"SOMETIMES my live sets are really pretty mellow," says Dragging an Ox Through Water's Brian Mumford. "And then a lot of times they get pretty fuckin' hairy, too."
Swirling with and against his voice and acoustic guitar are swaths of electronics, oscillators, synthesizers, and god knows what else. Some are homemade. One manipulates sound using candlelight.
"I think it's called nickel-cadmium," Mumford says. "It's this substance that has the property of becoming more resistive to electrical flow in the darkness than it is in the light. So if you put that in front of a candle flame you get these very sensitive flickering [sounds]. And I like that because whatever is happening with the electrical sound is connected to everything that's going on in the room."
Indeed, chance is Mumford's musical co-pilot. Whether the sounds are screeching or solemn, he prefers to "roll with the punches," to stay present and inhabit the moment. Still, even for the most adventurous of listeners, Dragging an Ox's live shows can be challenging.
Mississippi Records impresario Eric Isaacson—no stranger to eclectic, experimental music and outsider art—struggled at first to find something to grasp. Mumford remembers Isaacson's initial response: "He was like, 'Ehh, I can't really make out the songs that are in here.'"
Still, they kept crossing paths. Isaacson saw Dragging an Ox perform numerous times. "Then he saw one particular show that I played," Mumford says, "and it sort of snapped into place that the songs are really there."
Soon after, Isaacson invited Mumford to lunch and offered to put out a record. Mumford found more than a label with actual distribution—he found a like mind.
"Eric has as much skepticism for the structures that one would have to navigate to have a career [in music] these days as I do," says Mumford. "He's very interesting—almost like a social practice artist. It's a real honor that he wanted to have me."
Though Panic Sentry is only Mumford's second full-length in his 11 years as Dragging an Ox, he is a prolific writer and a relentless improviser. Alongside Dragging an Ox, Mumford is part of Sun Foot, a minimalist, arty, post-punk trio; he is Jewelry Rash, a solo project and sea of pure, minimal noise; and a touring guitarist for Jackie-O Motherfucker.
While each of Mumford's many outlets (and there are more) could be tagged, in varying degrees, "experimental," Panic Sentry puts songs before exploration. It is plaintive, direct, and breathing; the compositions are austere and almost familiar, rooted in ringing folk. There are things like hummable choruses and moments of lilting serenity, but it remains heavy stuff from a heavy place.
"Some kind of emotional shit had been going on," Mumford says. "And there was this one morning where I was supposed to go to work and I just realized that what I was experiencing that morning was a concrete emotional shift—sort of like a watershed moment, where things could go many different ways... basically at, like, 7 am I just decided to fucking play hooky. And I just recorded all that day. It was really rainy out."
During the session, he captured the foundations—guitar and vocals, played live—for 11 songs, nine of which are on the record. It was a lot, even for him. And while on past records, Mumford often obscured the feelings that foster his music, on Panic Sentry, they resound.
Over the following months, Mumford orchestrated those recordings with his cadre of cables and electronics. Rather than overwhelming the compositions, he adorned them, deliberately and delicately. While he's planning a special set for the album's release show, Mumford says he has no intention of recreating the songs as they appear on vinyl.
"I kind of consider recordings and music to be separate categories," he says. "A song is almost like an affected form of a structure—like a piece of architecture. And then when you perform it, you find different ways of inhabiting that architecture and making it alive and making it effective."
As much as emotion, chance, and consummate playing guide him, so do a fierce intellect and a radical ideology. Mumford is staggeringly sharp, a punk, smart, and unbending.
"I'm pretty far down the rabbit hole," he says, laughing. "I have a deep negativity about the form of society that exists right now and the regimes of structural power that exist within it and also property relations and social issues that are fostered by capitalism."
But Mumford isn't here to lob slogans (and, to be fair, some of the record's most touching moments are its most lovelorn). "What's become really important to me," he says, "is having a practice of thinking through things in certain intellectual ways and engaging with the world in certain ways that can inform my ability to free-associate and dream lyrics so that I'm not just reciting the fucking garbage ideology that informs this garbage society."
In other words: Even if they could pay the bills, make touring easier, or his shows more penetrable, there are concessions Mumford will not make. Context matters to him. And though he coined the term in honor of Isaacson, Mumford could well have been speaking of himself, for he, too, is a social practice artist.