Julian Lynch might have been talking about musical instruments when he said he enjoys the process of learning in a recent interview, but it’s a statement that could safely be applied to his entire existence.
In addition to his burgeoning musical career, Lynch, whose latest album “Lines” comes out March 26 on Underwater Peoples Records, is also working on a double Ph.D. in anthropology and ethnomusicology at UW-Madison, an ambitious undertaking that accounts for the bulk of his time these days.
“I guess what it boils down to is (learning) is something I find really fulfilling,” he said.
This is true whether he’s struggling to master a new instrument — “The most fun thing to me (about learning guitar) wasn’t being in a state where I could play something,” he said, “It was working to get there” — or exploring the political and social effects of large-scale religious festivals in modern India, which is what he spent two months in Delhi researching on an academic fellowship last year.
In a recent phone interview the 28-year-old New Jersey native, who first moved to Madison in 2008 to pursue his studies, spoke with The Capital Times about his interest in India, the quiet sessions that spawned his new album and the role the city has played in shaping his development as a musician.
The Capital Times: Between the music and your academic pursuits does it feel like you’re living a double life at times?
Julian Lynch: Yeah, because it’s two separate communities and two separate groups of people I’m interacting with around town. I mean, it is a small city and a lot of people know each other. There are definitely undergrad students in social sciences and humanities who come to shows and stuff like that.
CT: You spent two months in India last year. What did your work consist of while you were there?
JL: I was doing archival research, so each day I would go to the National Archives in Delhi and treat it like a 9-to-5 job just going through documents. Then I made trips to a city in central India called Nagpur and to Bombay to go to these two religious festivals I plan on writing about for my dissertation.
CT: Under the grant you were tasked with examining the effects of large-scale religious festivals from a political and social perspective. Could you put that in laymen’s terms?
JL: Sure. The festival I went to in Nagpur, for example, has this strong political dimension where during the festival they build effigies that are representative of social ills or social evils, whether politicians or diseases and infections or whatever. It’s a way of highlighting these various points of political disparity. In Indian culture there’s a habit among politicians to not really pay attention to marginalized groups, but it really shuts down the city when this festival takes place, so it’s hard for people in power not to notice.
CT: You also wrote your thesis on the riots of colonial India. Why are you so drawn to that region in particular?
JL: I’ve had an interest in South Asia since I was living in (Washington) D.C. I had an interest in Indian and Pakistani pop music, and that interest grew after I started working for Smithsonian Folkways. That’s where I met actual ethnomusicologists for the first time and realized it would be something I’d be interested in doing.
CT: Can you speak fluent Hindi?
JL: I felt very comfortable with it by the time I left India, but sadly I haven’t really been keeping it up since I got back. I should be going to language table, but I’ve just been so busy recently I haven’t really made it out.
CT: Do you ever find academics influencing what you do musically, or are you able to keep the two disciplines separate?
JL: They’re fairly separate. The music I heard in India is fairly different from my usual pool of inspiration [a pool that includes everything from atmospheric Scottish rockers the Cocteau Twins to jazz players like Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker], which is not to say I didn’t like a lot of it. It’s usually more an issue of balancing time and trying to limit the amount of time I spend on music — hence the fact I don’t do too many shows. Last weekend’s shows in Minneapolis were so much fun, but it set me back like a week in terms of my work and I’m paying for it now. I think it was worth it, but I can’t do that too often.
CT: Considering your hectic academic schedule, when did you actually find time to record “Lines”?
JL: Um, good question. Weekends? Weekends, summer break, winter break, and then after I got back from India last October I had a way more relaxed schedule than I do right now, so I was able to finish it up then. I haven’t recorded anything at all since I got back to Madison after winter break.
CT: You do the bulk of your recording in your apartment. How do those restrictions shape the overall sound of your albums?
JL: Since I don’t live in a house with a basement or something like that, I can’t make a lot of noise. Drum use is fairly limited, and I can only record loudly on weekend afternoons. Even if I record electric guitar … I don’t use an amp because it will make too much noise. My parents live in (New Jersey), and if I’m at their place for summer break or winter break or something like that I can make as much noise as I want. Anything on the album that sounds louder probably got recorded there.
CT: Considering the range of instruments you play, I’m wondering if you’ve ever picked something up and had it give you fits.
JL: Yeah. There are plenty of instruments I “play” that I’m not great at. I do what I can with drums. I play them well enough to make the sounds I want to make, but I don’t consider myself a proficient percussionist or anything like that. And actually making the transition from clarinet to saxophone in the last year has been a wild ride. It’s not the smooth transition people made it out to be on the Internet (laughs).
When I first got a guitar I hardly knew how it worked physically. The concept of frets was alien to me. I was familiar with clarinet, and I had played some piano, but this weird, fretted neck was such a bizarre thing. I had a huge amount of fun spending way too many hours in a day teaching myself how to play guitar. I still like that kind of challenge.
CT: I’m also curious about your approach to lyrics. The vocals tend to be warped and hidden, and there’s more focus on the tone of your voice than what you’re actually saying.
JL: I actually wouldn’t rule out the possibility of me entirely phasing out lyrics in my music. I have an appreciation for art that builds on language. I have an appreciation for poetry and prose. There are a lot of lyricists and songwriters I really like. But it’s not something I focus on, so, like you said, I treat vocals point like they’re another woodwind part in the mix. On a personal level, I like writing lyrics, but I like making music a lot more.
CT: What role, if any, do you think the city of Madison has played in terms of shaping your sound?
JL: This city, in my experience, is a very, very supportive one for people making music. When I first moved here people were giving me shows without really knowing anything about me or my music. I was just some guy that was going to play his clarinet for a little while, and people would offer me shows. It was like, “Wow, what nice people you are.” The old owners of Good Style Shop actually gave me my first show in Madison, and people actually came out and watched my set. I really owe a lot to the people of Madison. I wouldn’t be doing shows and people wouldn’t have heard my music had it not been for the people in this community.