He’s the one that got away. Not that Julian Lynch wouldn’t have flourished, had he stayed on the East Coast, where plenty of his friends from his native northern New Jersey — members of Real Estate, Ducktails, Big Troubles and Titus Andronicus, and Underwater Peoples Records — have gone on to indie rock notoriety in recent years. But Lynch came to realize a while back that the grind of life as a full-time 21st Century rock musician was probably not for him. And so, Hive reached him by phone recently, in his adopted hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.
At nearly a 1,000-mile remove from the artistic sharp elbows of Brooklyn, Lynch is able to have the best of both worlds: while preparing his dissertation for a PhD in anthropology and ethnomusicology at the University of Wisconsin (he went on a research trip to India last year), he’s teaching as well, currently TA-ing a course called “Indians of North America”. But all the while, Lynch continues to make records — enchanting and capitivating forays into experimental pop and folk, at times minimal and spare, at others more lush — on which instrumentation rules, and the voice is but one more arrow in the quiver. Lines is his latest, a record on which acoustic guitar is more prominent than ever, and for which Lynch finally learned to play sax, along with his first love and go-to instrument, the clarinet.
While the doctoral candidate and his girlfriend (she’s a law student) have fallen for Madison, life there has not been without its challenges. Take for instance, the insect Carios kelleyi — to you and me, the bat tick. A skin-crawling story about that creature is on the way, as is an unlikely anecdote: It seems our ethnomusicologist once ran with a pint-sized band of thieves. Life of crime averted!
Julian, I know that your last couple of records came out right at the end of your school years, and you’ve said that was kind of a difficult time. This time it’s a bit earlier, so I guess that’s better?
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s any better releasing in March, cause at least with the other ones — I know right when Terra (2011) came out I was able tour pretty much right away, for a month, which is the longest I’ve toured in years. This one, I think that any touring will be delayed by several months, unfortunately. But that’s how it goes.
This time it’s been a longer wait between records than usual.
Mm hmm, yeah, two years. After Terra came out and I spent the better part of that summer touring, I kind of made a conscious decision to sort of de-prioritize what I was doing with music and focus on other stuff. I needed to get my thesis done, finish my course work, and then start to look toward dissertation research and the stuff I am doing now. So ultimately I took my time with this one, although to be honest most of it was done about a year ago anyway, by last May or April. And I kind of sat on it for a while, which is a new strategy for me. I am kind of happy that I did that. Cause then I came back and recorded one more track and sort of added a few things here and there. And I think I’m gonna make that a permanent part of my process. To give myself a little more time to reflect on what I have recorded.
Teaching is a relatively recent thing for you, right?
Yeah, I just started, in January. This semester.
How’s that going?
It’s going really great. All of the fears that I came in with have all been alleviated, and it’s just been a really great experience. I’m happy with all the students in my classes and stuff like that, and I came in thinking, “Maybe some people won’t care about the subject at all, and I’ll have to spend all this time trying to argue why this is significant and stuff.” And I was afraid that I might come off as arrogant if that was the case, but everyone is very engaged and they have made it very easy for me to teach them.
How much time is left in your own program, for the PhD? Or is that hard to say?
It is kind of hard to say, but I’m taking my prelims this semester, my preliminary exams. And basically those certify me to start doing my actual dissertation research, which in truth I have been working on for quite a while. But once you pass those exams, if you pass them, you get five years to finish your dissertation, and to send it. And if you don’t do that then you have to take your exams again, which I totally have no intention of doing, I don’t want to have to take them twice. So I hope that I can say with some confidence that five years from now at the most I should have my stuff finished.
You travelled to India last year. That was your first time there?
Yeah it was. Before, the stuff I was doing for school and stuff was more like diaspora stuff through Indians in New Jersey and New York and stuff like that, and my research interest shifted to India, geographically. So I went over there for the first time, and they were great. As soon as I can find funding I am gonna go back to the places that I went to, and hopefully meet up with the same people.
I think some people may hear some of the songs on this album Lines, for instance “Carios kelleyi II” and think, “This is the most eastern-sounding we have heard him”, and try and connect that to your interest in South Asia. Is there anything to that? That is a sitar on that track, isn’t it?
No it isn’t! My friend did actually also say that about “Carios kelleyi II”, and my initial reaction was like, “Oh my God, what a nightmare that someone thinks that.” [Laughs.] No there is no sitar on any of that, I don’t own a sitar, I don’t play it. And I have with this record become more concerned that I am not giving the impression that I am trying to do something that is coming from some Orientalist perspective, or something like that. I mean, I see now stylistically why he would have felt that way. When I record acoustic guitar especially — really having nothing to do with timbral elements — but I usually tune down my acoustic guitar pretty low. And like on that song, “Carios kelleyi II” for example, there are drones in it. Not that that makes it some sort of necessarily tied to some sort of Indian classical music or something like that. But I can understand that perception.
Your titles are often pretty inscrutable, and that one — there is a “Carios kellyi I” and “II” on the record — that’s an insect?
Yeah, it has nothing to do with the music, it has to do with a living situation that me and my girlfriend had encountered our last year in Madison before we moved into our new place, where our old place was infested with bat ticks. A rare infestation.
Yeah, they’re like deer ticks, but they live on bats. And our apartment got infested with them and I guess the reason for that was improper treatment of a bat infestation. So the bats left the building and left all their critters behind. So we had to deal with that for an entire year. It was a terrible situation.
Jesus. Do they go after humans as well?
They don’t, and that’s the crazy thing. When we first saw these things all over our walls, we were like “Oh my God, we’re gonna get Lyme disease, these things are gonna get us every day.” And we have a cat too, so we were concerned about him. But we gave him like flea and tick stuff, so he’s fine. Obviously now we’re not living in that building anymore but at the time it became a weird part of our lives. Like people would come over, and we’d have to say like, “Hey our apartment is clean, you don’t have to be afraid, but there are strange creatures on the walls. Don’t worry too much about that.”
Once again, vocals are not super-prominent on this album. Which is interesting because on Terra I think they were a little more upfront, and the songs felt a bit more like “songs”.
I think Terra, I agree, was in its entirety moving more in a song-oriented direction. And this one, Lines, retreats from that slightly. The idea of “a song” is kind of becoming less and less important to me. I’m kind of getting more and more attracted to the idea of trying to work with someone that is a filmmaker, and doing some sort of more long-term musical project that would be entirely instrumental. I might give totally instrumental music a shot.
And you’ve got saxophone on the record. That’s a first?
Yeah, even though most people think that there’s a lot of saxophone on all my records. But usually it’s clarinet [Lynch’s first instrument, as a kid] or bass clarinet. So this is the first LP that I have made that actually has saxophone on it, on the song “Yawning”, and maybe on another one.
Had you not played sax before?
No, I actually I owned a sax at one point that a friend had given me. But then I ended up passing it on to someone else, because I never really got the hang of it. It was kind of a hard transition from clarinet to sax. But I got a new one in the past couple of years and sort of devoted a little more time to trying to make a transition.
“Horse Chestnut” is a favorite of mine. It has this chamber quality, but also strikes me as kind of cinematic.
I think that’s the only one that hardly has any guitar on it, which is unique for that record, unique for most of my records. And it’s one of the few like a lot of the other ones on this new record that I had written parts out, well in advance of recording them. In terms of the lyrics, it’s about, when I was a kid, our elementary school was across the street from this church. I can’t remember whether Matt Mondanile [Ducktails] was part of this or not, but I knew these two other kids in my town, and sometimes we would go along with them, they would break into this church and do like low-level mischief. The kind of things that kids do, like little boy, mischievous things to do. And I was talking to them one day in the parking lot of the school, they were like, “We want to be professional thieves when we grow up!” And I remember thinking, “That’s kind of weird. That’s a strange thing to say.” And I remember my six- or seven-year old self having like this moral dilemma of like, “Is this the track I am on right now? Am I gonna be a thief for the rest of my life?” And so, it was just the strangeness of a child asking himself that question.
And you think Matt might have been part of this crew?
Maybe. I met him when I was like seven.
Do you keep in touch with the Real Estate guys—Matt, Martin, Alex?
I see them when I am back on the East Coast, and try to keep up with them and what’s going on in their lives.
It’s such a fickle world, obviously, music in general. And in the indie world, what’s got a buzz this week may not at the end of the month. Are you quite happy to be apart from a lot of that?
Yeah, I admire those friends of mine that are able to tour however many days out of the year they end up touring, it’s a lot. Matt Mondanile is a good example of that, cause now Ducktails is touring a whole bunch, and Real Estate tours a lot. He is out of his apartment most of the year. I just couldn’t do that. I need more stability.
Julian Lynch’s Lines is out today on Underwater Peoples. Stream it at NPR.