It’s been quite a while. I hope that this letter finds you well.
A few years ago I wrote to you about a record called Golden, which I made with my band Point Reyes in 2012. I wrote Golden just a few months after my best friend and longtime musical collaborator Dominic Ziegler passed away following an unexpected series of strokes at the age of 23.
So many things have happened since then —Point Reyes spent almost all of 2012 on tour, crisscrossing America and playing in DIY venues, art museums, and rock clubs. Then we took time off, most of us settled in Brooklyn, and I moved back to California, to run an international experimental residency and performance called the Koans and Performance Project.
It’s funny, because I thought, in writing Golden, and writing to you, that I’d grieved, that I’d dealt with Dominic’s death, that everything would just flow forward quite easily. But, as it turned out, when I moved back to rural Northern California at the end of 2012, where we grew up together, and made our records, and drove to the beach, and climbed rocks and played secret parties in the redwoods, I was overwhelmed by grief.
When I came back to California, I was staying in a studio on the edge of Mendocino county, in an area where, if you climb a ridge and look north, there’s basically no trace of human life for hundreds of miles — mountains, forests, at night the lights reveal a few houses here and there… but mostly a lot of deer, wild boar, hawks, salamanders, deep rivers, pot growers, and the occasional vineyard.
Every day I’d take my old Toyota pickup truck and drive up this canyon, where I’d park, and walk along a tributary of one of the rivers. Dominic had worked on these rivers, counting salmon populations and monitoring water quality, and everywhere I went I felt traces of him — he seemed to be everywhere and missing from everywhere all at once — such a strange feeling! Sometimes I’d walk all day, just letting my feet carry me. I cried a lot. And there was a strange tunnel vision effect… I could only feel out a few days ahead of time, or even a few hours, a few moments… everything was close and dark.
I was supposedly running this huge project, with a $50,000 budget and people coming from all over the world to make a performance together, but really I was just trying to keep my head above water, reeling from the loss of this person who had been the closest thing I had to a sibling, one of the real sources of stability in my life.
After about a month of this walking, and doing the bare minimum to keep the project afloat, things started to seem pretty bleak. My friends and family were in shock, too, and everyone was reacting in their own private and unpredictable ways — beyond my Dad and stepmom and my girlfriend at the time, there wasn’t a lot of support around, or at least it seemed that way, and nobody knew when any of us would feel better again. I started to doubt if I could run the project in the state I was in, and I seriously considered canceling it.
One day I was walking along the river, and at a spot where I usually turned right to follow the bend of the tributary, I turned left and clambered over a sandy hill dotted with sticky monkey flowers. To my surprise, on the other side of the hill lay a huge, open clearing — towering boulders, deep green pools, ancient oak trees, and the detritus of years of floods, including part of a washed out bridge. I clambered down, hopped from rock to rock, climbed one of the tallest boulders, and sat there staring down into the pool. I was really close to despair at this time and just sat there motionless for nearly an hour.
Suddenly something caught my eye — a flash in the pool below me. I looked, and to my surprise, there was a full grown salmon below me — completely out of season, and way too large to be this far upstream. A sharp intake of breath — my whole body electrified, my hair stood on end — the salmon hovered just below the surface, tail flashing gold, and we stared at each other. Time seemed to stop, the March afternoon sunlight softened, the smells of water and oak trees and algae hit my nose… It seemed like forever, and then, as quickly as the salmon appeared, it was gone.
That night I sat down at the keyboard and wrote a song I later called “Fisher King,” the first song I’d written in many months. Over the next month I wrote dozens of songs, filled with images of Northern California, of salmon in pools, hidden valleys and unnamed mountains, rugged coastlines, and with memories of our friends and family, and full of the feeling of the huge, beautiful, terrible wind of loss blowing through all of our lives, our lives streaked through with light and dark all at once, grief and loss, and, ultimately, revelation and grace…
… And these songs became my way through grief, the images in these songs and the sounds themselves held me and became my way of simultaneously making (reflecting?) and walking the path through this incredibly difficult time…
In the fall of 2013 I moved back to Brooklyn (in the end I didn’t cancel the project and it was in fact quite successful) and I asked some dear friends of mine, some of whom you may know — Ben Seretan, Bryan West, Eliza McKelway, and Trevor Wilson — to start a new band with me, called VALES, to work on the songs I’d written in California. We recorded the songs last January, February, and March, in the depths of the coldest winter in memory, at Akin Studios, in Hoosick Falls, NY, with an amazing engineer named JJ Beck, who became a sixth band member of sorts.
During the Koans and Performance Project, my friends Jessica Sledge and Richard Hunter-Rivera shot a series of incredibly beautiful films to accompany the songs, and the whole project — called VALES just like the band — is being released by the Brooklyn-based label Shatter Your Leaves as a completely unique interactive full-screen, horizontally scrolling website where the films and songs are experienced simultaneously and interact in fascinating and wonderful ways. Hope For The Tape Deck in Philadelphia is releasing a cassette tape, and there are plans for a vinyl later in the year.
The name VALES comes from a quote by philosopher James Hillman:
“Vale in the usual religious language of our culture is a depressed emotional place — the vale of tears… the valley of the shadow of death… a long depression or hollow… the world regarded as a place of troubles, sorrow, and weeping, and the world regarded as the scene of the mortal, the earthly, the lowly… the way of dreams, reflections, fantasies, reveries… where events are deepened into experiences.”
I think it’s hard for us, in our culture, to accept anything that slows us down, that stops us, makes us sad and humble and lowly and reminds us that we are creatures. But we all know that many, many things in life do this, stop us cold and change everything, make us human-animals again. And maybe this isn’t so bad, maybe the things that stop us are actually the most important things, the things that really matter, because we forget our schemes and remember to just be here, we become citizens of the world again.
So my hope is that VALES — this little island of depth on the internet —may offer a place where it’s not only possible, but beautiful, meaningful, revelatory, to pause, to reflect, to listen and to feel our bodies and sit in the depths for a moment, to remember that we are creatures with sorrows and pains, and that this is in fact a noble, wonderful thing.
Anyways, Mark, I wanted to write to you, and tell you about this, and to share a song with you from this project. It’s called Whalewatch, and it’s the last song on the album, a song of regret about the things we can’t do, a song of loss, and, ultimately, peace.
February 15, 2015