Oct 31, 2018, 06:28AM

Modern Folk Music of America 666

An interview with J Moss, aka Modern Folk.

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J Moss has been making music since 2010 under the name Modern Folk. His most recent tape Modern Folk 666 was self-released in July. Of its 10 songs, four are original. Five of them are traditional Appalachian folk songs and one’s a cover of legendary blues musician Elizabeth Cotten. Modern Folk embodies a wide range of musical styles throughout the century, borrowing and adapting traditional folk standards into modern day dark-pop masterpieces. His deft ear for melody as well as drone and sound structure separate him from most artists today. If John Fahey, The Grateful Dead, and Kanye West all gang-banged and the Lomax brothers recorded it, the aftermath would be Modern Folk.

Splice Today: I love all the music I've heard of yours, but MF666 is definitely my favorite. I've listened to it over a dozen times and share it with friends because I believe you're making some of the best music today. First of all, when did Modern Folk begin?

J Moss: Thank you so much. I really appreciate anyone giving their time to listen to my music. "Modern Folk" started in roughly 2010 when I started the "modern folk music of america" blog. Shortly after that I started using that as a band name. It’s confused people a lot, which I like for some reason.

ST: You have an extensive discography, along with live recordings and collaborations. How long have you been making music?

JM: The first thing I recorded was a punk band I played bass in in high school. I recorded it on a Tascam 424 and became hooked on the process and have been recording an album at least once a year since then. It became my favorite form of expression.

ST: I notice you play with many different musicians. Do you view Modern Folk as your personal musical project or as a collaborative collective?

JM: It’s both. I consider anyone who plays on anything a member of the group, and I never tell anyone what to play. I want collaborators to make the thing wider in scope, but of course it's also my personal music project. But I like to let all voices in. In our live set-up, my band mate Austin has written a good bit of the material.

ST: You live in Portland. Is the music scene as strange and vibrant as Baltimore? Are there any underground Portland artists you can recommend?

JM: I’ve lived in Portland for almost eight years. I moved here from Virginia. Everyone in Portland plays music it seems. There’s live music in almost every little bar (if it isn't karaoke). So there are tons of sounds and opportunities to play, but it's such a deep ocean. It’d be tough if you had traditional ambitions. I have a little place, a collective workspace, where I book shows though and it’s nice. I’d recommend a local noise/drone artist Toby Alden. He plays under various names. Also Gangster Computer God, who played on the first track of "mf666." I also play bass in a rock band called Big Breakfast.

ST: Your music blends together. Fahey-esque emotional finger-picking styles with repetitive heartfelt vocals distorted by 808-style Autotune, drenched in layers of drone, ambience, and field recordings. It's really a perfect blending of sound. Would you say you have an eclectic appreciation for music and sound? Who are some of your main musical influences?

JM: I love music so much. I even like music I hate. It’s hard for me not to appreciate some aspect of a piece of music. But of course there are things I love more. I like people like Fahey, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Alex Chilton and many others because they are prisms through which the light of all the American folk tradition can shine, but they also transform it into something new as it passes through. "Links in the Chain." Through understanding, both studied and innate, they produce musical meditations on the American vernacular musical legacy.

I incorporate more modern sounds because I don't see a break in that chain. Bessie Smith heard someone lost to time sing the blues in person. Nina Simone heard that on a record. Kanye West heard that on maybe a tape or CD. And now I hear him on Spotify, sampling it, creating another new substance or link. So if I also want to be a real link in the chain I can't ignore the more recent ones. But I’m also influenced by someone like Fahey conceptually, as label owner, archivist, reality prankster (he placed his own records in junk shops hoping people would mistake them for antique blues records), and the creator and destroyer of his own genre of music. Or Garcia and The Dead with their pioneering, perhaps accidental underground branding vision and how they encourage bootlegging and so on. Other examples would be Ian McKaye. With the ethos of Dischord records, he took his thing beyond the musical. 

ST: Your interpretation of “Black is the Color” is a brilliant example of how you use modern production technology to redefine a song written a century ago. Why did you choose to cover this song over others?

JM: I chose this song because it seemed like an iconic, but archaic "folk song" like it would've been on a lot of set lists in the 1960s folk revival, like Kingston Trio style but not so common now.

ST: I love your song “Vilify/Isolate” because it's such a contrast from the previous song, which is hauntingly beautiful. But “Vilify/Isolate” is pulsing, vicious, and angry. On your Bandcamp page, you credit Aleister Crowley for words. Is his voice sampled in this song? What is that sample?

JM: His voice is sampled in the middle of the song, but the piece was randomly selected. I don't remember what he was saying. In a way this song was supposed to be an homage to The Misfits, but I picked two weird songs to imitate. "Cough/Cool" and "Halloween 2." But I liked bringing in the Aleister Crowley sample because what he was into descended philosophically from alchemy, so in a roundabout way it is a reference to the "link in the chain" thing.

ST: You describe your website as “a site for music that is made and played without corporate, or even independent support. Homemade music. Folk music.” What is your definition of folk music? Do you believe folk is generally under-appreciated in its time?

JM: The point of the blog was that "folk music" is any homemade, DIY, or even just self-funded music. So I was using "folk" in an economic sense, not a stylistic sense. I do think this music is under-appreciated, even systematically under-appreciated, to continue with the economic side of it.

ST: Do you believe the Internet (specifically, Bandcamp) is an important archive for music? Or do you think streaming websites and social media have negatively devalued how people listen to music?

JM: People can argue all day about the ups and downs of streaming sites like Spotify (my opinion is "don't hate the player, hate the game,” because the game is capitalism and the players [artist and/or listener Spotify users] are fucked either way"), but it’d be ridiculous to say Bandcamp is not a great thing for independent musicians. I love Bandcamp. The Internet and especially Bandcamp have inspired me to make music by giving me a place to put it. So my opinion on the Internet and music is fully positive.

ST: Capitalism is the Most Destructive Religion” is obviously a bold opinion, one that I happen to agree with. Do you wish to expand on the meaning of your cleverly-titled song?

JM: I have a hope that the human species can abandon capitalism, because it’s the force I see as driving us towards extinction and causing a lot of suffering. Many people think capitalism is an inevitable state and that its laws are hard and fast. But there was a time when people felt the same way about the Catholic Church ruling over most of the then-documented world. As far as we understand, whole cultures prospered and faded under the auspices of the concept that individual people were gods, which does not compute to most of us now. It wasn't that long ago. Maybe one day our global culture will move on. I have faith that capitalism isn’t an inevitable state. In another sense, the song just sounded like the title to me.

ST: Listening to MF666 is not only an enlightening musical experience, but a history lesson in American music. In your interpretation of the traditional Appalachian folk song “Death Ain't You Got No Shame?” you sample the drum break beat from “I'm Waiting For The Day” by The Beach Boys. In your interpretation of the Scotland-originated “Black is the Color” (popularized by Nina Simone), you utilize Autotune on your vocals. Your music in this way transcends time, bringing together many aspects of music from different periods and blending them all together to create something totally original and refreshing. Is there a philosophy behind Modern Folk? Or am I reading too much into it?

JM: As I was mentioning earlier, I think the philosophy is just to be a good "link in the chain."

ST: I notice on your website you’ve reviewed hundreds, maybe thousands, of underground bands and artists. Community and sharing seem to be a huge aspect of what you do. Does this reflect your political beliefs? 

JM: The thing that set the modern folk music of America blog apart from others is it wasn’t curated. I reviewed everything that was sent to me personally by the artist. This is also why I gave up doing it. It became too much to live up to my own rules. Many people didn’t seem to realize I was doing it this way or why that was important, but it was political. Curating and taste-making reinforce the concept of meritocracy.

The idea that some music is inherently better than other music, and that "naturally" the good music will be successful, and get noticed (I think normal people accepting capitalism hinges on this concept) having taste and sharing your taste is no problem, but I wanted to present an alternative. Alan Lomax inspired me. Any music he laid his ears on, performed in dusty backyards and old barns, was elevated to a higher status. It would end up in the Library of Congress. Attention elevates and encourages artists. A taste-making blog writing about your music makes it more real somehow. So I wanted to give a bit of that to everyone, as much as I could.

ST: Is Practice Records your label? Do you put out and distribute your own tapes? Is this a personal choice to reflect your artistic freedom or would you prefer to work with a label?

JM: Practice Records is a net label. I did release a few tapes from other artists years ago. I do distribute my own tapes but my friend Ben helped me with "MF 666" for which I’m really grateful. I use Practice Records' Bandcamp site to put up all my older recordings, stuff from old bands I was in, and stuff by friends who want to be there. I call it "Practice Records" because each thing I make is practice for the next thing and what I do is a "practice," and they’re all records.

ST: Any news for upcoming albums or tours? Any goals you have for the future, creatively or personally?

JM: Ben has started a tape label called Hypnic Jerk Tapes and my next thing will be coming out on that, along with two other great tapes in a debut batch release. No plans to tour, though that would be fun. But my lifestyle right now is not right for it. We play as a duo or a trio around Portland about once a month, and I usually announce it on all the platforms.

ST: Finally, Ryley Walker. Any comments?

JMLeonard Cohen - "So Long Marianne" (Live 1978).

—Listen to and purchase Modern Folk's music here, and watch his music video for "Peggy-O" here.


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