It could be said that the Timeout Drawer from Chicago were a part of something big. Formed in 1999, the group went on releasing three studio full-length albums, two singles and two EP’s through different labels including Someoddpilot Records, The Consumer Research & Development Label, and Chocolate Industries.
Often compared to bands such as Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, with Tangerine Dream influences, they have carved out a niche of sound that they can call all their own. The band split up in 2005, and we talked with keyboardist Jason Goldberg about their final opus Nowonmai, released in October 2005, the creative chemistry within the band, achievements, and more.
Describe the musical vision that propelled the Nowonmai album over 12 years ago.
Ironically, vision is one of the main elements that The Timeout Drawer lacked the most, and it was this subconscious avoidance that perhaps wound up shaping it most of the time. I can’t be certain whether any of us sat down at any time in any formal forum and said, ‘Let’s just discuss for 5 minutes this thing that we’re planning to dump our hearts, souls, minds, time, energy and money into so that we can have a common focus…or, vision‘. There was none of that. We were before, were at the time, and are now a group of tight-knit friends that value(d) each others creative perspectives, and to this day enjoy sitting around creating music and sounds with each other. In fact, if there ever were a vision, you may call this vision the act of running away from other visions. As mentioned we had already been friends for several years and had several musical projects in our camp prior to The Timeout Drawer. We started in our mid-teens in what must have been 1986 with punk and thrash bands. This naturally evolved into more industrial and experimental projects toward and into the ’90s, and late in the decade we took it upon ourselves to ‘mature’, regarding our sounds. Steeped in analog and archaic digital electronics from the recent past, we married all of our instruments, made sure we had what we needed to create moody and emotive passages of sound and carried on, blind as transparent cave dwellers, using only our sounds as beacons to guide us through the darkness…or ignorance, to be more precise and less poetic. We knew we wanted sounds that sparked adrenaline, but with melodies that would cause disorienting, emotional confusion (doing the major/minor mostly minor thing helps). As we were about to (unexpectedly [see below!]) embark on our final full length, our vision, or rather ‘outcome’, was again about to turn from our previous and deliberate straying from adolescence and angst to a more keen, ‘zeroing in on’ the aforementioned desired darkness. If I had to answer this question with one phrase, however, for me personally, it would have to be William Peter Blatty‘s novel, ‘The Exorcist’, and subsequently, William Friedkin‘s filmic adaptation of it. I was militantly but secretly imposing my obsession with this on my unsuspecting counterparts. Little did they know that the over-saturation of my musings on the subject for which I fell under much criticism was slowly seeping into their skins and taking hold. I mean, someone had to think of something.
Could you recall what made it the right time to pursue that vision?
Time itself made it so. As free as we were (aside from our self-imposed possession), time and circumstance were the ultimate commanders of Nowonmai. It was the summer of 2003 and we were about to embark on a tour for our Presents Left for the Living Dead EP (ok, I guess it was gettin’ dark before then, too!) as direct support for none other than the legendary Damo Sazuki of Can, with our own Someoddpilot Records label-mates Defender, as Damo‘s backing band. It was one of the easiest tours to perk an actual booking agent’s interests in, in our case. 20 US dates lined up along the east coast, south and Midwest. The tour kickoff was in our hometown, Chicago Illinois. The Eaves drove in from New York to open the tour. So we had TTD, Defender and The Eaves, sitting… waiting at The Abbey Pub for Damo Suzuki to arrive… This tour is gonna be effin’ awesome we thought to ourselves; some of us even said it. Three hours and four anxiety attacks later we learned that our headlining attraction, Mr. Damo Suzuki was without a work visa upon his arrival to the United States and got sent back to Germany. Hearts in our underpants, we played an awesome kickoff show without him. We played the first few days of the stint, but as word got around, attendance started to wane. We were about to head to New York to play with Animal Collective, but decided on a whim to ditch the tour and use the next three weeks to waste our time creatively and headed to North, Virginia where one our guitarist’s, Chris Van Pelt‘s grandparents lived. They had a cabin and a barn with an attic on their property. This mildly mountainous, hot, humid, tic infested southern estate otherwise made for an ideal paradise for four dudes with evil art concepts in their brains. We embraced the abrupt and unfortunate changing of gears. But was it unfortunate? We shot potato guns off the pier in the timely iridescent glow of the river. We were often startled by wild turkey tearing through the property in a hovering sprint. We checked each other for tics. We discovered snake poo on our bedroom floors. And we wrote Nowonmai. We had our gear set up in the attic of the barn and it was so hot, we would sleep during the day and write music at night. The floor was littered with dead insects and it was still hot as hell so we spent most of the time in our drawers, with our friends, the insects. A ripe environment for four innocent friends to succumb to the emotional darkness we were submerging ourselves in. We would generically think… evil… and write Nowonmai.
Tell me about what were your ideas with the album art.
Chris Eichenseer was the drummer and visual designer for the band. The name Nowonmai would have been chosen by the time the album art was conceived because I believe the art was inspired by the title. Nowonmai was a word taken from an excerpt of The Exorcist during which Pazuzu, the possessing demon, writhes a few phrases out, uttering backwards English, including the album title, played backwards to enunciate, ‘I am no one‘. We liked that a lot and the existential loneliness and hopelessness it conveyed, and it was a fun way to call ourselves out as insignificant in light of the musical world and in the world in general. The ‘Power of Suggestion’ as a common culprit of the general symptoms of demonic possession, had appeared to work. The cover reveals the silhouettes of small clusters of people, human-shaped negative space, soulless, yet seemingly at leisure, against a backdrop of a park, with green grass and green trees, sort of a paradise at dusk. Wisps of light create order out of chaos and carry with them other silhouettes of birds of prey, some light, some dark. It was a nice metaphor for our own soulless existence, allowed to do what we wanted, so long as it was in the constraints of this prison paradise; with vultures overhead ready for something to go wrong. The vinyl release had special edition artwork that exchanged the park for pure blackness, the outlines of human figures floating in the infinite space.
What was the creative process for Nowonmai like?
Having conceptually role played our dignity away and without a plan, a lot of arguing ensued, and a lot of hilarity. We were milking our time within an unrealistic, impractical existence. It was fun and self torturous; in the heat, paranoid of getting a tic, then getting a tic, then being more paranoid. Overnight, reversed sleep schedules; we had dialed in the perfect amount of insanity. Remember this was already the product of a failed plan (see what happens when we tried to coordinate our own future?). We did a good job of avoiding tropes, and were mainly concerned with developing our own sound with our preferred combination of a wall of guitars, analog synths, mainly a MicroMoog, and drums awash in cymbals. Our guitarist’s grandfather gave us an old Casio which sounded good going through the input on the MicroMoog and being treated with its filters. The soft pads in the intro of the album was the filtered Casio.
We re-employed original founding member Ray Dybzinski to treat some of the passages in post with his Eventide effects machine. This was a highly sought after effects unit that we believed a lot of the trippier electronic projects we were influenced by, like Coil, were using. Out of our price range, Ray took it upon himself to inform the company of things their own machines could do that they were unaware of. Soon after Ray was freelancing for them, writing presets and manuals, and we had a couple of their machines in hand. We would envision supernatural forces trying to force their way into our world, and say, ‘Ray, can you kinda make it sound like that?’ If you listen center stereo or in headphones, there’s a lot of ghostly stereo treats to enjoy.
Speaking of the album’s creative process, provide some insight into it.
Our writing process was very granular. Songs were written note by note, part by part, again, without seeing past our noses! Jon Slusher, our guitarist/pianist, came into the band sometime between the last record and this one, and a lot of the song’s compositions are owed to him. A good chunk of our material was in shambles when he joined and he did a good job of breathing some structure into an otherwise flaccid cache of tunes.
Otherwise, typically, the Moog would fumble around with a melody until the rest of the group got inspired enough to do something to support it. When we were back home in Chicago after our stay in Virginia, we transformed our coach house (the drummer Chris and myself lived in a coach house with a basement the band could practice in) into a makeshift studio. The second floor had a nice vaulted ceiling for a decent live room and the downstairs, my bedroom, was the control room. We did most of the drum tracking at Playground Studios where a lot of ’90s bands like HUM got their classic drum sounds. The studio also doubled as a ‘legal drug factory’ where all kinds of stuff that wasn’t on the government’s radar yet could be extracted, packaged, and shipped to interested parties. Sometimes it was easy to get distracted. We definitely had our preferences for our main tools, but also wanted varied instrumentation on this album. We wanted to hear cellos, violins, flutes and trumpets doing some of the lead melodies instead of just having the Moogs and/or guitars do them all the time. So we lured a bunch of college students to our house with beer and pizza to do just that. The tiled shower made for a nice early reflective reverb for the flute. An ex-girlfriend of mine played the flute parts; after she put the headphones on we wrapped her head in a towel so the metronome wouldn’t bleed into the mic. She looked funny like that standing in the shower. Our gracious participants would be credited and get a copy of the record in return. Having mics set up in our living space, it was easy to experiment without paying someone for time. We would spin coins on plates and then reverse them. We sampled records with cow and wolf sounds. We would act like we were possessed. We would get f*cked up and put a bunch of keyboards, both cheap and nice, through really nice pre-amps and make multi-layered analog stews. We marveled at how good the keyboard tracks sounded knowing we would never hear the isolated tracks again. If someone was cooking dinner and had an idea for a part, you could hop in my bedroom and lay it down.
Did the environment in any way influence the vibe the album transcends?
I would say very much so. From the cabin and barn attic and reversed sleep schedules in Virginia as the result of a botched tour, to the ramshackle studio of the coach house and Playground, I believe the record would have turned out significantly different in different settings and times; or not have happened at all. There was an exciting, haunting vibe to the whole experience. It was also early enough in our lives where we weren’t introduced to any real responsibility yet other than showing up to work and paying rent. It’s definitely an accurate audio vignette of our collective lives at the time.
It’s been a decade since the Timeout Drawer split. How do you look at what you achieved today?
As a collective that does a lot of driving forward and not a lot of looking back, we were recently surprised to see that WIRED magazine had done an article on the post-rock and IDM (intelligent dance music for those who forgot) scene in the US’s Midwest in the early 2000‘s. A lot of our band, label, and venue peers were showcased, including our own Someoddpilot Records, The Consumers Research and Development Label, and John Hughes Jr.‘s Hefty Records. So it was nice to see a significant entity calling attention to an era that appeared to us to be long forgotten. As The Timeout Drawer were preparing to tour on Nowonmai, we were once again dealing with a revolving door of guitarists and our studio engineer Andy Bosnak was asked and agreed to join up since he knew the record so well. There was also enough left-over material that we liked enough to make the weird follow up EP, Alone and The Exorcist 7″, a rendition of Mike Oldfield‘s classic re-purposed theme to the movie. Long time collaborator Jef Green, who wrote a lot of the guitars on Nowonmai, recorded The Exorcist in Chris‘ bedroom in the coach house on an 8-track reel to reel tape machine (our rawest, shortest, and quite possibly our coolest track). So it was cool that the Nowonmai effort turned into this neat little trilogy of releases. After that, the new lineup was ready for change; we wanted to dial the sound back to the heaviness of our past, which The Exorcist did a revealing job of leaning toward, and wanted to re-liberate ourselves by going from our long, instrumental stint to yelling and screaming again. We took hints from the ‘Neur-Isis‘ metal camps that had been heavily influenced by the post-rock scene and became the post-sludge act, Beak. And after an EP and a full length, Beak is already in hiatus as I write this. The achievement is in our own minds, but we believe we definitely made a post-rock record worthy of standing on its own, apart from the standards that Godspeed and Mogwai helped to enforce. Nowonmai was met with a lot of praise from the critics when it came out, but may have confused the general public. We were always a critic’s and engineer’s band. A band that people in the industry were and are refreshed to hear, but we certainly never had a knack for catering to the general public. What they want to hear is not what we want to play.
In the beginning, did you have some “fixed” tempo in composing songs or everything was a product of jamming, improvising?
Again, it’s hard to say whether there was ever a plan in place, especially for tempo. The appropriate BPM of the melodies the songs were birthed out of pretty much commanded the tempo. There were also a number of subtle tempo shifts throughout some of the songs; like if a chorus felt a little more natural speeding up or slowing down, etc. We were forced to use a metronome for recording and for live because a lot of times there weren’t enough humans to play the all the tracks; we would also program the tempo changes for smooth sailing. Funny enough, and speaking of doing things backwards again, a lot of the time the bass would be the last thing to be written for a track. That created quite the minefield with so much other melody going on already. Aside from that, we were always sort of a mid-tempo act… we were good at finding grooves within that parameter.
Did you consider yourselves a part of any specific cultural movement, however peripheral?
If you peered out of our abyss and into the musical arena in the real world at the time, you would have seen bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, and Mono leading the post-rock universe, with their quiet-loud-quiet singularly themed formulas. They had created enough infrastructure to redefine a genre already in its 3rd phase, the prefix ‘post’ constantly obsoleting itself. The noodley meanderings that the first waves of academic post-rock (a la Chicago’s Thrill Jockey repertoire) had sort of come and stayed for the most part, but post-rock was getting darker and heavier and seeping its rivers into bigger, thicker post-metal oceans with the likes of Isis (the band [that’s what their defunct selves have to call themselves now]) and even Neurosis. In our era, we shared the environment with a good number of electronic bands as well. Both electronic and post-rock were relatively new to the music scene, so both being the new kids in the class, they could share a table on labels and shows. With everything so homogenized these days, it would be harder to slip that envelope under the door.
How do you see the progressive / post-rock scene today?
Also a tough question to put my finger on. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jaded to some extent. We still go to shows and I still play shows with our other projects, but it’s more difficult to harvest the motivation. A lot of the new stuff I don’t care too much about as it doesn’t break a lot of ground or inspire a lot of emotion. You still see old classics like Mogwai still coming through, and that’s all good, because they’re the godfathers. I’m not sure I’d be correct in stating that there is a post-rock scene per-se, but there are certainly post-rock bands still playing. Caspian is one that comes to mind that I believe are doing well for themselves. GY!BE I think are coming to the States soon if that hasn’t happened already. Jakob was an awesome one out of New Zealand that I haven’t heard from in awhile. If I so much as see Explosions in the Sky‘s name, I get a little queasy. That’s some weird shit that sounds like a bad past relationship to me; perhaps intentionally so, but whatever. We were somewhere in Texas at some time, playing an outdoor festival. TTD played in the late afternoon and it was like 110 degrees outside. Explosions were billed to headline. The sound guy had holed up somewhere in a trailer with air conditioning and fell asleep. When he was found it was nearing noise curfew. Explosions played like a 10 minute intro before their first song kicked in (one of their guitarists was still fucking around on a snare drum thinking that was cool and necessary in addition to the full drum kit already on stage). Then the plug was literally pulled. 10:00pm. Silence. Explosions were like, ‘what the fuck?‘ The crowd was like, ‘what the fuck?‘ I was like, ‘ha that’s kinda funny‘. When we got back to our van, someone had stolen our license plates and we successfully drove halfway across the country back to Chicago without them.
Nowonmai is available for streaming and digital download, as well as on CD and limited edition vinyl from Bandcamp.