Los Angeles actor and singer Alexis Martino joins Chicago-based musician and graphic artist Karlis Kandero to form an echo-folk duo called Chalk the Gates. Together they spin tales of weird America over guitars that are sent through sweeping, rhythmic digital delays and then densely looped to weave a rich sonic landscape. Chalk the Gates’ songs broach topics such as invasive technology, war, the gentrification of cities and much more.Their debut album, titled Dissent Vehicles, starts in 2005, half a generation ago, when the Invasion of Iraq weighed heavily on the mind of a nation that had never heard of smartphones or Barack Obama, and still consumed movies on VHS cassettes. Karlis Kandero explains:
“I try to write lyrically challenging music that’s about the point where the political and the personal intersect, viewed through kaleidoscope lenses of power, identity and nostalgia “
Every song on Dissent Vehicles starts with a literal vehicle in mind. Some are obvious, like a Humvee lacking armored plates, or the airplane Hank Greenspun used to smuggled guns. Some are less obvious – such as the electrical current used to torture victims of CIA rendition. One of the songs is composed entirely of Dick Cheney quotes.
“The record has an unusual structure: we live in an age where music is no longer presented on media that has ‘Sides A and B.’ Why not make a triptych album? The record is in three acts, and a three note descending phrase is heard in almost every song, bringing the album together musically. I listen to a lot of Ani Difranco and Andrew Bird, but also to a lot of tribal house. The latter genre is presented in the form of two to three hour mixes, whereas folk music is usually packaged as stand-alone three minute songs in different tunings, different topics. I set out to blend the cohesion of a Soundcloud DJ mix with the intimate vocals of folk.
The looping and the digital delay impart a four-on-the floor beat to the songs, but we try to keep the vocals intimate. There are breaks, but there isn’t that lovely part in techno where the high-hat comes in, doubling the beat. This entire record was made with one guitar and one banjo, so instead that moment is created by finger picking. Instead of beating on the guitar to create snare and kick, as many really great progressive finger-style guitarists do, I use a combination of the Korg SDD-3000 delay (made famous by U2’s Edge) and a two-channel looper to create percussion.”
Kandero found Martino on Craigslist in 2010, looking for a vocalist to accompany his guitar music. “I always knew we’d end up performing together” says Martino, “but I didn’t quite know how or when and it all fell into place. We are like-minded individuals who are able to understand what the other is saying without having to go into great detail and that makes our work so much easier.
At certain points we were, as we’ve begun saying, ‘Postal Servicing’ this album; rehearsing harmonies or new lyrics and sending them back and forth until it was all just right.”
They rehearsed much of the record in Silversun Pickups former residence in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, but almost all of the album was recorded live, on four tracks, in Kandero’s Wicker Park studio over St. Patrick’s Day weekend 2018.
Erik Cameron recorded the album and mixed it, so he’s heard these songs quite a few times over the last few months:
“It’s acoustic, hummable and so on, but it qualifies as ‘folk music’ on a deeper level, in that it connects people to a place and time in history; it’s a story about why the world is the way it is, and therefore why you are the way you are. That’s a totally normal function for folk music that’s been weirdly bred out of a lot of mainstream pop songwriting, probably around the same time it became an industry. And here, that function sits neatly next to the electronic effects and unsettling moments about capital and war and voyeurism and believing your memories, because it gets the story right, the world really is that way.”
Chalk the Gates celebrated the release of the album by performing it live in Chicago, Tuesday May 29th at the Flatiron Arts building, where the album was recorded.
The performance was accompanied by projected visuals drawn by Karlis, and used a backlit scrim as well a front projection surface to meld and gently animate the pictures. The graphic inspiration for the album art was pre-Helvetica vehicle manuals, tying back into the theme of the album.
“I’m really interested in the intersection of art and music. I’m particularly inspired by Scott Hansen (Tycho) whose digital art perfectly accompanies his ambient compositions; neither has words, so his Braille signature is perfect. My music is more digital than his – especially with the emphasis on the Korg digital delay – but my art less so. A big trend in music is the return to analog – there’s a large resurgence in analog keyboards, vinyl sales are up, there’s more outboard gear and guitar pedals than ever.
Most graphic design now happens entirely on a screen, but I try to find the ‘analog analogue’ in visual art; re-arranging elements like paper dolls on Bristol board, using shading film, ink splatter and X-acto blades to keep the design process tactile as much as possible. I remember when I couldn’t find Zip-a-Tone shading film any longer (the “dots” that Lichtenstein made famous). It reminded me of how there was this point where almost no-one was manufacturing magnetic tape for recording studios. So this weird, Twentieth Century plastic material you have to cut with a little blade becomes really scarce and valuable.”
It’s not unusual for famous musicians to paint, but it turns our many musicians also make comics. Glen Danzig, Tom Morello, Gene Simmons and Mike Daughty from Soul Coughing have all written sequential art.
“Gerard Wey of My Chemical Romance even has an Eisner Award [the Grammy of comics]. Archer Prewitt of The Sea and Cake also draws comics, but the only other time I ever heard of someone making a comic about the music itself was Ghostface’s 12 Reasons to Die, which actually came with an accompanying comic book. This is a little different…”