M.C. Taylor's last band, the Court and Spark, developed a strong cult following in San Francisco. Over four excellent albums, the group confounded critics with a blend of rock, country, and ambient textures that fell somewhere between cinematic folk noir and atmospheric cabaret. Taylor headed east after the breakup of the band to attend the University of North Carolina's folklore program. "I also wanted to live in the woods," he explains, speaking by phone from his new home near Chapel Hill. "I wanted to give myself some time to study and meditate on music."
Taylor's new project, Hiss Golden Messenger, does show a meditative influence. When recruiting players, Taylor looked for musicians who were familiar with three grooves — the Waylon Jennings country stomp, the dub groove, and the motorik Krautrock thump of German band Neu. "The Court and Spark was about songs," he says. "This time I wanted to focus on the grooves and percussion."
Taylor grew up playing in punk and experimental noise bands, so the free-form folk of the Court and Spark looked like the most radical change of direction he could make. Moving from songs to a more-groove-based sound seems like the next logical, if atypical, step. "The Jennings and Kraut sound is simple, but difficult to maintain over the course of a single tune, much less an album," he says. "They're not flashy, but incredibly economic, with rhythmic accents full of subtleties. Neu's guitarist Michael Rother told me the beat facilitates flying and hypnotism, which is something I wanted to reach for."
In its latter days, the Court and Spark added dub and free-form rock to its folk and country foundation. Hiss Golden Messenger expands that, with open-ended arrangements that leave plenty of room for — gulp — jamming. "I like extending songs to explore avenues that I wasn't able to do before," Taylor says. "I guess you'd call it jamming, although it's a loaded word. In the present indie landscape, jamming has become okay, but it was frowned upon for years."
Hiss Golden Messenger hasn't made a proper album yet, but the 11 tunes on its War Whoops and West End Cheer demo include smooth dance-pop, dreamy dub digressions, ambient folk-funk, and the kind of dreamy countryish ballads the Court and Spark excelled at. The only constant is Taylor's voice, a solemn, weary baritone that imbues his music with a profound gravity. "Hiss Golden Messenger is a pseudonym for a free-floating collective of players," he says. "I didn't want to be in a band situation again. I want to perform the songs in any way I want or need to, with a more casual attitude toward performing." He adds that his challenge is to make the songs convincing, as he doesn't know how they'll translate live. Under the Hiss Golden Messenger moniker, Taylor has played solo, as a duo with former Court and Spark guitarist and longtime collaborator Scott Hirsch, and as a band with drummer John Hofer and guitarist-singer Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips. At his Hemlock Tavern show, Taylor will bring Hirsch, Patrick Main and Matt Cunitz on keys, and two drummers — Hofer and Chris Sipe.
Like Taylor's last project, Hiss Golden Messenger plays solemn, cyclic, midtempo grooves. But don't confuse that aesthetic choice with a somnolent show. "Critics often carp at the slower tempos, but I can only produce music that's comfortable to me," he says. "I can tell you one thing, though: Hiss Golden Messenger is a very loud experience."