Interview: Isaac Pierce of Ten-Speed

Isaac Pierce of Ten-Speed – interview by Holly Cartwright

“Isaac sings it differently depending on the day. His lyrics are always slightly changing.”

This is what my good friend Benjamin Sutter said to me a few hours prior to my interview with Isaac Pierce. Ben and I had a brief text message conversation that I initiated, while I was feeling compelled to geek out about Isaac’s music with somebody. I wrote to Ben: “The first track on his solo EP is so beautiful.” Benjamin, whom I saw perform on stage with Isaac last Tuesday, responded by quoting a line from the song that I was referring to. Only, the quote was off, and almost meant something else entirely. After I pointed this out to Ben, he proceeded to offer the explanation above.

That got me thinking. Mostly, I got lost on this track of evaluating the difference between performing a song and reciting some lyrics. This was one of the first things I had mentioned to Isaac that evening.

“Yeah, it’s different. It’s like, choose your own adventure, I guess.”

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve adopted Isaac as a Seattleite, for a time. It’s been just under two years since he’s moved out West from Chicago.

Before I knew anything about Isaac, I met him at a show that he hosted at his own house in the Central District. We got to talking, naturally about music. I asked the question that I think inevitably comes up when you’re at a house show and you’re talking to a musician that isn’t a Seattle native.

Did you move here for music?

The response was, for whatever reason at the time, refreshingly different than what I was used to.

“Well,” he said, “I did end up here. And I’m playing music. Although, I’m sort of going to do that anywhere. So. . .”


Isaac Pierce – photo by Tommy Gentes

When I brought this up to Isaac last night, he sort of laughed, glanced down at his work pants covered in paint and responded with, “Well, I didn’t move here just to do odd jobs, I guess. . .”

Apparently Isaac was initially aiming for Portland when he left Chicago. However, he told me that he found a good house with good people here in Seattle, and has been in that spot ever since. This is the house that I met him at, the same house in which he recorded the Isaac Pierce EP that he released in February of this year.

I asked Isaac if he’d known much about the Seattle music scene before settling down here.

“Well, I had a vague notion that it was different from the Chicago music scene. And I kind of had an inkling about all of that stuff that came out of Seattle. But I thought that it’d be more of a community-based thing. The nice thing about playing in Chicago is that it doesn’t matter. As soon as you get over that, there are no consequences.”

As opposed to. . .?

“There’s certain, maybe. . . Expectations. Nothing’s just like, lost. It all kind of bounces off of surfaces and off of ears. And it’s different. Don’t fuck up.”

Yeah, like, you’ll leave an impression?

“Yeah, don’t fuck up. I don’t know if that’s true. But that’s how it feels sometimes. Anyway, I’m a lot different as a performer and as a person than when I was there.”

There, being Chicago? That was just a little less than two years ago, right?

“Yeah, well, doing stuff does stuff to you.”

Are you pretty happy with your move to Seattle? You don’t feel like it’s had a negative impact on your music at all?

“It’s had a negative impact on my ability to wake up before ten in the morning. No. . . I really like mountains and air and water and stuff. And I know that those are not people, those are just things. But even though I’m sort of stranded in Seattle, I can still sneak away to the Arboretum for the groomed sort of experience. Or I can bike along the Sound.

The thing I noticed when I first came to Seattle was how different the ground felt. In the Midwest, the ground feels like the ground. It’s solid. And here, you can maybe tell, at least from somewhere else, that it’s unstable. Which adds this weird energy. There’s this giant volcano in our backyard. There’s actually three of them. One of them blew up thirty years ago. I went and saw that one. And that was so sad. And awesome. I was like twenty miles from the mountain. And there was this sign that said ‘This is where the blast site ended.’ Like ‘You would’ve been hit with flaming balls of ash if you were standing here thirty years ago.’”

I had the opportunity to see Isaac perform with his band, Ten-Speed, at Tractor Tavern last Tuesday. Ten-Speed was the main support that night. The house was pretty packed by the time they took the stage. I went into the show, anticipating that I’d be doing a piece on Isaac sometime in the near future, and thought it would be best to remove myself from the crowd and simply observe.

Throughout their entire set, I saw a lot of people on the floor and I noticed how the crowd response at the Tractor that night was different from that of a really explosive rock ‘n’ roll set. Each individual stood back from the stage a ways and seemed to have created spaces between their bodies. I entertained the idea that those spaces were being filled by the music that was being shared with them at the time. There was this perpetual synchronized sway throughout the duration of the performance, all eyes on Isaac. It seemed to be very profound and personal, the crowd’s relationship with the performers.

“That was good. It was fun. It was really intimidating, up until I got into the room. Then it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember how to do this. I’ve done this hundreds of times. You just plug in that thing, you talk to that guy; he won’t remember your name, either.’”

The show, in my opinion, went over very well. So, I asked Isaac what the next step is for him.

“Well, I’m writing. I’m working on things that I’ve been working on for a long time. And I think it might be time to finish them… I’ve got to raise money at some point ‘cause I’d like make, like, a real recording.”

Have you recorded at a professional studio before?

“No, I haven’t. I was head engineer at a studio for two years. It wasn’t a huge studio or anything, but. . .”

But, because of that, being that you had experience as head engineer at a studio, now you can kind of-

“-make crappy recordings myself!”

So, I asked Isaac to tell me more about Isaac Pierce EP from earlier this year, the conditions under which he’d put it all together.

“I recorded most of it in my basement downstairs. And the other two songs I recorded at my sister’s place. Set up a couple of microphones. So, all of the songs are live. Then, there are just a couple of overdubs where the liveness didn’t carry. Or it was compositionally necessary to add a harmony vocal or something. But, yeah, I don’t think I’ll make a recording, like, that informally anymore. It’s a capture recording. So, instead of trying to make a sonic statement, which maybe pertains to some Neapolitan genre kinda thing. Maybe just try and realize the thing actually moment to moment.”

Isaac and I talked about this record for quite some time. When he speaks about his music, he seems to have such a firm grasp on the whys and the hows of what he creates. After reviewing some of my notes, I decided to bring up something that had really struck me. I asked him about his pronouns. I asked him why, if instead of saying “I” over and over, he often would write “we” or “you”. If he were, in fact, really writing about a relationship with somebody else or if he were writing about his relationship with himself.

“Well, on that record, I guess I needed to displace some of the ideas because I couldn’t hold them myself. So, that second song, “Hollow Earth Pilot” with the lyrics ‘If that’s you.’ I kind of cringe whenever I hear that lyrics in my head. I had to go through a good four week lyrical cringing process after releasing that. I’m like ‘OH! WHY DID YOU WRITE THAT?’ I guess it was for displacing a sentiment that I can’t necessarily embody. So this person may be a hero. And I’m not a hero, but I want to speak for the hero. This hero has this authority that I don’t. And this is a person that dared to fly a plane into the center of the earth. Instead of being dismissed as a crazy person, “Hollow Earth Theory,” he was heralded. People gathered around and listened to him talk. And his essential sentiment was that you’re going to have to face yourself. But, I didn’t want to be preachy as an authority in myself, so I look to the character.”

He seemed very self aware to me. Offering admissions about himself, regarding his creative process and his tendency to struggle with finishing his pieces. But I imagine that when he does finish them, it’s very satisfying.

“Yeah – for sure. It’s weird with music because then you’re accountable for what you just did. As opposed to once you’ve graduated, then you’re like, ‘Well, we learned a lot. And that was good. Glad that’s over.’ Then everyone else is like ‘Hey! Play that one song!’ And you’re like ‘Wait, but I’ve BEEN playing it for the last two years. I just FINALLY finished it. That’s it! I got it done’”

I told him that I had a friend that said that he knew at a young age that he could use music as a way to communicate with people, and couldn’t really do it so effectively otherwise. I was wondering if that’s something that Isaac felt as well, when he first started really getting into music.

“I definitely have always carried a feeling of deep estrangement, since I was a little kid. Like, separateness. But the weird thing about communicating is that if you actually do it through music, it’s a misrepresentation of who you actually are. Which is why, if you take one thousand nights and put them into three minutes, the compounded experience is more than is ever actually able to be represented at an individual time. So, even though you’re speaking, you’re not necessarily relating. So, I don’t think that writing songs is a cure for relating to people. But it definitely feels like I’m working a bunch of weird jobs and having interests that nobody understands. And I’m finally starting to show these people, and slowly find people that maybe really like the ideas. Then, even finish the ideas to a degree where people can listen to them, instead of them being really blurry.

I guess that does feel really good. It’s definitely been the best aspect of my life so far.”

Ten-Speed headlines the Comet on Thursday, September 27th – in the meantime have a listen to their song “Warm Bruise.”

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