Greg Weeks has got a lot of loose ends. Aside from the solo career he’s developed since the ’90s, he’s currently a member of musical outfits Espers, La Secta, and Grass. He’s also founder of the Valerie Project, a group that takes films, cuts out the soundtracks, and writes and performs new ones. And now, he’s gone and inaugurated an imprint of the Drag City label with his wife Jessica Weeks (Woodwose, the Valerie Project, La Secta, Grass) called Language of Stone.
While his wife serves as head officer, Weeks plays A&R guy as well as serving as producer/engineer for many of the bands. The guy must face a veritable swamp of obligations each day, but he seems to have reached a zen state, accepting the strife and uncertainty — as well as the camaraderie — of the career musician. Even with his newfound clout, he’s all about “worldliness,” autonomy, and achieving community in a more organic fashion. It’s this type of foliating community that drove Weeks to start up Language of Stone.
He’d been trying for years to establish a label but simply lacked the time, energy, and funds. Forming a subsidiary label through Drag City (home to his Espers) has allowed him to focus on the aesthetic and technical sides of music, leaving the mother label to cover things like manufacturing and distribution. Of course, the pressures are still economic. While forming the imprint has allowed Weeks to cultivate a dusky garden of like-minded musicians, he emphasizes the need to sell records and not to get ahead of himself (i.e., flood the market).
Aesthetically speaking, Language of Stone bands tend toward a sylvan, psychedelic folk music. The sounds, ranging from soaring prog-folk to spare and melancholic lullaby, all seem grounded in the electric and experimental folk music that came out of England in the ’60s and early ’70s — many of whom have recently reemerged freshly boxed from relative obscurity.
Weeks, however, is sure to emphasize the sheer amount of time and musical evolution that has come between groups like the Incredible String Band and the newer seedlings. In fact, it was the difficulty of pigeonholing bands like Ex Reverie and Mountain Home (not quite “folk” nor “rock” nor “indie”) that led Weeks to start up Language of Stone. It’s not that a strong community of such artists hasn’t existed, he says, but that this community lacks a support network. Bigger labels like Drag City (home to experimental folkies such as Royal Trux, Smog, and Joanna Newsom) no longer even accepts demos. Language of Stone has emerged like a tendril from the taproot to bring musicians like Orion Rigel Dommisse, whom Weeks had long been trying to promote, into its nutrient fold.
The Espers man hasn’t always been so focused on the cooperative aspects of making music, though. A look into how he became interested in engineering and production might shed some light on his motivation as a label founder. In the mid- to late ’90s, Weeks worked primarily as a solo artist, laying down sparse tracks of acoustic guitar and, later, organ and synthesizer. Living in New York City he recorded primarily in bigger studios. As the digital format grew more and more to overtake analog, the latter devices became cheaper.
With his move to Philadelphia, Weeks purchased his own eight-track recorder with which he captured the debut album of Espers (in early 2004). At the time, the band comprised only three members and eight layers of recording. The pressure to fill in the album’s sonic gaps resulted in a dense weave of acidic folk. By the time the band started work on Espers II a few years ago, Weeks had set up an analog recording studio in his own basement called Hexham Head; Espers swelled to seven players and twenty-four tracks. The additional playing power and layering potential freed up Weeks to put energy into arranging and producing the album. The result was a subtler and darker affair with a greater facility of movement from whimsical finger-picking to climaxes of vortical clouds and infernal drones.
Since then, Weeks has become more and more taken with the challenge of crafting work that isn’t his own, of harnessing and guiding raw energies. The analog format, Weeks says, lends itself to this type of manipulation. There is a superstitious charm that he attaches to the recording process wherein a track once recorded becomes a sort of natural artifact. The lack of control in manipulating the tape forces the musician to either record a track until perfection or to work from his mistakes and imperfections. In one Espers song, for instance, Weeks forgot to record one of the verses. Instead of rerecording, he decided to adapt to the altered ecosystem of the song and let the layers grow organically around it (the way an old shoe introduced to the closed system of a cave can engender entirely new species of dependent life).
To be sure, his devotion to analog has more to do with a creative philosophy than any attempt to be “retro” or to assert a superior ethic. Weeks said he simply believes production quality reached its peak in the 1960s, and that if digital technology had surpassed analogue in this regard he would have no qualms about using it. And while he records on the older format, he’ll often turn to Pro Tools for fine-tuning.
As producer and engineer of several Language of Stone artists, Weeks is presented with myriad new ecosystems. He must both harness and encourage these budding talents and germinating sounds in his Hexham Head Studio.
For the past month I’ve had the pleasure of sampling the label’s fall and winter produce. In the next few days, we’ll present a trio of naturalistic studies of three of the label’s unique specimens. What’s wonderful is that, rather than operating as isolated ecosystems, the bands of Language of Stone influence and overlap one another, if not in membership then in spirit. In the course of the reviews or in listening to the music, look for certain vital connections between bands — evidence of a subterranean root system from which the collective draws a common energy.