When you listen to a certain band for the very first time – especially when you have no idea who is behind the project, since they are practically unknown to the ears around the world –, usually you have no expectations. Once you start listening to Dragon Turtle, you feel it immediately that you’re going to be surprised, instantly getting all your hopes and expectations extremely high. And that is how it should be, because they continuously deliver immense quality, post-rock, shoegaze and ambient never went so perfectly hand in hand.
Dragon Turtle is the musical collaboration of Tom Asselin and Brian Lightbody. The highly talented and creative duo have been working together for several years traveling between Brooklyn, NY (where Brian resides) and the Lehigh Valley, PA (where Tom lives) to create lush sonic soundscapes through reverberating guitars and understated haunting vocals. We’ve talked to Tom and Brian to find out more about Dragon Turtle, the project that definitely deserves your attention.
How did you get in touch with music? Where did you grow up and how did that influence your musical tastes throughout the years?
Brian: My father has always had guitars around and was strumming Iron Butterfly, Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd when I was a child. My first cassette tapes were the Beach Boys, Guns N Roses and U2’s Joshua Tree when I was about 8. I sneaked a lot of MTV when my parents weren’t looking in the 80’s and my babysitter was into New Wave. I loved how visual the music of that time was. I listened to metal for a solid few years and then fell out of love with music during that rather bleak period for mainstream pop music in the early 90’s and got really into sports. I grew up In Suburban New Jersey up until that point, so upon moving to rural Pennsylvania at 10 years old, a place I felt a little out of sorts with, watching New York sports broadcasts was a way to connect to some familiar sort of tribes and identity. It was through watching New York Rangers (they are a hockey team) home games that I first heard The Ramones, which was uncommon music to hear at sporting events. You wouldn’t hear that in Philly or California, it was identifiably New York, and the buzzsaw guitars, the simplicity, it was everything I wanted in music, so about that time punk was really catching on in the mid 90’s and I dove right into it. I loved discovering the bands and the different scenes, and everything that went along with it. Punk made me excited about music and the ethics and culture around it was equally as interesting.
Growing up in New Jersey, there is the Boss (Springsteen) and Sinatra, which are undeniably Jersey Gods for sure and an influence. Pennsylvania had some great scenes where I discovered a lot of music. The punk scene in the Lehigh Valley was and still is really strong, Wilkes Barre was this Emo and Hardcore zone and Philly always had great shows. We grew up close to several of the best record stores in the country (Princeton Record Exchange, Double Decker Records and the Main Street Jukebox). College and public radio was also a huge influence and really expanded our horizons. WPRB Princeton University Radio, WESS from Stroudsburg, WFMU, WNTI and Temple University (jazz radio) were sources to discover eclectic tastes and crate digging DJ finds before the internet made everything so accessible. Late night Echoes broadcasts on public radio opened me up to Brian Eno and spacey ambient sounds.
Tom: My parents were my source of music, especially my mom. She was an avid listener of 60’s and 70’s US and British pop/rock. When I was a kid we always cruised around listening to the oldies station. I recently found an old cassette she dubbed which has great stuff on it like The Ronnettes, and The Tornados, things I listen to now. My dad was into Jazz and Soul music. When I drove him to and from chemo (on and off) when I was between 18-21 we would jam to Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, and Frank Sinatra. Most of my life I have lived in relatively isolated areas. When I moved to The Poconos in 1992, I was able to find and explore new sounds like hip-hop and when I got into high school I found punk, hardcore, and all of those things happening in the late 90’s.
How do two strangers bump into each other and decide to start a band?
Tom: We met at a Green Tree Commandos show in 1997. I was writing a high school paper about Dick Dale and we started talking about surf music. We went to a lot of the same shows and were both friends with the Baker twins. When El Topo (a band Brian played guitar in) dissolved, the twins got me to record a demo for Brian on my 4-Track. Shortly after I went to the Recording Workshop in Ohio. When I returned, Brian came back to do some more demos. We wound up collaborating on them and now we are here.
How would you define the sound of Dragon Turtle?
Brian: It’s always evolving from various musical influences we like and the ideas around the songs, but love of reverb, layered compositions, use of space and ‘wall of sound’ arrangements seem to be constants.
If I say that your music reminds me of Slowdive and Roy Montgomery, you say…
Brian: Nice! We are fans of both, and I’m really psyched for Slowdive getting their due right now with all these big shows and exposure to a new generation.
In the beginning you were releasing music through La Société Expéditionnaire, but a while ago you’ve created your own space for your own music, Oscillating Color. How is it different to have your own ’musical sanctuary’ compared to your experiences with La Société Expéditionnaire?
Tom: We were heavily involved with La Société in the first five years of the label. Brian did layout and design of most of the earlier releases. I did some audio work on several releases (as recently as Mako Sica’s ‘Essence’ LP) and played in a handful of bands on the label. I also did a lot of the behind the scenes stuff, so it felt only natural at this point to create Oscillating Color.
Brian: The technological advances and amount of opportunity for musicians to connect to people around the world now are really amazing, and it’s been an educational journey to explore and experiment with new mediums.
Most of the songs from your last album, ’Distances’ were recorded between 2009 and 2013 at a former Pocono resort in an abandoned recreation hall, which you’ve turned into a studio. Many believe the building to be haunted. What is the story behind this special place, how did you discover it and how did you get the idea to turn it into some kind of a second home?
Tom: My mom rented an apartment at The Pinehurst in late 2009 after we sold the house. As her health deteriorated, my girlfriend Judy and I also got an apartment there. After a few months I was really jonesing to set my studio back up somewhere. We tried the basement under my apartment, which was the old Massiville Post Office from the late 1700s (this predates the town we were living in, Canadensis, PA). That did not work out very well and the landlord offered The Rec Room. He was using it to store furniture abandoned by former tenants and some random storage, most of which I used to build my control room. The building was pure magic. There is graffiti of children’s names and dates all over the walls and shuffleboard remnants on the floor. There is a small stream that runs under one of the corners of the building. We also got access to the old fenced in pool which Judy turned into a garden.
Before discovering this place you’ve kept travelling between Brooklyn, NY and Lehigh Valley, PA with all your gear to be able to play together, what did you find to be the hardest thing about this kind of chaotic conditions?
Brian: Even though we haven’t toured much, I’ve felt at times like I’m on tour in creating the music. The chaos in the process is certainly one of the creative elements. Often lyrics and ideas are written on bus rides home and recording is done in marathon session late into the night. It’s a unique dynamic that is part of the DNA of the sounds that come out.
Looking at the credit list of ’Distances’, we can find 17 names who contributed for 39 minutes in total. How did you gather all these people together for the album? This is really impressive.
Tom: Our releases tend to have collaborations from people we meet and make friends with during the recording period. Some long term collaborators like Andrew Xue and David Kresge played some really cool parts on the album. It also helps to have your own recording studio.
Although ’Distances’ is your second full length album and your fifth release, not too many people know about Dragon Turtle. I guess it’s easier to promote yourself in the US, but what are you doing for getting a little bit more known internationally?
Brian: We are simply reaching out to blogs, and people in the music community that we identify with, feel a kinship with, and think might like this sort of music. It’s been incredible to discover all the interesting new music that is out there, it’s been revitalizing.
You seem to have a special connection with the sea. What is the idea behind this?
Brian: The sea connects us, and also separates us. Cultures developed around its edges and spread out. It’s wondrous. I’ve also traveled quite a bit overseas the past few years having married a German citizen, visiting her family every year. My own sense of identity has become something to contemplate with the potential for living abroad, learning a new language and finding new homes away from home. I’ve also been fascinated with ancestral history, which is also the story of crossing oceans in search of a new life.
What are your plans with Dragon Turtle in the future? Have you ever tried to make some touring happen?
Brian: We plan to continue to make music. Touring has been a challenge with our schedules, but we would like to play some of these songs out in the world.
Tom: We have also made an album of ambient music in the works. Personally, that is where my head space is at right now.
You have defined ’Distances’ as ’the soundtrack for a journey across blue seas, and the fading, rust colored American landscape’. If you would have to choose a soundtrack for such a journey, what tracks would you gather together?
Brian: Eno, Springsteen, Jesus and Mary Chain, Guided by Voices, The Replacements, Benoît Pioulard, Jim O’Rourke, Mojave 3, Goodnight Stars Goodnight Air, Lorna Dune.
Tom: Dirty Three, Public Speaking, the Nuggets compilations, Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk, Don Cherry, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, We Have Heaven, Mako Sica, The Clean, I think no journey would be complete without The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, or John Cale.
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