Josephine Wiggs / Dusty Trails

By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 2000

Josephine Wiggs talks about Dusty Trails,  her collaboration with Vivian Trimble.

How did you meet up with Vivian?

Josephine: “The very first time I met her was in England, because The Breeders were doing a European tour and we invited Luscious Jackson to be the support group. I know that we met Kate and Jill previously to that in NY, like a month before. But I’m not sure that Vivian came to that. So it was while we were actually touring.”

What made the two of you start up Dusty Trails?

Josephine: “It was really because  I had been doing music more of less on my own. I’d been collaborating with John Mattock, who actually plays on one of the tracks on the cd. But he lives in England so it was an off-on kind of thing. We did that one album for Grand Royal and did two short tours in support of it. And then having worked on the Kostars thing and seeing how very talented she was, and how quick she is in terms of coming up with ideas and just taking something a different place, starting off with an idea and then she can very very quickly go of in a direction that would have never occurred to me. But as soon as she comes up with these idea, I’m like ‘Yes! It’s perfect’. One of the things that happened over and over again when we’re working out stuff together is we get it to a certain stage and when I’m not there Vivian will late at night be on the computer, and she’d have put like strings on the chorus or whatever song we’re working on. And then the next day when I come in and listen to it, it’s like instantly good, like sprinkling sugar on something. I could tell from working with her on The Kostars that it would be a very fruitful project. It took a while, though, because she was very busy doing stuff with Luscious. They had a very heavy touring schedule, and they weren’t around very much. Of course, if you’re touring and doing music all the time the last thing out want to do when you come home and have some time off is do more music. There has to be a bit of a balance. So it took a while, but then eventually she decided that she wanted to do something different. At which time I made my move and suggest that we work together.”

Since you’re more known as a singer, why does Vivian do most of the vocals?

Josephine: “She enjoys singing more that I do [laughs]. I think she’s always been interested in singing, and perhaps didn’t get to sing as much as she would have liked in Luscious Jackson, since there was already Jill and Gabby. She was singing some stuff in the live shows, but I think she was interested in singing more and writing lyrics and that side of things, which interest me less than other aspects. So it’s a very natural situation.”

What were your goals in making the album?

Josephine: “It is a concept album, I’m not ashamed to admit that. We’re both big fans of what you might call classic move soundtrack music. It’s mainly movies from the 60’s and 70’s and often times it’s thrillers actually, and spy movies and cop movies. It’s the type of thing where there’s a perfect marriage between the soundtrack and what’s going on on-screen. The music is really kind of a dynamic force within the whole experience of the movie. It’s not background music. It was that kind of experience of what music could do if it was given the chance that we were interested in exploring. Our idea was to make an album that would end up as kind of a demo for people who are making movies to hear what we can do. So that was the thought behind.”

Have you done any actual film soundtrack work yet?

Josephine: “We did one movie just before Christmas, we stopped work on the album for a month to do it. The writer and director is Brad Anderson, whose previous film was called ‘Next Stop Wonderland.’ He asked us to write music for specific scenes. We didn’t do music for the whole movie, partly because they already had final edit and they were submitting it to Sundance. So the timeframe was really tight, so I think both he and we were nervous about doing the whole thing, especially since we had never done it before. So he had these six slots in the movie where he showed us the scene and said ‘I want you to write something for scene, and it needs to be moody or upbeat or whatever. So that’s the only actual movie that we’ve done so far.”

With your soundtrack work, so you want to do different styles based on the need, or take on films suited to your general sound?

Josephine: “I’m more interested into doing a specific sound. I was just in Newport Rhode Island for the Newport Film Festival to be on a panel. It was interesting because of the other people who were on the panel, one of them was John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants. They’ve done some film and TV stuff, and he was talking about how they get called upon to write specific genres, like Ska music or Mississippi blues, very genre specific. And it was very clear in my mind that wasn’t the way for us to go. What I’m more interested in is … I think we have a very specific sound, and I think it’s very filmic and of course the ideal situation is where you can marry that as it is to a movie. Rather than us squeezing into a box that we don’t necessarily know anything about.”

Are there particular kinds of movies you feel would be ideally suited to your music?

Josephine: “I don’t know, I think that’s up to the filmmakers. The interesting thing is when you get kind of a juxtaposition, you know, of putting things together that you might not necessarily think would go together. .Virgin Suicides’ was very interesting because while it was a period piece, and although some of the source music is from the era, the original score is done by Air. And it totally had their sensibility, which is extremely contemporary. I thought that was really genius. I thought it worked really well, that juxtaposition.”

Do you have any more film work planned?

Josephine: “One thing that’s coming up is for Turner Movie Classics’ re-releases. They have a huge catalog of silent movies which haven’t been seen for like 60 or 70 years. They were made to have live musical accompaniment, like the big organ in the movie theater. They’re pulling them out and going through them, asking people to write original music for them. And I’d imagine that they’re going to have a limited theatrical release and also be on video. Laurie Anderson did one, I can’t remember which. Of course Universal last year released the original Dracula movie with Bela Lugosi, and Philip Glass composed a score for that. It’s interesting how it goes full circle, because Philip Glass and the Chronos Quartet played the score live while they showed the movie at the premiere. So we’ve been invited to do one of those, but we don’t know that the movie is going to be yet. And of course we’re still working on music right now, because we’re also committed to doing another album for the record deal with Atlantic Records. Even though in some ways the album’s only just come out, it takes a long time to make an album.”

When did you complete your current album?

Josephine: “Well it was mastered in February, and the set-up time at the record label is about three months, so it came out the second week for May. Making the album took us two and a half years, partly because we were really starting from scratch in all sorts of ways. We got a hard disc recording system, which neither of use had used before. I’d been using tape and ADATs. So we taught ourselves how to use Digital Performer, which is like the competition to Pro Tools at about a third of the price. People say it’s much more intuitive, more a musicians tool than an engineer’s tool.”

What effect did using hard disk recording have you the way you work?

Josephine: “Oh, it really affected it a lot, partly because it’s so quick and easy to throw down an idea, and continually refine it. If you’re working in MIDI you can change the key, speed it up, slow it down. Make it go backwards, but a chunk out of the middle and stick it at the end.”

Do you think having too much control ever poses a danger, in terms of giving too many options?

Josephine: “No, because it’s really clear to me when something is right. I think Vivian thinks sometimes that I do spend too much time finessing things, but that’s the difference between me and her. She’s a starter, and I’m a finisher. She very much wants to be doing new things, and not work on something for too long. And that’s certainly a danger, whereas I can’t move onto something new until the other thing is right. But that worked out really well, that’s the counter balance in the working relationship. Those two traits balance each other out.”

Have you performed live yet as Dustry Trails?

Josephine: “We did play some shows last year, we played like 5 or 6 extremely unrehearsed low-key performance. We had curated a woman’s film festival, the music video part. Which basically means watching all the videos that were directed by women over the past year and selecting 25 or 26 of them. They asked us if we’d play at the party, the opening party of the festival, and we decided that we would. If you’re preparing for one show, it’s not a great deal of work to do 5. So we did that, but it was be really hard. There’s two ways to go. One of them is the Portishead route, and have a string section and however many people on stage, and really try to replicate what’s on the album, making it into a real show. Which could be really nice, but would be a lot of work and money. And you have to sell a certain amount of albums before the record company will give you unlimited tour support. The other way to do it is to completely strip it down, and do much different versions. We’ve talked about that, but haven’t tried it to see how pleasing of a sonic experience that would be.”

What was the instrumentation like?

Josephine: “I was playing mainly bass, and some guitar. Viv was playing keyboards and singing, and then there was drums and an additional guitarist. I just found it really frustrating, because I really enjoyed working on the whole sonic landscape, and having available to me 32 different tracks, different instruments. Six different kinds of percussion, all on the same track. And then to all of a sudden not have that, I find it really frustrating.”

What about using more MIDI and/or samples?

Josephine: “Maybe, but then again, that doesn’t excite me. The idea of in effect playing along to a backing track, if you’re going to go that far, you can get someone else to play my part. The point to playing live is to have that sort of interaction between musicians, and to have it be a real performance. And the more stuff that you have taped, the less of that there is. And the less exciting it is to play. ”

Did you think at all about live performance when writing the album?

Josephine: “No! That’s part of the trouble. Our goal is to do soundtrack music, and not play live. Putting on a really good live show is a lot of work, and it’s not necessarily gratifying. All the time I’m really, really aware of sound that people are getting. It’s so completely different than what you’d like them to be getting. To put the tremendous amount of effort and work and not be confident that the audience is really getting the experience you want them to be getting; it’s a disincentive to me. Unless you’ve got the kind of resources with a really big production crew, taking your own PA. It makes me so mad when I go to a show and I can see what’s happening on stage, I can see the drummer is doing some really cool thing with the high hat, and you cannot hear it!! It just really pisses me off. I know a lot of people when they go to a live show, their whole thing is the volume, or the colored lights. I can’t see it like that, I want the subtleties. I need control!!”

For more info on Josephine Wiggs, check out her website at  josephinewiggs.com

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