The Jam Room Music Festival is set to open Saturday, October 14, and one act in particular, NUMBTONGUE, is preparing to perform independently for the first time at the event.
Inspired by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Emily Dickinson, and David Bowie—to name only a few of the countless creative minds that influence him—Bobby of NUMBTONGUE is an entity whose music and talents stretch beyond experimental. They’re bordering on the side of transcendental.
A self-described sugar addict with a tendency for sleepless days and nights, Bobby infuses and binds his music with pieces of deeply personal, historical, and natural.
He sat down with Jasper to discuss his recent album as well as his much-anticipated performance for The Jam Room Music Festival.
Q: A lot of your music on Exhumation had to do with your son and your feelings upon becoming a father for the first time. How has that dynamic been maintained (or not) now that he is a little older? How has that affected your writing process?
NUMBTONGUE: Becoming a father is certainly a sliver of what light Exhumation casts about me, but a sliver in a prism. The theme thus far in the song that is NUMBTONGUE is largely one of self-fragmentation. These songs are less an attempt to gather those fragments in a manageable whole as they are a building frustration at being unable to do so, mostly especially in a vacuum, alone.
“The blind man blindfolded shuts his eyes, in the deepest cave, and it gets him high…” I say at one point.
So I fear saying that being a new dad is a dominant theme, as it may confound and confuse someone unaware of my aims. A hovering reality to be sure, that may help some listeners to know about me, but not required to understand what’s going on.
Strangely most, if not all, of these songs began before I became a father. Records are about folding oneself inside out for all to see, and inevitably that part of my identity spills over, but often only as metaphorically parallel to the larger themes present.
I’ve said before in relation to this record that I haven’t fully processed becoming a father yet (not that one ever does), but it’s largely my inability to process such a blinding weight of self-identity (among many) that grips the other threads of me, each of which begin their own unspooling in the process.
Who am I as a child and son?
Who am I as a husband?
Who am I as a citizen?
Who am I as a sentient creature?
Who am I when truly alone?
“Who am I that you would consider me?”
There was also an unexpectedly prescient tone of cynicism (for my personal life that is) present on the record, from a time when I was seeking merely to be more honest with myself, as someone prone to hope to a fault.
Yet now I feel more fragmented and disillusioned than ever. I told my mom recently that, “It’s not that I’m hopeless, I’ve just never hoped less.” Which is an odd thing to say now as a father of two.
But the year 2016 was a bleeding year for me for a number of personal reasons I won’t go into, and the burden of completing the nearly conceptually finished ‘Exhumation’ at the time without it becoming tainted by that dark year nearly killed my desire to complete the project entirely. The album was delayed for over a year.
It’s almost as if I’m only just now consciously processing what I was saying on the record without knowing I was preparing myself for an unforeseen fallout. I finished it because I needed to begin the next chapter before anyone had even heard the first. So I’m grateful to have made this record for my future self to perform as an unexpected solace. It’s become quite the table of contents of things to come.
Q: Describe the logistical and creative differences between the experimental music you’re doing now and the “artrock” music you wrote with The Sea Wolf Mutiny.
NUMBTONGUE: In many ways Numbtongue is a culmination and continuation of the ideas explored in The Sea Wolf Mutiny. That may manifest itself in some unsatisfying ways to fans of that former project, but they shouldn’t necessarily be surprised.
The name NUMBTONGUE in part suggests this, in that I feel like I am saying what I was always saying, and in some ways it feels I’ve said nothing at all. I’m numb to the truth of it all because it’s all too real and overwhelming. I can’t feel it but I know it’s there, at once an inability to speak both from atrophy & overuse.
The primal idea of NUMBTONGUE, oddly enough, is actually pulled from a quote the very first drummer of TSWM Joel Eaton told me once. He left early on to live in NH but it always stuck with me. He mentioned it in relation to some lyrics we were writing at the time during a rehearsal. I messaged him about it when crafting Exhumation trying to hunt down this quote that eventually inspired Track 6 “Disjecta Membra” as I couldn’t locate it on my own and never asked about it further at the time.
That track eponymously refers to the archaeological term for pieces of pottery recovered from ancient civilizations at dig sites, and he told me that disjecta membra poetae (or “scattered truth” if you will) was a phrased once used by a theologian-philosopher J. G. Hamann from his essay Aesthetica in Nuce: “The fault may lie where it will (outside us or within us): all we have left in nature for our use is fragmentary verse and disjecta membra poetae. To collect these together is the scholar’s modest part; the philosopher’s to interpret them; to imitate them, or – bolder still – to adapt them, the poet’s."
I would say that passage has been one of the key motives behind the themes of self-fragmentation explored in The Sea Wolf Mutiny and NUMBTONGUE. I actually almost called the record Self Storage in light of the location it was recorded in.
But the word ‘exhumation’ implied a resurrection of sorts, and ‘exhaustion’ as well, and I liked that it almost sounds like the word “human exhaust” in a sense. More importantly, it is a rarely used form of a word normally saved for the context of exhuming a body, usually when investigating a crime or an archeological dig.
In many ways, TSWM were trending in these NUMBTONGUE directions even before its hiatus, so this project was and is more an attempt to grow and stretch that sound we had found. One with any knowledge of previous TSWM work will hear it’s hallmarks in NUMBTONGUE both lyrically and melodically.
The themes of alienation; the shattering of the myth of self; yearning for a home I’ve never been to before; “do I actually control what I believe?”; searching for what ultimate reality we can all grasp as true together; and decrying my utter failure to gather the shards of us all to do so; “if heaven is there what is it like and who walks there? These are just a few things wrestled with here.
There is a meditation on Exhumation where I wonder “sometimes I wish we really could be born again” in a song that wanders in the dark while blindfolded hoping to bump into some kind of quantum god (Constant), and my son coos and whines in the background of a song about the flaws in our definitions of intimacy (Mirabal) that is as much about being a husband as it is being a bad friend or lover. These are very The Sea Wolf Mutiny subjects.
From a logistical standpoint, I decided to seek stylistic choices that pulled from my roots as a drummer at heart, learning to craft a song towards its moments of silence more effectively than I had before, seeking to serve that silence and space between the notes. So I let songs be born from the drums and bass guitar more often then the process allowed in the previous band. This was as much about being different for it’s own sake as it was to serve the theme of fragmentation by starting with grooves only and almost no tones.
I would also ask myself: “What can I get from almost nothing? What does it sound like to have just excavated guitar distortion like an artifact?” Because tonally I wanted to explore the more primal languages of rock and roll even further than I had so far. This meant recording no guitar amps and plugging directly into an audio interface preamp, not only to keep quiet around my family but to get in touch with the raw electricity before any pedal or amp could touch the signal. I learned later this is called ‘console distortion’.
I used to devote myself to a single instrument (piano) and single role as wordsmith and lead singer, but I decided I wanted to wear all the hats this time. Sometimes it’s easier to color inside your own lines instead of outside someone else’s. I decided to flesh out and build upon each rough draft layer by layer until I liked what I heard and it felt complete. The whole record sounds as if it’s a Salvador Dali painting drawn on notebook paper.
It was interesting living into such a disembodied recording process: a bedroom holding my one year-old son recording vocals, a climate control storage crafting one song for seven hours straight, tracking back up vocals into a Mac mic while parked in my minivan as a train drove by. The list goes on.
For many of the more abstract moments, I felt like a foley artist for a movie sometimes in my gathering of sounds via my smartphone, specifically sounds of a scattered metallophonic quality: clanging children’s toys or wind chimes while some kids played by the pool.
Technology available now makes one feel limitless, and I was interested in limiting myself within those limitless possibilities. One way was to use only instruments nearby that I already owned, not buy anything new. There was one element that nearly scuttled the whole thing: I recorded all synthetic drums save one tambourine. However, I felt compelled to use one drum kit in logic pro to aid in my ‘sophisticated rough draft’ approach by keeping it intentionally boxed in, almost like it was the only drum machine I owned, so that anything that bloomed from it had believable roots. Since I had no drum machine and loved this one kit so much, I leaned in.
There are drumbeats and melodies on Exhumation that date back to middle school for me.
I always dreamed of making a record alone: writing, recording, mixing, producing, mastering. I tend to write songs in a manifold way in terms of instrumental composition, but rarely would I complete them to the degree. So this record sounds like all of my private demos always sounded in my last band, I just decided to release them. So in a way my process is no different and this just where I’ve evolved to at this point. It just so happens I needed to stop tinkering with it and release it into the wild, so here we are.
I think of TSWM as it’s own experiment in deconstructing rock and roll, working out whatever my worldview was back then in broad daylight, meditations and prayers outsourced to other ears. All of which are present in NUMBTONGUE. Another contrast was I wrote nearly everything from guitars and drums and almost nothing on the piano except for two tracks for the better part of 2 years. There was a comfort zone I wanted to challenge there in order to expand how I thought about rhythm, timbre and tone, since I didn’t have to feel trapped on a piano. I have however found my way back to the ivories of late.
Q: You’ve never played JRMF with one of your own projects. How are you preparing to showcase NUMBTONGUE?
NUMBTONGUE: Practice, practice, practice. I am eternally grateful for Danny, Steve, Phil and Adam diving headfirst into this abstraction of my self with me, as this music is interminably difficult to evoke live, even for it’s author. I’m beyond proud of our efforts over the past 7-8 months to reify three years of work.
Why did you want to be a part of JRMF?
JRMF has consistently honored the local scene next to many an indie juggernaut, and it seemed as good a time as any to finally present one of my own projects on it’s stages. It’s actually odd it hasn’t happened yet.
What aspect of JRMF are you most excited about?
Performing on the same stage as GBV and HGM is pretty amazing. And sharing a bill with so many talented friends and scene mates (Valley Maker, The Lovely Few, King Vulture, Barnwell, Fat Rat) and having a chance to hear us all in a bigger way than normal always excites me. There’s no place like home.
What I’m looking forward to the most though is finally playing almost every track off of Exhumation in a live setting. And also, debuting a brand new song no one’s heard yet, a song you know is great, is forever my happy place.
What can the audience expect from JRMF and your performance?
They can expect a robust and sophisticated oeuvre from almost every artist performing. I can’t wait. As far as NUMBTONGUE, for those that have seen us live so far, there will perhaps be more keys present than usual from yours truly. I’ve found myself returning to that home of late. And it feels good.