Interview: Jefre Cantu-Ledesma on His Stunning, New End-Of-A-Relationship Record

The experimental producer has returned with a rich and enthralling solo record.

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma has long been an active player on the global drone and ambient circuit. Spanning a handful of different cities – San Francisco, Munich, Berlin, New York – and numerous projects, such as Portraits, The Alps, Tarentel, and Raum with Grouper’s Liz Harris, his journey has most recently brought the Roots Strata co-founder to the completion of a new solo record for Mexican Summer.

A Year With 13 Moons is a vibrant record that buzzes with life. Misty clouds of white noise continually break to let bittersweet melodies seep through their cracks. A pastiche of multi-layered live improvisation recorded to tape, the album is a self-described “end-of-a-relationship record,” rich with emotion and intensely enthralling. We jumped on a Skype call with Jefre after his early morning yoga session to discuss his recording process, internal landscapes and translating color fields into sound.

Tell me a little bit about the new album. I feel like it retains some elements of what you’ve done in the past, specifically the very thick and dense sound. But I also feel like it’s more melody-driven this time around. Did you have any sort of conceptual starting point for A Year With 13 Moons?

I was on an artist residency [at the Headlands Center for the Arts] at the time. I was there for three months and spent about six-eight hours in the studio every day. You spend that much time creating anything and you will eventually give up trying to have ideas about what you should do and just start making. That’s what I did. For three months, I would really just let my ideas come and go, and let the process happen, rather than trying to come at making music conceptually.

Part of that process was that a lot of melodies started coming out of me, and I discovered this interest in building what could be considered more traditional songs, with drum beats. Obviously, they’re still pretty fucked up but... It just kind of evolved naturally. There wasn’t a lot of intention behind it, because I didn’t even know what I wanted to make. I mean, I had this request to make a record from the label so that was all I knew, really. It was like, when I get on the other end of these three months, I need to at least have a record done. Maybe I’ll have a couple done.

I didn’t really know where I was musically and I was just kind of lost, so I started from scratch.

I didn’t know what that was going to sound like and that was really frustrating and weird. I was just trying to push myself to not make the same record again. I didn’t want to make Love Is a Stream Part 2 or anything. Also, I had been living in Germany for a year and half. I wasn’t connected to playing with people as much as I was when I lived in California. I didn’t really know where I was musically and I was just kind of lost, so I started from scratch. I knew I had to give up having any ideas and just make music and see what happens.

When I got to the end of the three months, I obviously had a lot of music. It’s like when you have a Polaroid camera and you have ten shots in a pack. Usually there’d be one good one in there, you know? That was my ratio. Out of hours and hours of stuff that I recorded, there was a very small amount of it that I found interesting or worth working with. At the end I just started trying to cull things together, building the record bit by bit as I went along.

You mentioned playing with other people and obviously you’ve done a lot of that in the past. How does that differ for you in terms of how you work as an artist, working with others compared to working alone? Are there specific challenges or opportunities?

It’s like being in any kind of relationship, really. There’s a give and take, right? You make space for that other person to be themselves but then you also try to find who you are in that relationship. That differs from person to person. I’ve collaborated with a lot of people and I still do. For instance, when Liz [Harris, AKA Grouper] and I play together, that goes down a very particular path and that might be very different from when I play with somebody else.

Because it’s such a give and take, how do you go about finding that particular musical language to communicate with people that you’re working with? Is it very much an experimentation process in the studio or do you talk things through?

I try to avoid talking about that kind of stuff. I’d much rather just get down to it and see what happens. We can talk about things afterwards and contextualize them. I used to be wanting to do that before anything happens, but I’ve given that up over the years.

A lot of it is about listening to what the other person is doing and figuring out how you respond to that. I’m going to respond to what someone else is doing totally differently depending on who the musician is. The setup can be totally different in every new situation. Like when Liz and I play together… We played a show at Transmediale a few years ago. That was a seven hour concert or something, and it was all just us playing with cassette tapes.

It’s a different palette so you’re going to approach how the music is created with a different set of tools. Sometimes it doesn’t work, too. There were some people that I played with in Berlin and it just didn’t really gel. That’s okay. Sometimes you work with people and it just doesn’t feel right. That’s totally okay.

Since you’re bringing up your collaboration with Liz… How did you end up creating an album together?

Liz and I can sit down and just turn things on and start playing and we get into a language really easily. We can settle into each other’s worlds and balance each other out in a really easeful way.

Well, we kind of always had just thrown the idea around a little bit that it might be fun to work together at some point. Then Transmediale asked her to come perform. I was living in Berlin at the time and she asked me if I wanted to do this show with her, essentially. That was the beginning of it. The show basically provided a reason for us to actually play music together. She came to Berlin a little bit early and stayed at my apartment. We just worked on music there and then the record grew out of that. I think we traded some files and then over the next year, she came to Berlin a couple more times. Each time she would stay with me and my wife, my ex-wife. We would just work on music together while she was there.

Obviously she’s an incredibly talented individual. What is it about her as a musician that you admire most, either working with her or even just as a listener?

I think in the very beginning, the thing that really drew me to Liz’s work is that she’s got a keen sensitivity to what she’s doing. With ambient or drone music or whatever, there’s always this assumption that the person’s just a stoner and is just turning things on and letting things happen.

I had the chance to see Liz very early on in the Bay. She was playing Grouper a lot there in the beginning. She was living in Oakland. Just her level of sensitivity to the sound is very, very articulate and very deliberately crafted. I think that’s more obvious now. You look at her most recent record, Ruins, and it’s pretty obvious that she’s in control of her language. I don’t think that people really got that, particularly with the early recordings.

Working on music together, we really just synced up. We don’t have to talk about stuff a lot. We can sit down and just turn things on and start playing and we get into a language really easily. We can settle into each other’s worlds and balance each other out in a really easeful way. The Raum record we did, those were all pretty much first takes. We didn’t fuss over the tracks or anything. We didn’t mix them over and over. We just were like, yeah, this sounds pretty good. You have to trust that.

As a listener, I just enjoy what she does. I mean, she’s got a beautiful voice. She’s one of these people that just has created her own world in a way. I really admire that.

Since you’ve lived in and worked in a lot of different places, I’m also curious how your personal geography and how moving locations affects your work. You’ve mentioned that sometimes you have more people around you that you gel with and sometimes it’s more of a solo thing, but how do you think does the act of relocating itself affect your work?

That’s a great question. I was in San Francisco for almost 20 years and a bulk of my music – like Tarentel and a lot of my early solo stuff – was made there. Moving to Germany really turned my world upside-down. When you’ve lived somewhere for so long and then move to a new country where you don’t really speak the language, that can be very difficult. I think that caused a bit of a writing block for me. I felt almost constipated. I was completely disoriented.

Then when I went back to California, when I made a lot of the music that’s on the record – I think part of that feeling of, “okay, I just got to do whatever,” was being displaced again, leaving my relationship and being in a place that was really new, even though I was back in California.

Sometimes I go back and listen to Tarentel, and I can’t imagine where I was at that time or what we were trying to do.

It’s difficult to really put into words, but obviously our environment seeps into us in some way. I don’t really know what that answer is, but I think for me, the landscape of relationships has a more obvious correlation to music. The record is really an end-of-a-relationship record. Something like that creates its own landscape in one’s mind and that’s what I was trying to get into. That’s not to say that external circumstances didn’t have any effect, but I think I was trying to translate something that was happening internally. I don’t know if that make sense.

It does. How is your personal relationship with the album now? Coming from a very personal, emotional background, does that make it painful, in a sense, for you to listen to? Or was the recording process already a kind of a cleansing experience?

I would say it’s not painful. I haven’t listened to it too much. It’s almost been two years now since I’ve made it. A lot has changed since then, but it still feels very fresh and very alive to me and that’s exciting. Sometimes I go back and listen to Tarentel, and I can’t imagine where I was at that time or what we were trying to do. It’s become a statue, you know? It’s just this thing that’s sort of solid and has no life. It’s nice to listen to the record and I’m still like, “Yeah, this is good.”

The record for me is a document of what was. It’s like a photograph. That’s what happened, what was going on in my life. That’s not where I’m at now. My life’s in a totally different place now and it’s bittersweet, the titles and stuff. Sometimes, it brings me back to what my life looked like when I made that record, but I can enjoy it still.

People have really responded well to it. My friends, people that I love and respect and that’s a lot. That says a lot to me.

You also come from a background of visual art, so I’m interested in how that factors into your approach – be it songwriting or layering sounds and playing with different textures and elements.

I think that there’s some methodologies behind art-making that are applicable to anything – a way of approaching the act of creation, whether you’re making photographs or music or you’re dancing. Having started off in visual art, it was easy to translate what I was doing to music. I started playing music mostly in college and I was in art school at the time. What my visual arts teachers were saying about how to approach making a painting or how to approach making a sculpture, that really translated to me. We can think about music in the same types of ways. That’s one piece.

The other thing goes back to what I was saying about internal landscapes. That takes some kind of visualization for me. In music I think about things in terms of colors a lot. There’s a correlation with painting for me because when I hear something, there’s a color field that’s involved.

When I’m creating a whole side of a record, for instance, it’s easy to think about things visually because it turns into a landscape. It’s bright and pink and orange, and yellow and then it gets really brown and dark and black, and then it comes back to blues and greens or something like that. I don’t know if that makes sense.

No, it totally does because it also reminds me of the cover for your record. Those color fields and the strokes of bright colors over a gray background – that does a lot to affect a listener’s perception of the music.

Yeah, right! The guy who painted the cover is a friend of mine. I hadn’t really considered using any of his work. But then there was this deadline coming up and I had to get a cover together. I just started looking through some of his images and I saw that and I was like, “Oh, that’s it!” Yeah, it’s kind of like what you just said, the strokes and the field in the background, and just the little gestures that make it all up. It just made sense.

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

By Anthony Obst on February 9, 2015