Rollo & Grady Interview // Cheval Sombre


Cheval Sombre is the project of New York-based poet and musician Christopher Porpora. He’s published two books of poetry, Becoming and In Mine Eyes. Earlier this year, he released his self-titled debut album on Double Feature Records, the new label founded by Luna alums Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham. Porpora began writing and recording tracks in the early 2000s; eventually, the recordings found their way to Sonic Boom (Spaceman 3), who ended up producing his album.

I recently caught up with Christopher to discuss the album, shoegaze, and working with legends Sonic Boom and Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips.

CS Cover

Rollo & Grady: Tell me about your background as a musician.

Christopher: As a child, I was very much drawn to an old classical guitar of my father’s, on which I taught myself, with the help of some invaluable and patient guidance from my aunt. Growing up, I lived in a house where I recall music playing most of the time. There was a reverence for all types of music there. Sifting through the vinyl in the wooden cabinet, I recall being mystified looking at the sleeves on The Mamas & The Papas’ albums, obscure flamenco guitar records, various medieval recordings, Laura Nyro, even Donovan. The artwork always fascinated me – how it suggested the sounds inside. Billie Holiday could be playing one afternoon, while the next it might be a folk song sung in German, The Who, Bach, or Roxy Music. As I got into school, I discovered – through a small radio station nearby – The Modern Lovers and of course The Velvet Underground – sounds which got me playing along with those records, imagining I was the sixth member of the band, sitting on the edge of my bed with this old classical guitar. Around that time I also was very much absorbed by a certain radio show that played mostly Delta blues. I was fortunate enough to get a slot as a DJ there, young as I was, and skipped school once a week to do a show, in which I played everything from Genesis P-Orridge records to Sonic Boom’s Drone Dream wax, and everything between and beyond. I joined a band around that time, where I mostly played noise and feedback, just content really to be playing with somewhat like-minded folks. Did a long stint in an upstate band known by a few in a thoroughly wild place that no longer exists called The Rhinecliff Hotel; we played hour-long songs at full volume, drenched in delay. The Holy Trinity ended after a good run as a result of the tired old rock and roll clichés involving relationships and certain excesses. After that, I suppose I got to writing songs and recording alone, looking not to depend on others, doing home recordings, listening to stuff like Terry Riley, Alastair Galbraith, Nikki Sudden, Zbigniew Preisner compositions for film, anything really, anything which took me away…

Rollo & Grady: Why did you choose to perform under the name of Cheval Sombre?

Christopher: I guess you could say I was named by a certain clever one, and it stuck…

Rollo & Grady: In addition to being a musician, you’re also a published poet. Do you write about different themes when you write poetry than you do when you write music?

Christopher: Thematically, despite the medium, very similar concepts emerge. Love dominates as a theme and it always has – I imagine it always will. There is also, in both mediums, an obsession with Beauty, which has always been unrelenting. It is in the process of creation where the differences lie. Poetry, and writing in general, has always been a very deliberate act for me, where I often compose the same line several times in my head before writing it down. I will subject a piece to a rigorous editing even once I feel finished. What’s interesting is that often the final changes have to do with allowing the music inherent in the piece to reveal itself, unlocking the musicality of the words, allowing the syntax itself to sing out. When I write music, it’s often upon waking, after a melody was somehow presented to me in my dreams. I wake humming a tune, and I reach for the guitar to capture it. Words usually follow after I put the music together, and words come as I strum the guitar, and I sort of frantically jot them down as they do. Very little editing happens then – it’s as if songs come for the first time in an almost finished, whole state.

Rollo & Grady: Did any of your previously written poems make it onto the record?

Christopher: Not properly as finished pieces, but certain people who have inspired poems I’ve written in the past have indeed been the subject of some of the songs on the records. They continue to…

Rollo & Grady: How did your relationship begin with Dean and Britta?

Christopher: Sonic Boom was staying with Dean and Britta when we began recording sessions in Jersey City with Nick Kramer. He played the stuff we were working on for them and we all found we were very much kindred spirits. Dean played guitar on a few tracks and Britta played keys and bass. Britta did an excellent early mix of Troubled Mind, which is now out of print. They had started their own label to re-release their first album L’Avventura, and Dean called me up to discuss perhaps putting out my record on Double Feature. I was thrilled of course – a label run by musicians, musicians who have consistently made singularly beautiful albums over the years despite any trends of the times. There wasn’t much to consider… Since the record’s been out, we’ve done some incredible shows together – they’re both outstanding musicians and two of the loveliest folks one could hope to be around.

Rollo & Grady: Can you discuss your recording experience with Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember? Any interesting stories?

Christopher: There are a thousand interesting stories involving making music with Pete. It’s almost impossible to know where to begin. I had been recording for quite some time and had at least an album’s worth of songs, and I had done and played everything on each track, from several guitar and vocal parts to handclaps, tambourine parts, all sorts of percussion, effects, everything I could get my hands on. I’ve said this before when asked about it, but one day as I was listening to everything as a whole, I thought all sounded grand, really, but one thought persisted, and it was that something, something perhaps was missing. And I thought of Pete, somewhere out there across the sea. I sent him the songs, and though it took some time, soon we were figuring how to be in the same place at the same time to do some work. Nick Kramer, engineer par excellence and gentleman of the highest order, opened his studio doors for these sessions, and I think we did nine songs in the space of a few hours, on the very first day, productive as we were. I hope he won’t mind, but I will say that on one of the days going out to the studio I mentioned to Pete what a profound and important effect his records had had on me over the years, especially in particularly hard times, how he had really got me through, what a miracle it was to have discovered his music, and all I can say is how astounded I was with the humility he displayed upon hearing such things – I’ll just leave it at that. Playing with him and watching him work is a privilege, every time. His instincts as a musician are at the very top. He listens to sound like no one else I know, with a knowing and patience unparalleled.

Rollo & Grady: I haven’t had the opportunity to see you perform live. Do you play solo or with a band?

Christopher: Thus far, the live set has gone a few different ways. When playing with a band, it’s been a revolving but consistent cast, featuring Matt Wells on guitar, Britta Phillips on bass and keys, Dean Wareham on guitar, and Sonic Boom on keys and effects. Did a few excellent shows with Matt Sumrow on keys as well. Sometimes we are all lucky enough to be in the same place at the same time, and we’re all on stage, and other times it’s just down to my voice and the acoustic.

Rollo & Grady: What are your thoughts on the term “shoegaze?”

Christopher: I prefer to approach music without thinking in terms of genre. I mean, at the moment, I’m particularly taken by Malian music, or I was listening to Brigitte Fontaine the other day and really enjoying her, or there’s this exquisite piece from Turkey – all sung in languages that are not my own, though I truly connect with these songs, experience them fully, reach an understanding about the world through them, develop an intimate relationship with each piece. This sort of experience with music is often beyond words, far beyond concerns with terminology and classification. A particular side of Exile on Main Street can just put me in the clouds one day, while Barbed Wire Kisses or an afternoon with Satie or The Clean may do something equally sublime the next. It’s deliverance I’m most interested in…

Rollo & Grady: When should we expect the next Cheval Sombre album?

Christopher: The next album, it’s hard to say. I didn’t rush to get the first one done – it very much unfolded on its own.

Cheval Sombre and My Robot Friend are playing at 92Y Tribeca Friday, October 2nd in New York. For show details click here.

Cheval Sombre – The World Is Wrong
Cheval Sombre – Little Bit of Heaven
Luna – Sideshow By the Seashore (Live)

Cheval Sombre – Cheval Sombre (eMusic)

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