INTERVIEW: CHRISTOPHER PAUL STELLING (BROOKLYN)
Christopher Paul Stelling astonished the Project Lodge in Madison a short few weeks ago, leaving an imprint as deep as his foot stomping and fiery singing could go. With a dead stare, foreboding, emboldened or impassioned, Christopher came out of nowhere. If it wasn’t the rooted lyrics, his guitar work was that of some mountainous maestro who descends on the rarest of occasions. To figure out who this guy is and where he came from, we talked for some time about how he developed his exceptional style, moving across the country and future recording plans. Till then, you must roll into Daytrotter for his The Unfinished Lover session here.
To start, how’d the rest of the tour go with The Loom?
Christopher: Good, Madison was definitely the best show. Thank you Kenny and Pioneer for setting up the show. Philadelphia was good. I played a house show when I got back. Hanging out with The Loom for the week was a lot of fun. They’re just good people to be around. Definitely the best shows we had were the art spaces like Project Lodge and Garfield Artworks in Pittsburgh. I’m kind of done with traditional venues. I’d rather play to a full, small room than an empty big room. We played Chicago the next night [after Project Lodge]. It was great. I got to see Paleo play and open for him. He’s fantastic. He’s such an interesting soul. I really like his songs and picked up his new record.
You know, in Chicago, it was in kind of a bar though. It’s amazing the way people will talk right over you. It’s confounding. I mean, you don’t talk in the library but you’ll talk when someone is singing their own words and lyrics. We’ve all gotten used to it. I’m just at the point now where I’m going to avoid playing places where that’s going to happen. The thing about going on tour is you just don’t know. Until you get out a few times, and make the rounds, you’ve just never been to those places before.
You have a really good control of the crowd. When we entered the Project Lodge, you were practically in the crowd performing. It’s a lot more engaging when the musician abandons the stage.
Yeah, I try not to be too confrontational. I try to be a proper mix of confrontational and luring. I try to be luringly confrontational [laughs]. But yeah, it’s taken a while. You really have to play to the room. I don’t write set lists anymore. I really don’t know how it’s going to go until I do it. You’ve got 20-30 songs floating in the back of your head and you just go for the moment. Sometimes you launch into a song and halfway through it doesn’t work, then you try something else.
I saw that you once described your guitar work as a “kid who was born to play banjo, but only had a guitar,” (interview) how did you create your style of playing? Sometimes it seems you have flamenco in there.
Thanks. Yeah, people say that. I don’t know about flamenco. I mean flamenco is the highest echelon of guitar playing probably. I could pass for a really bad flamenco player, but it’s more a combination of folk finger-picking and a little bit of clawhammer, banjo picking, a little bit of classical. It wasn’t really learned that way, these are just the terms I used to describe it. I just spent times sitting with my guitar and just figuring out what my strengths were and what my physical body wanted to do. And I let allowed those to develop. I don’t like the idea of having an established way of doing things because those already established ways of doing things was probably one person’s little idiosyncrasies-little ways of doing things-and then it became the way. Like Anthony Torres, a classical player. He had a way of playing guitar.
Imagine that you were putting things onto a shelf or a shed that is representative of you musically. What would you put in there and why?
That’s a nice way of putting it. I feel I’m sitting in that room right now, my living room. There’d probably be a lot of books. My Richard Brautigan library, Henry Miller library, some Cormac McCarthy thrown in there. A little bit of Tagore or Kenneth Patchen. I really like religious allegory, I’m not religious, it’s just the common language. I really like Walt Whitman. Especially living in Brooklyn now, I think a lot about Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn when I walk around. He’d talk about walking up Fulton Street, and I live on Fulton Street. I like thinking about that. I have a lot of broken guitars and broken things that I like to fix. I like to take old things and make them live again.
What else would be in there? Maybe some records. Some John Bany records, even some weird stuff like Albert Ayler or Alice Coltrane. Not that it’s representative of my music, but it might be at some point. I’ve been through a lot of little phases. I used to make sound collages, instrumental music. It wasn’t interesting for me to perform out. There had to be words. Once there was words, then I was ready to play out. Before that, you might as well just make a recording.
People say that music is a language. I guess I’ll buy that, just for a minute though but then I’ll tear that apart. Yes, a major chord sounds happy and a minor chord sounds sad and an augmented chord sounds a little suspicious. Music has a feeling. Language is a little more than feeling, it needs to be more specific.
What was funny when I was developing my guitar style, I was separating music from words very much so. I listened to instrumental music and I wrote poetry, or words, and I kept them very separate. And then they came together when I moved to New York. There’s something about the intensity here and wanting to stop fantasizing about what I wanted my life to be.
How’d you end up in Brooklyn? How’d it shape you as a musician right now?
I won’t give all the credit to Brooklyn, per say. Brooklyn gets a lot of fucking credit. Maybe almost too much, but it just happened at the right time. I didn’t go to college. I worked at a used book store for a long time. I floated around Florida. Maybe read a little too much. The year before Katrina hit, 2003, Bush was getting reelected. Five hurricanes hit Florida. I kind of lost it. It was just really scary. And that was at a point where I just started playing guitar 12 hours a day. That was my meditation. Instead of swaying back and forth like a crazy person, I would just play guitar. Then I went out to Boulder and got the fuck out. A friend and I moved out to Boulder, Colorado. I lived out there for a couple years. I studied under a guitar builder and built guitars for a while. After that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be. I went to Boston, Seattle, Asheville, North Carolina for a while. And then, out in Boulder, I lost my car and didn’t bother to replace it. After living in Asheville and walking down the highway to get to work every day, being a pedestrian, it gets old. I wasn’t really into bikes at the time. I found it so aggressive, and you have to be aggressive to ride a bike. I got tired of being a second class citizen.
So the move to New York, I just got tired one morning. Someone I was dating at the time, we had broken up but she was going upstate to go to college. So I caught a ride, put my stuff in storage or got rid of it. I slept in my friend’s basement until I got a job for a while. I came here with just my backpack and no money, per say. People say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. But I find that hard to believe, I feel it’s easier to make it in New York than it is to make it anywhere. Just because of the amount of people around and how interested they are in whatever you’re doing and what a dynamic place it could be. It will spring you into action a bit. It’d be a lot easier to make it in Brooklyn or New York because you can get around on public transportation. People come here for a purpose. So if you want to meet somebody who makes videos, or somebody that makes art or music, you’ll probably run into them here.
The small business aspect of New York is thriving and always will be. There’s a corner store everywhere, independent coffee shops like Chicago. If you lose your job at one coffee shop, there’s always another one. New York is like the great devourer. One of Ken Burns’ documentaries on New York talked about how there’s no time to idle, you’d just get crushed. So there’s a survival instinct that kicks in.
Going towards the recording, you like to strip down your sound. Tell us a bit about your recording plans.
Songs I have on my Bandcamp, I did in a college upstate. I went up there to play a show. They showed me the recording studio, and I asked if I could stay here. It was late at night, and I recorded 20 songs. I set up two mics, ran through a preamp, then just recorded. I went back and redid a couple of them a couple weeks later. The Bandcamp stuff was mostly before I had a chance to get out and start playing. I would say I’ve played a little over a hundred shows. The more you perform them, find out what works, and the difference of what works live and in the studio. There’s that freedom of playing live by yourself where you don’t have to be confined. If I miss a verse, or feel like playing something over again, or improving a little it’s no big deal. It’d be nice to play with a band, but I really enjoy the freedom of being a solo performer.
It’s hard being a solo act. You get stuck opening a lot of gigs, especially when you’re playing with bands. It’s finally getting to the point where I don’t have to open so much. It’s not a big deal, but when you’re playing at 8 o’clock when people are getting there…So it’s definitely a little bit more of a struggle being a solo artist. But the struggle’s worth it. And the way my favorite bands, like The Loom, when you have to choreograph all these different people and their schedules, I don’t have to make time for rehearsal or writing. When I have time, I just sit down and do it.
But as far as recording goes, I’m looking forward to being in the studio. It’d be great. I’ll have a more official recording where I don’t have to do it all in a day. People focus so much on the technical end of the recording, but once you get a good sound and room then you can concentrate on the hard thing, which is getting a good take. I don’t like to record guitar and vocals separately because I think they play off each other so nice.
Recording like that gives it a more wholesome, holistic sound.
Yeah, everything’s done to a grid. Everything’s so multitracked these days. Even things people would consider to be folk, everybody is overdubbing their vocals so many times. For me personally, I won’t always put myself in those confines but until I at least put a first record out. Just for example the Nick Drake catalog. Everyone knows that Pink Moon is probably the masterpiece. And that’s just live recordings, no overdubbing, no multitracking, no producing. Just getting a good take of a song. That album was probably changed the way I look at music a lot. It made it okay to just do that.
That whole live recording might come back to regular music, especially with vinyl recovering so well in the past decade. You can get the nuances.
Yeah, that’s what I plan to do. Do a digital download and also do a record on vinyl. When I toured recently, I made some CDs. But I really don’t know if I see the point in making CDs. More and more people are having record players. It’s like if you’re not listening to it on vinyl, you’re probably listening to it digital or on mp3. I know that cassettes are coming back, and a lot of people are doing cassettes. I admire that. I’ve got a bunch of cassettes I’ve gotten from friends, but I don’t have a cassette player. I don’t have a lot of stuff. I have three or four guitars and some records, but I try to keep it pretty limited these days.
You know what I thought of the other day, but I’m sure it’s been said before but I think the word art is thrown around. I think the word art is a lot more relevant than the word art that people apply the word art to things like that’s a complement. You don’t make art. You make a painting or a song. You don’t make art, like that’s just something the listener or the viewer can decide. It’s more a complement. An artist is just somebody who sees how things are typically done and decides they can be done a little bit differently.
It brings it back to that DIY approach. A friend of mine gave me a spool of leather the other day, so I cut it up, got this twine and stitched it together. I made myself this bag. I wanted a messenger bag and just made it. Our society says that you can make money doing that when they see that you’re able to do something. Eh, not always. Sometimes you just have to do it for yourself. You don’t always have to look at it as a way to turn it into a product.
Moving forward, what would benefit musicians the most in the next few years to make it easier to do what you’d like to do?
People have to stop talking about music ‘”industry.” Everyone’s like, “Oh, the industry” and having to appeal to “the industry.” It’s just me and my friends and anybody who cares. It’s not an industry, we’re just people. When I think of the word “industry” I see these big smokestacks cranking out, everything’s the same. It kind of seems like a lot of people my age and my age group, because of what was happening in the 80’s, a band like Nirvana was able to change things. It was so refreshing. They were still on the biggest record label of the day, and people forget that. It seems like things like Bandcamp and certain platforms that artists can really make a pretty decent recording at home, it kind of takes the power away from the industry and puts the power back in the hands of the people making things. That is powerful. It seems like there’s more room for people, not necessarily to make a living, but at least to be sustainable and not having to answer to a bunch of suits. To really do what they want. And that’s great, because we need less people telling us what to do.
A friend of mine, Jonny Leather, he’s been a long time blogger. He puts on a lot of shows. We recently started a record label, Mecca Lecca. We’ve got a really good roster right now; Unicycle Loves You, Right On Dynamite, Howth, The Sanctuaries and me. We’re basically a central thing. We don’t have a lot of money. We’re still producing our own recordings. But we’re just trying to unite and put out the records we want to put out. So that’s good.
What people considered the indie labels are now the majors. Everybody wants to be on Secretly Canadian, Jagjag [Jagjaguwar], Dead Oceans, Anti- or Fat Possum. These are major labels now, they’re not small labels because a major record now sells 10,000 copies. Whereas if you didn’t sell 300,000-500,000 copies in the 90s, you were done. So now one can really sustain oneself by selling whatever they can get by.
Another great thing. People talk about funding the arts. I feel that funding the arts is like feeding the padders. Don’t do it, because they forget how to feed themselves and they stay hungry. People that really need to make art that aren’t concerned with making a living feel they really need to be creative will keep being creative.
It’s just a really different climate right now than it was even five or six years ago for somebody who’s just emerging making their first album. It’s good. It keeps it alive. You have to think of new and interesting ways to do things.
To wrap up, what do you have coming up this year? The house show tour?
That is definitely the next thing. I’m going to take a little time off to see my family. I’m going to try to get into the studio before the fall. I’d like to have a record out in the fall. I’m trying to get back to do another session with Daytrotter, who I love and support very much. I’m going to try to put this house show tour together. So anybody who would like to offer me a house show, I would love to come and do that. I would love to do it more so because a lot of people put on house shows, which is not a new concept. It’s an ancient concept. Even if just me by going on tour and doing this in some places that have not considered putting on a house show, maybe they’ll see how special it is and continue doing that. It’d be a good opportunity to actually meet people, see where they’re from, see what they do. Going on tour, you get there at night, you leave the next morning. It’s kind of what you have to do. But at least to be able to really spend some more personal time with people, it’s really important to me. We write songs or do whatever we do to communicate. That is key.
But I’m going to get this record out eventually. I just started a new job, so I’m going to work. I’m going to work, come home and do the dishes. I don’t like dirty dishes, man.