article by jennifer kelly | photos by jon strymish.|
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Every once in a while a band comes along that makes you realize how very narrow the parameters of music are. Alec K. Redfearn's Eyesores are one such band, droning and grinding and polka-ing through dark, experimental territories rooted as much in gypsy songs as they are in French prog and free jazz. They've been at it since 1997, resolutely refusing to fit into any kind of category, even the currently popular psyche-folk niche that's inhabited by many of their friends and fellow travellers.
Listening to the band's Quiet Room, a quietly brilliant mix of folk and dub, jazz and prog, pop and drunken tango, you cannot help but question basic assumptions. Why not play punk music on accordion? Can you really make music with an alarm clock and an off-hook phone? What would the Kinks sound like if they took up Sufi mysticism? And where exactly does this off-ramp from the great pop music highway lead to? We caught Alec Redfearn by phone recently, on the rebound from a short UK tour with Sharron Kraus, in his home town of Providence, RI -- but perhaps feeling, like W.C. Fields, that he'd rather be in Philadelphia. Here's what he had to say.
Splendid: What are you doing in Philadelphia?
Alec K. Redfearn: I'm actually still in Providence. I was going to record another band I play in, Fern Knight, which has a couple of the same people as the Eyesores, but it's led by the woman who plays bass for the Eyesores. They're her songs, so I'm going to go down and record for her album with Greg Weeks from the Espers. He has a little home studio. But he's having electrical problems, so I'm still in Providence as it turns out. I actually just decided to chill out for a few days. I just got back from the UK and I'm kind of fried...
Splendid: I spoke to Sharron Kraus about a year ago, and I think she mentioned that she had worked with you. There's this whole psyche folk scene in Philadelphia, isn't there?
Alec K. Redfearn: Yes, there is a big... It's a whole kind of compound where there are a lot of bands all living in one set of houses. Tara Burke from Furaxa and Espers live in a house over there. Sharron Kraus was living there until recently. She just moved back to England. I was doing some shows with her.
Splendid: You were playing with her in England just recently?
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah, we did a show in Edinburgh and in Sheffield, and we played as a duo. I played some of the more song-structured Eyesores things solo and then she got up playing banjo and singing on some things. So it was a very stripped-down version of the Eyesores, I guess. Then, when she did her tunes, I backed her up on accordion.
Splendid: So I was looking at your bio, and you've done a lot of different bands prior to the Eyesores. It looks like a lot of them have some of the same people in them. Can you talk a little about the scene that you came out of and how you met some of these people? It looks like Matt McLaren's been in a bunch of your bands...
Alec K. Redfearn: Matt McLaren is someone I've known for a long, long time. I went to high school with him.
Splendid: Is Providence where you come from?
Alec K. Redfearn: I'm from Massachusetts, about half an hour north of Providence, but I've lived here for about 16 years.
Splendid: Did you to school in Providence? How did you end up there?
Alec K. Redfearn: I actually have not finished... I've only gone continuing ed. I just have a high school diploma. I never really did college at all. After high school, I just went and played in bands. I did take some classes, but I don't have a degree...
Splendid: Are your roots in improv jazz or folk or something else entirely?
Alec K. Redfearn: In terms of a genre?
Splendid: Yeah, what got you started and what kinds of music do you look to for inspiration?
Alec K. Redfearn: When I first moved to Providence, I'd been playing in this band called Wavering Shapes, which was kind of like this SST Records-influenced stuff. Like all the stuff that really excited me when I first started to play music, like The Minutemen and Saccharine Trust and bands like that. But when I moved to Providence, it was to join this group called Meatball Fluxus. It was a Dada, Fluxist performance art group that also did free improvisational music, and also some Cagian kind of things. It was all kind of haphazard and under-rehearsed, but in a really good way. It had this slapstick, Dada, very much in the spirit of trying things out, trying these styles out.
While I was playing with them, I started playing accordion. I had been playing bass before that, but I started playing accordion because it was a good way to just jump into that sort of group. It seemed like it was an instrument that would hit that ensemble better. They needed something that was a little bit more esoteric. At the time, there were not that many bands with accordions.
Splendid: Was it hard to learn how to play?
Alec K. Redfearn: Well, when I bought it I took a couple of lessons and then I got frustrated with my teacher and started just kind of going through books myself -- the Mel Bay Books, or the accordion equivalent to the Mel Bay Books, which is the Palmer Hughes books. They're kind of really simple songs. But when I started writing, I started thinking in melodies and shapes and chord patterns and kind of warping them in. From there I discovered a lot of other books. There's a group in Providence called The Smiling Dog Band. It was like a big folk ensemble; they did very simple English and Irish and French folk tunes and Appalachian folk tunes, but they did very stripped down versions of them. It was led by these two people, Christian and Rachel Maloney, who used to be in The Portsmouth Sinfonia. Do you know about the Portsmouth Sinfonia?
Splendid: No, tell me.
Alec K. Redfearn: It was out of England. The Portsmouth Sinfonia was a large band. It was basically an amateur orchestra. It was an orchestra that performed classical music, but the policy of the orchestra was that anyone could join, regardless of ability. And they did rehearse a lot, but it was always incredibly confusing. Like, they would do the 1812 Overture and no one would recognize it. Michael Nyman and Brian Eno were involved in it. Heavies of the minimalist and electronics scene. But these two were involved in that group, as well as some folk/improv things in England. But then they moved to North Carolina and they started developing this really weird, almost simplistic, but really driving, primitive folk music. So they moved to Rhode Island. That really kind of inspired me at the time. That was one of the things that made me want to learn the accordion. I wanted to learn those tunes. So I was moving away from these Palmer Hughes tunes and towards these weird bastardizations of Morris Dance tunes and Irish tunes and that sort of stuff.
At the same time, I had been listening to a lot of gypsy music.
Splendid: People are always comparing your music to gypsy music, and I don't know enough about gypsy music to know whether that's a simplification or not, but it sounds like it's not.
Alec K. Redfearn: Well, there is a culture that starts in Hungary and goes down to Egypt and to Spain and all the way up to Ireland. There's a lot of variation to gypsy music. There's Hungarian gypsy music, there's sort of like flamenco stuff. You know the French musette music from the 1920s? The accordion street music, sort of the classic Parisian cafe music? That was played by Italian gypsies, basically. So it really spreads a lot of different ways. But I think a lot of people relate, when they're talking about us, more to the Eastern European gypsy music of Romania and places like that.
Splendid: Because that kind of music would have elements of both Western and Eastern music in it?
Alec K. Redfearn: Yes. You're going to get, just with the scales, almost like Turkish and Arabic music. But it's kind of mixed in with Western music, like a lot of dance patterns from Germany and the Czech Republic. A lot of polkas and things like that. In Romania, there are a lot of different rhythms, because there are so many different cultures, so many countries bordering Romania, so there's a lot of grey area.
Splendid: Have you traveled in these areas and collected some of this music?
Alec K. Redfearn: I've been to Romania. I didn't really hear... I heard a few people play there. I didn't hear as much as I would have hoped. I did buy a lot of records there. It was easy to find folk music.
Splendid: When did you go?
Alec K. Redfearn: In 2002.
Splendid: Oh, I found this great quote about the accordion, and I don't know if you've ever heard it, but Ambrose Bierce defined it as "an instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin."
Alec K. Redfearn: "With the sentiments of an assassin"?
Splendid: Yeah. What do you think of that?
Alec K. Redfearn: Oh, that's great. Ambrose Bierce... he's sort of a very cynical writer.
Splendid: I believe he wrote The Devil's Dictionary, which this must be from.
Alec K. Redfearn: Okay, that was in an anthology that someone gave me, that I haven't read yet. But definitely when I get the time...
AUDIO: The Night it Rained Glass on Union Street
Splendid: But it does have kind of an anarchic, rebellious sound to it, doesn't it? The accordion?
Alec K. Redfearn: Oh yes. I think what appealed to me about the instrument initially was that it was kind of a confrontational sound. Especially at the time I started playing it -- it was around 1990. You had all this grunge stuff going on, which, to me, just seemed kind of lazy. I wasn't all that excited about grunge at the time. It seemed like this lazy revisionist early 1970s thing that was mostly about posturing. And then I was getting really excited about this whole experimental end of punk rock that was happening during the 1980s. It seemed like, during the early 1990s, this whole revolution had faded. The stuff that was getting big around here was like grungy 1970s rock. And also the twee-pop thing. I just wasn't that excited about either. I think, as a reaction, I wanted to move as far away as possible from what was hip, you know... That's when I started playing the accordion. It seemed more confrontational than any of the other stuff.
Splendid: Tell me about your band, The Eyesores.
Alec K. Redfearn: It's been a fairly steady line-up. It's between a six and fifteen piece band, depending on the occasion. Basically it's Margie Wienk, who is probably the most senior person in the band -- she's the bass player and singer, and she's been with us since the beginning. Matt McLaren is someone I've known since high school. He joined -- Matt and I were playing in another band called Barnacled, which was more of a free jazz kind of... it was noise rock and free jazz mixed together. Some nights it was kind of improv with a little bit of East European influence and a lot of noise rock influence, which Providence is so famous for. But Matt and I and Jason Gill, who plays alto sax on our first record, were in that band. He's no longer in our band, but he occasionally does stuff with us.
Splendid: And there's also a person whose name enchants me... Frank Difficult?
Alec K. Redfearn: Yes, Frank Difficult. He's an electronic musician. He was in a band called V. Majestic for many years. They did a bunch of records. They played the first Terrastock, but they were kind of this Krautrock thing, with a lot of other influences. Frank is someone I've known for a long time. We've collaborated in various projects. He was also in Barnacles, as well.
Splendid: So with all these people in the band, how do you rehearse, how do you write? It must be exponentially more difficult to write someone for a 15-piece band than to just get a guitar and make a song.
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah. The process of writing for me... I'll basically come up with some sort of melody and I'll work with Matt first, the drummer. We'll kind of start, we'll come up with some sort of percussion and accordion thing and I'll build layers. I basically score everything. Everything is written out on sheet music, except for the electronic stuff, which is usually like loose instructions. Or sometimes I just let Frank do his thing. I'll say, we want something in this key or this sort of thing and we try to find a way for it to be incorporated so it doesn't bury things but it also doesn't get lost. There's also some perfect frequency to find in there.
AUDIO: Coke Bugs
Splendid: Let's talk about some of the unusual sounds you use in your records. In The Quiet Room, there's the phone sound in "Coke Bugs".
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah, "Coke Bugs" was... Frank and Matt and I. I had just gotten an 8-track and was listening to a lot of oldies, kind of French composers like Pierre Bastien and Pascal Comelade. Comelade did a lot of film music, but they're into using a lot of things, kind of household objects. They're also really into -- it's a big thing in France -- machines playing music. Basically building things out of erector sets and using pulleys and stuff. And also working out of this older French prog rock tradition, particularly Albert Marcoeur, who was around in the early 1970s. I guess he started in the early 1970s. He's still around and making records. There were a lot of guys using sort of found sounds and household objects. The whole thing with "Coke Bugs" was that I wanted to use really primitive sounds, like a jaw harp and hand cymbals, kind of driving it, but with these two very electronic sounds. The alarm clock was the rhythm track, the metronome, basically, and I liked the phone offhook sound. I wanted to experiment with it going in and out of phase with the alarm clock to kind of create this kaleidoscopic effect. Something pretty jarring. And the electronic stuff on top... Frank had taken his analog recorder, an improvisation on a handheld tape recorder, and run the handheld tape recorder directly into the eight track. He was manipulating both sounds with a rewind button basically, using them to rewind and fast forward to augment the sounds.
Splendid: Wow...so I'm guessing you don't play that one live much?
Alec K. Redfearn: No, no. (He laughs.) That was something we did in my living room over an afternoon. The Quiet Room was really assembled out of scraps of things that were lying around and we didn't know what to do with them, though it all kind of worked out really well. We had several songs, but then I had all these things that were too short to be anything on their own, but that I thought would be interesting. All of them seemed to be in the same key. There were a lot of drones in A and D and that helped make really good glue for between songs.
Splendid: It's interesting that you say that you had all of these pieces that you fit together, because the album really feels like a whole. In fact, it feels like the places where the tracks begin and end are a little bit arbitrary.
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah, that's true. A lot of that was inspired by Kraut-rock stuff like Faust. A lot of that stuff we built in the editing room. A lot of those are things that I've been experimenting with for the last few years, which have almost accidentally resulted in a piece. It's a record that stands together. We adjust a whole bunch of things and they all fit perfectly together. I don't know if it was lucky or it was like an unconscious kind of zeitgeist. It's a collaboration... it's basically a large collective. It was basically my project out of all that. The way it's been approached is, "Here's your sheet music," though there's also a lot of improvisation. But out of the improvisation techniques, we develop this... I don't know if this is very clear.
Splendid: No, it's really interesting. The titles are really interesting, too, and I'm wondering if they have any meaning outside the record. For instance, "The Night It Rained Glass on Union Street"?
Alec K. Redfearn: Yes, well, that title refers to a drunken episode. I drank a lot of gin and ...
Splendid: Broke some windows?
Alec K. Redfearn: I drank a lot of gin and smashed all the windows in the room I was living in at the time and sent glass raining down on the street. (Laughter) People kept referring to it. I had friends who looked outside and noticed this rain of glass coming down on Union Street and described it as like shards of snow falling or something. So... it's kind of a brief episode that the title came from. It happened in about 1995 or 1996.
Splendid: At least you got a song out of it.
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah, that's true. That song was actually written for a dance piece, a collaboration with this dance company, the Everett Dance Theater.
Splendid: I was going to ask you about how you work with the dance company.
Alec K. Redfearn: Well, some of the pieces... There are a couple of pieces. "Slo-Mo" was another piece that I developed with them. Basically, the way that "Night It Rained Glass" and "Slo-Mo" worked out was that I just kind of went in. I'd spent a lot of time watching them. While they were building the dance, I was building the music by just kind of playing, improvising along with what they were doing and recording the parts I liked and developing them. Then they would do likewise. So the dance pieces and the music were kind of built at the same time.
Alec K. Redfearn: A lot of the portions of those tunes came from that, but they were also further developed as we arranged them for the band. I added a few parts and sections to them.
Splendid: Do you like that, working with the dance company?
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah, I love working with them. It's one of my favorite forms of collaboration. Theater is fun, but you end up sitting around forever and it gets kind of dull. Dance, it's the closest thing to having more musicians. Adding a visual element, movement, is actually really satisfying. It's one of my favorite things.
Splendid: What kind of dance is it? Modern dance?
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah. It's a mix of modern dance and theater and multimedia stuff. It's interesting. All the pieces that I've done have been with Aaron Jungels, whose family is ... the Everett Dance Theater is kind of a family operation. This really interesting family with a lot of strange stories. They seem to build pieces out of really dysfunctional family stuff and strange stories. They build a lot of pieces out of their own experiences. It's really interesting. They basically run a theater company where they also teach urban youth. They have a lot of classes for urban youth. They do a lot of collaborations with the schools and stuff like that. It's pretty high quality and almost a visionary approach, particularly with the visuals and a lot of the visual elements that they're using -- they do a lot with projections, video projections and projecting on weird surfaces like screens. So you get these really interesting three-dimensional effects. And also projecting on giant balls and things like that.
Splendid: It sounds really cool. Is there one person in charge? It sounds like your musical part and the dance part are growing organically. Is there someone who integrates the two?
Alec K. Redfearn: The thing is, the dance is based on building from improvisation. That's how they do things. They work with improvisation a lot, which is how we work, too, so working with them is very similar to what we do, though we each have our quirks. It ends up being a real collaboration, more so than when someone gives you a set of lyrics to set or something. Which is how the song "The Bible Light" came about. A friend of mine gave me a set of lyrics.
Splendid: I was going to ask you about that, too.
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah, this friend of mine from Australia is a playwright, Christine Evans. She had a class. She was going for her doctorate in theater, and she had a musical theater class. So she asked me to be her musical collaborator. So we wrote a couple of songs where she gave me words and I came up with the music. Or I gave her a melody and she set words to the melody. That was one where I kind of tried to take the words and do something really strange with them. I used them in a way ... it was like making them not really exposed to the text or something. So this is like... I tried to make the melody as ever-changing as possible, but with these very pop chord changes. It's a one, four, five, three chord pattern. I've been listening to the Kinks a lot. That sort of chord pattern with this sort of strange overlay, almost like Sufi melodies.
Splendid: But left to your own devices, would you have any words in your songs?
Alec K. Redfearn: I write a lot of lyrics. This record is not very song structured. It's more instrumental stuff. The one we just recorded is all songs. There's a lot of words on that. So I do write a lot of lyrics as well. The new one is actually pretty different than Quiet Room. It's sort of the other side of the Eyesores. Songs. But still with those kind of musical... there are still a lot of improvisational sounds. I could send you a CDR, a rough mix of that...
Splendid: Oh, yeah, great. That sounds cool. You just finished recording that?
Alec K. Redfearn: We still have to mix it. I have another project -- I wrote a song cycle where I use layers. The song cycle is like a funereal song cycle. It's a long piece, about a half an hour long. But basically, we're going to record these two records. One is a collection of songs and the other is a song cycle, which we haven't recorded yet. We're going to record that in August. So we're going to have these two records come out. I'm not sure about the labels. I haven't talked to Steve at Cuneiform Records yet, about whether he's interested in both or either. But this other project Gutter Helmet just recorded -- do you know about that? It's Matt, the drummer and I.
Alec K. Redfearn: It's just recording drums, accordion, jaw harp and some other instruments. That we just mixed. I can send you a CDR if you want.
Splendid: And you also have a one man project, don't you?
Alec K. Redfearn: Yes. Mr. Gutter. Well, actually, now I'm just mainly calling it Alec K. Redfearn. But it's sort of funny to call it Mr. Gutter. It's the name of a gutter-cleaning company around here. About an hour from here. A friend of mine just started calling me that. Also the name Gutterhelmet comes from that.
Splendid: So you're actually doing the one-man band thing where you've got the drum on one foot and ...
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah, I have a kick drum. That's sort of the next thing I'll develop, a record of that stuff. I've started writing things for that. I'm kind of excited about doing a one-man band. I also use a hand-held tape recorder, that's at my foot, so I can kick that on and off. That's a work in progress. It was originally a really pared-down version of the Eyesores, but I think I want to start developing a repertoire that's really geared specifically toward solo work. Compacting it is kind of a challenge, but I feel that's the next step as far as these smaller ensemble things go.
But the song-cycle is a thing where we used a 15-piece band. We had five or six singers on that when we did it live. I'm not sure. I might pare it down a little bit, just for the sake of simplicity and so I don't lose my mind trying to organize it.
Splendid: Just getting that many people on the same page and scheduled together must be challenging. Just getting them all in a room.
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah. We just finished a live performance. We performed it once and it was completely insane. It came off and people were really excited about it. It's definitely an ambitious thing. Some of it we'll do with overdubs in the studio.
Splendid: Tell me about the stuff you've done for theater.
Alec K. Redfearn: As a musician, I've done a bunch of stuff for theater. But in terms of writing for theater, I'm doing a couple of things right now with my friend Steve Ventura. He's doing a play that I'm going to be writing music and some of the text for. He's done a lot of work in theater in Providence. We've been throwing a lot of ideas around. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what we're working on, but there's a kind of Alfred Jarre element to it. It's really confrontational and absurdist and a lot of yelling going on, but we are still developing it. We're kind of brainstorming. Steve is someone who's not really well-known out of town, but he's been involved in the theater scene in Providence a lot as a writer, and also he's a sound designer and a tech guy. But he's done quite a bit of writing as well, and coordination. He's a good guy to have around. He's also a guy who has kind of thrown me a lot of music over the years, and a lot of ideas, so I guess I'll have more to report on that later. It's still at the embryonic stage.
Splendid: And you've also worked with a film-maker in Providence as well.
Alec K. Redfearn: Yes, Laura Colella, I've done several collaborations with her, including her feature film Stay Until Tomorrow. That's something I'm very interested in.
Splendid: How is that different, writing music for film as compared to writing music for dance?
Alec K. Redfearn: It's really challenging because you're doing it... with dance, while you're working with dancers, you're dealing with songs. You're not doing a ton of underscoring. With dance, you're definitely dealing with something that's rhythm-based. And with film, the rhythm of the edit is -- I finally realized -- it's an interesting collaboration, though it was a little awkward at first. We were trying to figure out how to make the music fit. A lot of what we came to realize is that it's better to edit to the music. The last couple of things we did for film, and the most successful, were that we built layers that she could kind of manipulate. She could take a layer... There would be several layers of instruments and I gave her all the layers and she would mix the layers and make choices and edit it that way. Also, matching the shots to the music. Before that, I was trying to create music to her shots and there was a lot of kind of ways in which... She had very specific ideas about the rhythm of the film, the rhythm of the shots, and that something that was sonically rhythmic worked against what she was trying to do with editing and kind of ploughed over it. So there was a lot of compromise involved. But that whole process made me think very differently and write in a way that I never would have done otherwise. It was a really interesting challenge. It was my first time scoring a feature film, so it was definitely a little bit of an experiment.
AUDIO: Portuguese Man O' War
Splendid: Did you learn anything from that experience that you've used in your other work?
Alec K. Redfearn: Uh, yeah, a lot of the stuff that I was doing with strings. I used strings a lot, because strings seem to be less intrusive and more appropriate for the film. I tried to use strings in ways that. I used pizzicato cello a lot, and the last piece on The Quiet Room ("Somnabulance") is from the film. It actually wasn't used in the film. There's a different version of that. There's a lot of stuff that was like that, in that vein. And also the piece that's called "Portuguese Man O' War" was used in the film.
Splendid: Oh, yeah, I like that one a lot.
Alec K. Redfearn: Oh, thanks. The studio version of that one I basically worked out with the drummer, the sax player and with Frank and we used... we tried basically to use all the old dub equipment they had there, like the spring reverb and this one delay unit, the kind of thing that Lee Perry might have used. The fact that we used some of that real vintage recording equipment... That was kind of a built-in-the-studio piece.
Splendid: Is there anything else you want to talk about? You've got some shows coming up?
Alec K. Redfearn: I'm in the process of trying to book some shows. We're kind of taking the summer off with the big band. I'm doing a couple of little things. I'm trying to set up a European tour for the fall and probably US in the fall, too. I'm in the process of talking to a couple of booking agents right now to try to work things out. We actually have booking agents this time, which will be interesting.
It's an uphill battle doing this kind of music, really -- the kind of music I'm doing I've been doing for a long time.
Splendid: Why is that? Because it's so different from everything else that's out there?
Alec K. Redfearn: I don't know. I don't think it's that different, but it's different. It's been really hard for us to find a niche.
Splendid: They can't just throw you on stage with whoever's in town.
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah, the shows have worked, I think, most of the bills that we've played on, but we've played on bills that have been so vastly inappropriate. It's hard for us to find a niche. It's been a little bit tricky. It's been really hard for us to get things working with a booking agent. We just hooked up with a US and a European one, so we'll see how it goes. There are developments out there in the world, there are bands that are like-minded. Like Barbez and the Beat Circus. We're starting to get a little bit more attention. It does seem like the time might be ripe.
Splendid: It's weird because people always say they want something different and exciting, but what they really want is stuff that's just a little bit different from what they expect.
Alec K. Redfearn: Yeah, exactly. What's interesting is that the top experimental magazine is probably The Wire, and it's covering bands that sound like 1960s bands. Who I like. You know, people like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. I really love that music, but I feel like it's not that experimental, really. You know, I love that stuff, but it's not that far out. It's basically pop music with a different twist. And don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of pop music. But it is interesting to see what levels of "different" people are willing to tolerate.
Splendid: Are you getting folded into that whole psyche-folk thing?
Alec K. Redfearn: I don't know. Mostly by association because we know a lot of those bands and we hang out with those people. Margie Wienk's other project is more in that psyche-folk scene. And I like a lot of that music. I'm definitely excited about what's out there. But I think for a lot of those people, we're too much like prog rock. We're closer to a prog rock thing. It's very elaborate and very arranged and intricate and layered. A lot of the psyche-folk stuff is very simple. It's very pretty and simple but with a creepy element. Part of me wants to write like that, but really can't. I kind of write the way I do. But I'm fairly influenced by that stuff and I like a lot of it.
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Jennifer Kelly wrote about Martian Biodiversity for our August, 2019 issue.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - john strymish :: credits graphics ]