Interview with Nautical Almanac
James “Twig” Harper and Carly Ptak are Nautical Almanac, a Baltimore group that was, once upon a time in Michigan, Twig, Nate Young of Wolf Eyes, and percussionist Sol Meltzer. Nautical’s sound is somewhere between analog improv and improv comedy (if improv comedy made a sound [besides audience members yelling “Tomato!” “George Washington!” “Hepatitis Spelling Bee!”])—some sputtering beats under jerry-built noise that breaks before your eyes and ears, the sound, sight, and smell of wired garbage played by giant rats. (Before soundcheck, Twig managed to get himself caught in a glue trap.) At No Fun, Twig and Carly were joined by a third member, named Max, which made matters, predictably, even less stable. Twig’s gear broke a song or two in; he spent the rest of the set making fart noises into his mic; both he and Max were bleeding by set’s end. Pots and buckets were banged on, recorders and feeding-back amps were played, stages were dived from. It was totally retarded; it was totally great.
Ben Tausig: How much stuff do you build?
Twig: Lately, I’ve built a couple things. I’m into it, but I don’t want to be into it too much. There’s so many people doing this whole circuit bending world. People are doing shows a lot right now, and they’re trying to contact us. They’re like, “You guys are circuit benders!” and I’m like, “Uggh, I’m really just a musician.” [Circuits] are just my means.
Aaron Dilloway: First time I’ve ever heard you say you were a musician.
Twig: Yeah, thanks, thanks.
It’s just easier. My first instrument was electronics. I’ve always worked in that realm. For a long time I would not even use pedals. I thought that was stupid.
AD: Why wouldn’t you want to use pedals?
Twig: Someone else made that, you know, I’d rather just get some shit together, throw it down, and figure it out.
Sam Frank: You have a warehouse space now? [www.heresee.com/ourlittlehome]
Twig: In Baltimore we bought—when we were living in Chicago, we had a secondhand store, and we saved a ton of money and moved to Baltimore and bought a building there. It’s a three-story building in a ghetto of Baltimore. We do shows there occasionally, and we live there. I’m building a studio there.
SF: I heard you don’t heat your place in winter.
Twig: Yeah, we haven’t heated it. It's a slow process. When we moved in, the first floor was a doctor’s office, and the top two floors had been abandoned since the ‘70s, water-damaged, no electricity, no windows, nothing like that. We’ve been going in and redoing everything the way we see fit.
SF: Do you think do-it-yourself survivalism is something other people should practice?
Twig: I know we should. I don’t have much faith in the American social system or structure, so just doing things yourself you feel more power the more things you can do yourself. You can say, I don’t need this, I can do this just fine by myself. We can just put out CD-Rs. Technology’s at such a cool level now where you can be super self-sufficient and produce everything yourself, and do distribution, and record.
SF: Do you live off your savings now, or do you work, too?
Twig: We sell on eBay. We drive to D.C. and hit estate sales and garage sales. We buy vintage audio gear and speakers. That's pays our bills. When we do eBay, we try to make three hundred bucks a week, which is a lot of money for Baltimore.
SF: What’s the story with the shinth tour? [www.rainbowrandom.net]
Twig: That’s Peter B. [Blasser], who lives in Chicago. He’s this young dude who builds electronics, really wild shit. The shinth is a box with this circuit he designed, a big internal circuit. It’s not oscillators or filters or anything like that. It’s logic chips and chips that make noise but aren’t designed to make noise. They're all hand-wired on the bottom. The whole time you have this whole interface of electronic language speaking with each other—it has no inputs or outputs. But you put a spoon in your mouth, and the spoon goes into an output into a speaker. Your body resistance is about the same as a potentiometer. You can bend [the shinth], and put signals through your body. Which is really cool, because lately everything I’ve been building has been touch-sensitive also, body contacts.
SF: Do you like the sounds of those, or do you just like the way you play it?
Twig: The shinth is really weird because it is playable, but it has logic of its own. It’s really cool for me because the things that we [Nautical] do, we never practice, we never rehearse, nothing like that, we try to be in the moment as much as possible and react to every stimulus that we’re aware of at the time. It was cool to meet Peter and see his instruments because he’s coming from a technical standpoint, but usually the people who do really technical circuit design get too caught up in the process. But Peter’s coming from the same idea as we have, where you go with it—you have to interact with it. They’re these creatures.
SF: You change your setup every time?
Twig: Constantly. My stuff is really temperamental and always breaks, and all the functions that I make always die out and mutate. The last couple things I have been playing for a while and they haven’t really died, but I never really make one thing and say it’s done. I’ll always go back into it, or rip it out and put it into other things.
SF: By now have you toured enough that people will turn out for you in little towns?
Twig: Yeah, America's amazing right now. There's so many weird fucked-up bands in every city. We're just excited to tour small towns, find out who the weirdos are.
BT: Is Nate gonna play with you tonight?
Twig: It's me, Carly, and Max.
BT: When have you played with Max?
Twig: I've never played with him before. The one thing we're thinking about this next tour is to mix it up, because we don't ever want to feel comfortable. I think comfort isn't a good thing. As soon as you feel comfortable, you should be doing something else. There's something wrong, because you have a false sense of security. You've got to be on the teetering edge at all times. This next tour we're thinking—we haven't totally decided—that at every show we're going to request one or two musicians to play in the band with us. To throw us off every night.
SF: Do you go into stuff with any kind of structure?
Twig: No, no. We used to be, "We'll start it off a little slower, do this." But that doesn't make sense. We've been doing it for so long, and we never practice or anything like that. So touring is really great because you go into all these towns and you don't know fully what's going on with the town or what people are really into or what they're like. You'll play a show, and be like, "That was fucked up! What happened, why did we sound like that tonight?" Then later on people will come up to us and be like, "That was totally perfect." "Exactly!" "How did you know?"
By Dusted Magazine