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Histo’s jigsaw approach uncovers beauty via communal expansion

Histo’s Donald Curtis discusses an eye-opening 2022.
Histo's Donald Curtis' face is shown in the center of the image. The image is split into three panels. The side panels show Curtis' arms as they are painted on by children. The middle panel shows Curtis' face, which is also heavily painted. "Histo" is written across his neck. Underneath him, in all panels, the transgender flag is visible.
A still from Histo’s “Regression Never Ends” music video.

Histo’s Donald Curtis discusses an eye-opening 2022.

When Histo’s third album, JGDC,was released in September, Donald Curtis’ thoughts were scattered, turned to several dozen facets of his band’s latest album and beyond. Curtis’ experience seems to mirror that of many musicians within Madison: celebrated by those who have previously unearthed his past work and largely unknown outside of a small circle of friends and collaborators. JGDC, the first album that’s exclusively split between Curtis and multi-instrumentalist Joseph Galloro, could very well help break the band’s name into the local consciousness.

Asleep In The Firehole, Histo’s 2020 album, was a solid indicator that Curtis had been rounding the project into shape since the release of 2012’s The Demos. Over the COVID pandemic, that refinement took on a new bent as Curtis and Galloro—a resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa—emailed Logic files back-and-forth, each adding and subtracting bits at a time, carefully cultivating a thoughtful sound that more acutely matched the band’s musical intentions. The duo’s efforts paid off with the strongest release in Histo’s discography.

Each track on JGDC has a “wow” moment buried somewhere within—the piercing outro solo of “Another Half Lives,” a beautifully restrained bridge in “Modern Soldiers,” the skyscraper chorus of “Regression Never Ends.” Once again, Histo has latched onto a seemingly effortless marriage of psych-pop and post-punk, alternating bare-bones, riff-heavy interplay with hazy, dream-like explosions. Occasionally, as is the case on “Dark Cold Summer,” the duo finds a way to blend the two modes into one mesmeric product, all but daring listeners to find a definitive genre categorization. Slyly subversive and deceptively compelling, JGDC bears the unmistakable mark of a band that’s determined to deliver.

JGDC certainly comes across as a labor of love but it’s not the only release that Curtis has been working on this year. Vacant Church, one of the more promising bands to emerge from Madison this year, released their debut album, Stabilizer, in October. Curtis is the band’s primary guitarist. Meditating on the most concrete link between the two acts, Curtis says, “The theme with both of these is that with JGDC that was definitely reconnecting with Joe and it was more about our collaboration while everyone else was isolated. [Having] music be a community or social thing. The same thing with Vacant Church.”

That act of participating in, and occasionally driving, a sense of shared community has become integral to Curtis’ musical work. “I do like recording but I always come back to that I like to play these songs live. And music as a social thing, really, why I put an album out is to create something but also for people to go ‘Oh I like what this is doing and I’m not doing anything tonight, let’s go check out this band or go hang out here with this person,'” Curtis says.  

Curtis continues:I’d like to play [JGDC] out. I don’t know, it’s just meeting people and finding the right time and finding time to put together something but I’d really like an easy band that’s like ‘Okay, let’s go play these songs live’ and maybe practice once a month or something. Meet other bands. Everybody’s got a lot going on, not just around me, but in general. The world has a lot going on. For me, playing out, there’s this element of meeting other bands and listening to what they’re doing. Being in [Vacant Church], a band that plays out, has motivated me to get out more.” 

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Since Histo’s recorded debut 10 years ago, Curtis has been quietly carving out an artistic niche and gradually expanding its perimeters. Tone Madison caught up with Curtis in October for a discussion about Histo, music videos, approach, Vacant Church, communal resonance, and the odd behind-the-scenes machinations that occur to ensure an artist’s music is not just publicly accessible but publicly apparent.

Tone Madison: Can you give us a brief run-through of how JGDC came together?

Donald Curtis: [Previously] I did Asleep In The Firehole and that album was all me. I realized when I got done with that that music, for me, is not a very solo thing. I’m not a solo musician in that sense. It was fun to do and learn about the process. It ended up that I was exhausted and I don’t think I did a very good job with it. I think it could’ve been mixed better and I think the songs could’ve been better. When I got down with that album, Joe Galloro—who is the JG [of JGDC]—he played bass on the original Histo album, the self-titled.

I reached out to him and said “Hey, I’m gonna make more songs. Will you just listen to them and tell me if it sucks or if I should do something different?” And he said yeah. So I just started sending him stuff. I don’t remember which song, or if it was just some ideas, and I was like, “Oh, how about this?” He added some stuff and sent it back. I don’t think we had planned that originally. And he was sending me awesome stuff, so I was just like, “Okay. Let’s do this.” We started recording, and from the beginning I had said, “Let’s just record a bunch of stuff and I’ll send it off and have somebody mix it.” We started doing that.

Sometimes I’d have a more fleshed-out song and he’d put a little extra guitar against synth. And he did all the bass. Because, at least for Histo, that’s historically what he’s done. I mean, he’s a great guitar player too. We did that and then it got to [a point] where he’d send me a mix and I’d be like, “Oh, this sounds great!” He’d never mixed anything before and was like, “I don’t really know what I’m doing,” but it sounds great. He has really good ears for mixing. And I don’t. I admittedly don’t. I can hear notes and chords but when it comes to sound-sculpting and recording, I don’t think I [do] a very good job. 

Anyway, his stuff was awesome. So we just kept using it and he ended up mixing the album. We had Justin Perkins at Mystery Room master it, and it was great. It took us a year. It was back-and-forth: take a Logic file, upload it, coordinate which plugins we were gonna buy for the .wavs, the cheap plugins, we both had ’em. That was the process. 

Tone Madison: You did a handful of videos for Asleep In The Firehole but what prompted the idea to try a track-by-track video rollout for JGDC?

Donald Curtis: [Laughing] Personal pressure? I didn’t finish the album. I’m kind of sad, I had some ideas. I didn’t quite finish the album [rollout], a video for every song. I guess there’s still time, right? After the last album, I wanted to try something that motivated me to be more… I hate the term social, but something that would force me to be more active in posting about it and have a reason to post. I feel like if you release an album—especially me, with the old album—I don’t want people to be annoyed with me posting for months on end about the album. Maybe I should. Maybe the algorithm would be more friendly towards me. I just get tired of it. 

This way it was: we’re going to release a song every two weeks. Then it got [to a point] where I’d built up some videos and had some ideas and just kind of did it. Joe did a few songs and cut together some awesome footage. So it ended up that we had a bunch of videos. The main thing was the idea of releasing one song every two weeks. Mainly the idea was to keep it in people’s minds and give them something new rather than just [blows raspberry] “Here’s all the stuff. Digest it all.”

I think it’s about digesting. Nowadays we ingest little bits here and thee. We digest a TikTok video. We digest a post. A song seems more like a bite-size thing to wrap your head around than a full album. But, it’s kind of cool to be like, “I’m just gonna listen to this song,” and now I know the album’s coming and maybe it’s fresh in my mind. Just trying something different. 

Tone Madison: It’s fitting that you brought up Justin Perkins earlier, because I had a long talk with him last year about the modern release trend pointing to a post-albums climate. He’d mentioned that his clients were far more likely, on average, to send in an individual song than a full release. There’s a lot of basic reasoning and cultural context that supports that as a contemporary model, but did you have any thoughts on that as an emergent sea change for releasing music on the whole?

Donald Curtis: It depends on how you end up distributing your music. One thing I learned from this is that I ended up doing this slow release, but I did it through Bandcamp and not through streaming services. I learned that a lot of people didn’t listen to it until it was on streaming. There’s this whole deep thing about distributors and costs. I’ve typically used EmuBands which is an outside-the-US distributor. Then there’s DistroKid

DistroKid actually has a mechanism [where] if you want to release just a song but then you want it to appear in an album, you have to do it a certain way. You can do this thing where you release the single and then next you would release a double-album and remove the single, and as long as you use that same [International Standard Recording Code], it links the plays. But then that becomes this whole thing where every song you release, it’s gotta be three songs. Then four songs. It works with DistroKid because they’re yearly and don’t charge a per-song fee. You could maybe do it but it just seems like a lot of work. Versus Bandcamp where you put up the album and say, “Oh, I wanna release this one song. And now I wanna release this one.” It’s easy. 

A lot of people, friends and stuff, I didn’t really get a lot of feedback [from them] until [JGDC] was on streaming. They were like “Oh, I listened to your album!” because it was convenient and [they could] get to it easily. I get it. I think that’s the lesson to be learned. If you had a lot of money or the right distribution mechanic, you could probably [release individual singles and stack them into an album]. 

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Tone Madison: How far in advance do you usually have a concept for visual treatments?

Donald Curtis: It’s all over the place. The first song I did, I had it about a month ahead of time. That was “All The Things You Are.” And that day was just terrible. I mean, it was fun, but it was me, by myself, taking clothes off, putting [other clothes on], making sure I’m in the right spot, and then it’s cut in half. Then, throughout the song, things disappear. Then I’d have to remember, “What did I remove here?” And I had to work through the album and it was a lot of work. But it was a day. It was a full day. As far as concepts, some of them were just spur-of-the-moment or a little brainstorming with someone. So not much prep. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to overthink things too much because there’s just not enough time.

There’s a video where the kids were drawing on me and we had one take and I went, ‘I don’t wanna sit through this again.” It turned out great, I love that one, but it was definitely a one-take [situation]. 

I have ideas [for the two JGDC tracks that don’t presently have a video]. It’s hard, other projects, other music stuff, it’s like… I guess I’m kind of ready to move on, you know? I have ideas and it comes up, but also with the weather getting cold, it’s not as fun to go outside. Maybe I’ll do a winter one or something [laughing].

Tone Madison: Speaking of other musical projects, you just released another full-length as a member of Vacant Church. Can you tell us how that came together and whether or not playing with Vacant Church has impacted how you’re approaching Histo?

Donald Curtis:
Yeah. Vacant Church is a band. The origin is Mike Madden, singer/songwriter, over the pandemic—I don’t know who put out what—but it was a Craigslist “Hey, I’m making this thing, does anyone wanna collaborate?” Glenn Fung got involved. Later on they were looking for a drummer/guitarist, so I got involved that way. Tim Gruber joined to play drums. That project was mostly going, then Mike and I added some stuff. The thing for that band that I really like—and I like Mike and Glenn a lot, we have similar interests—I’ve learned a lot about bands. The theme with both of these is that with JGDC that was definitely reconnecting with Joe and it was more about our collaboration while everyone else was isolated. 

[Having] music be a community or social thing. The same thing with Vacant Church. I’ve really enjoyed being in this band and I’ve learned that I really enjoy playing guitar and experimenting. I love playing drums too. Sometimes lyrics are more, for me, just a matter of having a song. In some ways it completes a song. I know there are instrumentals, but so much of pop music is accessible because of lyrics. I don’t know if [Vacant Church] has influenced [Histo] but I think it’s helped me as a person understand what I really like about music, and it’s that social aspect. I’d rather be in a band that doesn’t fit some mold but is with people I really enjoy making music with versus “I wanna go out and be the best whatever-genre band” and it’s all about the music and it’s all about being perfect. That’s just not fun to me. It’s taught me something about myself. 

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