Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jonathan Kane, a Bluesman Reborn: An Interview with Jonathan Kane

Once upon a time there was Jonathan Kane, a volcanic drummer as comfortable in the world of industrial rock as in those of minimalism and blues. Co-founder of the mythic band Swans and regular collaborator of Rhys Chatham and La Monte Young, Jonathan Kane is probably best known as a drummer. But he is also a talented composer, and has been crafting minimal pieces with a definitive blues feel since 2005, available on Radium, a subsidiary of Table of the Elements.

The story begins in 2005. Jeff Hunt, head of Table of the Elements, asks the artists on his label to interpret and record a piece of their choice for a compilation. With one constraint: the piece has to have been composed by a significant 20th century composer. Jonathan Kane chooses Guitar Trio by Rhys Chatham, a piece he has been performing for a long time in various contexts: “I've always loved playing Guitar Trio with Rhys, but for my own arrangement I needed to slow it down and make it swing. I turned it into a nasty blues. Once I did that, and it worked so well, I immediately started writing my own music for massed electric guitars, with my own, particular, blues-based perspective.”

Combining the principles of minimalism with those of the blues? Carving out a sound within that combination that is at once formally rigorous and irresistibly festive? For Jonathan Kane, all this seems completely logical: “I think I was doing it a long time before I ever knew what minimalism was. Coming from a blues background, as a kid, there were plenty of blues jams that went on for a really, really long time, and not just endless solos, but the groove… deep and long.” And he adds: “Listen to Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, John Lee Hooker. These artists will often play pieces consisting of one droning chord and a hypnotic, repetitive riff. Minimalism, yes?”

It is only after returning to straight blues that Jonathan Kane is able begin composing the pieces that would later become February. Gradually, the composer distances himself from his first great musical loves in order to tackle an entirely new one. “After decades of playing minimalism, industrial, experimental rock, improvisation, free music, noise, jazz and just about everything else, my brother Anthony and I reformed Kane Bros Blues Band, our first group. In doing that I rediscovered my absolute love for, and need to play....the blues. Kane Bros. Blues Band gave me the spiritual lift to return to the kind of feeling in music that I crave. Of course, once that was established, then I needed to push the sonic landscape of my own blues further, and so here I am, but Kane Bros Blues Band continues to help me to keep it real.”

February is an opus of five instrumental pieces, each deploying the musical possibilities of the blues in an original way. Imagine Terry Riley copping a Muddy Waters riff and obstinately repeating, deconstructing and recomposing in an exploding kaleidoscope of sound--supported by voluble bass and ardent drums--and that should give you a pretty good idea of what Jonathan Kane's music sounds like.

Why “February” ? “Several reasons. First, and easiest, I finished the record in February, 2005. Next, this music is Blues, and let's face it, February is the coldest, darkest, meanest blue-est month of them all. Nonetheless I love it, I love the winter. I'm very productive at that time of year. Which brings us to the last point. Some bad things have happened to me in February. To the point where the memories caused me to dread the month coming around. When I made this music, it was a cathartic experience, reclaiming the month for me and demanding celebration. And there it is. For me, February represents the best and worst that life has to offer, but in the end it's good, it's positive.”

Since then, Jonathan Kane has continued exploring the musical path he embarked upon with February, first with I Looked at the Sun, which offers a fiery version of the Mississippi McDowell classic, and, more recently, with an interpretation of "The Little Drummer Boy," a Christmas season song revised in an exquisitely incongruous and effective way. “I found myself picking out that melody on my guitar a couple years ago at the holidays, and thought it would make a nice minimalist holiday song. Then last year Jeff Hunt asked all the Table of the Elements artists to record a song for a holiday compilation, and I put dibs on The Little Drummer Boy. Apparently, I was the only one who made one, so he released it as a single!”

A new LP is in the works and should be released at the end of the year. "I have a lot of new material I'm very excited about. It's going to dig deeper into the direction I've begun with my first three records, but there will be some surprises, some new elements introduced, you'll see. I don't want to say too much. I hope to see it released in the Fall of 2008." In the meantime, Jonathan Kane and his live band called… February (!) will be on tour in Europe next Spring. Do not miss them.

Words: Sophie Pécaud
Photo: Bridget Barret

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