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Trails and Trials: A Conversation with Noveller’s Sarah Lipstate

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Trails and Trials: A Conversation with Noveller’s Sarah Lipstate

Aaron Rogers

Every cloud has a silver lining. Cliché? Sure, but it seems to ring true for Los Angeles (by way of Louisiana, Austin, and Brooklyn) based guitarist and composer Sarah Lipstate.

Better known as Noveller, Lipstate has a habit of spinning the straw of her personal tragedies into the golden threads with which she weaves her musical tapestries. Equipped with only her trusty Fender Jaguar and an impressive collection of pedals, including quite a few EarthQuaker Devices, she performs solo, using a digital looper to conjure her compositions seemingly out of thin air.

The compositions on Noveller’s new album A Pink Sunset for No One are inspired by an emotional roller coaster of a year which began with a difficult breakup, and ended with Noveller earning recognition from proto-punk icon Iggy Pop, who invited her to open for him on the Post Pop Depression tour in the US and UK.

Silver linings, see? Straw into gold. Lemons into lemonade. And so on.

Photo: Priscilla C. Scott

Photo: Priscilla C. Scott

Aaron Rogers: You’ve been recording music as Noveller for about ten years.

Sarah Lipstate: Yeah, I think the first Noveller track I ever recorded was in 2005, but it didn’t really become a serious project until I moved to Brooklyn, which was in January of 2007, and that’s when I started getting asked to perform live and the project became a more serious thing. Yeah, it’s been a while now.

AR: How did you get started performing as Noveller?

SL: It was really intimidating because all the recordings I had done up until that point were completely improvised. There wasn’t really solid instrumentation. I used different things for the sound source, like Theremin, some contact mics, and of course guitar . . . I had a toy acoustic guitar I found at a junk shop.

I used all this random stuff, so the thought of performing live and having to come up with some kind of concept was really daunting. I ended up finding this amazing Epiphone SG double-neck guitar at this pawn shop in Austin, and it was only like, 500 bucks. I put it on layaway and got it after a few months. That came with me to Brooklyn.

At the very first Noveller shows, I used the double-neck guitar as a sound source and I had this loose structure for these pieces, using my violin bow, doing some bowed guitar.

I really liked using double eBows, like, having both necks active at the same time. There was very little actual playing of the guitar. I was using it to get some sounds and processing that sound through my pedals.

So, the early days of Noveller were very different from the current days, but it was a fun start.

AR: Sounds fun. It’s interesting that you refer to the guitar as a “sound source.”

SL: Yeah, that’s how I viewed it. I had this giant chain that I bought at a hardware store and sometimes I would just drop the chain on the strings. It was very experimental. It was fun, but I approached the guitar very differently from how I approach it now.

AR: It sounds like you were taking an academic, avant-garde, modern classical approach.

SL: I was doing what seemed interesting, y’know? Just trying to get some cool sounds. I let my imagination go wild. I used like, a carrot peeler, just whatever I could find around the house or at the hardware store. I’d just try it and see if it sounded cool.

I didn’t look on the internet like, “How do I do prepared guitar?” It was just like, “Well, this piece of metal is in my kitchen, what happens if I put that on the guitar?” It was a very fun, exploratory time.

AR: Do you have any musical training?

SL: I’m self-taught on the guitar. I had 8 years of piano lessons when I was a kid, and I played the trombone for 6 years, so I was trained on those instruments, but not on the guitar.

AR: You just released an album called A Pink Sunset for No One. What can you tell me about the writing process for the album?

SL: Well, I started recording for the album over the holidays in 2015. I was transitioning out of a breakup and I was hangin’ with my family in Louisiana. It was the holidays, and kind of a bummer.

It’s hard to deal with that stuff at any time of the year, but, the holidays can be particularly hard, so the way I coped with that was I set up all my stuff in the office at my parents’ house and I just started writing.

During that time, I recorded “Trails and Trials,” “A Pink Sunset for No One,” and “Rituals.” It was funny, because I was just using what I had there with me. I keep this Peavey Raptor at my parents’ house that I bought at a pawn shop years ago, and I think I recorded those three tracks playing the Peavey Raptor, which is so funny, because I’m such a gearhead.

Fast forward to February, and that’s when I was contacted about doing the tour supporting Iggy Pop, so things got kinda crazy.

I really wanted to have a solid set together for that, so I was rehearsing stuff and while I was rehearsing, I was messing around with my pedals, and came up with some really cool new sounds and ended up writing the track that became “Deep Shelter.” I was able to play that on tour with Iggy and really develop that song.

When I got home from the US dates, I had a little break before the European dates started, so I took all the inspiration I’d gathered from travelling and playing with Iggy, and wrote the rest of the songs on the album. It came together over a period of several months, with so many different things happening.

The early songs came about because it was my way of coping with the heaviness I was feeling, and then the last pieces came from more of an ecstatic place, because I had just come off this amazing experience. There’s a lot of different inspiration that came together in the creation of this album, and I’m super stoked on it and really happy that it’s finally out.

AR: Do you remember specifically what sound kicked off the writing process? And what pedals you used?

SL: Yeah, I was auditioning different presets on my Eventide H9 and I stumbled upon their organ sound and the basic synth sounds, so it was just like, completely processing the guitar into these unrecognizable sounds that were really exciting to me. That’s what I used for “Deep Shelter.”

For “Trails and Trials,” I used the Electro-Harmonix Mel9 pedal which is the Mellotron emulator. It processes your guitar with the traditional Mellotron sounds, like the flute and cello.

I used the [Mel9] flute and brass on “Lone Victory Tonight” and “Emergence.” That was really cool because you’re getting these Mellotron sounds, but you’re able to manipulate it using the guitar, so you can do pitch bends, and all this crazy stuff, and it’ll track it.

I got the Arpanoid and that was really fun to use on the new stuff. Adding different textures to the palate.

I used the Spires a lot, too. Which was really exciting, because in conjunction with the Mel9 pedal - distorting the Mellotron flute sounds, then bowing that?! [laughter]

AR: What’s your approach to the Arpanoid?

SL: I was using it to do some trills, so I had the flute patch on the Mel 9, and then used the Arpanoid to do these pretty trills. I used that on “Emergence,” which is the closing track on A Pink Sunset for No One. I got into that. I thought it was a really pretty effect.

AR: I wanted to talk a little bit about the song “Rituals.” There’s some percussion and a swooping, synthesizer-like guitar line that stood out to me as something new for Noveller.

SL: I wanted that song to be kind of repetitive and to get into this trance, almost, so I added percussion to drive home that rhythmic repetitive element.

I used some other samples on there, like a vocal sample . . . I was using this sound library that was metallic objects manipulated in different ways, so there might be like, bowed cymbal or something in there. I wanted to add those textures into that piece and I really am happy with the way it all came together.

The guitar was the first thing that I wrote, and I laid down all those tracks and surrounded the guitar in those other sound library elements. It felt like I was weaving this tapestry. It’s one of the tracks that seems to be really standing out to people. Either they’re really drawn to it or they think it’s cool, but they recognize it as being something that’s a little different, so that’s exciting for me. To me, it still feels cohesive within the rest of the album, but I was trying out different things, and I’m really happy with how it turned out.

AR: When you’re writing - do you start with a clean slate, writing a guitar part and creating a tone to fit, or are you searching for sounds and letting the sound lead you to the guitar part?

SL: It definitely goes both ways. Some stuff I write with the guitar not plugged into anything, so then it’s about arrangement and melody, and sometimes I write with everything - all the pedals connected, and I’m inspired by the different sound capabilities from my pedal palate. It just depends. I go back and forth. Things came together in both manners for A Pink Sunset for No One.

AR: What pedals are on your board now?

SL: Like, a million things. I don’t have a board together right now because I’ve gotten so many pedals over the past few months. I haven’t even started putting a board together for my shows coming up. I have to wrap my head around it because my studio room here at my house is an explosion of pedals. They’re everywhere. It’s a good problem to have, I think.

AR: Say you’re gonna put a board together right now. What are the first pedals you’d reach for?

SL: I’ve really become very fond of the Levitation reverb. It’s my go-to reverb at the moment. It’s always the last pedal that I put in my signal path before the looper. I’d dial in the Rainbow Machine to get that chorus effect that a lot of people are very fond of.

Yesterday, I was playing around with the Space Spiral and I was really having fun playing around with that. I’ve also become quite attached to the Avalanche Run “reverse” delay, so that’ll likely make its way onto my board. I would say those are the main things.

I just got the Sea Machine, which is pretty fun, and I’m kind of toying with the idea of using the Organizer . . . for the lower octave stuff.

And of course, the looper that I’ve been using for years now is the Boomerang Phrase III Sampler, and that’s on every single board. That basically allows me to build all my compositions, so that’s always gonna be the last pedal on the chain.

AR: Amp?

SL: The amp I have here in Los Angeles is a Fender Bassman combo with four ten-inch speakers. But, for tour, I have no idea what I’m gonna be playing through. I have a Fender Deluxe Reverb re-issue in Brooklyn, so I’ll probably use that for my New York area shows. I’m still trying to figure out the best amp for my sound, because I traverse a broad frequency range, so it’s complicated.

AR: Any tour dates?

SL: I wouldn’t call it a tour, but I have some dates coming up. I’m going to the UK next month to collaborate with a friend who is a poet for this poetry festival, so I have dates in Manchester and London.

In March, I have dates in Charlotte, North Carolina, Philly, and Brooklyn. I’m doing my record release show in Brooklyn on March 11. I’m also doing this show with Wire here in LA on the 31st of March. So, shows here and there. I’m not entirely sure how my schedule’s gonna shape up, but I’ll be around doing my thing.

Noveller performs with iconic post-punks Wire on March 31st, 2017.

Noveller performs with iconic post-punks Wire on March 31st, 2017.

AR: Circling back around to A Pink Sunset for No One, the word I keep reading over and over again when people describe your music is “cinematic.” How do you feel about “cinematic” as a descriptor of your music?

SL: I feel like it’s the one descriptor that actually resonates with me. It doesn’t really feel right when people describe my music as being “ambient” or “drone.” That doesn’t really ring true to me.

“Cinematic” is really helpful because it implies that the music is telling a story and it’s complex and rich, and I identify with all those elements. Also, it implies that it’s very visual music, and I think my music creates these worlds; emotional worlds that create a specific space in the brain when you’re listening to it. So yeah, “cinematic” kind of encapsulates all of those things, and I think it’s a great way to describe the type of instrumental music that I create.

AR: Are there any filmmakers or composers that you consider influential?

SL: There’s a lot of composers I admire, but what I do is very different. I wouldn’t say they’re direct influences, but certainly when I’m watching films the score is something I pay attention to - the way that it functions.

But the music that I make draws more influence from my experience and my emotional landscape, than like, actual music. I don’t listen to that much music in my day to day life. I have a few artists that I listen to all the time.

AR: Which records?

SL: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. A lot of Glenn Branca. Fripp & Eno records. Evening Star is one of the best records ever made. I’ve been listening to a lot of the Stooges, Can, stuff like that. It’s the stuff I was into when I was 19 and it just stuck. I’m in this loop where I’m listening to the same stuff over and over again, and that’s fine with me.

AR: Speaking of the Stooges, and this is just the total bullshit way that I feel, but I believe Fun House is not only the greatest album of all time, but also the greatest artifact of our existence as a species on the planet Earth . . . 

SL: Totally! [laughter] I’m with you on that.

AR: Anyway, getting back to business. Before Noveller, you were in the band Parts & Labor, using off-the-shelf effects pedals to recreate the sounds on their records.

SL: Yeah, basically they just brought me in. They’d been a band for years, so I was just filling a role. They gave me like, a Boss bass overdrive pedal, and I’m like “Okay, this is what gets the sound.” It was pretty simple, basic stuff.

AR: Would you say the beginning of Noveller is when you started using pedals as a compositional tool?

SL: No, I kind of started getting interested in pedals when I was 18 and living in Austin for college.

One of The first pedals I got was a Moog ring modulator, which is pretty out there. Then I got my first looper, which was the Line-6 DL4, and I had a Boss DD-6 delay. Those were the three pedals that I had. But, a ring modulator didn’t have a place in Parts & Labor -  in like, a rock band, y’know?

What really changed my approach to using stompboxes was that in 2011 I had all of my gear stolen out of my car. The cool thing that came out of that was that the community of musicians and fans of my music came together and offered to send me stuff to help me rebuild. So I started having these pedals sent to me and I was trying to reassemble my pedalboard.

I’d also go into Main Drag in Brooklyn, which is a great gear shop, and that’s when I bought my first EarthQuaker pedal. I was looking for replacement pedals and I bought the White Light. I remember my friends saying, “Yeah, this company makes really cool stuff, you should check out their other stuff to replace your pedalboard” and that helped me open up my brain to trying more boutique effects. Of course I fell down that rabbit hole and have never looked back since.

So in a way, this undeniable tragedy of having my stuff stolen had a silver lining of allowing myself to go down this path of exploring more creative and boutique effects. That’s the beauty of hindsight; you can appreciate those things and be grateful for those things that at the time were awful. Definitely a turning point.

AR: What do you think sets EarthQuaker Devices apart from other effects pedal companies?

SL: I love EarthQuaker Devices for so many reasons, but I feel like they’re one of those companies who make an amazing pedal for any effect out there. You could have an entire board of EarthQuaker pedals, and then like, maybe a looper. And that’s incredible.

To have such a diverse array of effects and do it so well, and add in unique features - pedals like the Transmisser are so cool and inspiring, and pedals like the Avalanche Run; having the oscillation mode is really exciting.

Taking all these really important sounds like delay and reverb, doing them really well, and adding these twists that tweak your brain into thinking, “Wow, how can I write something that will really make use of this unique feature?”

It’s more than a pedal - EarthQuaker Devices makes creative tools for musicians. For someone like me, making instrumental guitar music, it’s been a really important source of inspiration for me. I’m super, super grateful to have EarthQuaker Devices.

Also that Jamie and Julie, and the entire EarthQuaker team could just be such incredible and nice, kind people, that’s just an added bonus. It’s just like the total package. I’m completely, 100-percent behind what EarthQuaker does.

Noveller performing "Gathering the Elements" off of No Dreams live at Royal Albert Hall in London, UK on Iggy Pop's Post Pop Depression Tour. May 13th, 2016.