“Because narrow is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads unto life, and few there be that find it.” –Matthew 7:14
“God is good and it’s understood, but he moves in mysterious ways.” – Hiss Golden Messenger
Like it or not, human beings must wrestle with their place in the scheme of things. While the questions can be kept at bay for a time – drowned out with distraction, drugs and drudgery – they linger, catching us in our beds when the din dies down and the spheres whisper to us in our solitude. Who am I? Who made all this if it was ‘made’ at all? How does it all fit together? How do I fit together with it all? Even the shallowest person comes up against these seemingly rhetorical conundrums and some answer is required, even if only to quiet these lonely late night murmurings.
While some turn to houses of worship and dogmatic religious practice to engage with these inescapable internal inquiries, others find the path into this fertile, frightening gray area through music. While a great deal of what’s on offer today is as deep as a paper cut, there are beautiful, thorny exceptions, music that pricks us and reminds us of our humanity and potential transcendence. North Carolina-based-former-S.F.-area ontologically charged roots rockers Hiss Golden Messenger till green, fragrant ground, the smell of overturned earth redolent of decay and life in all its tendril throwing glory rising from their work. HGM is M.C. Taylor and longtime collaborator Scott Hirsch – both former members of now-defunct but cultishly loved Bay Area band The Court & Spark – who’ve struck out into rock’s wilds in search of something more rewarding than party anthems and pretty ditties.
Over the course of three very different yet psychologically and spiritually overlapping albums – starting with 2009’s Country Hai East Cotton and weaving through 2010’s stark, largely solo Taylor recording Bad Debt and arriving at the more electric and readily welcoming Poor Moon (released November 1) – HGM has handily disproven the notion that rock is a dumb artistic medium. This band shuffles with archetypes and grasps at the sky in the hopes some higher power high-fives them somewhere along their weary road. It is workingman’s music that melds elements of Merle Haggard with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Rev. Gary Davis, where songs pulled from usually hidden places serve as the listener’s companions into their own craggy, shadowy reaches.
By turns worshipful and wary, Hiss Golden Messenger is bread for incarnation and transubstantiation, feeding the body in the here and now while simultaneously nourishing less obvious appetites in one’s soul. It also happens to be great music sung in Taylor’s lovely, almost-too-honest voice, a dirt field relative to Sam Cooke and the Jerry Garcia who sang ballads that make one feel split open. The music is an evolving blur of folk, country, blues and the outside-the-mainstream work of pioneers like Roy Harper, Bert Jansch and John Martyn, a fascinating conversation between Taylor and Hirsch that’s been chattering away for nearly 20 years. While Taylor may be the lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter in HGM, Hirsch’s empathetic grace shines through in the many fine touches he brings to this subtle music, playing on and co-producing, engineering and mixing all of HGM’s records. Each new chapter allows us to eavesdrop on the coded shorthand this pair shares, which has never been more together or sweetly rewarding than on Poor Moon, which also features contributions from Terry Lonergan, Nathan Bowles (Black Twig Pickers; Pelt), Hans Chew (D. Charles Speer & the Helix), Matt Cunitz (Brightblack Morning Light), Tom Heyman (The Court & Spark), and others.
In plain terms, Hiss Golden Messenger are deep, solid stuff in a whipped cream time, offering up thoroughly wood-shedded tunes that take a spell to unravel (if they ever unknot at all), asking big questions with appropriate fear and trembling yet braving step after step into the Great Unknown that resides in our own breasts.
What follows is a rambling stroll with M.C. Taylor that finds its way to the Bible, the music biz, the Grateful Dead, and ultimately reasons for making art that have nothing to do with financial profit but perhaps everything to do with being a true pilgrim slouching towards understanding, compassion, and maybe – just maybe – a slice or two of truth.
The name Hiss Golden Messenger is so evocative without being remotely specific. There’s mystery entwined in those seven syllables.
There’s a lot in the name. It’s a name that I arrived at in some way. I needed a name that I could use for anything I was involved in, whether it was just me at the kitchen table or a full ensemble record. I needed something that wasn’t my own name. The name works for me on a variety of levels. Obviously, there’s a kind of Biblical referential, but the ‘Hiss’ can be interpreted in a lot of ways. And I like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, so there you go [laughs].
It starts with a word that tintinnabulous, which always rocks.
The other thing is many people think the ‘Hiss’ is a misspelling, and somewhere along the way there’s been a mistransliteration of project and it’s actually His Golden Messenger, which I really appreciate. I like that and honestly get a kick out of that.
That’s great, that somehow we’ve all screwed it up and you’re stuck with ‘Hiss’ [laughs]. There is value in enjoying misinterpretation.
Yeah, yeah, I’m realizing that interpretation is THE beautiful thing about music – the subjective quality of music. The stuff that’s intensely personal for me in these songs I sing is also intensely personal for other people but in entirely different ways. The questions that I’m so often asked are about interpretation and I appreciate that you’re hesitant to pull the veil back, partially because I couldn’t really tell you what’s at the bottom of things. My own interpretation is so subjective from day-to-day, so what I’ll tell you will be vastly different each time.
The thing about the kind of music we – meaning you and I and the other heads really into music – are drawn to is the mythography and mythology of it. This is part of what electronic culture has made a little harder and a little easier. We construct and deconstruct ways to reckon with music mythology in different ways now.
A big sea change in this area occurred with the rise of videos in the 1980s, where scripted visuals begins to replace the personal, subjective imagery that naturally occurs in an individual’s brain. You and I are talking about the lure of music pre-MTV and their ilk, where music had more personal ritual – the unwrapping of a vinyl record, the first listen, turning the album over to hear side two of the story. The only pictures you got were the cover art and what came into your head prompted by the music.
I’m always hesitant to have black and white discussions about this or to suggest the musical myth we have now is a total transparency that’s done away with personal myth. It just comes to us in different ways than we might be used to. That said, what we have now is an overabundance of information as opposed to what you’re talking about, which is one photograph, one artifact that’s easily accessible and can work as our Rosetta Stone to decipher the music. There’s something very powerful about that.
It requires a higher level of engagement by the listener. I do worry about being a cranky old man going [voice shifting into Abe Simpson mode], “Music was so much better when we had our own imaginations!” You’re right about mythology being used in very different ways now, but often in a kind of sick way by people who’ve studied this stuff and use it for advertising, where we get clear soda because of ancient tales of purity and innocence tied up in clear liquids. Now the dude at Pepsi understands these cultural underpinnings and uses them to hawk soda.
Here’s the problem: this holy mystery of music has been co-opted by Pepsi [laughs]. It’s not to say it’s not at our disposal still, but it’s still important to music [to have mythology].
That’s abundantly clear to anyone who’s spent time with Hiss Golden Messenger. HGM is interested in engaging with big ideas, actively open to them even.
Yes, I am. The way I engage with music and incorporate music into my life is all about engaging with larger ideas – What is myth? What is the myth of music? What is the myth of the musician or artist? But, my point of entry into this is an intensely personal one. I came out of this other band, The Court & Spark, where people around us – and it was in their best interest for them to tell us this and maybe have it work out – led us to understand that The Court & Spark was going to be successful. Well, I just ended up paying off our Court & Spark bills last November. We were in debt until almost the end of 2010. I can count on one hand the number of accounting statements I got from our record label over 10 years. We were the epitome of a failure as a band, and that’s a hard thing. I’ll qualify that: we were a commercial failure but critically was another thing.
The issue of not putting bread on your table with your talents and drive is tough to stomach.
I’m still dealing with it. Anyone who’s an artist can’t do this shit for free. You can and will do it for free, but you have to possess some kind of personal boundaries, where you say, “Okay, I’ll do this for free because I love it,” or, “I’ll do this for free because the payment I’m getting – be it aesthetic or financial – makes it worthwhile, but I will not engage in the standard arena of commercial commerce because it’s bullshit.” So, what this means for me is I’ll continue to play – I’m sure of it – to empty rooms or five people because I want it to be in this place and that time what I chose aesthetically and I prefer to do it that way. I might bitch or moan about it in the moment, but ultimately it’s my choice. It’s important to me for some reason to be there artistically in the moment. I’m not gonna chase this brass ring anymore. No one even knows where the brass ring is hidden anymore – the thing isn’t even around anymore, at least for the likes of me because I’m not willing to do what it would take to find that tarnished thing. The people who work in corporate labels, the ones that are left, know nothing about music. They have their heads up their asses.
It’s not about music anymore. It’s about the synergy with the other industries owned by a record label – how a song fits into a TV ad for a cleaning product from one division, a video game for another, and so on. You’re not just dealing with the record industry anymore. In most instances you’re dealing with a faction within a mega-conglomerate that’s only interested in what the music can do to help sell cars or laptops. When you think of music first as a widget and not as one of the deepest forms of human expression it changes things dramatically. To play to that mentality diminishes music, and it speaks to the general acceptance of compromise and diminished ethics prevalent now. People accept that to get anything done you have to play the game as offered. Thankfully, there’s a growing faction that’s sick to death of it and starting to make changes.
I agree. Hiss Golden Messenger is something that’s allowed me to reorient myself vis-à-vis music. At the end of The Court & Spark, I was brain dead, depressed, and tired. For whatever reason, I wasn’t getting from the music what I needed. I don’t need music to make me happy all the time -that’s not what the job of music is – but I need to be happy engaging with music. It makes me think and feel things, and I needed to find my way back to that. Finding my way back to that was my way back to this personal work on myself, which everybody does and I do mainly with music. Hiss Golden Messenger, in that sense, has been a very, very personal journey. The audience that I’m making it for is first and foremost me.
Your work operates in the same realm as clear influences like Terry Reid and John Martyn – guys who never gave two shits about what anybody thought about their work.
I don’t think my work can hold a candle to what those guys are doing, but certainly they were uncompromising in their work, especially John Martyn, who was apparently thuggish in this regard. Those guys allowed the art to lead. The music never became incidental to what they were doing, and this is a danger with contemporary musical culture, where somehow we still arrange our lives around music but it becomes incidental in a way. It’s an insane sort of paradox.
The culture of the music business has been taken over by the second part of that two-word phrase.
I understand what the music business does, and I don’t think it’s an oxymoron. I don’t think music and business are mutually exclusive BUT let’s remember what we need in order for the business to keep rolling along with integrity [laughs]. We need the music…
…and music that speaks to something deeper than having a good time. When one reaches no further than the next party, there’s a frivolousness that gets spread throughout music culture. Not everything needs to be “Long Black Veil” but it’s not as if we’re not still wrestling with huge ontological issues as a species.
My party line for a long time has been it is possible to make thoughtful music in a major key. Music is a complicated thing, and there’s a lot of complex emotion in a song. There are a lot of sad songs in a minor key that suck, and there are a lot of thoughtful, wonderful, powerful songs in major keys that work in the way I think music should. Music is very, very, very complicated. There are so many shades to it.
There’s a sense that one can’t create music with deeper psychological or cultural issues without it being leaden. What about a song like “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys?
I’ve been listening to a lot of the [Grateful] Dead stuff from the ’72 tour that was released this year, and, to me, it’s the Holy Grail of music. What they did, particularly in that era, was write music that was thoughtful. Robert Hunter’s writing is about as good as you can get in the idiom of music or any other [art] happening in the late 60s and early 70s. But they weren’t writing sad songs in minor keys. They wrote these songs that had SO much harmonic content that it was talking about LIFE, how happy and tragic it was, and all in the same song. They were in major keys and they tipped their hats to jazz and country, and they did it all so well.
I always say the Dead were practitioners of the Great American Songbook. Hunter’s lyrics feel like music that’s been carried around for hundreds of years, handed around and changed slowly like a river stone, until arriving to us now. Hunter was a relatively young man at that time and yet he penned “Wharf Rat,” “Black Peter” and other bardic killers. And fun stuff, too! How big a blast is “Casey Jones”?
For my money, he’s easily one of the best writers of that era. It’s hard to reckon what he did with how he was ‘in’ the band without fronting it. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around what he was doing in comparison with someone like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Van Morrison. He had a different model he was using but goddamn! The key to his songs is how honest they are. There’s a certain transparency in how it touches you, and you’re right about how they feel like they’ve existed for a really long time and everything that absolutely doesn’t have to be in the song isn’t in there. It’s sort of like the Bible, where the stuff that needs to be there is there and the extraneous stuff has been worn away.
Are you ever astonished at people who haven’t read the Bible? Regardless of where one stands in terms of religious practice or belief, the Bible is a central stream in which we all swim culturally.
Frankly, I think there are a lot of hardcore Christians who haven’t read the Bible. This is where so much strife and bloodshed has come from for hundreds of years. People think they understand what’s in the Bible, that they have a clear interpretation of what the Bible is saying. The Bible is a fallible book, a fallible document, and to really understand what the Bible is saying takes some work. You do have to crack that book open [laughs]. If you haven’t read the Bible then you can’t understand the Bible. You can’t talk about the Bible if you haven’t read the Bible.
If one’s understanding of it comes from a few lines drawn out of context then they’re really removed from the actual content and spirit of the Bible.
There should be some sort of ticket you can give if you hear someone talking about the Bible but you know for certain they haven’t actually read it.
I like that idea more than is Christian [laughs]. Circling back to your music, I love that you don’t shy away from big ideas like the ones in the Bible. You have a way of making this stuff resonate in a modern sense. “Jesus Shot Me In The Head” is one of the best song titles of the last 20 years. Whether you hear the song or not, once you see that title it’s in your head and gets you wondering, “What the fuck is that all about?”
[Laughs] Like I was saying earlier, my relationship with Hiss Golden Messenger is deeply personal. So, my grappling with spirituality is…I’m not a church going person. Any first year divinity student could debate circles around me with religion. But I’m not talking about religion, I’m talking about spirituality. It’s important to me to try and understand what my perspective is on a higher power, and to understand what role that sort of belief might play in my life. It’s critical to me to think about this stuff – a lot. I don’t know where I stand on it and I need to get a better handle on what I’m thinking about spirituality. I’m generally a pretty private person and yet my forum for this is very public. So, it’s a little funny that I do it this way but I have to.
There’s an illusion that we choose how we practice our spiritual life, but it’s generally propelled more by happenstance and such intensely personal drives that we can’t name them. While many people think they’re getting the job done going to services once a week, the true work of spiritual engagement occurs during the week.
I think that’s right, and part of “Jesus Shot Me In The Head” – which is obviously an allegorical work – is how deeply cynical it is. For all of its mention of Jesus Christ in the title it’s sort of a black-hearted, cynical look at people who are using their spirituality for some other purpose. There’s an awful lot of bet-hedging that goes on in belief. One of the last lines of that song goes, “He loves us all but the ones who fall hold a special place in his ranks/ At least I hope this is how it goes ‘cause I’m just ‘bought outta bread.” This is sort of a disciple character but he’s clearly not totally sold on Jesus as the Son of God. He just hopes he is so he’ll have a spot in Heaven.
There’s a huge faction of professed Christians that are ALL about what one gets from God. One of the arguments I have with virulently Pentecostal born again folks is how my God isn’t the God of parking spaces or other mundane handouts. Prayer isn’t a gumball machine one tosses a coin into because they want something in return. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
I don’t believe it works that way, though sometimes I wish it would [laughs].
There’s always a temptation to get up on one’s high horse about this topic, and it’s an impulse worth resisting [laughs].
My music is deeply spiritual, and it’s critical to me to work this stuff out in my music, but I’m not a believer, not in the usual Christian sense of the word and certainly not in terms of proselytizing.
I think there’s a built-in hunger to engage with these ideas that we’re born with, but it’s hard to say where one can land with any certainty about God and the huge ideas connected to the notion of God.
I think you’re right about how people attend church but the real work happens the rest of the time. I don’t discount church. I think there’s a lot of positivity that comes from gathering as a spiritual community, but at the end of the day only we know what the truth is in our heart. We can talk about it with everybody all we want but the hard part, the heavy lifting is the personal stuff that we do alone in the dark of night.
This spiritual journey is reflected over the course of the three Hiss Golden Messenger albums thus far.
I think I’ve been on a life journey where I’ve gotten older and become a father and a person that has to set aside, in some ways, selfish desire. It’s a kind of working class mysticism I’m involved in. I’m not putting on tie-dye and spangles and going off to meditate and eventually find my Lord. [laughs]. I’m getting up every day and going to work like everyone else in this small town. And I’m trying to understand my place in the universe like every other person in this town. I just do it in a different way. It’s important to me that these Hiss Golden Messenger records at least be honest documents of that journey, and hopefully entertaining, too. This is also entertainment – I’m totally aware of that – but it’s important to me that what I put out feels honest.
Honest is as good a word as any at getting at the vibe of your music. There’s no other agenda besides the desire to write a good song that’s representative of what’s going on in your heart and head. Music writers too often make glib comparisons to Bob Dylan, but your work, especially as Hiss Golden Messenger has gone on, reminds me a lot of the mixture of the personal and almost fevered broadmindedness one gets in early Dylan. Bad Debt especially shares a rawness with Dylan’s early records.
Well, thank you…
One can’t invoke Dylan unless they’re serious about it. It’s like evoking Einstein when talking about a scientist.
The thing about Hiss Golden Messenger is it’s a long game I’m playing. My incentive is not the incentive a 20-year-old musician might have setting out on this path. My incentive and my pay are different. As far as I’m concerned, these are the early days of Golden Messenger as I try to figure out who I am as a person and an artist. This is a good time for me to be trying to understand myself.