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Pittsburgh Artist of the Week: Ancient History

Courtesy of the artist

Our Pittsburgh Artist of the Week is Ancient History. Ancient History is the brainchild of Pittsburgh artist Don Ducote, whose music connects effect-driven, lo-fi experimentation to straightforward songs rooted in tried-and-true indie sensibilities. The new song “Clementines” appears on the album "Zero Dollar Consolation Prize."

Don Ducote recently spoke with WYEP's Joey Spehar.

Christopher Sprowls

What’s your musical history up to this point?  

It's been a very long journey. [I] began in Tempe, Ariz., around 2006 playing the sort of backyard/house shows one would expect from a bunch of stoned amateur musicians/college dropouts purposefully obsessed with lo-fi indie rock. Had a band called My Sister in 1994, and after putting out one record, half of the band moved to San Diego and the other half fell in love with each other. I should note that neither the violin player Chelsey, nor the keyboard/bassoonist Mikela, were stoners or college-dropouts, and both went on too much healthier, more successful, and likely, happier lives than one that involves being in my band.

I ended up leaving everyone and diving sight-unseen into Bushwick, Brooklyn, in 2007. That was fun. That was the right decision. I played a lot of loft parties and rooftop shows, which were all very cinematic. I put out two more MS94 records and then retired that moniker after a falling out with my Brooklyn bandmates. No one fell in love with each other this time.

I then headed out to Cambodia for a month to clear my head after the coffee shop I was managing was sold and I was given a month's pay as severance. I realized it would be far cheaper to go to Cambodia for a month than live in NYC. While I was there, I decided to start releasing music under the name Ancient History and released the debut LP "Tracks" soon after getting back to the states. I wanted a project that was focused more on environment, setting and mic placement. I wanted arrangements and production, not five people standing in the same room, on the same day, with the same instruments, playing songs into the same mics and machines that every other band in the area play their same instruments into. Get it? Some don't.

The first Ancient History record was a breakthrough for me. I felt really good about it. Still do. This was 2011, and it was at this point that Emma Gillespie in the UK reached out to me. She had been covering my tunes and had signed up for a reality-based talent show called "Must Be the Music" (a UK rip-off of American Idol). Well, she won a whole bunch of money on that show and wound up signing to some giant major label (right at the time when all major labels were eating sh*t), and wanted my help producing her LP. I flew out to London in early 2012 and while it felt cool to be traveling overseas to work on music, the trip was unfocused. The label didn't want her working with me, so they sent her out on tour while I was there. Then, they dropped her from the label.

In 2014, she dropped me $15K, we bought an MTA service van in Queens and set out across the US to write/record her indie debut, along with Ancient History's follow-up. We recorded in Tennessee, Kansas City, Phoenix, Flagstaff and Los Angeles. My buddy Chris Kasych (who would later win two Grammy awards for Adele's "25" and Vampire Weekend's "Father of the Bride") was running Seahorse Sound Studios in Downtown Los Angeles at the time, so we finished recording and mixing the records there. It was quite an adventure, but with no label or PR support (which had been there for her earlier work and for AH's 'Tracks') both records fell flat (Emma's record is called "Pier Siamese" and Ancient History's sophomore LP is called "Good Friend Electrical" and both can be found on Spotify).

After that, I found myself in Pittsburgh because my homie from Brooklyn was moving back to the Steel City to open a bar/venue in Lawrenceville and needed some help. This bar is called Spirit.

The first few months in Pittsburgh felt like a hangover. I was pretty trashed, cashed and thrashed at that point. I had been bouncing around the Southwest and living out of my MTA van for the most part, so heading out to Pittsburgh (somewhere I knew nothing about) to earn equity in a bar (something I knew nothing about) seemed like the best option. But it was culture shock, and it was hard. I felt like a character in Arrested Development that made "a huge mistake," but it got better.

The bar opened and I started to meet people, and I eventually found my groove in Pittsburgh. Once I had a few musicians in the city to work with, I started to craft the "Zero Dollar Consolation Prize" (ZDCP) album on an ADAT machine in my rented attic room on Penn Ave. When it was done, instead of releasing it, I decided to try to run Wild Kindness Records — a left-for-dead subsidiary of the already-tiny local label Misra Records — with the idea that if I build some kind of presence with Wild Kindness, maybe I won't have to release ZDCP into a black abyss of cyber-nothing. That was my plan, but instead I burned out spending all my time trying to help other bands make records and not focusing on mine. With that said, some great records came out of Pittsburgh at that time — examples: Rave Ami's (formerly Honey) "Mock Pop" LP, Slugss' "Appeal" LP, Dinosoul's "Eleven" LP, Bat Zuppel's "Dylar," and my personal favorite, It It's "Formal Odors" tape release.

I burned out, left the label and 'scene', fell in love with a girl, and moved with her back to NYC. The plan was to finally release "ZDCP" there, but COVID struck, and we were trapped in Brooklyn. We did that. We survived. We got tired of NYC rent and decided to come back to Pittsburgh, buy a house and finally, release "ZDCP." So here we are.

How do you describe your sound?

Lo-fi. And I also still stand by my earlier sentiment about "environment, setting, arrangements and production rather than people standing in the same room, on the same day, with the same instruments, playing songs into the same mics and machines that every other band in the area use."

It's hard to describe my sound, because I feel like the aspect of the composition that makes it "my sound" is the residue left over from the recording process, whatever that may be. Like leaving in a mistake or distant police siren or using a broken Radioshack mic on the vocals. I don't like professional studios and I don't like computer recording, because those two things automatically put your songs in the same box as everyone else's. It kinda goes back to artists banging their heads against the wall trying to make their songs sound different and unique from their peers when they're all using the same gear, the same engineers in the same room. I don't believe in demos. Songwriting and recording is like fishing. An inspired performance recorded in my living room will move people quicker than a shitty performance recorded at Abbey Road. That statement is based on my faith in punk rock. But anyway, how do I describe my sound? Dirty. Unkept. Sentimental. Feral. Human.

Tell us more about the song "Clementines." What inspired you to write it and what does it mean to you?  

It's a song about a girl. A fling, nothing serious. The song started out as a tricky, finger-picked ballad that I was trying to make into an Elliott Smith song. It should be noted that I try to turn every song into an Elliott Smith but have yet to succeed. I was recording it in my little attic space, crying some sad, stupid melody into an SM57, when suddenly the melody that you hear today popped into my head and I just freaked out. It was like, "Holy shit! This song could be happy!" so I scrapped everything and rebuilt it with a peppier drum machine preset and a distorted Casio.

I recorded most of the record on my own, so most of the vocals on "ZDCP" (and definitely on Clem) were recorded straight-thru, no comps, no cuts, no "tap-me-in-there." Needless to say, it took a lot of takes and I drove my roommate crazy singing those harmonies over, and over, and over, and over again for days. The song is about a girl who is leaving Pittsburgh to embark on a new life in NYC, and I wanted to wish her well and hoped she would have as much fun as I had when I moved to NYC a decade earlier. It's a good reminder that ideas can change direction at any moment and while often difficult and tough to spot, you have to be open to those possibilities if you wanna grow as an artist.

What was the first album that really changed your life?

Christopher Sprowls

Weezer's "Pinkerton." I loved the "Blue Album" — it dominated my middle school years. When "Pinkerton" came out, I was spending the summer with my grandparents in Tennessee — far away from my friends' popular taste and MTV. I had found a copy of "Pinkerton" at the Walmart and devoured it all summer long. I was in love. No record had ever knocked me on my ass like that record did. This was 1998 and there were no cell phones, so I didn't know how the world (and more importantly, my friends) felt about the record. When I started high school later that fall, I was shocked that no one was into it. It had totally bombed with everyone. Everyone wanted Blink-182. The only kids that liked it were the weird kids that listened to bands with strange names like Neutral Milk Hotel, Belle & Sebastian and Yo La Tengo. That was the catalyst for so much. That was when I realized that if you were willing to dig for your music, you could discover the answers to the universe.

Who are some other Pittsburgh artists you think more people should listen to?

Top 7 local Pittsburgh releases:

1. It It, "Formal Odors"
2. Swampwalk, "Sweatin' the Small Stuff"
3. Feeble LIttle Horse, "Girl with Fish"
4. Jack Stauber, "HiLo"
5. Pat Coyle, "Relic of a Rift"
6. Sneeze Awful, "Exercise #1"
7. Lampshades, "Astrology"
8. Merce Lemon, "Moonth"

Any other super interesting things about you we should know?  

Doubt it.

Joey Spehar is a Pittsburgh native who started as a volunteer D.J. at WYEP, fresh out of college in 2006. He took on any job they’d let him do like editing audio, engineering remote broadcasts, and shoveling snow.