Space Cadets: A Conversation with Lightning Dust

Interview and Words by Samuel Duke

Joshua Wells lives a desirable existence. His day job–when he’s employed–requires little commitment, so he can spend his ample free time focusing on his music, of which there is a lot. Wells helped form and plays drums in Vancouver rock priests Black Mountain, but, like most of his bandmates, also has something on the side. That project is Lightning Dust, his duo with Black Mountain vocalist Amber Wells. On 2007’s eponymous debut and even moreso on this month’s Infinite Light (both for Jagjaguwar, who release most of the B.M.-related canon,) the two canoe themselves into the darker cave-like recesses of their circle’s preferred musical style–essentially a spookier version of American roots music. On Infinite Light, cellos and Rhodes swell from beneath like levitating deities, and Wells’ voice frequently vibrates like a candle that’s two seconds away from going out. It’s a marvelously well-shaped record, cognizant of space like few albums ever are anymore. We rang Wells earlier this month to talk about the record, his day job, Vancouver’s insular scene, and Canadian music industry organizations. Read that conversation below.

So you’re in Vancouver now?

Do you have a day job aside from the music or are you doing that full-time?
Not at the moment. Sometimes I do work, I sort of maintain a causal position as a mental health/needle research person in the downtown East Side of Vancouver, which is sort of an economically depressed area. I work for a company that houses people who are harder to house. But, this year I’ve been mostly doing music ‘cause I haven’t really had time to work.

How long have you been doing that?
I’ve been working for them on-and-off for like five or six years. They’re really cool about just letting me be a casual worker, as they are with many other musicians in Vancouver. So I can go on tour a lot and still sometimes have work.

How did you and Amber start playing music together? Was it before Black Mountain or after you guys had done that?
Basically, Steven, Amber and I–the three of us have been playing music for a long time. We had a band before Black Mountain that just sort of morphed into it. Around the same time that started or maybe just a little bit after, Amber and I just started messing around ‘cause she had a bunch of songs and I had a bunch of songs. And we just made sort of a Christmas album. Not about Christmas, but we just made an EP thing that we gave to our friends. And that’s how it started, just on four-track cassette.

How long ago was this?
That was like 2004 or 2005, something like that.

But your first record wasn’t until 2007…
Yeah, that’s right. So we sort of just kept it at that. And then we just started playing the occasional show. We didn’t have a name back then, either. We played a bunch of shows, just the two of us, as “Amber and Josh”. Just for fun, really, or ‘cause people would ask us to. Then we found ourselves with a summer off, basically after all the first [Black Mountain] record touring and stuff. After the novelty of being around here in the summer wore off after a couple weeks, we got a bit restless and basically just started recording stuff at our jam space, because we had written some more songs and re-recorded a few of the songs that we had done on our “Christmas EP”. We just put that together with no expectations, and by the end of the summer it looked like a pretty decent album. So, we offered it to Jagjaguwar and they were into it.

This record is obviously a bit different. It sounds a lot different. Were you guys writing it while you were on the road for In The Future?
It’s one of those things where the songwriting is pretty slow for Lightning Dust; obviously because we’re busy. But also just ‘cause that’s the way we are. But yea, we had some other things we were working on, and then it kinda got to the point where we had enough songs that were around that it seemed like it was the right to do another album. And we wanted to do it in a more slightly over the top style–a little more orchestrated. We like to keep in mind that space is a major component in our music. But we wanted to get a bit more fancy and orchestrated this time. So we did our best with a really small budget. We have like one violinist friend and one cellist friend and got them involved in it a little more. Other than that, it’s just the two of us.

Were you going into the studio with all those textures laid out in your head?
Yeah, I had pretty clear ideas about what I wanted to do with a song like “Take It Home” that has a big, orchestral bridge and outro. I had written those parts for the string players as well as all the other parts. But just out of necessity we do have to build stuff up in the studio ‘cause like, in general, I play the drums and the pianos and then Amber plays the guitars. So we’ll do backing tracks with me on drums and her on guitar and then I’ll layer some synths and pianos on top of that.

Did you start out as a drummer?
Yeah, I’m a drummer first and foremost. A piano player second.

Did you grow up playing?
Yeah, I started playing the drums when I was nine and I come from a family of musicians. My Dad’s like a rock and roll guitarist and singer; my Mom’s a singer who used to be a folk singer but eventually became more of an opera singer. I was raised around music.

Did you grow up in Vancouver?
No, not really, I was raised all over the place. I was born in Illinois, in a town called Plainfield, which is an hour outside Chicago. When I was really young I moved to Canada, but I’ve lived all over Canada. I’ve lived in Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, and here. But I’ve been here the longest so this is my hometown.

What brought you to Vancouver?
Well, just really a change of pace. At the time I was living in Toronto–this is when I was like a teenager, like fifteen–and I moved out here ‘cause my Mom lived there and my Dad lived here. So I just moved here for a change of pace.

It seems like kind of a special town, musically.
Yeah, it’s different.

I don’t want to say “incestuous” but the amount of Black Mountain-related projects is pretty numerous…
Yeah, I mean, you have to realize that it’s not just Black Mountain-related. It’s a very small musical community here, and particularly in terms of like…there’s lots of other music going on. I suppose the scenes are small and not very co-dependent here, if you know what I mean. It’s a city, there are like two million people here, but probably one million, eight hundred thousand people have never even gone to a live music club in this city. So there’s not really a ton of support for it, which, in a way, can be really frustrating. But in another way, it’s very liberating ‘cause people just tend to make music without any regard to an audience here–because there isn’t one.

The scene may be really small, but everything that I hear from that circle is really good…
Yeah, and that’s what I mean. People sort of make music that is unanalyzed, ‘cause no one is really paying attention apart from their musical peers. I think people just come up with some interesting ideas by not really caring about what people like or what’s trendy. Basically, you get to make music without a critical eye apart from that of your peers, which is critical in the right way. It still drives people to be ambitious, but they don’t really expect that they’re going to ever make a dollar doing it. It’s purely on creative terms.

Before I called, I was reading this article about a program in Canada called FACTOR, where I guess you can receive grants from this organization as an artist?
Yeah, it’s an interesting thing. It’s not really a government granting organization. There is a government granting organization called the Canada Council for the Arts, which funds visual arts and “serious” music. They basically don’t touch what would be called popular music or that sort of stuff. Folk music, indigenous music, classical music–that’s what they deal with. So there’s this thing called FACTOR, which is this music industry organization. And it’s kind of strange, ‘cause it’s like music industry people that get together and review proposals, and yea, you can get grants through them. But one thing that’s interesting about FACTOR is that they tend to help those who need it the least.

That was what I was reading. This guy who runs a tiny label wrote an open letter on The Daily Swarm and it was just sort of like, “The people that get this money are the people that are already established…” and that it seemed like a cool idea that might not have been instituted the right way.
Basically, they have standards for qualification, and one of the main qualifications, for a tour support program, is that you have to have sold at least 2000 records in wherever you’re touring. So, that sets the bar a bit high, right? And one weird thing about FACTOR is that regularly, like every year, they dispense money to people like Sarah McLaughlin or Sum 41–bands that make a lot of money anyway–while they ignore bands you’ve never heard of.But it’s an interesting thing. Sometimes it can help, and if you fall in that zone where, say, you have sold a little bit, but you really want to go somewhere, it can help you out.

Yeah. I mean, it seems like a good idea. Just doesn’t really play out that well.
Yeah, and I guess their whole thing is that they only want to support stuff that’s already “proven popular music,” and so you can sort of see their point because they are a record industry association. It’s not an independent or government-based thing.

Getting back to your music–you guys mentioned that you really wanted to play with space on this record, and that’s pretty evident. Does Lightning Dust allow you to play with that stuff more than in Black Mountain?
Definitely. Especially the way we record–we don’t involve a lot of people. There’s never that thing where it’s like, there are a bunch of people in the band and they always have to be doing something. ‘Cause it’s just Amber and I. We just choose when to make things dense and when to make things simple. In Black Mountain, there are five very distinct musical personalities in that band, and just by its very nature, it’s denser.

Amber’s voice has this sort of tremble to it–is that something she does naturally?
Yeah. She’s always sung like that. And she’s never had any kind of formal training. That’s just what her voice sounds like.

It’s crazy, ‘cause it totally adds this haunted vibe to everything.
Yeah, it’s kind of disorienting and cool. I like her voice a lot. It’s neat, ‘cause I can’t think of anyone that really sounds like that.

So what’s next, the record’s coming out and then you’re headed out on tour?
Yeah we’re gonna be touring for all of September, part of October, all around the States and Canada.

And then, go back and make another Black Mountain record?
Yeah. We’ve been kind of working on writing and stuff like that this summer, Black Mountain has. We want to make another record this winter.

Do you guys just get together and jam or do people bring songs?
Oh we just kind of jam, and people bring songs. It’s sort of like people bring in skeletal songs and then we just jam until they’re good.

One last question: where is the album cover from?
Jeremy, the synth player from Black Mountain, he is a budding rock album artist. He did the cover for the last Black Mountain album as well. He’s just super talented in that way, he nails it. We were basically like, “Yeah, you should do our album cover.” And then he just came up with it and we were like, “Yeah, that’s fucking amazing.”

So it was something he came up with specifically for the record?
Yeah. We just gave him the record to listen to and he just made it. That’s sort of his style–he makes otherwordly collage art. He’s really a perfectionist too, and works really hard in that world of collage. It gets really interesting results. Especially in the world of album covers, his art just looks like a really great album cover.

Space Cadets: A Conversation with Lightning Dust