A Chat with Patrick McDermott of North Americans
We here at DC decided that in 2021 it might be nice to touch base with a few artists we featured last year. You know, to hear about creative projects, life updates, and whatever else comes up in conversation.
We loved North Americans' Roped In last fall (I mean, we still do today), so Patrick McDermott was a name that came to mind. North Americans is a collaborative instrumental guitar project with McDermott at the helm, and he was gracious enough to take our call a few weeks back on a Monday afternoon after we both wrapped up work for the day. McDermott was navigating a freak LA power outage resulting in a low cell battery on his end, and I (Nathan) was battling some interview-based anxiety, but we ended up chatting for nearly an hour about all things NA.
I was curious, first, to hear about how McDermott linked up with Barry Walker, who plays pedal steel on Roped In. Barry and I have some common acquaintances up here in Oregon, so I wanted the whole "seven degrees" story. It turns out that Driftless (the label founded by McDermott and friend, Joel Ford) released a solo record by Walker around the time that NA's Going Steady was in the works. McDermott knew that although it was too late in the production phase to mess with Going Steady, he wanted Barry to add pedal steel to a future release. Roped In, then, is realization of that dream.
McDermott and Walker, photo provided by Third Man.
McDermott began sketching out both of the aforementioned NA albums by first laying down 20-30 solo guitar drones. But for Roped In, he impressively needed just a single evening session to capture enough quality noodling to send Walker's way. Walker then chose a handful of drones that spoke to him, and the duo eventually met up at the now-defunct Type Foundry Studio in Portland (r.i.p.) to record improvisations on those sonic bases. McDermott explained that what appears on Roped In is fairly close to those actual live takes. In was important to him that the final recordings felt raw and immediate, not over-drenched in layering or overdubbed to an unnatural degree. There were very few alterations even in the mixing phase, as both McDermott and Walker agreed not to get caught up the details - a paralysis that afflicts many musicians. McDermott joked that he "is the opposite of a perfectionist" in this way. It's not that they were shooting for a rough aesthetic, necessarily, but one NA ethos is to honor and embrace initial approaches.
Walker is the constant collaborator on the album, his pedal steel filling out each track so much so that it forced McDermott to peel back layers which were present on Going Steady. But, he was not the only other musician who contributed to these cosmic compositions. Mary Lattimore and William Tyler each released solo albums in 2020, but they also both found time to add their distinctive sounds to McDermott and Walker's constructions. McDermott explained that he and Walker did not write these songs with other musicians in mind, but since he (McDermott) operates within such a strong community of LA musicians, some names bubbled up as they worked on the album. He first began to imagine how Lattimore's harp plucks might sound amongst his nylon-stringed guitar melodies and Walker's pedal steel bends (it turns out they sound great). And then further along, he decided that adding a little steel-string guitar might be warranted, and that Tyler, a more virtuosic player (his words, not mine), would know what to do. McDermott expressed how much he enjoys working with like-minded friends in general, giving them little direction and trusting them to contribute in their own way. About Lattimore and Tyler he says, "Pedigree aside, I knew they would handle it well and add a tasteful addition." Judge for yourself by hearing samples below.
Furniture in the Valley (featuring Mary Lattimore)
Break Maiden (featuring William Tyler)
We then got into touring (or lack thereof) for a bit. McDermott performed minimally after releasing his early work back in 2013-2014, when NA was situated in a noisier universe (we sidetracked here to discuss Fennesz), but he eventually became disenchanted using laptops and tape machines live. He missed the tactile nature of acoustic instrumentation and wanted to return more to original, base sounds. That's when he pivoted toward minimalist guitar. Since that evolution, McDermott has played around LA, but never embarked on large-scale tours. He doesn't love the looping practice that performing solo necessitates, though, and is excited to play alongside other musicians in the future. There was a goal to tour after Roped In came out, but by the time Third Man became involved, the pandemic was in full swing and McDermott and Walker knew that there wasn't a chance.
Squashing tour dreams was a giant 2020 bummer, but for North Americans, teaming with Third Man was a huge bright spot in a tough year. McDermott was drawn to the label's focus on flexing their relationships with brick-and-mortar record stores, both domestic and international, over marketing primarily with Spotify playlists in mind, as some labels tend to do. This was especially important to McDermott, as he loved the physical presentation of Roped In. Brian Blomerth painted the entire album's visual narrative to accompany North American's sound, which added such a unique and vibrant dimension to the record. As a crate digger himself, McDermott likes to imagine collectors unfamiliar with his music rummaging through albums and stopping at his, solely because Brain's artwork is such an attention-grabbing element.
The gorgeous, Brian Blomerth-designed Roped In LP, photo provided by Third Man
And lastly we got into future projects, which was incredibly exciting for me to hear about, but will have to be heavily redacted here as certain announcements have not yet been made public. It turns out that McDermott recorded an entire album's worth of material in tandem with Roped In, but with different collaborator - his friend Morgan Fox of So Stressed. It's a lot heavier, but bits and piece of that project might see the light of day in 2021. McDermott and Walker are also in the beginning stages of a proper follow-up to Roped In, but that won't be out for a while. And yeah, there is another juicy collaboration in the works too which I can't detail here, but say tuned for some exciting stuff.
A favorite So Stressed track from 2018 that got a lot of plays in this house.
Another goal of McDermott's is to figure out how to reissue Going Steady, which has been out of press for a while now and has become pretty pricey on Discogs. Maybe on his own Driftless (who is also announcing a couple projects in April), maybe on Third Man, maybe you run a label and want to shoot him a line. And a final goal is to play some shows this fall, but that will totally depend on what the world looks like in a few months.
After so many references, a highlight track from Going Steady.
It was a joy speaking with McDermott, who reflected at the end of our talk that the pandemic has been a strangely functional time for his type of meditative music. Roped In was recorded in 2019 with no knowledge of what the future would bring, obviously. A lot of reviewers and fans wrote that it's the perfect album for these fraught times, a platitude which used to be followed by an eye roll, but McDermott really is happy when it brings any listener relief. He and Walker "were just trying to make some weird ambient country music" but is truly glad that so many people have connected with it. And speaking of weird ambient country music, McDermott (and I) are psyched that this strange little subgenre is blowing up right now, and are digging all this exciting new output. Hopefully we get to see it played in-person soon.
A big thanks to Patrick for the chat, and make sure to check out North Americans' music through this link. And you know, follow their socials to stay on top of future announcements.
*Cover photo also provided by Third Man