Light Heat Gets By With a Little Help

Published June 24, 2013

ABOVE: LIGHT HEAT’S QUENTIN STOLTZFUS. IMAGE COURTESY OF EREZ AVISSAR

The last time we heard from Philadelphia’s Quentin Stoltzfus, his band Mazarin had released the shimmering aughties psych of We’re Already There to critical acclaim. But during a world tour in support of that record, he was blindsided by a cease-and-desist order from another band claiming ownership of the “Mazarin” moniker. Ultimately, the band dissolved, and Stoltzfus took a step back.

Eight years on, Stoltzfus has returned, this time as Light Heat. With the help of some heavy-hitter friends—including members of The Walkmen—comes Light Heat’s eponymously named debut (Ribbon), a profound work that radiates a hip pop classicism, as much Dylan as it is Velvet Underground. The album’s lived-in grandeur draws on the psych-pop motif of his earlier works, and the result is an uptempo record perfect for contemplative full-moon-night drives on lonely roads or early mornings at a kitchen table in the countryside.

We caught up recently with Stoltzfus by phone and via email from his home in Fishtown, Philadelphia, where he lives when he’s not working on music in a yurt on his family farm in Virginia, and talked about his hiatus, process, and the importance of solid, true friends.

DAVID JACK DANIELS: Hey, Quentin, how’s it going?

QUENTIN STOLTZFUS: Pretty good, man. How are you?

DANIELS: Good, thanks. So, it’s been a while since your last record. What’s been going on for the past eight years?

STOLTZFUS: [laughs] Wow, that’s a big one. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff, working on other people’s projects, spending a lot of time recording and writing, and just taking my time. I’ve also been building studios, tearing them down, building more. It’s been that, and logistical stuff, like not having a record deal and trying to make a record for free. I was really just interested in taking my time and making these songs as good as I possibly could. Even when I listen to the record now, I still hear things that sound unfinished to me. I feel like I could work on it forever.

DANIELS: Every artist’s dream. Or nightmare, maybe. The studios where you recorded the album, Python’s Palace and Montgomery Mansion, are they yours—did you build them?

STOLTZFUS: Python’s Palace is the studio I helped build for my friend Alec Ounsworth [of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah]. It was an amazing place for a few years, in an old stone barn just outside of the city with an entire wall of windows overlooking mature trees and, I kid you not, a ski slope. It was such an atypical studio. There was always bright sunlight streaming through the windows, and we could actually record with the windows open! Alec bought an amazing API console, and I had my loyal old 1968 Ampex 1″ 8-track—a really nice pair. Everything else was borrowed gear from friends. Without getting too much into gear talk, it was quite the setup. Montgomery Mansion is my home studio. It’s just a room on my third floor with all the gear I’ve acquired over the years. I’ve recorded and mixed a handful of bands at both places, but both were mostly private studios.

DANIELS: On sessions you recorded there, you had some of The Walkmen working with you. [The Walkmen covered Mazarin’s “Another One Goes By” on 2006’s A Hundred Miles Off.] Have you known those guys for a long time, and how did they become involved with the album?

STOLTZFUS: I’ve known them for about 13 years. We did our first U.S. tours together, and then so many other subsequent shows and tours after that, so we all became very close. I don’t have brothers, but I’ve adopted them all as my brothers. They really kind of picked me up and dusted me off and got me back in the game. Paul Maroon had been trying to get me in the studio with them for a while, and I kept making excuses. Finally he called me one day and said, “I’m moving to New Orleans in a month, we gotta do this now.” I saw a window of opportunity that I knew wasn’t going to exist much longer, and I knew I had to take advantage of that. We went in to the studio a few weeks later completely unrehearsed. Those guys are so good, it was like communicating via ESP. After tracking, Pete Bauer subsequently helped me seal everything up by helping lay down some percussion parts and keys. They kept on me about finishing it. I feel very lucky to have them as close friends. I can’t overstate their significance in making this record.

DANIELS: Not to get all Golden Girls on you, but that reminds me of how great it is to have good friends—and it seems that so much of getting anything creative done these days requires some support. How have your relationships to friends, in music and otherwise, evolved as you’ve gotten older?

STOLTZFUS: Absolutely! And to add to that, it’s great to have good friends who are incredibly competent and who support and understand your ideas. It’s even more fundamentally important these days, when so many records are being recorded outside of the traditional studio setup. Nearly all of the records I’ve made over the years wouldn’t have been nearly as good or even possible without the critical ears of close friends. So often credit goes to an individual—usually the songwriter—and the contributions of others involved get overlooked. Everyone I worked with on the Light Heat record, from the label side (Morgan Lebus) to the studio side (Ounsworth, Steven Maglio, Brian Mctear) to the players (The Walkmen, Pink Skulls, Mary Lattimore), to my live band, my girlfriend, and even friends who weren’t directly involved but who just lent an ear when I needed one… all of these people I consider to be dear friends without whom the process of making this album would have been so much more difficult, or perhaps impossible.

As I’ve gotten older, the process has gotten easier, mostly. Obviously we all have more responsibilities, but we’re also more responsible. We’ve learned how to work together better. We’ve picked up legitimate skills through the years of doing this, and hopefully improved as musicians, songwriters, producers, and engineers. It’s become more difficult in terms of scheduling, but I feel like we’ve gotten better at doing more with less time. Friends, players, contacts—they distill over time. Interactions become more concentrated, relevant, and meaningful. I’m amazed that I’m still able to pull this off in the way that I do. I’m even more impressed with my friends who have kids and are able to continue to do this. That scares the shit out of me.

DANIELS: And getting older also means dealing with loss, which some songs on the album seem to address. Are any of them an account of personal loss?

STOLTZFUS: Yeah, without getting too into it, in a short period of time, I lost several close friends to suicide. My niece got brain cancer (and beat it!), I lost both of my grandmothers and had a long list of other personal tragedies. It was a devastating time. So, yeah, the existential imagery in “The Mirror,” “Elevation,” “And the Birds,” and to some extent “Chasing Dragons” and “Dark Light,” all comes from personal experience. There’s a line in “And the Birds” that references The Cliffs of Tojimbo, a popular spot in Japan for people to kill themselves. I had read an article in The New York Times about it while I was in the middle of working on the song, and I had to incorporate it. All of this had a profound effect on my concept of mortality. And that’s really what I want people to take away from this record and its exploration of dark subjects, particularly suicide. The fact that we exist together on this clump of space particles, and are able to communicate with each other in this sliver of time, and write songs and poetry and make films and build buildings and airplanes and control the fundamental forces of the universe, while speeding around a ball of fire more powerful than our minds can possibly ever comprehend; the fact that your grandmother met your grandfather and had your mother, and your mother met your father, and somehow you came into consciousness and are able to read these words and listen to songs… All of this is nothing short of improbable. Why are we squandering this time worrying?

Somehow I found this thought process very liberating. It was a mindfuck for many years, but I just arrived at a point where it wasn’t any longer.

DANIELS: Translating what weighs on and inspires you into music, I hear part of that process for you involves working in a yurt [a portable, sturdy tent-like structure] in the woods. What’s that all about?

STOLTZFUS: I built a yurt on my family’s farm down in Virginia about four years ago. My parents wanted me to design a cabin for them, and my mom was like, “I don’t want to spend that much money,” and it was this whole big to-do, and we ended up arguing for months about it, and finally I spent the night in this yurt in Virginia, and subsequently, I made a bunch of recordings there with Kurt Heasley from the Lilys, and I just fell in love with it. There was this torrential downpour the first night I spent there, and it was just the most soothing space to be in, so I went back to my parents and said, “Okay, I’ve got the solution. Instead of building a permanent thing, I’ll get one of these kits, and you can make it as permanent or as impermanent as you want.” The whole time, I was selfishly motivated by wanting a place in the woods to record. So I ultimately built it, and dubbed it “the Owl Farm,” and have been going down there regularly ever since. I take my little mobile studio down there, and it sounds amazing for tracking and mixing—it’s crazy the mixes I pull out of that place, with no acoustical treatment at all. It’s the perfect way to record in the woods. It’s become an absolute, vital part of my writing process. When I’m there, I immediately get stuff done. It’s isolated, and I’m on all this land and there are all these animals, and I just kind of turn into a different creature when I go down there.

DANIELS: Don [Devore] showed me a slightly disturbing picture on his phone that was taken while he was visiting you there last summer. It shows him doing this Hunter S. Thompson routine, wearing the hat and shades, and he’s kind of coolly wielding a 12-gauge shotgun…

STOLTZFUS: [laughs] Oh Yeah. That’s pretty much par for the course down there. I don’t feel like it’s a complete trip unless I shoot some guns.

DANIELS: Do you do any hunting while you’re there?

STOLTZFUS: No, I just kind of set up, like, empty six-pack boxes on a tree and just shoot at them, but I’m not really a great shot. [laughs] But this 12-gauge, it’s like a cannon, and it’s really exhilarating.

DANIELS: Thanks for chatting with me, Quentin. Just one last question: Are you a shower or bath person?

STOLTZFUS: Oh, a little bit of both. Usually a shower, but there are some days where I require a bath—a long bath.

LIGHT HEAT’S SELF-TITLED DEBUT ALBUM IS OUT TOMORROW, JUNE 25. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS FACEBOOK PAGE.