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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.

CREDIT: Zachary Corsa

CREDIT: Zachary Corsa

PF: Walk me through your pedalboard.

ZC: I have a fairly large and complicated setup, I’m afraid. My main pedalboard channel, currently

-Noisemaker Effects Arcade Fuzz

-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)

-Death By Audio Soundwave Breakdown

-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)

-Boss Tera Echo

-Empress Reverb

-DigiTech DigiDelay

-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 -

-Korg Kaossilator

-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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Helen Money

Helen Money

Helen Money is the musical nom de plume of cellist Alison Chesley. She plays her instrument with an unrivaled ferocity, and through her technique and an armada of effects pedals, she creates a wall of sound that’s both heavy and haunting.

She has toured extensively and collaborated with an incredible array of musicians, including Bob Mould, Shellac, Neurosis, Sleep, Russian Circles, Magma, Agalloch, and Earth. 

Her latest album Become Zero, released on Thrill Jockey Records, was written after the death of both of her parents. The eight tracks that make up the album are startling in their rawness, and captivating in their grace. She called on drummer Jason Roeder (Sleep, Neurosis), Rachel Grimes (Rachel’s) and co-producer Will Thomas to help realize the vision for the record.

Pedal Fuzz spoke with her at Moogfest 2018, where she not only performed a blistering set, but also led a workshop where she shared her story, and explained the technical details of her unique stage setup. The following excerpts have been condensed and edited.

Helen Money. Credit: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

Helen Money. Credit: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

Pedal Fuzz: I read that you were classically trained, and only listened to classical music until your early 20's. So what turned on your ear and made you want to go into the rock realm with what you were doing?

Helen Money: Well, my brother and my sister were both listening to a lot of rock music. And my brother kept playing stuff for me, but I never really got it. And then one day he dragged me into his room and he had Who's Next on his record player. I remember him dropping the needle, and I heard the music for the first time, and I thought, "Oh, I get why he loves this stuff!" Then that's all I wanted to do is listen to rock music for like the next 10 years.

PF: Do you think it was the visceral impact?

HM: Yeah, it was visceral, and epic, and very 'heart on your sleeve' you know? And just big. Those big guitars, the whole sound. It just all really spoke to me.

PF: So after that what did you get into? I guess that was kind of like a gateway drug into other music.

HM: Totally. I grew up in L.A., and had a friend who was hooked into this scene around this record store out there, and we would go see a lot of punk rock shows. We saw Minutemen a lot, and Meat Puppets, and we'd see Henry Rollins do poetry readings. So I was kind of in that scene. It was still loud, visceral, guitar-driven music.

PF: So when did that affect your playing and when did you want to start manipulating the natural sound of the cello?

HM: Well I never made the connection between playing my cello and playing music that I liked until I went to grad school. And I met a friend who was covering Bob Mould's Workbook. So he wanted a cellist to play with. And he was also doing his own stuff. So Jason Narducy and I got together (ed. note - as Jason & Alison, then Verbow). I was in grad school, I was going to get a doctorate in teaching cello somewhere. And we just started to play - we had no idea what we were doing. I just had a pickup on my cello and I had a little Peavey amp that sounded awful, but it was just the two of us playing as hard as we could. I had no idea I could play the music that I really liked. So once I realized I could, then that was just what I wanted to do.

PF: When did you start incorporating pedals? Do you remember the first pedal you got?

HM: Yeah I had a Rat distortion pedal, and then I had a digital delay. Then I tried a chorus, and I didn't like it. I didn't really like envelope filters. So I pretty much decided delays and distortion is where it was at for my instrument. Because of the nature of the cello,  it doesn't always sound good with certain guitar pedals. I kind of stuck to that and I've just experimented with different delays and distortions since then.

PF: Then you started looping.

HM: Right, and the way I do the looping is very structured. It's not the typical layering, and building a song horizontally. When I use the loopers it's more like "this is going to help me play this part of this song, this looper’s going to bring in this part." So that's kind of how I've always used them. They've helped me to just play solo and not have other members. Not that I don't want to,  but that's just kind of how it happened.

I have three Boss RC-30 Loop Stations actually that I play with. I'll run one of them direct to the PA system with drums or piano on it. So one moment during the song I'll kick that in, or I'll have noise on it and I'll kick that in. So it's like part of the whole sound. Then I'll have two loopers, with parts that comes in during the verse or chorus. So I'm playing along with them. None of those loopers go through the same channel as my cello, so I can't even layer over them. 

PF: Let's talk about your recording process, which has changed in the past couple of years. You've done lots of recording with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio - what was it like working in that studio?

HM: It was great. It's a beautiful building with great acoustics. And Steve's a great guy. The thing that's a challenge there, is that you're recording to tape. So you really have to focus on getting a performance from Point A to Point B, and not doing what Greg Norman calls 'a cloud of tracks' that you have to filter through. So that was a challenge and I really enjoyed that.

But then when I moved to L.A. briefly I met Will Thomas, a guy who's doing more kind of ambient stuff, and he was also an engineer. I decided with this record that I was just going to get the sounds that I wanted and worry about how I was going to perform it. So that was a totally different approach for me. It was all digital, but I really ended up loving how it sounded. I did record the drums in a regular studio, but otherwise it was just just me at at Will's studio on a computer.

The thing that was cool is Will does a lot of stuff with sequencers, and he's also got a modular synthesizer, so he would take sounds from my cello and treat them and then we'd make a background bed for them. It was really fun, we had like a little laboratory to experiment. It was really intimate and really fun. I still felt the pressure to perform well, but we could kind of have a little more fun and make up sounds.

Helen Money live at Motorco in Durham, NC. Credit: Stephanie Leathers/Moogfest

Helen Money live at Motorco in Durham, NC. Credit: Stephanie Leathers/Moogfest

PF: So when you translate those pieces live, does that present any new challenges, or do you restructure songs?

HM: I kind of just pare stuff down. There's a couple of songs where I've downloaded the drum track that my friend Jason Roeder played onto a looper. And so I kick that in at one point. I always worry it doesn't sound authentic, but I think it fits in with my overall sound ok. Also some sounds that Will created with my cello are loaded onto a looper, and I can bring those in. They kind of creep in and provide an ambience behind what I'm doing. So that's kind of how I managed translating the record to playing live.

PF: So the new record Become Zero is a deeply personal record. I'm curious in the writing of that - how do you translate emotions to your instrument? Are you thinking about something, then pick up the cello? Or is it more like you're playing, then threads start connecting?

HM: Well, when I write I look for a sound, and a sound will evoke a feeling in me. So I don't set out thinking, "I want to write a song about my dad, or my parents." I'll just start writing, and then something might remind me of them, so it's really more about looking for a sound. And for me that's often in my pedals, or maybe from the piano, and sometimes drums.

Helen Money's pedalboard. CREDIT: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

Helen Money's pedalboard. CREDIT: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

PF: What are some of the pedals that you're using now?

HM: For distortion I've got a Way Huge Swollen Pickle, which is a big fuzz pedal. I also have a Fulltone PlimSoul Overdrive, which has more of a boosty kind of deep sound. And I often use those together. I've got an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG that I like to use, and I've got two delays now - a Strymon Timeline delay and an Empress Superdelay.

PF: Do you use any extended technique when playing cello?

HM: Yeah, the one thing I started to do that I really like is playing with a guitar pick. So I can do a tremolo with the guitar pick on the cello, and then also just strumming with guitar pick is a really powerful sound.

PF: I played your music for my 14-year-old daughter, and she said, “She sounds like the Batman of the cello.”

HM: (Laughs) Batwoman!

PF: Yes, Batwoman! But it made me think - you could be doing anything with the instrument, but you’re steeped in minor, dense music. What is it about that kind of sound?

HM: Yeah I just like that dark, emotional stuff that takes you somewhere. I've always liked Shostakovich, Dvorak, Bach. I just like stuff that makes me feel something, and I just find it more interesting, the colors are more interesting than something that's happy. And the cello lends itself to that, it's kind of a dark instrument.