Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter's fourth album, Marble Son, is a gilded box of gemstones. A crimson oracle. It's a country-western, psych rock, shamanic folk masterpiece. The band has refined an already refined sound. Songs are fiery, composed, and intensely pristine. They're sorrowful odes, suspended and levitated out from the core of the foursome. Jesse Sykes's vocals are smoky, present, and darkly enchanted. Guitarist Phil Wandscher's playing is singularly etched, soaring, and dialed-in. Solos, as songs within songs, spread cobwebs across the sky.
This is an album that could be made only by a band that's been together a long time. They've survived Sykes and Wandscher's breakup, and lived through turbulent times. Now they've regained themselves, wiser and better than ever. Sykes finds new beauty in the decay of an old marble statue falling apart over the years—her Marble Son. But a statue is strong, and like this band, and this album, will stand the test of time. Sykes spoke. I levitated three feet off the ground.
These songs conjure distinct imagery. For me, it's 1896 in Crush, Texas. A little girl and her family had gone to see the Texas Railroad crash 35-ton locomotives into each other. They sat too close to the track and were killed by debris. True story. It's the instant before the little girl dies, with a giant train wheel about to land on her, and she sees her life flash before her eyes. It's sad, but beautiful in a way, like your music. Suspended in the air.
I can't say that I was consciously thinking about anything morbid when I wrote the songs, though there was a lot of sadness. Death is always on my left shoulder. It's there with me constantly. I wish I could explain it better, but I'm always waiting for some kind of obliteration or oblivion. I can feel it sometimes as if it's really happening to me in the moment. I don't turn a corner without this sense that I'm going to be taken out, possibly. But I wouldn't trade it for the world. It may sound dark, but it's actually really beautiful. It's not violent, it's not oppressive, it makes every second vibrant. I feel like there's this glass in front of me, and I can breathe onto it and see my breath, and on the other side of that glass is the other world. All that separates us from it is this thin layer that's invisible, but very present. It inspires me. I'm fascinated by the fact that we're all going to be gone. Not just gone, but gone forever. Our essence will remain; it was probably there before we were born. I always find myself saying, "Holy shit, I'm here, now." I'm in wonder of it.
Do you believe in the well of souls? In reincarnation?
I don't know what I call it. I sure as hell believe in energy. And that we're vessels for whatever this energy of life is. I don't think I believe that we're going to come back as conscious beings remembering our previous lives. I think that would be torture. Could you imagine having to endure a whole other lifetime longing for a love you had in a past life? It would be brutal. For me, reincarnation would be more that the energy would be used again. If there were consciousness of a previous life, it would be as residual shrapnel in a dream.
You seem so open in your songs. I think that's a strength.
We live in a world now where our culture is very stuck on this notion that we all need to come off as being very well-adjusted. We believe that this is somehow strength. But I think the opposite is true—the more well-adjusted someone is on the surface, the more I suspect they're full of shit. How can you be so well-adjusted in this fucked-up, insane world? I have a friend in Norway who e-mailed me that the hotel where we were staying last month when we played in Oslo was 200 meters away from the bombing and all the windows blew out! I mean it's a crazy, crazy, world.
You guys produced this album yourselves, with Mell Dettmer. How was that?
The concept of producing has a lot of gray area to me. After making three records, it seemed like we knew what we wanted. We didn't know if we were going to get it, but we were going to try. We went into recording with these songs, and we knew we wanted it to feel very live, so we knew for the most part that they were going to have to be cut live with some overdubbing. But the main lead guitar definitely had to be live. The epic end on "Hushed by Devotion" is all live. I don't think you could conjure that unless you got it in the moment. It was a little scary. There were times where we hit a wall, and Mell Dettmer really rallied the troops. She's so talented. Phil and I have a reputation for being hard to work with, but a lot of that is because we were a couple and didn't hold ourselves back. We'd bicker and occasionally let each other have it. There's no playing nice. And if anyone's going to say I'm hard to work with because I'm a perfectionist and I have a really distinct vision that I'm trying to reach for, then I guess I'm hard to work with. I know what I want. If we have an idea, it's really important to me that we honor it and not give up too soon because we've been told it's not doable. We always spend a lot more money that we planned and we always take a lot longer for those reasons. At the end of the day, if there's something we can't live with, we'll rerecord it from the ground up. We did that with one song on this album. And there goes another couple thousand dollars [laughs].
Which song was that?
"Ceiling's High." It wasn't up to snuff. We've had a song or two like that on each album, and that's where you do what you have to do. It's hard to make the record you want when there isn't a lot of cash. I've had to learn how to be creative on a shoestring budget. Sometimes it just means waiting around until the money arrives. I'd rather that a record take longer and turn out the way we want than cut corners due to lack of funds.
The business end can deflate the creativeness. But you and your band's creativity hasn't ever wavered.
I think about it like a big Gothic castle back in medieval times, and the Dobermans guarding my psyche, guarding this road deep into my subconscious, and they will tear you up if you try to mess with them or this vision. I may end up living in a cardboard box, but I'm not afraid of that. I'm afraid of death, and how I'm going to die, but I'm not afraid of being alive, and being poor. I'm so in the moment with this music, sometimes I forget I'm getting older. It makes me feel like that train wheel you spoke about is coming at me in slow motion, and time has stood still for thousands of years. It's an interesting thing. It may be a form of mental illness. I don't really believe in the material world and therefore I am free.
Your songs are the riches. "Marble Son," "Wooden Roses," "Come to Mary," "Servant of Your Vision" are more like odes. You guys have really captured a sound there. Nocturnes? Quiet, drifting, crystal, and beautifully haunted. What do you call those songs?
There's a lot of forgiveness in the songs. We had gone through so many transformative events, and then on top of our own lives changing, people around me were experiencing such heavy things. "Birds of Passerine" was written for Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, who shot himself in the heart while I was writing for the record. We had toured with them in 2007, and I was really slayed by his suicide. "Come to Mary" was inspired by another friend who was going through a severely hard time. He went up to Alaska and was going to kill himself. He went out into the woods and made a throne out of snow. Then he sat in it, drank a bottle of whiskey, and went to sleep, figuring he would die. He had no intention of waking up. Well, somehow he woke up! He is still with us, thank God. "Servant of Your Vision" was me being desperate because I was falling in love, and I was really worried that I was losing myself and maybe the band. I had never been so confused about how much of my identity was wrapped up in this thing that I'd sacrificed so much for all of these years. I guess by "sacrifice," I mean my personal happiness at times. Mostly it's been a magical ride, but sometimes I couldn't help but wonder if I'd given too much of myself to this. No kids, family, etc. Looking at it now, I have no regrets; I'm fortunate it's still working.
Your songs are your children.
Billy Joel said that once, and I almost barfed. But now I get it. Making art is giving birth.
If music is birth, then you're Octomom. Y'all both have long dark hair.
I hope I'm not as kooky as she is, though. Something amiss there. And heartbreaking.
Are you an official Iowan now?
I actually just got my official Iowa ID. So I guess on one level I am. I'm living back and forth between the two places. Right now I'm in Seattle for rehearsals. I feel like I'm equally in both places.
What is the difference between Seattle and Iowa?
One of the things I love about Iowa is that every house has a family of cottontail rabbits that live in the yard. It's pretty surreal, over-the-top. You go on a walk in the evening, and you feel like you're in a children's book. It's very bucolic. But I still have my band and am tied to Seattle. If I didn't have that, I'd probably feel like I'd had all my limbs cut off, like I was cast off without a creative lifeline. However, in my heart world, I'm very happy in Iowa because I'm with my fiancé, Mike. It's amazing to be with him. Our relationship has opened up a part of my heart and soul that had kind of been barren for a while.
In Iowa, there's a lightness. Hot summer nights with crickets and fireflies. I went on a walk recently and was reveling in the beauty, but also feeling kind of proud to be from Seattle in terms of the emotional and external heaviness that I perceive it to have. I asked myself the question, Do we assign that darkness and emotional heaviness to Seattle? Is it really there, or is it something we bring to it because of its mythology and dark weather? I feel like it lives beneath the land; it's a resident energy and it's intense. When I'm in Iowa, I notice its absence.
You have the ability to tap into darkness and give it a beauty. With Marble Son, that's definitely there.
I feel like when Phil and I were writing it, we weren't self-conscious. We were in this strange survival mode, coming out of our breakup. Our lives were changing drastically, and neither of us really knew what was going to happen, together or individually. When I look back in hindsight, I can't believe we were able to make this record. His dad passed away unexpectedly of cancer. Bill Herzog and his girlfriend had a baby. I had to move out of where Phil and I had lived for 10 years. All these things happened, and I think we tapped into that dire energy. We wanted to do the best we could as artists to mirror that chaos and create some kind of grace from it all. To wrangle all the beautiful chaos and create symmetry and balance.
I think a lot of bands would have broken up under those circumstances. How did y'all keep it together?
Phil and I talk about it a lot. The other day, we came to the conclusion that we must just be crazy. We're both extremely loyal and extremely obsessed with what we love. We guard our vision like a couple of Dobermans. That's what the song "Servant of Your Vision" is about. There were times when I felt completely emotionally lost, questioned whether or not I should still be doing it, but giving up the music was never an option.
Phil and I kind of live in the moment, which allows us to not be too frightened of the future. I'm not and never have been afraid of sacrificing everything for my music.
You are your songs. Phil is too.
There's no separation and there never has been. There's been a surge of bands that talk about how "positive" their music is, and that seems really dismissive to me. The messenger of the music I love is someone who understands pain. It's almost like rock and roll has become a big, fuzzy bunny suit to put on, like sending your kid to a camp to learn to be in a rock band. That seems bizarre to me. Sometimes making this music is going to be the most beautiful, rewarding thing in the world, and sometimes it's going to be pure hell. There's not always a sunny side. I think you have to have the guts to stay dedicated and stay inside the process in order to see an outcome that makes sense and feels and sounds like your life.