M.C. Taylor discusses his longtime band’s 11th LP, Terms of Surrender
“I’ve always been attracted to the rhythm of words and the way they make me feel,” Taylor said, from his home in Durham, North Carolina. “I never thought about being a novelist or a song writer. These days, I think of myself as a guitar player, but the way I play guitar feels utilitarian to me. I play to accompany the themes I put in the music. I have a rhythmic style that’s all my own. When I put together a band, I find people who can compliment what I’m doing.”
Taylor began performing in San Francisco. He was a founder of The Court and Spark, a multi-faceted band that played folk, country and rock, with an experimental approach. When they called it quits, Taylor moved to Durham, to attend the University of North Carolina’s folklore program. He was thinking of becoming a teacher and folklorist, but he couldn’t stay away from performing. He put together Hiss Golden Messenger and started composing songs that looked at life’s contradictions, while exploring the rhythmic elements of songwriting. His arrangements concentrated on Waylon Jennings’ country stomp, dub reggae and the kraut-rock thump of German bands like Neu!. He complimented his cryptic approach with an equally mysterious name.
“Hiss Golden Messenger is evocative of something, but it’s hard to put your finger on it,” Taylor said. “There’s something Biblical and low fidelity about it. I think of the hiss, not as a snake, but the hiss of an old tape machine. It came to me, and it felt like the right name, and it’s served me well.”
The band’s new album, Terms of Surrender, is their eleventh. This time out, Taylor forgot about capturing the band’s low-key sound in favor of a more expansive sonic palate. “There’s a rawness to this record that’s unique in my catalogue. There was a final stage of editing that I didn’t do. I’m usually going over songs with a fine-tooth comb at the very end. There are pressure points in every song and, if I press on them too hard, it starts to hurt. This time, I didn’t relieve those pressure points. I wanted to leave the vulnerability in there. I thought it would be helpful for myself and maybe other people.”
The songs on Surrender are darker, musically and lyrically, than the rest of Taylor’s output. Gospel flavored organ and piano are added to compliment the experimental guitar textures and Taylor’s weary vocals. “The sound encapsulates the album’s most important theme. What are we willing to sacrifice to live the life we think we want to live? Living that life often requires something different than what you anticipated. Nobody’s life is easy, but I’m hesitant to go into that stuff more deeply. This life asks specific things of us that can be hard to give. I have two little kids and a wife and make my living traveling and performing. There are times I’m not ready to leave home, but I don’t have a choice. I know I’m lucky to get to travel around the world and play music for people, so that’s really nothing to complain about. It’s a funny predicament.
“I can’t get away from the touring. It keeps bringing me back and I love it more than I hate it. The extremes of emotion in music and performing are as extreme as anything in my life. There’s some kind of work I feel I can accomplish on stage, in front of people, that I can’t accomplish in any other way. Its not an ego thing, although that’s part of it, but there’s something I do to myself when I’m singing in front of people that I find helpful. At least it’s helpful for me.”