Photo by Ellery Berenger
“I need to be in a punk band at the same time as I need to be playing free improv at the same time as I need to be playing songs,” Wendy Eisenberg explains, detailing their creative process. “All at the same time—otherwise none of the practices will work for me.” Listening to Eisenberg’s work, this is easily understood.
Take Eisenberg’s new record, Auto, for example. The album opens with the ballad “I Don’t Want To,” which combines clean sounds from Eisenberg’s ES-175 and glitchy electronics à la Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs’ experimental creations as Gastr Del Sol. “Centreville” follows, with Eisenberg taking a tech-y and angular approach to guitar riffage, followed by the sunny, jazz-pop groove of “No Such Lack.” In just three tracks, Eisenberg has covered plenty of ground and the album proceeds with sustained versatility throughout.
Each stylistic jump on Auto is studied and focused and serves a distinct musical purpose, so the album makes the case that this sort of big-ears, genre-hopping approach is home for Eisenberg and is an aesthetic in and of itself. It’s no surprise when Eisenberg name-drops composer John Zorn’s iconoclastic Naked City band—whose extreme genre-pastiche approach is both groundbreaking and truly incomparable—as part of their education. “I went to NEC [New England Conservatory] for their Contemporary Improv masters,” the guitarist says. “It happened to coincide with Zorn’s 60th birthday concerts, where I got to play a bunch of Naked City parts.”
After college, Eisenberg continued to have multiple stylistic irons in the fire. Eisenberg was quick to become a regular player in the New York City experimental scene, where they stayed connected with Zorn, who released The Machinic Unconscious, Eisenberg’s trio record with bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle and countless Zorn projects) and drummer Ches Smith (Marc Ribot, Tim Berne). Meanwhile, Eisenberg was actively involved in the Western Massachusetts music scene, living there until recently moving to New York, and worked with several rock and noise bands including the Birthing Hips, whose dissolution inspired Auto.
It’s easy to hear similarities between Birthing Hips—whose own “genre-play,” as Eisenberg explains, is quickly identifiable, especially on “Strip Tease,” where Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” theme can be heard accompanied by a blast of noise-rock ripping—and Auto, but the latter feels much more nuanced and personal. As a player, Eisenberg takes on such a wide variety of playing approaches, from angular riffing to contrapuntal chord melodies to short flashes of bossa nova comping and so much more—all of which seem to come naturally and in support of the well-crafted songs. Producer Nick Zanca contributes much of the synths and electronic elements that color and surround Eisenberg’s playing, providing a cohesive sonic landscape, while Eisenberg’s warm, plainly-stated singing navigates the conceptual changes and helps form a united whole to the album.
Eisenberg is a sharp musical thinker, so we took this opportunity to catch up and discuss Auto and to pick their brain about everything from practice materials to improvisation and composition concepts.
What about improvisation is important to you and your guitar playing?
Improvisation, on the guitar, is a way for me to know the guitar better. At this point, because I’ve been so married to the guitar for years, I feel like by exploring the guitar I’m actually exploring myself and I feel like improvisation actually affords you that. If you’re doing composed work, you’re exploring something outside of you. Maybe I’m selfish, but there’s less potential for something there for me than the self-exploration that is part of improvising on an instrument that you know.
I think what’s important about it is that your body can surprise you. So, if you’re doing a discipline that has less to do with the regurgitation of ideas—in composed music or in genre-specific improvised work—if you’re going against those techniques, your literal physical intuition starts to matter differently. A lot of my vocabulary and my approaches come from whatever my body wants to do on the guitar at the time, which usually just has to do with me stretching out an impulse. So, if I want to play a little cluster or a melody, then I’ll want to stretch it out using a shape or developing it in some way, rhythmically or off the fretboard.
Would you share some of the background behind writing Auto?
I had this improvising/composed genre-play band called Birthing Hips, and when we broke up I was kind of worried that I wouldn’t be able to write the same way.Birthing Hips didn’t work out and I was writing as a way to take stock of what musically was still there for me to say. I was really approaching the composition of each song like I wanted to use my influences, but not consciously. I wanted to be as true to the experience of loss that I had from the band and also from the incredible seismic mid-20s changes that were happening at the time.
While writing the album Auto, Wendy Eisenberg had two guidelines: “The song had to be good, which is hopefully a challenge that all songwriters need to follow, and the song also has to convey with accuracy and, hopefully a little bit of grace, the emotional state via the music.”
Musically, there are some things that are more stock than others. There’s a song on there called “Genre Fiction” that’s basically a folk song, and there’s other stuff that’s super complicated, like “Centreville.” That’s about the divorce between your brain and your body when you have to sing and play at the same time.
All of these things were little challenges I set to myself: The song had to be good, which is hopefully a challenge that all songwriters need to follow, and the song also has to convey with accuracy and, hopefully, a little bit of grace, the emotional state via the music.
What are those influences you’re exploring on this album?
There’s a lot of Arto Lindsay’s songs. Ted Reichman [composer and Eisenberg’s former professor at NEC] once told me that my songs were like his and I didn’t think it was true and I slowly wanted to make it true because his songs are great. I was really into his Mundo Civilizado kind of stuff, because the fact that he could do that and [no-wave band] DNA and [avant-pop duo] Ambitious Lovers and everything, I mean…. I think it’s him and Eugene Chadbourne that care as much about improvisation as they do about songs on the guitar.
So, I feel like I was coming from an Arto Lindsay place and also a João Gilberto and Juana Molinaworld, where the songcraft is super important, but there’s also humor and exploration. Songs can so easily become stock and improvisation can so easily become stock, so I wanted the record to be at the midpoint of innovation in both of those genres.
I was wondering if Gastr Del Sol was part of that.
I like to listen to Gastr Del Sol and definitely the way the records are produced informed the production 100 percent, but I never think of trying to write the way they do. I think the producer on the record was thinking about that a lot, because there’s that acoustic guitar and electronics thing.