Chris Barth delivers another set of stellar naturalist folk as NormanOak on Ancient Friends, the new LP available January 16 on Bloomington's Sygil Records. Before the album's release, Barth and Sygil founder Adam Sommer got together to discuss some history of the project and the making of the record with me.
NormanOak will play with Magician Johnson, Lake Daggers, John Flannelly and Thee Open Sex Friday at Magnetic South.
NUVO: Let's talk about this new record. What's it called?
Chris Barth: The title of the record is Ancient Friends. That name came about from a mistake. I'd sent text messages to Adam with two different titles I kind of liked, neither or which were Ancient Friends, but hey had those words in there somewhere. I later talked to Doog [songwriter Eric Alexander, better known currently as Sir Deja Doog] who had heard the possible titles. He remembered a combination of the title ideas, as Ancient Friends. When I mentioned the record to him later, he said "Yeah, your new album, Ancient Friends" with such confidence I was convinced it should be the title.
Adam Sommer: We didn’t have a title before we got the test pressings for the LP. We were listening to the test pressings for the NormanOak LP and the Sir Deja Doog Love Coffin LP on the same night. That's when Doog heard the possible titles.
Barth: Yeah, this is actually the first album I've done where I didn't have a title before the album was finished.
Sommer: It came when the time was right.
NUVO: Let’s get a little history of your work as NormanOak
Barth: NormanOak came about when I was really fascinated with understanding how land was shaped by glaciers, and realizing Indiana was under the sea hundreds of millions of years ago. Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, is on the Mitchell Plain between the two forks of the White River, and to the East is the Norman Upland, where Oak is the dominate tree species. That’s where the name NormanOak comes from.
The project started with home recordings of material that wasn’t being used in my band at the time, The Impossible Shapes. Our label at the time, Secretly Canadian, was really into the mythology of the guy holed up in his bedroom recording on a 4-track cassette deck, so they put out the album Born a Black Diamond in 2004.
To me, that album is sort of like a prelude. I don’t think of it as the first album. The first NormanOak album, and my favorite other than maybe this new one, is the next record I did, A Double Gift of Tongues.
I remember recording some of that right here! [Editor's note: Interview is being conducted at Magnetic South, where Chris used to live) I recorded that here, and the one that came out after that, Estra.
NUVO: Didn’t that came with some Tarot type cards?
Barth: Yeah, there are cards of different characters. They’re weird comic book-like characters I was messing around with at that time.
NUVO: You’ve had a studious interest in old symbolic systems, and it seems like a lot of your songs reflect whatever symbolic system you are studying at the time.
Barth: I’ve done a lot experimenting with those systems through songs or poems. But there is no system I am using on this one. It’s a growing process. I’ve gotten beyond needing a system to hang things on.
NUVO: So where does the thematic content come from for this LP?
Barth: With Ancient Friends, it’s more about exploring outside of time towards ancient ways of looking at the world. I’m talking about pre-human worlds… worlds that were here before we were. A lot the writing for Ancient Friends was done before, during, and right after traveling in South America. The song “Navel of the World” was written in anticipation of traveling to Easter Island during the trip. At that time, I was thinking a lot about where we’ve come as a human species. What happening before us, and what might happen after we’re gone. Those are the kind of questions being thrown around.
NUVO: What was the creative process like for making the record?
Sommer: I engineered the record at Sygil Records Headquarters, my home. I have small studio in my second bedroom. This is the first release where I recorded directly to the computer more than using 4-track cassette. I still used the 4-track when recording drums, to get a more blown out sound. I can’t get over the sound of a 4-track. We recorded a lot of really loud electric guitars, too. Chris did all the vocals, guitars and bass tracks for 12 songs in two days. He was actually really sick during the session.
Barth: There’s a couple songs where I can definitely hear in my voice that I was sick, but it doesn’t bother me when I listen to it.
Sommer: I think it adds intensity to the sound for the whole record.
NUVO: So Adam, you worked out the arrangements during recording and mixing?
Sommer: Pretty much, I’d sit there and do my stuff, listen to it, and have other musicians come over. I played drums on some the songs, Tyler Damon plays drums on some of the songs. Aurora Dorey Alice does haunting, beautiful vocals.
NUVO: Ryan Baker (Agakus) plays guitar, too?
Sommer: Yes. Space Guitar.
NUVO: So this was in many ways a different type of collaboration than previous NormanOak albums?
Barth: Yeah, it’s more of a collaborative approach. I’ve known everyone involved for so long, and we’ve all been influenced by each other creatively. When I listen to the record it sounds like a band playing together even though everyone’s parts were recorded at different times.
Sommer: It helps that we all respect each other musically, so there was a certain confidence that it would turn out well.
Barth: I wasn’t even there for the overdubs or mixing. They just did it all and then I heard. I’ve never done an album like that before, but I really loved it.