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Progressive Rock Interviews

Djam Karet

Interviewed by Scott Montgomery

Interview with Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet from 2011

MSJ:

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You are super busy and I appreciate you having time - lots and lots of projects.  I was wondering if we could maybe discuss some of them as we go.  Perhaps because this is where people will be more familiar with your work, we could start with Djam Karet.  By my reckoning you’ve got what, sixteen albums in twenty-five years?  And you’ve appeared on I don’t want to even try to count how many albums, film and TV.  Do you have a favorite?  What’s really knocked your socks off that you’ve done?

I’m super happy with the new Djam Karet record.  I think that’s our best record, for that group.  And I’m super happy with the new Fernwood record – Sangita – that came out last year.  Because I think that’s just really amazing stuff and it was recorded really well and it’s arranged and orchestrated really well.

MSJ:

They’re both brilliant.  And there’s a kind of a light-dark…  They work very well together.  But, since we brought up The Heavy Soul Sessions…I would agree with your assessment.  It’s certainly one of the strongest things you guys have released.  Where would you place this in relationship to the other albums by Djam Karet?

Well, it’s aggressive like New Dark Age and A Night For Baku and sort of like Burning The Hard City.  But having our new friend Mike Murray join us and recording it live in the studio, it’s different than a lot of our other records because most of our other records are overdubbed, entirely overdubbed.  Since this one’s not at all overdubbed, it’s got more energy.  But it doesn’t really have a thinner sound so much because we’ve got our friend Mike Murray joining in on us.  So, it’s got a totally different vibe to it because it’s recorded live in the studio.

MSJ:

And the new quintet variation, and actually functioning fully as a quintet.  You’ve always functioned as a…

Four piece with extra people.

MSJ:

And sometimes a variable four-piece in terms of the bass.  I like how it fills it out.  You’ve always doubled on keyboard and guitar.  I notice a lot more keyboard.  And I guess as an aside…I have this recollection of a little hang-gliding accident five or so years back.  I was wondering if this had any long-term impact on your guitar playing and did this to a certain degree impact your shift to full-time keyboards for the band?

When I broke my arms in the ‘80s crashing my motorcycle into a truck, that got me more into playing keyboards.  But this time when I broke both my arms gang-gliding about six years ago, not so much, because I already was playing a lot of keyboards.  Now that my arm’s permanently crooked I almost feel that I can play guitar even better because it kind of wraps around the side of the guitar a little more.

MSJ:

Kind of like Les Paul.  I didn’t know about the ‘80s motorcycle crash.  It sounds as though you’re a lucky man.

Yeah, I have fun.  I firmly believe in having fun.

MSJ:

Excellent.  One of the things that struck me…I’ve listened to The Heavy Soul Sessions quite a lot…is the different versions…You’ve got “The Packing House” and “The Gypsy and the Hegemon” – they’re also both on Recollection Harvest. So recently you did two versions of that released.  And then “Consider Figure Three” is on Suspension and Displacement.  I’m curious, not why the overlap in a bad sense, but, what is your decision process in selecting the songs to kind of revisit/rework, because there are very striking differences?

Well because partly is that we have a couple of live albums that we did, five or six or seven - more like six or seven or eight years ago that feature obviously music up to that period. So we wanted to somewhat focus on the newer stuff.  We didn’t want to put out a CD that has the same live tunes that we played on Live at NEARFest or the Knitting Factory or Live at Orion, those three CDs.  So, there were tunes that we were definitely going to try to not put on that new CD - The Heavy Soul Sessions.  But we did play tunes somewhat for our over two and a half hour shows that we did.  Because the CD is just tunes that we worked up to play a couple of shows last summer, and we were pulling from that.  We wanted to play something like “Consider Figure Three” in our show to have a kind of variation from the sort of heavy bombastic stuff.

MSJ:

And it sort of fits with the idea of The Heavy Soul Sessions.  It’s a live album.

Yeah

MSJ:

I also like the way you kind of rework, slightly rearrange, which maybe I’m reaching here, seems to go along with the band’s kind of ethos of having tightly constructed songs but having them be kind of elastic.

Yeah, it’s also kind of true in the Fernwood thing.  We’re trying to balance, or more like blend, seemingly disparate concepts like making it very organized but also jammy.  Making it tight and very deliberate where things are very organized, but also have sections in the same tune that aren’t that way.  Having really hard rock aggressive parts and way more mellow, pastoral parts all in the same kind of a tune, which, of course, long-form epic ten-minute long tunes in the progressive music style is set up for that.  So, it’s fun and difficult and a good challenge to try blend these things, but it makes the music more interesting than if it is just unrelentingly aggressive or just complex all the time.

MSJ:

Yin and Yang, darkness and light.  Many people have commented that it’s one of the most endearing and enduring aspects of the band.

Oh, good.

MSJ:

Something you raised that’s kind of interesting is the jammy side, which I think comes in with Djam Karet.  I hear a lot of brilliant, tightly constructed material that kind of breathes.  And I think that it’s deceptively complex as it comes across as open and jammy.  I wonder, have you ever thought about how you’d play to what seems to be a burgeoning musical subculture – the jam circuit?  I would think you’d probably do pretty well there.

You mean our music just the way it is…sending it to those kinds of magazines?

MSJ:

I’m thinking the festivals, perhaps more live. I’ve noticed groups like Ozric Tentacles starting to kind of cross over there, and I could see Djam Karet succeeding that way too.

You know, I think our music is may be more organized and it seems that we like to have parts of indefinite length that kind of jam out, but I also think that we play more Art Rock which is an intent and not a style.  In a way we don’t really play progressive music…or...  We’re so blended genre-wise that we play progressive music in the true sense of the word.  If we’d have a singer and have songs about dwarves and fairies and castles…it would make me want to pull my hair out.  It’s great not having a singer, but that kind of kills you in the commercial world.  But our goals aren’t commercial.  We’re trying to be a great band that plays great stuff.  We’re not trying to be a band that sells a lot of records, and so far that’s working out really good.  We’re not selling any records now (laughs).

MSJ:

A few….

Yeah, a few.

MSJ:

I see what you guys are doing and have been doing as genuinely progressive and it brings up one of those big debates in the progressive rock music world.  When does a style become almost a cage?  We have prog rock versus “progressive”… playing with semantics here.  And you guys have always seemed very much progressing.  You’re not about recapping, it seems.

It’s because, I mean we are inspired by groups of the past as other people are.  But we’re more inspired by the intent of groups like Pink Floyd and King Crimson than the tones and keyboard patches and guitar sounds that those groups used.  If you think about what they’re doing with your brain and try to understand what they’re doing and the risks they are interested in taking, that’s what we’re inspired by, and not playing guitar the way Fripp plays guitar.  Which I’m not opposed to, but I think that’s helped us sound not-too-cloney.  And it does make us very progressive, because those groups are very, very progressive groups…or they were in the old days.

MSJ:

It’s interesting that you guys have become a reference point in yourself.  We could make parallels with some of your influences, but I’m noticing that you’ve paved enough ground – new ground – that you’re the reference point for many now.

Well, that’s nice…and hopefully…We’re unrelentingly kind of self-indulgent in many ways, and we’re just maniacally into doing what we feel like and everyone else can pretty much go f*** themselves.  And that comes across in our music, and people really like that a lot.  That kind of attitude doesn’t help your sales, but it does help you with reviewers and the public, DJs – they appreciate the sincerity of what our goals are in our music.  So, that’s a great thing.  It makes it easy for us to keep wanting to put our records, because we’re just doing what we want to do.  And everyone else…well we don’t care.

MSJ:

Uncompromising.  I think you’re right that people respond to that because it feels real.

And I have other vehicles where I can do music where it is compromising, where I am trying to not please myself but please clients and stuff.  And that’s really challenging and enjoyable too. So it’s pretty awesome.

MSJ:

So, you can play on both sides of that.  We were talking about really progressing… and to my ears Fernwood is one of the most progressive things I’ve heard in a long time.  When it came on, I said “this is different.”  So sort of off people’s radar you come in with what I think is a marvelous piece of acoustic music.

It’s made with everything that I’ve learned about music up ‘til now.  And my kind of current view that, for Art Music, I’m really into theme and variation.  We’re applying that not just with melody as most people do, but also to arrangement and orchestration so that there’s a constant…pretty much a constant change of instruments that are playing throughout the music, which makes it way more interesting, even if the music itself isn’t playing overly complicated melodies.  There’s a lot of thought and decision making that goes into that stuff way before we ever start to try to achieve these goals of making it deep without making it tedious.  And it’s hard (laughs)…it’s definitely hard.  Speed is easy – that’s easy – just cram way too many notes in there.  When you hear it, you go “wow that group is good, like Meshugga.”  When I hear it I go “this group is good, but I don’t want to listen to that CD again.”  It’s too much.  For me it’s too much.  I’m impressed by them, but I don’t want to listen to it.

MSJ:

As long as we’re talking about Fernwood…one of the things that impressed me is that every time I listen I hear something different.  It is so thick and yet it doesn’t sound uncomfortably dense.  It’s just rich.  A different instrument will restate a theme.  I could see listening to that thousands of times and not getting bored.  It’s a very different approach…very atypical virtuosity.

In many ways it’s extremely understated in that more the focus is, as I said, on the arrangement and orchestration.  We decided not to…pretty much not to solo in it at all…not make it a solo fest, but put our attention into melody and also the structure and dynamics.  We discussed what we were going to do and what we weren’t going to do – what the project was going to have and not going to have – and it’s not going to have solos.  Because that’s…I don’t know…there’s a higher level of music than just sitting there and showing off how good you can play guitar and how good you can sing.  Because then you’re just showing off you.  And we’re trying to show off the compositions and our compositional skills, and not us as players.  So it ends up with a very different focus, but it’s still pretty listenable.

MSJ:

What really struck me as interesting is that I was constantly on my toes….OK here’s the banjo…and the next thing I know the banjo’s just morphed into a sitar or mandolins.  It keeps the listener really engaged, the fact that the instruments almost slide into one another so fluidly that it’s hard to keep track of what’s playing what.  And that’s really quite entertaining.

Well, in that way it’s a lot like Ozric Tentacles’ music, which I like.  They have this constant – a parade of constantly evolving tones that go by…and that’s fun.  It’s fun stuff to listen to.  I also just wanted to say that one of the weird things about it is that most of the instruments on each song most of the time are just waiting for their chance to play. Most of the instruments play or rest, like the bass only plays a third of the time on each tune and the rest of the time it’s not playing.  And that’s a very typical way to arrange Classical music, but an extremely atypical way to play Jazz or Rock or even Folk music.

MSJ:

Sure, there’s kind of a Zen quality.  There’s eloquence and silence.

Well, they’re just waiting for their time to come in and once they do their part and go out again.

MSJ:

 A couple of questions concerning the collaboration.  How far back do you and Todd Montgomery go?

Maybe about ten years, I guess…maybe more.

MSJ:

Have you guys collaborated…you did film work, didn’t you?

Not with him. I do and he has.  We were playing in this Topanga hippie total improv band when I first met him.  He was playing sitar and I was playing analog synth and there were about ten people in the band and we played total improv kind of crazy stuff.  And so, that’s when I met him.  I knew he was a great sitar player and he’s a great bouzouki - Irish bouzouki – player.  So, that band kind of exploded, then we started hanging out and he said “hey help me with my Irish stuff.  What do you think?” and I said “Geez man, we should just make a record.”

MSJ:

Or two.

Yeah, yeah.

MSJ:

Do you guys actually write together?

We only write a little together.  Usually he will write most of a tune or part of a tune, and I’ll write most of a tune or part of a tune, and then the other person will work on it and say “I think the end of that tune should be the beginning or the middle or we should get rid of it altogether.”  You know, offer opinions on it, and then we’ll keep working on it collectively.  But somebody starts the ball rolling.  The hardest thing is staring at a blank canvas.  Once you’ve got material – the frame of a tune – you have somewhere to improve it.

MSJ:

Absolutely.  There’s this great traditionalist sensibility in that all the instruments are played by hand, wooden.  I was wondering what inspired that?  Was it conscious?

Todd spent years playing Irish music – straight traditional Irish music, and I’ve spent decades listening to traditional World Music.  You know I’ve been listening to CDs of that since High School.  So, we already have a great appreciation for it.  Plus, I’ve come kind of full circle in some ways from playing a lot of electric guitar through effects…and just getting back to the enjoyment of playing acoustic instruments.  And that project was so well suited to that.

MSJ:

It just struck me that you are addressing a non-electronic possibility of modern music – which has just gotten so electrified.  It struck me as actually one of the few genuinely progressive things I’ve heard because it was in a strange way being traditional.  I don’t mean retrogressive, but by looking back you look forward.

Right.

MSJ:

So it seems sort of refreshing that way.

 But then we’re trying to blend traditional styles with contemporary music styles, American music styles with World music styles, and trying to make music that is both exotic sounding and familiar sounding, and that’s both delicate and dense.  All these supposedly opposite concepts – we’re trying to juggle them smoothly, in a non-lame style.  And it’s fricken’ hard…and it benefits from that.  You know New Age Music is just mellow.  It’s just simple on purpose…because it works right that way for what it’s supposed to do.

MSJ:

That’s the thing – this is so not New Age Music…it’s orchestrated composition.

Right.  Except for traditional music, I don’t listen to any music that’s really much like the Fernwood stuff.  I’ve heard Gustavo Santaolalla.  He’s a South American composer who wrote the music for that movie “Babel.”  He did “The Motorcycle Diaries” movie.  He’s a stringed instrument world player.  Some of his music is somewhat like ours.  I hadn’t even heard that ‘til we finished the first Fernwood record.

MSJ:

I’m more familiar with Sangita.  Listening to it back and forth with the Ukab Maerd, and they almost seem like alter-egos – a lighter, acoustic sensibility versus this darker, electronic feel.  Do you see them as kind of a diptych – a pair?

Not really.  They both have that parade-of-sound quality to them that Ozric Tentacles’ music has, and Djam Karet not so much.  Chuck did such a killer job of having such a large collection of keyboard sounds all going through his mixer at once and he can manipulate and bring them up and down.  He was able to get a very constantly evolving, shifting, dense thing going.

MSJ:

 Though they sound totally different, I heard those and thought it’s just like 1991’s Burning the Hard City and Suspension and Displacement.

(laughs) Right right.

MSJ:

Totally different sides…and they just seem to be a different, almost I won’t say ambient, but more of a textured variation on that same theme with the Ukab Maerd and Sangita.

It is very textured and we were working on them at the same time.  They both sound killer on headphones.

MSJ:

Any plans to take this project out live?  That one song “Open Seas” is on the “Still: Echoes.”

I would like to.  I’ve hit up some festival people about it, but really…even when we did that live show for John Dilaberto – the DJ for “Echoes,” the nationally syndicated radio show when he came out here to LA. – still it took seven people to play it in that version.  And we’d be really better suited if we had ten people playing.  Plus they really have to play it the way Todd and I tell them.  It’s not really open to you getting to play the parts the way you want. You know, it’s kind of like you have to do it the way we say, because it’s so tightly organized.  So, I would love to.  It’s just hard to get a bunch of people together to rehearse just to play like a party or… even if it’s five hundred bucks, it’s fifty bucks each, you know…which hardly makes up for ten rehearsals it takes.

MSJ:

It seems as though you’d almost need a conductor to pull this off because of the entrances and exits.

I mean I would love to.  We would…it would sound killer if ten people played if festivals could afford to make it happen.  It would be great.

MSJ:

There’s this cinematic feel, for lack of a better way to put it. Sangita feels like a soundtrack to a mental pilgrimage around the world that somehow my memory fuses into this one single sound.  It’s both global yet completely cohesive.  But it’s visual.  I kept having visualizations.  Were you trying to make very visual music?

I think that when you make instrumental music, and if you’re going to make instrumental music that’s really interesting and trying to make it artistic…if you’re making instrumental music that’s about more than your soloing, like in some jazz, you have to make it cinematic.  And you can’t really help but make it cinematic if you’re making it really bitchin’ that isn’t revolved around you really ripping it up on solos really fast.  I’ve just spend so many decades making instrumental music that it’s hard for me to not make it soundtracky or cinematic.  If I’m making instrumental music, I want it to sound cool, you know.  But if the music is inviting and engaging to the listener, it pulls them in and it’s sort of conducive to daydreaming and your mind wandering and there you are creating little mini-movies in your mind and the music has a soundtrack-like feel, so I think part of that is just inviting music that pulls you in.

MSJ:

I have to say, I think that’s one of the most sublime (album) covers that’s come out in a long time.  Absolutely beautiful – it’s both simple and complex.

Thanks.  It’s always so hard to come up with song titles and visual aspects for when you have totally instrumental music.  You know if it’s vocal music about love songs, then you know you’ve got an artistic direction and its just title names from whatever lyrics you have to your song.  But when it’s instrumental music it’s really hard to come up with what the heck would be a good image that’s not too New Agey, too Industrial, too...you know, “girly.”  It’s hard.  So, I’m glad you liked it.  It took hours, days of looking through photo libraries to pick out that picture, because I know better than to take my own picture – it would look stupid.  I’m keen on buying pro pictures and making your product look pro, because too many people do a great record and they go “look I painted the cover myself” and I say “God, it’s obvious.  That’s a bad idea.  Why did you do that?”  (laughs)  “You’re proud of that painting, but God…..it’s terrible!”

MSJ:

Give it to your mom to put on the fridge.

People do that all the time.

MSJ:

Yeah, you’re absolutely right.

Indie bands….and I’m like, “you’re shooting yourself right in the foot and you shouldn’t be doing that” (laughs).

MSJ:

Again, that’s what really struck me.  Since you brought it up – song titles – how do you conjure the titles for these pieces?

Well, some of them are place names – places where Todd and I have been to, and some of them are sort of fabricated place names, and some of them are kind of bird names, like on the Almeria record.  On the Djam Karet stuff, you know we just realize at some point that we’re going to need titles for what we’re working on, instead of calling it “Chuck’s Drum Thing.” You know it has to have a name eventually (laughs).  So we kind of contribute ideas and pick ‘em and it’s hard – semi-random really.

MSJ:

So, I was wondering if it’s off an image you’ve gotten, or you’re trying to really plant an image into people’s heads or if it’s just…

Only images that are maybe quirky or open-ended, like with the Djam Karet titles sometimes.  We’re trying to be not too literal.  It’s less specific than it might seem.  I’m sorry to say.

MSJ:

No, that’s interesting.  Speaking of very literal and specific…going back to The Heavy Soul Sessions, ”Dedicated to K.C.” - that wasn’t your title, but…

Well, Richard Pinhas wrote that song, and it’s him playing in homage to King Crimson and us playing in homage to him.  And we’re all big Heldon fans.  And he plays on the Ukab Maerd CD too, so it was all just a fun, good idea.

MSJ:

I think that your version on The Heavy Soul Sessions contains some of the most beautiful musical moments of the past…I don’t know…years, if not longer.

Thanks.

MSJ:

That was a very inspired choice.  Did you go into something like that with a little bit of trepidation or do you just charge forward with bravado?

The first version…we did a studio version of that years ago on another compilation.  So we really still have that attitude that we’re going to listen to his version and we’re going to change it around to our liking if we feel like it.  So that’s taking liberties with his composition, but we did it anyway when we did the studio version ten-fifteen years ago on a Cuneiform compilation, Unsettled Scores. And so then even this version now, we listened to the last version we did and I thought, “you know we can make it better if we don’t rigidly stick to our last version.  We’ll move some parts around, make some parts longer, make some parts shorter.”  So we play it different ways.  When we decide which part should be longer and which part should be shorter, we’ll play it both ways and all pretty much be of like mind on that.

MSJ:

I’ve always felt that the real mark of, for lack of a better term, a cover version – I don’t like the term – is owning the song.  You take it and it sort of becomes yours as opposed to a slavish copy.  I think that’s why it works so well.

Yeah, yeah.  Well thanks.  Because again we’re not trying to recreate his version.  We’re trying to use his cool chord structure and his cool rhythms that he wrote as a springboard from which to wail all over.  So he’s given us an opportunity to look forward, instead of a dumb goal of us trying to ape or copy his version.

MSJ:

It’s been done.

Yeah, absolutely (laughs).

MSJ:

It seems that with all this history, I can’t help but feel that you’ve been kind of dancing around a full-bore collaboration with Richard Pinhas.  Any chance?  Maybe it’s just my fantasy for a full album out there or further collaboration.  It just works so well.

I would like to.  We would all love to.  I’m sure it’s possible. We’re only strengthening our ties with him.  We’re moving forward.

MSJ:

And the Ukab Maerd just kind of whets one’s appetite for more.

Yeah, that came out good.  He sent us a bunch of stuff digitally on CD and then Chuck and I performed most of that music live in front of an audience.  And then we added his – Richard Pinhas’ – parts to the mix and added a little bit of other stuff in there too.  So that record is kind of interesting because it’s predominantly live in front of an audience with stuff- a little bit of stuff – layered on later, like all of Richard Pinhas’ parts.

MSJ:

Djam Karet has this great record of collaboration.  Is there anyone with whom you’d love to work but haven’t?

Ummm, well, who knows?  Obviously we’d like to work with people who are huge – like Peter Gabriel and people like that.

MSJ:

That would be interesting.

 You know there are players that we like…who knows.  I don’t think about it too much.  I listen to other people’s records and what they do is so good the way they do it.  It would be theoretically awesome to work with them but I don’t hear, when I hear their music, how they need me helping them, although it could in a meeting in the middle.  Who knows?

MSJ:

 I was rereading Edward Macan’s Rocking the Classics book from ’97, and he actually singles Djam Karet as one of the most – “most exciting post-progressive music of the 1980s and beyond.”  You guys, Ozric Tentacles, and Edhels, he foregrounds.  What do you think of the assessment about being grouped with those bands.  Even his term “Post-Progressive.”  What do you think or feel about that?

I love Edhels and Ozric Tentacles.  Those guys are cool.  Like I said before, I don’t know what style of music we play.  We don’t think about what style of music we play and we don’t play to one style.  I mean we are an ultra-progressive band because we’re not in the mainstream, we don’t play middle-of-the road progressive music.  But, in many ways we don’t even play progressive music.  In many ways what we play is almost like fusion except we’re not that jazzy.

MSJ:

You mentioned Art Rock earlier.

We play Art Rock, which is rock-based music, but the intent is to make art, and that could come out sounding like Fernwood’s music does or Ukab Maerd or Djam Karet or other groups.

MSJ:

To my knowledge – I may be wrong – you haven’t done a whole lot with projected visuals and things.  It always strikes me as interesting because the music then paints its own picture, but yours is incredibly visual-sounding music.  Have you ever thought about jumping into a multi-media kind of presentation?

We’ve done some things like that in the past and we would always love to do more stuff like that in the future and it’s usually only from a lack of funding on our part that we don’t, more than an intent not to.

MSJ: So maybe down the line.

I would like to, if people are going to do a good job of really work – taking the whole lighting and projecting thing seriously.  But, they have to put a lot of work into it and deserve to get paid.  And we’re never rolling in the money.

MSJ:

Back to that commercial potential thing…

(laughs)

MSJ:

One of the things that has been impressive – twenty-five years and you basically have the same line-up.  Obviously with Osborne and Kenyon – the varying bassists – but playing together.  What holds you together as a unit?  What’s the dynamic that keeps it working?

That we just get to play music the way we want to play it - Djam Karet being in many ways a very self-indulgent band.  You know, we don’t have to compromise anything to play that music. I think that’s why.  We never fight over the money because we never make any money.  We don’t get too tired on the road because we never play live.  We send it out and the critics tend to really like it and we sell enough to pay for more CDs and a little bit of recording gear…and why wouldn’t you?  It’d be stupid to not want to do it.

MSJ:

It sounds like you’ve got the main stressors out of the picture.

They are. They are.

MSJ:

In terms of you, we’ve talked about the bands.  How about your major influences?  What got you started?

Listening to The Beatles when I was a kid super freaked me out.  Listening to the Sgt. Pepper… album...when did that come out?  ’67?  So in ’67 when that record came out I would listen to that constantly.  I would sit there in front of the speakers and just play it over and over.  And that’s a super cinematic album, you know what I mean?  It’s very…you see what all those things look like when you listen to it.  And I thought, this is like the coolest thing there is.  I want to grow up and do what these guys do.  And then when I was about ten, eleven or twelve I started listening to the Allman Brothers and Jeff Beck and Pink Floyd and progressive bands like Yes, Crimson and Gentle Giant and stuff.  And so really what influenced me were the Allman Brothers…especially in my own guitar playing.  So I listened to a lot of Southern Rock I my teenage years, which are often obviously your big, formative musical years.

MSJ:

Is that why you picked up slide?

Yeah.

MSJ:

It seems that if you’re listening to Duane Allman you’re going to want to know how to do that?

I play in a style that’s very similar to Dickey Betts.  In many ways he taught me how to play guitar because I just listened to all his chops.

MSJ:

Maybe we can talk about Ukab Maerd a bit.  Is there any more of Ukab Maerd planned?

There’s a ton of stuff still recorded.  Yeah, I would say for sure.  Especially under that name or just Chuck’s solo work.  Chuck is very much responsible for that Ukab Maerd thing more than I am.  I mean I play on it, but I hadn’t even heard…I didn’t hear what we were going to play until we did those two shows.  Live, while I’m sitting there playing keyboard and guitar, I’m hearing him do what he was doing.  He knew what he was doing, but I didn’t know what he was doing.  So that big, dense amount of awesome keyboarding is very much him.  And he has hours and hours…tons of hours of that stuff already recorded.  And he’s always working on more and getting ever more deep deep into it, so he’s got a lot of solo stuff that he’d like to put out.  Maybe I’d play on some of it and maybe it would be an Ukab Maerd thing.  He did a show a couple of weeks ago with him playing keyboards and Mike Henderson playing acoustic guitar - which would be like a version of Ukab Maerd with Mike playing instead of me - out in Claremont that they just pulled together.  There will be definitely more electronic music coming out that’s overseen by Chuck for sure, ‘cause he’s got a lot of material, a lot of great gear.  He’s always working on it every week and his stuff is really cool.

MSJ:

How about Fernwood?  Any more Fernwood coming?

We’re working on a new…we’re in the middle of a new CD now, so there will be a third one.  I don’t know when it will come out.  And I finished a side project with Todd which is more like meditation music, more like commercially-based, crafted acoustic meditation music that we’ll try to sell to clients.  So that’s not Art Music.  It’s not dense and it’s way more New Agey. Because it’s on purpose targeted to an audience itself.  So it’s been nice to do Art projects and commercial projects and just try to keep them separate.  You know, The Beatles were able to be artists and commercial successes at the same time, but…you know…they were The Beatles.  It’s hard enough to be a commercial success or an artistic success.  And you’re asking for trouble if you try to do it all in one band.

MSJ:

At least it’s a tall order.

Well, I mean just doing any one of those is ridiculously hard and stacking them up is way harder.

MSJ:

And it seems frustratingly more elusive – the uncompromising, complex piece of music and popularity now.  I think back to 1974 when Yes released Relayer which is about as far out as they went – it’s a very challenging record – and it was still hugely popular.

Totally.

MSJ:

And I can’t see that happening now.  I’m just curious – what do you think is going on?

Well, music has been moving continually toward a more minimalistic state since the 60s, I would say. So in the ‘60s and ‘70s we had a lot of Elton John type songs which are twelve chord songs which are harmonically complicated, you know.  Music got more like your average AC/DC song in the ‘90s and 2000s, and now with Hip-Hip you have music with no intro, no outro, no solos, and now not even melody.  It’s just lyrics over rhythm.  That’s just really minimal.

MSJ:

And the rhythm, there’s not much variance.

There’s no variance.

MSJ:

It’s just dance music.

The only variation in the drums is that they punch it out for a couple seconds.  That’s hardly even a variation.  But they’re trying to make it so that you hear everything the song has to say on the first listen.  It’s intentional, for an appropriate reason, to try to make music simplistic like that, so you don’t have to hear it a few times to understand what’s going on.

MSJ:

That’s a good point.

It’s a very good point, because they want you to be sold on the song in the first third of the song, not… Like with Yes and all that Djam Karet stuff, you’ve got to hear it to the end and a couple of times before you can even see what the Hell’s happening.  And then when you do, you go “Oh this mellow parts going to be followed by this driving part, and it’s gonna be so cool when they get there!”

MSJ:

I found that both on Fernwood and The Heavy Soul Sesisons, I’d hit the end of the song and say “wait, I gotta hear that again.”  And my immediate response was a re-listen as opposed to “Ho-Hum, let’s move on”.  Which is what the radio does to me nowadays.

Well I like AC/DC and I like simple music like that and it’s fun to listen to, but if you play it a couple of times in a row, you don’t hear any more going on, because there isn’t any more going on.

MSJ:

No secrets to deliver.

But that’s because it’s intentional.  You just want to tailor your music for the use, for what you’re trying to make it do.

MSJ:

I always teach that Good Art/Bad Art is not really a useful term, but Successful/Unsuccessful…do you achieve what you’re setting out to do?

Totally.

MSJ:

What about The Maskit Chamber?  I think that one goes under the radar way too much. It’s really interesting. I only know the two albums.

Yeah, there re only two.

MSJ:

Both in 2001.  Which really struck me as kind of the preparatory work for the Ukab Maerd.

Yeah, maybe in some ways it is.  They were just really fun to make, and I especially like The Fourth Wave which is the one that is just one long fifty-minute track.  It was fun to try to make an album that was a bed of drones from which would rise melodic, harmonic sections for a few minutes and then they’d fade back down into the ooze of drones.  That was sort of the format, sort of the concept.  That was really. really fun to do.

MSJ:

This great, sort of sprawling single soundscape of The Fourth Wave …the closest I could…it doesn’t really sound like it, but some of Fripp’s soundscapes…I thought.  Were you trying to do that?

I like the spaciness of Evening Star and now Fripp has since then even a whole bunch of Frippscape records that are different, but not literally.  I play a lot of e-bow on there.  I love Fripp’s music.

MSJ:

Who doesn’t?  I’m curious.  I suspect you don’t get asked a lot about it, but I’m kind of interested in your commercial work.  You sort of alluded to it in terms of music to please the client.  It’s a whole different side of your musical brain, I would imagine in the process. How do you get connected to it?  How do you approach something like that?  Somebody gives you an idea?  How much do they give you?

At all times I’m thinking I want the guy happy, I want the guy happy.  The way he wants it.  So, the more they’ll tell you the better.  But often they don’t tell you enough of what they want.  Like when I was doing some music for shows on ESPN, they’d say “now the surfing show’s going to be in Jamaica and we need some Reggae music” or “the skiing is in the Andes and we need some Peruvian folk music.”  And I listen to a ton of Peruvian folk music anyway, so I’m used to what it sounds like.  I play a lot of wooden flutes, guitar…I have all these instruments laying around my house anyway.  I try to make something that’s gonna be pretty minimal and not vie for your attention too much, because the visual images are going to be more important to the project than the music.  So the music needs to be kind of subservient.  So I want to make it not too jumpy, not too peculiar.  And then sometimes I’ll have to make versions with the lead parts removed so they can voice over it.  You know there’s frequency considerations because people talk around 2K – 2,000 Hertz cycle pitch range.  So, if you’re going to voice over you don’t want to have flutes and somebody talking at the same time.  Deep organs while someone is talking is OK.

MSJ:

A very ego-less mode of composition.

Absolutely.  And a lot of the Djam Karet stuff is totally egocentric.  It totally is.
MSJ:

But it’s impressive that you can go between the two.

It’s a great challenge. I play in some casual…I play in some pro bands like Djam Karet and Fernwood and some party bands that are just friends around here.  And when I play in their bands I’m just a side player in their band.  I don’t…it’s my nature to say “let’s do this the way, I want to run your band.”  But it’s their band so I also have to be subservient just “I’m going to play my Greek bouzouki in your folk band.  You guys don’t want to tune up before you play…and I can’t talk you into tuning up, whatever…”

MSJ:

That’s a bit tough.  That seems a little important.

You have to be cool about it.

MSJ:

You have to serve the muse.

Yeah.

MSJ:

You did these great mandolin songs on these Italian music compilations.  Those just floored me, because it was so spot on.  I spent a lot of time living in Italy, and I wouldn’t be able to pull that out as anyone other than, you know Giuseppe in Napoli.  What struck me is what an amazing piece of musical chameleonship that was.

Yeah, I also write traditional Japanese and Chinese music and Balinese music and those are really more odd forms of music, further away from the Western scales that we play.  Sometimes I’ll find a song that is public domain – a recording of it – and then I can do a cover of that tune and I don’t have to write a new tune.  In some cases, not with that particular Italian tune, but on others, I’ll do that and it’s easy.  Otherwise I’ll have to listen to a whole bunch of others and go…you know this song is shifting between major and minor keys, it’s playing in this kind of speed range, it’s got these instruments.  What’s making it sound Italian and unique, and then how can I make a composition that has all those qualities?  Which is really challenging.  It’s rewarding to succeed at doing that as it is to make a bitching Djam Karet song.  Both are hard and in both you use your brain and your experience, listen to other people’s music for ideas and direction.

MSJ:

I think we don’t give enough credit to the creative genius that goes behind working within established parameters.  Again from the visual arts perspective, I like to remind people that Michelangelo worked for The Man too. And what is brilliant is what he does within those demands, and no one is going to call the Sistine Ceiling a hack work of sell-out.

Right. Right.

MSJ:

Gary, our editor, is always interested in your most memorable Spinal Tap moment.

I like it when the bass player gets trapped in the pod and he can’t get out.  You mean in my life?

MSJ:

Have you ever been trapped in a pod?

(laughs)  Well, after we played at NEARFest about ten years ago, I got super plastered and went out to the bars and banged my head kind of hard.  That was a personal, embarrassing kind of Spinal Tap moment (laughs).  But none really on stage, fortunately.  None that I can think of.  I never got electrocuted or had streakers run across the stage, noting too peculiar.

MSJ:

Little miniature Stonehenges…none of that stuff.

No.

MSJ:

So what are you listening to now?  Is anything really grabbing your ears?

My favorite band is Opeth – the Swedish Death Metal band.  I f***in’ love those guys.  I so love the Ghost Reveries record.  That record is great.  I just super love ‘em.  And I like that they’re not overly complicated and they’re so groove-based even though they’re…of course they’re playing complicated music, but they’re not tedious.  And they don’t overplay.  There’s very few solos on that record.

MSJ:

They strike me as having a little more sort of texture and atmosphere than a lot of really heavy bands.

Yeah. They do and they’re very deliberately stated in a Seventies kind of manner.  And I super love those guys and I love Steve Tibbetts’ stuff.  I listen to that a lot.  And I love, I listen to, when my friends come over, Medeski, Martin and Wood, because it’s accessible.  So many of the CDs I have were way too alienating for my friends to come over.  If we’re having like a party.  I have so many CDs that are instrumental European progressive bands that are… You know, I like Magma.  Magma’s bitchin’.

MSJ:

Magma’s one of my faves.

When your wife and a few couples are over at your house and you're drinking beer, they’re all singing in their weird made-up language (laughs).

MSJ:

It can work wonders to clear a room.

That’s what my wife says when I want to put on Opeth, “I thought you liked everyone and wanted them to stay… Then don’t put that on.”

MSJ:

Ever listen to Popol Vuh?

Yeah. Yeah.

MSJ:

Another one that sort of came up, especially some of the film soundtracks of the mid-70s, when I was listening to Sangita.  It doesn’t sound like it, but it conjures it.

Absolutely.  I had a bunch of their vinyl records back in the day.  I like Minimun Vital and all sorts of cool groups.

MSJ:

Anywhere in particular you’d love to play?  Do you have a venue or a festival that’s on that list of “ah, that would be perfect?”

It was super great to be able to headline a festival last year in France – a three day progressive festival called “The Crescendo Festival.”  That was on the beach near Bordeaux and that was like ridiculously fun.  And I would love to someday play Asia, like Tokyo or Hong Kong.  And it would be nice to play South America.  But, when we played in France last year that’s the only time we’ve flown overseas and been paid to play in another country.  It was always a goal of mine as a kid to someday be good enough to go overseas to play.  So I would love to be able to do that again, because I personally feel it’s a big honor even though it’s also a huge amount of work and difficult and you risk losing your gear.  And you have to share rooms with your goofy bandmates (laughs).

MSJ:

There are places over there that are incredibly inspiring.  I lived in Italy for quite a while and you have concerts in front of Lucca and how does that not bring out something deep down and powerful?

Well, you know in Europe popular music is big and other styles are also quite big.  In America pop music is big and other styles are freakin’ totally dead.  I mean jazz here and blues and folk or electronic are dead compared to pop in terms of sales and concert attendance.  But in Europe where their pop is almost worse and more bubblegummy, country is huge over there and electronic is huge over there and progressive is huge over there.  People know about Zappa and Genesis, you know regular people.  So it’s very interesting, I think, that they’ve got an awesome music scene over there because they’ve got their pop, but all sorts of other genres get stage-time and gazillions of people go see them play.  It’s cool.  Here it’s pop or forget it.  And it especially has to be targeted, it’s all hip hop or…they branch out a little bit, but not really.

MSJ:

It seems aggressively corporatized here.

Yeah.

MSJ:

Even concerts we grew up going to see.  Some of the billings would never be seen today – Yes opening for Black Sabbath in ’72 – and people would just laugh at you for that now.

Right. Right. Right. I totally agree.

MSJ:

What’s next for you?

Keep making records.  I’ve played on over ninety.  I played on fourteen last year, so it was a great year for me.  I love recording.  I want to keep learning more about music and keep getting better at it.  With the Fernwood stuff I got a lot better at it.  And with some of the recording and production on the Djam Karet records, I’m getting better at it.  So it’s really nice to be fifty years old and still see yourself improving.  My fingers aren’t getting any faster, but my brain is gaining a better understanding of music and what you can do with it.  So that personally makes me very happy because my whole world revolves around an obsession with music.

MSJ:

And again as I think Sangita shows, your fingers don’t have to get faster…

You just have to know what you’re doing.  More than…I mean, yeah, they don’t have to get faster.

MSJ:

Your horizons just expand and you make beautiful stuff.

Thanks.  I appreciate it and it’s super rewarding for me and I just feel super lucky.  I live in a really great small town up in the mountains a couple miles from the beach.  It’s away from L.A. but I can still drive to it.  I’m a lucky guy.  It’s fun playing with Djam Karet which is such a do-whatever-we-want-to-do kind of group.


MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.
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