Interview and Track Premiere: Ross Wallace Chait
Meandering around the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park is musician/composer Ross Wallace Chait, who has embraced the self-proclaimed “senior citizen” habit of the unsolicited neighborhood stroll; a relinquishing of homestead routine in favor of complete atmospheric absorption. It’s an attentiveness that’s apparent in his solo endeavour of composing and creating ambient and noise rock albums while drumming for indie/garage rock outfits Ducktails and Walter (who I’ve also interviewed), albums meant to build awareness in listeners and scrapbook layers of field recordings, riffs, and mantras in order to tell stories aurally. I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with Ross at his childhood home and chat about his third solo release, ROCKING AND ROLLIN’, out on November 25th via A Giant Fern.
Ross house-sitting at his childhood home in Los Feliz
PC: Sabina Fooks
Traditional songwriting usually begins with the lyrics, writing the verbal poetry then stringing together a melody that builds around the story you are trying to tell. What is the process like when creating and composing albums like ROCKING AND ROLLIN’, which build upon the aural resonance of your surroundings?
It depends. This album is different than the other two I’ve done by myself in that it was sort of an amalgamation of a bunch of different things I had been working on that I’ve either sort of forgotten about or gotten discouraged with. Basically, after I put out my last album PRAISE, which was a very thematic thing where I was sort of just concentrating on this one singular idea, the music came pretty quickly because I had an idea of what I wanted the album to sound like and how I wanted it to work. After I finished PRAISE, I sort of didn’t really have any specific idea of what I wanted to create for my third album, so I went back and listened to a lot of old stuff that I had been neglecting, and that process sort of inspired me to make this album, which ended up having a thematic linearity. Sound-wise I think it varies more than the last two albums, because I didn’t know that this old stockpile of neglected and forgotten sounds/melodies that I’ve been working on for years was going to end up being a part of the same album.
So it’s kinda like an amalgamation of other stuff you’ve been making in the past, and it ended up appearing on this album.
Yeah. Most of the process of turning it into an album was changing things to make it more linear. That was interesting. I’ve never really done that before…recovering old things. Yeah, it was cool! I also has this…(chuckles) this sounds pretty spacey, but I had this dream where I was abducted by aliens and in the dream the aliens played music for me, and I remembered the music when I woke up. So, that was one of things that sort of made it easier to make a through line in the album; I put the alien music in there…in some places.
So in contrast to your previous releases, ROUTINE SYMPTOMS and PRAISE, ROCKING AND ROLLIN’ is more diverse and exploratory in its influences, but it also follows more of a galactic through line. What did you want to transmit on this album as opposed to your other releases?
Yeah, definitely. The whole ROCKING AND ROLLIN’ thing, I think it sounds more like a band than the other two solo records I’ve done. Cause I spent so much time playing drums in bands over the past few years while also making this weirder music, I wanted it to be a reflection of how I’ve spent my time doing both for the past few years.
Ross inside the family office
PC: Sabina Fooks
Would you say you dream more in sounds than in vision?
No, this alien dream was a really rare occurrence! I mean it’s the only time I’ve had a vision of music I guess…not to sound overly heady or whatever but…so I thought it was special and wanted to do something with it.
What are your thoughts on having a solo outlet for your music? As someone who plays with bands and who has been a part of a handful of successful musical groups such as WALTER and Ducktails, how do you feel like releasing a solo side project has helped you grow as a musician, if it has?
It has, definitely. I sorta wish I did more with it. I’m excited that this album is coming out, and I’m doing a few shows by myself and I want to continue to do that because it is very rewarding, but it’s also a lot scarier than playing with a band, and I feel like a lot more is…on the line for me personally when I do that.
I think part of the reason why I don’t push it as much in a extra musical way — like I’m constantly working on the musical side of it — but the reason why I don’t play as much live or do things like this (the interview) is because it’s something I’m not as comfortable with as playing in a band. Also, playing in a band is time consuming, and so I make as much time for this as I can, but it’s totally different.
So do you feel like promoting your album while simultaneously creating your music is a self-growing exercise?
Yeah, I do feel like it’s a growing exercise. It’s cool to be able to have this as an outlet for things in my life that I’m inspired by that I can put down on my own time and with my own creative ideas and not necessarily have to be working as a team. Which I value so much — but there’s definitely some amount of compromise that comes with that. I do have a desire to make this project into an ensemble thing soon. I’m working that out.
So would you ever want to debut this album live?
Yeah! I’m doing a couple of shows next month that are going to be a representation of this album. My wish is that because it’s so inspired by music a band would make, my desire is to have it be performed by a band — but that’s difficult when you’re dealing with music that sounds like this that a lot of people don’t necessarily know what to do when they hear it. I sort of figured out a way to perform it live with tapes. It’s meant to showcase a lot of the composing of the sound, and present that composition as the performance.
There’s a lot of sound mixing and layering involved with creating this album. How do you prioritize the sounds you find and/or create in your songs?
Yeah, well I guess I usually start with one idea. For “Find Your Beach” I had that guitar loop — that is something I recorded four years ago I think — and I re-discovered it and was surprised that I still liked it, so I listened to it a lot. That’s a big part of my process; having one thing that sounds okay but is definitely not filled out, and just listening to it dozens of times and thinking of what would be good to accompany that sound. So I went into the studio and recorded the jazz drumming for it, and after that I was pretty happy with it but I knew it needed more stuff. So, I had this field recording of a beach that I went to that was somewhere in Spain when we were on tour with Ducktails, and I added that to it.
The last part of the process was visiting my friend Greg Hartunian, who’s a master of weird sounds and production (he produced the WALTER album) — I went into the studio with him and he recorded some flutes and synths on the track. On a lot of tracks, Greg was the secret weapon. He put a lot of the finishing touches on the album, and filled out a lot of the songs.
Do you create any of the noises and melodies we hear in ROCKING AND ROLLIN’?
Yeah, there’s nothing sampled on this album at all. It’s all either field recordings or stuff that I recorded in my room or some of the drums I did in the studio, and some of the other flutes and stuff are Greg. Oh, and my friend Josh Sushman played clarinet on “Find Your Beach,” and he’s an amazing musician and an amazing friend/roommate/guy.
That’s what I want the whole vibe of the album to be, a whole bunch of fresh and recycled recordings from different sessions, places, and people. What ended up being the thematic was that if you were seeing this music performed by a band…being unable to determine whether the band was really good at what they were doing and making this music sound like this on purpose, or whether they had no idea what they were doing and it was just an insane band of amateur musicians. I think if anyone who listens to this album has one of those two ideas about it, then it has done what it needs to do (chuckles).
When writing a noise rock album, how do you glean your inspiration? Does touring/traveling inspire a lot of the sounds incorporated in your music?
Yeah, definitely! I have been very lucky over the past two years to be able to travel and play music. It has been a hugely inspiring time. Also Amy, my girlfriend, and I went to China last summer. I did some recording there…it was a majorly eye opening trip for me. Especially being able to hear a lot of music there and a lot of the soundscapes…so strange and so beautiful, that permeate the atmosphere there. There’s some of those recordings on this album, but a lot of them are incorporated in my live performances. Travel is definitely something I don’t take for granted. I try to use my time while traveling wisely. There’s very rarely much time to see whatever place you are in, but whatever there was I would try to record and catalog my surroundings and hope to make something artistic out of it later.
PC: Sabina Fooks
Do you feel like you are building awareness in others when sharing your music with the public? Do you want to?
Yeah, I want to. Sometimes I feel that way — I will sometimes play this music for my friends who don’t have much of a frame of reference for this kind of music, and I kind of prefer playing this music to them rather than to people who do have a frame of reference for noise/ambient rock. It’s harder to be surprising with an aware audience. I guess I’ve had some experiences where I would show something to someone and they would respond with, “Wow, this sounds crazy…but I like it.” That’s really special to me when that happens.
“Red Rider” has some Pavement/Modest Mouse vibes. What music did you listen to while writing ROCKING AND ROLLIN’?
Oh cool, yeah. Well that’s funny cause I played that song for another friend who said it reminded him of Wilco. When I was in middle school and sorta just discovering indie rock, those were the three bands I listened to obsessively. I still like that music, but I don’t go back to it all that much. I did sort of like the new Wilco album…but yeah! I wasn’t really listening to that music while I was making this album. But those earlier experiences where you’re really blown away by music, even if it’s music that you don’t feel as much of a connection to now, those experiences stick with you and they will probably always be with me forever. Those were the defining early bands that I was obsessed with as a younger person.
In terms to what I was listening to while making this — I was listening to a lot of jazz and a lot of spiritual music, like Alice Coltrane I LOVE. I was listening to a ton of her music, especially the album DIVINE SONGS, which is one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard. I’m not exactly a spiritual believer, but I’m really interested in spirituality as a musical idea and how to manifest that. I think her music is really incredible in getting those ideas across. Hmm what else…I was listening to a lot of Neil Young, who I think is great. Simple song ideas; making a whole song out of a simple idea is an important thing to be able to do as a musician. Classical music, a lot of cool noise bands — I was listening to a lot of The Dead Sea and Royal Trucks, both of those groups are really inspiring. So lots of stuff!
“Teach Me To Read” has got tons of subtext — the meandering piano, the heartbeat…Was there a particular message you were relaying there?
(Chuckles) I don’t know, it’s sort of a romantic thing. The idea that you’ll meet somebody who sort of shows you how to live your life, that’s what I was thinking about. I am in a relationship right now with a very brilliant and amazing person who is incredibly smart and I guess teach me to read, teach me to write was kinda a humorous interpretation of the fact that I think she’s a genius — she’s (my girlfriend) a law student at Berkeley. I just feel very lucky and inspired by her. I wanted the song to be dramatic and romantic, but also funny cause (for the record) I DO actually know how to read and write.
In your opinion, where and when is the best place to tune into ROCKING AND ROLLIN’?
Hmm. I would say with headphones while walking. Cause that’s how a lot of the music came to me. I would record little things then listen to the recordings while walking around in my neighborhood of Highland Park. Anybody who knows me well will tell you that I am a big walker — I sorta live the life of senior citizen that way…but yeah, that would be great if someone would listen to it like that. I know that it’s coming out on a cassette tape so that makes it a little complicated…but anyone with a walkman can do it! If anybody really, so badly wants to take a walk with the album and listen to it like that they can contact me and I can send them the digital file.
Thanks so much, Ross! So ROCKING AND ROLLIN’ drops on November 25th but Crossfader readers get an exclusive taste of the album’s opener “Burning Hair.” Care to share any thoughts about this one before they get to listening?
Sure! It’s the newest one that I recorded. I had the album sort of done, and I listened to it again and decided I needed to add another song. It’s about how having long hair is a hassle, and it’s a struggle in my daily life, but you cherish it anyway. I also have nightmares where my hair is short in the dream, so I think “Burning Hair” is speaking on that deep rooted fear of short hair that I have developed (chuckles).