Monday, February 21, 2011

Interview: Jonathan Pfeffer of Capillary Action

CAPILLARY ACTION is an avant-rock group lead by Jonathan Pfeffer. They will soon release a new album, entitled Capsized. In anticipation of this new offering by the band, Jonathan and I had an email interview. Here's how it went:

1) Assume we don't know much about Capillary Action (a fair assumption, I'd say, no?). Could you give us a brief introduction to the band (who you are, your sound and influences?

Capillary Action is a musical ensemble that has existed in various forms since about 2005. I (Jon) write all the music and lead the group, which features a revolving cast of tremendously talented musicians from all over the map. Right now we’ve settled into an all-acoustic quintet: myself on lead vocals and nylon-string guitar, Mike Harrist (Boston) on double bass, Julian Chin (Chicago) on accordion, John DeHaven (Madison) on trumpet, and Colin Hacklander (Minneapolis) on drums. I would describe the sound of the new album as dense, obsessive, emotionally mangled all-acoustic avant-pop. With a hint of lime. In the past we’ve definitely attracted more than our fair share of socially awkward young men with tucked-in black t-shirts that usually have some sort of HTML inside joke emblazoned on the front. We’re hoping to expand our market share with this upcoming release, hence this interview.

2) You're a first-generation born American. How strong a ties do you have to your parental roots? Has it influenced your music at all? Has music been prominent in your childhood; if so what kind?

I have strong ties to the Argentinean side of the family, most of which has since left and scattered about as a result of that country’s steady economic collapse of the last twenty years. If my status as a first generation American has influenced my work at all is that it’s made me more aware of the world at large and my place in it. How very Paul Simon of me. For the record, my Spanish sucks and I’m deeply ashamed. Music was somewhat prominent in my childhood—mom was into a mix of romantic, tango, folk, and Beatles— but I wouldn’t describe it as integral by any means.

CAPILLARY ACTION - Methheads & Mormons from Mitch Fillion ( on Vimeo.

3) Tell us a bit about your musical background; When did you first start having a fascination with music; where and what did you learn; and when did you decide it was a wise move to waste your time being a musician and having your own band? what are your influences and favourites in music? 

My earliest musical revelations were usually in the context of advertisements, video games, movies, or other non-musical media. The Butthole Surfers lent “Who Was In My Room Last Night?” to a 1993 Nintendo commercial and I remember being totally overwhelmed and exhilarated every time I would catch the ad. I heard the intro to Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” in conjunction with a Satanic sequence in Earthworm Jim, the video game, at 7 and was legitimately terrified. I think I was a pretty sensitive kid. I scared easily and would cry if rattled hard enough. I remember being haunted for years by this police sketch of a neighborhood rapist.

Two of the first records I remember owning were “Voodoo Lounge” by the Rolling Stones and the Batman Forever soundtrack. I really liked whatever they played on Q102, the local Philly mainstream pop station. At the time, it was Boyz-II-Men, Naughty by Nature, Coolio, Mariah Carey, Montel Jordan, Ini Kamoze, LL Cool J. I think I appreciated that music because it made me feel older and I played Varsity basketball, had a girlfriend and gelled hair.

I stumbled upon a Slayer video on “Beavis & Butthead” when I was about 8 and the aggression immediately resonated with me in a way Salt N’ Pepa simply couldn’t compete with. It completely obliterated me. I ended up with a copy of Green Day’s “Dookie,” which became my gateway to so-called “alternative rock.” I subscribed to Columbia House around the same and remember distinctly ordering the three records in the catalog with the coolest covers: Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magik,” Spacehog’s “Resident Alien,” and Silverchair’s “Frogstomp.”

I heard the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana during the pivotal summer of 1996 and slowly but surely my tastes began to mature. If I had been drinking Carlo Rossi and Box Wine before, maybe now I had graduated to a really cheap Chilean Cabernet. Not that I know anything about wine— I actually called my friend to find out what to write. I was also really, really psyched about hip-hop, particularly Nas, the Fugees, Busta Rhymes, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

I started playing guitar at the age of 11 after two ill-fated attempts at cello and saxophone. I took lessons on and off for about a year but preferred to just figure it all out on my own. I was actually writing songs before I even got a guitar. It was pretty clear immediately that playing guitar and writing songs were exactly what I should be doing with my life. I briefly flirted with classic rock but Zeppelin, Floyd, the Doors, and the like never got my goat for whatever reason. I was into rap-metal in middle school because the only alternative in my mind was the middling Matchbox 20/Third-Eye Blind/Guster matrix and only well-adjusted popular kids with burgeoning sex lives were into that sort of stuff.

I became curious about so-called “indie rock” around the beginning of high school but most of what I checked out left me pretty cold. It felt (and still feels) like those bands weren’t trying hard enough to impress me. Or that it’s music for a select group of people who were in on a joke that’s not funny to anyone outside of the elite circle.

A friend hipped me to a more melodic/accessible variety of extreme punk and metal and I grew to love bands like Converge, Cave In, Refused, and early Dillinger Escape Plan. I was also on a relatively heavy emo and proto-emo kick around this time—Sunny Day Real Estate, Piebald, Weezer, Get Up Kids, At the Drive-In, Braid. I discovered Joan of Arc and the Kinsella brothers’ work around this time. I think the lessons I learned from this period were that any music I made needed to connect with people on a heart-level. My first “indie rock” show was Owls, Denali, and Fin Fang Foom at the First Unitarian Church in 2002.

I started working in record stores around the age of 15 and the older guys hipped me to post-punk bands like Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, Television, Public Image Limited right before the revival of ought-two thrust anyone into the limelight who set a contrived yelp and an Andy Gill guitar lick to a disco beat. I was able to borrow stacks and stacks of records home from the store to check out but I would say my real education came from early P2P clients like Kazaa, Audiogalaxy, and Limewire. The manager of one store got me interested in jazz, particularly Monk and Coltrane. My introduction to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto around this time engendered a life-long fascination with Brazilian music.

I briefly became interested in the “math-rock” zeitgeist (Don Caballero, the Fucking Champs, Hella) because, as a pubescent boy whose voice hadn’t changed, it was a revelation that these bands could rock so hard without vocals. I was certain that it was my entry into music so I quickly abandoned my 4-chord emo stylings and started noodling around into the wee hours with pull-offs and two-handed tapping. I desperately tried to start a band with my one high school friend but that didn’t pan out, so I kept at the solo 4-track demos.

I went off to college when I was 16 and began checking out 20th century classical music, European improv, mostly so I could know who the hell everyone was talking about when they mentioned Stockhausen and Peter Brotzmann. I appreciated improv but it didn’t move me—I’m not an improviser by nature. I gravitated toward Varese, Ives, Bartok, Webern. I think I was excited by the brute force, the density, the emotional whirlwind of all those jams. I didn’t care so much for the quiefy, farty, more purely timbral stuff.

My freshman year of college, I revisited Shudder to Think’s “Pony Express Record,” a record I’d checked out in high school because the store I worked in had about 90 used copies, and this second time my mind was truly, completely, totally blown. It was the first time I’d heard a band combine everything I loved about music up until that point into dense, ugly, strangely erotic 4-minute pop-rock nuggets. Once I heard “Pony Express Record,” it became slightly clearer where I wanted to belong on the musical totem pole.

4) What was the reaction to So Embarrassing? Did it affect how you approached this album?

The reaction was tremendous! We played a free show at the South Street Seaport to celebrate the record’s release and nearly 10,000 people showed up. The cops had to surround the venue, fights were breaking out, women were throwing their undergarments on stage. I guess if I learned anything from the So Embarrassing rollercoaster ride was that we needed to get back to basics. I needed to remember why I was in this racket in the first place, aside from the fame, girls, cars, financial security, stock options, medical benefits, and unconditional adoration from my legions of fans.

5) How is Capsized different from So Embarrassing? What does the name mean?

I think “Capsized” expands and improves on the aesthetic I established with “So Embarrassing” about sixty-fold. I spent an inordinate amount of time analyzing what bogged down the last record but also what about it worked. The catchy bits are catchier, the aggressive sections are more aggressive, the lovely stuff lovelier, etc.

The “Capsized” title is intended as to be both a cute reference to the ‘Cap’ in ‘Capillary Action,’ as well as a simple one-word summary of my year-long depression and writer’s block. The title itself came to me after this well-publicized “Ride the Ducks” accident that happened about a mile from my house last summer in which two Hungarian tourists drowned.

6) The members of Capillary Action are spread out in the US. How do you come together and write music? How did the recording of Capsized worked?

I write all the music, then once all the music’s finished, I put out an APB for musicians on every Craigslist and perverted Yahoo message board west of Pittsburgh. I screen all the applicants, then use a complicated algorithm not unlike the one used on The Love Calculator to determine the best four candidates. The five of us then get together a few weeks before a tour and learn the tunes.

The band, along with my dear friend Robert Cheek, built a studio from scratch at a remote cabin in Minocqua, Wisconsin. We spent two weeks, 16 hours a day, tracking and nearly went insane in the process. Except for Dan, who knocked out all the drum tracks in an hour and then spent the rest of his time making “iDoses” on Logic.

7) The music on Capsized is quite eclectic, frenzied and disjointed; it goes from a relatively calm section to a completely insane and dissonant part. Is everything ok with you? Seriously, though, how do you write this sort of seemingly chaotic music? At times it sounds like you record a basic tune and then superimpose various tracks on top and see if they fit (which they do).

I think a more apt question is what IS okay with everyone else? The beauty of music is that it’s a totally subjective experience; what might seem chaotic, frenzied, and disjointed to you feels like a truthful extension of themes that can’t be summarized with major/minor chords and 4/4 time. I don’t know about other people’s lives but mine has tended to be kind of complicated and I don’t mean that in a self-aggrandizing way. My feelings and experiences generally don’t neatly fit into a grid so if I long for my art to be a truly personal expression, the music can’t fit into a grid either. I generally end up writing about intense experiences and feelings because I’ve come to terms with the fact that most of my friends would describe me as a pretty intense person. For better or worse, the songs come out the way they do because I try my best to stay true to the themes and original intents behind them. It’s never been my intention to write dynamic music for the sheer thrill of seeing how far the pendulum can swing in either direction. I’m simply trying to take these abstract feelings and render them as expressively and creatively as I can.

8) In Capsized, you have a guest string section on some songs. How was that experience for you?

Wonderful! Anna, Janet, Josh, and Jake were some of the finest musicians I’ve ever worked with.

9) Some questions about the album's lyrics (I have a habit of not understanding lyrics, so forgive me if I butcher the meaning of your songs) :

9A) In Sweepstakes you seem to talk about keep on going, while knowing you're going nowhere, or at least no where you want to; you mention getting deeper into something and things not going according to plan (if I understood correctly): "I bit off way more than I bargained for. I feel less and less. I'll come to my senses. A shark will drown if it stops swimming. I can't stop, I can't start. Let me find something and stick with it". Is it something from your personal experience?

Yes, “Sweepstakes” comes from the abject horror of putting an extraordinary amount of work into something for years and years without ever seeing any tangible results. The germ for this song originated with a quote from my dear friend Etan, who jokingly remarked to me at the LA stop of a particularly long tour that, much like a shark, I had to keep touring or I would die. I wrote the music, Bon Jovi-style, backstage at the Sinister Noise Club in Rome in the midst of our first European tour, which arrived at the tail-end of a nearly 8-month tour. The song is about the never-ending doubts that come along with trying to “live the dream.” I felt guilty for being emotionally, physically, and psychologically exhausted in the midst of a tour I understand most musicians will never, ever get a chance to mount. It was and still is an interesting position to be in. Like every other song I’ve written, the lyrics become painfully self-explanatory when you have the back-story. Musically, I wanted to write a song in an upbeat, major key that had an impending undercurrent of dread.

CAPILLARY ACTION - Sweepstakes from Mitch Fillion ( on Vimeo.

9B) In Stocks In Short Supply, you seem to assume a predatory role, or at least someone very intended on getting what he wants (from someone else, perhaps). Who are you aiming and what?

“Stocks” is about the parallel I saw between multinational corporations like Vivendi who buy up the natural resources of impoverished countries in order to sell them back to residents at inflated prices and a somewhat close family friend with a sketchy past whose M.O. over the years has been to usurp people’s identities in order to pass them off as her own. I wanted to inhabit the mindset of someone who was willingly, consciously preying on someone weak, so I decided to write the song from the perspective of both the corporation and the family friend.

9C) Unnecessary Surgery read like a disturbing tale of enmity (again, I'm probably way off). You talk about a war between Logic and Perjury and you wanting to plead a case. What case might that be? Also, When weapons are drawn, is it really too late?

“Surgery” is about those idiotic, petty arguments people in relationships often find themselves tangled up in. You know, those arguments that usually start off with, “why did you put the empty carton of OJ in the trash instead of the recycling bin?” and end up with malicious pot-shots directed at one another’s sexual prowess. “Surgery” was my attempt to analyze, based very obviously on personal experience, how two people who love each other so much can become tangled in this kind of downward spiral and, in turn, become so far removed from the core of why they’re together in the first place.

The “case” in this song refers to an argument one party makes in his/her own defense that the other party immediately discards because they’ve already made up his/her mind. Hence, “logic” (e.g. the rationale behind the mistake, however misguided) vs. “perjury” (e.g. using wild, unwieldy emotion as the basis for an argument as opposed to concrete facts). It’s a real War of the Roses-type number.

10) Are all your lyrics written from personal experience or from others? What are some of the lyrics on this album that are closest to your heart and which were the hardest to write?

All of my lyrics come from personal experience and, as cliché as it might sound, are all equally close to my heart. I generally agonize over every aspect of my songs but the lyrics to “Life of Luxury,” in particular, gave me the most trouble. Lyrically speaking, “Tenderloin” was one of the easiest to write but the most difficult to sing. It’s such a raw, unadorned lyric that I genuinely feel embarrassed to talk about it.

11) What type of audience do you aim at with this album, if at all? Do you think only "avant-heads" will like this? Will "regular-prog" fans find anything appealing here, in your opinion? Will you be supporting this release with a tour?

Nope, I wasn’t aiming for a particular audience; I mostly made this record so I wouldn’t have to sniff women’s shoes at department stores or go base-jumping to get my kicks. Although I will say one of my goals was to balance out some of the more “masculine” tendencies of my previous work with more “feminine” ones. Very abstract. There are times where I think we’ve alienated everyone with this record—it’s too poppy for the avant-heads, too weird for the indie-poppers, too John Popper for the Paul Ankas—and other times where I think, “what’s not to like?” I think “regular-prog” fans will probably think we’re being obtuse and “dissonant” just to fuck with them. But maybe they’ll hear all our fancy schmancy “metric modulations” and begrudgingly respect us?

12) What's on your playlist these days (if you've time, that is)? Do you follow current musical scenes or do you not care much for it? Are there any bands/musicians you think would be great to co-operate with? 

For the last two months, I’ve been listening obsessively to this local Philadelphia songwriter Scott Churchman’s second album, which can be streamed at his Bandcamp. He’s got a style all his own but I liken him to the perfect cross between Scott Walker, Bill Callahan, and Phil Elverum. Totally, completely annihilating. I told Scott two weeks ago that his record has ruined my ability to enjoy all other music. Buy Scott’s damn record for $1 so he can eat a Cliff bar today.

“Sign O’ the Times” by Prince has been in heavy rotation lately. “The Ice Man Cometh” by Jerry Butler. I’ve been listening to a bunch of Scriabin, Webern, Arto Lindsay’s 80s band Ambitious Lovers. Alex Lukashevsky’s last record, “Prints of Darkness,” which makes me weep, swoon, and groan with envy. “Telephone Line” by ELO is pretty much on constant repeat.

I try my best to stay on top of who’s hot and who’s on their way up (and down) the ladder in most scenes. It’s all about the avant-rock gossip. Eric Slick and I jokingly talked about commissioning a calendar dedicated to avant-rock heartthrobs, Teen Beat-style. Maybe a nice, softly lit shot of Toby Driver chillin’ with a glass of wine, nude on a bearskin rug?

I would love to collaborate with Annie Clark from St. Vincent, Merrill from Tune-Yards, Bill Callahan, Mica from Micachu and the Shapes, Todd Solondz, or Kate Bush.

13) Since I am coping with this question myself, I'll ask you: Why do what you do? It's hard work and for the most part unappreciated or just unnoticed and many may even dislike what you do. Why go on? I know you wrote about this issue (Gambit for instance). 

Why not?

14) How was touring? What was the crowd's reaction? What was your favourite show? What was the worst?

Touring is a constant test of your own limitations; a direct challenge to your psyche for having to co-exist with the same people for months on end, dealing with often daily changes in language, culture, and customs, and knowing in the back of your mind that at any point you might get screwed over by negligent or malevolent promoters/bands/airlines/rental car companies; to your physique for eating shitty food and sleeping on floors night after night; to your emotional well-being for allowing complete strangers to take part in your deepest, darkest secrets and experiences via 4-minute avant-rock songs. It’s one colossal, perpetual adrenaline rush followed always by a slow, painful withdrawal. The only solution I’ve found to this withdrawal (“post-tour depression” is real, folks) is to keep touring.

The crowd’s reaction is always uniformly positive. Except for those times when it’s not.

Wow, my favorite show out of our entire 450-show history? I don’t think I could choose a real favorite but the one I keep coming back to was our last show in Orlando at the Backbooth. Beyond the fact that the crowd was really psyched on us, my friend Matt put so much love and care into this show, even going as far as to change the décor of the venue. Plus, we got to go to Disney World for free the next day (see “The Castle is Real” from our new record).
Worst? Usually the so-called “worst” shows are so bad they become legendary and over the years eventually grow in reputation to become more memorable than some of our legitimately good shows. We should schedule a separate interview for me to go through all the tremendously awful shows we’ve played over the years but the one that generally comes to mind is the Werehouse in Winston-Salem back in Jan ’06 when a drunk, shirtless asshole threw full cans of beer at us as he bellowed “FAGGOTS!” The kicker was that he really, really enjoyed our music and ended up getting naked afterwards to show his devotion.

15) This is going to be an obsolete question soon, but... What do you think about digital-only releases? Do you like to have a physical copy of an album, or you don't care and settle for having a high-quality (or just decent) digital format and listen on a portable player?

If the American marketplace would take its head out of its ass and take digital-only releases seriously, maybe I wouldn’t have just spent a year trying to find the perfect cover, 4 months trying to procure the rights to it, another 3 months of my life working on the layout, and over $3,000 to get it pressed onto obsolete compact discs. Personally, I’m into the digital download deal; I’m on the road so much that it doesn’t make sense for me to carry around twelve CD binders. Plus, I prefer not to create any more waste or accumulate any more material possessions. That said, you guys should TOTALLY buy “Capsized” on COMPACT DISC. If only so you can use the CD as a coaster and look at the pretty pictures.

16) Anything to add?

Thank you so much, Assaf, for the interview. If you live on Earth, we’re most definitely coming to your city, town, province, or burg between now and the end of 2011. Check for details. I should also note that all five of us are single and, as the age-old adage goes, looking to mingle.

Follow the band on Tumblr, Facebook and Myspace.
Stream Capillary Action music on Bandcamp.

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