Who Are…Light Heat

Matthew Fritch

By Matthew Fritch

on 06.28.13 in Who Is...?s

File under: Mazarin + Walkmen = Philadelphia psychedelic-pop powerhouse

For fans of: Mazarin, The Walkmen, Jesus And Mary Chain, The Velvet Underground, Elf Power, and The Shins

From: Philadelphia

Personae: Quentin Stoltzfus (vocals/lyrics/guitar), Paul Maroon (guitar), Matt Barrick (drums), Peter Bauer (bass/keyboards) and Walter Martin (bass/keyboards)

Quentin Stoltzfus shot through the ranks of a late ’90s Philadelphia psych-rock scene — a tightly-knit faction of retro-futurists that included the Lilys, Bardo Pond, Lenola, Photon Band, Azusa Plane and Asteroid #4 — on the back of a near-perfect dream-pop debut album. Watch It Happen, released under the name Mazarin, revealed Stoltzfus’s talent for princely, soft-focus pop that was well aligned with peers such as Grandaddy and the Elephant 6 collective. Two more Mazarin albums followed, building a fanbase and framing out a wider stylistic canvas. In 2006, all the clocks stopped. Jason DiEmilio, Stoltzfus’s friend and former bandmate, committed suicide. That same year, Stoltzfus retired his group due to a conflict with a Long Island cover band of the same name, and Mazarin came to an unceremonious end.

And then Stoltzfus seemed to disappear. He pulled a Richie Tenenbaum, dropped out of sight, grew his beard. I saw him once, briefly, wearing sunglasses at night and piling into a Volvo station wagon with Kurt Heasley of the Lilys. Occasionally you’d hear news about him putting a studio together, engineering records for other Philly artists (Alec Ounsworth, Bloodfeathers, The War On Drugs), working as a mover, or building a chicken coop. He taught a songwriting class at the Esalen Institute, a spiritual center in Big Sur dedicated to Aldous Huxley’s human potential philosophy.

After seven years of repairing his psyche and purging his demons, Stoltzfus has returned in the form of Light Heat. The self-titled album features the Walkmen as his backing band, which is almost unfair — the musical equivalent of being born on third base. But Stoltzfus isn’t lucky; he’s good, and his songwriting seems to benefit from long gestation periods. Light Heat percolates JAMC’s Darklands through the Walkmen’s laconic Lisbon-era guitar tones and a wry, Kinks-y worldview, all imbued with Stoltzfus’s gift for light, airy melody.

On the early success of Watch It Happen:

I just remember being stressed out because I wasn’t qualified to be doing what I was doing. I’d played in bands all my life, but was never the songwriter or frontman. When I made my first record, all I wanted to do was collect the ideas I’d been thinking about for 10 or 15 years. It was more about ambition to write songs. With Azusa Plane, that was nothing more than three guys getting together and banging out noise. When [the Mazarin album] dropped and it got all that attention…NME (which named “Wheats” Single of the Week) wasn’t even on my radar. It was very foreign to me. I felt this weight of expectation, and I hadn’t even thought of putting a band together or even playing a show. It still blows my mind to this day.

On Mazarin’s first tour vehicle — an Auntie Anne’s pretzel van:

Auntie Anne is my aunt. I tried to buy that van, because it was such a great tour van, but they said no. It had been meticulously maintained. It had the Auntie Anne’s logo on the side. We went to New York a few times in it — it was a good gimmick. People would think we had a vanload of pretzels, but in fact we just had some dirty gear and sweaty dudes in there.

On the legal conflicts over the band name Mazarin:

We had been getting messages from these guys, and I sought out some legal advice. Everyone said, “Ignore them, they’ll go away.” They kept sending messages. It appeared to them that we were having huge success because we were on tour for 10 months straight. When we started engaging with them, they explained, “The name is very precious to us, we got the name from our father’s racehorse, we’ve been doing this since 1976.” There were all these emotional reasons for the name. Their friends and family members were sending me harassing emails and leaving messages on my answering machine. One email read, “I didn’t fight in the trenches of Vietnam to have my nephew’s band name stolen.” That has nothing to do with me. At the end of it, the guys in the other band said, “The name means a lot to us, but we’ll sell it for X amount of dollars.” My manager and I decided to close it up. The name is cursed. I don’t know if that was the right thing to do, but whether I went to court or bought it from them I was looking at $15,000 either way. But I didn’t have it.

On his time in the wilderness:

I would say that 2006-2010 were very weird years for me. I was soul searching, but also working toward finding a way to put my songs out. I basically made this record for free over that time period. I had started collecting recording gear and setting up guerrilla studios wherever I could. I started learning how to do production and engineering. I wanted recording to be as fluid as playing guitar, so I started on this journey of recording other people. I recorded two Bloodfeathers records, an Apollo Sunshine record, a Flashy Python (Alec Ounsworth from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) record. I wanted to leverage my studio time and knowledge. My goal was to be able to record myself and not have it be an incredible challenge.

On learning to love his future backing band:

My band is the Walkmen. I’m lucky. We started touring with the Walkmen in 2000, only because we had the same booking agent. The first few shows I remember screaming at my booking agent: “I can’t believe you put me on a tour with these guys. They fucking suck.” By the third or fourth show, I have a distinct memory of leaning up against the van, exhausted, and we were playing a coffee shop in San Luis Obispo. I was watching Matt Barrick play drums through the window and realized, “He’s so good.” I became obsessed with watching all of them play, and we slowly started to develop this relationship. Hamilton (Leithauser) bought each member of his entire family a copy of (Mazarin’s 2001 album) A Tall Tale Storyline as a Christmas present. We recorded the basic tracks for the Light Heat record the summer after Lisbon came out. The point is, we’d been having this conversation for about a decade now. When Paul, Matt and Pete moved to Philly they started pressing: “We know you have the songs, we know you have a studio.”

On carefully choosing his new band name:

The Velvet Underground is one of the most important bands in my life, but it’s not a purposeful reference to White Light/White Heat. Believe me, I spent a long time thinking about the name. I wanted something that wasn’t used, and I wanted something that was two words easily understood by anyone. And I wanted it to have some cosmic meaning, which sounds cheesy, but that’s the criteria I came up with.

On the Lilys’ Kurt Heasley:

Everyone I know thinks he’s a complete lunatic, and he is. But he’s also one of the sweetest and most generous people I’ve ever known. Kevin Shields is a huge fan of Kurt’s. Seymour Stein signed the Lilys to Sire Records and famously spent hundreds of thousands of dollars making The 3 Way, which they then pressed about 5,000 copies of and shelved it. It’s a brilliant record. I lived next door to Kurt and his three free-range children. We spent a lot of time recording, talking, shooting the shit and getting involved in weird adventures. Kurt has been working at an ashram in Virginia the last seven years, maintaining the grounds. Occasionally he’ll call me and tell me about a new form of hip-hop he’s invented. Once a year we get together and record demos, and they’re awesome. Kurt is another creature all together. He illuminates and exists. He’s a force of nature. I’ve tried really hard to wrangle him. He can be a real son of a bitch to work with. If anyone is capable of wrangling Kurt, I’m capable of wrangling Kurt, and I’m not. He uses social dynamics to create music. He makes himself a spectacle to inspire other people to do something weirder than they wanted to do in the first place. Kurt has been a continual source of inspiration. I regularly rip his songs off. I’ll call him and say, “Hey guess what? I just ripped you off again,” and hang up the phone.

On the illness and suicide of bandmate Jason DiEmilio:

The Joyce Cohen article was brutal to read. I was around when that was happening and I had no idea the extent to which it affected him. Reading it was a bit of a closure, because I realized that what he was dealing with was beyond anything that happened between us. We had been estranged for a long time before he died. I just never understood it. I was mad at him for killing himself. In spite of the fact that we hadn’t talked for a long time. I still feel like he’s an instrumental person in my life, and I still have him with me. He haunts me, in a good way. He’s in my mind.

On creativity as a burden to normal life:

I feel a need to be a reliable, respectable human being. Being creative definitely gets in the way of that. I would love nothing more than to wake up and spend every day in my house in my pajamas, recording. I don’t have kids specifically for the reason that I’m dedicated to writing and recording songs. That is my marriage, those are my children. That’s how precious it is to me. It sounds melodramatic, but it’s a conscious decision on my part to not follow the normal path. I haven’t had a real job in 12 years because I want to be available to go on a tour if it comes up. Because of that, I’ve had amazing experiences. And it’s absolutely worth the sacrifice.