Jennifer Baron of The Garment District on music, psychedelia, and touring with of Montreal

if you take your magic slow

This is the first in a series of interviews with artists performing at Pittsburgh’s Very Own, a showcase of  five Pittsburgh psychedelic rock bands at Mr. Smalls April 8th, presented by Tripsburgh. Up first, an interview with Jennifer Baron of The Garment District:

The Garment District was founded in 2011 by multi-instrumentalist Jennifer Baron–who composes and arranges the band’s music. The Garment District features: Jennifer Baron on keyboards, percussion and backing vocals; Shivika Asthana (Papas Fritas) on drums and backing vocals; Dan Koshute (Dazzletine) on guitar and vocals; Alex Korshin on lead vocals and percussion; Greg Langel on keyboards and percussion; and Matt Breslof on bass.

What was the last concert you attended and which is the next you’ll attend?

Last concert: Final Mount McKinleys show at Gooski’s. After I type these words, I hope to go see one of my musical heroes, Bryan Ferry, tonight at Heinz Hall. Spring shows I am looking forward to: Howe Gelb, Acid Mothers Temple, Wolf Eyes, The Orbiting Human Circus and The Music Tapes, Tom Rush, Ty Segall . . .

Is there a special cosmic connection or resonance between the music The Garment District makes today and a particular “golden era” psych band or album?

Albums released in those magical years of 1967 and 1968 will always resonate infinitely with me personally—keeping in mind that the term psychedelic means different things to different ears and generations. Some of the music I love deeply such as Lee Hazlewood’s sprawling Some Velvet Morning can be just as psychedelic as bands I admire like The 13th Floor Elevators. I perceive resonance and connections more in terms of inspiration—the music that feels a part of my psyche, DNA or memory. I hope this can at times be organically and authentically evoked in my original music. I do have a lifelong obsession with music and bands and scenes the “golden era of psychedelia”—which were taking place in incredibly cool pockets all around the globe at the time—that continue to provide me with the deepest inspiration such as The Golden Dawn, Kaleidoscope (UK), Soft Machine, Syd Barrett, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Cold Sun, The Human Expression, and on and on! I live in a house filled with LPs and 45s and I love discovering rare one-offs and obscure bands from that era as much as I love revisiting my most-listened-to favorites like Love, the Seeds, Small Faces, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, Moby Grape, The Incredible String Band, Mayo Thompson, The Left Banke, Nick Garrie, Scott Walker etc., etc.!

For me, music goes back to pre-verbal experiences. I grew up in a house filled with LPs, with parents always playing albums by Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Donovan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, the Kinks, the Byrds, Leonard Cohen . . . this is my foundation. We had iconic psychedelic posters from the Fillmore West concerts hanging on our wall—since my mom grew up with the sister of artist Bonnie MacLean (who worked with and was married to promoter Bill Graham). Childhood memories definitely fed my love of textured and transformative psychedelic music such as my mom singing “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” to us, assisting her with the “Music and Rock Lyrics” high school English courses she taught, and later listening to bands such as The Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3, Tall Dwarfs, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Game Theory, etc. in high school.

I am honored that The Garment District has been selected to perform as part of the locally-curated Pittsburgh’s Very Own series. I hesitate to affix labels and categories to music—and invite listeners to come to their own understanding of what they are hearing and experiencing—but I am thrilled to be a part of this Spring event with a specific selection of Pittsburgh-based bands who share a deep love and respect for various psychedelic bands, songwriters, films, visuals, design, and an overall artistic approach—not one that is nostalgic—but rather that continues to motivate us to create original sounds, visuals and sonic aesthetics. We invite the audience to share the evening with us, which will be augmented by visuals curated by Pittsburgh artist and musician Marie Mashyna.

I know that you lived in New York for a while when you were in The Ladybug Transistor. Is that where the name “The Garment District” comes from?

I lived in NYC for 10+ years—in the East Village, Park Slope, and in Flatbush in a Victorian house that is home to The Ladybug Transistor’s recording studio, Marlborough Farms. I came up with the name The Garment District to reflect my love for vintage textiles and fashion, sewing and crafting, as well as my deep respect for the women, countless anonymous laborers who toiled in dangerous conditions in specific parts of cities around the world; and still do. I’m a crafter, and help run Handmade Arcade, so the name reflects my other artistic outlets. I’m drawn to the way certain words sound and look, both when spoken/heard and when written as typeface.  For me, The Garment District implies a sense of making, creative labor, production and innovation, as well as a distinct sense of place, which I hope is reflected in my music, songwriting and videos also. I like the idea of taking an overarching concept or signifier of a place/space/event that has certain connotations, and that involved an unfathomable amount of human labor and energy on a mass commercial scale, and co-opting it for a project that is very homespun, tactile and visceral, especially given that I release music on limited-edition cassettes and on hand-designed vinyl. On a more literal level, when I lived in NYC, I loved wandering into mom and pop shops (RIP) along lower Canal Street, in Chinatown and in Brooklyn warehouses to find vintage trimmings and fabrics, and I like to seek out the remnants of garment districts in cities I visit, and I was even contacted by the CDC working on revitalizing NYC’s historic garment district sites about featuring my band on their new website.

How much did you tour when you were in your heyday? Do you miss it at all?

My first touring experiences across the US were with my first band, Saturnine, in which I played guitar. The Ladybug Transistor toured fairly often and extensively during those years, all across the US, and in Scandinavia, Canada, and Europe. Yes I do miss it—sometimes a great deal–especially traveling to sublime places such as Sweden, Norway, and Spain, playing festivals, playing shows and touring with our friends in bands from the Merge and Elephant 6 extended families at that time, and visiting almost every U.S. state. Other times more vaguely.

What do you remember most from playing The Bowlie Weekender? Which other acts did you play between?

Everything seemed surreal, from the moment that Stuart Murdoch called us at home in Brooklyn at Marlborough Farms (we were in the middle of a recoding session) to invite us to play the festival they were curating and organizing. He had sent us a handwritten note after we mailed them our “Today Knows” 7″ and Stuart and Stevie told us that they were listening to our album in the studio. Getting there was pretty momentous, because the show in April 1999 took place right in the middle of a huge US tour we were on with our friends, Of Montreal. After our show in Norman, OK, we left our van at the airport for Of Montreal to drive, in tandem with theirs, so that we could meet up with them the next week in San Diego. The Bowlie Weekender was organized by Belle & Sebastian during a magical time—with live music being unmeditated by social media, and people used online message boards and fan sites to coordinate travel plans. Bowlie’s location was a unique experience—the Pontin’s Holiday camp in Camber Sands, Sussex, which is almost like a seaside apartment complex or mini-hotel campus where UK residents take vacations. We played the culminating show on the festival’s main stage, on a bill with Belle & Sebastian, Mercury Rev, Broadcast, and Cornelius. It was a terrific hazy time, with some standout memories of playing a drinking version of operator with Belle & Sebastian, lending Stephen from The Pastels (heroes!) our electric piano, attending the festival’s disco all-nighter, B&S serenading long lines of attendees with acoustic sets, soccer matches, trips to the beach, and bits that remain fuzzy as it should be! (Thank goodness we have video footage to help me reminisce) It was thrilling and an honor to be a part of, and the incredible lineup also featured: Camera Obscura, Teenage Fanclub, Dean Wareham, The Flaming Lips, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sleater-Kinney, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Mogwai, and others. Bowlie was the inspiration for All Tomorrow’s Parties, which was held at the same venue every year until it moved locations in 2006.

Do you have a favorite album to trip out to?

The Golden Dawn: Power Plant (International Artists, 1968)

Is it hard not to mix music and politics now that Donald Trump is president? Do you feel like your role as a musician or the role of music itself has changed at all?

I would max out your space limit even more than I already have if I attempted to fully respond, but . . . lately I have been thinking a lot about and re-processing the time not so long ago in 1999 when we protested NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s absurd and obscene threats to shut down the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s (where I used to work) Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection exhibition; the art history paper I wrote about Republican Senator Jesse Helms’ attacks on Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano (who I would later get to know in NYC) and the NEA; and more recently, the collaborative educational programs we designed with exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang when I worked at the Mattress Factory and he was City of Asylum’s first writer-in-residence. For anyone who needs a musical reminder of the lasting damage amplified during the Reagan era, nobody says it better than Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s The Message. In terms of creativity, my music always starts organically from within, and that place can be informed by an endless number of factors, contexts, narratives, events, experiences. The role of any maker, creator or artist is absolutely vital to communities and societies on so many levels.

What are your thoughts on the Pittsburgh music scene today?

[Too many to get into here] . . . but . . . I would very much like to see more women and femme musicians featured on bills across all Pittsburgh music venues, genres, festivals and scenes, and more women and femmes in the audiences at shows (particularly at experimental and noise shows, which I also attend and feel connected to). Personally, I feel very grateful for unique opportunities that The Garment District has had to perform at non-traditional arts venues and outside of the conventional, mainstream bar rock scene, such as being featured at the VIA Music & New Media Festival, VIA’s 6119 Penn (RIP), The Andy Warhol Museum’s Sound Series and Silver Studio Sessions, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Music SPACE series, Ladyfest Pittsburgh, and artistic sound projects such as the recent epic John Riegert exhibition at SPACE Gallery.

Do you have a favorite contemporary band that makes “psychedelic” music today, be it psychedelic rock or any other genre?

White Fence//Tim Presley; Herbcraft; Ultimate Painting; Liam Hayes; Mehdi Zannad; Jacco Gardner; the Twerps;  Jackie Macdowell; Ariel Pink; Euros Childs; The Essex Green; Beachwood Sparks; Scott & Charlene’s Wedding; bands on Beyond Beyond Is Beyond. Lately I am rekindling my deep love for the ridiculously under-recognized music of Raymond Listen//Licorice Root Orchestra//Licorice Roots.

Catch The Garment District along with Nox Boys, Delicious Pastries, Wwoman, and Misalinged Mind Saturday, April 8 at Mr. Smalls Theater during Pittsburgh’s Very Own. Tickets $10 adv/$12 d.o.s.


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