A Love Song to a Tree: Theo Angell

Story by Nat Roe
Photography by John Francis Peters

They say that after civilization finally collapses and cities become abandoned, plants will reclaim New York City beginning from Central Park and moving steadily outward in concentric circles until all the steel and concrete is completely hidden.

At the moment, you might say nature is a bit edged out.  On a recent summer afternoon, I met Theo Angell at a little anomaly in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn called Flushing Farms.  A few ears of corn, raspberry plants and flowers look like someone transplanted fifteen square feet of Eden into a maze of industrial sprawl.  A graffiti covered shack next to the green patch will soon be a cafe. The occasional show space, run by Jeffrey Lohn, former member of no-wave legends Theoretical Girls, is just a few blocks from Angell's own apartment.

At first glance, Theo Angell's rustic folkisms appear just as at odds with his New York City surroundings as Flushing Farms.  Angell's new record Tenebrae breathes with a slow-paced psych folk hum that would seem completely oblivious to passing sixteen-wheelers and the mechanical whirs of factories.  Angell's patient guitar work, sympathetic croons and otherworldly atmospheric swirls sound as far from urban as is imaginable.

But New York City was in fact the town where Angell first began creating music.  Originally born in Oregon, Angell was writing a still unpublished novel when he came to NYC about fifteen years ago and suddenly decided to pursue music.  "There's an energy when you're playing music with people, a collaborative energy that you can't get from writing.  You have to spend a lot of hours alone when you're a writer."

Angell began his musical career with sonic experimentalism, using prepared guitars and electronics to produce spacy, psychedelic drones.  Many of Angell's influences came from the encyclopedic record collection of his friend Samara Lubelski, with whom Angell and Dan Brown formed the longstanding band Hall Of Fame.

Between Angell's solo work, Hall of Fame and a two year stint with Jackie O Motherfucker, Angell has garnered a reputation for combining far out psychedelia with rootsy folk strains.  In Jackie O, drawn out explorations eerily touch on the verge of folk, while Hall Of Fame condenses the two traditions into a freaked out, ramshackle folk pop.  With his solo records, in particular the newly released Tenebrae, Angell is also quickly becoming celebrated for more accessible, yet equally mystic folk.  Recorded in an Oregon farm house that Angell holed himself in for weeks, Tenebrae speaks fluently in both pop and avant garde and is a beautiful combination of the disparate influences.

In the early days of Hall of Fame, Angell regularly hosted shows in his apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a move which earned the band's label of "apartment rock".  Their apartment building was mostly abandoned and the few others who lived in the building were too mentally ill to file noise complaints.  Angell recently moved to loft pop central, in a still scabby Bushwick, Brooklyn neighborhood.  Angell's walls are covered in paintings, ornate quilts and assorted oddities gleaned from decades of choice thrift store finds.  He feeds a stray cat who wanders around the apartment complex.  He grows kale and mint in a small garden and grinds gourmet coffee brewed with a French press.  He's been known to give Tarot readings to acquaintances  and has an acute sense of his pagan Germanic roots.  Sturdy hardwood bookcases and furniture in the apartment were built by Angell himself, who makes extra money in construction.

Angell still hasn't spent much time in this apartment, having just returned from a lengthy European tour.  Paul Labrecque, of Sunburned Hand Of The Man fame, drove Angell around the continent for dates with Stellar Om Source, Michael Morley and Gavin Russom.  Angell and his girlfriend brought nothing on tour but a guitar and a few changes of clothes.  While on the road, Angell met some Germans of the Biesentales collective, who invited Angell to their commune, where they recorded their weird experiments in sound outdoors on a dock by a lake.  Angell has a stack of bizarre CDRs from this collective and all kinds of European freaks in his apartment; the stack sits on top of a sizeable collection of old country and folk vinyl.

These European audiences have responded to Angell's older, more experimental work as well as his current set for Tenebrae.  Even years ago, Angell brought the folk edge to Hall Of Fame, whose other members had previously played in Salmon Skin, an art punk band which Angell compares to Sonic Youth.

Angell's first exposure to popular music came surprisingly late in life, when he moved away from his parents to Portland, Oregon and sorted through a friend's stack of old 78s.  In this stack, Angell had finally discovered Leadbelly, Hawaiian roots player Sol Hoopii and some new weirdness as well; the 78s belonged to a member of psychedelic heroes The Holy Modal Rounders.  Angell "missed out on punk" and found Jimi Hendrix decades late.

Before moving to Portland, Angell was in a cultural bubble.  His father was a Southern Baptist minister of a church that also ran a school Angell attended. For years, Angell was only exposed to protestant hymns (which he still finds beautiful) and the occasional visiting barbershop quartet. Angell's mother was exorcised of the demon Ashteroth when Angell was ten.  "She was just saying crazy things and had no idea what they meant."  Exorcists believe that when a demon is cast out of one person, it has to travel to another body.  When in the final stages of the exorcism, the exorcist asked whom the demon would next inhabit.  "My mom blurted out, 'Shirley'.  Shirley was her cousin.  And as soon as she said 'Shirley', a wall that blocked her vision came down."  Shirley died soon thereafter, although Angell isn't sure whether the death was attributed to Ashteroth or not.

Although Angell doesn't connect the dots explicitly, it's easy to attribute Angell's musical temperament to his strict religious upbringing and belated discovery of folk and country.  Today, Angell looks back to the origins of Western music, to John Dowland and madrigal songs.  "I wanted to write music that nobody has ever heard.  I think the trick is to get real personal.  And I think the more personal you get, you get more singular....  I also think a way to create new music is to look back.  Far back.  And then try to adopt that into something new."

Angell's first solo album, Auraplinth, is a truly unique amalgam of Eastern mysticism, mutated Americana, drawling monologues, experimental gestures and melodic sensibilities.  On the album, Angell channels energy to scat in a nonsense language, sings love songs to trees, and leads his revolving door chorus, "The Tabernacle Hillside Singers".

Just as suddenly as Angell became a musician, after years of writing far out experimentalism, Angell abruptly decided to write pop music.  Auraplinth was the result.  Angell observes that he hears melodies in his head while woodworking, a trade Angell has picked up in his spare time.  As Angell describes, he's able to achieve a meditative state while he's working with his hands.  When music comes into his imagination, what he calls "the best music", he is later able to come to a guitar and flesh out an entire song.  As of late, Angell has been working on a house in the Catskills region of New York state with Hamish Kilgour of The Clean.  The two have collaborated together to produce really out there experimental music, but both share in common the ability to transfer avanty smarts to a pop setting.

Angell has also established a reputation as a filmmaker, most particularly as a projectionist.  Angell has projected the text "don't sell your land" onto farmer's fields, projected a flying eye onto the trees of a forest surrounding a highway at night, and projected a "quilt" of dozens of pictures onto surfaces in Central Park.  When he was in Jackie O Motherfucker, he added to the band's live set by projecting films behind the band.  Angell has edited numerous mainstream films and documentaries, and produced numerous unpublished Super 8 film works.

One of Angell's more notorious projections was at an unauthorized show in 2002 in front of the Guggenheim museum with Gavin Russom, most known as Black Meteoric Star.  Angell's projected live video onto the Guggenheim while a crowd of a few dozen people somehow didn't enrage security.  "Security came out and asked us to turn it down at one point, but they were surprisingly cool about it," Angell recalls.

After the show, Angell realized that he had left a friend's amplifier behind at the museum.  It was most likely that the amp was stolen from the New York sidewalk, but when Angell pulled up to the scene on his motorcycle, he found a swarm of cops in hazmat suits and fire trucks blocking off the street.  The amp was sitting there in the middle of it all.  The anti-terrorism squad thought it was a bomb. After much pleading, Angell was able to simply walk off with the amp.  "I walked up to the amp and they were like 'Hold it!  What are you doing?!'  They had the 'big man' called in, I don't know, the mayor or police chief or something."  Finally an officer accompanied Angell to the amp while another cop yelled, "don't go with him!  He'll blow you up!"

The police had to let Theo walk away with the amp.  Although his long hair and beard might make him look a little like a mad terrorist bomber, he hadn't broken any laws.

A Love Song to a Tree: Theo Angell