Poplitiko Interview with Jeff Crandall of Swallows, J. Briozo

Interview Week: Jeff Crandall Voice/Thinker from The Swallows, J. Briozo & Dissonant Creatures

Poplitiko banner featuring collage with photo of Jeff Crandall with an acoustic guitar and several of Swallows and J. Briozo album covers

Originally published in Poplitiko
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
Interview by Alex Ness

I met Jeff Crandall as I had met Tyson Allison, through my meeting and becoming a friend of creative talent Aaron Kerr and his presence in a variety of bands and projects. As one of the writers of the CD “In the Shadow of the Seven Stars,” a work I’ve offered in review, his knowledge of his chosen subject is impressive, but more than that, I’ve found him to possess an intellect and perception of life that makes him well worth the time getting to know him, and worth far more yet as a subject of an interview.

Hello Jeff, please tell my audience where were you born and raised, how did you come to find your musical talents?

I was born in Merced, California, which is an agricultural town in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. When I was about six months old, my family moved to Portland, Oregon, and that is where I discovered my interest in music. From an early age, I loved to sing to top 40 songs on the radio and, by the time I was nine or ten, I had acquired enough 45s to start recording myself playing DJ with them on a cassette recorder. I was into Blondie, Chic, ELO, Earth Wind and Fire, Heart, Queen and all sorts of 1970s rock, soft rock, soul and disco. My parents also had a small cache of albums – Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Johnny Mathis, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and other similar artists from the 50s and 60s, so I was listening to all of that stuff, too. All of that older music made a big impression on me from the get go. I didn’t know how to play any instruments, but I was definitely turned on to music at a very early age.

Even though I loved to sing, I didn’t think that I had any musical ability, and I didn’t believe I would ever learn to play an instrument. That all seemed like it was for somebody else. I was convinced that I would never want to sit and practice an instrument because it all seemed so tedious when I watched my friends doing it. But I continued to love music and I kept singing anyway. Pop music seemed a world away from whatever classical songs my friends were practicing on the piano. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I was developing an ear for music and I was practicing in my own way by singing to the radio and listening to music so intently.

For their part, my parents did arrange piano lessons for me when I was six or seven. I went to two lessons, but I got spooked when my piano teacher started talking about recitals during my first lesson. I wound up quitting after the second lesson because of my fear of performing in front of an audience, and I started taking swimming lessons instead. I had terrible stage fright and cringed at the thought of being in front of an audience.

I didn’t start messing around with music in any significant way until my sophomore year in high school when my parents bought me a Casio keyboard for Christmas. I never learned to formally play anything on that keyboard, but I did start goofing around with a couple of friends who also loved music. They both played guitar, so I poked around on the keyboard and sang to whatever they were playing. We tried to cover all sorts of songs, and we played along with our favorite albums the best we could. I’m sure that everything we did sounded horrible, but we were having fun. During our senior year, one of my friends and I took a crack at writing a song. He came up with the guitar chords, and I wrote the lyrics and the melody for it. It wasn’t a very good song, but it was good enough for me to be encouraged to keep writing.

After high school, my plan was to go to college and become an English teacher. But this all changed when I arrived at U.C. San Diego. As luck would have it, my roommate was a formally trained pianist with a better Casio keyboard than mine. More importantly, he also had a 4-track recorder, which is how I learned to play a few different instruments and arrange musical parts. It didn’t take us long to discover that we both loved the same music and that we had complementary musical skills. He could play and I was more than willing to be the singer. After a couple of trips to the local Radio Shack to purchase a cheap microphone and reverb unit, we started recording cover songs whenever we weren’t studying or getting drunk in Tijuana. Over the next two years, I started writing and recording my first songs on that 4-track recorder. I also became the lead singer of a rock band that played campus gigs and house parties. I think the validation I received from the musical people around me during that time made me realize that I had a gift for creating music even though I barely knew how to play an instrument.

If we agree that we can all read a word or note on a page, why do some interpret that note so much better than others? A modestly talented adult can play a song on a piano or clarinet, but people like you or Aaron Kerr, Tyson Allison or hell, Mozart, can create a symphony using those same notes as his language. Why is that?

I’ll bet that every one of us in the band would have a different answer to this question. I believe there is a will to create in certain people that is different than learning to perform a piece of music. The creation process likely happens in another part of the brain altogether from the pattern recognition and muscle memory part of the brain required to perform music competently. When you are both a composer and a musician, you have to combine both of these skill areas – writing and performing – to execute your musical ideas, so you are giving multiple parts of the brain a workout in the process.

Most of the time when I compose or arrange a song, I have to teach myself how to play the various parts that I come up with. More often than not, the parts are outside of my current comfort zone, especially if I’m writing music for something other than acoustic guitar, because I’m less proficient on piano, drums, bass, electric guitar, etc. As I’m developing the parts, I’m also learning to play them, which often involves shifting back and forth between imagining how they might go and then teaching my brain and body the new patterns they need to memorize the part and perform it competently.

During this back and forth process, the part I’m working on generally becomes more sophisticated – not necessarily more complex but more musical in terms of how I’m performing it. In my mind, I have an idea of how a technically sound musician would play the part, so I try to stretch myself in that direction. Once the part is sketched out, I begin to work on performing it well enough to bring the kind of feeling and emotion to it that a listener would expect from such a part. For the most part, this is how I’ve learned to both write and perform music.

With the will to create comes a doggedness to keep trying and failing until you’ve crafted something that you can accept personally, whether or not that thing is actually perceived as good by others. It is this very personal quest to keep extending yourself from wherever you’ve been before to somewhere new that eventually gets you to the point where you do start creating things that are acceptable to both yourself and others.

To get to this point, though, you have to be willing to accept the disappointment of not actually achieving anything by what you’ve done. It is the process itself that is most important as you are learning to compose and perform. The actual product of your efforts – the song or composition – may well not be worth sharing with anyone.

For most of us that write and arrange music, you have to suck at it for a good long time before you finally make something worth listening to. Eventually, the percentage of pleasing things you create goes up as you get better at weeding out the crap without wasting a lot of time on it. To mature through this process, you have to have a thick skin and not listen to detractors who typically judge you by what they hear at any given time. Only you know the full range of possibilities and whether or not you have hit your personal ceiling in terms of creativity, performance skills, etc. Songwriting and music composition are highly iterative processes that inevitably make you better at the craft over time if you are willing to stick it out. There are likely very few people who are so innately gifted at making music that they don’t have to struggle through something like the process I’ve described above in one way or another.

Why do some people have the will to create while others do not? I’m not really sure what the answer to that question is. Plenty of people perform music competently without being deeply curious about its construction. I know many great players who don’t see themselves as writers or composers. This is just one of those self-evident facts, but I’m not exactly sure why this is the case. On the other hand, I suppose there are also plenty of people who use computers competently but who aren’t curious in the least about how the machine actually works. Maybe this is the same with music.

For my part, I know there was a moment when I became aware that I was listening to music differently than I had before. This happened during my freshman year in college when I was analyzing the song “Moments in Love” by the Art of Noise for one of my college courses. I realized that I had become fully aware of all of the separate instruments and how they were interacting in the arrangement. Before this, I don’t recall listening to all of the underlying parts in a song. I was generally aware of musical solos, the vocal parts and the basic rhythm of a song, but I don’t think I knew what all of the underlying, interlocking layers were doing. Once I became aware of those, I started to listen to music differently from then on.

This was all happening as I was beginning to play guitar, bass and keyboards and write parts for my own songs. I was learning to arrange music using a 4-track recorder at the same time as I was learning to write songs. As I worked the musical muscles in my brain, my ability to hear and execute new musical parts expanded. I began to be able to listen forward such that I could anticipate what the finished product could sound like from a bunch of half-baked ideas and fragments. I think that is the arranger/producer part of my brain. Eventually, I’d find myself having dreams with fully arranged, original songs, so I’d wake myself up and try to get down as much of the arrangement as I could remember. This is how I wrote the music for the song “Gravediggers” off of the Seven Stars album.

This all begs the question of whether there are people who intuitively understand how music works without any formal instruction. I do think this is true. It would be interesting for Aaron to answer this question if he hasn’t yet, because neither Tyson nor I have had much in the way of formal training, but we do seem to understand many of the principles of composition and arrangement in spite of that. I think, however, that all three of us would agree that Aaron approaches composing and arranging differently than either Tyson or me, quite possibly because of his formal training. It also may be that Aaron’s brain works differently in regard to music than ours. Aaron is definitely more of a mathematician about music than either of us, and I think he is more strategic or intentional about what he composes and arranges as well. I know that many of Aaron’s compositions are like puzzles with interlocking pieces that have to be played just so. He is very interested in time and he likes to change it both linearly in a piece and also by combining time signatures, overlaying them on top of each other.

I think that Tyson and I are similar in that we both piece songs and arrangements together like a quilt that we design as we go. But I’m definitely on the far end of that spectrum. I suspect that Tyson is somewhat more planful than me in his songwriting. He definitely builds specific movements on guitar into the frameworks of his songs that I might leave open for the arrangement phase. In that way, Tyson’s songs are more definite than mine in terms of how they ought to be performed and arranged because he builds musical arrangements and interludes into the structures of his songs. I consider him more of a pure songwriter than me for that reason.

When it comes to musical arrangements and production, Tyson and I work fairly similarly. The main difference is that Tyson is more organized about it and he writes down all of his arrangement ideas in a notebook. And when you are in the studio with Tyson, you have to let him try out pretty much every idea he has written down because he has likely given every one of them a lot of thought beforehand. Like me, he needs to hear his ideas executed before he can let them go. As a producer, I try to allow for this kind of exploration, so that no one in the band feels shut down creatively during the recording process. For my parts, I don’t like to do a lot of pre-planning because I’ve found that the arrangements I come up with in the studio tend to work better with the existing tracks in a song than anything I might dream up at home and bring to the studio. This isn’t a 100% rule, but it is just what I’ve generally found.

Aaron’s performances in the studio and on stage are often in complete contrast to his approach to composition. He has wild improvisational skills, and he brings those into most of his performances. Sometimes those parts end up in the final takes you hear on our albums, but just as often they don’t. In the studio, we do safe takes, Aaron takes (wild) and Jeff takes (slightly more sensible) when we are recording Aaron’s parts. The goal is to get something that works well inside of the song; it has to become part of the pulse of the piece and not just something that’s being played on top of everything else. We typically reach that goal through a winnowing process over a handful of takes by recording, analyzing the takes, making adjustments and recording additional takes. Even with musicians as great as we have in our band, the process is largely the same. Every one of them can play something impressive on the first take, but that doesn’t mean it is actually good for the song. In the end, we only want to keep what is good for the song. When I’m producing, it is my job to keep us mindful of that goal even if that means cutting parts that are technically impressive.

During the writing phase of a song, I often go on hikes through the musical wilderness without a compass or a map. I like to surprise myself by discovering chord patterns, guitar tunings, phrases, sounds, and textures that I’ve never worked with before. I think this is where I derive the most joy in creating music. While you are creating, it can be like you are entering into a realm of infinite possibility, discovering new things and then shaping them and making them your own. This was particularly true when I was writing the “Deep in the Waves” album. I was attempting to create unintentional, ephemeral music that was as spontaneous and unencumbered as possible. Because of this, I took great pains in the studio to recreate many of the accidents that I had incidentally captured when I created demos of the songs for the band. I wanted to preserve that feeling of exploration and surprise in the final product rather than smoothing over all of the rough edges and cleaning everything up.

For his part, Aaron can extend musical arrangements the furthest and the fastest of all of us because of his understanding of musical theory. He’ll often stop in the middle of a recording session to get a pencil and a sheet of paper to start working out intervals for harmonies when it becomes clear that we need to flesh out more of an arrangement and add a few layers of strings or other instruments to a song. Once he has the initial musical line, he can work through the rest of a four or six part harmony at an amazing pace. Tyson and I might eventually come up with a complex harmony like that, but it would be by trial and error and it would take a hell of a lot longer.

All I know is that I’m glad we all have different processes for creating music. Our different approaches form a nice system of checks and balances, and it makes what we create better in the end. What the listener gets to hear in our various albums is the intersection of our different approaches to creating music. This is likely what distinguishes us from Mozart and other musical geniuses on that level. Greatness doesn’t ooze out of our skin; we have to work very hard at this just to be any good at all.

What artists inspire your work the most? I am not referring to creatively influence, but, when reading or listening or watching the artists in question, they lead you to a deeper place and make you wish to reflect or create with as much élan, spirit, or drive?

I’m inspired by many different types of artists – writers, painters, poets, philosophers, scientists, musicians, etc. All sorts of art has moved me, inspired me, made me think, made me angry and made me cry. Because of this, I’m always wanting to make something like what I’ve just read, watched, seen or heard. This happens to me on a daily basis. I’m always kicking myself for not having already done something like that – whatever it is. We are blessed to have so much great art in the world from so many eras in history, including the present. Everything that moves me for whatever reason either directly or indirectly influences my creativity. The fact that such beauty exists in the world is, in itself, an inspiration. By beauty, I don’t mean pretty things, but rather art that presents deeper truths, whether they be disturbing and ugly truths or uplifting and hopeful truths. All art is beautiful to me when it resonates honestly with the human experience and it is also well conceived and executed.

When I read James Joyce, William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf for the first time, I was entranced by the layering and unique narrative perspectives in their writing. I felt like they were taking me on a journey into the human psyche. They presented fragmented narratives through mental associations made inside the minds of their characters and they disoriented me by switching narrative perspectives, from character to character, with very few signposts to signify these changes. It was up to me as the reader to piece it all together since there wasn’t a coherent, objective narrative being presented by the writer. Common frames of reference that are typical to most storytelling were often missing from their novels. This made reading these works more challenging than most other literature I’ve read, but the disorientation I felt as I tried to piece everything together also evoked sub-conscious reactions to what I was reading. These books often had a dreamlike quality about them in the sense that there wasn’t an objective reality that you could fully trust. They existed in the subjective world of perceptions and referential thinking in the human brain that may or may not be reliable in any traditional sense.

I got this same feeling while watching some of the films written by Charlie Kaufman. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a good example of this as is “I’m Thinking About Ending Things.” The disorientation in the narrative is a technique used to jar the viewer into experiencing the film in a different way than one normally would. If one watches “I’m Thinking About Ending Things” like a normal movie, the whole thing begins to fall apart about halfway through. By the end, all sensibility has disintegrated and the film just seems dumb and pointless. However, if you become aware of the disjointed points in the narrative earlier in the film, you can begin to understand that what you are seeing is not at all what is happening – at least not in any objective sense. The film has taken you inside the subconscious mind where not everything makes sense in a linear, orderly way. Works of art that present the subjective mind more objectively help us to appreciate the multiple layers of “reality” that are simultaneously occurring both inside of us and around us at all times.

I don’t necessarily make music like these writers and filmmakers create their art, but I do enjoy messing around with narrative perspective and form in my songs. I was doing this quite a bit while I was writing songs for In the Shadow of the Seven Stars. A good example is the song “Watertight,” all of which takes place inside the mind of the protagonist in our story as he begins his descent into madness. On the surface, the song is delivered as a dialog between an officer on a British naval ship and one of his newly recruited deckhands (a “Jack”), but that is only a metaphorical device that I’m using to represent an internal dialog that is happening inside the mind of the protagonist. I wanted the song to feel topsy-turvy like an ocean voyage and to have abrupt changes in the music from section to section, because I wanted the music to feel like the inner turmoil and disorientation the protagonist feels as he slips into and out of his delusions. The musical changes correspond with the changes in narrative perspective from the officer’s point of view to the deckhand’s point of view as the song moves from the verses to the pre-chorus and then to the chorus. I doubt I would have thought to construct a song like this if I hadn’t first experienced other works of art that freed me from conventional narrative styles and objective points of view.

What artists directly influenced you and your work? Why do you think they work in those ways, and do you have to be aware of an influence to take full advantage of it? Or is it that they work on a subconscious level?

In terms of musical influences, my answers to this question would be quite different for different periods in my life, though I haven’t ever forgotten my early influences. Mostly what influences me is music that leaves an imprint on me for some reason. This can happen for a number of reasons ranging from an emotional connection to the material, a great groove, an interesting turn of phrase in the lyrics, or a certain movement in the arrangement. Sometimes I’m struck by the tones and textures being used or by interesting aspects of the production, and sometimes it is simply the sheer excellence of the songwriting and performance. I remember many of these things as I create my own music, but I don’t try to imitate them directly. Since I’m not particularly intentional about my songwriting and composing, there have only been a handful of times when I’ve set out to write a particular style of music. I try not to overly control the process by boxing myself in creatively like that, but there are a few notable exceptions to that rule.

One of those exceptions came when I was writing the music for “Deep in the Waves.” Around this same time, I had an unsettling conversation with a woman who began singing an Elliott Smith song to me in the middle of an emotionally charged conversation we were having. She was definitely on edge and seemed both manic and suicidal. Throughout our conversation, I felt like I was trying to help her take a step back from a ledge that she had gotten herself precariously stuck on. I wrote the first line of the song that same night on a post-it note I found in my hotel room.

“She knew all the words to Miss Misery and that’s who I saw as she sang them to me.”

So that line became the template for the song. After I got back home, I was working in the studio doing some tracking for one of the Seven Stars songs and I pulled out my acoustic guitar during a break and started playing what would become the verse chords for the song “Beautiful Mess.” When I came up with the melody to those chords, it had the exact feel I was looking for; I felt like I had backed my way into a bit of that Elliott Smith magic without really trying. It just kind of happened because I was open to it and his music had been mulling around in my brain because of that recent conversation. So, I asked the recording engineer to open a new ProTools session so I could capture that bit of the song. I didn’t want to forget it. After I got that down, the rest of the song came together pretty quickly. Before that, I never really thought to try to write anything like Elliott Smith, even though I think he is one of the best songwriters of my generation.

The same goes for Tom Waits, who I also think is one of the best and most creative musical artists of all time. I’ve never learned any of his songs or attempted to write like him, but I’ve clearly absorbed his influence along with countless other artists that I love. They all get mixed into the musical stew in my brain: Howlin’ Wolf, Nick Drake, Van Morrison, The Beatles, U2, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, The Cure, This Mortal Coil, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, David Bowie, T-Rex, Prince, pretty much everything on the Stax and Sun record labels, Leadbelly, The 13th Floor Elevators, Roxy Erickson, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Led Zeppelin, Django Reinhardt, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, The Pixies, The Breeders, Nirvana, every cool musician I know…. The list could go on and on. But I think the most profound influences on me are likely those people around me that I create music with and admire. I’ve certainly learned the most about music from them in terms of hands-on musical knowledge – just by watching them play and learning their material.

In a world struggling against a pandemic, remnant wars, inequity, what role do the arts play in daily life, or do they?

Well, for one, I think many of us would have gone mad if we didn’t have movies, television, books and music to divert us during the long periods of isolation during the pandemic. Of course, art offers more than simple diversions, but I wouldn’t want to overstate its importance in terms of political and social change. I do think that art plays a role in social change over time, but I don’t think it is a one-to-one equation. I tend to think of the arts in a more personal way – as a kind of food for the soul. In that sense, art plays a very active role in our daily lives and it helps to shape our thinking and our responses to the world around us. In this way, art does shift the common dialog and can promote social or political change; I’m just not so sure it is always in a progressive direction or that it necessarily sticks if it is. More often than not, art gives us something to enjoy and look forward to. Because of this, it helps to bring meaning to our lives. The best art makes us think and challenges our unexamined beliefs and attitudes. I believe that art is important for our collective mental health and for the overall stability of our society, and I can’t imagine a world without it. The arts give us a common framework that we can all look to for meaning and understanding.

For me personally, music has been my mental health counselor for the past 35 years and, for that reason, it is invaluable to me.

In the Shadow of the Seven Stars has an amazing depth of concept with it. How did you decide to write and create it, since there must have been a number of obstacles from the beginning. Americans are less and less interested in events that happen far away, but far away in time is even further from them. Did you not worry about the likely response? And I am glad if you said to hell with that, but I know people in the music industry and film who refuse to address certain subjects, for fear of being seen as isolated, alone, or worse, in left field.

After we released the “Witching and Divining” album in 2012, we knew we should start writing a new album right away because of the length of time it takes us to get a record done. We started discussing what we might do at one of our first band practices after the release, and Mike Nordby, our mandolin player and percussionist, suggested we write a ghost story. After a short brainstorming session, we all agreed this seemed like a natural evolution from the themes we had explored on “Witching and Divining.”

At the time, there was a Gothic Americana movement happening in town. A couple of the bands in the scene had that circus sideshow, carnival barker vibe you get from Tom Waits. There were steampunk elements as well. We were also getting into acts like Gogol Bordello and DeVotchKa, which had a similar musical vibe. Much of this music had roots in European and American folk traditions, and the bands used a variety of interesting acoustic instruments like banjos, bouzoukis, singing saws, and accordions.

This aesthetic appealed to us because we had already explored traditional Irish, English, and American folk music with the “Witching & Divining” album. Of course, Swallows is a more of a standard rock band in terms of our instrumentation and appearance than many of the bands we were performing with, but we liked the idea of doing our own version of that kind of music. So putting that twist on the songwriting seemed like a natural move for us to make.

I’ve always been drawn to the scales in traditional Gypsy and Klezmer music, so I gravitated toward that aspect of the music first. This probably comes out the most in the song “The Boneyard,” which is the first song on the album. I wrote the main instrumental line for “The Boneyard” on piano, but Aaron and I both thought it would sound better played on a violin. So, Aaron put together an excellent string arrangement for the song that used that line as a part of it.

The Victorian/steampunk angle for the music seemed like it would make a good medium for telling a ghost story. We were also interested in exploring found object percussion and adding clockwork elements to the songs. We avoided having a full drum kit on several of the songs for this reason, and we built the rhythm sections from a variety of percussion parts. Several songs on the album feature a floor tom played as a hand drum, which functionally serves as a kick in the arrangement. We also layered in iron pipes, claves, maracas, glass blocks, wood blocks, a variety of cymbals, etc. We wanted to create a rhythmic interplay out of these elements, especially for the non-rock songs on the album.

I personally liked the idea of writing songs that would incorporate more string lines, acoustic piano, and Toni Tinetti’s vocals, since Toni was still a member of Swallows when we started writing the album. As it turned out, we were able to convince Toni to sing the parts we had written for the female ghost character and those turned out really well.

The fact that parts of the album moved in more of a rock direction has something to do with Toni leaving the band and Brett Hansen joining as our lead guitarist in late 2013. We were still in the writing phase at that time, so Brett’s influences impacted the arrangements as we hashed them out for the record. This brought out some of the prog rock nature in the songs, which is evident in songs like “Gravediggers” and in the middle section of “Dead and Gone.” Brett’s talents as a rhythm and lead player also gave us the ability to really go there with some of the rock songs like “Wrecking Ball,””Ultraviolet” and “Ten Miles Down.”

Because of the steampunk connection, we knew that we’d use the Victorian era to help create an aesthetic and historical backdrop for the album. We thought it would be a fun era to explore as songwriters because the late 19th century was a time of great innovation in industry and science, there were many interesting characters milling about Victorian London, the culture was open to supernatural beliefs, and it seemed like so many great ghost stories were either written or set in that era. So that was the genesis of the concept for this album – a Victorian ghost story. When we started writing the album, that’s really all we had decided on.

I can’t say that we were particularly worried about the response to the album in terms of its commercial viability. I don’t mean that cavalierly, as if we don’t care about having an audience or about having commercial success but we really can’t and don’t operate on those terms. If we did, we would have stopped writing our own material many years ago. I just don’t think we can help ourselves in terms of being conceptual about what we’re doing, whether it is with the music itself or with the themes we explore in our lyrics.

We understand the audience for what we do is limited by the nature of what we are producing, but we hope that we are connecting with the listeners who are prepared to like such things. And we want to make sure we are delivering a quality product that is sonically interesting. Good performances are important to us along with a big emphasis on creativity in the songwriting and arrangements. We also try to make sure our recordings feel intimate regardless of the musical style. If we achieve these things, then we feel successful in what we’ve done.

I enjoy pop music as a listener, but I can’t help but incorporate influences from a wide range of subjects into the music I make. Luckily, I’ve found soul mates in that regard with the other members of Swallows. We don’t want the concepts to overwhelm the music we make, of course, but we do think it’s fair to explore a wide range of themes in our music. We aren’t just songwriters who only write about what’s happening in our own lives. In fact, I find it interesting to write from other points of view than my own. I like to inhabit characters and present the material from that character’s point of view. This is pretty much what is happening in a lot of our songs.

A good example is the song “Home” on “Witching & Divining.” “Home” is a sharecroppers song told from the point of view of the sharecropper. He’s been worn down by a hard life and is ready to go home to God. I’m an atheist but I can very much relate to that feeling. If I was merely representing myself and my own beliefs, I might hesitate to write the line, “Oh, Lord, I want to go home.” But I don’t want to hesitate to write lines like that because it is a very valid sentiment. This approach helps me reconsider and challenge my own beliefs rather than reinforce what I already think.

I just don’t think it is in our collective DNA to mimic what we hear in popular music. That isn’t where we are coming from as artists. We have influences like everyone else, but they can come from any time or place in history and they may not be related to music at all. The important thing is that they are our own organic influences and they are what moves us personally as artists.

I just hope that our approach to songwriting as storytelling is evident on In the Shadow of the Seven Stars and that people are able to understand what we are doing when they hear it.

What were the sources you used to develop your story? Were fictionalized stories of any use to you? What depth of research did you perform or, alternatively, beyond the bare facts of the case, is it one where you feel able to stretch the concept to fit the interest of modern listeners?

After we had decided that we’d write a Victorian ghost story, I decided that I should do some research to see if we could add some historical realism to the story. I figured that most good ghost stories involve a violent death of some sort, so I thought I’d try to find a good case from history to start with rather than just making something up. At first, I wanted to avoid the Jack the Ripper cases because I didn’t want our story to get sucked down that rabbit hole. I figured there would be plenty of other interesting murder cases in the Victorian era to choose from.

As it turned out, we wrote about a Jack the Ripper case anyway. The thing that finally convinced me to write about the Frances Coles murder was an illustration of the murder scene that identified the location as “Swallow Gardens.” I got a chill when I saw that. I thought the connection of the murder scene to our band name was a sign that we had found the story we needed to tell.

The fact that the Frances Coles murder isn’t one of the well-known cases associated with Jack the Ripper seemed like a good thing to me. I didn’t want to get tied to a storyline that has been retold endlessly. I also liked the idea that there isn’t a consensus that her murder was related to the others. That ambiguity allowed us to write our own story without needing to rehash the well- known details of the Ripper cases.

At the time, the main problem I had with using the Frances Coles murder is that the two principle characters didn’t seem to have many redeeming qualities. Of course, one could sympathize with them as people who had lived difficult lives under difficult conditions, but I was looking for something more than that. I wanted characters with rich interior lives, who had a large capacity for guilt, grief, love, and madness. For that reason, James Thomas Sadler, the main suspect during the murder inquest, couldn’t be our protagonist. In the end, this turned out to be a good thing, but it seemed like a bit of a problem when we first started writing the album.

I felt like I had to come up with a plausible backstory for how Coles had fallen into a life of prostitution. I wanted a compelling, sympathetic character – even as a ghost – for our protagonist to fall in love with. And our story’s protagonist needed to have enough emotional depth to experience the kind of mental anguish we were throwing at him in our songs. He needed to have the complexity of conscience to feel guilt acutely enough to have his life unravel because of it. A notoriously drunken street brawler and hard-knuckled seaman like James Thomas Sadler just wasn’t going to fit the bill.

As I was developing a story line for the songs, I shared my ideas with Mike and Aaron. At some point, we decided our protagonist would try to avenge Frances Coles’ murder and hunt for her killer. I had been reading about H.H. Holmes at the time and had briefly considered him interesting. I also considered having James Thomas Sadler sail for America and having our protagonist follow him. There were a few other Americans who were of interest to me as well, like Francis Tumblety, so I told Aaron and Mike about some of these characters and the possibility that the killer had left England for America. I didn’t have my mind set on having our story jump continents, but once we had this discussion, Aaron took the idea and ran with it.

If we were going to write an album that had anything to do with Jack the Ripper, I definitely wanted to get our facts straight. There are a lot of people out there who have an interest in these cases, so we wanted to make sure we knew enough about the subject matter to not come off as foolish. At first, Mike wasn’t too keen on the Ripper angle. He thought it might overshadow what we were writing and possibly cheapen it. I agreed that we didn’t want to glorify the killer or get too much into the gore of the killings, but I also thought that having the Ripper murders as a backdrop would provide us with a lot of rich historical detail that we probably wouldn’t find in other cases.

Because of this, I wound up doing quite a bit of research for the album, and I went down a lot of rabbit holes; however, by doing so, I gained a greater appreciation for the lives the people of that era lived, especially those living in Whitechapel, Spitalfields and other impoverished areas of London. Simply going through the court transcripts for the Ripper cases and reading the various accounts of the hand-to-mouth lives the women and men in those districts lived really painted a vivid picture for me.

To get some of the language of the era correct, I researched Victorian slang and read dialogue from the 19th century fiction. I wound up including fewer colloquialisms in the end than I thought I might, but that research was an education in itself. The song “Watertight,” which is filled with nautical terms, probably uses the most colloquial language I discovered while doing this research.

As the album writing continued, I found myself looking up more details about the murders and researching potential Ripper suspects. I used several sources, but mostly stuck to things that are available on the internet. Surprisingly, there is a lot of good source material available online, and it was more than enough for what we were doing. You can find scans of old photos, official documents, and other publications from the Victorian era. However, I didn’t get too deep into Ripper-related fiction since I was trying to pin down particular historical facts to create a plausible set of events for our story.

This included trying to figure out the name of the nearby pub at the time of Frances Coles’ murder. The name of that pub has changed several times over the years. The latest incarnation is called The Artful Dodger, so I had to go back through the historical records to figure out what businesses were on Royal Mint Street on February 13, 1891. There are some old business directories that you can find online plus there are websites devoted to the history of London pubs that list the pub names and proprietors as they properties have changed hands over time. I tried to find more than one original source for everything I added to my list of facts that we might include in our story.

Through that research, I discovered that the name of the pub near the murder scene was called The Crown and Seven Stars, so I decided use the pub name in our album title. I also found an older photo of the pub online, which still had the original design of the building façade. In the photo, you can see a crown with seven stars around it near the top of the building. Those kinds of details made the writing of the album more immediate for me because I could really visualize the places where the events took place in my mind.

I even used the street view in Google Maps to give myself a walking tour of the alleys behind the tunnel where Frances Coles was murdered. Even though there are new buildings and roads around the area, many of the old structures are still standing. The pub is still there, the railway arches are still there, and the cobblestone alleys behind the arches are still there. There are even street signs on the walls of the buildings in the alleys displaying the old street names. I used some of what I found on my Google Maps tour in the writing; it would have been better to walk the streets of London in person, of course, but this still gave me information about the area that I might not have come across otherwise.

I wanted to know exactly which arch it was, how far into the tunnel the murder occurred and what streets the murderer may have used to flee from the scene of the crime. I cross-referenced what I found on Google Maps with London city maps from the late 1800s. I also wanted to know what beat the police constable was walking when he came upon the murder scene and what was in each of the buildings he was walking by. Those railway arches are now storage facilities for businesses, but someone took pictures inside of the storage area to show exactly where Frances Coles was found by P.C. Ernest Thompson on the night of her murder.

All of those details gave me a visceral feel for events that took place over a hundred years ago. I gave myself goosebumps when I knew I was standing outside of the arch where the murder took place, even though I was using an app on the internet and was actually several thousand miles away in Minnesota. When you know enough about it, the past can become a much more immediate part of your reality. That’s how the research helped me when writing the album.

I used the casebook.org site a lot, and I’d recommend that site to anyone who wants a starting place to look into the Ripper cases. If you dig deep enough into the site, you can find links to all sorts of original documents, including newspaper articles, photos and court records, so it’s a good site for generating leads and researching them. There is a lot of good information and user-generated research on the site if you are willing to wade through it all.

Once we introduced the Ripper-goes-to-America angle to our story, I spent a lot of time looking at ship manifests to see if I could use them to help create a plausible suspect for our story line. My main interest in doing this wasn’t to solve the Ripper case, but to have our story match a set of verifiable facts as closely as possible. I just needed a plausible killer who could have been Jack the Ripper. I also needed a witness to the murder who also had a solid back story, even if that witness was a fictional character. This led me to researching Frances Coles’ prior life and figuring out where she actually lived and worked before she became a prostitute.

I found myself looking through trade journals from the 1890s to figure out the name and location of the chemist wholesaler Coles worked for in the Minories. I also found legal cases and other mentions of her employer, Winfield Hora, and some photos of medicine cabinets built by his company on a Sotheby’s auction site. It took a while to cross-reference the information and a process of elimination to feel comfortable that I’d found the right business. Frances had left her employment at the chemist wholesaler and subsequently entered a life of prostitution. But why? I thought we could supply an answer by inserting a fictional character into her story line. But I didn’t want to base that on pure conjecture. I wanted to know more of her actual story, including something about the family that produced her and why she made the choices she made.

I knew we didn’t need to nail down the Ripper’s identity, but I was still inclined to see if we could, so I spent a lot of time researching Ripper suspects during the writing and recording of the album. Like many others before me, I chased down leads and pored over census information, death records, old newspaper articles and court records. I also read other’s theories about the cases, comparing their notes to mine and so on.

I don’t know whether any of this research makes the album more appealing to a modern listener, but it certainly made the exercise of writing the songs richer for us, and I hope those efforts translate through the music to the listeners in one way or another.

Who, in stark clarity please, do you think Jack the Ripper was? Why so?

So this is the big question that can’t be answered satisfactorily by anyone at this point (unless one buys into the Aaron Kosminski DNA results, which I don’t); however, I do think that some theories about the suspects are much better than others, and I do have a favorite suspect.

One of the things I kept thinking is that the killer should show himself in other aspects of his (or her) life. Psychopathy is a disorder that is difficult to hide from those who know what to look for, and the type of psychopathy it takes to commit murders of this kind would necessarily bleed into the relationships the killer has with others.

As I read about the various suspects, I was looking for someone who would get high marks on the psychopathy checklist. I’m sure that not all psychopaths are charming, but most would likely have grandiose thoughts about themselves, be conning and manipulative, exhibit a lack of guilt, be pathological liars, and have a lack empathy for others. Some other traits to look for would be a need for constant stimulation, a parasitic lifestyle, promiscuity, multiple short-term relationships, impulsivity, a failure to take responsibility for one’s own actions, muted emotional responses, fearlessness, a lack of realistic goals, and criminal versatility.

It would take a great deal of self restraint for a psychopath to hide all of these traits. Consequently, if we could get enough details about a potential killer’s background, we should be able to see some combination of these characteristics. Not all psychopaths are homicidal, but it is hard to picture a killer like Jack the Ripper who isn’t a psychopath.

Another important factor is the availability to have committed the murders in question, though this is difficult to establish in retrospect. However, there are potential suspects who look very promising until you find out they were incarcerated, institutionalized or living abroad during one or more of the murders. In the end, those suspects don’t make the cut.

In reality, each of these crimes may have been committed by different persons or all of them may have been committed by a gang like the Old Nichol Gang for reasons unknown to us now. Those realities may be as likely as the single killer theories, but they probably aren’t as interesting. So, setting those possibilities aside, which suspects do we know enough about to establish that they were both available to commit the crimes and possessed the psychopathic qualities we’re looking for?

I had already been reading about H.H. Holmes when I started doing my research for the album. I mention this not because I believe he is a good suspect for the Whitechapel murders but because he provides a template for a personality type in that era that we know to be capable of committing multiple murders. First and foremost, Holmes was a grifter who was constantly on the move. He wasn’t organized enough to finish one grifting scheme before he started the next, so he had to keep moving to avoid being tripped up by his prior schemes. He always seemed to have several balls up in the air at the same time, and he had an exasperating amount of energy to keep juggling them as one scheme after another fizzled out or failed.

Holmes clearly enjoyed the art of deception and seeing just how far he could push the envelope without getting caught. He often committed his crimes right under people’s noses, and he did it with a charm and confidence that took most people off their guard. When his schemes finally began to unravel for good, he continued to grift, scheme, and kill until the very end. Only imprisonment and, finally, death were able to stop him.

He seemed to have a super-human ability to grift. He didn’t seem particularly planful or patient, but he had a way of not getting caught for several years. Holmes seems like a textbook psychopath to me and he exhibits most every characteristic associated with psychopathy. Although he confessed to 27 murders, he likely committed nine. Many of his murders are associated in one way or another with the various business schemes he had cooked up. Holmes is even grandiose in his confession to murder; he exaggerates his criminality when others would attempt to minimize it. This is a good example of just how pervasive psychopathy is for someone like H.H. Holmes.

The thing that is interesting to me about H.H. Holmes is that he exhibited some of the qualities of an organized serial killer and some of the qualities of a disorganized serial killer. He knew how to be charming and personable, but he was ultimately an antisocial person. He was able to cover his tracks in some cases but, in others, he was glib and sloppy, essentially daring others to catch him if they could. The motives, victims, and M.O. for his grifts and murders changed over time because of the circumstances of each crime. There isn’t a single pattern to his crimes, except for the fact that he was an inveterate grifter and a conman. It is difficult to ascertain how smart Holmes actually was, but we do know that he was smart enough to grift successfully (at least for a time) and he was, therefore, not an imbecile.

The story of H.H. Holmes provides us with a template for a late 19th century psychopathic killer. I think this is important because certain things are possible in different eras. Over time, changes in technology, demographics, city planning, policing methods, and cultural and social norms might all play a role in shaping the behavior of a psychopath. For this reason, the serial killer of the 1970s may not be a perfect model for understanding the serial killer of the 1890s. I think it is important to consider the unique constraints and freedoms of a given time and place when considering these crimes.

Another thing of interest to me is that there were at least two distinct types of multiple murder cases happening concurrently in London from 1887-1891. Because of this, most would argue that there were two (or more) serial killers working concurrently in London. The victims in the Thames Torso Murders were similar to those in the Ripper cases, but the killing styles were substantially different. It may be that the motives were different as well. Still, that’s a lot of serial killing for one city, even if it is a major city like London.

On top of this, a third serial killer, Seweryn Klosowski (a.k.a., George Chapman), lived in close proximity to both sets of crimes through most of the period in question. What are the odds of there being three independent serial killers living in the same basic area of London at the same time? Sure, Klosowski committed his poisoning murders a few years later, but London was a city of five million in 1891 and these types of crimes had previously been uncommon.

The FBI estimates that there about fifty serial killers currently working in the United States, which has a population of about 333 million. That equates to one serial killer per 16.65 million people. By comparison, if we accept that the British cases are all independent of one another, London would have had a ratio of 10 serial killers per 16.5 million people at the end of the 19th century. That’s a tenfold increase over the Unites States today. I’m not going to say that it is impossible that three serial killers lived in the same general area concurrently, but I imagine this would be highly uncommon. To my mind, this isn’t a statistic to be dismissed lightly.

There are two patterns I’ve noted in the online Ripperologist boards. The first is a tendency to over-generalize about the suspects and the second is a tendency to hyper-dissect the various facts and events of each case. By over-generalizing, I mean that many suspects are considered compelling precisely because very little is known about them. It is a lot easier to build a case against someone if you don’t have to account for anything too specific about them. Often, a general killer profile is used as a substitute for specific facts pertaining to the cases.

I recognize that this is hard to avoid when one speculates about cold cases like this from a distance, but the problem with these general killer profiles is that we have to imagine all of the missing steps between “he hated his mother because she was a prostitute” and “he disemboweled several women and left them dead in the streets.” That’s a much bigger leap than it seems on paper, and we know this because very few people have ever taken it. For that reason, one really good indicator that someone is capable of committing a heinous murder is evidence that they’ve already committed a heinous murder – or something close to it.

In terms of hyper-dissecting the facts and events, I’ve noted a tendency to erect potentially false barriers between the cases. A good example is using the killer’s M.O. as an inviolable rule in determining which cases get attributed to Jack the Ripper and which do not. M.O. is an important aspect of a case to be sure, but I don’t think it should necessarily be the only factor used to determine who was killed by what hand. I think we need to know a lot more about the possible motivations of the murderer and the culture that made the murders possible in the first place before we get too caught up in the order of events for each killing and the kind of knife that was used. Again, these are all important details but if we have narrow vision about them and exclude entire cases from consideration, we might miss larger patterns and possible connective tissue between the cases.

For example, are we missing connections between the cases because we are overly concerned about about the killer’s M.O.? Is it possible that the killer’s M.O. may have changed – not only over time but also according to the circumstances of each murder? This was an era when there wasn’t a roadmap for serial killing, so there weren’t a lot of precedents for serial killer behavior. If we use the H.H. Holmes murders as a case study, they suggest a lot more variability in the M.O. of the murders than one would expect from a modern serial killer.

It is true that the M.O. question is an obstacle to tying the various Ripper murders together, but M.O. was already a question in the five canonical murders. For instance, it is assumed that the Elizabeth Stride murder was interrupted and that is why she wasn’t mutilated like the others. But this same logic doesn’t seem to be applied consistently to the Frances Coles murder. And why did the Mary Jane Kelly murder happen indoors when the other women were left on public display in the streets. This is clearly a change to the murderer’s M.O., but it is commonly accepted that Mary Jane Kelly’s murder belonged to the canonical five attributed to Jack the Ripper.

The Metropolitan police clearly didn’t want any murders attributed to the Ripper after the Mary Jane Kelly murder. Other murders occurred, even some of a similar type, but the police weren’t going to raise the spectre of the Ripper again by suggesting that any of the killings after November 9, 1888, were connected to the earlier cases. For the police, the Ripper cases were a thing of the past. If the Ripper kept killing, he was going to need another name or, even better, no name at all.

Might these changes in M.O. instead be attributed to circumstance? For one, the area where the crimes took place is rather small compared to the range of a modern serial killer. Transportation would have been a problem. Moving a body around London would have been a problem, especially if you didn’t have access to a private coach or cab.

Killing someone in the streets was risky. There were people milling about everywhere and, once the Ripper murders became notorious, there were police and vigilante mobs roaming the streets at night looking for the killer. If one didn’t wish to be caught, fleeing the scene in the middle of a murder would be a good idea if someone came upon you in the act. That would explain the lack of mutilation in the Elizabeth Stride murder and possibly in the Frances Coles murder as well. By the time of the Mary Jane Kelly murder, the Ripper may have been wary about doing his work in the streets or he may have wanted to take his fantasies further. In other words, his M.O. may have changed as the circumstances changed.

Many modern serial killers are able to work for years in the shadows, often killing far from their homes and disposing of bodies in locations that aren’t tied to them. They have cars with trunks to transport victims from place to place if needed. If their original M.O. is successful, why would they change it if they are not pressured to do so? Time, space and anonymity allows them to become more elaborate in their crimes and offers them an opportunity to develop personal signatures, etc. Contrary to this, as the notoriety of his murders increases, Jack the Ripper would necessarily need to become craftier in his methods to avoid detection, and he may have needed to change his M.O. altogether to avoid getting caught. Even though the police only had rudimentary forensic tools to try to catch a killer after the fact, the risk of being caught in the act was growing with each murder.

I admit that I still have many questions about who the Ripper was and if any of the murders beyond the canonical five were connected to the Ripper at all. If the murders are narrowed down to the five, then it becomes more likely that the murderer was impulsive and maybe someone who lived quite close to the women and witnessed them day in and day out. A relation (e.g., son, brother) of a doss owner might make for a great suspect if we knew enough about any of them. Who knows what interactions occurred between all of the people living in those establishments and what resentments or fantasies were born out of those interactions?

Most of the known suspects I’ve read about simply feel wrong. For some of them, there simply isn’t enough to go on to strongly connect them to the crimes; others don’t have profiles that would lead you to believe that they are murderers, let alone serial killers. Some seem too crazy to function, and it is hard to imagine them having the presence of mind to kill repeatedly and not get caught. Perhaps I’m giving the killer too much credit, but I don’t think that muttering in Yiddish to yourself as you walk the streets or being a suicidal pedophile qualifies you to be Jack the Ripper. The Ripper may have been impulsive, but he wasn’t so sloppy that he got caught.

What I do know is this: There was a serial killer living in the middle of the action for every crime committed from 1888 through 1891. He was a psychopath and he exhibited many of the same psychopathic characteristics as H.H. Holmes. Because he was ultimately caught in his crimes, we know a lot about his background and his whereabouts. He was ultimately considered a prime suspect in the Ripper murders by Frederick Abberline, the lead investigator on the case in 1888, and his wife also believed that it was possible that he was the Ripper. He had training as a surgeon’s assistant in Poland, and he performed births and illegal abortions while living in London. He is affiliated with a pub, the White Hart, where at least two of the Ripper victims were last seen in public, and he lived on the corner where Frances Coles was last seen walking away with a violent man by one of her acquaintances. She was found dead less than 30 minutes later. His address at 2 Tewkesbury Building on Whitechapel High Street, can be substantiated with official documents, including the 1891 census taken in April 1891, and his son’s death certificate, which was signed on March 3, 1891. I’m talking, of course, about the Russian-Polish-Catholic barber Seweryn Klosowski.

Seweryn Klosowski’s barber shop on Cable Street was located about two football fields away from the location where the Pinchin Street Torso was found in 1889. This was his place of business and possibly his home at that time. In 1890, he moved his barbershop to a location under the White Hart Pub. However, a witness at his 1903 murder trial places him at the White Hart barbershop in the autumn of 1888, when he would have more likely been an employee than the proprietor.

Regardless, either Klosowski lived closer to the Elizabeth Stride murder scene in September 1888 or he lived closer to the Catherine Eddowes murder scene. I’m not sure that this distinction matters all that much in establishing the fact that, as far as we know, he was available to commit all of the Ripper crimes (and others) in the summer and fall of 1888. Those two murder scenes from September 30, 1888, were about 15-20 minutes walking distance from each other. If Klosowski was living in the 2 Tewkesbury Building or in George Yard in 1888, then it might make sense that he escaped the Mitre Square scene by moving back through the heart of Whitechapel to Goulston Street as he worked his way back home, but he also may have been working his way back to Cable Street. Either scenario would make sense.

Klosowski likely arrived in London in 1887 or early 1888, and he remained in the Whitechapel area working as a barber until May or June of 1891, which is a few months after the Frances Coles murder. After he left London in 1891, the Ripper murders ceased – just as they began shortly after he arrived. In 1891, Klosowski and his wife Lucie left England for America, and they wound up living in New Jersey for the next year or so. After Klosowski threatened Lucie’s life with a knife during a domestic dispute, she decided to leave America to go to live with her sister in London. Shortly after, Klosowski followed her back to London.

By 1893, Klosowski is living in London again working as a barber in Tottenham. He moves in with a woman named Annie Chapman and they have a child together. When they split up, he takes the surname Chapman and reinvents himself as George Chapman. He even creates a backstory for himself that includes growing up in the United States, and he changes his arrival date in England to 1893, possibly to establish that he couldn’t have been present for the Ripper murders. This identity change is significant for several reasons. For one, he has taken up with a British woman rather than a woman from an immigrant community. The fact that Annie Chapman shares a name with one of the Ripper victims is also something that shouldn’t be passed over too quickly, because it might possibly be a part of a pattern of Klosowski’s to associate himself with his former crimes, but from a safe distance.

As he changes his identity, Chapman is also ingratiating himself into British society and, by passing himself off as an American, he is beginning to climb up the social ladder and into the British middle-classes. He is a quick study and has learned English well enough to pass for an American in a very short amount of time.

George Chapman is next found to be working in Wenzel’s Barbershop in Leytonstone. He boards in a nearby house, which is located a few blocks from the St. Patrick’s Cemetery where Mary Jane Kelly’s body is buried. He takes up with a woman named Mary Spink and he pretends to marry her. The couple move to Hastings, England for a brief period, and this is where Chapman has an affair with a domestic servant named Alice Penfold. Chapman tries to convince Alice to return to London with him, but she refuses. In the end, he brings Mary with him to London.

Using Mary’s money, Chapman eventually become a publican when he leases the Prince of Wales pub on 53 Highgate High Street in London. He and Mary relocate there and that is where he poisons Mary to death using a poison called tartar emetic that he had purchased from a chemist in Hastings. The pub is located just over a block from Highgate Cemetery where both Mary Ann Nichols and Catherine Eddowes are buried. After her death, Mary Spink is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Leytonstone (where Mary Jane Kelly is buried). While he’s poisoning Mary Spink, he also starts to poison a woman named Martha Doubleday by serving her brandy laced with the poison. He does this until Martha begins to suspect there is foul play at work and refuses the drinks he makes hers. All of these women share names with the Whitechapel murder victims – Martha Tabram, Alice McKenzie, Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, and Mary Jane Kelly. If Klosowski/Chapman is the Ripper, he is killing again on top of landmarks associated with the original murders, and he is killing women with the same names as his original victims. These might all be coincidences, of course, but there also may be a point when coincidences like these start looking like a pattern.

Even though the police don’t suspect foul play in Mary Spink’s death, Chapman once again leaves town, this time for Bishops Stortford, Herfordshire, where he buys a pub called The Grapes. While at the Grapes, Chapman pretends to marry a woman names Elizabeth (Bessie) Taylor. Once again, there is a connection to the name of a Ripper victim – this time to Elizabeth Stride. The couple stays for a year at The Grapes before moving to the Borough of Southwark in London.

The Borough of Southwark is also the setting of a seemingly far-fetched tale about a Russian doctor and /or barber assistant who becomes the Ripper. According to the tale, the Russian doctor, Alexander Pedachenko, worked as a barber in Southwark while he performed illegal surgeries on lower-class women at the Saint Savior’s Infirmary. In one version of the story, the Russian doctor met with several of his later victims in the infirmary. There are a few different versions of this Russian doctor story and they are all pretty convoluted. In one of the stories, a traveling barber supplies salesman named Wolff Levisohn – an associate of Klosowski’s – tells Inspector Abberline that Klosowski was not the Ripper and that Abberline should instead investigate a Russian barber’s assistant in Walworth (Southwark) about the Ripper murders. Levisohn goes on to suggest that the Russian barber’s assistant was impersonating Klosowski when he traveled to Whitechapel to commit the murders.

I’d normally dismiss all of this as nonsense, but I found a reference to an article in the Pall Mall Gazette from November 28, 1888, on the casebook.org site that appears to support the basic framework of the Russian Doctor theory. That article quotes a Russian newspaper called the Novasti, which reported that the doctor was born in South Russia in 1847 and that he became a fanatical Anarchist before immigrating to Paris and losing his mind. The article also states that he murdered several women in Paris before being institutionalized in France for 16 years. A short time before the first of the Whitechapel murders, he was deemed to be cured and was released. The Russian doctor left Paris for London and resided with compatriots from Russia until the first of the Whitechapel murders occurred. No one had seen him after that.

I mention all of this because George Chapman winds up moving to the Borough of Southwark where he is associated with two pubs, The Monument and The Crown. Both of these pubs are nearly on top of the St. Savior’s Infirmary location referenced in at least one of the Russian doctor/barber stories. This is where Chapman poisons his final two victims, Bessie Taylor and Maud Marsh. A family doctor who attended to Maud when she became ill began to suspect Chapman of foul play. After her death, the Metropolitan police wound up exhuming the bodies of Chapman’s other victims, and they were able to establish that the same poison was used to kill all three women.

I can’t help but wonder if the St. Savior’s Infirmary location held special relevance for Chapman. At the very least, it seems odd that Chapman decided to relocate to this particular location since it isn’t just any location in Ripper lore. This is a location that is tied up in the Russian doctor story, which improbably involves Klosowski; however, there is nothing about the Russian doctor story that connects Klosowksi himself to this location. If the person who concocted the story knew that George Chapman owned two bars near the infirmary, that information wasn’t used. My guess is that these details are independent of one another and this is either a strange coincidence or Klosowski/Chapman had a prior relationship to the area.

Interestingly, in 1891, there were four Klosowskis listed in the London census: Two lived in Whitechapel – Seweryn (26), and his wife Lucy (21) – and two lived in the Borough of Southwark – Oscar (30) and wife Marie (27). The professions for both Oscar and Seweryn Klosowski are listed as hairdressers. From the 1891 Post Office London Trades Directory, we also know that Oscar Klosowski operated a barbershop on 195 Blackfriars Road SE that was located just over a block from the River Thames. This may be a completely unconnected fact, but it is curious that the men were of a similar age, that they had the same profession, and that Seweryn eventually leases two pubs that are located very close to the 195 Blackfriars Road location. It is also curious that Oscar and Marie only show up in the 1891 census. After 1891, both Oscar and Marie seem to disappear completely from the public records. There is also no record of them that I can find prior to 1891.

At this point, this is just curious information. We’d need to know a lot more to come up with a fact -based theory regarding Klosowski’s relationship to this area and its relevance to the Ripper murders. So far, we only have a tall tale and a strange coincidence related to it. But there might be other information still available in the world that could shed more light on Klosowski’s activities from 1888 to 1891. There could be other murders or attacks that occurred outside of the East End that might be easier to tie to Klosowski or there could be records from the St. Savior’s Infirmary that might place some of the victims in that location. It would also be interesting to learn more about Oscar and Marie Klosowski and if there is any way to substantiate who they were and if they had any relationship to Seweryn.

There is also some conjecture in the online boards that Klosowski may have committed the Carrie Brown murder, which occurred on April 24, 1891 in New York City. I liked this angle a lot because Klosowski fleeing to America on the heels of the Frances Coles murder would have been great for our story line. Several people claimed to have found evidence of Klosowski arriving in America by a cattle boat or a steamship just prior to the Carrie Brown murder, so I decided to look into this and started researching ship manifests between March and April 1891. But I couldn’t find anything conclusive.

However, at the Klosowski/Chapman murder trial, his sister-in-law, Stanislawa Rauch, testified that Klosowski and his wife Lucie left London for America around Pentecost (May 17) in 1892. Her testimony was off by a year, but the month and day are reasonably close to dates I found on a passenger list for a ship called the SS Friesland that departed from Antwerp, Belgium, and arrived in New York City on July 28, 1891. There is even a scan of the original manifest online so you can see the entries for yourself.

The manifest for the SS Friesland contains Seweryn (a.k.a. Severin) Klosowski’s name (“Severin Klasowsky” as it was transcribed by a clerk), correct age (“27”) and occupation (“Barber”). There is also a woman’s name (“Any”) who is identified as the man’s wife. The woman’s age is listed as 20, which would be the correct age for Lucie. Both passengers listed their country of origin and citizenship as “Germany,” which is indeed Lucie’s country of origin. Germany, however, would not be the correct country of origin for Klosowski, who was of Russian ancestry and born in Poland. Yet, all factors being considered, there are more matching data points for a July 1891 departure on the SS Friesland than for the other proposed ships that arrived in New York Harbor in March or April 1891.

As far as ship manifests go from that era, I consider this a pretty compelling piece of evidence that Klosowski left London with his wife in May or June and then sailed to America from Belgium, arriving in New York at the end of July, 1891. If this is true, Klosowski cannot have been responsible for Carrie Brown’s murder.

But that doesn’t mean that Klosowski wasn’t Jack the Ripper. In fact, he’s the only suspect I know of that seems like a good fit for self-proclaimed witness George Hutchinson, who claims he saw a very well-dressed gentleman with Mary Jane Kelly on the night of her murder. Hutchinson’s description seem a tad fanciful until you start hearing later court testimony about Klosowski being a well-dressed dandy as a younger man. Inspector Abberline took Hutchinson’s description seriously enough to cart him around the East End for a day to see if they might find the man he described, but they came up empty-handed.

So why do I suspect that Klosowski/Chapman was the Ripper:

  1. The Whitechapel murders began when Klosowski arrived in the area in 1888 and they ended when he left in 1891.
  2. He was known to be volatile, impulsive and violent toward women.
  3. According to Inspector Godley, an associate of Abberline’s who wound up arresting Chapman, Klosowski’s wife Lucie stated in an interview that Klosowski was often out until three or four o’clock in the morning when the couple lived in Whitechapel, but she didn’t know where he went or what he was up to.
  4. His wife Lucie left him after he brandished a knife and threatened to cut off her head.
  5. None of the various descriptions of the Ripper nor the case facts appear to disqualify him as a suspect.
  6. He fits the various witness descriptions reasonably well.
  7. He was known to wear a sailing hat that is similar to the kind described by witnesses (this is corroborated by photos of Klosowski wearing a ‘P. and O.’ cap).
  8. Inspector Abberline ultimately believed that Klosowski was the Ripper.
  9. He had surgical training in his background, though he was not skilled enough to have become a doctor.
  10. He was a convicted serial killer who showed callous disregard for the feelings and lives of others.
  11. He was undoubtedly a psychopath.
  12. He believed he was smarter than everyone around him and could literally get away with murder.
  13. When he changed his identity to George Chapman, his identity, victims and M.O. were all upscaled similarly.
  14. He creates an elaborate backstory for George Chapman, which includes his first arrival in England in 1893. He dissociates from his prior identity and doesn’t want anyone to know he lived in London prior to 1893. He goes to the gallows proclaiming he is George Chapman and not Seweryn Klosowski.
  15. At heart, he is a grifter like H.H. Holmes, and he exhibits a similar tendency to partake in his crimes right under people’s noses, most likely for the thrill of it.
  16. He doesn’t appear to be uncontrollably impulsive though he can be highly volatile and does lash out in anger.
  17. He enjoys the power of killing, watching his victims suffer, and the thrill of fooling everyone around him, including the police, courts, medical professionals and the families of his victims.
  18. He stays incredibly cool under pressure and can talk his way out of sticky situations, which is a good way to disarm people when they are searching for a murderer.
  19. He is constantly on the move, changing situations every year or so, most likely to stay one step ahead of retribution and imprisonment.
  20. He doesn’t appear to poison his later “wives” for any other reason than the thrill of witnessing another person suffer through sickness and death while he pretends to be nursing them back to health. There is no financial incentive for him to be murdering them.
  21. Witness testimony supports the case that Klosowski/Chapman is highly intelligent, can be very charming when he wants to be, and can be a great conversationalist. However, those who know him best consider him to be a terrible scoundrel who is narcissistic and self-promoting.
  22. He may be collecting trophies of a sort from the Jack the Ripper cases as he poisons women under the name George Chapman.
  23. He becomes an avid photographer and has a dark room in the basement of his bar in Southwark, which just sounds creepy. Isn’t that all we really need to know about him?

Is music a medium that can address any subject? If not which subjects are the least yielding to an artistic harvest?

Yes, music is as flexible as any other artistic medium when it comes to the subjects that might be addressed. The problem is the expectation of commercial success and finding broad acceptance for your work. If you want those things, what you can do artistically is very narrow. So, that’s a choice you make up front, sometimes without even realizing it. There are definite lanes for music and you have to fit into one of them and conform to the conventions and expectations of that lane if you want to succeed. These rules are basically the same throughout the music industry, from the local on up to the national and international.

But there are subjects that would likely backfire against most artists in most genres, so unless you want to be labeled as that thing, you probably don’t want to go there. I’m talking about explicitly advocating for racism, misogyny, religious bigotry, mass murder, and things like that. That’s the difference really – are you advocating for these points of view or not? What is the line between presenting them for artistic purposes and advocating for them?

If your art is honest, it will touch upon difficult subject matter from time to time because it exists in the real world, so you have to understand how to present difficult ideas and subjects in a way that doesn’t look like you’re making a musical political manifesto. I think it is pretty clear when that is happening because it is almost always pointed and direct. The same goes for songs that critique these anti-social attitudes and beliefs. Those songs also tend to be pointed and obvious.

I consider music coming from either end of that spectrum to be pedantic. Political music like this tends to pander to an known audience who shares in the beliefs of the artists. But that’s not what Swallows are about, and I think that should be obvious to anyone who listens to our music sincerely. What we are doing is telling stories, and our stories present characters who are good, bad, and somewhere in-between. I think stories are boring if they are only filled with the good guys.

So, if you are an artist like us who wants to explore different and/or challenging themes in your music, you are going to run into some barriers when you bring your music to the world. In the Shadow of the Seven Stars is a good example of this. A prominent publication explicitly refused to review the album solely based on the subject matter. I’m sure they didn’t listen to the album; they simply read that the album had something to do with the murder of a woman and that was that. They didn’t want to associate their publication with what they perceived to be violence against women, regardless of what the songs were actually about or how artistically we told our story. Perception was all that mattered. I’m sure there were other passes on the album for similar reasons that we never heard about.

We’ve also been turned down by music festivals for similar reasons – one time after we had already been booked. I think the organizing committee finally realized we weren’t a Christian rock band or something along those lines. But, then again, I was the one who thought it would be a good idea to call our album “Songs for Strippers (and other professions),” so it kind of comes with the territory. I thought we were being provocative, but then a local news station also told us they couldn’t say the name of our album on the air when we performed on their morning news show. So, we just have to remember that some choices we make in the artistic process can actually cause major problems for promotion once the album gets released to the rest of the world.

But let’s put this into perspective. What we are doing is pretty tame compared to tons of things happening in other types of music – hip hop, metal, punk, and rock all allow for subject matter that is dark, edgy, political, violent, sexist, racist, etc. It is all about what lane you are in. And the lane that our music happens to fit into best doesn’t like to be provoked like that. We didn’t chose the lane, but everyone gets slotted somewhere – even if you don’t want to be.

But does this mean that certain stories shouldn’t be told or that we should to avoid certain themes in our music? Should we change what we do because of knee-jerk reactions to our subject matter and our album titles? We’ve been doing this for too long to worry about that type of thing. We understand there are certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed, and we can use our own judgment to figure out when we are crossing them.

What is your ideal for accomplishments with the Swallows? Popularity? Kudos? Beloved due to quality? Or do you think more on the lines of dealing with ideals and goals from the inside of the project and don’t go beyond that?

I think we have a sliding scale for how we view our accomplishments and our success with Swallows. We have some vague external ambitions, but most of our concrete goals come directly out of the projects we conceive. I think our sense of achievement with the band is bound up in the process of bringing our creative ideas across the finish line. That process can be arduous, but it brings its own rewards. Completing a work of the scope and complexity of In the Shadow of the Seven Stars is an achievement in and of itself, and I think we are all very proud of the album we’ve made.

My personal goal, both as a songwriter and a producer, is always to try to make something that is better than merely acceptable. This is in my own eyes. I’m a harsh critic of everything I do as an artist and everything we do as a band, so I don’t need anyone else to tell me when we’ve hit that mark. At the very least, I want to create things that are good in my own estimation, so I can proudly stand behind them.

By the time I’m done making music, I would like to have created something exceptional – just one thing. When I’ve done that, I believe that I will consider myself successful and I can rest in peace when I die. That’s the goal. External success is great, but it’s not the goal. If we ever do achieve wider success as a band, I would like it to be because we actually did something exceptional. That’s a very hard thing to do, so it’s a lofty goal. If we shoot high and miss the mark, maybe we’ll end up making something good that people can enjoy anyway.

Swallows as a performing unit is a very different thing than Swallows as a recording entity. As a performer, I feel much more connected to the audience and everything is lighter and more spontaneous than it is in the studio; it really is a 180 degree difference from how things work in the studio for us. We all get a lot of energy out of the connection with each other and the audience when we perform live. It’s fun, especially when the venue is good and the sound is good. Live performance is the heartbeat of a working band. In contrast, studio work is like living in suspended animation, so a lot of musicians don’t enjoy it.

Most musicians can only spend so much time working in the studio before it drives them nuts. I’m the exception to that rule because I feel like my biggest artistic contribution to the band is in the records we make, so I feel an obligation to that process. I can’t say that recording an album is necessarily as fun or rewarding as performing; it’s just something I feel compelled to do as an artist. And it is rewarding in its own way, quite possibly because it is something that is very difficult to do well. And it’s our legacy; it is the record of what we’ve done, so I’d like to make sure we do that part the best we can.

I briefly considered not putting out In the Shadow of the Seven Stars after we finished it. I dreaded the whole marketing process that comes with a formal release. Marketing feels very reductive and superficial compared to the creative process. For that reason, it is rarely rewarding compared to all the work you put into it. I thought about simply posting the songs on Bandcamp.com, telling our friends and family about it, and calling it a day.

But, in the end, I knew that the band wouldn’t feel satisfied by a non-event like that. We put so much effort into the writing and recording of the album, and it just seemed like we needed to cap those efforts off with a proper release that included a radio campaign and professional publicity. The album deserved that much, so we went ahead and did it. As a result, the album got into a lot more hands, got played on college and community radio, and received some very nice reviews. I don’t know what that all means, but I suppose it means that we gave the album an opportunity to be appreciated by someone other than us. In its own way, that seems important.

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