Interview with Damon Waitkus (Jack O’ The Clock, Ventifacts)

When your prog credentials include a full throated endorsement from prog legend Fred Frith, you know you’re doing something right. And if you have heard Jack O’ The Clock’s eclectic mix of genres, you’d understand why he’d love them. Their music ignores any sort of labels or genres (although I am quite fond of their own label, “majestic junk folk”), and creates music that is bold and adventurous, but still charming and lovely and overflowing with strong melodies and memorable passages.

I had the chance to talk with Jack O’ The Clock’s frontman, Damon Waitkus, about his own personal musical story, Jack O’ The Clock’s history as a band, their latest album, Leaving California (which just came out May 28, 2021 and is available for purchase here) as well as his involvement with Ventifacts, an exciting new microtonal songwriting duo with Ben Spees (The Mercury Tree).

Tell me about your musical background. Who were some of your artistic heroes growing up?

Early on, music and visual art were relatively balanced in my life. Though music eventually took over for practical reasons, images left deep impressions.

My parents had this wild gold-plated Salvador Dali coffee table book which I used to pore over for hours in elementary school. It had a lot of the airy, dreamlike work you usually associate with Dali, which I loved, but it also had some rough sketches from a much more shadowy and libidinal adult world that I was much less prepared for: grotesque figures with great, pointy erections, people vomiting into each others mouths, fountains of blood… And it was also a cookbook! The recipes gave the pictures a run for their money, now that I think of it.

I’ve always had a vivid dream life, and Dali’s images were right there, deeply validating in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate at the time. They enabled me to stay connected to my dreams, maybe even paved a road for them into the waking world, encouraging me to try my own hand at art and other things I couldn’t explain in words, like my own music. I got pretty hung up on Andrew Wyeth a little later, for similar reasons.

As for music, I grew up playing classical piano and listening to my parents’ psychedelic rock and folk records from the late 60s. I liked playing Bach and Debussy, and listening to Simon and Garfunkel, Doors, Beatles, Moody Blues. I got the gist of the psychedelic privileging of the unconscious and mystery without being old enough to pick up on (or care about) its pretensions or hedonism. Psychedelic music probably introduced more clarity on spiritual experience into my early life than the staid version of Catholicism that I grew up with.

In middle school, I liked David Bowie, Yes, Jethro Tull, and basically listened to these guys in a vacuum every night before bed. I wasn’t really interested in the music my friends were listening to, and no one knew the stuff I was into, or if they did they thought it was hopelessly lame, so I kept my nightly listening more or less to myself, but it was a huge part of my life.

There WAS something energizing about grungy guitar-driven stuff that my friends were listening to in early high school though, not only because it was raw and angsty in a way that fit the time of life, but also because we were starting to form bands, and it was possible to go to Lollapalooza 2 (my first show, I think) and more or less understand how the music was put together—you could imagine actually getting from A to B, and that was exciting.

On the other hand, when I heard Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” on the radio driving around late one night, I had no idea what I had just experienced, and was thoroughly spooked. I was back in the realm of Dali’s sketches. It was so deeply and eerily true, and yet I couldn’t articulate why exactly; it spoke the prophetic language of dreams. You can do that with words and music? Back to the drawing board.

Photo Credit: Carly McLane

Jack O’ The Clock formed at Mills College, a creative hotbed for experimental musicians and composers. What are some important lessons you learned from your time there? What was it like to work with progressive rock legend Fred Frith?

Mills was unusual among academic music programs in that it approached music more like an art school than a music school. It’s not where you went for rigorous classes in counterpoint, ear training or orchestration, though these things weren’t completely absent; it’s where you went to have your mind blown open to the possibilities. We studied Schoenberg in the academic classes, but Cage had a heavier influence in the overall ethos. The musical interests there, among both faculty and students, were much broader than other college music programs I’ve encountered before and after that, and there was a lot of interdisciplinary work going on between music, dance, visual arts, and literature departments. Art in the broadest sense of the word. This actually did select for certain limitations in the music though—at the time I would have liked to get a little more down and dirty with aspects of the Western Classical tradition in which I was still interested in honing my skills (counterpoint, for example). We studied these things some academically but weren’t socially compelled to put them into practice. You would hear wildly creative ideas in the realms of musical texture, extended techniques, use of technology—people inventing their own instruments or playing existing ones in novel ways—but by and large you wouldn’t hear much going on in the realm of, say, harmony: there was a lot of diatonicism and sort of post-harmonic anything-goes, but little in between. I didn’t really care, though, since it was such a rich, stimulating environment in other ways.

Fred was a good teacher, encouraging and challenging. Jason and Jordan have an ongoing personal and musical relationship with him through their work with the Fred Frith Trio. I was focused on relatively traditional composition while I was at Mills, working at finishing Jack O’ The Clock’s first album “Rare Weather” on the side. Jason played it for Fred after I was done with the program, and he immediately recognized that that was where my heart really was, not in traditional composition, and said something like “why the hell weren’t you doing this while you were at Mills?” Fred became a big proponent of the band after that, and his stamp of approval I’m sure helped us reach a lot more listeners than we would have otherwise.

Mills College is closing its doors, unfortunately, though I understand the Center for Contemporary Music is to continue in some form. I’m not sure what that will mean in practice.

Photo Credit: Carly McLane

How do you feel like you’ve progressed as a band?

The main quintet worked together, rehearsing twice a week, for almost a decade. We started out idealistically I suppose with regard to sound, taking every finicky instrument, each with its own unique mic’ing requirements, into any noisy bar we were playing—melodica, flutes, whistles, vibraphone, banjo, music boxes, even wine glasses, on top of the usual drums, bass, bassoon, guitars, violins, and hammer dulcimer. You can imagine how that went. Eventually we started paring down to the instruments that we could get to sound reasonable consistent through different systems, eliminating variables and bringing more control to our side of the performance through the use of pedals and, for a while, our own devoted sound person.

We also became more adept at orchestrating for the unique ensemble. I learned how to write for the main quintet (drums, bass, guitar, bassoon/voice, violin, guitar/hammer dulcimer/voice) in a way that sounded balanced, frequency-wise, and the others became more efficient at crafting parts that fit the styles we were working within. There was probably a decrease in trial and error, in radical experimentation as we went along, though that spirit inculcated at Mills never left us completely. It even seemed like we started internalizing each other’s tendencies—I found myself coming up with polyrhythmic ideas that seemed to come right from Jordan’s playbook, and it seemed like some of Jason’s lines took a contrapuntal turn that sometimes reminded me of things I’d written (to give just two examples off the top of my head, but this kind of inter-influence went in all directions among all five of us).

The culmination of the quintet’s creativity as a live group was when we put together our last big show, the one for SeaProg in 2017 which became our “Witness” album. That was a blast, mashing together songs, many of them radically re-arranged, from every period of our time together, and really dialing in the sound. Kate (bassoon) had already moved to the East Coast by then, but came back for this show and mini-tour, so “Witness” really felt like the end of an era.

We worked as a sextet with Thea Kelley (singing) and Ivor Holloway (saxes and clarinet) after that, but there were a lot of distractions during this period and the band developed very little new material. It’s not a slight on Ivor and Thea’s contributions at all, just a matter of timing. Emily and I were going through some difficult family experiences, I was trying to finish school for therapy, and we were raising kids and starting to think seriously about moving back East. It all took some wind out of the band’s sails, I think. While I was completing Repetitions II in 2018, the actual day-to-day band felt pretty lost.

Once Emily and I knew we would be moving East as well, there was a period of about a year and a half where we rehearsed some new material as a quartet (doing one show augmented by keyboard player and singer Art Elliot), and I focused on recording drums and bass for a whole slew of new and unfinished songs, about three albums worth of material (the first of which is Leaving California) which Emily and I could then flesh out at our leisure in Vermont. This stuff runs the gamut, from unfinished original-quintet material to studio experiments I’d planned and started but never had a chance to bring the guys into, as well as a handful of post-Kate band songs.

After 6 years of touring and refinement, Jack O’ The Clock’s latest record, Leaving California, is finally finished and ready to present to the world. How have these songs developed over time?

Well, most of the songs on Leaving California were actually written since our last album (Repetitions of the Old City II from 2018), which you would think is the way a band makes albums, but is actually kind of rare for Jack O’ The Clock—usually, a whole lot of songs are batting around for a long time in parallel and I pick and choose from them to form an album according to mood and flow. It’s the same way now—I still have a large pool of recordings I’m working on—I just wanted to put a bunch of the newest ones forward for once, since I felt we’d made a sort of break, mood-wise.

The one song that does go back a bit is the closing tune “Narrow Gate,” which started life with the original quintet sometime around 2014. We rehearsed for a while with pianist/singer Evelyn Davis in 2016 as well, but never got back to it during the sextet era, so it went on ice until I started recording this album, at which point it was first in line for completion. We seemed to rehearse that one endlessly but could never finish it; something always seemed missing. What brought it back to life and helped me fill in the missing architecture was going back to recordings of full-band improvisations we’d had on some of the Narrow Gate thematic material and composing-out ideas derived from those. A lot of effort and ideas from Emily, Jason, Jordan, Evelyn, and even Kate went into that song.

The other songs had simpler histories. “The Butcher” is the only proper new song that came out of the sextet period, with Ivor and Thea integral to it—it was quite different from “Narrow Gate” in that I composed it out almost entirely on paper ahead of time.

“The Butcher” got a few live thrashings with the sextet, and we also rehearsed the title track quite a bit and played it live at our last show. The rest were songs I put together for the album. It’s a testament to the others’ creativity and musicality that they were able to get so much into songs like “Jubilation,” and “You Let Me Down,” because they pretty much heard them for the first time the day they added their parts. I did my basic parts and scratch vocals to a click and just threw them at Jason, Jordan, and Emily along with changes and a few notated spots, mostly for the violin. Thea usually wanted a bit more time to prepare, but that too was limited since she is also on the West Coast and I wanted to get her down before we left.

“A Quarter Page Ad” developed a little differently. The tune goes back to around 2000, when it was a simple voice-and-guitar song, and I’d dug it up for reconsideration when I was going through old songs to include in Repetitions II. I read an article somewhere about how it was fashionable for rich Victorian estate-owners to invite old, indigent men to take up residence in their gardens, ostensibly as groundskeepers, where they could live in romantic “simplicity,” inviting melancholy rumination on the transitory nature of life and whatnot. The song’s a classified ad for such a position. When this practice started looking a little iffy socially, garden gnomes of the familiar, less animated variety started appearing instead. Anyway, this kind of tongue-in-cheek idea had no place on Repetitions II (It’s not an obvious fit on Leaving California either, I suppose, but I like the way it sits musically). I had enough acoustic guitar-based tunes, so I orchestrated it out with a quasi-minimalist texture for string quartet and bass, bringing Emily’s brother Josh in to cover the cello.

Describe the compositional process of Jack O’ The Clock.

I’ll be brief with this one, since I’ve already been blabbing about it a bit. I’d only add that the diversity of sounds and styles in JOTC in part comes from a diversity of compositional approaches. I do everything from notating the music fully to bringing songs in a more traditional singer-songwriterly way, voice and guitar chords, and leaving the other parts and certain structural decisions open to the group process. Sometimes I’ll incorporate a thematic idea or progression someone else brings, and once in a while some or all of us will record group improvisations or spontaneous developments of a theme, and I’ll then boil these down and we’ll relearn them. Usually some combination of all these methods.

Photo Credit: Carly McLane

You stated that the title track “Leaving California” acts as a mission statement for the album. What is the story for this song, and how does it guide the composition?

That’s in our press release, though I’m not sure I’d call it a “mission statement.”

I grew up in New England, so “California” was a concept and a vague state of mind to me before it was a concrete place. Emily and I lived there for 16 years and developed some real affection for it—the grandeur and diversity of its natural landscapes, the cultural diversity, and the spirit of openness and experiment that does subtly pervade there, I think. But there’s also serious environmental and social crises going on of course, more acutely than in other parts of the country in some ways—consequences of climate change and socioeconomic inequities are now impossible to ignore, and grew alarmingly worse over the last decade.

The song is about the failure of ideals, and a resignation to somewhat more mysterious, slower, more implacable movement within the self and society—not complacency, but certainly a movement away from ideas and flailing action, towards a more embodied sense of awareness and feeling. It kind of picks up where an earlier song called “A Sick Boy” left off, with the death of the notion that “if we just persisted” with radical self- and societal-reinvention after an ideal, “we’d forget our given names,” our underpinnings, including all of the shadow content of our individual personalities, families, and culture. I don’t think real change comes from striving towards ideals, though there’s definitely a place for that, as provocation.

“Leaving California” is not a polemical song, nor is it really a personal one, even though we obviously did hit the road shortly after I started writing it, and it was the first new song I wrote after our personal crisis, the first time I allowed myself to tentatively start feeling through music again. On the personal level it was a healing song—simple, straightforward, the pure stuff, without conceit—I followed the sounds that felt warm and inviting to me in the middle of a cold and extremely anxious time. I wasn’t trying to push any boundaries with that one: all my ambitions fell away—that part felt really true for a while.

Tell us about your bandmates! What do you feel like each of them bring to the compositions on this album?

I’ve been lucky to be able to work with and learn from every one of them, truly, particularly Jason, Jordan, Emily and Kate—the folks that really created this thing with me over the course of years.

On Leaving California:

Jason’s presence is huge, and it’s easy to hear—just check out what he brings to the first and last songs in particular: his aggressive, driving, contrapuntal picked-bass work on “Jubilation,” his buoyancy and raw diversity of styles in “Narrow Gate,” his solid, understated grounding presence in the title track. He is a whole-ensemble thinker and deep feeler. What you can’t necessarily hear is the spirit he brings to the sessions—he comes wholeheartedly or not at all. I remember hearing some mysterious whispering when I was mixing the song “Even Keel” (from our 2016 album Repetitions I), and finally finding it when I soloed the upright bass track. It was Jason saying “surrender.” He had no memory of doing this. You can still hear it in the mix, actually, towards the end. The sessions for Leaving California were no less all-in. Sometimes we’ll talk for a couple hours before getting down to business—we needed to have a personal connection, transform the room, almost like a ritual. Then often we’d work until we couldn’t keep our eyes open.

Jordan astounded me repeatedly by pulling out styles I’d never heard him play before at the drop of a hat, even after we’d worked together for years. “Jubilation” is a case in point. I somewhat bashfully had these big, windmill-guitar chords at the beginning, wondering if it was a cheesy thing to do but really wanting it nonetheless, and Jordan just said “Ok, I’ll do Keith Moon,” and played those great, crashing alternating fills at the beginning. I’d never heard him do anything like that before, but it absolutely kills. He and Jason helped me blow away all self-doubt about the directness of that song. Same thing with the title track. I wanted something like one of Ginger Baker’s 300-ton-locomotive shuffles to open it up, and again Jordan was right there, even though Baker is not a particularly influential drummer for him personally. When the chorus to “The Butcher” goes all 1920s, or into a fast-bop feel, again, no problem…I could go on. But talking about stylistic versatility is almost missing the point with Jordan: he is an unbelievably creative and original drummer left to his own devices, and what he does the rest of the time, when I don’t have some sort of agenda (check out the rest of “Narrow Gate,” for example) speaks for itself. Beyond this, he is an amazingly willing, supportive, positive, and giving person. I’ll never find another drummer like Jordan.

Emily and I have been exploring music side by side since 2001—playing, listening, improvising, co-experiencing music as we co-experience life. It is hard to separate my own musical experience from our shared one, at least as far as this band is concerned. Her sound is such a part of the band’s identity, I can hardly conceive of new music without imagining her in it. She can be amazingly precise and detailed in her playing one moment, digging in and aggressive (like on the mid-section of “Narrow Gate”) and soaring, mysterious, and lyrical the next. There is also a fiddly warmth and playfulness that comes through at times, like on the title track. We share a love of many styles of music and at the same time, I think, a discomfort any time what we’re doing strays too close to something definitively idiomatic, such that a lot goes unsaid between us.

Ivor’s a bit of a lesser presence on this particular album than on the last one (as well as on some of the other recordings I haven’t finished yet), but he brings a wonderful creativity and spontaneity to “The Butcher” and “Narrow Gate.” His musical thinking is so fast—the way he crafts his solos off the cuff with an impeccable sense of melody and phrasing—to say nothing of the thrashing he gave my ornery written parts on the clarinet (an instrument he took up relatively recently).

Thea was a minor presence on the previous album, but I wanted to have her spirit be the focal point for a few of the new songs, because it was something so new and unexpected for the band. She brings a theatricality and a real singerliness to the album that the band has never had before. I can’t imagine “The Butcher” sung by anybody else now, and the verse she sings at the culmination of “Narrow Gate” is sublime. I’d been planning on singing that myself, but she expressed such a love for that song once we started working on it that I asked her to take over a lot of my existing parts, and am so glad I did—I can’t go back.

I’m also grateful to Emily’s brother Josh for filling out “A Quarter Page Ad” adroitly at short notice on a borrowed cello, and Myles Boisen, who aside from being a longtime mentor to me in the mixing and mastering department, contributed the special sauce to the title track in the form of pedal steel, an instrument I have always loved and been baffled by, as well as some beautifully mournful California photography for cover and CD packaging.

Photo Credit: Carly McLane

You recently released a new track- a collaboration with microtonal composer Ben Spees (of The Mercury Tree) called Ventifacts. Tell us what you can about how this collaboration came about, and the forthcoming album in late summer!

Yes, this has been an amazing adventure. Jack O’ The Clock met Mercury Tree when we both played the ProgDay Festival in 2015, and shared a stage or two here and there after that. Sometime after our last show together, by which time Mercury Tree had given over to fully microtonal music, the idea of asking Ben if he wanted to collaborate on some recordings nagged me, because I have a lot of respect for him and his work, but also because I just couldn’t imagine what our collaboration would sound like. It was raw curiosity.

I didn’t get right on this idea though, since I was so focused on compiling all those recordings of Jason and Jordan before the move, but soon after we relocated to Vermont in the fall of 2019 and I found myself without a band, I thought it might be time to try something new. Mercury Tree’s work with microtones absolutely fascinated me because they did it so accessibly in a way—yes, it was a radical reinvention on one level, and I’m sure was a lot of work on their end, but from this listener’s perspective, the leap from 2016’s “Permutations” to the microtonal material that followed was quite natural, and nothing was lost of the beauty and expansiveness of the earlier band. And I knew of no one that was doing this. That said, I had no agenda as to whether or not we—that is, Ventifacts—made microtonal music, I just wanted to work with Ben. In fact, I kind of thought we wouldn’t do microtones, or would use them in a minor, coloristic way. When I proposed the collaboration, though, Ben talked me into it. It wasn’t hard: the challenge was frankly irresistible, even though I was in completely new territory personally.

At first, we worked out a tuning system for my hammer dulcimer incorporating some quarter tones, and I sent Ben the initial sketches for “Pacific,” the first single we released, along with a couple other things. We had a few slow backs and forths over the coming months, and then the pandemic hit, and we picked up the pace seriously. Most of my work on Leaving California was already done by then, and “Ventifacts” has been my primary creative outlet since the beginning of 2020. Its gestation followed the main sequence of the pandemic in the U.S. almost exactly (well, let’s hope that’s it!), and the degree to which it kept me sane throughout 2020 probably can’t be understated.

We sent files back and forth between Portland Oregon and Brattleboro, Vermont. Generally, if I would start an instrumental idea, I would send it to Ben, and he would structure it into a song, adding lead vocals and his own instrumental overdubs along the way, and vice-versa. That’s a slight oversimplification, but more or less the way it went: the one who started the idea usually wasn’t the one to finish it or make the major structural and vocal-melody decisions. This wasn’t exactly by design, but it felt natural, and kept the collaboration balanced. There are two exceptions on the album—each of us ended up having one tune he wrote mostly alone. I think that’s nice too, though I wouldn’t want to have more than a couple of those. I ended up writing most of the lyrics, and Ben had a slightly heavier hand in the mixing. We’re splitting the final mixing duties, but Ben prepared all the drum mixes ahead of time, having been recording his bandmate Connor for over a decade.

When we started, I think we both intended to play all the instruments ourselves. I didn’t have a full-band (with drum set) sound in mind, but perhaps something more spacious. But we both write pretty consistently pulsed music, and I quickly found myself adding a lot of percussion to the mixes (without having a great array of instruments at my disposal). Once Ben brought Connor in on one tune, it was all over, percussion inflation occurred—from my perspective, he was too good to turn away from, and in such a different way from Jordan. He worked with the weird junky percussion that Ben and I had already contributed, complimenting it beautifully. Once we crossed that bridge, it was a short step for Ben to introduce Mercury Tree bassist Oliver Campbell on a couple tunes—Ben played most of the bass on the album, but Oliver has quite a different style, a heavier, darker flavor and different rhythmic profile. I also invited Emily in to improvise in a couple places, and composed a violin counterpoint for one of Ben’s vocal lines. I even brought samples of Jason and Jordan in as little highlights as well, so the project ended up being more Mercury Clock than we initially intended.

Ben really took the lead with the microtones. I’m not a complete stranger to microtones—I used to use them in free improv quite a bit, and occasionally would use them, often as a byproduct of instrumental preparations, in JOTC, but in an intuitive, unsystematic way, much more the exception than the rule. And I’d never tried to sing them before: that, for me, was the single biggest challenge! After we’d done a few quarter-tone songs, Ben wanted to work with 10-EDO (equal divisions of the octave) for a while, and then 17-EDO. Not coincidentally, I started using instruments I could retune more easily than the 100-odd string hammer dulcimer, like the 16-string guzheng, the 4-string taishogoto, flutes, guitars, etc., the more Ben switched it up on me!

In any case, I can’t wait to reveal this project to the world. I’ve never collaborated with anyone compositionally in so balanced a way, nor have I leapt into something as unfamiliar as microtones for a long time. I really don’t know what to compare it to, and I think that is a good thing.

As we emerge from a challenging time for music, do you envision touring as a possibility?

In theory. Touring seems remote at the present moment, since I don’t even know who would be in the band. We never toured casually very much, particularly since Emily and I have had kids, and it’s even less likely now because the core members are separated by a continent. We’d need to be invited to a festival or something like that, and then maybe I could coax them out to build a little tour around that.

That’s really just practicality disguised as negativity though. I very much WANT to play live again, and moreover work with other musicians in person, experience that group magic again. We now live only an hour from our original bassoonist/singer Kate McLoughlin, so the old front line of JOTC could feasibly reassemble with a different rhythm section for some smaller East Coast shows. There are a lot of good musicians around the Southern Vermont/Western Massachusetts area, we’ve just been slowed in meeting many of them by the pandemic. Truth be told, I’ve already started composing music for an ensemble in the mold of original quintet, and we are planning on trying out some of it with Kate this summer. We’ll see where that goes. It’s more important to me to get something up and running again in the coming year or so than to set my sights on working with particular people or even a particular instrumentation, so a lot will depend on who’s around and enthusiastic.

What are some of your biggest non-musical hobbies?

I’m not sure I have any proper hobbies, just a lot of life going on. Kids are a big thing right now. My two year old sleeps on my chest as I write. I’m just into being where we are—back in New England, among the trees and lakes I grew up with, doing some writing, trying to exercise outside and practice meditation, to pay attention to my dream life. I’m working as a psychotherapist when I’m not with my kids, which is its own humbling learning process. That seems to be my life right now, and it’s pretty full. If I can find time to get live music up and running again, see friends and extended family a bit more in the post-pandemic world, and keep the house from falling down, that’ll about cover what I’m capable of.

What are some of your favorite TV shows?

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia

What is your favorite moon?

Sturgeon

Photo Credit: Carly McLane

Thanks to Damon Waitkus and Jack O’ The Clock. Buy their latest album here, and stay tuned for Ventifacts.

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