|John Steven Morgan|
Stevenson is half of the off the beaten trail black metal band Wreche, with Barret Baumgart. We're not here to discuss this strangely pleasing black metal, but his upcoming album, Solo Piano Works.
Ever present but not present is the partnership between these two men, even though Baumgart isn't a part of this project, or interview.
If your first thought of a metaller playing piano on a record away from his band brought up Nigel Tufnel, well then you're not alone.
Check it out!
Glacially Musical: Thank you for taking some time for me today.
John Steven Morgan: Of course! Just basking in front of my AC in the wake of a turkey burger.
GM: Let's get the obvious comparison out of the way. Wreche and Solo Piano Works are miles apart. The idea that popped into my head was Nigel Tufnel playing Lick My Love Pump in D Minor.
How do you stay away from that?
JSM: Yeah, haha, well the music on Solo Piano Works was actually written prior to the Wreche material and spans several years.
I’d say what makes this situation different from Tufnel’s D minor opus is that I’m not trying to cross pollinate the ideas overtly. On Solo Piano Works, there are quite a few beautiful, mellow piano pieces, some inspired by my love for early jazz, and some that begin as dirges, eventually evolving into violent fury (same territory as Wreche).
I guess, simply stated, I’m trying to work with each song and do the best I can for it – whether it’s painting a hurricane or a mountain valley in springtime.
Tufnel is making the music about himself by interjecting his penis into the field of flowers.
GM: When you sit down at the piano to write, do you consider what you're writing or do you just play?
JSM: A little of both. To be honest, I’m more of an “action-guy” so I like to just sit and play and see what happens.
The way the songs on SPW developed was through years of playing on the street. For work, I take a real piano around in my van and play on the streets in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
Inevitably, playing these songs hundreds of times, leads to more interesting, new parts. If I’m lucky, whole new songs emerge from vestiges of songs in my current playing rotation. When I’m at home, I try to develop the new parts and phrases further.
Once they’re polished, I have a new piece, always making sure to leave a few bars for improvising – like a starter dough for bread. For Wreche, it was the opposite – completely written in my studio. I would play and improvise, come up with a part or several parts and really attempt to find the narrative between the two.
Often, I would come up with an exact idea in my head and try to execute it on piano. It was very exciting for me because every movement became intentional rather than “chiseled” from a large block over time.
Barret was also crucial in this process, providing another set of eyes and truthful opinions on what each musical decision expressed and what to edit out. There was a lot of chopping down with Wreche – we wanted a distilled onslaught.
GM: Tell me about your musical training.
JSM: I am self–taught on piano. Since (age) 18, I have had friends (Barret included) who loved to play music.
Every Friday, we would all drink beers and whiskey and jam, switching instruments and coming up with new things to play. Even in front of your close friends, it’s a lot of pressure to come up with something right on the spot, and I think it made us all better.
GM: What made you think that this quiet music had to come out?
JSM: I have a romantic side of me that won’t die. I still like melancholy, beautiful things.
GM: Do you see this as another side of your music or an extension of it?
JSM: I think the solo piano pieces are another side of my musical nature, but in a way that compliments the work I do with Wreche.
There is continuity in my chord choices between both modes of writing - though I use the formulas to create different outcomes. Some pretty, some sad, some violent.
Overall, my hope is that it increases the breadth of material to give a fuller picture of what I’m trying to do musically and with the piano as an instrument. The new solo piano pieces I am working on will close the gap even more.
Solo Piano Works mainly covers my love and reapplication of stride piano/old jazz as well as some pretty film score pieces I wrote. I bring out the more experimental and classical side of my playing in Wreche.
GM: Have you ever considered using an electric piano?
JSM: I don’t like ‘em, but I did just purchase a Roland System–8, maybe my best investment in years.
I call it the "Alien Software" and my dad calls it the "Green Machine." I bought it because I’ve never owned a synth where I could design my own sounds. The synths on Wreche and other music I’ve made, were based out of my KORG and I modified them with pedals. I am stoked to be able to completely customize textures– it is a whole new world for me.
GM: What do you think are the five most important albums of all time?
JSM: This is difficult so I’m just gonna list some albums that are important to me, that I cannot do without: Pink Floyd ‘Meddle’ (well their whole discography – they were my first favorite band)
Hella ‘Hold Your Horse Is’
The Bad Plus ‘Suspicious Activity’
Converge ‘You Fail Me’
Vince Guaraldi ‘Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus’
Thelonious Monk ‘Its Monk Time’
Modest Mouse ‘Lonesome Crowded West’
Krallice ‘Years Past Matter’
For Classical - Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Beethoven, Shostakovich
For Jazz – Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane, Fats Waller, Art Tatum
GM: Which is the Beastie Boys' best album?
JSM: “Vermis” by Ulcerate
GM: What do we need to know that I was too dumb to ask about?
JSM: Nothing man, you’re not dumb! Don’t beat yourself up.
Oh, well Barret recently got a book published through University of Iowa Press. It’s called China Lake – it won the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction 2016. It’s incredible! Buy it, read it!