Ten years also happens to be the incubation period for John Mark Lapham’s sprawling collaborative project, Old Fire. This group of recordings, Songs From the Haunted South, shimmers with ghostly pianos, ominous drums, cavernous steel guitar and aching vocals. It’s the sound of longing, of hope, death and rejection. The album features a total of 22 vocalists and musicians spread out across the United States and Europe. The roster includes such diverse names as Tom Rapp (Pearls Before Swine), Alex Maas (from the Texas psychedelic band, The Black Angels), DM Stith, Christopher Barnes (Gem Club), Warren Defever (His Name is Alive), Thor Harris (Swans), Swedish singer-songwriter Rebekka Karijord, to name only a few.
The road to the project’s completion took many twists and turns. It originally started as a blueprint for Lapham’s 4AD project, The Late Cord, with Micah P. Hinson. The two musicians signed with the label to release both an EP and full-length album back in 2006, but only the former ever saw the light of day. When it came time to record the album, stars fell out of alignment, and Lapham and Hinson ended up going separate ways before it could be completed.
From the very first sound to the last, Lapham formulated a clear idea of what he wanted the album to sound like. “My original idea for the Late Cord album was to feature a variety of different voices and to record several instrumentals, then mix everything together so one song bled in to the next. I always imagined our album would be composed of both covers and original compositions,” he recalls. Lapham was living in the UK in 2006 and decided to return to his hometown of Abilene, Texas, to begin work on the album. He subsequently developed an affinity for Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline, all the while listening to a lot of Stars of the Lid. These influences coalesced and became the foundation for what he refers to as “Ambient Country.”
Early in the recording sessions, Lapham developed a friendship with the founder of 4AD, Ivo Watts-Russell. It was Ivo who suggested he cover the song “Know How” by Camberwell Now and inadvertently put him in touch with the artist who would become the album’s first collaborator, Tom Rapp. Rapp was the voice and mastermind behind the experimental 60’s psych-folk group Pearls Before Swine. “I received this e-mail from Ivo one day that casually mentioned that he had been speaking with Tom Rapp and my head exploded. I politely asked him if he would introduce us. Before I knew it, I had sent Tom a basic instrumental track that he then recorded vocals for. They sounded wonderful. Like a world-weary Johnny Cash or Townes Van Zandt.”
Over the coming years, Lapham would leave and return to his hometown in West Texas several times. “I lived in England and upstate New York for some time, but something about this area, the ‘haunted south’, kept pulling me back,” he says. “Part of it was an on-going job I had helping to arrange estate sales. I was transfixed by the discarded things of America: family portraits, diaries, and other memorabilia that might very well be the last records of these people’s existence. I wanted to put all of this in to the album, along with my own tributes to deceased friends and old relationships.
Projects came and went, circumstances changed, and there were times where the album had to be put on the shelf. “There were definitely moments, say five or so years into this process, where I questioned if it was in my best interest to carry on and keep trying to realize this project. However, it stuck to me and wouldn’t let go. Maybe I just had to prove to myself that I could finish it.”
Ultimately, it was the friendships that Lapham forged with the artists who contributed to the album that kept him moving forward. DM Stith proved a valuable ally, the two recorded so much material together that some of it went to Old Fire and the other to a new project they christened The Revival Hour. Another important piece of the puzzle was Lapham’s collaboration with Christopher Barnes of Gem Club. Their long-distance, Internet collaboration yielded some of the album’s most haunting moments, including a cover of an obscure Shearwater demo, “Helix,” Jason Molina’s aching torch song, “It’s Easier Now,” and a hazy, psychedelic take on drone vocalist Ian William Craig’s “A Slight Grip, A Gentle Hold.”
Forward to 2016. Old Fire’s “Songs From the Haunted South” is finally getting released on Kscope and Brooklyn Bridge Records, 10 years to the month that the first seeds for the album were planted. So what would Lapham change if he coul rewind the last decade? “I can’t look back. There’s no way to edit out past events without destroying everything that came after. If the Late Cord had never dissolved, I would have never met most everyone else on this album. These artists and their contributions mean the world to me. Minus a change in vocalists, this album I’ve completed sounds eerily identical to what I had imagined it would sound like from the beginning. I’m thankful I was able to see it through to completion, regardless of the duration.”