Melodic and aggressive, abrasive and pretty, political and universal, the music of Sterling Witt has many starting points. In addition to writing catchy, rocking and thought-provoking tunes, Witt is an accomplished painter whose visual work is as vibrant as his music. Released late last year, Witt's latest album, Satyagraha,which Witt calls his "greatest musical achievement", will definitely appeal to Nirvana fans (and not only because it was produced by Steve Albini). We are very fortunate to share an interview with and book, music and movie recommendations from Sterling Witt.
Please introduce yourself. Where do you live and work?
I am an artist. I live in Missouri. I split my time between the East Crossroads of Kansas City and the Art Farm near Freeman, Missouri (about 45 min south of KC). The Art Farm is an isolated oasis in the country designed for making art and music. We do not have Internet or TV.
Describe the musical journey from 2004’s Self Portrait to the recent Satyagraha project. How has your approach to songwriting evolved over the years?
Self Portrait is an introspective album. I recorded those songs in my apartment in Los Angeles, CA. I played all the instruments with the exception of the drums. The album is fueled by dark emotions. A personal confessional bloodletting of how I felt at the time. Self Portrait is a snapshot in time. It has been 12 years. Self Portraitand Satyagraha couldn't be more different from each other. That being said, all the songs were all written alone with pen, paper and guitar. Steve Albini at Electrical Audio Studios in Chicago, Illinois, recorded my current album, Satyagraha, with my 3-piece band (Jesse Gilpin on drums, Davy Langerak on the bass, and myself on guitar and vocals). Getting this band together is one of my greatest musical achievements. The band gives Satyagraha this unleashing maniacal live sound. It sounds live because it is. The three of us showcase each other’s strong points. We have a great respect for each other and we know our collective mission is to make the songs the best they can be. We recorded and mixed Satyagraha in four days. During that time we lived at Electrical Audio. Satyagraha is a politically charged album, with a message of seeking the truth, spiritual revolution and love. In 2004 the idea of having a band and recording with Steve Albini was nothing more than a dream. So in a way I am living out my fantasies of 2004.
You’re also an accomplished visual artist. Talk about how you see the connection between your visual art and the music you create.
The initial action I take when I'm making visual art and music is the same. I'm looking for a spontaneous outburst that can't be forced. Something that has to be captured organically. The reason behind making music or visual art is the same for me and somewhat unexplainable as to why I do one or the other. It would be like asking someone why did they get a drink of water. They must have been thirsty. That’s why I make art and music, I'm thirsty. They are equal to me. One without the other would be a work-in-progress and incomplete in some way. There is this overwhelming urge. It's always been there for as long as I can remember.
Talk a little about the themes you address in your lyrics, especially on the new album.
Satyagraha is steeped in politics, religion, war, and love. The word Satyagraha means: insistence on truth or truth force. Gandhi came up with the term during his non-violent resistance movement in the early 1900's. The truth is my ultimate interest, which has inspired the lyrics on Satyagraha. The truth: what is it? Are we willing to accept it? What if it disproves our beliefs? Will we deny it? The truth is the truth no matter what we think, feel or believe. It is what it is. That should be obvious. The lyrics on Satyagraha are often directed right at the listener. For example "Our beliefs are a poor excuse for and education" - "Who do you listen to and why?" - "If your goal was to mind control the entire population, war would be the only way" - "Do we question authority, question all tyranny, question the governmental system under which we labor?" - "Love is the answer you're not looking for." - There are occasional moments of light heartedness like: - "As I fall a sleep I pretend you’re in my arms, my dreams about you baby are wicked alarms". My goal is to have a message. To say something I can sing over and over again and feel good about it. This is why my lyrical focus has changed so much over the years. Songs are mantras that you repeat over and over again. The subject matter has the power to affect the performer and the listener.
What excites you the most about the Kansas City-area music scene?
The music scene in Kansas City is growing and changing for the better. There are more bands, musicians, music venues and record stores than there were just a few years ago. Everyone involved is proud to be a part of the Kansas City music scene. That's exciting to me.
Earth by Barbara Marciniak
The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort
Human Race Get off Your Knees: The Lion Sleeps No More by David Icke
Matrix of Power: Secrets of World Control by Jordan Maxwell
Science Liberty and Peace by Aldous Huxley
Who Built the Moon by Christopher Knight and Alan Butler
Defending Sacred Ground by Alex Collier
A Trip to the Moon (Directed by Georges Méliès)
Holy Mountain (Directed by Alexandro Jodorowsky)
Dune (Directed by David Lynch)
12 Monkeys (Directed by Terry Gilliam)
Fire in the Sky (Directed by Robert Lieberman)
The Princess Bride (Directed by Rob Reiner)
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (Directed by Jon Foy)
Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
Real Gone by Tom Waits
Incesticide by Nirvana
To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey
Near Truths & Hotel Rooms, Live by Todd Snider
Sonata for Violin & Piano No. 18 in G major, K. 301 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart