A Chat with Chestnut (03.02.21)

Formed just over five years ago, husband/wife duo Chestnut began sharing their unique ambient tunes with the masses. Incorporating elements of alternative rock with hollow lo-fi sounds, the US-based group are innovative and eclectic. We speak with Christina Santa Cruz and Daniel Watkins about their album Mockingbird, recording during a pandemic and much more.

OSR: What can you tell us about the album Mockingbird?

Watkins: Well, mockingbirds are super cool. They listen to their environment and they aggregate all of the sounds around them in their calls. They also copy other mockingbirds so environmental sounds get passed down on a generational basis. Because of that their calls also represent sounds that no longer exist in their specific area. There are stories about flocks of mockingbirds mimicking a car alarm years after that car left the neighbourhood – that transference is fascinating to me. The idea that sound can originate from a physical, inorganic source – like a car, or a piano, or a computer – move through the air and imprint itself on to physical, organic matter and from that imprint, the whole sonic identity of a flock is born. It’s sort of like how we listen to music and build identities around different signifiers.  

Santa Cruz: A mockingbird tricked me once. I spent almost an entire nature walk thinking I was hearing a varied range of different bird sounds. I was awed to find out that this masterpiece came from a single feathered creature travelling in a circle from tree branch to tree branch singing in its own “one-bird” show. I could have missed all of its individual personalities coming to life if I had been dazed by the walk and not paying attention to the complexities of nature herself. This album captures two sides of the same coin. You can enjoy it at a glance and then re-listen to it for a deeper experience. Each song is layered and, as Dan said, “aged by generations of transference.” A perfect ending to the human race. I serve the mockingbird now.    

OSR: How did Chestnut come about?

Santa Cruz: Chestnut soon became the headliner of our film screenings and video installations. Dan and I would produce an evening to celebrate our moving image work either at a cinematheque or at an art gallery, topping off the night with a noise improv session. Dan on the guitar and I on the bass. Mainly we would go wild for about an hour or so just to revel in the success of a job well done. These performances took the place of a typical director/artist Q & A because, you know, we are weirdos. To our surprise, our audience stuck around. No one was put off by the sounds we were conjuring. In fact, people came up to us afterwards asking to purchase a Chestnut album, of which we had none. Next showcase we, of course, did not make that same mistake. Once the word got out about our performance, “Bird is the Word” style, we knew we had something special. Albums turned into shows and shows turned into virtual gigs. We could not get enough of it. We kept riding that wave because, you know, we are smart weirdos.

Watkins: At the time we were beginning I had this dumb idea that I had to unify all of my disparate practices into a single theory. My sculptural practice had me dismantling a lot of obsolete tech, VCRs and stuff, so I figured I should start taking apart my guitar during our Chestnut performances. Soon we both started doing it. So, Chestnut basically started as the “performance” of dismantling a guitar on stage.  

OSR: What challenges did you face recording Mockingbird during a pandemic?

Watkins: All of the challenges we faced concerned our internal quality control, so nothing too interesting. I was always very concerned with whether or not we were doing too much “rock ‘n’ roll posturing” – that was a buzz phrase in our recording process. Thankfully, we own the means to our production so we didn’t have to venture outside our home to make the record. I was very proud of our last record so I didn’t feel like we needed to rush to make another one and gave ourselves time with Mockingbird.

Santa Cruz: I sing on this album. Before Mockingbird I had no idea of who I was as a singer. On our last album Dark Tourism, I did a spoken-word piece reading my poem ‘Erik and Lyle’. I really liked how it turned out, so I gained the confidence to push myself to the next level. My personality is not to be complacent. Complacency, for me, leads to boredom. Fortunately, Dan and I have the ability to produce our music at home. When the stay-at-home order went into effect for Los Angeles County we hunkered down and started working on the record.

OSR: What was your creative process like?

Watkins: You know, I don’t really knowI guess it kinda falls into two categories. There is ideation and then there is execution. Ideation I feel happens like it does with everyone – ideas come when you aren’t trying to force them. If I’m looking for an idea I’ll do something physical like working out or hiking. Good ideas often come when I’m cooking.

Execution is much more pragmatic. I make “to do” lists for myself so I know what I’m going to be working on each day. Things like “fix guitar sound for Song A” or “Song B needs an intro.” Rarely am I spending any studio time trying to figure out what to do. We do however like to jam and sometimes good things can come from that.  

Santa Cruz: I lead my creativity with emotion instead of techniques. Some things can get lost if I focus too much on a particular sound. I’d rather give it a reason to exist. As hokey as it sounds, pun intended, I want to provide my notes with a narrative. For instance, this low drone composition is of a building collapsing while a few blocks away a mother is cooking dinner for her baby. 

OSR: Do you have a musical family background?

Santa Cruz: None. I do, however, have an older brother who is a brilliant illustrator. Back in the day, Carlos would listen to music while sketching. He inevitably passed down to me his album collection and grunge wear. Yes, I wore his JNCO jeans and flannel shirts to elementary school. I was a proud 8-year-old slacker.

Watkins: None that really had too much of an impact on the music we currently make. I have an uncle who is a pretty good country music singer-songwriter; that type of music was certainly in the air where I grew up in Florida. I do feel that there are people who are emotionally moved by music and people who are not. Both my parents were certainly in the former category so songs were always around.

OSR: A lot of these songs feel more like small worlds rather than traditional compositions. What are you hoping to give the listener with these tracks?

Watkins: We do use a lot of found sounds. Things from out in the world as well as sounds pulled from old TV commercials, horror movies, etc. All of it is meant to suggest an ideal listening environment. We are trying our best to put the listener into the physical space where we imagine this song existing.

It’s interesting because outside of live albums the songs on most albums exist nowhere. They don’t suggest anything physical, they live out in space. When the instruments aren’t playing we hear nothing. We wanted to do the opposite of that. We wanted to create the song, but also the room that the song exists in as a way of fleshing out the compositions beyond the frame of the music – and in doing so challenge what exactly the song is. Is it just the instrument playing and the singer singing or is it also the TV on in the background and the rain outside? We contend that it is all of those things.  

Santa Cruz: For the listener, we are hoping these tracks will ignite strong visuals. Best to be listened to in the dark while laying on the floor with headphones on. If the floor is too cold, a couch will do just fine.

OSR: What do you see as experimental music’s role in this day and age?

Santa Cruz: I see it as an X-file waiting to be investigated. If you’re looking for it, it will reveal itself to you. In 2019, Sunn O))), Chernobyl and Joker had a common denominator – Hildur Guðnadóttir. What a force.

Watkins: Well, on the one hand, I feel what better way is there to reflect our current situation than dissonance and noise. On the other, it’s tough because a lot of experimental music is challenging bordering on unlistenable. I’m not by any means saying that we are the exception. I feel we are in a moment now where what most people want from the media they consume is either pure escape or gritty representations of modern life and I feel that if any art form is to continue it will, to some extent, have to give people what they want. I’m not saying that we should all be making concessions to carry public favour, but I do believe that experimental music could do away with some of its humourlessness. I feel that goes for conceptual art as a whole.

OSR: Do you have any advice for artists looking to explore more challenging music?

Santa Cruz: I recommend carving out time in your week for exploration ranging from listening to new music, reading an essay or freehand drawing. Find a simple routine that is personal to you that can help keep alive that childhood learning instinct.

OSR: Where do you want to be this time next year?

Watkins: Selfishly, I’d love to be playing live again.

Santa Cruz: I second that.

OSR: How do you feel your other art practices feed back into the music?

Watkins: They all come from the same place I guess. My ideas for songs and ideas for other projects usually all come from images that I fixate on in my mind’s eye, but what I like about music compared to something like film is the immediacy. You can sit down in a studio and complete a song in a day that is a finished thing that you can send out into the world. In film, you are spending at least a year/year and a half on a thing that ultimately brings you the same level of personal gratification. Ultimately, I love them both differently. 

Santa Cruz: Tactile is a word that comes to mind. I have a deeper relationship with my artwork if I can touch it. When making films I would develop my own 16mm. When expanding my curio cabinet I would create taxidermy centre-pieces myself. There is an innate beauty of handmaking that I cannot detach from my practice. How can I learn better without opening Pandora’s Box? Perhaps Pandora’s Box is too drastic? When I find a better example I will let you know.

OSR: Do you have any future plans?

Santa Cruz: This April my horror short Taylor and Vanessa will be having its Texas Premiere at South Texas Underground Film Festival. It features a score by yours truly – Chestnut. What can I say? I could not have asked for a better partnership. When our album releases on February 12th I want to celebrate with a beach-dance inspired by The Del-Aires’s ‘Zombie Shop’. Just me and Dan with the sand under our feel. Hopefully, no sea monsters appear in the distance.

Watkins: I don’t have too much faith in the future, but I’m going to get a burrito later today and I’m pretty excited about that.

Thanks to Dan Watkins and Christina Santa Cruz for chatting with us! You can find more about Chestnut on their Facebook, Instagram, Bandcamp and Spotify.

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