In writing a musical memorial to his adventurous father, Jesse Chandler enters the Ghost Box hauntology realm with grace. Gareth Thompson finds out about his new album ‘A Letter From TreeTops’, touching on music camp, mountains and mushy peas along the way.
Camp Treetops is set near Lake Placid, amid the Adirondack mountain range in New York State. A children’s summer camp since 1921, the centre has long prided itself on values of peace and sustainability. It was here that Dave Chandler first came as a boy, climbing nearby Cascade Mountain (4,098 ft) at the age of ten in July 1963. Six years later he attended the Woodstock Festival and was captured on camera sitting near the stage. Dave died tragically in 2018, but his musician son Jesse has created an album for the English label Ghost Box that honours his father’s childhood. A Letter From TreeTops sparks our aural imagination to convey almost mythic experiences from the past. Full of strange visitations, it’s a sensory ritual played out on woodwind and analogue synths. The album is released under the band name Pneumatic Tubes, a reference to any instrument operated by air pressure.
Jesse Chandler, of Midlake and Mercury Rev fame, never attended Camp Treetops, unlike his father and various relatives. He says, “This album is me channelling my father’s youth without really having much reference. So I asked my aunts for their reminiscences. I did go to summer camps too, a music one in Maine and a regular one in Vermont. It seems a uniquely American event.”
A Letter From TreeTops was recorded a few weeks after Chandler’s father passed away. “When you lose someone that powerful in your life, everyone processes things differently,” Jesse says. “One of my reactions was to play music. I set up my instruments in the living room, had some Palo Santo incense burning, put some Christmas lights on and made a relaxing scene. There was no intent to record an album. As a professional musician you don’t generally make music for no reason. But as this was purely for myself, I could silence the voices that might otherwise be doubting or analysing. I played an old Moog and a lot of Mellotron, Omnichord, Autoharp, clarinets and flutes, plus some percussion and drum machines.” Using a Tascam 8-track, Chandler composed about thirty vignettes which were put aside until the pandemic. “During that time the idea of memory got reconciled with the present, which feels like a Ghost Box aesthetic. I stitched the recorded pieces together to make something more cohesive.”
Hailing from Woodstock, but now based in Texas with Midlake, it seems an oceanic leap for Chandler to record for a cult label in Sussex, England. He says, “Back around 2008 I was on a website called eMusic which had good curators and reviewers. They did a feature on Ghost Box and their compilation album Ritual And Education. So that went on my radar and I gobbled up all their other records, getting truly entranced. Then there was this record store in San Francisco called Aquarius who also reviewed stuff. I did a search for bands like Silver Apples at which point The Soundcarriers came up. I loved their music, contacted them and ended up playing flute on their album Entropicalia (Ghost Box, 2014). In the midst of a Midlake tour I went to meet them in Nottingham and ate mushy peas with chips and vinegar. An idyllic day! I loved how they recorded in a big warehouse with all the sound bleeding everywhere, pumped out of a guitar amp. Through them I got to know Ghost Box founder Jim Jupp. His was pretty much the only label I sent TreeTops to.”
It was Jupp’s idea to get Justin Hopper, author of The Old Weird Albion, to write the album sleeve-notes. Hopper told me, “I grew up in Upstate New York, not too far from where Jesse did, passing through those same mountains and childhood summer vibes. And like Jesse I’m now a dad myself, watching a new kid experience the life-gulping essence of youth. It makes a circle. I know that Jesse made this record as a ritualised signal to his father’s life, his father’s youth, Jesse’s youth, his own children’s. It’s like he made it to connect the circuit between the landscape, its ghosts and himself.” For his part Chandler says, “I just finished reading The Old Weird Albion and love Justin’s mystical writing style.”
The musician also hopes to visit some mythic English landscapes on a future visit, with Chanctonbury Ring firmly in his sights. In that sense he’d be following in his father’s footsteps, for the summer of 2016 found Dave Chandler in England to take part in fell-running events. His itinerary included places like Keswick and Skipton, with stays in Liverpool and York too. Jesse recalls, “Dad was part of a club called the Adirondack 46ers, along with at least two of his sisters and my grandfather. There are forty-six major peaks above 4,000 feet and after climbing them all you get membership of this club. In the last years of his life he was very into running and would jog up Overlook Mountain each week. I did it with him once, as I run too, but this was excruciating. It’s like you’re thinking, how can this possibly get any more uphill? Dad kept running journals from the 1970s onwards, detailing where he ran, how far, and if anything interesting happened. Over the years he developed friendships with runners around the world and talked for years about doing the fells in England.”
Chandler says his TreeTops album is sequenced to be like a mountain climb — the shorter and more palatable tracks at the beginning and end; the longer ones in the middle — to simulate the giddy energy one has at the start and finish of a hike, with the more difficult climbing once you approach the peak. He also adds, “There’s a few recurring melodic themes that I only realised much later whose notes are DCBG. My dad’s initials are DBC or DC! Some of the keyboards I used have broken down since I recorded this album, so it was like their last hurrah. I’m not sure what that means but it feels significant. Maybe just about letting go.”
Woodstock is Chandler’s home town, though he admits to feeling melancholy when revisiting. “There’s this idea that you’re searching to go back, but never quite can. Recently I’ve rewatched some old Twilight Zone episodes and it’s amazing how many are about returning to a simpler time, or idyllic childhood. Growing up in a place like Woodstock with just a few thousand people, everything was familiar and comforting. My whole world was encompassed in this magical little mountain town.” Chandler is a big fan of the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård, who he says writes so well about childhood. “I’ve always been drawn to books like his, or films such as The 400 Blows and Boyhood. It’s interesting how people remember their childhoods, or how you even can do when it’s so far back. That draws me to the Ghost Box vibe too.”
On his father’s recommendation, Chandler had been reading Knausgård’s novel series My Struggle whilst on Midlake’s Antiphon tour in 2013. “I became so enamoured of it that I read every interview I could find with Knausgård. In a few he mentioned being a Midlake fan and listening to our album The Courage Of Others while writing The End: My Struggle Book 6. So I cold-emailed his U.S. publisher and they hooked us up. I still love his writing and devour everything he does. He even sent a signed copy of My Struggle Book 1 to my dad.”
Chandler has never visited Camp Treetops, but aims to one day. He has mixed memories of his own first music camp in Maine though: “Aged ten, I was the youngest kid there by at least two years. All the other boys were going through puberty and there was me with my squeaky high voice. After two days I called my parents in tears, but they got my clarinet teacher on the phone who talked me into staying. My other summer camp was in Vermont, named Thoreau after the great nature writer. There was a library there full of old 19th century novels. It was very creepy with just those dusty books and this woodland all around. These strong memories we have of childhood are immortal because they can’t be changed. They’re just an immutable fact.”
‘A Letter From TreeTops’ is out on 25 February, and available to pre-order here.