charlie slenko of sioux trails records - the MFOA interview

charlie slenko is a songwriter, bedroom/basement recording artist, and one of three people involved in the experimental DIY online record label sioux trails records. he has two new albums out this month, 'rented rooms' and 'moonlight veneration', both of which are great lofi jams. one of my favorite discoveries through MFOA, the folks over at sioux trails are true fellow travelers. charlie was kind enough to answer a few of my questions below.

MFOA: what gave you the idea to present you and your friend's homemade music in the form of a digital, DIY record label? is there a particular philosophy that inspires sioux trails records?

CS: sioux trails is really the shared creation of henry hyde, francis mckeys, and myself. we all went to grade school together, played music together (and separately) and eventually— rather recently — decided to make some of this available to other people, just for the hell of it. we play shows every now and then, but most of what we do has just been making records to listen to and trade among ourselves. i’d say henry was really the grandfather of it all. francis and i were in a band with some other friends at the time (around 2004 or 2005), and we were all friends with henry. we eventually heard these records he was making in his basement down the street and it kind of changed everything. it definitely changed my outlook on what I could do with music, and what making music was all about.

we eventually started digitizing everything as a way to preserve the tapes that we were making, since those things get ruined so easily. plus we all started to scatter over the country and digital music is so much easier to share. we still mostly do 4-track recording, though, because that’s what we started on, and that’s what were used to. some of the records on sioux trails are digitally recorded, but generally, and i know i can speak for henry and myself here, we like the process of cassette recording — you get four tracks to get what you want out of a song. if you don’t record vocals with something else you might be out of luck, or if you want a solo instrument you gotta save space. it makes you approach a song in a very specific way. plus you find yourself getting strange tape sounds and interesting accidents that we generally sort of welcome. i know we’ve kept certain tracks strictly based on something weird that happened during the take that we knew we could never reproduce.

in terms of philosophies i’d say deconstruction, moral skepticism, and spiritualism.

MFOA: i'm sure it has changed over the years, but what is your current, or your favorite, recording setup?

CS: i haven’t had an apartment to myself for about 5 years. i’ve lived with family, i’ve lived with friends, i’ve lived with strangers. just recently i got my own place again and i’ve been free to make my setup a mainstay of my daily space, which is nice. i have my electric guitar (an austin telecaster knock-off) and a nice 80’s model tube amp made by ampeg called the reverbrocket [MFOA: that's a kick-ass amp], which sounds like a goddamn dream. This amp has been out of my life for about a year, so it’s nice to be playing that again. i also have my steel-string acoustic, a mandolin, a bunch of harmonicas, and a pretty terrible sounding drum machine i picked up in western pennsylvania a while back called the rhythm beat. you get to hear that beauty on the last tracks of both of my newest releases. all my recording is done through a tascam porta02mkII that henry hyde let me borrow about 6 years ago, when I made 'the space between the stars', which was an incredible experience for me.

i love playing with friends, but there’s something really liberating about putting a song down track by track and getting into that weird headspace for a couple hours, and coming out with something that sounds exactly like what you wanted it to sound like, without even knowing what sound you were going for.

that being said, if you get francis on a drum set with any assortment of musicians, especially veronica from matador or robert redhouse from glass men, and things are going to get really out of hand really quick, in a really fucking awesome way. i love being a part of that.

MFOA: your newest release, 'rented rooms' was recorded over a period of transience in various different locations. do you find the limiting factors of transience and working in different types of rooms with basic set-ups inspiring? do you enjoy getting the best out of what you have to work with?

CS: when henry and i were recording a lot together — especially on albums like 'open highways', 'ghost fights', and 'minor outlying islands' — we recorded in silos, in attics, basements, out in the woods, by rivers, by campfires, whatever, just to see what kind of sound we could get. we once recorded in this big run down antique store in our home town that was 4 floors of junk. it literately looked like the people bought the place full of junk and just left it that way. you could go in and shop, but I don’t think anyone ever really did. it was actually a really confusing experience if you wanted to purchase something because there was no one in there. i heard it closed down now, which isn’t surprising. anyway, the top floors were inhabited mostly by birds because the windows were all busted out, but there were these old out of tune pianos up there, so naturally we found a way to record some tracks on those for our 'ghost fights' album, which was probably our most ambitious album in terms of what we were trying to accomplish. another track from 'ghost fights' was recorded underground in a cave that henry found in the woods. we had to bring candles, and traverse this crevasse and climb through all these little spaces to get to where we wanted to record inside of the cave, which was like a maze, so we could only get a mandolin back there with us, but we did it. henry eventually had to map out the interior tunnels of the cave so we wouldn’t get lost down there on future excursions. [MFOA: that cave recording story is great!]

so, really, it would be weirder for me to record everything in one place at one time. we attempted that with 'back roads', but in the end we ended up using some of the demo recordings that we had recorded in other places at other times that we just preferred the sound of. i guess we get bored with albums that have the same sound the entire way through.

MFOA: on the flipside of the previous question, does squeezing music making in around the rest of your life and creating within those limitations, such as basic equipment and rooms where you might not be able to get loud, or being on the road and not having access to your favorite collaborators, ever frustrate you?

CS: yeah, it frustrates the hell out of me. in the house were i grew up in southern pennsylvania there was a root cellar in the basement, kind of hidden all the way back by the furnace. the walls and ceiling of the cellar were all thick cement and the floor was just sand. we could, and often did, play all night, as loud as we wanted, and you couldn’t hear a sound anywhere else in the house. my parents sold the house and moved a little while back, so i couldn’t even go back if i wanted, but it was great while it lasted. i hate having to tailor what i want to do to my surroundings, but that is the reality of life, and sometimes it turns out alright. on the song 'the condemned' from 'rented rooms' the vocal track sounds like i am whispering all the words with my mouth up against the microphone, because it was 2 AM and i was living in a house with people that i barely knew, people who i had met at a bar who happened to need a roommate when i needed a room, and you could hear a pin drop in that old house at night. i was trying to be polite, and i was annoyed about it at the time because i really wanted to get a good sound on that one, but in hindsight i kind of like how it came out, in fact it sort of fits with the song. if we were to do that song live it would be a whole different animal, though.

i really love playing shows, it’s great to take a song and do something completely different with it, maybe find out things about it that you overlooked or underestimated, but we rarely have the opportunity. all of us are scattered now — pennsylvania, louisiana, california, and i live in illinois now. it’s frustrating living in chicago with all these great venues and no band. i’ve played a couple solo shows in my life, but i don’t like it, it makes me nervous i guess. Or, i don’t know, maybe it doesn’t. maybe i just don’t care enough about booking shows by myself. when you are playing solo and you get a shitty crowd there’s nothing you can do about it, just try to keep your chin up and keep singing, but when you have a band you can turn the fuck up and it’s probably a better feeling than getting a good response to a show, honestly. francis and I definitely have some experience with that.

MFOA: if you could recommend a few of your favorite of the many sioux trails releases, what would those be?

CS: the newest francis mckeys album is a powerhouse. it’s possession and exorcism and at times its pretty goddamn intimidating. i like music that isn’t always easy to listen to. music is more to me than nice sounds. that being said, the robert redhouse EP is fucking beautiful. five original songs by the best acoustic guitar player i know, with a hell of a voice. there’s this great split EP i did with veronica, and her track, under the name the second floor porches, is a room full of organs and guitars, mediative and drone-y. really, really strong. it’s the kind of song i love to put on real loud and late and let myself dissolve in. francis has been pushing for a full length from her for a while, but at this point it seems like that won’t be coming any time soon. i do know of tracks in progress, though, so we’ll see. i definitely listen to a lot of henry hyde and his earlier work as trucks go by. there’s 'spider's tonic' on the site, but theres also a slew of earlier albums he made before that. he won’t let me put those out, but i listen to them all quite a bit. they are the records that made me want to make records. his newest album, 'paul’s last waltz' is great, too, and i’ve heard some of what he’s working on now and i am really excited to hear the full album. the one full track i have heard off of it is called 'ohio river flowing north' and it’s probably one of the most beautiful songs i’ve ever heard. i tried to learn it and play it, but I can just never get the same sound that he does. definitely the most honest songwriter I know of.

i don’t know about my own records — they’re all separate but equal in my eyes. however, the matador EP, made with francis and henry is one i listen to a lot, that  really really love. we were practicing for a show we had to throw together, and it was just basically two mic’s hanging from the ceiling and recording everything we did, then i pulled out my favorite tracks and put them in order. That album has some of my favorite songs i ever wrote, most of which aren’t on any other records, and the instrumentation and energy is something I could never get out of recording by myself. also, both matador albums, 'a portrait of the american spirit' and 'recreational burials' i love. that’s francis, veronica, and myself. semi-automatic music. loud, very loud. Those albums are where the deconstruction, moral skepticism, and spiritualism come into play.


you can find all those albums and more at sioux trails records for free. stream 'recreational burials', a noisy wild blast that i am also fond of, below.


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