Black Eagle Child Grows “Lobelia:” An Interview
Black Eagle Child, aka Michael Jantz, is a musical genius who emerged seemingly from nowhere (ok, from Wisconsin) to release the breathtaking full-length Lobelia.
ELM: I know this your first full-length release, but can you tell me about
the split LP you did prior to Lobelia? Also, was that the only other
proper thing you’ve released?
MJ: Lobelia is not necessarily my first album, but it is the first thing I’ve recorded that is widely available, so I suppose in one sense it is my first album. It is also one of the only collection of songs that I’ve recorded with a specific end in mind. I’ve recorded a lot of music over the past four years and a fair amount has been produced on cassettes, by small labels throughout the US and Europe. Many of these releases, however, are collections of tracks or pieces that I had recorded with no particular plan, and then collected later for publication.
ELM: I read on Pitchfork that Lobelia was named for a flower your parents used in homeopathic remedies. Were your parents very into natural medicine? What was your upbringing like, if that’s not too personal?
MJ: My mother certainly was and is into natural medicine. I have an aunt who has been a proponent for the Nature’s Sunshine product line, and she turned my mother onto that kind of thing very early, probably before I was born. It’s not had an enormous or challenging impact on my life, but it’s sometimes strange to reflect upon certain details of my childhood and think, “I guess most people would find that pretty unusual.” But then I also think probably anyone’s family will seem at least somewhat unusual to someone from outside the family. My upbringing was quite standard, I think, for a child of the midwest. My mother is also very passionately Christian, though my father is not. I conformed to Christianity as a child but have since leaving home taken a break from it. We were a dog family. My father opened an automotive repair and detail shop in the early 1980s which is now just a convenience store. Much of my time as a very young child was spent playing there. Things like BMX, skateboarding, Nintendo and rock music were big deals to me at different points in my childhood. All of the kids were required to take piano lessons.
ELM: Can you tell me more about the album’s artwork? The lines on the cover make me think of an astrological chart, but I’m not sure if that’s where you were actually going or not.
MJ: The artwork was done by Mark Gowing, who does everything (or nearly everything) visual for Preservation. I think Andrew (head of Preservation) selected the photo and Mark did the layout, including the very subtle addition of color. I think I can see what you mean regarding the astrological chart, but I also think it’s probably not Mark’s intent, though I haven’t asked him. The artwork was selected really to kind of amplify the theme of family and I think it also underscores the pastoral quality of the music itself.
ELM: The titles of the songs on Lobelia, as well as their sometimes wistful sound, are full of imagery I associate with childhood and innocence, and then you have the sound of your daughter’s cry on the record too. It’s interesting to me that you could approach the childlike imagery both as a parent and a child. How much of that imagery did you consciously want to conjure up, if you’ll pardon the alliteration?
MJ: I think music that can conjure specific imagery in a listener’s mind can then have a much more lasting and dramatic impact. So I like the idea of creating images in my listeners’ minds. I find myself welling up with these intense emotions when I’m listening and I reach certain points in different pieces. I don’t think this happens because I have a specific reference to the music; I think it could happen for anyone. That said, I don’t think any particular piece is designed or written to help a listener visualize anything specific. Like any artwork that leans toward ambiguity, each participant can have a different experience. I just want the experience, whatever it is, to be intensely moving. My favorite experiences in listening are not in marveling at the ‘genius’ of a composition, but rather in being entirely overcome with emotion while listening.
ELM: Did you write a lot of songs for Lobelia that didn’t make the final cut?
MJ: Not really. There were two pieces that didn’t go onto the album. One was finished and the other I abandoned after I recorded the guitar tracks for it. I kind of work on several pieces simultaneously, and so it’s easy to say, “well I can afford to cut this because now I’ve got this and this,” or something like that.
ELM: I’m really interested in the postminimalism that seems to run through other contemporary artists doing similar things (here, I’m thinking first of Six Organs of Admittance, but also Hallock Hill and some others). I don’t get that same sense with your music in that it’s hard for me to point to a composer whose lineage you seem to be carrying on. Are there any contemporary composers who have inspired you or the work on Lobelia?
MJ: I really would rather not consciously imitate any musician or composer, but I’m sure that my music has its influences. I like some minimalist composers, but mostly those working with more classical instruments (piano mostly, and other traditional orchestration). I think Lobelia is steeped more in ambiguous visions that amount to an ideal ‘sound’ that I was aspiring to. The electric guitar is the album’s centerpiece because I love the way it sounds when it has this balance of crispness and heavy sustain. My impression of the perfect guitar tone is obviously granted from outside influences, but they’re difficult for me to pinpoint. The songs are composed somewhat in a minimalist fashion, but again, not really consciously. I certainly do not think of myself as a minimalist.
ELM: Some writers are very regimented, and some are not. Some writers are very prolific and others are not. Where do you place yourself in those terms?
MJ: I try not to be prolific. I try not to be regimented. I suppose I can end up being both if I’m not careful. It’s easy to fall into patterns and habits when playing music. I realize it when I’m turning knobs on pedals and realize as I go from one to the next that I’m basically on autopilot. Or if I’m doing a kind of loop-oriented improv session at home and I get to a point in the piece where I realize that I am playing inside of a formula. I do that. It’s good to be organized, but not to the point that it permeates the composition process. As for being prolific, I think there is an inverse relationship between proliferation and regimentation wherein more music and less regiment is good. But if I can’t vary my approach across 5 records, I’d rather only publish 2.
ELM: What did you do differently, sonically, on Lobelia than on previous music you’d made?
MJ: I recorded everything with a specific end in mind. I’d not done that very much before Lobelia. I also sought to limit the scope of sound. I didn’t want anything to be harsh or intensely loud. There’s very little, if any, distortion on the record. There’s very little ‘drone’. I am struggling to communicate (without actually saying it overtly) that Black Eagle Child is not automatically ‘drone music’. I have brushed up against a lot of different sounds in years past, but Lobelia is simply a record of modern compositions for folk instruments.
ELM: What kind of musical training do you have?
MJ: Piano and guitar. All the other instruments I have and play have been learned without lessons. Most of them I’m not very good at, but then they’re really only used as an accompaniment for my guitar, so ignorance and/or simplicity is maybe a blessing.
ELM: Do you play music every day?
MJ: I don’t. I would love to, but there are a lot of other things in my life (people, really) that compete for attention, and I don’t think when I’m on my deathbed that I will regret having spent time with my daughter instead of playing the guitar.
ELM: I’m really into bees, so I was curious about the back-story behind “the bee’s nest.” Do you mind talking a bit about it?
MJ: Ah well that song was created very quickly and purely by improvisation. I named it ‘The Bees Nest’ after recording it. The driving imagery behind it is related to an experience my dad, my brother and I had in taking down a nest at a house we stay in when in Crandon. The nest was fairly large and the bees were upset about the intrusion. Our dog at the time, Roscoe, naturally curious about the thing, got too close and was stung on the ass. We all had a good laugh about it because the dog had such a personality and I think you eventually get to think of and interact with animals the same way you do people. The event was so funny because it was just so predictable.
ELM: Were you surprised when Pitchfork gave Lobelia an 8.0?
MJ: Well first, I was just surprised it was reviewed at all! I suppose I’ll say it’s surprising to get an 8, but then I think also that I would rather it got a 10. I mean, I recorded this record over a period of 14 months and I spent a lot of time crafting it, so to me it’s close to perfect. But yeah, I think it’s worthy of an 8 and I’m very grateful to Grayson Currin for writing about the album.
ELM: Do you have any tour plans, or do your job and family limit the amount of shows you could play?
MJ: I don’t have any plans, though I would like to eventually play outside of Milwaukee. Right now, yes, it’s difficult to go out on the road when I have a family and a job to tend to. I need both of those things more than I need to tour. When the time is right, though, I will be excited to get out there.
ELM: When I first listened to Lobelia, I was also wanting watch this foreign film I like, so I just turned the sound off the movie and let the record play, and it worked perfectly. Can you guess what movie it was? Or, perhaps, what movie would you choose for Lobelia to score?
MJ: Sorry I really don’t watch a ton of films…I’ve got nothing here! On that topic, though, I would love to write a film score or spend the rest of my life writing music for film. I do envision writing music for potential films as I read novels and short stories. Particular scenes are just excellent for imagining accompanying sound.
ELM: Who are your favorite writers?
MJ: This changes periodically, because I go on ‘binges’ on certain authors. Lately I have been liking Javier Marias and Ha Jin. Marias’ “Your Face Tomorrow” trilogy is incredible. Ha Jin’s “In the Pond” is charming, and his writing overall is ingeniously understated. A long-time favorite (and perhaps all-time favorite) writer for me is Jim Harrison.
ELM: If you could raise awareness of any particular social cause, what would it be?
MJ: Public education. This is inevitably entwined with politics, but nonetheless it needs more actual attention from the public. I wish people in this country could turn off American Idol long enough to learn about what is actually happening to their country. Parents who think their midwestern suburban kids are OK because they don’t deal with violence at school are sadly ignorant. Every kid going to a public school is the target of the government’s attempt to disenfranchise the unprivileged through reduced funding and increased micromanagement. The damages created by mis-education and under-education are slowly and subtly manifested on the large scale, but it will also be a very slow process to repair these damages. We will be facing a nation of apathetic and uneducated people with no power and no interest in participating in the creation of laws that govern them.