Down in the nation’s capital, a vibrant and thriving experimental music scene is currently emerging thanks in large part to the Maryland-based, genre-encompassing label Cuneiform Records. That label recently released the beautiful second album by Janel and Anthony, who have helped spark their hometown’s avant-garde ascent with an ethereal combination where guitar and cello melt into each other. Where Is Home showcases the twosome’s natural, conversational magic (they’ve known each other since high school): Anthony Pirog’s fingerpicking impeccably fuses Nels Cline-esque jazz riffage, drone-y dirges and country-twang with Janel Leppin’s delicately strummed, picked and scraped cello.
As staples of D.C.’s experimental scene, Janel and Anthony have been instrumental in expanding the annual Sonic Circuits Festival, which brings local artists together with legends like Glenn Branca and Lydia Lunch, who will be performing at this year’s event in September. The duo recently graced the Kennedy Center stage, where they played the music of John Cage to celebrate the composer’s 100th birthday.
Sound of the City caught Janel and Anthony in Maryland, where they were playing the Capital Audio Fest, to talk D.C.’s experimental music scene, touring and their new record.
Where are you now? Are you on tour before heading up here to play Ibeam?
Pirog: We’re in Rockville, Maryland. We’re playing Capital Audio Fest.
Leppin: There’s audio files everywhere synced to our music. It’s really cool! This is kind of a one-off special weekend.
Since it’s only two of you, there must not be too much gear to haul around—just a guitar and cello?
Pirog: I wish it was that easy!
Pirog: We don’t travel light. I bring three guitars—baritone, twelve-string and a standard six-string and we have a lot of effects.
Leppin: … and I have a cello and I have a Mustang and we both have effects things and we both amplifiers.
Pirog: Our van is full.
I imagine you have rows upon rows of pedals and stuff.
Pirog: That’s exactly what it is.
I’ve read you two from both Seattle but now live in D.C. Is there a misconception about where you’re from?
Leppin: The situation is that I had been working with some people in Seattle and was there for about six or seven months. So I guess the person who put out the show trombonist Brian Drye, met me there so that is why he thinks we are from Seattle, WA.
And the two of you have known each other since high school?
Pirog: … in Virginia.
At what point did you start playing together?
Leppin: When we were both in college. Anthony was in New York and I was in D.C. and every summer we’d get together and play.
Pirog: That’s when we were just improvising together…
Leppin: … just having fun, improvising, late at night or around a bonfire—that kind of deal.
Janel, when did you start playing cello?
Leppin: 24 years ago—so a real long time.
How and when did you come to be in a band together?
Pirog: That was 2005 when it became official and we started performing together.
Leppin: We started writing down some of the improvs we were making and started realizing that the music was something that we found valuable and other people enjoyed it. So we started recoding it and performing a lot.
D.C. is generally known as one of the places where hardcore was born and for Dischord Records. What is going on there as far as the music you play and the scene for it?
Leppin: Yeah! There is a really, really great scene and actually a lot of that hardcore scene, which I was certainly interested in and I think Anthony was too, we were both, of course, involved in that scene—at least going to shows. But I think that energy has kind of set in to the experimental scene [in D.C.] and it kind of surrounds around this festival [here] called Sonic Circuits which brings all kinds of very contemporary acts from all over the world to D.C. but also highlights local artists and they also have a compilation comes out of local artists every year. So the experimental scene [here] is pretty involved but also very supportive of each other and it’s not like a very difficult scene that you’re not part of and it’s also a very inviting situation, in general.
Pirog: … and also throughout the year, they put on shows on of people coming from out of town and around town to play.
The Sonic Circuits Festival has the Glenn Branca Ensemble playing as well as you two sharing a bill with Lydia Lunch. That’s pretty cool.
Pirog: It’s really exciting, yeah.
Leppin: It’s nice to rub shoulders with, you know, people that are so honored in that scene and we’re honored to part of it. But we’ve part of Sonic Circuits since like 2007 and my friends I played with went up to the Kennedy Center [to play]. They’ve been getting progressively on nicer and nicer stages.
I saw a live clip of you from 2007’s Sonic Circuits at the Kennedy Center.
Leppin: That composer I played with [Arturas Bumsteinas] is going to be at the festival this year. He did something last time for two cellos.
Janel, you recently curated a performance at Issue Project Room, performing Susan Alcorn’s compositions in an ensemble with Eyvind Kang, Jessika Kenney, Doug Wieselman and Skulí Sverrisson.
Leppin: That was just glorious—two very long rehearsals and the musicians that took part are people I really, really look up to and also are people who really, really look up to Susan. It was really important for me to find people who are going to want to put the energy it would take to put this music together and also to expand on it. It came off really well and I think we’re going to record [the piece]. I’m looking for a grant right now for it.
Both of you have tons of projects outside your band. Is the duo first and foremost above the other projects?
Leppin: We put as much energy into doing Janel and Anthony as we do into doing other projects.
Are open to expanding to include other musicians into Janel and Anthony, or are you strictly a duo?
Pirog: No, we’re open to collaborating with people. On each of the recordings we have a “guest artist.” On the first record, it was a drummer from D.C. and on Where is Home, our engineer Mike Reina played mellotron.
Leppin: Mike is actually the owner of the studio [where we recorded Where is Home], The Brink. It’s a gorgeous analog studio that is full of vintage gear.
How did you hook up with Cuneiform Records?
Pirog: Well, we had seen [label owners] Steve and Joyce [Feigenbaum] around and we had met them…
Leppin: … we actually met them at a phone drive at Maryland Public Televison.
Pirog: Oh yeah…
Leppin: It was so funny because we were answering phones for Sonic Circuits, trying to raise money to advertise for the festival and they were there too. I think [Steve] gave me his card and then we gave them our album and just like almost immediately they said “Let’s start talking.” They are really wonderful people.
Janel, are there cellists who have inspired you?
Leppin: Ya know, I listen to more guitar players [laughing] these days than string players. Of course, I’ll always look up to string players. It’s a hard instrument to play! It’s like full body experience. In terms of language and vocabulary, what I am actually going to play the cello, I look beyond string players and also beyond classical music because there’s so much more to learn from other styles and from other instrumentalists and vocalists or anyone so I kinda feel more descriptive [about it] than actual names [of cellists] that inspire me. Taking that further, sometimes if I am in a rut, if I read a book or something or read poetry, or watch a Jim Jarmusch film, that can really jog the creativity and imagination. It’s not like the arts are limited to only your own thing, music only.
Your music resembles that of film soundtracks.
Leppin: I think that’s interesting and I think that people say that a lot because part of that is because you can’t put your finger on it [our music] and there’s also a lot of ambience in it. You can’t say what genre it is; I don’t think it’s really easy to nail down. When people ask me “What is it?” I’m like “I really don’t know, to be honest.” There’s something to soundtracks because [soundtracks] don’t have to be a genre.
Do you think your niche in D.C. is perceived as outcasts because Dischord has been a presence for so long?
Leppin: The Washington City Paper described us “approachable experimentalism.” That energy from the hardcore scene seems to have been distributed into various scenes in the city. Sonic Circuits would be one of them. So far, I think if anything they might think that we’re a little bit too “in” because we don’t exclude tonal music or traditional form from our compositions. Many people in SC are working with noise, or free improvisation without a melodic structure. We try not to exclude anything we like even if it isn’t popular within a scene. We aren’t trying to fit in with any genre.
I think because we actually play songs, we have compositions, where a lot of people improvise fully or they’re working with noise, timbres and textures—there’s no melodic structure. But we have a really nice fan base there and we’ll always be happy to play at Sonic Circuits Festival. We love the people there and the scene is pretty non-judgemental, which is healthy.
Pirog: We’ve been really lucky because in certain situations we’re able to bounce around genres and play in different types of venues. We’ve played jazz clubs, art galleries and we’ve played rock clubs regularly and it’s because, and we keep saying, we’re not pounding an idea. We’re hinting at classical, hinting at jazz and we’re hinting at folk and world music.
Janel and Anthony play iBeam tonight at 10 p.m.