(First published in Electronic Sound Magazine #86, February 2022)
SON OF HIS FATHER
He may be a full-time member of both Midlake and Mercury Rev, but Jesse Chandler has still found time for an affecting solo project. His second Pneumatic Tubes album is an touching tribute to his late father, infused with the spirit of Woodstock and resolutely “bound to the mountains”
Words: Bob Fischer
“My dad and I connected over a lot of things,” remembers Jesse Chandler, wistfully. “Music was something he definitely imparted to me. His favourite was Jimi Hendrix, and he saw him five or six times. He went to Woodstock in 1969 when he was 16, hitch-hiking up to the festival with his buddy from New Jersey. So that was one of the things we’d always talk about. And we’d go hiking in the Catskill mountains, where I grew up. And in the Adirondacks, a few hours north. That’s where my mind was when I was making the album… thinking about mountains. And my childhood.
“And the summer camp my dad went to, a place called TreeTops in the Adirondacks. This was in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it was very organic… before ‘organic’ became a hipster buzzword! They would make their own peanut butter, and tap the trees for maple syrup. So he had a lot of fond memories.”
We’re chatting over Zoom. For Jesse, it’s 10am on a “chilly” Texas morning. For me, it’s 4pm on a winter afternoon, ten miles from Middlesbrough. I tell him he’s probably got the better deal, weather-wise. He graciously chuckles. He’s gentle, thoughtful company, and – over the course of the next hour – memories of his late father, Dave Chandler, become an affecting touchstone. They are weaved throughout our conversation, just as they dominate the mournful, woodwind-filled grooves of Jesse’s new album, the appropriately-titled A Letter From TreeTops.
“My dad passed away in 2018, at the end of the fall,” he explains. “I wasn’t really recording much music then, and there wasn’t any intent to make an album. But as anyone who’s lost someone close to them will know, you’re left processing the feelings. Especially when it’s sudden, which was the case here. So I kind of used music to sublimate those feelings. I went in with a blank mind, feeling like an empty vessel. I just took all my instruments and put them on the floor. I had coloured Christmas lights, and I was burning Palo Santo – a wood from South America that makes this really pleasant scent. And, almost in a trance-like state, I started recording without really thinking about it.”
The resulting album is the second to be released under Jesse’s solo nom-de-plume, Pneumatic Tubes. You might assume he’d be busy enough already. A consummate keyboardist and woodwind player from rural New York State, he upped sticks to Texas in 2008, joining folk-rock goliaths Midlake. The band split in 2014, and – a matter of days later – he was recruited to join Mercury Rev. Eight years on, the unexpected lockdown reformation of Midlake has now left him as a full-time member of two globe-straddling acts.
A Letter From TreeTops is melancholy, pastoral, eerie. It’s a very US take on the aesthetic of the haunted childhood: it reeks of campfire ghost stories, of “Olly Olly Oxen Free” and abandoned cabins on desolate mountainsides. If the sound of the English Weird is the rustic folk music of the fields, the American equivalent is perhaps more jazz-infused, all drifting clarinets and spectral rhythms. The album, I suggest, is the sound of two childhoods combined. Dave Chandler’s original memories of his 1950s summer camps, and Jesse’s 1980s memories of hearing those blissful, sepia-tinted stories on long, mountainside walks. It’s a delightfully fuzzy album, one that exists in the nebulous gaps between our factual family histories. He nods.
“Getting in touch with childhood, and the wonder of it, is something I’ve been obsessed with for years. And I love the idea that memories become hazy. Even if you see a photograph or a home movie of your family, the memory still remains the way you’ve always felt it: the way that it’s evolved over time. You can never remember things exactly as they were.
“And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this… when you’re away from your home, you miss it and think about it all the time. But when you’re actually there, it’s depressing. And I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because you can’t go back to the way you once felt about it? You want to feel, as an adult, the same way you did when you were a kid. But you never can.”
Well that’s the key, isn’t it? You can listen to the records of your youth as you walk wistfully around the streets of your hometown, and you can scour eBay for those missing childhood action figures. But you can only recapture a tiny fraction of those original feelings. However hard you try, you can’t actually be 11 years old twice in the same lifetime. As Thomas Wolfe and The Shangri-Las alike have sagely pointed out: You can never go home again.
“Exactly. And even right now, I can’t express that feeling in words. A great writer could, but with me it comes out in music.”
It sounds like an idyllic childhood. He comes from a musical family: his father, a school psychologist, was a keen drummer and trumpeter. His grandparents were Early music enthusiasts, and the home-built harpsichord they bequeathed him can be heard on Midlake’s 2010 album The Courage Of Others. Above all else, home life seems paramount. His mother Cheryl ran a nursery from the family basement, providing pre-school care for a host of local children, including Jesse’s three younger brothers. And the setting for this blissful domesticity? The actual town of Woodstock. Which, he wryly points out, is over 60 miles from Max Yasgur’s legendary farmstead. The local shops, he tells me, sell t-shirts with a map, an arrow, and the legend: “You are HERE. The festival happened HERE”.
And everything comes back to those mountains.
“Even though it’s so famous, Woodstock is really a sleepy town of two or three thousand people,” he explains. “And from almost anywhere, you can see Overlook Mountain. It looms over everything. And if you hike up it, there’s the ruins of an old lodge. The Catskill Mountain House. You can read some of the history online – at one point it was a thriving vacation home for anyone from New York City. Anyone who wanted to be in the mountains. But now there’s just the foundations, and some of the walls… it’s super creepy. The last time I went, an old guy was coming down. He said ‘Watch out for the snakes, young man…’”
Bloody hell, Jesse. You grew up in The Shining.
“It really is like that that!”
Did he have his own equivalent of TreeTops, I wonder? I point out, to his amusement, that virtually everything I know about US summer camps comes from Peanuts. The answer, as always, comes back to music.
“When I was 10, I went to New England Music Camp, in Maine,” he smiles. “We stayed in cabins, and it had a library filled with books from the 1800s… that was a little creepy, too. I stayed for a month, and I was the youngest kid in the whole camp. Out of hundreds. So I was in a bunk with 13 and 14-year-olds who were going through puberty… and there was little me! After two or three days, I called my parents crying. I wanted to come home. But I think I talked to my clarinet teacher, and he convinced me to stick it out. And by the end, I had a great time.”
And ghost stories? Please indulge me with ghost stories.
“Well, they did a musical every summer,” he recalls. “And one was based on Dracula… but with kids! I was terrible at acting, and shouldn’t have been in the play, but they needed someone. And I remember having trouble sleeping. You’re basically in the woods, in those cabins, and your imagination runs away…”
The track titles on the album are an evocative read in their own right. ‘Mumbly-Peg’? A throwing game, played with penknives, once immortalised by Mark Twain. ‘Witch Water’? From an Adirondack aphorism, imparted by his Auntie Gail: “He who drinks from the Witch Water shall be forever bound to the mountains”. It’s this combination of warm childhood nostalgia and vague disquiet that makes the album a perfect fit for his adopted label, Ghost Box Records.
“I’ve been a fan for nearly 15 years,” he explains. “There was a music download service called eMusic, with some really good curators. They ran a feature on Ghost Box, and I remember the compilation that came out, Ritual And Education. And then I became friends with the band The Soundcarriers. We ended up getting to know each other, and – on a trip to the UK – I went up to Nottingham and did some recording with them. Which eventually turned into their Ghost Box album, Entropicalia. Through that, I ended up e-mailing Jim [Jupp, label co-founder], and I’ve kept in touch with him ever since.”
It’s a label that, in its early years at least, specialised in a very British brand of nostalgia. The sound of regional ITV idents and Open University jingles, of power cuts on rainy Tuesday afternoons. What, of all this parochial oddness, appealed to a child raised in 1980s New York State?
“I think, as an outsider, you come at it from a different angle,” he ponders. “Different enough for the experiences to be educational, in a way. But I always loved that oddball Britishness. There was a show in the early 2000s called Look Around You…”
What, Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper, spoofing 1970s Schools Programmes on BBC2? It’s brilliant. You’ve seen that?
“It’s so great. I don’t think it even made it to America, but a friend burned it onto DVD for me. That kind of British education has always been fascinating to me. Your ‘copybooks’…”
He laughs at the thought of tatty jotters in freezing classrooms in Birmingham, Watford or Hull. The joys of life, he says, are in the “very small things”. He likes jogging past picket fences for the zoetrope-like view it affords of the houses behind them. Even the name of his solo project has deliciously obtuse origins: Pneumatic Tubes. The antiquated pipe system for transporting paperwork between office departments.
“I was watching a Truffaut film, Stolen Kisses,” he recalls. “And there’s a scene where one of the characters sends a love letter using a pneumatic tube system. They show it weaving through all the pipes, and I just love that. For a certain period of the 20th century, there was magic and wonder about the idea of sticking something in a tube in one part of the city, and a few minutes later it ending up in another. You could send a lock of hair…
“And there’s the fact that it uses woodwinds and electronics, too. The tubes are like clarinets and flutes, so that kind of resonates.”
He talks with clear passion for both of his adopted bands. His membership of Mercury Rev is riddled with ironies… as a New York State teenager, they were his “hometown heroes”, their music infused with the eerie spirit of the Catskills. He describes them, heartwarmingly, as “the older brothers I never had”. But the invitation to join came six years after Jesse had moved to Texas to join Midlake, a state that remains his home. It’s a 1,500 mile commute, but it’s clearly worth the air miles.
“Ironically, Mercury Rev are now based very close to Woodstock,” he chuckles. “But the stuff we’re working on is – I think – really fantastic. I really respect Jonathan Donahue’s drive to never repeat himself. And I don’t think he’ll ever lose that mystique… he’s like a sage! He sometimes speaks in riddles… for a few years, he’s been referring to ‘jazz without the notes’.” He laughs.
“What does that even mean? I grew up playing and listening to jazz… but I think I finally understood, and that’s how A Letter From TreeTops came about. Capturing the essence of jazz. The freedom. Everything that’s amazing about jazz, but with it almost sounding like ambient music.”
In the meantime, Midlake are back. There’s a new album imminent, For The Sake Of Bethel Woods, their first since 2013. Bethel Woods, on closer inspection, is a concert venue and arts centre built on the original site of – wait for it – Woodstock Festival. The album’s sleeve is a fuzzy, watercolour depiction of a floppy-fringed teenager in the midst of a jubilant crowd. It doesn’t take a great leap of faith to join the dots. Dave Chandler is the direct inspiration for the second consecutive album to bear his son’s name.
“Yes, it’s my father,” confirms Jesse. “If you’ve seen the Woodstock documentary, the camera pans across the crowd during John Sebastian’s set. And you can clearly see my dad. So the album cover is a painting of that screenshot.”
But that’s not all. The album’s pre-publicity boasts quotes from Midlake singer Eric Pulido, paying fulsome homage to Chandler Snr: “He was a lovely human, and it was really heavy and sad, and he came to Jesse in a dream”.
“Yes,” smiles Jesse. “Every so often, he’ll turn up in dreams. It’s always a little bit jarring, but I’m getting used to it now. And this one was very simple, a few months into the pandemic. We were in our original Woodstock home, and he said ‘You’re all still there. You’re not doing anything. You should make a Midlake album’. I told Eric, and somehow it turned into… us!
“I just love how matter of fact it all was. Every time my dad appears it’s just ‘Oh, OK. He’s here…’”
And with that, it’s time to go: a Midlake rehearsal session is imminent. But those connections between father and son remain profound. And both – one suspects – have drank from the Witch Water, and are proud to be bound to the mountains.
A Letter From TreeTops is available here:
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