A Skeleton Key to Distance to Jupiter’s “Long Shadows”

On July 31st, 2012, I walked from the backyard of my parent’s house into their carport. I’d been in the small guest house outside for many hours, and the passage from this outer building to the carport is mostly covered, so I could not see the sky. As I walked to my car, which was parked next to my dad’s SUV, something seemed very strange. It was a typical blazing hot Arizona day, and yet, all around, the landscape was in shadow. However, beyond that shadow, all was bright. Confused by what I saw, I walked into the light and looked up. In the sky, directly between the blazing star at the heart of our solar system and the house I grew up in, was a lone, ominously black cloud. It cast a column of shadow directly onto the property. The sky was a brilliant blue in every direction. There was not a single cloud in the sky – except for this one:

“On that day, the temperature had eclipsed 100 degrees, and though the historical record shows scattered clouds in the region, at this moment, there was just the one.”

This photo has haunted me since the moment I took it. This was a mere three months before my father died of complications (read: gram-negative bacterial infection) from liver cancer. Throughout the year prior, I was at my parent’s house daily, operating a business from the converted guest house out back. I’d been watching my dad purging his belongings for weeks. Each day, as I’d arrive, I’d see him in the carport, filling the back of his SUV with an endless stream of things from his life, which he’d then drop off at the local Good Will. I never let it get to me, because we all knew he was quite sick, but those moments were far more haunting than I realized, for they colored everything, coating each day with a form of dread I’d never experienced before. So when I saw the long shadow in the sky that day, I knew something was coming. My dad’s “purging of his possessions” phase was over; it had ended that week, in fact, and he hadn’t been as active around the property. This acre lot had been his long form project since the family moved in, back in July of 1977. Being a civil engineer, his will to shape the landscape ruled his existence. He’d always been outside, working, digging, crafting, shaping, and engineering. He’d entered a new phase, however, where his energy was low and he often remained couch-bound, trapped between his failing liver and the curse of my mother’s addiction to the relentless mediocrity of daytime television – a blessed noise to her which seemed to act like a protective barrier between herself and reality. An infection seemed to take hold of my dad on October 26th, 2012. I was almost home (25 miles away) when I got the call from my mother that something was profoundly wrong, and I quickly turned around in rush hour traffic. Two days later, shortly after midnight on the 28th, he died.

In January of 2013, I began work on the sixteenth Distance to Jupiter album, code-named “October Mind.” This title, I suspect, was a nod to my dad’s death, since the words had manifested during one of my silent commutes after he died; the words had bounced around in my head for months. The music that was emerging, however, was incredibly difficult to dissect or understand, and it wasn’t until the first anniversary of my dad’s passing that the tracks began to evolve at a panic-inducing pace. From October of 2013 to the last day of the year, these seven tracks took their final form (they are unrecognizable when compared to their earliest incarnations). Track names and order had been set, so the next step was to find the album title. “October Mind” now felt worn out to me, but as I listened to the final mix of track #6 (“Long Shadows”), an array of visuals filled my mind’s eye. Columns of shadow bled from a darkening, innermost sky. It all became understandable:

I then turned my thoughts to the cover design. I had been experimenting with older artworks (based on custom filters using integer maths) from the late 1990s and early 2000s, trying to repurpose them into something that captured the moods of the music, but as I rummaged through my digital archives, I strayed upon that series of photos I had taken of the long shadow darkly cast upon my childhood home. I had never explored these images. I had taken them, and simply forgotten they existed, subtly frightened to look too closely. Would there be an obvious pattern? A leering gaze from a reaper in the sky? As I explored each photo, I couldn’t help marveling at the occurrence itself. This bizarre, singular black cloud that had been so ominous and direct in appearance and meaning was truly stunning to behold. On that day, the temperature had eclipsed 100 degrees, and though the historical record shows scattered clouds in the region, at this moment, there was just the one.

“Long Shadows” takes listeners into a realm of cryptic silhouettes, arcane secrets, pulsating rituals, and haunting frequencies. Once again leveraging the “film score without a film” approach, this enigmatic work is a journey into a cloaked realm of tonal mysteries and flowing rhythmic pathways.

The final image has been heavily processed. The orbs of light and the lens-like structure that surrounds the cloud is a nod to the camera itself (an iPhone 4S), which preserved this event. It also recalls the eye, perhaps both of the viewer and of this unknowable “thing” in the sky. The design is bisected on the horizontal by the logo and title. The DTJ logo has always been rendered in Arial Black Regular (a seemingly irrevocable design decision steeped in the long ago, circa 1996); the title was rendered using the font Eurostile. The image ultimately denotes light (top; above the cloud) and dark (bottom; below the cloud), and perfectly captures the mood of the seven tracks that make up the album. I still don’t know if this finished piece honors the situation I found myself in at my dad’s side in the hospital, just a few short months after the original photo was taken.

As I raised my camera towards the sky on that hot summer day, the cloud felt like a gentle but ominous warning, on a scale that dominated the firmament. The final image, I hope, captures some sense of that, but there is an echo of something else. Though my dad suffered from liver cancer and its complications, his official cause of death was listed as respiratory failure. The truth behind that failure, however, was the gram-negative bacteria that resisted everything the doctors threw at it, even experimental antibiotics. So the circular form you see in the image is also a bacterial cell, the perimeter a plasma membrane, the interior a frightening cytoplasmic mix. Making music is a form of escape, and while none of the tracks on the album are specifically keyed to this interpretation, the presence of gram-negative bacteria in our world is an idea I’ve been running away from since the day my father died.

“October’s Shadow” video, from the album Long Shadows.

The majority of Distance to Jupiter albums all represent a form of personal escape for me: not only of past events and present struggles, but of future potentialities. My father’s end was something I knew was coming, and it had been inducing existential panic since 1999. Now that this overarching event has come to pass, it isn’t clear where the Distance to Jupiter project will go next. New aural impulses are emerging, but everything feels different.

“The City’s Lights Always Burned” video, from the album Long Shadows.

Long Shadows is $7US at Bandcamp. The full digital album comes with copies of the album’s cover art in common aspect ratios and resolutions (from 1024×768 all the way up to 1920×1200) suitable for use on your computer’s desktop, as well as parallax wallpapers for iOS7 devices (iPad 2, iPad mini 1st Gen, iPad Retina, iPhone 4S, 5, 5C, and 5S)!

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