You may not know Pajo's name, but if you've been indie-rock inclined over the past decade, chances are pretty good you've heard his work. As a guitarist with Louisville's famed early '90s instrumentalists Slint and as a temporary (but crucial) resident of visionary Chicago post-rockers Tortoise, Pajo helped change the direction of the American musical underground. He bounded over post-punk stereotypes to explore texture, structure, and form, inhaling everything from space-rock to bossa nova in six-string breaths. A dropout from the Berklee College of Music, he played all instruments on his subsequent solo records -- recorded as M, Aerial M, and now Papa M ("the M is for mystery," he coyly writes during an e-mail exchange). These works were gorgeously expansive, lyricless excursions into fractured ambience (1997's Aerial M) and winding futuristic compositions (1999's Live From the Shark Cage).
Yet as he was helping reinvent "indie," Pajo was simultaneously journeying toward the past, playing a sideman's role to heroin-blues-slop wonders Royal Trux and the king of postmodern Appalachia, Will "Palace" Oldham. In fact, in a '99 interview, Pajo admitted that he was "going back to older stuff: music that's not as self-conscious as it is today -- which is a lot of old country music or ethnic folk. I think that that's what I'm trying to do -- be authentic about it. Be authentic to my own roots."
"Papa M Sings," a self-recorded EP from last year, showcased Pajo's application of his roots mindset to his own work: Understated, acoustic Beck/Oldham-style vocals accompanied campfire instrumentation on a handful of Jerry Jeff Walker and Daniel Johnston covers and a couple of spare originals.
Typically oblique about why he turned to vocalizing his fervor, he says, "Singing was a noose hanging over my head that I refused to look at for a long while. I knew that it had to be done, because I was drawn to it and afraid of it at the same time."
Now, the recently released Whatever, Mortal offers a richer, more wide-angle view of both the noose Pajo has decided to unweave and the town square where the hanging was supposed to take place. And it is a rare wonder -- equal parts unrefined words and undiscovered sounds, combining into a sepia-toned photo of a future with a made-up past. Rather than covering old-time songs, Pajo has immersed himself in the folk language of Americana, writing original ballads and tales that, like the work of numerous bluesmen, honky-tonkers, and troubadours before him, find their images, inspirations, and even phrases in already established hymns. Simultaneously, the modernist attention to detail that he learned in Slint and the "anything goes, nothing is sacred" creed of Tortoise can be found in every one of these 13 songs.
So, too, can the spirit of recently passed American guitar masters Sandy Bull and John Fahey -- outsider instrumentalists who approached America's cultural weirdness via its mountain ranges and deltas rather than its conservatories and academies. This spirit permeates Mortal. So what is it about the folk tradition that keeps bringing artists back?
"It has the advantage of being an evolved form of music," Pajo says, expounding on how to grow a musical garden. "I don't think that people have to learn [about] the roots before 'the tree' can grow, but you should know the basics. When I was writing riffs for some of my earlier bands, I knew the scales and the basic rules, and what thrilled me was to combine them and pervert them. Now that I've done that, I'm learning new ways to break the rules, sometimes subtly, sometimes not."
Pajo admits that his schooling in this tradition is far from done. "Every day I 'discover' someone new, some new old song that does or says something remarkable."
The longtime Louisville resident is a minimalist performer who presents grand ideas with little fuss and much symbolic beauty -- on his last solo tour, he shared the stage with a sheer curtain and a single melancholy spotlight. He claims to have no idea what's in store for audiences this time around.
"I'm touring solo because time and budget constraints demand it, but beyond that . . ." he trails off. "I purposely wrote these songs so that I could perform them alone and they would still hold up. Part of being self-sufficient is not relying on a certain device or person to perform a song. [That said], it will definitely be vocal-oriented, with a few surprises."
Pajo avoids high-minded reflections on his unique blend of tradition and avant-garde. "This is something worthy of a dissertation and out of my field," he says. "Honestly, I just make the music. I don't like writing or talking about it. All I can say is, we all, at some point, have to learn how to balance heaven and earth."