June 5, 2012

Interview: Jenny Besetzt

[photos by Aaron Edward Ellis]
The recent release of a DiggupTapes compliation intended to raise awareness about North Carolina’s Amendment One debate included “Teenage Lions”, a visceral, dreamy track from North Carolina act Jenny Besetzt. While this wasn’t my first taste of the band’s output (I had seen them featured previously on my friend Lynn’s music activism website Homoground, as well as in the lineup for September’s expertly curated Hopscotch Music Festival) the song really brought to my attention just how wonderful this group is. I’ve always been partial to a certain brand of dreamlike, demure guitar pop music. Recent bands I’ve enjoyed such as Letting Up Despite Great Faults and The Daysleepers play this style, a certain kind of blurred, nostalgic pop stemming from late 80’s/early 90’s influences, a sound that explores childhood nostalgia and literary imagery yet never feels too retrospective or sappy because of the fierce energy expressing it. Jenny Besetzt make music in this space, a woozy earphone-filling style that you’ll find yourself wanting to hear up on your feet dancing to and while lying in bed drifting to sleep.

After recently seeing the band play an inspired live set at Tir Na Nog in downtown Raleigh, I spoke with them (The group currently consists of frontman John Wollaber, drummer Reed Benjamin, guitarist Brad Morton, bassist Jeff Bechtel, and keyboardist Kristen Morgan) about the identity of their namesake, about their upcoming debut album, and about eliminating environmental concerns using reverb pedals.

The lyrics in a lot of your music as well as the song titles themselves - "Teenage Lions", "They Were Full of Brave Illusions About Each Other", etc seem to evoke a sense of distant nostalgia and longing for events passed. Could you elaborate on your musical aesthetic/style?
John Wollaber: The songs that make up our current set are about holding up idealized versions of love and adolescence and comparing them to the real thing. You could say they're about romanticizing your regret. Other prevalent themes include delving into the deep psychological states of paranoia and the subconscious thoughts and motivations that effect our social and private lives.

Pop on over past the jump to read the full interview with Jenny Besetzt.
It's been written in other places that "Jenny Besetzt is the rose that grew from the ashes of a doomed young-adult romance.” How did the band start, and what is the significance behind the name?
(JW) I'm not sure who wrote that.  It's a theme that pops up in a few songs but we have songs based on other morose subject matter...you can't blame everything on one brand of heartbreak.

When I was five I went to a pre-k through 5th grade school in Germany and during one after-school function I began chanting "Jenny besetzt" in an attempt to get my cooler older sister to sit next to me for this puppetshow or book-reading or some such thing...for whatever reason the memory stuck and since this stuff is more or less entirely autobiographical I thought it was an appropriate name.

What sort of cultural items (bands/movies/books/people) influenced your style?
(JW) Sonic Youth, Kate Bush, New Order, Lois Lowry's "the Giver", the writing of D.A. Levy, and the film Hanna, which is referenced in a couple songs for the similarities between its plot and a fantasy I had for a couple years as a child, that I had been somehow created by a government agency intent on recovering me and that my parents were imposters.

Do you consider Jenny Besetzt to be part of the current dreampop/shoegaze scene, or any other scene?
(JW) I don't think there are any other bands in our town doing what we're doing so it's hard to say we're part of a scene.  We're the only band in Greensboro with what some would consider a crippling love-affair with the drumbeat from "American Girl."  We have pretty obvious shoegaze and 80's influences but it's not really a tribute to either of those, we're just suckers for dance beats and synths.  You can call us dreampop or chillwave or gypsy roller-folk...it's nice if someone likes it, whatever they call it.


What is your creative process like?
(JW) For the most part what happens is I'll bring in a rough demo version of a song and we'll bounce around ideas as a group as far as what to do with it live.  I write the bulk of the material but the parts definitely evolve and grow as the dialogue between us developes.  The songs have also begun to change as we've been recording.  Will Stephens at Bit Heart has encouraged us to experiment with sound and composition in more playful and less inhibited ways and that sixth voice has helped the songs become more well-rounded I think.

Your live show in Raleigh the other night was excellent and very effective at bringing the blissed-out overdriven quality of your recordings to a live setting. What pieces of gear (guitars, pedals, etc) go into achieving this?
(JW) As far as effects go I use a Gen5 delay by Lovepedal and the keep the reverb on my amp cranked.  The guitars have a unique sound because we set them up in kind of a different way by taking away the high E string and using an open tuning with capos in different places.  In general every voice is pretty well drenched in as much reverb as is humanly possible.  We love it.  It's the stuff dreams are made of and I'm pretty sure they used it as a mortar for the gold bricks they paved the streets in Heaven with. I believe one day we'll find a way to use reverb to fix our economy and get rid of that Texas-sized pile of trash in the Pacific Ocean.

(Bradley Morton) I use an Eventide Space Reverb which has added some distinctive extra colors to our sound.  There are a hundred or so different sounds that can be pulled outta that pedal. I'm still exploring its possibilities.  I use an MXR Super Comp compressor and also a fulltone OCD overdrive pedal to add a little "oomph" to the mix for lead parts.

How has the reception at shows in general been so far?
(JB)We've been encouraged by the reaction we've gotten playing live so far. We've gotten nothing but a supportive vibe from everyone we've played with/played for.  It's been wonderful thus far.

So far some notable acts we've played with have been No Age, The Love Language, Memoryhouse, Dope Body, Eternal Summers and Ed Schrader...for sure all bands we were thrilled to play with.

What art are you guys currently into (books, films, bands, etc)?
(JW) Lately I've been listening to a lot of Little Dragon, Wire, (((Sunset))), Crystal Stilts, and Fever Ray.  I've also been watching the Alien movies in preparation for Prometheus.

(BM) I've been reading a book lately called "Men, Women, and Chainsaws:Gender in the Modern Horror Film"...a female's perspective on different aspects of the horror genre.  It's fascinating if you're into that sort of thing.  I'm really into the bands Beach Fossils, Girls, The Drums...also Kanye.

(Reed Benjamin) Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel, David Sedaris, WTF Podcasts, William Tyler, Arthur Russell, Alien, Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

What are Jenny Besetzt's goal(s) for 2012?

(JB) We're trying to finish a full-length in time to have available for our slot at this year's Hopscotch Festival in September. It'd be nice to spend some time up north as well. We haven't toured anywhere north of VA  as of yet.

Any shout-outs/final words?
(JB) Shout outs to Will Stephens and Adam Joyce at Bit Heart Records for all of their hard work, as well as Nathan Price at DiggupTapes.

Stream: Jenny Besetzt - Teenage Lions

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