"We just picked a key and started playing." An interview with the Powers/Rolin Duo
Ok, so we know that 2020 was an absolute shitshow in more ways than it’s healthy to list, yet despite the adverse circumstances, a startling amount of sublime music emerged. This was often made under difficult circumstances by musicians whose primary contact with fans and each other, the live music show, was strictly out of bounds and where the opportunity to earn a living of sorts was severely curtailed.
2020 also was the year when the Powers/Rolin Duo burst onto the scene. I’d already become aware of Matthew Rolin as a solo guitarist via ‘Moment’, his cassette on the consistently engaging Blue Hole Recordings out of Houston, Texas. The duo recordings with hammered dulcimer player Jen Powers were, however, a revelation. Their self-titled debut, released on Feeding Tube Records in May, pits Matthew’s American Primitive-influenced guitar work against Jen’s shimmering wall of sound, for all the world like an army of thumb pianists directed by a polychromatic Phil Spector.
The debut was followed by two cassette releases: 'Nightland', on Trouble in Mind Records and 'Beacon', a trio release with Cloud Nothings drummer Jayson Gerycz, on Garden Portal. Beacon, in particular, was the crowning moment of a musically outstanding first year: at the time I referred to it, in a somewhat overwrought Bandcamp recommendation, as ‘like some bastard offspring of Robbie Basho & the Velvets at their most unhinged - ecstatic, vital stuff.’ That description still stands.
It only remains to thank Jen and Matthew for their time and indulgence in agreeing to this interview for North Country Primitive.
Photo of Matthew and Jen by Matthew Chasney
NCP: You had two duo albums and the trio release with Jayson Gerycz in 2020. Has it felt like a busy year?
Jen: Sometimes it did feel like a busy year, but a lot of times it felt very slow and drawn out. It’s hard for me to put into words what time has felt like these past ten months. Things felt lovely as they happened, but the stretches of time between them - and everything that happened in our country and across the world during those times - had a tendency to skew my perception of what we actually accomplished each month. It certainly didn’t help that there were no shows to play, and none to host. It’s been so strange not having that kind of thing going on - I’d largely forgotten what life was like without all of it. When, at the end of December, I decided to consciously reflect on everything I’d been a part of throughout the year, it was genuinely surprising to realize that we had released a lot of material, and we had contributed to some really amazing livestream events, and the year wasn’t a total wash. That felt good.
NCP: How do you feel about the reaction to your work?
Jen: I’m thrilled. I never thought about how folks might care to talk about the music I make - it just wasn’t something that occurred to me. It’s such a pleasure to play with Matt and create music that feels good to play, and it is deeply moving to hear other people’s feelings about what we do.
NCP: As a duo you seem to have arrived fully formed out of nowhere in a short space of time. Do either or both of you have a back story of previous musical escapades?
Matthew: Honestly, there isn’t any big back story. I left Chicago and moved to Columbus to be with Jen, after meeting her on a tour through Columbus in October of 2017. She visited me a couple times in Chicago and I spent New Year’s Eve with her in Columbus. I moved there on Jan 20th 2018. I knew she played dulcimer because she opened the gig that I met her at with her friend Troy accompanying her on vibraphone. The week I moved back to Ohio, my friend Jayson Gerycz was having a gig at his house in Cleveland and threw out the idea of us playing an improv set together, so we drove up, did just that, and then kept playing together.
Jen: Like Matt said, there’s actually very little backstory. We just started playing together shortly after he moved in with me, when Jayson asked if the two of us wanted to play a collaborative set at a show he was hosting up in Cleveland. That set felt good, so we kept at it, self-released a tape and went on tour that summer, did the same thing the next year, and hosted and played a lot of local shows in the meantime.
NCP: What are your musical influences? Clearly American Primitive guitar sits in there, but I can detect echoes of motorik/kosmische music, Appalachian folk, psych folk and Indian Classical. Can you expand on what goes into the pot?
Matthew: I grew up in Cleveland, which is pretty heavily into the punk/noise/harsh vibe scene. I always played poppier rock or psych stuff prior to what I do now, but I saw so many bands of all different types between all the venues and DIY spots that would come and go in Cleveland. I definitely love motorik/krautrock/kosmische: a song from one of my old bands is actually named ‘Klaus’ after Klaus Dinger. I also worked for a long time on and off at a music venue in Cleveland as an audio engineer/bartender/puke cleaner and everything in between, so I saw tons of stuff there too. When I moved to Chicago briefly, they really treated me right and I got to see so much amazing improv jazz/rock/whatever. Chicago is definitely my favorite city for music in the USA - and all that will always be with me. As far as the thought process for what Jen and I do, there really isn’t much of one for me. We’ve been compared to Popol Vuh by a number of people, and that’s wonderful, as we are huge fans. I guess that’s kind of in the back of my mind now when we play or record together, but I just wanted to make pretty sounding music and not think about it too much.
Jen: I’m a huge, huge fan of folk of all kinds, and motorik, and drone. Two bands that have profoundly influenced the way I approach the duo are Spiral Joy Band and Popol Vuh, in terms of texture, structure, and melody/harmony.
NCP: What is the balance of composition and improvisation within your music? I like the way each piece has a core theme, but you then meander down different byways, occasionally returning to the main path before wandering off on another adventure. And was it a conscious decision to largely focus on longform pieces?
Jen: We’re slowly starting to inject more composition into our pieces, but starting out in early 2018, we just picked a key and started playing in it. As time went on, Matt would sometimes come up with a loose chord progression, or a short phrase, and we’d build up a really fragile skeleton around that - like, ‘Let’s start off fast and loud, then chill out, then this part comes up, and then maybe we should get loud again’. It wasn’t until this past year, maybe because we had so much time to sit around and talk about things and mess with things, that we began to consider making a more concerted effort to introduce an element of composition to our pieces. As far as a focus on longform, it just happened that way. Similarly to the way we’re reconsidering composition, we’re also experimenting with compacting some pieces, trying to keep them short and sweet.
Matthew: Everything we have recorded and released so far is fully improv. That is slowly changing with some new stuff on the horizon, but not by much. Usually we will discuss what key we are going to play in and maybe some kind of idea for mood and tempo, but that’s it. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to play long, but more like that’s just how it turns out. When it feels done, then it’s done, I guess.
NCP: Are there any other musicians and artists out there you feel a particular sense of affinity for? Label-wise, it seems like there is no shortage of people wanting to put out your releases – does it feel like you are part of a fairly supportive community?
Matthew: There are so many incredible musicians I’ve met throughout my life, especially in the last four or five years, that I couldn’t possibly list them all here. These are all people that I’ve met through sharing a bill, meeting them at a gig I was attending, or them crashing at my house or vice versa. I’ve met and befriended some musicians I really respect during this past pandemic year online as well. I really can’t put into words how much it means to me that any label, let alone all these labels I love, have been really receptive to our music. Some I’ve known in some way, or at least hung out at one time or another, and then some are run by people who I do not know personally, but have been kind enough to reach out and ask if we have anything we’re working on. It’s truly one of the most fulfilling and best feelings I’ve had in all my 36 years on this planet.
Jen: Oh yes, definitely! I feel extremely fortunate to consider so many people across the country and other parts of the world my friends. Places like Chicago, Philly, New Haven, and Western Massachusetts are full of musicians, labels, and visual artists who are wildly creative and so supportive, but there are great people everywhere. I can’t think of a concise way to define this community, but I’m endlessly glad to be a part of it. I have so much love for it.
NCP: So how did you end up hooking up with Jayson Gerycz? His day job as the drummer from Cloud Nothings seems a world away from the music you make as a trio.
Matthew: I’ve known Jayson for over a decade now. We’re both north east Ohio people and have played many gigs together in our various bands throughout the years. We’ve also eaten lots of chicken wings together. Jayson has a work ethic that I can’t even comprehend, and it’s been really, really amazing to watch Cloud Nothings go from playing in a basement to what they’ve been now for a while. Everyone in that band either runs or is part of a great tape label, has at least two other bands they are in, and they really support musicians from all over the world.
A vinyl edition of Beacon is coming out this February as a split release between Centripetal Force Records from Nashville and Cardinal Fuzz in the UK. We also have another as yet untitled trio recording that will be coming out late summer or fall of this year on American Dreams Records.
NCP: Jen, what attracted you to the hammered dulcimer? It’s not necessarily the most obvious instrument to learn, so how did this come about? Are there any players or traditions that particularly influenced you? Do you primarily see the dulcimer as melodic or percussive or both? Any plans for collaborations outside of the duo work with Matthew? Or solo dulcimer work?
Jen: My mom’s cousin gave me my dulcimer a few months before I turned 17. It had been sitting in her attic for a decade or longer and she figured I might enjoy it. Honestly, it mostly sat around my various apartments until I was 25 or so and I finally got it restrung so I could play with a couple of friends of mine, which basically led me to where I am now.
It’s worth mentioning that I have a bizarre and fraught relationship to the piano, because I took traditional lessons for about twelve years as I grew up, and I felt like that approach to playing messed with me pretty badly, in terms of how I approached writing and performing. I won’t delve into all that mess here, because it’s not relevant, but my point is this: when my friends asked me to jam with them, I made the decision to not bring over a keyboard, opting instead to bring over the only other instrument I had on hand, one that I knew virtually nothing about, because that felt like the right thing to do. Turns out, I was right - it's been incredibly freeing to experiment with and explore an instrument completely on my own terms and at my own pace. I adore the hammered dulcimer.
As far as influential players go, the two big ones are Laraaji and Dorothy Carter. Although I mostly think of the zither when I think of the former, and the psaltery when I think of the latter, the instruments are all related, and for me, it comes down to the way their music feels. Dorothy makes me cry and Laraaji quiets my mind—they're both just sublime.
I see the dulcimer as both melodic and percussive. I think I spend the majority of my time exploring its melodic aspects, but despite my past efforts - like drowning my signal in reverb and delay - I truly do appreciate its percussive aspects and over time, I’m getting more comfortable with them.
I do have plans to develop some solo material in the future. I’m putting together a set for a livestream that’s coming up in ten days’ time, which is serving as a decent catalyst for getting started on a solo project. As for other collaborations, I’m definitely open to the idea! But I’m really excited for what Matt - and Jayson - and I have been getting into lately, so my energy is still largely dedicated to those two projects.
NCP: Somewhat sheepishly, I have to admit I read up a little on the tuning of the hammered dulcimer when I was putting these questions together. Does the tuning pose any difficulties in playing with a guitarist? Does Matthew need to use non-standard guitar tuning when playing with you?
Jen: I wouldn’t say that the tuning of the dulcimer causes any difficulties in collaborating, but it does require my collaborators to tune to me - I can mostly just play in C or D if I want the full range of the instrument, though other keys are possible if I’m willing to shave things down to a single octave. I currently use a student-sized dulcimer, so if and when I spring for a full-sized version, that will open up further possibilities, I’m sure.
NCP: Matthew, is your approach to playing different when playing with Jen to when you are doing solo material? I get a sense of greater restraint in the duo work, in so far as you don’t end up having to fill all the space. Also, do you want to talk about your upcoming solo album on Feeding Tube? And can you talk about your previous hook-up with Blue Hole for Moment?
Matthew: My approach when I play solo is definitely different than when playing with Jen. 90% of that stuff is composed and thought about too much! I suppose I view the solo recordings more as songs and less as pieces, but that is also starting to change and blur into the same between both projects. My next solo release is ‘The Dreaming Bridge’, which should hopefully be out in February of this year. It’s a double record and consists of stuff I was working on from just before the pandemic to things I just made up and recorded in a day in July of 2020. I wanted to cut it down, but the last song alone is almost twenty minutes and I just didn’t want to get rid of it. Luckily for me, Feeding Tube have been the kindest people, and didn’t even give me any shit about putting out a pretentious double LP! As far as my second recording ‘Moment’ goes, it happened because I had met Will Csorba on the internet, talking about music. I sent him that and he dug it and asked to put it out. There’s not really any cool story about how that went down, but I did get to play some shows with him here in Ohio, and one in Lexington, Kentucky shortly after we met online. I love his tape label and think his own music is just as good.
NCP: What’s on the turntable at the moment?
Jen: I’ve been listening to Trees a lot, lately - the box set arrived in the mail a couple of weeks back and it’s been on repeat in my car ever since. Before that, it was the ‘Sumer is Icumen In’ box set—Grapefruit Records’ amazing follow-up to their other psych/pagan folk comp ‘Dust on the Nettles.’ Other than that: Barry Walker Jr., James McKain, 75 Dollar Bill as always, Lucrecia Dalt, Mathieu Stellaire, Sarah Davachi, Luke Stewart... but to answer your question literally, I think the last record I placed on the turntable was Gary Stewart’s ‘Your Place or Mine.’ Ripping classic.
Matthew: Records on the turntable right now: David Nance ‘Staunch Honey’, Joseph Allred P’ure Land’, Alison Cotton ‘Only Darkness Now’ and some new stuff from Patrick Shiroishi that I can’t talk about yet, ha ha.
NCP: Are you musical instrument nerds? If so, do you want to say something about your instruments of choice?
Matthew: I used to be much more of a gear nerd when I made bad rock music, but nowadays I use whatever I can get my hands on. That being said, all my acoustics are Guilds, and my electric guitar is a Fender Jazzmaster. I use a Deluxe Reverb amp for acoustic and electric, and a variety of cheapish pedals. I don’t really use pedals when playing acoustic, but I have started using a looper and some delay for the new stuff that Jen and I are working on.
You can listen to and buy Powers/Rolin Duo and Matthew's solo material at their Bandcamp page, here. The vinyl edition of 'Beacon' is released in February by Centripetal Force in the USA and Cardinal Fuzz in the UK, as is Matthew’s solo double album on Feeding Tube, ‘The Dreaming Bridge’.