Golden Brown
Interview with Golden Brown (November 2021)
1. What are some recent inspirations?
I have really loved the four seasonal recordings from Fuubutsushi over the last year. I find myself returning to them again and again and finding new things to appreciate in them with each listen. And it's been cool to see them evolve as a group and push things in different directions with each release, while still having a vibe that runs through all four.
Another recent standout for me is yes/and. Guitar based music that goes from being beautiful and melodic one minute to woozy and disorienting the next.
It's also been such a joy to get back to seeing live music since May or so. I feel like I've been really trying not to take it for granted after a year plus without. One of my favorite concerts I've seen this year was Bill Frisell and Tim O'Brien with their guitar teacher from when they were much younger, Dale Bruning. It was at Etown, an intimate venue in an old church in Boulder. Bill Frisell is one of my heroes and biggest influences and for this show he was playing a vintage guitar from Nick Forster's collection at Etown. It was amazing to hear him on just a beautiful, old acoustic guitar with no effects. It drove home what a true master he is of his instrument, sounding even more like himself than with all of the delay and loops.
2. How much of the material on “Gems and Minerals” is improvised and how much of it is composed?
On Gems and Minerals, the majority of it is composed to some degree, with the exception of the songs 'Gems,' 'Minerals,' and 'Fruiting Bodies.' When recording, I try to be open to serendipity or flow and just kind of let things happen as they may. Gems was originally a kind of extended, rambling intro to Turtle Spirit, but as I overlaid more sound on it I found that the tracks were coming together into something of their own. Minerals is a different version of the same 'song.' In that case, I ended up stacking two different takes of an electric guitar part and really liking the way they played off of each other. The dual lap steel parts on Finisterre came about the same way.
Fruiting Bodies was not so much improvised as composed on the spot. I was getting frustrated trying to record a different song, so I tuned my guitar to a different tuning I wasn't familiar with and started playing around. Once I had the little groove with the prepared guitar, the rest came really quickly. The 4 main voices (prepared guitar, electric guitar, keyboard, and mandola) were all recorded in an afternoon. Later on, Sara and I overdubbed the harmonized cello and lap steel.
3. In what ways do the influences of the landscape and nature where you live make their way into your music?
We are so lucky to live in a place where we can be in nature and away from people very easily. We live in Longmont, on a cul de sac, but can be on a trailhead in less than 10 minutes. And over the last year, hiking and being outside has been a balm and necessary for my mental health. We are also lucky to have a big backyard that backs up to a park, so it feels fairly open while still being in town. A Far Green Country was written sitting out there in the sunshine last winter.
Over the last few months, I've been making more field recordings of specific places and using those as a basis for a piece. A lot of the music I'm working on now features field recordings from one of my favorite spots here, a trail outside of Boulder called the Anne U. White trail. It's a really unique and magical landscape with a little creek and mossy rock walls on either side, it almost feels like the Pacific Northwest. The trail and some of the houses below the trailhead were wiped out in a massive flood here in 2013 and it only just reopened a year or two ago after a lot of rehabilitation. I go there a lot.
4. At what point in your life did you start recording music and what were those recordings like?
The first thing I remember recording was a song with my guitar teacher in high school, Steve Ellis. He is the person who taught me how to fingerpick, which opened up new worlds for me. But he also helped me record a song on a 4 track recorder, kind of giving me a taste for DIY home recording. I remember drumming on a metal trash can with chopsticks and thinking it was the greatest sound in the world.
The first recordings I made as Golden Brown were probably around 2005 or 2006. I borrowed a digital eight track from a friend and recorded an album called Whiskers. Some of those songs are still around - I recorded new versions of Whiskers and Green Road last year. Some of them are kind of goofy, just playing with sound, using found sounds, casio keyboard drumbeats, detuned guitars, etc.
5. How do you see your trajectory as Golden Brown from the “Skullcap” release to your present work?
There is a line that connects all of them, but I kind of struggle to articulate what that is. Skullcap felt like a step towards what I wanted to do musically, but I was still figuring out how to capture that sound. Listening back to it now, some of it kind of makes me cringe but some I still appreciate. I really didn't know anything about recording back then, so the sound is a little rough and ready. I still have a lot to learn in that realm. Lonesome was the first album of mine that I was really proud of and I still enjoy listening to it.
High Tide at Gold Beach was a different direction and my first foray into longer form pieces. I was listening to a lot of Ali Farka Toure and Boubacar Traore at the time and trying to incorporate some of that influence into my own songs. I had also added my Nord Electro and Line 6 delay modeler by that time, so was having a lot of fun playing with the possibilities there.
After High Tide at Gold Beach, I took an inadvertent hiatus from recording for a few years. Part of it was working too much and living in spaces that weren't as conducive to making music, but I think I also felt a little torn between different sides of my musical personality. I had been steeped in the kind of Americana, fingerpicked guitar style for a long time but the cosmic ambience of High Tide was a complete departure from that. It took me a while to see that they were complimentary, not contradictory and that they were both equally valid. Sara and I got married in 2015 and writing and recording two pieces for the wedding caused me to regain some inspiration in my own music. Those songs ended up being on last year's Flora and Fauna of the Uncanny Valley - 'Love Song' and 'New Ramble.'
6. Do you see yourself as part of any particular musical tradition or lineage?
Not really, when I first started making this music I was listening to a lot of John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and other fingerstyle guitarists. I still do, but my emphasis has shifted more to atmosphere and vibe than proficiency. I am not a technical guitarist and I find that I don't enjoy the music I make when I am trying too hard as much as when I just try and be open to inspiration's flow, if that makes sense. I really admire and enjoy the music of players like Gwenifer Raymond and Yasmin Williams, but I know I will never be able to play like them. So I try to keep my guitar playing fairly simple and create lots of atmosphere around it.
7. Where did the name Golden Brown come from and is there any connection to the song by The Stranglers? (We nearly got in trouble from our digital distributor over that particular overlap!)
I actually didn't know the Stranglers song when I first started recording as Golden Brown. I thought of it as a kind of fleeting state of grace in cooking or baking - the perfectly baked loaf of bread or perfectly toasted marshmallow. If it stays on the heat any longer, it crosses that threshold and is no longer golden brown. I also just liked the way it sounded. Later on, when I heard the Stranglers song and found out that golden brown can be a euphemism for heroin, I thought about changing it (I have friends and family in recovery and would never want to make light of addiction). In the end I decided to keep it and reclaim the term in its more innocent meaning.
8. You recently added the mandocello to your instrumental palette on this album. How do you feel that instrument affected your compositions?
This was a really fun instrument to add to my music. A couple of years ago, I got a little obsessed with the Carnatic electric mandolin master U. Srinivas. Absolutely towering player and so, so talented. Like almost doesn't belong on this planet type of musician. I think I wanted to play around in that harmonic range but have it be something that could fit in with the sound of my music, so after some research I found this electric mandola from Eastwood Guitars. Sara knew I was obsessing over it and got it for me last year as a birthday gift. One of the things I like about it is that it's a little disorienting coming from guitar. It's tuned in fifths, so the tonal/spatial relationships I know on guitar don't apply. It's helped me get out of some patterns and try to play more intuitively. On Gems and Minerals, I ended up using it on 'Fruiting Bodies,' 'Gems,' 'Ash Emerald,' and 'Palimpsest.'
9. What drives you to put music out into the world?
For me, it's the best or maybe only way to share this kind of internal life that we all have. All of the emotions and half formed thoughts and weird dreams that make up who a person is, that for me are difficult to articulate in words. I could never really write prose or poetry, although I love to read. I like to draw and collage but visual art doesn't come to me as naturally as music. And the brilliant part about any creative practice is that it nourishes itself and grows the more you do it.
As I mentioned above, I had a period for a few years where I felt disconnected from my own music and wasn't playing as much. Getting back into creativity's flow and being open to the inspirations I find there has been one of the great joys of the last few years.
10. Words of wisdom you like to recall in times of need?
I am a big re-reader. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy about once a year and take a lot of comfort and joy from it. In the past five years or so, I kept returning to these lines:
'But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it'll shine out the clearer.'
The title of A Far Green Country also comes from Tolkein, from a beautiful dreamy passage near the end of the Return of the King: 'And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.'
I also am a huge deadhead and am immersed in the poetry of Robert Hunter every day. There are so many incredible lyrics, but recently I find myself returning to 'Brokedown Palace,' 'Comes a Time,' and 'Stella Blue' again and again. The beauty of those lyrics along with the fragile, wilting quality of Garcia's voice when he would sing one of those ballads is a devastating combination. And the late Hunter/Garcia songs 'So Many Roads' and 'Days Between' are even more so, given that they were written and performed as Jerry was fading.
Golden Brown is the work of Stefan Beck. He recently released Gems and Minerals on Inner Islands on October 22nd on cassette and digital formats. The album is available from our Bandcamp page.