Nonconnah make music that crackles like a fire's beginnings and ends, with embers melting a Polaroid past. Led by Zachary Corsa on guitars, tapes, keys, machines, and other things.....the collective etches sonic notes in trees smeared in ash and reverb.
The music of Nonconnah came to be after Zachary and Denny Wilkerson Corsa left North Carolina and dissolved their ambient project Lost Trail. They were an incredibly prolific duo, releasing dozens of collections of lo-fi shoegaze soundscapes, accented with field sounds and thrift-store cassette tape samples (think 1980s sermons...). It was a beautiful noise they made.
I shared some bills with the duo, and was even lucky enough to be an honorary member of Lost Trail once on a sun-drenched afternoon in Winston-Salem, NC - did anyone record it?
Pedal Fuzz: What prompted you and Denny to relocate the band from NC to TN?
Zachary Corsa: The short answer is that Denny’s employers were relocating to Memphis for their own work reasons, and we felt connected enough with them that following them out here seemed like a worthwhile adventure. Additionally, though there are some extremely talented experimental musicians in North Carolina (and I’m talking to one, of course), I never felt we particularly belonged to, or were much welcomed in, the larger music scene in the area. There’s a lot I miss about North Carolina, but Memphis has been a much more friendly and receptive community for what we do. It was worth the hassle of relocating for a chance to find a more conducive scene, and I’m thrilled it worked out.
PF: In what ways is the music of Nonconnah different and similar to Lost Trail?
ZC: The basic bones of the projects are the same. It’s still home recording, rooted in guitar layers and field recordings with the occasional piano or synth piece, and the work still touches on the same ambient/shoegaze/drone/noise signifiers. The differences are apparent in what we’ve learned about the recording process and production while we were Lost Trail, and how the quality of the finished product has evolved largely from ‘very lo-fi’ to ‘mid-fi with lo-fi accents’. Also, Nonconnah is much more of an open collective of collaborators, as compared to Lost Trail, which was almost always restricted to Denny and myself. Live, we perform with anywhere from two to maybe seven other contributors - we have a bit of an open door policy with the Memphis weird music scene, whereby anyone who’s around that wants to help out and improvise at a show is welcome to do so.
PF: Can you explain your musical evolution, and what non-musical factors may have contributed or inspired you?
ZC: I began playing guitar at seven, and by the time I was in my mid-twenties I had played with all manner of indie and post-rock bands and was largely burned out on ‘band politics’. Around this time, through writing for music blogs, I began to uncover a lot more experimental artists than I had previously been exposed to, including very minimalist composers like David Wenngren from Library Tapes. Initially, Lost Trail was an experiment in tape recording via piano, an instrument I still don’t know how to properly play, in that dark early Library Tapes style. It was a nice break from guitar, but I eventually missed having the palette of sounds guitar offers. As time went on, some of the standard drone and ambient elements began to shift into more noisy shoegaze work, as we began to listen to a lot of heavier gaze bands like Astrobrite. I really fell in love with the process of recording and experimenting with different methods like a technician in a lab. It’s still my favorite part of making music, by far.
There’s definitely folk and rustic elements in what we do, buried beneath the haze. I listen to a great deal of old-time music, ballads, bluegrass, gospel, and Sacred Harp singing, and my college years living in the mountains of western NC had a profound impact on my sensibilities. I feel like I say this in every interview, but I really do consider us a very Southern band. That sense of a mysterious landscape that holds layers of the past beneath its surface is ingrained in what we do, a lot more than people may realize. Making original music also tends to bring out personal obsessions you didn’t know you had - in our case, passionate belief systems seem to come up often in the field recordings or in the general themes of the work. Passionate belief and the supernatural, a sense of dread or a sense of rapturous, awestruck transcendence, and also my fascination with suburban sprawl and its horrific brand of destructive beauty. It’d be naive to think the politics of our current hellscape administration don’t creep into our work, too, but I try to avoid direct addressing of politics. Our music is really emotionally-based, unapologetically sincere and epic and heartfelt. I don’t buy into the too-cool school of Stephen Malkmus irony and sarcasm very much, never have. It’s not how I live.
PF: Tell me about the nature of improvisation in your music - how important it is, what appeals/doesn’t appeal vs more rigidly constructed music.
ZC: My mind doesn’t function on the level of carefully planned-out, meticulous music. I work best on impulse. I sit down with no preconceived notions about what a piece is going to turn into, and let instinct take me where it leads. Almost nothing ends up sounding as planned in our world. We don’t overdub traditionally, we tend to collage until something just ‘sounds’ or ‘feels’ right. Live, improvisation is a necessity. It keeps things fresh. It’s impossible to replicate the layers of the recordings in a live setting, so the live entity really is entirely separate from the recorded works.
PF: How do you translate your music live?
ZC: It’s always a challenge, but we try to bring some of the spirit of the recordings to the live setting, even though we’re not performing specific pieces. We bring in taped elements and field recordings, interesting sounds. The live performances are usually variations on a single key for a long period of time, and I suppose in that way it’s closer to free jazz than merely ambient or shoegazey.
PF: What opportunities and challenges come with performing live?
ZC: Constant anxiety - not about performing, after all these years of playing, but that something technical will go wrong, which it often does. Working with old and often obsolete technology, the situation is always very precarious. The one ‘cheat’ with experimental music, I suppose, is that if you don’t visibly act dismayed by something unplanned, most people won’t take it as unplanned. The live show is a necessity because people enjoy seeing us live and meeting us, but it’s a far second to recording as far as priorities go for me. I’m pretty introverted - I like staying at my house out in the country and tinkering. The best part of touring is really meeting people and seeing new places, in my opinion.
PF: Lets talk about gear - what guitar(s) are you currently using?
ZC: My main guitar you know well, since I purchased it from you. That’s the Reverend Ron Asheton Signature, a really versatile V. I’m a very midrange-minded player - bright, trebly sounds hurt my ears and can ruin performances for me. The Asheton is a very warm and dark, rich-sounding guitar. It’s what I use for most recordings due to its quality. I must admit I’ve been half-seriously trying to sell or trade it, though, because as much as I love it, I fully believe in switching out your gear every so often to mix up your sound a bit. I adore that guitar, its been a trusted friend for a few years now, but it may be time to try something new. Otherwise, I tend to gather Teiscos, Kays, Silvertones, and Harmony equipment and the like. The sound and aesthetics of many of those guitars suit my sensibilities. My main backup is a Teisco K2L I found on the Raleigh Craigslist years ago for $80. It has a fondue knife repurposed for the tremolo. I have a Teisco Audition with a gold-foil pickup that I found at a junk shop in Burlington, NC - that one gets used for stuff like bow-work and weird tunings and such. I just picked up a Kay Effector from a friend in Chattanooga - it’s a Les Paul copy with some very strange built-in effects. Other than those, I also have an Ibanez Jet King that my Mom bought for me in 2008 and which was my main guitar for many years. Other than recording with it occasionally, it’s mostly retired now, but I’d never get rid of it. Those were the very best guitars Ibanez ever built, by miles.
PF: Walk me through your pedalboard.
ZC: I have a fairly large and complicated setup, I’m afraid. My main pedalboard channel, currently
-Devi Ever Rocket Mangler (Soda Meiser + Vintage Fuzz Machine w/ gain joystick and noise options)
-ProCo RAT (my oldest pedal)
-Raygun FX Super Fuzz Boy (a fuzz housed in an old Game Boy console)
-Old Blood Noise Endeavors EQ/Buffer
-DigiTech Whammy Ricochet
-Dwarfcraft Wizard Of Pitch
-Strymon Mobius (modulation effects)
-pink label Boss PS-3 Pitch-Shifter/Delay
-MidFi Clari(not) (tape delay/modulation)
-Ibanez FZ7 Fuzz
-Malekko Charlie Foxtrot (granulator)
-Earthquaker Devices Data Corruptor (synth/oscillator)
-TC Electronic Polytune Classic
-EHX 22500 looper
Also on the board but on a separate channel are -
-CoPilot FX Arrow (white noise generator)
-TC Electronic Ditto looper
I also utilize an old Alesis Wedge desktop effects unit in my setup, as well as an XSPRO ABY switcher and a Pyle hum destroyer.
PF: Do you have any recent pedal discoveries?
ZC: The Midfi Clari(not) has become my favorite pedal by far. They’re handmade by Doug Tuttle, who’s played in tons of awesome psych bands and does incredible solo work now. The Clari(not) is a really solid analog delay that goes nuts when you crank the controls - it gets the best ‘out of control warbling tape’ effect I’ve heard, out of all the pedals which attempt to replicate that specific sound.
PF: What pedals do you rely on or love?
ZC: I have a lot of love for my RAT, which I’ve had forever, and also my PS3, which is again a super versatile pedal, both a very reliable digital delay and something much weirder and fun on other settings. The Tera Echo is a deeply underrated pedal, as is the Ibanez FZ7 - those are getting a bit of a cult reputation, so I advise folks to grab them while they can still be found for thirty bucks. Same for the DigiDelay, where the looper can give you some really wild glitch sounds when used right.
PF: Are there pedals that you were once enamored with that have lost their charm?
ZC: I honestly think I’ve appreciated every pedal I’ve owned, even the cheap plastic Behringers I started out with. They’re fragile in how they’re constructed, but they sound pretty incredible.
PF: What amps are you playing with?
ZC: I’m a solid-state guy, pretty devoutly, because I think it sounds cleaner with the amount of pedals I use. I played a Hot Rod Deluxe for years and it always sounded like mush. I traded that one for a Roland JC-60, the single-speaker Jazz Chorus, and that’s been my main amp ever since. Very clean and clear sound reproduction, not too much color. I had a JC-120 briefly but it was just more amp than I needed for what I do. Lately I’ve been splitting my signal at the ABY box and running my pedalboard through the JC-60 and the Wedge through a Silvertone 40XL, which I’ve had around for awhile, a really fun vintage amp. Same as guitars, I tend to gather those old catalog amps. The only tube amp I own is a little mid-sixties’ Harmony H400A that Denny found at a free market and which amazingly worked fine. It sounds incredible but it isn’t grounded, so it tends to shock the user.
PF: What other sound making devices do you utilize?
ZC: E-Bow, glass slide, flathead screwdriver, violin bow. Anything that can make sound through pickups - toy laser guns, shortwave radios, cassette and micro-cassette machines. I have a Kaito computer speaker that makes incredibly awful sounds when you plug the cable into itself, and I’ve used that at shows for years now. I usually run an iPod Classic into the PA for the samples/field recordings.
PF: Are you collaborating with other musicians live or on recordings? If so, who?
ZC: Since Nonconnah was partially founded on the idea of being more openly collaborative, we’ve been lucky to team up on tracks with many incredible musicians. One album we finished recently was the end product of about three years of work, and it features a number of names folks will probably be familiar with. For example, Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), Kenneth William (White Lung), Archie Moore (Black Tambourine, Velocity Girl), Lori Goldston (Earth, Nirvana), Jim Schoenecker (Collections of Colonies of Bees, Volcano Choir), Eric Craven (Hangedup, A Silver Mt. Zion), Stuart Dahlquist (Sunn O))), Burning Witch), Dustin Wong (Ponytail), Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing), Alyse Lamb (Parlor Walls), AJ Annunziata (Sannhet), Dan Friel (Upper Wilds), Robert Poss (Band of Susans), Paul Baker (Skywave, Ceremony, Static Daydream), Neil Jendon (Kwaidan, Catherine), Scott Cortez (Astrobrite, Lovesliescrushing), Jett Brando (All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors), and lots of other folks that aren’t as well known but damn well should be. Right now, I’m actually waiting to get a track back for a collaboration with Charles Bissell from The Wrens. It’s very humbling to work with so many folks whom I greatly admire, and whom in many cases I grew up admiring. It’s beyond flattering.
PF: What changes through collaboration?
ZC: Well, you have to let go of some of your control over what you expect the end result of the work to be, but that’s what makes it fun and exciting. Getting a track back from someone with their contributions and clicking ‘play’ is a very Christmas-morning kind of moment. I know it’s going to add something to the piece, because if I thought for a second it wouldn’t, I wouldn’t ask that particular musician. I tend to let them do as they wish because I trust them to interpret the work as they see it. It’s their vision.
PF: How do you feel about the music scene in Memphis, TN?
ZC: We have one of the most exciting music scenes in the country for weird music right now, and even for a number of bands that aren’t so weird but are just damn good bands. I just finished helping out with the second Memphis Concrète festival over the past weekend, which my friend and occasional bandmate Robert Traxler organizes. What he’s built here for this scene is a real gift to all of us, and to the entire city. This year we had performances from some incredible folks like Wolf Eyes, Alex Zhang Hungtai, Spookstina, Linda Heck, Circuit Des Yeux, Gavin from Cities Aviv…just three days of incredible and envelope-pushing work. It’s rewarding to feel like these folks will go back to their respective scenes and tell everyone what we’re building here with the community in Memphis. This is really becoming an experimental/noise music town in a way that’s very rad and satisfying.
Here’s some local Memphis folks’ projects to check out - Robert Traxler, Revenge Body, Ihcilon, Aster, The Family Ghost, Mystic Light Casino, Alyssa Moore, Sweaters Together, Avery Vaughn, Disco Volante, Starfighter Yellow Superoverdrive, Jack The Giant Killer, Aural Cavalcade, Crystal Shrines, Dinosauria, Negro Terror, Jack Alberson, Mike Honeycutt, Jeremy Scott, Noiserpuss, Spaceface, Glorious Abhor, Mike Doughty, Tape Deck, The Ellie Badge…also, Julien Baker is from here and she’s deservedly blowing up right now. Nearby in Mississippi there’s also Ben Ricketts and Argiflex, both very worth your time. These people need and deserve to be famous and heard.
PF: Do you think there are specific challenges for instrumental musicians vs those making vocal based music?
ZC: You’ll often meet people who seem to treat instrumental musicians who use ‘rock’ instruments as some strange anomaly, which I always find a bit amusing. People love lyrics, they love to have words to identify with and wail along with. That’s totally cool. I listen to a huge swath of music outside of instrumental and experimental stuff, so I get it. But we’re providing a different experience, where you have to draw in some of those lines yourself and decide what it’s making you feel. The nice thing about instrumental music is that open context - it can make a trip to the DMV feel epic and emotional. It’s for those turning-point moments of life, really. I think that’s why we use the field recordings we do - it’s a way to underline the emotion of the music without relying on lyrics to spell some ‘message out for you. People are slowly becoming more accepting of instrumental music again, and I would advise any skeptics to remember that instrumental music as entertainment is of course MUCH older than vocal music. It’s always worth getting out of your comfort zone as a listener to try something new.
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