The Madison-based artist discusses his first new solo album in six years, “Rat’s Spit.” (Photo by Ebru Yildiz.)
Julian Lynch went at least two years without playing a Julian Lynch live set as such. Most of his recent shows in Wisconsin have been improvisational collaborations with musicians including Alisa Rodriguez (of the Milwaukee projects Apollo Vermouth and Sundial Mottos), Andrew Fitzpatrick (Noxroy, Bon Iver, Cap Alan), Spencer Bible (Tippy), and Emili Earhart (Cave Curse, Woodman/Earhart). He’s also been touring as the newest member of Real Estate, a band of fellow New Jersey natives, after guitarist Matt Mondanile was fired over allegations of sexual misconduct. (Full disclosure: Emili Earhart is a Tone Madison contributor, as is Joel Shanahan, who played in Lynch’s band several years ago. Spencer Bible is a co-founder of Communication, Tone Madison‘s main partner organization.) Lynch finally got back to solo performance with a December 27, 2018 show in New York City, while visiting family in his native New Jersey. That was his first show to heavily feature songs from his forthcoming fifth album, Rat’s Spit, though he did start playing the title track live in 2015.
Rat’s Spit, due out on January 19, marks 10 years of solo releases from the Madison-based multi-instrumentalist. Lynch’s 2009 debut, Orange You Glad, came out as he settled into life as a graduate student in ethnomusicology at UW-Madison and attracted a fair bit of national hype that he never fully embraced. (Remember terms like “buzz” and “chillwave,” and the explosion of upstart music blogs?) The music press is still paying attention and Lynch has enjoyed opportunities like opening shows for post-punk pioneers Wire, but for the most part he’s hunkered down into his PhD work and kept on making records that take place in a rich interior universe. Albums like 2011’s Terra and 2013’s Lines, suspend the listener between a boisterous clatter—of homey percussion, bright clean-toned guitars, twinkling synths, sax, and clarinet—and a gentle melancholy. Lynch’s vocals have tended to play an elusive role, showing up in slurred mid-ranges and keening falsettos, but there’s almost always a hook to make this alien mix of sounds accessible—the whirring synth phrases of Orange You Glad‘s “Rancher,” the gracefully twisting acoustic guitar intro of “Just Enough” from 2010’s Mare.
As he begins 2019, Lynch is getting ready to finish his PhD, thinking about staying in Madison for the long haul, and tentatively planning more solo shows (including at least one Madison show that he says he’s still firming up for this spring). Things are also evolving in the personal universe he creates with his solo music. Rat’s Spit feels very much of a piece with his previous four albums, but his singing becomes much more clear and prominent from the opening track, “Catapulting,” and his crooning on “Rat’s Spit” is the most effective vocal performance he’s captured on a record yet, wringing compassion and atmosphere from seemingly abstract lines about charts and maps. Lynch has also stopped being coy about the fact that he’s quite a good electric guitarist, letting fly with solos on that deepen the ache of “Hexagonal Field” and create tension within the exuberant jangle of “Meridian.” Tracks like “Strawberry Cookies” still have a lot in common with the days of Orange You Glad and Mare, but Lynch’s production has grown even more nuanced, and his melodies build up even more patiently into even more solid statements.
Ahead of the album’s release, Lynch sat down for a long conversation about the emotional ambiguity of his music, his changing attitudes about live performance, and the experiences that informed the songs on Rat’s Spit.
Tone Madison: Why have you spent so much time on improvised live sets lately? I was wondering if you’d gotten tired of playing your own songs live for a while, or wanted to reconfigure.
Julian Lynch: I like doing those kinds of things, especially around here…shows around here, it’s mostly friends coming out, and so they’ve seen me play songs before and do solo sets before, so I feel like it’s a burden to put on them. It’s less fun for me, and it’s more interesting to do something that’s unique for that one performance only. Although I’m sure there’s a lot of people who are bored by that shit too. I mean, who don’t like improvised music or whatever.
I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do shows on this record, because I’ve got other stuff going on right now, but I’ve got a sequencer, and that sort of inspired me to work out a new live set, a new way of approaching a live set that’s more interesting for me, and can enable me to play songs. It’s kind of hard in Madison to have a backing band on hand, because every musician I’ve ever worked with in Madison has left town. So that’s kind of a challenge….Most of my friends that play music around here have day jobs, so it’s not like the kind of thing where I could get a band together that’s ready to drop their jobs and tour with me and make hardly any money.
Tone Madison: It seems like one consequence of that is that your solo material gets to morph a lot from one performance to the next, when you are focusing on performing it.
Julian Lynch: I like some element of mutability from one set to the next. It maybe has to do with the fact that, honestly, up until the last couple of years, I was never a big touring musician. I don’t think I’ve had. up until recently, the experiences that other musicians have had in terms of nailing down what my live aesthetic is or whatever. I feel like anyone who’s seen me play shows is also seeing me work that shit out in real time, figuring out what it is I want to be doing live. I think it’s probably good for me that I’ve been playing in [Real Estate] the last couple years. It’s exposed me more to what I think is interesting in a live set… I think it has been pretty eye-opening for me and challenged a lot of the assumptions I’ve had about live music.
Tone Madison: How so?
Julian Lynch: I think that I have idiosyncratic tastes, musically, and I’m more of a person who can get into listening to music at home on headphones than at a concert, even though I like going to small shows. It’s been many years since I’ve really been a person that goes to concerts in spaces that are the kind that Real Estate plays in.
Tone Madison: Like larger clubs and theaters.
Julian Lynch: Yeah. exactly. So I hadn’t developed a sense of what is engaging for audiences in shows like that anyways. I think that when you’re playing shows to five people or whatever, experimental shows, people are more forgiving, I guess, in terms of the stupid shit I’m doing onstage—spending 20 minutes on my guitar in an improvisation or something like that, as an example. So it’s probably good for me to balance my own aesthetic tendencies to want to do something like that, that maybe is not connecting with most of the people of the room, with some measure of figuring out what more people would connect with.
Also, not that I’m a confident performer, but I have slightly more confidence now than I did two and a half, three years ago. It’s a thing where I’m on the side of the stage, I’m not the focus of attention, I can observe the audience more. If I play solo, I’m freaked out, burying my head down or something, losing track of whether I’ve lost [the audience’s] interest at some point anyways. I feel like I’m better at observing crowd response when I’m playing in a band, so that’s probably healthy for me, as a performer, to have that experience.
Tone Madison: And I could see how that would feed into improvised performance, where you want to be receptive to the people you’re playing with, but ideally also have a sense of how the audience is feeling.
Julian Lynch: I feel like, not to try to say that my set has improved that much, but I’ve kind of reached a point where it’s more comfortable for me, the kind of set that I’m doing now than I’ve done in the past. I hope. I don’t know. Maybe people will disagree when they see me in March, but I think it’s gotten better.
Tone Madison: Lately you’ve been building and modifying your own guitars, and sometimes using MIDI pickups that allow the guitar to act as a controller for external synthesizers. What made you want to do that?
Julian Lynch: I think I probably first learned about MIDI pickups from a friend of mine named Ian Drennan. I don’t think he owns a MIDI pickup, but we were having a discussion about gear years ago and he mentioned it. I didn’t realize that that was something Adrian Belew was using on records that I was really into, and all the weird sounds he’s getting from a guitar were because he was using his guitar to control synths. I realized the MIDI pickup was more affordable and easy to install than I assumed, so I got one. By that point, I already had a few synths that had MIDI capabilities, so it was a real eye-opening moment for me. I’m not much of a keyboard player, and I can do things on a guitar that I wouldn’t be able to on a keyboard, so it was pretty interesting for me.
Tone Madison: It does feel like electric guitar is really prominent on Rat’s Spit, to an extent that it’s not on most of your other solo records. How has your approach to that changed over time?
Julian Lynch: I think with my first four records, I used guitar in very deliberate ways to make it sound like I wasn’t using any guitar at all, or used it as sort of a texture sitting underneath everything, or just in careful ways downplaying the fact that there were guitar elements in the music—probably out of self-consciousness, not wanting to be, like, indie-rock genre pigeonholing of my records. Because I didn’t want, and still don’t want, people to think of my music as coming from that perspective. Hopefully, I think, there’s other stuff going on in my music besides that.
On the new one, I embraced playing guitar a lot more. I think it can be used in such a way that I’m expanding the kinds of sounds people might expect from a guitar while also not trying to disguise it or deliberately make my guitar playing sound like it’s coming from some other sound source. I first started playing guitar in high school and loved it and couldn’t put it down for years, and then hit a point in college where I was like, “All that stuff is so uncool” and stopped playing guitar. My first semester of college [at George Washington University in D.C.] I was studying jazz guitar, and I dropped that and started studying anthropology, so I think I had a personal experience tied to guitar that made it, for one reason or another, personally upsetting to utilize it in certain ways, or made me feel self-conscious about it.
It’s been over a decade since that era of my life began, I guess. I feel like there’s a balance I can find pretty easily, now that I’m older, between wanting to play guitar differently than rock-bro guitar playing without abandoning all the cool things that I’ve learned from really talented people. So I’ve kind of re-embraced it. And playing in Real Estate has meant that I’m playing guitar every day and so I’ve been thinking about it more. I’ve been trying to focus more on, “OK, who are guitar players I really respect and are able to do things in ways that are unconventional while also showcasing some ability?”
Tone Madison: You mentioned Adrian Belew. He and Robert Fripp are obvious reference points here. But what about contemporaries of yours that you admire as guitarists?
Julian Lynch: Were you at that show—I want to say it was in 2017 sometime, at The Frequency—with Palberta and Palm? That show blew my mind. I was really into both of those bands and I really liked the guitar playing and guitar sounds in both of those bands. I met the people in Palm recently. They were playing this festival in Michigan that Real Estate was playing, so I went up to them and said, “I really liked that show at The Frequency, and you guys use MIDI pickups also!” During that show, I couldn’t see the stage that well, but I could hear a guitar being struck and triggering weird sounds, and I was like, “that’s definitely a MIDI pickup.” They were really nice. I don’t think the guys in Real Estate see me fanboy out to too many acts that we play on bills with, but that was one moment where I was like, “I really like your music!”
Tone Madison: To go back a ways, when did you start making solo music, and when did you realize you could do that?
Julian Lynch: I played in a band early in high school that was the first band I played in and we wanted to record. We didn’t have the resources or equipment to do that on our own, and didn’t know that was a thing you could do on your own. We found the cheapest studio in the area and it yielded results that I found unsatisfactory for whatever my creative vision was at the time. That band broke up—because it was a young, teenage band—and then I was in another band with two of the guys that are in Real Estate now, and by that point, when we wanted to record I knew that we didn’t want to pay for a studio again.
Tone Madison: And this was still before everyone had easy access to good recording software.
Julian Lynch: But it was the days when you could still buy a cassette Portastudio [a brand of multitrack recorder] at Guitar Center, and you could buy a cheap interface. Those were available already. With that band that I played in, called Enormous Radio, with Alex Bleeker and Martin Courtney, I guess I produced the records that we made, just with a combination of cassette Portastudio and a freeware version of Cubase software. I had more fun with that process than recording in a studio anyways. And so, the rest of high school I was recording solo stuff, and all through college.
Tone Madison: When you hear music from Orange You Glad and music you made around that time, how do you feel about it?
Julian Lynch: I think that period of time, which is when I first moved to Wisconsin and did a CD-R series leading up to Orange You Glad…I think before that, any time I would record a piece of music, I would not want to listen to it ever again after finishing it and would sort of cringe to myself when listening to it. That’s I guess where I could say that the juvenalia period ends. I can actually still find some appreciation in listening to those records that I made then. I still like them. I don’t listen to them that often, but I’ll listen back and feel surprised about something I did—I’ll be like, “that was a really good idea I had.”
Tone Madison: What’s an example of that?
Julian Lynch: I was thinking about the song “Yawning,” from Lines. There’s a polyrhythmic sax thing I did in that song, and this thing at the end with a synth solo. When I was in high school, my friend gave me this amp called a Maxi Mouse that was sort of broken, and made these screeching sounds. So I ran a synth through that amp and did a solo from it. Just those two elements in that song, I was like, “That’s really cool. I like the sound of that. I forgot that I did that.” Just little things like that, I’ll go back and listen to them and say, “I’m glad I recorded that.”
I basically finished recording Rat’s Spit a while ago, so I’ve had some distance and time from it. The last time I listened to it, there’s this one song called “Strawberry Cookies.” It has a synth patch on it that was on a synth that I sold a while back and I was like, “Oh, shit. I wish I hadn’t sold that. It sounds really good.”
Tone Madison: The context around what you do has changed so much in 10 years. The way that people interact with music and talk about it seems really different.
Julian Lynch: I feel like the reason people started paying attention to my music was because of blogs and stuff like that. And MySpace! That makes it seem like my music is from a different era, but it was only 10 years ago.
Tone Madison: There was this totally different cycle of hype around things then. Whenever I hear the term “chillwave,” it takes me back to how people were throwing that around as a serious genre term. There was also this Guardian piece in 2010 where a writer held you up as an example of music that wasn’t political enough. I don’t bring it up to go, “oh, look at this bad review of your work,” but it just highlights how differently people talked about these things at the time.
Julian Lynch: I still feel like he had a very narrow-minded view of what it can mean to be political through musical performance or performance generally. But also, it was a really different moment politically in 2010. People generally weren’t talking about politics in the same register. Not to give any credence to that bad article, but there are political conversations that happen now that I feel like should have happened in music communities in 2010.
Tone Madison: To turn back a little closer to the present, what kinds of experiences and feelings informed the songs on Rat’s Spit?
Julian Lynch: I think it’s fine with me that there’s potential for multiple meanings, but obviously I think lyrically, when I was going back and revising and recording vocals, that was in the later stages of the record, when it was election-campaign time here in the U.S., and then following the 2016 election. So, a lot of the same horrified reactions that our peers had at the time, sort of compacted by the personal experience of being out of the country for a lot of that, for a six-month trip to India [for my PhD research]. The night of the election, my nighttime, I went to bed and was like, “I’ll wake up in a few hours and Hillary Clinton will be president. Everything will…not go back to normal, but hopefully things will be less horrifying.”
Then I woke up not only finding out that Trump had won the election but also finding out that Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, had just demonitized the most popular banknotes in India. As a foreigner without an Indian bank account, all of my transactions were reliant on those banknotes. I paid my rent in cash and I paid for everything in cash, so all the money that I had was just fucking garbage in my hands. So it was a nightmare day where I couldn’t find anyone to change my money and I found out about the election. My experience of that day was literally just anger-walking for 10 or 15 miles until I was dripping with sweat, going from bank to bank, trying to change my notes. I think a lot of those experiences went into the record—feeling the surreal horror of post-November 2016, while also processing that and kind of being alone with those feelings in some ways. The people that I was spending time with for my research didn’t really relate to why this was a problem for me. Obviously you can talk on the phone with someone in the U.S., but it was a weird time.
Tone Madison: Especially on the last two tracks, “Hexagonal Field” and “Reallu,” this album can feel a bit more downtrodden than some of your previous work.
Julian Lynch: Musically speaking, taking the lyrics out of the equation, there are more moments in my music that are ambiguous in the mood they’re meant to convey. I use a lot of modes and stuff like that and not a lot of modulation in songs. It’s not like the classic major-chord-happy and minor-chord-sad stuff, I guess. I kind of like an ambiguous feeling, of being caught between those things. But I think there is more of that sort of vibe on those two songs you mention, yeah.
Tone Madison: And it kind of adds to the ambiguity that your vocals tend to be a little buried or processed.
Julian Lynch: I hope not, though. On this record…I mixed them way higher than on the last four records. And although there’s not a lyrics sheet with the U.S. release, there’s a label putting it out in Japan and I’m really psyched about it, because there’s going to be a lyrics sheet, and they’re going to translate it into Japanese.
Tone Madison: I don’t know that any of your records have come with lyrics before?
Julian Lynch: No, none of them have before.
Tone Madison: I knew some of what you were saying on the song “Rat’s Spit,” because the vocals are pretty clear on that track and you’ve played it live several times. They’re about charts and graphs and stuff, and there’s a lot of different things a person could get from that.
Julian Lynch: That’s an older song. I think that one might be the most straightforward [lyrically]. I was writing about being a grad-student loser, studying in one way or another the vastness of the world around you while having not much of a life for long periods of time in your own right.
Tone Madison: Would you say that making your solo music is the center for you, creatively? You’ve had your hand in a lot of different things, but this seems like the thing you always periodically return to.
Julian Lynch: I’d be hesitant to say it’s the center of my efforts or attention. I work really hard with Real Estate, in terms of my roles and responsibilities within that band, but ultimately the product that we’re making is stuff that I’m proud of but not stuff that’s marketed to me. I’m not making it to appeal to my own sensibilities…and of course, that band has a history from before I was in the band and I want to be respectful of that. My solo music is pretty low-stakes. I don’t have people working for me that depend on it for income. I don’t have a manager or booking agent or anyone playing in a band with me, and I don’t make that much money off of it myself. Luckily I have other stuff going on in my life to pay my rent. So that’s how I approach that stuff, is selfishly, I guess. I make music that is gratifying to me on a personal level.