Excellent Adventure

by Jud Cost
issued on The Bob #51 Fall 1995

photo of Kendra Smith by Phillip Uberman

Firecrackers and M-80's are exploding everywhere tonight, their smoke blown up the crooked streets of Chinatown by a nasty wind that keeps the tourists, underdressed for the occasion, huddled together. Even though Mark Twain's famous quote, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco", has more than a germ of truth in it, this isn't summer, and it's not the Fourth of July. It's the night before Chinese New Year, and the celebration ushering in the Year of the Rat has attracted busloads of visitors for tomorrow's parade.
I'm here to speak to one of them, in fact. Kendra Smith has agreed to do a handful of interviews to talk about her mesmerizing new 4AD album, Five Ways Of Disappearing, while she's in town for her annual spiritual rejuvenation. Smith is the former bass player for the Dream Syndicate; and Opal's vocalist before Hope Sandoval replaced her, and David Roback changed the name to Mazzy Star. Smith bailed out of both bands for many reasons and, fed up with the L.A. grind, migrated to the northernmost reaches of California, where she found peace without electricity and replaced her musical passion with one for organic farming. Until recently.
If Smith hadn't changed upon an army surplus acoustic organ and begun dabbling in music again, the story might have ended there. Intrigued by the wheezy sound of the contraption, however, she began writing songs again. Two former ambient/trance musical pals from L.A., Jonah Corey and Phillip Uberman, helped her write and record her comeback (she'd snicker at that) album, The Guild Of Temporal Adventurers, a couple of years ago. Since 4AD has agreed to pretty much let her do what she wants, Smith is back, but she's doing it her way this time. The label understands she won't tour to support the album, so for Smith it's a couple of as yet unscheduled live shows, and then she's back on the farm.
From the balcony of her hotel room, she looks frail enough that a strong gust might blow her over the railing. It's soon apparent, however, that, rock fashion aside, this is no waif in the wind. On a whim, I've brought along photocopies of 1979 pictures of her first band, Suspects. A chirpy new wave outfit from Davis, California, it boasted Smith's Debbie Harryish vocals, the guitar of Steve Wynn - later to form Dream Syndicate with Smith - as well as guitarist Russ Tolman, soon to start up True West with the band's drummer, Gavin Blair. For all that talent, the only recorded evidence, a forgettable single, can best be described as "pretty average".

Here's one band your bio sheet omitted, Kendra - Suspects.

I didn't much like being a girl singer - too weird. I showed this picture (a boyish Steve Wynn wearing Adidas) to my friends who are in love with him, to show them that, "See, Steve actually used to be a geek". The band wasn't very memorable musically. The best thing that happened in Suspects was that I picked up Steve Suchil's bass after the band broke up. Bass was the way to go.

Did you already have plans to play with someone else?

I thought after Suspects I'd never play music again with Steve Wynn. Then we got together on a lark and did a German version of All Tomorrow's Parties. I saw that he was going in a different direction that I could live with, so we got back together.

Why did you bail out on Opal in 1987, and for that matter, the Dream Syndicate before that?

I don't really believe in bands as institutions, but that's what they end up becoming. Doing music that way devitalizes it. I'm a fanatic about music, but I don't want to be a touring machine. I left Opal for the same reason I left the Dream Syndicate. And, for me, the Dream Syndicate was the ultimate band to be in. When I left I had experienced what I needed to experience. Even though I really enjoyed every minute of it, I'd had enough. I wanted to start writing, and it was really Steve's songwriting trip. It was originally based on all four members, but I could see it going more into a singer/songwriter thing. Steve and Karl (Precoda) were starting to slug it out, and I didn't want to slug it out with Steve, so I left.

What about Opal? Your departure was pretty abrupt, as I recall.

David and I were just going in different directions. It wasn't free enough. It was a little bit uptight for me. It got to the point where I wanted out at all costs on that East Coast tour. I told David to call Hope and have her come out. I thought she'd be good for them.

Any perspective on those L.A. bands loosely labeled as The Paisley Underground from ten years down the road?

(Chuckling) We were pretty much lumped together after the fact. What we all had in common was that none of us was really hip to the punk rock scene. The Dream Syndicate liked playing really long songs as opposed to short and fast - lots of jams and feedback. When it comes to psychedelic music, I think my version of it is different from other people's versions. It can be certain jazz, like Pharoah Sanders, or the Jou Jouka musicians of Morocco. It's just something that rips my brain open in one way or another.

What got you back into music again with The Guild Of Temporal Adventurers album after being "retired" for so long?

I was living up near Eureka (close to the California/Oregon border) in a place without electricity, so I had stashed my instruments. But I found this acoustic organ in a junkstore in Eureka that had only been open three days. It's a chaplain's field service organ from World War II that opens up and has foot pedals. I'd known Phillip Uberman and Jonah Corey for a long time, doing ambient music and found-art music in L.A. I met them again when I was in Opal, and I was inspired by their approach to music, using it for magical purposes. Plus Jonah Corey's just a great pop songwriter.

Who are these people at Fiasco Records who put out the Temporal Adventurers album?

It's this woman named Sunshine in L.A. She found me at the moment I was starting to think about doing something again. She'd written me a letter, saying she wanted to put it out on ten-inch vinyl only. I told her that sounded great. I really love vinyl. So she won the lottery. She was the one who got me, through her persistence and her energy. And she wasn't too "L.A." of a person. She was willing to let us just do our thing. We said we'd go down there, and if we liked her we'd do it. And we cut the whole thing in two weeks. We already had a couple of Corey's songs, and we wrote a couple together, and I wrote one in a trailer. The idea was to keep it really simple, just to get out of the way and let the music make itself. They may seem at one look like love songs, but they're strictly devotional music.

Where did you grow up, Kendra?

My dad was in the military. We lived in Germany until 1974. We went straight from there to Southern California, and I really hated it. I went to UC Davis just to get out of there. My brothers and I were always Rolling Stones fans back when kids would split into Stones versus Beatles factions. Then I saw the Stones in the '70s and was totally disappointed. As a kid there weren't many female vocal role models until Nico and Patti Smith. And I always liked Al Green and West Coast Jazz.

Was your move to the outback, way up in Northern California, partially prompted by your dislike of L.A.?

There were about four years, before I finally left, where I was already screaming. You can really feel it in the air down there. You're bombarded with so much. All my music comes from silence - in through my head and then out again.

The second album seems to spring directly from the first one. How would you describe your songs?

I'm really interested in mental frontiers. Being not too much in tune with what's going on today, I'm not really sure what people will think of it. I count on the good stuff from today floating to the surface and somebody turning me on to it. But I'm not really interested in writing about my daily difficulties. I don't think anyone wants to hear about it, and I don't want to hear about anyone else's.

You're singing now in what sounds like your natural register, unlike that high-end sound from your Suspects days.

I sang in the church choir when I was a kid. I hated singing about someone else's unrequited love in a high register. I found out eventually that you have to find your own thing.

I love that wheezy organ sound that permeates your work.

I just hear a lot of that sound in my head. Get There was a melody that came into my head while I was observing eagles. With that particular organ I'll sit down and start making sounds, and I'll just create a song right on the spot. I've actually joined the Reed Organ Society, and their magazine had an article by (jazz kayboardist) Keith Jarrett saying that particular instrument was the best there is for improvisation. There's just something about it. It almost floats under your hands. I can sit down and write song after song.

The Syd Barrett influences are pretty obvious in your work, but I also hear some Smile-era Brian Wilson.

(Elated) Yeah, wow, you noticed. I love Brian Wilson. He kind of invented that intense multi-tracking, but he was always on top of the technology and never let it swamp him down. The techno never mastered him. It's that art-versus-science thing. I went through a binge of listening to the Smile stuff, the collaboration with Van Dyke Parks. I've played with ideas like bringing in a producer like that, but so far I've resisted. I don't know if I could bring someone else in without having a major battle. I'm into collaboration, but it would have to be someone simpatico.

What about the more exotic elements in your music? Where do they come from?

I'm very interested in music coming from tribal cultures, where it has a social function or a magical function - like Middle Eastern coffee grinding music, or the Jou Jouka music to raise the spirits, which is what I think music is really for. We have a musical overlap of influences from China, Siberia, and the Middle East. And we've used Tibetan instruments, like temple bells and a horn made from a legbone. This friend sent me a tape of Gregorian chants eight years ago, and that's where Bohemian Zebulon came from. I'm also interested in time travel that you can do in your mind. The Temporal Adventurers concept comes from a Michael Moorcock book.

You and I share one stress reducer for a hobby - gardening.

It feels so good working in the dirt. I spent the first few years up there working on a big organic farm. I don't have refrigeration, so I grow as much as I can eat. I'm a vegetarian, so it's right from the garden to my dish. Just the activity of gardening is the best medicine. I think it should be mandatory. I sort of shy away from the "nature" word and the music oriented towards it. Ecology sometimes bugs me, and that save-the-world eco/folk music. But nature can show you things beyond words.

Any chances of seeing you live in the near future?

(Laughing) Well, since you live west of the Rockies you'll have a better chance than people back east. I'll just play it by ear. I did a show last October (at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica) for that 4AD showcase. That was the first time I'd played live in front of people in seven years, and I really enjoyed it. But I still have to deal with whether the music's going to be powerful and fresh for me. And I feel a large responsibility to my homestead. I can't really leave it without a big disruption. I don't feel I really need to travel. I think a lot of it's just distraction. And I'm really against airplanes. Maybe I should go everywhere in my own private railroad car, like Jackie Gleason did. But I've got a lot of animals, and I'd always feel I had to get back to my burros.

photo of the Dream Syndicate

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