Jeremy Lemos has established himself as a genuine creative force in both music-making, concert sound and recording over the last decade and more. He speaks with CAR Music Researcher Bill MacKay about the importance of doing quality work, making connections naturally, finding your voice as an artist, and following your instincts in pursuing your art practice.
How does your band White/Light so successfully present to an everyday audience what could be a fairly challenging form of music for those who've never heard it? Do you think at all in terms of genre or how to balance the abstract with the traditional?
I think it has a lot to do with [the audience] being able to see us onstage and being able to see what we are doing up there. I’ve always been opposed to performing on laptops where there is a two-dimensional mystery happening onstage and an operator who could or could not be interchangeable. Our music may be unconventional, but people can see Matt playing guitar and see him setting up different sounds with all of his pedals or me with my pickups and synths. I've never thought of what we do in terms of a genre, other than it's improvisational most of the time.
How has doing music, in all its varied aspects, changed your view of humanity? Do you see it as essentially entertainment, as something people need at a primal level, as an intellectual stimulation? Is the audience the prime receiver of a catharsis through music or is it mainly just the performer who experiences that?
This question could be an entire essay! I think it works both ways, and that’s why music is so powerful. I’ve had the same contact from a higher power while in the audience, onstage as a tech (just about every time I’ve ever heard Teenage Riot), or as a performer. It happens most of the time while I’m controlling what’s happening, but only when things are going well. Sometimes the gear is a part of you and your mind is flowing right out of your instrument, and that’s when it really becomes transcendent.
When you have a bad show, you have to keep in mind that the worst show you have ever played was someone’s favorite show they have ever attended. It happens a lot. I’ll mix a band and think, Man, they really stunk tonight, and I’ll go backstage and they are all high fives and beers. Or, I’ll think it was the best show of the tour and I’ll go back, and the band is all silently brooding over what a terrible show it was. We both heard the same show! So, I try to remember that when I have a bad show playing or mixing. Some of my least favorite shows I’ve mixed, people have ran up to me and told me it was the best-sounding show they have ever heard in the venue. It’s always going to be that way—people's perspective being so different—so just try to keep it positive.
How have you approached making connections with others in your music career—be they musicians, reviewers, agents, club owners, promoters? Has this been an intuitive outgrowth of doing what you love with the art form or is it necessary for musicians to try to engage with the business aspects of the music world (even against their own will or inclination)?
I’m completely charmed because I’ve never made a career decision based on money. From the first day, I’ve just made decisions on the band being nice and if the music was any good. We used to call that “punk rock” when I was young, and that would apply to anything, not just music. I think it’s really easy to get burnt out in this business, and the only way to not get that way is to love what you do. If you are on tour working your ass off all day and you don’t even like the band at the end of the night, it’s going to be a long tour. Because I’ve been working with bands I actually listen to, people I would love to work with have started calling me.
One thing I can say is you're not going to get any gigs staying home and watching Netflix. Many friends of mine have gotten on tours because they have stayed up all night drinking with the singer or the manager and then got asked to jump on the tour. Just like a lot of things in life, it helps if you're a people person. If people like being around you, they will be much more inclined to want to be on a bus with you.
At what stage in someone's music career is an agent or manager needed? Do you see benefits to a completely DIY approach, where influences outside a band are kept to a minimum, or should musicians reach out for representation and assistance?
I’ve known Howard Greynolds, Iron & Wine’s manager, for many years and I know that having someone behind you who knows the right people can really open a lot of doors for you. But, it doesn't matter at all unless you have good songs! If you are a bad band, a great manager can’t do all that much for you, but if you are a great band, a good manager can get you out there. Managers aren’t for everyone, for sure. But the more time I spend around Howard and John Silva [manager for Sonic Youth & Beck, etc.], I realize that powerful managers can really earn their percentage.
How has recording so many other musicians helped you to develop your own work (if it has)?
It could be as simple as showing me that it’s not all that hard to make a record. Confidence in knowing that you know what you're doing. Knowing that you can call amazing musicians that you look up to and they might actually say "yes" and come play on your record.
You've worked with many musicians who mix traditional and melodic forms with the abstract and sonically unexpected, in terms of mood and style, such as Bud Melvin, John Fahey, Loren Mazzacane, and so on. This also seems to be a hallmark of yours. How did this develop?
Like I said above, I love working on projects that are interesting to me. The first studio I worked in did a lot of droll sessions for cookie-cutter blues records. I don’t remember those sessions at all. What I do remember is the first time I was doing bass punch-ins with Doug McCombs [of Tortoise, Brokeback, Eleventh Dream Day]. I was literally sweating, afraid to make a mistake in front of someone I had so much respect for. Years later, we are friends and have played together. I love it.
In the beginning, I would work on a lot of projects for free, just because I really wanted to be a part of it. After a while, the people you are interested in working with start to find you.
For younger musicians starting out, what are the main things you'd tell them to keep in mind? Is there anything you've done and do to stay creatively free?
Don’t stop working. If you really want to do things like this for a living, you have to be willing to do them for nothing. That’s the secret of life anyway, right? Find something you would do for free and get people to pay you for it. That’s the dream!
Jeremy Lemos is a recording engineer and musician. In one of his principal groups, White/Light, Lemos has continually pushed to extend the sonic field while always maintaining a grounding sense of musicality and melody. He has worked in recording studios and done live sound for years, including a stint as head engineer at Chicago’s Acme Recording, and a ten-year period as owner of his own studio Semaphore Recording. Pavement, Slint, Iron & Wine, Sonic Youth, and Jim O’Rourke are just a few of the many artists whose sound he has enhanced on the road.
Interviewed in Spring 2012.