2019 has seen the return of many a project once on hiatus. Among them, the Olympia-formed and now Portland-based experimental rock band Old Time Relijun. The acclaimed four-piece (vocalist, guitarist, and clarinetist Arrington de Dionyso, upright bassist Aaron Hartman, saxophonist Ben Hartman, and drummer Germaine Baca) put out a 12” EP, See Now and Know.
See Now and Know could serve as a great introduction to the band’s highly volatile mixture of rock shamanism à la Beefheart and breathless punk energy. There’s quite a bit to dig into in this passionate document of outsider rock: de Dionyso’s half-crazed wailing and cryptic lyrics can intimidate, though ultimately the music belies a celebration of life that is deeply sympathetic, some of which comes through on his striking work as a painter (depicting people, animals, and imaginary beasts mingling in an animistic dreamworld). That’s de Dionyso’s artwork on the EP’s cover. Aaron Hartman, Benjamin Hartman, and Baca hold down the sound, crafting an angular, propulsive jungle of sound that smacks of free jazz, punk rock, and exotic samplings of folk music around the world, as heard in their gripping Spanish song, “El Naranjo Gritando.”
I spoke with Arrington and Aaron over email to get some insight into the process behind the album, see about their future plans and coax some fun history out of them:
Eleven: Tell us about the process and impetus behind this new EP you put out in early March, See Now and Know?
Aaron Hartman: I called Arrington to see if he’d be interested in playing again. Old Time Relijun had never broken up, but I’d moved to New York in 2008, thinking we’d be able to keep it going. Of course, we all spread out and did our own things, which took over our lives. Arrington made dozens of records under a ton of different names, traveled, and played in Indonesia, Japan, and more recently Morocco and Peru. All of us were playing music, but it had been a decade since we’d been truly active. I could not believe he was into playing again.
When the band came back together for the first practice, we stood around, holding our instruments, clearly nervous. But then we played twenty one songs in a row — not well — but we could tell we were still in the same realm. The record happened very fast. All the tracking happened at my house in Portland. Arrington came down from Olympia on one weekend and laid down all the guitars and horns and other stuff in one go. It was insane. Then he came back and wrote and recorded all the vocals over the course of about 36 hours. I’ve never seen anything like it.
11: What kinds of themes or ideas do you think the album explores?
Arrington de Dionyso: I have certain formulas I like to employ for songwriting. I usually prefer to have all of the musical parts recorded before I allow the lyrics to take shape. There might be a vague thematic notion that I know I want to touch upon, but how it all falls into place will be determined by the sound of how the words feel put together with the music. So I really have to be able to write songs in the studio with time to play around with different sounds as I scratch things out in a notebook. This album is medicine, you know? I’m trying to offer up some energy to people who have given up hope. But there’s some prophecy in there too, in the first song.
We have fascist dictators rising to obscene levels of power all over the world right now, and it’s like we as a people have just given them the keys to the castle without even understanding how much evil they wish to bring upon us. At the same time, “I Know I’m Alive” — the songs on this album are a bit more literal than other work I’ve done in recent years. The poetry on this record is much more straightforward and direct because I really want people to get the message and understand it clearly.
11: What themes do you think appear most in your songs/music?
AD: In all my songs, there is a celebration of all the joy and terror of being alive, but with a kind of apocalyptic urgency — that living a life rich in meaning must also be an act of resistance to the massive forces pushing us from all around saying that, “Life is just to die”.
11: What other projects are you all excited about?
AD: I’m working with a filmmaker named Sebastian Alvarez to produce the soundtrack for his documentary about Cerro de Pasco, Peru. It’s the highest city in the world, almost 15,000 feet in elevation, but it’s also one of the most polluted sites in the world due to a massive open pit mineral extraction mine right in the center of the city. It’s like staring into something out of Dante Alighieri. It’s horrendous in a way that is also fascinating. If it were science fiction, it would be richly beautiful, but the entire city suffers lead poisoning and other health problems in order to feed the world’s hunger for the kinds of minerals used every day in phones, computers, even the zinc used to make pennies. So the soundtrack is going to have a lot of these sort of affected breathing sounds, heart beats, and clay flutes. You’ll feel the effects of altitude sickness when you watch this film.
11: What’s the most fun or memorable show you played together?
AH: One of those “are we going to die” shows in Sicily. It was a 300 year old ex-women’s prison. We played in the courtyard at around midnight. There was one single, bare light bulb hanging above the stage. Kids were making out, dry-humping, and openly using hard drugs. It felt dangerous on a novelistic scale.
The show itself was great — the crowd sort of snapped out of their own weird zombie vibe and danced like maniacs. But the vibe of the night was so dark and mischievous. We could feel the music bring people back into the terrestrial world for a bit, and then we got the fuck out of there.
AD: This band has always had a way of bringing out the wild element in our audience. We played a pretty intense Halloween party at the old Silent Barn in Brooklyn like a million years ago and it was great. Halloween sort of has a way of making me mad sometimes, because I resent that people don’t wear costumes every day. There were lots of great photos from that show.
Old Time Relijun will be playing Mississippi Studios on March 26t in support of this new song collection.