In the visually stunning BBC One documentary series Planet Earth, Sir David Attenborough describes a mesmerizing scene in which underwater caverns play tricks on the eye. “What seems like air … isn’t. It’s just another kind of water,” Attenborough says as he describes a phenomenon called halocline, a point at which freshwater and saltwater clash, like oil and water, maintaining separate densities. It is rich fodder for the imagination, and the title of Duet For Theremin and Lap Steel’s latest album. Theremin player Scott Burland and Lap Steel player Frank Schultz are back with an eight-song masterpiece of haunting, luminous atmosphere.
In the Fall of 2019, a chance meeting—sharing the stage at Louisville, Kentucky’s Kaiju—with vocalist Dane Waters gave rise to a collaboration in which she weaves her voice into songs with titles such as “Maelstrom,” “Swell,” and “Fata Morgana.” The result draws out an unforeseen abstract aquatic theme pulled from the depths of the subconscious, manifesting itself in fluid musical movements.
On the heels of the album’s May 16 release, Burland and Schultz took a few minutes to talk about working with Dane Waters, what the music means to them, and letting the music drive the concept.
Halocline describes what happens when two bodies of water are separated because of different salinities. How does this apply to the record?
Frank Schultz: The music drove the concept, not the concept driving the music. I had been watching a lot of Blue Planet and Planet Earth in the evenings during the time I was starting to put the album together, and the music seemed a perfect fit to the many faces of water. Water is one of those weird things that you can’t live without, sometimes it’s hard to live with, and sometimes it’s a killer. The illusion of a halocline is beautiful, but can be very distracting and deadly.
Scott Burland: Naming albums and song titles has been a challenging—though fun—process for us over the years, and this time the whole concept fell into place once Frank mentioned halocline to me. The music on this album varies from murky to clear, sometimes even in the same song. To me, some of this music sounds like it was recorded underwater. Or lends itself to imagining oneself moving around surrounded by, or completely underwater.
How does this expand upon your body of work and everything that you’ve accomplished with your previous recordings?
FS: I think it is our best body of work so far. It has connections to previous work, but goes in several different directions.
What are these different directions in which you see the music going?
FS: As far as a long term direction, who knows. We play, the music comes out, we record it and put some of it out. There is no preconceived notion of a path or direction.
SB: I think it fits nicely into our larger body of work. When 10 came out, I remember feeling like there was a certain maturity in the music. That’s definitely true of Halocline. There are no gimmicks per sé, it’s just the instruments, filtered through our approaches, and voice. It stands on its own and it seems a logical extension to our arc. I’d add that the majority of the album is sonically abstract, though there are moments of familiarity and traditional structure, or at least our version of that.
FS: There are several moments in the album when everything falls into place and still gives me goosebumps. Favorite songs change over time, at least for me. Current faves are “Maelstrom” and “Dissolver,” but I have a crush on all of them.
SB: I’m a big fan of the title track. When I hear it, I think wow, we did that? I don’t have a clear memory of recording it, it was just some random Wednesday, early in 2019. I appreciate that I’m working with someone who I can collaborate on a piece such as this, with no road map, no clear beginning or end and listen back and agree, hey that’s not half bad. “Brinicle” is another favorite, it’s both still and in motion and I have at least a vague memory of recording that one!
What did performing with Dane Waters bring out of DfTaLS?
FS: We met Dane in Louisville when we shared the stage with her in 2019. We were both floored by her performance. Floored enough that the two of us agreed, without any hesitation, that we should meet with her the next day and ask her to be on the album. She said yes! We fleshed out around 18 songs, got them down to nine songs we agreed on, and sent her three of them to record vocals. We ended up using all the songs for which she contributed vocals. Of course, once I received her recordings, it affected how the songs were treated and mixed.
SB: After that Louisville gig, Frank and I were asking ourselves why we didn’t invite her to join us for our set. Second best was asking her to contribute to the record. I think she adds a human quality to the album which isn’t exactly lacking in our previous efforts, but it’s just more in the forefront here. She slipped right into the spirit of the thing, I liked the way her voice reacted harmonically to the theremin and I appreciate the thought that she put into it. We look forward to sharing a stage with her at some unknown point in the future.
Collaborations can often underscore one artist’s vision, or open up to the whole group making room for happy accidents, so to speak. Be it Jeff Crompton’s contributions to “Absinthium” on 10, filmmaker Robbie Land’s visuals, or working with Bill Brovold, the Shaking Ray Levis, and more on your 2011 album, Collaborations. What are the benefits of bringing outside influences into the realm you’ve created with DfTaLS?
FS: Kind of two camps here: Crompton and Dane recorded their pieces after the fact, so not really anything that influenced our playing. Robbie—we never see his films while we are playing, so not much influence, although we love when it happens, we just feel better knowing it is there, as does the audience. The Collaborations album was the one where we did live recordings with all the folks. So we were all influencing each other. In general, we enjoy collaborating with folks because it tends to bear lovely fruit and furthers our musical relationship and connection with those folks. Improvising with new folks is a chance to open your ears and learn something.
SB: This is the first time we’ve collaborated with someone without being in the same room, so the rules were different. On paper, there’s an immediacy that’s missing but in this case I think Dane nailed it with the vocals, almost as if we had recorded it together. Frank and I know the limitations of DfTaLS and an advantage of bringing someone else in is that the other people don’t necessarily know or even want to know those limits. It offers a fresh perspective, which gives us “permission” to stray from our comfort zone. To say it breaks up the monotony seems a little harsh, but surprise is good and we’ve been doing this long enough that introducing something new and/or unexpected keeps the fire going.
FS: Collaborating is part of our nature.
SB: It seems that we are able to fit into a variety of sonic scenarios, so I would say that collaborations allow us to expand on what DfTaLS is, and a glimpse into what it might become, or could be. Having time these last couple of months to contemplate even my own relationship to music has been eye-opening. Trying to strip everything away and then slowly reintroduce things to see what resonates. It’s a process. It’s hard to imagine my life without DfTaLS, so I am trying to figure out what it really means to me, what it means to Atlanta, to the region, and beyond. So it’s difficult for me to articulate the true nature of DfTaLS. Still working on that.