Greg Connors spoke with Garrett Devoe about living in a broom factory, the music shops of the 1980s, hiding in a chrysalis and typing with a real typewriter.
I’ve been increasingly feeling that this phase is coming to a close. A chrysalis to hide in until the next vessel comes along.
You often perform under your own name or as Pure Horsehair. Can you tell me the significance and origin of that name?
The name was fairly random. Shahzad Ismaily was sitting in with me on improvised guitar and percussion pretty regularly back in the day, and I wanted something besides my name to show it wasn’t just a solo acoustic type thing. I was living in an old broom factory in about 2002 and there was this old box of stamps that was left behind from back when the factory was functional. The stamps were old and worn, all sorts of names like Smokey Sue, Janitor, Black Tom, Black Diamond, etc. I kept going through them because they were all old and mysterious to me. I kept fixating on the Pure Horsehair one, and that became the name.
Some people really like it; some really don’t. I like it cause its not an animal name per se, but something from an animal that people use in other ways. It can invoke an image of a horse’s mane or a paintbrush. Anyway, the name stuck and people began to list me as Pure Horsehair whether or not I was playing with Shahzad. I tried to resist it when I began playing more solo, but it’s what people knew me as and they would list me as it regardless. People I meet out even say, “Hey, you’re Pure Horsehair!”
So, I’ve been increasingly feeling that the Pure Horsehair phase is coming to a close. A chrysalis to hide in until the next vessel comes along. So that’s the story.
I remember you had taken music lessons way back when, and you had been around music stores as a teenager. You had these funny categories of music stores back in the ’80s: the “family shopping mall”-style music store, as well as the standalone, cinder block, metalhead music store, and the sort of suburban shop that carried classical instruments for high school orchestra that sported a couple obligatory guitars and amps. Then, the ones that look like thrift stores — dusty, with an old dude milling around in the back.
Yeah. My mother made me take lessons from a Christian instructor when I showed interest. I had to play acoustic for awhile before I could play electric. I got a pickup, then came a Peavey amp. Finally, with my Christmas tips from a paper route, I bought my first electric guitar from a new standalone music store that opened up a couple towns away. Upstate, there were mostly polite mall music stores, mostly carrying pianos, organs, microphones, PAs and tons of sheet music.
But then there was that cinder block, metalhead-flavored music store that opened up filled with electric guitars, drums, synths and recording gear. It was a teenager’s dream. I eventually bought an ESP Tele copy with a beautiful Classic Japanese print on it and it was really cheap because it wasn’t metal and had no whammy bar. But someone ended up stealing that one out of the backseat of my car in Mesa, Arizona.
Like me, you love instruments, and enjoy certain gadgetry, but we are not really gearheads, per se. How do things come about for you, or to you, regarding your sound? Even buying strings — where and how do you go about that as a fairly long-term resident of Brooklyn? Is it random or a strategy? Do you have an allegiance to a particular store?
I learned about gear by default and repetition. Not being a techie, I have become more of a bottom-feeder of musical instruments. If I find something cool, I’ll incorporate it. A pan, a toy, a beginner guitar with wack action; I’m a gear slut prepping for the post-apocalyptic jamboree. I’ll use anything.
In the early 2000s, my friend and I came upon this heavy old synth out on the sidewalk with foot pedal, cords, everything. Turned out to be a Crumar Orchastrator. Once home, all it needed was a $1.50 fuse! And then I ended up using that in lieu of a bass and strings on most of my recordings from there. I did a live score to an old Russian silent film at Spectacle Theater with it too, but generally, it was too heavy to use for shows. Having gotten busted in New York so many times, Ive sold off as much as I’ve acquired or found, including the Crumar. I sold it to Truth and Soul Records, so at least it went somewhere of use where it will be respected.
As far as regular stores: when I first got to Brooklyn in 2000, Main Drag Music was my mainstay used guitar shop, which was a tiny little store front right on Bedford Avenue at the time — it’s a car service now. I bought everything there: strings, cords, amps. I traded up guitars to a beautiful ’80s Guild, which I’ve also sold. Also, Mikey’s Hook Up for recording stuff, SD cards, blank CDs, cables, etc.
Both those stores have practically grown to be institutions by now. I am a devout patron of small businesses, especially used music, book and record stores — Book Thug Nation, Topo’s, The Record Shop, Record Grouch.
The quick ones won’t come without the laboring over the slow ones. You’ve got to have your line in the water to catch something hydra-headed.
I stylistically relate to your songs. Oftentimes, there seems to be a particular subject; perhaps something that came about in a moment of elation or truth that arises from esoteric thought or belief. It remains linear to a listener who wants to hear the topic’s qualifications, but it’s not spelled out or obvious. You’re certainly not jamming “your trip” down anyone’s throat. It creates a pleasant and personal atmosphere. Where do the subjects of your songs arise from?
Hmm. They come from different places, but you’re definitely on to something about not jamming anything down anyone’s throat. I write and play and sometimes the seed of the song comes from the sounds of a melody emanating from a rhythm then I put the words to the music. But the source is elusive, and I think to respect it, you have to keep some of the mystery in it. It’s strange how certain songs will stick with different people.
“Geronimo” is one for me. That one is pretty simple and came about fairly quickly, but usually, I’m laboring over songs and lyrics. However, I believe the quick ones wouldn’t come without the laboring over the slow ones. You’ve got to have your line in the water to catch something, wanting it to resonate or connect, which is always hydra-headed. Out of all the records I’ve made, I think I have an EP worth of successful attempts. And funnily enough, I haven’t recorded some of those successful attempts.
Your last album was Highgrounding. Fantastic title. Even better music! Your almost “urban desert” sound is in full effect, but with an air of “Fuck you, yeah, this is what I do. I’ve done this forever.” It has a level of confidence and a “cut through the crap” quality to its mix. The perfectly orchestrated accompaniment somehow makes me think of a stripped down Gorillaz with a four track and Kurt Cobain’s ghost over the shoulder of the knob twiddler. Was something different about the process for this album, or is your music growing up with you?
When I moved to Sunset Park at the end of 2015, I felt separated from where most of the music was happening further north in Brooklyn, where I had lived for over 12 years. I needed to make something. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s loud in my neighborhood, which made tracking acoustic guitar — which is on all my other records — difficult. So, I decided to use an electric. I close miked my amp and tracked all the guitar while I sang vocals real close through a handheld recorder and recorded it all into my laptop.
Around this time, I car-sat for my friend who said I could use his Juno synth that he kept in there, Which was perfect, because it was recorded direct and i could really fuck around all night long without bothering anyone or worrying about bleed. I redid some vocals because of outside noises. This is as close to an “in the box” record I’ve ever made, though not technically, because I played everything in real time. Except for “Ruins,” for which I programmed a Linn drum, the kind Prince used, for the drum track.
Do you handwrite in a notebook?
I do handwrite in a notebook with a pen, in a lot of archaic cursive and print. True to it being in a notebook, most of it is garbage. But it helps hone the garbage and break it down so at least my future ideas have richer shit to grow in.
Do you find yourself in a discipline of writing on a regular basis, or are you one to let it happen as the spirit moves you?
I write every day. Not always a song, but every day. I’m often shifting my routine, like if I have to work a weird shift or move, which happens a bit in New York. But I do like a routine to get momentum. The journal is my beacon. It’s easy, especially if you’re working and playing to get destabilized.
If anything, I’ve become more adamant in defending the writing time. Lately, I’m discovering that the writing routine really helps keeps me sane and gives my thoughts a context. Otherwise there’s the endless abyss of self-scrutiny, which isn’t good for anyone.
All these other aspects come creeping in: love, pain, sex, other lives, work, loss, humiliation, victory, politics, privilege, inhibitions.
Are there components from different things written at different times that are distilled at a moment you want to “finish” a song?
Ideally, but not always. I do like that best. I like to think of that poem “Why I Am Not a Painter” by Frank O’Hara. You start with a word, an idea, sometimes with an imaginary place, a scene to inhabit, then all these other aspects come creeping in: love, pain, sex, other lives, work, loss, humiliation, victory, politics, privilege, inhibitions. And sometimes, a line from some other song or random notebook scrap can pull together a song that initially had no relation to it.
You also typed the zine Citings. It appears to be a created using a manual typewriter and even some liquid paper. To me, in these writings, your humor and penchant for the often absurd permeates. It also is kinda sexy, if I may. What prompted this work by a meticulous songwriter who genuinely cares about your craft?
After the 2017 inauguration, my old friend and fellow artist Jason Eisner asked me to write a poem for that inauguration that had no poem. It took a lot to get in that mindset, but I pulled something together. A few years ago, to kinda get the juices flowing, I made a cut-up mini-zine called Worms on a Train and made another, slightly more cohesive one called Winter Tracks.
I found the typewriter zine creation very cathartic. It was a kind of exercise and an outlet I could relax into because there was no precedent — nothing I had to live up to. Making your own book is pretty satisfying. Unlike an album, you do it all practically for free, except for the duplicating at Kinkos or Staples.
As for Citings this past winter, there was always loud music playing at night which made working on music pretty frustrating — the joys of city living! So I decided to do another zine with some of the text in my journals that already seemed to exist independent of song. I pulled out my grandpa’s old typewriter and dug in.
Are you currently reading any books that speak to you at this time?
I’ve been hitting the library since I moved to Sunset Park. I just got the new repress of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I’m very excited about. It’ll be my third trip through this story and this new edition is annotated with supporting notes and essays that illuminate and refract the text even further. I also got Songs of a Dead Dreamer and The Conspiracy Against the Human Race both by Thomas Ligotti. I didn’t mean to end up with all monster/weird horror stories but looks like thats where I’m going this summer. But in the past few months, I’ve gotten a lot out of Jess Arndt’s Large Animals.
Does any line from your reading evoke a need or desire to continue creatively?
Hmm… so much, really. How we are vulnerable and threatening all at once. The strangeness and foreignness of bodies, borders, permeability, membranes… here’s a good quote I got from it and keep going back to.
“Everything has a loaded latent sensory feeling to it, that is something pleasurable and also something possibly dangerous and everything seems like it can hurt and be hurt and that makes a challenging landscape.”
I feel that we are all the sheep and the wolf.
Curated by: Greg Connors
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: July 13, 2018
Total questions: 11
Word count: 2152
Reading time: Eight minutes
absurd, allegiance, attempt, block, Brooklyn, chrysalis, cinder, context, drum, elation, Garrett Devoe, gear, Greg Connors, humiliation, Hydra, inhibition, institution, Kurt Cobain, labor, Main Drag Music, Mary Shelley, milling, orchestra, origin, penchant, permeate, Prince, Pure Horsehair, qualification, rhythm, ruins, scrutiny, sheep, significance, silent, suburban, Sunset Park, synthesizer, Thomas Ligotti, thoughts, track, vessel, victory, wolf
About the curator
Greg Connors is a singer-songwriter who currently resides in Ossining, New York. Through a patchwork past, his journey brought him mainly up and out of New York City and Atlanta, Georgia. His music project Greg Connors Music takes an off-the-cuff journalist approach in a style often classified as “death folk” or “post-punk folk stories.”
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