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Interview: Damien Jurado

11 March 2016

Photo by Elise Taylor

Damien Jurado is a man who can’t seem to escape from his dreams. Years ago, he woke up startled after seeing highly detailed visions of a fictional town called Maraqopa during his slumber. This mental mirage was so compelling, he began to try and weave its otherworldly imagery into his songwriting.

Now, Jurado is a week away from releasing Visions of Us on the Land, the final installment in a trilogy of albums detailing the story he’s managed to piece together from what his dream allowed him to glimpse.

In 2011, Jurado enlisted the help of producer and sonic architect Richard Swift to rebuild this fleeting world in sound. Swift took Jurado’s skeletal, finger picked songwriting and fleshed it out with swaths of echoing, psychedelic instrumentation and a ghostly chorus of backup singers. What resulted was the album Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian) which spawned minor hits for Jurado in “Museum of Flight” and “Working Titles.”

Though Maraqopa ended on a cliffhanger car crash, Jurado originally had no intention of continuing the story. He even had a new record’s worth of material written and ready to record, its themes completely independent of Maraqopa’s influence.

A week before hitting the studio, Jurado ended up trashing those songs after suddenly finding an urge to continue the story of Maraqopa. He again convened with Swift in 2013 to hash out this unplanned follow-up, titled Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son.

The album detailed his character’s emergence from a car crash only to wander back into Maraqopa. Upon his return, the denizens of the town, all named Silver, began to allude to the character being a sort of prophet or “beacon between Heaven and Earth,” as Jurado once said.

Swift complimented these heightened supernatural themes by further hurtling Jurado’s songwriting down deeper sonic wormholes built from Latin flavored polyrhythms, wailing voices and other echoing walls of sound.

Visions of Us on the Land, which boasts a sprawling 17 song tracklist, will see the character and his companion Silver Katherine leave the now familiar Maraqopa for a trip across a desolate, abandoned America in search of themselves.

As they’ve done with its predecessors, Swift and Jurado have pushed into even wilder sonic territory. Kaleidoscopic mixes of brass, percussion and alien synths flash across the tracks as Jurado’s calm voice dictates the bizarre landscape his characters are traversing.

I caught up with Jurado a few weeks before his album release and the start of a lengthy European and U.S. tour. He spoke candidly about continuing the complex concept that ties his reluctant trilogy together, his initial hesitance about releasing a double album and how his visions of spiritual sci-fi inspired him to start singing the truth.

So you start your tour in April. Will you be playing a lot of the material from Visions of Us on the Land?

DAMIEN JURADO: Yeah, we’ll definitely be playing some songs from Visions… but also quite a bit as well from other records like Maraqopa and Brothers and Sisters… I’m not really playing anything before Maraqopa. This is kind of a Maraqopa tour to tie all three records together.

What was the decision behind that?

DAMIEN JURADO: I mean for me, it made sense because this is the last of the trilogy. I hate saying that, but it really is, it’s the last one. I didn’t tour with a band on the last record. It just seemed a bit far fetched and impossible. Especially the production. And then this time I was like, I should really get a real good sound engineer and go on tour with a band.

I remember watching an interview where you were saying Brothers and Sisters…was the last time you were going to return to Maraqopa. So what changed between now and then? What put you back in that place?

The album cover of Visions of Us on the Land

Album artwork by Brian Koch

DAMIEN JURADO: It’s kind of a complicated answer. You’re right. I said this in previous interviews, and the press has been ever so kind to point this out to me, I said there won’t be a follow-up after Maraqopa. And then I did Brothers and Sisters… and I toured that record and I said no, there will not be a third one. I wasn’t planning on a second one already, and there won’t be a third. And then I made a third one. That goes to show you…it’s never planned. I don’t plan anything. So, maybe it’s foolish of me to say even say there won’t be another record. Cause there might be. Because it’s not planned, things just sort of pop up. I really honestly had no intentions of recording a third album. As much as I did with the second record. What happened was…“Visions of Us on the Land” was the first song I wrote. Actually, no, what is it called on the record….?

Is it “On the Land Blues”?

DAMIEN JURADO: “On the Land Blues.” That was the first song I wrote for what would be the album. And then from there…I started writing more after that. Here’s what’s funny, I didn’t know right away. I sat with that song for a little bit. And then, I think, for some reason, I went to record this quick demo of it. And it was as I was recording the quick demo that I realized, “Okay, wow, I’m actually back in Maraqopa here.” And then I was like, I’m just gonna remain open to this, I’m not gonna fight it. And then one song came after the other. Again, it’s not intentional. I don’t think about what I’m writing. I’m writing down…as it’s coming out of my mouth or my mind. So, it isn’t like I’m saying, “What rhymes with land?” or whatever. I don’t do that, I’m not that kind of writer. It’s all just free pen, free mind writing. I’m just dictating as it comes in my brain.

You were talking about writing one song after the other. The tracklist for Visions…is 17 songs long. I know you’re normally a 10 song, 13 song tracklist kind of guy.

DAMIEN JURADO: A 32 minute opus (laughs) then I’m done.

(Laughs) Right! What made you say this one is 17 songs long, it has to be?

DAMIEN JURADO: That was Richard [Swift’s] idea, that wasn’t mine. I initially walked into the studio with 20 songs and Richard said, “Let’s just track all 20.” And I was like, “I don’t know…” Again, it’s easy for him to say that because, and I hate saying this and my other musicians will hate me saying this, but it doesn’t take much effort for me. I played the songs…they’re all one take, one after the other. So, what I mean by that is like…my initial track, the guitar and voice are recorded live. And it’s just me singing in the chair. So it’s almost like playing a set, but for Richard being the only person in the room. So he just records my “set” or mini “set” of 20 songs and then we stop the tape and then we’re adding stuff on top of it. That’s kind of how it is. That’s why the albums go so quickly for us. That being said, he was right. It didn’t take any effort to track 20 songs. I had them in front of me and the lyrics were there and I just did it. When it was all done 50 minutes later, he just said, “Alright, well let’s just start putting stuff on top of these.” He liked every song. I’m not gonna argue with him. But in my mind, even as we’re adding stuff to these songs, never did I ever think, “Okay, yeah, I’m going to use all these songs.” I just kept thinking, “Okay, maybe 12. Maybe I’ll do 12. But I don’t want to do more than that.” And 12 for me is pushing it, cause I’m usually a 10 song guy, especially as of late. So, Richard was like, “I think it’s time for a double album.” And immediately in my mind, all I think is like, bloated heavy metal rock records. Which I really, really hate. I think when bands do them, even bands that I like and respect; The Who to Iron Maiden to Modest Mouse and Wilco…I just think they’re…I’ve never understood the point of them. Like, The Lonesome Crowded West is a great album, but I don’t think you need every song on that album. I don’t know. Maybe the same can be said with Visions of Us on the Land. I don’t know. For me, I’m not throwing Richard or anybody under the bus, I agreed to do it. But I couldn’t go 20 songs. For me it was just 17. (Laughs) It felt like negotiation. I have a friend of mine who is this avid music listener, big fan. He’s not a musician whatsoever. But he buys lots of records. And I said to him, “What if I did a double album?” And he was like, “Yeah…I don’t know man.” And I was like, okay, I’m not doing a double album. And then I got with Richard again in the studio, and that was kind of it.

Maraqopa and Brothers and Sisters… both followed a concept you created. So, do you think this longer tracklist, this double album, opens up that story a little bit more, opens up the idea of Maraqopa a little bit more for you to work with?

DAMIEN JURADO: It does open it up, but the reality is, I’m adding to a lot of what I now think it is. Maraqopa and Brothers and Sisters… were solely based on a dream I had. So record three is really what I think would have happened had the dream continued. So, it’s really….there’s only maybe one or two songs…that are really going off what I saw in my dream visually. And the rest of them I’m going off of those other two songs. “On the Land Blues” is a good example of that. “On the Land Blues” is really about…the part of story, and this is kind of around the time where I woke up from this dream, where our main character and this girl, who I’m presuming is Silver Katherine, get into this vehicle and now the Earth is empty. There’s nobody on Earth but them. They’re almost like this new, or symbolize, I guess maybe Adam and Eve, biblically speaking. Like…if you woke up tomorrow and you…are you married?

I am not.

DAMIEN JURADO: You’re not. Do you have a girlfriend? Boyfriend?

I do, yes, a girlfriend.

DAMIEN JURADO: Okay, you woke up the next morning, and you and her were the only people on this Earth. And on top of that, you won’t die. You’ll never die. You’re immortal. And that’s basically what’s going on in this third album. And they are venturing out and they are exploring and they are finding themselves, and they feel complete. But there’s also this sense of not complete, because they’re so much you haven’t seen and experienced. But there’s also this element of, which they’re actually questioning themselves, which is like, “Are we dead? Is this a dream?” Like, what if we wake up tomorrow? What if I wake up tomorrow morning and I’m actually in a hospital bed, and you’re nowhere to be found and I’m surrounded by these people who are supposed to be my wife and my kids. Like, that’s kind of what’s going on. That’s the scenario that’s going on in this record.

So it’s almost like they’re venturing out and seeing everything and they’re living like it’s their only day.

DAMIEN JURADO: Right. I always say it’s almost like spiritual sci-fi. Spirituality plays such an important role in my music, especially in these last few records. But, there’s also this element of sci-fi. Not like Star Wars, Star Trek , but more like the Rod Serling sci-fi. Or…H.G. Wells. It’s very…keen. It’s not kitschy.

I always think of sci-fi as sort of experimental, with these big “What if?” questions.

DAMIEN JURADO: Yeah, pretty much. You’re messing with other dimensions and time travel and parallel universes…which is exactly what plays out throughout the entire story.

Has sci-fi always been a big love or big influence of yours, or has it only worked its way in these last few records?

DAMIEN JURADO: Well, its only worked its way into these last few records, and I’ll explain how. That was something I think I’m so incredibly thankful for Richard for. When I went into record St. Bartlett, he said to me, “You like all these bands. You like all these musicians and artists. But nobody knows…because you never musically take nods at them.” Which is true. I grew up for years listening to so much eclectic music. But I got stuck in this world of being a singer-songwriter and trying so hard to fit in the world of like, Iron and Wine and Bright Eyes. I spent so much of my late ‘90’s and 2000’s trying to fit into that world. When really, it wasn’t me. It really wasn’t me. I was only doing it because I would sell a lot more records that way. I thought that was what people wanted from me. And I wasn’t being genuine with myself. And it took me so damn long to realize like, “Man, I’m actually not fooling anybody here.” I may be, but I’m really fooling myself thinking this was me, and it’s not. And so, learning to embrace that side of me was big. And sci-fi actually plays a big role in that, because I grew up on The Outer Limits, and I grew up on Twilight Zone and C.S. Lewis. But I didn’t tell anybody that, because I always associated it with…I don’t know, I didn’t want to tell anybody that, because it might ruin my Americana image. It’s true! I feel ashamed of saying that but it’s really true. I was trying to live up so hard to this flannel shirt, Americana, Bill Callahan, Will Oldham world. It’s not me. I really identify with modern day people. I really identified with, like Devendra Banhart for instance.

Do you feel like the records you started making with Richard, St. Bartlett and on, is that you speaking the truth to the audience? Is that you kind of revealing who you are?

DAMIEN JURADO: Yeah, that is me for sure. The only early record that comes close to that, I think, is Ghost of David. That’s a weird ass record, dude. And again, that is me. It is dark, it is weird, it is complicated and messy. That’s a very “me” record.

In a The Weekly Feed interview back in 2014, you were talking about Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son. At the end of the interview you said, “Y’know what? I think this is my peak, I think I’ve hit it, this is my masterpiece.” So, when you were making Visions of Us on the Land and you were thinking about that peak, how did you approach that?

DAMIEN JURADO: When I went into the studio with those songs for the new album, it wasn’t like “Man, am I gonna top this last album?” or “I’m gonna top this last album.” My thought was basically, this will probably be something completely new and different. I remember making Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son. I remember turning to Richard and saying, “Dude we just one upped the last record,” and he was like, “Oh my God yeah, we totally did. This is crazy.” I think at that point, I was like, okay, I’ve now made the greatest album of my entire career. And I could die happily now. I could quit music tomorrow. That was my attitude. But I think with that comes a renewal. It’s almost like setting the reset button. So for me, it is. You’re right: Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is my peak. But this is the beginning of a new chapter for me. I’m excited to see where I go from here. And I think Visions… is a good start. This is my album one of my new start for me…even though they’re all connected.

Visions of Us on the Land is out March 18 on Secretly Canadian and is currently streaming on NPR. Damien Jurado and the Heavy Light begin their tour in Nijmegen, Netherlands on April 7.