Name: Feast of Smoke (Paul and Amber Oldham)
Current Release: Feast of Smoke on Perpetual Doom
Recommendations: “Mother Said” by Hal Sirowitz / “The Other Shore” by Rafael Alberti / Funeral Mariachi by Sun City Girls
If you enjoyed this interview with Paul and Amber they have a website where you can learn a little more and buy the music https://www.perpetualdoom.com/feastofsmoke
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?
Paul: My first instrument was the cello, I was inspired to pick it up at 8 years old because my friend Peter Searcy played the cello and it seemed more interesting than piano. I started with school orchestra around then, but by the time I was a teenager I wanted to learn guitar and my brother Ned gave me my first lesson where he taught me to play Sweet Jane. I started writing music as a teenager, after I got my first 4-track cassette recorder.
Amber: I first started playing music around age 7. I have fond memories of visiting my great-grandmother’s home and attempting to play her old Hammond organ. We’d watch MTV together and eat copious amounts of chocolate truffles and then head over to the organ. She was very patient.
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?
It feels like as much as we have ever tried to emulate others, our own abilities/limitations render the results in our own voice, whether we like it or not. That said, time has been the most important ingredient for us in developing.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Creating is a compulsion for us both and we try to do something towards that end every day. It is integral.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Creatively, our biggest challenge is making a piece of music that we enjoy and feel proud of. Also, in the past the music has been more band-oriented, so it’s been a challenge learning how to strip away elements and not rely so much on filling all the space with every instrument on every song.
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?
Paul: I have been recording and playing music most of my life, starting with a 4-track and my Fender guitar and combo amp I would take with me everywhere in case there was a chance to jam or record. When I started a studio, I switched to digital recording, first to digital tape, then to hard drive, and essentially not much has changed with regards to tools since then. Mostly a combination of practicality and quality has motivated my equipment choices.
Amber: Pen and paper and voice. Sometimes piano.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Not really, the instruments and the basics of the technology we use have remained the same since we began.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
When we write individually, we exist in our own bubbles, however, when we open up the process to one another, our ideas are transformed in ways neither of us would have come up with on our own. We collaborated on all the arrangements on the record, and it was not always easy (and sometimes even painful), but the push and pull makes the songs stronger.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
During the pandemic, the days run together a bit and our day-to-day life has been turned upside down this summer since our baby was born. We’re both exhausted much of the time and some days ask ourselves where am I, when am I, who am I…?
No fixed schedule as we’re both working from home, but we start with coffee and tea, and our baby sets the rhythm for the day. She’s calling the shots right now (forever?). It’s allowed us to live less in our heads and more in the moment. Then we make sure the dogs still get some love. Our lives revolve around our baby and our animals. They set the rhythm and that’s how we like it. Oh yeah, we have to eat too—always a challenge.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Our first show together in San Francisco we opened for our friend Jennifer’s band, the Black Bananas, at the Hemlock. It was the first time we had gotten up and sung songs we’d written in front of an audience and it was a great feeling.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Ideally, we like to have privacy when creating. In fact, privacy is pretty important to us in general.
We’re terrible at self-promotion unfortunately.
It seems that creativity and social media go hand in hand. Being on social media tends to bring us anxiety and a profound sense of failure. We’re introverts. Our online presence is small to say the least.
Sometimes even the idea that someone may be able to hear what we are doing can be stifling. Of course, this is nearly impossible to achieve, so being able to compromise and be decisive are important ingredients to creativity.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Well, music has both hurt and healed us both many times over in a variety of ways, but we advocate for music as a therapeutic. Singing with another person is one of the most satisfying things one can do.
Music is a powerful healer, no doubt about it.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
We feel it is up to the individual to decide what they will tolerate as art versus appropriation. As far as copying art or cultural exchange, it can be perceived as flattery, thievery, or exploitative and depends entirely on the context.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Smell is a big one, certain scents can bring back memories of sights, sounds and feelings.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Being an artist is subjective. Our approach is messy. It begins and ends in spurts of focus in between creative paralysis. It’s not linear to say the least.
There is definitely a feedback loop between everyday life and art, we just try to be engaged in both.
What can music express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
Music inherently expresses the mutability of life in that it can be performed and interpreted by anyone to fit their purpose or meaning. And death, of course, is part of life.