Josh Mason used to make regular music. You know, verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/out-chorus. The crap you’ve heard on the radio since 1947. He gave it up to do stuff you’ve probably never heard and probably wouldn’t understand if you had.
Mason is, for lack of a better term, a sound collage artist. He works in textures, electronic pulses, fuzzed-out bloops and buzzy drones. He bends birdcalls and wind gusts, distorts temple bells, scratches records, and speeds up and slows down tape. He lets things develop slowly, almost imperceptibly. He’ll consume the entire side of a vinyl record with one or two lengthy pieces of music.
I first met Mason at (disclosure) this very publication, maybe a decade ago, when he was working as a graphic artist and I was managing editor. An unassuming character with a huge beard (note: he was into the beard years before this whole lumbersexual thing came along) and a shy niceness about him, Mason turned me on to a world of new music. He gave me Sunn’s Monolith’s & Dimensions on double vinyl. He gifted me with an Ocean T-shirt, sparking my love affair with the Maine-based doom metal ensemble. And he once, in a stress fit, uploaded every album he owned onto a data disc, handed it to me in a package called “Scorched Earth,” and said, “Don’t give this back to me.” He then deleted all of the music from his hard drive in an attempt to take a new direction in listening. (I still have that disc, Josh, if you want it back.)
Since leaving Folio Weekly, Mason has relocated from his former Riverside digs to a house less than the length of a football field from my home in Avondale. Yet despite his proximity, I’ve seen him maybe five times, once to engage in a sludge metal jam at my studio. I have those recordings and may one day release them, if he’d agree to it. As it stands, Josh Mason is creating and releasing his own material, mostly on vinyl, and distributing it from right there in his little bungalow.
Here’s a glimpse into his independent world of sonic weirdness.
Folio Weekly: You lived in Chicago for many years. Why the hell did you come back to Jacksonville?
Josh Mason: Originally, I am from Melbourne. I came to Jacksonville almost totally by accident. I was freezing to death in Chicago in 2007 and was actively trying to figure out a way to move back to Florida. While visiting, I ended up running into the girl who would eventually become my wife back in my hometown. A friend of mine ended up finding me a job here in town, and we’ve been here since.
Your local band history includes the cleverly named Kitty Party. What was that all about?
I never played in any bands here in Jacksonville, but yeah, I was in a band no one ever heard of called Kitty Party for a short time with guys who lived all over the state, most of whom I’ve known since high school. I hated that band, mostly because everyone in it was extremely talented and they were wasting their time writing this jangly indie rock stuff. I sorta weaseled my way in just so I could add some fuzzed-out bass parts. I also convinced them they needed two drummers and more volume overall.
What’s your working situation right now?
Currently I work as a graphic designer, and I also run this small label [Sunshine Ltd., sunshineltd.info] when I have the time and brainpower left over.
What’s happening with the label?
A collaborative LP with Gareth Flowers just came out, as well as a collaborative tape under the name OLD SVRFERS, which is a collaboration with Brad Rose, of Digitalis Recordings fame, from Tulsa. I have a few more things on the back burner — including my take on a “surf” record, which doesn’t currently have a home yet.
Tell me about the album you did with Flowers.
A couple years back, I released a tape for him on my label. He was doing some crazy stuff with trumpets and computer processing that blew me away. Around the same time, I had been dealing with some anxiety and other mental health issues. Some of that stuff manifested itself creatively as a fictional short story/alternative history I started to write, but I’m a terrible writer and I was never fully able to flesh it all out. I could see it all in my mind, but words aren’t really my thing. So I started thinking about it more like a play or a film, which is when I started to hear it in my head versus seeing it.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and I was stuck at a train stop listening to Performance Today on NPR. The piece that was playing was “Quiet City” composed by Aaron Copland. It has this amazing lonely trumpet part that runs throughout it that I loved and was similar to the vibe of this thing I had swirling around in my head. Turns out it was Gareth playing on that specific recording. So I reached out to him and pitched him this whole score-for-a-film-based-on-a-story-that-doesn’t-exist type thing. He was pretty excited about it, and was happy to collaborate on it with me. The idea is that the album follows the narrative arc of this guy who has holed himself away from the world after a tragic event one evening. You’re not really sure if he did something or something was done to him. The four movements align with four specific states of being related to the event in question: uneasiness, confusion, fear and relief.
How did you get so deeply involved in sonic landscapes?
I think it has more to do with having spent many years previously writing music in bands that had very specific kinds of progressions. It just got old after a while, and the idea of making sounds that just drifted had a lot of appeal. Suddenly I was free from the constraints of a group, and I could make music that allowed the listeners to fill in the gaps themselves. It’s participatory in a way.
When you sit down to “write,” what are your considerations?
It changes all the time. Typically, all of my work has been inspired. It’s not really “about” anything really, but the mood is usually a reflection of something that I see going on around me or the way I feel about something. As I mentioned earlier, I suck at words, so it’s much easier to me to translate those ideas into sound than words. I’ve made recordings inspired by everything from the writings of Horacio Quiroga to the birth of my niece.
What equipment do you like to use to create your sounds?
Well, it depends on what I’m working on, but more often than not, it begins with guitar work, as that is the instrument I have the most experience with. From there, any signal generated is filtered through any number of effects units, mixers, modified reel-to-reel tape machines and laptops running, in my opinion, terribly coded MaxMSP patches. In addition to that, I also use lots of found objects, contact microphones, bells, music boxes. Really anything I can get my hands on that I can bang against something else. [Laughs.]
You’ve also done a lot of field recordings. What are you trying to capture when you’re “in the field”?
Textures mostly. You have your Chris Watsons and Gordon Hemptons of the world, and then you have guys like me who aren’t really concerned about clarity whatsoever. Half the time, the field recordings I make are so heavily processed that you wouldn’t believe what it was a recording of if I told you.
You turned me on to some dark stuff — doom and stoner metal (Sunn, Sleep, etc). Is that an influence on you?
Sometimes, yeah. Not so much because of the mood that those artists create, but their compositional choices. Especially this idea that a song goes on as long as it needs to convey an idea, whether that’s five minutes or 50 minutes.
Do you have any plans to release any heavier stuff?
I have learned to never say never. Recently I have reconnected musically with an old friend of mine, and we’ve begun playing some heavy stuff as a two-piece. Something might come of that if things fall into place the right way.
What, in your mind, is music? How do you define it?
The older I get, the more I think of music in terms of “purposeful sound” — or rather, sounds made with clear intent. Many people don’t consider what I make to be musical in a traditional sense of the word. They say, “It’s just a bunch of noise.” But to me, if you arrange anything — be it orchestras or rhythmic sounds from a skipping CD — it has intent and was desired, which is the opposite of what noise is generally defined as.
What would be your dream working situation musically?
Man, great question. Probably some combination of a warm room with clean power and a view. And a gear library where I can check out whatever tool I could use along the way. These days, if I want to experiment with a special microphone or something ridiculous, like a hurdy-gurdy, I have to sell something else to make it happen.