Resurrectionists’ Joe Cannon Sees Historical Parallels In Now That We Are All Ghosts
Self-described as “Doom Chamber-Americana,” Resurrectionists is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based band who have recently released their second full-length album titled Now That We Are All Ghosts. The new tracks dive into greater stylistic range, in part due to a line-up change where lyricist, guitarist and banjo picker Joe Cannon, bassist Jeff Brueggeman, and drummer Josh Barto welcomed multi-instrumentalist Gian Pogliano due to the departure of pedal steel player Gavin Hardy. Taking this as an opportunity to try to build mood via other methods, the band crafted a more textured series of songs in increasingly collaborative songwriting.
Another major influence on Now That We Are All Ghosts was Joe Cannon’s leisure reading of the works of German author Thomas Mann in the years leading up the pandemic. Haunted by ideas of pre-war social conditions and illness reflected in Mann’s book The Magic Mountain, Cannon wandered into lyrical territory that many will feel all too relatable having experienced the medical and social crises of recent times. But Cannon also takes an interesting turn towards the hopeful with the idea of concluding cycles of time and renewing cycles of time as he explored ideas of aging on this set of songs. I spoke with Joe Cannon about his music-loving student days, his fateful encounter with a special banjo, and the layers of sound traditions that go into Resurrectionists music, present and future.
Americana Highways: What sorts of music were you interested in as a young person? How did you get into live music?
Joe Cannon: I went to school in South Bend Indiana, and there weren’t venues there, or very few. My friends and I became the venue in town, our basements, our living rooms. South Bend is about an hour from Chicago, so we got a reputation for being these weird kids who would put you up if you’d play music in their basement on your night off before Chicago or Detroit. We got some really top-shelf acts coming through. We had Unwound, The Grifters, Trenchmouth. That was pretty awesome.
AH: It’s incredible that you had the thought and energy to do that.
JC: Ted Leo [of Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, The Both] went to school with me, though he was a few years older than me, and came out of that. That was a scene that lasted through the mid to late 90s and then petered out. South Bend is now a place that’s active and it’s not a desert anymore.
AH: Is there live music where you live now, in Milwaukee?
JC: Oh, it’s a great little scene. We’re playing our release show tomorrow night and I’m actually playing tonight with a different band at the same place. There’s a lot of stuff going on in Milwaukee. There’s been a longstanding Punk scene and there’s an emerging Americana scene. A band you should pay attention to is Long Mama. Milwaukee is a place where you can go see good live music three to four or five nights a week if you want to.
AH: What other band do you play with?
JC: I also play in a band called Delicious Monsters which is a tremendous amount of fun. I do not write any of those lyrics. This is a band where we write from the ground up in practice. This the first time that I’ve ever done this, where we have completed musical pieces which we then hand over to our vocalist, Zelda, to write lyrics for. She’s an incandescent ball of charisma. That produces some really interesting stuff. She will then write these lines that really marry the guitar melody in ways that you can really only do if they were complete first. It’s a very different kind of band that I’d describe as wiry post-punk.
Conversely, Resurrectionists is my songwriting, mainly. I’m writing lyrics and bringing a half-formed set of musical ideas into practice and then the rest of the band and I work them up together. There’s a lot of collaboration in development. Now that we’ve been playing together longer, we’re doing more of writing songs from the ground up in practice. Some of the songs we’re working up for the next recording come from playing when we find the beginnings of a song. That excites me.
AH: You’re relatively young as a band, so I’m not surprised that collaborative songwriting might come along a little later.
JC: I’ve known the people in Resurrectionists for quite some time. I had played with the bassist in a previous band named WORK, which was together for six years. So Resurrectionists is a new band but is part of collaboration that goes back further.
AH: This album is a bit different than your previous one for Resurrectionists, and I understand that part of that is that Gian has joined the group. That has affected orchestration and sound, right?
JC: Yes, very much so. The earlier version of the band had a pedal steel player, Gavin. To a certain degree those previous songs were the group of songs that I was working with when I started the band. The earlier songs were some that I could play solo and were essentially complete and then the band wrote their own parts for them. But with pedal steel, that added a certain sound, too. He was a fantastic pedal steel player, but when he moved, I didn’t think I’d find another pedal steel player who was into weirdo rock music.
We decided to not try to replace Gavin but rethink the band with a new lineup. I’ve known Gian for quite some time, who played in Jones Island Flood and Brain Bats. There’s always a lot of sonic experimentation in what he does, so I basically handed him the songs. I said, “I don’t know what to do here.” He sat with the songs and thought up swapping between keys, creating something like an organ sound, eventually settling on a mellotron. And also bringing in a wildly effective 12-string guitar.
With a pedal steel, there’s a whole lot of atmosphere, but what Gian ended up being able to do was recreating the atmospherics, but also leaning into more Noise Rock territory. All of this started coalescing and reworked some of the songs from the first album and started writing new songs. The new songs became Now That We Are All Ghosts. Now that we’re beyond making the album, we’re working together in a more developed way.
AH: I can totally see what you mean when it comes to these songs. The range that he needed to come up with is pretty big, but he fills in that space very well.
JC: In the kind of music that we were playing, the pedal steel was kind of a novelty. But what Gian is doing fits into the musical space of what we’re doing in a way that’s a little better integrated. We’ll have some songs where more than one instrumental idea will be foregrounded.
AH: Given your musical background that we were talking about earlier, I meant to ask when and why you became a banjo player.
JC: After I finished undergrad, I went to Northwestern for graduate school and lived in Chicago for a long time. I was playing in bands there, which is why it took a very long time to finish my graduate degree! A band that I was playing in had a singer who used to work at Specimen Guitars in Chicago. He called me up one day and said they had a Kay Banjo, and I was there. I picked up the banjo, and that was the first I’d ever played it. I’d played a weird finger style guitar that I was able to adapt to the banjo. I don’t play it correctly.
When I picked it up, I’d already been listening to some banjo-driven stuff that I’d fallen in love with years before, probably starting with The Bad Livers. Me in my punk rock days saw that Quarter Stick Records was putting out stuff by a Bluegrass band. Those first two Bad Livers records are insane!
AH: The Bad Livers are such a phenomenon. They busted out with such weird, interesting music, and I think they had a big impact in giving people permission to do weird things.
JC: If we do ever write the history of punk and hardcore bands going into Dark Americana, I think they are probably involved!
AH: How seriously should I take the idea that Thomas Mann’s writings inform a lot of the lyrics on Now That We Are All Ghosts?
JC: A lot of the ideas, and occasionally even exact phrases, were pulled from The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.
AH: I don’t think I’ve read that one. What are the ideas that stood out to you?
JC: The story is about a bunch of Tuberculosis patients at a sanitarium in the Alps. Two of the names of the songs are pulled from that, including “The Rest Cure.” That’s when you’d wrap yourself in a blanket and sit in out in the open air in the Alps. “Blue Henry” is a reference to the blue bottles that consumption patients would use to conceal the stuff they were coughing up. The funny thing was that I wrote all these songs that, if you listen to them now, you think, “These are pandemic songs.” Because they are about sickness and quarantine. I was writing this stuff in 2019 because I was reading these novels and stories.
AH: You were reading all about that, and then the world became a very similar place.
JC: Yes. The other theme in The Magic Mountain is that you’ve got all these characters set in the years before the first World War, though the book was written later. The characters sort of stand-in for the major powers and states coming into the conflict. You see arguments and friendships between characters that echo Europe at the time. It ended up hitting on two themes that we were living through, firstly with the pandemic, but secondly, with all the political themes breaking through to the surface in the events that led to Trump coming to power. Trump also exacerbated tensions in our country and our relationship with other countries.
AH: That’s a pretty eerie parallel because there are plenty of commentators now who are pointing out that the conditions in the world now feel a lot like the conditions brewing before the two world wars. And we’re hoping that we don’t get ourselves into another one.
JC: I think the thing that’s scariest, and we don’t remember, is that in the years prior to the world wars, there was a lot of sympathy in the United States towards the fascists. We’re seeing a lot of that again, and that’s the thing that’s most frightening to me. We’re seeing people who are literally on Putin’s side. There are big political and cultural issues that I’m always thinking about on this album, but also, this album is, to a certain degree about aging. And even though I don’t use “I” in songs much, there’s a sense of me talking to myself.
AH: I think there’s also a “you” a few times, a sense of talking to someone else.
JC: I think that comes from the idea of “Now that we’re all ghosts, we’ll be younger soon.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve lived through periods in my life where I felt old, and I’ve lived through periods in my life where I’ve felt young. Younger people tend to think about aging as a trajectory, but it’s more a bunch of ups and downs. There are times where I felt older than I do now, in my 50s.
AH: I totally agree with you on that. And sometimes I try to talk myself out of those periods where I feel too old for my age.
JC: Part of it is outlook. You tend to feel old when you’re at the end of something. With the idea of “now that we are all ghosts,” you’ve been through old age, and now there’s a new beginning. New horrors await! [Laughs]
AH: I guess everyone would be shocked if your next album was an incredibly positive and therapeutic celebration of life.
JC: We’ve got a number of songs already. I’m not sure how we’re going to record or release next. We did this one in a traditional way, recording a full-length and releasing it on vinyl, but it took forever because vinyl took forever. So we may be trying other formats in future, maybe pairing groups of songs with art or literature. Some of these songs are formed enough that we’re already playing them with our live set.
AH: By the way, I feel like people should watch your videos closely for the appearance of the grandfather clock. I feel like there’s a relationship between that and the aging theme that you just mentioned. It appears in multiple videos and on the cover for this album.
JC: Right. My friend Brian Tyson made three videos for us. This whole thing came out of an event that we often play that was submitted to a virtual event during the pandemic. We decided to play a short live set in my attic. It’s on our YouTube channel. We loved Brian’s film of that, so we talked about ideas for videos, which ended up being the one for “The Rest Cure.”
The idea I had was that the band is walking through the forest and comes upon a clock. With alarm, we realize that the clock is set at two minutes to midnight. So we get our surgical gear and do surgery on the clock until, victoriously, the clock is set at three minutes to midnight. I had to acquire this clock, so I thrifted and went to antique stores until I got it for about a hundred bucks.
AH: It’s really classic looking! It’s imposing. And of course very heavy to carry.
JC: We’ve destroyed it now, but it’s in my room. We took it through forests and up hills. Brian did some more videos for us, including “The New Winter,” which was recorded in my neighborhood during the pandemic. At the end, the band carries the clock up Reservoir Hill, which is a big park in Milwaukee in the bright sunlight, in Spring. I took some pictures of that clock on top of the hill, and that became the cover for the album. Brian did a third video for us, and in that one, we knew the clock was a theme. Interestingly, other people who made videos for us included clocks and watch motifs in ways that really extend the theme in ways I’m really pleased with.
Thanks very much for speaking with us, Joe Cannon Find more information and the Resurrectionists’ music here: https://resurrectionistsmke.bandcamp.com/
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