Saturday, February 02, 2013


Hokay, the name Stephen Painter might not exactly be a household name where you live, but here at BLOG TO COMM CENTRAL it's about as well-known as all of those other  household names that have been making themselves known around here for the past few decades! A master-performer, avant gardist par excellence and one-time Gulcher Records recording star, Painter is a man who has released some modern day musical excursions either on his lonesome (as Dark Sunny Land) or with others (12-Cent Donkey, JAS) that are so deep, moving, interesting and downright exciting that even a jaded soul such as I like them. Just read what I've written about the man's various musical excursions herehereherehere, and even here, and when you do boy will you find some interesting critique being laid down! No doubt about it, Painter is one of the true prime originalist performers here in the post-rock/music age, a time where it has ALL came down hard to the point where it is safe to utter that he just might be THEE ultimate musical spokesman for what passes as innovation these days (not forgetting a few thou more under-the-rug acts that may traipse my way, but hey this is Painter's moment and why should I step on it?).

I'd sure like to say that I interviewed the man at his plush New England digs after settling down with a few tokes of Panama Red and maybe a snifter or two, but I didn't. These are just some questions I zoomed by him via email that Painter was gracious enough to answer, and I get the sneaking suspicion that you too might think this particular interview's one of this blog's crowning achievements. Maybe not, but then again I never really did value your opinion anyway.

BLOG TO COMM-Well, what can you tell me about your upbringing, like where are you from and what were you listening to (and watching on TV) when you were growing up?

Steven Painter (Dark Sunny Land)-Born in north Jersey, but pretty much grew up an a gas-station-and-liquor-store-sized town about 20 miles SW of Boston. The town itself was good for running free as a kid. We rode bikes and got in some minor trouble here and there, and had a few brushes with death, but looking back, it was nice to have that freedom to do all that--even the dogs could run free! Went to a high school that was completely prom-and-sports-o-centric until rock and roll slowly flipped things around in the late 60's--happily for an unspectacular spectacle-wearing kid like me. I got the music bug at ten years old when my family all sat down and watched that first Beatles broadcast on Ed Sullivan. My friends and I all changed right then and there I swear, getting transistor radios and staying up long past lights-out with the speakers pressed against our ears. We had a good AM station from Boston and there was a great mix of stuff where you'd get the girl groups, Gene Pitney, Lorne Greene, Tijuana Brass, Napoleon XIV, a ton of British Invasion, Motown, the Byrds....and Bob Dylan. Can't tell you how much those songs affected my state-of-mind and outlook--I'd like to think for the better.

Going back to the singles I bought at the time, I remember they were The Animals, Stones, Young Rascals, Syndicate of Sound, The McCoys, and I did have Louie Louie...I had good taste for a kid. And when I could afford albums, my first three were Best of the Animals, Best of the Kinks, and Between the Buttons--still have 'em. Turns out that lots of kids just like me were buying the same stuff, though at the time it seemed like a lonely pursuit.

One Christmas we bought my father one of those Sears Silvertone acoustic guitars and he never did want to learn it so it gravitated to me and I would pick out notes to songs from the radio. The first songs I tried to play were "It's My Life" by the Animals and "Gloria" by the Shadows of Knight--so cliche! I never got too far on those efforts though. 

Television had a big impact on me growing up and I had an ear for shows with good soundtracks. I can get sentimental about how good those soundtracks seemed compared to what I hear today--that goes double for movies. Favorite shows of the era were many: cartoons like Looney Tunes and also dramas like Jonny Quest and Clutch Cargo. Comedies: The Three Stooges, Little Rascals, Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, Leave It to Beaver, Bewitched, Gilligan, Get Smart, Beverly Hillbillies, I Dream of Jeannie, and one that seems to stump everyone--The Baileys of Balboa, which was a Hillbillies ripoff. For dramas, I was obsessed with The Invaders, Time Tunnel, The Fugitive, Rawhide, Superman, Batman, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, One Step Beyond and Dark Shadows. And Creature Double Feature type sci-fi and monster movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon and Invaders from Mars. I liked the spooky stuff. One thing I know for sure is that the music I make today was strongly influenced by what I was hearing back then--especially the spooky stuff. Can't say I know exactly why that is. 

BTC-Did you have any musical inklings or aspirations when you were in high school? Any out of the way bands or things of that nature?

SP/DSL-No musical aspirations then. I suppose I had a reverse musical aspiration, and that was to get out of the high school band (I played clarinet without distinction--my father had hoped I'd become the next Benny Goodman). I finally achieved that goal--getting out of the band that is, but that parental dream died hard. Knew I didn't have the temperament to be a rock star. I used to look at the electric guitars in the Sears catalog back then, but never seemed to have my act together well enough to get a guitar and amp. A few other kids in town managed to though, but it seems like the sixties finally showed up there around 1970. By that time I was almost out of high school.

Well, actually I can pat myself on the back for loving the Remains song "Why Do I Cry" when it came out. One of the coolest things I remember was hearing a local band blasting away at a church dance one Sunday afternoon--I could hear it from my house and I followed the sound and listened from outside. This was probably around 1966 so I'd be 13 or 14. I think the band was called the Pilgrims and they were playing songs by The Animals, Stones, Kinks etc. as I remember. Another band I remember seeing was called Jason and the Argonauts. Sometime around 1969 Boston got an FM rock station (WBCN) and they were pretty good for a while. I don't remember them going too far out like playing the Stooges, but I do remember them getting into some of the British folk rock bands like Incredible String Band, Pentangle and Fairport Convention--which weren't exactly household names at the time. Michael Hurley I heard back then--he's still great. And I'd heard the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star" then--that was the farthest out thing I heard before getting out of high school. Looking back, I missed some good stuff. 

BTC-So when did you become so inclined towards creating music such as the kind you are making these days?

SP/DSL-More than most young kids, I was attuned to sound stimuli (I've always had sub-par eyesight -- for a long time compounded with a refusal to wear glasses--that may partially explain my early heightened attraction to sound!). I remember listening with fascination to everyday sounds like wildlife, running water, wind, rain, trains, cars idling, lawnmowers, power plants, places like railroad stations with great echoes. The drone of planes--I remember early on thinking that was a lonely sound, and for most of those sounds I felt mysterious and exciting emotions that I could somehow relate to. It's still like that for me and I'm grateful for it. In my mind it all sounded organized. The repetition of much of it was hypnotic and I could drift into imaginative places through those sounds.
I watched a lot of TV in the 60's--shows like The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, the Invaders, Time Tunnel--they used a lot of haunting and spooky electronic sounds like I'm trying for now. And when the British Invasion tidal wave hit I got swept away - age 10. All those great riffs. I was in my late teens when I first heard VU's "Heroin", and such things that drew upon the drone--and I loved how that sounded. Early punk was huge for me--as soon as I heard Patti's "Horses" I was on a great sound path. The guitar on "Birdland" was a revelation. Then "Radio Ethiopia"--played really loud --that really hooked me, though it seemed a lot of people couldn't make that leap. Personally, that's my favorite era ( '75-79) were turned inside out with feedback and sustain, and modern classical music like Cage, Reich, LaMonte Young...also dub music, electronic stuff all being thrown together--a heady brew! There were a bunch of great bands in Boston and I lived a few blocks from the Rat back then.... 

When punk faded (for me) in the early 80's, I got drawn into old delta blues in a big way. First Robert Johnson, but also some of the more primitive sounds: Charlie Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James.... What happened is that I went out and bought a dobro--they're metal (made out of steel that is) guitars and good for slide playing and they're loud! Of course I couldn't sing like those old-timers, or play like them either (nobody can), but I could still get interesting and feral sounds out of those dobro guitars, and I also learned about alternate and detuned playing at that time. So mostly I just got comfortable banging away with no formal teaching ever--I don't read music, needless to say. 

I still live in Boston, and the best thing about it for me has been college radio. I wasn't recording any music for the longest time, but I was drawn to late night radio when the weird stuff was played. So I just listened good and hard. All those years I had unspectacular corporate jobs I wasn't nuts about but I would come home and alter my mind for a few hours with dub and drone etc--. I'm surely a night person.

If nothing else, I'm a late bloomer. The music I'm making now that's gotten recorded has happened in the last 10 years or so. Why it's that way has a lot to do with who I am and also the ease of home recording.  And the proliferation of indie labels (big thanks to Eddie at Slippytown and Bob at Gulcher in my case!). I'm not an organized person, but I like to pick up the instruments in my apartment, have a couple of beers and fool around until I hear something with with a vibe. Then hit record and take it from there. A while back I heard that Picasso said that everything he did was an experiment. I can relate to that. But going into a recording studio with a plan and being able to execute it with the hourly rate meter running--I can't relate to that. 

Your question was "when" and it seems like there were and are a lot of "whens"!  And hopefully the music will keep evolving. 

BTC-Are there any prototypical Dark Sunny Land, JAS, 12 Cent Donkey or related artifacts lying around in the vaults?

SP/DSL-Not really much that we would be likely to revisit--though I hope we can all do some new music together in the future. For now, only DSL is active. 

BTC-Which one was your first release anyway? I'm rather ignorant of what/who was first and when.
Photo of a dark sunny land by Stephen Painter

SP/DSL-First was the 12 Cent Donkey ep "No Cash Value" which Rick Breault and I originally recorded and self-released somewhere around 2003. I happened to give a copy to my friend Kenne Highland, who suggested I pass it on to Eddie Flowers for a listen. Eddie wrote back enthusiastically that he'd like to put it out on Slippytown. It was released by Slippytown in 2004. That was really cool and an honor.

Some time went by and I got an email from Bob Richert asking if 12 Cent Donkey would do an album for Gulcher. That record was "Where There Are No Roads." and was a full-length released in 2006. Gulcher has always been real supportive.

Then came the first Dark Sunny Land record "Kon Taan Kor," (also released by Gulcher) in 2009. That was just me. Sometime around then I was in Paris visiting my friends Jerome Raisin and Anna Koala who were playing under the name of Magnetic Memory. We just played a few nights in Jerome's living room. We didn't have ambitions for that but recorded it on a minidisc player--just one microphone. Pure improv. But we liked how it sounded and edited it a bit. Couldn't mix it though because of just the one mic. I mentioned it to Bob at Gulcher and he put it out as well.

Finally the second Dark Sunny Land recording just came out in December 2012 on Skatchamawakee Records, which I've started up to put my own stuff out. I expect to have a follow-up sometime in the next six months. 

BTC-What can you tell us about Kenne HIghland? I heard he was a rather elusive person.

SP/DSL-Well...I think he's a true southern gentlemen with a very agile mind. His singing and guitar playing come out of the core of his being. He's got very deep roots on a lot of levels. Loves playing live, and if he decides to record again, he'll come up with something real good. 

Probably it was seven or eight years ago that our mutual friend Rachel, Kenne and I briefly did a pirate radio show called "Trailer Park Party" where we played old rockabilly and blues records mostly. Rachel and I brought in the records and Kenne did 99% of the announcing. Whatever we played, Kenne knew who it was and had an impromtu story to go along with it. He never needed a script. Too bad the station signal didn't stretch for more than a few blocks--we didn't have many listeners, but it was a good show. We had a good time doing it anyway. 

Probably it was seven or eight years ago that our mutual friend Rachel, Kenne and I briefly did a pirate radio show called "Trailer Park Party" where we played old rockabilly and blues records mostly. Rachel and I brought in the records and Kenne did 99% of the announcing. Whatever we played, Kenne knew who it was and had an impromtu story to go along with it. He never needed a script. Too bad the station signal didn't stretch for more than a few blocks--we didn't have many listeners, but it was a good show. We had a good time doing it anyway. 

I don't know if you could call Highland "elusive" since he is pretty much ubiquitous on Facebook.

BTC-Could you give us a rundown regarding the instruments, effects and so forth you use on your recordings?

SP/DSL-Sure...the acoustic guitar is a Guild. The other acoustic is a dobro. The two electrics are a Fender Jazzmaster and a hollow body Gretsch something or other. There was a Danelectro electric used in a few places too. 

Effects are looper, delay, distortion, feedback, wah-wah, tremelo, Moogerfooger, and eBow. And a lot of reverb, There's some backwards guitar here and there that the looper made possible. Sometimes used as stand-alones or in various combinations. And, for percussion or coloration, I use singing bowls, rainsticks, and gongs sometimes.

Needless to say, none of these items are used by me as they were intended to be used. 

BTC-I believe you also use household items to create sound, correct?

Artwork by Stephen Painter
SP/DSL-I use a table spoon and alligator clips in a way that can be called "prepared guitar." A saucepan can get some good scraping sounds in a pitch.

BTC-I know how the name JAS was arrived at, but how did the names 12-Cent Donkey and Dark Sunny Land come into being?

SP/DSL-12 Cent Donkey came from a dream in which I was a kid on a kindergarten class field trip to a farm with lots of cows, chickens etc. After the tour given by the farmer and his wife, we went into a barn where you could buy small plastic farm animals. The donkey was only 12 cents, so I bought one. Hopefully, nobody will go to the trouble of analyzing that dream! 

How I came up with "Dark Sunny Land" is mysterious--I can't remember any process involved, and I want to say it just popped into my head wholly formed. I later realized the DSL / LSD aspect of it. 

BTC-Any chance you can give us a rundown on your favorite guitarists, the ones who influenced your playing on these various releases?

SP/DSL-Loren Connors' work continues to amaze me. He's such an original, and once you understand what he's doing, his sound opens big doors in your mind, and it's also very emotive. I know he has health issues, but he keeps putting out records and performing. So he's a big influence and also an inspiration.

Roger Miller has shown me some really cool tricks of the unorthodox guitar trade, and also has been very encouraging to me. He's another inspiration--never stops working. He's best known for Mission of Burma--but also check out Alloy Orchestra and M2--the latter with his brother Ben.

Then there's Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo, both in and out of Sonic Youth.
I like all John Fahey's music, but I've been most influenced by a couple of his comeback records--especially "Red Cross", his last album.

BTC-Have you ever performed music along these lines in public, or have you performed any music live for that matter?

SP/DSL-I was in a couple of cover bands in college. In the modern era there's been very little playing out so far, and what there has been was unspectacular, but the small audiences have been kind, and there were friends along to clap. Only one friend booed, and he's an Eagles fan, so I don't know if that counts as a real boo. However, I'm expecting change this year. DSL is scheduled to play in a cool art and performance gallery in Lowell sometime in March. I can't replicate the recordings live, so something different needs to be worked out. I'll think of something.

BTC-Have you been getting any positive or negative feedback regarding your various releases?

SP/DSL-Happily, feedback is generally very positive. It's a real boost to learn that some folks who are both passionate and knowledgeable about a wide variety of non-mainstream musics do find merit in what I'm doing and then make the effort to write about it or play it on the radio--thereby speading the word to like-minded souls. 

On the other hand, I have a lot of friends and family that are devout classic rock fans, and my cranky packages of drones, loops, burps and scrapes are a grim and daunting bridge for them to consider crossing! 

BTC-What are your future plans regarding any of your recording entities?

SP/DSL-Rick Breault (12 Cent Donkey), Jerome Raisin and Anna Koala (JAS) --they're friends of mine for life so I'm betting there will be more recordings. They're all naturally musical, creative, spontaneous....and we bring out surprising aspects of one other. As a matter of fact--small world--Rick just called as I was answering this question and we agreed to put something together--a performance. Too bad Jerome and Anna live in France or they could get in on it. 

Dark Sunny Land is ongoing. I'll be 60 years old in a month, and this is something I hope to do until I drop. Almost all the recording takes place in my apartment and it suits who I am to be able to pick up the guitar (or whatever) as the mood strikes, hear something maybe worth pursuing and running or stumbling with it--no sure bets on the outcome until it's finished or abandoned. It's alot like abstract painting--adding and subtracting sonic colors and shapes until something emerges that either works or doesn't. I'm glad that the music is sometimes perceived as having visual elements, as well as emotional aspects. I think of these sounds as tending toward melancholy, with mysterious tones that can work on the conscious or subconscious in a variety of ways--with some depth and positivity I hope.  And I do believe the sounds will continue to evolve.


Anonymous said...

great interview

i need to hear his music. seems very interesting...

other subject: rave up records has 2 lp comming soon.

SPIKE PENETRATOR :hey hey baby ! lp
1973 sessions

THE STILETTOS: punk trampoline lp
At last on vinyl

Waiting impatiently for that MEDUSA LP us band from 74-75 influenced by hawkwind,sabbath and amon duul

TRG said...

It was on this site a couple years ago that I first read about Mr Painter. I did what any smart person would do and bought JAS. Loved it on first listen. I asked a friend in Boston if he'd ever heard Steve's music. Turns out he knew Steve himself! So I dropped Steve a line to say that only did I enjoy his music but we had a friend in common. I now consider Steve a good friend! Thanks Chris for the leading the charge and for this excellent interview, and of course thanks to Steve for making fantastic music.