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Arrington de Dionyso

Arrington de Dionyso

Gimme That Old Time Relijun

Arrington de Dionyso is not fucking around. In the immortal words of Lou Reed, his week is your year. Besides helming Pacific Northwest garage mutants Old Time Relijun, Arrington divides his time between jazz combo Naked Future Quartet, dance/music hybrid I See Beyond the Black Sun, and a solo career that leans toward ecstatic, improvised vocal trance music. Steering his vocals toward exotic offramps usually only traveled by the likes of Diamanda Galas, Yma Sumac, Yoko Ono and Michael Patton, no two of Dionyso’s vocal performances are the same. He constantly experiments with new techniques (Tuvan throat signing is a recent obsession), and new languages (he’s sung in Indonesian and Italian). The end result is a perfect mix of spontaneous modern primitivism and careful ethnomusicological study. He accompanies himself with an equally individualist choice of instruments — bass clarinet and mouth harp. If all of that isn’t enough, he paints and exhibits his works, writes books, and gives vocal workshops.

Dionyso is as flamboyant a performer as he is a theoretician, telling WIRE magazine that he wanted to “learn to sing in a way that reconfigures atoms and builds temples with vast hallways of sound.” Despite all this, and a discography that would make you expect a persona along the lines of a reincarnated Captain Beefheart (oh wait, he’s not dead), in conversation, Arrington is polite and eager to communicate his artistic mission in as understated a manner as possible. Ink 19 caught up with Dionyso on a rare day off, somewhere in Texas, to speak about his new album Malaikat Dan Singa, performance, and making music to conjure spirits.

Are you in the midst of a tour at the moment?

Yeah! I’ve been on tour since the end of August. And I’ll be getting home around November 1st. and I think I might be doing another tour after that. I might be getting added to another tour as a support act.

How are audiences responding to the new material?

Well, you know, the shows I’m doing right now… I’m not doing songs from the new album on this tour. I have another band I’ve put together to do those songs but it’s sort of separate from when I perform solo. Hopefully we’ll be able to do some shows with that band. But for the moment I’m on my own. The shows we did over the summer were very well received. It’s a very kind of striking performance, I think. It’s impossible to not be taken aback by the show that we give. People are loving it. The solo performances I’m doing are striking, and I’m getting a lot of good feedback on that as well.

When it’s just you is the music more similar to the Breath of Fire album?

Yeah, similar to that. The newer one, I See Beyond the Black Sun, those are longer pieces using throat singing and bass clarinet with a backing drone. It’s sort of a combination of those pieces and some newer pieces that use different kinds of modulating effects. For example, I wrap the bass clarinet up in aluminum foil and there’s a whole range of extra sounds that come out from the keys themselves of the bass clarinet vibrating the aluminum foil. It adds a whole extra dimension of sound that you wouldn’t get in regular playing. I’m also doing a lot of amplified mouth harp pieces. Those are kind of always an audience favorite. I throw those into the set to perk people back up. I start out with these longer trance-inducing longer pieces that use a lot of heavy drone and microtonal oscillations, so that kind of gets people into a hypnotic state and then I usually end the set with the amplified jaw harp stuff. That always gets a good response.

Do you tend to come up with a lot of new material on the road?

Yeah, I’m doing somewhat of the same show every night, and I like to experiment with throwing new things in and seeing where that leads. A lot of the time I’ll develop a whole new show based on things I’ve tried out in a concert. The next thing I hope to get to is — I’m actually going to end up buying a portable record lathe. It looks just like a small record player but it’s got a cut arm, it’s got a cutter on it, you can use any kind of plastic plate as a blank record, just a regular picnic plate and you can poke a hole in it and put it on the machine. So I’m going to do a piece where I’m going to cut a record live and then set it up with a skipped groove. So instead of using a loop pedal, which a lot of people have, it’s a common thing, I’m actually going to make a record and then play the record as a loop for the next piece I’m working on right now. Probably by the next time I tour it will be ready.

When you are performing, what sort of thoughts are going through your head, what are you feeling? In that moment…

There’s a lot of variability according to the venue or the situation or the people that are there. I make a really big effort to try to play in venues where people are really going to be there to listen, but it does sometimes happen that you’re booked in a club where people are there to drink and hang out with their friends and they’re not there to pay attention to the music unless it really, like, captures them somehow. In those kinds of places I sort of feel like I’m going into battle a little bit. Sometimes it’s a little bit uphill if it’s a dance club or that kind of thing where people aren’t really there to appreciate art, per se. But if you can present it in a really striking way they can’t help but notice it, and you can take advantage of a situation that might be a little bit more disadvantageous. In more gallery settings or art museums and things like that… more of a quiet audience, if they’re really there to listen, I can take them to a pretty faraway place or a deep place.

The kinds of things I’m thinking about are how I set up my space in the performance, how I’m working with the acoustics of the place, how I’m working with the sounds that I encounter during the performance and how I wield that energy. I want to go into a performance really thinking about how I use the sound as a force of energy, and what I want to communicate with that. I’ve been doing a lot of research for a long time as to how music can be used to induce or guide a trance or an ecstatic state. And that can mean myself as a performer, as a musician, but that can also involve the audience and bringing them along with me in this journey that I go on. The best way to say it is that I make music to conjure spirits, to communicate with the more invisible world. Not to say that every single time I perform I really achieve that state. But I think when it’s at its best, I think a musical experience can be really honed in on and directed in a way that you can actually start to see colors or shapes of light during a really focused performance.

When did you first realize that you were making music in a way that was conjuring spirits?

Well, it’s something that I’ve always been interested in. The roots of music, if we go back twenty-thousand years or so, music was really developed by humans in an effort to achieve these magical ecstatic states. It’s amazing to me how far away we’ve gotten from that original sense, but also how easy it is to go back to that. There’s nothing really esoteric about it. It’s really just understanding the mechanics of sound and the way sound works in the physical environment; how sound is composed of these waves of energy that move through the air and completely envelop us all the time. So when we set out with the intention to conduct these vibrations of sound, and direct them in particular directions, I think there’s a lot of really fascinating things we can do with that and if we measure the physical, psychological responses then… I don’t know, there’s just a lot to it, really.

You treat your vocals and your voice as a very serious discipline. You’ve studied under people and learned techniques beyond what you’d expect from just a vocalist in a rock band.

I’m mostly self-taught. When I was very young I made all kinds of animal sounds and monster noises. if I saw a cartoon on TV and there was an interesting robot or something, I’d try to imitate the sounds that I heard in the fantasy type things I was interested in as a child. I had a wide range of sound effects that I could make with my voice. One of those techniques, I later learned, was identical to what is used in Siberian throat singing. And so when I learned about throat singing I was probably about 16 or 17 and realized that it was much the same technique that I kind of found on my own when I was younger. So I’ve spent the last almost twenty years really kind of honing that in as much as I’m able to. I never really studied under anyone specifically but I have over the years traveled a lot and met some really interesting people who each had their own things that they’d do, but you could say I’ve gotten some guidance from some other vocal practitioners. I guess the most notable would be Tran Quan Hai, he’s a world famous musicologist living in Paris and he does a lot of workshops and lectures all around the world. And he’s considered the foremost expert on overtone singing and throat singing and mouth harps and this kind of niche of ethnomusicology. He’s done a lot of research into the farthest reaches of the human voice. I’ve met with him a couple times, and we’ve created some experiences and techniques that we’ve been working on. And other than that it’s more about listening to all kinds of sounds around me and finding ways to respond to it. That’s really been more of a consistent teacher, just listening and finding some kind of space in there.

What brought you to the bass clarinet as a primary instrument?

I’d been playing guitar for a few years. I guess I started playing guitar when I was 13, and I don’t remember when exactly I first heard a bass clarinet but I had a very visceral response to it. Really before I can remember, I knew I wanted to play the bass clarinet. I didn’t do band in high school, I wasn’t in any kind of orchestra. I never really went through the saxophone stage, I went straight for the bass clarinet. As soon as I was able to buy one, I bought one, without having any previous experience with woodwinds. I hadn’t been a clarinet player, I hadn’t been a saxophone player, I just bought myself a bass clarinet and taught myself everything I could do with it. And again, when someone says they’re self-taught, that means a lot of different things. I mean, really, I think the best way to learn music is by playing it. So I was able to put myself in situations with other musicians, playing with others, spending a lot of time developing a solo vocabulary and discovering my own ways of playing. In a way I’ve kind of invented my own language with the bass clarinet. It’s kind of funny, I’m actually going backwards, picking up more traditional jazz repertoire to kind of fill in gaps I skipped over originally. Literally, I played the instrument for more than ten years before I even knew that “this fingering is an E or a B or a B Flat” — I had no idea for a very long time. It’s just been more recently that I’ve been getting a little more rigorous in that area while still expanding that vocabulary of my own.

What was your first memory of music?

I grew up in church with my family, both my parents were ministers, so there were always pianos and organs… Sometimes there would be services that had drum sets or electric instruments, but mostly it was piano and organs that I was exposed to at the very earliest age and my memory was always being very eager to go up to those instruments and kinda plunk away at it. And of course a kid running up to a piano and plunking away at it in the middle of a church service, you’re not really going to be… So I kind of got steered away from that path that I initially started out on. It took me a few years to come back to that, eventually.

Was that what made you want to create and perform music — those initial childhood exposures?

Maybe. I also went through kind of a theater stage where I was involved in children’s theater and there was a really unique program that involved a lot of improvisational exercises. Theater vocal exercises and extending that to improvisational activity — these were workshops that were intended for theater. I feel that I draw upon a lot of the same kind of theatrical actors’ techniques when I do my music. That might set me apart a little bit from other run-of-the-mill rock and roll bands in that I do have a sense of a rock and roll performance as a total self-expression of course, but you draw upon a lot of acting techniques in that kind of a show as well.

I see that, but your performances don’t seem self-conscious, so you’ve got the best of both worlds in that respect.

Exactly. I feel like I approach it more as a discipline and a practice than anything else. A performance of music or sound is something that I want to really enter into with complete dedication and a lot of times that can involve loosening the connection that you have to temporal time and space and entering into a space that’s more eternal and expansive.

We should backtrack and talk about the Malaikat Dan Singa a bit. Can you tell me about the circumstances surrounding the composing and recording of the pieces?

I set about to do this project where I wanted to write a record’s worth of songs in Indonesian. I wanted to teach myself Indonesian to impress a girl. So I got involved in this project, I spent a couple months really researching the vocabulary that I wanted to draw upon, researching the grammatical structure that I would have to conform to somewhat and also being willing to bend the rules a little bit. Just to add my flavor to it. Once I had what I thought would be an album’s worth of songwriting material… these weren’t fully finished songs, these were a sketchbook of songwriting motifs in this brand new language. I’m not an Indonesian speaker, I don’t speak the language conversationally, I wouldn’t know how to say, “Where’s the bathroom” necessarily, but as far as talking about pulsating light from the eternal depths of the psyche or something, you know… The lyrical content is consistent with my poetic vision. Once I’d gathered up enough material to compose an album, I got my friend Karl Blau to dedicate four or five days that we set aside in the Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia and we just set to work, getting some really growling, ecstatic trance jams, getting that stuff recorded, which would become the template for the songs. Once we started the actual recording process it went by really quickly. The whole record was done, it was about four days of recording. These were long, all-day sessions, but it definitely went pretty quickly. I had a strong sense of what I wanted it to sound like, and what direction I wanted to go in. And structurally speaking, the music is simple, deceptively simple in a way, there’s not a lot of… once the song starts, they don’t really change gears very much, there’s not a lot of arranging. I think where the interesting interplay on the album happens is in the phasing, where there are two instruments doing very similar parts on the left and the right with very slight differences and I think it’s that phasing that gives it a more compelling vibe. Some of the percussive parts, it’s like, there are two or three tracks of percussive parts that will weave in and out a main beat, but have this sort of kind of, the equivalent of those optical illusions where you have two lines next to each other and it’s like, which one is longer, they’re both the same length, but you really can’t tell. It’s sort of the phonic equivalent to that, if you try to listen to the parts really closely as individual parts, it can be kind of deceptive compared to when you hear it as a whole piece.

Did you and Karl play all the parts, or did you assemble other musicians?

It was mostly me and Karl and then I had some other people come in to do some extra parts. The last, longest piece on the record is with people we assembled in Olympia. That last piece was all live — drums, bass, electronics, viola, and bass clarinet — so I had some people come in to play those parts. It was mostly me and Karl for the bulk of the parts.

I take it you leave a lot of room for improvisation, happy accidents, in your recording sessions?

Yeah. I leave a lot of room for seeing what works, for seeing what is most effective. I like to record at a fast pace, so most of what you hear on the record is a first take. There might be a couple of the vocal lines where I did it and I was like, “Oh, I can do it better. Can I do it one more time?” And really I can’t think of any song on there that I sang more than twice, if the first take wasn’t the take, then it was the second take, it’s not so much the improvisation in itself, it’s that I want the recording to capture the live urgency of… I want each piece that’s recorded to capture that live fervor. To capture that sense of absolute divine inspiration where what you listen to on the record is the very moment where I even had the idea to make that sound. That’s what you actually hear on the record. And it’s just that I’ve been refining that technique over many years so that I feel like it’s a signature sound that I’m known for that. Not that anyone’s ever heard of my music, but people who know my music know that that’s what they can expect from my style of performing.

Do you prefer live work or studio work?

They’re totally different. I love playing concerts in front of people and being in that kind of arena but when you really get to work and record a record, there’s nothing like that. It’s a completely singular experience. I don’t have any way to really compare it. It depends a lot on the studio that you’re working in, and most of the work I’ve done has been in the Dub Narcotic Studio and I’m really familiar with it. There’s a whole lot of vintage equipment, there’s a lot of equipment that doesn’t always work properly, you kind of have to rewire it as you’re doing it. It’s like working in an alchemical laboratory where you’ve got all these test tubes that you play around with to build a Frankenstein’s monster. It’s totally different than a live performance. I couldn’t say whether I prefer one over the other. Now, these kind of like, completely digitized computer studios with all the protocols and all that, I’ve worked in those situations as well and I don’t enjoy those kind of places nearly as much. But even there, with digital music making, there’s a lot of unexplored material in that arena as well, so I’m not going to write that off completely.

The first exposure to your solo work I had was the Breath of Fire album. Would you talk about the recording of that album?

I had been in Italy doing some vocal workshops that I was teaching at a cultural festival on the very southern tip of Puglia, the boot heel of Italy. It’s not really an area of the country where they get a lot of touring bands, there’s not a lot of experimental music concerts in that area at all. So it was a very special event for me to be able to do this series of performances and workshops down there. And Fabio Magistrali, who is the producer, I’ve worked with him before on some other projects, and he was aware that I was going to be in the area and invited me to stay in his home with him and work in his home studio. We had two sets of panoramic microphones and some preamps and not much else. It was pretty barebones and just using the sounds of his front room of the house, but we also had the windows open so we were letting in sounds from… birds in the courtyards, there’s a couple of spots where you can hear trees rustling in the wind. It was just like this very open hall, and we were in total isolation, there were no stores or neighbors to speak of, this was really out in the country. It was near the sea but even the beach was about ten miles away from where we were staying, so it wasn’t really on the seashore itself. It’s just this remote, isolated place. All of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day working on these recordings.

You’re doing more of these workshops now, aren’t you?

I do a few a year. On this last tour I did a really great workshop in Montreal and then another workshop in Chattanooga, TN. It all depends on what I’m requested to do, sometimes it’s… If you’re doing a concert in a university or a cultural center, it’s kind of a nice thing to offer as a package, I’ll do a concert Friday night and then Saturday afternoon I’ll have fifteen people sign up for this workshop. It’s sort of a way to share the inspiration for the techniques that I use for my performance and then people can have an opportunity to learn about their own voices and get connected to another level of vocal expression that many people are really unfamiliar with. Every workshop that I’ve done, I’ve enjoyed immensely. It’s always a learning experience. My dad has kind of been pushing me to do that more often, be more of a teacher. I’m really open to doing that kind of thing, but it always has to be subservient to my role as a performer. The show has always got to be the first priority, and the workshops are an additional dessert, if you will. That’s what I’m saying now, but over the years, maybe that will shift a bit.

What’s a sample, I don’t know, topic?

It’s really about vocal expression, and that can mean a lot of different things. I did workshops for dancers who, in this group they tended to… be very aware as far as body knowledge goes, but these weren’t people who would sign up for public speaking, these weren’t people who would sing in front of other people, so it was a really great way to use movement and sound combined to help people use their voice with a little more power, you might say. I’ve also done workshops for instrumental musicians who don’t sing, but by going deeper into the voice, some of the people in the workshop were able to find things that helped them unlock areas where they might have been blocked musically. Maybe they were through this one level of musical expression and kind of just not going to the next level and actually working through their voices instead of through their instruments could help unlock those bad habits or inhibitions where they thought they were getting stuck at. So those are just two examples. And there’s a lot of technical stuff about using the overtones in the voice, projecting overtones, doing multi-phonic singing and some of the more adventurous people can get into the throat-singing techniques that I teach as well.

Would you talk a little about the I See Beyond the Black Sun collaboration with dancer Melinda Allen?

Oh yeah. Well, she’s a very close, very old friend. I had these pieces that were recorded for the album I See Beyond the Black Sun. She’d seen me perform both solo and also with a more ad hoc collaboration of dancers, kind of a one-off collaboration. We had some conversations about the idea of working together, the whole thing came about very organically. We’ve known each other since the fourth grade and we have a very solid rapport with each other and a very built-in trust in working with each other. So that’s just a big part of how the piece really emerged very organically out of that relationship. We spent a lot of time talking about the subtext of the piece and how we see it evolving over time. It’s really great… really great to work with a dancer who is in line philosophically with what I want to be about musically. It’s a really natural working relationship that went into making that piece.

You’ve done a number of books too — do you find yourself working on art or music every day?

I work on it at a very ferocious pace, with my musical projects and my art projects, I’m fairly prolific in what I try to accomplish but I’d probably go crazy if I didn’t take breaks. Usually at the end of tour where I’ve been performing every night for a couple of months, I may not pick up my instrument for a week or so after I get home, just to rest a little bit. But the nice thing about that is, when I’m not playing music, I can always work on drawing or painting and vice versa. If I’m not working on one, I’m working on the other. But it’s nice to just step back from both and go swimming once in a while.

How long have you been drawing and painting?

Since I was a little kid. It’s probably more recently that I’ve figured out ways to connect the two. It’s one thing to do album cover art that goes with music, but actually having… On the album I See Beyond the Black Sun, that album is conceived as a body of work in which the paintings on the front cover are actually an integral part of the piece itself. So I want to continue to do works where I might do an opening for an installation and have that go along with the same title as a current musical piece. And find ways to connect the musical piece and the installation in this very clear way. That’s a newer development that I want to continue working on.

Is there a performance that you can recall where you came closest to achieving the ecstatic and communal aspects that you mentioned earlier?

This recent show I did in Montreal. Most of the time I’m doing shows in clubs or galleries or sometimes bars, different kinds of concert spaces, but in Montreal a couple of weeks ago, I was able to perform in this yoga studio and it was really great that it wasn’t necessarily the kind of audience that always goes out to freeform music performances, it was more the regular crowd that they had at this yoga studio, so it was people who were interested in healing arts and sound energy and kind of a certain lifestyle more than the music per se and it was a really wonderful experience because people were… As the performance was unfolding, I could look up from time to time and there were people in the back of the studio who were stretching and going into these meditative poses or feeling moved by the music in some very deep ways. I had people up in the front and they all had their eyes closed. I felt like they were going along with me into these very deep theta wave states and that was definitely a very communal experience that I hope to be involved more in that kind of thing, I mean it was really encouraging.

What other projects are you working on right now?

Well, I mentioned the thing with the record lathe. A few months before the tour I was borrowing one and doing some experimentation with this WWII-era technology. These machines used to be mass produced so that soldiers and soldiers’ wives could actually mail one another records of their voices and instead of just sending a letter you could hear the voice of your husband fighting on the front. People would use them for home recording before there were magnetic tape players available. So I was having a lot of fun just making my own records and the way that we’re really used to how tape distorts when it’s given a really strong signal and that’s totally different to the way that the grooves of a record distort when you send a strong signal through a record, you’re not overloading a signal onto a magnetic tape, you’re actually cutting… You’re carving this strand of plastic out from this material and that’s an actual physical record of the soundwave. So I did this very limited edition set of live performances cut directly to a record and as soon as I get home I’m going to start working on more of those and then the whole thing with doing the live record, self-produced skipping records used as a loop is a whole other area of sound that I want to try and explore. And in addition to that I’m working on painting stuff all of the time. I’m just trying to figure out what’s what and do more work on that front. And I would say, expect to see more translation-related projects in the future, I don’t know exactly what that will be at this time but I’m always trying to connect the linguistic side of things with my music. I’ve written songs in Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Indonesian, Portuguese, and I kind of want to try something where I somehow develop a system of using multiple languages in one song, but using words that sound very similar in different languages that mean different things and to develop pieces that use that tension of double meanings and triple meanings and create juxtaposing texts that go along with that in a song structure. But that’s just sort of a concept, I’m not really sure how that’s going to unfold.

Arrington de Dionyso: www.myspace.com/arringtondedionyso

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Interviews

Michael Rother

Michael Rother

Harmonia Convergence

By 1976, pioneering German electronic trio Harmonia was no more. The core trio of Michael Rother (Neu), Dieter Moebius, and Hans-Joachim Roedelius (both of Cluster) had all gone their separate ways after two incredible albums and were now working on solo projects, content to have moved on. Then, improbably, came a phone call from Brian Eno. Already on record as a huge fan of the so-called krautrock movement, he was on the way to Montreaux to record with some guy named David Bowie and he wanted to stop off for a few days and hang out with Harmonia. Oh yeah, how does next week sound? Not letting a technicality like the band no longer existing get in the way of making art, Harmonia hastily reconvened and welcomed Eno into their countryside studio. Over the next eleven days, Harmonia/Eno collaborated on twenty-seven largely improvised pieces of electronic music. At the end of eleven days, Eno left, taking the tapes with him, and everyone went their separate ways. And that was that.

Harmonia and Eno

Harmonia and Eno

Except it wasn’t. Some of the music from this historic summit was released, whipped into shape as the first version of Tracks and Traces in 1997. It’s fine for what it was, but by no means a definitive document. Fast forward several years later and Rother stumbled upon his personal cassette copy of the full sessions. Listening to all of the music for the first time in thirty years, Rother realized that there was too much good music here to go unreleased. The new reissue of Tracks and Traces (out now on Gronland/High Wire) is a resequenced version of Tracks MK1 with three unrelaxed tracks providing a fuller view of what exactly went down for eleven days in 1976. It’s a revelation. Amazing how the sound of four incredibly smart guys goofing around still sounds light years ahead of so much underground music.

If you like any independent or electronic music that is on, as they say, the cutting edge, the chances are very good that you have Michael Rother to thank for it. Either as a member of an early incarnation of Kraftwerk, half of the chaotic and brilliant duo Neu, one-third of Harmonia, or in various solo endeavors, Michael Rother was one of the prime movers in a German music scene (clumsily dubbed krautrock) — including bands like Can, Cluster, Amon Duul, Guru Guru, and Faust — that still sets the standard for exciting and weird and groovy music. Ink 19 had the pleasure of chatting with Rother, whose memories of that time are every bit as vibrant as the music that came out of it. He seems as comfortable with creating new music as he does being a careful archivist of the music and legacy of his previous bands. For that, we can be thankful.

You recently came across your own cassette copy of the Harmonia/Eno sessions long thought lost. What did you find on that tape?

That was a cassette on which I had done rough mixes, shortly before Brian left us in September of ’76. I had that cassette on the shelf in the studio all these years. In the back of my mind I knew it was there all along but I didn’t listen to it; and in the ’80s and ’90s it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to try and transfer recordings made on a cassette in the ’70s onto a CD. But technology has advanced and I checked all those recordings on my cassette and I have about 27 song sketches on that tape. And funnily enough or maybe not so funny, it’s quite normal for me, I have very clear memories of the musical events and of the musical ideas on which we worked.

Listening to that collection of sketches, my first impression was that there was so much good music recorded on that tape. That was my feeling as well back in the late ’70s and ’80s when I heard that our tapes were considered lost. Brian had taken them with him and when he was asked later by Roedelius that was the answer he got, that Eno couldn’t find the tapes. And he has so many recordings that it could have been the case, I don’t doubt it. So I transferred the 27 sketches onto my computer and I made a CD which I sent to my Harmonia colleagues. Everyone agreed that it was indeed a very creative session. We all knew that before, but listening to all of the extra recordings we had done only amplified that impression. I asked whether it would it be okay for me to make some selections. Roedelius also sent me a list of his favorites. We compared notes and I noticed that we had similar favorites. One idea we had was drawing a completely new album from this material because there was so much wonderful music on that tape. We agreed instead to change the existing Tracks and Traces and include the extra tracks on there and I made the choices, my colleagues left that job to me and I was happy to do it. I presented them with the three extra tracks and the running order for the new version and everybody was really happy, and that’s the story of the new album.

So there is still unreleased material to be heard?

Yes! The three extra tracks are just three sketches from the 27! I’m not saying that all of the material is of equal strength, that would be exaggerating. That’s down to the way we worked back then. Some of them are very short ideas. I remember Brian once put my guitar through his synthesizer and did some very fine effects with that and I played my guitar with those effects. And that’s only about 35 seconds. So these sketches are rather short and… well, you may have read about how we worked, it was not working, it was drifting along with the music and letting the ideas flow without any pressure, without any idea of releasing the material, it was just exchanging creativity and that was wonderful. We didn’t talk about what we’d recorded or try to improve what we had on tape, we just moved on. Everything is very fresh. That is one of the characteristics of the album; the material didn’t lose the freshness of the first impression, of the first idea and that is beautiful. If you work on multitrack machines and shape a recording over the course of days or even weeks, it is a very difficult task to keep the freshness, because it is a natural process to change my mind about the material. In the morning I like it and in the afternoon I want to erase everything! That’s the normal story, but with Tracks and Traces we just recorded the first impression, the first idea, the first echo and then moved on.

Going back to that time, what was it about Brian Eno’s music that led you to recognize him as a kindred spirit?

I have to go back one step before that question. I think it’s important to stress that for me and for my colleagues, we were really focusing on creating our own music and creating something new. And that made it necessary to minimize influences from outside. I more or less stopped listening to music that was happening in the early ’70s. That’s what I started to do at the time when I worked with Kraftwerk and early in the Neu period. It was a very ambitious approach, but the idea was to create something new and you can’t go about while listening to other music and picking up influences involuntarily. I hardly listened to music.

But, of course, we knew Roxy Music and we rather liked Roxy Music. And also I remember that the Fripp/Eno collaboration (No Pussyfooting) was around and then later on Eno’s solo albums Another Green World and Before and After Science. Another thing I have to stress is that he was just a normal musician, a normal person. He didn’t come across as a rock star from Roxy Music. His attitude was that he was an equal partner working with us, exchanging ideas. It was his idea to visit us in the first place, to find out how these strange German musicians worked. I enjoyed exchanging musical ideas with Brian just as much, I guess, as he did. One thing that we had in common, which at the time wasn’t altogether normal, was that he avoided the blues structure in music. That was something I grew up with in the ’60s when I started making music and learning guitar techniques. I learned by copying beat bands, rock bands, guitar heroes like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, especially Jimi Hendrix. At that time it dawned on me that the world wasn’t waiting for another Jimi Hendrix, so… It was a process that took awhile and I realized that I had to forget even Jimi Hendrix, even though to this day I admire his work. So much heart, soul, and sound innovation. Sorry, I got carried away!

Eno was a fan of Harmonia though, wasn’t he?

It sounds a bit strange, I hesitate to boast about that. The story was that Brian came to Germany in ’74 to do some promotional work for one of his solo albums and he met a German journalist who was one of two fans we had, maybe one-and-a-half! We didn’t have that many. So they were talking about new German music coming from bands like Kraftwerk, Neu, Cluster, Harmonia and then Brian told this guy, “I know about that music, I love it and I’ve been discussing this with David Bowie.” So he asked the journalist to take him to a Harmonia concert in Hamburg which was scheduled the same day — that’s how we met, because Brian was in the first row, sitting there, listening to Harmonia. It’s strange to say fan, but he liked our music and obviously listened to it a lot.

Harmonia 2007

Harmonia 2007

What was it like adding him into the Harmonia creative dynamic? How did it change your working relationships?

That’s a difficult question, really. At that point, the group didn’t exist anymore. Harmonia disbanded in early summer ’76 and all three of us started solo recordings with Conny Plank. I recorded my first solo album Flammende Herzen in June-July. So when Brian called us in it must have been around the end of August, and we all decided to meet again in our studio. We all lived together still in the same house. Maybe it’s hard to distinguish whether it’s Harmonia or whether it’s a group of four musicians with the background of Harmonia working together. I prefer to work with musicians who have their own ideas about music and don’t just wait for orders on what to play. Whenever you add one new figure or take a figure away the music will automatically change, the balance will change. It’s like a chemical reaction. It’s hard to explain precisely but I know it from Harmonia; each of us had and still has his specialty, his field where the strengths are most apparent. The way we complemented one another in Harmonia was similar to the situation in Neu, where it was even easier to analyze the personalities of Klaus Dinger and myself mixing in the studio. With Brian Eno it was just a fourth musician who brought ideas along, his take on music, his approach to music. We shuffled all the ideas, it was a process that didn’t come from a drawing board, it wasn’t a big strategy. It was just doing instead of talking.

Was a lot of the material improvised on the spot?

I think nearly everything. Perhaps Brian had a harmonic structure beforehand, but that’s the way we always worked. Somebody throws in one idea, the others listen and then throw in their own contributions. And then the next step is just to listen and be attentive and open to changes and surprises. And be able to react to whatever is offered on the spot. And that was the way we worked.

Was a typical day’s recording then just letting the tape machine run and letting the music take shape at its own pace?

That happened a lot. Especially if you listen to the longer tracks. “Sometimes In Autumn,” the longest track, is nearly sixteen minutes and that’s where we really drift a long way. So it’s just one guy, maybe Roedelius with a certain pattern on his keyboard and then Brian joining in on the bass or with his synthesizer, and Moebius adding some bleeps and the strange noises which are his specialty, and my part is playing the electric drums or the piano and also the guitar, mustn’t forget the guitar.

What you’re describing sounds like a very egoless way of working….

You’re right, ego will never help you in a group of artists, there would be fighting. I mean, I had a lot of fights with Klaus Dinger, that story is probably very well known. But those fights always took place outside of the studio. In the studio we had identical ideas of where we were heading. Ego, I think… it destroys bands, and the ego problems made it very difficult with Klaus Dinger, made it difficult for me in later years. But to concentrate on the artistic side, I never had the impression that anything had to do with ego, it was just ideas. And the best ideas won.

The sessions for Tracks and Traces were over in 11 days. It was fairly quick work.

It’s amazing if you look back at the amount of tracks and sketches that we did during those days. Of course we didn’t enter the studio at eight and leave at ten in the evening. We played ping pong and went on walks and it was so easy and that makes it even more puzzling that we did so much work, so many recordings. We must have all felt very creative!

What was it like making music with Klaus in Neu? The Harmonia working relationships seemed more easy and social, were Neu seemed to thrive on tension and chaos.

In the studio, there were no conflicts. It was all outside the studio, he got more difficult over the years. But it was just a great combination of someone with his strengths, his ability and a dynamic approach to music. It’s hard to explain really. He had the attitude of crashing through all boundaries and that was something that sometimes startled me, sometimes even frightened me because he was so uncompromising. Sometimes he overdid that, but in the music it was a great extension to my contributions on guitar and the more harmonic melodic parts, to combine that with the very powerful and thoughtful contributions Klaus had to offer. We had very different personalities and our reactions to the same things happening in our lives were always very different. It’s not possible to explain the magic. It’s just… well, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to have worked with Klaus even though it wrecked my nerves in the ’80s and ’90s, especially when he released two Neu albums without telling me. Actually, I’m in the studio right now, I’ve been working on one of those two albums because there’s a plan to release a vinyl box of Neu recordings.

Harmonia in the Studio

Harmonia in the Studio

That’s exciting.

We’re meeting next week in Berlin with Klaus Dinger’s widow and the Gronland people, our label, and I’ve been busy on that project. I’m analyzing this album that Klaus called Neu Live ’72 which actually was a rehearsal recording from 1972 that shows how we completely failed in finding the right musicians to put Neu onstage. I don’t want to be too nasty with Klaus, but I think in the ’90s when he released it, he was desperate for recognition and also for cash. So he released that and now I’m trying to edit that album, because there are some gems in there, maybe fifteen or sixteen minutes of interesting music. It sounds terrible. But I have never minded if music has poor audio quality if the quality of the ideas is convincing. We have to make sure that fans don’t expect an album of this, this is not an album, it’s just a rehearsal recording. It has some quite interesting moments and it’s a document. That’s one of the most important purposes of this project, documenting everything that Neu recorded and putting that in the correct perspective. Of course, we won’t change the first three albums, they are perfect in their way, and some fans will be happy to hear that we won’t touch those. But the album Neu ’86 — that’s the project we recorded in the mid ’80s, and Klaus released that without my permission in Japan as Neu 4 — that also has some interesting moments, but it’s too early now to say exactly what will come out of that.

I’m trying to find the interesting moments of Neu off that album project, while leaving out the elements Klaus released without consulting me. He did it behind my back. It you don’t know that story, that was the worst part, when he sent me a fax saying, “Congratulations, Neu 4 will be out in Japan tomorrow,” and really expecting me to laugh and be happy about it! Maybe he didn’t, Klaus was a smart guy. That was a very dark chapter. We tried to settle those problems but unfortunately we didn’t manage to properly. There was a situation where he apologized for those actions but… Anyway this album, Neu ’86 is also different from the first three because Klaus and I never agreed on a final version and so it’s now up to me 25 years later to evaluate it. Keep your fingers crossed that I can come up with something convincing.

Is there a release date?

Actually, I’m running late! I’ve been doing too many interviews! It’s amazing, all the interest in Harmonia and Neu which has been becoming much stronger in recent months with these releases — that along with Brand Neu, a compilation album of bands who feel influenced by Neu. It’s the project of a former MD of Gronland who started his own label and he invited bands from many countries. There’s even a track by Oasis!

Oh my….

Yes, I know, many people react that way. But actually, it’s one of my favorites! I think that track was only released as a B-side of a single. Just give it a fair listen, perhaps you won’t be disgusted! (laughter) I was surprised when I first heard all of these famous musicians talking about their love for Neu. I knew about David Bowie and Brian Eno and Sonic Youth and Stereolab and Radiohead and the like. But in recent times, I think with the last album, suddenly Bono is talking about loving Neu and then Oasis did the same. Well, what can you say, in one way it’s flattering and another way you can’t really explain how inspiration works. I mean, you play music to a hundred musicians and how they react to that will be so different. Just feeling influenced doesn’t necessarily mean that you make something great out of the influence. Take the inspiration to something new! But I’m not bashing my colleagues.

Is there any other Harmonia material that may get a release?

Not so much. There is a recording of a Harmonia concert from 1975 which we are discussing. So far I’m not really convinced of the music that was recorded there. But Roedelius is very much in favor of that material. You know the history of Harmonia’s Live 1974 album? I had it in my archives and I edited it and really worked hard to optimize the sound. I didn’t change the music but it was a lot of technical work, I invested a lot of time and energy and maybe now Roedelius will do the same with his recording. Otherwise I think there’s not much more unreleased material. There’s more Harmonia/Eno stuff, the 27 sketches! Who knows, I already said I would have never expected to release something that was recorded on a tape… A few years ago I would not have thought that possible, but technology has advanced and when I did the remastering this year, the engineer, he nearly drove me crazy with all the comparing of the processes that he had to change to improve the audio quality of the tape. And that, of course, is a very technical process. He repeated one track maybe 60 or 70 times and I was really… worn out.

What will you be moving on to work on after you finish with the Neu box?

That’s a difficult question, because my mind is so completely filled up. Last year at this time I thought by now I would be working on new material, composing and recording solo music, and also doing more live shows with Harmonia. But Harmonia stopped in the spring, we decided to stop that project, the live collaboration, and there are many interesting channels waiting for me. One idea recently… former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos got in touch with me and we met several times and there’s this idea of doing a collaboration next year and that sounds very promising, with the combination of his abilities and my approach to music. And also one big idea in my mind is to do live shows with a mixture of Neu’s music and Harmonia’s music and some of my solo work with some of my friends, musicians I’ve met in recent years like Benjamin Curtis and Josh Klinghoffer and the Chili Peppers — John Frusciante and Flea — people like that. Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, with whom I’ve done some recording in the last year. There are some musicians I have in my mind and it’s something I’m really looking forward to, playing my take on Neu, Harmonia, and selected solo material in the live environment next year. I noticed that audiences are really appreciative when I play some of that, people seemed to like that material as much as I do. I think it would be a great, great event to present that music.

Harmonia 1975

Harmonia 1975

What keeps you inspired to keep creating music and art at such a pace?

To be honest, it’s not being creative all the time! Unfortunately, the balance has changed, and sometimes I’m not so happy about that. Having so much history to take care of, it demands a lot of other work. It’s not the way that musicians work in the UK or the USA, everybody seems to have managers. And I don’t know, I never… over here it’s not that popular to have someone take care of everything. Maybe one of these days I will have to, because I would need 36 hours every day! That’s the other side to the coin: the great expectations, the great reactions, all the attention we’re getting, that takes up a lot of time. I don’t know how many interviews I’ve been doing in recent months — dozens. Some of these interviews really take a while because people are well-informed and have lots of questions and there is so much history to cover. And you can imagine that the days just pass by. Organizing projects like the Neu vinyl box, which is very ambitious, I must say, to dig in the archives, collect the photos for the artwork. There will be a big booklet, the size of a record. There are several authors writing text about Neu, and they have questions. And also some of the photographers have taken photos of Neu which have never been shown yet. Maybe I’ll have a clearer picture of what is possible after the meeting next week with Klaus Dinger’s widow, because we will meet the graphic designer and try to start developing this booklet and I will try and present some of the musical ideas for the two new ones, Neu ’86 and the Live ’72.

So the question was how can I remain creative? I hope the answer is that I can! (laughter) And you just keep on working and try not to be too preoccupied, be open for new developments, new sounds. Next week I will meet up with the musicians in Fuck Buttons; we became friends during a tour in Australia. We shared a stage at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Sydney. I was very impressed with their sounds, and their manager sent me the new album and we may even end up on stage together next week in Berlin and later in Hamburg. At least we’ll meet up and hang out. That’s the idea. These guys are interesting, their approach to music is similar to the way we went about taking things apart and using them in a different way, that’s a good approach.

Michael Rother: www.michaelrother.de

Categories
Event Reviews

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center • October 19, 2009

Tonight Leonard Cohen danced, no, skipped onstage and offstage in-between curtain calls and encores. Six or seven times in all. Boyishly, mischievously, spryly, belying his seventy-five years of age with a twirl, a bounce. Yes, that Leonard Cohen, the so-called poet of doom. Would Frank Sinatra do that? Does Bob Dylan do that? You should be so lucky.

Leonard Cohen on bended knee

Jen Cray
Leonard Cohen on bended knee

In an age when the shelf life of a performer, a singer, a pop star, has subdivided itself down to maybe five years at the most, you don’t often find yourself in the same concert hall as a true legend, someone who has been performing careful, deliberate, beautiful soundpoems for upwards of thirty years with a unassuming disregard for the meatgrinder realities of the marketplace. Much less a legend who, at seventy-five, is entering into a late career renaissance as a touring songman, bringing out the hits, the not-so-hits, and the bedroom weepers for one last valedictory round of road-tested wonderment. And thus it is that Leonard Cohen is onstage in Tampa goddamn Florida thanking the audience for a gracious welcome and intoning in that gravelly, prophetic voice that though he may not make it through these parts again, he’ll certainly give you his all tonight. From the sounds of the swoons in the audience, that’s all anyone could ask for.

A note on the audience — this is a graying, older audience tonight, there’s no other way to put it. I hear snippets of conversation like, “saw him in ’72,” “bought the DVD on PBS,” “went because my husband has loved him for 20 years,” and I see mother-son pairings in the audience. But this is the farthest thing from the nostalgia offered by Motown bands on the PBS circuit or the Rolling Stones on the self-denial circuit. His gloriously sad songs still live and breathe and change, the man behind them is still vibrant, deadpan funny, and just a little sexy and dangerous. Wha?

Cohen shares the spotlight

Jen Cray
Cohen shares the spotlight

Oh, it’s true. Leonard Cohen skips onstage clad in an immaculately tailored, dark suit and tie (and, yeah, over the course of three hours of performance, there is not even a hint of a bead of sweat) with a matching fedora pulled low over gleaming eyes. Cohen’s features are chiseled in granite, deep lines and crags mark his face, his hair grey, cropped, and angular — the perfect counterpoint to a sepulchre-deep, gravitas-laden voice. He is the very picture of self-possession and noir-glamor, but that doesn’t deter him from busting out the stage moves of a man one-third his age. He dashes around the stage, straps on a guitar, gets on one knee over and over to profess his loverman desires for approximately half of the audience. And, yeah, he’s got every woman (and to be fair, most of the men) in the palm of his hand tonight. Just deal with it, love it. On my right side is a twenty-something and on my left side is a fifty-something and both of them are leaning way forward in their seats, hands prayerfully clasped in front of their mouths, identically. All for the affections of a holy clown, dour prophet, borscht belt crooner, great lover, and heartbreaker. THIS is what it’s all about.

Leonard Cohen

Jen Cray
Leonard Cohen

Actually, what it’s all about is hit after fucking hit after fucking hit. Cohen’s canon is evergreen, speaking plainly and carefully about beauty, pain, and truth and even then it’s all in the delivery, Cohen’s magnificent baritone rumble. The show begins with “Dance Me To The End of Love,” with Cohen entreating the audience on one knee like Marvin Gaye crossed with Robert Lowell, the sly old devil. In short order he steamrolls through a manic, tightrope “Everybody Knows,” lush anthemic versions of “Bird on a Wire” and “Chelsea Hotel” (the audience titters like children during the line about giving head on an unmade bed), with Cohen seeming surprised and amused at some of his own lyrics, like the way you are when you’re flipping through old photo albums. And goddamn if I’m not knocked out of my comfy theater seat by “Waiting for the Miracle” — great lyrics, great performance, the band nails a smoldering groove and when Cohen growls “I haven’t been this happy/ Since the end of World War II,” I need a cigarette.

My complaint, and I had the same complaint about the Live in London release, is Leonard Cohen’s crack, perhaps too crack, phalanx of touring musicians. They’re all good hands, I can’t take that away from them, and they clearly have a reverence for the master’s material, adding hints of world music to his oeuvre, but goddamn if sometimes the arrangements that they cloak Cohen’s stark wordplay in is just on the wrong side of pillowy soft MOR. And man, bass and drum solos at a Leonard Cohen show; something about that just ain’t right. I want to hear Cohen’s sublimely shitty guitar playing (that same scraped, circular riff over and over again), I want to hear the brittle silence between the words. But those days are long gone, Cohen is a generous performer, more than willing to share the spotlight with his onstage comrades. There is a brief solo sojourn after the intermission that addresses this issue. Cohen pulls out a synthesizer and whips through an urgently new wave reading of chestnut “Tower of Song,” somehow turning the Hank Williams lyric into a laugh line. That’s good stuff. Following that, he straps on a guitar and darkly intones “Suzanne” like some sort of prayer, swathed in dark blue lighting.

Cohen and his band

Jen Cray
Cohen and his band

The second half of the show features deep-catalog material like a rousing “Gypsy’s Wife” and “The Partisan.” He lets longtime collaborator and singing foil Sharon Robinson take the spotlight for her smoldering “Boogie Street.” And then delves headfirst into the BIG hits. “Hallelujah” is performed in a straight up gospel style, with blinding white stage lighting and deeply reverent choruses — the band knows its stuff. The verses of “I’m Your Man” are punctuated by Cohen dryly chuckling (which sounds like the rustling of autumn leaves) at his own black-humor punchlines and the wondrous inappropriateness of singing a young man’s pleas for carnal satisfaction. “Take This Waltz” becomes a delirious, kitschy whirl before Cohen glides offstage, and that… should have been that.

Leonard Cohen

Jen Cray
Leonard Cohen

But we wouldn’t let him leave. Cohen ended up playing encore after encore, skipping off the stage energetically, followed by his faithful and winded musicians, only to bound back on a moment later, bowing deeply and ripping into another song. There’s an emotional “So Long Marianne” where, leading into the choruses, the years fall away from Cohen’s voice and he reverts back to the high lonesome sound of his, the words “laugh and cry and cry and laugh” sounding every inch the naif on Songs of Leonard Cohen. Then a hard-charging run-through of “First We Take Manhattan.” Is that all? Would it be a Cohen show without “Famous Blue Raincoat?” That song still can tear you to bits. Still not finished! A standing ovation is enough to bring Cohen out again for a raucous reading of “Closing Time” with the lyrics taking on a loving, teasing tone — you wouldn’t let me leave the stage — and the music seesawing like a drunken roadhouse band. After that, it’s over — group bows and a snippet of “Whither Thou Goest.” Let the tears fall where they may — it was meant to be this way.

To see more photos from this show go to www.jencray.com.

Leonard Cohen: www.leonard-cohen.com

Categories
Interviews

Gary Giddins

Gary Giddins

The Weather Bird Speaks

Since he was neither as gonzo as Lester Bangs nor as infuriatingly smarty-pants as Robert Christgau, music critic Gary Giddins never attracted the same attention as did his contemporaries in rock-writing circles. Plus he wrote about jazz, a notoriously difficult subject for middle America to get its collective head around, to this day. And yet, for thirty years (1973-2003), Giddins wrote passionately and warmly about the music he loved every week in the celebrated “Weather Bird” column for The Village Voice. His appetite for the music was voracious; he was just as comfortable touting Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke as he was loudly praising the free jazz of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. In point of fact, he was one of the few “mainstream” critics at the time to recognize free jazz for what it was — a revolution in sound and not just a bunch of noise, the mistaken critical consensus of the time. In addition to his column, Giddins wrote several books on jazz and film. His most celebrated work, Visions of Jazz, is widely considered one of the seminal works of long form jazz criticism. He’s even completed a textbook on jazz for colleges! Don’t worry, he’s not just some boring academic droning on about how jazz can’t get any better than Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives so don’t even bother. To him jazz is still a living, vibrant art form that excites him now as much as it did when he was a young buck. He’s still listening, he’s still watching, and he’s still… writing a multi-volume biography of yer grandma’s favorite crooner, Bing Crosby??? Ink 19 sat down with Gary Giddins to talk about the shapes of jazz to come.

You maintain that jazz is disappearing from the public consciousness and popular media…

It’s not available on most radio around the country, and where it is available, it’s frequently a listener-sponsored station rather than a commercial station. Which means that record companies and musicians can’t advertise on it. They can’t really force consciousness of their work. But putting that aside, there isn’t even enough listener-sponsored jazz. If I lecture somewhere and I get the audience enthusiastic, it’s not like they can go home and put on a radio station. And you want to hear stuff before you buy it. There are online sites where you can download tons of stuff, but you have to know your way around. What I find rather disturbing is the absence of retail stores. So many of the musicians that I discovered when I was younger, I found shopping. You go to a store looking for a Stan Getz record, and then you find Erroll Garner. You’re looking for a Sonny Rollins record, and just to start a conversation, someone walks over and says, “What do you think about Pee Wee Russell?” Now, he’s about as different from Sonny Rollins as you can get, but I bought a Pee Wee Russell album. I don’t really see how that translates to the internet. I mean, I buy tons of stuff off Amazon and other sites, but it’s usually stuff I’m looking for specifically. And the other thing about the album was the covers themselves, you buy these things just for the covers.

Like the Blue Note records.

Yeah, totally. But it doesn’t exist. It’s not on television. There was more jazz on television when there were three networks than there is now with 200 cable stations. That’s a disgrace. I do not understand why somebody with money who wants to make money doesn’t start a 24-hour jazz cable station. It would be inexpensive to operate because there are thousands of hours of documentary footage which all of the filmmakers would be dying to have broadcast on the air. There’s also performance footage from European television, from American television, you could have live programs, you could have interviews. It would be so easy and so inexpensive to program it, and I think it would be very successful because it’s fun watching a lot of these musicians, especially when you get into the historical period. Show Ella Fitzgerald, Armstrong, Nat Cole. I mean I just don’t get it. I really don’t! I find it utterly confusing. There have been a couple of movie projects about jazz. But they tend to be fan-oriented and people just don’t get them.

What was the moment for you when you realized that jazz was the music that you wanted to cover?

When I listened to Armstrong’s 1928 recording of “Basie Street Blues,” I was so profoundly moved by it. I’d grown up with music, and my favorite piece was the “Mass in B Minor” by Bach and this music made me feel the same way, and for a fifteen-year old kid who’s taught to believe that these guys are marble-bust classics and this is just some entertainer… that was a profound moment for me and when I started to write about jazz that was the mission, to allow people to feel the power of this music, which fans always have. But it’s not always conveyed in the critical literature. That’s the one thing I’ve always attempted to do, to share my own enthusiasm. I don’t think you can be a critic on any subject, unless you’re extremely passionate because otherwise why would you do it? It’s not an easy way to make a living.

Do you still write every day?

I try. I have to get an early start, otherwise I’m dead. If I don’t get an early start, I don’t care what the deadline is, I’m pretty much lost for the day. So I try to start between 9:30 or 10 and keep going until about 1-1:30, break for lunch and if it’s on a deadline and I can get back to it, fine, otherwise I use the rest of the day for listening, reading or answering…. I’m a terrible email correspondent so it builds up for weeks. People get really touchy about that. I liked it back in the days when you wrote letters and people didn’t expect an instant response. You’d write a letter and wait, now you get an email and it’s like, “I haven’t heard back from you in three days!” What do you think? I’m only sitting here fielding emails?

In your time at The Village Voice, you were one of the few writers to recognize the artistic value and power of the free jazz movement. What were some of your first impressions of that music?

Oh, I found it absolutely thrilling. The first time I heard what we call the avant-garde jazz now was an Ornette Coleman album called Ornette! And I didn’t know what to make of it! First of all, I was very young, and when you’re young, you’re not only impressionable, but you’re humble. Somebody puts out a record, and the liner notes are by a famous composer, in this case Gunther Schuller, so you believe him, even if you don’t get it. So just like the first time I read Joyce or the Sound and the Fury, it was hard, you had to really work and it was worthwhile. And Ornette… it was the first time I ever heard a piece of music that was completely, mind-blowingly incomprehensible to me. And then I listened to it a few times, and suddenly the revelation is that it’s all melody. Ornette Coleman is one of the great melodists. What he doesn’t do is give you predictable harmonic cadences, so that you know subconsciously where the melody line is going to fall. And he doesn’t give you a precise 4/4, so you’re not tapping your foot. You have to constantly focus on the actual notes he’s playing or else you’re not going to get it at all. So that was very exciting to me. And as I started listening to Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane, the total emotion of it, the expressionistic directness of it, I found very exciting. But I also credit the fact that I was young enough to give it the time because when you’re older and you’re getting a million records in the mail, you put one thing on and it’s like “BLEARRRRRRGH,” you say, later. But when you’re 16-17 years old, you only have so many records, and you really will bury yourself in it.

Who are some new artists that you find really important in jazz right now?

In this book coming out in October called Jazz, for the last chapter “Jazz Today,” we decided that instead of dropping a million names which wouldn’t mean anything, we would take one figure and give his/her career as a representative career of a jazz musician today. And we chose a young guy in his early 30s now, named Jason Moran, a pianist and composer, and we analyzed two tracks from his album Modernistic. I think Jason Moran is somebody that people should know about. There are so many really gifted young players out there now. Josh Redman has been out there for awhile now, and Cassandra Wilson. They’re setting the standards of virtuosity, they’re changing the repertoire. Who have I heard lately? Bill Frisell’s been around for awhile, he’s an extraordinary guitar player. Oh! A young player that I wrote about recently in the New Yorker, Rudresh Mahanthappa. He’s American-born, raised in Colorado, but obviously he has an Indian heritage. For a long time he was just playing conventional American jazz, sort of influenced by Coltrane and other American musicians, but then he started seriously investigating Indian music, and he made an album last year called Kinsmen in which he collaborates with the virtuoso alto saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath. That is a breakthrough album. There aren’t as many breakthrough albums as there were maybe once upon a time, but the general level of playing is very good and there is, every month or two, something that just… Sonny Rollins has been around since the 40s, but his most recent record Road Shows has changed a lot of peoples’ minds about him. Because if you’re not in a major city where he performs, and you’re only relying on the records and you don’t really know what he does in concert… People who have listened to this album go, “Holy Christ, I did not know that that was!” When I reviewed Sonny in The Village Voice, every single time I reviewed him, I would get letters from people in the Midwest and other places saying, “Giddins, you’ve completely lost your mind! He hasn’t played well since 1959, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” And, you know, now they’re all like, “Oh. Now we get it.”

What are you records you’ve been listening to? Books you’ve been reading?

The last few books I read were Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which is an astonishing novel that was written right after the war in just a few weeks and totally captures the complete paranoia of Nazi Germany. It’s a wonderful novel. I just read the new book on the Bataan Death March called Tears of Darkness. I’ve been re-reading a lot of things. Every year I always read something by Faulkner, and this time I went back to As I Lay Dying, which had never been one of my favorites. It’s much funnier and much deeper and much more composed than I had remembered it. It’s an extraordinary book. Anything Faulkner wrote between 1929 and 1940, all of it is worth reading. I just re-read Siddhartha for the first time since high school and Hesse, at the end of his life, wrote an introduction saying, “This is my most misunderstood book, because it’s frequently read by young people,” and it’s written by a fifty year-old. I’m telling you, now being at that age, he’s totally right. That is not a book for kids, it’s a book for middle age. I read a lot, I try to read a book most every week. What have I been listening to? Well, because of the work, I’ve been listening to tons of Stan Getz and Kenny Barron. The last gig Stan Getz ever had was in Copenhagen playing duets with Kenny Barron for four nights, and they’re now putting out seven discs of all of that. I’m writing the notes, and playing it day and night. Very powerful music. Getz had asked me to write his autobiography right before he died, the day we signed the contract was the day he succumbed to cancer. I’ve been listening to a lot of Art Tatum, because I want to write something about him. I’m constantly listening to him. Paul Motian, I’ve been listening to him a lot. There’s a new record that I like very much by Steve Kuhn, where he plays material associated with Coltrane but in a very different way. It’s on ECM, it’s a very good record. Bill Frisell’s History Mystery I listen to a lot lately.

by Suzanne Cerney

Is there a common factor about a musician or artist that motivates you to go beyond just appreciating their work to writing a long form piece about them?

Yeah, I think the common thread is that art is art, and the artist who moves you to want to devote part of your life to writing about their life, it derives from this connection, this passion, you know? Armstrong changed my whole world. Charlie Parker, I also did a book about him for a similar reason. It’s a lot of work, especially to write a biography, which is a different thing, but it’s got to be somebody who you feel, first of all, has not been done justice to before, someone whose life is interesting enough that it will keep you enthusiastic and excited as you research, and somebody that you’re willing to live with. I won’t mention a name here, but there’s a famous entertainer who I was asked to do a biography of, and I just couldn’t do it. Because he’s just such an unpleasant son of a bitch! Even though I like his art. I just didn’t want to spend a few years having to hear stories about how many people he punched out and all that. So…

When you mention that part of the reason is wanting to do justice to the person, would that be a big reason behind your Bing Crosby biographies?

Absolutely, because Crosby is totally forgotten, completely neglected. I’ve gotten more letters on the Crosby book than anything else I’ve ever done. I’ve gotten tons of correspondence, most of it from older people, but a lot of it from just…. He does have a following out there, but most young people have no idea. You tell them that Bing Crosby outsold the Beatles and Elvis Presley, you’re talking Martian or something. They just don’t know who he was or what he represented to this country. First of all, I really love him as a singer, especially his early work. He was a great artist in many ways, and a great film comedian and a very gifted dramatic actor. Going My Way is a great film, well worth giving serious consideration to. It’s not the sentimental, easygoing, Irish twaddle that a lot of people think it is because they saw it as a kid. It’s a much deeper look at what the homefront was like during World War II. The way we want to see ourselves and the way we in fact see ourselves. It’s about generations, it’s complicated stuff and nobody has written about this material in that way. Or the way the Road movies satirize American imperialism. That’s what it’s about! It’s about these two guys going off to other countries, and treating the natives as their straight men, like they’re barely human! And we laugh at it, but at the same time that’s what American foreign policy is! There’s a lot to be said there. And also writing about Crosby was a way of dealing with the whole popular culture of the United States from to the 1920s into the 70s, a half-century, which is the period that I’m most interested in. You can trace Crosby during Prohibition, how he remade himself during the Depression, remade himself during World War II, didn’t completely remake himself in the Fifties, which is why I think he faded from public consciousness. That’s when Sinatra did remake himself. Sinatra became super-hip, jet set, very cool, raincoat over his shoulder, fedora. Whereas Bing suddenly seemed like an old guy, he seemed like your grandfather.

Comfy sweater…

Yeah, too comfy. But the irony is that it was Bing’s coolness that was the secret of his success. When everyone else was slightly hysterical, he was the epitome of laid-back. He was so cool it’s scary. Even in his real life, people say that when he was furious his blue eyes would turn turquoise, but nobody ever heard him raise his voice. He just walked out of the room. But for the most part he was just… certainly in his public persona, he was laid-back, he was cool, he was comfortable, he was where you wanted to be. People used to say he was successful because people thought they were Bing Crosby when they sang in the shower. The Fifties with Elvis and all that, it changed. Suddenly he seemed like from another age.

Do you think music criticism still fulfills an essential function in the popular culture?

No, I’m sorry to say. I do not understand why, because more people go to university today than ever before in history, there seems to be less of an interest in criticism. When I was a kid, there were so many middlebrow magazines that were all criticism and magazines like Harper’s and Esquire had whole back of the book sections of criticism. Now they have columns on money or picking up women or ethics or I don’t know what the hell it is! But the idea that every magazine would want to have a literary critic, a film critic, a music critic, it’s gone. And I don’t understand why. I really don’t. There is not a great love… my generation, we loved to read Esquire every month just to read Dwight MacDonald. I don’t think there’s anybody like that right now, who people follow.

Gary Giddins: garygiddins.com

Categories
Interviews

Lullatone

Lullatone

They Will Rock You … To Sleep

There’s an unmistakable allure and mystery to the duo dynamic in music. Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner, Alan Vega and Martin Rev. Shawn Joseph Seymour and Yoshimi Seymour don’t exude any of the dark and damaged glamor of these acts; they’re a remarkably cheery, charming and well-adjusted young Japanese/American couple who don’t need angst or damage to inform the simple, joyous music they create as Lullatone. They provided the soundtrack to a Hello Kitty exhibition in Tokyo, for fuck’s sake! And yet, even this miserable scribe would stack up the music of Lullatone against any of the aforementioned. They’ve built up an incredible body of work so far, using simple synth loops, toy keyboards, exotic and heavily treated found sound and Yoshimi’s quiet but buoyant
vocals. The songs are direct and innocent statements of intent, evoking wide- (and sleepy-) eyed wonder without annoying cutesiness, inciting alien dance parties all along the way. I’ve been trying to think up parallels to their sound over the last couple days and I just keep stalling out … Suicide’s second album, Velvet Underground’s “If You Close The Door,” Kraftwerk’s clockwork pulse, bossa nova, Eno’s pings, and a gilt music box.

Lullatone’s music started out as primitive lullabies that Louisville, Ky.-transplant Seymour composed on his Casio to help soothe partner Yoshimi to sleep. Their music has now come full circle after a handful of albums, with new release Songs That Spin In Circles comprising pieces of music that new parents Shawn and Yoshimi made to entice their newborn son Niko into the land of nod. The Seymours use the Lullatone moniker for a whole range of projects, from art
installations to video games (the Raindrop Generator will thwart any efforts to be efficient at work forever) to music for commercials. Shawn Joseph Seymour virtually sat down with Ink 19 to talk about the serious business
behind toy instruments.

Tell me about the new album — Songs That Spin In Circles — the underlying concept was music for your child to sleep to?

Yeah, this CD grew out of a series of lullabies we made for our (then) newborn son Niko to sleep to. But, we wanted to make tracks that could last for hours at a time so he could listen to the same melody peacefully all night. So, we decided to shape up each of the four to five minutes tracks with beginnings and endings that could sync up perfectly so you can use the repeat one function on a CD player of iTunes to loop the track for as long as you like. We have left a few going for over eight hours at our house!

Is it true that much of this album was recorded in the hospital? What instruments and found sound sources were used in the making of this album?

In Japan, moms usually stay in the hospital for quite a few days after their babies are born. I stayed in Yoshimi’s room with her every night to keep her company. And I took my computer, keyboard, and headphones there to compose new melodies in the night when everyone else was asleep. I made the spine of each track during that stay. And, I could always let Niko test them out the next day. He is a good judge!

After we came back home I started “analog-ing up” the recordings with real instruments and a lot of sounds that are supposed to soothe babies. There are heartbeats, underwater recordings, tape hiss as ambient white noise, rubbing plastic bags, bowed metal that sounds like tuned snoring and so much more!

I was interested to read that you recorded many of the songs for the album in one take, was that a conscious decision?

Yeah, we always want to record anything we can in just one take. Just like Jay-Z!

I assume you’ve tested this on your child and probably heard from other parents who’ve done the same? Does it knock them right out?

We have been getting pretty great (and sleepy) reviews from other parents, and our own baby too! But, we try not to just play Lullatone to Niko all of the time. I want him to hear all kinds of music. Some of his other favorites (judging by amount of baby dancing he does) are the Beatles, Belle & Sebastian, and Busta Rhymes. I don’t know why they all start with B?

The Lullatone Studio

The Lullatone Studio

Did you compile the tracks for the Lullatone compilation We Will Rock You … To Sleep? Is doing something like that like looking through old journals or photo albums?

What a nice analogy! I guess it was a bit like that. It is always fun to look back at something you made a while ago and remember what was going on around you when you were creating it … remembering lots of little influences just like they are family memories.

Your music is very charming. It’s something that I’ve listened to at work and when it’s playing I’ve been approached by a broad cross section of ages asking me what I’m listening to, more so than any other album I’ve played. I think it’s the sense of exuberant joy that pervades the songs, without overt cuteness …

Thanks! I think our “demographic” is something like great grandmas to newborns, and occasionally pets.

How has becoming a parent affected your and Yoshimi’s work in Lullatone? How are you integrating making music into your family life?

Lately we are spending a lot less time on composing and more time on just playing. Usually I play drums and Yoshimi and Niko play shakers and melody bells. Or, sometimes we rock out some waterproof xylophone duets in the tub.

What were the beginnings of Lullatone? Did you begin making music in earnest in Japan? At what point did Yoshimi start contributing to the music?

Lullatone started as a project of me making lullabies for Yoshimi when we were dating as university students here in Japan. But, slowly we realized that it would be much more fun to have her as a member instead of just an inspiration. Plus then she could also get free tickets when we got invited to play concerts in other countries!

We usually record her vocals at the very end of making a song. Normally I’ll write the lyrics and decide the timing and melody and then record a version of me singing the track (terribly out of tune) and put it on her iPod. Then she can walk around listening to it for a few days so by the time we go to record it, it is already stuck in her head. We can hopefully get it down perfect on the first take!

Lullatone seems to me a very focused group, both conceptually and sonically — do you keep the tools you use to make the music and the manner of recording restricted by design?

Thank you! We like it when things are simple as possible. And we are pretty serious about it in all parts of our life — from our songs to our house and even our fashion.

Are there any couples in music that you both look to for inspiration?

In music … maybe Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin? In other art, Charles and Ray Eames! They are our hero couple!

What is it like taking your music on the road? What sort of venues do you play? How do you present the music live?

We play a lot in art museums and galleries. We love trying make some really fun and inviting in that kind of space. We always take along a ton of extra instruments to so the audience can join in. That type of space usually has a very passive, no touching vibe, but we try to make something more (inter)active and playful.

Do you see yourself staying in Japan for the immediate future? Do you think living in Japan has an influence on Lullatone’s sound?

Living in Japan in amazing. I don’t think either of us could imagine being anywhere else. We love it because it is so clean here! That is really important for us!

Tell me about the other art you do outside of Lullatone. I really enjoyed the Raindrop Melody Maker.

We have a lot of exhibitions and workshops about building instruments from things around the house that are geared towards children. And we work on visuals a lot too. We make all of the stop motion animations that are projected behind us during our concerts. And recently we made an online game that lets people make their own Lullatone song really easily. Right now we are in the final stages of development of a new Lullatone mobile we are doing in collaboration with Japanese designers Manu Mobiles.

What music or films inspire you presently?

Have you heard the soundtrack to an iPhone app called The Moron Test? I think it is genius! Oh, and the Curb Your Enthusiasm soundtrack!

You’re a children’s television personality in Japan?

Yeah, I am on TV every Saturday morning teaching kids how to make thumb pianos out of popsicle sticks and castanets out of cardboard and buttons. It is so much fun, and gets me a lot of bonus points with the neighborhood kids when I take Niko to the park!

Underwater Rock

Underwater Rock

What sort of music are you working on now? What’s in the future for Lullatone?

Right now we are focusing on some commercial music projects for our Melody Design Unit, which are great because you have to fit a whole track into 30 seconds. It is challenging and exciting. Other than that we are just having lots of little home concerts with Niko while he is little and loves playing with all of our instruments.

Good lord that’s impossibly cute.

Lullatone: www.lullatone.com

Categories
Event Reviews

Mr. Quintron and Miss Pussycat

Mr. Quintron and Miss Pussycat

with Omebi and the Telepathik Friends Orchestra

Jack Rabbits, Jacksonville FL • November 26, 2008

Well, you missed it. Whatever your excuses were, this-that-and-the-other, they were flimsy and pointless at best, because if you weren’t at Jackrabbits that November evening, (just a few days shy of Thanksgiving), then you missed the best musical revue show to hit Jacksonville in 2008.

Omebi and the Telepathik Friends Orchestra

Jessica Whittington
Omebi and the Telepathik Friends Orchestra

Three strange creatures appear from out of nowhere, seemingly clad in rags, jewels, fur, and bright, bright primary colors, looking like they stepped out of a particularly jarring scene (aren’t they all) from the Dark Crystal. They assume places amidst Kirbyesque assemblages constructed at the foot of the stage. Mysterious pillars, cardboard/wooden instruments, and a small dais wrapped in Xmas lights, upon which perched a small four track recorder. Two musicians took places behind a fake organ and a fake guitar, soon to be miming, jerking and spasming like the Residents in super slow-motion or aliens reenacting the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. This is, of course, Omebi and the Telepathik Friends Orchestra. Telepathik Friend is a longrunning Jacksonville-based performance/art/music project, responsible for much of Jacksonville’s currently raucous noise and improv scene. Tonight former member Omebi is stepping out on her own, with all new music and the “orchestra’s” name as the only clue to her past. Omebi walked up to the dais and with a microphone in one hand and the other hand on the controls of a four-track recorder, began conjuring forth a whole alternate world of mysterious, fractured, ancient music.

On this particular night (I saw Omebi again the next night and it sounded like a completely different set), she performed a set of new subliminal soundforms. Omebi’s songs are more about the spaces between sounds than verse/chorus/verse zzzzzz-dom. It’s Karen Dalton gulping for air in between words, it’s Robert Johnson’s fingers reaching for the next chord, it’s the very walls of a church absorbing and buzzing with the sounds of Sacred harp singers, it’s Sonic Boom’s amps singing sweetly to one another long after all of the humans have left. This reviewer was somewhat reminded of Charalambides, Loren Mazzacane Connors, Fursaxa, the long forgotten Zeek Sheek and the Slits, but then again, it was nothing like any of them.

Quintron

Jessica Whittington
Quintron

Separate songpieces merged into one painterly sticky whole. A hidden mouth beautifully sang words that might not even be words, a hand glides over controls and faders — the rush of twilit, prismatic sound rises and falls. The audience stared in rapt, open-mouthed attention, afraid to break the spell. The last song ended, the creatures disappeared into thin air. I hear tell that Miss Pussycat jumped up and yelled for an encore after they stopped playing.

So Quintron. I’m on record over and over again as a Quintron partisan; but all that aside, you won’t get a better live value for your dollar than those you fork over to Mr. Quintron. Things have been a little quiet of late on the Quintron front, it’s been a period of rebuilding and re-evaluating since Katrina destroyed Quintron’s Spellcaster Lodge, but now it’s time again for stylin’ and profilin’, and really is there any higher calling? Miss Pussycat’s puppet show is bursting with more gonzo goodness than ever. A witch takes over an art museum, Santa Claus saves the day with a machinegun, there are psychedelic freakout sequences, the goddamn puppet stage even becomes a puppet. This is the stuff of serious craft.

Jessica Whittington

Cue billowing crowds of dry ice and ominous flashes of primary color stage lights, total arena rock spectacle, right? Finally, Quintron’s stage setup is fully visible and it’s something to behold. The Drum Buddy oscillates like William Burrough’s Dream Machine, partially hidden behind an organ and some drums. Mounted on the front of the organ, making it look like a klassic kustom car, is the grille, headlights, vanity plate and chassis of some roadster. The headlights pulse strobelike as Quintron takes his place behind the organs and Pussycat walks over to stage left, stepping behind a single microphone, maracas in hand.

Look at ’em! Quintron is decked out in a blue jumpsuit with some kinda predatory animal stitched out in rhinestones on the back, with an unruly moptop haircut that quickly becomes drenched in sweat and some kerrrazy eyes. Pussycat has a bow in her blond hair and a prim’n’proper dress that looks like a bobbysoxer/gleeclubber…. well, on acid. Quintron launches into some heavy gospel/noise workout and from there it’s a sweaty couple of hours of the Cramps crossed with Dr. John and a lounge combo from a Holiday Inn circa 1962. It goes like this, polymath Quintron plays the organ, his homemade/self-devised Drum Buddy drum machine, and a snare/hi-hat combo with his spare hand, while singing too. Pussycat handles backing vocals and shakes the maracas – with aplomb, it must be said.

Tonight they play with a delirious, nervous intensity that I haven’t seen before — reveling in the sound bouncing back at them from the walls of the club. Shit, at one point Quintron lets the louche mask drop, exclaiming earnestly, “I love the sound in this place. I’m having more fun tonight than I’ve had at a show ever.” And then pointing gleefully at the kids at the front dancing like the Charlie Brown gang during the Christmas special. Quintron leaves the stage several times, wading into the crowd to sing, stare people down, shout and dance.

This one time, and I’m tellin’ you the truth, he sets the Drum Buddy on repeat and wades into the crowd, shaking maracas, Pussycat close on his heels — they do this sorta two-person conga line, all mad-eyed stares and shimmies through the crowd, taking a small group of Pied-Piper-hypnotized kids on a merry chase until they end up at the bar — and next thing I know, they’re making like Pee Wee Herman at the biker bar in that one movie and they’re dancin’ and high-steppin’ and drinkin’ and it’s… just… glorious.

They’re called back on for several encores, everyone’s having the time of their fucking lives, I’m surrounded by a bunch of partygoers dancing their asses off and I’ve got a huge smile on my face. They end the site with a James Brown false-finish vamp – sweatier and funkier and noisier than ever. The night belongs to all of us.

Qintron and Miss Pussycat: www.quintronandmisspussycat.com

Categories
Event Reviews

Legendary Pink Dots

Legendary Pink Dots

The Social, Orlando, FL • November 2, 2008

This night was an awfully long time coming for me. Billed as “An Evening With the Legendary Pink Dots,” and thankfully dispensing with an opening act (really, who can keep up), this is not a spurious greatest hits museum piece. This is a statement of intent, a state of the union, a summation of Legendary Pink Dots 2008 as a still vibrant creative force not subject to the whims of some fickle Goth nostalgia.

Legendary Pink Dots

Jessica Whittington
Legendary Pink Dots

Speaking of the “G” word, the Legendary Pink Dots, to my mind, always got unfairly pegged with that ebon brush. To this correspondent, the Dots always had wayyyyyy more in common with White Album Beatles, really good weird kraut rock like Amon Duul and Can, and jazz musicians with their insatiable urges to continually move forward, continually evolve, and continually reinterpret their material (with that unspoken confidence that their audience is hip to the score and will follow along.)

So it is that the Dots begin the night, hell, devote over half their set, with the skeletal electronic pulses and hums and polymer nursery rhymes that form the heart of their new Plutonium Blonde album. And the Kid-A meets Current 93 minimalism of that album makes even more sense live, as the band, seasoned improvisers and sensitive ensemble players to the man, use the building blocks of the album as a jumping off point for grand interstellar explorations and organic glitchpop symphonies.

Legendary Pink Dots

Jessica Whittington
Legendary Pink Dots

They take the stage to a minimum of fanfare, looking like a druidic collective of musical alchemists from disparate phases of popular music history: Edward Ka-Spel with his monk’s robe, long hair, and dark glasses coming on like a cross between a gnostic mystic and Ozzy Osbourne circa early Black Sabbath, Nils Van Hornblower with a natty new-wave black-and-white checkered suit and a meticulously shaved head, Ryan Moore looking like a grunge rocker in denim and baseball hat, and the mysterious Silverman with his long hair looking like a mad scientist. Outsiders forever. Immediately they begin picking apart, burrowing inside and playing around, frolicking sonically within the songs. The sense of glee and play is palpable. And admirable as hell. Songs expand and contract into vistas of improvised electronics, long, rolling harsh crescendos, mournful codas.

Each has his own set of archaic toys and instruments — thankfully Dots live 2008 is devoid of the omnipresent laptop point-and-click zombie stare — Ka-Spel and his crew bash away at their instruments like excitable children. They perform. This is a show, after all. Silverman fucks with evil looking wood-and-metal boxes or waves his hand around a mutant theremin. Ka-Spel inhabits the fractured characters of his fractured lyrics and for a second there you see flickers of Syd Barrett, but then he starts making bird motions with his hands and theatrically mashing buttons on some noise console. Ryan Moore’s — it means a lot to me seeing him play, because I remember getting chills over the flickering guitar lines he laid down like a lattice-work on the second Tear Garden album — playing stretches out and expands live, abetted by numerous effects pedals, by turns alien blues, Hendrixian quicksilver, and introverted squiggles.

Legendary Pink Dots

Jessica Whittington
Legendary Pink Dots

Hornblower, ah Hornblower. How does one compete with the other three? He does it with style and slapstick. Hornblower plays saxophone and flute lines that are by turns unbelievably delicate, like a fluttering heartbeat, and ear-wrenchingly dissonant, but always clearly in thrall to the needs of the song. No flashy solos, him. His performance style, on the other hand, outshines them all. His mannerisms are pure silent film comedy — channeling the mischievous nature (and physical comedy) of a Charlie Chaplin or a Buster Keaton. When he saw a couple arm in arm down the front, he hugged his saxophone tight, when he saw a pretty girl in the front row, he took a deep bow and blew a little saxophone kiss to her, and then to the girl beside her, and on and on. Later he attached a small spotlight to the mouth of his horn and left the stage, zigging and zagging, creeping throughout the crowd like a mournful ghost, a spear of light and strange ambient tones lilting throughout the club. It’s hilarious and affecting at the same time. And what about when he pulls out the horn that looks like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a time machine? And how long did it take me to realize that there was nary a percussionist in sight? Who needs’em?

Legendary Pink Dots

Jessica Whittington
Legendary Pink Dots

When the band finally starts to break into their voluminous back catalog… well, even if you’d never heard the songs, you’d know by the outbreak of awkward Goth dancing. And having thoroughly given air to new music, the band don’t seem to begrudge the old material at all. In fact, they start revisiting some of their more “classic” material (the audience whoops it up) with aplomb. The years melt away and the notes pour forth with naive charm; sunshiney pop melts into courtly chamber music, sinister vamps and musique concrete dissonance.

There are the inevitable encores and they happily oblige with extended mini-sets that take in both old favorite songs and long, extended noise workouts. They don’t have to, but they do. At the very end of the evening, with both the band and the audience, exhausted, I remember speaking to Edward Ka-Spel, and him telling me what keeps the band vibrant after thirty years. He said that he’s still as motivated as he was as a young man because he doesn’t feel that he’s come even close to really expressing the noises in his head, to finding the sound he’s been looking for. Is it wrong of me to hope that he never finds it?

Legendary Pink Dots: legendarypinkdots.org

Categories
Event Reviews

Phosphorescent

Phosphorescent

Club TSI, Jacksonville, FL • November 10, 2008

Given that Matthew Houck’s (aka Phosphorescent) latest album was an intensely personal and solitary experience, a warm and languid pool of twilit hymns and crystalline confessions in thrall to Neil Young, Will Oldham, and the Cocteau Twins, one might be concerned with how his music would translate to the smoky and more social confines of a nightclub. I needn’t have fretted about such things. Besides being a songwriter and singer of tremendous emotion and creativity, I was more than a little fucking surprised to see that Houck was a showman as well.

Phosphorescent

Jessica Whittington
Phosphorescent

A friend who’d scoped out Phosphorescent several times before told me pre-show that half the reason he was here was to see what kind of backing ensemble would constitute Phosphorescent tonight. He’d seen quartet and solo configurations before. This time around Houck would pluck out most of the members of truly decent opening band Virgin Forest (who had a Cardinals or mebbe Gram Parsons vibe going) and set them to work remaking and remodeling his songs, but not in the ramshackle way you’d expect from an ad hoc touring ensemble. No, the interplay between Houck and the Forest was tight, exuberant and empathetic, taking the songs of newest album Pride out of the dimly lit confines of the bedroom and confidently shimmering and shimmying under the bright lights of the stage.

Phosphorescent

Jessica Whittington
Phosphorescent

Like I said, against all my preconceivin’ odds, Mr. Phosphorescent is a confident, compelling frontman. He’s rail thin and about ten feet tall, head framed by corkscrew curls and a bushy beard (like a young David Crosby or Liam Hayes), clad in rebel black. He strikes poses and whoops it up somewhere between an outlaw country ruffian, madman choir director, and Nick Cave, leeeeeeaning his head back to hit triumphant high notes, teetering uncertainly on the lip of the stage, moving his arms in broad swoops, exhorting us all to sing along as one. It’s a thrilling transformation. Are his band wallflowers? Nope. Nope. They become an inseparable part of the Phosphorescent equation — less session musicians or hired hands — more like the E Street Band to his Bruce Springsteen, the Bad Seeds to his Nick Cave, and the Hawks/Band to his Bob Dylan. Yeah, I know it seems kinda weird that I’d throw out those particular names, but there’s a method to my hyperbole. See, somewhere along the way tonight, Phosphorescent took the songs from the stellar Pride and the lesser Aw Come Aw Wry albums and recast the hymns as anthems. And not just any anthems, these are joyous, communal war whoops.

Phosphorescent

Jessica Whittington
Phosphorescent

Solitary confessions become all-hands-on-deck soaring country rock gloriousness, buoyed along by a pounding rhythm section, fluid chiming guitars, incredible mercury keyboard, and call-and-response gospel-ish triumphalism. Check out the way that the Simon and Garfunkel “The Boxer”-meets-drumline ambiance of “A Death, A Proclamation” becomes a full-blooded country-ROCK raveup. Oh, and if I remember correctly, he covered a George Jones song! This is the way it’s gonna be tonight. Everyone on that stage looks absolutely ecstatic at being able to make such a glorious noise, and brother, it spreads throughout the whole joint like wildfire. It’s like a damn revival meeting, a barndance, a Midnight Ramble, if you will. We won’t let him leave, so Houck comes out for two encores, the last playing songs like “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues” all by himself and including one begging a lover not to leave. Which is funny. Because he’s smiling beatifically. And because by then we all feel a little less lonely.

Phosphorescent: www.myspace.com/phosphorescent

Categories
Event Reviews

Peter Murphy

Peter Murphy

Ali Eskandrian

Freebirds Live, Jacksonville FL • July 4th (har har)

First things first. Instead of dwelling on the attendant surreality, I will say that, yes, I saw Peter Murphy on the fourth of July on goddamn Jacksonville Beach, which was a potent cross between Mardi Gras and Apocalypse Now and 1000 assholes that particular evening, and it was wayyyy fucking surreal. But enough about that, we’re here to talk about truth and beauty and love of art, and if the outside world didn’t seem to bother the largish enraptured crowd that night, well, I’ll block it out too.

Peter Murphy

Jessica Whittington
Peter Murphy

Do you want to hear about some more strange bedfellows? Okay, good. Let me tell you about Ali Eskandrian. He’s Peter Murphy’s opening act — from his CD you grok that he’s a rather earnest singer-songwriter from New York and seems to be doing a Bob Dylan circa John Wesley Harding sorta thing (both visually and sonically) with a bit of Eastern fuh-lair and it’s like, “Ahhh Peter did always have an affection for exotic pop flavours,” so maybe you expect to be cloyed and clap politely even.

Ali Eskandrian

Jessica Whittington
Ali Eskandrian

But what the FUCK do you do when out struts this stick-insect sex alien clad in leather, Beatle boots, tiiiiiiiight jeans, and a scarf used more as a noose, with a tangled, electrified afro — he looks like a cross between Alan Vega and Prince — and he starts theatrically stomping the floorboards like a flamenco dancer while this skinny dude behind him with long hair and an unseasonably heavy coat starts wreaking havoc on a cluster of analogue synths? You immediately scream like a girl and fall in love, that’s what you do. If you’re smart that is, if you know what cool is, that is. He seems to neatly divide the audience — the only tidy thing about his performance, mind you. Ali Eskandrian is one of the most sexual performers (alongside the Kills) that I’ve encountered in a long time. He stomps his Beatle boots like Valentino, twists his scarf around and around like it’s either a weapon or all seven of those pesky veils and those hips, my god, those hips — he thrusts them to accentuate lyrics or a soaring wail or a particularly gritty riff. Monocles were falling in gentlemen’s drinks everywhere you looked. His voice was an unearthly wail, an Eastern-influenced cry like an amped-up Lisa Gerrard, a banshee like Diamanda Galas, a snotty prophet of doom like Tom Verlaine. The set itself was a too-short blur of raw alien blues and pounding Suicide death-funk (introducing their last number as “a New York song” as a ratty drum machine clicked away, do they know what they’re doing to me?). Eskandrian picked up a guitar and churned out primitive riffs while his compatriot wreaked havoc on a tiny theremin. Eskandrian bent backwards like Iggy Pop to sing along with his synth player. Later they rewrote Frankie Teardrop as a PTSD vet named Johnny. The set ends with the keyboard player lost behind a wall of noise and Eskandrian on all fours screaming into his guitar amp. Peter’s taught this guy the biz, for sure.

Jessica Whittington

Seeing Peter Murphy stride imperiously onstage, the very definition of fighting fit, slim and trim in a leather jacket, shades and tight blue jeans, you get a jolt, along with a momentary leap of the heart that maybe you’ll look that good at the age of fifty. Similar to seeing a recent Morrissey show when he came out swinging, and you’re like, “Whew, there is some hope.” He strikes up a funeral version of new Bauhaus track “Zikir” which shows his voice in fine, rich form, but that’s only to be a quick prelude before the jacket is doffed, his backing band (including ex-members of the Mission and Human Waste Project, one tight unit, it has to be said) stride onstage and they get down to the business of ripping through the greatest moments of his solo catalogue, with some Bauhaus thrown in for darker thrills.

Jessica Whittington

It’s heartening to see that Murphy, though bereft of the black hair and baroque/glam costumes of the Bauhaus Resurrection tour, still brings the theatrics and stage moves in spades. So, don’t worry everyone, he did the vampire bat, the crucifix, the strut with one arm cocked on hip (à la Jagger/Ziggy), the AIRPLANE SPIN, the cold stare, the imperious point, the wave, the “give me your hands,” the “lost in music” arm undulations, the pogo, and some super melodica action on “She’s In Parties” (one tends to forget the dub influence in Bauhaus, a pity).

For a performer of his age and stature and responsibilities, shall we say, the setlist is quite surprising. The “Retrospective” tag slapped on this tour is in many ways a red herring; as Murphy looks back, he continually gets tripped up on the very recent unfinished business in every note of Bauhaus’ swan song, Go Away White. Thus several songs of those songs get a live airing and his band seems to be in seventh heaven playing them — particularly the guitar player, but then Daniel Ash’s guitar parts always looked so fun to play!

This sense of play extends to the way that he treats his back catalog. He has fun with it, he twists it and reshapes it, treating it as a living, breathing thing instead of a grouping of static “classics.” Fittingly for a retrospective tour, he sneaks bits and pieces of Bauhaus songs and covers of material that he loved as an angry young man into odd junctures of his set. The first couple of verses of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” are changed to a delicate acoustic piece while Bowie’s “Be My Wife” is melded with “Adrenaline.” Not to mention that the final encore is a celebratory and rousing cover of Joy Division’s “Transmission,” complete with Murphy just owning the final lines of “…And we could daaaaaaaaaance!” while busting into the Ian Curtis dance.

Jessica Whittington

And that’s the thing, he makes every show seem like a once-in-a-lifetime, arena event. He’s got some sort of telepathic connection with the crowd, followed by an uncanny flair for the dramatic. Ahhh, and a constant desire to push out of his own comfort zone and play with his persona in ways other performers/frontmen of note wouldn’t dare. Hence, he offers to do a question-and-answer session with the crowd — which yields no questions, but inexplicably gets the crowd riled up. During the midst of his banter, someone (just as inexplicably) yells, “Go Home!,” to which he replies without a moment of hesitation, “Fuck off, you go home. I’m perfectly comfortable right where I am. Fucker.” The crowd roars! They also roar with approval when he does his Englishman abroad bit, acknowledging the bizzaro-ness of playing a concert on the Fourth of July, by formally decreeing that he, on behalf of England, is reclaiming the United States of America, because we’ve made too much of a shambles of everything. Hey, maybe he even slips in a subtle plug for Obama, he does whatever he wants. And that includes hushing the crowd regally when they start chattering during a fragile acoustic intro. He says he’ll wait, and then flashes everyone the Bauhaus stare. They shut the fuck up…

…and are rewarded by Murphy launching into an unbelievably sad and dramatic cover of NIN/Johnny Cash’s “Hurt.” Just, I think, to show that he’s as much of a voice as he is a face. It’s a barnburner, man, to hear his rich and deep baritone cut through those lines. Jee-zuz, and the band’s arrangement is very sensitive and spare to boot. The voice gets stronger and more nuanced as the years pass. Bring on the covers album, that’s how I want Peter Murphy to end up!

Jessica Whittington

He’s like Neil Diamond crossed with David Bowie and Christopher Lee — a shameless entertainer with a heart of darkness. Murphy has the crowd in the palm of his hand from the word go — it’s not even nostalgia, the man’s working his ass off but making it look so effortless — it’s like a frontman masterclass that the likes of Brandon Flowers, Brett Anderson (saw a lot of that), Justin Warfield, and Faris Rotter are still cribbing from. Don’t like his songs? Live, you will love his songs, he tirelessly makes certain of it. You just get so caught up in the wire-tense but joyous moment, and y’know, that’s what pop music is all about.

You dismiss Peter Murphy as a goth oddity at your own peril; the man is a fearsome performer, who can go toe-to-toe with frontmen half his age, and a superlative singer, an interpreter of song, in the best, most empathetic sense of the word. He loves you all. Goodnight.

Peter Murphy: www.petermurphy.info

Categories
Interviews

pacific UV

pacific UV

You Made Me Realize

Portland space-cases pacific UV have been cloying ears with their meditative mono-chord goodness since the release of their debut album longplay 1 back in 2002. Since then, they’ve been restlessly honing their sound into something beyond shoegazing, something altogether more baroque, prayerful, gentle, and lush. The aptly-named longplay 2, three years in the making and based on Tom McCarthy’s surrealist headfuck novel Remainder, was just what Ink 19 needed to hear. This time they almost completely ditch guitars for piano, synths, and varied burbles and bleeps, as well as a gorgeous palette of willowy male and female voices. File this one next to Spacemen 3’s Playing With Fire, Mazzy Star’s Among My Swan, Gregor Samsa’s Rest and the likes of Mojave 3 and This Mortal Coil. Ink 19 was happy to speak with main man Clay Jordan about their newest album, which we’re over the fucking moon about. But don’t go getting attached to this sound. Membership shuffles and a restless (and surprising) desire to strip their sound down to more raw and minimalist elements make this a portrait of a young band in flux. Let’s get sundazed.

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Tell me a little about the history of the band and how your sound and membership has changed over time. The pacific UV sound has really expanded in terms of emotion and the overall sonic palette since the first record. Some of the songs on longplay 2 almost sound like film music.

We started in Athens, Georgia around 1999. I moved there right after college. I fell in love with the town. Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control were still playing back then — it was a very inspiring time to be a musician in Athens.

I formed the band with a childhood friend, and we went into the studio and spent two years making a record before we ever played live! Luckily, the record was well-received and we got signed immediately. We then toured the country twice and were ready to record a follow-up, but got all our gear stolen at CMJ in NYC and this kind of took the wind out of our sails. After that, we recorded an EP, but the guy I formed the band with was tired of the lifestyle and went to medical school. I moved to Portland, Oregon and continued the band.

It is difficult for me to compare this record with the first one. When you are making something over such a long period of time, you lose perspective on it. The songs on the new record sound a bit more refined, but I honestly don’t know. There is a progression going on, but not as much of one as I hoped for. I want the third LP to be more experimental and diverse, I feel at this point we are pigeonholed as an ambient band, but there are so many other types of music I love and want to experiment with.

Where are you based? Does your location affect your creativity in any way?

We are based out of PDX (Portland) Oregon. The rain does not help when we try to write more upbeat songs…

Do you consider droning/repetitive music more satisfying and heartstring-tearing? I kind of love it how on so many of your songs, I’m like, “God I wish this part would go on just a little longer” — and then it does! Music like yours just seems to affect me on a much more basic level than other music. It’s pure feeling. What brought you to this more spacey, organic music?

Drone music allows for a greater degree of contemplation and reflection, I think. If done well, it is almost like it induces a type of meditation where 30 minutes can go by in a matter of seconds… Whether this is a more “emotional” type of music is really a subjective thing up to the listener.

I love repetition and the idea that within a repeated phrase it can vary each time it is played. So even though you are hearing the same phrase over and over again, each one is unique in that it is played a little bit differently than all the other ones (kind of the “each snowflake is unique” idea). Minimalism can seem overly simplistic, but if one listens closely, there is infinite variation within each phrase.

I can relate to that feeling of wishing certain parts of songs would go on longer… though sometimes I will listen to a song over and over because there is just one part I want to hear and it happens so quickly that I will listen to it again just for that part.

What was the recording process like for longplay 2? Are songs pieced together layer by layer, or is it kept as live as possible?

All these songs are rough sketches when we enter the studio… we try to record the initial tracks as live as possible… and then we go to our home studio and lay down layer after layer of overdubs… often the end result sounds nothing like what we initially recorded…

When, in the process of writing a song like “Tremolo,” does the consideration to bring in guest musicians or use new instruments come in? How do you approach potential collaborators? There are so much more piano and organ and strings on this album…

It was not intentional. Maybe the fact that we have a keyboardist who loves to play piano rather than synth. This record was recorded with no restrictions, which is one reason it took so fucking long. I like the idea of having restrictions for the next one, and maybe one could be “No guitars on this record,” etc.

Collaborators are always an afterthought. Though I would gladly write a song with Brian Eno or Jason Pierce (Spiritualized, Spacemen 3) in mind if I knew they would record it with us!

Would you walk me through the process of composition for a song like “Alarmist” or “Something Told Us?” I’m interested in the basic building blocks you start with, only to end up with this wall of crystal sound.

Actually these are the two songs on the record that were written by our former guitarist Kevin Davis — who now has his own solo project called Glowworm.

These two came in fully formed, but we expanded and added sections to them. The mid-sections of each song are what Kevin wrote… We added the intros and outros of each song. Because many of the songs are quite simple, the hard part is coming up with a riff/structure that we feel can be repeated without getting tiresome. We then embellish around that basic riff. Frankly, that is getting a bit tiresome and I think the new record will be more upbeat, with more changes and chords.

What music were you listening to or what books were you reading while making longplay 2?

Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Auteurs, House of Love, Patsy Cline…

Remainder by Tom McCarthy… longplay2 is an audio representation of this book and inspired the entire record. Read it now if you haven’t. It is quite astonishing.

What is your earliest memory of music?

Listening to The Smiths’ “Louder Than Bombs” for the first time in a Wendy’s parking lot while my family was inside eating. That sounds banal, but it was a life-changing moment.

Tell me about how you tour music like this? Do you strip down the arrangements to, like, Galaxie 500-style minimalism, or do you make it louder and rawer?

We are opting for the louder/rawer approach. So many of our songs are slow, we hope we can keep people awake by raising the volume.

Did you put the running order of the album together consciously? I like how it starts off huge and cinematic and builds and builds to “Orson” and then ends with this sort of pocket lullaby.

We are very particular about the running order and always try about ten variations before we settle on one we like. However, since the record was based on the book Remainder we kind of knew how the songs would flow…

What are you working on now? Any plans for the immediate future?

We are in the process of shooting a few videos — one in PDX and one in LA. We are also planning a West Coast tour for this fall…

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Warm Electronic Recordings: www.thewarmsupercomputer.com