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Enablers interview: “There’s a lot of conflict in our songs on every level”

On the back of the reissue of ‘Output Negative Space’, we talk to Enablers.

When trying to dissect and critique the work of Enablers, there are simply not enough superlatives.

Not to get too militant on such a subject, however Enablers (Pete Simonelli – vocals; Joe Goldring – guitars; Kevin Thomson – guitars; Sam Ospovat – drums) are probably the best band on the planet. Sure, it’s a bold statement, but one that has been under careful consideration for quite some time now.

Granted, art isn’t a race; however it’s vital to acknowledge the significance of a band like Enablers, for they are like no other. Mediocrity isn’t in the San Francisco collective’s make-up. Just high watermarks, led by the breath-taking 2015 LP, The Rightful Pivot.

Purveyors of giddy sonic interplay, howling blasts and metaphor-rich poeticism, Enablers have forever occupied their own world and welcome all and sundry to be swept up in it.

We could spent column inches talking about Goldring and Thomson’s endeavours in Touched By A Janitor; Simonelli’s beguiling poetry; or the value of Enablers’ phenomenal body of work – the aforementioned ’Pivot, Zones (2019), Tundra (2008), Blown Realms and Stalled Explosions (2011), and End Note (2004).

However, today the focus lies on Enablers’ second album, Output Negative Space. A release that celebrates its fifteen birthday, and marks ten years since the death of Enablers drummer, Joseph F Byrnes (also of Touched By A Janitor), whose work underpins this album.

Teaming up with London independent label, Human Worth, Output Negative Space sees a timely reissue, which includes the beautiful sleeve design courtesy of Lancashire and Somerset founder, David Hand – the label responsible for releasing Enablers’ music here in the U.K.

Last May, the band were locked in for a U.K tour, but those plans were thwarted for obvious reasons. There are no immediate plans to reschedule the tour, however the band has been working on a follow-up to Zones, with plans for release at some point next year.

“We were finally all together in September this year to write and demo new songs. I’m really happy with what we’ve got so far,” says Thomson, who along with Simonelli and Goldring, answered a string of questions for us via email earlier this month.

Enablers’ Output Negative Space 15th anniversary

Sun 13: Have you guys managed to be creative through the lockdown period, whether it be with Enablers or any other projects?

Pete Simonelli: “I kept a journal and tried to fill it up as often as I felt like it, which wasn’t always that easy to do. We all know that feeling by now. But it turned out to hold quite a lot of work to pick through and choose from — now and in the future. I also held on to the idea that a lot of really good things were going to come out of all this dread and stasis. A release. I think a lot of the weight has lifted and we’re all beginning to see and hear that release now. I’m excited about contributing to that.”

Kevin Thomson: “Heavy use of strong sativa strains, bicycling, playing every single goddamned day as is my usual. I demoed and threw away an entire solo LP, I joined a new band called Years and made a record, built a few guitars and some amps. Now, the band has admittedly not done so much with this time, but geography, a distaste for Zoom etc. is more to blame for that than a lack of desire to work. When we get together we pretty much get right down to it as always. It is important to remember that Joe and I have been co-writing for over 30 years now. Pete has known us two for nearly as long… separation by time or space does little to diminish those sorts of bonds.”

Joe Goldring: “I was fairly busy with non-music related activities. But, myself and Kevin did find some time to get together and work on new Enablers music. I recorded, mixed and played bass on Kevin’s new band Years’ LP. Mixed music for Sam’s free jazz trio. I archived a fair amount of old recordings, including an unreleased LP of myself and Kevin’s first band from the early ’90s. We hope to release it next year.”

S13: Human Worth are a fantastic ethically run label. It seems like the perfect fit for the Output Negative Space reissue. How did to collaboration with the label come about?

PS: “Owen [Gildersleeve] contacted us at the beginning of the year and we were instantly excited about it because of how the offer coincided with the milestones of Joe Byrnes’ passing (10 years) and the original release (15 years). Human Worth’s timing and heart continue to have equal strength and measure. We’re really happy to be a part of it. Honestly, the world needs more labels like them.”

JG: “I didn’t know much about Human Worth. I mentioned to my son that Owen had approached us about an Output re-release. Turned out he had met Owen, really liked him, and the label’s ethical trip, he was quite emphatic that we do it.

“It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with Owen.”

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S13: What are your memories of recording and releasing Output Negative Space?

JG: “Half of the record were new compositions written specifically for Enablers and the other half were unreleased Touched by a Janitor songs that we reworked with Pete and Joey. Joey had wanted to drum in the Janitor, so this was the moment for him to learn and then totally own those songs. What he brought to all these songs was amazing. It’s some of my favourite drumming ever.

“We’d been playing most of these songs for a while on tour, and had started recording them before End Note was released. I seem to recall the tracking of those songs going fairly smoothly. Except for 1939, for some reason that one gave me a bit of grief.

“I mixed the whole thing once, then I mixed it again pretty much only using the monitor section of the console, which had limited EQ, but a cleaner open sounding signal path. I wanted to strip it back a bit and not over mix it. In the end it was pretty much just the sound of what went on to the two inch tape. I thought about remixing it in Protools for this release, but with Alex [Oropeza’s] new mastering job, and the original mixes having this lovely round simplicity to them… I think it would have fucked them up if I had.

“The first pressing sold out, but it wasn’t re-pressed for a year or so. That took the wind out of its sails, and it didn’t really become readily available again until David Hand put out the first vinyl version in 2010.”

PS: “Miller High Life. Next: coming back from a break and listening to On Monk. Take after take, it was that one inevitable tune that never sits right, kicks your ass repeatedly. Anyway, we got through one, shook it off, and went out to the front room for a beer and a smoke with some friends who had stopped by. An hour or so later we came back into the control room, listened to it, and then flipped the fuck out. We listened to it several times. What those guys do in that turnaround bit at the tail end just before the fade still gives me all the right chills (especially with the re-mastering job). Goldring used to burn us copies to take home and listen to.

“Later that night, I became the asshole who parks on your street at 2am waiting for the ‘peak’, dude. I was parked outside my girlfriend’s place blasting it, eyes closed, head back. Suddenly she was there, something diabolical, banging on my window: ‘Turn it off! Turn it fucking OFF!’ Pivotal moment.”

KT: “Endless cigarette smoking. Oh man, everywhere, control room, over the Trident, in the live room, butts piled high. Experimenting with some different, smaller amps, being blown away by Byrnes and his artful take on just about anything, melding parts, thinking that maybe this time we were truly on to something.

“We had the luxury of time because Joe and his friend, Tim Mooney, were co-owners of the studio. We could do a million takes and for the title track it seemed like we did before Byrnes deemed it a take. It was also the first time I saw a guitar levitate, only a few millimetres but it was untethered for a moment. I laid a Tele’ down on a homemade 2X10 with a cranked Hiwatt through it for the feedback throughout the tune, Output Negative Space. At one point the guitar literally started hovering and kind of scooting around the cabinet and I had to ‘mind’ it to keep it from flying off. The sounds were 1000 percent worth it.”

Enablers - Output Negative Space

S13: With the Lancashire and Somerset label releasing the band’s music over the years, this must have felt like a lovely way to integrate this reissue with David Hand’s brilliant artwork?

JG: “David has been there since our first UK tour. He’s been a great supporter, and friend. He really created a visual identity for us starting with the third record, Tundra. I mean fuck, our first record cover was white and the second was black.

“Honestly I’m not sure we’d have made it this long without him. It went without saying that he would be involved in this.”

KT: “Absolutely. His work on the very first run of vinyl was tops and this edition truly captures the feel we all wanted; which was something substantial, weighty even.”

PS: “We’re with Dave all the way, the whole way.”

S13: Output Negative Space is the record, for me, that first captures the true unique voice of Enablers. Firstly, is that something the band ever thinks about; and secondly, did it feel like that when you released it?

PS: “I think the release definitely marked a period when we all decided that this was it — this is what we want to do; we’re going to make the effort to continue releasing records that need this kind of attention and creativity.”

KT: “Thank you. I have always thought this was the case. With the death of Touched By A Janitor  came a bunch of bits, pieces, and a few complete tunes. I wasn’t quite sure how that would all pan with a non-singing vocalist but boom, there it is. It was staring us in the face really. I do remember listening to final mixes and being really proud of what we had done with this second LP. It felt unique, it felt right, and the sounds were fully realized in a way I had not achieved in either Nice Strong Arm or in Timco.”

JG: “We were proud of this record when it was released, but I don’t think any of us were thinking about our unique voice. End Note could have been a one off project. But we had so much fun making it and playing live we had to do another one. So in that sense it cemented us as a real band.”

S13: There are so many abstract and surrealistic elements to your poetry, Pete. Because of this, do you find that the meanings to your songs change with time?

PS: “The meanings, no. Not really. But writing and perspective—the why and how, respectively—certainly do change. So, to me, whatever impetus was in place at the time of the writing pretty much stays there, and rightly so.”

S13: Enablers have always been a band where there is a unique tension and emotional intensity. The music is always pushing against Petes words. Sudden Inspection feels like the first song where Enablers really nail this aspect. Can you remember writing this song?

PS: “It’s a Kevin tune. I can’t recall the nuts and bolts of it too much. A lot of Output blends together in general ways to me. That’s not a dismissive statement, it’s just another way of saying how much work we put into it, collectively and individually.

“Many of the songs’ details are kind of lost to me probably because I was still trying so hard to fit in, like a younger sibling tries to fit in. I can hear some of that in the vocals. A lot of the memories that revolve around this record are couched in fear and anxiety. Funny, but true. I was Pony Boy.”

KT: “In this case the music came from me and I don’t remember writing it so much as I remember being very trepidatious about bringing it to the band. A combination of low self esteem and an incorrect estimation that the song would be judged as too poppy had me nervous.

“I immediately loved what the band did with it. It is important to remember that this time was so fertile for us back then. The mission district scene was still strong, we felt surrounded by good energy, we lived within blocks of one another, we practiced several days a week, and our rapport as friends was as strong as our rapport as musicians.”

JG: “There’s a lot of conflict in our songs on every level, words and music… and we’re all fairly emotional chaps. It’s honest in that respect.

“I always felt that Sudden Inspection was one of our more optimistic and poppy sounding songs. Pete would often introduce it live, by saying, ‘And next, happiness’ …even though I think the poem is about death, so there you go.”

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S13: With regards to the bands writing process, do there need to be concrete ideas before going into the studio, or is there a balance between and having space and seeing where things go?

PS: “We’re always working on things, so we’re always in flux. But getting everybody into a room is still the best policy. Collaboration is probably the most important element to how we work.”

KT: “I think that in past, when we all lived in the same town and rehearsing was a weekly thing, we went in with more complete ideas. By the time Blown Realms… came around things were definitely getting different, and now, well, I am not quite sure what it is. Interesting to say the least.”

JG: “Most of the records have a moment or two of improv’ on them… Output and Tundra not so much.

“Generally we’d come in with fully arranged songs. But they were always open to be fucked with.

“Heavier use of improvisation really started with Blown Realms…, and has continued with the help of our free jazz loving drummer, Sam.”

S13: A lot of artists claim that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Is this is the case with Enablers?

PS: “Agreed. Whether it’s a song or a poem or a combination of the two, I believe that you reach a point in which the thing itself begins to tell you where it wants to go. That might just be instinct or surrender talking, but they feel like the same thing.”

KT: “Honestly I have never reflected upon this.” 

S13: I know you lives in New York these days, Pete, but how much of an influence has San Francisco had on the band?

PS: “As a setting it weighed very heavily on what I wrote. It had to. I was always rooting out emblematic figures and events. I liked that it was a place full of misfits who never really had to prove who or what they were, running around in the fog. (By contrast, NYC is a place where it seems like everybody has to prove who or what they are to a very annoying degree, running after money and death.) Having lived there for close to twenty years, I think Enablers’ records can only condense that time and experience into periods or stages. But they do it well. Output especially. It’s a very cinematic record. I think tunes like Jack [For Jack: A Phillppic] really embed images of a specific city and time in peoples’ heads.”

KT: “Huge for me. I honestly thought I was going to spend the rest of my life there. I come from the east, (New York), and San Francisco utterly seduced me with its grandeur, micro-climates, and seemingly open and free spirit. I’m not sure that it is as influential now, as it was on us then. I live across the bay in Oakland now and it might as well be 1,500 miles away instead of 15.”

JG: “Pete’s poems are always influenced by his surroundings. The first five LPs were written and recorded in San Francisco, it has to be indelible at this point. But other locations were always influencing the writing as well. From the start of Enablers we all wanted to travel with this music. So places in other countries became homes away from home, the people and geography show up in the poems and seep into the music.”

Output Negative Space is out now via Human Worth. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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