In our next installment of the Unsung Heroes Series we are very happy to present you a multi-instrumentalist, auto-didact, one man-band Dana Schechter whom some of you might know as the mastermind behind Insect Ark. The project released several acclaimed records, among them The Vanishing from 2020 which also received plenty of praise, but many of you should also check out her manifold collaborations with bands like Swans, Arabrot or American Music Club. We talked with her about that and much more!
Dana just recently released a new EP called Future Fossils (find our review on it here) on Consouling Sounds and one must admit that this return to a one-man-band is very intriguing, also because the songs on it are reworkings of former unreleased songs show the band at a point before it became a duo through the addition of Andy Patterson. Dana showed a lot of patience in answering these questions and (little teaser!) also doing another interview which will be released at a later point in a larger context in a few weeks!
Dana, first of all – thank you for even considering doing this. Our mutual friend Josh Graham chose you to be the next in line for this interview series with artists that we simply do not talk about enough. How did you get to know Josh? And how did the collaboration with him start?
Hi Thorsten, and thanks for having me in your series. It’s an honor!
I met Josh in the early 2000’s when he was working with Neurosis and I was in (M. Gira’s) Angels of Light. Over the years Josh and I have crossed paths many times – in the SF Bay Area and later in NYC, where we both were making music / working in animation. In the early 2000’s Josh made a music video for my band Bee and Flower’s song “I Know Your Name”, an incredible piece of animation. I love Josh’s music and I’m a big fan of IIVII; he asked me to be a guest on his last record, and then we got an idea to do some tracks together. We haven’t had much time to work on it, but we’re both excited to resume when it happens.
Now something more about you. You state very clearly and not too seldom that you are from Brooklyn. Why?
I lived in Brooklyn for 20 years. I love the city and the energy there. I love the attitude of the people, they have no time to fuck around, which I appreciated greatly coming from the squishy west coast. NYC was a very rich breeding ground of culture for many years, and as a non-native I found that really inspiring.
Which bands or places from Brooklyn inspired you? Or from any of the five boroughs?
I loved bands from NYC in my youth – NY Dolls, Ramones, Blondie — and as a young adult moving to NYC in the late 90’s I would regularly see bands like Foetus, Unsane, Swans, Cop Shoot Cop. The live music scene was extremely vibrant at that time.
What makes this borough so special?
Brooklyn, like most of NYC, makes you tough, you have to think clearly or you get swallowed. For a West Coast kid, it was exactly what I went there for and what I needed. The city makes people intensely focused on their goals and desires.
Can you give us your favorite musical memory or experience you made in Brooklyn?
Playing an illegal basement party in a room filled with several hundred people, so full you could literally not move; it was a massive fire hazard w/ no fire exit, totally unsafe, everyone wasted…you could say it was an experience that stands out.
How do you see the gentrification of the borough happening around Barclay’s Center especially?
I am afraid gentrification in NYC was inevitable and possibly irreversible. It has swallowed so much of the raw energy of the city…isn’t that happening a lot of places? Money comes in and the place gets tailored to the tastes of the wealthy. I hate how they displaced residents, getting priced out, same old story. There are some nearby areas (in Brooklyn) that have managed to balance the new with the old and retain the original character; and, it is safer, so that is certainly a plus side.
You moved to Berlin at some point – why?
I live in Berlin now, for the second time — I first moved here in 2004 to make a record with Bee and Flower. I was ready for a massive change. I liked it, but eventually went back to NYC; I don’t think I integrated enough and I became isolated, and the language barrier / cultural differences made it harder. This time it feels better, I’m older and more sure of myself. It was sort of a haphazard choice this last time – I got “stranded” here in March 2020 because of Covid when the Insect Ark “Vanishing” tour fell apart but then I decided to simply not go back home.
Does your life differ much now from when you were still in Brooklyn?
It does. Quality of life is better. Less stress. Cleaner air, less anxiety in the people, in the environment. It feels good to have some space around me. Berlin does have some serious challenges, like all cities, but overall it’s a great place for me and where I’m at in life right now.
How did your attraction towards music came to be? Was there any spark that lit the flame?
As San Francisco city native, I started going to metal shows at age 12 with my older sister in the San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Scene. All our friends were older and urged me to play, since I had played upright bass in at age 11 in school, they said, you’ll be so good if you start playing now! Our scene was vibrant and very tight, bands like Exodus, Metallica, Slayer etc made up the network of our close friend / peer group…it was huge part of my upbringing and established my love for heavy music early on. If you see that film Murder in The Front Row, that was basically our lives (I even have a tiny cameo in the film). Cliff Burton was a good friend of mine, and he was gonna give me bass lessons…it was a stunning loss to our scene as well as the music world when he died, so I got a bass to honor his memory and my intention to start playing. I was 15. This is actually where it all started for me.
Who chose your first instrument?
I did. Flute, age 9. My mom played it; I copied her.
I guess that playing an instrument was somewhat normal to you – did you have to develop a certain kind of attitude towards singing?
I sure did. I was/am not a natural singer. It took a lot of really hard work to get my voice to a place that I liked. I was never comfortable as a vocalist and really was not comfortable as a front person. I don’t have the temperament.
You are an animator doing motion graphics and such things – how do you go about doing that?
I do freelance work, mostly for clients in the USA, which I enjoy quite a lot. I’ve been focusing on music more the last couple years, but the animation and visual world is still super exciting to me.
Of course, I have to ask this as I guess you are also totally into movies: Top 5 movies of all time?
The Thing, Jason and the Argonauts, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Apocalypse Now
Do you feel as if the image of cities like Berlin and New York has changed a lot due to the overflow of movies being filmed there?
Well, you know what they say about art imitating life. Perfect example.
Would you consider yourself to be a one-woman-band? Because you play so many instruments?
I have been called that, I don’t mind being called that. It is a fact, I suppose.
Which instrument apart from the bass has been the one which you feel most comfortable with?
Lap Steel, I think. It sounds like another world. Even when it’s ugly, it’s magical.
How much time can you put into making music?
A lot. It’s my focus. More and more, especially since I’m working with a manager to handle more of the tasks and legwork, and I’ve started being more prolific than ever. I have a ton of new music written and will be releasing/sharing that soon.
Would you say that writing and recording and releasing music has become easier with the advancements in technology and the internet?
Oh, definitely. The option to realize complete recordings in your own space/time has been key for me. I often record demos that become final recordings, for example. The ability to work in a private realm is incredibly valuable to me; I also love working in proper studios. It’s pretty fluid to go back and forth.
OR is it also harder to see your music get the attention it deserves?
Not sure what this means. I’ve felt under the radar for a long time. It would be nice to reach a wider audience, of course, because of the kinds of interesting opportunities that can bring.
Now, you have been involved in so many projects – from Arabrot to Swans, from Wrekmeister Harmonies to Zeal and Ardor – how did all these collaborations happen?
Well, each of those have a different story. After being around for many years I’ve just “met” people. I always give my best for each project I’m in, whether in the studio or on stage, and I’ve toured a lot — so I think, people see / hear that and then I just get a call randomly.
Would you say that you cannot be put into one genre? Is that intentional?
I think this statement is rather true. It’s not intentional, meaning I’m not thinking, “I want to do this so I am defying classification”. I’m simply interested in a lot of different kinds of expression, and I don’t care to classify the genres that I listen to either. I just don’t think about music or art this way.
Now onto some of your other bands and outlets: Lap-steel-guitar – an instrument often associated with very bluesy, kind of Southern style music. How do you incorporate that into your sound?
Via non traditional ways, as you may have noticed I don’t use that instrument in a “normal” way. I use noise, arpeggios, chords, bends, swells…playing it is like wrangling a cloud and a nasty animal in one. It keeps me guessing, always.
[here a song from Portal/Well record, played live on tour in Portland, 2019: “The Collector”]
Touring Musician. You have gone on tour with several bands in the past – how do you choose those jobs?
Usually they’re just come up, through contacts or mutual friends/colleagues, etc. I think I’ve been in about 24 bands, though a few of those are just live guest appearances, on another count there were 17 bands that I’ve toured with.
Bee and Flower. A band whose last release is nearly a decade old. Is it right to assume the band is “dead” or could we still hope for a return for another record?
I don’t think B&F will come back. It existed for 12+ years and that was enough for it to run whatever course it could run. Despite the fact that (in my opinion) those records are really great, it wasn’t a successful band and running it took a lot of my blood, sweat and heartache, so I was ready to let it go by the end. However, we are all still friends and fans of each other’s current projects.
The band is very different in many aspects and yet there is something connecting – a certain kind of darkness that can also be heard in your vocals. Which singers influenced your style of singing?
I was a huge fan of Nick Cave and PJ Harvey in particular when I was first starting to sing. Thalia Zedek and Carla Bozulich were some of my other vocal heroes.
How much Bee And Flowers is in Insect Ark, apart from the fact that you founded both bands and are the one constant?
The focus of B&F was about playing deeply with song form, learning to “lead” a band, and an aim to write odd / ‘catchy’ chord progressions and then putting interesting vocal melodies over the songs. I’d had very little singing or proper “songwriting” experience before B&F, so it was an experiment, to see if I could do pull it off. However, B&F was where I started becoming obsessed with dynamics, layering, minimalism and dissonance, and that definitely travelled through directly into Insect Ark.
You have worked with many very famous artists like Mark Eitzel (American Music Club) or Michael Gira (Swans) – which artists would you still like to work with and why?
I feel grateful to have worked with so many strikingly talented people. I have learned much from them and really enjoyed the collaborations, usually.
What would be your perfect one-day-festival curated by yourself?
A bunch of solo artists playing other each other’s music, but based only on written descriptions.
When listening to your music as Insect Ark I always hear a modern metal band based in doom. Is that correct?
I can’t quantify what anyone else experiences. I don’t think Insect Ark is metal, but I am possibly the worst person to ask. What I make is just what comes out. It’s interesting to hear how differently people experience this music. That’s a good sign to me.
Make sure to catch Insect Ark on tour with Sum of R in the next weeks:
How important is the often problematic contrast between repetition and not-over-using a structure for your music?
I don’t find that as a problem really – I approach writing using an instinctive method – I let things build and change shape, and when it’s time to make a shift, that becomes pretty clear to me. I love repetition and structure but I also love chaos and variation. There are endless variations when you give yourself permission to think outside of a box.
How did it came across that you started Insect Ark?
I wanted to do something alone, with the goal of complete freedom on all levels. I wanted to do away with singing, ditch the idea of “songs”, and just focus on sound. By using instruments I could barely play (lap steel) I knew it would sound unplaceable, like a dream, and I would avoid patterns I’d fallen into in the past. It was an exciting new start for me. I had only been in bands before then, and while that was amazing, I constantly felt held up, like I wanted to work harder or longer or just differently… it was time to push myself harder. I needed a massive change. Throwing everything away and starting clean was the best way to make that change.
How must we envision the writing process for a band based on two continents? Band rehearsals and jamming together is basically impossible, right?
I pretty much write the bulk of the songs/riffs before anyone hears them, which often develops info complete demos with all or most of the melodic, charcoal, or harmonic ideas flushed out. Once I get started writing, parts just “come” to me. If I start with a good bass part, I focus on the sound, then the lap steel part just “arrives” in my head. If I start with a drum beat, a synth line might pop into my brain. Each part informs the last and then the next. As the song grows, it becomes like an interlocking puzzle.
Now we come to a quickfire round: Southern Europe or the Southern US? Southern Europe
Marvel or DC? Marvel
Beastie Boys or Sick of it All? Beastie Boys
Italian Pizza or Turkish Döner? Pizza
Summer or Winter? Summer
Mountains or Seaside (for vacation, not for living)? Mountains
SubRosa or Eagle Twin? SubRosa
Coffee or Tea? Tea
Vinyl or streaming? Streaming
The Yankees or the Jets? No opinion
Here you can check out more on Dana’s work: