Joe Westerlund. Credit: Photo by Shay Stifleman

Joe Westerlund: Elegies for the Drift | Psychic Hotline |  February 24

The Circle,” the second track on Joe Westerlund’s new album, Elegies for the Drift, starts with the clanging of a single bell, high-pitched and metallic. A recording of a person talking starts, simultaneously quiet and boomy, like an echo from the gymnasium next door or the tinny voice of a studio engineer coming through monitors.

It’s impossible to make out what the person, Akron/Family bassist Miles Cooper Seaton, is saying, but his murmuring feels significant. Around it, more bells chime, a vibraphone swells, something unidentifiable clatters, and a mbira outlines a plaintive, descending melody. Other sounds come and go, but those basic elements fill the song’s meditative seven-minute-plus run time.

When drummer Westerlund began recording the song in February 2022, it had been almost exactly a year since Seaton had died unexpectedly in a car crash at the age of 41. The two had been close, and Westerlund wanted to pay tribute to his friend’s memory. Seaton was brash, opinionated, and disruptive, a driving force behind Akron/Family’s peripatetic, sometimes chaotic energy. Westerlund certainly has played that kind of music before, but that’s not the aspect of Seaton that he wanted to express.

Instead, Westerlund says, he thought about the things Seaton had encouraged him to do, like playing with space, and other ideas he “heard in Miles’s voice after he was gone.” “The Circle,” as he describes it, is a “tribute to Miles that doesn’t necessarily have to do with his music.”

The album’s five long songs are dedicated to a trio of important figures in Westerlund’s life who died as he was working on the record: Seaton; free jazz percussionist Milford Graves, who taught Westerlund at Bennington College and died a week before Seaton; and Aaron Hardwick Efird (the father of Westerlund’s partner), who died in April 2022.

These tributes raise big questions: How do we honor those who are important to us after they’re gone? How do we carry on their lessons and ideas? What does it mean to create a musical tribute to someone that doesn’t have anything to do with their music? All of these questions swirled around the conversation I have with Westerlund, over coffee last month.

As we talk, Westerlund peppers his answers with small anecdotes or bits or wisdom from Seaton and Graves that have stuck with him.

“There are layers of understanding that keep circling back,” he says. “Milford was probably the first person I experienced that with, where I only understood maybe 10 percent of what he was talking about at the time. Maybe now I understand 25 percent, but when that extra 15 percent has been circling back over two years or five years or 15 years or whatever, it really hits hard. And then when it circles back again the third or fourth time, it just gets exponentially more seismic.”

Those flashes of understanding came at unexpected, unrelated moments. For years, he has acquired percussion instruments of all sorts from all over the world. He’ll be the first to tell you he doesn’t necessarily know the “right” way to play them, but he loves their sounds and the way they interact, and he’s deeply interested in the cross-cultural exchanges they make possible.

In August 2021, he had the opportunity to travel to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, to work with members of the Kasai Allstars. They taught him some basic songs on the thumb piano and then said, essentially, “This is all we teach to outsiders, but you’re free to take this and make your own music.” 

That experience became the backbone for the song “Kinshasa Yang” and triggered a realization: “That’s the same kind of information Milford kept trying to tell me.” Graves would say, “I’m not trying to teach you ‘Afro Blue.’ I’m trying to teach you to play like yourself. I can’t really do that, but we’re here to set up a genuine experience for each other and do something real that can’t be taught.”

Westerlund’s songwriting process tends to be slow and ruminative, and he often works on a single track for a year or more before it feels finished. The process of writing Elegies started before any of those three people had died, as an outgrowth of his last album, Reveries in the Rift. (He mentioned that he’s working on a third rhyming album, possibly using some of the more beat-oriented material from these sessions.)

But as time went on, he found that the album “mirrored different points of my grief, different moments of processing the void that people that are that important in your life leave behind. I found myself growing into what I got out of them while they were alive and trying to find that in myself.”

Something that struck me during our conversation was that so many of the things we were talking about could so easily be reduced to clichés. The idea of getting out of your own way, of finding your own voice; the idea that sometimes you already know how to do something but it can take someone else telling it to you for you to understand it fully.

When I ask Westerlund about finding the meaning behind the cliché, he says, “Maybe it’s like you need to experience it, that moment of being like, ‘OK, cliché exists for a reason.’ But until that, you’re hearing it over and over again and just like ‘that’s meaningless.’”

It’s that moment of revelation that empowers the album’s fourth dedication: “To those who mentor by illuminating the direct path to ourselves.”

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