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Pan-American Interview: “Memory is the place where inward-facing emotion lives”

We speak to Mark Nelson about his new album, ‘The Patience Fader’.

One can’t really engage with anything in today’s experimental sound world without hearing the echoes of Labradford.

From post-rock to ambience and drone, the Chicago three-piece were the reference point throughout the ’90s, and today this remains so.

Labradford remain a criminally overlooked concern; the fact they titled one of their records A Stable Reference only accentuates their prescience and, indeed, their legend.

While the members of Labradford have continued to create after the band’s fitting finale, 2001’s Fixed:: Content, none have bettered Mark Nelson’s Pan-American project.

Unfailing and vital, Nelson has spent the last 25 years delivering albums that illuminate the darkest corners of the universe. While still following Labradford’s shadowy lineage tailor-made for late nights, with Pan-American, Nelson builds a world that permeates contemplation and homespun warmth.

There’s a melancholic thread that weaves through the Pan-American patchwork, led by Quiet City (2004), White Bird Release (2009) and Cloud Room, Glass Room (2013). Sounds that arc and drift, underpinned by drone, influencing the likes of kranky label mate, Grouper, and countless others in this space.

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While immersed in nimble experimentation, on his 2019 release, A Son, Nelson zeroed in on the ideas conventional songwriting, weaving traditional acoustic-laden songs between beautiful dreamscape interludes. These sounds provided the backdrop to his vexing whisper-like vocal.

It’s a dream-state concern and on The Patience Fader, Nelson’s follow-up, Pan-American hasn’t sounded so free.

The Patience Fader has a nomadic, escapist quality to it. Nelson’s pieces are agile, finding beauty along different paths. The ethereal twang and lo-fi crackle of Swimming in a Western Motel, Outskirts, Dreamlit and album highlight, Harmony Conversion. The scrambled Eastern European flavoured Corniel and Wooston, Ohio. The elegiac quality of The North Line, Almost Grown and Grounded. The meandering guitar of Just A Story and the woodsy finesse of Nightwater.

An album that is a worthy acquaintance in solitude, The Patience Fader is yet another excellent addition to the Pan-American creative sphere, reaffirming Nelson as an omnipotent force in the world of ambient and experimental music.

Last week, in the lead-up to the release of The Patience Fader, we asked Nelson some questions.

Pan-American (photo credit: Luka Nelson)

Sun 13: When did you start forming the ideas for The Patience Fader?

Mark Nelson: “Starting in the spring of 2020. Most of the songs came out of my normal practice schedule and routine. I like practicing guitar – in some ways working on specific technique or efforts to get better on the instrument can be more rewarding than working on my music. When it does show up, though, you have to follow through. The sound of [The] Patience Fader showed up, and the songs followed.”

S13: The album title feels very indicative of these times. Was that the inspiration behind it?

MN: “It is a reflection of the time it was made – both personally and collectively. Certainly from the beginning it was clear that the pandemic would require a tremendous level of species-wide patience. More generally I was looking at patience as a type of kindness. Maybe its ultimate form. Having that on a fader would be handy, for sure.

“As time went on the double meanings of both words also grew in my mind. My father was dying in the summer of 2020 when I was recording this music. Because of COVID we were not able to visit him in the last months of his life. (He didn’t die from COVID, for clarification.) However, his caregivers set up a weekly Facetime chat where I could see him and interact a bit. He was a patient, I had no choice but to show patience. And certainly in those weekly sessions, his light was fading.”

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S13: Although very different records, listening to A Son and The Patience Fader back-to-back feels really natural. Do you see a connection between the two?

MN: “They were made the same way in the sense that I played and recorded them both alone. Also they both grew out of guitar playing. In reality I think all my records come from the same emotional terrain – so certainly they are connected in lots of ways.”

S13: You described The Patience Fader as lighthouse music. Swimming In A Western Motel and Wooster, Ohio really encapsulate that. Do you look to have a central theme with every Pan-American release?

MN: “No – I don’t really think thematically at all. It starts and ends really with what emotions and memory opens up in response to the music. Memory is the place where inward-facing emotion lives, and empathy is where emotion moves out through us. They can feel similar. ‘Lighthouse music’ is really more of an effort to describe it in words and after the fact.”

Pan-American - The Patience Fader

S13: The North Line and Harmony Conversion evoke the feelings of open spaces, the environment and escapism, which I’ve always associated with your music Are these things big influences for you?

MN: “I guess so – I like to be in motion. I love travelling but I always dread it as a trip grows closer. Movement shuts my brain down a bit which is always welcome – so in a sense, that’s escapism. I love cycling and trains in particular. 

“Outside of cities, driving can be good. Something about the distances involved in air travel and the surreality of being 30,000 feet in air is very compelling, but the process and stress usually cuts most of the joy out of it in the moment. I love the process, though, of taking off and landing, being in a new airport and city and starting something new.”

S13: Throughout your musical accomplishments you’ve made both instrumental records and records where you sing; a mixture of both, too. Do you make a decision one way or the other before the writing process?

MN: “Not really – and I don’t really have a good explanation as to why or how a record either has singing or doesn’t – in general I don’t use vocals unless I really think it’s needed. In the case of this record, I felt that the music (and in a sense, the times) didn’t need more words – or that the words it needed were not going to come from me.”

Raum: Daughter

S13: Artists talk about the ideal state of mind for being creative. Do you think about this and, if so, what is yours?

MN: “I don’t – I do think the famous quote from Picasso, “Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working”, is very true. When I stumble on a vein of energy to create something new, it always interrupts a period of practice and discipline. Often inconveniently so! But as I said above – when it shows itself I think it’s important to follow through and let it run. Also a kind of movement and travel.”

S13: Since your days in Labradford, have your song writing challenges changed in any way?

MN: “Following a bit from the previous answer – I don’t really try to write at this point. I’m always playing and working on things and I trust that the writing will just follow from that. It’s not something I even look for really.

“In Labradford beyond the obvious difference that three people had to be happy with the result – there was at times a larger sense that we ‘needed’ new material. Mostly I think because we got sick of things really quickly and wanted something new to play.

“With Pan-American the songs are a little more free to change shape over time so they seem to last a little longer before I get sick of playing them.”

Pan-American (photo credit: Luka Nelson)

S13: To my mind, Labradford were one of the most unique voices in the ’90s, however I think with Pan-American, there’s a clear distinction between the two, which isn’t always the case when an artist has multiple projects. Is this something your conscious about?

MN: “In the early days of Pan-American, absolutely. I don’t really think about it anymore as Labradford has been inactive for a long time. If we were to work on anything new, though, I’m pretty confident it would sound very little like Pan-American.”

S13: With technology changing over the last 30 years, has this effected how you approach making music?

MN: “Certainly. I have a very mid-level recording setup-and I’m still only a few minutes away from recording something that can sound really great at any time. I have wildly mixed feelings about what this has meant for studios and recording – it’s certainly part of the conversation about how music has become devalued, but like streaming it’s an utterly different reality than twenty years ago. Also like streaming, it’s irreversible.”

S13: COVID depending, are there any plans to tour the UK at some point this year?

MN: “I hope so. I was there in November – so hopefully will be back perhaps in the fall.”

The Patience Fader is out now via kranky. 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.

9 replies on “Pan-American Interview: “Memory is the place where inward-facing emotion lives””

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