Kurt Heasley (The Lilys) and Dylan Moon on the Importance of Remaining Present

The artists catch up.

Dylan Moon is an LA-based songwriter and guitarist; Kurt Heasley fronts the legendary DC-based cult band Lilys. Dylan’s new record Option Explore is out today (on RVNG Intl.), so to celebrate, the two hopped on a call to talk about the importance of remaining present and open in your art and life, and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Dylan Moon: I wrote down some things, because I wanted to have some smart things to say. But the prompt was to talk about artists who’ve taken 180 degree turns in their sound, and how that relates to our own music, I guess. I was thinking, if you’re open minded and you’re making music, how can every artist not go through these shifts? Why do you think some artists do, or why don’t all artists do that?

Kurt Heasley: Well, I feel when we think of the course of the artist, we think of the course of the popular artist that has created, basically, an identifiable persona. And the ability to manage an identity, it takes a lot of energy. David Bowie was able to do that after Ziggy Stardust. Joni Mitchell with Court and Spark — it’s like song into song into song that you cannot imagine the openness at play. And that’s four or five records in. So learning these aspects of the craft and incorporating that into your interest — because every time you go [out into the world], you’re taking a step and you’re growing, you’re processing and you’re organizing it. You see the world anew, and if you are expressing it right, it’s going to sound like what you’re experiencing now.

Dylan: Yeah. With people like Joni Mitchell, I didn’t even consider her in my little list of people going through these permutations. But for people like that, they’re always so singular. Just making any music at all for them is something radically different. Just to be Joni Mitchell is to radically change things without even having to change yourself.

Kurt: I think her ability to remain present for people and just continually take risks — and basically, when people could have become jaded in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, she continued to explore, and that is magnetic. 

Dylan: Yeah. I mean, she’s literally very open, even just in the way her guitar is is set up. 

Kurt: Very open. The amount of risk she could bear…

Dylan: One thing I was thinking about is the big five personality [traits], and one of those is openness. I feel like that’s got to be the most central to — well, creativity, but this idea of ingesting new sounds and paradigms. Being at the extreme end of that spectrum of openness is sort of like being childlike in a way, like in your curiosity of emergent culture. It’s like being blessed or cursed by the fountain of youth that you’re tuned into the vibe shifts or whatever.

Kurt: You know, the vibe can become like a very complex harmony, and just at the point of dissonance, here comes this crazy — you know, the augmented sixth. Like, “Ah, how did we get here?!” It’s like, it was exotic, and now it’s absolutely celestial. I feel that that kind of control revolves around the growth process of that openness — that not only do you want to open up others, but you want to create these intense patterns of narrative and recognizable form. The expectation just grows and grows, and then you totally defy it and you pull the chair out and they land on a flying sofa.

You’ve obviously been playing since youth — did you start on an instrument?

Dylan: Yeah, I asked for a guitar when I was six and then took lessons. I went to music school even.

Kurt: At Berklee?

Dylan: Yeah. 

Kurt: So you have this wealth of information — I’m going to tell you a secret: It was pretty standard back in the day. [Laughs.] I was, from the age of five, trained more in performance, which became a love of writing and theater, and this world of studying percussion and voice. And then I’m 16 years old and Public Enemy’s, Yo! Bum Rush the Show comes out, and then the next year, a Japanese version from a comic book store of Akira. And if you aren’t familiar with the Akira soundtrack, where on these Roland D-50 synthesizers and maybe some modified Yamaha DX7s, they did these gamelan micro tuning — like note-to-note the craziest gongs and intervals all done digitally. It’s like nothing you’ve heard before.

Dylan: That sounds great.

Kurt: I had a little Moog Rogue that cost $50, my stand cost $75 — just to give you a perspective of the mid-’80s. No one was really caring about like, “This sounds just like Travelogue!” [Laughs.] We need that ability to see the tools as the servant, not as the master. And when people start these attachments — you know, people talk about, “Stevie Ray Vaughan had the Ibanez pedal and the battery drained!” And maybe it did something. 

Dylan: Maybe it’s an old music school meme or something, but it was like, “Jimi Hendrix wasn’t using True-Bypass pedals, but imagine if he had been.”

Kurt: [Laughs.] 

Dylan: So were you musically self-taught? 

Kurt: As far as how I wrote and arranged, yeah, that’s all self-taught. The performance aspects, especially coming from dance and theater — 1986, it was like Folger Shakespeare Library, 1987, as I said, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. [Laughs.]

I left high school — it was clear that the people supporting were like, “I don’t know what we can do with you, you need a performance art school, but not you’re not even cut out for that.” And I ended up basically working at a small home studio, but an incredibly well appointed eight-track studio, including a lot of today’s now-classic synths. This is at the time that Japan had already been broken up and David Sylvian had just released his second solo album. Brilliant Trees was one of those like, Ooh, this is just insane! That tour came to Washington, DC and the band is so sublime and crazy tight. But at the end of the second to last song, an 18 foot wide, 10 foot deep mobile drops down from the rigging, and a giant wind machine hits it from the side, and this geometric mobile sculpture begins to spin above them — and I said, That’s what I need to be doing with my life.

And lyrics for songs on Eccsame the Photon Band, like “High Writer at Home” — my dad found that poem from 1988 on his PC, and he was like, “What is this? Kurt, have you been writing on the computer?” I was like, “Oh, yes, sorry, I meant to delete that.”

Dylan: Early internet transmissions.

Kurt: So there’s all of this, “Isn’t it great you have all these influences?” And it’s true. But I feel that what is happening is so uniquely well-timed. Like, there are the people who realize that they’re there for survival, as much as sleep and food and, pooping, peeing, basic health — that involves connection. And we can’t just take it, we have to cultivate it. 

We’ve just had a decade of absurd, and there is a meaning to the absurdity. But, you know, the Weimar Republic, the cabaret people — they were ripping on Hitler, calling him crazy, and they were the first ones on the trains, man. I feel like we can do a little better than point at the problem. 

Dylan: Yeah. Well, what can you do? How can you keep the culture when it’s like the end of time, an extinction event happening?

Kurt: I think one of the beautiful things is, the same way Steve Miller learned to play guitar with Les Paul — and that I don’t think that was this conscious, “I will create a protege who will create the Steve Miller Band,” but the manifestation is these very discrete skill sets. They say there are transactional relationships and then there are relationships based upon equilibrium, longevity — you know, the rising tide lifts all boats — and I think that’s one of those times. I think we are in the process of making, not radical gestures, but sort of radical acceptance to take the connections to what I see as a much more aligned and self realized [place], that all of these people that we see as friends, as fellow craftsmen, are all going in the same direction as us. And it is our ability to identify our piece in that. It’s accepting as it’s what makes you uniquely you, and then remembering there’s going to be times where the only thing you’re going to need to do is take the light in someone else’s insanely brilliant and beautiful accomplishment. 

It was like the rise of the East Coast, West Coast hip hop wars, to the boy band diss tracks — the world got so referential, like art about the entertainment industry. It’s only that. It’s not about living or life or people. And though it has meaning, the meaning that carries for me is, Wow, this is like a series of self-portraits, a super desperate cry for help.

Dylan: It seems like everything is nostalgic, everything’s referencing the the past, which feels like that happened sometime after the ‘90s. Like the new trends were revivalism. And now we’re already cycling back to 20 years ago when the trend then was already looking back. So it seems like it’s bankrupt. But I guess what I’m getting from what you’re saying is just embracing, not being afraid of sincerity and and openness.

Kurt: That right there — if you want to know how to solve the impossible problem, sincerity is that first step. And most people would choose to hang on to their safety zone, even though it’s pitch black, and complain about there’s no answers, it’s hopeless. You have to kind of see where you’re at to begin where you’re at. There are moments that feel like everything is louder and brighter and more prismatic and everything else — but when a movement resolves, that’s the feeling. That’s the dopamine. And it should inspire you to not stay there, but to go right back to the next process that is in front of you and keep working and do the next one and the next one. And that we do that together — if there is a mobile to come down in your future, I will focus on making sure that mobile is there for all of us. Everybody gets mobiles. [Laughs.] 

Dylan: That’d be nice. 

Kurt: If anything, it’s really challenging to go far alone.

Dylan: When your path was on your own — I mean, it wasn’t because you’ve had so many collaborators, band members — but do you feel like it was a path you were on by your lonesome?

Kurt: Yeah, I think the organizational element was so unspeakable that there was no way to name what I saw as twinkling in the darkness possible. But there’s no way to explain or express. And so the few people closest to me that would only listen if I would share this complicated mythology and all of its potentiality, they would just jump in and bring up more ideas. And that’s really hard because they’re like, “How is that going to make money?” [Laughs.] By the timeI was 23, finally realizing songs that I started when I was 17 — Eccsame the Photon Band — that was nice. I was only there to cliff dive. 

And making what to me — you know, I was talking about [Japan’s] Tin Drum, I was talking about Harry Partch, I was reading Yukio Mishima — it was the absolutely most pretentious. There was nothing student about it. There was nothing cool or indie. We were dead serious. And people are like, “I love that record! It’s like a big cloud!” That’s perfect, that us going like, [yells] — you know, intensity. But what comes off is, like, soft and inviting.

Dylan: That answers a question I had, which was, did you feel like the shifts to the different places you were making music in, was that automatic or intentional? I mean, it’s probably not so intentional, and how it’s perceived can never be managed. 

Kurt: I was going to say, finding a way to these dream spots — there was a rather opportunistic aspect. And when I saw something complete itself in its own most natural way, of friendships and our intentions — working with friends from your teens and they’re like, “Oh, my band, just signed to Sub Pop.” I’m like, “Well, fucking great!” And then the next is like, “Oh, I just got a staff engineering job for this insane studio” — “Oh, how great!” And there I am, I’m looking around and I’m like, “Oh, I guess I can finish my book. No — reading, not writing.” Just, “What are you going to do now?” “I’m gonna read my book. I’m gonna lay on this rug. Ooh, I just got spirulina, I think I’m going to fast for the day…”

Dylan: Yeah, well, social media certainly doesn’t make that easier. You have all your stats on the streaming services and they’re trying to show you how well you’re doing by the numbers. 

Kurt: It’s called the attention economy for a reason. The more you remain in app, the better their UX. And the last 12 years of design has come from a school that gave us — have you ever been to Vegas and played one of those poker machines?

Dylan: Sure. 

Kurt: So when you sit down, and you’re in this little chair and your wrist goes right to the screen and you put your money in and you’re hitting and you’re playing — what you are experiencing is a design theory called “player extinction,” because everything about it is meant to keep you effortlessly focused on the instant gratification of it until you run out of money. 

Dylan: Yeah, I was reading about that.

Kurt: Natasha Schüll, a wonderful writer, researcher, sociologist, has written and spoken and presented volumes on this subject. 

Dylan: I was also reading someone, I can’t remember who, but Twitter and all these social media apps, it’s a way of gamifying your life.

Kurt: Certain ideas get one life, other ideas get one million likes. 

Dylan: And that’s that’s not how you react to someone in person. It’s not a binary of a like or not. There’s all this subtlety that’s lost.

Kurt: I love what blockchain is capable of, as far as decentralized verification. But the idea of having these crypto bros hubs, cyber banks — that’s terrifying. All the data people have already felt like, “Oh, this is a horrible waste of my time. This is ruining my life, this is ruining my relationships.” But now the early adopters, the all ins, are like, “Oh, no, they’re going to replace a dongle and everything I know will be without any value.” [Laughs.] 

Dylan: Yeah, it’s scary.

Kurt: It is. And, you know, the whole idea of moving fast and breaking things — I mean, the Earth has twice the amount of people on it from when I was born, with like 3.8 billion people and now there’s seven billion people. That’s a lot of people. When they signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, there were 50,000 residents at the time — there are 50,000 people in Fishtown right now! 

Dylan: Yeah, you’re right. The economy needs to keep growing, that’s the arc of progress, it has to just keep growing and growing. That’s what they want.

Kurt: I think lot of the agendas like, “You need to reduce, reuse, recycle” — and just consume more efficiently. We are spoilt by market subsidies that, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.” But to understand the value of certain things, how precious certain things are — I think a lot of people are like, “That’s horrible, that would make people pay a lot for good bread.” It’s like, or they’ll learn to make good bread again! It could go either way, you’re right! People in a band house sharing the burden — I don’t know, what would you call that, family? Intentional family? I don’t know.

I think it’s about quality of life, and as far as music and musicians — there are places that reputation can take you that money cannot. There are access to things that no matter how much money you try to throw at certain people, they’re like, “I don’t need your money. No, you’re not invited.” And that has become this experiential entrepreneurship, selling the experience. And I’m like, “Why don’t you just work on yourself a bit? Have you ever thought about getting to know yourself? Would getting to like yourself would be such an alien process that there would actually, at the end of that, be the beginning of meeting more people who like you?”

Dylan: Yeah, that makes sense. That’s advice many could take.

Kurt: Well, I follow it 80% daily. And I keep on getting jealous and angry at people, and then I realize, Oh, wait, that’s completely wrong. That’s complete self-sabotage. I don’t want to self-sabotage. If I can’t get to compassion, I can at least say, “Are you trying to rope me into something?” And if they say, “Yeah, I just needed you to hear me complain.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s better. Now it’s just, I’m your cup to fill.”

And some of it — dynamite lyrics. I don’t want to sing about my life. I’m much more interested about what’s going on with these two people in the train station. This is music! This is how I will refresh, renew. And that’s the thing — it’s all around if you care, want to remain present. I’m not saying childlike open, but remaining present. And also maturely, when something is good, don’t fuck it up. Don’t stop it, let it keep going. And if it takes you along — “Oh, yay.” And when it’s over, say thank you. You know, very simple rules for Coolsville.

Dyan: But kids are welcome in Coolsville too — it’s not necessarily bad to have those elements of childlike curiosity.

Kurt: Oh, when childlike is actually childlike — not like adult child, like actual wonder — it’s a gift. And it’s mostly exploited, as a programming opportunity, as an immersive, branded experience. Nothing against Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, I just think we could do better. [Laughs.] 

Well, I’m very glad to have had a chance to talk. And we didn’t talk about anything I was prepared for, which makes it even more interesting. So I don’t remember a lot. 

Dylan: It was fun. 

Kurt: The new album is beautiful. You have a lot of quality, but high-output work. 

Dylan: Thanks. I’m embarrassed because I had lots of specific things to ask about your music, but…

Kurt: I covered it. [Laughs.] 

(Photo Credit: left, Gabriella Talassazan)

Dylan Moon is an LA-based musician. His latest record, Option Explore, is out now on RVNG Intl.

(Photo Credit: Gabriella Talassazan)