By Peter Holslin | 29 September 2008
Joe Raglani, founder of the experimental label Pegasus Farms Records, is a mainstay of the cozy music scene in Saint Louis, Missouri. Though he has been playing music for nearly two decades, Raglani’s latest record, the ominous and atmospheric Of Sirens Born, is his first major step out of his post-industrial home base and towards a wider audience. Over e-mail, he talks about Of Sirens Born, sources of inspiration, Saint Louis’ decayed art scene, and continuing to live “the dream.”
CMG’s Peter Holslin (CMG): I read in an interview on your label’s site that you worked on your first album for a really long time, writing and rewriting and adding and recording a lot. Then you describe undergoing a nervous breakdown and having a sort of epiphany after going to a show of atmospheric and droning music. So what happened to that album?
Joe Raglani (JR): I was recording a full-length album which was to be called Web Of Light for the embryonic stage of Spooky Action Records (founder Mike Ferrer only did one CD, the excellent [experimental and psychedelic project of Karl Bauer, known as] Axolotl). Mike Ferrer was a person whom I met after one of my shows and he soon became a nucleus for activity and idea sharing amongst local musicians. He put on the city’s most strange and amazing shows in his basement, Spooky Action Palace. He was very much a collaborator on this project but just by lending his ears and advice. We talked hours and hours, coming up with our own theory and theme for the piece. Every mix I made I would run over to his house to hear on his hi-fi system. But after about two years I realized Mike F. was not going to be able to put out the record. I had agonized over it for well over a year.
After Of Sirens Born came out on Gameboy, things I did started to get noticed. Paris Transatlantic wrote a really nice review, which really helped my confidence. Around this time John Tamm Buckle of KVIST records asked me to do a record for him. So the tracks from Web Of Light got split into three projects. Three tracks went to KVIST. Three tracks filled up the b-side of IDES Oneism cassette and the remaining two went to a yet to be released LP on Nihilist.
CMG: Considering how much you put into it, I’m wondering what went into Of Sirens Born_.
JR: After plans to release Web Of Light on Spooky Action Records fell through, I was complaining to Michael Shiflet [an experimental electroacoustic artist who heads Gameboy records] about how I was stuck with a bloc and no one wanted the split CD, etc. He then offered to put out a solo full-length after he was going to be moving to Japan. It really energized me. I got excited about doing music again. I had no social life, no girlfriend…nothing. I just threw myself into it. And strangely enough, in a relatively short time (3 or 4 months) I had Of Sirens Born. It came together almost effortlessly. I really have little recollection of making it. I just got the best weed and speed I could find and holed myself up until it was done. I think this is the best way to work actually, to be honest. I wish I could live in a cabin with a nice stash and just spurt record after record out. I think I could if given the chance but life and work seem to keep me too busy for music these days.
CMG: The noises you use in Of Sirens Born come from mysterious sources—the first note in “River In” could be a wine glass or a sine wave, I’m not sure. How do you go about working with electronics to produce these tones?
JR: “River In” uses almost exclusively an old ’50s wave generator which is being knobbed live and sent into loops. I have a guitar tuner which helps guide me as far as pitch goes. That is fed into a harmony pedal which splits that not into a small chord. Sometimes I get lucky. Sometimes I work out some chords on a keyboard then kind of do those chord in my style or in this chain of effects that I have created. I find this old wave generator to have the warmest saw wave. Just beautiful and extremely musical in my opinion. Which is weird since I think it was designed for testing speakers. It’s all tubes and transistors. Pretty massive and delicate. A pain to take out and play live.
CMG: The noises in the record are at once sublime and scary. Were you trying to make something specifically beautiful or terrifying?
JR: I wasn’t really trying to do anything specific really. Well maybe when you’re at the end of the project you start to get more specific sounds or emotions to perhaps balance out what you already have. For me, I’m not interested in making someone feel scared or resonate with a particular beauty. I just try and create a soundworld that reflects my inner world or a universe that seems hidden under the surface of reality. When you start to think or talk about realities you realize you cannot exclude beauty or horror from them if you want to make it believable or accurate. Beauty only seems beautiful when it’s in contrast with horror and vise versa. So when creating these soundworlds I believe it’s important to represent both. I think if I was just to do an album of pretty sounds (which I’ve been tempted to do) it would fall flat. Same with a purely harsh noise recording. There has to be something buried in that chaos to give it that depth and make it interesting. For me anyways.
CMG: I can’t help but notice that you hail from St. Louis, once an industrial heavyweight but now considered a victim of post-industrial fallout. Is this record in any way motivated by that, or urban landscapes in general?
JR: I think film is the primary source of inspiration. There is some connection to what you propose in the sense that this environment causes one to look towards escapist expressions like movies for inspiration maybe.
I lived downtown for several years while I was getting my musical bearings. Because the environment was so bombed out and depleted it attracted artists from all over and offered them spaces that would have been impossible to obtain in other cities. Because of this, for a brief period of time, a thriving artist community sprang up. I moved to Saint Louis because of that opportunity. When artists that were putting together shows and “art parties” found out that I also played music in addition to painting, they asked me to perform at these events. So art galleries and warehouses were the first places I played this kind of music in. I was asked to do specifically abstract music or “sound paintings” at these events. I was allowed to experiment and do anything I wanted. It was my testing ground and for a period I was supported by this community. I formed a small recording studio and with the people I had in my immediate circle, I had all the best session musicians that the city offered. I traded personal studio time for their services on my projects and those of my clients. It was very family feeling. I would always cook for them and help them out in various ways.
You look at the gentrification process of major cities and you can see that Saint Louis is probably one of the most dramatic cases. At some point in the ’50s and ’60s everyone moved out into the suburbs, causing this kind of wasteland. Then in the late ’90s they rebuilt the downtown area into impossibly rich and affluent condos and loft spaces, driving out the very artists that allowed the area a new attention and focus. Most of my friends moved to Chicago or other cities at this point. I got left behind in a sense and ever since then I have moved from one area to the next, just a few steps ahead of this gentrification process.
Around this time I started to release music on my own label, which I coined Pegasus Farms Records. This name was taken from a subdivision that sprang up next to where my father lived. One summer it was a beautiful wooded area, the next it was slashed down and it became a dirt and concrete foundation laden playground for me and my skateboarding friends for a few years before it finally got developed. We would sit and drink down in these foundations looking up at the moon quite like that Neil Young song. This place always stays in my memory. A kind of lost childhood Eden. The logo for the label was a Pegasus behind a barbed wire fence, trying to escape. This became a metaphor for me of the Saint Louis experience and those artists trying to survive here.
CMG: How do you feel about being on Kranky?
JR: It’s really given me a lot of confidence to continue making music. The pressures of life and family have been really hard on me to give up the dream and get a “real job,” etc. Now I feel as though I can tread water for a little longer at least.