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Progressive Rock Interviews

iNFiNiEN

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Matt Hollenberg and Tom Cullen of iNFiNiEN from 2009
MSJ: Can you give our readers a look at the history of your group and your involvement in music?
Matt Hollenberg:  We all first started playing music together when we lived together in 2004.  We were roommates who at the time all had other bands, so we originally just started playing together without any real expectation or goal beyond musical exploration.  Our old bass player, Justin Carney, was the one in the beginning who was driven to make the band more than just playful improvising.  Before I played in iNFiNiEN, I played with a couple of metal and "hardcore" bands called “Cetus” and “Cleric” respectively, who I still make music with currently, although I am never sure on the reaction these bands will receive from iNFiNiEN fans, as they are the total opposite in how they approach the listener.  If the "vibe" of iNFiNiEN can be thought as a circle, the other bands I was in before definitely felt more like a square, as the edges were very defined.  The music in iNFiNiEN was radically different from what I was doing at the time, and on a certain level I found it overwhelmingy scary and intimidating, as our songs took me places musically that I had thus far never been too.   It was very inspiring to me to start with the approach and intent of creating visually stimulative and lushly beautiful music with lots of rhythmic complexity, as I was accustomed to attacking and assaulting the listener, as is the case with a lot of metal.  Musically, I started as someone who started out like a lot of guitar players do by learning a lot of the stuff teenagers rock guitarists learn - Tool, Megadeath, Led Zeppelin, old Metallica and down the line... 

iNFiNiEN formed at the crossroads of all of us desiring a deeper and more insulated relationship with music.  All of these changes in attitude happened as we became disillusioned with the path we were on of trying to "make it" in the traditional sense.  I began to realize the only way I was able to continue to do music and not become cynical and jaded, is if what drove me to create was based on more on an intent of trying to DO something new in music, rather than an intent of trying to "make it as a band" in the usual calculating ways.  This happened to everyone of us at the same time, so from the beginning of the band, we always focus on music as communication first, entertainment second, which was not how any of us were used to writing before.  Around this time I began to discover the Avante-Garde with bands like Secret Chiefs 3, Mr. Bungle, Dysrhythmia, Farmers Market, Ruins, Eyvind Kang, Estradasphere and John Zorn.  I also got real into Eastern Music like Balkan and South Indian Classical music, (as did Chrissy and Justin), soundtrack music, and Jazz, which are all things I did not care about at all when I was a teenager.  Getting into these artists completely changed my view of what I wanted to do with music.  In November 2005 we recorded our first attempt at this sound with our ep *How To Accept.  This album was independently released in 2006 through the usual Independent channels.

In summer of 2007 Justin left the band and moved to California.  He was replaced by Jordan Berger in the fall, who we all are thrilled with and continues to grow with us musically and socially.  Jordan, like Justin, shares our passion for musical open-mindedness and adventurousness and has the chops to carry this approach out.  In 2008 we recorded our newest album, and went on an independent tour for two weeks with our friends Consider the Source.  In 2009 we embarked on our first totally independent and second national tour to overall positive reactions.

Tom Cullen: iNFiNiEN has been a band for close to five years. We have recorded two albums and toured the east coast twice, and have done all of this without help from a label. DIY forever! We all met through school and friends. I did not know these people one bit before the band. And now I am good friends with them all. That’s a brief history. Music is my life. I play in several other projects, and have an interest in many types of music. I also teach drums, which is a large part of my life. Music is everything. That sums up my involvement with it. You could kinda say I'm married to it!
MSJ: Where does the name iNFiNiEN come from? Is there some significance to it? And what's with the weird capitalization?
Matt Hollenberg: Our old bass player found the word in a book, An American Mystic, and we felt that it fit very well with all of our new found musical philosophies.  We capitalized all the letters but "i" because of the visually symmetrical look made the word stand out, something that is very important for making people remember it.  Also when we first started, we got referred to as "Infinium," multiple times, which none of us liked very much!  The hard way to spell it ensures people don't forget it!  It is admittedly a strange and obscure name, but we like to think of our music as strange and obscure.

Tom Cullen: It comes from some book that our original bass player read. It is the author's suggested name for Homosapiens after we evolve and obtain telepathy and other superpowers. Homoinfiniens.  For us it kind of symbolizes infinite possibilities with our music and presentation of it. I like having no boundaries. Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast. The weird capitals were my idea. I think. It just helped to identify us. It’s a weird name and now it sticks out. It’s accidentally one of the best marketing techniques we have ever come up with. It’s quite nice. Don’t you think? 
MSJ: If you weren't involved in music, what do you think you'd be doing?
Matt Hollenberg: I think if I wasn't involved in music I would be a journalist or a chef.  It deeply angers me that in America the gap has grown between rich and poor to such a level, that many people are being screwed over on a daily basis by the powers that be.  "The American Dream" is a paltry lie at this point, and more and more people are beginning to realize that.  It seems that the future of America is in the hands of those who hold the money and gold....  Such as it has always been in human history; the greedy oppress the poor.  If I was an independent journalist I feel that I could help with the cause of informing people of how unjustly f***ed they are getting day in and day out by the increasingly consolidated corporations and power structure.  I think America is heading in a direction that has not nor will not work out well for the world and its people, and it will take something huge to alert people to this fact as the apathy level due to over-stimulation and drugs is at an all-time high.  As far as wanting to be a chef is concerned, I feel that this would fulfill me creatively and would also challenge me the way music does.  Writing songs is kind of like cooking to me; different scales are "spices" of sorts that can enliven the imagination, flavor and color the impressions the listener gets.

Tom Cullen: Comedy. Maybe acting. Chrissie says I'm the funniest person she knows. That’s unbelievable. I think deep down I just like attention. So maybe an actor or radio personality. Before I got into music I wanted to be a baseball or basketball player. So maybe sports because I'm competitive. Even with music sometimes. Maybe an artist or director. I just need to channel emotions and energy - anything creative or physical. 
MSJ: How would you describe the sound of iNFiNiEN?
Matt Hollenberg: I think the best way to describe iNFiNiEN to people is to talk specifically about each ingredient in the music and what it makes you think of and how it feels to listen too, not other bands that it's reminiscent of.  When I describe our music to people, I first tell them that it is visually engaging and gives you impressions of different times, places and colors.  I would also say that the grooves are very hypnotic and unpredictable.  I would say that our music can give you the feeling of spinning in a euphoric lush sort of way.  Ideally, we want our music to make people feel more like a spirit than a body.  Granted, the word "spirit" is a dicey word to use, as it is very hard to define, nonetheless it's something that we all feel when we play.  We are seeking in every song a total musical experience that affects us all in deep mental, physical, and emotional ways.  We find it healing on every level.  Our goal as songwriters is to immerse the listener in a blanket of lush beautiful sound.  If I had to compare us to other artists I would say iNFiNiEN is a mix of Secret Chiefs 3, Bjork, Radiohead and Tool, with some Mahavishnu Orchestra thrown in, but I only see those as influences that people can hear, not as an embodiment of our total sound.  While this may come off as brash to some, I look at iNFiNiEN's music as a version of music where the compositions openly defy categorization and genre labels.  Realizing this musical intent is what we strive to do.

Tom Cullen: A mix of Radiohead, Eastern music, Tool and Bjork. I don’t know. That is a tough question.
MSJ: What’s ahead for you?
Matt Hollenberg: As a musician I have a lot going on right now, as my other band Cleric was recently signed to Web Of Mimicry (Run by Trey Spruance of Secret Chiefs 3).  iNFiNiEN is also becoming increasingly bolder in taking on new musical ideas and philosophical directions.  It's a lot of work for sure to be a part of three bands, but it is totally worth it.  When I was younger and learning guitar these were the circumstances I always wanted to be in.  Having respect as a musician and reaching people who will appreciate it is a goal every musician strives for.  There is a lot of work to be done for sure with promoting our album and such, but we have to just keep our heads up and know that we are going to get to where we need to go eventually.  What I learned from the experience Cleric has had with their "career" is that if you do it for the right reasons, eventually people will take a notice.  Cleric went through years of doubt and on-the-brink break-ups as well as lots of failures, but after all of that, we ended up exactly where we wanted to be. There's a lesson in that that I take to heart with iNFiNiEN for sure.  For example, it has always been a goal of iNFiNiEN to play festivals, but we have had trouble cracking open that egg...  Right now it feels like we are rolling a giant snowball up a large mountain in terms of publicity, and we haven't reached the top yet so that we can push the snowball down and have it gain momentum by its own weight and intrinsic worth, not by us struggling to promote it on our own.

As far as the creative side of things is concerned, The next challenge for the band will be to expand on our language even more and hopefully ride a larger creative wave than we have thus far.  We are in search of higher and higher means of expression through sound which means we need to consistently expand on the musical ideas and philosophies iNFiNiEN has always had.  This is a challenge for sure as we have not been creatively introverted with Jordan yet, so there are a lot of growing pains toward realizing this goal. As well, finding new ways to make our sound expand without relying on pre-determination in composition is always a challenge.  We need to push our spontaneity and intuition even farther than we have thus far.

Tom Cullen: I want to create a music super emporium - lessons, books, memorabilia, CD's, DVD's, instruments, recording rooms, rehearsal rooms, live shows. Yeah, you get the idea. In the near future. I'm releasing a rap album called Karma 'n Cash (A Hustler's Handbook) in early 2010 hopefully, and hopefully going into the studio with another band of mine called Minutia. Plus all types of new s*** from iNFiNiEN of course.
MSJ: Are there musicians you’d like to play with in the future?
Matt Hollenberg: Some musicians I would love to work with include John Zorn, Trey Spruance, Danny Carey, John McLaughlin, Joey Baron, Eyvind Kang, Trevor Dunn, Kenneth Schalk, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Dave Douglas, Marc Ribot, Mick Barr...  The list goes on and on....

Tom Cullen: Not really - Robert Glasper, Eldar, Pat Metheny, Frederick Thorendale, Tim Bray, Leon Boykins, Ben Karp, Yung Gunz,  Ferrel, Brian Gulla, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Rob D, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Herbie Hancock. Whoever. Bring it on. 
MSJ: Do you think that downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians? It’s been said by the major labels that it’s essentially the heart of all the problems they are having in terms of lower sales – would you agree?
Matt Hollenberg: I think this depends on a band's given public stature in the general music scene.  I think if enough people have heard about you and that there is a public interest in your music, but not to the level that it will make you as big as Radiohead and Metallica, then it can definitely be a hindrance.  If, however you're like a Radiohead or Metallica tier of band, the situation with getting payed by far comes from playing shows and merch (besides Radiohead because they are clever).  For Example Radiohead was payed $800,000 to play Bonnaroo - one Show.  So when you take a payout like that for one show that is evenly divided by everyone in the band's organization, this amount of money is at the very least, financially comfortable for the band.  They get more money so that they can filter it into new albums instead of struggling to come up adequate funds to finance it...

However, let’s take a more indie band and obscure band like The Flying Luttenbachers or Lightning Bolt, who are known, just not at that level of exposure that you get in Radiohead and Metallica type levels.  Making albums that sound good and are recorded well is hugely expensive and takes a lot of time, hard work and resources to make it happen.  Our newest album cost around $12,000 to make and press.  For indie musicians that rarely get paid, that is an overwhelming hurdle, and unless the band has a label or is selling a lot, it is next to impossible to make back.  So you make all these sacrifices and get very little back...  But, there's nothing an indie band can really do to fight it.  Free downloading would definitely help a band like us, as we are not even at the level of exposure that indie artists like Lightning Bolt and Flying Luttenbachers are.   Because of this these bands probably are prepared for the cold hard reality that album sales will probably not break even for the investment in the record, or their label won't break even.  Now of course this isn't true for all indie bands across the board, but it is a reality for most.  But I would argue that downloading of middle tier indie bands that have arguably reached a ceiling with exposure like Lightning Bolt and Flying Luttenbachers, well it is just going to hurt their chances of continuing to make music as all the best they can really hope for is breaking even.  This a hard place to be in as people like musicians that usually sacrifice much to fulfill their visions, and get very little back in return...  For this reason I think that it some cases it is positive and in other cases it keeps your band from growing.  The final level is the big bands that get ripped off, but as I said, this does not exactly change their financial situation and financial prospects for making another album.  The only way to overcome the financial hurdles with a band like us is getting someone to finance it or learning to record yourself; something I have always regretted not doing.

Tom Cullen: It has helped careers but definitely hurt sales. Musicians don't make careers off of CD sales. Labels do. That’s why they are crying about it. Here’s the facts. The power is in the hands of the artist finally. Yeah people can get your music for free, but in our case that’s a blessing because anyone can access our music. Now the trick in making a career is getting fans for life who will attend shows, buy shirts and buy an album that has something the MP3's do not. Like art or something. Be creative, people. It’s a brand new world. Bottom line? It’s on you now.
MSJ: In a related question how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
Matt Hollenberg: I think trading bootlegged shows is an entirely different outcome.  For example, a lot of jam bands have huge archives of their live shows and from that a listener becomes exposed to many faces of the band, the bond the listener feels with the band deepens.  As live bootlegs cannot compare to studio albums in terms of the cost to the band, it widens the exposure by getting people into it on a deeper level than they can through simply listening to the album.  In short, we encourage people to spread the word about us through bootlegs.  We will soon be uploading the best performances from our last tour to the livearchive.org, and encourage people to freely share it.

Tom Cullen: Do it. There is your fan-for-life type of person. You guys rule. Come to my show to record and trade. And sleep with Jordan if you get the chance. 
MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch-nemesis and why?
Matt Hollenberg: I think Live Nation is the biggest threat to independent music, and since I am such a hopeless idealist I would do anything I could to wipe them out if I could!  And all the bands that whore themselves to this disgustingly un-American Corporation should fully grasp that they are aiding and abetting in the rise of music not as true communication, put as cheap, disposable and superficial entertainment.  The business aspect of mainstream music in most of its forms disgust me as it only serves in my view, to dumb the artist down.  In my view, the business of big corporations with regards to music only serves to demean music to a corporate marketing campaign and lowers bands and artists work to advertisement-like sound bites in the fraudulent form of "songs."  If you can't tell, I'm extremely skeptical and cynical of our culture to lead us in the right direction on this, as I am one of a small and powerless group of musicians that feel this way.  I have no interest in selling my soul if it means compromising my music, because if I made music to get rich and popular, then none of the music I've helped to create would mean anything different to anybody then all the other bands and artists that do that.  It's the musical equivalent of working at Dunkin Donuts.

Tom Cullen: The Jonas Brothers. They are the worst. 
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band, who would be in it?
Matt Hollenberg: Ooh that’s a hard one...  It's hard for me to think about music and bands in "ultimate terms" as there are plenty of bands that don't need improvement in my eyes.  I am totally fulfilled in listening to these artists.  I can say what I think would be an interesting combination of people... but it's hard for me to pick an "ultimate" band, because the potential for music is way beyond any potential output that’s within the grasp of these fictional "ultimate" bands.  What I think would be interesting to hear would be Zorn on Sax, Spruance on Guitar and Danney Carey on Drums with Tony Levin on Bass and Eyvind Kang on Viola.  Now that’s a show I would pay a lot of money to see!

Tom Cullen: Chris "Daddy" Dave- Drums, Chino- Vocals, Wes Borland- Guitars, DJ
Krush- Turntables, Flea-Bass. I don’t know?
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?
Matt Hollenberg: Another "ultimate" question.  Hmm...  I would probably put on the festival all the bands I would s*** if I saw them live together:  Electric Masada, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Fantomas, Neurosis, Farmers Market, Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3, Radiohead, Tool, Brian Eno, David Byrne, Melt Banana, Estradasphere, Ivo Papasov, Ethiopiques live, Zakir Hussain... man I could go on for a while. 

Tom Cullen: Eldar, Tool, Messhuggah, Hieroglyphics, Pat Metheny group, Deftones, Daft Punk, Consider the Source, KRS-ONE, Meek Millz, Biohazard, The Doggpound, Brad Mehldau, Chick Corea, Jeff Beck (with Vinnie Coluiatia), Secret Chiefs, Pantera(RIP Dimebag), Cryptopsy, Wu-Tang Clan, Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead.
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought, or what have you been listening to lately?
Matt Hollenberg: I recently got the complete works of Varese which is very eye-opening and I also bought a Dave Brubeck CD called “Impressions of Japan” – great stuff!

Tom Cullen: The last CD I actually bought was, The Rotten Apple by Lloyd Bank$. But I've been listening to Eldar's Virtue like crazy. Coolest thing I've heard since Robert Glasper with Chris Dave.
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
Matt Hollenberg: I recently attended a concert put on in his house by my Oud teacher, Jeffrey Werbock.  He plays in an ancient tradition of intricate microtonal and time-signature free music called "Mugham"  It is a very poetic style and is one of the very first instances of "Eastern" Music that has appeared in modern civilization, with roots that go back to ancient Egypt.  It is a very trance inducing style, so naturally I love it.

Tom Cullen: I saw Krs-one with Buck Shot most recently.
MSJ: Finally, are there any closing thoughts you’d like to get out there?
Matt Hollenberg: I just want to say to all the aspiring musicians out to there to not lose hope, and be driven by your natural intuition and highest joy as opposed to being focused on what you will get out of the material world from art.  Music at its highest potential is a transcendental experience and has the power to puncture through and transcend the society and culture bubble which we know all too well.  Terrence McKenna famously said, "Culture is not your friend."  The greatest bounties and riches that can be attained from musical expression lie only on an internal level, not on an outside level. When you play music for a higher intent you become awakened to truths within you that you may not have been aware of.  This alone is worth more than anything you could ever get from the material world.

Tom Cullen: Yea stop buying stupid s***. Save your money, America. Take the power back. Shop at local mom and pop places - from groceries to underwear. Spend less. Spend more time with your family and friends. Stop being lazy and get on your grind. The world is yours - for real.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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