I was attracted to the playing of Indigo Street through her creative guitar work when backing up singer/songwriter Jolie Holland. On Holland’s record, Wine Dark Sea, Street’s use of fuzz, dissonance and feedback within the context of Holland’s roots moderne sound was letter perfect. When Holland played Nashville, Street showed she was capable of pulling off the same hat trick live. Shy Hunters, her duo with drummer Sam Levin, opened the show. During their set another side of Street emerged; one where she played complex single lines while singing. I had to get her in the mag and—after months of patience—succeeded. Her story was well worth the wait.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I came to guitar late, and can unhesitatingly say that I became a guitar player by accident. I had been dabbling in singer-songwriter type stuff, writing songs on acoustic guitar, and playing solo gigs—guitar and voice—in my very early 20s. When I was 22, someone very close to me was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I fell into a kind of despair, quit playing music, and shortly after, got married. My life became about caring for these people. I missed playing music,and wanted to get back to it, but the whole thing seemed inadequate somehow—an inappropriate or selfish pursuit in the face of these other things. I had changed. The landscape was harder and darker, and I just didn’t feel able to sit in a room with an acoustic guitar anymore: the why of it had been lost to me. I think there’s something very innocent about the pursuit of songwriting in its purest, simplest form—chords, words, a melody or two. I had lost that innocence, and therefore felt alienated from the medium.
A year or two later, after the intensity of that period had dulled a bit, my dear friend Ed Pastorini began calling. He’d say, “Hey Lewis! (for some reason, he calls me Lewis), how’s it going? Can you come over and help me with something?” So I’d go over to “The Loft”, which was a tiny, dark rehearsal space in this seriously dilapidated building in Chelsea, owned by Giorgio Gomelski, this eccentric indeterminate European, who’d produced the Yardbirds, and introduced The Stones to one another. An influential guy at that time, I think, but who now lived on the top floor of this leaking, falling down building Ronnie Wood had given him as payment for something years earlier, and who, it seemed, never left the building.
I’d go over there, and Ed would have a couple of crappy guitars lying around, and he’d say, “I want to hear how these two parts fit together. Can you play this for me?” And then he’d proceed to play some completely abstract and nonsensical series of bleeps and urps, I mean, just a really un-guitaristic, wild string of sounds, And I would say, “Er, I dunno, can I?” and do my best to imitate it. At first it was really hard, but also fun and engaging. Almost like being asked to mimic a highly specific finger painting. Doing this kind of work is an intense memory exercise—great for the brain: Here, memorize this great swath of abstraction. The abrasive picking technique involved was completely different from the finger style stuff I’d done before, so that was a big exciting new thing and a terrific distraction. I remember one time, early on, where he was trying to get me to play this staccato picking thing, and he kept saying, “Like a chicken, Lewis. Make it like a chicken. Bock, bock, bock.”
At the time, left to my own devices, I don’t think I would’ve become a particularly creative musician, but he recognized I had incredibly quick, pliable, open ears that didn’t differentiate between “normal” and “abnormal,” could grasp anything, and he saw an opportunity to mold my young mind, so to speak, and turn me into the guitarist he’d always wanted.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
In my case, the question should be, “What led you to play more conventional, mainstream music?” After Ed and I sat in that room for a few years, I got pretty good at playing this weird Zoot Rollo-esque, angular guitar stuff and people started trying to hire me to play with them. The problem was I didn’t have the faintest idea how to play normal music. I mean, even the basics: play in the same key as the songwriter is playing in, that sort of thing. I had never thought about notes or chords as things that could be codified, that had names or could be reduced to a repeatable, evenly applicable system. So I mostly said, sorry, I only play in this one band, and I’m not really interested in playing anything else. But then some of the people who had asked me to join their bands began doing well and making money, and I realized that only playing with this one, amazing, but totally unambitious, hermetic weirdo was maybe not such a practical idea. I started saying yes to things, even though I in no way felt competent to do them.
At first I would listen to a country song or pop song that I was asked to play the same way I’d looked at Ed’s music. Like a painting that I needed to memorize and articulate exactly: trees over here, bit of sky there, startled facial expression, small dog, pear with a bite out of it, etc. It was a massive memorization hurdle, every time. After awhile, I began to notice that some of the shapes my fingers were making seemed to repeat all over the neck—particularly with country music. I became curious about this fascinating discovery, and with a little probing found that these magically reliable shapes had names: triads and inversions.
Essentially, I approached music backwards; it took me ten years to sort out what most people, with a textbook or a decent teacher, would be able to get through in a year. But when I did finally arrive at some of these realizations, it was exciting, because I’d gotten there on my own, so it felt like being a solitary explorer, landing on a new continent. Now that I teach guitar, it’s important to me to approach theory in a delicate and natural way, and I like to work by pointing out some of the basic principles of the way chords are made up, the way the guitar is laid out, and guide them through the process of piecing it all together, rather than giving them the facts and insisting they need to be memorized. Theory is exciting stuff, and when that magic is allowed to be the guiding force, people get to have the experience of their brains cracking open to make space for this huge, new thing. I love it. It’s incredibly nerdy to say this, but I really love watching people get excited when they realize that they can play those inversions they just learned all up and down the neck with the same results.
Whose music inspires you?
In childhood, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald were my all time heroes, and their music seemed to be made up of pure uncontainable joy and sunlight. The Band fascinated me—their sound seemed to be the sound of all the tears, pain, and suffering of the entire living universe, balled up into some beautiful, organic, dilapidated thing. The Beatles, of course, were inspiring, and The Police were an alluring mystery.
I was strangely obsessed with Shubert’s 9th symphony, and would listen to it over and over in my Walkman. This is important because it was my first experience with how different various recordings of the same piece can be. I can’t remember what symphony the original cassette was, but maybe a year into the obsession; my parents got me the Furtwängler version. At first I was disturbed and upset by the difference. They told me that this version was “better,” and I remember feeling violated by this assertion, because it just did not have the familiar contours of the recording I’d been listening to. Children are naturally conservative and fear change.
During my early guitar playing years Beefheart’s Zoot Horn Rollo was a big guitar influence for sure. Trout Mask Replica definitely had that abstract, painterly approach that Ed was going for, and that influenced me so highly. Other inspirations are Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington, Aphex Twin, Billie Holiday, Deerhoof, Talking Heads, lots of ’50s-’60s era blues, New Orleans funk, Marc Ribot, Kraftwerk, Bach, Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s collaborations, and in recent years, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Prince, and Michael Jackson.
How did you get better at your current style?
Through happy accidents and unhappy accidents. I shattered my left wrist about six years ago. I couldn’t play at all for about a year, and then couldn’t play chords for a long time after that, which was definitely partially responsible for the Shy Hunters template of vocals accompanied by lead or melodic guitar lines, rather than the more typical setup where the vocalist plays rhythm.
What are you trying convey with your music?
Desire, despair, desire, despair—oh, wait, sorry, now I’m just quoting Annie Lennox. But seriously, music is extremely cathartic for me. I didn’t choose this, it chose me, and I don’t continue to pursue it because there’s anything practical or sensible in the choice. It’s the primary way I have found to reliably process my emotions, and if I can’t process my emotions, I’ll lose my mind, so this is it. As far as what I’m trying to convey, I suppose I’m just shooting for something that captures the human experience—mine of course, but also my perception of and empathy for other people’s. The plight of human beings, all living beings really, nature, consciousness the vastness and quicksilver nature of everything.
My music is often accused of being “dark,” but to me there’s a lot of joy in any and all music I make, both in the act of making, and the sound itself. And in fact, processing emotion—turning the raw universe inside me into a thing that I can get out of my body and which can then have a life outside of me—is the greatest thing, possibly rivaled only by, as Tom Stoppard says, “the summer lightning of personal happiness.” Only, of course, Love, that kind of personal happiness, is not reliable. Art is a teensy bit more reliable.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
My main guitar is a ’74 Tele; I am very, very attached to the thing, though it’s given me real shoulder problems and I should probably find a lighter guitar. Once, on tour, in a state of major sleep deprivation, I misplaced it and was shocked by the degree of my upset, the voracity of which one thinks of as being reserved for loss of living beings, not inanimate objects. But I guess a guitar is somewhere between the two.
I also have a Canary yellow Silvertone H42, which is a weird and wonderful little guitar. I like old guitars—old stuff in general. I’d rather have an old thing that is beautifully worn and tired and doesn’t quite work right, than a new shiny thing that functions properly. History is important to me, and I try to honor and preserve it however I can.
Pedal-wise, my heart belongs to the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, and I really can’t think of the last time I got on stage without one, nor would I willingly do so! The Shy Hunters pedal chain generally looks like this—’80s or ’90s era Memory Man, old-ish Ibanez Tube Screamer, Menatone Ms. Foxy Brown or Crowther Audio Double Hotcake overdrive, and MXR Carbon Copy analog delay.
With singers things usually get stripped down to a Memory Man and Tube Screamer or Hotcake, and maybe a Strymon reverb pedal depending on what amp is available.
My main amp these days is a ’90s reissue Fender blonde Vibrolux that I got from Elliot Sharp.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
They’re so different. I love playing live because of the finite, contained nature of the opportunity, and the intensity of playing in front of an audience. It forces me to be completely in the moment. Touring is wonderful and horrible, because you drive all day and have zero personal space or freedom of movement, but then you hop onstage every night, and for an hour or two, everything falls away. You may be tired, hungry, and grouchy or have a cold, but it doesn’t matter. The lights go up, the sound rolls out and the self falls away. It’s great. Call it a Zen practice, call it a drug, either way, it’s temporary access to liberation.
I suppose that recording and writing have a fairly balanced ratio of delight and drudgery. There are the hours spent hammering away at something, feeling it unwieldy and unresponsive in your hands, and the real anxiety that goes along with that: Maybe you won’t be able to write another song. Maybe the track or the album is not going to sound good, but then, inevitably there are transcendental moments, where after days of that, an idea just pops out of the instrument and floods you with the right feeling, and you know you’ve got something.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
I don’t know. I don’t think I have. I’m allergic to the Internet, and I’m an absolutely terrible businessperson. I spend all of my free time alone, walking in the park, reading or writing.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
I’d like to play with Bill Frisell sometime, mainly because I like his gentle, hesitant approach. He touches the strings as if he has no idea what kind of sound is going to come out. It’s very childlike, and I can absolutely relate to that idea, that the electric guitar is an incredible, magic thing, and we’re entering into unknown territory each time we pick it up. The sound of a single note ringing in space can be the most beautiful thing, and evoke an entire universe of fantasy and memory. I’m way more interested in that than in someone who attacks the instrument with bravado and tons of facility.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
I just landed back in Brooklyn after a long stint of touring with several different projects, and am busy writing the second Shy Hunters record, which will be recorded this winter and come out sometime next year. In the meantime, our first record, Oh, That I Had Wings, which came out in April 2014, is available on iTunes, sound cloud— all the usual places. Please do have a listen, and keep your eye out for our new material in 2015.