Timbre Ghost sorts through the rubble on ‘Life, Death, & Disintegration’

Dustin Tessier of Timbre Ghost

Dustin Tessier of Timbre Ghost Kip Praslowicz

Life goes on.

That’s the good news. And the bad news. When we last spoke to Dustin Tessier, known musically as Timbre Ghost, in 2017, he had just channeled the devastation of a divorce and his recovery from alcoholism into his debut album, The Ledger. He’s since embraced a new love, grieved over multiple losses, and confronted a painful secret from his past.

This whirlwind of emotion informs his new album, Life, Death, & Disintegration. The eight indie rock tracks have a psychedelic, slow-jam vibe that fans of Low will appreciate while Tessier’s lyrics will uplift and encourage those struggling through their own tough times.

We asked Tessier about his recent “life stuff” ahead of the album’s release show.

City Pages: What are some of the themes on your new album?

Dustin Tessier: I’ve started to unpack my own experiences of grief, loss, love, and joy, each affected by the passage of time. This record is an attempt to reconcile and find beauty. It’s about communicating and opening up, and finding the universal experiences that unite us. It’s about empathy. It’s about honesty. It’s about finding peace and strength in the moment.

On a personal note, the past two years have been filled with love and loss. I’ve had to say goodbye to dear people in my life. The deaths were brief and unexpected in one case, and in the other a long process where I watched the lights go out while actively in the grieving process. I’ve celebrated the highs of love. I’ve felt lifted by something innate, fundamental, and genuine. I’ve been moved to speak louder than ever about my own experiences with trauma and sexual assault, in order to champion those who are openly and bravely unpacking their own stories in an increasingly more public arena. It’s been a call to increase advocacy, and also to constant self-examination. I’m doing what I can to extend my sphere of love and understanding to as many people as possible.

Some people are able to articulate through anger. They see the unjust, digest it, and come back with succinct words and means to grab the attention of others. I have always faltered when it comes to using anger and outrage. They don’t come naturally to me. I’m attempting to find other ways into the conversation. For me, the dialogue starts with love. It’s the universal I am drawn to. And, so in love, Life, Death, & Disintegration was born.

CP: You mentioned deaths having influenced the album. Who died?

DT: My aunt Deb passed away unexpectedly after an intense ordeal with cancer. We were close when I was a child. She was my mother's sister, and also my mother's best friend. Deb was an early champion for me. She was the sort of person who exuded the healing power of laughter. Her way of being stood in stark contrast to the life circumstances around her. She never hesitated to let someone know she was proud of them, myself included. This is something I refuse to take for granted. She also went out of her way to acknowledge that sure, we come from a family of misfits and weirdos. This is a beautiful thing. She recognized in me, in her children, that our family, though flawed in many conventional ways, was unique and lovable. And, that is what really matters. I found out she passed through my mother, in a very pained phone call. It's been about a year now. She's still coming to terms with losing her best friend and sister. I'm proud of her, and I know she can walk through the grief.

In April of 2018, I learned my beloved Boxer dog Gracie Mae had very aggressively progressing Lymphoma. On top of that, she had previously been diagnosed with a small number of mast cell tumors on her body, and possibly in her abdomen. Also, she was 12 years old and undeniably in her twilight. She was the radiant power of the stars, and was as brilliant as any other wonder of the observable universe. I've always known myself to carry a wealth of unconditional love. But, this dog was in her short time a living, breathing example of it. She was with me through times where I felt so unlovable, so low and raw. She witnessed me at my worst. She observed as I emerged into myself and became uplifted by insight and inner wisdom. All the while, she was there to let out a peaceful sigh, and lay her silly head on me.

Gracie was put on medications, which extended her life a bit, but more importantly offered her relief from the physical pain related to the cancers in her body. This is where the grieving process started. It existed concurrently with writing the lyrics for the new record. It permeated the content of my thoughts, my existence. She challenged me to be in the moment. Sometimes the moment brought out words of resignation to finally accept it was time to say goodbye. Other times, the moment brought out words of ultimate exaltation to the power of love. She was either in the room with me, or just out of sight in the next during the tracking of the vocals for the record. If you listen very closely, you may even be able to hear her sighing peacefully in the background.

CP: You hinted at the #metoo movement and your own experience with sexual assault. What would you be willing to share about that experience?

DT: My experience occurred as a teenager. I have spoken to very few people in my life about this. Those closest to me still don't know. I am finding ways to make it a part of the conversation when appropriate. Having said that, here's where I sit. I am at peace. I think back to the situation and I feel my experience pales in comparison to what other survivors have gone through, and continue to go through. I feel I came out of it relatively unscathed, and have been able to live with little residual trauma. Hearing survivors’ stories and witnessing the net of unconditional love being woven to support countless women and other survivors of sexual assault, violence, and trauma has been something I can't help but feel drawn to. Many stories I know of come from my immediate family. So many women in my life in particular are survivors. I don't wish to come in as a white, hetero-identifying male and put my fingerprint on this thing. I don't want to hijack the moment and shift focus. My place in all of this is to be a person of support. I am an advocate and an ally. I believe women. I believe survivors. I see how the odds are stacked against survivors. I can use my voice and art to be of service. I can use my gift of unconditional love to be a fine point of light in these often-dark times. I don't know what it's going to take to get us all through this, but I do know that love needs to be involved. This is where I can fit in and be useful.

CP: What are your hopes for your music? What are your challenges?

DT: Human connection is what I yearn for, and what I honestly aim to create in sharing my music. I am an intensely guarded person on one hand. On the other, I’m an open book whose pages likely contain a message or two we can all relate to at a fundamental level. Music is my way of filtering the world's barrage on the senses and perceptions. It allows me to say, "I know, right?" and to sit in a place of empathy and connection. It also allows me the space to ask, at the end of the day, "Does anybody really even care?" Regardless of the outcome, creating is something of an automatic process for me, not unlike breathing, or having thoughts. At the end of the day, the challenge becomes how to package this meaningful content into something shiny I can pitch to promoters for getting gigs, labels for potential record support, other bands to be included on bills and tours, and getting people to pay attention and simply listen a moment. Now, that's an exercise in learning to let go of control over the outcome.

CP: How did the recording process forLife, Death, & Disintegration compare to that of The Ledger?

DT: I had a deep desire to shake the isolation of working on the first record. It had to be more collaborative. My tendency is to be a shut-in; sort of hermetic and off the social grid. At the same time, I yearn to be a part of something bigger than me. I so desire connection and communication. The most effective means I’ve found in making sense of the world comes from sharing music. It’s the struggle for being transparent versus being invisible. So, I needed to bring people in for this record.

Neil Weir was the first on board. We talked at length about how to make a psychedelic nuanced record that was moody but cohesive, and, most importantly, evocative. Neil suggested Chris Bierden from Poliça to play bass. JT Bates blessed and tuned the drums. Mary Bue played piano and sang some harmonies. I had to get Al Church on board to do some sweet, smooth harmonies. He and Joe Gamble give the opening track a lovely suspended harmony over the choruses. Wayne Sayres played saxophone on “This Year.” In the spirit of really reaching out and sharing the creative spirit of this record, I had to ask Alan Sparhawk if he would be interested in collaborating. Much to my relief, he said he would be honored. He knocked out his harmonies like a true pro. Over the years, Alan is someone whose work and presence have made an indelible impact on me. To share a creative space and wavelength with him is a meaningful experience I struggle to find the proper words to articulate.

CP: The last time we spoke, our conversation centered around your recovery from alcoholism/addiction. Where are you today on your recovery journey?

DT: At this point, recovery looks less like a series of steps and procedures, and more of an examination of grey area; the grey area in this case being my relationship with my mental health, and with the idea of a healthy and realistic relationship with substances. It’s been nearly eight years since I stopped drinking. I don’t miss or romanticize it. At some point over the years, I really began to evaluate my philosophy on recovery. I can’t say I’m a champion of abstinence-based anything. However, in some cases people really need to remove substance use from the picture, if for no other reason than to save their lives. What I fundamentally believe in and practice “harm reduction.” I still do a little work in the field of mental health and chemical dependency. I strongly value allowing people to identify and realistically define what it is going to take to create their best quality of life.

CP: You mentioned having experienced “the highs of love” earlier. That sounds wonderful, especially given the painful divorce we discussed last time. Is this a new romantic love?

DT: I have been blessed in sharing my life with a partner who is a sensitive and creative artist, as well as a pragmatic and put-together person. We’re married, and we continue to learn more about each other as we experience everything from the mundane to the magical, and all points in between.

Timbre Ghost
With: Jill Zimmerman
Where: The Warming House
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Nov. 16
Tickets: $10; more info here