Music » Music Feature

Solo drone project Mind Over Mirrors becomes a five-way collaboration

Jaime Fennelly enriches his hypnotizing music with help from an all-star team of Haley Fohr, Janet Bean, Jim Becker, and Jon Mueller.

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Jaime Fennelly - TIMOTHY BREEN
  • Timothy Breen
  • Jaime Fennelly

In spring 2015, keyboardist Jaime Fennelly drove to Milwaukee to meet with David Ravel, the curator behind the long-running Alverno College performance series Alverno Presents. Fennelly has been making drone-based music under the name Mind Over Mirrors since a few months before settling in Chicago in 2010, and Ravel had met him earlier in 2015, when Fennelly played the Alverno series as a member of the Death Blues project led by Milwaukee percussionist Jon Mueller. Ravel offered Fennelly his own spot in the series in March 2017. "He was like, 'What do you want to do?'" Fennelly says. "'What space do you want to perform in? If you had a budget, what would you want to do?'"

Ravel's offer represented a potentially transformative opportunity for Fennelly and Mind Over Mirrors. For much of the preceding decade, Fennelly had stuck to a modest, low-overhead approach—he recorded his music cheaply at home and played solo at small venues. Whether at conventional clubs such as the Empty Bottle and the Hideout or at DIY shows in houses or basements, he tended to perform on the floor in the midst of the audience, creating an unmediated experience using hypnotizing layers of harmonium and synthesizer and a compositional style inspired by Terry Riley's minimalism. But with institutional support, he could tap into the energy of collaboration to create an event bigger than an ordinary concert—something more like a performance piece.

Fennelly immediately thought of the work he'd done in New York in the early 2000s with dancer and choreographer Miguel Gutierrez. "Everything came back to the experiences I had with him and [choreographer] John Jasperse and the Kitchen in New York—a venue that provided time and financial resources to allow you to make work beyond playing a show," he says. His meeting with Ravel prompted a flurry of activity, which has transformed Mind Over Mirrors into a group-­oriented endeavor for the first time. Fennelly learned from Ravel in December 2015 that his Alverno appearance had been canceled—the college had pulled funding from the 56-year-old series, claiming it needed the money for student services—but Mind Over Mirrors has sustained the momentum that the offer helped create. If all goes according to plan, it will culminate in an immersive multimedia performance in spring 2018 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Fennelly is still developing the project, so for the time being he's a bit vague on the specifics. It won't involve dance (that's no longer so big a part of his creative life), but it will feature visuals and a full band.

In part because Mind Over Mirrors hasn't released an album since The Voice Calling in 2015 (with guest vocalist Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux), Fennelly decided to put together another record that would bridge his solo practice and this new, larger group—as well as raise the project's profile in advance of its big coming-­out party next year. On Undying Color, which comes out Friday, February 17, via North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors, Fennelly is deftly aided by Mueller, Fohr, vocalist Janet Bean (Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day), and multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker (Califone), who plays mostly violin and Indian flutes. When Mind Over Mirrors opened for William Basinski at the cathedral of Bohemian National Cemetery in December, everyone but Fohr joined him onstage.

Fennelly wrote and recorded the core tracks for Undying Color alone, as he usually operates—he did most of the work last winter, holed up for two weeks in a remote cabin in the southwest Wisconsin village of Soldiers Grove. When he returned to Chicago he spent a month communicating with his collaborators about what he had in mind for their overdubs. The extra voices don't disrupt Fennelly's meditative, cosmic-rustic sound—instead it blossoms with a much richer and better developed palette of timbres and a broader dynamic range.

Fennelly, who turns 37 next month, grew up in Long Island, where he began piano lessons at age eight. His family moved to the Boston area in 1994, when he was 14, and his new teacher gave lessons in her own electronic-music studio. She gave Fennelly an old Mac Plus computer and showed him how to connect it to his Roland keyboard, helping him learn the rudiments of sequencing. As his tastes evolved—from Pink Floyd and jazz to Chicago postrock and the New York scene surrounding the Knitting Factory—his instructor augmented his piano training with electronic-music tutorials and listening sessions. In 1998 he enrolled at George Washington University in D.C. to study engineering, but music—especially avant-garde jazz and free improvisation—had become his obsession.

When Fennelly learned he could take music lessons at GWU, he put his keyboards aside and rented a double bass. He pursued that instrument for the next four years, quitting school after the first two in order to move to New York in 2000—he'd been spending an increasing number of weekends there thanks to a rail pass given to him by his father, who worked for Amtrak. He went to countless shows at legendary downtown venue Tonic, and even attended workshops there led by percussionist Milford Graves and bassist Mark Dresser.

Fennelly moved with a girlfriend who was a dancer, and she helped widen his artistic perspective—by going to dance performances, he got to know the experimental and contemporary classical players who often provided the music. In 2001 he took a summer trip to Durham, North Carolina, for the American Dance Festival, where he volunteered as an intern, making himself available as a musician. But a chance encounter with Gutierrez at a performance of a John Jasperse piece set him on a new trajectory. "I rarely have a visceral experience with dance, but when I saw this Jasperse piece it totally felt next level, sending chills down my spine," he says. He approached Gutierrez about working together, and by the end of summer they were making plans. Their partnership was delayed by 9/11, but eventually Fennelly moved into the dancer's Bushwick loft space and they began a long collaboration.

While Fennelly was working with Gutierrez on their first piece together, he met experimental percussionist Fritz Welch, who contributed wall drawings to the performance. He and Welch enlisted guitarist Chris Forsyth to form an improvising trio called Peeesseye, and for the next five years, Fennelly's creative life was dominated by collaborating with Gutierrez and playing in that band. In both contexts, he put aside his bass and started working with electronics and samplers.

The LP version of Mind Over Mirrors’ new Undying Color
  • The LP version of Mind Over Mirrors’ new Undying Color

Fennelly enrolled at Hunter College in Manhattan and earned an anthropology degree in 2003, at which point he figured his formal education was over. But then a friend told him about a freewheeling interdisciplinary arts program at Bard College in upstate New York that's held across three consecutive summers. Fennelly jumped at the chance to learn from its illustrious artist-teachers—a diverse mix that included Pauline Oliveros, David Behrman, Maryanne Amacher, George Lewis, and Richard Teitelbaum. "That was the education I had wanted, but I hadn't been able to access," he says.

By the time Fennelly finished the program in 2005, he was beginning to move away from the noisy, aggressively abstract, feedback-­heavy sound he'd developed in Peeesseye. On tour with the trio, he'd encountered his first harmonium while crashing at the Philadelphia home of psych-rock band Espers. He was so enraptured by his experience playing the bellows-driven keyboard—common in Indian music—that he bought one upon returning to New York. It soon became his primary instrument.

The following year, Fennelly says, he lost his day job, split with a long-term girlfriend, and reached the end of his collaboration with Gutierrez, which had taken him around the U.S. and Europe—the dancer's loft space was being sold. "I was feeling restless and disconnected," he says. "A lot of things ended, and nothing new presented itself." That summer he visited a friend from Bard who lived off the coast of Washington, on the remote Waldron Island north of Seattle. He enjoyed his time there enough that in April 2007, when his friend's family offered him a job on their property as a sort of caretaker and handyman, he took them up on it—in exchange for his time, he'd get a small rent-free cabin, free meals, and a bit of spending money.

A three-month stay became 18 months, though Fennelly ended up in different lodgings after meeting tattoo artist Serena Lander, a former Chicagoan, on one of his occasional trips into Seattle. They began a relationship and lived together in a cabin that relied on a dodgy solar setup for electricity and rain catchments for water. To cover rent, Fennelly did forestry work and Lander regularly traveled back to Chicago to do tattoos.

In early 2010 she convinced Fennelly to move with her into an apartment in Seattle. "I mean, I'm from New York," he says. "There's only so long that I can talk about goats. It's cool and I loved the whole experience, but I couldn't talk to people about what I was really into." That fall the couple packed a U-Haul and relocated to Chicago, where Fennelly only knew a couple of people. He'd played mostly harmonium on the island, refining the sound that would become Mind Over Mirrors—due to the dicey solar-power system he didn't record anything, but when he had electricity he experimented with tape delays and harmonizer effects. He'd begun the first Mind Over Mirrors record, 2011's The Voice Rolling, while in Seattle, though he didn't buy synthesizers till after he arrived in Chicago. He continued his solitary music making here, and over the next few years he played sporadic shows and released several albums in small editions, including 2013's When the Rest Are Up at Four on Chicago label Immune. In 2014 he met Fohr after Circuit des Yeux and Mind Over Mirrors played that year's Austin Psych Fest, and they began collaborating on The Voice Calling.

"I was starting to feel the need to work with other people," Fennelly says. "I can only work by myself for so long, and I was really, really ready." His record with Fohr came out in early 2015, around the same time he joined Mueller for his Alverno Presents concert in Milwaukee. Ravel's subsequent invitation allowed Fennelly to pursue some collaborations he'd been considering.

Despite the demise of the Alverno series, Ravel has continued to work with Fennelly, functioning as a sort of project manager to help him develop a budget and secure grant money. They eventually enlisted the support of the MCA. "From the start of our conversations, Jaime had a specific idea for the performance experience he was going for," Ravel says.

Fennelly has talked with Paradise of Bachelors about releasing a recording of the 2018 MCA project, but he and the label decided he should make another album in the meantime. "Instead of [going from] working with boutique labels and not having much presence in Chicago to suddenly doing a two-night show at the MCA, we thought, let's take this incremental step—and that's where Undying Color exists," Fennelly says. "The whole piece was skeletal. I created the album essentially on my own and brought in everyone within a three-day recording session at Minbal." Cooper Crain of Bitchin Bajas engineered the overdub session with the guest players and mixed the finished record.

"When I first started developing Mind Over Mirrors, I had set out to capture the essence of the types of sounds we associate with vernacular instrumentation, such as voice and fiddle, and embed those timbres deep in the threads of my solo work," Fennelly says. He eventually decided he wanted to pull some of those threads to the foreground. "In meeting Jim and Haley, it clicked that those were the appropriate people to help me do that, as well as bringing their own highly personalized and creative input into the music," he continues. "Bringing in drums is perhaps musically the most radical shift, and I hadn't been thinking about percussion as a primary instrument until I met Jon and we worked together in a couple different capacities. The trick for me was that in starting to think about extended instrumentation, I didn't want to make the music any denser than my solo recordings—on their own, the harmonium and synthesizers have the capacity to be quite maximal (or minimal). I was really seeking a way to transform my solitary voice into a richer and fuller palette."

Fennelly and Mueller had met when the percussionist played in Chicago to support his album The Whole in late 2010, and they later shared a bill. "Undying Color was mostly composed by Jaime, so he had a lot of thoughts and direction on what happened with the other instruments," Mueller says. "Our ideas are pretty sympathetic to each other, though, so his interest in what to play made a lot of sense to me." Two weekends ago, the eventual MCA band—Fennelly, Mueller, Becker, Bean, and superb Virginia guitarist Daniel Bachman—met in Indiana for their first rehearsals, where they came up with parts spontaneously. "As we continue to play, it seems there will be more room for individual voices to enter the mix, which so far sounds and feels pretty nice," says Mueller.

Mind Over Mirrors, Brokeback
Fri 3/3, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, constellation-chicago.com, $15, 18+

Mind Over Mirrors play a record-release show for Undying Color at Constellation on Friday, March 3, with Fennelly joined by Mueller, Bean, and Becker. The new album contains some of his strongest compositions, but like Mueller he sees a lot of potential in generating material for the MCA project using a collaborative approach. Other than that, he's stingy with details about the forthcoming piece. "I didn't have the band in place for Undying Color," he says. "I want to use the band as a compositional tool." v

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