J.R. Robinson on Why Engaging with Social Media and Dying Aren't So Different

Wrekmeister Harmonies
Wrekmeister Harmonies Katie Hovland
On paper, Wrekmeister Harmonies reads like a cartoonishly brutal metal band. They recorded an entire album in a crematorium. They've collaborated with extreme music masters like Leviathan and The Body. They've recorded entire albums about Manson Family members, pedophile priests, and murderous Renaissance madrigal composers. And they've played concerts in cemeteries!

Knowing all this about the musical duo of J.R. Robinson and Esther Shaw, it's easy to imagine them coated in corpse paint and playing music that sounds like the spirits of the damned wailing through a Marshall stack. While the music they make as Wrekmeister Harmonies can be just as intense as most metal bands, it's also surprisingly lush and beautiful — sometimes even orchestral in scope. Driven by pianos, violins, and guitars, Wrekmeister Harmonies weave together strands of classical music, Chicago post-rock, metal, and drone to create powerful, somber music that would play just as well at underground venues as it would at new music conservatories.

Named after the art film Werckmeister Harmonies by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, Wrekmeister Harmonies is a project that's constantly changing switching gears. Robinson is the band's driving force, sharing vocal work with Shaw and a roster of different guest vocalists. His low-key singing, full of gravel and gravitas, recalls the work of one of his professed heroes, weirdo country music impresario Lee Hazlewood. The band brings in different groups of musicians for each project (like players from Godspeed You! Black Emperor), with Robinson giving them loose directions and notes for them to work off of.

We got a chance to talk to Robinson before the duo makes an appearance at The Lunchbox this weekend. We talked to him about cinema, social media, and which musical composer sweeps him off his feet.

New Times: I wanted to start by asking you why you named your project after Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies. What was it about Tarr's film that had a kinship with the music you wanted to make?
J.R. Robinson: I watched the movie at this point in my life where I was developing this project, and the mood of the film really affected me. It was stark, it was powerful, it had a lot of contemplative moments, moments of beautiful interactions between people and beautiful movements, and it also had these really heavy, oppressive moments that stuck with me for days and days afterward.

I was a little loathe to call the project Werckmeister Harmonies, so what I did was bastardized the title a bit. And then I became really conscientious of the fact that maybe somehow Béla Tarr would be aware that I did this and not be happy about it. I had the fortuitous experience of being able to interview him and I just brought it up with him point blank, “Are you okay with this?” And he was like, “My partner played me some of your music and I really like it, so I’m completely fine with it.”

When you've talked about your process in the past, you've emphasized the openness of your collaborations, how you'll give your collaborators some general directions and then let them loose to be creative and do their thing. Considering how much you love film, that approach to musical composition fascinates me because it sounds a lot like film directing: getting a group of talented people together to execute an auteur's vision under loose direction. Is that something you're aware of when you work this way?
Trying to put together a piece of music, whether you’re operating with a small ensemble or a large group, you have to have an end goal in mind. In that respect, it’s a lot like being a film director, where you have to be concerned about the mood and the performances and all the technical aspects. In my mind, a composer and film director are basically interchangeable roles.

Is it a challenge, having to deal with all the different egos that come with working with such a diverse group of contributors?
Yeah, it’s a challenge. You have to, at some point, adopt the psychological profile of the people that you’re working with. You have to incorporate that into the whole working experience, whether those things are positive or negative. You have to deal with that specific individual’s psychological makeup. That can be a very positive and enlightening experience or, depending on the people you work with, it can be dark and depressive. You have to deal with that, too, and try not to let too much of it creep in and color the work. You want to use their energy for certain parts.

Are you and Esther currently working on any new music?
We have a new album we’re working on called The Alone Rush. It’s a much smaller thing — we’re relying a lot more on just the two of us. In the past, I feel that the work we’ve done has had a sonic template that’s the bedrock and foundation, and we work upward from there. What I wanted to do was remove ourselves from Chicago, which has a lot going on, and put ourselves in a remote part of the country, where there isn’t much going on. And then, rather than work on a sonic template from the beginning, I wanted to invert that process and take it from the opposite approach. Put the sonic template on the outside and have it creep into the work.

A lot of your past records were inspired by history and by books you were reading at the time. What influenced the creation of the songs on The Alone Rush? What inspired you this time?
The subject matter is all about dislocation. If I had to give The Alone Rush an overarching theme, it would be the idea that you can be dislocated from actual people and yet, due to the way modern life is lived, you can still be invisibly connected to a large number of people. And that connection is not real, right? You’re still alone. That set of circumstances is really fascinating to me. You can be physically dislocated from an urban center and yet still be connected to the whole world.

There was this essay I read called The Age of Loneliness Is Killing Us — it was basically all about the whole process that I was describing. It really hit me. And I was also reading a lot about p
alliative care and end of life care for people who are dying, and slowly becoming dislocated from the idea of being an existing and thriving member of a unit. Slowly devolving into the great void of nothingness that we know nothing about.

I don’t know how many times this happens to you but have you ever — you know, you’re looking through your active consumer social media and you’re looking at all this, at your feed, and you’re like, “I have nothing in common with these people. I have no connection to everything that everyone is saying.” And yet you continue, day after day, to consume it, despite this feeling of being completely disassociated from it. That’s what The Alone Rush is all about.

A lot of your work touches on religion, and how organized religion has been a destructive force throughout history. And yet you also make music that is heavily indebted to and influenced by forms of music, like classical, that are deeply spiritual. Both in terms of their history and the feelings they invoke in people. I was wondering if that contradiction, that tension between subject and style, is something you're conscious of when you're listening to or making that kind of music.

When I’m listening to classical music, what I’m looking for primarily is a feeling. What emotion am I trying to capture? Where on the emotional spectrum is this particular piece of music going to place me? "Transfigured Night" by Arnold Schoenberg is going to make me feel a certain way. I’m not really cognizant of the spiritual aspect of it — I totally get what you’re saying, but I’m not seeking that out. There is an undeniable basis for spirituality in classical music, and I get that and I understand it, but it’s not something that I’m seeking out when I’m looking for a mood that I’m trying to capture.

Speaking of music that's influenced you — what has been a big influence with you lately? What's been sticking to your imagination?
I’ve been listening to a lot of the composer John Adams. Because of the sheer magnificent scope … when I’m listening to a John Adams composition, it’s like standing in the ocean and seeing a giant wave coming at you. And you have to accept that this is going to happen to you and then it hits you, and maybe you’re going to get bowled over and get your nostrils and mouth and ears filled with this roaring wave of foam and salt — that’s just going to happen to you. You know this. And you let it hit you. That’s what John Adams' music does for me.

Wrekmeister Harmonies will perform on Saturday, April 29, at The Lunchbox in Phoenix.

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Ashley Naftule