Any form of pigeonholing in Los Angeles doesn’t stand up. If this city can be defined by anything, it’s the word “eclectic.” International, cinematic, urban, surreal, gritty. I’ve already gotten in trouble for suggesting the City of Angels has a dominant sound (that sound being sunny and happy-I guess I conveniently forgot Black Flag). So when I say Winter Flowers is an anomaly in today’s Angeleno music scene, I’m again being shortsighted. More correctly, the band harkens back to when folk was king here, when the Mamas and the Papas and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were churning magic out of Laurel Canyon. In today’s terms, Winter Flowers (whose self-titled debut was released in September on Attack 9) seems like a band that might be more at home in the folkier Pacific Northwest — which makes sense, because the band is actually originally from that area. Band members Christof Certik, Gavin Toler and Astrid Quay were kind enough to help us clear up matters geographic and otherwise.
How does a band come to this particular baroque/medieval kind of sound? I don’t imagine it’s as organic as teenage boys coming to rock ‘n’ roll in their garage.
Christof Certik: We each have our own stories concerning discovery of music and the unfolding of various musical roles in the Winter Flowers. But we were once teenagers playing rock ‘n’ roll in our garages. Each of us has all along had other musical interests as well, outside of the rock thing. I, for one, grew up listening to renaissance music. My father was a musician who played early music, and there were always things about it that affected me in deep ways I couldn’t understand as a kid, but that, when I was old enough to start writing music of my own, made me want to find ways to blend that sort of thing with newer music. Playing in rock bands was always frustrating because I heard music in my head that worked more the way music did in the sixteenth century than that overly simplistic way in which most rock music works.
Hearing some of the great musicians of the “classic era,” such as Fairport Convention and Pentangle, I saw that a blend of the old and new had actually been done somewhat successfully in the past. So I was inspired by these ’60s and ’70s bands that seemed coincidentally to have had that same vision that I did, and I dreamt of having a band that could play things like that. I at one point was so discouraged by most of the musicians I knew that I spent a long time not playing much music with other people. Then I first heard Gavin and the early version of the Winter Flowers, playing in their Renaissance-folk-ish way, and I felt I had found the answer to my prayers. Apparently, Gavin and his pals had been listening to the same stuff I had, and I could see that they had much the same interest in this musical path. I don’t think we have illusions about playing authentic medieval/renaissance/baroque music, but there is certainly a feeling that something important from that time is speaking to us.
To me, the special thing about that old music is the way in which each voice is blended with others to create a real sense of different things joining together equally. It’s hard to describe, but the music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially, seems to be telling us something about the power of things becoming greater through a dynamic with other things. Melodies swirl around one another in ways not like any other music, in ways that bring something greater to the sound of the instruments and to the power of the melodies.
Gavin Toler: When I started Winter Flowers back in Seattle, my goal was to express the romantic/poetic elements of my visions in a more delicate fashion than had been afforded me in my rock endeavors. I was reaching for more depth and freedom from music that to me was becoming a bit claustrophobic. When Christof joined up, he brought a wonderful ear for arranging music, which reflects the baroque elements you refer to. So that’s the way we arrange instruments/vocals now. Music that moves within music, notes that talk to each other.
Do you think there’s a reason this particular folk revival, or whatever we’re calling it, is happening right now? Is there something going on nationally or internationally that’s motivating it?
Certik: It is very difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that causes large groups to want to embrace certain things at particular times. All I know is that there is something important in such impulses. It’s as if there is a spirit, a zeitgeist, which is speaking through our culture, which is bringing its consciousness into the world through people’s actions and arts. We are all very much instruments of higher forces that we do not wholly understand. In this particular case, I feel as if it is a tremendously positive force, and I think that this “new folk” or “weird America” thing is bringing a lot of people to a brighter understanding of music, community, beauty and goodness. It sounds terribly silly, doesn’t it? But I see it all around. I feel as if people everywhere are discovering new realms of positive art and discourse.
As far as world events go, I cannot imagine what would cause such a phenomenon. I think the condition of music has degenerated so much in quality and ideology that people really are craving something that is actually musical and positively ideological. I would hope that no one is actually trying to resurrect the old narcissistic hippie ideology of the ’60s. It’s important that we all look to these world influences and try to allow whatever positive forces we see to come to fruition through our receptivity to them. Sometimes that receptivity takes the form of creating or appreciating music.
How have you found L.A. conducive to your sound? You seem to have moved away from places — the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco — that seemed to have been bigger havens for your type of music, whereas L.A. seems a bit rockist right now.
Certik: Certainly Los Angeles is one of those places that seems to many people to be the last place to nurture anything of actual artistic value. It’s definitely paradoxical, though I think so far it has been very accommodating. In San Francisco there was definitely a certain quality of life that allowed the band to get things rolling, but there is something about that town that is a tremendous hindrance to artists or any sort of would-be doers. Lovely as it is, it is kind of a black hole for creative people. One can get a certain amount done, but eventually one runs into a brick wall.
It is a generalization, of course, but somehow people tend to end up stuck there, mired in a community of lovely people in a lovely setting where the sense of possibility actually seems to diminish the longer one works. L.A., interestingly, has a helpful and inspiring quality of being a place where people come to realize a dream. And, of course, the clichï¿½ is true that this town is full of “industry” folks and people who genuinely like and care about music, some of whom can offer wonderful prospects to a band like us.
You have Mia Doi Todd and other L.A. folk singers guest on your album. Is there a big get-together-and-see-what-happens-one-day-a-week vibe here, or is that a less common occurrence?
Certik: Unfortunately there is very little of that sort of community music-making vibe here. Here we keep more focus on our own unit, which really needs our undivided attention. But it would admittedly be very nice to work and/or play more with the many other talented kids in town. Maybe all it takes is initiating something, which we might do some day. Perhaps the enormously lovely contributions of Mia and Becky and Miranda will be the start of some more involved joinings. I hope so.
You use a plethora of stringed instruments on the album. I’ve always wondered this: If you know how to play the guitar, do you then naturally know how to play the mandolin, lyre, et cetera?
Certik: It certainly helps to already know one stringed instrument when you embark on learning another. There have been many who have just applied guitar techniques to other instruments, as we can all hear in numerous recordings over the last twenty years or so. It’s another matter to really learn to play another instrument as it is meant to be played.
Of course there are always those who say that one ought to just play an instrument in one’s own way, but that nearly always means “like a guitar,” which is most people’s main instrument. As a mandolin, banjo, guitar and lute player, I’ve had to start from the beginning on each. The only things which really carry over from one to the next are the motion and strength of the fingers on frets and the understanding of music itself as applied to strings. Each instrument has its unique difficulties and unique character. It’s almost as if each instrument was a different person, with whom one must develop a different relationship.
How literally are we to take the song “The End of the War”? Is there any political statement there?
Toler: It’s not meant to be a political song. It was actually a sort of meditation I would use to help myself fall asleep. However, the feelings tied to the song do reflect on the true nature of peace as a concrete reality, a physical state of being as opposed to an abstract concept of a place we don’t really know how to get to. The essence of the song is loss, surrender, coming back to the true value of things and letting go of one’s self.
The more I listen to your album the more I can believe you haven’t heard any popular music since Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who I hear a lot of in “Hey Ho.” But I’m sure that’s not true. What current music interests you?
Certik: I must say that the best music I know right now is Lavender Diamond, Miranda Lee Richards and Mia Doi Todd. Also we very much appreciate the music of Circulus in England. There are also a couple of groups in San Francisco I like very much: the lovely harmony-laden lilt of Willow Willow and the joyful groove of Sugar and Gold.
At a point the album seems to go through a nautical phase. Do you have any specific connections to the sea or sailing?
Certik: Yeah, there is that song that we used the ocean sounds on. We drove up the coast one day and recorded the waves from a cave on the beach. It’s not that the album goes through a nautical phase, but rather that it draws much of it’s inspiration from the ocean and the mountains, from wind and fire — the elements.
How do you interpret when the members of Dead Meadow say your band is the opposite side
of the same coin? For some listeners, that might be a hard connection to hear.
Toler: I feel that the connection has to do with a feeling of the epic. Led Zepplin walked both sides of the line, hammering out heavy riff rock one moment only to hit you with a shimmering acoustic gem the next. It has more to do with the images we find as inspiration for our music than it does with the means used to achieve the music. I think there is a great deal of focus on the mystical in both.
Are there any plans to tour beyond the West Coast to support this album?
Certik: Of course we would love to travel everywhere and play as much as possible for as many people as possible, but we really don’t have any definite plans to do any such thing at the moment. It is a certainty, however, that we will work on it, and hopefully before long find our way to the East Coast and to England and the rest of the world. We have a second album on the way, so perhaps we will build up enough interest to warrant such proceedings.
How is it decided when you’re going to sing lead on a track? Is it based on the theme of the song, like on “Too Young to Marry”? Astrid, do you write the songs you sing lead on?
Astrid Quay: In the case of “Too Young to Marry,” the narrative is gender-specific. That particular song was written by Christof — it’s about a young maiden betrothed, so it required female lead vocals. I also sing lead on “Winter Bird,” which is not lyrically gender-specific. It just happened to be a good fit with my voice. I have yet to write a Winter Flowers song — that will soon change — but I don’t plan on necessarily singing lead on what I will write. The only consideration is what works and what makes sense for the song.
The band sports some great digs in the album photos and other promo photos. Who’s in charge of costuming?
Quay: I sewed the robes that we wear in the photo that’s currently on our MySpace profile. As far as the whole idea for the shoot, though, we all discussed and contributed. The photo on the back of the album was actually pretty spontaneous. We just put on what we thought would look good in a photo with that “midnight garden” backdrop that we used. In general, if we’re doing a photo or video shoot, we’ll all get together and talk about the aesthetic and figure out how best to execute it. Sometimes one person will have a particularly strong, specific idea that we take off from, and if something needs sewing I’ll do it. In general, though, I’m pretty hands-on when it comes to wardrobe and general aesthetic.