A Solo Stefan Christensen Gives In To The Pull Of Pure, Improvised Sound

Think of indie music as falling somewhere along a spectrum.

Put everything you associate with songs on one side: vocal melodies; chord progressions; structural signposts (verses, choruses, bridges); grooves with consistent meters and tempos; a conventional palette of sounds (guitars, bass, drums); discrete beginnings and endings, and so on.

On the other, build yourself a realm of pure sound: drones, noise and feedback; improvisational, collage-like forms; meter-less time strategies and loops; voices used more like instruments, manipulated and muffled.

One end offers accessibility, community and extroversion. The other walls itself off, but rewards an open mind. Extreme artists choose song or sound exclusively; for everyone else, it’s a balancing act.

For the seven years or so Stefan Christensen fronted the New Haven post-punk group Estrogen Highs, the song element prevailed, with occasional forays into pure sound.

“There were other people involved,” Christensen says. “We had band practice, learning songs, crafting songs. Then there were these other moments when we could be a little bit stranger and noisier, but they were used almost like interludes.”

Christensen started Estrogen Highs as a solo project in 2007. Musician friends got interested. It morphed into a group. Before splitting up in 2014, the band released records and toured all across the U.S. and Canada.

Two band members left. Christensen and drummer Ross Menze toyed with replacing them.

“After talking for a while, we just decided if we found more people, it would just kind of be a different thing.”

Christensen pressed on. “Shake Off the Village,” an aptly-titled album released last year, is a montage of interred vocals and guitar arpeggios, organ long tones, feedback wails and noisy, two-chord jams.

There’s also some pretty stuff on there: “Mr. Marquis,” a three-minute song near the end of record, leans toward acoustic textures and major chords. “Kicking at rocks in the street,” Christensen sings, in a dream-state: “and plotting some thefts to complete / it all seems to go awry / or maybe we were just too ... high.”

Rather than hashing songs out at home and bringing them to band practice, now Christensen simply rolls tape.

“I record a lot of stuff very quickly,” he says. “It doesn’t sit around for very long in my head anymore. Sometimes I go back and re-record and start again. I’ll rework it and retool it into something else. And sometimes I’m happy with how it comes out straight off the bat.”

Christensen performs at Willimantic Records on Feb. 16, on a bill with Mountain Movers’ Dan Greene and Rick Omonte (the three musicians will also play a set together). Additional shows are booked in Cambridge (Feb. 17) and Amherst, Mass. (Feb. 18) and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (Feb. 19).

A devoted LP collector, Christensen knows a lot about popular music from New Zealand. A decade ago he was obsessed with Flying Nun Records and also bands like The Clean, The Stones (named after the Rolling Stones), The Verlaines and The Bats.

These days, he’s more into late-1980s and early-1990s experimental NZ music: The Dead Sea, Alastair Galbraith, “folks who have really shaped the solo work I've done in the last few years,” he says.

Christensen still does the band thing. He’s a member of Headroom, a New Haven-based psych-noise band formed by Mountain Movers guitarist Kryssi Battalene, with guitarist David Shapiro (who records as Alexander), Rick Omonte (on bass) and drummer Ross Menze (also a member of Mountain Movers).

Shapiro plays drums on four “Shake Off the Village” songs, including “Off Minor,” the last (and longest) track, which also features Battalene and Menze, on a spliced-in excerpt from a live show.

In 2016, Christensen started C/Site Recordings. “I started doing just cassette tapes, doing my own stuff, just reached out to a few different people with the intent that we'd build up some funds and start doing records,” he says. “I’m much more interested in putting out records than cassette tapes.”

It’s been a slow transition to vinyl, but it’s progressing. In addition to “Shake Off the Village,” C/Site (pronounced “sight”) released vinyl LPs of an Alexander/Rob Noyes (Boston) 7” split and an archival release by Reptile Ranch (from Wales).

Reptile Ranch was part of the “UK DIY” movement of the late 1970s. “Saying Goodbye” and “(Don't Give The) Lifeguard (A Second Chance)” appeared on Chuck Warner’s “Messthetics,” a multivolume compilation documenting post-punk music produced between 1977 and 1983.

Christensen worked on it for a year, contacting the band, obtaining master recordings and collecting archival material for the insert. He wants to do more, though the monetary investment was substantial.

“It fell into place really easily,” Christensen says. “They were really happy to do it.”

C/Site plans to release two new LPs in 2018, including a compilation of music by himself, Alexander, Mountain Movers and Headroom.

“I get the freedom to put out what I want to put out. Putting out physical LPs, cassettes and CDs is difficult at this point. To the small, national or international scene of psychedelic or avant-garde music that we’re playing to, most stuff is still being put out in a physical format. I’m not really interested in mp3s or nonphysical formats.”

Knotwilg Records, a Belgian label, will release “City Code,” Christensen’s next solo album, later this year. Don’t expect long, meditative pauses.

“I want there to be a flow between tracks, not a break between tracks. I’ve always felt that way about the live presentation. It used to drive me nuts with Estrogen Highs to take breaks between songs. I wanted to play the songs rapid-fire, just as many as we could play back-to-back. A little bit of that is coming out on the recordings now.”

STEFAN CHRISTENSEN performs at Willimantic Records in Willimantic on Feb. 16 at 7 p.m., with the Dan Greene/Rick Omonte Duo. blog.willimanticrecords.com

Press Play is a column by music writer Mike Hamad exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. Send music you think he should hear to mhamad@courant.com.

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