Contrary to popular belief, the Azusa Plane is one man. The Azusa Plane creates climates. Remember the last time you drove a very long distance alone and found yourself watching low flying clouds form off the edges of mountains only to disintegrate minutes later? Have you been in the quiet dusk of the eye of a hurricane? Do driving rains and thunder lull you to sleep? Jason Diemilio may or may not use the Azusa Plane to explore these experiences, but if you want a more accurate explanation of what his mostly improvised droning guitar noise sounds like you’ll just have to find out for yourself. Initially, the mission of the Azusa Plane was to release a 10 volume series on vinyl. Having reached that goal four times over, the Azusa Plane now threatens to halt operations and resume anew under the guise Spires of Oxford. But before this was to happen, I had the chance to make my way to see the Azusa Plane play with Roy Montgomery, Silver Apples, Neutral Milk Hotel, Bardo Pond, and countless others at the three-day Terrastock benefit in San Francisco.
I made it to Terrastock to hear the final moan of feedback from you guys. That was fairly annoying, as I planned my arrival time so that I could catch Roy Montgomery and then Azusa Plane, but the times kept getting switched around. So, since I still haven’t seen you live, how is it different from your recorded material?
Well, in a live venue, we focus on being a loud guitar improv rock band. I have found that the quiet subtle guitar ambiance isn’t always the most entertaining show to watch, so what we have done is set up the pounding rhythmic tribal drums and just play through our guitar amps with massive amounts of distortion/volume/effects. Lately we have added some other players such as clarinet/violin/4-track/organ/keyboards/second drummer to fill in some of the empty spaces and just give it some added depth. We like to let loose and wail on our guitars.
How were you approached to do it?
Phil McMullen has supported the Azusa Plane since day one until now (not many people have), and as soon as I heard about Terrastock 1, I asked Phil if we could play, and he obliged. He also invited us to Terrastock 2. I would have been very disappointed to miss them…
I haven’t written anything on Terrastock, so hopefully you won’t mind going into some detail about that weekend…
A weekend which was very strange and emotional for me. Sadly, our timeslot was messed up, and we were really off-kilter when playing, so we didn’t really play the way we should have, and considering it will be the only time we make it to San Francisco, that was kind of a let down, but it was as amazing an event as Terrastock 1. The fact that you can bring all those wonderful musicians and people together is amazing. I don’t know how Phil McMullen could pull it off, but it is pretty surreal when you are sitting and watching Alastair Galbraith paddle out into the bay in a little blow up raft. All I can really say it is a special event and the fact that it happens is a minor miracle.
Was Galbraith in the bay right out back of the concert place? What was he trying to do?
Yeah, it was pretty damn great. He went and bought a blow up raft because someone said they wanted to go boating.
That was the first time I saw most of those bands, and in most cases that was the first time I heard those bands. Seeing Neutral Milk Hotel was bordering on surreal. Mazzacane Connors’ set was just elegant. Mountain Goats was funny and got me thinking about a bad relationship. Major Stars hurt my ears. Galbraith confused me.
All amazing…and all some of the greatest bands/musicians in the world. That is why the whole thing is nuts. All these amazing people left to toil in obscurity, and let’s face it, most of them will toil in obscurity the rest of their lives. Alastair should be on 60 Minutes .
Why should Alastair Galbraith be on 60 Minutes ?
I can’t explain it, really, Alastair just has this amazing spirit around him, he is a wonderful musician and painter. He lives in obscurity and squalor, and he should be a star.
Which musicians did you enjoy the most?
Neutral Milk Hotel.
Neutral Milk Hotel: wow. That was something. I loved how Mangum started on stage by himself and one by one the horn section crept onto one side of the stage and then the whole band crept on and that freak with the motorcycle helmet instrument was wandering around the stage in a haze. Did you get to talk to those guys about the show? It looked pretty exhausting.
They rule, they rule, they rule. I can’t praise them enough. The new record Aeroplane… will go down as a life changing record for me. Jeff Mangum has a special talent. Live they just project it all perfectly. Every time I see them it’s like a traveling circus — two vans, a bunch of bands, and a million instruments. I dream of being in a band that great, and a band as great as Belle and Sebastian.
Did Flying Saucer Attack have much influence on what you’re doing? In other words, were you doing this improv noise stuff all along, or did it take listening to something like FSA or Montgomery to think “hmm, maybe I want to play something like that”?
Flying Saucer Attack really had a dramatic effect on not only me but a lot of people. The whole ambient guitar noise genre was pretty subdued, but FSA came on the scene and blew everyone away. In its wake, everyone jumped on board, and now you will find there are a lot of people making that kind of music. It is not that other people weren’t doing it back then, but you had VHF and Drag City making the records very accessible for the latent indie rockers. The entire musical landscape changed with FSA, there was a time when everyone wanted to be Pavement and Sebadoh, now everyone wants to be FSA, but now we are rolling into the phase where everyone wants to be the Dead C. That’s pretty scary, but keep in mind I had listened to [the Jesus & Mary Chain’s] Psychocandy and the Velvet Underground before FSA, so I knew something about noise and fuzz. But sitting in my college apartment hearing the first chords of the first FSA album, I was blown away. I said “That’s it” and the fact that other people were doing the same thing made it even more interesting At the same time I discovered “a handful of dust,” put them together and there is really not much of a choice of where to go. It all just kind of falls into place. It wasn’t until I got to college that I really started to discover real music. I was just way too sheltered from it all, and I am always disappointed when I think of that. I just had no access to anything. I gobbled it all up as soon as I discovered it was available. It has been down hill ever since.
Psychocandy was really important to me, too. I must have been in 8th grade when that came out, and I remember listening to “You Trip Me Up” over and over again to hear that last few seconds of feedback where it sounds like a hubcap rolling around on the ground and coming to rest. The record had a bunch of photos of the band inside, and when I started dressing like them, my parents freaked out and thought I was on drugs. That album doesn’t get enough credit. I wore out my tape of VU’s third album in high school. Wait, this is your interview.
All that stuff is true, although I would disagree and say Psychocandy does get enough credit.
What sort of musical background do you have? Were you in conventional bands before starting the Azusa Plane? If so, what were you playing?
I was officially trained to play the guitar, and I played in a stupid punk rock college band, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to play the guitar with emotion and not technique, and it took about 5 years to figure out how to do that, which is where I am now.
How long did it take before you came to a point of self-realization in that you knew that what you were playing was really what needed to come out?
Like I said, five years, but more importantly, it took a full Azusa Plane record, a full Spires of Oxford record, and about 30 other Azusa Plane releases. So the only disadvantage is that others are hearing you discover and therefore they are hearing your mistakes. Now this doesn’t mean where I am going is necessarily correct, what it does mean is that my music is slowly becoming less accessible and more unsellable. But that’s what I’m feeling. I have to make a pop record someday. I just can’t sing and everything needs to work out perfectly for it to happen.
It seems like there are a few steps that you have to take before you get to that point. You have to play three chord – verse chorus verse type shit for a long time. Then you start to really learn what it is the guitar can do by making it do stuff it wasn’t really intended to do. And then you find the ability to express yourself through the instrument. At least that’s been my experience.
Exactly. You just have to learn how to play.
What is your approach to recording? Is it always improvised? Do you ever feel like you’re ripping any other musician off? Do you depend on anything to record like emotional turmoil or weed?
Recording has changed greatly. The Tycho Magnetic Anomaly CD was the last CD that really had any structure to it, although on top of the structure was improvisation. I am now recording solely improvisational music, which goes back to my ability to learn to play on total emotion. Playing with emotion alone means you have to play improvised. I am recording the new Spires of Oxford record now, and the guitar tracks are painful to play. I know it is working when I play so intensely that I start to feel nauseous in my stomach. I am excited about this new CD I am doing under the Spires of Oxford, because it will be the realest thing I have ever done. Just one guitar track with no effect playing until I feel as though I am going to vomit. And all of this of course comes from inner turmoil. It is a release of my hell of a life, and of course, weed doesn’t hurt.
What is the music scene like in Philadelphia? Until recently, I never considered Philadelphia to have a very strong music scene. Who other than you, Bardo Pond, Halana, and Carbon 14 are out there?
Philly is great. There are a lot of people heavily into music, but they are also very schooled and knowledgeable about music. They know bullshit when they see it. Other than the above mentioned, there is of course Siltbreeze, and Sound Collector magazine is pretty great. Brother JT and Vibrolux rules. Tons of labels and bands — Miner St, Lenola-Tappersize, lounge records, I hate to mention them, because I will forget people, of course.
When’s the new album coming out? On which label?
I probably won’t do another full length Azusa Plane record, although there are a bunch of other releases on various formats on various labels to track down. It is up to about 40 releases. The goal now is to just complete the 10 volume series and kill the Azusa Plane.
Has Colorful Clouds released any non-Azusa Plane albums?
Of course. The Spires of Oxford, Tranquil, Roy Montgomery, Loren Mazzacane Connors, I have lots planned, and there’s a ton I want to do. I would say as looking at them something as a success or not I really want the label to succeed as opposed to just the Azusa Plane. I want to put out great records. I want to put out a record as great as Aeroplane Over the Sea .
If you had a really large recording budget, what would you do? Who would you invite to play on your album? Who would record it?
Book an amazing studio for 3 months straight. I’d write a full blown double LP rock/pop record. Hire massive string and horn sections, invite Jeff Magnum and Stuart, the lead singer of Belle and Sebastian, to write and sing all the vocals, fill the studio with drugs and beautiful supermodels, and bring all my favorite musicians in to lay down special tracks for each song.
What is Spires of Oxford? Something you are involved with? That’s a really simple but great name. Before I heard any of your music, I had this misconception that Azusa Plane was a German band making really inaccessible music that lots of critics were praising. Why did you go with the Azusa Plane and not simply your name?
Spires of Oxford is my other recording project, it deals with stripped-down improv guitar playing with the concepts based in ancient England. I used the name because it seemed more interesting to be a band as opposed to an Italian guy from Philadelphia. The name came from the movie Ran , which is an amazing film by Akira Kurawsawa. It is the place at the end of the film where the father dies.
Tell me about Tranquil and some upcoming projects that you’re excited about. How involved do you get with projects? Do you help with art? Finances? Recording? How do you find undiscovered genius?
Tranquil hasn’t even begun; I think Paul is in the midst of a nervous breakdown, but as soon as he gets himself to Philadelphia, I am looking forward to recording with him. I let the artists do whatever they like, I don’t interfere at all unless I am involved musically, then I do get involved 100%. Artwork is sometimes conceptualized by me, but Chris Rice of Halana Magazine does all my artwork, and he is great. He comes up with great ideas and always knows what I am looking for. Henry Owings did the artwork for the Tranquil CD, and that was also great. Finances are tough. The label is always bordering on bankruptcy. It is so hard in this day and age to run an independent label — everything is against you. Recording is a mixed bag. I started on 4 track and then went in to my friends’ studios — I was convinced at that point I had to leave the 4 track behind. So now I have my own studio and I am trying to figure out how to run it. It is very difficult and trying right now. Undiscovered genius? — I haven’t discovered any yet, but I am trying.
Do you listen to your own recordings very much?
Can you listen to those first releases without being critical of them?
No, I think they are horrendous.
Since what you do on album is very private, do you feel uncomfortable in listening to your music around others?
I never do it.