Interview with DM Stith

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DM Stith (Photo credit: Steven Johnson)

Just returning from the hectic South by Southwest festival, David M. Stith is a tired but amiable person. He’s courteous, well-spoken, intelligent, polite and entirely way too modest. You can sense how genuine he is when discussing everything from the sounds he has created, to the newest additions to his record collection, to his latest musical favorites, but you have to remember, Stith is very simply, an immense talent. And hot off the success of his debut masterpiece, Heavy Ghost (which is one of our favorite new albums!) Stith took time out of his very busy schedule to chat with DOA’s Bryan Sanchez.

Delusions Of Adequacy: So you just got back from SXSW, how was it?

David Stith: It was a festival which is not really my thing. To be honest, it was a tough atmosphere and one that I had difficulty adjusting to.

DOA: Are you used to smaller venues?

DS: I’m not really into shows and I’m especially not a fan of festivals; it’s a hard situation. The venues are too packed, no one’s in the mood for paying attention to music and the atmosphere is much more of a ‘party atmosphere,’ which isn’t really my thing.

DOA: Why did you do it?

DS: Well, I knew it was an obligation and I was hoping I would’ve enjoyed it more than I actually did. And it didn’t work out that way. I was grateful for the opportunity but that aforementioned atmosphere kind of hindered it for me. I loved the actual city, even though I didn’t get to see much of it.

DOA: Let’s talk about Heavy Ghost, which is an amazing piece of music. This album possesses a very dark and yet intimate sound, what exactly were you going for?

DS: I wasn’t going for anything in particular; my writing process is very free. I never start writing music with an idea in my head. I basically sit down, every day, at the computer and start playing stuff or I rehearse what I did before and improvise new music on top of that. Being a writer and designer, you have to just start and go from there and basically, see where it takes you. I care a whole lot about the record but I knew I couldn’t just start with an idea and I was hoping I could do better than what I imagined and the only way I could was to be very open to what could happen. So I would start, embellish, create and go from there.

DOA: So what instruments do you play?

DS: I play almost all of them, except for the brass and strings. When I started I didn’t know what I wanted. It was originally composed on guitar and from there, I write the different parts for alternate instrumentation.

DOA: Are you happy with the way it turned out?

DS: Totally, I love it, it means a whole lot to me. I gave myself a deadline to have everything ready by the time I had to start mixing the album. And a few songs, most notably, “Braid of Voices” and “Fire of Birds,” weren’t even finished when it was time to mix! They were very unfinished songs: “Fire of Birds” didn’t even have an ending, and “Braid of Voices” needed the vocal parts and yet, they turned out so good. Then I spent a few months listening to it and it felt like something I had discovered and not created. It was a new thing and I was really excited about it and heard it non-stop for three months. Now, I don’t listen to it that much anymore.

DOA: Why not?

DS: Well, like I mentioned, it felt like something new. And like with all new music, you go through cycles but I am still really proud of it. And I feel it is its own thing. Sort of how parents must feel with their children. In a sense, like the album, you can only do so much with it to shape it and affect it and whatever happens after that, happens. So there is a definite sense of pride in what I made.

DOA: This is your music, judging your style is not fair, how would you describe your sound?

DS: That’s the worst question.

DOA: Whoa, sorry!

DS: (Laughing) Not that you asked it but that it’s just, generally, a tough question. I don’t know. (Sigh) I’ve been reading a lot of reviews and everybody uses the word ‘weird.’ And I HATE that word because it is such a cop-out. It’s not weird music, it’s not weird. I am trying to make something entirely original. All I am trying to do is to be honest, honest to what my body sounds like and the music it wants to make. I listen to so many styles that I don’t care for genres. I never go through genre phases and I usually just focus on one creative mind and get obsessed. (Laughing again) I am so long-winded!

DM Stith (Photo credit: Steven Johnson)

DM Stith (Photo credit: Steven Johnson)

DOA: Don’t even worry about it, go on.

DS: Some influences I was focusing on were Nina Simone and Randy Newman. Both play piano and although Newman bases his music more on the songcrafting part of it, Nina uses vocalization and creates these caricatures through voice. They mean a lot to me. Also, Appalachian Spring by Copland. Put them in a pot and mix them together and maybe that’s Heavy Ghost.

DOA: It’s a deep and substantial listen, one that would benefit from headphones, is that what you were going for?

DS: I listen to everything on headphones. And like I mentioned, I am not a live setting guy. I’m much more into the intimate style of sitting at home, in your room and listening to an album on your headphones. I’ve never been in a band, and have always been an appreciator of music through headphones. For creative music purposes I think that will always be how I understand music.

DOA: I heard some of the sounds on the album were created in the most unusual way, what’s that about?

DS: Well a lot of it was done through a prepared piano where you stick different items inside of it to generate that individual sound, such as on “Braid of Voices.” Sufjan Stevens plays a floor fan and he was plucking it with a quarter and there are some staplers and scissors in there as well. But that is mostly because I settle for what is within arm’s reach. If I need a beat and there isn’t a drum nearby, I wont go looking for one. Instead, I’ll just pat it on my lap or clap my hands.

DOA: So if you had to choose one full-time, graphic design or music, what would you do?

DS: I’d probably choose music although I couldn’t do it all the time. But I could do graphic design all of the time, it’s less intense. I have a really strong emotional connection with the music and much more ego goes along with it. I love music and have a much more physical response to it than physical art.

DOA: Now, honestly, which one do you think you’re better at?

DS: I feel like a hack. I feel like I’m just playing. I am getting much more attention on the music, which has been great. To see actual, printed praise, what do I do with that? It’s really been great, I don’t know. I think I am better at music, where there is more room for crazy and more room for messy.

DOA: Did you design the corresponding artwork before, during or after the making of the album?

DS: After. When I was making the music, I tried to stay away from an aesthetic. I was trying to make something beautiful and not typical but not classically beautiful. I have a really strong visual connection to music. A great example is Kid A, which I love, and I just love those shots and those colors and lamentations. I didn’t think about visuals at all until after I finished it, three months later. I started to write the album to help understand what I made. And while writing, I was realizing this entity language like I was treating the process as another being. The blobs are an attempt to give flesh or body to the characters in each song. There are twelve pieces of art in the booklet, all figurative. All of them look like beings. And they are also like cloud formations.

dm-vinylDOA: Judging by the pictures you took with the vinyl copy, you seem to enjoy records, got any cool LPs?

DS: I don’t have a lot and I don’t necessarily collect. I’ve only had a working record player for a year. But if you go to the Salvation Army, you can buy tons of LPs. I have a lot of TIME life collections from the 50s to 60s. I do have some really beautiful Bach records that I enjoy a lot.

DOA: You’ve had your album streaming for free for a while now. And you have tons of tracks available on your site. What’s your honest opinion on file-sharing?

DS: Well, I think that is it up to the artist to know their audience and for some audiences it’s a bad idea. I am new so I don’t really know my audience yet. I don’t even know if I have one yet. I know that what I made is dense. I knew that it would be safe thing to stream it because it is a good way for people to hear it and I assume that if they want to hear it again, eventually they will buy it. I have, on occasion, downloaded something because I wanted to hear the music. I download it and then if I like it that much, I go out and buy it. I think its fine. I don’t have a problem with it. There is a line, if I consider burning something for someone that I haven’t actually bought, I do think twice about it. I wasn’t expecting to sell any of these records. I knew I wasn’t making a top record, so any sales were a good surprise. I definitely prefer if people buy it and I think about all of the money I spent on it, all of the time I spent on it. But for some people, low quality is good enough.

DOA: You’ve been a part of the Asthmatic Kitty family for a while, what’s it like to be the shinning star now?

DS: I’m not their shining star. They’ve always been supportive, they’ve been great people. I moved to New York five years ago and I met Shara (of My Brightest Diamond) and through her I met the AK people and they seemed great. And I met others who were not great and made me think it was corrupt, dirty and shallow. They are still around but I have a new perspective. I wouldn’t be doing this, at all, if Sufjan, Shara, and others didn’t say that they wanted to put out my record. It’s been a lot of fun and they are some of my best friends.

DOA: You’ve made one of the best albums of 2009, are you enjoying your much deserved success?

DS: I am enjoying it but I’m still working hard. I am a grad student and I am also teaching. I am doing a lot of school work and trying to get ready for a tour in May. I am way too busy right now but I am enjoying it and I always like reading a good review. I am really close to my family and they’ve been the ones celebrating for me. I grew up really shy so it’s been a lot of “David is touring, he is making sounds,” and they tell me about other people they told.

DOA: What were some of your favorite albums of this year and last year?

DS: Let’s see. I love the new Fleet Foxes, it’s a beautiful record. Department of Eagles is great. I think the new Marnie Stern album is just great. Portishead was probably my favorite from last year. The new Antony is gorgeous; I am excited to know he is making good heavy, deep work. I’ve been listening to The Knife and I love the Fever Ray album. And also, Odawas’ new one is a good one too. And I love Animal Collective’s old stuff, I think they are amazing.

DOA: You need to make an album a year, when’s your next recording timeframe?

DS: I am starting to write songs now. I would love to do more with strings and to do more of a bigger sound and that would obviously take longer. I have an EP coming out in late spring, early summer. It has a few new things and some remixes and I wont disappear but I will get something out to let people know I am still around. The next major recording would be a year from now.