Pelt’s newest album explores drones decades in the making

Band member Patrick Best discusses the new record and the long-running avant-folk outfit’s history.

Band member Patrick Best discusses the new record and the long-running avant-folk outfit’s history.

Image: On the left, members of Pelt performing. On the right, the cover of Pelt’s new album, “Reticence / Resistance.” Photo of Pelt by Matt Peyton.

Having explored countless improvisatory angles over the last 30 years—noisy post-rock, loose Appalachian folk, Indian classical music—Pelt has carved out its own space in the American drone canon. Nearly a decade since Pelt put out its acoustic drone masterpiece Effigy, the band makes an exciting return with Reticence / Resistance. Released on Three Lobed Recordings, Reticence / Resistance includes two side-long tracks recorded live in 2017 at Cafe Oto in London. Both tracks—”Diglossia” and a suite titled “Sundogs -> Chiming -> The Door In The Hill”—highlight the range of Pelt’s expansive, colorful improvisatory methods. 

The commanding introduction of “Diglossia” immerses the listener in a warm, acoustic conversation between piano, harmonium, fiddle, and banjo. Mike Gangloff’s fiddle sings above Nathan Bowles’ rapidly bowed banjo, accentuating the color of his instrument at one moment, and weaving into the timbre of Bowles’ banjo at the next. Patrick Best’s percussive piano striking creates a swirling, spherical pool of sound that flows within the heaving pulse of Mikel Dimmick’s sustained harmonium.

Bells and a patient gong in “Sundogs -> Chiming -> The Door In The Hill” slowly pry the sound into a minimally rhythmic foundation on which Gangloff’s fiddle drones. Gangloff begins to move around his chosen pitch, traveling higher and lower into a loose fiddle melody. Low, bowed stabs bounce off the underlying drone, inviting Bowles’ banjo picking in the spirit of an Old-time duet. As the two find their footing, Best’s low tone clusters on the piano march the group into a delirium.

Pelt forge the finale of “The Door In The Hill” in drums and more accentuated piano stabs among the pleading strings, painting the last three minutes of Resistance / Reticence as a ritualistic procession. 

As the four members of Pelt all live in different states—Dimmick in Texas, Bowles in North Carolina, and Gangloff in Virginia (the birthplace of Pelt)—we talked to current Mt. Horeb resident Patrick Best, who frequently plays in Madison with Spiral Joy Band, as a solo artist, and in collaboration with various other musicians. Best shared Pelt’s origin stories, how he, Gangloff, and the late guitarist Jack Rose joined the original incarnation of Pelt, which “had been kind of a post-rock band before [the trio] came on board and started breaking it down and tearing it apart.” 

When asked what moved Pelt out of post-rock and into folk and drone in the mid-1990s, Best shared that there was no agenda to evolve Pelt in a certain direction. Digging for records, listening, and exploring sounds together as a trio helped the band organically. 

“Jack and Mike lived together for a little bit in [Richmond], Virginia and I lived across the street. After work we’d hang out and listen to records, we’d buy lots of records,” Best says. “At the time we were buying jazz records, noise records, we got into Terry Riley, so all as a group got into a wild range of music. We were kind of feeding each other. At night we’d be hanging at Mike’s house and we’d be listening to Terry Riley, to Old-time [American folk music], to the Grateful Dead, to the Dead C. Or, someone would bring in the newest record they got and if we liked it we would listen to it over and over again. So there was no intent for a direction [for Pelt]. We were listening to free jazz, field recordings, as much as we could find.”

Best continues: “In the first couple years, we discovered [New York drone masters] Marian Zazeela, La Monte Young, Terry Riley… as you keep reading about them we find that they had connections to the Velvet Underground, and we all loved the Velvet Underground.”

Gangloff, Rose, and Best dissected the records they loved, listening both for how improvisers treated melody as well as lack of melody. “When I listen to [jazz trumpeter Don Cherry’s] Brown Rice, its acoustic bass, wah-wah, piano, tambora. It’s such a great, cool combination. We thought, how can we do something that’s unique, how can we reconfigure this with the instruments we have?” 

Exploring instrumentation moved Pelt along in their journey, Best says: “We kind of went through deconstructed rock, for the first couple years we were still using effects and amps. We played some shows where things were overly-pedalized where we lost the sound of the instruments from all the pedals. We wanted more of a pure tone to things, a cleaner sound. So we got into this reductive process and then we started bowing our instruments, putting metal into them, like prepared guitar.” 

Best later adds, “The drone thing became more important as we got more reductive in our instrumentation.”

“At one point we got this giant tube organ, it was like a church two tier thing and we took it all apart and put it in a giant box,” he says. “I would play that with a loop pedal, and that was it… all this natural distortion and gain through all the tubes. The loops became this idea of grabbing snippets of noise to add texture. And then we transitioned to the idea where (those repeated figures is) a drone, essentially. And so how do we make it cleaner…”

Listening to records and manipulating instruments to achieve a specific, desired effect was just one way of playing with instrumentation for Pelt. Attributing agency and integrity to a certain instrument and seeing how it worked in the group was an important dimension for the band. 

“We always talk about how, sometimes with these older acoustic instruments, they have kind of a thing that sounds great, that has the most resonance,” Best says. “A certain scale, a certain tuning. And that’s where the piano has been a great flexible instrument for some of these other acoustic instruments that we’ve been messing around with. It has a lot of flexibility to [adapt] these different tonal structures happening out of the Hardanger and some of these other [acoustic] instruments.”

The piano features a visual, linear set of tonal steps within which one can easily build a scale starting on any particular key. Therefore, the piano serves as a constant to one of the many old, acoustic, often unpredictable instruments that may sound best at one particular pitch or series of pitches. Gangloff’s Hardanger fiddle was just one of many unique, old instruments that would serve as an agent in Pelt’s improvisations. 

“We got more and more reductive and started saying we want to explore different instruments,” Best recalls. “We got an Esraj, I got a Sarod at one point, we’ve got tamboras. We’ve played with tabla players and kept exploring and trying different things. We met Nathan [Bowles], who played flute. We got the harmoniums that allowed us to have a drone going but play other melodic things or shift intervals while you have a specific note. By the third or fourth record we were starting to explore drone as a real centerpiece of the improvisations. It still took us like three years to get there.” 

As romantic as it is to find an old, beautiful, one-of-a-kind instrument and incorporate it into a band, it’s a tactic that doesn’t always pay off. Best admits: “We’ve in the past brought an instrument to the table and thought ‘Hey, I got this great idea for this instrument, let’s try it,’ and then it doesn’t go anywhere. We’ve borrowed instruments thinking this would be a great sound and then it’s not.” 

Finding dollar bin records—usually on the Nonesuch label—featuring folk and classical music from all over the world had a hand in Pelt’s ongoing musical discovery and exploration. Those records revealed certain patterns, improvisational structures, and modes. Indian classical music, in particular, became a major influence in Pelt’s music. 

Best references the Alap—the improvised prelude section of a Raga—as the main improvisatory space that Pelt explores, “Alap is like you’re talking about the scale before you get to the scale,” Best says. That conversational, exploratory mode of improvisation led Pelt to really hone in on their communication over 30 years of playing together. Best adds, “Head nods, winks, shoulder shakes… we have a way of playing with each other that’s conversational.”

Best shares that Indian classical music, noise, and jazz make up a “trifecta” for Pelt: “In the middle of that is probably American folk music or Appalachian,” he adds. Much of American Old-time folk music has its own drone elements as well. 

Best explains, “If you listen to Appalachian fiddle music, there is a lot of bowing where there’s an open string. So you’re hearing a melody on the string but a lot of the time they’ll be hitting the open string as they’re playing. A lot of times, Old-time music focuses on a repeating pattern, which creates a droning quality to it where it’s like you’re getting repeated frequencies over and over. Maybe in certain spaces that creates upper harmonics that are just kind of ringing continuously. Those kinds of repeating patterns also bring people in, the hypnotic element.” 

That hypnotic quality of droney folk music and of Indian classical music—as well as often in free jazz and noise—makes the raw, live listening element that much more important. Pelt has historically recorded its records live, with certain exceptions. 

“Well, our first record [1995’s Brown Cyclopaedia] was studio, a multi-track studio [recording],” Best says. “There was this batch of songs that Mike Gangloff wanted to record. We went to a studio that recorded tons of bands in Richmond and spent three days there just blazing through all these songs and improvising around these set pieces essentially. That was the last studio album we did.” 

Best touches on some other recording processes: “We rented a yoga studio for Effigy [2012] and recorded there for a couple days,” Best says. “And we recorded [part of the album] in the Gates of Heaven [Synagogue, in James Madison Park] too. Ayahuasca [2001] was recorded in multiple different places, all live recordings from all over. Some home recordings, too, from a multi-track recorder.” 

“All our stuff has been kind of lo-fi, or in the lo-fi world,” Best says. “We always tried to improve our recordings with digital, multi-track units and stuff, but there’s always been a live lo-fi element. We don’t go for the pristine studio environment. It just generally doesn’t work for us.”

Reticence / Resistance, recorded live in front of an audience over two nights, makes no exception. 

“The cool thing is NTS ended up doing a multitrack live recording of it [which became “Diglossia” on side A],” Best says. “Then the next night, we had some lower quality recordings of stuff [Side B, “Sundogs -> Chiming -> The Door In The Hill”]. You can hear some fidelity differences in the first and second side.” 

Those fidelity differences give the record a certain charm that comes with a well-recorded and well-executed live performance. 

“It does still have a room feel to it which is really nice, plus it took us a long time to mix it because we were playing the room as opposed to [the recording], so our levels were going up and down,” Best says. “So it took a while to mix it. From the room sound, we had a little stereo mic too, so we recorded the room sound. We tried to match the lo-fi room sound recording in the mix. So it was kind of an interesting process, trying to get it to feel as live as possible. It was kind of quirky.”

Between the release of Effigy in 2012 and recording Reticence / Resistance live in 2017, Pelt “hadn’t been in the same room with each other for years and then all met at the airport,” Best says. “Getting the vibe back together was [our] soundcheck. We worked it out so we could get an extra long soundcheck. We soundchecked for two hours. A lot of times we talk on the phone or text or there’s an email thread about what we’re listening to, what ideas we’re thinking about, different tunings or scales we’re playing with, instruments we’ve been messing around with. There’s always conversation before we get together. We’ve played together for a long time. I think the sounds would be different if we played together all the time. I think it would have a different vibe.” 

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