Interview: Jon DeRosa (Aarktica, Dead Leaves Rising)

Inter­view by O.S., August 2011

All images prop­erty of Jon DeR­osa

Jon DeR­osa has been releas­ing music under vari­ous names for almost fif­teen years, start­ing in his teen­age years. He is best known for his pro­ject Aark­t­ica, but is releas­ing a new EP under his own name this month. We ask him about the back­ground of his career, the inspir­a­tion for his music, and the future.

To listen to a selec­tion of Jon’s music while read­ing the inter­view, we’ve pre­pared a spe­cial ret­ro­spect­ive Cloud­scape that you can run in the back­ground. Enjoy!

OS: Can you tell me how your musical career got star­ted? Dead Leaves Rising was your first pro­ject to be more widely released into the world, and put out two albums. How do you look back on those works and what other early pro­jects were import­ant to you?

JDR: I was in my early teens when I star­ted record­ing under the name Fade. I released two cas­settes, Pale, Broken Truths in 1993 and Win­dows in 1995. I look back on those releases…nostalgically. I was really quite naïve. Full of angst, cath­artic, con­flic­ted. I was thir­teen years old.

I remem­ber the actual writ­ing and record­ing vividly and fondly. A lot of late nights, return­ing home from my sum­mer job as a cook while the world slept, learn­ing how to trans­late thoughts into music. I was just get­ting into bands on 4AD and Pro­jekt Records, and the Fade releases were my early inter­pret­a­tions of those kinds of sounds. I had been study­ing clas­sical and fla­menco gui­tar from age 10, so there is a lot of that influ­ence as well.

This was in the pre-inter­net days, so everything was via phys­ical mail and word of mouth (and zines). I think that, in itself, is the most strik­ing thing when I think about the early days: the absence of the Inter­net for con­nect­ing with oth­ers. In a lot of ways, it made the con­nec­tions that you did make all the more spe­cial. I have boxes of phys­ical cor­res­pond­ence sur­round­ing the early releases.

I sent the tapes around to labels, namely Pro­jekt Records, where Pat Ogle was book­ing a lot of the label’s first tours. He gave me open­ing spots on Pro­jekt shows in the East. I don’t think he had the slight­est clue that I was only about 14 or 15 at the time. In the end, I opened for Love Spir­als Down­wards, lovesli­es­crush­ing, Sean Bowley/Eden, Black Tape For A Blue Girl, Attri­tion, (et al) all before I was 18 years old.

Brian John Mitchell at Sil­ber Records has been talk­ing about reis­su­ing those Fade albums. I haven’t heard either of them in about 10 years.

Fade evolved into Dead Leaves Rising in 1996, and was fol­lowed by the release of the Shadow Com­plex CD in 1997, which def­in­itely presen­ted a more aggress­ive and dark folk/goth sound. The second Dead Leaves Rising album Wak­ing Up On The Wrong Side Of No One wasn’t released for another four years, and leaned away from the gothic influ­ences and toward a more indie rock/folk sound. Shadow Com­plex is what I would con­sider my first “offi­cial” release.

Both Dead Leaves Rising albums were just released digit­ally through Sil­ber Records this year, since they had been unavail­able for quite some time. I think the early mater­ial is inter­est­ing in that it shows the most prim­it­ive ori­gins of a sound that I would develop and change over the course of the next 15-20 years.

What was it like grow­ing up in the NY/NJ area, and how has it and its scene influ­enced you?

I don’t think I ever fol­lowed any local “scenes,” really. Grow­ing up in NJ, while most of my friends were listen­ing to local hard­core, I was fol­low­ing Los Angeles goth or Bris­tol indiepop and Sarah Records, along with other stuff I con­sidered truly “exotic.”

I grav­it­ated to New York as a teen­ager because it seemed excit­ing, and I was really hungry to find other people who were into the same things I was into, music­ally. And it really has never dis­ap­poin­ted in that sense. But, it’s a young person’s town. You need stam­ina. You need that youth­ful curi­os­ity and optim­ism. I don’t know if it was like that in Lou Reed’s New York. But it feels that way to me now.

Some­times I won­der if I would’ve got­ten more music writ­ten if I lived in a smal­ler, quieter place and had fewer dis­trac­tions in my life. But I don’t think it could’ve been any other way for me. And besides, I have met a lot of inspir­ing people, and had a lot of very unique exper­i­ences because of the city. I found that wasn’t the case for the stretches of time I lived in other places around the coun­try and world.

Nowadays you work in Wil­li­ams­burg, Brook­lyn, fam­ous for being a multi-eth­nic and con­stantly evolving artistic neigh­bour­hood. What are your per­sonal feel­ings about the place, and what role does it play in your music, apart from fea­tur­ing in two Aark­t­ica titles?

I have some fam­ily roots here. My great-grand­mother made bathtub gin in her apart­ment dur­ing Pro­hib­i­tion just a few minutes away from where I live now. My grand­mother worked in a fact­ory dur­ing the War, just one block away from where I sit. So, some­times I look at it through those eyes…

Other times, I am always amazed by the “phe­nomenon” of Wil­li­ams­burg and how it has become almost mythic on a world-scale. It’s Nev­er­land for the masses! It’s a play within a play. There’s even a far-fetched sit­com I saw based here now.

There are some real, solid indi­vidu­als I’ve met here, no doubt. But the place does make it awfully attract­ive to assholes these days. Is it a place for true men? Where young men can learn to be true men? I don’t think it is. And we need more true men. Just ask true women. But it’s also my home, you know?

But, I’ll step off the soap­box because my gen­er­a­tion was the begin­ning of the prob­lem. And while I have moral issues about the gradual dis­ap­pear­ance of the middle class in New York City, I admit­tedly feel grate­ful as an observer to have lived in a dynamic neigh­bor­hood dur­ing its trans­form­a­tion. Socially it is really inter­est­ing how rap­idly this place has changed since I moved here about 15 years ago.

How did the idea to form Aark­t­ica come to you when it first star­ted?

I don’t think it was a con­scious decision, it was more of a cop­ing mech­an­ism to try and recre­ate sounds the way I heard them after exper­i­en­cing sud­den and per­man­ent hear­ing loss in my right ear. I became some­what of an insom­niac due to the aural hal­lu­cin­a­tions and the elec­tric shock sen­sa­tions that occur when nerve dam­age occurs in the inner ear. So there were many nights spent in front of a 4-track tape recorder try­ing to make sense of what was hap­pen­ing to me.

It was really Brian at Sil­ber Records that encour­aged me to release the mater­ial. If not for him, I’m not sure I would’ve ended up pur­su­ing it as a musical pro­ject.

How would you describe the evol­u­tion of Aark­t­ica from the begin­ning to now?

There was a cer­tain naïve curi­os­ity, a sense of explor­a­tion and dis­cov­ery in the begin­ning. And also, you know, an intim­ate tur­moil within myself that marked the early record­ings. But I have always been rest­less and tried to make each album dif­fer­ent and var­ied, with the addi­tion of instru­ments, play­ers, song struc­tures.

I con­sider the most recent release In Sea a sequel to the first album No Solace In Sleep, and plan to con­tinue in that realm of sound with Aark­t­ica. I hope to have a new release ready in 2012.

Is there a con­scious styl­istic divi­sion between the works you released for Darla Records and those on Sil­ber Records?

I don’t think I ever made con­scious styl­istic decisions based on what label was releas­ing the album. I think toward the end of my rela­tion­ship with Darla, I attemp­ted to make more pop-ori­ented music, because I felt that it would be inter­est­ing to update the sounds I’d estab­lished as “ambi­ent,” and Darla encour­aged that. Sil­ber Records obvi­ously cham­pi­ons more exper­i­mental sounds. But in the end, I always made the record I wanted to make.

How import­ant has your col­lab­or­a­tion with these labels been for your music?

Work­ing with Darla Records was really not my best decision, at least bey­ond the Bliss Out album. I just don’t feel like we see eye to eye on a lot of import­ant things, and that’s import­ant for an artist/label rela­tion­ship.

On the other hand, Sil­ber Records has con­sist­ently impressed me. Truly inspir­ing, ori­ginal and eth­ical. It is a label with a vis­ion that has truly always done its own thing and has always enabled the artist with the free­dom to do what they want with his/her music.

What is the most import­ant thing you have learned in over 15 years of mak­ing music?

La Monte Young said some­thing to me dur­ing our stud­ies together. I’m para­phras­ing, but he said basic­ally it is an artist’s respons­ib­il­ity to con­trib­ute to soci­ety. How­ever, the way in which the artist con­trib­utes may not be the way in which he thinks he’s sup­posed to con­trib­ute. While I’m sure dif­fer­ent people will inter­pret that in dif­fer­ent ways, those words always stuck with me.

Another thing that I guess I have come to real­ize on my own is that suc­cess is rel­at­ive. Every­one needs to find his/her own per­sonal reason for mak­ing the music/art he/she makes. If you’re doing it for the wrong reas­ons, some­thing will not feel “right” to you ever. If you are doing it for the right reas­ons and believe in what you are doing, you will always feel at peace with your­self. I would con­sider that the biggest suc­cess of all.

Where did you find all the people to do those won­der­ful remixes of the ‘In Sea’ album?

Believe it or not, most were artists who I had been in touch with for years and years. Artists to whom I listen, and whom have fol­lowed Aark­t­ica over the years. I was truly humbled that so many tal­en­ted friends were will­ing to devote their time and energy into rework­ing my songs. It’s a really great release. And great to finally work with folks like Jon from Yellow6, Mason Jones, Richard from Hood/Declining Winter…People who I’ve been in touch with for years but never met.

The new EP released under your own name sees you return­ing to a more open sound, song-based, and per­haps back in the dir­ec­tion of what used to be Pale Horse and Rider. Do you plan on record­ing more in this style again under your own name or oth­er­wise?

Anchored EP

I think the new album is actu­ally really quite dif­fer­ent than work I did with Pale Horse and Rider. But, in the sense that these are “songs” rather than “sound­scapes,” I see what you mean.

Anchored is just the first of what will hope­fully be many solo releases. After many years of mak­ing music under a guise, I really wanted to make an album that was music­ally rep­res­ent­at­ive of who I am today, which is some­thing really dif­fi­cult to do with a pro­ject like Aark­t­ica that I have a 10 year his­tory with.

And who are you today?

A work­ing class singer/bartender still try­ing to best all my pre­vi­ous musical efforts.