“Welcome to the unknown,” reads a line from the very cryptic bio of West Kensington, the collaborative debut of harpist Mary Lattimore and guitarist Paul Sukeena. Written by Sukeena’s wife, Nicky Devine, the blurb is a smudged road map to a foggy, atmospheric record.
Lattimore and Sukeena met in Philadelphia, where they both lived for more than a decade, operating in concentric professional circles before moving — independently — to Los Angeles, Lattimore in 2018 and Sukeena the following year. By the time shelter-in-place orders arrived, serendipity had placed them in the same two-unit building, practicing their respective crafts on opposite sides of a shared wall. With the outside world off limits, they started jamming together, and as these free-flowing sessions coagulated, songs were born: first 2020’s “Dreaming of the Kelly Pool” and then the six tracks that comprise the new record, out tomorrow via Three Lobed Recordings.
West Kensington is not a “pandemic album” in theme, but the liminality of those early COVID days leaks in through the cracks. Track names like “Hundred Dollar Hoagie” and “Garage Wine,” which bookend the LP, address the fundamental absurdity of life in lockdown, contextualizing the music’s haunting malaise without undermining it. “Didn’t See the Comet,” though, is perhaps the project’s most perfect song title. “So much space, so much reach and so far; so much weight hanging in the dark sky,” Devine writes in her bio. “And the reasons we missed the comet — and why — become the moments we remember most.”
In early May, an hour before Lattimore left L.A. to embark on a five-week European tour, I spoke with her and Sukeena about how friendship, Friday Night Lights, and flaming cherries jubilee contributed to their gorgeous new record.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week's show in full, and to access the podcast's archive, click here.
The FADER: West Kensington is the epitome of a quarantine album. You're stuck at home during lockdown; you realize you're neighbors and both professional musicians who ran in somewhat overlapping circles in Philly. Were you familiar with each other's work beforehand?
Paul Sukeena: Oh, yeah. Philly's such a small town, the term overlap is putting it lightly. We collaborated with a lot of the same people and ran in the same crews.
Paul, I know you grew up two hours outside Philly, but I imagine the scene in Mechanicsburg was vastly different.
Sukeena: Yes, Mechanicsburg is a fairly typical small town in the middle of central PA, which is politically a galaxy away from Philly or Pittsburgh. It's a pretty conservative area. It's very bucolic and quaint, and it was great growing up there and hiking and getting into the outdoors or whatever. We were really obsessed with The [Grateful] Dead and indie rock and stuff. I was in a jam band with my friends. That term is very loose: We’d just sit in a basement and get high and play for hours. It was pretty rudimentary [but] it laid out the carpet for how I’d approach music for the rest of my life, really. There's always been an improvisational element to what I do.
Mary, tell me a little about growing up in Asheville. Your mom was the harpist for the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, right?
Mary Lattimore: For 35 years. My family moved to a smaller town when I was in middle school. I played with the high school orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra — getting into playing classical music but listening to a lot of The Cure and R.E.M. Then I went to music school for classical harp performance. It gave me a foundation for what I do now technically: how to hold my hands the right way, how to play really fast, how to play emotively and sensitively. And then I moved to Philly in 2005 and started playing on other people's records. I was slow to learn how to improvise. I had to do some unlearning from my classical music background in order to be free enough. There are no wrong notes, basically.
So you moved to L.A. a few years ago, Mary. And Paul, you got there not too long before the pandemic hit after living in the Philly area for pretty much your whole life, right?
Sukeena: Correct. I lived in Philly for 14 or 15 years. My wife is from California, so we landed in L.A. in January 2019, spent most of that year meeting people and getting my bearings. We rehearsed the Angel Olsen record All Mirrors for most of the year and then hit the road that fall. People say it takes two years to really find your footing [in L.A.]. My second year was unfortunately a little absent because of the pandemic. But it's all good. Things change, you know? And if it hadn't happened, maybe Mary and I wouldn't have had the time to collaborate together.
Lattimore: That's for sure.
Sukeena: It was such a relaxed environment to make a record: "Do you want to have a coffee at 11?” And then we’d maybe set up the mics and maybe record for a bit and then go out to the yard. It was really luxurious.
Lattimore: Not even putting on real clothes. We recorded in my living room. We’d been doing these sound bath collaborations for a friend who hired us for Nike during early lockdown on Friday evenings, for the designers to chill out after a day of work. We did an hour of improvisation every Friday for a while, so we were kind of used to playing together, and we were like, "Let's work on a record." We did it really casually. [Paul’s] wife Nicky would make beautiful pasta for us and we’d drink a lot of wine. To me, this isn't a pandemic record as much as a record documenting our time living in the same house… a story of our friendship.
The first song you released together is “Dreaming of the Kelly Pool,” an ode to this idyllic public space in Philly’s Fairmount Park. Was that pool your shared vision of utopia in those early lockdown days?
Lattimore: That’s a beautiful way to put it. We both just love this public pool that is so dreamy. It’s a bit of a secret. There’s beautiful green grass all around this olympic-sized pool. It’s a happy place for both of us.
Sukeena: The Kelly Pool conjures a really specific memory for both of us. Having that as a jumping off point to base everything you’re playing on was a cool exercise.
Maybe this is a stretch, but [album opener] “Hundred Dollar Hoagie” feels like it exists in a sci-fi dystopia where mass inflation has rendered the price of hoagies a hundred dollars.
Sukeena: Who knew we were prophets? There's a hoagie place in San Francisco [where] the hoagies are $24, which is a quarter of the way to a hundred-dollar hoagie. It's not looking good. The title came from a surprise package that Nicky and I received: two cheesesteaks and two hoagies in the mail. We opened the box and were like, "Mary, you’ve gotta come over and look at this." We were all on the verge of tears.
I know there's harp on this track, but it's hard to pick out specific harp sounds. What synths and pedal effects are you both using here?
Lattimore: I was babysitting some synths for my friend Francis. He was going out of town and his apartment didn't have AC, and he was worried about the synths being too hot in his empty place. I really wanted to make this record not have much harp on it at all and get more exploratory with synthesizers. I did end up adding some harp, but it started out with just guitar and synth.
Sukeena: We had a Juno and a couple others.
Lattimore: The Ensoniq.
Sukeena: That one was amazing. It sounded like The Cure. We weren't trying for anything specific, so it was more just finding complimentary sounds or dissonant sounds, depending on whatever the mood was at the moment. I built a mondo pedal board situation and kept adding things to it — all these pedal boards, daisy chained together. I love this company Red Panda out of Detroit. They make idiosyncratic, futuristic pedals that do really weird stuff. I used one of their pedals that’s meant to do crazy, extrapolated pitch shifting, wild sounds. But I basically just used it as a reverse delay. That sound is all over the record.
"Flaming Cherries Jubilee at Antoine's" (track 2) goes with this food theme that's starting to be established.
Lattimore: I met this older man sitting at a counter at a diner somewhere, one of those guys that just talks to random strangers. He started telling me about [how] when he was a kid, his parents took him to Antoine's for flaming cherries jubilee. I just love that image… It sounded so beautiful at Antoine's. That [song] was an escape from the outside world; dreaming about going to New Orleans and trying out the flaming cherries jubilee, about the pandemic being over and getting to travel again and try new things.
Mary, you mentioned in a press release for [the next track] “Altar of Tammy” that you were both watching a lot of Friday Night Lights during lockdown. “Flying Cherries” is the track where I hear the most Explosions in the Sky, though. Were they on the mood board?
Lattimore: No [laughs]. I mean, maybe subconsciously. We were watching a ton.
Paul, you wrote that "Altar of Tammy" captures the dark spirit of the time, waking up to a life with no form, drinking again in the same room every night, illuminated only by red light. The world was telling us to stop. This also feels like a sci-fi, dystopian sort of sadness. To whatever extent you're both comfortable, can you talk about how your states of mind changed over the course of West Kensington's recording process, and how mental health played into the record?
Sukeena: It was an insane moment. Your family's far away, your job is hung up for the foreseeable future, you have no idea what's gonna happen. And you have this guilt about having all the luxury of time, like, "What do I do with it?" I felt like my life stopped and I was looking back at it, like a snow globe or a diorama [that I was] above and couldn't access.
Lattimore: It was a profound sadness, feeling like live music was never gonna come back. I’m on tour 200 days of the year usually, and having that lack of purpose [left me] feeling really insignificant.
In West Kensington’s bio, the comet is a metaphor for a moment in time that you think about in terms of what was going on that made you miss the event more than the actual event itself. It could also easily be read, in the COVID context of this record, as an apocalyptic meteor. The album as a whole feels like a time capsule from the apocalypse. Is that a perspective you were playing with?
Sukeena: That was a waking thought every day: "How bad is this actually gonna get?" I don't think it's an apocalypse-centric record, [but] that idea is definitely feathered into the overall vibe.
Lattimore: I got way more afraid of aliens coming during the pandemic, but I've always been a little afraid of them. There were a lot of reports about aliens sightings, documents being released, weird ships being seen by the military. I got really afraid that they would come down and not be benevolent or adorable.
Sukeena: They're gonna take advantage of our collective moment of vulnerability: "Oh, great, now we have aliens to deal with. Whatever, take me away.”
The last two tracks feel happier than the first four songs on the record. Did you consciously sequence the album so the final third would have a sense of arrival?
Lattimore: I don't know if it was intentional. Corey from Three Lobed helped us with the sequencing, and maybe that was his thought as a listener.
Sukeena: He threw a couple of sequences at us, and we listened through independently and then came back with notes, [but] that analysis really makes sense. It's kind of this reverse bell curve that goes into the darkness and out of it again.
West Kensington’s closer is "Garage Wine,” which evokes a sort of subdued acceptance. Even the title seems like something you’d do during lockdown — drink wine in your garage — once you'd come to terms with the fact that you're gonna be there for a while. Was that the state of mind the song came from?
Sukeena: It's actually about making garage wine with Nick Fisher, a dear friend of ours who owns a bar in L.A. called El Prado. He had a little space where he was making wine and he got kicked out, so Nicky and I offered our garage, and throughout most of the pandemic, we aged this syrah in our garage. And one day towards the middle of the pandemic, we broke the pod pact and had Nick come over, and we all bottled it. It was such a nice day. It was really beautiful out, and it felt nice to hang out with someone we haven't seen in a while, to sit around listening to music and packaging this beautiful purple-red wine in these beautiful blue bottles he had. Maybe [the song] about the aging and the long process the wine goes through, or something like that. Maybe. Might just be a memory.