Herbcraft fringes the fringe

Ian Nelson

herbcraft guitar pedals setup

Herbcraft's setup. Photo by Ian Nelson.

Herbcraft is a solo project of Matt Lajoie from Cursillistas. He lives and works way up in Portland, Maine. I met Matt in Northampton last Spring at a show he played with Taterbug and Tracey Trance at esteemed living room venue King Street Mansion. His set was fantastic, burnt psychedelic guitars looped and melted into each other for a truly transcendent experience. He was on the verge of releasing his first Herbcraft LP Herbcraft Discovers The Bitter Water Of Agartha, and is now prepping his follow-up Ashram to the Stars, both on Woodsist sister imprint Hello Sunshine. I talked to Matt about Portland and what's going on there, his various projects and his penchant for rituals.

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Ian Nelson: Why did you break off on this solo project instead of making another Cursillistas record? Does Cursillistas still exist? How long had the Herbcraft project been brewing?

Matt Lajoie: So I guess the story is that Cursillistas did a two-month US tour from October through December of last year, and after the tour Dawn (my Cursillistas collaborator from 2008 to present) decided to move to Portland, Oregon and I decided to stay in Portland, Maine (we had originally planned to both move to the west coast after the tour)… given the distance, Cursillistas couldn't possibly continue being what it was, and I wasn't interested in recording a solo album or an album with other folks under the Cursillistas name.

After Dawn left, I was really into the idea of starting to make and play the kind of music that I spend most of my time listening to: the late-60s early-70s Bay Area freak bands, obscure private press psych-rock records, krautrock, classic rock, etc. One morning I started writing and recording the Herbcraft record and the next day the record was finished. I sent it off to Jeremy on a whim that he might like it, and he wrote back a couple days later wanting to put it out. So in a sense it was brewing for awhile, because that particular set of influences had been around for awhile but I hadn't figured out how to work it into Cursillistas yet. But on the other hand, I came up with the concept for the band and record and had finished the album all within 24 hours, so it was also spontaneous.

Jupiter Trine Sun by Herbcraft

As far as the future of Cursillistas goes, Dawn and I are starting to work it out again. We have a record planned with Blackest Rainbow towards the end of the year, and we've just completed our first attempt at cross-country collaboration for a track we contributed to the upcoming Blackburn Recordings compilation. I recorded my parts on the song, sent a cassette of it off to Dawn in the mail, she added her parts and mailed it back to me, and I mixed it down to a final version. So that proved to us that we can keep doing it from a distance, and we'll be exploring that. We also have some songs we finished pre-tour that we have good recordings of but have never released.. there's lots of recorded unreleased Cursillistas stuff laying around and I'll probably do some sort of vault-clearing LP later this year. Dawn's also currently working on a solo album under the name Oracle Offering, and what I've heard so far is amazing. So I'm embracing Herbcraft at the moment, psyched for the record to come out, but Cursillistas is still in the back of my mind if Dawn and I keep wanting to do it.

Road To Agartha by Herbcraft

ADDENDUM: Dawn has actually moved back to Portland, Maine, and we've begun charting out new musical paths together, but not under the Cursillistas name. We are talking about several different kinds of projects as possibilities for a debut release. In the meantime, Dawn is busy recording her Oracle Offering LP and my solo focus is on Herbcraft and Endless Caverns. I'm pressing a “lost" solo Cursillistas album (recorded in 2007-2008) early next year as a limited LP, and shortly after that the final duo-style LP should come out on Blackest Rainbow, and that'll probably be the official end of Cursillistas, in name at least.

What's up with the Portland, Maine music scene? How well does Herbcraft/Cursillistas fit in with whatever sort of 'music scene' is going on in Portland?

The geographic location of Maine is such that there aren't a ton of touring bands who come through and, likewise, few Portland bands hit the road long-term for tours of their own (especially beyond New England). But there is a pretty big local live music scene of bands who are popular locally, self-release their music or put out CDs on local labels, get radio play on local stations, etc. A truly DIY self-contained scene. Some of these bands are great at what they do; most recall 80's or 90's indie rock styles, a few are more chamber-folk or country-based. The heavy music scene here is worth noting (OCEAN is fantastic, among others), and I hear we've got a stellar local hip-hop community but unfortunately I haven't explored it too deeply.

But in general, the bands I'm involved with and other local groups who embrace a loose or improvisational style that benefits from the listener having a wide-open mind (Attar Cups/Dreams, Dark Urrru and Instant Animals are some personal favorites) are relatively under-the-radar in the local scene. Truly psychedelic music has pretty limited appeal no matter where you are, so this isn't surprising. We're not making the kind of music that is fun on a social level, it's too loud for the art scene and not loud enough for the noise/heavy music scene, too loose for either, you can't dance to it, and our artistic/philosophical choice to release music on vinyl and cassette doesn't win any accessibility points. We're not trying to make it hard on anyone… it's just that if we are true to our art we're not likely to win over a huge local fanbase. But we're happy on the fringe, where we rarely play shows in town unless we can make it special somehow, there's a very small but enthusiastic group of fans and musical peers who keep up with our happenings, and we try to hit the road a few times a year as awareness-expanding missions. I think it's fair to say our artistic aspirations, inspirations, and motivations are on a different trip than most Portland bands.

What has Portland got to offer in the way of music venues for small, less established bands and musicians? Where is your favorite place to play there?

Strange Maine is the absolute best – it's a used record/tape/book/etc. shop that fits 25 people at most when they push the record racks to the side of the room for shows, and the bands that play there are generally far-out traveling bands or mind-expanding locals with small followings who take chances. The bands I saw there when I first started hanging out in Portland changed my life, thanks to some mind-blowing Time-Lag Records-curated shows: Feathers, Fursaxa, GHQ, WWVV, Christina and Tom Carter, and local heroes Visitations, Big Blood, Crank Sturgeon & id M theft able are a few of many. It's my favorite place to play because there's an open invitation to get as far out as possible.

Beyond Strange Maine, we have a great underground DIY spot called the Apohadion that has hosted several outstanding touring bands since it opened, and SPACE Gallery, which is an official venue that is willing to book more experimental touring and local acts than other venues and bars around here. Portland also provides some uniquely weird and transcendent spaces – my band Planets Around the Sun has played on a chartered cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, inside the abandoned Army bunker on an island accessible only by ferry, and inside a planetarium all in just the past few months.

What do you do when not writing and recording music?

I work in the reference department of a university library. I'm definitely lucky to have a job that is relatively laid-back and encourages knowledge-seeking and consciousness-expanding. When I'm home, I spend a fair amount of time working on my record label, L'animaux Tryst.. we have several cassettes and LPs in the works, and we've always focused on handmade packaging, which takes time.

I've seen you play live a couple times now. I have experienced many ritualistic touches to the live show, such as the burning of incense, ingesting of droplets of some mystery liquid, carefully placed objects and pieces of fabric. What is the connection between these rituals and your music?

Well there is the practical side to the ritual, which is that it is a familiar set of motions and altar-settings in what is likely to be a very foreign location and situation. So on a lower-vibration level, it just makes us comfortable in any new setting if we are able to take the time to make a strange place more familiar via these rituals and objects. When I'm on stage I zone out and rarely see beyond whatever is five feet in front of me, so if I can look down and see these familiar objects it's almost like dream-familiarity, a sort of alternate-reality astral-projection where I'm simultaneously in my bedroom at home and hundreds of miles away jamming in front of strangers in a strange place. It adds to the trippiness of the experience and provides a gateway into that most natural improvisational state (lucid dreaming). The careful setting of the objects and slow lighting of the incense & candles also tunes us (and hopefully the audience) in to a slow-moving present, slowing our breathing and heartbeat to a collective meditative rate, which is important considering how rushed everything usually feels at a live show.

There's also a more traditionally-esoteric side to the ritual that is important in establishing the sacredness of the moment. I recently realized certain elements of the ritual (frankincense and myrrh, group communion, candles, bells) subconsciously came about from a very specific kind of deeply-hypnotic mysticism I felt as a child growing up in the Catholic church. I was an altar-server, so I was up there lighting the incense and candles, ringing the communion bell, setting the cruets and linens just so, feeling time slow down as every motion was done with absolute deliberateness. Presently a more diverse set of religious philosophies has refracted my practice of mysticism into a wider spectrum, but combined together these esoteric rituals help me feel more comfortable about performing with a certain sincerity of purpose in a world that is sometimes frighteningly ironic or sarcastic. Undoubtedly there will be folks at every show who are turned off by these elements, which I can understand to a degree: it's probably unusual to think of the concert stage as a sacred space, and musical performance as a rite. But it's the only way I know how to interact with psychedelic music, with reverence for the vibrations that manifest when one is open to all possible visitation energies flowing thru the medium that is our bodies, with a quiet mind allowing the truth of infinite time and space to exist in every moment. Psychedelic music is our genuine attempt at communion with the universe and all its infinite possibilities.

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