Band Booking: Judson Claiborne on Service Animals, Hypnosis, and “Endless Uncomfortable Conversations”


The first time I heard the music of Chris Salveter, it was in Low Skies, a band whose songs sat at some taut crossroads between the elegaic and the Gothic. Their 2006 album All the Love I Could Find remains a favorite, and I was thrilled, when listening to the latest album by Judson Claiborne — my first exposure to the band — to hear a familiar voice in the mix. We Have Not Doors You Need Not Keys is Judson Clairborne’s third album since 2008; it retains the haunting elements inherent in Salveter’s voice but allows for moments of relief and exuberance. I checked in with Salveter to hear more about the origins of Judson Claiborne, the process of creating their new album, and more.

As someone who first heard your music in Low Skies, I’m curious about how Judson Claiborne came about.

I wrote the songs for the first Judson record when I was in need of some musical and personal transformation.  The final Low Skies album represented all of this dark and gloomy stuff I needed to let go of.  I felt trapped playing those tunes and touring so much.  Before the record even came out, I put all my belongings in storage and traveled Southeast Asia by bicycle with a couple of close friends, then I spent some time in the woods at a new-agey retreat center in upstate New York, taking yoga classes and working in the kitchen.  The label and the band were not psyched, but I began to feel happy for the first time in a long while. I wrote songs to accompany these new experiences and returned to Chicago to try them as Low Skies tunes, knowing that I was ready to move on to playing with other musicians. It didn’t end well and I did burn many a bridge.  The recording sessions for Before Midnight Scholar began almost immediately, in Chicago winter of 2007.  Collaborating with new musicians, instrumentation, and arrangements was liberating and therapeutic.  It marked the beginning of the Judson Claiborne thing.

What was the overarching concept behind We Have Not Doors You Need Not Keys? Where did the title come from?

The record as a whole is kind of a meditation on non-verbal communication, mostly the ways in which the human body and voice can convey our psychological state better than language.  I’m always struck by the way we often say, “I’m feeling great” but our tone of voice projects something quite different.  I’m impressed by how someone can rob a bank or hijack a plane without a weapon, using only intensely focused physical presence as a means to paralyze or hypnotize, like a magician or politician would.  I studied yoga pretty intensely for a while, and had many revelations by way of its awareness practices, understanding the mind-body connection more than ever.  We Have Not Doors You Need Not Keys is a way of saying that we can mask our true feelings with words that are incongruent and that we often ignore our true perceptions in order to avoid dealing with these true feelings.

You interviewed Sharon Van Etten for the Chicago Reader; what do you find most satisfying about a formal conversation with another artist?

I’ve never been good at making art in a vacuum.  It’s crucial to talk to folks about what they’re doing and why, and also to talk about your own work.  I can’t imagine where I’d be without dialoguing with other artists.  I would have probably never heard Captain Beefheart or learned that my art was at times too ambiguous or shallow.  I know that the art school critique has a bad name and can be laughable at times, but a great deal of my development as an artist is due to endless uncomfortable conversations in big white rooms.  To be clear though, I don’t think art school should cost as much as it does and you don’t need school to maintain a community of artist friends to talk about your art with.  One thing that SVE said that’s really stuck with me was that, “Music is the most universal language that we have”. That rings true, I think.  I’ll hear Miriam Makeba or Jacques Brel singing on recording, feeling what they’re trying to transcend even though I don’t comprehend the language.

Where does the title of a song like “Seeing Eye Ponies” come from?

My girlfriend read me a newspaper article about how ponies are replacing dogs as service animals for the blind because they live much longer.  The article described this scene of ponies wearing special tennis shoes as to not scuff floors and somehow diapers, living in these domestic urban and suburban spaces.  It sounded like such a weird and uncomfortable experience for the pony.  I couldn’t find much compassion for the project.  Maybe the song is about bad ideas.  I was also thinking about a friend I treated terribly some years ago and how I keep making these awkward attempts to rekindle the friendship.  Not only humans will suffer our bad ideas.

What have you been reading lately?

Everything But The Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, a book of essays edited by Greg Tate; Program or be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff, a solid look at digital media’s effect on our culture and psychology; Crime by Alix Lambert, where criminals and artists intersect; Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky.

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