It was a real joy to spend some time chatting with Bent Knee vocalist Courtney Swain, who is also leading a highly productive life as a solo artist. Her latest release, Augustine, is right on the money. You can find the link to our chat here.
I had the pleasure of chatting with the super-talented Tim Motzer for Make Weird Music. We talked soundscaping, collaborating, working with legends, and keeping things fresh over a couple of decades. It was a lot of fun, as you will see.
You’ll find a link below.
Jessica Kion is the bassist for avant-pop band Bent Knee. In a band this talented, it can be challenging to hear what each individual brings to the band’s dynamic. One tends to listen to the whole, as opposed to the sum of the parts.
Thanks to Kion’s side project, Justice Cow, listeners are able to get a better idea of what Kion brings to the Bent Knee table. She’s also allowed to branch out musically and show what she’s truly capable of.
Kion and I had a great chat for Make Weird Music. You can find it here:
Dennis Chambers is one of the most prolific drummers in fusion. His resume shows him working with a literal “Who’s Who” of musicians, including Victor Wooten, John McLaughlin, Parliament/Funkadelic, Mike Stern, and Carlos Santana.
Chamber’s skills make him a go-to reference for young drummers, mentioned in the same breath as legends like Clyde Stubblefield, Billy Cobham, Lenny White, and many others.
I had the privilege of speaking to Dennis for Make Weird Music. You can check out our chat here.
Musician, author, and head of Make Weird Music Anthony Garone spent more than two decades trying to learn “Fracture,’ arguably the most difficult song in the King Crimson catalog. His failure to do so is a remarkable success, culmination in a new book about his attempts. He took some time out of his busy day to talk about the experience, and the many things he learned along the way.
Nate Chinen is a highly respected music journalist and critic, specializing jazz. He is the author of the bible of modern jazz, called Playing Changes. Nate was kind enough to take the time to discuss his work, prominent artists of the new century, and the jazz scene (nearly) post-COVID.
When it comes to modern fusion, Leonardo “MoonJune” Pavkovic puts the “fan” in fanatic. His passion for the form (among many other styles) led to the creation of MoonJune Records, a label dedicated to exposing the world to musicians known and unknown, particularly from eastern Europe and Asia. And this is merely his SIDE hustle, as he spends most of his effort working as a booking agent with a most impressive resume of artists he’s worked with. Leonardo has a lot to say about many topics, and was kind enough to take the time to discuss them with me.
THE TEA CLUB
Hailing from Philadelphia, The Tea Club is one of the most dynamic bands on the scene today. Using a delightful mix of pop, psychedelia, and progressive rock, the band has forged a sound all its own, and should be deemed essential listening. The band took time out of their day to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
Adam Holzman is the keyboardists legends turn to. With a resume that includes Miles Davis and Steven Wilson, Adam has a sound that fits in just about any musical setting. He also has a dynamic solo career worthy of your attention. Adam was kind enough to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
Mattias Olsson is a musical chameleon, remarkably adept at making himself blend perfectly into whatever musical soundscape that lies before him. No doubt the unassuming Swede would not have it any other way. His Roth-händle label houses no shortage of eclectic sounds. Mattias was kind enough to discuss what is going on in his musical world, including projects deeply personal and emotional.
Donny Fandango is one of the senior on-air personalities at KPNT, St. Louis’s leading alternative rock station. He has been there on and off (mostly on) since the station’s inception in 1993. Donny is passionate about music and the world around him, and has no shortage of opinions about both. Naturally, this drew me to him. Donny was kind enough to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
Deborah Holland is one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Her lyrics — even when she’s being metaphorical — are impactful and straight-forward. Those words are augmented by one of the more powerful singing voices I’ve heard in my five decades of music exploration. She is a power not to be ignored. I first learned about her via Animal Logic, the band she joined with musical legends Stanley Clarke and Stewart Copeland. Deboarah talked to me about how she wound up in that band, as well as her efforts as a solo artist.
THOMAS “PROGLODYTES” HATTON
Unlike just about every other musical personality I’ve spoken to or interviewed, Thomas Hatton and I became acquainted because he came to me! Apparently, my writing caught his attention, and shortly after our first conversation I was a contributing editor to Proglodytes, his website dedicated mainly to progressive rock, though many other realms are explored within its confines. It was Thomas who sent me to my first Progtoberfest festival in Chicago, where my musical world was blown wide open. I owe him a LOT. How could someone so young be so driven to explore his passion to this level while leading a very busy life in the process? We took a little time to talk about it.
My search for more feminine voices in jazz led me to Yazz Ahmed, whose trumpet/flugelhorn tone is warm and round, much like a human singing voice. That she uses modern rock artists and electronic devices as influences to bring her sound to life makes her all the more interesting. Yazz was kind enough to chat with me about how things work in her musical world.
Music journalist Sid Smith is the foremost authority on things King Crimson, whether he chooses to believe that or not. His recently updated book about the band is essential reading for even the most casual fans of the band. But Sid is no one-trick pony. His words can be found on a wide variety of bands, mostly published in Prog magazine, along with his extensive efforts as a writer of liner notes found in more than a few classic albums. Sid was kind enough to take some time to discuss his craft and where it’s taking him.
When it comes to drums, Pat Mastelotto is a universal constant. His progressive rock resume is the stuff of legend (including a 25-year plus stint with King Crimson). But before that, he was an eagerly sought after studio musician, where he can be found playing with the likes of XTC, Cock Robin, The Sugarcubes, and Hall & Oates, among many others. And oh yeah, he was the drummer for 80’s pop darlings Mr. Mister. He is also an incredibly kind man, which led to our conversation.
MARK OWEN (WE LOST THE SEA)
My favorite album of the last ten years comes from an Australian post-metal band called We Lost the Sea. The album, Departure Songs, came from a band tragedy and is deeply rooted in the theme of personal loss. When I say the music reduced me to tears, I am NOT exaggerating. They have since released another equally introspective album called Triumph and Disaster. Mark, one of the band’s guitarist, was kind enough to take the time to discuss the album’s origin along with talk of Departure Songs. This interview is without question the most sincere chat I have had with a musician.
The first time I heard Gary Husband, he was playing drums on Allan Holdworth’s Metal Fatigue album. His solo on “The Un-Merry Go-Round” absolutely blew my mind! But there is so much more to this dynamic musician, which I learned when I saw him perform live fort the first time as the keyboardist for John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension. Gary is a man of many talents, and also one of the kindest and most thoughtful people you will ever meet, which I learned from our chat.
ERIK OLDMAN (SONS OF RA)
Erik Oldman recognized me before I recognized him.
There is something thrilling about hearing a band grow and evolve before your ears. Sons of Ra fits that description. And the evolution has only just begun.
I first became aware of this power trio when they opened Progtoberfest III in 2017 at Reggie’s in Chicago. Truth be told, it was guitarist Erik Oldman who recognized me first (apparently, he had read some of my previous work). A conversation at the merchandise table ensued, and a new band interest was sparked.
Based in Chicago, Sons of Ra makes music that skillfully straddles the lines between progressive rock, metal, and jazz. Calling their music mere “Fusion” seems remarkably limiting, once the listener goes beneath the surface. With their debut EP Anthropology (released in 2014), Sons of Ra planted the seeds of infinite musical possibilities. With their forthcoming release, Cognitive Dissonance (out later this year), those seeds have sprouted roots. And those roots are taking a firm hold.
Part of the reason for this evolution stems from a personnel change. Sons of Ra have a new drummer in Michael Rataj. Oldman and bassist Keith Wakefield have a new musical foil off whom they can bounce their musical thought processes, which has opened up many entirely new musical avenues. The band is seizing on those opportunities, and making the most of them.
From a live standpoint, Sons of Ra are embracing their heavier side, opting to play gigs with more metal bands, as opposed to jazz. This gives them the advantage of putting their music before more receptive listeners not looking for a band to recapture the sounds of the jazz-rock bands of years past. Instead, modern metal fans are given a healthy — albeit sometimes subtle — dose of a music form many of them may not otherwise pay attention to intentionally.
On a personal level, Oldman is every music fan’s best friend. He has no issue with sitting in a bar, drink in hand, and talking at length about music. (I speak from personal experience.) He is passionate about the art form, and possesses an extensive knowledge which he brings forth without arrogance or pretense. Rare is the day I don’t walk away from a conversation having learned something new, with the overwhelming urge to dive headlong into this new musical possibility.
In the old musical economy, Oldman and his band would be out there full-time, bringing Sons of Ra’s music to the masses probably the world over. Alas, Oldman — like nearly everyone else — holds down a day job that pays the bills and supports his family. In a way, it can be argued that his situation makes him even more relatable on a human level. It can also be argued that such a situation makes him pour that much more passion into his musical efforts.
From his home in Chicago, Illinois, Erik Oldman took some time to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: More than a few things have changed since Sons of Ra released Anthropology. How are you feeling about the way things are currently situated?
Erik Oldman: Really, really good, actually. We had a brief period of trying things out, seeing what we could do with different contexts, and working with some drummers with different backgrounds. We did a lot of work with arranging our set to the (new) drummer we were working with, and it was a fun challenge for us to rethink some of our material that way. Drums are the clock of the band, and it’s always playing in a different time zone with each drummer. We didn’t want to hold cold auditions again, and we had a network of musicians here in Chicago we could tap into for support.
We knew Mike from our network. I’ve seen some of his other bands over the years and really liked his energy. We hung out a few times, informally. No audition, no pretenses. That was really important with the next step. We wanted people who got what we do and could hang with us. The paradigm of, “can I spend eight hours in a car with this person between gigs” and seeing if they were onboard with the greater vision of what we are doing and where we want to go. Our first show with him was a road gig, out of state, and it went amazingly well. We’ve been running with that energy since.
How has your songwriting evolved of the past couple of years?
It’s on a spectrum of improvisation versus composition. The newer material has different ranges of sections that fall between being more “changes” or “patterns” we improvise over, or stuff that is really tightly arranged and almost orchestral in nature. Some stuff is straight ahead “AABA-section” format. Some stuff has mixes of tight parts and improv parts. Stylistically, we’re still all over the map. That’s something that people seem to enjoy about us.
The longer pieces have more of a journey or storyline to them. Those are the ones that tend to veer off into different extremes. The stuff we write is mostly arranged through a more pragmatic, straight ahead jazz-oriented lens. We’re not as concerned with playing “out,” or a lot with time shifting. Its more about feel and thinking about how things resolve. Sometimes they resolve traditionally in, say a “ii V i” cadence for a 16-bar sequence. Sometimes, they don’t. But we’re more deliberate about those aspects in writing.
A lot of our material has gotten heavier in nature. It’s just how the sound developed, in a sense, with this lineup, especially for this body of work. Mike brings a certain heaviness with him as a dynamic we didn’t have before. A lot of what I’ve been feeling personally also probably reflects to some of that.
Some of the things that changed our sound (came from) using technology. We have a lot more synthesis going on in the band, Keith is using a guitar synthesizer for a lot of his lead sections and some underlying textures. I’ve done a lot of work with pitch shifting and harmonizers to where it’s a significant part of our sound. I will be bringing my synth out again in the near future for additional layering and voicing.
We’re also going to be doing a bit more work with live looping soon. Some of the material is written for that. I suppose that’s the “progressive” element of this group: we embrace technology as a tool to accomplish what we can with just three members.
What are you most proud of or pleased with, where the new album is concerned?
We’ve had a really smooth recording process so far. The first four tunes are done, and are being mixed. We found a fantastic engineer to work with who seems to really understand our sound. It’s also pushing me personally to be a better player and composer. Some things need precision with tracking, whereas other things need to breathe. The sounds we’re hearing in the mixes are pretty exciting.
Has Sons of Ra officially found its new voice and direction, or is this a step toward said direction?
We’re under the idea that what we’re playing at the moment is really a fusion of jazz and metal. That feels about right. That sounds about right. It’s heavy, but it can still swing. It has the chord extensions or alterations I like to play, it has the thing in the air about it I get when I’m listening to early Mahavishnu (Orchestra) or the Miles (Davis) live electric stuff (from the ‘70s) … electricity, edge, heaviness in that way, too, as with listening to bands like Neurosis, Blotted Science, or Behold the Arctopus.
That being said, I don’t think its a “final” sound. I don’t think we’ll ever have one. I very much like Robert Fripp’s notion of the music is organized as “a way of doing things” more so than anything else. The three of us have a way of doing things that is starting to crystallize. It’s just where we are at the moment.
I kind of think of it like Miles’s groups starting the mid-‘60s with Filles de Kilimanjaro going through the live Fillmore albums in the early ‘70s, or King Crimson between Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Red, and then Discipline.
Prog/Fusion is not the easiest sell in the music market. What does Sons of Ra bring to the table that makes it stand out from the rest?
We’re not classicists or traditionalists. We’re not catering to the crowd who just wants to hear stuff from the 1970s. It’s impossible to market to people who only listen to the past. We’re writing stuff that appeals to us first. What can we take from what we’ve learned –from our experiences — and take some risks with it. We seem to do best with a heavier crowd as a live band, so we’re bringing some of the jazz idiom in a heavier context.
How does the band’s approach change between the studio and the stage?
There’s more precision in the studio. Guitar-wise, the harmonization that’s done is mostly done manually, in separate tracks. Live, I use multiple-voice harmonizers. We’re doing a lot more with synthesis live, and we will be moving into loop-based stuff as well. The music has more room to breathe live. We also tend to play things with a focus on communicating energy externally, rather than trying to get the sound to be precise for a recording.
What excites you most about Sons of Ra’s future?
It’s the first step of this lineup, and we’re all walking the same direction with each new piece we complete. And that direction is anything but a straight line.
(Top photo by Josh Dagenais)
Sooner or later, particularly in the field of jazz, a musician is expected to find his own voice. Be it singing or playing an instrument, the best jazz musicians eventually break free of their influences and find a sound that is them, and no one else. Louis Armstrong, Clark Terry, and Miles Davis had their own sound. As did John Coltrane, Jaco Pastorius, and Wes Montgomery. Using the flugabone (a compressed valve trombone) as his instrument, David Dominique has created a voice of his own.
The Richmond, Virginia native is using his voice not only to display his own instrument, but in his remarkable compositions, as well. While still paying homage to the past greats, Dominique has also incorporated more modern sounds to help him bring forth two fascinating albums in Ritual (released in 2013) and, most recently, Mask (2018). While the former seems to aim to make the abstract sound more accessible, the latter brings the feel of an old-school big band being augmented with modern-day electronics along with unexpected rock and contemporary classical elements. The records have been widely praised by critics the world over.
Even the ensemble Dominique has written for is a bit out of the ordinary, consisting of himself, saxophones, flute, violin, viola, clarinet, bass clarinet, electric guitar, electronics, bass and drums. The resulting sound helps put Dominique on the cutting edge of the FutureJazz movement, which pays respectful homage to past artists like Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy, while bravely blazing a musical path for what’s to come.
Dominique has also composed music for theater works and numerous large and small ensembles. His music has been heard in numerous venues throughout the United States, as well as in France and Germany. He holds degrees from New York University, California State University, Northridge, and Brandeis University. At the College of William and Mary in Virgina, is an Assistant Professor of Music.
David Dominique was kind enough to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: Yours is a rather unusual choice for a lead instrument. What led you to playing the flugabone, and how does it affect your compositions?
David Dominique: I grew up playing trumpet and then baritone horn—valve instruments—so valve positions are hardwired into my brain. By high school I switched to playing slide trombone in jazz, rock and ska bands, but I always had valves on the brain. So now I just do what feels right, and the punchy sound of a flugabone works well in this music.
Your sound seems to come from an eclectic array of music such as big band, hip-hop, and rock for starters. Who do you claim as your biggest influences, and how much of what they did makes it into your music?
My influences are all over the place. I like music that shows me new possibilities but I rarely reference a specific band or artist on Mask. I try to let my interests interact as subconsciously as possible. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of electronic music and experimenting with modular synthesis. I don’t have much electronic music recorded and available (yet! stay tuned…), but I’ve been into it for a while. Almost 20 years ago when I was at NYU I fell in love with the Buchla modular synthesizer and was listening to old school abstract electronic music like Subotnik, Xenakis, new and old musique concrete. I just didn’t have enough time on the Buchla to go deep. I made a lot of sample-based music back then but never released it. So I’m really just coming back around to earlier interests. There are so many artists making cool electronic music right now that I hesitate to attempt a shortlist, but the most recent plays in my Spotify are Eartheater, Yves Tumor, Dean Blunt, Metro Skim, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Pangaea, Iglew, Jon Bap, Sophie, Aphex Twin, Frank Ocean, and Shabazz Palaces.
The last couple of generations of jazz musicians have been adding more modern sounds to their bands, often incorporating electronic elements. How do you convince more “traditionalist” jazz musicians to embrace your sound?
My last answer was kind of long, so I’ll just say I don’t really try to convince anyone of anything!
Your fellow bandmates are clearly in sync with your needs as a composer. What do you look for when seeking out a musician for your band?
I like to work with friends and musicians I admire. The musicians on Ritual and Mask are all composers and are totally omnivorous in terms of their individual tastes. Luckily there’s no gap in communicating my intentions to this group.
The music on Mask seems to be tightly composed. How much, if any, room for improvisation do you leave in your compositions?
On Mask there are a few individual solos sprinkled throughout — particularly those of guitarist Alexander Noice, multi-reed players Joe Santa Maria and Brian Walsh, and violist Lauren Baba — but the forms are almost entirely pre-decided. I think of improvisation as just another tool of expression and layer of structure. Like any other tool or device, solos made sense in the context of some compositions, and other times weren’t a big part of the plan.
What is the most important thing your listeners can get out of your music?
Hmmm … that there are no rules to music, maybe? That sounds so pretentious … or maybe it sounds vacuous and obvious … I don’t know… I’m sorry!
Pick any artist from any era: Who would you like to hear playing music you have written? Or, who’s band would you like to have been part of?
I’d like to have been in Can in the early-mid 70s, or Kraftwerk … or THE RESIDENTS … or Sonic Youth in the mid-late 80s. Or Digable Planets as a synthesist/sampler player in the ’90s. Or Stereolab as a keyboard player in the ’90s. Or Sly and the Family Stone playing trombone or keyboard in the ’60s. I’d love to be in Shabazz Palaces’ touring band or Mount Eerie’s touring band when he uses one …Or or or or …
Stephan Thelen makes math highly musical.
While there may already be a musical genre known as “Math Rock,” the Swiss guitarist takes the concept to an entirely new level. Whether it be with his band, Sonar, or as a solo artist, Thelen strives to make mathematical rhythms operate in ways most musicians would never even conceive of, let alone attempt. When the fact he teaches Mathematics comes to light, one cannot help but say aloud, “Well, of course he does!” But while most artists try to separate their artistic lives from their “real” ones, Thelen embraces the two, and makes them symbiotic.
Some people prefer to stay away from this type of music, feeling it has no “soul,” or deep emotion behind the playing. That is not an issue for Thelen or the musicians he works with. Anyone listening to his music will be taken on a deep, intertwining, complex, but ultimately rewarding journey.
After finding kindred musical spirits for Sonar (guitarist Bernhard Wagner, bassist Christian Kuntner, and drummer Manuel Pasquinelli) in 2010, the band embarked on performing and recording, ultimately assembling and releasing their first album, A Flaw of Nature (2011). An EP called Skeleton Groove followed in November of 2012, followed a month later by Live at Bazillus. Thelen’s use of tri-tones helped the band create and establish its sound, which continued to mature and establish itself. With each album, the growing confidence of the musicians becomes more and more evident.
Continuing to gain momentum, the band released Static Motion in 2014, and Black Light the following year. This was the album that put Sonar on the CirdecSongs radar, with its intricate polyrhythms and interlocking guitars. When it was released, it was half-jokingly called, “The King Crimson album that band never recorded.” Similarites were easily found between the two, but the differences between Sonar and the mighty Crimson stood out even more.
Sonar’s sound is a study of economy in motion. No one in the band overplays. They are the epitome of “less is more.” The primary key to the music is for each player to leave a pocket of space for the others to play in. If one member played his part alone, the listener might not think there was much going on. Combined, however, we are inundated with subtle but highly intricate sounds not easily duplicated. The vast majority of these compositional ideas come from Thelen, but the rest of the band brings the music to life.
Sonar took things to another level with the release of Vortex in the spring of 2018. In addition to the core members, the band added the looping and soundscapes of guitarist David Torn, who had been brought on to produce the album. Torn improvised his sounds over the set compositions played by the band. The result was the perfect mix of the established and the ethereal, with Torn’s unusual tones weaving in, out and around what Sonar was playing. As if to show Vortex was no fluke, Sonar released Live at Moods in the fall of that year. The live set brings forth everything that happened in the studio, and then some. Master bassist, producer, and re-mix artist Bill Laswell de-constructed and re-constructed a pair of Sonar tracks, culminating in The Bill Laswell Mix Translations, which was released this past April. All of these releases can be found on the band’s Bandcamp web site.
The Sonar sound is considered “dry” by guitarists. That is to say, they don’t use effects to enhance their sound. Not one to rest on his laurels, Thelen decided to embark on a journey in an effects-driven direction. The result was his solo effort, Fractal Guitar, a record awash with effects that create a deep, rich, multi-dimensional sound. Many of those sounds are driven by a delay effect which the album is named after. To be certain, similarities to Sonar can be drawn, but Fractal Guitar is definitely an entity unto itself. Featuring contributions from the likes of Torn, U8 touch guitarists Markus Reuter and Matt Tate, guitarists Henry Kaiser and Barry Cleveland among others, Thelen has found a way to take his mathematical compositions to even higher emotional planes.
Thelen is already hard at work on the next project, a new album for Sonar, once again featuring Torn. This time, the band intentionally left room for Torn’s contributions, which has yielded some spectacular results. Thelen continues to assemble, deconstruct, and reconstruct what the band did over five days in the studio.
On a personal level, Thelen strikes one as a man of deep intellectualism and a sharp, dry wit. His explanations of his musical methodology can seem rather academic, but that only makes sense. He is an academic! It would have been interesting to speak to him while he had access to a dry erase board. No doubt the marker would be flying all over the place, drawing connections heretofore unimagined by the student between melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. To be certain, it would be a master class.
Stephan Thelen took some time out of his day to speak to CirdecSongs from his home outside of Zurich.
CirdecSongs: How did Sonar come together? How did you guys find one another?
Stephan Thelen: I was playing in a theater, and Bernard was in the audience. He came to see that production. He liked what he heard, so he stayed around and we chatted afterwards. He told me he was also a guitar player – and played loops and stuff – so we got to know each other a little bit and tried a few things out. We sort of talked about doing something together, but at the time I had the feeling that either I was gonna do something really good, or I was not gonna do it at all. So I was sort of waiting for a good idea for a band.
Then I remembered that I had this special tuning for a guitar I once used, and I thought maybe we could use that tuning as the ground for a new sound, a new project. I talked to him about it, and he liked the idea. So we started looking for a bass player and a drummer. I knew Christian (Kuntner), the bass player, and he knew a young drummer from a Nik Bärtsch clinic (Manuel Pasquinelli), where they met. So we emailed each other and found a date, came together, and played. And that was it!
From the first hour we played together it was just clear that this was exactly the right (personnel). No auditions, nothing! It just worked perfectly! I had some songs that I wrote for the band. We played them, and it just worked very, very well. It was an exciting feeling. We played some gigs together, and that worked, too! And we eventually recorded the first album (A Flaw of Nature, 2011).
How would you define the unifying theme behind your group?
I’ve had so many projects over the years. I really wanted to do something special. It had to be something nobody has done before. That was my main idea. It had to be unique in many ways. So we pushed the extreme, and tried to do things you wouldn’t normally do. It was an experiment in “let’s be radical in a lot of ways, and see what happens.”
A big influence for me was remembering what I liked as a little kid. What impressed me as a young child and teenager? I found that I like to construct things. I’m not necessarily a musician who likes to jam for hours. I’m more the guy who constructs things, and composes them in a certain way. So that was really what I wanted to do with this band. That’s why we had no improvisation at all in the beginning. It was just completely composed. We sort of do a lot of improvisation now, but that’s because we know each other really well, and we know there are restrictions to what we would do and what we would not do. But in the beginning, it was just all composed music.
What’s the best part about playing in Sonar?
What always amazes me is the energy we can produce. If you’re composing, it’s more intellectual work. You’re just thinking about things, and trying to make the right things fit together. But as soon as you play, there’s this thing that you can’t really describe. It’s sort of magic. Something happens that wouldn’t happen if you play alone or compose alone. It’s just something in the air that works between the people. It has a lot to do with the energy that can be produced and the mystery, you know? That is something I enjoy the most.
We may think we know, but whom does the band cite as influences?
There is a list I wrote on my homepage, which were influences for Sonar. One of the pieces was by Yes: the live version of “The Fish (From YesSongs, 1973).” If you listen to that, the guitar only plays harmonics, like we often do. It’s an odd time signature, it has crispy drumming and it has this HUGE bass. I think if you listen to that track again, you’ll hear a lot of similarities with Sonar.
I’m hearing it in my head as you say that.
(Laughs) And of course personally, I was very influenced by the ‘70s King Crimson. The ’73, ’74 … you know, Larks Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, Red … that period. That’s the one I really liked. I know a lot of people think I’m more the Discipline fan. Actually I’m not, really. I can see the parallels with the two guitars playing these patterns together, but I think the expression of the (Sonar) music is much more the ‘70s (King Crimson) vibe than the ‘80s. (There was) more mystery (in the ’70s music), and darker things going on. The Discipline band was more sprite for me, something much brighter than the ‘70s.
The addition of David Torn for Vortex was quite the coup. How did that come to pass?
I was in California, visiting (music journalist) Anil (Prasad). He suggested we visit (guitarist) Henry Kaiser, because he’s a friend of Anil’s and lives not too far away. Henry knew Sonar and liked it, so we made the trip to Santa Cruz and visited Henry in his beautiful house. I just sort of popped the question to Henry, “If I were looking for a producer, who would you suggest?” Henry took about three seconds and said, “Well, David Torn.” (Kaiser) knew him, and wrote him an email saying, “There’s this Swiss band you might want to produce. Why don’t you get in touch with them?” And then David and I talked on the phone.
I knew David, of course, from the many CDs of his I had, and I loved his work. I always had. So there was no question to me that this would be a good collaboration. So we arranged everything and flew him (to Switzerland) with his engineer, who he prefers to work with, and we had four fantastic days in the studio.
I love how small the music community really is. You want to think it’s huge, and there’s no way people can get in touch with one another. But a visit and a phone call, and bam! There you are!
Right, right. You have to know the right people. That’s the thing. If you know the right people, you can make almost anything happen. It’s really amazing.
I understand you’re doing more work with Torn, on the heels of Vortex’s success.
We were in the studio with David (a few) weeks ago. We did five full days of recording. We recorded a lot of stuff. Now I’m going through the recordings, finding the best sections, splicing them together, and stuff like that. It’s a pretty big job, but it’s really fun.
That sounds really ambitious. You guys played some really ambitious music last time out. You really needed to be on your toes!
Yeah! We did more improvising this time. For the Vortex album, it was pretty much composed music. David wasn’t supposed to play on everything, really. He brought his guitar with him, but he didn’t really plan on playing that much, because he was originally only the producer. When he’s producing, he doesn’t like to play too much. He likes to do other stuff. But the first thing he played on was so good, we said, “Hey, we have to change our plan and do everything with him.” Which we did, and everything came out really well. But it wasn’t really intended to be a quintet. It was intended to be quartet with maybe a little bit of his guitar.
This time, from the beginning, we planned the pieces so he had some room, some space. So there was a lot more improvisation, a lot more “free” stuff where we knew approximately what we were gonna do, but not precisely. We just let it happen. It was fun. It was really fun. It was challenging, too, because I’m always the guy who’s worried that we have everything on tape right. Do we have this? Do we have that? Is it good enough? It was a big job, but it was fun in the end.
What is the biggest challenge of playing your material live? It’s quite intricate.
It depends a lot on the audience, I think. The challenge is to play well even if the audience isn’t responding. That’s always a big challenge. Usually we’re lucky and we have a very good, attentive audience. And then it works perfectly well. It’s on wheels. It just rolls. I don’t think you could believe that if you just know the recordings. But if you see it live, there’s much more power and much more energy than you would think.
How hard is it to engage the audience right off? Is it something you have to build to?
Well like I said, it depends. There are places where people are very attentive from the beginning and really locked into the music. Then there are other places, venues where people are used to talking to each other while the music is going on. That really annoys me. I find it really difficult to play in a place like that. We’re trying to play in places where we know that won’t happen.
Sonar definitely has a sound. It’s very clean. It’s very regimented. Is this a sound you plan to maintain, or where do you see things going from here?
Well, we added David knowing that he would change a lot, and he does change a lot! What we do is still more or less the same. We have the same clean guitar set-up. The bass now sometimes has distortion in it, but not too much, really. Our sound as a quartet hasn’t changed that much, but we’re adding things to it. We’re adding David, we’ve added other people before, and we’ll probably add people in the future as well. It’s not for sure yet. Maybe we’ll do another record as a quartet, we don’t know. But the next one will certainly be with David. He changes a lot, of course. He’s everywhere. He’s all over the place with his sounds (laughs)!
Let’s talk about Fractal Guitar. What made you decide it was the right time to record a solo album?
A few years ago, I had some pieces that I knew wouldn’t work for Sonar. They were based on a guitar delay (effect), and we don’t use delay in Sonar. There was one piece especially, which is now the title track on the album. That piece was one I really wanted to record, and it was lying around for a few years. I just wanted to do that. I thought okay, we had a break in Sonar, and I just wanted to finish this piece.
So I sent some tracks to Markus (Reuter, U8 touch guitar) and I sent some tracks to the drummer, Benno (Kaiser). Benno recorded a drum track that I really loved, and also what Markus did was great! So I thought I would just continue on this path. I wrote a few more songs using this delay system, and it just grew and grew. I didn’t have much of a plan at the beginning. It was just something I wanted to do. And then I visited Henry at his house. While I was there, we recorded one of his solos. And Bill Walker (guitar, looping) recorded on the same day in the same studio. So, you know, it just evolved and kept on evolving. I asked Manuel to play on a few pieces.
I really took my time. There was no agenda or stress. It slowly evolved, and it was always fun to do. It was never getting tedious, or no friction of any kind. I was just asking my friends if they wanted to play something. They said, “Sure! Send it over! They played something and it just kept growing. It was a really cool experience.
And then at some (point) I felt yeah, I have enough material for an album. Markus said he would like his friend Benjamin (Schäfer) in Berlin to mix it. I said, “Sure, you should try.” I finished everything up, and he started mixing. I visited them in Berlin, and (the mixes) were really cool. I thought, “Yeah, this is gonna be great!” And Leonardo (Pavkovic) from MoonJune (Records) immediately said he would put it out. It was such a good working experience, because everything worked perfectly. So I’m really happy about the album.
For the guitar laymen, tell me more about the “fractal guitar” effect you used, and how it works.
It’s really just a simple (effect), used in a special way. First of all, it’s timed. It works exactly in the rhythm of the music. So it can’t be just any time set on the delay. It has to be the exact right time. Then it’s also used in a way that it creates an odd time signature, so the delay is always in threes, or in fives, or in sevens. Threes is something a lot of people do. If you listen to U2, for instance, they use that a lot. This kind of delay is timed in a hemiolas, it’s called. It’s a three-beat pattern. That’s something (The Edge) does a lot.
I do it a lot in five or in seven, which is pretty uncommon. I don’t know if anybody else does that at all. That’s what you can hear on the title track, for instance. The first phrase I play is immediately repeated in a five-beat pattern delay. So the repetitions form a kind of composition, which is in 5/8 or 5/4. So it’s always in three or five or seven. That’s the characteristic of that delay. It’s a delay with a lot of feedback. It has a lot of feedback. So it’s a delay used in a special way.
Where did the bass line in “Urban Nightscape” come from? It never fails to blow my mind. When I hear it, I want to run and grab my guitar and join in with you guys.
(Laughs) It’s a piece that has been around for quite a while. I played that in other bands as well. Where did that bass line come from? See, the idea was I’m always experimenting with odd time signatures, so in that case it was three sixes and a seven. So you have the bass line, and the first part is always in six the first three repetitions. The fourth line is extended slightly, so that line is in seven. So if you add that up, you get 25. Against that six-plus-six-plus-six-plus-seven, you have a 5/4 signature going on. So that will play five times, and you’ll also have 25 beats. So that’s what’s going on musically. You always have these two different rhythms, with the guitar playing in five and the rhythm section playing in six-plus-six-plus-six-plus-seven. And the bass line just fit into that rhythmic scheme somehow (laughs).
Was there anything special that went into the methodology of making this album?
The basic idea was to invite friends to play. You have to (envision) that on the record, there were never two people playing together. Never. It was always just one person playing to an existing track. Sometimes, I’m really surprised that it sounds so much like a live band. You can practically see the people playing together, and interacting together. But that really never happened. It was all just one person reacting to what already existed.
So that was one idea: to invite friends to play, and to send files via the Internet. We never booked a studio. Well, we had a studio for the drums. But there was no getting together and playing. It was always just one person recording. The other basic idea was to use the fractal delay system. But that was it, really. That was the whole plan.
If you listen to my music, surely you’ll notice that everything is just one pattern. The whole piece, even a piece like “Briefing (for a Descent Into Hell),” which is 17 minutes (long), it’s just one pattern that goes on. Usually, people would say, “That’s so boring. Just one pattern per piece, that’s so cheap and not enough musical information.” But I like to do it in a way that keeps my interest going on.
I always try to find ways to try to make a very simple pattern sound interesting over a long period of time. I can do that by combining different rhythms and odd rhythms, so even if you’re playing something very, very simple, just because it’s displaced in a certain way, it can take over two minutes until it actually repeats. If you have a polyrhythm going on, sometimes it takes a while before the beats really match again. So even if it’s really simple, you have the feeling that it’s always evolving. Actually, it isn’t (laughs). That’s always something I try to do. It’s something I learned from Steve Reich. You know, the minimal composer? I have a book of his where he has certain essays, and that really made sense to me. He said he wants really simple ideas to create complex results. That’s the goal: very simple things which create very complex results.
If you break it down, it’s really, really simple. “Briefing,” for instance, is based on a pattern that has three notes. That’s all! There are 12 notes in the chromatic scale, and we only use three of them. A lot of people look at my music and say it’s harmonically simple. Yeah! That’s because I like that! I like music that’s harmonically simple, but the complexity is somewhere else. It’s in the rhythm and the way these patterns interact with each other. For instance, in “Briefing,” the bassline is also played by the guitar, but it’s played twice as fast. So you’ll always have the same thing going on, but at different speeds. You hear these things, and you know something is going on. But it takes you a while to figure out what it is. Although it’s really simple, it keeps being interesting because of the way it’s constructed.
I always tell people listening to a complex piece of music to find an element they can hold on to, and then let the rest happen around that.
Right! Yes! Absolutely!
You have a really good left brain/right brain split, particularly where math is concerned. There’s something regimented about math, but liberating about music. You’ve managed to split the two equally. That can’t be easy.
Right! Well, that’s something I consciously want to do. I know if you think about music and you try to integrate a lot of mathematical stuff in your music, a lot of people are going to say, “Oh, this is really dry and really intellectual.” So I really found it important from the start that it has this other element, which is not intellectual at all. It’s very primitive and very raw, this kind of energy. It’s like punk. It’s from the stomach. Christian, our bass player, is like that. He plays like a punk bass player, with such energy from the stomach, you know? From the gut. Clearly, he knows what he’s doing. He’s intellectual enough to cope with the music, but he has this raw energy, which is really important for Sonar. That’s something I really want to cultivate, because the intellectual side (of the music) will be there anyway, in the compositions. But the emotional side … that’s something I keep looking for nowadays.
And that’s what’s amazing about David. He can play so emotionally. You wouldn’t believe it! He can play one note, and he’ll bend that note in a certain way over 40 seconds that just tears your heart out! It’s amazing! Other guitarists will play 10,000 notes, you know, hyper fast and scales up and down. But for me, it’s so much more satisfying to see someone really take this note and go on a journey with it. He bends and screams over the top of something Sonar is doing. I think that’s an amazing combination. On the one side, you have this polyrhythmic intellectual stuff going, and on the other side you have this very emotional screaming guitar on top of it. That’s something that really amazed us when we heard it.
It’s true art. You’re not just trying to create something to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Yeah! I’m trying to make something that excites me. I have to be excited by what we’re doing. I’m mixing this one new piece where precisely that happens. It’s like I’m looking on a field – this three-dimensional field – and I’m trying to make a landscape. I’m trying to let the clouds go by. That’s something that’s so amazing with David. He has these textures he does with his loop machine, so we have this polyrhythmic stuff going on, and he’s like the weather. You know: a tornado will come and then the rain will fall down, and the sun will shine (laughs) … it’s just illuminating this landscape that’s been created by the rhythm section, by Sonar, and he just puts in the colors and the weather.
Going forward, how do you think Fractal Guitar will affect your playing with Sonar?
Well, I just hope that people who like Sonar will get to like the album, and people who like the album will get to like Sonar. I just hope they help each other out. I don’t see it at all as a competition or anything. It’s similar in a way, but it’s also very different. So the two can stand side-by-side without being competitive in any way. I’m just hoping one will help the other out.
Your music is considered “niche” music. You’re a “fringe” band. It’s not exactly the mainstream. How are the economics of the modern music industry affecting your ability to make the music you want to make?
Yeah, that’s an interesting topic. And I think you talked to Markus about that, too, didn’t you?
Yes, I did.
Well, the thing is – and that’s always been the case with me, personally – I wanted to study music when I was 20 years old. I went to my dad and said, “I want to study music. What do you think?” And he said, “Music? No way! You’re gonna starve if you study music (laughs)!” I said, “But that’s what I want to study.” He said, “Well, you can do it if you want. But I won’t support you. I’ll only support you if you do something else. Something real.” I was also very interested in Mathematics, and so I said okay, maybe I can study Mathematics and just do music next to my studies, which I did. As soon as I finished my studies, I got a job as a math teacher, and I kept that going on.
For me, personally, I don’t have to earn any money with music. I earn enough money, teaching math. That supports me and my basic needs. I’m completely independent of any financial considerations when I record music. I know that’s unique in a certain way, because a lot of musicians don’t have that. I also know a lot of musicians who think people like me … that’s a bad sign. It means you should support yourself elsewhere, and do music as a hobby. So a lot of people don’t like the way I do it. But for me personally, it always worked very well. Of course I spend a lot of time teaching, but I have enough time for music and I can still do a lot of things that I do, and that works very well.
Of course it’s difficult for the other guys in Sonar because they … I mean, Manuel is a professional drummer, so he has to earn money. Christian is actually an artist. He does a lot of things in the arts. But he has a family now, so he needs an income, too. So now we’re in the situation where we have to have a certain basic income. We can’t play for free. Fortunately, we are able to get funding from the Swiss Arts Council sometimes, so that’s been a great help. We also have a very good record label with Rare Noise, which also supports us. So we’re getting along okay, you know? There’s no way we can earn a living from that, but we don’t have to. For Manuel, it’s not a full-time job being in Sonar. It’s something he can do as one part of the many things that he does.
How do you look at streaming in terms of Spotify, Apple Music and the like? I’m an old-school guy, and I don’t care for streaming, but where do you sit?
Well I’m also an old-school guy, absolutely. (Streaming) feels so wrong, and it feels so terrible. I really find it disturbing how people grow up thinking (streaming) is normal and music is free and you can get it anywhere. That’s something I really can’t relate to. I think musicians should be paid and they should be paid well, because they’re doing important things. A culture without music would be terrible, in my opinion. Life would be much sadder if there was no music around. I think (music) is a very important contribution to society. And I think it should be paid as well as other (occupations) are paid. And that’s definitely not the case with streaming. You earn next to nothing with streaming.
What’s on your bucket list, musically? What do you want to do that you haven’t done?
I always wanted to write for an orchestra. That’s something I really haven’t done. I’ve written some things I recorded on my computer, like simulations. I would like to do more chamber music. I’m hoping to do an album one day with chamber music for a string quartet and piano pieces and stuff like that. I already wrote one piece for percussion ensembles. I’m probably gonna write some more. I want to do a second Fractal Guitar album. It will take a while. I’m sure it’s not gonna be finished soon, but that’s something I definitely want to do. And write more compositions for different ensembles. And play with other people! Play with people I like. With Sonar, the idea is that we are a quartet, which we can play alone. Or, we can add people, like we’ve added David for this album.
Maybe next album, it will be somebody else. It depends on how long David wants to play with us or how long we want to play with him (laughs). It’s working really well now, but there are also difficulties, because he lives in New York and we live here. So it’s not that simple. Getting him over here is always very expensive with flights and his gear. It’s really a challenge. So we’re open to anything that presents itself in the future with playing with other people or playing something completely different, like with strings or a percussion ensemble. I don’t know. We’ll see.
My goal is to use this musical concept I have with these very simple cells of ideas that grow into complex things. I want to try that out in very different contexts. I think there’s still a lot to do in that direction.
When Adrian Belew comes to town, I’m always there. While I always enjoy the music he brings with him, an artist’s sound is only as good as the band he brings with him. And Belew’s bands are always top-shelf.
Bassist Julie Slick has become a mainstay in Belew’s bands. In the first Power Trio, Slick was joined by her younger brother Eric on drums. The younger Slick has since moved on to Dr. Dog, where he continues to make a major impact. Slick was briefly replaced by progressive rock stalwart Marco Minnemann (The Aristocrats, Steven Wilson). I was eager to see this dynamic young drummer at work in person. But it wasn’t meant to be. Minnemann, too, moved on to other pastures. When the Three of a Perfect Trio tour hit town in 2011, Belew brought with him a drummer named Tobias Ralph.
I didn’t know Ralph from a hole in the wall, but it didn’t take long to realize he belonged behind that kit with this band. Belew may have a penchant for pop-oriented material, but those songs are laden with complexities, and require a drummer with massive amounts of dexterity. This applied even more to the King Crimson material being played as part of The Crimson ProjeKct, a sextet featuring Belew’s trio and the Stick Men (Tony Levin on Chapman Stick, Markus Reuter on U8 touch guitar, and Pat Mastelotto on drums). The song “Indiscipline,” one of the highlights of the set, features a six-minute drum “battle” between Mastelotto and Ralph. Smiles were abound from both audience and remaining band members while those two duked it out.
Ralph brings with him a musical sensibility built on the principles of progressive rock and jazz. Born and raised in New York City, he has been playing the drums since the age of four, and played his first professional gig behind R&B legend Chaka Khan at the age of 12. His talents took him through the La Guardia High School of Music and Performing Arts and the Berklee College of Music. In addition to Belew, Ralph has also played with Screaming Headless Torsos, Lauryn Hill, 24-7 Spyz, and former Living Colour bassist Muzz Skillings, among others.
While he can certainly hold a basic 4/4, he plays complex polyrhythms and alternate time signatures as though he has four arms. My many attempts to photograph the man at work led to little more than a determined face of concentration, and a complete and utter blur where his hands and sticks were supposed to be. On a personal level, Ralph is one of the kindest and most personable musicians I have ever met. He shocked me the last time I saw him in person, greeting me with a warm embrace and the memory of both my name and what we talked about the first time we met. Moments like that are to be cherished forever.
In the meantime, Ralph can be found teaching full-time at the Collective School of Music, gigging with various groups, and giving tutorials online via his social media pages.
Tobias Ralph was kind enough to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs while at home in New York.
CirdecSongs: Who are your influences, and how do they affect your playing?
Tobias Ralph: My main influences would be Billy Cobham and my dad. Billy was and is so amazing! He always put every ounce of energy into his performances, and played with such intensity all the time. Plus he wrote such challenging, incredible music! My dad instilled in me to never give up, and that if you want something, you have to practice hard and regularly. Just never give up!
When did you know you’d made the right move to become a musician?
I made the decision to become a musician when I won the first Buddy Rich Memorial Scholorship in high school. I made a video and it was judged by Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Louis Bellson and Don Famularo. It was such a pivotal moment! I knew there was nothing else I could do!
Tell me about an “I love my job” moment.
I think when I got into the Crimson ProjeKCt, and we were playing Frame By Frame. I looked at Adrian and Tony and there I was playing Bill Bruford’s parts with them! I totally lost it! That was definitely a ‘I love my job!’ moment.
Where do you want to take your instrument from here?
I just want to continue to figure out ways to make people dance and solo at the same time! To continue to put the energy out in a positive way, so that people will respond right back to it in an equally positive way.
What is the most difficult aspect of your profession?
Having people take you seriously! Dealing with the judgements of ‘oh your playing is not flavor of the month’ because you don’t play like some guy who is the next big thing! And of course getting paid- a) on time b) and whether it’s enough or not!
What else should people know about Tobias Ralph?
That I’m an avid runner. I run six days a week, anywhere from three to 18 miles. I try to go early in the morning before I teach, like around 6 a.m. Sometimes I go late at night after a gig. It’s so peaceful! I’ve done four triathlons, and I’m training for my first marathon. A personal highlight was making it through a 20-mile run in 90-degree heat!
You’re behind your kit. Your dream band is in front of you. Who’s there?
My dream band would be Devin Townsend, Chick Corea, Chaka Khan, Tosin Albasi and Evan Marien. All opposite ends of the musical spectrum!
The best musicians have a signature sound. Regardless of instrument or effects, the musicians sound comes through in the mix, no matter what. Bryan Beller is one of those musicians. His bass is a mark of distinction throughout the progressive rock world.
Beller and his bass have found themselves side by side with some of the best musicians in the world, like Joe Satriani (whom he’s toured with since 2013), Mike Keneally (a musical partner for more than 20 years), Steve Vai (where he can be seen playing on 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are DVD), and Dweezil Zappa. Beller is also one-third of the instrumental rock/fusion band called The Aristocrats, along with guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Marco Minnemann. They are currently on tour in support of their fourth album, You Know What …? Beller wrote and produced three of the songs on the album, like his bandmates. His heavy, rich, low-end sound can be raw and aggressive, or delicate and tasteful, depending on what the song calls for. These are the skills that keep a top-flight musician in demand.
Beller is releasing an ambitious new solo album, Scenes from the Flood, this September on RJPR music. It is a concept album that asks, according to Beller, “When the storm comes for us, the one after which things will never be the same, what do we keep, and what do we let go?” The album’s idea is so ambitious, Beller spent nearly a decade putting it all together. The results of his efforts are obvious from the opening strains of the first song.
When he’s not on the road or recording, Beller also participates in clinics, passing his knowledge on to the next generation of aspiring musicians.
Bryan Beller was kind enough to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: How do you define the Bryan Beller sound?
Bryan Beller: My main live sound is a fairly bright modern jazz bass, with lots of chime and life in the attack. But in the end, I’m just trying to do what’s right for the song, so I have some darker and smoother options at the ready. I hope people can hear a personality and consistency regardless of whatever instrument I pick up, but it’s not for me to say what that exactly is.
Who are your influences, and how do they affect your playing?
My main playing influences are John Paul Jones, Flea, Jaco Pastorius, Tim Commerford from Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave, John Patitucci, and Scott Thunes from Frank Zappa’s last touring band. They all contribute in some way or another, and I guess the blend has solidified over the years. But there’s all sorts of other players I’ve heard that creep in there as well, I’m sure, even if it’s not consciously happening.
Aside from your bass, what’s the one piece of equipment you can’t do without?
My laptop! 2013 MacBookPro 13″ Retina. Best purchase I’ve ever made. (Yes, Apple, you can send me royalties now.)
What are the biggest challenges facing musicians like yourself today?
Just trying to find time to Do All The Things: Play and practice, manage your tone and gear, promote and be present on social media, travel, manage regular life stuff, and sometimes even sleep. 24 hours never seems to be enough for all of it.
Tell me about one of your favorite “I love my job”’ moments.
Being onstage with Dethklok at the New York City show, and seeing my parents’ mouths (they were in a special balcony seating area) open into perfect “o’s” when the show started and the moshpit opened up.
Tell me about your current projects, and what potentially lies ahead.
My main focus right now is on my soon-to-be-released new solo album. It’s a huge thing, a progressive double concept album called Scenes From the Flood. 18 songs, 88 minutes, and 26 musicians including Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Guthrie Govan, Mike Keneally, Mike Dawes, Gene Hoglan from Dethklok, Ray Hearne from Haken, Joe Travers, and many more. The first single called “The Storm” is out now and there’s a YouTube video for it at https://youtu.be/kw3flhVQ2Wc. It’s coming out on two CD’s in an 8-panel digipack (with two 20-page booklets) and a double vinyl gatefold with a 24-page booklet. There’s even colored vinyl (purple). It’s a hugely ambitious project that deals with themes of ambition and loss, intentionality and reality, and hope and disillusionment. Deep stuff, but that’s what was there for me so I needed to get it out. I’m intensely proud of it. It’s available for presale now at my website, www.bryanbeller.com.
On the lighter side, I’m on tour with The Aristocrats from now until the end of August throughout North America. That’s my instrumental rock/fusion power trio with Guthrie Govan on guitar and Marco Minnemann on drums. And we definitely do NOT take things too seriously. Our new album which just came out is called “You Know What…?” and it’s a cool combination of tricky music and breaking the fourth wall from time to time, with little winks and nods to the listener. We’ll also go to Europe starting in November for a good long while.
Where do you want to take your instrument from here?
Oh, I’m just happy to support the song. I’m not really looking to take the instrument anywhere, other than hopefully to the next gig. 😉
JOE NARDULLI (AD ASTRA)
New York City’s Ad Astra caught my attention at the 2018 Progtoberfest in Chicago. Progressive rock (especially the instrumental kind) can be seen by some musicians as an open invitation to indulge themselves, playing every note they can as they do so. The reason Ad Astra intrigued me is because they did the polar opposite. Their songs were melodic, economical and tasteful. They were also pretty heavy. In fact, I found myself thinking that I was listening to a slightly heavier version of legendary guitarist Eric Johnson. The guitarist I was actually listening to was the band’s leader, Joe Nardulli.
When we spoke after the show, Nardulli cited Johnson as one of his musical influences, along with Joe Satriani and others. He and his bandmates — keyboardist Eric Davis, bassist Harold Skeete, and drummer Tony Savasta — are experienced musicians who understand the importance of putting the song above all else. That tunefulness has allowed Ad Astra to release two albums (they are currently working toward a third) and to establish themselves as a go-to band in the American northeast, where they have opened for bass legend Stu Hamm, played the ProgDay International Festival, performed at the renowned My Father’s Place on Long Island, and taken up residency at the New Jersey ProgHouse. If not for day jobs and family obligations, Ad Astra might be very well taking its music around the world on a regular basis. Such is the life of the modern musician.
Joe Nardulli took time from his very hectic schedule and answered Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: What sparked your interest in music, and ultimately led you to play guitar?
Joe Nardulli: My parents always had music playing in the house; Sinatra, Pavarotti, Streisand and the like. In the 5thgrade my school offered a guitar class, so I picked it up and started getting into it. I took a few years of private lessons but ultimately ended up teaching myself from listening to players I liked. I was a bookworm in school, so guitar always took a back seat to my engineering studies. I didn’t take guitar seriously until I graduated college and had a full-time job. Once I had my studies/career settled, I spent my free time trying to get better on the instrument.
How do you describe Ad Astra’s approach to music?
I’m really a “song” guy; I love strong melodies and great arrangements. That is the ultimate focus. However, the ideas I come up with always seem to involve shifting odd-time grooves and interesting chord changes, so the music has a distinct “Progressive” vibe. I also like to keep the music “moving,” keeping the groove going and the compositions focused, so the listener stays engaged. Because melody and arrangement are paramount, the result (I hope) is a strong song with enough Prog insanity to satisfy the discriminating listener, while perking up the ears of those who aren’t necessarily fans of Progressive Rock.
What do you enjoy most about playing with your band mates?
We’ve been blessed enough to not only find great players to perform this music with, but who are also great people. There’s nothing like typical band drama to ruin a good situation, and luckily there’s none of that in Ad Astra. We have a great time rehearsing, writing and performing together. The road trips for travel gigs are always fun. With our hectic work and family responsibilities, we don’t get to practice as often as we’d like, but when the gig comes around, we are always prepared and perform our best. We enjoy a great sense of camaraderie that allows us to focus on the music.
What’s the greatest challenge involved in presenting your music?
Well, four words: “Original Instrumental Progressive Rock (laughs)!” It’s really tough getting good gigs because the genre isn’t that popular, then throw in the fact that there are no vocals; on top of that, it’s original music. Clubs typically want to book us on a Tuesday night, and (then) wonder why nobody shows up. With cover/tribute acts getting all the good weekend slots, it makes it difficult to attract a new audience to our music. Luckily, we’ve made enough of an impression in the “Progressive Rock” world to get some really good gigs at festivals that cater to the genre. We performed at the ProgDay Festival in 2016 and Progtoberfest in 2018, allowing us to get good exposure to those who never heard of us before. We’ve also done a few shows at the New Jersey ProgHouse that have been great with getting a new audience.
Tell me about your current and/or future projects?
Ad Astra is the only musical project I’ve got going right now. We have some cool gigs lined up in late-summer with the amazing French Prog/Fusion band MÖRGLBL. Those guys are smokin’! We are psyched to do a few shows with them in the northeast for their upcoming U.S. tour. We continue to write music for a new album. We have about five songs written, two of which are in the current set. Hopefully we can get recording later this year. With our job/family responsibilities, teenagers in college, aging parents to take care of, etc., it’s been difficult for us to find the time to get the writing & recording process going for a new album.
What is the most important thing listeners can get from your music?
I’ve always felt that our music imparts a positive, uplifting vibe. As I said, I like to engage the listener with strong melodies and interesting arrangements. I would hope that they walk away feeling good! Also, this is difficult music to perform, with an audience that demands excellence and a high degree of proficiency on your instrument, so it would also be cool if people walked away thinking, “Those guys can play!”
Who would you love to collaborate with, or have play one of your compositions?
My two favorite overall musicians are Simon Phillips and Virgil Donati, both drummers! But, more importantly, they are drummers who also compose great music. I would absolutely love to write music with them. That would be a dream come true.
Courtney Swain is one intensely driven musician. Her primary role is that of lead vocalist and keyboardist for avant-pop band Bent Knee, a group almost constantly in motion, be it on the road or in the studio. Their output can be described as nothing short of prolific. The Boston-based group personifies the classic vision of the recording/touring/recording/touring-oriented music group. One would think a breather from this level of activity would warrant a well-earned rest.
Yet the Muse seems to be in a methodical, but giving mood where Swain is concerned. The song ideas keep coming, and she continues to make the most of these opportunities in the form of solo projects. Her latest, Between Blood and Ocean, displays all the passion and fire of Bent Knee, presented from a slightly different angle. The songs on this album are just as deep and meaningful, but presented with a (mostly) softer touch. Swain’s music envelops the listener, enabling them to feel exactly what she is out to convey with seemingly minimal effort on her part. No doubt this was difficult to accomplish, but the best at something often make what they do look easy.
Swain also brought along a completely new group of musicians for this record, taking her sound to a new and different place. It is a journey well worth taking.
Lest one believe the solo album is a harbinger of things to come, Swain is already back at work with Bent Knee, putting together a new album and preparing to hit the road with Thank You Scientist for a summer tour. In the midst of all this activity, Courtney Swain somehow found the time to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: What, in your mind, is the unifying theme behind your new album, Between Blood and Ocean?
Courtney Swain: Vulnerability, guilt, soul-searching, eventually culminating into self love and self acceptance.
How do you determine which songs are destined for Bent Knee, and which are best kept to yourself?
Since our last album (Land Animal) we’ve taken a different approach with Bent Knee writing, where we start songs together as a band. This has made the “sorting” process a lot simpler… In the past, I think I was setting aside songs I heard live drums on for Bent Knee. That being said, I’ve found that I write in spurts rather than in a consistent stream, so I’m rarely springing songs and asking myself what to do with it. I usually write with intension as to where that song is going to land.
Explain the methodology behind your songwriting.
I usually start by finding a riff on the piano, synth, or any instrument that gets me excited about the song it could lead to. Then I start jotting down words/thoughts, or I’ll go back through my journals to find some words that feel right. Then I try to sing the words over the lyrics in some intriguing way. When I write lyrics I’m often just looking for the right sound or feel, so I tend to throw whatever comes to my mind on the paper. The writing is very broad strokes, and I’m not great with detail. It’s a really exciting activity for me, and I’ll go back and listen to the demo or play the song over and over. My production chops are pretty dismal, but I can hear where i want it to go from the demo, and it gets me really amped.
What are you eager to accomplish in music that has eluded you thus far?
Something I’ve been working on pretty seriously is trying to make music more regularly (daily), and without putting as much pressure on it. When I was growing up I practiced piano an hour a day, but it was always because my parents made me. I never learned to enjoy the act of playing or practicing. I’ve never been able to enjoy jamming that much, either. That’s something I’m trying to change my mindset around. Put another way; I’d like to accomplish having a better relationship with music. I feel like I have a decent relationship with music as a performer and a professional, but I don’t have a relationship with music as a friend or a companion in life.
You arrangements have a lot of “space” in them. It gives the music a lot of room to breathe. How did you go about creating the album’s sound?
I’m kind of obsessed with SLOW tempos and lots of space. Songs like Bent Knee’s “Boxes,” and “Sand Angels” off my new album were created from that obsession. The “space” factor is also largely thanks to Vince’s contributions. Before he hits the mixing stage, Vince spends a lot of time with the arrangement of the songs. He doesn’t have the attachment to the parts and sections as much as I do as the person who wrote and played a lot of them, so he’s not afraid to cut or change parts in the interest of making the song the best it can be.
Talk about what led you to choose these particular musicians for the album.
Tim (Doherty, guitar on “Sweet Snow”), Asher (Kurtz, guitar), Kyle (Harris, drums), and Jed (Lingat, bass) are all some of my closest friends. When I decided I wanted other musicians to help me make this album, they were some of my bucket-list people to play with. They all brought really special moments to the album, and I’m so grateful that they were willing to play and lend me their musicality.
Name a couple of singers you would most like to hear sing one of your songs.
That’s an interesting question. I think I could go on for a while, but some top names are: Fiona Apple, Lafawndah, James Blake, Nai Palm, Charlotte Church, Kimbra, Moses Sumney, and St. Vincent.
The 21st century has brought forth a new generation of dynamic young jazz musicians. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su is a standout among them.
Inspired by her musical heroes and her adopted home of New York City, Su created her third album, City Animals, which beautifully captures the city’s frantic and frenetic intensity.
Su has eschewed the piano in her current quintet, making hers the only instrument capable of playing chords. This opens up a great deal of space, leaving her able to create unique sonic landscapes as both lead instrument and in support of her single-note playing counterparts.
Su also understands the importance of not overplaying, giving her music an organic quality and enabling her cohorts to shine in the space provided. The end result is a groove-laden, energetic album full of marvelous song craft and a great sense of fun. City Animals is an album worthy of exploration.
Yuhan Su took timeout of her busy schedule to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: What pushed you down this musical path (jazz)?
Yuhan Su: I’ve always liked the idea of creating something new. I like writing short stories, poetry, songs and I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was a teenager. I think creativity is something I’ve always known is within me, and jazz came to my world when I was in college, fulfilling my dream of doing creative things in music.
I grew up studying classical music in Taiwan — majoring in Percussion and minoring in Piano — until I finished with a Masters degree from Taipei University of the Arts. Gary Burton and Chick Corea came to Taiwan for their anniversary duo tour, and watching them play and communicate with each other so naturally really inspired me. I wanted to learn to speak out for myself entirely in music, which I think is improvisation. So I went to Berklee College of Music to pursue Jazz Vibraphone Performance.
How do you describe your compositional style?
There is often something I specifically want to catch or remember in each of my compositions. It can be memories, movements, textures, shapes, dynamics, or something else. I try to re-create those events in a musical way. I like listening to lots of different styles of music, and because I grew up playing lots of 20th century composers’ percussion music, I think it had a major impact on me and my writing.
What do you enjoy most about jazz?
I like the tradition of making something simple into something grand because of the music’s unlimited possibilities. You really get to learn different ways of playing a jazz song while checking out records from history, like how to re-create forms, make new melodies, and exploring different rhythms and grooves. These things constantly fascinate me.
Talk about City Animals, how you brought it to life, and what you want listeners to get out of it.
After I released my second record A Room of One’s Own, I decided to re-shape the sound of my quintet. I added a saxophone instead of a guitar to the band, so I got to write more two-part counterpoint melodies in order to create more sonic tension. I was also able to explore some quality trio moments with only the vibraphone, drums, and bass. City Animals album is a collection of compositions that I wrote for catching the heartbeat of New York City and memories from being on the road. There is also a suite inspired by a Chinese mythology about a Kua Fu (giant) who chased the sun. On this record, I want to express the sense of energy to keep moving forward, letting things form or fall into its own beauty along the way.
Musically I wanted to create the contrast in rhythm, harmony, and musical space. I like writing thoroughlycomposed material to build clear direction of the music’s structure, but I also want my band members to have enough creative freedom to paint this sound with one another.
There appear to be more female bandleaders in jazz than ever before. How have the politics of gender in the music industry affected your career path?
I always root for the idea that I want people to see me as an artist, not emphasizing gender. Every individual artist has their own strengths, character and uniqueness. That may involve gender, but I don’t want it to be the main impression people use to make their judgments.
I will say it has mostly been an advantage to be a woman in jazz. It also has its own negative side.For example, I think sometimes it’s harder to get people to take you seriously, so I do my best to work hard on my craft and be firm with what I do.
Where would you like to take your instrument from here, musically?
To be honest, I’m still thinking about it, after releasing three records in a relatively short period of time. Vibraphone is an instrument full of possibilities. It can be used in different positions of a band and create diverse effects for the music. That’s what I love about it! I want to keep pushing forward with this idea.
So what I want to do is to start playing with both smaller and larger ensembles. I want to have a trio playing more improvisational-based music, and also write for a larger ensemble playing more thoroughly composed music.
You’re leading your dream band. Who is playing behind you? It can be anyone, living or dead, from any era.
This is a challenging and interesting question. There is some my idols I really would love to play with, like Mark Turner, Ralph Alessi, Ben Monder, David Virelles, Linda Oh, Marcus Gilmore (some of whom I’ve gotten to play with over the years). Sometimes the combination of musicians and the music’s context will affect the setting of a dream band.
I was re-listening to Miles Davis’s Miles Smiles this week, and I am stunned by the music. Specifically how the individual jazz giants contributed to this music and let it become a magical whole. So I would really love to experience being on that bandstand, with Miles Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. It’s crazy even thinking about it!
To call Deborah De La Torre (aka “La Cocodrila”) a Latin Jazz musician is to sell her short. While she most certainly plays jazz piano, and she most certainly makes the most of her Cuban heritage, that is but a mere hint of what lies beneath her musical surface. This Crocodile possesses a much deeper bite.
De La Torre does what the best jazz musicians do: rather than take root in the previously defined parameters of her genre and pursue the obvious, she uses those sounds as a jumping off point, pushing her music beyond its preconceived limits, bringing other influences and thought processes along for the ride.
On her debut album ¡Coño! (But with a Swing), De La Torre shifts time signatures, rips off odd chords, burns through trippy single-note runs, and adds the deft touch of a classical pianist to a marvelous musical stew. This is not to be confused with a soup, which blends all the ingredients into one defined outcome. Rather, each element De La Torre brings to the table can be distinguished while being part of the greater whole.
The Denver, Colorado-based musician has spent her life preparing for this moment, a fact not lost on CirdecSongs when first reviewing her album. From the sound of things, this is just the beginning. When she’s not composing or performing, De La Torre is teaching, spreading her wisdom and enthusiasm for music to the next generation of aspiring musicians.
La Cocodrila was kind enough to take some time out of her day to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: What led you to jazz?
Deborah “La Cocodrila” De La Torre: While I was in elementary school in sixth grade, famed composer/arranger/ clinician and trumpeter Victor Lopez, who wasa band teacher at the time, brought his junior high school jazz band to play for us. I recall they played a couple of jazz standards and a Latin tune or two.That event shocked me, because up until that point I had only seen adults perform jazz in movies on TV andIhad never seen children play in a band. That night at home, I begged my parents to let me join the band next year, and convinced them to buy me a flute and pay for lessons.
I did get to play in Mr.Lopez’s middle school jazz band for a while, but my parents kept me firmly on the classical track due to their traditional views on a “proper” music education for young ladies. The closest I could get to jazz or Latin rhythms was when I was able to study Lecuona, Ginastera and some Gershwin, or when I taught myself how to play every TV jingle, cartoon and movie theme, everything on the radio, Latin songs, holiday tunes, etc. all by ear. Looking back, I think my life would have been different had my parents known of a private teacher who specialized in jazz piano, especially since I had been writing music since I was very young, and even won a few contests.
Meanwhile, my classical piano lessons were sometimes at my teacher’s university campus studio on Saturdays. I could hear the university jazz band rehearsing upstairs and was blown away by how thrilling and exciting that music was, but it might as well have been happening on the moon. During my lessons, as I dutifully worked through my Bach or Chopin, I would pretend that the jazz students upstairs could hear me playing, and that they would come downstairs and knock on my teacher’s door, and ask me to join them. Quite the fantasy, I know, but I sat through many piano lessons playing out this exact scenario in my mind, week after week. I eventually played keyboard in my high school jazz band, and the jazz rhythms and Latin melodic structures that had been within me all along began to emerge as I studied music composition in college in that same university, in the building next door.
Explain how your influences impact your compositions.
Stravinsky’s music was another strong influence, and I admit that I am impatient with staying within one time signature for too long, because I get restless and feel that meter can operate as a restraint. My construction, my architecture, and my improv are all very intentional. Change, randomness, control, rhythm and melody are how I build my music. I would describe my melodies as jagged and even straining at times, maybe “acute” is another good word. They are not at rest, and they are not at peace, and even in “El Sudor,” which is a slow and sensual song, there is a great deal of tension.
Basically, my melodies are all straining to move forward or to get to another place. Lecuona’s lush chords and Cuban charm are always with me, but then I wonder about the musical career of his sister Ernestina who taught him how to play piano, and his cousin Margarita who composed “Babalu Aye” — made famous by Ricky Ricardo – who were these women and why don’t we learn about them as well? I also love Ornette Coleman’s thought-provoking interval constructionin his song “Peace” for example. However, my intervals and melodies are admittedly not as sweet, they are harsh, more vicious.
I think about Phineas Newborn Jr.’s career and life story quite often, and his astonishing technique, a true genius. Had I known about him, or Nina Simone, as a small child, I know my career would have been different. Her courage inspires me, but I also think about the difficulties she faced throughout her life, what she said with her verbal words and through her musical words and phrases. Keeping all of the above in my heart, I want to be as honest as I can in my music, and I have a lot more to say, musically.
What would be the most important aspect listeners can take from your new album?
I hope that the listeners enjoy the music, but I would also like them to hear the construction, how the melodic threads and rhythms worked together or in contrast, basically the craft of the compositions, the tools and techniques used in building each song. Maybe someone will say, “ah! I see/hear what you did there!” But mostly I hope that the listeners will get to know me, who I am musically, and what I’m trying to say through my music. I’m hoping they will “get it” and “get me.”
What are you looking for when you choose a band mate?
This is harder to talk about, as it’s deeply personal, and involves relationship-building. Great musicians are super busy, so locking-down a project is tricky. Also, my charts are on the thick side, so we need to spend time working together, and being professional goes without saying. I believe that someone who is strongly rooted within a Caribbean/Latinx musical tradition, someone who is deeply passionate about it, will hear what I’m trying to say through my music. I also think there has to be some chemistry between the musicians too!
Also, they need to be willing to keep pushing their own boundaries because my musical expression will continue to evolve, develop and change, and I’m hoping the same for them. As I said, I’m restless and have a lot more to say and do. The ideal band members would be interested in building new things with me, but I also love hearing what they can bring to the music.
As structured as I sound, what I typically say in rehearsals are things like, “explore that some more, keep on going,” or “go ahead and break out of the box and do your thing, go for it.” I appreciate it when the other musicians respect my work, but I also want them to be themselves as much as possible. If we can do this together, then it’s amazing.
Putting this first record together was thrilling but also intimidating, overall.However, I’ll never forget how wonderful it was. All the musicians on the album were great to work with. Thomas Blomster on percussion and Ron Bland on bass brought their extensive knowledge, virtuosity, and professional history into their work, and were extremely sensitive and dedicated to the integrity of my compositions. The studio staff was also great, and I’d like to think we’ve all become good friends from this experience. Those were some of the happiest and fulfilling days of my life and I can’t wait to do it all over again (soon!).
The number of female jazz bandleaders continues to increase. How have the politics of gender within the music industry affected your work?
This is a very important topic, and I just taught a master class at the university where I teach titled, “Latinas in the Commercial Music Industry,” and it was interesting to see how the students, visitors, and colleagues wanted to share their experiences after the talk.
I believe it’s true that the topic of gender has been at front and center at every turn in this business. For example, women working their way up in the music industry have learned to be careful even when they confide in someone, as well as whether or not to report receiving inappropriate behavior or treatment because of the risk of retaliation, demotion, or lost opportunities at the hands of powerful gatekeepers. I’m also aware of how being a Latina bandleader has the potential to impact how I’m viewed and even treated by other musicians and industry people, an aspect I’ve kept in mind when developing my brand (“La Cocodrila”)!
There is some great academic research being written on the politics of gender in music, which explores how people are dealing with associations and expectations about music and musicians, which can be subsequently impacted by the listener’s or observer’sgender, race, ethnicity, cultural context, religion, and even politics. When I was growing up, girls were expected to either sing or play the piano and boys learned the trumpet or drums. Girls were less likely to grow up to be composers, music directors, conductors, or bandleaders. They were more likely, however, to be a private piano teacher or lead a children’s choir.
Today, recording studios are still mostly owned and operated by men, senior-level executives are mostly men, club owners are mostly men, and all-female bands are still considered a novelty. Rolling Stone magazine just published an article (April 29, 2019) describing how “diversity in radio ownership is vanishing” with 7% of radio stations being female-owned, and 3% minority owned.
What are your feelings toward the digital forms of music distribution (streams and downloads) versus the classic forms (LPs and CDs), particularly where the distribution of royaltiesareconcerned?
First of all, (May 5th) is the seven-month anniversary of my record release! I’m so proud and amazed that my music is becoming known and I’ve been very fortunate and very grateful to have received such positive reviews! I’d like to say another BIG THANK YOU to everyone who has taken the time to review my work and write about it. I am not taking any of this for granted! Throughout the past seven months, I’ve been continuing to send my CDs out into the world and am very fortunate to be getting spins on the radio and to be included in podcasts.
Regarding digital distribution, it is clear that the top artists are doing well on digital platforms while “the rest of us” will have to work really hard to swim upstream. As I was gearing up to release this record, I had to put my learning curve into overdrive to read everything and anything I could find on this subject. What I kept reading was that for emerging artists, building up the audience is key, so one should get the music out there on every platform possible, which honestly becomes expensive.
CDs are more practical than vinyl, and download cards are easier to hand out if you meet someone on a plane or overseas because disc drives and CD players are disappearing. People want to access the music on their phone first, and they’ll let me know how they listen, but many peopleI’ve spoken to will dig around to find a free version to listen to before they are forced to pay for it, such as a station or podcast that plays their favorite genre and, if they have to, pay a subscription, but ideally not.
The metrics from digital distribution are very useful and important from a business standpoint (i.e., planning a tour, a marketing campaign or designing merch).Regarding ROI (return on investment), commercial music is a business, and one doesn’t typically expect to make a profit the first three years of any business. The word out there is that the money comes from shows and merch sold at or after the shows, and licensing is another way to see some profit.
You are the leader of your dream band. Which musicians are playing behind you? Choose whomever you like, from any era.
My dream would be to play as a trio with two current superstars: the amazing Sheila E. on percussionand the brilliant Esperanza Spalding on bass. I don’t know if they have ever worked together before, but being able to work with both of them at the same time would put me up in the clouds!
Spend enough time exploring progressive rock, and eventually you will bump into Markus Reuter.
The German touch-guitarist is part of the ever-expanding King Crimson family tree. A student of Guitar Craft (a Robert Fripp-led instructional unit) since the early 90’s, Reuter has made himself a virtual mainstay in the world of Prog, orchestral, and ambient music. This does not include his talents as a producer.
Reuter began professional career playing the Chapman Stick in the early to mid-1990’s, switching to the Warr Guitar before the end of the decade. Ever the innovator, Reuter designed and developed his own touch guitars, the U8 and the U10. Regardless of which instrument he uses, Reuter has carved his own voice into the musical landscape.
As one third of Stick Men (along with Crimson members Tony Levin on Stick and Mastelotto on drums), Reuter has dazzled audiences around the world. I first heard his name as a member of Centrozoon in the mid- to late 90’s. But he really captured my attention during the Three of a Perfect Trio tour in 2011.
Reuter performed not only in Stick Men, but as one-sixth of The Crimson ProjeKct, a band specializing in 80’s and 90’s King Crimson compositions, along with Levin, Mastelotto, bassist Julie Slick, drummer Tobias Ralph, and guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew. With his touch guitar, Reuter provided the perfect Fripp-like guitar foil Belew needed, not only playing the Crimson founder’s parts, but giving them his own personality in the process.
When Stick Men isn’t on the road, Reuter manages to stay incredibly busy producing, collaborating, and performing in other contexts. On April 12, he will release Heartland, a string quartet suite Reuter composed. It is a project that has been on his mind for quite some time.
Reuter exudes passion when talking about composing and performing music. His tone can be misconstrued as mild arrogance, which is light years from the case. Rather, it is an air of confidence and determination that comes from being a seasoned veteran of the music world, along with being a master innovator.
Reuter was kind enough to talk to CirdecSongs from his home in Berlin. In addition to his passion, he proved to be kind, affable, and quite funny. I have to give the man credit for his memory, because he remembered our first encounter at the 2011 Crimson ProjeKct show. Why he remembered me is a mystery. From a personal standpoint, this chat was a great way to kick off a new interview series.
CirdecSongs: You’re a man of many musical hats. Which hat do you find yourself wearing most often these days?
Markus Reuter: You know, I think that there is only one hat, and it’s music. I think that it’s really just one hat, but I love music so much that I do look into all the nooks and crannies. I’m looking into every single detail, every single niche that I can find. I’m always interested in learning about music. And that’s why on the outside it looks like I’m wearing these different hats. But it’s all music.
What am I doing most at the moment? That’s a good question. As a contemporary artist living in these times, you have to do a lot more than what people actually see. People see me most when I’m out touring with Stick Men. Not this year, but we used to play between 50 and 80 concerts a year, which is quite a lot for an independent band on an international level. My aim is to make interesting music for myself, something that inspires me, musically. First and foremost, the aim is to make that music. And then the project or the band or the circumstance arranges itself around that idea. I’m not putting together a band and then writing music for it. It’s like there is music in the air, and then the people come together to play that music. It’s a little bit like what Robert Fripp says about King Crimson. The music is there first, before there is a name or an idea for a lineup.
Music for me is very much an emotion. It’s something I feel inside. It’s not something I hear. A lot of musicians say when they’re talking about music, “I’m hearing this.” I hardly ever do that. I have a feeling for what it could be. I don’t necessarily know what it’s gonna sound like. You need to feel it. Which means, in practice, you embark on a process. You embark on a voyage to uncover the music. That’s always been so important to me, the process-based work.
Things are in a state of flux all the time, and that’s what I really love about working creatively. I myself get surprised along the way. Not just to listen to the end result. It’s really about the things that happen in the process of. And the “process of” is not finished with the product being out there. Then it’s the people listening to the music that continue the process. It’s sort of branching out to many directions, like some sort of cross-fertilization of spirits meeting. There’s the person making the music, and there are other people who want to listen to the music because they are looking for that same kind of expression.
That made me think of John McLaughlin.
Yeah! That’s why I cannot say what is the main hat. The main hat is the composer and the main hat is the producer because if I want to put the music out there, I’m the producer. Even if I’m on stage, playing, I’m making production choices in how I’m playing, in the sound I’m picking for a particular solo, or for a particular song. There’s always the music production. The presentation is always part of the playing as well. I just see myself as an “all-arounder.”
Some people reading this will be new to your musical world. Where would you want them to start? What’s a good entry point?
It depends on where people come from, in terms of musical taste. Historically, I started with performing and recording ambient music, which is something I still do. But I guess the collaborations with people who are better known, like Tony (Levin) for example. I think those collaborations are probably the ones that are most accessible for people who have never had contact with my playing or my compositional skills. So I’d say that Stick Men is a good starting point. Even though it doesn’t represent purely me, collaboration is a big part of what I do. Maybe Tuner – the project with Pat (Mastelotto) – is a little closer to what I’m about in rock music.
How close would you say you are to achieving your musical vision?
To me, it feels like I’ve only just started. But my vision is a really big thing. I would say I’m always getting very close when I’m working on a new project. But I don’t stop. My vision is not something that can be defined in such a way that I can say, “I’ve reached this point, and now there’s nothing more to say.” It’s almost like I’m building a workshop, in a way. And that’s my vision. My vision is this workshop, which grows and has more and more tools in it. And with those tools, I can create more music. And then that music re-informs what extra tools I want to get for my workshop.
At any given time, with the workshop I have, I always get very close to my musical vision. On April 12, there will be an album released of string quartets that I wrote last year. That will be a purely classical project. It’s not me playing. I’ve written the music for the string quartet format specifically. The idea for the compositional technique I used for the string quartets, I had when I was 15. So that’s 31 years ago!
That’s a long gestation period.
Yeah, but I needed to build the workshop throughout those 31 years to actually get to the point where this idea could be put into the real world. I really think that album is as close to my vision as it gets. Having said that, once I heard the recordings – and I’m very happy with them – if I were to do it again, I would do it differently! [Laughs] But I don’t see it like I want to revise what was done. It’s more like I want to write the second volume already.
The cool thing I can really say is that my own work inspires me. I think that’s a beautiful thing. It has nothing to do with arrogance. It’s just something that I feel. That any musical step I take does not take away from my inspiration or my vision. It’s quite the opposite. It gives me more ideas. It gives me more options.
How much would you say your playing has changed since the mid-90’s, when Guitar Craft took hold and you started doing more recording and have since designed your own instruments?
Up until I was 20 years old, I was never practicing an instrument seriously. I was born in ’72. I met Robert Fripp for the first time in ’91. Fripp was the first teacher to show me the value in using the musical instrument as something beyond just a tool to make music, but as a tool for training yourself, for self-development. It’s not just about the music. It’s about learning a skill.
With Fripp being such a master at his skill, he was really good at passing on that torch on to me. And since I started to play the Stick, I took the vibe of his drive. And Fripp’s drive was to become the best guitarist in the world. That’s what he wanted when he was 14.
I pick up the Stick, and it’s a very alien instrument. It’s not very ergonomic. It’s really hard to play. When I first picked it up, I realized either I do this seriously – I do this for real— or I need to forget about it. And then I decided okay, I’m gonna do this! And that was when things started to change.
Ninety-six was the time when I joined both Centrozoon and the Europa String Choir, which was a Guitar Craft band. The most important change, in terms of playing, happened as I was getting into live performance and into recording live in the studio. The biggest step for me was [pauses] … you know we have these little voices in our head that comment, especially if you’re performing. Everything you’re doing is being commented on (by that voice).
It’s not any better from the writing side.
Exactly! There was a 10-day recording project for an album that came out in 2000 called Lemon Crash (DGM). We practiced the piece during the day and recorded three takes at night. That was the process we used for the ten pieces on the album. I remember that at some point in the process – maybe on Day Four or Day Five – I suddenly realized those voices were not talking any more. I’m just playing the piece we’re recording. That was the major improvement, and that’s when I realized that I can be a professional musician. The inner voice –I didn’t shut it up or have to use force – but in that moment of concentration and focus, those voices knew not to interfere.
Because the voices realized you knew what you were doing.
Probably, yeah. And that was the same time Centrozoon (peaked). I think all the music from that era is very much intuitive, direct. I don’t think I was ever in the way of the music. I was just there for the music to come out.
How do you approach an instrument like the U8 or the U10?
That was – in a way – pretty easy, because I realized pretty early on that nobody knew how to play it. Nobody could give me any answers. So what I did is I looked at the things I knew I needed to be able to do. I knew I needed to be able to start a note and to stop a note. We know that’s the basics of music, before we even talk about dynamics or whatever. On a Stick or a touch guitar, it’s not that easy. It’s not like you have the key – like a mechanical part – that helps you strike the strings. It’s not like that. That’s because the finger is the hammer on the string. That was great realization, because I knew that I have to press the string down on to the fret. As long as I hold the string down, that gives me the sound. The note is ringing. Then when I raise the finger up ever so slightly so that the string does not touch the fret any more – but I’m still touching the string – that means that’s the end of the note. And only then can I move the finger off the string. That was a revelation I had very early on.
A lot of people who play this touch style are not aware of the fact that the finger has to stay on the string at the end of the note. They always take the fingers off. And that’s why a lot of players sound really messy, or it sounds unpleasant. Because they don’t control the end of the note! Every great guitarist really mutes the strings. It’s hardly ever talked about. People always talk about the notes, but they hardly ever talk about what is happening in between the notes.
Exactly! The transitions and the silence! Because there’s always some sort of action between the notes. You could be tiding notes over, or you could have notes distinctly separate from each other with a lot of break. Realizing that gave me a good starting point to develop a technique.
I came up with everything myself. I was practicing every day to discover how it works. Now I’ve been playing for 27 years. And even now, almost every other week, I’m making a new discovery. The strings (on a touch guitar) are much more alive than on a regular guitar. On a regular guitar, you have more tension, and the strings are shorter. With the long strings on the touch guitar, and the low tension, it’s very sensitive. So if you’re hitting very hard, all the strings are vibrating, even if you’re hitting only one note. In the back of your head, you always have to think about signal to noise ratios. So sometimes I’m playing a note with my right hand, and I’m using the strings around the string I’m hitting here. So the two hands are always working together to mute and to play. It doesn’t work any other way.
Let’s talk about (Stephan Thelan’s) Fractal Guitar, which is remarkable! Can you walk me through your production process?
With Sonar, (Stephan) doesn’t really get the chance to use a lot of color with those compositions, because the concept is that it’s all very stripped down. It’s just the guitars. They don’t even use distortion. It’s all clean sounds. They basically have this one sound. And within that sound, they create their compositions. So Stephan’s idea was to start from a similar place in terms of the style of the compositions. He asked several people to collaborate, and I was the first.
The way I approached it from the very beginning was I gave him lots of options. So he sent me a track, like a basic idea for a composition. At that point, the drums were still programmed and he hadn’t played any bass parts. I gave him, like, three to eight layers of parts. Soundscaping parts, solos, riffs … anything I could compose in that moment. I took between three and six hours per song to come up with parts. But those parts were never arranged, in a sense, because I wanted him, as the main guy, to make the choices. So I sent him back these long tracks of ideas. He then chopped them up, and used the bits that he wanted to use, and he created the landscape from the materials that I gave him. Then he asked other people to add other elements that way, like David Torn, who did quite a few long solos. Most of the other solos I’m playing, with the exception of two solos by other guys.
So in a way, from the very beginning, the production process started even though he hadn’t asked me at that point to be the producer. So later on, once he had compiled all the materials, he made some demo mixes. He always updated me on their status, and at some point, he asked me to produce it for him. Knowing the Sonar albums, I wanted to do something that was going beyond what those albums were.
Well, mission accomplished!
Yeah! For me, there’s no such thing as a good sound. For me, there is a good piece of art. You might have a painting that looks ugly in a way, or uses colors that fight with each other. But it can still be a great piece of art. So you see, I approach everything like that. Especially with Fractal Guitar, I wanted it to be something that is really outstanding in terms of musicality and colors and width and depth. I wanted it to be exciting and cushiony at the same time. The only things Stephan said to me was he wanted the landscape to be changing during the pieces. If you’re listening on headphones, you’re traveling through the pieces, within the pieces. You have the elements kind of floating like that. It’s very fluid, wonderfully clear, but also aggressive in parts. There are also some more abrasive sounds in there. But I think they all come together beautifully.
There are so many textures to the record. It amazed me. I wondered, “What possessed these people to come up with sounds like that? It’s not something you can put on a lead sheet or on a staff.”
Yeah, that would be impossible [laughs]. Every single sound I made, I created specifically for that album. Everything has been designed to be more than what you can write on a piece of paper. The texture and overtones of every single note are designed to be special. I can’t even remember when Stephan asked me to play for that project. I think it was three years ago. So it was good to have a lot of time for it to grow into something so complex and beautiful. And here’s another thing: the bass part is also played on a U8 – one of my instruments (that he designed) by Matt Tate.
What makes me chuckle is knowing if you guys take this music to the stage, I guarantee it will sound almost nothing like the record! It’s a question of feel. You can’t just sit there and reproduce what you did in the studio.
That’s my attitude toward recorded music. Recorded music is its complete own world. It doesn’t have to be repeatable. I think that’s the beauty of recorded music. The studio becomes a musical instrument. And you don’t take the studio on to the stage with you. [Laughs] That’s why it’s such a beautiful project. I could go into all kinds of music theory and stuff. You don’t need to understand it in detail. With Stephan’s compositions, they are musically very, very simple. It’s like one drone. It’s just three or four notes droning throughout the whole piece. What I tried to do with my overdubs was to change these drones throughout by adding notes that extended his harmony in different ways.
You were filling a little of the open space while also giving it room to breathe.
Exactly! And that’s the beauty of Stephan’s compositions: they can be filled in. In a way, it’s like painting by numbers. You know there’s a “two,” and you need to put a color where the “twos” are. But you can still choose what color to use there. But you still have the shape. The composition is already there, and you can fill in the colors. Even within the tightest cage, you can still make some decisions.
Let’s talk about the music business for a second. You’ve talked about how many roles you have to play these days in order to make a living in the modern industry. Far too many people are devaluing music, treating it like something they’re entitled to, as opposed to something they should appreciate and compensate the artist for. How has streaming affected you, as opposed to the old model of having a record deal?
I think the music business – as we knew it – started dying in the early 90’s. I released my first album very early in ’98. I remember I did my very first run of 300 CDs back then. The album was called Taster. From that point on, I never really got in the situation where I had to sign a record deal. Only half a year later, I met Ian Boddy, who I started collaborating with. From the very beginning, we split everything 50/50. That’s the sharing approach I have taken since then. I’ve never gotten into the situation where somebody says, “You’re only gonna get five percent,” like a record label would give you. Or even less. I’m still working parallel to the music business. I’ve built my own empire [laughs]! It’s very small, but it is very powerful to see the fan as somebody who’s close to you and somebody you interact with directly. Somebody who understands that yes, I may still be putting out product, but it’s not enough just to buy my CD. But if that’s how much you can contribute, no problem! The people who support me know if they pay me for a free download – and people do pay me for those downloads – they know they’re not paying for the product. They are allowing me with their contribution to continue making music.
Are we talking about the Core 10,000? Meaning, I could sell 100,000 albums to an audience once, or I can sell 10,000 people ten times over because they’re my core audience?
Ten thousand is a very high number even for artists that you think may be big enough (to sell that many). Ten thousand is a number that hardly any release sells these days. We’re talking hundreds. Even with Stick Men. Hundreds is what we can believe. Just believe that there are gonna be 200 people buying this release. Everything else is a bonus!
Things happen (most) when we’re touring. For an independent band, it is really impossible to reach more people than that. Even if you’re thinking that social media is such a great thing, and you have X number of followers on Twitter or whatever, the number of people those services allow you to reach is much, much less. That’s what a lot of people looking in from the outside get wrong. Another example, something that has struck me for a while: the quality and the work that I’m putting into the product make it have a certain vibe and a certain appearance to the listeners. I’m so anal about getting it sounding great, that people who listen to it may think it’s an expensive production because it sounds so good. It’s really quite the opposite. I don’t have any money (for an expensive recording)! I have to take the bad recording and massage it such a way that it comes out great. And by giving it so much attention, it gives it a sense of grand-ness. It’s a big misunderstanding that something that sounds big also must be big [laughs].
It’s stunning the way people think. “He’s been on the radio, therefore he must be rich. He’s got a record in the record store, therefore he’s made it.” That guy is mowing his own lawn and is driving a little Honda. He’s not a millionaire by any stretch!
Exactly. That’s been kind of a misunderstanding, and that’s something that people … I have to talk about Robert Fripp again. It’s something he’s been aware of since the early 90’s, when started DGM. When he still called it Discipline Global Mobile, and (then) Discipline Records. That was the time when he thought he wanted to operate within the marketplace by not being in the marketplace.
He said he could sell 30,000 units on his own and make the same money as selling 300,000 units through a label.
You could make ten times as much selling ten times less. Because the record companies would make sure you wouldn’t be getting money. The original recording contract is one of the most evil things you can think of. The idea that you can take away someone’s rights, and in return you give them money they have to pay off (in the form of an advance).
Can we do anything to motivate more people who use Spotify or Apple Music and educate them about what’s really going on?
Those people who are interested and understand about the process will always want to get involved. I think there are just parallel worlds (among fans) that exist at this time. You asked about Spotify in your question. If you think about it, it’s unbelievably evil: the idea that as an artist, you are just a very, very small part of the whole operation. You believe that you are giving them content, and the content is the product. (You believe) music is the product. No, no, no! That’s not true! The product is Spotify! That’s how they think of it, and that’s what’s actually true. It’s their product, and the artists that have their music on Spotify, by posting links for their music, they promote the big corporation. They’re promoting Spotify as a product. They are not promoting the music, as such. It’s such an evil thing where you’re actually getting very little out of it and they basically ask you to promote their product.
So you’re basically doing their work for them.
Exactly! They don’t put you on a playlist. They don’t.
There’s a flip side to the argument. When I mention Spotify or some other streaming service, some people chime in saying that these services are an updated form of radio. Or they say that we’re no better than Spotify users because we use YouTube. Maybe they’re saying we’re being hypocritical. But as an artist, I would rather put my music on YouTube, where I know I won’t make any money, than be paid fractions of a cent on the other streaming sites.
Yes! Exactly! Here’s a story for you: Ten years ago, I did a little sound design job for a German company called Native Instruments. It’s a big company making plug-ins. They are one of the major plug-in makers. They had a new synthesizer plug-in called Massive. They asked me to program sounds for it. They specifically asked for three sets of 50 sounds each. I did that, and I gave it back to them. I was so stupid! They only used three sounds out of the 150 I gave to them, and per sound, they wanted to give me 15 euros, something like 15 dollars. Unbelievable!
I was so shocked that I wrote them a letter, basically saying they should put the money where the sun doesn’t shine. I didn’t want their money. I didn’t take it. I didn’t want 45 euros for three weeks of work. It’s very insulting. I think as an artist nowadays, you have to always point out these things. A lot of people just give in and they accept the unfairness. That’s the problem. That’s wrong. I do have music on Spotify, because it’s music that I produced with some other musician, like the collaborations with Ian Boddy. But I’ve come to the realization that I can choose where I want my music to be.
There is a streaming service in the U.S. called Pandora. There is one track of mine from an old record that has been very successful on Pandora. There were like four million plays per year, which is a lot. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a lot of streams. So what I did in November of last year, I recorded three albums in the style of that one song [laughs]. I’m gonna put out these three albums on Pandora and on Spotify. So just making my own rules, I see there is one track that was successful on streaming services. It takes me like a week to record three albums of beautiful music that is somewhat like that track. Now I can place it there, knowing that I’m not gonna make much money of it, and knowing it’s gonna be doing a little work for me in the background, and I don’t have to worry about it. I don’t have to promote it, and I’m NOT going to promote it. But I know it’s there, and it can be played. And if I get lucky, there will be some money coming back to me. So that’s how I’ve decided to work with this new kind of radio: make a specific product for a specific outlet.
What’s on your musical “bucket list?” What haven’t you done that you want to do?
That’s a good question. Like I said, for me it only feels like I’ve only just started. So anything new is on my bucket list [laughs]. I would like to – and it’s not a contradiction – I would like to be more successful with my music. That’s on my bucket list. I want to at least know that people had a chance to hear this music. And that’s what I see as success for me. I have a core group of maybe 100 people who are like big fans, real fans. It’s just not enough. I’m very grateful for those people. It’s wonderful. But I believe there is a much bigger group of people that needs this music I’m making.
I think the reason I make the music I’m making – remember at the beginning when we talked about these hats, and my hat is music – it is as if music has asked me to be the person to help find the forum for this music to come out. From the very beginning, it was always clear to me that I’m not just doing it for myself. I can actually listen back to albums I’ve produced, just as a listener. I can listen to it completely remotely from being the artist. I think that’s my bucket list. I want to be successful so that people can really enjoy my work.