian (though with hindsight, I think this was more to put off those that would insist I was "wiccan" for instance), I realized that this now means something very different and often quite repressive - especially in America, calling oneself "Christian" has become almost a shorthand for believing certain things, not just spiritually, but politically and socially - things I do not believe at all.

In my 20s I spent time with the Chaos Magick folks (you can find my art in the old Thanateros journals - I think I did a few covers for them as well) and as I age I realize that this was perhaps the most positively influential thing in my spiritual path - and while I don't sit around doing the Death Posture and drawing sigils anymore - I value that time for a few great lessons, one of which is: take what works and use it. I have done this, consciously and subconsciously, ever since - and perhaps even before.

Art by Timothy Renner
I find it increasingly difficult to talk about what I believe in any way that makes sense to someone else - and likewise I find it increasingly difficult to write songs to express these things. Stone Breath was ever my vehicle for documenting my spiritual interests and beliefs, and that is changing, I think, slowly and subtly. So, I am in a place, for now at least, where I just said everything I wanted to say on that matter (via "Children of Hum"). While I used to write almost every aspect of my beliefs into songs, or entire albums - I can't say exactly what the future will hold regarding Stone Breath. I think we will be exploring things like folklore - which we have done quite a bit in the past - without so much worry about spiritual/religious beliefs. Then again, who can say exactly what the future holds.

A: This album is a return of sorts for Stone Breath, a going back home. It’s just you and Prydwyn again, making simple yet layered songs. You’re technically more advanced as players and singers, but you still maintain that beautiful imperfection—the element of the human—in your songs. How is it to work with Prydwyn again? Is the way you write song, the way you play and sing affected by doing these things with him in ways that are unique to the way you’re affected by working with other people? And how does the familiarity between the two of you affect what you create together?

T: I guess the question would be how is it to work with ONLY Prydwyn again - because we never stopped working together. Even for that period of time when I thought Stone Breath was dead, Prydwyn and I continued to work on music. But it became apparent that this album was to have a certain meaning and the things we were talking about not only grew out of discussions I had with Prydwyn but also from seeds that we planted together in and out of Stone Breath, so it seemed right to have it just be Prydwyn and me this time.

Likewise, after nearly 20 years and something like a dozen albums, depending on how you count, and multiple EPs, all of acoustic music, I do make a conscious effort to try to change things up from album to album, sonically. The previous few albums with Don on guitar tended to be busier and more baroque - so I wanted to simplify things a bit. We did multitrack, but we didn't record it in a way that we couldn't have done live - in other words, I am playing one instrument and singing on each song. When Prydwyn is singing, he isn't playing flute or whistle - it was recorded in such a way that it could have been recorded live. This was done on purpose - to keep it sparse and natural sounding. The last album we recorded that was just Prydwyn and I was "A Silver Thread to Weave the Seasons" - the second Stone Breath album - and that was done on 4-track. So, this way of recording kind of harkened back to the limitations of the 4-track.

Prydwyn taught me a lot about music. He taught me how to sing. He is partially responsible for me getting over a somewhat bad case of ongoing stage fright. So, what I have for Prydwyn is a kind of deep trust, artistically. I always feel really confident when he is by my side. I still find myself surprised and amazed by his contributions. However, he gets Stone Breath on a really essential level, so I don't have to do a lot of explaining of ideas and concepts. At the same time, he CARES about the ideas and concepts behind the songs. It's not simply about the notes and scales. So, there's nobody and I mean NOBODY I would rather work with than Prydwyn. For me, it's just wonderful.

A: Aside from Stone Breath, you’re involved in other bands. One of those is Albatwitch, where you make much noisier and overtly forceful songs than in Stone Breath. Albatwitch is also more obviously influenced by ideas that are political or social in nature: anarchy, taking a stand against corporations. How and why is it you came to want to be involved in a band where you were much more open about your social and political ideas and ideals? Is this something that’s long been important to you, but hasn’t made an obvious appearance in your music until now? And, again if you’re comfortable with it, perhaps you can discuss a bit the ideas you and Brian are conveying through your music?

T: I grew up in the DIY/punk/zine scene. I was involved with the anarchist movement before, but when I was younger, I never felt good enough. It seemed like there were all of these passionate perfect anarchists who just did everything right - the right politics, the right diet, the right books, etc - while I was just this big fuck up. I just felt like I could never be good enough. As I grew older I realized that we are all flawed and learning as we go through life and I'm just trying to be better all the time - and I still fuck up - but I am an anarchist. It's the political belief that makes any sense to me. I just got the confidence to say it more often and openly.

Brian has a solo project called LAYR - he had me do some vocals on a song and write the lyrics for it. He explained to me that the album was generally political, but used a lot of medieval type symbolism to express these ideas. So, I wrote the lyrics with that in mind. It was one of the first overtly political songs I've written.

Brian lives very close to me - we have children about the same age who often play together - we share a lot of the same interests. I'm actually surprised it took as long as it did for us to start working together - but when we did, I just decided to start writing these political songs. I found I was VERY angry about the way things are in this country and in this world.

Photo by Sara Lyon
Stone Breath has been my vehicle for exploring my spiritual trip in music. I am very lucky to have found people who connect with that - but I am never sure how I am connecting with people. Are they identifying with the things I'm saying? Are they just observing my trip? Do they just like the sounds we're making? Are they applying their own meanings to my words? Any of these things is ok, but I literally just don't know. For example, when we were recording "Lanterna Lucis Viriditatis," I decided that decapitation was in some way related to spiritual enlightenment. It's a rather odd concept and would take a rather long time to explain - but my point is, I don't imagine too many people were just right there with me: "Decapitation? oh, me too Tim!" So, I'm thinking people are connecting in some other way, and that's just fine.

With Albatwitch, on the other hand, I'm saying things that relate to the physical world. I'm saying, for instance - look fracking is FUCKED UP and it's harming all of us and it's ruining the water in ways we don't even understand yet, all so some very very rich men can get richer.

With Stone Breath I'm looking in - or at least I WAS. "Children of Hum" might be all I can say on those matters. In my mind, I've kind of clarified things. I've set the record straight, as best as I could, and I'm done. Stone Breath isn't done - we have plans for more albums - but thematically, I think my writing is changing. Lyrically, Albatwitch songs just feel more urgent to me. I feel like I'm saying things that people understand, I think. I am talking about things that anger and frighten me - things that my children will also likely have to deal with. In this sense I am coming full circle to my younger self - bringing back all the musical experience I've gained - and telling myself it's ok to be overtly political and it's ok to call yourself an anarchist even if you are not perfect.

Grey: You recently made Stone Breath’s back catalogue digitally available on Bandcamp after several years of resisting the online distribution of your music. What changed your mind and how do you feel about digital downloads as a platform for music as opposed to physical copies? As an artist who designs and makes your own (and others) album covers how does the digital medium compare?

T: I started buying most of my music on Bandcamp and figured: well, it's time. I'd greatly prefer people get the physical albums, but I understand it's just not how some people listen to music anymore. Bandcamp gives the artist a lot of control - it's very artist-friendly - and it's very easy. We still won't do iTunes or Amazon mp3 or any of that. I think for most independent bands being on iTunes is just something they want so they can show their friends and parents - "look mom, we're on iTunes!" Anybody with a recording and some extra cash can get on iTunes. It doesn't matter. iTunes and their like are not artist-friendly. For us, Bandcamp is the answer.

G: Stone Breath have covered songs by and paid tribute to The Incredible String Band, Tom Rapp and COB. What other influences do you have musically, artistically or otherwise on your music? Are there any bands in that list that listeners would perhaps be surprised to hear about? Which artists inspired you to pick up a guitar or banjo and begin recording in the first place and what are you currently listening to?

T: Well, as I said, I grew up in the DIY/punk scene in the 80s/early 90s. I always wanted to make music, but I was really poor. Two friends bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday one year - because neither they nor I could afford an electric guitar plus an amplifier. So, when I got this I started looking into acoustic music and found that I really loved folk music. No part of me ever thought to combine acoustic with punk like some of these anarcho-folk bands do - I find that brilliant. It's raw and exciting and I love it - but it just didn't occur to me. So, I never learned to play rock and roll. This amazes Brian for instance because he handles almost all of the heavy guitar/bass parts for Albatwitch - I can't play like that - power chords and such - I never learned! But I listened to punk and post-punk and I never stopped. Just because I found COB doesn't mean I stopped loving Nausea - I've never looked at music in that way. One of my favorite albums of all time is Saw Throat's "Inde$troy" - we used to carry the CD reissue in the Dark Holler distro long before there was ever an idea of Albatwitch - a heavy album of crusty doom which speaks of environmental devastation at the hands of corporations.

So, what inspired me to pick up a guitar? Honestly, what gave me the confidence was the DIY culture - that idea of just picking things up and DOING them because you want to - of not letting anyone stop you because you don't have formal training or whatever - that was huge for me. I was lucky because around that time bands like Swans were picking up acoustic guitars and the whole neo-folk thing started happening in the UK - while I was looking into more traditional folk music - so it seemed like something was brewing and suddenly it was ok to have an acoustic guitar. Though it would be some years before it was "ok" to have a banjo - Stone Breath took a good bit of grief from indie reviewers for having banjo in our music at the beginning - it's hard to believe now that banjo is indie-hip, but that never stopped me either.

As to what I'm listening to now - I think my favorite current band is probably Northern Liberties. Sort of a post-hardcore band (they call it ghost punk) from Philidelphia. Just bass, drums, and vocals. Kind of eerie outsider music with this weird almost channeled/spiritualist vibe. I love them!

G: Your label Dark Holler has the feel of a family run business with high quality and unique output ranging from albums, artwork and clothing to beautiful custom made instruments. What led you to set up Dark Holler and is there an ethos to how it operates? What future projects do you have in mind for the label and how would you like to see Dark Holler develop?

T: Dark Holler Arts is the sort of blanket name for a series of labels and related pursuits. Hand/Eye is the sort of main label - those releases, for the most part, get distributed in stores and if the artists agree, digitally. Lost Grave is a more limited edition label - Brian and I do this together - these are usually releases of 100 copies or less and often in handmade packaging. Eleventh Key is Brian's label - he does a lot of digital distribution and has a separate distribution deal from Hand/Eye. We just combined everything under one roof, so to speak - as we were constantly helping each other anyway.

I ran a tape label in the late 80s/early 90s. When I started making my own music, it was natural to self-release. Even when I was signed to other labels, I made more music than they could release for me, so I had an outlet for these other projects. After a time other artists started coming to me and asking me to help them release their material - it seemed easy enough as I had the know-how. Eventually, I started going to artists and asking them to work with us and finding reissues I wanted to release and it just snowballed. Hand/Eye alone has had well over 60 releases now.

If there's an ethos it's just try to treat artists the way I would want to be treated. There's not a lot of money to be made - it's really a matter of a few releases that do sell paying for a bunch that don't sell as well - it's always a gamble and it always plays out over a very long time. There's also crazy things like returns from the distributor (so you may think you have sold out of something but then suddenly 100 copies come back) - which make any kind of accounting a nightmare. So, both artist and label have to give a lot and be understanding and really do it just for the love of doing it with the hope to make a little money in the end.

The record industry crash a few years back hit us hard. I invested record label money in some brick and mortar property (a recording studio), thinking that it would be wise to divest. This was a terrible mistake and just did not work out well at all. So we were hit hard and then hit again - the second time was fully my own fault and my poor judgment. It's left us with a very small pool of operating funds, so we just are not able to do as much as we would like anymore. We've had to turn bands away and change other projects from vinyl to CD ("Children of Hum" was meant to be a 10" record, for instance). But we're not finished.

We're trying to get some really great reissues going on Lost Grave - I'm talking old demo tapes from the 80s/90s - we really want to save this music and make physical copies available again. It's crazy hard finding folks and harder yet to get them excited about reissuing their old music, but hopefully as we stay after people we can make some magic happen. Besides that, we will continue to do small editions with new bands we like.

Hand/Eye should have some exciting news soon on the vinyl front - plus we are curating a 2CD benefit compilation which is just in its infant stage.

You can stream or purchase "Children of Hum" here, available August 26:

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