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Moraine

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Dennis Rea of Moraine from 2013
MSJ:
Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music – both individually and as a band?
I began playing guitar 46 years ago, at age nine. Given the nature of my musical output over the years, I’m sure that many would be amused to hear that my unlikely initial inspiration for taking up the instrument was guitarist Mike Nesmith of the Monkees. As a youth I shared my peers’ passion for foundational rock figures such as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Led Zeppelin, and I was very taken with the uncommonly imaginative and sonically outrageous psychedelic pop of the 1960s. From an early age I was drawn to music that others considered “weird,” and chance encounters with the works of avant-garde composers like John Cage and György Ligeti further cemented those tendencies.

Early exposure to King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King and Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma made me a convert of the pioneering progressive rock of the era, which satisfied my hunger for more adventurous forms of rock music that were liberated from the tyranny of the blues format. No disrespect to the blues, of course – I just yearned to explore a more expansive sound field. 

Meanwhile, my older brother introduced me to jazz at a tender age, and my interest in the genre really blossomed with the advent of jazz-rock fusion. I was, and remain, a huge devotee of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra and like-minded musicians such as John Abercrombie, the first edition of Weather Report, and of course Miles Davis in his electric period. By the time I reached my twenties I was listening to more jazz and experimental music than rock, which is still the case today, though I’ve soured on much of what passes for fusion nowadays. But the entire ECM catalog has had a profound influence on me, as have groundbreaking ethnic fusion groups like Oregon and jazz explorers such as Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Paul Bley, and Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). I also developed an abiding interest in free improvisation, initially through exposure to some of the musicians who were in the outer orbit of the Crimson camp, such as Harry Miller and Keith Tippett.

Back to my earlier years, my first serious band was the progressive rock trio Zuir in my hometown of Utica, New York. We were definitely the odd band out in musically conservative Utica, a bastion of redneck rock. After graduating from high school, the band moved out to Seattle in 1975 to try our luck there at the suggestion of my brother, a Seattle resident. Although little came of it musically and the band dissolved shortly thereafter, the experience led to my adopting Seattle as my abode, and I’ve lived here on and off ever since.

Meanwhile, another friend from Utica, keyboardist and composer Craig Wuest, formed an electroacoustic project named “Earthstar” and later relocated to Germany at the encouragement of electronic music legend Klaus Schulze, who went on to produce the Earthstar LP French Skyline. In 1979 Craig invited me to join him in Germany, where I participated in Earthstar sessions, some of which were released on the Sky label. I’ve since come to appreciate that Earthstar was the only U.S. group to have participated in the German kosmische music scene while still at its height.

Back in Seattle after the Earthstar adventure, I became involved with experimental musician K. Leimer’s Savant project and forged the first of many satisfying ongoing musical relationships with Northwest musicians. After a three-year stint in NYC, I returned to Seattle and became involved in a number of avant-rock bands and free-improvising ensembles.

Then came perhaps the pivotal move in my career to date, when I accepted a teaching position in China instigated by my fiancée (now wife) Anne. I went there with scant expectation of playing music publicly in a supposedly repressive authoritarian state, but soon embarked on a surreal musical rollercoaster ride that saw me become a minor celebrity in China. During the four years I spent in mainland China and later Taiwan, I played more than 100 concerts in venues ranging from nationwide television broadcasts, sports arenas, and concert halls to sleazy underground nightclubs, night markets, a textile factory, and even a venerable Taoist temple. Along the way I organized three of the earliest unofficial concert tours of China by non-mainstream Western bands, recorded an album for the China Record Company that sold tens of thousands of copies, performed for television and radio audiences numbering in the hundreds of millions, and collaborated with some of China’s most important contemporary musicians, including the founding fathers of Chinese rock, Cui Jian and Zhang Xing.

Since returning to the States in 1993, I’ve played in more bands than I can count, notably Jeff Greinke’s LAND, Stackpole, Axolotl, Iron Kim Style, the international project Ting Bu Dong, and now Moraine. Moraine began life roughly seven years ago as an improvising duo of myself and cellist Ruth Davidson; before long we shifted our focus to composition and expanded to a five-piece, initially the “string quartet plus drums” lineup of guitar, cello, violin (Alicia Allen), bass (Kevin Millard), and drums that recorded manifest deNsity. After Ruth and our original drummer Jay Jaskot moved to the East Coast, we replaced the cello role with woodwinds (James DeJoie) and assumed a harder-edged sound, as heard on the second CD, Metamorphic Rock, which was recorded live at NEARfest 2010.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have forged a highly supportive relationship with Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records, who has literally put me on the international map as a musician. Leonardo is a larger-than-life figure who’s been a tireless benefactor to a global family of creative musicians in so many ways.

MSJ:
If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?
I would no doubt be doing what I’m already doing to support myself in my “second life,” that is, writing and editing. I’ve been blessed to apparently have an innate talent for both music and words, but having chosen to specialize in decidedly noncommercial music, it’s the latter skill that keeps me afloat materially.
MSJ: How did the name of the group Moraine originate?
“Moraine” is a geological term denoting a mass of debris scoured and deposited by a glacier. People who are aware of my longtime obsession with geology naturally assume that I bestowed the name on the band, but it was in fact suggested by Ruth Davidson. Of course I was delighted with the suggestion and feel the name is apt for the band, both musically and geographically, seeing as how we’re based in the Pacific Northwest, with its many glaciers and glacial features. We’ve continued the theme by titling our second CD “Metamorphic Rock” and naming one of our tunes, “The Okanogan Lobe,” after a prominent moraine in our part of the world.
MSJ: Who would you see as your musical influences?
My musical inspirations are far too numerous to list here, but I suppose they can be grouped into a few broad categories. I mentioned some of my formative influences from the worlds of jazz, improvisation, and experimental music above. As stated previously, the early psychedelic movement and the first wave of what came to be known as progressive rock bands were major influences on my musical development, though I tended to prefer instrumental to vocal music. I continue to venerate Crimson, Gentle Giant, Soft Machine, Henry Cow, and a handful of other progressive bands, but find that many of their fellow travelers haven’t worn so well with the passage of time. As a guitarist, major inspirations include Terje Rypdal, John Abercrombie, John McLaughlin, Ralph Towner, Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne, and Egberto Gismonti.
MSJ: What's ahead for you?
In late January I’ll be staging a special concert in Seattle featuring some of the finest instrumentalists in the Pacific Northwest; we’ll be premiering two new chamber compositions of mine, marking a new direction for me. This spring Moraine plans to complete a third CD for release on MoonJune Records; we recently underwent a personnel change with the arrival of new drummer Tom Zgonc, who’s worked out splendidly for the group, so the time is ripe to document our stockpile of fresh material. Further out lies a hoped-for late-summer Moraine tour of Indonesia, a hugely exciting prospect for us that’s currently in planning. Apart from those major events, I’m sure that there will be plenty of lesser gigs with Moraine and various other groups I’m involved in.
MSJ: I know artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?
You’re right about that. I usually just say that I play wide-ranging instrumental music, but I realize that that’s not a very useful description. My various projects span a variety of genres, so I’d describe each of them differently. For example, if pressed, I'd characterize my long-running electronically processed thumb-piano trio Tempered Steel as experimental music, my occasional trio Subduction Zone as free jazz, and my Views from Chicheng Precipice CD as ethnic fusion. Defining Moraine is especially problematic; the default view seems to be that we’re a progressive rock outfit, and in some respects that’s accurate, but I believe our music goes well beyond that category and could just as accurately be labeled jazz-rock fusion, art rock, avant-rock… In general I’m wary of the “P” word because of the sometimes justifiably negative associations that conjures for many listeners, plus the fact that Moraine doesn’t conform to some of the canonical aspects of the genre, e.g., epic-length suites or armadas of keyboard instruments. A certain segment of prog fandom seems to take to our music keenly, while others clearly don’t. I think Moraine is more consanguine with the gleefully genre-free Downtown NYC/Brooklyn camp myself.
MSJ: Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?
I’m aware of all the arguments on both sides of this issue; some are spurious, others have some merit. I can’t speak for other musicians, but all this “free publicity” has been of no material help whatsoever to me. For example, within days of the release of Moraine’s Metamorphic Rock, it was available as a free download on more than 100 sites. To date this has had zero effect on bumping up our legitimate sales, and hasn’t brought us a single gig offer.

I fail to see why music alone, of all the products of human labor, is deemed to have no monetary value. I’d like to see how the rogue downloaders would react to someone helping themselves to the products of their own labors without reasonable recompense. The “cold fact” (to quote Rodriguez) is that it costs thousands of dollars to record, master, press, and promote an album, even when opting for the most economical methods. So you tell me how a musician is supposed to carry on documenting their work for the public without any hope of simply breaking even. The problem is especially acute in an era when record labels no longer provide material support to the majority of artists. Most consumers of music are evidently unaware that, unlike in earlier times, 99 percent of recording artists today have to shoulder not only their studio expenses, but also the cost of manufacturing their CDs – to say nothing of the cost of equipment, rehearsal space, and many other tangibles. Where is the funding to come from? We’re not alchemists.

MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
I’m less concerned about that; indeed, I’ve been very grateful at times that someone captured a show that otherwise would have vanished into the mists of time. My only reservations are that those who record the shows shouldn’t profit from them, and that they should request the musician’s approval before posting live recordings publicly.
MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
In the interest of not provoking a feud, I’m going to sidestep that question by designating your typical latter-day club booker as my arch-nemesis. In my experience, most of these people are singularly uninformed about music and pander solely to their own circle of friends and the hipster elite. Instead of seeking out fresh and deserving talent, they lurk in anonymity behind email addresses from which inquiring bands never get a response – not even a simple yes/no.
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?
I don’t really go in for hero worship, in music or any other area of life. So it might sound like a cop-out, but my ultimate band is the one I’m in right now (Moraine). I have nothing but respect and admiration for my bandmates and wouldn’t trade them for anybody. Of course, it would be gratifying to work with some of the well-known musicians I admire, but that’s not a goal for me – it would have to happen naturally of its own accord.
MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?
Funny that you should ask that I have in fact been involved in organizing music festivals over the years, including a ten-year stint as co-director of the Seattle Improvised Music Festival, the world’s longest-running event devoted entirely to freely improvised music. And it so happens that I’ve just recently agreed to help organize a new festival of contemporary progressive/art rock here in Seattle, to be staged this summer. The festival’s focus will be on the abundant local talent working in the area of adventurous, mostly instrumental rock music, but we’ll be bringing in a few “ringers” to sweeten the pot. It’s too early to say who said ringers might be, but our wish list includes the likes of Thinking Plague and Secret Chiefs 3.
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
My most recent CD purchase was Bish Bosch, the latest release by the reclusive singer/composer Scott Walker, a figure of enduring fascination for me. I number his series of Scott solo releases from the late ‘60s among my favorite records of all time, but admittedly found his later, more avant-garde works to be very rough going. Therefore I was delighted to find Bish Bosch a welcome return to form in some respects. It’s a singularly strange effort to be sure, and as one critic opined, not something that one would be inclined to actually “like,” but I suppose I’m one of those weird birds who does takes pleasure in such things. And who wouldn’t savor a lyric like “If s*** were music, you’d be a brass band?”

Other recent acquisitions include the latest album by Icelandic sort-of-prog band Agent Fresco; pianist Alexei Lubimov’s luminescent renderings of Debussy’s Preludes; the reissue of Terje Rypdal’s Odyssey, augmented by a stunning live concert recording; and Beneath Detroit: Transdimensional Space Window featuring the stunning guitarist Spencer Barefield.

MSJ:
Have you read any good books lately?

I’m an insatiable reader with omnivorous tastes, but I probably read more nonfiction than fiction overall. I’m currently reading Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle by Matthew Klingle. Other recent reads include Karel Capek’s War with the Newts and Kay Larson’s Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection of music and the arts with Eastern worldviews in the twentieth century. I’ve also been rereading Ray Bradbury’s oeuvre in the wake of his passing.

MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
I recently had the rare privilege of hearing Harry Partch’s microtonal compositions performed on the magnificent instruments that Partch himself designed, in a thoroughly transporting concert at the University of Washington. Partch’s music left an indelible mark on me many years ago, and I never thought I’d have a chance to experience his instruments’ sonorities in person.
MSJ: Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”
I seem to have acquired a reputation as a fearsome avant-gardist in some circles, but in fact I’ve always had a weakness for well-crafted, sentimental pop music by the likes of, say, Spanky and Our Gang. And I’m sure that this will get me pilloried among prog fans, but the only Genesis record I really like is their first one, From Genesis to Revelation, which is roundly dismissed by most purists.
MSJ:
What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

That would have to be the concert I played at Chengdu Electrical University in China’s Sichuan Province with my expatriate band Identity Crisis in 1991. Here’s the account I wrote in my book Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan: [It’s fine to reprint this as I own the rights.]

The biggest show of the entire [Identity Crisis 1991] tour took place in a vast outdoor amphitheater at Chengdu Electrical University. Comically, the organizers were officers of the campus branch of the Communist Youth League who professed a fervent love of rock and roll. By now we knew better than to count on getting adequate equipment, so we made the communist rockers promise that they would furnish proper instrument amplifiers.

When our hosts came to collect us on the day of the gig, we anxiously inquired about the amps and were told that we would have use of “a very good amplifier—very big!” Just one? Sure enough, we arrived at the concert venue to find nothing but a stadium-size PA system. We would have no choice but to plug all of our instruments directly into the oversized behemoth and pray that everything would sound okay.

With showtime fast approaching, we hurriedly set up our equipment in the hope that we would get a decent sound check for a change, but no sooner did we unpack our instruments than the organizers announced that it was time to leave for dinner. We politely declined, explaining that we would rather get a sound check than eat just then, but the Communist Youth League had given these penniless students money to buy us dinner, and they were not about to forfeit the opportunity to gorge themselves in our honor. Shrugging off all practical considerations, our hosts stuffed us into a minibus and drove us across town to one of their favorite restaurants. With a sinking feeling, we watched them wolf down a dozen hefty dishes while the possibility of a sound check steadily slipped away. Perilously close to showtime, the bus crawled back to the university through gridlocked traffic. To our horror, 4,000 people were already waiting for us to take the stage.

We raced to get everything ready onstage while the impatient crowd yelled for us to begin. An hour later, the concert finally commenced with a startling blast of noise, forcing many in the audience to involuntarily cover their ears in panic. Tom’s frightfully overamplified drums exploded from the strained loudspeakers and ricocheted off distant buildings like cannon shots. Since this was Chengdu Electrical University, we had naïvely trusted the school technicians to know what they were doing, but the flustered young men acted as though they had never even flipped a light switch, much less operated an arena sound system. The lack of monitor speakers made it all but impossible for us to hear each other’s cues, causing us to veer badly out of sync. Every electrical device onstage was plugged into a single dangerous-looking outlet, and whenever the lights came on, Bryce’s keyboard mysteriously lost power. As if all this weren’t bad enough, thousands of tiny flies settled on our faces, crawled up our nostrils, and swarmed over our instruments as we struggled to salvage some music from the din. (Bryce’s synthesizer keys were literally black with bugs.) Partway through our nightmare set, a student singer joined us for a rendition of a [Chinese rock icon] Cui Jian song; the confused fellow gamely belted out the lyrics and made his best rock-star moves amid the swirling mess. Though the concert was a supreme technical embarrassment, the audience nevertheless roared in approval, showing just how starved for sensation Chinese students could be in those days.

MSJ:
If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?
Now that’s an interesting proposition! After giving it some thought, I’ve settled on the composer John Cage, the author J.G. Ballard, and MAD magazine founder William M. Gaines. I’d need many more pages to explain my reasoning.
MSJ:
What would be on the menu?
Given unlimited resources, I’d convene the gathering at one of my favorite Portuguese restaurants in Macau. Discussions on what constitutes music, and on the aberrant psychology that’s apparently hard-wired into our species, would also be on the menu.
MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
I’d like to thank Music Street Journal for taking an interest in my music and giving me a forum to share my thoughts, as well as all of the listeners who’ve kindly supported my efforts over the years. Here’s wishing everyone a salubrious, healthful, and musical 2013!
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.
You'll find concert pics of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
 
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