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Progressive Rock Interviews

Pray for Brain

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Pray for Brain from 2014
MSJ:

Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music – both individually and as a band?

Mustafa Stefan Dill: I've never not heard music in my head and heart…a compulsion, a curse, a blessing, a mandate, I don't know.

Started on piano as a kid – my mother says I was making sounds on the piano before I could even reach it. Piano teachers dropped me because I'd rather improvise and write than learn 200-year-old repertoire by dead white European males. At twelve I came back from France and was awakened by the classic rock of the day (1972 /1973), felt the sting and sing of an electric guitar, knew it was my voice, and have never looked back.

From rock to fusion to jazz to free jazz to flamenco to Indian music to Middle Eastern music to country to funk and then all the way back through again, I'm now at a point where its finally starting to integrate, for better or for worse. But the journey never ends – always learning. 

Christine Nelson: I started playing music at ten, mainly guitar and piano. Eventually at 27 I was hired by a band for guitar, and ended up getting moved to bass guitar, which quickly became my favorite instrument. After a few years I found an affordable upright, and haven't looked back.

I actually met the men from Pray for Brain within a month of playing upright, and with their extreme patience and guidance have been able to create great music with them. The band has quickly evolved into something unique with influence from all of us. Writing and creating together has been one of the most fulfilling things I've ever been involved in with a band, and am still blown away by this entire experience. 

Jefferson Voorhees:  At age eight, I carried the bass drum my brother was playing in a Memorial Day parade. I've been schlepping musical equipment ever since. Mustafa and I began schlepping together about 20 years ago, and there's no end in sight. I've also been playing the drums this whole time. It's been a lot of work, discipline, practicing, heartbreak and occasional triumph, but it's worth it for all that great hauling.

MSJ: If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: I've done some freelance in media relations, particularly crisis communications and issues management. It's an interesting field – and I have a good mind for it – but it's a skill set, an aptitude, not a passion or compulsion. I did some theater and acting back in the day and wouldn't mind getting back to that.

Christine Nelson: If I weren't involved in music, which his hard to imagine, I would probably be at some restaurant, call center, or mopping floors somewhere. . . Who knows where I'd be, better not to think about that one too much.

Jefferson Voorhees:  Working for a moving company.

MSJ: How did the name of the group originate?
Jefferson Voorhees: I made it up after hearing excerpts from the last Republican presidential primary debates.

Christine Nelson: We heard the idea and all agreed it was genius!

Mustafa Stefan Dill: I thought Jefferson captured a brilliant zeitgeist with this name. For me, it also implies the relationship between the human condition and the role sound and music can play into that as a healing mechanism, the neurology of between music and thought. 

It's all at once a commentary of our time, a call to action, and a description of how this music can function.

MSJ: Who would you see as your musical influences?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: It's vast and pretty diverse. What stays with me isn't so much a player's vocabulary or “style” or voice so much as their approach that guides and informs their voice. Once you feel how they work, how they organize, their ethos, that's profound teaching. It becomes not about the notes. For example, there's a striking similarity between Cecil and Munir Bashir in how they develop their material and even how they phrase, but their language is so obviously different. Alban Berg builds in a similar way at times.

Of course, some of their language makes an imprint. I'd count Cecil Taylor and John McLaughlin as some of the stronger impressions; Miles Davis, Stravinsky, too. Berg is in there. I think revisiting Jimmy Page and the Led Zeppelin output has informed some of my work and soloing choices the past year, but Page's influence on me both back in the day (and now as I revisit the LZ canon) is more about his ethos, vision, writing and layering, rather than as a guitar solo god – though when he's on, I love his soloing just as much.

The Middle Eastern and Indian influences are there – Munir Bashir for the oud, because how he approached taqsim was so different than anyone else. Amjad Ali Khan on sarod for the tone, and particularly Rabindranath Tagore's music is indescribably profound for me. 

Good God, the right Tagore song in the care of the right Tagore singer has almost made me quit music, which is my life – because in those moments, I'm overwhelmed with the feeling that nothing else ever needs to be said. It can be that deeply complete.

The Middle Eastern and Indian influences often show up in our tunes that aren't immediately pegged as such. In particular I can tell where some of the phrasing you find in Bengali music such as Tagore's work shows up, but not a lot folks will pick up on that. 

Christine Nelson: I have a long list of musical influences, but I'll stay with my top five. Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Holland, Charles Mingus, and my favorite, Thelonious Monk. There are so many more, but definitely my “go to”s as a child.

Jefferson Voorhees: J.S. Bach, Ituri forest pygmies, Frank Zappa, Franco and his T.P.O.K Jazz, Jimi Hendrix, Tamba Trio, The Zombies.

MSJ: What's ahead for you?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: I'm hopeful for many things. We'd like to be touring and getting on the festival circuit on a consistent, sustainable basis as soon as possible. We're talking with some possibilities for touring India later in the year, but nothing's quite locked down yet.

Christine Nelson: We are looking forward to playing a lot more, and hopefully touring a bit. I would really love to start recording again soon. We have a lot of great stuff ready to record.

Jefferson Voorhees: Hopefully playing better and better with people I love 'til I croak onstage.

MSJ: I know artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: I don't. I won't. This very question is precisely the reason why the album's called None of the Above. Let the music stand on its own, I make no claim to it. People can call it what they wish.

More than one review has called it genre defying and genre busting. That's not our intent – we don't have an agenda – but I like it.

Someone told me once they thought Pray For Brain was making the most truly genuine American music they've ever heard, because of how we meld things. I was flattered and humbled by that. 

Christine Nelson: To be honest, I don't mind anyone else coming up with a good name for our music, we haven't really yet. Progressive is about all I can say, and I love genre defying - seems to be close to what is done with this trio.

MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play in the future?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: Oh yes, I'd love to collaborate with some of our labelmates on 7dMedia, for sure. There's other artists I'd love to work with: David Bowie's work I’ve always admired. I love Robert Plant - he keeps his output fresh and moving, and would love to contribute to something he does. Would love to work with Page as well in some capacity, though I don’t see him needing another guitarist, he has such a complete vision. He'd be a dream producer, though.

Jack White is intriguing and fearless and full of conviction. He'd be interesting to work with.

I'd love to be of service for any of these artists. 

There's some colleagues and friends in the free jazz world that I've known but haven’t had the chance to work with: Peter Broetzmann, Hamid Drake. My former student John Dikeman is doing amazing things now, would love to connect with him again. So is Ava Mendoza, another student, she's killing it right now.

Christine Nelson: There are so many I would love to play with, Jack White, Dave Holland, Ben Street, Alex Coke, to name a few. Primus and Korn have always been on my bucket list as well. . . 

Jefferson Voorhees: Other than the ones I'm playing with now? Yes, of course. There are also many women I'd like to have sex with. Chances are similar.

MSJ: Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: Artists need to make a living, but on the other hand music is a gift, and should be offered humbly. Where the fair crosspoint in the current musical economic structure is, I simply don't know. I don't think anyone does – new musical economic models are being tested, new technologies emerge.

I think if someone values someone's work, then treat it accordingly. How and how much, we haven't figured out yet in all these shifts.

Christine Nelson: I believe that music should be heard by all, for free. Unfortunately this is a world that revolves around money, and musicians have to work hard for it on almost every level, unless born into it so to speak. 

Jefferson Voorhees: I believe that very soon, probably in my lifetime, intellectual property rights will be reduced to a quaint unenforceable idea.

MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: Recording shows and maybe trading is one thing; bootlegging them for profit is quite another.

Christine Nelson: I don't mind people recording shows, and I also don't mind people downloading up to a point, but to give more away, you have to have something coming in. So I guess I'm a bit on both sides of those views.

Jefferson Voorhees: I feel great about it… Can't be worse than half the recordings I've made.

MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: American Idol. I'd lay waste to it with a wrathful vengeance hitherto unknown in the history of mankind. I loathe the show, its duplicity and everything that functions around it. I don't include the contestants in that assessment, as they enter it with genuine intentions.

I find the hypocrisy of the show astounding. For all the trite posturing of the so called judges urging the contestants “to be original and find their own voice,” all they really want is to determine the artist with the widest possible public appeal (read: lowest common denominator) that will in turn sell the most records. Even their patter betrays the ulterior motive, when they critique the contestants in terms of what would sell or on their wardrobe.

From a record company perspective, it really is a brilliant and impeccably lazy scheme, their last gasp before the old model crumbles completely. 

Because of the economies of scale they work at, record company output has to appeal to an increasingly lower common denominator, especially in the wake of more and more music circumventing the traditional record company role via DIY or indie routes and digital distribution.

As giant labels find themselves strapped for cash and cutting back on A and R personnel, budgets, etc., these shows are perfect as they develop the instant fan base and exposure for the artist. The label now has no need to invest in and build a marketing campaign around a new unknown artist. Here you have instant exposure. Your work's done for you. All you have to do is sign the contenders you like once they have enough exposure - guaranteed instant sales.

I'd love to know the financial relationship between the majors and these shows. If I was a corporate major label record company douchebag exec, I'd probably be investing in or sponsoring these shows, because I'd know it's still cheaper then developing and promoting an artist from scratch. That would hold a lot of value to the label.

Maybe it's not so hypocritical – it is, after all, called “American Idol,” not “American Singer” or “American Musician.”

Christine Nelson: I had to think about my arch nemesis for quite awhile. There have been many “musicians” that I believe have made it harder for people that are true to their art, but the one that really sticks out for me right now is Miley Cyrus. The reason for her getting this crazy spot with me is the influence she has right now to not only the children that grew up with her and generations to come, and how her choices are modeling to these kids as a way to earn success. Riding a phallus onstage is not music, it's something else. She's exploiting the oldest trade in the book, passing it off as music, and selling it to millions. Very sad really, and very damaging to young people who look up to her. That's not how you role model. She has a lot to answer for. 

Jefferson Voorhees: Never cared for superheroes, only their girlfriends!

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?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: I think I've already heard most of my dream combinations – Led Zeppelin had fabulous rapport; Cecil had magic pairings with Jimmy Lyons, Tony Oxley. . . Broetzmann's Die Like A Dog Quartet I think was so magical.  Miles Davis' mid 60s quintet was unbeatable - such chemistry and telepathy in all of these. What do you need to hear after that?

Christine Nelson: Well I can't imagine playing with anyone better than these men, Stefan Dill, and Jefferson Voorhees, but I would possibly like some guests with us. Perhaps Jack White, Bridget Kearney, Herbie Hancock, John Medeski, and Jack DeJohnette. We would just have to double up on the deep end.

Jefferson Voorhees: Eric Harland, drums, Richard Bona, bass and vocals, Zakir Hussain, percussion, Bill Frisell, guitar, Joe Lovano, sax. I'd probably keep it there.

Why? What a question! Ever heard these cats?

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?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: I'd like to pair some of the better known improvisers and free players from Europe and double bill them with some of the jam bands out there. Most jam bands think they have a grasp on improvisation, but really don't deliver. I think some exposure to the jam band scene on a wider spectrum of improvisation approaches would be healthy – let some true improvisation masters come in and do their thing.

Christine Nelson: For a fest, I would start with Esperanza Spalding, Jack White, Primus, Korn, Rage Against the Machine, Dave Holland, Danilo Perez, Alabama Shakes, King Crimson, and many more. . .TBA.

Jefferson Voorhees: All the above I mentioned in the previous question leading their own bands, plus Pray For Brain.

MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: I don’t listen much at all, actually, I find it interferes with what I hear in my head. Occasionally I'll go through intense periods of listening, what I call “intake,” then I stop.

Last stuff I've been spinning was probably some Tagore favorites and some oud stuff. Last that I bought for myself? Jack White's last two solo albums, and also Celebration Day, the Led Zeppelin reunion concert.
 

Christine Nelson: I'm a sap, and the last CD I listened to was Kind of Blue. the last one I actually bought for myself was Live at Folsom Prison/ Johnny Cash, mainly for my mom.

Jefferson Voorhees: Maceo Parker CDs. But I've been listening to a lot of Fats Waller.

MSJ:

Have you read any good books lately?

Mustafa Stefan Dill: Sorry to say I haven’t. . . read some crisis management case studies, a Tagore biography…don't have much room or bandwidth for fiction these days.

Christine Nelson: Right now I'm reading a book called “INDIA – A Quick Guide To Customs & Etiquette.” Hopefully we will get to go there someday to play some music. It's an excellent guide.

Jefferson Voorhees: The Island at the Center of the World about the history of Dutch New York, and Brunelleschi's Dome about Renaissance Florence.

MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: I try to go out and support some of our local colleagues, catch their shows.

Christine Nelson: Last concert I went to was Esperanza Spalding at the Lensic. The show was amazing, a lot to inspire me there.

Jefferson Voorhees: The Bad Plus.

MSJ: Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”
Mustafa Stefan Dill: Bollywood movies and soundtracks. Extraordinary films and a great film genre, for me, and their music can be stellar.

My other musical guilty pleasure is French and Italian early to mid 60s Europop (laughter) France Gall, Adriano Celentano, etcetera. In a similar vein, Andy Williams and other 60s gems. I love finding value in things that people tend to dismiss.

Christine Nelson: Haha, musical guilty pleasure. . . Singing the entire Electric Ladyland album word for word in the car and shower. Anyone that's heard my vocals knows they would rather walk than ride with me when that moment comes on. 

Non-musical guilty pleasures are serial killer documentaries…seriously. I find the psychology of it fascinating.

Jefferson Voorhees: Early Incredible String Band

MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: Doing a gig in flip-flops in the 80s and wrapping the guitar cable around my foot and twisting my ankle. (laughter)

A more serious one came last year. Crashed and burned mid-song on a retirement gig – extreme left arm pain, nausea, sweats, the whole thing. Hospitalized for 48 hours for what we thought was a heart attack but wasn’t.

Christine Nelson: Biggest Spinal Tap moment has to be playing at a retirement home. A patient tried to pee on me, or thought I was something else. I never moved so fast with an upright bass and all of my gear. 

Jefferson Voorhees: At 12, playing for a room of screaming Brownie Scouts.

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?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: Mohammed (pbuh) and Jesus. Get these men on the record so everyone can stop all the bulls*** committed in both their names. Enough. Tagore along for the observation.

Christine Nelson: My ultimate dinner party would involve Joan Rivers, Louis CK, and Albert Einstein.

Jefferson Voorhees: Galileo, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Casals.

MSJ: What would be on the menu?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: A mix of Middle Eastern and Bengali cuisines.

Christine Nelson: We would dine on great drink, and maybe tapas, if there was room for it.

Jefferson Voorhees: Good scotch, cheese puffs

MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
Mustafa Stefan Dill: We'd like to thank everyone who’s supported all the way so far. It's not about us, it's about offering a home, offering up some love, a church, a sanctuary. Join us.

Christine Nelson: Closing thoughts. . . I love that people dig on what we are doing, and I hope everyone out there knows that they are more a part of this than I. I value inspiration, and am just so excited by that and full of love to be blessed with it. I thank everyone that is involved in our lives, and am extremely humbled by anyone that has been there, is with us, and will be with us in this journey. It's never been about us, it's about you.

Jefferson Voorhees: With some notable exceptions, reading about the predilections of musicians probably won't tell you much about their music.

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2014  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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