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September 18, 2007
Difficult Birth: An interview with Lou Rogai.

The very first notes of Blasts of Holy Birth, the second full-length album from psych-folk-drone outfit Lewis & Clarke, connote struggle. The cut builds tension from overlapping cello and double bass, lasting only about a minute and half, but leaving an impression of effort, difficulty and hard-won resolution.

In a way, this brief cut contains all the threads of this album's story; fruitful collaboration cut short by unforeseen events, momentous life changes temporarily put on hold and, through it all, patience, struggle and faith that Blasts of Holy Birth would eventually take the shape intended for it.

Songwriter Lou Rogai had been working on the piece with cellist Eve Miller when she left to tour with Rachels. On that tour, at a rest stop in Washington State, Miller fell and injured her arm, leaving her unable to play for many months. At the same time, Rogai's other main collaborator, Russell Higbee, had left to join the ecclectic noise punk outfit Man Man (with which he performs under the name 'Alexander "Cougar" Borg'). On top of that, Rogai's life partner was deep into late pregnancy. Everything seemed to stand still... yet at the same time, everything was changing. "So that first track, more attentive people have brought it to note that it's like a labor piece," says Rogai. "That is the sound of labor, something heaving or shifting or a tectonic plate moving."

Music... and Natural Beauty
Rogai has been playing music all his life. His mother was a piano teacher, though he resisted learning his mother's instrument until a few years ago, and his father had a vast record collection, including a variety of Indian classical music. Rogai began playing in bands at an early age, as well as writing his own material on four-track. A friend encouraged him to release some of his songs on the European micro-label Delboy, and so Rogai recorded and released the Bright Light EP.

Born in Brooklyn, Rogai moved to Northern Pennsylvania with his family at the age of ten. His work today is full of natural images and homespun arrangements; it seems to reflect the rural, naturally beautiful environment in which he has chosen to live. "I live on Main Street of my town half a block from the Appalachian Trail," says Rogai. " We're on it every day. Morning or night. It's part of what we do in our lives. And that's where I get a lot of... part of who I am. I need it. I've done stints in cities. Years, the formative years in Brooklyn, and I need to be in the country for sure."

Rogai met Higbee, a native of the region, through a loose network of arts-minded people. "We started working on the same landscape crew and we had played on each other's shows with different bands before, so we were kind of acquaintances," says Rogai. "We just started hanging out and listening to records and finding a lot of common ground. In a lot of Indian classical music and folk records." Higbee brought a celtic harp over to Rogai's house one day, and the two of them started working on some of Rogai's songs. At the time Rogai was just finishing up work on Bare Bones and Branches, his first proper album, and incorporated Higbee's work into some of the songs. "But what really was happening was, we were creating what was to be Blasts of Holy Birth," says Rogai.

Eventually Miller would join in, laying down the rich, complicated cello parts that thread through most of the tracks on Blasts of Holy Birth. Then, with four cohesive players and the album half finished, Miller left for her tour, Higbee joined Man Man and drummer Dave Ulrich set out on a cross country bike tour.


Overcoming Obstacles
"There I was with a son about to be born and half a finished album, and all the people I was working with were all gone... and it freaked me out," says Rogai. "I didn't know what to do. I just kind of... I had to stand my ground and stake my claim and decide what to do with this. Half of me was like, okay, whatever, it's laissez faire. We started working on some music. But then the more people who would hear the rough mixes, the more I would hear, 'you have to get this to the world. You have to share this'." When Rogai was invited to do a solo show on Princeton University's WPRB something clicked and he began to realize that he could finish Blasts of Holy Birth by himself if he had to, and even release it himself if it came to that.

It had been a tumultuous period, but Rogai eventually found himself with an enlarged family, a finished album -- a gorgeous juxtaposition of fragile folk and ominous, mysterious drones -- and, since no one else was offering to issue the work, a new record label called Société Expéditionaire. "I just took matters in my own hands and said to myself, well, if I can be a father to my son, I can be a father to this musical project and do it," Rogai remembers. "It's kind of been a head spin from there. It really took off, and there are a lot of things happening."

Things seemed to be working out right down the line, and Blasts of Holy Birth turned out to be a learning experience as well. "That was a hard period for me to let go. And that's what a lot of the breathing moments in the album are... the letting go. The stillness and a lot of that drone, those are sympathetic notes on many different levels. They're all represented in that process. Which is birth. Which is a creation."


Mysterious Overtones
Within the context of Lewis & Clarke, Rogai is interested in primal, droning vibrations, through which strange, overtone-laden textures can arise out of folk-centric melodies, "Before It Breaks You" and "Comfort Inn" being two excellent cases in point from the new album. According to Rogai this fascination, not exactly common, stems from his father's love of Indian and folk music. "It's funny because I hear, in our contemporary music community, people refer to music as being drone-y, and I hear it and I don't think it's a true drone," he says. "There's a set of notes that are backing something more significant. I think the meaning of a drone has gotten away from us."

"Comfort Inn" is the only tune on Blasts of Holy Birth to be wholly credited to another musician, Aaron Ross, with "arrangements and liberties" by Lewis and Clarke. Rogai says he met Ross in Nevada City, California in 2001, sharing a bill at a show. "He was a friend of a friend and a folk singer -- he kind of reminded me of a young Dylan and a young Van Morrison combined," Rogai remembers. "I was going through a really difficult period then, and that song just blew me away and helped me through a lot of hard times. I always kept it in my head and I would sing it to myself." Later Rogai played the song for Higbee, who urged him to cover it.

The Lewis & Clarke version ended up very different from the original, though. "It starts out stark and alone and builds... and that whole pinnacle can be slightly chaotic," says Rogai. "There's some beautiful moments in there, but then when the verse kicks back in, after you think the song might be over, it talks about the midnight madness will eat you up, and that's all the troubles or vices I get into. And that's what the swirl of instruments represents, is the chaos. And then the stillness or the breath, you have to realize what you went through and take it from there. It's a really sad song but it's also about hope." Ross of course has gone on to sing for Hella, another band from the Nevada City area, which is also Joanna Newsom's hometown.


Finding the New Normal
Earlier in the year Rogai did some shows centered around the release of Blasts of Holy Birth, then stepped back to begin focusing on his new label and adjusting to life as a working musician -- with a two-year-old child. "With the obligations, things have to be deliberate now," he observes. "I would never have visited Nevada City or met those characters if I couldn't do it gypsy style. But I can't do it [that way] now." Gypsy style or no, Lewis & Clarke will be heading out for a string of dates this fall, teaming up with UK outfit Bat for Lashes in the Eastern US and Canada this month before returning home for a short breather ahead of at least three sets at next month's CMJ festival.

And as for Julian, Rogai's son, he's a typical rambunctious two-year-old... albeit one with an indie-folk song dedicated to him and a bit part on "Crimson Carpets." "Julian is such a big part of that song," he says. "If you listen to it, it's making a reference to the red carpet, the welcome mat, but also crimson being deeper than red. And a blood reference, so there's a lineage welcoming." For those Lewis & Clarke fans who enjoy audio puzzles, Rogai adds, "He was also in the room where we were recording. You can hear him if you listen hard."

SEE ALSO: www.lewisandclarkemusic.com
SEE ALSO: www.la-soc.com

--
Jennifer Kelly
An occasional contributor to LAS, writer Jennifer Kelly also delivers words for magazines such as Dusted, PopMatters, Harp, and the Philadelphia Weekly.

See other articles by Jennifer Kelly.

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