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Progressive Rock Interviews

Gunnelpumpers

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Douglas Johnson and Randy Farr of Gunnelpumpers from 2012
MSJ:
Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music – both individually and as a band?
Douglas Johnson: Around 2002 I was looking to jam on some grooves and called percussionist Randy Farr up. In the '90s I had subbed with a band he was in, Las Toillitas, and loved working with him. We hit it off, and this snowballed into jamming with a couple more friends before long. Our first studio session, later released as our debut album the nth wave, was recorded in 2003 and featured four of us: Chicago Symphony bassist Michael Hovnanian, percussion guru and former Las Toillitan Doug Brush, Randy, and myself.

The core of the group has always been bowed basses, drums, and free groove improvisation. Gunnelpumpers' core lineup now consists of six:  guitarist John Meyer (with whom I played in a rock back in the 90s), bassists Michael Hovnanian, Tom Mendel, and myself, and Randy Farr and Bob Garrett on percussion and drums. Doug Brush, who has moved to New Zealand, and bassist/composer Matthew Golombisky, who now lives in San Francisco, are also lifetime Gunnelpumpers.  Our lineup for live shows is very fluid, and we've played with around 50 guest artists over the years, quite a few having played with us many times, notably guitarists Dave Miller and Steve Roberts, drummers Steve Rutstein and Quin Kirchner, tenor saxophonist Michael Salter, James Davis on trumpet, bass players Nabil Gowdey, Mitch Straeffer and Josh Fink, cellists David Keller and Mark Lekas, and theremin/keyboard player Michael Miller. We usually play somewhere in Chicago once a month.

For my background, I received a music performance degree from Northwestern University in 1988. I played for one season in the bass section of the Honolulu Symphony and then returned to Chicago where I've freelanced with a lot of different symphonies and chamber ensembles. I've done a little bit of formal classical composition, having completed one movement of a concerto for double bass and orchestra, as well as a piece for bass quartet that was performed by the Chicago Bass Ensemble (of which I have been a member), but am anything but prolific. I first started recording improvisations on Clevinger bass and effects over 20 years ago, and am interested in pushing the boundaries of what basses typically do and are known for. A few of my pieces have been choreographed: "Reality of a Dreamer" by River North Dance Chicago and "Into the Agape,” which was premiered with the Dutch National Ballet Project in 2006. I released a solo album titled Clevinjourneys in 2012, my first solo project. To some extent, Gunnelpumpers is an offshoot of these solo improvisations taken to a group setting.

Randy Farr: I've been playing music just about all my life.  I loved choir as a child and started playing percussion as a teenager.  I started playing professionally around Chicago right out of college.  I've been in working bands since 1983.  The main ones were Voodoo Butter from '84-'87 and Las Toallitas from '91-'98.  I'm currently working with a number of other projects here, as well.  My main goal has been to improve as a player and have exciting experiences while I'm at it.  Music has never let me down.  Gunnelpumpers was the perfect vehicle for me to grow as a percussionist coming out of my experiences with Las Toallitas. 

MSJ:
What can you tell us about the other guys in the group?
Douglas Johnson: John Meyer is an Aerospace Engineer and self-taught Guitarist/Composer.    He considers himself an experimental guitarist who focuses on producing unusual sounds and timbres.   He has multiple releases under his belt as part of various bands throughout Chicago and also as a solo artist.  He recently helped write, record, and produce an album with his daughter.  John plays bass for several community theatre groups, and composes and records all styles of music in his home studio.   He plans on releasing an instrumental project of soundtrack music for films not yet made in 2013.

Since 1989 Michael Hovnanian has been a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Mr. Hovnanian is also active performing solo and chamber music in the Chicago area. He has appeared in the Chicago Symphony chamber concerts at Orchestra Hall and the Art Institute, and also with Chicago Pro Musica and Music of the Baroque. In addition to performing, Michael has written new music for the double bass and is president of Discordia Music, a publishing company dedicated to double bass music. He is also co-founder of the International Bottesini Society, an organization dedicated to promoting the legacy of that composer.

One of Chicago’s top-call theatre and studio bassists, Tom Mendel has played for a long list of musical productions in Chicago’s orchestra pits, as well as on Broadway, and on tour across the country. His credits include productions of Rent, The Lion King, Les Miserables, The Full Monty, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, West Side Story, Cats, Grease, Dreamgirls, Peter Pan, Kiss Me Kate, and Love, Janis, and Wicked, among many others. Tom also acts as contractor for many shows, is President of the Chicago area chapter of the Theatre Musicians Association, and is the owner of Oasis recording studios. Away from the world of music, Tom is a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Master Instructor with a wide range of specialties. He has been diving since 1978, and teaching since 1995.

Bob Garrett currently works with many different artists including Las Guitarras de Espana, John Elmquist, Anne Harris, and Toque Chicago. Previously he performed and traveled as a percussionist for the National Tour of the Lion King, worked as a free-lance musician and producer in Chicago, working with Freddy Jones Band, Trinity Irish Dancers, and many more.

MSJ: If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?
Douglas Johnson: By day I'm a software engineer, which I enjoy quite a bit, especially designing databases. How to store and retrieve data, establishing connections between this thing and that, that kind of stuff. Growing up reading the backs of baseball and football cards surely played a key part in my fascination with rows and columns.

Randy Farr: I'd be teaching history or English to high school students.

MSJ: How did the name of the group originate?
Douglas Johnson: My wife and I have been going camping in Minnesota's Superior National Forest for many years, near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A close friend up there who has won many canoe races introduced me to "gunnelpumping,” which involves standing on the gunnels of a canoe and pumping one's legs to propel it forward. This describes our approach to making music in that it's awkward at times and always a little dangerous, but when it clicks it's a beautiful thing. And of course we try to keep the craft moving forward without falling off.

 Randy Farr: That was all Doug Johnson's idea.  It belongs to him 100%.

MSJ: Who would you see as your musical influences?
Douglas Johnson: This is a tough one to answer. John Cage has probably influenced the creative approach with Gunnelpumpers the most. In school I set out to write a term paper for a class about the Zen of listening, composing and performing music. I ended up only finishing two-thirds of the paper, but read a ton of John Cage's books. What happens, happens, and it's as it should be. I think Grateful Dead's "Space" jams are also an influence, because that's basically what we do all the time. It's all about the sound, and sometimes the groove.

Watching birds, dragonflies, and other creatures somehow spontaneously follow each other through the air so precisely fascinates me, and I wonder how close human beings can get to that. To some extent you see that in sports, but it's never sustained for very long. I'm always going for that connection with Gunnelpumpers.

From the perspective of a double bassist, those who have broken new ground with the instrument are an inspiration, such as Gary Karr, Edgar Meyer, and many others. Although it probably not an overt influence in Gunnelpumpers music, I've internalized the Barouque music of Bach and symphonic music of the Romantic period, the music of Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc. Later composers such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokovief wrote such incredible music, too. And there are lots of composers to this day still writing, sometimes mixing electronics with orchestra. Recent orchestral pieces by Mason Bates, Brian Baxter and Gabriel Prokoviev have really caught my ear.

Randy Farr: The great funk, rock and jazz rhythm sections of the late '60s and early '70s - people likeTony Williams,  Elvin Jones, the guys in Miles's and James Brown's bands.

MSJ: What are the challenges of performing improvised music?
Douglas Johnson: One of the goals is to create music that doesn't sound completely improvised. Listening is the key, and not letting ego take over. Not being able to hear everyone else really affects the group dynamic, so being able to hear each other is most important thing for us. Spontaneous group shifts can be challenging, but when they happen it is just the coolest thing. It sometimes works best when the drum kit conducts where we're going, and Bob Garrett is absolutely amazing at doing that. It's about the push and pull of it all, really, listening and responding in a supporting way, but knowing when to assert oneself, as well. Knowing when to end can also present challenges from time to time.

Randy Farr: Maintaining concentration and creative focus throughout the length of whatever performance we're dong.  If you get lazy or your mind wanders, you're in trouble.

MSJ: Each of your albums is quite different than the rest. How do you change it up so much yet have a consistency both within each set and across the catalog?
Douglas Johnson: Each of our three albums was recorded in one day - two being live recordings and the other recorded in a single day in a home studio - which explains the consistency regarding personnel, instrumentation, and the overall feel of each individual album. The bowed basses and hand percussion are consistent across all three albums, and that's a sound you just don't get elsewhere very much. We've also used distortion quite a bit on each CD, either from electric guitar or upright bass. 

Randy Farr: It's been an evolution largely based on the personnel that was available to us at the time.  Our sound changed a lot when Doug Brush left Chicago.  We went from having two hand drummers to working more often with a full drum kit and we started to sound more like a rock band.

MSJ: What's ahead for you?
Douglas Johnson: We have an album titled “Montana Fix” that we hope to release before 2012 is done, but we're cutting it close. This is a 19-song 79-minute studio CD and will be our most ambitious and wide-ranging effort. Just trying to put the finishing touches on it. I'd like to get back into the studio once Montana Fix is released. Other than that, we'll continue to play in and around Chicago, and would consider playing some music festivals here and there if we're invited.

Randy Farr: We've got a wide open set up.  Changes will be a function of the troupe of musicians that Gunnelpumpers draws on. Our 4th cd, will also be a new departure for the band.  It's more arranged than the previous material we've put out.

MSJ: I know artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?
Douglas Johnson: Unpredicatable, spontaneous, droney, consonant, dissonant, anthemic, pointillistic, chaotic, subtle, beautiful, soaring, juxtoposed, chamber music, free rock, groovy, trippy, scary, edgy, angular, round, intense, funky, different, fresh, weird, ancient, magical, real

Randy Farr: Free rock

MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?
Douglas Johnson: Certainly. There are several people just in Chicago I am determined to have play with us some day, such as cellists Katinka Kleijn and Lilianna Wo?ko, guitarist Jason Steele, clarinetist Colleen Corning, keyboardist Rob Clearfield, bassists Jeff Greene and Chris Clemente, saxophonist Mars Williams, and many others. There are surely many others we have yet to meet who will play with us, because we plan to do what we're doing as long as we are able.

Randy Farr: Probably too many to mention.  Something like 40 musicians have already performed live with Gunnelpumpers somewhere or other.

MSJ: Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?
Douglas Johnson Selling music has been much, much harder than I expected when I founded Spiritflake Music and released the first Gunnelpumpers album in 2010, but I don't think the dilemma you mentioned has directly impacted Gunnlpumpers as yet. It's a double-edged sword, really. The truth of the matter is that it both helps and hinders the careers of musicians. I wonder if there is some kind of threshold where illegal downloading of music begins to hinder rather than help (or vice versa) because I do think up to a point it can help an artist or song become known. If there is such a threshold, it proabaly differs from one artist to the next. But illegal downloads can also hinder that artist from doing music full time, which is essentially killing the goose to get the golden egg.

Randy Farr: Anything to get the word out helps for a band like us.

MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
Douglas Johnson: For a long time I've hoped people would record our live shows, as long as they don't use said recordings for blackmailing us later. But, seriously, all of our shows are different, and there have to be a few people around the world that would like the hear them. I record all of our shows, and have put close to twelve hours up on Soundcould for anyone to listen to. (http://soundcloud.com/gunnelpumpers). I'd like to put even more up, but then it starts to get pretty expensive.

I've thought of selling the live shows on Bandcamp for a few bucks, and we'll probably make that happen if there's some demand for it.

Randy Farr: I'm all for it.

MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
Douglas Johnson: It still has to be Kenny G. No other musician I can think of has single-handedly ruined an instrument and a hairstyle.

Randy Farr: Mariah Carey-but she'd probably kick my ass.  I don't want to say anything negative about anyone, though.

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?
Douglas Johnson: Chris Cornell and Janis Joplin on vocals - Two of my favorite voices in rock 'n' roll, and their timbres and intensity would gel incredibly well together

Pete Townshend and Steve Hackett on guitar - Townshend made power chords an art form, and Hackett is such a meodic, lyrical player, and plays rubato that would make any classical musician proud

Chris Squire and Kim Deal on bass - Yes, two basses are required. Love Squire's sound and the way he lays it down. Kim can reign in people when they try to get too complicated.

Nate Johnson on drums - Although he doesn't play as much as he used to, my elder brother is my favorite rock drummer

Randy Farr on percussion - Because you gotta have it, and he has it

Randy Farr: I'd want to see Ornette Coleman and Charlie Watts play together.  I'd be fascinated to hear what they'd come up with.

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?
Douglas Johnson: King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, Pixies and/or Frank Black, Soundgarden, Kate Bush, Flop, The Fastbacks, Rush, Tool,  Deadweight, Young Fresh Fellows, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Stereolab, The Who, Cake, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, Loop!Station, Talking Heads, Thin White Rope, Neil Young, Bob Dylan

Randy Farr: I don't think I could improve on the ones that are already out there.

MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
Douglas Johnson: I most recently bought Origin of Animal's debut CD, Crackers, which they did a great job with. Really smart music, engaging music.

Randy Farr: I'm continuing to build my catalogue of Bloodshot releases. The other recent favorite purchases are by the Ambassadors to Earth and Origin of Animal, both great Chicago bands that I've got friends in.

MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
Douglas Johnson: I tore through the five Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones books last year in something like six weeks. Loved them. Recently finished Jonathan Franzen's The Collections and Barbara Kingsolvers The Lacuna, which I also enjoyed very much. Two of my favorite non-fiction books are Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage by Albert Glinsky and Joachim Ernst Berendt's Nada Brahma. It took forever to get through Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, but was glad to have read it, I think.

Randy Farr:  Read Turn of the Screw by Henry James recently for the first time.  It might be the best ghost story ever written.

MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
Douglas Johnson: I saw Roger Waters perform The Wall at Wrigley Field - unbelievable.

Randy Farr: I really enjoyed the Black Sabbath reunion gig at Lollapalooza.

MSJ: Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”
Douglas Johnson: Lab is one of my favorite bands. I just eat it up. I also a hold a special place for Neil Diamond, Harry Belafonte, John Denver,the Jackson Five, and Lutheran hymns, music from my childhood.

Randy Farr: Easy listening-I've been listening to vintage Claudine Longet lately.  I only put it on when I'm very much alone.

MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
Douglas Johnson: We've not played Cleveland nor "Big Bottom" yet, but I have called out a funky groove in five where no one could find the downbeat. Kinda like Jazz Odyssey at Knott's Berry Farm. "Our bass player wrote this."

Randy Farr: Missing an entrance to a couple of songs at a recent show, because I was eating Beer Nuts. Does that count?

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?
Douglas Johnson: Carl Jung: I think he developed analytical psychology to better understand himself and his innate powers of perception. A fascinating blend of humor, humility, wisdom, curiousity and mysticism.

Bob Dylan: It doesn't matter if he's mumbling to himself and laughing, he has to be there.

Jesus: I've always wanted to know what he was like, and how embarassed and angry he would be with how things have turned out thus far. But Carl, Bob and me are still banking on the fact that he has a sense of humor. Otherwise it could be a big bummer of an evening.

Randy Farr: John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and William Shakespeare

MSJ: What would be on the menu?
Douglas Johnson: Red wine, amber ale, port, bloody marys

Salad with locally grown mixed greens, walnuts, roasted beets and my wife's classic homemade tarragon vinaigrette (she's invited to dinner, too, BTW)

Grilled calamari

Fresh grilled salmon with pepper, lemon, and a dash of brown sugar, with a new potatos and dill

Pad Thai with tofu and/or chicken

A sushi assortment

Flan, black forest cake and hazelnut gelato

Espresso

Randy Farr: Roast chicken and mashed potatoes.

MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
Douglas Johnson: I love making great music with my friends in the way that we do, and quite a few people seem to dig it.

Randy Farr: Thank you so much

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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