Pianist and composer Justin Sherburn has enjoyed a long career as a touring musician with Austin bands like 8 ½ Souvenirs and Okkervil River, but now finds himself in front of the big screen with his ensemble Montopolis, performing original soundtracks to silent classics, and now creating a series of multimedia productions highlighting the natural wonders of the Lone Star State. Having completed a tribute to Enchanted Rock, Sherburn will be in San Antonio at 8:00 p.m. this Saturday, June 22 at Brick at Blue Star with “The Legend of Big Bend.” He’s also at work on an upcoming theatrical experience that will share the story of the Gulf Coast.
Each one of the programs uses live music, film, and either live or recorded poetry, stories, and remembrances to paint a picture of Texas’ unique topography, flora and fauna.
I reached Sherburn by phone from his home in Austin to talk to him more about his experiences at Big Bend, the compositional process, and the pride Texans feel for their home state. Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. [To hear the full conversation, use the audio player.]
Nathan Cone: How old were you when you first visited West Texas and the Big Bend?
Justin Sherburn: My first experience was in a Volkswagen van at the age of 16 following the Grateful Dead around. And so I passed through West Texas on the way to California to see Grateful Dead shows, but I did not stop. My first real experience stopping in West Texas i.e. Terlingua, Marfa, Alpine and that area, was touring with a group called The Small Stars. And this was a cabaret, a rock and roll cabaret lounge group started by Miles Zuniga, [who was] one half of the band, Fastball. It was a delightful band to play in and we would go out… I think it's called Railroad Blues is the name of the club in Alpine. And then we played in Terlingua at the Starlight. So that was my first encounter.
What do you remember from that first visit of being in that place?
What stuck out in my mind was a crazy circumstance where we're driving in a 15 passenger van, with six other musicians and all our gear, we're driving along this desolate desert scape with nothing else for miles. And what crossed directly in front of us? A line of a family of javelinas. Probably about seven javelinas. Obviously, Mom, Dad, you know, five or six little ones. And they cross directly in front of our van in the middle of nowhere. So we had to stop that van and wait for them to cross. That was my first encounter with the strange and wonderful fauna of the region.
So this whole experience that you're creating is not just a musical experience. It's encompasses film and video and live readings. Both of the past and of the present? And it becomes this kind of picturesque impression of the region that you've put together. Is that that a good description?
It is. It's really an immersive experience because you have all these elements and it's much more. I've been developing this sort of art form over the past few years, and I'm so enamored with it because unlike a film, [where] there's a certain passive element when we watch a movie (we can turn off and not think), what I like to do is show a little bit of video, and then play music, and then have a little audio clip, or sometimes have a live person reading. It’s like watching a movie, but with that theatrical element that that kind of challenges you a little bit more. And it really paints this complete picture of not just the landscape, but yeah, the historical sides. We talk about stories about the Texas Rangers, there's Native American legends, and there's contemporary stories of people going out there and having crazy adventures. And then we include a lot of poetry. Like, there's a poem from a wonderful poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, about the Big Bend at night, the stars in Big Bend. And each song reacts to each story… that hopefully completes that picture.
Some of the music on that is part of this project sounds quite classical. Some of it sounds more... and I'm putting my air quotes up here, "Western," and some of it reminds me of some of the kind of atmospheric work of Daniel Lanois, with that kind of crying steel guitar in the background. Do you write to the images and words and ideas and places, or were they presented to you, and then you write, or are you writing towards ideas and then fitting things to them? What's your process?
Well, first of all I'd like to say that your references are all very accurate! Yeah, well done! Specifically the Daniel Lanois. Like early on, we were doing much more ambient stuff that was very reminiscent of Daniel Lanois' work with Brian Eno, so that's still hanging out there, and definitely part of it. Because of the mystery of the place, it just seems very relevant. Especially the pedal steel guitar. As far as process... It's a mess, honestly! I would like it to be a little bit more refined… but it's kind of all over the place. Ideally, I would like to start with stories every time, but the timeline just doesn't necessarily present itself to make that really an efficient way to do things. This last time, basically my cinematographer went out to West Texas, and at the same time I was gathering interviews. Just going around, basically talking to people in Austin, who'd been out there. And so I had that first round, and then I wrote music based on that.
And then the cinematographer went back out there once we kind of had [more interviews], like 'OK, well we've got these stories' he's going out there to capture imagery that will support those stories. So it's really interactive, back and forth, you know? And it's not perfect. Everything doesn't line up exactly. I like that because it's a little bit of a challenge to the audience. It all generally works together though. I feel like it's unified.
This project also is kind of a series of things that you've been working on, because you have one related to Enchanted Rock, and the Gulf Coast as well. Are you kind of doing a travelogue around Texas, so to speak?
Yeah! I just started doing it, and really enjoying the whole process because frankly it gets me out of the house, which is nice! I toured for many years with rock and roll bands, pretty constantly, you know, on the road for most of the time. There's something about moving and traveling that is really inspiring to me. This all really started-- I started off using this band [Montopolis] to score silent films, which is a very popular tradition, and I did very typical things like Charlie Chaplin films, and early Russian films. And that was fun, but just not quite as active as I wanted it to be. And [it] didn't really feel quite as relevant. And so this feels really present and regional and relevant… and it really started with a film called "Yakona" that was a documentary about the San Marcos River that I did the score for in a more traditional sense, and then decided to start doing the live score like I was doing for silent films. And that turned out to be a real wonderful, successful, tour. And we played it around the country and we got a great response from it. And so then I moved on to Enchanted Rock, Big Bend, and now the current show is the Gulf Coast, and that is in process. That will premiere on August 2nd at the Stateside Theater at Paramount here in Austin.
When you talk about this feeling "relevant" to you... I mean it's almost within all of our hearts as Texans that something like this... we just want to show off how beautiful and what amazing things there are ... the natural wonder of the state!
Yeah, I think that people in other places, they love their state... but they don't come near to the love that Texans have for their state. People in Texas love Texas! I think like nowhere else. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't know. I'm Texan so I'm biased.
I mean, you don't go around to the rest of the country and see cookies in the shape of Massachusetts, you know?
No! No, they have their own thing, but that's.... Yeah, specifically the icon. You're not from Minnesota, and go, “look at this awesome....”
[finishes sentence] “...waffle.” There's no Minnesota waffle.
Yeah, exactly. [laughs]
Lastly, when you think of the Big Bend area, when you see yourself there, where is the place that you'd like to be, and what are you doing?
My ultimate experience there was just staying, just overnight, just waking up in the morning in that quality of air, and also the sky, you know? That incredibly dark sky where the universe is exposed. That's just one of the most stunning things I've ever experienced. Is looking up into that complete darkness and just seeing all the stars. All of them. It's also just so crisp, and it's a different environment out there, it's like a whole different country.
Justin Sherburn and his group, Montopolis, bring "The Legend of Big Bend" to Brick at Blue Star on Saturday, June 22 at 8:00 p.m. Their next landscape/multimedia project, "The Living Coast," premieres in Austin on August 2. You can follow their performance calendar online at montopolismusic.com.