I have never listened to an album by a group I didn’t know — only to be given the chance to talk to half that group the next day. That is until Thursday, when I interviewed Jonathan Kochmer GRD ’83 of Two Loons for Tea. The fact that the group — consisting of Kochmer and Sarah Scott on vocals — is stunningly innovative and that Kochmer was more than insightful in our chat only made the experience sweeter.
It is safe to say that no other group is doing what Two Loons is doing the way Two Loons is doing it. In their September release, “Looking for Landmarks”, they employ Casio synthesizers, baritone guitars, flutes, accordions, countless other instruments played by guests, and an army of digital effects. Their songs combine a feeling of spontaneity with the weight that comes with pure channeled emotion.
Incidentally, Kochmer was a Yale graduate student from ’81-’89 and left right before finishing his doctoral dissertation on evolutionary biology. So how did a New Haven scientist become a Seattle musician? Kochmer explains that it is not much of a metamorphosis, since he has always been a music aficionado, and still nurtures his love of science.
As a child, he grew up in a classical music family, and still lists Brahms and Schubert as musical influences (although rather subtle ones to the listener’s ear). He also tips his hat to George Crumb and twentieth century minimalists. Even Peter Gabriel makes his list.
But perhaps the most audible influences Kochmer cites are those of ambient electronic musicians like The Orb and Aphex Twin, or Kruder and Dorfmeister. Especially in the song intros, we can hear some beats that one might expect from his electronic kin. “The Prisoner,” if stripped of its vocals, sounds incredibly like ambient electronica.
Which is not to say that Two Loons is an ambient band. “Landmarks” crosses musical boundaries. When Scott begins to sing in the first song, “Blue Suit,” I immediately think of Zero 7. Kochmer finds this connection interesting — having loved their last album — and points out that Zero 7 has a very similar set-up to Two Loons: a man-woman duo who invite a myriad of guest performers.
But only at times do the two groups sound alike. And that is true for any comparison of Two Loons. If one piece of a song sounds like Jeff Buckley’s “Dream Brother,” it will only be a hint, and will then disappear. One thing that that Two Loons always shares with Buckley, Kochmer says, is a sort of “yearning and heartfelt” passion audible in the music they play.
Their method of creating songs is also relatively unique. Kochmer says that for this album, the duo went into a studio and improvised until something sounded right. When it did, a song was written. What emerges is a set of songs that differ strikingly from one another. A wonderful progressive feel pervades the album as songs just bleed into themselves, morphing from one key to another, using strange scales and exotic sounds.
Much like “The Prisoner,” any song can be stripped of its vocals and sound completely different. Perhaps the best track on the album, “Emily” starts out in an eerie key with bizarre strings and hollow drums, which it uses for its verses, and then shifts to a major key (albeit a strange one) for the chorus, changing beats and adding choral backing. At first this song sounds entirely different from the closing track of the album, “Emily Dickinson,” a rather strange, somewhat ambient intstrumental that also alternates keys to incredible effect. Listening to the album again, we realize that the two songs are actually one and the same! Only the lyrics have been omitted from the closer.
And as far as production goes, this album pulls out all the stops. Two Loons worked with a group of insanely talented guest musicians, and were produced by Eric Rosse, who was also at the soundboard for Tori Amos. Kochmer tells that when production was stalling on “Green Limousine” and “Shape of Strange,” they brought the songs to the Skywalker Ranch (famous for its sound and image studio; responsible for the Kronos Quartet’s soundtrack to “Requiem for a Dream”). There the group’s view of the songs was completely flipped around by studio producers, yielding two of the most unique tracks on the album.
Interestingly, I find “Shape of Strange” to be one of my favorites. It is a funk experiment musically akin to “Superstition,” “I’ll Take You There” or a Jazzanova song, but lyrically approaches something like an Andre Breton or Pablo Neruda poem. But “Green Limousine” — despite its pleasing up-tempo ending — strikes me as a bit repetitive, especially by the standard that the group sets with its other songs.
Another stunning song is “Dying for Love,” which uses an accordion and foreign-sounding spoken words to give the piece a really exotic feel without making it sound like a world music rip-off. “Not Worth the Worry” employs a sad fiddle to give it a particularly stark feel.
Two Loons like to think of themselves as akin to the traveling jazz bands of the 40’s. They have a core group of musicians and use many more depending on location and availability. Thus, the music is always different. Any band’s live work is different from the studio version, but with Two Loons it might as well be a different song. The group, in this way, becomes a vehicle for the song. One lyric on the album reads “I don’t know if she’s an angel or a changeling.” Perhaps this can be said of Two Loons music. In my mind, this exemplifies the way modern music ought to be played.