DM Stith became one of indie’s more original voices when he released the experimental Heavy Ghost in 2008 on Sufjan Stevens’s Asthmatic Kitty label. Stith grew up in a religious family surrounded by music, but he didn’t embrace his own musical side until he became an adult. The result was music that was both adventurous and personal: The songs on Heavy Ghost match their off-kilter sound with stories that are part of a singular musical vision. Stith is now completing his first headlining tour, which came on the heels of Heavy Ghost Appendices, an album where he remixed and reimagined the songs on his debut.
How was Heavy Ghost recorded? Did you do it at home? In Brooklyn?
Well, it was done piecemeal. I relied on a lot of my friends in New York. [Label mate] Shara Worden and Sufjan are both much more skilled than I am, and they’ve been doing it a lot longer. I have some innate abilities in that I used to design software, so I was really comfortable with Pro Tools. The sketches — the initial recordings — were all done in my house, and then I would fill them out in different places. Some of it was filled out in a wind ensemble rehearsal hall in upstate New York, where my dad is a professor at a college. So I had a big open room and tons of orchestral percussion instruments. I just set up there. I would record all night and then get out of there in the day so that students could go back in. So I was kind of a shadow. People would know that I was there, but they would never see me. I also recorded some in San Diego, where I mixed the record.
Can you bring people up to date on what you’re doing now? Are you still in graduate school? Conceiving a second album?
I started grad school two years ago and did a whole year of it. It was in the second semester that I released Heavy Ghost. And it was during that second semester that I realized I can’t do both touring and recording and writing and school and teaching at the same time. So I took a year off to focus on music and at the end of the year I decided to put school on hold for a while — indefinitely, but I may go back to it at some point.
This is a long tour and I’ve had to put in a lot of work to get this ready the last few months. When this is done, I’m moving back to upstate New York, where I grew up, and I’m moving with the intent of finishing record number two. I’ll be moving specifically to facilitate recording and writing. So I’m looking at a career now. It’s the first time I’m really doing that. I’m thinking about how I can set up my life so that writing and recording is the first and primary goal.
Was there ever a thought that your music was so different than even the most fringe indie that it would get ignored or criticized? In other words, were you surprised people liked it?
You know, yeah. In micro terms, yes. In each review it’s like “Oh, somebody got it. They’re not turned off by the sounds.” But then other times people will say, “This is really fucking weird music, and I don’t understand it. Who does this guy think he is, you know, making strange sounds?” And I’m surprised with that, too. There’s part of me that’s really proud of what I’ve done and part of me that’s really frustrated that I’m not writing pop songs. And they both voice themselves at different times. There’s been a much stronger response in general in Europe. I’ve been recognized on the street walking to a show. That would never happen in the U.S. for whatever reason. For a first record, it was pretty phenomenal how it was received over there. So as much as I’d like to say that I don’t really care what other people think about my music, of course I do. But I’m trying not to rely on that at all. I want to make something that’s beautiful that people connect with but ultimately I’m the only person (in the creative process) that can make any decisions. I can’t rely on other people’s ideas when I’m writing and recording.
Coming from the visual arts, do you think you conceive music visually? I’ve read that Captain Beefheart described his songs as sound sculptures. Do you think there might be a different way you contextualize music?
Yeah, I’m sure that there is. Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond gave me some recording software — it was for her [because] she was hoping to facilitate her songwriting and I was the only one with a computer she knew. But having that software, suddenly I was able to use my comfort with design programs and visual interfaces with music. I had never done that before. I was suddenly able to look at a wave form and deal with it that way. It made the whole thing easier for me. I’m very visual when I play music. I don’t think about notes. I don’t think about key signatures, time signatures. I’m a real idiot savant when it comes to that sort of stuff. I couldn’t tell you right now the names of the strings on my guitar. I don’t think that way. So my anchor is more visual and is more physical.
You told AOL Spinner: “I think I started by ridiculing my parents for the music they listened to back when I was little.” I was wondering what they think of your music?
They’re so proud of me. I was having this conversation at [label mate] Shannon Stevens’s house. We have a similar background in that we both grew up in kind of fundamental Christian homes. For me, music is kind of one part of many parts of me that are coming out in the last few years. I grew up really, really shy, which may or may not have been the result of heavy spirituality and heavy religiosity in our family. Music for me has been the catalyst for finding comfort with myself in more of a public way. And so in the last couple of years my parents are just absurdly proud of me and for many reasons. They never, ever imagined that I would make music. My mom still listens to Heavy Ghost probably at least every other day at her job. She has a job where a couple of hours a day she has busy work to do — she works at a college. I have two sisters, and they’re both really proud of me as well. But I think that it’s not just that they like the music; I think it has something to do with because I was kind of a dark, quiet lonely creature for the first 25 years of my life and they’re seeing me blossom. They’re just proud that I’m finding peace.
Can you talk about the digital EPs that followed the release of Heavy Ghost? Why did you revisit the music?
It was kind of a nervous thing. For whatever reason, I was still kind of bugged by school and bugged by touring — just with the newness of it and the complexity of it. It’s a big world to jump into. I needed to do something in order to kind of feel a connection with the process that led to this situation. It started off that the record label recommended that I put out some 7-inch records, and as soon as I started digging into it, I realized I wanted an excuse to record more stuff that was kind of casual. I don’t think that I was capable at the time of writing new material without it just being repetitious or something. So I was experimenting with taking the content of the record and expanding on it.
So it’s very much the result of obsession. It’s the result of needing something to work on that wasn’t too heavy for my ego and wasn’t gonna be too much weight on it. I wasn’t expecting to collect them all the way that I did, or even to release it all. I think it started out different than I expected. This tour right now is the end of the first year of touring in my performance history. I played my first show two years ago June. And then I didn’t play anything until Christmas — I played one show then. So performing is really, really new to me, and it freaked me out: The idea of getting up in front of people and trying to perform these super-complicated textural songs by myself or with a couple of other people. Recording is so important to me, and it’s such a contemplative process for me. The songwriting process is like what prayer is for a lot of people. It’s a way for me to search myself out and figure out what’s really on my mind or what’s really bothering me or what’s really exciting for me.
Has the 12-inch disc with your Sparklehorse cover come out? Is it being sold only at shows?
I just spent the last three hours signing and numbering them all here at Shannon’s house. They just arrived. So the plan was to have them for the tour, and now we’re half way through the tour and we’ve just received them. But we’re gonna start selling them at the shows. And then after the tour is over, AsthmaticKitty.com will be selling them from its website. I don’t know if they’ll be sold in stores. I hope they will. I imagine some of the boutique shops will order a few copies and have them in their shop. It has a Sparklehorse cover and then there’s kind of a demo of this new song called “Riverbody.” It’s a song I’ve been playing at the shows. And then there are two songs by Inlets, one of which is written by Paul McCartney, called “Junk.”