Even Oxen's Bersain Beristain (pronounced bear-sane bear-i-stain) isn't quite who you'd expect to be behind Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights, a cornucopia of otherwordly bedroom folk and avant-garde soundscapes that stands as one of the best albums to be released so far this year. Instead of a self-consciously weird artiste, the 22-year-old Beristain is a Houston college student and gas station clerk who fits music in where he can - his demeanor is so friendly it's almost goofy, and void of affect. The morning in June when Spirit You All spoke to Beristain via Skype, he and his Even Oxen bandmates were getting ready for their third-ever live performance, which was also their debut as a three-piece:
Spirit You All: Can you give a bit of background about yourself? Where you're from, how started playing music, what you do these days?
BB: Well, I'm from California originally. A small town called Hemet. I basically circled between California, Nevada, and Idaho, and that's where I spent most of my life growing up. Only recently have I moved over to Texas, and I've been over here for the past three years, just going to school and working. Unfortunately I wasn't into any music scenes - I would catch a show every now and then when I could.
So for what I'm doing now besides school and work, I guess I'm trying to take my music a little bit more seriously. I don't have the best recording process or anything, but at least now there's music for people to listen to, so I feel more comfortable playing shows - we're playing an open mic tonight, so you have to take what you can get. I've been messaging venues, but no reply yet. I even tried messaging some churches to see if they would be okay with doing a free show kind of thing, but no response from them yet. So the open mic is where we're goin'!
Spirit You All: How much have you played live as Even Oxen? Also, how much is this a Bersain Beristain solo project versus being a full band?
BB: Well, for right now, we haven't played very much. There's only really been two shows, and one was in 2015, where we played with a band from New Orleans called Squirrel Queen. They were so kind to look for us and invite us to play with them when they were coming on a tour over to Texas. I just played solo. And the second time around, the same situation happened - a friend connected us with another band, and we were able to play with them in the beginning of this year. This time it was me and my brother.
And that's it. So I guess that's to say that Even Oxen is much more of a solo project, because that's originally how it started. But I've always dreamt that it could be a band, and I can't do everything by myself, you know? I need to have other bandmates. I guess we'll see for the next release. I'm definitely done with recording for a little while - I'd rather focus on performing, anyways. But I'm hoping it will become a band.
Spirit You All: Where did the name "Even Oxen" come from? I assume it had something to do with being "unequally yoked"...?
BB: Yeah, exactly. We were just thinking of band names, and I figured I wanted to have something biblical... Most Christians will already know where that's from, so that's cool.
Spirit You All: Coming off your EP last year, what was the vision for Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights? What did you want to try to do that was different?
BB: I definitely wanted to try to have better recording quality. Because for my EP, I was just 15 and 16. I didn't know what I was doing. All I knew is that I wanted to record some music. I just said, "I'm just going to record a song every year". It wasn't a thought-out process, that's just what ended up happening. And looking back, it's like, man, I just breathed into that microphone. I mean, I didn't hold back. [laughs]
So I thought, "Okay, let's give it one more shot before I try to do anything else." My main aim was to produce something that was a little bit more bearable as far as the vocals go. But ultimately I think that where the EP was a lot quieter and a lot more acoustic, I wanted to balance that out with a lot noisier stuff. I wanted to just show the more abrasive side of my music. And I think that came out all right. So now there's a bit of balance, you know what I mean? And I feel more comfortable with that.
Spirit You All: Can you explain the recording process for the album?
BB: Well, ultimately, I hated it. [laughs] I mean, I don't ever want to do it again. I have this really old Dell laptop, and I downloaded Audacity for it a while back. I can't download any new applications for it because it's so buggy and they don't work. So what I would do is I would hit "record" on Audacity - I could record the first file great. Basically that would just be me, singing with the guitar, or maybe just guitar. And after that I would record from my phone - like, I would press "play" on the computer and I would record on my phone and try playing along with it. And then because it's recorded on my phone I have to email it to myself, but then I have to change the file into a WAV format because that's the kind that Audacity works with. I'd have to go to a website to do that, and it would take a long time. So it was a nightmare, especially for the longer songs on that album. All I can say is I don't ever want to do that again.
The bulk of the album was recorded in two months, and the only song that was recorded earlier was "Kaiah's Connectant Ville" in 2014. Besides that, the whole thing was recorded in February to April of this year.
Spirit You All: Can you talk a bit about how "Kaiah's Connectant Ville" came together?
BB: Kaiah is a great friend who I grew up with in Idaho. We met when I went and visited her church. I love that she allowed me to use her song because, to me, it's my favorite song on the album. She's been playing cello for most of her life, and she made that song originally for a talent show that she was doing in her senior year of high school. But she didn't win! Which sucks because I think she at least should have placed or something. Anyway, she recorded the song, and I asked her if I could use it, and she was more than happy to allow that. I just added piano and some percussion to it - and I only did that the night before I released the album.
Actually, most of the album, like, a big chunk of it, was recorded the night before. Because, like I told you, I was sick of recording up to that point - I wanted to get it done immediately. And originally I wasn't even sure I was going to feature that song on the album, because I wanted to do it justice and I didn't know what to put onto it. I had the percussion all planned out, but I was like, do I want to leave it so bare in the beginning? So in a really quick moment I was able to record those piano parts, and got it done the next morning.
Spirit You All: You finished the final song, "Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights", on the last day, too?
BB: Yeah, it was the day of. I recorded "Kaiah's Connectant Ville", "The Dragon on the Shore Beside the Sea", "Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights", and "Your Baileys of Water" all in the same day because with school and work and everything, it's just so hard to find time to do other things like that. So yeah, I had to do it inside my truck because there's no way - it's a loud song. I know that it might sound a little subdued in the recording, but I have to get pretty loud for that one. And luckily it was raining outside and I was in my truck, so I don't think anyone could hear me. That was the only option I had.
Spirit You All: There's a huge variety of sounds on the album. What other artists had an influence on the sound and the direction of the album?
BB: Definitely Jeff Mangum, from Neutral Milk Hotel. I think he's a big inspiration for everybody. Anyone who hears his music, whether they end up loving it or not, they remember what they heard because it's just so unlike anything else. It's funny because their influence ranges a lot, too, but I can't say there was ever been a band that sounded quite like Neutral Milk Hotel. And I think it's mostly just songwriting. It's just so filled with passion. But not just the songwriting - his allowance for such a variety of sounds to come in really is the biggest influence on me.
I first heard about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from a Pitchfork article about Cold War Kids - it started off saying "hipsters hate Jesus". [laughs] And I thought that was so funny, and I ended up listening to some of the albums they mentioned that were Christian-influenced. I guess In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was included in there. So when I read about them, I checked it out, and at first it was just like, "Okay, this is an acoustic song, this is going to be an acoustic indie album." And then it just transforms into this noisy, "I love you Jesus Christ!", punk-influenced stuff. Up to that point - I mean, we've heard bands like Beatles include a big variety of sounds - but I don't think any of them resonated with me as much as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea up 'til that point. I didn't know that you could take so many influences and put it in the same album and have it work out. I guess after I heard that, I was like, this is what I want to do.
I think one last artist that's worth mentioning - it's worth mentioning because you mentioned him [on the blog] a few reviews back - is Washington Phillips. Washington Phillips is a crazy story, because no one really knows very much about him, and he grew up in Texas. And he managed to record like 18 tracks and only 16 of them survived. But yeah, his style really influenced me. It's so concentrated and unafraid to be worshipful. That's what I wanted to do, too.
Besides actual artists, 4chan's music board is the biggest influence on me. Have you even been there?
Spirit You All: No, I just know 4chan's reputation... You know, "a wretched hive of scum and villainy"...
BB: [laughs] I stay away from all the other boards, so I keep away from all the evil that's inside there. For the most part, I just stick to the music board - it's a lot more family-friendly than a lot of other places you can end up on that site. [laughs again]
Well, the music board is very volatile. It's not the most welcoming place for artists, but that's the most beautiful thing about them. They take art and elevate it to such a high standard, and they'll include so many different artists in their conversations. They're the biggest influence besides actual artists. They're the ones that pushed me to want to do something good, they made me want to do something different. Without them I would have regressed into some stupid pop thing. Like, you should hear the demos that I had lying around before I started to do Arrayed. It was just awful generic pop stuff. So despite their bad reputation and how terrible they treat the artists sometimes, they are the ones that love music most. There's no one who will push the underground more than they will. Seeing them discuss music inspires me to be better and think that it's always possible.
Spirit You All: How do you see yourself as a Christian and as an artist, and the intersection there?
BB: Honestly, I don't feel as comfortable singing about other stuff as I do my faith and my relationship with Jesus. And that's not because there aren't other things that are worth talking about or anything. It's just that there are so many great artists out there who are already doing that. There are so many great Christian artists who are doing that. I mean, like, Sufjan Stevens, for example, he tackles big issues when it comes to family or personal problems... But we've already had artists do that, and for me, I just feel more comfortable being able to sing about my faith. That's the thing I want to give to the world more than anything. Maybe something that can resonate with other believers.
I want to be a worship artist through and through, but I don't want the musical side of it go in the same direction that most people would think a worship artist would be. The crazy part about it is I've had way more support from a secular audience more than a Christian one. And I don't blame them, it's just, I'm surprised. You wouldn't think music with lyrics as openly religious as mine would connect with a secular audience, but it does!
Spirit You All: Have you always loved Revelation, or was it a surprising new appreciation that you've gained?
BB: I've always had a fascination with it. Even when I was a kid, I would always ask adults at the Baptist church I grew up in - I would ask them what this means. And you would get so many interpretations - you know, some people really did think that everything was meant to be literal, to the point that, "Oh yeah, Jesus has a sword coming out of his mouth. Like, Jesus really has a sword coming out of his mouth!" And some people say that Revelation already happened, that it already took place in the days of the early church. So I've always been fascinated by the amount of interpretations it can draw. I did come back to it recently because the imagery used in it... Whether it's metaphorical or whether it's literal, it's all powerful. It doesn't matter because it's so captivating in its descriptions of heaven and of things happening on earth, that I thought to write about it would be cool.
Spirit You All: Most of the songs on Arrayed are fairly lyrically straightforward, apart from "Your Baileys of Water". What was the inspiration and meaning behind that song?
BB: "Your Baileys of Water" was really inspired by Texas. There's a huge difference between California and Texas, and the biggest difference, I feel, is in the amount of clouds in the sky. They're ridiculous. Every day, these huge mountains of clouds everywhere. And that's where "Your Baileys of Water" comes from. So the clouds are baileys... of water... [laughs]
[For readers still in the dark, a bailey is the outer wall of a castle - implying that the clouds are the outer walls of God's heavenly castle]
We drove around a lot when I first moved here, and Texas is huge, so you spend hours driving just to get to one place. That's why I talk about traveling - there's a line in there that goes, "With the burdens of leaving, I'm thankful to spend it with you." Because no matter where you are, wherever God takes you, he's with you. No matter what, I'll never be without Jesus. So I guess I just tried to combine those two ideas.
Spirit You All: What was the vision for "The Dragon on the Shore Beside the Sea", and how did you get those abrasive sounds?
BB: I wanted it to be a "musical translation", I guess you could call it, of Revelation 12, where the woman gives birth to her child and the dragon comes after them. There are very few things in life that are as terrifying to me as the idea of being hunted down. So my vision was to create something that would be terrifying, that would give you a sense of anxiety, because that's what I imagine that situation being like.
The recording process was pretty simple - I recorded the drum beat using this water jug that I filled with quarters and coins and stuff. And I would put it inside this four-legged stool - I would flip the stool upside down, and I would place the jug inside it so it wouldn't move. And I grabbed a potato masher and I would just hit it and get different sounds as I circled around the stool. So I had a potato masher in one hand and a tambourine in the other - that's just the base of that song. Besides that I added white noise into the song, and I recorded some guitar for it. It's not very much, actually, it's only about four stems because the percussion was all done in one take because I don't get much time at my house to be as loud as that.
Spirit You All: What do you see next for Even Oxen? Where do you hope to see the project go?
BB: I think that I want to do this for my life. If I could do music for my life, I would. I'm obviously still going to go to school and I'm still going to work, but none of those things are going to be as impassioned as my music is. I guess where I see it going right now is I'm just going to work hard playing live shows and getting my music across to people in Texas while I still can. We were supposed to do a mini-tour a couple weeks ago over in Virginia and North Carolina, but there were so many problems that got in the way - we couldn't drive over there because we had issues with our cars. And even then, one of the shows got cancelled because the venue got a court summons for too many noise complaints. It sucks because sometimes you just can't help things. But I'm definitely going to just keep trying, because if I love it I'm just going to keep doing it no matter what.
As far as where I see Even Oxen and what's in store for us, definitely expect shows... and more changes. Even Oxen's not going to stay the same. It's not always going to stay folk-influenced. Recently I've been listening to a lot of dance music - house especially. That seems to be the way the sound is going now, though that's not something that's been reflected in any of the other recent songs. So I definitely do think that Even Oxen is going to change. I think it's good for artists to grow and experiment.
We're also trying to do a music video for "The Dragon on the Shore Beside the Sea". It's going to be a lot like Animal Collective's ODDSAC film. It's a long song, so it's going to have a narrative, but there's going to be a lot of abstract imagery. We're buying a Chinese dragon costume for it, and we're going to play around with that. It's summer right now, so there's no school and we're just trying to stay as productive as possible.
Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights is available on Bandcamp and on cassette via Punch Bowl Records