Nabob, photographed by Trinie Dalton
KEEPING IT LOCAL
Two transplants from the Heart of Dixie who went west to the land of mesas, pueblos and geodesic domes, Rachael Hughes and Nathan Shineywater have found a way to thrive beyond society’s mad dash to survive. Trinie Dalton travels to New Mexico to meet BRIGHTBLACK MORNING LIGHT, and hear their stunning new album in the pair’s natural habitat.
originally published in Arthur No. 31 (Oct 2008), with photographs by Lisa Law
Leaving Brightblack Morning Light’s northern New Mexico deep wilderness enclave, I finally get their obsession with the local AM radio. The daily monsoon moves in as I fly down the hill from their town in my red rental car. Mexican cumbia, a variation of the upbeat Colombian pop music, sounds interplanetary crackling through the fuzzy AM distance. I imagine it transmitting from some far off Mexican star, a star I’d like to visit. Crank the cumbia, see what it can do in a storm. Brightblack Morning Light’s Nabob Shineywater says AM is like Sun Ra. Yesterday morning, just after I’d arrived, we were hiking up a wash and Nabob asked, “Who are we to say Sun Ra wasn’t from another planet?”
The sky gets dark as wind kicks up. With the first lightning crackle and boom, the radio shorts and cumbia cuts out—quiet for a moment, then back up, hissing, scratched, and damaged. Have I blown the speakers? Has the radio station’s tower been struck? Each lightning bolt slicing vertically down the flat horizon causes more disruption. Nabob also mentioned that in Los Alamos, scientists recently disproved Einstein’s theory that light travels fastest. Radio waves now win that contest. Two days after the anniversary of the Pueblo Revolt of 1860—a big deal in these parts—thunder means the obliteration of human sounds. Recognizable dance beats are exchanged for something Frankenstein-ish: a live, electric orchestration so weird and marvelous it could only have been invented by Nature, the omnipresent force in this sandy region.
Taking part in Brightblack Morning Light’s current daily life is to enter their vision of interconnectedness, enacted. Nabob, with tattered shorts, tie-dyed shirt, and long sandy brown hair, spends mornings communing with plants, less concerned with their scientific names than with the spirits each possess. The ultimate “sacred herb,” which he wants legalized, aids his study of plant medicine. His partner in Brightblack Morning Light is Rabob. With long brown hair, sundress, and dark shades, she appears to enjoy some newfound domesticity, working around the house and weeding the vegetable patch. Their music is intertwined with their land ethic, eating habits, political interests, and outdoor exercise regime. Interviewing them about their songs leads to an earful on topics they deem equally or more important than indie rock, such as, what they’re reading about the Obama campaign and Bush-Cheney’s botched intermediation between Russia and Georgia. I leave their compound not shocked at their isolation, but wondering why I don’t live the same way. Nabob’s learning constellations, since he’s often under stars, far away from light pollution. He’s beginning to detect seasonal change according to star placement. Rabob can identify local trees, and has a solid sense of direction. They’re prepared. Our first day together entails hiking and tubing down a river, a good eight hours of chat before our formal interview over dinner in their loft. When I ask typical interview questions about music and how they made their newest recordings, Nabob redirects the conversation:
“[Our visitors] slow down, focus on themselves, appreciate the beauty around them, and they look at me. I’m like, Hey, I have a band, would you like to jam? That’s why I brought you here. It gets really simple. I say, Look, this is what you could be doing everyday if you walk away from Babylon. But people have individual goals. One of the downfalls of the ’60s was people going out on their own, looking out for I-me-me-mine. I’m not saying I want to join a commune, but if you’re a musician and you want to make music, then get out where there are no obstacles. Anyone who hangs with Nabob is going to get river time, hiking time, and if we’re in a band, we’ll jam. That’s what I have to offer. I wish it were enough. But people get distracted by the possibilities of city life. It’s groovy having you out, but quite honestly, I’d be here anyway.”
As a houseguest, I certainly get plenty of river time, hiking time, and cooking time in the kitchen with Rabob, a righteous vegetarian chef. Theirs is such a serene, centered existence that I have spent my weekend with them reevaluating Babylon, a place filled with friends, loved ones, and opportunities, but also stress and toxicity. Some of us, like myself, find freedom in that Babylon, but Brightblack Morning Light clearly see it as a trap.
* * *
Nathan “Nabob” Shineywater and Rachel “Rabob” Hughes are collaborators who bonded in California over shared environmental concerns, a love of “sub-woofers,” as Rabob says, and knowledge of vintage keyboards. Originally from Alabama, they recently relocated to a remote New Mexican mesa after a long stint of car and beach camping on northern California’s Point Reyes Peninsula. Brightblack Morning Light got their start in the South, when Will Oldham invited them to play shows that led to their first LP Ali.Cali.Tucky. [See Daniel Chamberlin’s first Arthur BBML feature, “Country Life,” (Arthur No. 23) for a full band history.] Since leaving Alabama many years ago, they’ve been careful to verbally address what they cherish about their Southern roots versus what they feel is a crime, namely, the destruction of the Southeast’s forests. In their artist statement—more a manifesto—for their new Matador release, Motion to Rejoin, they drafted a tongue-in-cheek but sincere section entitled ‘What Is Southern Music?’:
“We feel like Southern music should be played by Southern people and don’t dig it when other folks imitate accents. Posturing is a disease, awake the inner self! We both grew up in Alabama, yet we both left for the same reason, the environmental degradation due to corporate development is staggering and unchecked; it makes us disgusted. However, in the Western USA we are gathered with the many folks to protect wilderness, rivers, and oceans. Ecology has a place in the West’s culture, even if it’s on a small scale right now.”
This ecological dedication has ranged from Rabob’s work for Americorps to Nabob’s support of Friends of the Eel River and Earth First! in Arcata, California. Now, their vision has extended into a more generalized caretaking approach to all wilderness areas, especially those sacred to Native Americans. They’ve moved to an off-the-grid house in Pueblo territory, a 20-minute drive on dirt road from a two-lane, paved highway. With solar panels, water tank, and prerequisite Tibetan prayer flags flying on the porch, Nabob and Rabob have temporarily planted themselves—alongside an elaborate Hopi corn, tomato, and squash garden—in a house whose location shall remain anonymous. I can report that inspiration for their New Mexico lifestyle came through Lisa Law, a photographer who relocated to New Mexico in the 1960s with Wavy Gravy and other Hog Farm cohorts to live communally. The self-proclaimed “woman who introduced hippies to granola,” Lisa was instrumental in organizing Woodstock, bringing Yogi Bhajan to America, and is still a politically active community builder. She knows who lives on what property in northern New Mexico, where the turquoise is mined, and who grows what herbs.
What’s more intriguing than their exact location is that the band is learning stationary, self-sustained living. They’ve lived nomadically for several years, drawing on the power of movement like African desert musicians Tinariwen or Etra Finitawa. But renouncing their itinerate life for the comforts of a solid studio has influenced their music for the better. Previously, Brightblack Morning Light slumbered in teepees, and their last official practice spaces were a gas station and a church. As Rabob said, “If it couldn’t fit in our van, why did we need it?” Their upcoming tour includes fourteen dates in three weeks along the Pacific Northwest coast, presumably so they can beach camp.
This time around, in an effort to shun materialism in exchange for the luxury of four solid walls, furniture, and a kitchen, they’ve devised a self-sustainable recording method. Motion to Rejoin was recorded using solar power, which involved installing a sign-wave inverter to their panel system to cut the humming associated with electronics rigged to solar. Though they take their commitment to conservation seriously, it’s fun to bear in mind that Brightblack Morning Light is also rock-star powered, rooted in a sense of fantasy and fun. When I ask why the pair has chosen an artistic path in place of being politicians, Nabob says over our spinach salad and pasta, “I was thinking about creative people today. If you look at the words creative and reactive, they look related. I’m not talking etymology. I’m talking about the energy I get from looking at each word. I like artists who know they have to react to stuff and pull it in, transform it. Creativity can sometimes be confused with reaction. Creativity can be used as a tool, whereas reacting doesn’t change anything. Punk music is pure reaction. It may not actually be creative. What is creative? The definition varies culture to culture. I’m interested in what other peoples bring to that word. I hope our music is creative. It’s up to all of us to realize what we’re reacting to.”
He nestles deeper into his armchair. “I know I sound like a hippie going back to nature. But we’re not running from the world’s problems and living in some dumb hippie paradise. I literally do shed tears each day thinking about, for example, Russia invading Georgia today… I am paying attention. In reality, I think we get too much information. Living this far out, we’re really not that far out anymore. Living out here, at least, I run my own life. When I want to go for a hike, I hike. I know my income, how much food and water I have. I know how much food my body needs, so I’m not wasting. This lifestyle has the best karma for me. I look outside and have a relationship to the land. In the city, water and electricity are metered. Walking down the sidewalk, chances are there’s a camera pointed on me. Where do I draw the line between capitalism and what I define as freedom? Western people have a better sense of the web of life. It has to do with the weather.”
Nabob throws his head back and belly laughs, before finishing the riff. “East coasters are looking for their air conditioner power buttons so they don’t die. It’s like, Give me some iced tea and an air conditioner, and let’s watch the football game! In the West, it’s like, Come on out, the weather’s perfect, leave your clothes in the grass. Go surf! Kayak! Mountain bike!”
To Nabob especially, terrain west of the Rockies symbolizes a history of freedom fighting, frontier mentality, and opportunities for connecting with wilderness and indigenous culture that informs Brightblack Morning Light’s sludgy, organic sound. Though Motion to Rejoin was written mostly on the California coast and in their van during their last tour, its ambient psych-blues perfectly captures the meditative freedom and timelessness that their high desert paradise affords them.
Motion to Rejoin is lighter, more airy, and more interstellar sounding than their last self-titled LP. They’ve been digging into Terry Riley, Procol Harum, Gert Weldon (an obscure “’60s music poet”), and Iasos, a Vangelis-like musician who, according to Iasos.com, is one of the “founders of New Age music.” Motion to Rejoin is piled to the heavens with crystals, feathers, and walking sticks, and isn’t embarrassed to embrace the New Age. Song titles, like “Hologram Buffalo,” “A Rainbow Aims,” and “When Beads Spell Power Leaf” are even more cryptonically stoned than those on their last LP. There are fewer chords in favor of the drone, more vocal harmonies and chanting, yet its “dirty” sound, as Rabob calls it, is less about sedated blues than long, Allman Brothers-on-piano jams that conjure up the majesty of actual earth. In character, Rabob is a terrestrial guardian, a practical, disciplined woman who speaks directly, while Nabob is the star freak, one who relishes a good digression. Their storytelling abilities in conversation extend into their songwriting realm, a more poetic, intentionally gray area. Their songs are incantatory. Both band members believe in an alchemical mystery inherent to their collaboration, and don’t discuss their songs in a concrete, explicit way for fear of breaking the spell. Rabob says of their songwriting, “If you really want to dig deep and be a truth seeker, be spirit-led in a metaphysical sense, it’s tough. The ecosystem is rich with life-giving beauty, but it’s not respected and upheld in many places. On the east coast, there is no wilderness, and I feel suffocated by property-driven attitudes there. I need somewhere to go completely wild. I prefer writing music with another person. When I play music by myself, I feel it’s a study to play with someone else…
“I sing in harmony. It’s about the texture, the breathing. The muscles have to be trained a little bit. I like the idea of discipline…I really dig an enhanced way of projecting what’s coming out of our mouths and instruments. This is mostly about the live scenario, the direct moment. Nabob’s taught me a lot about direct action, on a daily level, and what that means as an individual regardless of where you are.
“Are we politicians on a creative level? We kind of are. People who take direct action are the truth seekers I really respect. Julia Butterfly Hill was protecting trees while we were [in the redwoods]. Now, I’m living alone rurally, and I’m fine with that. Living off the grid, not being taxed on money that I don’t need to spend, that’s my truth-seeking path. That’s direct action. But I feel like a foreigner around most people for thinking this stuff. That’s a little scary, and I get emotionally shaken. You see people not wanting to change, even though they’re oppressed.”
After our full day of “mind and body workout,” I fall asleep reading a borrowed book about medicine wheels, feeling like I just survived a juice fast, some extreme cleanse. I wonder how their utopia actually plays out when I’m not around. Besides surviving last winter at 8000 feet, when Rabob admitted to some stir craziness after being snowed in for 30 days, living their dream seems to be working. I’m curious to put my skepticism to the test.
Rabob wakes early the next morning and makes a giant olive-tomato omelet in the cast iron skillet, slices it into three wedges. A trailing philodendron pinned up over the stove transforms the cooking area into a jungle, offering green to offset dry sage scrub and gnarled piñon pine outside. Rabob works stovetop while I assemble salad and fixings, keeping last night’s sunset rainbow and the river we floated down fresh in my mind. Rainbows, crystals, and walking sticks are not metaphors for these people. They’re daily life. Their last CD came with rainbow spectrum 3-D glasses, a fun homage to what Nabob takes seriously—the energetic capabilities of rocks and natural light forces. I want to see rainbows every day! Am I oppressed? I wonder, chopping kale. I didn’t think I was. Granted, there are myriad definitions of oppression, and Brightblack Morning Light aren’t preachers. Their new songs, like “Oppressions Each,” use lyrics to convey a generalized fight against all oppressions in lieu of justifying their way of life, which may not be for all of us:
Nobody wants oppression, we don’t need oppression
This gospel tune is about uniting forces, not nitpicking causes. For “Oppressions Each,” they recruited renowned background singers Regina and Ann McCrary, who sang harmony for Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder. I can tell these women are key, considering the Mavis Staples shrine BBML has constructed by the front door. These soul-singers lighten the molasses-like drawl of Brightblack Morning Light’s instrumentals and vocals, while their trademark delay is heavier than ever.
“We like different types of effects,” Rabob makes clear, though, while we cook. “It’s not all de-lay, de-lay. Plus, our Southern accents are not very defined. It can get mushy.” Coming from Rabob, “de-lay” sounds like a bird call.
Asked about delay in the recording studio, Nabob tells a twisted story from his youth, equating his drawl to delay, its musical equivalent.
“There are different kinds of Southern people. Some have a proper thing and some lose it quick. People like me have some kind of muscle procurement that won’t allow my jaw up. My accent will stay with me forever. I was forced to take speech therapy classes to sound less like a black person! That’s college prep high school for you.”
Delay pedals aside, I’m excited after we finish our eggs to delve into investigating some fascinatingly rare equipment in Brightblack Morning Light’s studio. Gear fills their cabin’s gigantic living room—organs, mellotrons, vibraphones, and several amps that these vintage instruments are processed through. Not exactly easy gear for itinerant wanderers to haul. Schlepping her signature Fender Rhodes organ around over the last five tours, Rabob has actually incurred back injuries. After we eat, Nabob shows me how they took out the organ’s heart and re-installed its electronics into two portable cabinets that look like small guitar amps. We plug in the vibes, which are basically metal marimbas. Hammered with mallets, their vibrato sounds like what people thirty years ago thought the future would sound like.
One keyboard called an orchestron, “reads notes off vinyl records” and is what BBML played on “Another Reclaimation,” one of the spacier, Pink Floyd-like journeys on Motion to Rejoin.
Nabob’s morning studio tour is nearly complete after he plugs in his clavinet, shows me how its “mandolin strings are cross-woven with yarn,” and says their newest pride and joy came via FedEx recently—a custom mini Rhoades Piano Bass, one of the few left in existence. It’s inscribed in gold to Rabob from the man who restored it. Though they love the big Rhodes, this one, in a 2×2-foot square compact travel case, has a three-octave range and can play the same notes as the big one in one-third the keyboard space. It looks like a miniature golden harp when you peek at the strings behind the keys. Folded into its suitcase, it weighs as much as three typewriters. Nabob pets it and carries it around like a baby.
Our second day together involves driving across mesas and pueblos to a geodesic dome, then out to a canyon where wind and rain has carved the rocks into cone-like spires that elves probably inhabit. We won’t be there after dark to see elves emerge, however, as this is sacred Native land and it is closed to the public after sunset. Fair enough, we all agree, though Nabob becomes slightly obsessed with planning a strategy for convincing the Indians to let him camp there in upcoming weeks.
“This is one of the most psychedelic places ever!” he keeps saying during our walk.
Lisa Law is a sweet tour guide, and I don’t feel guilty burning fossil fuels for this epic ride. Brightblack Morning Light do often lament their one non-green hitch—driving a tour van. For their last winter “Crystal Totem Turr,” they calculated their carbon emissions then enlisted Matador to purchase enough carbon offset credits from Terrapass to counterbalance it. They’re a dedicated pair, and this reminds me of the intimate Quiet Quiet festivals they hosted a few years back. I ask them how they managed securing the land and keeping shows low-impact. Nabob says, “There were five or six. I remember two Quiet Quiet Window Lights and two Quiet Quiet Ocean Spells. The first Window Lights in Bolinas were some of Joanna’s [Newsom], and Devendra’s [Banhart] first shows. After Bolinas, they banned camping on the beach because there were about a hundred of us. I was bummed. We went to Big Sur, and the guy who helped with the event kept doing it, so that was good. Small is good, but what about mainstream festivals? Phish is dumb. I hoped the Dirty Three would be the next Grateful Dead.”
He reveals his deeper motives for congregation. “I worry about kids today. Who is there to show them the way? There are no great public places left to host the parking lot scenes that [the Grateful Dead] used to have. Cops would bust that up now. Homeland Security? They point it back on the people. I hear at some festivals now, not only do they have pot dogs, but they also tax you on the street value of the pot you’re carrying. Where will positive group references for psychedelics be? A lot of music festivals combine positive bands with bands that express a lot of hate. You don’t want psychedelics in that environment, and kids have the drugs either place. Where will kids meet leaders in a public place? This isn’t going to happen online, or by looking at iconic posters in a music store.”
As we finish taking photos, we leave the sacred turf to resume driving, agreeing to pull our car over to watch the sunset. I contemplate what Nabob is getting at. I’m no Deadhead, but I get the parking lot scene lament. Loss of personal freedom means a decrease in one’s ability to make smart decisions. At the core of Brightblack Morning Light’s sound is an expression of hope that kids will not tolerate government interference in their cultural lives.
Brightblack Morning Light’s music aims not to bottle the essences of their pristine living locations. It’s about mirroring, creating a blank slate for listeners to reflect upon their own environment. The band’s music is inseparable from its politics. “Wilderness first, music second,” Nabob repeats throughout my stay.
* * *
As I drive down the mountain through the thunderstorm, I come away reminded of the Aldo Leopold-ian land ethic that dinner conversation with Brightblack Morning Light implored me to consider. I may have differing theories about how to live harmoniously with nature, but Brightblack Morning Light challenge each of us to take personal responsibility. I leave my time with them grateful that Rabob invited me to slow down in her demure, individualist way, and Nabob through his charmingly twangy speechmaking:
“This land has changed me. I always went out into to the wilderness, with my food from the local co-op or farmer’s market, but this has been about reconnecting and watching food actually come about. I always wondered about nomadic people. They didn’t have a place to go buy food; it was a wild system. Grew corn in the places they frequented. I’ve studied industrialization and agriculture. Once nomadic life stopped, people needed to grow crops and thus fenced off everything. Started claiming land.
“There were always cities, I realize. People say they’re the most efficient way to house people. But are they efficient? When everything’s trucked in? The harder you look, the more nomadic culture looks balanced. But then again, putting the seed into the ground and wondering, watching it turn into two little leaves to make me food is amazing. Life here has demystified for me some reasons why people stopped being nomadic, now that I can see magic in farming. Gathering food while traveling has its downfalls, of course, but it has benefits too. What is a city planner thinking about these days when he knows most of our resources come from the blood of others? How can this city planner go to sleep every night knowing that he doesn’t have a design down that’s free of oppression? It’s not that hard. You just choose what to do with in life, and what to do without. If these city planners [want] to get into a kinder place, maybe disenfranchised people, retarded people, people who supposedly are of no use to society can work the gardens. The progressive society has to ask itself, is food something we should be charging for? With our technological leaps, should we still be driving cattle? Or can we use technological advance towards giving people free food and medicine?
“I don’t have the tolerance. When I go into a town, it hurts all the way. I can’t just walk past people out there making a good living off exploiting others. That disconnect is a problem. Every poor person out there is a mighty one with something to give. We each have the power that Gandhi had. It wasn’t a special day, where the sun had multiple hues, and everyone had on the perfect shoes and clothes, and the food tasted right, that Martin Luther King Jr. came along and gave his speech and changed world history. No! That was another fucking average day, a day that extra magic just happened to shoot out. Everyday has that potential, and that power is dormant in each of us. Why is it that we put that in history books like it’s in the past and read about it when it’s here right now? Wait a minute, man, that is live energy and it’s ours, now. If it’s used right, if you act now, you can bring about some real human experience.
“That’s how I see this shakedown.”
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