Q&A with Illinois-based guitarist Henry Frayne (Lanterna), best known as a leading exponent of Ambient Americana

"When things get tense in a band, take a step back and consider what you might wish you had done looking back from ten years in the future. There are so many chance meetings and opportunities in any musician's life."

Henry Frayne (Lanterna): Hidden Drives

Lanterna is the recording persona of Henry Frayne from Champaign, Illinois. He’s played in shoegaze bands, but he’s best known as a leading exponent of Ambient Americana, creating dreamy, delay drenched compositions that seem to lift off like mirages on the American plains. Lanterna are pleased to announce the release of their seventh album, Hidden Drives, available June 4th, 2021 on Badman Recording Co. The new album is guitarist Henry Frayne's latest offering as Lanterna, a mostly instrumental side project, begun some thirty years ago. Since the '80s, Frayne has played in Champaign bands such as Lodestone Destiny, The Syndicate, ¡Ack-Ack!, Area, and The Moon Seven Times.  The past experiences in these bands influenced every song on the forthcoming Hidden Drives as it had with most previous Lanterna albums. In the last thirty years Frayne has maintained a notebook and series of cassette tapes filled with song ideas. And after thirty years and six Lanterna albums, the songs that constitute Hidden Drives are ideas that might have needed a bit more time, give or take a decade, to come together.                      (Henry Frayne - Lanterna / Photo © by Theo Merritt, 2021)

Twenty years ago when Lanterna began working with Badman, Frayne enlisted the help of producer/engineer/guitarist Mike Brosco at Waterworks Audio in Champaign, as well as Chicagoan Eric Gebow who would drum on Lanterna's Highways, Desert Ocean, and tour the US, and Greece. In 2018 with some of the songs on Hidden Drives already fleshed out with guitar, synthesizer, and bass, Eric Gebow traveled down from Chicago to Waterworks to lay down drums for half of the album's 10 songs.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I grew up in the late '60s and the music on the radio really stuck with me. I remember the 1970 March Riots on the campus of the U of I where I lived and at that age wondered if it was something that happened every year. As I got older, I did get deeply into the rock music of the sixties and seventies but it is hard for me to really understand those times without really being there (as an adult). It is all well and good to label something, but when I read about a time that I actually lived through, I sometimes wonder if it IS really possible to accurately describe an era or a movement!

As a board operator at a public radio station for decades,... I literally listened to thousands of hours of news reports and in depth hour long interviews. How has THAT influenced my views of the world? It is all in my brain somewhere! For music, just collecting finished songs together, getting them recorded, and shipped out to Badman takes up all the time I have. Surely, my views of the world are wrapped in the sounds that I produce on the albums.

And speaking of views,... For thirty years I have known and worked with photographer Kevin Salemme on Lanterna albums. He travels and photographs, and when it is time to do the artwork for a new album Kevin sends me his latest folders, or older folders and I see what goes best with the music and title for that album. Kevin Salemme is more than just a photographer, he was shopping an idea for a book of his photographs with a CD of the music of Lanterna in '97 to publishers and made the connection with Rykodisc to reissue the first album in '98. That reissue definitely brought us to the attention of a friend of Dylan Magierek's and the Badman label.   

 How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? Where does your creative drive come from?

My philosophy is just sitting down with an electric guitar and grabbing a chord and going with it from there. If I ever sat down to just write a song, I don't think I could fool myself into thinking that just chords in a row made sense. That never works for me. I certainly keep making music to create new spaces that I can inhabit! Who knows how they sound to other people but there are obviously large numbers of people who all lean in the same directions with regards to ambient music in general! And I am certainly on the more rock end of the ambient spectrum. As long as I have more songs to finish, I'll keep recording. Ever since I was a kid playing with a tape echo setting on a Revox reel-to-reel I loved the stereo spaces created by echoes! My sound has always been somewhat reverberant.

"The music I record is recorded because I like it and want to keep working and working on a song until it is finished. Since folks have listened in the past to my albums, I hope that listeners have gotten something from the music. Since I am particularly an instrumental artist by necessity, I just hope there's a message in the music." (Photo: Henry Frayne / Lanterna)

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

I answered an ad stuck on a lamppost in Champaign, Illinois for a guitarist for a band called ¡Ack-Ack! in '84. I learned about group composition and also started writing on my own. Spent the next 13 years working with folks I'd met in ¡Ack-Ack!. Lynn Canfield, and Brendan Gamble of ¡Ack-Ack! and The Moon Seven Times also took part in the recording and writing of the first Lanterna album in '91.

Steve Jones, and Mel Eberle ran Office Records in Champaign in the '80s and released two ¡Ack-Ack! singles. Later they asked me and members o ¡Ack-Ack! to record on their Arms of Someone New album Love, Power, & Justice. Later Steve Jones, and Lynn Canfield asked me to join Area which is where I started composing music on the guitar that is most like the music I'm still making. Without taking that phone number (actually I took the whole ad off the lamppost) from that ad for an ¡Ack-Ack! guitarist I don't know where I'd be! That would be an alternate reality I'd personally like to see! But not live!

Traveling to Europe now and then and playing music has overall been an extended highlight. In '06 a big promoter in Greece got my number at the radio station where I was working in the US (on a holiday) and called to tell me that they would fly me, drummer Eric Gebow, and bass player Nick Macri over for two shows, one in Athens, the other in Thessaloniki. The halls and sound systems were huge, and the crowds very nice. It was a brief look into another world. If only I'd given my work number out more often!

What do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?

The music I record is recorded because I like it and want to keep working and working on a song until it is finished. Since folks have listened in the past to my albums, I hope that listeners have gotten something from the music. Since I am particularly an instrumental artist by necessity, I just hope there's a message in the music. But unfortunately, I can't put it into words. Lyricists amaze me! It is beyond my comprehension. I was lucky to work with lyricists in the past in ¡Ack-Ack!, Area, and The Moon Seven Times. It was great to be a part of the creation of the music but discovering the lyrics that would go with the song was a nice surprise. For Lanterna it is for the listener to fill in that part themselves. I hope that there is a certain amount of release in Lanterna's music. Whether for a song or for an album I hope that people can use it to take some time to go somewhere with it. There is such a routine to life that I certainly use music to take a break!                            (Henry Frayne - Lanterna / Photo © by Jeff Towne)

"My philosophy is just sitting down with an electric guitar and grabbing a chord and going with it from there. If I ever sat down to just write a song, I don't think I could fool myself into thinking that just chords in a row made sense. That never works for me."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Just that feeling that everything was interwoven on the physical reel of tape (even to the point of crosstalk between tracks)! I grew up with analog tape machines around the house and recorded the first Lanterna album on an 8-track Tascam. It felt a little more real than the first digital recorders. But now into the future, there is so much sound processing that can recreate a warm feel that I have hope! I do keep my Tascam around, and would like to try and record another album on 8-track someday. Like vinyl, analog tape is hanging on. Lanterna's two previous albums, Backyards, and Desert Ocean had one or two songs still left over from my Tascam 8-track. I don't know if one could tell the difference between the digitally recorded songs and the analog ones! Hidden Drives is the first Lanterna album that doesn't feature a song recorded at, Impressive Studios (my very unimpressive home studio where the analog machines live).

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

As with most things of value I'd hang on to it! Wait for that time when we really need it! Since I can't think of anything to change at the moment, the time is not right!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

When things get tense in a band, take a step back and consider what you might wish you had done looking back from ten years in the future. There are so many chance meetings and opportunities in any musician's life. There are a dozen times when I could look back and say that I would have been stuck forever were it not for that phone call, or contact! The second Lanterna album Elm Street was already recorded and a year old in 2000. I had been dropped by Rykodisc in '99 and had no label. I was thinking about self-releasing the album when an acquaintance suggested I contact a fellow named Dylan Magierek and a label called Badman in San Francisco. Twenty-two years and six albums later it is my longest working partnership by far! All because of a recommendation from a guy I met while meeting some distro people in Pittsburgh for lunch while I was in The Moon Seven Times years before.

"I grew up in the late '60s and the music on the radio really stuck with me. I remember the 1970 March Riots on the campus of the U of I where I lived and at that age wondered if it was something that happened every year. As I got older, I did get deeply into the rock music of the sixties and seventies but it is hard for me to really understand those times without really being there (as an adult)" (Photo: Henry Frayne / Lanterna)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

For Lanterna, at best I want it to affect people the way that music I listen to affects me. My music is just music, so I hope that it gives people a chance to make up their own stories based on the music and the song title. For me, song titles are hard enough. Can't imagine how my friends write great songs with lyrics! 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Would one be able to change anything that happened on that day? If so, I could think of some! Actually, it would be quite maddening to choose!

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