• North Country Primitive

Nothing was premeditated - it got really loud & intense: An interview with Joseph Allred & Rob Noyes

Whilst acknowledging that this has been a year of lockdown and social distancing, it’s notable that it has also been a year of collaboration, suggesting some sort of impulse to reach out and counter the hamster wheel of social isolation and the continued absence of the communal celebration that is live music. Continuing with our theme of duo album releases by guitarists previously known primarily for their solo work, we come to Joseph Allred and Rob Noyes, whose new album, Avoidance Language, is released by the ridiculously excellent Feeding Tube Records in April, pressing plant bottlenecks notwithstanding. This comes hot on the heels of Rob’s solo latest album, Arc Minutes, a dynamic and deeply textural outing that builds impressively on his debut, and multiple 2020 releases from Joseph, including The True Light, a beautiful lament for solo-harp guitar. We’re very happy to share Rob and Joseph’s thoughts on the making of Avoidance Language with you.

Photo by Dave Brushback

Can you begin by telling me how this album came about? Did you already know each other? Had you played together or exchanged ideas previously?

Rob: Joey moved to Boston sometime in 2016, I think. We met really briefly once around this time and ended up on a bill together a couple of months later. Since there was time, the promoter asked us to do a duo set. I don't think we'd even had a conversation up to that point and we played this duo improv set. We both thought it went well, but we didn't get any sort of positive feedback from anyone else. It was like when Metallica and Lou Reed played the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and everyone was just like "sure, whatever" but they got all fired up about it and made Lulu anyway.

Joseph: Rob and I met in 2016 when Glenn Jones introduced us at a show he and Talia Zedek were playing at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge, MA. I had just moved to Boston from Tennessee but had met Glenn a few times before when he was on tour. The first time he mentioned Rob, it went something like “He plays fast stuff kind of like Leo Kottke - usually I don’t like that kind of thing too much, but it’s really good when Rob does it. You should meet.” The second time Rob and I met we ended up doing an improvised duo set together. It was far from an ideal audience really, an acoustic guitar showcase of sorts at a brewery where it seemed like a bunch of people were trying to drink off Saturday night’s hangover on Sunday afternoon and weren’t really paying attention to much other than their beers - which were admittedly pretty good. I don’t drink anymore, but had a few of their offerings at the time. We both had a lot of fun playing though and kept mentioning doing it again.

How did the album happen on a practical level? As far as I understand, you have the entire Pacific Ocean between you. Was it a virtual collaboration or did you both manage to be in the same room at the same time?

Joseph: Rob lives in Japan now, but we managed to record in 2019, a few months before he moved there from Boston. Like I mentioned, we had been kind of passively suggesting doing something together, but I think the prospect of the Pacific Ocean between us - or the Atlantic and two continents and a couple of seas, depending on your perspective and travel arrangements, I suppose - made us finally get together and do it. We recorded it in person at my apartment on two different days with just a few feet between us.

Rob: We both lived in the same city at the time. If I remember right, Joey suggested we record a bit together at their apartment. It was one of those things that I think we had idly discussed, but luckily got around to doing right before I moved to Japan. We’ve also thought about doing some kind of collaboration distantly if we can get something together.

Is there a story behind the album title?

Joseph: Rob came up with that as a title for one of the tracks and it ended up becoming the album title. I’m not sure where he got it from, actually, but I know it has to do with a feature that some languages have that involves social taboos about mentioning certain people, usually relatives. It makes for a good album title in my opinion, maybe hinting at the tendency some musicians have to be wrapped up in aspects of reality that resist being put into words, or just having an avoidant personality.

Rob: I came across the term somewhere and liked how it sounded. It refers to how some cultures have restrictive speech when in the presence of certain members of the community. Joey came up with the names for the rest of the tracks.

What was collaborating like for you?

Rob: Playing with Joey is great! We've both arrived at a sort of similar approach to the same instrument in certain ways, but we have a pretty different approach to playing music in a more general sense.

So what was the experience of making the album like? A summit between rival gangs of outlaw bikers? Two courteous men politely dancing round each other?

Rob: Completely wrong on both counts. This is a courteous album made by two outlaw bikers who are FRIENDS.

Joseph: There wasn’t really much dancing around that I recall, just picking guitars and getting them in tune with each other. Not rival biker gang mentality by any means - my mom made me promise not to ride motorcycles a long time ago - but I think there is maybe a bit of competitiveness present in the stuff we recorded where we’re both playing 12 string guitars. It certainly got really loud and intense at times, but it ended up feeling cathartic.

You are two of the most inventive and engaging players in the current guitar soli universe Were you at all nervous about this project? Intimidated by each other's skills and creativity? Or was that never going to be an issue?

Rob: Thank you! I don't think there was anything to be intimidated about since, we weren't thinking of it as a project and had no specific ideas in terms of a release in mind. So we just kind of played as we normally would.

You have distinctively different playing styles. Did this present any challenges? Did you find yourselves making compromises? Or looking for points of confluence? Aiming to discover something new and separate to what you would create individually?

Rob: We're both familiar with how each other plays. I think the focus was being aware of how the other person is playing texturally and responding to it, though we had zero discussion of anything like that.

Joseph: Yeah, I’d definitely say our styles are pretty distinct from each other. I’ve noticed how much room there is in this very sparse presentation of guitar playing for differences in personality, technique and so on to come to the forefront. I think our differences added up to something interesting. The challenge for me was trying to keep up with the amount of volume and intensity in Rob’s playing. His style is really thumb-pick driven and heavy at times. I sometimes use a thumb-pick and metal finger picks, but on these recordings I only used my nails. Also, there’s a difference in the instruments we played. The guitars Rob used are both dreadnoughts with modern, heavier bracing compared to my 12 string, which was made back when guitars had a lighter overall build leading to a more diffuse and less projecting sound. I think those physical differences in the instruments brought out the differences in our playing that were already there, with his sound being more present and driving and mine being more light and ethereal.

Given that you’ve both previously been known for solo guitar releases, did it require a complete change of mindset to collaborate effectively?

Joseph: We’ve both played a lot in bands before so it wasn’t completely out of character for us to do something collaborative. I’ve done a few collaborative cassette releases over the years and been part of a whole lot of impromptu jam sessions at people’s houses. The last band I was a part of had a lot of influence from free jazz and German psych/prog stuff like Ash Ra Tempel and Popol Vuh, so improvising together was a big part of what we did. I’ve also been a part of several ambient/noise/etc. releases under the name Graceless with my friend Matt Johnson, and those have almost always been improvised and recorded live. More recently I’ve spent some time studying Indian, Arabic, and Persian music, and gotten to do some ensemble playing. Modal playing and improvisation really makes up the foundation of those traditions.

What was the balance of composition to improvisation in making this record? How much predetermined structure was involved?

Rob: It was all improvised. There's a riff that gets repeated for the last few minutes on the first track that probably sounds composed, but I think was just similar to a type of idea I often use in solo pieces. There are probably a couple of points like that on the record where things feel slightly structured for a bit, but there was nothing premeditated or discussed.

Joseph: We didn’t really talk much at all about what we were going to do that I recall, just had a couple of chairs and a couple of mics set up. I think the only part that wasn’t improvised is that we picked what melodic mode we were going to play in on some of the pieces. I like the balance of the pieces we settled on using for the record. We didn’t really have any explicit intention for it to work out the way it did, but two of them ended up with both of us playing pretty full bore together, and then there’s one piece where I’m in the background on harmonium with Rob’s playing at the forefront, and one where Rob is more in the background with some softer guitar playing and I’m more in the forefront on the banjo.

Rob: I don't think there was any discussion whatsoever about what we were going to play. I'm happy with how it came out. Joey did the sequencing. Initially it was mostly these pretty similar sounding, dense 12 string guitar duos, but Joey suggested subbing in a couple of the more sparse recordings with different instrumentation which makes it more varied overall.

Can you see further collaborations happening either with each other or with other players?

Rob: I hope and expect we'll record more together in the future, definitely. I think we're both open to playing with other people too.

Joseph: I would love to do more collaborations, with Rob and without. There are a lot of really talented people in my circle that are into improvising, so I’m sure it’ll happen sometime. I also really want to go to Japan.

Avoidance Language is out in April 2021 via Feeding Tube Records