Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Chris Corsano, Mick Flower, and the Rapture of Letting Go: Interview with Chris Corsano and Mick Flower

Last month at the SOY festival, over a hundred concert hoppers packed into a tiny neighborhood bar to witness an ecstatic free-for-all by New England drum prodigy Chris Corsano and British drone guru Mick Flower. Perhaps we can leave up it to the good people of Nantes to turn out in droves for the kind of show that might ordinarily attract a small circle of improv and experimental music obsessives. Or we can leave it to Corsano and Flower themselves, who, with The Radiant Mirror, their first joint lp, just might have cooked up something verging on a cross-over record. Their set-up is simple: a drum kit, a bag full of odds and ends (singing bowls, a few twigs, some pieces of cloth, a guitar string and bridge), and a rare Indian instrument that sounds like a sitar on electronic steroids. And yet somehow, almost magically, Corsano and Flower manage to condense the full spectrum of human exaltation into a single, protracted, endlessly beating soundwave. Clearly, Visitation Rites couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask a few questions.

Emilie Friedlander: How, and when, did you guys start playing together? Was it with Vibracathedral Orchestra (Mick’s main project) or does your musical friendship pre-date those collaborations? What other types of configurations have you appeared together in?

Chris Corsano: The duo started in June of 2005 at a show Mick had been asked to do in Leeds. So he’s the mastermind. We had played together a couple of times in 2004 in a much larger group when myself and Paul Flaherty collaborated with Vibracathedral Orchestra. Later on in 2005, I guested in Vibracathedral a few times (a show here, a jam there), but I’ve never been a card-carrying member.

EF: What in the world is a Japan banjo, and how do you play it?

Mick Flower: It's an Indian instrument, a cross between a dulcimer and autoharp - it has 17 strings. The one I play is an electric version with pick-ups and a sunburst finish.

EF: When we listen to The Radiant Mirror, are we hearing just Japan Banjo and a drum kit, or do you guys work other instruments (or objects) into the equation?

MF: Yes, just Japan Banjo and Drum Kit. There's also an electronic tampura going all the time, often it can only be heard when we play quietly.

EF: Were you guys listening to a lot of Indian music around the time you recorded The Radiant Mirror? If so, what kind of stuff were you listening to? Was there a conscious effort to play off of these influences?

CC: I was/am listening to E Gayathri, Shruti Sadolikar, Nikhil Banerjee, Bismillah Khan, Debashish Bhattacharya, Veena Sahasrabuddhe, Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, and some Pakistani music as well (Nusrat Fateh, Ali Khan, and Aziz Mian, specifically). I wouldn’t say there was a conscious effort to emulate or adapt these influences, but we weren’t denying them either.

EF: About how much of a “game plan” did you guys have when you set out to record the album? Were there any structural or stylistic elements that were decided upon beforehand, or you were you just kind of riding the creative flow? I guess I’m just asking you guys to describe your joint working process a little bit…

CC: I think the plan was to hit record, play for a while, and worry about editing later. What we do is always improvised, though the instruments and tunings we use have more or less stayed the same. There’s still a lot of room to move within that set up.

EF: When you guys play this stuff live, how much does the project transform from venue to venue, crowd to crowd, or mind-state to mind-state? Are there any constants that carry over to each Corsano-Flower performance, asides, of course, from Corsano and Flower themselves?

CC: I’d say things vary a good deal. Just thinking about the shows we recently did (Aalst, Nantes, Paris), there were a lot of differences in the three sets’ lengths, structure, dynamics, etc.

EF: What were some challenges that came up when you guys recorded the album? In what ways has this collaboration been a learning experience for the both of you, or a departure from your “usual” working styles?

CC: It doesn’t feel like a there’s a difference in how I approach playing with Mick vs. playing with other people. I’m basically reacting to what he’s doing while at the same time trying to put my two cents in. If the music sounds different than other things I do, then I’d say that’s down to Mick’s sound being unique.

EF: This question might seem either too obtuse, or too much of a no-brainer, but I thought I’d give it a go anyway: What does freedom, in music, mean for you guys? I’m not talking about the “Land of the free, home of the brave” kind of freedom, or even necessarily about “freedom” as in “free jazz” (which the French affectionately call “le free,” funnily enough), but just about the kinds of open-ness you guys strive for when going about the business of playing and recording together? “Free” is word that’s definitely thrown around quite a bit in music journalism, but it’s ultimately just as ambiguous within a musical context as it is within the sphere of politics. So I’m interested to hear what you two have to say, especially since you’ve been tagged with this word quite a bit.

CC: You’re right, it’s totally ambiguous. You could look at it as being free from some constraints such as preconceived structures/scores (which we are) and/or a constant pulse (which we sometimes are and sometimes aren’t) and/or having an open mind to what shape the music can take. Truthfully, “free” and other genre tags are just shorthand, and I don’t get too hung up on them.

Interview by Emilie Friedlander, November 2008

Photo: Hrvoje Go

Concert on November 2nd at the Grimault (Nantes) as part of the Soy Festival.

Cool Toons:
Chris Corsano/Mick Flower Duo, The Radiant Mirror, Textile Records, 2008.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

TV Buddhas + Spoono: Indian Psy-Sex and London Americana

Earlier this year at the Hurluberlu (Nantes), in another characteristically hand-picked line-up, the Nantes-based Yamoy Association showcased two rising talents from opposite corners of the globe. In an era where female-male retro-rock duos are just as MTV-friendly as reality dating shows, TV Buddhas breathe fresh air into a somewhat tried and true formula. Similarly, Jack Allett of Spoono discovers his own voice in an American folk tradition haunted by the ghosts of old masters.

As far as their set up is concerned, TV Buddhas sum it up best themselves: “two human beings yelling, one twin reverb+cab with enough reverb to kill an elephant, one floor tom, one snare drum and one ride cymbal.” When “Evil Haring” and “Mickey Killer” take the stage at the Hurlurburlu last month, the bar’s lazy Sunday-afternoon clientele are thoroughly unprepared for the amount of sound this Israeli duo are ready to extract from an electric guitar and a (humourously abbreviated) drumset. Neither are the neighbors. Over a 20-minute set, cut short by a complaint from a neighboring apartment, the group succeed in making the most (sound!) out of limited means.

To say that TV Buddhas produce more noise that one would have thought possible for two people is something of an understatement. But what is striking about their music is less its sheer volume than its fullness and intensity. Evil Haring’s reverb-heavy riffs, pounded out in an open-tuning, bring as much bass to the table as they do treble. Each fat, resonant chord crashes over the audience like a blast of fresh salt water; our sensation of drowning is as delicious as it is debilitating. Haring’s spitfire melodic phrasing, dreamy and distended at times, aggressively patterned at others, recalls as much the post-apocalyptic peregrinations of an Om or a Sunn O))) as it does the baroque swells of a Pentagram or a Black Sabbath. Puncturing this wall of sound with her signature geometric swatches, partner in crime Mickey Killer slams her 3-piece drumkit with enough muscle to floor her candy-striped MTV counterpart.

On their website, TV Buddhas classify themselves as a mix between religious, psychedelic and trance—or, in their own words, “Indian Psy-sex.” While their music draws heavily on traditional Indian composition, its relationship to this tradition is more a matter of structure than a matter of surface aesthetic. Even in the places where Evil Haring’s voice takes precedence over the other elements in the mix, his fingers busy themselves with a continously-shifting series of repetitive melodic motifs, recalling the Indian Raga in their restriction to a finite number of notes. Mickey Killer’s playing would seem to mirror this principal on a percussive level. Through her repetition of short, jagged percussive phrases, she dreams up a cunning counterpoint to Evil Haring’s guitar, unlocking the extreme lyricism that sometimes lies hidden within an extreme economy of means. While the “sex” component of their music falls a bit flat—Evil Harring’s somewhat hammy rock and roll stage gimmicks, his contrived Ian Mcay falsetto—it drives home the complexity of their project. For if TV Buddhas seem like your average retro-rock band on the surface, this posture is just the candied cherry on an extremely rich, extremely dense, extremely filling multi-layer cake.

A young man bent over his guitar in an attitude of intense concentration, his dark bangs canceling out his face. After the exuberant depravity of the TV Buddhas, there is something almost troubling about Jack Allett’s arrival on stage. With Jack Allett (alias Spoono), none of the gimmicks characteristic of your average rock guitarist. The roots of his music dig deep into traditional folk and fingerpicking. The guitarist demonstrates an impressive technique and an expressivity never set into default mode; the result, a mellow, gentle music which, at first listen, doesn’t seem to have anything that original about it. We close our eyes, we allow ourselves to be carried away and we imagine pre-war America, the Appalachian mountains, John Fahey and his vagabond guitar. Jack Allett’s music weaves together reminiscences of folk, of country and of bluegrass, and, here and there, echoes of Delta Blues.

Only Spoono is not a child of the Appalachians. Relocated from his native Brighton to the bustling British capital, he crossbreeds Old Weird America with the experimentations of the avant-guarde guitar greats; Rhys Chatham, Jim O’Rourke and Loren Connors make up some of his favorites. In this sense, his music requires many listenings, many levels of listening. We can listen to it as we would listen to the O’Brother soudtrack on a summer evening, out on the porch, a bourbon in hand. But we can also prick up our ears and attempt to discern what it is that is so particular about Jack Allett’s compositional approach, which, ultimately, is far removed from that of the tutelary figure of John Fahey.

Jack Allett’s manifests a highly personal playing style built upon an unstable rhythmic premise —an alternation of playful and melancholy rhythms, of exaltation and quietude, of obstinately repeated motifs and fluid melodic lines. Traditional fingerpicked folk is structurally simple, rarely destabilizing. And yet even the simplest of his pieces seem to pirouette upon the string which provides their tonal center; tranquil at times, feverish at others, they spark a wide variety of emotional states in his listeners. A rhythmic instability sometimes amplified—though unfortunately not here—through the juxtaposition of acoustic fingerpicking and electronic noise. Despite being an exceptionally talented guitarist, Jack Allett is first and foremost an indefatigable sound experimenter who wields electric guitar with as much élan as circuit-bending electronics in groups Catnap and Towering Breaker (punk/noise).

It is true that many of today’s young musicians turn to the past for inspiration. The TV Buddhas and Spoono are no exception. The paths that these musicians carve out for themselves in their respective traditions are nevertheless passionate ones, and it is not impossible that someday, pushed to the extreme, their explorations will produce something that our era can call its own. Until then, let’s just try to keep out ears open.

Words: Emilie Friedlander and Sophie Pécaud
Photo: Patiphone Club, Tel Aviv

Concert April 20th, 2008 at l'Hulurburlu, Nantes.

Click here for the french version of the article, accompanied by photos by Florian Quistrebert, on the Fragil website.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why? + Volcano! + Son Lux at the SOY Festival (Nantes): Why? Because!

Thursday, October 30, 2008. Coup d’envoi for the sixth edition of Nantes’ SOY Festival. Outside the Barakason, the impatience of the Yamoy crew and the festival’s annual supporters is at fever pitch. The Yamoy association has cooked up a storm for us this year: more artists than ever before (twenty), more venues (a dozen, disseminated throughout Nantes and its outskirts), and headliners fit for the biggest independent music festivals on this side of the Atlantic. On the bill for this first installment, Son Lux, Volcano and Why?, three groups sharing an affinity for beard growth and an ambitious take on pop music.

Ryan Lott, aka Son Lux, is one of the latest additions to California’s Anticon, a historic-hip-hop-collective-and-label-turned-pop-music-talent-scout. With Son Lux, Anticon gambled on a pale young man with a hesitant smile, a Mac chocked full of samples, a MIDI synth, and a parsimonious playing style. On stage, Ryan Lott seems a little bit out of his element. But when he sings “Don’t be afraid,” the recurring leitmotif of his first song, his lightly scorched folk tenor is not without a certain melancholy charm. Who is he trying to console? Hard to tell. As the suspicion that the entire set might plod along on the same register sets in, we begin to hope that he is speaking directly to us. But when fellow Californian and tourmate Ryan Fitch joins him on stage, everything suddenly begins to make sense; bolstered by Fitch’s percussion, Son Lux’s music can finally shine through in all its richness.

With Son Lux, 60’s baroque pop enters the electronic age; synthetic retro strings, techno bass and hip hop beats dialogue in a virtuosic counterpoint carried by Fitch expressive drums. Though contrast is clearly the central element of Ryan Lott’s craft—that of the majesty of the low notes and the explosiveness of the high ones, contemplative drones and hypnotic loops, calm moments and tempestuous ones—the ensemble is strangely monotonous. Ryan Lott pulls from the same old bag of tricks, contrasting the same elements and riding the same dynamics. We allow ourselves to be seduced for a couple songs, but we finish by focusing in on the least convincing elements of Ryan Lott’s music instead of its inherently successful core. The cheap synth effects, in particular the very high pitched ones, get pretty irritating after a while, and we cannot help thinking that Ryan Lott’s voice, systematically covered by instruments, is ultimately more hesitant than scorching.

Volcano! Three nerds from Chicago who, like all the other musicians in the habit of dragging their clothes, their instruments, and their amplifiers through the back alleys of urban America, still seem to find the time to trim their facial hair. Singer and lead guitarist Aaron With’s mustache, for one, would probably have turned Don Diego de la Vega green with envy. But hair growth is not the only attribute marking their membership to the new generation of American musicians. Like their illustrious antecedents (Deerhoof and Animal Collective, to name the two most obvious), Volcano! like to pogo between pop and mayhem, combining the buoyancy of a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah with the shrieking guitar transports of a Parts & Labor.

Volcano!’s live set is enjoyable, if not particularly original. Their music boasts a solid rock and roll backbone; rock and roll enough, at least, to match the celebratory mood of the crowd that evening. Aaron With’s airy guitar melodies climb aboard a chunky bass, often minimal and repetitive, and spirited drums, always eager to throw out a disco beat for the ladies’ dancing pleasure. Volcano definitely possess a strong pop sensibility, and they craft their riffs with care. But they deconstruct them with equal relish. Their song structures are always somewhat unruly, resisting the systematization of the verse-chorus form to dissolve into off-kilter polyrhythmics. Sending their public flying between pop rapture and experimental discomfort, Volcano compose music for the feet…and for the head. Too close a reading might spoil the fun.

With three albums and a handful of EPs, what began as a solo project by Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf, the son of a Cincinnati rabbi, has become one of the most visible groups of the Anticon collective. Following the unrelenting assault of fractured samples on Oaklandazulasylum (2003), their first lp, Why? decided to blow some air into their songwriting. With Alopecia, released this year, the group offers up a massive art rock album; the ravishing flow of their early work gives way to silvery vocal harmonies, the lo-fi guitars to carefully chiseled arrangements. Compromise? Probably just maturity. Why? are a lot more levelheaded than they were during their Oaklandazulasylum days, but they are no less inventive.

On stage, Why? are all modesty, vitality, and warmth. On drums, Josiah Wolf holds up a vibrating pulse with his left hand while weaving in a melodic counterpoint with his right. Suspended above the bass drum, not toms, but a vibraphone, played with such lightning virtuousness that we can’t help looking for a third arm. Less conspicuous, but by no means less dexterous, bassist Austin Brown and keyboardist Doug McDiarmid support an adrenalized Yoni Worf who, with his characteristic nasal voice, alights upon our daily foibles with tenderness and irony. Here are four real artists, all devoted to their cause: music. Their live appearances are free of ego and free of wankery: the four members of Why? are extraordinarily good at what they do, but they seem erase themselves behind their songs, swapping instruments throughout the set in order to offer their texts their most appropriate line-up. The guitar, “rock star” instrument par excellence, never stays very long in the same hands. Ever precise, ever delicate, their compositions rise upwards like a tower of cards: a stable, yet oscillating foundation, a harmonious, yet unexpected architecture, a muscular, yet ephemeral grace.

We exit the Barakson with a smile on our lips and needles and pins in our feet. Vive le festival!

Words: Sophie Pécaud
Translation: Emilie Friedlander
Photo: Rémi Goulet

Cool tunes:
Son Lux, At War With Walls And Mazes, Anticon, 2008.

Volcano!, Paperwork, Leaf Label, 2008.

Why?, Alopecia, Anticon, 2008.

Click here for the french version of the article, accompanied by more photos by Rémi Goulet, on the Fragil website. Giant portfolio of images of the entire Soy Festival should be up soon.

Like what we're doing here? Just a little pocket change gives Visitation Rites food to live on.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Acid Mothers Temple + No Age + Stearica at the Soy Festival (Nantes): And May Music Forever Win Out over the Rain

Those of us with enough chutzpah to hold out to the end of Yamoy’s 4-day new music marathon last week, through rain and through more rain, through the good, the great, and the just plain so-so, were in for a farewell that would somehow manage leave us hungry for even more: Soy Festival 2009, anyone? On the heels of Chris Corsano and Mick Flower’s raga-style free-for-all just a few blocks away, the final chapter of this year’s Soy Festival at the Pannonica typified the association’s penchant for providing a little something for everyone—provided, of course, that that something is not what the people of Nantes might ordinarily hope to hear on a Sunday night…or any other night, for that matter.

With opening group Stearica, a power-chord-pummeling, Turin-based trio, the festival seemed to offer an obligatory nod to the surviving faction of head-bobbing post-rock enthusiasts that still make an appearance at every large-scale musical event in the city. And yet, appearances—even musical ones—can sometimes be deceiving. Setting aside their somewhat surprising endorsement by Acid Mothers Temple, who have invited them aboard their touring spaceship for the next few months, there is definitely something slightly refreshing about their take on this slowly ossifying art form. And it’s not just because they’re from Italy, or because they throw samples of spoken text and bits of feedback into the guitar-bass-percussion mix every now and again.

Like the most venerated musicians in the genre, Stearica manage to play very fast and very loud while remaining very together. But there are some moments (and these are the most interesting ones) when the well-oiled machine of mathematical precision seems to malfunction slightly—a pause that rings out a little too long, a bass line that collapses into a floor-vibrating roar, a drum fill that seems to strain against the Cartesian forward-march with a cry for emancipation. Stearica seem always on the verge of an explosion that never comes—and it is perhaps this expectation, more than anything else, that keeps us listening.

Next up, Dean Spunt and Randy Randall of No Age, who modestly introduce themselves to the audience as just another “rock and roll band.” Which is probably the best way to describe this duo from sunny Los Angeles, not because they are just another rock band, but because they seem to distil the principles of rock and roll into such a compact little formula: Dean on guitar, Randy on drums and screaming vocals (barely audible above the guitar and drums) and a dozen 2-minute verse-chorus anthems hammered out at turbo speed.

Though their work with home-recorded samples and guitar effects on Weirdo Rippers and Nouns have led some critics to tack on words like “experimental” or “noise rock,” this impression falls away somewhat during No Age’s live set—asides from the loudness factor, of course. No, there is nothing all that remarkable about No Age’s music; and that, I think, is precisely what makes it so charming. People who don’t write them off right away as “just another” radio-friendly alternative rock band will realize that they are really not that friendly to the ears at all, and that their upbeat refrains and positive attitude are less a sign of their being “consensual” than hand-me-downs from the pimply punk idols of their youth: Black Flag, Nation of Ulysses, maybe even The Adolescents. No Age. Reminding us that the simplicity and exuberance of true punk rock—despite the passing of the decades—is still alive and well.

Acid Mothers Temple were the group that the majority of the people at the Pannonica that night were there to see, and to say that they did not deliver is just as unimaginable as comparing them to any other of the groups at the Soy Festival this year. Though they have only been around since 1995, this Japanese collective has already racked up more albums, revolving members and splinter projects than most of the psychedelic space-rock bands that actually date back to the late 60’s and early 70’s. Which is why it is tempting to forgo a socio-historical analysis completely and join the group in believing that they are actually from outer space. On the collective’s website, Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O (one of the group’s nine most prominent offshoots, and the one appearing before us tonight) provide as fitting an introduction to their music as any: “What you are about to experience is ass kickin’ butt whippin’ far out drop dead cool music from another solar system when the ancient gods still ruled the earth!”

A description that becomes a whole lot less confusing once we see Acid Mothers Temple on stage: four elder statesmen with monumentally long hair in various gradations from black to white, bouncing up and down as though they couldn’t possibly be affected by so worldly a thing as gravitational pull. Hiding behind a knee-length mustache and beard, Higashi Hiroshi summons a few astral tremolos from a synth as bassist Tsuyama Atsushi and drummer Shimura Koji lay down perhaps one of the fuzziest and beefiest rhythm sections this side of the galaxy has ever heard. Lead guitarist Kawabata Makoto, looking like Slash’s Japanese alter ego, shreds his guitar to pieces as what begins as a plodding succession of repeated phrases escalates into a mad dash up Mount Olympus.

For some people, Acid Mothers Temple’s music is a religious experience. For others, it is simply “too much.” But there are also the people who, like the musicians themselves, seem to appreciate its fine line between high seriousness and parody, eastern spirituality and post-colonial fantasy. The “eastern” element of their music extends beyond their occasional use of a Japanese flute, or a guitar riff drawn straight out of a Bollywood soundtrack—it permeates the very fiber of their song structures. But what is so fascinating about Acid Mothers Temple is that we can never tell whether they are creating honest-to-god “Buddhist music” (as they claim), or throwing our own eastern fetishisms right back in our faces. When Tsuyama Atsushi steps up to the mic and begins humming “Om” like a Tibetan monk in a cartoon levitation rite, we cannot help asking ourselves: is he poking fun at himself or poking fun at us?

Our only regret is that Tsuyama Atsushi, and the rest of his bandmates, were too busy noodling their way up to the heavens to sit down for a Q & A.

Words: Emilie Friedlander
Photos: Rémi Goulet

Cool Tunes:
Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O, Glorify Astrological Martyrdom, Important Records, 2008.

Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O, Cometary Orbital Drive, Bam Balam Records, 2008.

Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O, Interstellar Guru And Zero, Homeopathic, 2008

No Age, Nouns, Sub Pop, 2008.

Click here for the french version of the article, accompanied by more photos by Rémi Goulet, on the Fragil website. Giant portfolio of images of the entire Soy Festival should be up soon.

Like what we're doing here? Just a little pocket change gives Visitation Rites food to live on.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Six Organs of Admittance: The Search for Lost Sound

Ben Chasny, a.k.a. Six Organs of Admittance, has been roving the pacific hillsides of psychedelic folk and the vertiginous valleys of noise rock for over ten years. His work might be described as ongoing quest for the perfect sound, at once reminiscence and recreation of the long-lost "mystery records” that he has been trying to track down since his teens. As enigmatic as his music itself, Chasny indulged our request for an interview but denied us any straight answers. Perhaps his upcoming performances in Europe this month will allow us to peel away some more layers of the onion.

Interview with Ben Chasny, October 2008

Six Organs of Admittance recently turned 10 years old. Looking back over a decade of activity, would you say that your project has evolved significantly from what is was at the beginning? How did the project begin, and how has it changed over the years?

I think it probably has changed a bit in some ways and in others it has stayed the same. I am much more at ease with using a studio now, where as before I only recorded on a 4 track at home. I’ve also traveled quite a bit more, met more people. I started just wanting to release sort of mystery records from Northern California. As the years passed, the mystery began to dissolve but my sense of the greater world took over, so it was a fair trade.

How would you categorize your music in terms of genre (or combinations of genres), and why?

That is hard to say. Sometimes the band will be solo acoustic guitar, sometimes it will be an all-out noise assault, and sometimes it will be between the two. That is the problem with people who try to categorize the music. They sometimes set up expectations that are off. Sometimes people will come to the shows expecting a mellow hippie affair because that is what they read from some misinformed source and then be disgusted when they hear so much feedback. Or sometimes people will expect all noise and then be bummed because it is a very quiet show. So I don’t know.

You have played with musicians from a broad range of musical backgrounds, and your sound is often talked about in terms of its fusion of noise and folk. Do you consider yourself more on the noise side of things or the folk side of things? How would you describe the compatibility, if any, between these two traditions?

I don’t recognize a distinction between the two. What is noise anyway? Didn’t Cage kind of re-arrange that paradigm? There are a lot of solo acoustic guitar players that I would consider noise, simply because I don’t want to hear it! I don’t think it should be considered in terms related to “noise.” I would rather use the word “intensity.” Or “texture.”

What are your biggest “influences” at this very moment?. How have these changed (if at all) since the beginning of the project?

My influences right now are the same as they have been since the beginning, and although I have mentioned them in the past, nobody remembers, because they either don’t believe me or they are too busy listening to what other people say about my project than what I say! Everyone seems to say Fahey. Wrong. More like Organum, Nurse With Wound, Talking Heads, This Heat, and Sun City Girls. I would say if there is any new influence, it would probably be David Allen Coe.

You are often considered a forerunner of the psychedelic revival that has been taking place in American music over the last decade, which also goes hand in hand with a resurgence of interest in non-Western musical traditions. How would you explain the attraction that these musics have for you? In a broader sense, how would you explain the attraction that they seem to be exerting over our generation at large?

I don’t know why people find it attractive now. I suppose probably because some tastemaker said it was cool, then people followed. Tomorrow the tastemaker will create a backlash, nobody will care, and things will carry on. I don’t concern myself with it. As far as psychedelic music goes, I think it comes down more to collecting records. The best records, the most prized grails, so to say, are usually the psychedelic ones, especially private press. So when me and my friends were younger, listening to some treasure that we had just found, it was cool to think, “let’s start a band like this!” Nowadays, though, any record can be found on the internet with no searching at all, thereby annihilating that idea of the "treasured" record. So I really have no idea at all why someone would want to start a psych band now! It seems pretty retrograde to me.

What kind of line-up can we expect to see for your performance in Nantes?

This time around it will be Elisa Ambrogio on lead guitar and Alex Neilson on Drums. The last time I played Nantes I was solo, so I am looking forward to playing with this line-up. I had such a good time last time I was there. I am looking forward to this very much.

Interview with Ben Chasny, Sophie Pécaud and Emilie Friedlander, October 2008

Words: Sophie Pécaud and Emilie Friedlander
Photo: Delilah Winter

Tour dates 10.24.08 - Diksmuide, Belgium - 4AD
10.26.08 - Copenhagen, Denmark - Venue KIB
10.27.08 - Arhus, Denmark - Musikcafeen
10.28.08 - Stockholm, Sweden - Debaser
10.31.08 - Istanbul, Turkey - Babylon
11.02.08 - Nantes, France - Yamoy Festival
11.03.08 - Rouen, France - Emporium Galorium
11.04.08 - Bordeaux, France - CAPC
11.05.08 - Gijon, Spain - Savoy Club
11.06.08 - Madrid, Spain - Caracol
11.07.08 - Lisbon, Portugal - Caiaxa Economica Operaria
11.08.08 - Porto, Portugal - Maus Habitos

Six Organs of Admittance Website
Six Organs of Admittance MySpace page

French version available on Fragil.org, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link here

Like what we're doing here? Just a little pocket change gives Visitation Rites food to live on.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Capillary Action’s sadistic avant-pop: Between economic innovation and commercial suicide

Jonathan Pfeffer, the man behind Capillary Action, a “sadistic avant-pop” group freshly relocated to Seattle, likes thinking that his music “treads [a] fine line between economic innovation and commercial suicide.” To mark the release of his third opus, So Embarrassing, he does us the honor of telling us why.

Jonathan Pfeffer is only 22 years old, but he already composes some of the most stimulating music in contemporary experimental rock. His new album So Embarassing crosses cerebral and neurotic mathrock stereotypes with those of the suavest smooth jazz, the furor of an electric guitar with the melodic expressivity of a Fender Rhodes. His sound evinces a broad-ranging musical heritage (Jonathan cites Varèse, as well Don Cherry and his friends from Talibam! among his influences) as well as a schizophrenic desire to juxtapose seemingly incompatible textures and atmospheres.

The result is hard not to compare with the anarchic and jubilatory experimentations of a John Zorn or a Mike Patton. Asked about this likeness, Jonathan Pfeffer bristles. “As much as I respect John Zorn and Mike Patton and as much as I can understand the resemblance, neither is an influence of mine. And neither is Zappa for that matter. I think what people may be hearing are some shared influences (60’s free jazz, 20th century classical music) or some superficial stylistic similarities (the use of different genres, people who can actually play their instruments, etc.).” And, upon further rumination: “The comparisons wouldn’t bug me so much if I felt like Zappa, Zorn, and Patton’s aesthetics were rooted in the same emotions I’m trying to convey. The Zappa/Zorn/Patton records I’ve heard, though undeniably well thought-out and executed, always struck me as sort of humorous. While there is definitely humor in the music I write, I feel like the subject matter I’m writing about is much more personal and intense than anything I’ve heard from Zappa, Zorn, or Patton.”

While Capillary Action’s preceding records, Fragments (2004) and Cannibal Impulses (2006), were entirely instrumental, So Embarassing is constructed around the voice, and, especially, texts. “I feel like the human voice connects with people—myself included-- in a way other instruments don’t and putting it upfront and center in an avant-rock context gives the music much more warmth than the music of instrumental bands treading similar territory. Capillary Action’s music does take precedence over the lyrics but I think the vocals/lyrics provide a certain gravity to everything else going on that keeps the crazier elements from getting too out of control.”

Jonathan Pfeffer’s lyrics, as fragmented and unpredictable as his music, revolve around complex and intimate subjects: familial and romantic relationships, the hunger for recognition, paranoia. A complexity that discovers its musical echo in the record’s rich orchestration (strings and brass, in addition to guitar and drums), an attention to density and timbre carried over from Cannibal Impulses, and an intricate mosaic of riffs, melodies and chord progressions that tangle and untangle themselves at will. A working process requiring a great deal of trial and error, says Jonathan, who confesses to spending “hours, days, weeks, or sometimes months trying to jam square pegs into round holes—adjusting, deleting, replacing, and modifying each last detail.”

Jonathan is adamant about surprising his listeners. “I like setting up traps for the listener so when they think a part is coming back again, they’re pushed in a completely different direction. I also like keeping songs short and efficient so that people can be encouraged to listen over and over again to pick up little things here and there. People who are patient enough to deal with all the traps and brevity will discover that there’s actually a method to the madness.” This desire to keep his listeners on their toes translates into a sound at once exuberant and challenging, one that takes up residence at the antipodes of a consensual and comfortable pop. “I like to call it economic, sadistic avant-pop music. I take immense pleasure in seeing people writhe with discomfort when we play a part they love only twice in a song and then never return to it.”

The mastermind behind Capillary action--or “musical director,” as he likes to describe himself-- Jonathan Pfeffer frequently enlists the aid of other artists, whom he deems instrumental in forging the project’s signature sound. “Everyone involved in Capillary Action is also involved with other projects so the revolving line-up works both ways, giving me the freedom to do as I please without regard to anyone else’s schedule, as well as permitting individual members to participate when they want.” Live appearances often feature Jonathan on guitar and vocals, with Sam Krulewitch on keys and Bryan Cook on drums. “We’ve been performing as a trio (keyboard/guitar/drums) for the last year or so, mostly for economic reasons, but also because it’s a challenge to take these complex arrangements and simplify them for a small ensemble. The trio line-up emphasizes a more blitzkrieg all-guns-blazing rock show, which I think works quite nicely when you’ve only got 30 minutes to make your mark.”

When Jonathan says “blitzkrieg rock”, what he really means is that he and his co-conspirators like to declare war on their listener’s emotions. “A Capillary Action concert tends to be precise, intense, and overwhelming for both the performer and audience. I’ve seen people laugh hysterically, cry, and become so angry they throw bottles at us, sometimes all at the same performance.” This emotional closeness between the musicians and their public is a source of great personal satisfaction for Jonathan Pfeffer. “The reason I chose music as a career path because, unlike displaying your work in a gallery, as a musician you get to watch your art unfold in real time and witness the audience’s reaction right there on the spot.” Ever hungry for confrontation, the trio seizes the opportunity to play in as many different types of venues as possible: rock clubs and alternative art spaces, lofts and basements, elementary schools and universities, and even the occasional Chinese restaurant. Each venue, each audience, opens up a new dimension of the music, claims Jonathan, waxing nostalgic about a particularly intense concert before a floor of “slack-jawed 5-8 year olds.” “I think the stranger the venue, the more rewarding the show; let it be known that we will play anywhere.”

As far as plans for the near future are concerned, Jonathan Pfeffer looks forward to hitting the road again, this time with a new line-up. “The next phase of the band, which I’m working on right now, will feature all acoustic instruments (classical guitar, upright bass, trumpet, percussion, accordion, and vocals) and showcase the more melodic side of Capillary Action.” This acoustic ensemble will be on tour throughout Europe and the United States in 2009. An occasion to for us to experience the effects of this thing called capillary action in person.

Interview with Jonathan Pfeffer, Sophie Pecaud, October 2008

Words: Sophie Pécaud
Translation: Emilie Friedlander

, Cannibal Impulses and So Embarassing are distributed by Natural Selection in the United States and by Distile Records in Europe. Records can also be procured directly from the group.

French version available on Fragil.org, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link to original article here.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rhys Chatham at the Soy Festival (Nantes): “Nothing but a party… and nothing but rock!”

In 2004, Rhys Chatham was at le lieu unique, Nantes, with An Angel Moves Too Fast to See. Last October 29th, the New York composer was back in Nantes to headline the Soy Festival with his very first electric guitar piece, Guitar Trio. After the majesty of a 100-guitar symphony, the fury of six punk guitars.

Rhys Chatham’s music has two origins. On the one hand, it comes from the minimalist avant-garde, the composer being a part of a hallowed tradition which goes from La Monte Young to Tony Conrad and from Terry Riley to Charlemagne Palestine, and also including the better known Philip Glass and Steve Reich. On the other hand, it comes from the rock of the Ramones: it was a Ramones concert at CBGB’s that allowed Rhys Chatham, who was 25 at the time and more familiar with French composer Pierre Boulez than the effervescent rock scene of his hometown, to “find his own voice”, the voice of a pionneer now known as the initiator of the noise rock movement, and a major influence of many experimental rock groups, such as Band of Susans or Sonic Youth.

“I was composing minimalist music in the vein of La Monte Young at that time. And then, I went to a concert of the Ramones at CBGB’s, and it changed my life. I felt a link with the music. At that precise moment, I borrowed a friend’s Fender electric guitar, and this is how I went into rock. Essentially I thought that if Steve [Reich] could work with african music, and Phil [Glass] could work with jazz, I could work with rock. Why not?”

The result of that research was Guitar Trio, the very first piece to combine the principles of minimalism with those of rock. At first, Rhys Chatham experimented with various configurations– one of them, Tone Death, including a saxophone. After 1977, the piece was standardized as a trio for three eletric guitars, electric bass and drums. Its current instrumentation consists of two to ten electric guitars, electric bass and drums – Rhys Chatham being rather undecided as far as his definition of a “trio” is concerned.

Guitar Trio is based on a very simple principle, whose effects are extremely rich: repetition. Guitarists exert themselves at persistently repeating the same note, and then the same basic chord, for close to 20 minutes. Their aim: to extract all their harmonic substance. As Rhys Chatham reminds us, a note is never “pure” but contains, besides its fundamental frequency, an infinite number of other frequencies, some of them being more audible than others, depending on the instrument and the way it is being played.

From unity may thus arise diversity. From unison, melody. Recalling one of the first performances of Guitar Trio at Max’s Kansas City, Rhys Chatham remembers: “People would come back to the sound board to ask our engineer where we were hiding the singers. The overtones and harmonics we were playing rang out with such clarity that the audiences actually thought they were hearing vocalists.” (1)

Harmonic deployment is the main effect of the use of repetition. It’s not the only one. For Rhys Chatham, repeating the same chord ceaselessly at an obscenely loud volume, with the support of a single drummer who penetrates and structures the general waveform of the sound from the inside, is also a means of creating among his audience – and incidentally, among his musicians – a kind of shamanic state of trance.

The originality of Guitar Trio rests upon the transposition of strictly minimalist principles – repetition, playing with the overtones – into the field of rock, and their subordination to its instrumentation, playing techniques and gesture. Guitar Trio isn’t therefore one of those pieces that only hardened fans of contemporary music can appreciate. It does not rest so much upon a theoretical interrest as it does upon the visceral impact produced by a group of genuine rockers playing very, very loud and very, very fast – the performance ends up with an orgy of tremolos, as well as a certain amount of broken guitar strings…

The impact is all the stronger as Rhys Chatham always works with luminaries of the local rock scene: three quarters of Sonic Youth in Brooklyn, members of Tortoise in Chicago, of Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Montreal. The composer could in no way content himself with a musical joke such as the ventures into rock of Tod Machover when he was at IRCAM (Vatican City of contemporary music in France), or even those of Pierre Henry – the model of the genre being the incredible Messe pour le temps présent of 1967. For it is a matter of respect for the genre.

“When I composed Guitar Trio, it was very important for me not to be an “infiltrator” on the rock scene. It’s very easy for a classical composer – Tod Machover, for example – to write a piece for quote and quote rock and to play in in a classical context. It was very important for me that I play this music – that I gave everything to, my background as a classical composer as well as my background as a rock musician – for a rock audiece, in a rock context, with rock musicians.”

Since 1977, Rhys Chatham cheerfully jumped from three guitars to six (Die Donnergötter, 1984-85), and then to 100 (An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, 1989). His work for electric guitars culminated in Paris' butte Montmartre district with the 400 guitars of Crimson Grail, a monumental yet delicate piece commissioned by the City of Paris for the Nuit Blanche 2005 festival, and – almost – performed last August in New York City as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors series.

Last year, the composer had a new epiphany. This time, it wasn’t about the punk of The Ramones, but the drone doom metal of Sleep: “Quite recently, I was touring in a bus, and I heard this group called Sleep in an album called Dopesmoker, and it absolutely blew my mind. I said to myself: ‘Why, this is my music!’” As a result, Rhys Chatham went back to essentials – three guitars, bass and drums – and hit the road again with his new group, Essentialist. His project: to break down metal to its basics elements; to reconstruct it; to transcend its primitive signification. To be heard again soon in Europe and America.

Words: Sophie Pécaud, 2007.
Photo: Renaud Certin.

French version available on Fragil.org, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link to original article here.

Note :
(1) Rhys Chatham, Composer’s Notebook 1990. Toward A Musical Agenda For The 1990s, Table of the Elements, Atlanta, 1990.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ducktails s/t 7'', Breaking World Records, September 2008

This month, Breaking World Records releases a limited edition 7 inch by Ducktails, a.k.a. Brooklyn-based musician Matt Mondanile, marking the onset of fall with a prayer for eternal summer. Though he proudly identifies suburban New Jersey as his heart’s true home, Mondanile’s sound is equally the product of four years on the Western Massachussetts noise scene, a prolonged stay in an immigrant neighborhood in Berlin and a thriving re-issue culture that brings psychedelic and world music gems back from the dead.

‘Beach Point Pleasant,” the album’s first track and centerpiece, is built on a 2-second instrumental loop from Gétatchèwe Kassa’s “Tezeta Slow,” featured on Buda Musique’s celebrated Ethiopiques series. “Tezeta,” Matt Mondanile explains, “means memory or nostalgia, and the song is kind of an ode to past beach times.” Repeated ad infinitum, the passage abstracts into a kind of indeterminate, “oriental” refrain, like the generic soundtrack of a Mondo Cane-style travel log. As yellowed, Technicolor images of virgin beaches, unfurling palm fronds and coconut milk straight out of the nut begin to take shape in our mind, we are lulled deeper into our post-colonial fantasy with the introduction of new voices. A meandering pentatonic guitar line bubbles leisurely upwards to the surface of the mix like a 1960’s Cambodian pop recording passed through an underwater chamber—wah wah in the fullest sense of the term. Meanwhile, ambient casiotones layer gently into the space between loop and guitar melody like small gusts of ocean wind. The word horizontal is key here; for all his vertical layering of sounds, Ducktails’ ode to lost time is closer to a plateau of sun-dappled bliss than an emotional riptide.

The rest of the songs on the recording possess a similar horizontal quality, each with its own, unique feeling-plateau. "Pizza time," a short track following “Beach Point Pleasant,” offers us a glimpse of the beach by night, marking a moonlit ceremony in which locals armed with traditional instruments, flaming torches and portable boom boxes descend upon the shore to dance and make merry. Each of Ducktails’ songs builds upon a single repetitive, root motif; here, he forfeits the archival sample for a cheezy up-tempo Casio beat, elaborating the “world kitsch” aspect of his sound through his twangy manipulation of guitar and bass.

On side two, Ducktails switches gears yet again with an evolving series of asymmetrical bongo phrases, artificial in source (drum machine) but human in their imperfection. If “Beach Point Pleasant” marks a nostalgic moment in the album’s evolution, and the second track, a celebratory one, “Gems 1 and 2” would seem to constitute their meditative conclusion. Soaring, synthetic drones stretch out across an early morning sky as Chinese flute melodies (perhaps sample, perhaps not) float in and out of earshot. Over time, the bongos become increasingly insistent, increasingly anarchic, as though their player, electronically mediated as he is, were imploring the sun to peak its head above the ocean horizon.

While it has absolutely no pretensions to being “intellectual”, Ducktails’ project rides a fine and nuanced line between East and West, the analog and the electronic, the manual and the pre-fab. Though it lends itself to repeated home listenings, it is probably best enjoyed in the way Ducktails himself likes to enjoy his favorite records: on the road, in his parent’s car, driving through the suburbs with the windows down.

Ducktails, s/t 7", Breaking World Records, 2008. Limited edition of 300. Handmade cover art.

Words: Emilie Friedlander

More Info:
Ducktails website
Ducktails Myspace
Breaking World Records Website

More Tunes:
Ducktails II, coming out soon on Tape Tektoniks, 2008

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Jackie-O Motherfucker + Sunburned Hand of the Man at the Soy Festival (Nantes): The New Ecstatic America

For the third installment of this year’s Soy Festival, the Nantes-based Yamoy association brings us two groups recently signed to Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace. New acquisitions, but by no means wet behind the ears. Dating back to the mid-90s, Sunburned Hand of the Man and Jackie-O Motherfucker are the pioneers of a New Weird America that takes pleasure in denaturing the codes of traditional American music.

“Welcome to the New Weird America,”
wrote The Wire in July 2003, extending a hearty salutation to free-folk collective Sunburned Hand of the Man. The expression was a reference to the “Old Weird America,” a term coined by critic Greil Marcus to describe the Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), famed for catalyzing a folk revival upon its release and inspiring, among others, the young Bob Dylan. New weird America… a term that speaks as much to Sunburned’s traditional roots as to its penchant for the outré.

The collective’s continually evolving cast of characters—tonight, John Moloney on drums, Rob Thomas, Paul La Brecque and Ron Schneiderman on guitar, and Sarah O’Shea on vocals—hail as much from the universe of visual art and performance as that of music, and it shows. Sunburned’s live set resembles a pagan rite in which bearded men sporting deer heads and fringed leather vests parade through the audience flailing long, tortured tree-branches crowned with latex animal heads.

The music, at first, is little more than a diegetic byproduct of the ritual unraveling before us. We catch the sound of a few metallic objects clanging into one another, a few hesitant guitar notes, a swelling voice. Little by little, the musicians abandon their totems and hone in on their playing. The music allows itself to be more present, more structured. More violent as well. Dark, throbbing guitar riffs, indefinitely repeated, adhere into an atmosphere at once bewitching and suffocating.

Next up, Jackie-O Motherfucker, an experimental folk collective formed in Portland in 1994 by Tom Greenwood and Nester Bucket. Protean by nature, the collective began as a guitar and saxophone duo, accompanying itself with home-made sound collages, rock mash-ups and hip-hop beats. JOMF's lineup for its European tour is a classic one: a drum kit, two singers and three guitars wired to multiple effect boxes. Three guys and one gal, one of them proudly sporting an Ecstatic Peace! T-shirt.

JOMF's set is a long voyage through a universe of meandering and occasionally disturbing folk. As their melody and vocal lines and the initial simplicity of their chord progressions will attest, the group’s sound anchors itself resolutely in the heritage of traditional American music. But JOMF takes on this legacy in order to pervert it, channeling it into experimentations that border on the psychedelic. Traditional song structure is rejected. We catch a verse here and there, but never a refrain. As soon as we sense a formal structure taking shape, the members of JOMF take delight in losing us again with their improbable solos, which evolve over time into mantras. JOMF would seem to do everything possible to hypnotize the listener: heady riffs utilizing a limited pitch range, the intricate interplay of three guitars going in and out of synch at will, their play with protracted duration.

JOMF’s drummer only rarely offers up a rousing beat, contenting himself with punctuating the sound of the guitars, one of which has been tuned down to a bass. Sometimes, within the transparent swatches of sound issuing from the four instruments – voices arise. Sometimes a male voice, at others a woman's. Voices that groan in complaint more than affirm anything, that implore rather than preach. Breathy voices which rapidly melt into the general waveform of sound, waxing and waning in volume, taking the listener on a journey to the farthest, uncharted depths of this new, strange America.

Our only regret is that the John Calian violin present on numerous JOMF recordings could not join the three guitars that evening.

Words: Sophie Pécaud (2007)
Translation: Emilie Friedlander
Photo: Renaud Certin

Concert: October 29 2007, Nantes.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

French Frenzy

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Phill Niblock: At the Heart of the Sound Wave: Interview, Paris, March 29th, 2008

Composer Phill Niblock, key player in the New York minimalist scene, isn’t finished making his heady drones ring out all over the planet. On the road eight months out of the year, this composer and filmmaker will set down his suitcases next Thursday in Nantes for a landmark performance at the Musée des Beaux-Arts.

In the music world, Phill Niblock is somewhat of a renegade. Unlike his classically-trained mentors, the four founding fathers of the minimalist school (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass), Niblock admits to never having felt much of an interest in the whole conservatory tradition. Indeed, it was photography, "something very natural for me," which provided the platform for his first creative peregrinations.

In the mid 1960s, Niblock met choreographer and experimental filmmaker Elaine Summers, who introduced him to video. Their collaboration culminated in 1968 with the creation of the Experimental Media Foundation, "an artist-run organization, […] run for artists," dedicated to promoting "Intermedia" productions--"Film, slides, dance, music, combined, as a performance event." Based out of Niblock’s loft in SoHo, the foundation quickly became one of the nervous centers of the New York art and performance scene. Nearly a thousand concerts have been produced there since its creation.

The concept of "intermedia" art" –distinguished by its proponents from the more commercial "multimedia"—is fundamental in Phill Niblock’s oeuvre. His protracted continuous shots of artisans working were never intended as films "per se," but as part of an ensemble of elements comprising an intermedia performance. "They are extremely real images. But they never have the structure of documentary films. […] Documentary people always hate […] my films. And experimental people hate the films because they are so totally photographic."

Niblock’s relative lack of success as a filmmaker prompted him to hone in on his music. Unlike most of the other composers of his generation, he accepts the label of "minimalist" because he feels it adequately describes the paring down of content and form so central to his work. "The core of what I do is to strip out various aspects of the structure of the medium that I’m working in. So with the music, for instance, there’s no rhythm, there’s not melody and there’s no typical harmonic progression. And the work is very much about non-development, in the musical sense. The same thing is true of the films. Most of the vocabulary of the film is simply not there. Not narrative, no montage. I think there’s two shots that are out of chronological order in the entire 40 hours of film." In the mid 1970s, Village Voice critic Tom Johnson summed up this process with a memorable: "No melody, no harmony, no rhythm. No bullshit."

The music of Phill Niblock is far removed from the repetitive, psychedelia-tinged minimalism of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. It is closer to the radical minimalism of La Monte Young, which hinges upon duration. The majority of his pieces consist in an ensemble of drones—buzzing held notes which expand out infinitely, evolving almost imperceptibly and emitting a host of sparkling harmonics. For the composer, "the idea is to make this sort floating environment" for the spectator to get lost in, gradually losing contact with reality, and, especially, with time. "If somebody, after an hour’s performance, thinks it was only ten minutes long, that’s perfect. And that happens. People don’t have any sense of how long the thing was."

Niblock’s composition process is very manual, very artisanal—a perfect metaphor for the images that appear in his films. Recordings—once analogue, today digital—serve as his base material. Every one of his pieces consists of an ensemble of drones produced by instruments—always analogue!—that are particularly rich in timbre: electric guitar (Guitar Too, for Four), hurdy-gurdy (Hurdy Hurry), nasal voices (A Y U). The composer combines these recordings, gently modifies their frequencies and allows them to interact. Phill Niblock is passionate about microtonal intervals and the surprising acoustical phenomena that take place when they are allowed to intermingle. At the heart of his music lies a certain indeterminacy—one which distinguishes it from the work of La Monte Young. Often, Phil Niblock allows himself to be surprised by his pieces: "I can predict, but I can’t exactly predict. So that some pieces will be somewhat different than I expect them to be."

Phill Niblock’s pieces are incredibly plastic. If one asks him whether he conceives his pieces in relation to the spaces where they will eventually be performed, he turns the question on its head: "It’s more the other way around, that the music changes incredibly, drastically, depending on the space it’s played in. And, obviously, the sound system. Typically, spaces which are really fantastic would be, like a cathedral, or a large church, which is very open, where there’s a lot of reflection off of surfaces." A spatial dimension accentuated by the composer’s desire to "get people to wander around," to experience the plasticity of the sound material for themselves—a kind of dare, Phill Niblock admits. "Nobody wants to wander around. They get the idea that they should sit there very quietly."

The music of Phill Niblock can appear inaccessible, too intellectual, too elitist. In reality, it is extremely sensual—carnal, almost—accessible to all who are willing to dive in, close their eyes and allow themselves to be carried off by the vibrations. The composer insists that his music (which, in live performance, usually combines recordings and live musicians) be played EXTREMELY loud, so that it fills the room, envelops the spectator and maximizes its harmonic potentialities. Far from assuming a passive role during a Niblock performance, the spectator takes the reigns by carving out his or her own unique path through this extreme acoustic environment. "I’m interested in making a sound world and a visual world which is very much open to different interpretation and different perception. So, if an audience comes and everyone has a different perception of what happened to them, then it’s perfect for me." The very simplicity of the drones, their very "minimalism," opens up a vista for the imagination to roam in, a liberty without equivalent. With no melody, no harmony, no rhythm to guide it, consciousness becomes free in its associations.

The work of Phill Niblock is an experience to live through. Only a professional speaker system and live musicians can do it justice. Next Thursday, April 3rd at the Nantes Musée de Beaux-Arts, you will get a chance. Don’t miss it.

Words: Sophie Pecaud and Emilie Friedlander, 2008.

Performance co-sponsored by Cable# and Apo 33.

French version available on Fragil.org, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link to original article here.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Grey Skull at Instants Chavirés (Paris): The Sound of Things Falling Apart

On Friday, April 4th, the Western Massachusetts noise trio Grey Skull drive 7 hours from Amsterdam to Paris for a set that would clock in at just under 13 minutes. A bit brief, yes. But quite a feat for a group who use up so much energy live that they can only promise to "play until [they] can't anymore."

Instants Chavirés, Paris, February 4th. Something is not right when George Myers, Dan Cashman and Jeff Hartford of Grey Skull (Breaking World Records) take the stage last Friday at the Instants Chavirés. For one, their instruments aren't tuned—not, at least, in any way that might be expected to produce something deserving of the title of rock and roll. Second, some of the strings on Cashman's guitar and Myers' bass are broken—undoubtedly the fallout from the group's last thrash session in Holland, but a bit unsettling to see at the beginning of a show. Third, and perhaps most disturbingly, Hartford's high-hat looks like it has been run over by a car. Or at least bashed in so many times with a baseball bat that it looks more like a leaf of wilted spinach than an object designed for making sounds.

As the first thick drones ring out from Myers' bass, we witness something that seems more like a pantomime of a concert than a concert itself. Not just any concert, but the sludgiest, beefiest, most ridiculously heavy metal concert imaginable. Myers and Cashman slam their instruments up and down as though in the throes of the most virtuostic of Sabbathian guitar solos—only there are no golden riffs to be heard. Hartford emits a few lusty grunts then enters into his signature full-body head-bang, his long brown hair whipping up and down fast enough to knock out a small child. And yet there is no beat for him, the drummer, to rock out to. Yes, something is definitely wrong with this picture.

The antics that follow on stage constitute less a musical performance per se than a physical performance whose byproduct is sound. Myers fiddles with the tangle of mixers and pedals hooked up to his bass like an evil scientist executing the final operations on a machine designed to destroy the world—to random, and sometimes ear-splitting, acoustical results. Cashman, playing a kind of attention-deprived teenage caveman with a guitar, serenades the audience with his usual wordless blubbering, interrupted by the occasional defamatory punch: "Fuck You!" Before long, Jeff Hartford, a kind of hard rock Barney Flintstone who has lost his sense of humor, breaks up the dissonant wall of sound with his distinctive symmetrical pounding. As the sounds coming of Cashman's guitar and Myers' bass threaten to swerve out of control, Hartford's thrashing provides some order to the madness. All things considered it is only element of Greyskull's music that comes anywhere close to a melody.

There is something strikingly Paleolithic about Greyskull's music, something pre-verbal, pre-musical, almost. A group of three cavemen friends receive a gift of a guitar, a bass and a drum set, along with a letter describing what rock music is and what a rock concert generally consists of. Suspecting that this might be a way to sway the gods in their favor, they attempt to recreate "rock and roll" without ever having experienced it for themselves. Except that they never made it through to the end of the letter, where the writer describes the basic tenants of melody and rhythm. Nor to the stipulation in bold explaining that even though this thing called rock and roll might make them feel very excited—uncontrollably so, even—and that while they might be tempted to throw some punches over the course of the performance, they should probably refrain from throwing their equipment. But don’t tell that to Myers, who tosses his bass guitar off the stage towards the end of the set and breaks it in half. He would probably just shrug you off with a grunt, crank up the gain and hurl his amplifier on top.

Grand finale à la Grey Skull: Dan Cashman hurls himself off the stage, detonating an explosion of animal howling in the audience before climbing back up and collapsing in exhaustion. As the final feedback fades out, a voice from the rear of the bar pipes up: "Enough of this crap. Why not a little Beatles for a change?" A blaspheme to match Greyskull's 13 minute blaspheme, but also kind of the group's point all along. You will not hear anything like the Beatles at a Greyskull show, but you will certainly get an idea of what they might of sounded like if the group had been founded at Stonehenge in 2200 bc. Oogachaka.

Words: Emilie Friedlander, 2008

French version available on Fragil.org, a Nantes-based online cultural magazine. Link to original article here.

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Tom Carter + GHQ at the Grimault (Nantes): And each one of them was several...

Just when our ears had stopped ringing from the thunderous performances of Sunburned Hand of the Man and Jackie O’Motherfucker at Yamoy’s Soy Festival last fall, the ecstatic sound of the American psychedelic Underground returned to the Nantes last Friday with Tom Carter and GHQ –this time, however, in one of its gentler incarnations.

Friday March 21st, Nantes. The Grimault, a cramped, dim, saloon-style bar tucked away along the Eastern bank of the Erdre, was packed by 8pm. Tom Carter (Austin, Texas) and two of the members of the New York trio GHQ (Marcia Basset and Steve Gunn) sat down to dinner at around 9 and picked leisurely at their salads as they conversed over the din of an increasingly impatient crowd. The two-hour delay between the announced time of the concert and Carter’s arrival on stage set the tone for the evening – Carter and GHQ offer us a music that is patient, unhurried, a sonic exaltation accessible only those who know how to sit down, tune in, and drop out (of waking reality) for an hour or two.

Hypnotic, yes. But repetitive, static, minimal, no. The poster for the soirée, which was coordinated by Yamoy, perhaps sells Tom Carter (Kranky) a bit short with its label of "psychedelic drone". Far from creating a music based on the repetition of static notes (drone, in the traditional sense), this Texan guitar wizard brocades a rich tapestry of extraterrestrial sounds and fleeting melodic inflections. His improvisation-based compositional process hinges on the vertical layering of sounds through looping, reverb and delay–a process no doubt facilitated by the bird’s nest of pedals, mixers and loop-stations at his feet.

At the heart of Tom Carter’s music lies a fascination with the acoustical possibilities of the guitar—not as a single instrument, a single voice, but as a multitude of voices, all waiting to be discovered through a little expert handiwork. The hypersensitive minefield created by his use of various electronic devices allows him to experiment with novel ways of coaxing the sound of out of his instrument – at points, he "plays" his guitar simply by fluttering a finger over the strings near the bridge, hitting the body of the guitar with his left hand, or, at extremely quiet moments, by abandoning the right hand altogether and simply placing his fingers on the frets. What results is a breadth of tones ranging from wah wah to baby’s breath, from Chinese violin to bells, a diversity so surprising that the listener is bound to wonder whether his long-time collaborator Christina Carter (Charalambides) isn’t hiding somewhere backstage.
But Carter doesn’t experiment for experimentation’s sake alone. Rather, he undertakes these acoustic explorations with the aim of enriching his melodic transports. His goal is less to show us which sounds he can pull out of his instrument than to show us what a given sound can do. The result is a hallucinatory counterpoint of echoes and faraway melodies, a music that scatters throughout the room and gathers in corners before dissolving into the air.

Next up, Marcia Basset and Steve Gunn of GHQ (Three Lobed). Bassett (Double Leapords, Hototogisu, Zaimph), shrouded in a generous cascade of long blond hair, drones away raga-style on a ragged-looking viola, while Gunn (Moongang, Magik Markers) summons a few glistening gemstones from his electro-acoustic guitar. They are New Yorkers, sure, but their music is as far removed from that land of subway trains, flashing lights, 24-hour bodegas and Dow Joneses as we are, over here, on the other side of the Atlantic—perhaps even further. Evoking the title of their most recent full-length album, Crystal Healing (2007), their music insinuated itself into the two rooms of the Grimault like a heady, medicinal incense, bringing with it florals and musks from lands as far and wide as East Asia and the deep South, Appalachia and Persia.

Here, as in the music of Tom Carter, reverb and delay reign supreme. GHQ’s instrumentation (viola and guitar, guitar and guitar, guitar and voice) is deceptively sparse; heavy distortion, like witchcraft, transforms whatever two instruments they might happen to be using at any given time into several. Basset, clutching her viola to her chest, summons an unearthly tremor with the wood of her bow—an Indian sound, the sound of a Sitar, no, of a dozen Sitars playing at once. Her cyclical riffing, restricted to a limited number of notes (one of the foundations of the Indian Raga) confirms this evocation of the far East, while Gunn’s melodic picking transports us into yet another mind-state: John Fahey takes a trip to the Orient and weaves strains of the local music he encounters into an ode to the country that he loves, lowering his hat to Sir Richard Bishop and his Spanish guitar along the way.

In Gunn’s playing, we encounter a sound that cannot be called anything other than American; not "American" in the sense of the America of the present, but "American" in the sense of an America removed, a wide open, fecund, honky-tonk America of yore, trapped beneath the rubble of distance and time. And while we cannot decipher the adventure stories he recounts when he steps up to the mic, we hear the ghosts of dead, pre-war bluesmen welling up from his voice. Gorgeous.

Like many of the other artists who fall under the somewhat pell-mell category of the "New Weird America," Tom Carter and GHQ provide a compelling, homegrown antidote to modern occidental life. And even if it is hard to say exactly where their music transports us, when it transports us, we can rest assured it is not here. Oh no, not here.

Words: Emilie Friedlander, 2008

French version available on Fragil.org, a Nantes-based online cultural magazine. Link to original article here.

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