Joe Culver (Mushel/Bardo Pond): “Occasionally a clarity can be found”


NOS 1998 is the recently self-released solo project by Mushel aka Joe Culver, who played drums with Bardo Pond in the beginning of their existence as a proper band, amongst other musical projects. NOS 1998 comes from what may be considered the ‘classic’ Lemur House/Bardo Pond era, when the band was going along at full blast with the indie juggernaut of Matador Records behind them. Not too long ago we spoke with Michael Gibbons from Bardo Pond about the recent disintegration of Lemur House amongst other things, and I thought I would take the opportunity to catch up with Joe Culver about that as well. Joe was incredibly generous with his insights and I encourage you to go and listen to the Mushel EP while you are reading this. It’s really something special.

Cyclic Defrost: So the Mushel release seems to be from 1998, which would be between Lapsed and Set and Setting?

Joe Culver: Yes. Lapsed came out in October 1997, Set and Setting in August 1999. In 1998, we were touring and playing shows in support of Lapsed while making up material for, and recording Set and Setting. That year was also when I transitioned out of the band with Ed Farnsworth coming into play drums. Nowadays I lead a research group developing optical brain imaging instruments. 1998 was kind of the beginning of that sliver of my life picking up momentum. And Halloween 1998 was the day our first kid, Easton, was born. Bardo Pond had a show the night before Halloween at the Mercury Lounge in NYC. Which was a super cool and remarkable prize gig for us at the time. So… I mean I thought about going … but in the end, I stayed in Philly to be there when Easton was born.

Cyclic Defrost: Tell me about the recording, who was on it… what is the story? How did it come about?

Joe Culver: It’s a solo project. I’d been writing songs off and on ever since high school, but almost always played drums for bands. While I was in Seattle, around 1987 to 1989 I was in three bands, Big Tube Squeezer, Love and Respect, and The Sad and Lonely(s). I wrote songs on the side and a couple of songs made it onto The Sad and Lonely(s) LP. In Philadelphia, while I was in Bardo Pond I was also in another band, Wicked Finger, with a couple of friends. We all shared the songwriting, but that was the first band in which I sang and played guitar as my main thing. We were fairly noisy but were trying to make songs that moved from one place to another mostly improvised, and that started my thinking about instrumentals. By summer 1998, I had some songs with ideas for the drum parts and the main rhythm guitar track.

In the Bardo Pond songs, I was looking for ways to mess with the rhythm, pulling and pushing on the beat to get some sense of levitation,… a glimmering or floating sense of time. I think we were getting there fairly often, with songs such as Limerick from Amanita and Green Mind from Lapsed. So that was part of the idea with the Mushel songs – to get a looping guitar riff and then have the drums push and pull against that and kind of stretch time. And that sort of set the backdrop for the semi-lead guitar. I can’t really describe what was going on there but in a way, it’s also to make your head kind of float.

In July 1998, Bardo Pond was out on tour with Ed on drums, and the Bardo Pond studio was empty. So, since I was missing the tour, I spent about five or so evenings over in the Lemur House recording. That place had a great room, very tall ceilings, a lot of semi-random furniture, and half-finished sculptures. Perfect for sound diffusion. And Mike (Gibbons) had figured out a great setup for the mic’s, compressors, and reverb, through an 8 track Tascam ADAT system. A lot (maybe all?) of Set and Setting was recorded through that. He created this particular sound that worked well with Bardo Pond. So the process of recording was pretty well worked out. My drums were already set up so I brought my guitar stuff over and recorded all the tracks. The guitar setup, which I was using with Wicked Finger, was pretty stripped down but I liked the feedback that I could get with it.

The psychology of recording is always kind of an interesting thing. Especially if a lot of it is semi-improvised. You go into a tunnel and hope the sound and your ears see a way to open it all back up. And even weirder if it’s a solo project since the early tracks are without any other instruments. But on the flip side with a solo project, there’s an ease to changing directions, and occasionally a clarity can be found.

Cyclic Defrost: Was this unearthed during the digging through the archives for the new Matador re-issues or was it something you knew you were sitting on?

Joe Culver: Somewhat unearthed. I kind of knew they were there in the back of my mind — but didn’t think of them often. I have a small basement recording studio now and there’s this rack of five drawers filled with cassettes. Probably one drawer – Bardo Pond, one drawer – Wicked Finger, and one drawer random solo things with just a few of what sound like the Mushel recordings. I was thinking of tossing them all out to make space, so started going through them probably around January. While I was listening to things I found that Mushel tape. I think at the time I recorded it, I didn’t really have an easy way to release it. Bandcamp, Spotify, Soundcloud all came out about 10+ years after this was recorded. Recently I’ve been chatting more with everyone from Bardo Pond and the re-issue came up. And I knew Mike was digging through old material. So that provided another spark. And, of course, it’s really easy to release things now. I digitized the tape into Reaper, added some mastering, and loaded it up onto Bandcamp. Our daughter, Audrey, 15, had been drawing these little mushroom people, Mushels. They get cooler when she’s pissed off about something, like math, or being in quarantine. So that became the project name, and she drew the figures for the cover.

Cyclic Defrost: Are these the only four tracks by Mushel? Is there more?

Joe Culver: I think that’s it for the old tapes but not completely sure. Those are probably the only ones where I went over to Lemur House to record. But more likely new releases will come from new material/recordings that I’m working on now. Probably another EP in late summer 2021.

Cyclic Defrost: The Bardo Pond timeline always seems a bit slippery and difficult to pin down, what years were you with the band? Until around 99?

Joe Culver: Bardo Pond started for me in 1992. The hard cut off for me was April 2001 – when we moved our family of three to Salem Massachusetts for my job. But really the switch over to Ed began much earlier. I think it was over 1998 maybe into 1999 that Ed and I sort of gradually transitioned the drumming fully over to him. Set and Setting is a mix of Ed and I playing drums. I remember one show at the Khyber Pass where I played one half of the set and then Ed played the other half. And another show probably later where I was playing Farfisa. And that was the end of the road for me! Never quite made it to being the tambourine man, like Joel from Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Cyclic Defrost: What was the Lemur House vibe like back then? What’s it like to think that it does not exist anymore?

Joe Culver: It was an amazing place. Essentially a giant artist loft, maybe 2000 square feet, with a studio apartment kind of created inside of it. A perfect setting for a music recording studio. The Lemur House was on the second floor of a warehouse converted into apartments. The whole complex was shaped like a giant U with a gate across the U opening. As you entered, you basically shifted from a fairly normal Fishtown rowhouse neighborhood into a somewhat rough and tumble artist compound. After walking a kind of zig-zag staircase up to the second floor, to the right was the apartment with a bunch of chairs and couches in an arc facing a stereo system and a TV with half-completed sculptures hanging from the ceiling … the chill room. And to the left was the studio with just a lot of space. I miss all of that. Everything, even carrying gear. I remember the kind of buzz that would set in while carrying gear and setting it up. With Bardo… you never really knew what was going to happen. So, setting up for a show was a little like getting ready for a cliff dive, or some kind of flying. I’ve always missed the Bardo Pond world. I think their show at the Sydney Opera House, curated by Laurie Anderson and playing alongside Boris – that one hurt the most.

Cyclic Defrost: Have you been making any other music since? What is your passion these days?

Joe Culver: These days I’m still totally into science. We build things. So that’s a little like building songs. We build a mix of brain imaging hardware, algorithms, and neuroscience. And work on figuring out how the brain works. There’s a pretty high crossover in people who like experimental rock like Bardo Pond and neuroscience. Ilya Monosov from Shining Path is on faculty here at WashU in Neuroscience. We’ve gotten together a few times to play. And I think maybe one out of 10 people in our lab, before they joined, were into Bardo Pond, Boris, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and the like. Likely, to be fair, when we are finding new people, it does tell us a little bit about how they think – if someone is into that stuff.

And then we still go to shows. My kids have gotten into it. When they were really little we saw Bardo Pond play with Mono in Louisville Kentucky at an outdoor festival. Later I took my son Easton and one of his friends to see Boris and Russian Circles when they were about 13, and I think that made an impression. When he was 14 he was taking guitar lessons and trying to out hardcore us with bands like Slipknot, but then we gave him Oathbreaker and Deafheaven albums for Christmas so he gave up on that. Nowadays it’s reversed and he sends me links to new bands. Every few years we have gone back to Philly to visit. So my two oldest kids, Easton and Owen, have both been to the Lemur House. It transformed them both, they’ve never been the same since.

On music, I never really stopped playing. But for years it was pretty low-key, mostly guitar. Over the last year, I’ve been getting back into writing and recording with drums/keyboard/guitar/bass. Around the beginning of the year I got the mic channels pretty settled so that the drums are all sorted, guitar is sorted, bass is sorted, keyboard done. Not fancy stuff, but it makes it pretty seamless to switch between things and I’m not trying to reset the levels on mic channels or mess with the technical things. And so it’s been easier now to soak back down into the gloom and search for sadness. I’m always searching for sad drums in particular – together with that floating feeling.

NOS 1998 is available on Bandcamp and is streamable on Spotify too. Go give it a spin or eight and delve into that beautiful slow floating feeling.


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