Lewis & Clarke
Koyaanisqatsi. It means “life out of balance” and it’s something that Lou Rogai became aware of as a child. Thus the principal personality and songwriter behind Lewis & Clarke works at his own pace, moves to his own beat, obeys his own rhythms. After all, he’s got his own child to worry about and greater things to consider than the insatiable consumer culture that could devour every bit of his energy and time.
The reason? The first few works of Lewis & Clarke wowed seemingly every critic or pundit who placed headphones over their ears. The “wild” and “fragile” music of Rogai & Co, as he puts it, found on Bare Bones and Branches or Blasts of Holy Birth made them critical favorites and positioned Lewis & Clarke — also comprised of Tom Asselin, Ian O’Hara and Shane O’Hara — as a buzz band of sorts. But those are all considerations or accolades in a world that Rogai remains outside of, not necessarily opposed to.
It’s the convergence of these worlds which creates an incredibly interesting conversation within which Rogai describes the necessary environment for his craft. It’s about staying in balance in a world that often feels out of balance, a timely conversation for not only the music of Lewis & Clarke but for the very way that we live.
SSv: There’s been quite a spell since Lewis & Clarke were in the spotlight with a proper release, so the obvious question is what have you been up to? Where does Lewis & Clarke stand today?
Lou Rogai: Well, that’s a good question. [Laughs] Right now, I reconfigured a lot of how Lewis & Clarke was comprised. That’s due to the fact that I’ve had some amazing collaborators over the years. When I decided to be a father about five years ago, I knew that my life would be very different artistically and that I would have a living, breathing to care for and that would be my main project. Anything else artistically would have to be supplemental and I would figure out how to work it all together.
There are vibrations that I feel connected to where I live. There's a rhythm. I appreciate the natural rhythm of the river that cut through a ridge for millions of years. I really appreciate it.
Doing that, I knew I couldn’t do the traditional model — the traditional tour schedule, the traditional practice schedule, different things like that. I knew I had to slow that down. I had these amazing collaborators who are also on a similar schedule and these talented human beings are involved with other projects. So that caused the process to rotate and through the past couple of years, I’ve reformulated the group of collaborators within Lewis & Clarke and basically I’ve just been reinventing the sound and instrumentation.
I’m constantly writing and recording new ideas and playing some local shows. I’m trying to work locally. I’m not sure the last bit of music you are aware of, but we did a couple of compilation contributions and an EP last year.
SSv: That’s the Light Time EP?
Lou: Yeah, Light Time.
SSv: When you say you want to reconfigure or restructure, tangibly how does that play out?
Lou: I don’t want to consciously box myself into a sound or work from what has worked in the past. So the beauty for me is that I have limited resources at this point. I live in a more rural area. It’s pretty close to New York and Philadelphia, but it is not in the center of the activity there. I either have to make the choice to travel to New York and rehearse there, or work with people willing to come to me and spend some time here, or they are located somewhere within the region.
Luckily enough, through my brother, he’s introduced me to some musicians he’s played with. We’ve been playing together for about two years now and the restructuring has been stripping away all of the older material and coming at it with new instrumentation. It’s churning out lines that were played on a harp when the next best thing is a piano — translating lines from certain instruments to other instruments, and yet keep it in a cohesive style that makes sense for Lewis & Clarke.
We’re not going to all of a sudden become some kind of genre-breaker and start doing industrial music. But if I wanted to, I’d be able to do that which is nice. I don’t want to box myself into the sound, so in order to grow into the style that I like, it takes time to translate the instruments and keep things interesting in that respect.
SSv: On the last major release, the descriptions were “pastoral” or “autumnal.” So if you want to break out of that box, where do you go from there? Or is that not what you mean?
Lou: I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to break out of any certain boxes. I just want to grow naturally with the tools I have within reach. Those terms were phrases that reviewers wrote about the band and about the project. I don’t know if I would have ever written those phrases about the project, but if people get that from it, it’s cool.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that rather than consciously trying to break out of a box, I just want to naturally keep the music where it belongs. So if it naturally needs to stay there in that box, then we will stay. But I do like to coerce things along.
SSv: When you keep it that organic, are you surprised by what emerges?
Lou: There are some surprises, yeah. There’s excitement in unpredictability. We want to keep things that way, which is why we try to strip songs down or approach them with different instruments or use unorthodox instruments in various places. Sometimes we’ll invite a different person to collaborate. So there are surprises. I’d like there to be more surprises, actually, now that you mention it. I’m going to have to try to figure out what can be done to create more surprises artistically on a regular basis.
SSv: How do you chase that without forcing the art?
Lou: I might have to get back to you on that. [Laughs] I have to figure that one out. How do you chase it without forcing the art? I feel like you have to trust the universe. Maybe I shouldn’t say ‘you.’ Personally, I put trust in the universe. I look for inspiration outside of music. And I don’t chase it. I don’t try to track it down, because then it would feel forced. The one stylistic trait that I feel is indicative of the music is that I like it to have a natural flow. I like it to have arc. I’m inspired by Andy Goldsworthy‘s pieces visually and I like music that does that.
So I walk in the woods every day and check out the microsystem on the forest floor and try not to think too much about forcing the surprises or the creative process to come. Not to say that I don’t want it to happen quickly. There’s no greater feeling than to have bursts of progress with what you’re creating. But when that is the rabid drive, it pretty much destroys the act for me. So I don’t want to chase it.
SSv: Is that the reason for the rural space you inhabit?
Lou: Absolutely. There are vibrations that I feel connected to where I live. There’s a rhythm. I appreciate the natural rhythm of the river that cut through a ridge for millions of years. I really appreciate it. I like raising my son where we can go explore fossils and swim in the river on a whim and those sorts of things. I also love the energy of the city. We go into the city and check out what our friends are doing. We take in a show. We eat some great food. We check out that energy. But that’s not where I thrive to create.
I’m in a period right now where we’re in the middle of a new full-length. The last full-length was released in late 2007, I think. In between then, we had an EP and a few singles like on the compilation and whatnot, as I was saying. But this album now is turning out to be a double-album worth of material. Working with new people on a full-length, we bridged the gap with the EP. It’s kind of the quieter and more down moments of the previous album.
I feel like a whole new person. It’s been about three years. That’s a regenerative cycle. That’s a long time and a lot happens in that time and the music that’s happening now for the full-length, I’m really excited about it. Sometimes I hit walls. I’m in a period now though where it’s a downtime. I didn’t go to the studio this last week because I didn’t think I had enough material to work on, or I didn’t have it shaped to the point that I was happy with it.
Rather than go and see what happens with it, I choose not to do that. There’s 90 percent preparation and 10 percent spontaneity when it’s studio time. You were mentioning surprises and that can happen in the 10 percent window. But I like to be prepared. There are so many things an artist has to think about: money, time, other responsibilities. So I like to have as much preparation as possible.
This week I’ve just been trying to find some inspiration to finish up certain passages of songs. I’ll go to church on Sunday morning or I’ll pick up my David Lynch transcendental book and see what he has to say about the creative process. I watched a film that was an expose on Carlos Castaneda, which basically exposed him as a fraud. I like to watch a film and speak with some friends about it. So I’m going through this period that’s not necessarily a retreat, but I’m trying to take a step back from it so it’s not in my face. I need to let it simmer a bit.
SSv: You said you can go to the urban environment to find something from the rhythm there, but what happens on the flip side? What happens if you linger for long stretches there?
Lou: I just get too caught up in seeing friends that I haven’t seen. It’s easy to get social. It’s real easy to get social and I’d rather have time to keep quiet and work on my stuff. It happens to a lot of my friends and a lot of my band mates that were living in Brooklyn and they basically couldn’t get their work done. I know it works well for some people. Thousands of artists are doing it right now and it’s working well for them. But certain people don’t resonate with that.
Have you seen Koyaanisqatsi? It’s basically a film about progress. Are you familiar with it?
SSv: No, I haven’t heard of it.
Lou: Koyaanisqatsi. It starts out with nature and it shows some scenes in the desert and rivers. Philip Glass did the score and then about 20 minutes in, you see a bulldozer approaching over the horizon and it becomes ominous. Over the course of the film, the shots speed up and the music gets more tense and it slowly starts showing highways being built. It’s all done in this really beautiful, cinematic way. By the end of the film, it’s showing people in elevators and subways and escalators and city streets and the music is insane. The word ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ means out of balance in some native tribal tongue.
SSv: How long is the film? That sounds interesting.
Lou: I think it’s probably 45 minutes to an hour. It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen it. My father brought it home when I was a kid from the early ’80s, I think it is. It’s just totally crazy to see progress in this perspective and just how we can get used to an unnatural habitat being completely natural. I’m not paranoid of cities, don’t get me wrong. It’s just an interesting perspective.
SSv: And certainly more applicable now than when it was made.
Lou: Absolutely. The nice thing about our age now is that we see more green spaces and you see more people aware of conservation. I live in a rural area, but I learn the most about foraging and permaculture from my friends who live in Brooklyn. They’ll come out and we’ll do a hike and my friend will say, ‘Okay, these are your mustard greens and this is a wild onion.’ Most of the stuff on the forest floor, I don’t know what it is. But they come home with a salad and she lives in Brooklyn. There’s just a lot of good forward minds coming together in creative communities.
So by no means am I being a fatalist about urban living. I just need to chill out and hang out here. I’m not doing as much of that. I just like to do be near it. I’m a single father raising a child and making music in my studio and running a record label. So I don’t get my hands outside in the dirt and garden all day. That’s just a small part of it. I live more of an urban life out here as far as relying on technology and compressing files to share and so on.
But it’s being here and doing it here and being around what I like and having that to watch those rhythms so that I can feel like a person.
SSv: I know Lewis and Clarke isn’t a solo venture for you, so who are you working with these days? You mentioned the friends you’re surrounded by in this environment earlier.
Lou: I’m lucky enough to be working with extremely talented folks right now, solid personalities who directly relate to the process. The contributions of the brothers (Ian and Shane O’Hara) are invaluable. We’re switching instruments quite a bit, and Ian has been switching between upright bass, rhodes, and piano, so that’s cool. They are stoic dudes to make music with. We’re collaborating on string arrangements too, which Ian transcribes into notation.
So far we’ve recorded Molli’s violin tracks, and Eve’s going to be adding cello. Shane has also been engineering the string recordings. Tom Turtle is also a longtime co-conspirator, adding his layers of ambient washes. It’s a good process, it seems that all of us are tapping into new levels of patience and communication. We’re recording in spurts when the iron is hot and the creativity is flowing, in a converted greenhouse in Delaware with Nick Krill as engineer and co-producer. His studio is called The Garden Center. He’s great.
SSv: So when or where does Lewis & Clarke emerge back into the public space?
Lou: Well, we got asked to do a tour in the fall which I may or may not do. I may want to wait until our full-length is out. But early winter of 2011, you’ll have a new Lewis & Clarke album and you’ll be able to attend a show for sure. We might hang back and keep working on more material instead of that fall tour, but we don’t know yet.