Damien Jurado Says Screw the Side 

New album Maraqopa puts weirdness front and center

Imagine you're tooling down the highway and see subdued storyteller Damien Jurado in the woods by the side of the road wearing a tie-dye shirt and camouflage pants doing the Locomotive with drunk locals around a boombox. Jurado's new album, Maraqopa, elicits exactly that kind of double take.

In the 15 years since his Sub Pop debut, Waters Ave. S., Jurado has dipped this way and that but generally has stayed in the fairway of lightly textured, understated folk-inflected rock. Though he'll claim that each of his 10 albums is different--except, perhaps, 2002's rocking I Break Chairs--the emotional tone and musical pitch of his keenly sketched narratives are generally downbeat and dreamy.

That changed when Jurado joined songwriter and skilled producer/arranger Richard Swift in making 2010's lush Saint Bartlett. Together again, the duo one-ups that effort on Maraqopa.

"St. Bartlett was expansive, but Maraqopa was like outer-space expansive as far as sound goes. Not only did it push me into new directions but it pushed Richard in new directions he had never gone to as a producer/engineer," Jurado said from his Seattle home. "It was an interesting record to make, for sure."

Jurado opens the album with a shot straight into the stratosphere with "Nothing Is the News." He cited the influence of post-Surrealistic Pillow Jefferson Airplane during our conversation, and this is undoubtedly one of its landing places. Rising organ fills drift like sativa smoke over strummy acoustic guitars, cooing background vocals and Jurado's own ethereal echo. Vetiver guitarist Daniel Hindman adds a persistent, jammy electric solo running like a thread from the Grateful Dead's folk-ramble to Santana-like space-funk.

Hindman's performance was captured--like everything in the project--from a raw first-take perspective. According to Jurado, they tracked the guitar and vocals for 18 tracks (which was eventually culled to 10) in about one hour and finished all the tracking and layering within 72 hours. Hindman hadn't even heard the song when he laid down his guitar part.

"He's thinking, we're just pushing play--little did he know Richard has pushed record. He said, 'Do you want something like that?' and Richard said, 'That was perfect,'" Jurado recalled. "He was just like, 'Are you serious? That was just me messing around getting a feel for it.' 'Nah dude, your feel was great."

Swift's appearance in Jurado's life proved a fortuitous development arising out of misfortune. Jurado's marriage ended around the time of 2006's And Now That I'm In Your Shadow. Suddenly, he became a character in his own songs as he was writing 2008's Caught in the Trees (see the haunting, adultery-themed "Dimes"). For someone who preferred to stay behind the scenes, this was a distressing development. Add the fact that he had to cut his band loose, and Jurado was at a crossroads.

"I just wasn't able to afford playing with them anymore. It was really tough," he said. "They asked, 'What are your plans?' and I'm like, 'I'm still trying to figure it out. I have these songs ready to go but I don't know how I'm going to go about it, or who I'm going to work with.' They basically said, 'Have you ever thought about working with Richard?'"

Though Jurado thought they had very different musical styles, he was a fan of Swift's solo and production work. And when they finally got together, the chemistry was immediate. Perhaps it's the mesh of Jurado's minimalist approach and Swift's gift for ornate nuance.

They met in the middle on Saint Bartlett, a pretty album that didn't make as much of a stir possibly because its Brill Building/chamber pop affectations are pretty au courant these days. But even as they were working on that album, Jurado knew he'd need to find a new direction for their next collaboration.

"How I was going to go about that--I didn't know and I'm not one to make plans," he said.

At Swift's prompting, Jurado delved into some of his personal influences, which he'd typically shied away from sharing on previous releases. He likens the album to a mixtape, a tribute to his favorite sounds.

"We were using things like early Krautrock, psychedelia, even some of the easy-listening people I like so much like Ray Conniff," he said, citing Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity as a favorite album. "It's a mixture using whatever I love."

One of the most adventurous tracks is "Reel to Reel," which features treated synths and an odd, spacey feel that's part Radiohead, part Krautrock. It's quite outside anything that either has done but nicely complements a hazy meditation on music, time, success and life's imperturbable course. Even more affecting is the pretty "Life Away from the Garden," which betrays a smoky hint of '60s Burt Bacharach-style pop, complete with angelic, girlish backing vocals.

"The song is about a loss of innocence--that's why I brought in Richard's daughters to sing on it. ... It worked out great," said Jurado.

While he knows the experimentation on Maraqopa might not sit well with longtime fans, he's unconcerned. Jurado traces this desire to upset expectations back to his youth, when he listened to new albums by his favorite envelope-pushing artists.

"I would put them on and be like, 'I don't know if I like this.' That was great. God forbid they put out a record that I questioned," Jurado laughed. "I make the music I want to make these days. I think for a few years I wasn't making the records I wanted to make. I was making records that would please other people--doing the weird things on the side. Now it's just like screw the side, let's make it the center."

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