Chad Peck (Kestrels) Picks Kurt Heasley’s Brain

Talking to the Lilys frontman about music, technology, and more.

I vividly remember the first time I heard Lilys. It feels quaint in the harsh light of 2022: my then-bandmate had received an invite to a private music torrent site, the kind that had moderators who enforced strict rules about upload/download ratios and meted out punishments at the slightest provocation (like I said: quaint). Part of its architecture was a rudimentary RIYL section, and after an unsuccessful search for rare My Bloody Valentine tracks, the site suggested Lilys as a complimentary group. We downloaded 1992’s In The Presence of Nothing, sat on couches in his lamp-lit living room, and started listening. Within 30 seconds of “There Is No Such Thing As Black Orchids,” it was clear that we would be rewarded for taking a chance on a new (to us) band.  

I still love that record — I covered the closing track “Claire Hates Me” under the name We Need Secrets for a compilation in 2017 — but as anyone who has followed the Lilys trajectory already knows, it does not prepare you for the depth of their discography or the mind of Kurt Heasley, Lilys’ protagonist. Of course, the My Bloody Valentine comparisons were and are overstated (as they are with almost all bands who “sound like MBV”), and Heasley went on to make several remarkable records that demonstrate savant-level songwriting and musicality, as well as a panoramic vision of the LP as a form. Eccsame the Photon Band is the record I return to most, but they all warrant repeated and deep listens. Much of the back catalog has been given the reissue treatment over the past few years, and the band has been performing live with a bit more frequency — I’m hoping it means there might be more new Lilys material in the near future (until then, check out Kurt’s contribution to the Lodge 49 soundtrack).

Kurt and I had been in touch a few times over the years, and I reached out to him to see if he wanted to talk on the record. We chatted for two hours about music, technology, and connection. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity. Enjoy.

Chad Peck: Hey, Kurt.

Kurt Heasley: Hey.

Chad: How are you?

Kurt: We moved. We bought a house outside of DC, outside of Charlottesville. It’s in the mountains, it’s on 15 acres and it’s surrounded by two springs and a creek. You may have figured out I’m a space coast elite. You know, before Florida was Florida, Florida was these weird RCA computer division moonshot guys. It’s sad and funny to think of these characters, these brilliant, beautiful loving coping people working on these compartmentalized clearance projects that are what we now see as the military industrial complex. It’s one of the reasons we are attempting to work more — slowly, in the age of bands that come together and go full 360 deal within six months of their conception and are selling out Red Rocks.

Chad: Yes!

Kurt: We’re here! This is our real world now. This is our post Gutenberg moment and I don’t think we have accepted the absolute upheaval. We are still in denial. I don’t want to say how long we’ve been playing weird church basements and warehouses, but, you know, 30 years. And how people feel this ability to connect instantly. We spent $7,500 adapting last year, and I feel like it’s more of a seven-car pileup on the information superhighway. 

Chad: Is part of moving rurally a conscious effort to remove yourself from the chaos?

Kurt: No. Working in LA since I was 23, there were all these centralized resources that made concept to production possible, including 4 AM calls: “Our production guy’s hungover! He’s absolutely incoherent! I need…” And then you insert the “You know what? My friend just wrapped yesterday. Maybe he’s still up. We’ll give him a call.” And you see so much of that light in California; it’s the light of film. Over the years the technology, first going from dial up and bulletin boards and Hayes modems. I was a teenager when the Atari 1040ST came out and it had MIDI in and out. And we were like, “This Steinberg software is insane! Using alchemy and sampling, we are like Throbbing Gristle crazy here!” 

I was speaking to a member last night, and we were just reminding ourselves that people at Monterey felt like these instruments were instruments to communicate human potential.

Chad: Right.

Kurt: And a conscious, all encompassing love. This sincere dedication to process that California represented in the world of analog equivalents where 35mm film is being spliced, where you don’t want to have a world with all of these decentralized editing stations. But in 2001, the release of Is This It by…

Chad: The Strokes.

Kurt: The wonderful Strokes. All of a sudden, there’s more infrastructure for high speed internet access. Now we’re positioned where these kids born when the first 7” came out are now 16 years old with iPhones. And I’m like, “Hey man, have you read The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson?” “No, but I will!” and they come back a week later like “Aw, man…”. “No no! The phone is good, but your time is more valuable.” They’re like, “Yeah, I feel pretty alone in that.” 

So, as we really feel the weight of legacy, and the move back to the East Coast, as soon as you’re outside DC you look at everyone and their horse farms. And then you get into like, “Oh, that’s the Appalachian trail.” And then you show up and it’s airplane hangar sized industrial environmental welding studios and you’re like, this is how we’re decentralizing.

Chad: Right.

Kurt: Infrastructure and basic natural resources in Los Angeles were becoming incredibly competitive. San Francisco real estate between 2009 and 2019 was comical. It’s about as priceless and valuable as Bitcoin, until everyone’s just like, “We’re going to trade in salt. Good old salt.” I mean, it’s that arbitrary. We are 50 years into this untethered global financial system that maybe a dozen people have a pulse on.

Chad: Yes!

Kurt: It’s interesting because the question is, how will you make the universe? Your reality? The kind of reality that Los Angeles represented for 80 years completed itself with the ability to seamlessly platform and integrate. These marketing tools of expressive individualism where every genre is easily researched, and everybody can be famous to 15 people. Which is in fact really cool! But now we are talking about The Beatles Twickenham tapes. It was grim 30 years ago! Do you just not appreciate the evil sausage making of records you love? 

You know, the four of us showing up at midnight to record for three hours at $100 an hour — that’s how we made the first 7”. That was the world. You were lucky. Everybody pitched in. We brought frozen burritos. It was so intense. Take one is it. You hear this disembodied voice from the talkback mic: “Do better.” That was all the information! I feel a lot of the last 10 years has become this almost classicist, museum experience of high-gain class-A acoustically appropriate recording environments. I love the rich. Believe me, I love means. But, here’s the thing: There’s a problem with dynastic wealth, and what it sees when it sees someone of very limited economic resources. They see danger. They see potential loss. Someone who’s desperate and hungry might mess up their vibe. 

I see so much American stage fright syndrome. This posture that is closed and self-aware but almost like, “But it’s OK, I’m going to fight through it.” It’s going to take everything and then you’re going to have to put a little more in, and then you’ll have to do a little more! You go to 80% every time, and then you take that time you have left to recharge. Six years of developing something that was direct enough to make sense to listeners, but elegant and compatible enough to make some money with it. The idea is of longevity and the pursuit of maximalism. I’ve always been trying to find the biggest version of the ideas and put them together and let that be: ”Aha, now I’ve done it!” I was mentioning to Brian TechCrunch last night that The 3 Way, for as much as I had spent three, four years drilling like some dance squad, got four-fifths the idea across. He said, “You don’t really talk to a lot of artists. Because four-fifths of the idea would be 100% more of what they feel about their records.” I’m talking about a record that came out the same time as Britney Spears’s “Hit Me Baby (One More Time).” As quickly as The 3 Way came, it was on to something even more important or whatever the available materials were. Either it’s important or what’s available, or both.

When I was a teenager and we were in a warehouse with a lot of 18” speakers, it was the feeling that the community shared, and we could all look at each other: I am 100% happy with all of your choices, we’re all autonomous. You weren’t around in the ‘80s. You want to see the violence and the betrayal, the inhumanity… you need to spend a little time with Jerry Falwell, Jesse Helms. Here we are, 30 years later, they were 20-30 degrees out on the pendulum of criminal behavior and we didn’t just swing back to center where I do me, you do you, we share a common environmental wealth, now we’re into… maybe we’re into retribution. Rightfully so. 

Here I am and some of the best, smartest, most talented people, they grew up in that environment. And they come, and pick up a book from the shelf, or put on a record, they’re like, “Can I just make this my reality?” I’m like, “This is reality, man.”

But you know, round eyes with fast money…

Chad: Oh, I know.

Kurt: And it’s not people, it’s plants and animals. And if it’s not the plants and animals, it’s the minerals. There is always someone to do your dirty work for a profit. And I think as we slow down and as we look at the next seven years of what’s going to be this distributed ledger tech Blockchain Web 3.0, we’re gonna move by force into private secure networks. It’s Reaganesque. It’s these people who say, “I’m a Libertarian, but of course I believe drugs should be illegal.”
Chad: I love it.

Kurt: I appreciate the vanguard is the first casualty. Is it Amazon who trademarked the Buy Now or Add To Cart button?

Chad: Oh, I’m not sure.

Kurt: The same way we talk about Thor and Odin and Mount OIympus, we’re gonna talk about “And then, the Lord Bezy had his lawyers trademark the Add To Cart button.” I hate seeing the William Gibson quote, “The future is here it’s just not evenly distributed.” That’s been true for 500 years, once we were able to disseminate thought to diagnose misunderstanding and create a revolution. You know, rhetoric. The ability to, without jabbing a bamboo spear into the other guy’s eye, solve disputes. I have a childlike, Quaker school understanding of divinity, of the divine nature that is like when you see a baby relax in someone’s arm. That sense of what the Rajneeshees would call surrender. I’m not talking about primal scream therapy peace, I’m talking about, [exhales]. People are miserable, and they’re ripping their hair out, and they go from Prozac to heroin, and they’re like, “Nothing works and I keep on following the manual!”

Chad: I’m worried about my friends right now. It’s been a tough time for a lot of people. Now every human is a brand online, and social media rewards fetishized anxiety. You see these people getting dopamine hits for being anxious, and it’s so sad. And I’m worried about them.

Kurt: Believe me. I was a teenager in the ‘80s. I know how to get dopamine hits. Go on!

Chad: I’m just worried about people, you know.

Kurt: There is no virtual equivalent to [exhales]. And though I was saying that in 2001, ‘03, ‘04, ‘06, nobody liked me because I was like a tech crybaby. “MySpace is not going to save you. Tom is not looking out for you. Tom is looking out for Tom”.

Chad: And he’s almost seen as a folk hero now. It’s weird. He cashed out and walked away. It’s strange.

Kurt: We tell ourselves the stories we know. I love these post-Marxist scholars. A Thousand Plateaus is an important work, but remember: the author jumped out a window.

Chad: I didn’t know that.

Kurt: I was a 15 year old reading Mikhail Bakunin. I’m like, “Dictatorship of the proletariat is going to hit a few snags. You watch. This non-hierarchical grassroots movement stuff is gonna work out nicely for me. I’ve done everything I need to do. What are you working on? Need a hand?” 

Everyone loves money. Let’s go look at Kylie Jenner’s TikTok. “What do you do?” “I make money on baby products! Facial product!” “That is so visionary. Thank you. I hope your family is healthy, happy, peaceful and prosperous. You are perfect children of God.” I mean, that’s the world — I hate to use the word spectacle, because that used to mean something to me. That in 1979 was just described as a reality of shame. The shame that drove people to believe that Regean and privatization was gonna save us all. The free market was going to save us. It’s like, uh, I don’t know if you know how socialism works, but I’m looking at a few of these companies and their $18 billion subsidies a year is not free market.

Chad: People don’t like to confront that information.

Kurt: All of these concepts that were kind of obvious if you just sat, and without expecting any results, paid attention to the patterns. And if you’ve read all five volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You want to know the enemy? Read some Churchill. That guy was totally cool with millions starving to death for the effort. As a species, we need to realize how fantastically cooperative we need to be for the big win. 

And you can see why as a parent people are like, “What is…? Nevermind.” 

Chad: I’m a high school English teacher, and I see a lot of kids in their formative years. I don’t have kids myself…

Kurt: No, but you’re with kids.

Chad: You try to be a positive influence. There’s that potential you see: If they can get to that next level, you feel like there’s some hope, and that’s the goal always. But there are lots of forces pushing back.

Kurt: Yeah, because the propaganda of technological freedom of expression is in-app, in-platform expression. It’s not authenticity! I guarantee you kids that dance and sing and play hold themselves like people who can play well with others. Those same kids that are given the tools of self-inquiry to find what they, as this sliver of the infinite, are specifically here and capable of doing over their lifetime. It’s yet another profoundly global tool that is frowned upon. Basic acceptance of the limitations that make us uniquely us. In the competition model, in the scarcity model, there’s always besting the best of the best of the best, and playing the available games, but people forget they can vote with their feet and they can do like the monarch butterfly and migrate elsewhere. There is nothing you owe to these product lines. In fact, they are yours. They are yours to toy with. 

The most outrageous thing I could remember from being 17 was someone had made a shirt for a DC warehouse party, and it was the Tide logo. I think there’s a few dozen “us-es” that know maybe four or five people who by simply affirming the testimonial to “you know what the right thing is; take heart, do it often” can help. Oscar Wilde says, “There are two classes. Those who believe the incredible and those who do the improbable.” I will tell you, for as much as last year did not work for me emotionally or financially, now that I’m like, I don’t know what I’m doing. I like what you do. I’m willing to give it a shot. If we hit some rough spots, we’ll just establish boundaries. Safe word is pineapple! That just made me think of every kinky fantasy I had as a child about members of the B-52s that shall remain nameless. I was into the music, the look, the harmonic content… and then Bobbi died, and then Nile Rogers came in, and now we have “Love Shack.” Oh, that was Don Was. 

Chad: Have you seen the recent Brian Wilson documentary? Don Was is in it. It’s mostly just him driving around in a car with some guy from Rolling Stone. It’s really beautiful, as much as fetishizing the past can be a challenge. There’s this scene where he’s recording the one new song for the soundtrack and as much as he is who he is, he’s still got that, “Play this way! The guitar is too fuzzy!” It’s heartening to see.

Kurt: Musical lucidity. And his ability to collaborate, take direction, take inspired ideas and personalize them, and give others ideas for them to personalize. We all have unique mental challenges, but he got two scoops. And he worked with it. And his kids worked with it. Much respect.

Chad: You’ve done a lot of reissues for the past six years or so. I just mentioned fetishizing the past. When you look back on your work, are you seeing yourself trying to find guitar strings in Lancaster? Or are you hearing, “there’s too much bass in this mix”? Eccsame is pretty heavy. I love that record, but there’s some energy there. What is that process like for you to go back and mine the depths?

Kurt: I’m pretty lucky that I had Public Enemy records and Einstürzende Neubauten, and My Bloody Valentine, and all of my classics, whether it’s Neil Diamond, or Carole King, or the Monkees. I was comparing what I loved in the moment to what I knew was how you do it. 

We could only do what we did. I see much more of my love of Japan and David Sylvian and how they created a vocabulary that Mark Hollis and Talk Talk would follow. All these logical extensions. And I see the attempt to cannibalize the worst parts of other people, which was what was happening lyrically for me. To love these people I loved, and still feel just trashed. To be Evel Knievel smacking the cliff. There were a few dozen people who were super positive about what we were doing. We got a nice zero out of ten stars in one magazine. One review of the first album was, “If you’re going to sound exactly like a band, why don’t you sound like the Chili Peppers? At least they sell records.” It’s like… hold on a second. 

I do not feel a going-backness. I feel a sense of loss for technology. We were buying $60,000 tape machines for $6,000. We were spending hours in alignment, impedance matching, soldering. Me and a dozen others over years. That we were able to self harm, in a way. 

Kurt Cobain’s death really changed the nature of the industry. I miss some of the self organizing, what was the ability to just take what was rejecting this negative consciousness. This consciousness that prioritized shame; not accountability, not responsibility, just shame. For that dissenting voice of Nirvana, for that to then be commodified, when that became the center of the dancefloor, a moment completed itself. People who just saw the world as so malleable. Speaking of these mythical, you, me, 39 people who really feel the feeling, and want to work to share, organize, for no other sense of purpose than that coming together in song, whether we’re singing to ourselves, or singing full voice to the back. That every social survival construct, every religion is basically saying we can hold this society together if we can get together once a week and sing for 15 minutes. That seems to be the 12,000 year thread. And the people that sing better together can adapt to the craziest stuff because they’re always doing it. It’s the ones that become so certain. You can’t codify what it should be in the abstract. You know, maybe Three Commandments and Seven suggestions. I don’t know. There’s the Quaker in me.

Chad: Bob Mould asked us to open for him in September. We did eight shows. It was the first live music people had seen in a while. That feeling, that vibration, it was palpable, you could feel it. It was a beautiful thing, despite all of the weirdness in the air. 

Kurt: Bob; there would be some of that feel on My Bloody Valentine Isn’t Anything. Warner Brothers put out Candy Apple Grey. Like, what universe? He’s like, “our manager lost his mind, he overdosed in a month.” The ills of affluence. 

This is the thing. People for the first time in a couple of decades are truly experiencing awe. Realizing the rarity of life, period. We’ve been balancing this ax for 75 years. We have overused excitement. Whenever that vocal line, “oh oh, oh oh, oh oh” started, that was the top of Excitement Mountain. We’re going to get back to the valley of, “more people who sing better more often.” We rode Autotune Mountain to the top. 

I am not a laptop shredder. But then I look at the baseline reality coming out of the Skrillex camp, and I’m like, I’m doing fine. Maybe there’s just a bit of a die off coming. Maybe there’s a lot of iron fisted grandparents who say, “you will not!” And their life is like all life: a temporary manifestation of star stuff. You are here until you’re not. 

Chad: I went to see you play at the Bowery Ballroom in 2017. That was one of those experiences — I mean, I’d loved your band for a long time — but to be in that room as well, that communal experience… I was there with my friend Tim Wheeler from the band Ash. It was one of those times in my life where nothing was really making any sense, and I flew to New York for the weekend, and it was like, We’re fine. Everything is good.

Kurt: That’s funny. The promotional tour in ‘98 that Ash was doing, I just loved that sense, them and Supergrass. It was like, wow, someone putting in the work. It’s so improbable. To maximize these moves without turning it into Chick Corea, fusion jazz. The thing is, we are, as a community, responsible to be able to command that kind of ballistics. If not, the Joe Bonomassas, the bar pig blues supremes, have every right to ridicule the lack of thorough musicality in the post punk, post rock world. And again, why we need to work slower on longer term goals, and we may only have two goals in the next 10 years. 

Chad: Are you making music right now? You released “Unheard of Curiosities” on the Lodge 49 soundtrack. That caused a lot of excitement on my phone. Are you still producing music? Is that one of your two goals?

Kurt: Music, the recording and production, is a result of prioritized lifestyle rhythms. I don’t have a band house out here, and making people eat, sleep, breathe the soliloquy of the goddess: ”This is how that one goes.” “Man, it’s like 7 in the morning, could you maybe use the Pignose amp? We gotta be at work in 45 minutes. Please stop.” “OK, one more time.” Unlike a genius like Brian Wilson who can sit and write charts and correct players, I’m like, “I can beatbox it or I can sing it to you, or if it’s on the black keys, I can play it on the piano.” They’re like, “You mean you’re just transposing the keyboard?” I’m like, “Don’t tell.” Someone reminded me that Gershwin had a transposed piano. 

Chad: That’s wild.

Kurt: You see my love of “Carol” by Chuck Berry or James Brown. And then it winds up in the Stooges and Roxy Music and Suicide. I want to say all of these other really credible things, but when I had to make a desert island 7” with an A side and B side, I’m like, “This doesn’t sound like what we sound like, but all the things I say is important about 1971, this was what was important about 1969, this was the transformative moment of 1964, and this, ladies and gentleman, in 1958, created a ball so large, that boulder rolled down the mountain, they’re snake handling, speaking in tongues.” But it’s like paper dolls. The Beatles were playing with paper dolls. The Stones were playing with paper dolls, and that’s what made them beautiful. The Beatles in a very working class way, and the Stones in a very, from the suburbs, as they say, way.

I don’t like the whole, “I was sleeping in my car and then worked with Billie Eilish’s brother.” Have you ever thought about songs about getting your nails done? We need those too. I like Lizzo. I was cast 20 years ago to write songs for… I don’t want to say who, because then she’ll know I’m talking about her. She was like, “God, you’re singing and you’re making flan.” I’m like, “I’m making flan.” And she’s like “But you’re singing the flan into existence. Could you maybe make an album of singing things into existence?” Lizzo found a way to sing her nails into existence, and I’m more in alignment with that. Then someone tries to put on “Pokerface” by Lady Gaga, and all I can think of is the South Park doing rock band “Pokerface.” That’s perfect. You literally crossed the chasm. That was not an Evel Knievel move, that was the long, slow way back up. And Gaga, what an egg. Cannibalizing a nightmare that I would literally run from. There’s no win there. But they can create a community, like the Dresden Dolls woman. I don’t know how you do that. But again, I feel that we are, like 75 years ago, very close to national level identity and projects because that’s how large the issues are in play. The ability to learn with others, to be able to absorb, and organize, and communicate information in real time, without expectation of it working within your lifetime. We are closing our eyes and like the painting underneath that highway in San Francisco says, “Imagine your grandchildren dancing at their grandchildren’s wedding.”

Chad: Heavy.

Kurt: Maybe that’s a Banksy. Maybe that’s a Wilde. I don’t know. 

Chad: You said you read a lot when you were 15. What are you reading now?

Kurt: Dr. Marty Hazelton from UCLA wrote this incredible book Hormonal. I finished Daniel Kaufman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, and my main book in the backpack is Trail Development and Maintenance

Chad: I had a job working building trails in university. My friend started a business. It was sleeping out in the woods all summer. Pretty fun. I didn’t recognize it then, but it was a crazy time. 

Kurt: I have a feeling, because of the impending die off, that within my lifetime, we’re going to see a return to civic culture through maybe like a two year public service in the structure. I guess they would call it compulsory service, but most of the war we’re fighting now is against the neglect, the tarnish, the rust, and education. You could join the French foreign legion for two years and become a citizen, and it’s like 1) you really learn how things work; 2) you know French well. And the civilian conservation corps in the ‘30s, that really ebbed back into the military in ‘41. My grandmother’s brothers were all in the forestry department and the department of the interior, and the civilian conservation corps. I come from the, “It was much worse in Germany when we left in 1911. You didn’t want that. This couple of years building trails, planting trees, this is what you want more of.” Obviously George Bush and Barack Obama and Donald Trump and Joe Biden, they’re not from that world. We’ve got people who are the collateral damage of misinformation and disinformation, and truly a life ignorant of their own purpose within it. That life of quiet desperation has become very loud on TikTok which I’m all like, “rave the apocalypse, my friend.” Because, you gotta do it until you don’t.  

You can’t be an ideas musician. I feel like for health, happiness, longevity, the ability to ride that good voice, even if you just learn to sing what makes you sound good.

Chad: Super important.

Kurt: I’m learning to change gears again without the expectation of getting second into third. I’m a bit more of a grown up. My “I can do anything” is more like, “Yeah, you can do anything. Just do it.” It was super easy to Evel Knievel into the cliff wall over and over again because you could always explore the wonders of nature with other like minded individuals who were equally excited to find out who they were. But that again, is such a lost art of communication. As we attempt to make it everything, we have sort of lost the big picture of “it’s your thing”. It’s y’alls. I think classic weirdness is going to make a big comeback in the next five years.

Chad: I put out my last record [2020’s Dream or Don’t Dream] on Darla. You did a record for Darla’s Bliss Out series, Zero Population Growth.

Kurt: Absolutely. James [Agren, Darla] was in New York and Chandra [Tobey, Darla] had just graduated. We just spent a lot of time going to shows and then he’s like “I’m leaving DGC. I’m going to start my own imprint.” He put out Superdrag, and My Morning Jacket, and then he was like “I’m really into the krautrock stuff.” I’m like oh, god, good pre-U2 Eno? Sign me up. Let me alert my commune. Talk about a record so economical, we recorded each song on only 10 tracks with 8th note and 16th note control voltage and then on the other inch of the 2-inch tape, we recorded the other song with the quarter notes and the 8th note control…

Chad: That’s a great record! That record sounds amazing.

Kurt: When you say the nostalgia, I wish we had 96 hours to scream and yell and run up the wall, because there are kids masterfully deconstructing Arturia, and all of these weird cool things, and it’s cool, but it’s not. 99% right and still 100% wrong. Someone told me the Korg Monopoly was what they did the Stranger Things soundtrack on. I never would have known. I would have assumed it was a plugin. And I mean that the plugins are so good that unless you are hitting Wendy Carlos hard, maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. 

Oh, the man is here. I gotta run — we’ll talk soon.

Chad: Bye, Kurt.

Chad Peck is the singer/guitar player in Kestrels and We Need Secrets. He also runs Noyes Records. He is based in Lornevale, Nova Scotia, Canada, where he teaches high school English.