Jefre Cantu-Ledesma's latest solo record, A Year With 13 Moons, was a surprise to longtime fans. Most of the composer's voluminous catalog, whether recorded solo or with bands such as Tarentel and the Alps, consists of works in the avant-garde and experimental spheres. But 13 Moons, released on Brooklyn label Mexican Summer, is built on pop and rock archetypes. It's a far cry from the long-form drone music for which Cantu-Ledesma is known as the cofounder of San Francisco-based experimental record label Root Strata.
Though the album's framework of guitars, synths and drum machines is more conventional than most of Cantu-Ledesma's records, it is still a complex, abstract work characterized by wildly progressive composition. The dynamic, moody album features shifting industrial sounds that can be placid one moment, only to turn sinister and dark the next. Or, as a scribe at Pitchfork wrote, 13 Moons is either "the year's most fucked up ambient album or its most bucolic noise record."
Cantu-Ledesma will perform in the gallery of Champlain College's Center for Communication and Creative Media this Friday, October 23, as part of the SIGNALS Experimental Media Art Series curated by local experimental composer Greg Davis. The show is an improvisational audio-visual collaboration with filmmaker Paul Clipson. In advance of that performance, Seven Days spoke with Cantu-Ledesma by phone from New York City.
SEVEN DAYS: We'll get to music in a second, but I wanted to start by talking about your interest in pottery.
JEFRE CANTU-LEDESMA: I actually studied visual arts in undergrad. I have a BFA, and I've been doing visual arts since I was a kid. I came to music while I was in college and since college have been focusing mostly on music. I did some record covers for friends, but that was about it, visually. When I moved to New York, it was a transitional moment, and I wanted to start making objects again. So I signed up for a pottery class and dove in.
SD: The new record is a little different from your previous work. In particular, you were experimenting with more of a traditional rock band setup.
JCL: Mostly, I got bored with doing droney, ambient music on my own. Before I started doing that stuff, I had mostly played in bands. And those were formulated more or less around rock structures. When I started making solo music, I didn't really have a vision. I was doing long-form drone stuff, and it didn't really work in a band context. At some point I just got interested again in adding rhythm and playing guitar in a melodic way. I was reinterpreting that stuff in my own weird engine of creating. But it really just came out of wanting to mix things up. I love making drone music, but I'm too curious about other things, too.
SD: So transitioning to that setup came naturally?
JCL: It was a slow evolution. I think from the outside, if you look at my discography, it might seem like a crazy leap. But there were lots of slow transitions. I'd add a drum machine to something, but there were no guitar parts. Then I might add guitar riffs to something. Actually, on my previous record, Love Is a Stream, there is no rhythm on that, but there are distinct guitar parts. So that was really the first leap into playing something with a little bit more structure. And that made it easier to try more traditional rock structures and make more crazy-sounding things, too.
SD: Was working within the framework of rock structures freeing?
JCL: Yeah, absolutely. Working within certain parameters helps to narrow the options. And having too many options is terrifying. I came across this term recently, it's used in child psychology — it's called "bound options," or something like that. And I instantly related to it from a creative perspective. I think it's always useful to give yourself some simple parameters and limit yourself in some degree and see how far you can go.
SD: You mentioned in another interview that you had anxiety about this record because you thought you should be an "experimental musician."
JCL: [Laughs] I think when I was making the record, I had this idea of my music that it somehow existed in a world outside of pop music, in a way, that it was more avant garde. But it's a little bit murky. Whatever my intentions were, I kept pushing away from going all the way into pop and rock structures. But at some point I just realized I was creating a false dichotomy. Why can't pop or rock songs also be interesting and experimental? So, once I got over that, I realized I could write pop songs and they could just be really fucked up. [Laughs]
I realized I could do it through my own lens. And I didn't have to make the distinctions anymore — if something is avant garde or not or whatever. And, to my surprise, people seemed to respond to it.
SD: The album is a breakup record. But you didn't realize that until you had already made it?
JCL: Yeah. That period of my life was pretty rough. And that definitely played a huge role in the mood and tone of the record. But I didn't really know it at the time.
SD: The Champlain College show will be an audio-visual collaboration with filmmaker Paul Clipson, correct?
JCL: It will be. We've been working together for, like, 12 years now. But we don't really collaborate in a traditional way. I haven't even seen the film he made yet.
SD: You guys usually work on things independently. So you never know how something will come together until it does, right?
JCL: Right. We'll talk about what we're going to do, but that's about it. Initially, it happened pretty intuitively. Then we realized it's a dynamic and expressive way of collaborating, because things don't become too canned. You can't predict what's going to happen, which makes the performance unique. Even if I know exactly what I'm going to play, that performance, that day will never happen again. So there's, like, a third component that's happening between the sound and visuals that's impossible to predict.
SD: So you might intend to evoke a certain mood or feeling with the music, and Paul might do the same with his film, but whatever you had in mind will be altered by what the other is doing.
JCL: Absolutely. And that's a big part of it. Each individual is bringing his own experience and perspective. When we see images, we automatically create a narrative. So each person who is seeing it will create their own story based on what we're doing. And people sometimes can't believe we're improvising. The music will change, and there will be an edit in the film, and it's all chance that it lines up and works together, but it inevitably does.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Full Circle"