Jeff Mueller's bands Rodan, June of 44, and Shipping News have made significant contributions to the development of post-rock, math rock, and post-hardcore. Rodan's archive release Fifteen Quiet Years is out today on Quarterstick Records with packaging by Mueller's letterpress business Dexterity Press. Epitonic spoke with Mueller about his various bands and the passing of his good friend and long-time musical collaborator Jason Noble, as well as Dexterity Press and his relationship with Touch and Go Records. An exclusive download of Rodan's "Shiner ('92 version)" from Fifteen Quiet Years is available at the bottom of the interview along with a playlist of other related tracks.
What was the process of creating Fifteen Quiet Years like? Did you have to locate the recordings or was it sitting in an archive ready to be dealt with?
Most of it we already had because Jason [Noble] (Rodan, Shipping News, Rachel's) and I did a pretty good job of befriending a lot of people who recorded a lot of our live music. There's a guy in Chicago named Adam Jacobs who recorded almost every show that was ever played at an old club called Lounge Ax. Our friend Cory Rayborn who is in North Carolina, he was obsessive about live recordings. He was always really good about sending us whatever he had.
As far as the bonus material that is associated with the Rodan record that's coming out, we already had most of that stuff in some fashion. Some of it was actually mixed and dumped straight from VHS tapes. The quality of the bonus material that comes for download, some of it sounds okay and some of it sounds pretty bad (laughs). Bob [Weston] did a really good job of making it palatable. The other things that are on the record, the songs that are on the physical release, those are all things we just kept in a box and we had all of those master tapes still with us, so it wasn't too hard to get those things together.
The hardest part really as far as the whole process was concerned was gaining access to rights from the BBC Peel Session recordings. It was very, very expensive initially and it slowly got a little more reasonable price-wise. There was a whole lot of negotiating going on between Corey [Rusk] at Touch and Go and various people at BBC who would invariably return his e-mails or his phone calls. It could be two or three weeks or two or three months to respond to a simple yes or no kind of e-mail. I think Corey told us he was working on a licensing deal with the BBC in 2009, which happened to be the same year that Touch and Go went through a pretty significant downsizing, as far as letting staff go and Corey packing up the building and moving himself to Seattle.
All the different things that happened led me to believe that… the Rodan release just wouldn't happen, but Corey kept it as a priority and it stayed on the production calendar. It's pretty fantastic that this is going to exist. Hopefully people like it. For me, I'm just happy that it's going to be out in the world. I'm just happy that we actually finally got it done, not to mention that Jason got sick just after we mastered the LP and CD with Bob, like two or three months later was when he was diagnosed [with cancer]. Like, that's pretty crazy. I'm sure it was very difficult for him to wrap his brain around working on this record that he'd been wanting to make for fifteen years and fight for his life.
In the Village Voice interview you did recently, you mentioned a rap band you had with Jason before Rodan called King G and the J Crew. What were your influences and what did that sound like?
Our influences were contemporary, at the time, rap bands and soul music. We listened to a lot of Marvin Gaye and a lot of Al Green and a lot of Run DMC, Public Enemy, LL Cool J. Some older things like Grandmaster Flash and all these rap projects that were happening in the early-mid 80s. We didn't really know so much about what were doing as far as recording music at that point. We rented a Tascam Portastudio that we used. It was 8 tracks of music but it was all recorded onto one cassette tape. We basically would record a drum loop and start hanging samples and other patterns on top of it and slowly construct these sound collages that we would put rap lyrics on top of. It sort of sounded like a fusion of all those things - a little bit of soul, and a little bit of James Brown, and a whole lot of Run DMC and Public Enemy.
Is that band something that you're still fond of?
Every now and again Jason and I would talk about King G and the J Crew and fondly remember the days of rap music and we always talked about how amazing it would be to orchestrate some sort of a reunion and play another rap music sort of show, but at the end of the day we just sort of morphed away from it. I'm certainly not embarrassed by it, and in some sense of the words, it's probably the best thing I've ever done. It's one of my favorite projects I've ever worked on. Musically, I'm very far away from that sort of thinking now and all of the music we've made since 1991 has been about as far away from actual rap music as it gets, without being classical or country. I'm happy we did it and I still really like the record.
Was it a smooth transition from King G to Rodan or were they completely separate occurrences?
I think we made the transition without really even thinking about it too much so I guess you could say it was a fairly smooth transition, though it was just sort of the abandonment of one thing and jumping in to something else sonically. The reality of the matter for us was we just spent and borrowed a lot of money to make and reproduce copies of the King G and the J Crew record we worked on for two straight years. We never had any tours, didn't have a record label, so we just decided to print 2000 copies of the CD. Those CDs showed up in the mail maybe 6 weeks after we started playing a completely different style and format of music all together.
How did the creative process differ between Rodan, June of 44, and Shipping News? Were you approaching things in a different way in each band?
I think so. In both Rodan and Shipping News, certainly with the later Shipping News records, we spent a lot more time as a band trying to write full-band songs where everyone has partial ownership of the music. In June of 44, initially we had such a little period of time to actually write our first record that Sean Meadows and I just jumped into a room and showed each other our songs which we were pretty much fully done with as far as our parts and the words and singing were concerned. We just jumped into a room with Fred [Erskine] and Doug [Scharin] to ask them A) if they liked the music and B) if they could do anything with it. So I guess it was more a matter of them just putting the meat on a framework that was already there. With Rodan it was similar to the last few years of Shipping News. That sort of slowly happened with June of 44 as well. In all the projects, we all felt better about it if we owned it personally and had some stake in how things were written and put together.
What was doing the In The Fishtank session (In The Fishtank 6) with June of 44 like?
While on tour in Europe we planned three days where we played a show in Amsterdam and the following two days were supposed to be dedicated to being in the studio and recording whatever we came up with. The whole point of the Fishtank series is bands basically get thrown into this very short writing, recording, mixing period, and the whole idea is that you're just sort of stressed and you have to use whatever it is you come up with. To me, it was a really nice creative working method, to force yourself to not be precious about your riffs or about your songs but kind of come up with whatever you come up with as quickly as you can.
In fact, in Shipping News, two or three years after June of 44 recorded the Fishtank record, Shipping News started a series of CD singles. Each one of us would try, on our own, soloistic style, to record a song using the same sort of prerequisites and we would sort of attach them to one CD.
Do you have anything planned as far as June of 44 and Shipping News goes?
There's not really too much to do with Shipping News. Jason and I and Kyle [Crabtree] and Tom [Cook] were a group of people where everything had to be done collectively so I don't think it would really make any sense to do anything with the rarities or any of the strange stuff that Shipping News has without getting Jason's graces on it. The Rodan record we're putting out now we've been psychologically cultivating for eighteen, nineteen years. As far as the physical artwork, and the mastering and all that stuff, it's something we've been working on right up until Jason passed away. I really wanted to make sure that that record happened, and so did Corey.
With June of 44, I don't know. Sean Meadow and I are still kind of playing music with each other. I've been to New York once or twice to rehearse with him in the past year. He's been here a couple times. We're trying to generate some new songs and to do some new music. I don't know what we would really do as June of 44 as a band, I don't know if that can happen again or not.
Do you have any other musical plans?
I have plans to start to settle this year, as far as getting over, you know, getting myself back together after Jason passed away. He and I had been writing music together since we went to high school pretty much, so it was a tricky thing to figure out how to even approach songwriting and approach other people about playing music with me, because it was a pretty massive loss for a lot of people. I did my best to sort of prepare for his absence as far as what life would be like without him on the planet. I didn't really do anything preliminary work or lay any tracks for any new projects throughout the lineage of Jason's cancer.
That said, I'm always playing guitar and always coming up with new songs ideas. At the current moment, I guess I'm trying to figure out who to play with and I guess more importantly who would want to play with me (laughs). Sean and I are doing pretty good. We're in pursuit of drummers and we have a bass player in mind, but I guess the latchkey is a drummer. I always want to try to work on another batch of solo Jeff Mueller music.
I didn't realize you had done any solo music. Have you released any of it?
I did, it was sort of in haste and it was a very fun record to make. I guess it was 1999. Some dudes from Baltimore started a record label called Monitor Records. They ended up joining forces with Will Oldham for a while as far as record label stuff is concerned. My solo record was the first record that they put out.
Did you used to work at Touch and Go?
I didn't really ever work at Touch and Go. I felt like an employee of Touch and Go in the positive sense of the word because I was there so frequently working with people to help myself, to help my own bands. I had very little design skills in the early, mid 90s. The first designer [at Touch and Go] was named Matt Taylor and the second was David Babbitt. They both helped, eventually, with designing records and posters. There was also a publicist at Touch and Go named Naomi Walker who was instrumental in the booking, planning, and organizing of European tours. None of my bands ever went through any proper booking agent. Corey was always very adamant about people who worked at the label help people in bands be able to do things. I think I listed on my Facebook page that I used to work at Touch and Go, but it was really just sort of a joke because I was always there. I would always just try to figure out a reason to go in.
How long have you been doing letterpress?
I started working with letterpress in 1995. My wife and I moved to Chicago in 1995 and I was looking for ways to package my own records that was interesting. I had seen the Tortoise record, I think it's just the self-titled Tortoise record, and Shellac At Action Park. Jason was in the process of working with Fireproof Press on packaging for his first proper Rachel's record, Handwriting. I went in with him to see what the place was like. Actually, the guy that ran Fireproof Press was a good friend of mine from college. His name's John Upchurch. He and his friend Matt McClintock started Fireproof Press and ran it in Chicago for quite a few years. I showed up in Chicago and needed a job and wanted to learn how to run letterpress and really liked the whole process. John was nice enough to give me work. I guess I've been doing it now for almost 20 years.
Do you mostly do letterpress for bands?
It kind of comes and goes. There will be waves of work that is entirely band related, where we'll do music packaging for a couple of month straight - LP or CD jackets - and then we won't touch anything music related for a few months and work a lot more traditional letterpress stuff like wedding invitations and business cards. There's no exclusivity with the shop, it's usually whatever work comes through the door.
Do you do any visual art aside from letterpress?
There will be periods where I do some sculptural things with glass and laminating things. Sometimes I'll do a little bit of illustration. I've been using the shop in a really interesting way in the past couple of years. We had been doing entirely commercial letterpress work for people - bigger jobs and commissions, and all sorts of things. In 2011 I began working on my own artwork here at the studio. It's really awesome. It's very gratifying and it's a nice release to be able to work on my own stuff here artistically.
"In Memory of Jason Noble" by Justin Sinkovich
"Interview: Steve Albini" by Parker Langvardt