Name: Jordan Reyes
Occupation: Composer, musician, journalist, label owner at American Dream Records
Current release: Jordan Reyes' first blackmetal album The Crucible, published under his Threshing Spirit alias, is out via American Dreams.
Recommendations: My favorite book of all time is Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. It changed my life, as did the man who taught me the book - Fred Moten, who was a professor at Duke while I was an undergraduate. Dhalgren is directly responsible for connecting with ONO, and also for opening my mind to radical thought and forms of literature. I’ve used it as framework for a panel I moderated at Moogfest in 2017 with travis & P Michael of ONO, Moor Mother, and King Britt. I’ve used it as creative inspiration. I’ve used it as a means of explanation - the list goes on. In some ways it’s a science fiction book, but it’s more than that, considering sex, race, gender identity, writing, violence. It takes place in a dilapidated town called Bellona - loosely based on Detroit - that has undergone some sort of event horizon, and a protagonist who doesn’t know his name stumbles in. But once you travel into Bellona, you never really leave.
The second thing I’d recommend is Ka - anything by Ka. To me, Ka exemplifies the independent artist. He’s nearly fifty years old, and in addition to being one of the best rappers out, he captains a firefighting team in New York. A hero on the mic and off. He’s been quietly working on his own as an emcee since early days in the legendary group Natural Elements, and notably had a verse on GZA’s Pro Tools. He’s as good as ever now, immediately recognizable, and undeniable. Putting on a Ka record is mainlining a sage who’s been through it all - violence, crime, you name it. Ka also lines his work with mythological and religious references, and you hear experience and thought in every aspect of his artistry. His new LP A Martyr’s Reward is truly great, but everything he touches is - Days With Dr. Yen Lo is a classic, and a great place to start as is his first LP Grief Pedigree.
If you enjoyed this interview with Jordan Reyes and would like to stay up to date with his work, visit him on Instagram, twitter, and Soundcloud. He has also played with experimental outfit ONO, also home to Brett Naucke and members of Buck Gooter.
[Read out Brett Naucke interview]
[Read our Buck Gooter interview]
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Before I was a musician, before I was a writer, before I was a label owner, I was a storyteller and a storykeeper. Music, books, film, painting, theatre - they’re all part of storytelling, and in fact they’re all fragments of the same story.
Wu-Tang Clan was my first outright obsession - I bought every CD I could, poring over RZA’s The Wu-Tang Manual. As a nerd, RZA was the ultimate - he made nerdery cool. As a kid, I was sensitive about loving comic books, video games, kung fu, anime, mostly because my parents were not on board with them - frankly, the things that made me want to stay alive. Sometimes it was tough - my mom would raid my room and throw out the things I had worked so hard to collect, and I would cry, wondering if I’d ever see them again. Fourteen years later, I’m still tracking some down.
Something important I learned, though - you can’t throw out what’s in someone’s mind, and so I tried to memorize and learn to recall those things that made me happy. Music - with its refrains, and often codified structures - was easy to maintain mentally, and I kept it in a place my mom couldn’t access.
I began writing folk songs of my own on my twenty-second birthday after a bad break up, and quickly amassed a collection of two or three hundred acoustic numbers, some of which were pretty good! I played a monthly gig in Chicago at a bar called Lizard’s Liquid Lounge on Irving Park Rd. - I basically got free drinks and opened for a band called Kitty Devine and the Big Whoop. I was heavily into industrial music by then, but still was playing on an acoustic guitar.
At twenty-four I moved to Miami, and was asked to play a noise night - I got into looping my vocals, which became my all-vocal industrial project Reverent. Then at twenty-six I got my first synth - a Moog Sub-37 - and it was all downhill from there.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
My first songs were straightforward folk songs - love songs, murder ballads, traveling songs - written on acoustic guitar and with sung vocals. I was inspired by acts like Sufjan Stevens, Mountain Goats, Bob Dylan, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Billy Bragg.
As I got more and more into industrial music and artists like Current 93, my chords and lyrics started getting weirder! I also became more interested in the occult, but more or less because I thought that’s what you needed to do to be a real *dark* musician. (laughs) PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South, and the entire Chicago Blues movement were massive influences on my project Reverent, which was an industrial blues, lyrically-heavy project where I would live loop entire backing tracks and sing on them. Looking back, it was a pretty impressive project with some great, great songs - maybe someday, those songs will rear their heads again.
I attribute 75% of my interest in synthesizers to Alessandro Cortini - those Forse albums changed my life. I heard them in 2015, at a time when I was working a consulting-ish job, flying around the country at least a couple times a week. I would listen to those albums on the plane, and read Sound on Sound’s Synth Secrets, fantasizing what kinds of sounds I would make once I had access to my synth again. Cortini used a Buchla 200E for those records, and they sound amazing - I got started with eurorack as it has the lowest barrier to entry in modular, but I knew I wanted to make melodic synthesizer music with many parts weaving in and out of each other. I think it was important to have an idea of what instrument I wanted to build going into modular synthesis as it can get unreasonably expensive if you just accumulate and accumulate - also, more gear doesn’t necessitate better music.
[Read our Alessandro Cortini interview]
Modular synthesis taught me how to arrange. I loved being able to create different parts that worked together and then bring them in and out - it felt like being a conductor or having octopus arms! But quickly I wanted to incorporate acoustic instruments, other electronics, and vocals, and work with my love of folk and country music again - this became Sand Like Stardust, my album that was called “Ambient Americana,” which is a descriptor that I think fits.
I’ve recently been more interested in drone and heavy music, especially as a vehicle for inhabiting the present moment, exhibiting the zen mind, even - the newest recordings under my own name, which are not released, are almost doom metal, though orchestral in many ways with cello, voice, pedal steel, and much more. I also started the black metal project Threshing Spirit, which is me on all instruments, and is very, very fun. I don’t spend much time engineering or producing that music, but allow the riffs and lyrics to flow on their own - in some ways, it’s almost automatic writing.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I have a lot of identities and a lot of selves, but upon a cursory glance, I’m a White-passing cishet man, and I’m sure that having that build-up of privilege has allowed me to feel more okay with taking risks than someone who maybe didn’t have the same opportunities as me. There are other things that I suppose are part of my identity that give some color to my art and creative process - not being neurotypical, mental illness, a period of addiction, being raised very religious.
There are other parts of my identity that are perhaps socially constructed, too, though you never know what is in your DNA and what is part of “nurturing” - one of these things is a love for feats of endurance, pressure, perseverance.
Almost all of what I do is based on periods or moments of extremity - the worst I’ve felt, the hardest I’ve pushed myself, the farthest I’ve run - and some of those things are less than fun and some provide utter ecstasy. I think at the core, my inmost identity is that of a seeker of sublimity, novelty, and transcendence, and when you get to this - creation is emblematic of that identity and vice versa.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Oh man. At the beginning my challenge was just how to make a song that didn’t suck - how to be able to play guitar and sing at the same time! (laughs) A lot of my struggle still remains technical, in a way, but now it’s more in figuring out what to do in terms of production to showcase a feeling rather than actually being able to play what’s in my head.
A recent challenge that has been meaningful is learning to trust others. In an upcoming album, which won’t come out until at earliest Summer 2022, I decided to be very, very collaborative - often just asking people for overdub stems with fairly minimal guides, listening back, and then adjusting my composition to fit more closely to what they had sent. This kind of dialectic makes for stronger work, I think - it’s easily the most satisfying project I’ve done, and I’ve been working on it for about six months, but am getting very close to finishing.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I love gear. I love buying it and learning about it.
I got my first acoustic guitar when I was nearly 18 years old, and played that thing to death. I didn’t really have a “studio” until a couple years ago. Frankly, I didn’t think my music was that good until I made my first album Close, which I recorded six to seven years after making songs, and which was recorded entirely live, no editing, no overdubs - though some songs took many, many takes to get perfect - on my kitchen table at the time with a eurorack system. Eurorack really did break open something compositionally for me, as I mentioned before.
I was a late bloomer in most respects to releasing records, and felt very much unsure that I was a voice worth hearing until then. I remember conscientiously having this thought after making Close that I was a real artist, whatever that meant - at the time it meant that I valued my music enough to put it on vinyl.
Beyond that, I simply didn’t want to regurgitate the same sounds or process each time - I didn’t want to record live takes, but begin actual composition, so on Sand Like Stardust I learned a bit more about recording acoustic instruments or over-the-air as opposed to line-in. A lot of the things I acquired for that album were preamps and microphones, in addition to a better interface. Recently I’ve been into amplifiers, guitars, and bass guitars again, learning to wield feedback in new ways.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Voice, guitar, eurorack synthesizer, lap-steel guitar, and bass guitar have all had profound impacts on my work, each inducing a kind of sea change when I began to use it.