Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Guitar Parts: An Interview with Jonathan Kane

Minimalist and pop music have always been closely linked, the vocabulary of the latter coloring the austere principles of the former. Terry Riley and Philip Glass drew inspiration from jazz, just as Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, in their monumental symphonies for electric guitar, did from rock 'n' roll. Since 2005, and February, his first opus, Jonathan Kane has been revisiting the history of the blues. What could be more logical?
"The blues is an intrinsically minimalist art form," he shares. "John Lee Hooker [...] often played consisted of one droning chord and a melodic, repetitive riff. Minimalism, yes?"

A child of the blues (his first band, formed with his brother Anthony, opened for the greatest groups of the genre in the early 70s), Jonathan Kane began frequenting the New York experimental scene in the early '80s, participating in the creation of Michael Gira’s Swans and bolstering the group with the rampant groove that would become his trademark. On the lookout for musical encounters of all kinds, Jonathan Kane notably surrounded himself with major players from the current New York minimalist scene: first Rhys Chatham, who chose Kane to seat the explosive rhythms of his symphonies for electric guitars, then La Monte Young, who recruited the drummer in the '90s for his Forever Bad Blues Band.

This steady musical maturation, largely a mingling of the timeless heat of the Old South and the smokey dives of '80s downtown New York, reached its term in 2005 when Jeff Hunt, the head of the experimental label Table of the Elements, offered its artists the opportunity to interpret a contemporary work of their choosing for a compilation. The compilation was never released, but Kane’s interpretation of Chatham’s Guitar Trio (1977) would open a new chapter his career: that of composer. Mining the vein of "minimalist blues" for sharp riffs, with obstinate bass and unrelenting groove, Jonathan Kane, little by little, amassed the fragments that would form his first album, February. With Jet Ear Party, recently released on Radium (Table of the Elements), he pursues his tireless quest for the exemplary riff. Some Commentary below.

Where does the title of your new record, Jet Ear Party, come from?

It's from a Babel Fish translation of a Dutch review, into English, of my record February. The phrase “guitar parts” came out as “jet ear party”!

You began your musical career with the Kane Brothers Blues Band, which opened for some of the greatest bands of the genre in the '70s. What did you learn from listening to and playing the blues as a kid?

That emotion and intensity were critical, but that the groove takes priority over everything. Also, if you're not a sweaty rag after you play, you haven't really done much!

What did you learn from your extended work with art music composers like Rhys and La Monte? Was their work an inspiration for you?

That the evolution of sound was necessary for music to evolve. It struck me as similar to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter plugging their blues into amplifiers in the 1950s. Also that repetition and the pursuit of a trance state are not all that different from making people dance. I try to do both.

When did you first have the idea to mix the principles of both musical traditions? What pushed you in that direction?

I've been experimenting with blues hybrids for more than 25 years, but certainly my experience working with La Monte Young and Rhys Chatham helped guide the sonic landscape of my music.

How would you describe the evolution of your music since your first solo record, February?

I've tried to distill the sound to a relentless undeniable groove, while expanding on the principles of trance and serialism.

When and how did you compose Jet Ear Party? What did you want to achieve with this new record?

I started writing some of these songs when I was touring in support of my February release in 2006. The rest, throughout ‘07 and ‘08. I wanted to dig in further to my sound while introducing some new elements. I also wanted to throw in more fireworks from my drums than on my other records.

How did you record it?

On a laptop in my studio in Long Island City and upstate in Bovina, NY. My producer, Igor Cubrilovic, has some amazing Russian mics that make laptop recording sound like you're in Radio City Music Hall.

There are a lot of collaborations on Jet Ear Party: Anthony's harmonica, David Watson’s bagpipes, Holly's lyrics and Lisa's voice. Can you tell me more about some of those collaborations, and what they bring to your music?

Harmonica and bagpipes are two of my favorite instruments. Both are capable of pushing my emotional state to the limit. My brother, Anthony Kane, and David Watson on harmonica and bagpipes, respectively, are the best players in NYC. I was thrilled to put them into the context of this music and find out that it sounded even better than I hoped. Lisa B. Burns and Peg Simone singing a duet of Holly Anderson and Lisa's song “Up in Flames” deliver a mysterious and spooky love song, a harmonic soul ballad, if you will. I couldn't have imagined any other way to introduce vocals in my music.

Some of your songs are tributes to your musical heroes. On February, it was Richie Havens, with a home-cooked version of “Motherless Child,” then Mississippi Fred McDowell, with “I Looked at the Sun” (one of my favorite pieces of yours). This time, it's Sly & The Family Stone, with a wild version of “Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin.” Why this one?

Well, first of all, I love the song. Larry Graham invented popping funk bass on it, which is part of the reason my version doesn't even have any bass at all for the first 4 minutes—who's going to try to compete with Larry Graham?! Second, it's in E, my favorite key, although I tune it down to E flat to accommodate the bagpipes. Also, it's capable of being a drone piece with a big fat swampy groove, but it has that melody and hook that are so damn bluesy.

On your albums, you play almost every instrument yourself. Who is February live?

Jon Crider, Peg Simone and David Bicknell on guitars, Adam Wills on bass, and me on drums.

What do your musicians bring to your music when it's played live? What does a February concert sound (and look) like?

My band is amazing. They play my music note-perfect, but they each have their own style and approach that brings something different to the sound. People yell and scream at our shows, which I love, but what I really love is when people dance, which seems to happen a lot when we play. When all that is happening it makes us play better.

Where should we listen to your music? In the beauty of Bovina's nature, or in the frenzied streets of NYC?

In the car is the very best, on a long drive, but any place will do, as long as it's at or near lease-breaking volume!

Today, you still play drums, but you're also an accomplished guitarist and composer. How do you identify yourself? As a drummer, a guitarist, a composer?

All of the above, and bass too. But I guess to prioritize the list, I'd say I'm a drummer and composer who plays, writes and arranges on guitar. To be honest, right now I play a lot more guitar than drums.

What's up with the Kane Brothers Blues Band? Are you still playing together sometimes?

It's been a while, but we're looking at some possible performances in the future. KBBB will always be ready to go, if something interesting comes up.

Any other musical projects in the works? What about that new Kropotkins record?

I'm working on a duo with Peg Simone where we both play guitar, and she sings. We have just finished a 20-minute track that will appear on her forthcoming new record. Dave Soldier is pretty near, I think, to finishing up the new Kropotkins record. Krops is his baby, like February is mine.

Do you still listen to blues, jazz and funk as much as you once did? Have you heard anything new and interesting that you would recommend?

I do listen to a lot of all of those genres. Mostly the classics that I never, ever tire of. There are some great new artists out there, not necessarily playing those styles of music… I like Megafaun, Collections of Colonies of Bees, Agathe Max, New Randy, Tinarawen, to name a few.

When are you coming back to Europe/France?

We're planning to tour in fall of 2009 or winter 2010 in support of Jet Ear Party. Hope to see you there!

Interview: Sophie Pécaud, 2009
Translation: Khira Jordan

Originally published on Chronicart, June 2009, along with a review of Jet Ear Party.