Common Time 086: Music , Film & Life w/ Jake Meginsky

Jake Meginsky is a musician and filmmaker based in Western Massachusetts. While his name may not immediately jump out at you, you're likely familiar with his wonderful 2018 documentary Milford Graves Full Mantis - an intimate and inspiring portrait of the legendary percussionist, gardener and martial arts devotee.

Jake's been quietly releasing music for the past 20 years, part of the cauldron of music bubbling away in Western Massachusetts. While much of the music under his name can be found on Bill Nace's Open Mouth Records, Jake's discogs reveals a slew of aliases and collaborations stretching back to the mid-aughts. 

Alongside music and film, Jake is currently Musician in Dance & Co-Director of the MFA Program in Dance at Smith College. His new album, Trinities, is just out via Poole Music.  

Rather than pontificating about his varied output, we thought it'd be interesting to hear from Jake himself, who was kind enough to respond to a few questions about his music, film and life in Western Mass...

You're known primarily as a musician and now filmmaker - how do you see yourself and where do these two pursuits fit in among the rest of your life (work, fatherhood, etc.)?

Being a parent can often mean delaying gratification for creative impulses when there are mounting responsibilities around kids and work. Making art in the midst of all that, it is a learned discipline and the process can sometimes feel frustrating when energy is finite. However, raising kids definitely keeps you in the present moment, and having the opportunity to experience the world through a child's eyes often makes the world feel more enchanted and wild – both of these elements of parenthood seem to feed creativity. Milford Graves was an inspiration here, he was a family man, and his family life seemed to create a solid (and love-filled) launching pad for him to travel further into the cosmos with his art. I’ve been a parent my entire adult life, my oldest daughter Lena is 24, so fatherhood has always been happening concurrently with the creative process. I'm grateful to have a family that supports my work and makes it possible for me to tour and have studio time. As far as making things like films and music, for me it doesn’t feel so much like a 'pursuit', as much as a cycle of pressure and release.   

I’ve always associated you with the Western Mass scene loosely revolving around Sunburned Hand of the Man, MV&EE and individuals like Chris Corsano, Dredd Foole, Byron Coley, Bill Nace, Paul Flaherty… is that a fair association? If so, how did you find yourself in this scene and what has it meant to you if anything?

I'm from western mass. Springfield. Shortly after I arrived in Northampton in the late 1990s, I started playing music with Bill Nace, John Truscinski and our friend Sean Mattio in a band called Katellus – this was a formative experience where we all were influencing each other. All four of us are still close and always in some sort of collaboration or exchange of ideas. I also count everyone you listed as a friend and as an inspiration, plus this area is filled with dozens of people here for whom I would say the same. Everything I make is indebted to this community and this area, whether it’s a film or a record. Unlike bigger cities, there isn’t really a cloud of "success" or "making it" looming over it all. Instead it feels like there is space for people to explore and make stuff without an overly forceful feeling of borders between the scenes, or any need to conform to a specific way of making. It has always felt like we all do music for each other, without much attention to genre. 

From the outside, it could seem that your music and use of MPCs, CDJs, drums and percussion alludes to hiphop/dub/grime/dancehall/techno in ways that maybe are less common in that scene...   

I listen to all kinds of music, I don't consciously think about referencing anything in particular, as far as a specific band or style, when I make music. That being said, I've been working as a DJ since I was in my late teens, in all sorts of clubs. So the sonic environment of the nightclub, the subwoofers, the sonic pressure, the rhythmic pressure, I'm sure it’s in there somewhere. While I think it can be interesting to analyze art in terms of a lineage or continuum, if you zoom in on an individual level I believe most artists who make things are taking a lot in from all over the place and processing it in a million different ways that aren't linear. I hear just as much of the dusted midrange part of a DJ Premier sample in Matt Krefting's tape loops as I do Velvet's amp fuzz.

You studied with Milford Graves for 15 years  - the timespan during which almost all of your music was released.  Is there a way in which Milford's music or approach to life has influenced your musical output and ways of navigating the music world?  

Milford was my great teacher and also became a friend and collaborator. He's a huge part of my life. So many aspects of my music are connected to my relationship with him - it is almost impossible to quantify or list. Milford wasn't interested in teaching people how to play like him. Instead he wanted to know, "how are you vibrating?", and then he worked with you on how to get in touch with that vibration and create from that place. That was a huge gift. Graves was confident in the creative power inherent in his own body, in his five senses, and he was able to inspire that confidence in those around him. 

You justifiably had an amazing run with your first film.  How does film fit into your life now? Is it something you'll continue to pursue or was Full Mantis a unique labor of love stemming from your personal relationship with Milford Graves?

Full Mantis was indeed a labor of love that grew out of a long-term relationship, gaining momentum over a very long period of time, over 15 years. However, I made films and videos before Full Mantis and I continue to make films. Sometimes I have visual ideas that end up in music videos like a few I've done for Bill Nace's Drag City releases. Other times I work in an installation or gallery setting. Presently I'm creating new short films for the Criterion/Janus release of Full Mantis and developing a new feature documentary. My partner Sarah is also a filmmaker and recently made an animation for my solo record, Trinities

  Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Bill Nace and Open Mouth Records - when did you first meet and how have your collaborations continued to unfold?

  Bill is one of my best friends and longest collaborators of over 20 years. We met in Northampton in '99 or 2000 and started making music together shortly after. We've been playing together in various arrangements ever since so I can't really overstate Bill’s influence, it's huge. A long-term collaboration and friendship has many chapters and many stories, not much room for all that here. Bill left wmass for the UK in the early 2000s and when he came back, he was making beautiful collages and drawings and started his record label. It was a huge inspiration, like 'woah you can just do that?' Through openmouth, he chronicled the western mass scene that he was a core part of for many years, and he prompted a lot of people to put something out into the world who might not have otherwise, me included, and I'm super grateful for that. He asked me and Johnny T to release something on the label, and I think that tape is the second release as Slaughterhouse Percussion, the first real recording I'd ever made. John and I taking our drums out into Silos and under the underpass to record. He also encouraged me to release a solo tape, which was my first ever solo thing, it's called Stemtape, it's early in the openmouth catalog too - I'm not sure I would have ever thought to, or had the confidence do that on my own at the time and I went on to make three more solo LPs for openmouth - Bill was a huge catalyst there. I have a huge amount of admiration and love for Bill, who is a truly soulful person and artist. I take a lot of inspiration from the way he makes his art, runs his label, and creates a platform for the people around him – and I'm continually looking forward to his art/music and to the next time we collaborate. Any time I have a new idea or sound, I'm usually sharing it with Bill right away. The structure of Full Mantis largely conforms to mixtapes I used to make for Bill that featured little recordings I would make of Graves up at Bennington during our one on one lessons. 

Lastly, how did you come to work in modern dance and find yourself at Smith as co-director of their MFA dance program?

  Dance is definitely the work that found me. I went up to Bennington to study with Milford Graves in 2004, but I didn't enroll as a student. I just waited at his door till he showed up and asked if I could take classes with him. To my great fortune he hired me as an assistant and I got to stay up there by teaching intro to percussion classes and doing A/V work. I hadn't had much exposure to contemporary dance before that, but Bennington had a rich history, the school itself founded by some of the early pioneers of modern dance. In the 2000s, Bennington was home to a lot of amazing dancers and choreographers, both students, guest artists, and faculty. One day, I was looking into the window of a dance studio and I saw a dancer performing focused, intense movements next to a drummer, both of them facing the rear scrim of the studio. I was immediately transfixed and drawn to the form. The way dancers collaborate, their focus on the somatic experience, the generative style of composition, the complexity of the body – all of these aspects of dance began to influence the way I approached music. I needed more work up there to pay my bills, and got hired as a dance accompanist, playing drums for technique classes. This became a laboratory for me to explore the relationship between sound and the body, put my music in direct dialogue with movement and introduced me to many of the dancers and dance companies I still collaborate with. From then on, collaborating with dancers has always been a part of my work and right now it is how I make a living, teaching sound to dancers, composing for dance and playing for dance classes. 

- J.Tripp.