Interview: Jehna Wilhelm of To Kill a Petty BourgeoisiePosted by Justin Spicer
The world is a museum. Though we manipulate Mother Earth daily to retrieve the necessities of modern convenience, there are artifacts preserved behind a delicate rope, always a thread beyond arm’s length—immaculate lands and holy grails that are to be studied like the works of masters. Natural beauty may never be mistaken for synthetic creation, but classical philosophers, sculptures, painters, and inventors did their part to preserve the world in illuminate amber.
This is the vivid, sultry world of To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie. Founded by Jehna Wilhelm and Mark McGee, the duo has torn the curtain shrouding the world’s most mysterious, only to return them with greater questions posed. The stark dreamscapes McGee and Wilhelm have created over the course of two albums (2007’s The Patron and 2009’s Marlone–both released via Kranky) and a handful of EPs and 7-inch records are richly textured with color and story. Though TKAPB may never be held in regards to Michelangelo or Picasso, their work embodies modern living through old soul like the masters of yore.
But To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie is at a crossroads. McGee is about to release a new project with a new collaborator (Father You See Queen) at the end of April, and Wilhelm has become a recent Seattle transplant. SSG Music caught up with Wilhelm recently to talk about the first two TKAPB albums, the inspiration behind the band, and what the future holds for Wilhelm and TKAPB.
Justin Spicer: When did you first notice (become interested in) music? Was the attraction immediate and how soon before you wanted to learn to play?
Jehna Wilhelm: I studied music classically as a kid but my first interest came as an engaged immersion into it. From my earliest memories, I remember finding music around the house–all sorts from all the different sorts of people my parents had coming around the home–placing it in our stereo and drowning myself in it. I didn’t care where any of it came from. I was just immensely curious.
I was also extremely dramatic as a child. I would just turn up the volume as high as I could possibly get away with, fall to the ground, and either remain in a daze or be so moved that I would just start crying there.
Learning how to play sort of just happened–piano lessons at 6 then again at 10, violin classes over cheerleading, art school over regular school. But I don’t think I ever wanted to necessarily play music, I just wanted to be in it somehow. I think that accounts for much of my inability as an instrumentalist and the ways I have gotten myself around that.
How did you and Mark meet? How did TKAPB form out of the friendship?
JW: Mark and I met in grade school. I remember seeing him for the first time when I was 9 knowing at that moment that someday he would play a great part in my life and then I think I went back to playing with a stick in some dirt or something like that. Years later, we became good friends and eventually began an exchange of lost stories, dark secrets, and tragic dreams.
TKAPB emerged out of a cross-continental exchange of ideas. Mark and I would send tapes back and forth of music to each other. Like a constant dialogue, each recording was a deeper layer built from the last. When I returned to the states, we both found we had set ourselves up with something beautiful and felt we had no other choice than to delve into it.
What musical influences did you have as a child/teen/young adult that informed how you approached TKAPB and the music you and Mark were creating?
JW: As a child and into my adulthood, I have always been drawn to traditional folk songs mostly coming from Eastern Europe and Asia. For TKAPB, it would be music that would make a profound influence on how we approached our sound. We were seeking to create music that told a story and was rooted in the mysterious lineage that bound and connected us.
My teenage love was trip hop. I also had great interest with everything that came out of Bristol. I loved the world created from much of that genre. It was sinister and nostalgic-I found something purely powerful in it.
You spent time in France during college, did it have any impact on how you listened to music? Did listening habits change due to your surroundings or the musicians you were listening to while in France? How did any of those influences manifest themselves in TKAPB?
JW: I have been trying to make sense of my stay in France ever since I had left. I believe that my time there really came down to having a series of dreams that eventually evolved into the inspiration for the TKAPB albums. In those dreams, came the world of Lenard Grey who became the muse for the Retire Early EP. Other images and characters from those dreams were also interworked into much of the Patron as visual models to draw from.
All in all, France had something for me to see that I was not going to see where I was at the time. I was sitting in a composition class studying to be a contemporary composer and there was something about that not clicking with me. I had to leave. I had to fuck up a little. After those experiences; those dreams; those realizations, you are going to see the world differently than ever you did. And I was hearing music in a much different light from there on. TKAPB is completely a manifestation of that. Much of the songs are about witnessing and how that empowers you and then can destroy you.
How did other influences (literature, cinema, art) inform TKAPB’s music?
JW: For the longest time, my favorite book was a book I never finished. I didn’t want to because I knew it would kill a part of me. There is more choice in the personal viewing of literature, maybe too much, whereas image can be more sudden and make an impression before you consent to let it in. There is something virtuous in the choices we can make when given the time. At the same moment, there exists this great loneliness also. I was obsessed about this feeling. It’s a longing to submit oneself to something and realizing once you did, you would never be the same again and that present version of you would be dead. Much of that idea is embedded into the lyrics and in a way expresses the meaning behind our name as a band.
Cinema and art has played a huge part of our work. It might have been because Mark and I both grew up in homes with language barriers that we learned to communicate best through image and symbols. Visual models or ideas for film were expressed to one another to be later formed into sound. It gave the music depth and also more freedom to move within those interpretations.
What did you and Mark learn from your early recordings, as well as The Patron? What did you purposely do differently when writing and recording Marlone?
JW: Throughout The Patron, Mark and I were learning every aspect of putting an album together from the recording to even playing the instruments. I wrote much of the melodies for the vocals on keyboard or guitar and then found myself in a challenging situation trying to translate it into voice. In most cases, we had no idea what we were doing but we just knew how we wanted it to sound. I think that is the main thing that kept us on track throughout that recording. The songs were written during the production process to achieve that sound we wanted.
Once The Patron was completed, we both had to figure out how to translate it to a live setting which consisted of dissecting every song and enlisting a few musicians from the Minneapolis music scene to translate the record. Two of the musicians who joined our live band (and recorded some instrumentals on The Patron) were Andrew Berg and Jesse Ackerley. Both of whom, would be major contributors to the recording of Marlone.
The recording of The Patron was more controlled and isolated. It needed to be. It’s about coming to know things and finding that you have to keep it to yourself. “The Man with the Shovel is the Man I’m Going to Marry” is about realizing that you are in love with someone and knowing you have to keep it to yourself–and then it completely consumes you that you don’t even realize the world is falling apart around you. The Patron is about that outpour of senses and then having to constrict it–and Mark’s production of that album conveys that.
Marlone would be different. We wanted it to breath and for that process it would have to be much more organic. The songs were written during tour, in the matter of hours instead of months, and were supported and inspired by the people around us. Jesse joined Mark and me in the writing of the album. His contribution was a major determinant for the course of Marlone along with Andrew and the other musicians playing with us at the time. For Mark and me, we were opening our music and had to trust that our sound and selves wouldn’t be completely lost in the process.
Could you (or would you be willing to) explain what led you to Seattle? Was it a reaction to anything TKAPB related or were you looking for a change?
JW: I moved to Seattle to go to school. There were a lot of events that led to that decision. Yes and no, it was TKAPB related. It was messy. It was beautiful. And there was a parting of ways in Berlin.
For all purposes, TKAPB isn’t working on new music at the moment. With Mark working on a new project, are you writing music? If so, what plans do you have (solo album, collaborations with friends and musicians, etc.)?
JW: Currently, I have been doing some background work for Jesse’s music project here in Seattle.
And I have begun writing for the next TKAPB album.