[Originally for DC Music Download on 15 June 2012]
Interviewed By: Stephanie Williams
If one thing can be said about the music scene in D.C., it’s the diversity of bands and artists that comprise it compared to other cities, which also includes more experimental acts. Notably, there have been a number of musicians filling their sounds into this avant garde space-in addition to an annual festival (Sonic Circuits) taking charge in opening the boundaries to various genres in D.C.
One the most notable experimental acts from the city include Janel Leppin and Anthony Pirog. Leppin, a classically trained cellist with a deep root in Indian and Persian music, while Pirog (a multi-faceted guitarist) attended high school together and became good friends in college. They began to compose music in Leppin’s cottage in Vienna, Virgina, releasing their first album back in 2006. From there, the duo spent the next few years performing and moving between several different places-which served as the inspiration to their latest offering Where is Home. The release is an exhilarating blend of written compositions mixed with sagacious improvised interludes throughout, and indubitably showcases the raw emotions of the group stemming from their transient lifestyle. It is a captivating listen from the beginning all the way to the end.
Leppin and Pirog spoke with DMD about their new album, the experimental scene in D.C., and everything in between.
Visit Janel & Anthony’s official website to preview and purchase Where is Home.
D.C. Music Download: It took about three years to get Where is Home released-what was the process like of getting it off the ground?
Anthony Pirog: It wasn’t the actual composing that took that long. We wrote the music fairly quickly.
Janel Leppin: In about two weeks.
AP : It was stuff that we’ve been playing for awhile. We just had to kind of settle on the right studio that we wanted to work in. And we found that at The Brink in Centreville,Virginia. My friend Mike Reina owns that studio, and he also engineered the album. We recorded our first album at home in a week, and mixed it ourselves but never had it mastered, and we really wanted to make this album sound different.
JL: We were working with all kinds of really gifted people, but when we finally met Mike Reina, we kind of realized that he would be able to create the warmth and dark rich tones that we were looking for that really sets off this record in a nice way.
AP: We recorded it to tape. It was an analog recording- so we found sounds we wanted using that approach.
DMD: In terms of composing and songwriting, what’s one thing you’ve learned about yourselves through this process?
JL: With being a classical cellist coming out of school and only playing other people’s music my entire life-being in this group and being able to write a song is refreshing, like writing “Leaving the Woods” on this new album. I’ve learned to trust myself in my compositional process.
AP: From writing with Janel, I’ve learned what I’d like to say when I’m writing music. It has been a chance for me to explore and say what I want to say musically in terms of writing and improvising, and kind of mixing up all my interests into one approach or style-and it’s been refreshing to have that freedom.
DMD: How does this new album compare/contrasts to your first in terms of the sound, songwriting, and overall aesthetic ?
JL: The first album had more of a folk feel in a way-there’s more fingerstyle, a lot of classical melodies and such. This new record is a little bit more like going to an art gallery and seeing a bunch of different paintings. If you look at the overall exhibit, it would be transient, dark and brooding because we were the middle of moving between places. I’ve lived in about 11 different places the last five years and Anthony has lived in about nine. It was definitely a transitional period-a lot of people, a lot of change, and just also a feeling of not having a rooted place to work. That’s why its also called “where is home”-it’s kind of a fitting title.
On the style of the album-the first album had that fingerstyle and classical feel. I was just coming out of college, Anthony was learning fingerstyle music at the time, and now im getting more into jazz and Anthony is kind of delving into modern classical music. And of course, both of us have been working with electronics for a long time now, so we’ve really been kind of using that in our live show and we decided to use all the electronic improvisation which are vignettes on this album.
DMD: What track on the new album do you think best showcases the band’s overall strength and why?
JL: There are two tracks: one is “A Viennesian Life”, because we’re both from Vienna, Virginia. This album is about the places we’ve lived-and so that one kind of expanded a lot from the intial idea. In the studio we just said, “OK, I have an idea here”-and I ran to the harpsichord and played and then we added more and more to it-it was an exciting process. It was the first time that I felt like we’re using the studio as an instrument, and also that the creative process was happening in the studio, as opposed to thinking it through ahead of time.
Going with that, I would have to say “Big Sur” would be the other one because technically it’s an uptempo piece so it’s very vibrant and exciting to play-and it’s exciting for our audience when we play it live.
AP: I was also going to say “Big Sur” and “The Clearing”-only because it’s part of what our live set is-it’s a composition and then it goes into an improvisation. I would say those two best represent what we do live.
DMD: And would you say that those songs are your favorites to perform live?
JL: Right now we’re having fun with “Leaving The Woods” because we’re kind of passing around the melody a little bit and we’re having fun backing each other up. Anthony takes a solo and at the end I have this pretty double stop that I play that moves around in thirds, and it’s pretty beautiful.
AP: I’m having fun playing this new song that isn’t on the album called “Flyover Iceland”. The thing that’s different about that song is that we’re finishing our set with Janel’s singing, so after 40 minutes of cello, guitar and instrumental music, it becomes more of a vocal performance which I kind of think is surprising for people.
DMD: Favorite venues you’ve performed in?
AP: One place that’s been very important to us in developing our sound live is Galaxy Hut in Arlington. We’ve always had a really supportive crowd there. We’ve made a lot of friends from playing there. It’s the right size to play without a PA-it’s just a nice atmosphere.
JL: We also had a great experience playing at the ISSUE Project Room, which is a gorgeous space in downtown Brooklyn. Susan Alcorn asked me to present my arrangements of her music, and I had this beautiful ensemble-I chose Anthony to play with me of course. And it was very beautiful-almost like being in a church or something. First, because it had very high ceilings and it’s all marble. Also, it’s a place where people listen with very open ears and are in a very intellecutual state of mind-they know where you’re coming from.
DMD: Bringing it back home to D.C., how would you describe the experimental music scene here and how do you feel it’s evolved since you’ve been around as a group?
JL: I’ve noticed there’s a very nice community being built here in D.C.-there’s a warmth to it. I would encourage anyone to go to a Sonic Circuit show. Basically, the experimental scene evolved around this particular organization that is headed by Jeff Surak, and he’s been very instrumental in getting a lot of interesting acts from abroad to come here.
But basically, the warmth of the scene is very nice, and also the openness of people to meeting new people. It’s not a very competitive scene. Everyone is pretty supportive of each other, and I feel like it’s an awesome combination of nice people and openness towards other people’s projects and such. There is something very unique that’s happening in Washington, D.C.
AP: It’s also nice to see the interest kind of grow over the years. We’ve been playing the festival since 2007, and the first time we played it was at the Velvet Lounge-and I like the Velvet Lounge, but it was nice seeing it go from the Velvet Lounge to now being at the Atlas Theater. So it’s nice to see it grow.
JL: I think also people are becoming more and more accepting of experimental music and also utilizing these different styles of music. Like I mentioned earlier, with opening genres a little bit more-instead of sticking with the traditional way of doing a song-it helps to open the boundaries a little bit.
DMD: What accomplishments do you hope to achieve by the end of year?
JL: I know what I want-I want us to have another album. Now that we understand our process better-I would like for us to get another album out. I would also like to do a solo record by the end of 2012.
AP: Janel’s right-I would like to have us finish recording a third album. I’d also like to record another solo album-I haven’t done one since 2008. But I’d like to continue touring with Janel because we haven’t really done long stretches of touring-and we’d like to hit the West Coast, the Midwest, hopefully go to Europe…
JL: Also one more thing to add-we’re going to be settling into a place hopefully on the East Coast not too far from The Brink so we can start working and finish up some things. So maybe instead of having a record about homelessness, or kind of being without roots, the next record will be about starting new roots.