QOHELETH: AN INTERVIEW

Jeremy Hunt, Mike Strickler, and Caiden Withey are QOHELETH.

QOHELETH are a perfect expression of what a band can be when said band explodes all of the commonly held beliefs about what makes a band a band. On their album Black Kite Broadcasts, they perform the music of a host of bands who only exist in a future that doesn't exist. Most recently, they did a split with Mausolith.

Weirding: So the first QOHELETH album I heard was Black Kite Broadcasts. And I love the idea of framing the music within something like this radio show broadcast after an apocalypse. There is both something of an early 90's way-off-the-beaten-path college radio thing going on as well as something that reminds me of like an audio version of Mail Art. Tell me not about the music but about the idea of the medium that the sound either exists on or is transmitted through. I ask because there is a long history of re-creating a "radio station" within a studio production — thinking of P-Funk, Public Enemy, others. I'm interested in how you think about this idea of creating an additional lens or filter by putting the music and songs on the other side of this artificially constructed media idea.

Jeremy Hunt: We started writing Black Kite Broadcasts around Christmas 2017. We had released our first album in May of 2017 and we had so much fun with it that we decided to keep creating, to see where it would take us. Initially, I had an idea for a thematic concept album that would follow up on our debut's meditation on how faith and religion is often used to abuse and manipulate people. That idea for a follow-up is actually what we're finishing up right now as our fourth album. But at that point, I hadn't recorded a single bit of new music. 

I was playing around with the various topics and approaches that we might take when Mike [ed. — the other multi-instrumentalist and vocalist in QOHELETH] started sending me a bunch of fresh ideas that he was playing and recording. Just tons of awesome stuff. None of it felt like it fit thematically with the concepts I was playing around with — but that didn't matter in the least to me. Part of our approach, in general, is to welcome all of the music in and parse out where it might belong after we've had fun exploring it. I'd much rather say: “Okay cool, that might not work over here.” 

But I don't want to lose it for the sake of something not fitting in.

Weirding: So many ideas just sitting there next to one another. None knowing what the next one is or even having any idea that it might be paired against almost anything else. Like songs played next to one another on freeform radio.

Jeremy Hunt: We decided to just dive into all these ideas. I started going out into the garage and just messing around with my guitar and bass. At some point along the way, pretty early in the process, we stumbled onto the idea of using the radio broadcast as a framing device for what we were writing. 

I believe part of the impetus was the realization that a lot of the ideas didn't seem cohesive… and again, rather than running from that, why not embrace them all? 

Why not welcome the listener into that disjointedness? Why not say that these were different bands from the future? 

And once we hit on that framing, it's like everything fell into place. 

Weirding: So tell me more about the backstory of the story itself. What’s going on within this parallel world.

Jeremy Hunt: The specifics of the fictional BKB story is that we were practicing together and at some point one of our amps picked up a radio broadcast that sounded like it was from the future or from an alternate timeline. We quickly grabbed our mics and started recording what the amps were relaying to us in the present. 

This part of the tale is actually inspired by a real experience I had in a previous band. In that group, we were practicing late one night in the basement of this old church building. I was using my buddy's old Earth Sound Research amp for my bass. And at a break in playing, all of a sudden, we heard this unknown voice coming out of the speakers. Turns out it was some old-time preacher, presumably on the AM band, getting picked up by the amp. It was crazy — and it was the perfect occurrence to give BKB a feeling of verisimilitude. 

Once Mike and I realized that we both loved this approach, I started thinking about how to pull it off and what sort of story we wanted to tell through the broadcast. I revisited The Who Sell Out and Songs for the Deaf, two of my favorite "radio" albums. It wasn’t so much to rip off ideas sonically, but just to dive into what approaches they used to help sell the radio broadcast idea. 

Knowing that we wanted to set it in the future, we talked about using the broadcast to reveal to the listener that things had gone south in the United States in a big way by the 2050s — the basic timeframe of the album. The Black Kite of the album title refers to a "black kite crisis" that ignited a revolt of nature against humanity around the globe. 

Black kites are birds of prey that are native to Australia and they've been known to actually start brush fires to help drive their prey out into the open. That was such a striking image for how we envisioned that animals might push back on us that it became the name of the album.

Weirding: So that became sort of the focal image.

Jeremy Hunt: We set about finishing the songs within that framework. We created the narrative pieces which featured our third bandmate, Caiden, as the voice of the radio DJ and host. 

This is another example of how the radio broadcast framing really helped. Caiden doesn't write any of the music in the band. He's our visual guide. He’s our art director. We took inspiration from bands like Neurosis on this front. Why not have a visual artist be a full part of the band alongside the musicians? So the radio framing gave him a perfect opportunity to have a literal "voice" on the album. 

Lastly, we had one of our buddies, Schuler, record a little ad that hints at the lack of certain resources available to humans in this new world.

In the end, I think filtering the music through the radio broadcast gives the album something that we've been chasing as a band from day one: an experiential quality that we hope sticks with people, both as they're listening to the music and beyond. 

Weirding: How did you all start playing?

Jeremy Hunt: While we all used to live in North Carolina — Caiden and I are now in the Charlotte area — when we started the band, we were in three separate states. Even before COVID-19, playing shows or doing weekend tours was out of the question by virtue of the distance between us. 

Weirding: So this idea of distance seems relevant in the context of the radio broadcasts from the future and all of this. How do you turn this from an idea into something tangible?

Jeremy Hunt: We made mini figures and wrote an album about a radio broadcast from the future that you can actually buy on a radio. 

Weirding: Go on…

Jeremy Hunt: We made zines and VHS tapes and so on. The physicality of what we do and the imperfection therein is central to who we are as a band. This radio filter is one more piece of that puzzle in my mind. The sound of radio static feels tangible in some way and gives the whole experience a grit and reality that felt essential.

Weirding: A lot of your work seems to consist of a clashing variety of sounds. At first, I thought it was like a collage. But that’s not it. They seem more like the palimpsest that is left behind after years of rework, copies made, and artifacts left behind that may or not relate to the original message.

Jeremy Hunt: I love that description of what you're picking up on as you listen to what we've created. That's very gratifying to hear.

Weirding: So, what’s your process like? Does the recording and mixing process inform the final product, or do you have more or less a clear idea of where you are going at the outset?

Jeremy Hunt: At the outset of the band, we talked a lot about what deconstruction and rebuilding looks and feels like for us in our lives: questions of faith, existence, belief, doubt, purpose.

Caiden was already doing his abstract art pieces. But up until starting QOHELETH, most of the experiences that Mike and I had in various bands and music collectives were playing roles in service of other folks' visions. And to be clear, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But if that's all you get to do as a musician, well after a while it gets to be really restrictive. So part of what we agreed to do from the outset would be to follow our guts and not worry about what other people might think about what we were doing.

The outworking of that approach is that we really don't have a clear idea of where we're going when we start working on something new… or at least, I don't. Mike seems able to come up with killer riffs at will. I've heard some musicians talk about how they'll hear an idea in their head and then they pick up their instrument and get to work writing it. That almost never happens for me, so for the most part, my writing process starts with plugging the guitar or bass in, messing with my pedals a bit, and simply seeing where the sound takes me. I'll engage in that process until I hit on something that catches my ear and then I'll explore it until I have something I feel like is worth recording (or until it's time to put the kids to bed, whichever comes first). At that point, it's then a matter of layering other ideas or sharing that initial idea with Mike to see how it hits him and if it's something he wants to explore as well.

Sometimes we'll put restrictions on ourselves in the writing process to have that inform how we go about it. For instance, when we started writing the music for the Black and White Electric Light short film score, I decided to limit my instruments to only bass and keys, no guitars. That forced me to more fully explore each of those instruments in service of creating a creepy vibe for the short film and it was a blast. 

So to properly answer the question, I'd say the recording and mixing process absolutely informs the final product, more so than a specific idea we might have at the beginning. Mike handles all of our mixing and mastering at this point, so he really crafts our sound in a way that feels homegrown and unique. We'll include field recordings, phone memos, and weird sound effects in the final results. We love the lo-fi, blown out vibe, so we'll listen to the songs as they evolve and chop them up as needed. Shift parts around. It's whatever helps us flesh them out to the point where they feel fully-formed and realized. 

Weirding: 'Accident' and 'instinct' are words that show up in your own descriptions of your work. I'm interested in what composers, musicians, and artists you've found inspiration from — especially with regards to the accidental and the instinctual.

Jeremy Hunt: I feel like the only way this methodology works is through our combined approach to the accidental and the instinctual. I still remember when Mike coined the phrase that has defined us: "Written by accident, played by instinct." I think from the beginning of the band, we've been less concerned about trying to emulate a certain sound or genre, but have been more focused on creating whatever the hell we feel like creating.

Mike Strickler: "Written by accident" for me is a method. It’s the method of not trying very hard. Which leads directly into playing by instinct, which for me is about self-indulgence. I look to artists like Mark Guiliana who consistently bend lines of genre and mood to create music. I also draw a lot from artists like Daughters who managed to create a menacing sound while maintaining their overall approach. I think in general I lean toward exploratory artists who aren’t afraid to make new things.

Caiden Withey: I’ve been thinking about the accidental and instinctual… Basquiat, Richter, Picasso as a Cubist. Tons of modern artists — like the awesome community I’ve discovered on Instagram. Authors like Hesse and philosophers like Hegel. God as a creator, all that we see in nature. It’s like the accidental and instinctual make up the diode that represents the whole. In some ways, abstract expressionism is the tension between those two things. Like perfectly situated. It can’t all be purely accidental, as we wouldn’t notice trends and consistency among the artists.

I’m just saying that abstracts have a certain amount of accidental substance. But if they were purely accidental, it’d be fully random and chaotic. Instincts are fully engaged I think. They don’t overwhelm the chaos, but help guide it.

As for me, there are definitely musicians and bands who’ve helped inspire my confidence in simply throwing myself in the sounds and seeing where they take me. Josh Scogin from The Chariot has talked in the past about how he felt strongly about allowing imperfections and flaws into writing and performing because that's what makes music human. And more recently, I've been blown away by how the guys in Sumac create within certain structures that allow for improvisation and instinct in the midst of those structures. 

But a big part of it has been the process of learning to trust my instincts. So much of my time in music has been following what people tell me to do, how to play. My first instrument was the piano and it's the only one that I have actual training on. Years of lessons drilled a certain "by the book" perfection into my head. I think those foundations are important, but eventually in order to create, I realized that I had to let go of a lot of that and play by ear and feel. In many ways, it’s been part of my personal exploration of themes of embodiment, trying to repair the breakdown between the head and the heart. Learning one’s voice. And then in the context of the band, it helps bring about a level of communal freedom and confidence that is unlike anything I’ve experienced in a creative setting. The other thing I love, as we’ve grown together as a group, is seeing how often the “accidental” lines up. I hesitate calling it synchronicity, but there have been a lot of instances where what we’re creating in different spaces and times coincide with each other.

Weirding: Talk to me more about how you guys met and started playing music. How did you think about or explain to each other what it was that you wanted to do?

Jeremy Hunt: Caiden is my cousin, so we’ve at least known about each other from a really early age. I say “known about” because we didn’t grow up in the same part of the country. He was raised in Michigan and I grew up mostly in South Carolina and then North Carolina for college and early adulthood. We saw each other once or twice as kids and that was about it. We didn’t really hang out and get to know each other until he and his family moved to NC in the early 2010s. But as soon as we did, we hit it off immediately. Our personalities are really similar and the stuff that we’re into, whether art, films, theology, or philosophy, overlaps a ton. And it was when we reconnected that I saw some of his paintings and fell in love with them. 

I am far from an expert when it comes to visual art, and I’m really out of my element when it comes to the more abstract stuff in the world of painting. I can’t talk technically about it at all, but I also know on an instinctual level when I connect with something in that space on an almost visceral level. That was my experience with Caiden’s art. So when Mike and I started putting together the initial ideas and concepts for the band, I knew that Caiden would need to be the one to bring them to life visually. Assuming he wanted to be a part of it, of course. Thankfully he was open to it. 

Weirding: So he’s played the part of the visual guru.

Jeremy Hunt: He created our logo from scratch. And every release features his art — at the very least on the cover and often throughout the full physical experience of the album or EP. He ended up creating so many visual pieces for our debut that each song has its own artwork.

As for Mike, we first met about ten years ago through a mutual friend at the place where I was working at the time. We hit it off based on shared interests as well, primarily around the arts again: film, TV, philosophy, and especially music. We loved and still love a ton of the same bands. So the two of us played music with a couple of other friends for a short period of time, mainly just practicing and jamming in our houses. 

We wrote a little bit of music, but didn’t really finish anything. 

At some point after that, Mike and his family moved to New York for a few years and then after they returned to North Carolina, my family and I moved to California. So when the initial ideas for what QOHELETH might be started taking root, Mike was the first friend I thought of as a musical collaborator in this project. When we had played together before, I was focusing on guitar and he was drumming. But I bash on my guitar like an untrained gorilla, approaching it almost more like the bass, so there was a natural groove and chemistry that we found almost immediately. 

The other bands I’ve tried to get off the ground in the past all crashed and burned on the runway. So I wanted to keep things super simple with this one. Having only three people — and only two musicians — made a lot of sense and I think it’s helped us stay creative and productive.

Weirding: And how did you sort of figure out what it was that you wanted to do?

Jeremy Hunt: In terms of how we talked about what we wanted to do, I think we mainly chatted about other bands that we liked — talked about past experiences where we had been frustrated with the creative process in other bands and other musical collectives. And how we hoped to create something together that avoided any of those pitfalls. Obviously nothing is perfect, but we tried to unpack things to the point that it felt like we could jump into the creative process together and not get hung up on expectations. I think it also helps that all three of us are in very similar life stages: married with kids about the same ages, working full time.

So our sound started with focusing on what we like, tossing out what we don’t. Trusting our collective guts and leaning into creating what excites us about our auditory and visual mediums. 

Loud, chaotic, human, messy. So from day one, it’s felt like the perfect match.


Weirding: One last thing I’ve been meaning to ask. And I want to ask because your music is such a smorgasbord of sound. So… what is your favorite sound?

Jeremy Hunt: I can’t boil it down to just one. I mean, if I could never hear another sound for the rest of my life but one, it would have to be my family’s voices. Hearing my wife laugh at something stupid I did or hearing my kids howl in laughter is what I live for. They are my life and my joy and I am absolutely nothing without them.

But from a musical standpoint? Probably the guitar and bass tones on the song “Monkey Chow Mein” by Cherubs. They are so fuzzy, so warm, and just drenched in reverb. I can’t get enough. This is the song that turned me into a Cherubs fan about five or six years ago and I’ve devoured everything they’ve put out since I got hooked. 

The crackle and hum of the feedback at the beginning of the song? As the kids say these days: “Chefskiss.gif.”

It’s practically a tangible thing, like you could almost reach out and grab the sound waves themselves. You could have that electricity running through you. The droning waves wash over you and you can get lost in it. 

I wrote some liner notes for our last EP about how music can function as a time machine. Well, I think this song and the tones in it make a strong argument that the right sounds can take you outside of time and let you lose yourself in the noise. It’s glorious.


About

Jeremy Hunt, Mike Strickler, and Caiden Withey are QOHELETH

IG: @qohelethnoise

Twitter: @qohelethnoise

Bandcamp: qohelethnoise.bandcamp.com

Recent release: Mark It Well, All Roads End in Death

Upcoming releases: Warmonger - release date TBD on Cruel Nature Records


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