15 In Philly: Fishtown Folk

espers3501Spend 15 years in Philadelphia and you’ll figure out that things in MAGNET’s native city aren’t always sunny or bursting with brotherly love. But underneath the tough exterior are some pretty sweet sounds. In honor of our anniversary, we pay tribute to our hometown scene:

Greg Weeks meanders around his kitchen like anyone else working at home; he checks his email while slowly sipping his coffee. But as Weeks descends the basement stairs, all traces of 21st-century life are left behind. His retrofitted recording space in the Tacony section of Philadelphia, Hexham Head studio, boasts an arsenal of decades-old analog equipment. It’s one of several hideouts for Weeks and his band of freak-folk gypsies, Espers (pictured).

“Mansfield And Cyclops” from Espers’ II:

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The seeds for Espers were planted in 2001, when Weeks met guitarist Brooke Sietinsons, who staged shows at her Northern Liberties loft for visiting avant-folk artists such as Marianne Nowottny, Stone Breath and Ben Chasny. Along with Weeks (who issued three solo records inspired by Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell), local acts such as the Baird Sisters, Fern Knight and fingerstyle guitarist Jack Rose soon became contributors to a flowering Philly folk scene.

“I was into this book called Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” says Weeks. “It’s an autobiographical tale of the Cambridge scene in the ’60s. When I saw the Baird Sisters play, I thought it was like something described right out of that book, like from one of the cafés.”

Weeks and Sietinsons soon joined co-songwriter Meg Baird to form Espers, which has since expanded to include Swedish-born cellist Helena Espvall, bassist Chris Smith and percussionist Otto Hauser. Over the course of three albums, Espers’ roving compositions have coupled new-school acoustic and electric instrumentation, giving ’60s psychedelia a modern twist. The Espers clan and their folk allies around the world are constantly busy with solo and side projects; Drag City recently issued a collaboration between Espvall and Masaki Batoh of Japanese acid-folk outfit Ghost.

“When I was in France (in 2001), these folks gave me a CD-R of Devendra Banhart’s that he was selling, of the first album,” says Weeks. “I was like, ‘What the fuck is this? This is so bizarre. But so good.’ When I got back home, I contacted him; he sent me a tape, and we were talking … Imagine if I could’ve had an imprint or talked somebody into putting out that record (at the time), you know?”

In 2007, Weeks formed his own label, Language Of Stone, in partnership with Drag City (which handles manufacturing and distribution). Recent LOS releases range from the fuzzed-out ritual chants of Ex Reverie to the accessible singer/songwriter stylings of Noa Babayof, both of which were recorded by Weeks at Hexham Head. As a producer, Weeks subscribes to old-school techniques (Hexham Head’s MySpace page reads: “Sonic influences: sounds and styles pre ’77”), but as a label proprietor, he’s not above window-shopping in the digital marketplace.

“I use MySpace a lot in locating bands that I’m interested in signing,” says Weeks. “It doesn’t bother me that people might have a preference for mp3s versus vinyl LPs. [Mp3s] are an easy way to distribute ideas, but ultimately, if people fell in love with something, I hope they would want to get the best version available so that their listening experience could be rich and fulfilling and deep.”

—John Hendrickson

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2 Comments

  1. Posted January 14, 2009 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    OK, I guess Marah is a hybrid of Philly and other destinations, but with Kids in Philly (among other releases) I would have thought that they had the pedigree to rank highly in this article, certainly more so than a few of the lame ducks that were included.

  2. Eric T. Miller
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Check back in tomorrow, and you will read why Marah didn’t get its own profile.