Blue Glass

Michael Shunk dreams in French. A native of the Midwest and a current resident of the Pacific Northwest, he started teaching himself the language when living in Luxembourg in 2015. He picked it up again during the pandemic, supplementing his studies with immersion in French language films like Chris Marker’s La Jetée. The movie’s elusive quality, its use of still black and white photography, its just-out-of-reach sense of narrative struck him strongly. When he conceived his latest iteration of Blue Glass, it came to him in French, enveloped in the same aura of time-bending doom and mystery as the landmark film.

There are no lyrics in either of Shunk’s Francophile albums, either Jardin des Étoiles from 2021 or his current disc, Les Jardins Éternels, so the connection comes through mostly in the titles. However, Shunk says the process of learning a new language was, in a strange way, similar to the work of reconfiguring his music for the solitude of the pandemic. “It partly worked because I’m not a native French speaker. I like to flail through these movies and try to understand them,” says Shunk. “It was like that in the music, too. Everything was new for me.”

Indeed, Blue Glass’ last album before the shutdown, pale mirror, was a post-punk, post-rock, full-band album indebted to 1990s Thrill Jockey bands like Tortoise and the Sea and Cake. Shunk himself has been kicking around in punk and post-punk bands since high school, first in Iowa, later in San Francisco and now in Seattle. Les Jardins Éternels and its predecessor, Jardin des Étoiles, are different from anything he’s ever done. They’re all drone and overtone and edgeless serenity, influenced as much by Debussy as any contemporary artist.

As a result, tracks like “La Son a La Nuit” sound like orchestral compositions overlaid with hiss and decay. Shunk explains that he loves the juxtaposition of hi- and lo-fi sound. “What makes a lot of music great to me is that there’s an attempt at perfection but there’s also an improvisation and a degradation of attitude,” he says. “It’s a little more punk rock than you’d expect.” That cut was inspired by Prefab Sprout’s I Trawl the Megahertz, where Paddy McAloon assembles an entire orchestra to perform his tunes. “If I had my druthers, I’d put together an orchestra, too,” confides Shunk.

For “Les Trois Coins,” the album’s long centerpiece, Shunk was thinking of Scott Walker’s cover of “Sons Of,” the Jacques Brel song about 1960s upheaval. “I think of that song as a battlefield where some momentous change is about to happen,” he says. “It has a cinematic quality to me, and so I see it as this narrative of an open field in Europe and a battle and a resolution.”

Shunk worked on Les Jardins Éternels alone, in a home studio, using a bank of analogue synths to sculpt its slow-blooming atmospheres. Among his tools, late-1970s to early-1980s synthesizers like a Roland Juno 60 and a Paraphonic 505, plus a Kawai digital piano. “I like how lo-fi they are. I’m not a technophobe, but I love the analogue quality of those instruments,” Shunk explains. “I just love manipulating them and coming up with the sounds from scratch.”

Shunk isn’t sure he’d use the word “ambient” to describe his music, which doesn’t include any field recordings, but it does have some of that genre’s surrounding, soothing appeal. Although he uses synthetic instruments, he plays them like more traditional tools. “None of it is programmed. None of it is looped or MIDI oriented. I start with a mood and just layer more ideas onto it,” he says.

His process starts, often, with improvisation, which he records and then uses as a foundation for further ideas. He limits himself to one or two takes for each element of the sound, keeping the ideas fresh and unrehearsed. “To me, that’s part of the process of using the analog sounds. You really have to sculpt the sounds before they go in. I don’t use a lot of post-effects,” he says.

The two pandemic years cut Shunk off from his fellow musicians and music lovers. He’s played a few shows live with Blue Glass collaborator Carl Germain but has mostly been at home. However, he hasn’t been alone. He’s been a stay-at-home dad for his son, now four, who would pop in and out of the room while he was recording. “We got him a little piano and a little guitar, and he just walks around the house singing. He loves music,” says Shunk.

Les Jardins Éternels comes from a quiet, solitary time, when one musician was forced to rethink his entire approach to life and music. “For me, the album was an attempt to slow down and think through things,” he says. “I hope that people will interact with it in the same way. I want people to listen to it and space out and put their own thoughts into it.”
– Jennifer Kelly

Blue Glass Photo Color
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“Le Son La Nuit” Video