Tera Melos, one of my all-time favorite bands, will soon be releasing their 3rd-ish full-length album, X’ed Out on April 16. Guitarist and vocalist Nick Reinhart took the time to answer some occasionally music-related questions.
AG: Say something new and interesting about Disco Stu.
NR: i can’t honestly think of one interesting thing to say about Disco Stu, and i think the whole band feels that way. actually, i guess the truly interesting thing about him is how anyone thinks he’s funny, or how the writers/creators of the show could possibly think he’s remotely as great as every other character on the show. i went and referenced a couple disco stu vids on youtube just now to make absolutely sure that this is how i felt. confirmed. he just randomly walks into a scene, does a butt wiggle, then says “disco stu.” he’s a dud, not a stud.
AG: What is the composition process like for the band? Is it largely one or two people writing material themselves and then bringing it to the rest of the group, or is it a collaborative jamming process from the start, or what? Has it changed over the years, in relation to styles/formats of the band/all that? I’m assuming material for the demo, for example, was written fairly differently than how Patagonian Rats was written, which is different from how X’ed Out was written.
NR: the genesis of a song generally starts in my bedroom, just playing guitar. i’ll start to hear some interesting things, figure out ways to transition a couple of ideas, come up with a few variations, roughly paste it all together and then record it. when we first started we would “jam” in the practice spot. maybe someone would come up with an idea on the spot, or bring a few solid guitar or drum parts in, then we would spend up to months refining things (well, as refined as we could physically get them, which sometimes wasn’t very much so, haha). we don’t really do that anymore.
i’ve found that i write/discover my favorite material after playing by myself for long periods of time. by the time nate or john even hear one second of guitar demos, i’ve already put hours and hours into making it not sound like garbage. whereas when you’re all together in a room playing you’re basically throwing piles and piles of shit against a wall and hoping that something will stick. it gets frustrating when you drive 40 miles to the practice spot for 4 days a week and don’t see tangible results. then multiply that by months and months. so i come up with ideas, bedroom style, then send out these rough outlines and everyone can play to them on their own time and throw as much shit at the wall as they see fit,.then we can get together and modify everything we’ve worked on, individually, and get it sounding like a tera melos song.
i think those guys have a really good level of trust in me and the musical stuff i bring to table. i can’t think of too many times where either john or nate have said, “yea, uhhh that’s really not that good.” it’s likely because i’m my own biggest critic and had already told myself, “jesus, that sounds awful, back to the drawing board” many times before i’ve emailed any songs.
AG: I’m gonna quote back to you something that has been quoted back to you before, hopefully in a new context: “this is the first fully realized, focused record we have made. everything sounds intentional and the way we wanted it to sound. there are no cringe moments for us. in a lot of ways we look at it like it’s our first album. it is 100% honest and not catered towards anyone. it’s tricky making a record that way, it’s even trickier structuring a band that way.” That was about Patagonian Rats, your last record. How does X’ed Out feel to the band? Now that you’ve already made the album you’ve been wanting to make for a long time, what new feelings have been motivating the creation of this new album?
NR: well in addition to patagonian rats being the record that we’d wanted to make for a long time, it was also the way we wanted to make a record for a long time. so we applied the same process to this album. it’s probably just a matter of knowing what we want and choosing the right paths to accomplish that. it took us a long time to get to this point where we’re happy with how we sound and perform. everyone that’s been in the band made it their top priority and focus. it took years of hammering out ideas and playing nearly 1,000 shows to get this to where we can fall asleep at night without obsessing over how to make everything fit. i think we’re all really happy with our current state.
AG: You’re big pop music fans. Do you consider your music essentially similar in nature to the more straight-ahead pop stuff out there? Do you consider the more “straight ahead” music you listen to “exceptional,” in any stylistic way? What, if anything, unites Tera Melos and Madonna?
NR: hm, i mean we just like all types of music. i don’t think straight forward music is in any way more exceptional. not at all. it’s all just personal preference. i think when we were younger and discovered non “straight ahead” music it was really fascinating and new and fresh. now i don’t get the same exclusive rush listening to it that i did when i was 22. now i can get that rush from lots of different types of sounds. it’s funny you mention madonna, because i can get goose bumps listening to old madonna songs. the production, the melodies, the vocals etc. in fact, just yesterday i was playing drums along to a madonna playlist on my ipod.
i think it’s just a musical growth thing. like when you’re young and discover punk music- it’s this big revelation and takes over your mind. then we came across more technical, outside the box music and it was the same feeling. now that we’re adults and have further developed our brains we can appreciate all types of music and not feel limited.
AG: Where is that tour documentary, people? Those are such great trailers that have been kicking around for a while now.
the truth is that the documentary was finished, we saw it and weren’t happy with it. it was no one’s fault, it just didn’t have the right content for what we were hoping for. we don’t feel comfortable releasing something that we don’t stand by 100%. so we brought another friend along for a few more tours to gather more footage to eventually put something together that we were all stoked on. it will definitely get finished. as a side note, i literally- LITERALLY -as i was writing that last sentence just got a text message from our friend spencer at Sargent House saying they just got the hard drive with all the tour footage and want to get together to start re-editing. so that’s good news.
we’re really glad that people are that interested in our band to want to see the doc finished. even though we try to be really interactive with people and work towards dismantling the “wall” between fan and artist, i think a lot of people want to get further inside to see how it all comes together. i have no idea what the vibe will be- could be a fugazi “instrument” type thing or a pantera “home videos” kind of movie. we’ll see.
AG: I think I noticed people stopped describing you guys as “jazz,” once Vince left the band and once John joined. It’s always been a misnomer anyway, but can you relate to that descriptive shift? How do you feel about how you’ve been described, in general?
NR: well vince definitely came from a jazz background. our old guitar player actually met him in a jazz band class at a junior college. he had a very open, fluid approach to how he played drums in the band. when john had joined we were already heading in a bit of a different direction musically, one that jazzier drums might not be completely appropriate for. lucky for us john came from a punk background and brought a very different sound to the band. i think we initially got tagged with the jazz label because there were elements present for sure- weird timing, syncopation, ride cymbal twiddles and lots of 7th chords. i never really agreed with it, but it sounded cool. seems like people generally have a difficult time describing our music, which i think is a really good thing.
AG: What about improvisation live? On some old blog posts I remember you saying how much you liked it when bands change up their live sound, when they make mistakes, when surprising moments happen (yes, I remember those blog posts). It seems you consciously cater your live sound to that type of surprising experience. Is that about right? What motivates a very technical band like yours to take the risks involved in improvising every night?
NR: the improvisation is a result of a few things- wanting to have fun with songs and make them feel fresh to us, making mistakes and rolling with the punches and probably just a sever case of musical a.d.d. so for instance, if i had a photo of a dog and wanted to do 100 separate paintings of it, each one would be a little different. i’m sure after about ten very similar pup paintings i’d probably want to switch it up and make the dog’s eyes melting or something. naturally i’m sure there would be subtle differences in each one. then, because i’m not a super accurate, professionally skilled painter, i’d probably accidentally drip a fat blob of yellow paint onto the dog’s face. so i’d have to figure out some way to work around that. in the end, there would be 100 similar, yet fairly different paintings of a dog. that just seems natural to me. i don’t see why you’d do it any other way.
AG: Also, listening back on some of the bootleg recordings you posted on that old blog, it seems like you’ve been sitting on some material for a while – Kelly, specifically, which is titled “kelly, phone ya” Live From Atlas Clothing. Is it often that you’ll sit on material for a while, and wait for the right spot in an album to open up for it? Are we going to see some more “old” material popping up on X’ed Out?
NR: a lot of times there are just songs from the past that never got recorded, or didn’t come out the way we wanted, or that we just simply really liked and wanted to rerecord for fun. there’s a couple older pieces of material that pop up on this record. “melody nine” is a redone version of a song from our split with by the end of tonight. the original version was electronic based. we’ve been playing a live version of it for a couple years now. then the main riff for “sunburn” is one that i’ve used in a few songs that never really got a fair shot at being developed into a real part. i think i’d used that riff in 3 or 4 songs previously. that’s actually kind of neat. i not ashamed to admit that i’ve pirated my own guitar part, haha.
AG: Can you give us an interesting road anecdote? Something that characterizes Tera Melos’ interaction with audiences around the world?
NR: there’s this guy we know, he goes by “panda.” don’t know his real name. he lurks around the atlanta area. he’s this really far out, bizarre, awesome, critter dude that brings us bags and bags of random stuff everytime we come through town- broken guitar pedals, hats, tea, bags of pubic hair, cassette tapes, action figures, sidewalk chalk, video, furbies etc etc. you name it and he’s probably brought it to us. very odd. i think we have given him this music that’s very important to him and helps him out through life, so he just wants to give something back to us and contribute to our world. i know for a long time he didn’t know how to pronounce our name properly either. so that was funny. we’re misunderstood by even those that understand us the most. haha, deep.
AG: At a few points you had some somewhat eloquent things to say about pirating music. What are your current thoughts on this trend? Does a wide audience satisfy you more than money with which to scrape by? Or is music being widely distributed an investment on people showing up to shows later, or some other rationalizing logic? Is bandcamp solving the problem posed by music piracy?
NR: shoot i don’t really know. look, we want as many people to hear and enjoy our music as the universe will allow. but we’re also all pretty much 30 and would like this to be a sustainable source of income. so the question is where do we draw the line on how people hear/enjoy our music. if we’re playing a show that costs $10 and there are 5 people outside that don’t have $10, then without question we would want for them to be able to come in and watch us play. but then at what number of people without $10 do we say, “i don’t think so.” i mean, honestly, if there were 100 people that couldn’t afford the show, i’d want them all to come in for free or whatever they can afford. i think a lot of our fans know our vibe and that we’re not making fistfuls of cash playing in this band. if someone pirates a record then chances are they’re gonna buy a shirt. which i’m fine with. but actually, why not just buy the album and the shirt?? i don’t know, i get trapped thinking about this stuff. a solution to that particular situation would be- dude downloads record for free from a torrent, comes to the show, buys a shirt AND a vinyl, which comes with a download card anyways- then all is right in the world.
we also do the barter system- if someone can’t afford to pay for a show then they can bring us something cool and we’ll put them on our guest list. we’ve gotten cool music gear, razor scooters, video games, simpsons stuff and lots of other cool goodies that were probably just sitting around collecting dust in someone’s closet.
we just want lots of people to like what we’re doing and come to shows and help us afford to keep doing this. i don’t know how to make all of that fit. bandcamp definitely helps for sure. it puts the artist in control and let’s fans have a lot of access to music. buy music if you can, if you can’t- then take it, but you owe us one!
AG: How do you see yourself in the music world? Do you consider yourselves an active part of a very specific music scene (*cough* math rock *cough*), as much of the coverage of your band would like to portray? Or are you just a handful of dudes playing some weird music that happens to be similar to other handfuls of dudes playing some roughly similarly weird music?
NR: i’ve definitely given a lot of thought to our position in the music world, but i don’t think i ever come up with anything that satisfies me. i think it’s best for us to not think about that sort of stuff. we just create music that we enjoy and hopefully the rest of it all works out.
i know we’ve been pretty outspoken about the math rock thing and how we don’t prefer it. i think it’s mostly because we generally don’t really care for stuff that falls under that particular genre and most of it feels unrelatable to what we’re trying to accomplish. in 2001 we were all still in punk bands. fugazi had already started to shift some of our musical perceptions, but it was all still very much a “punk” context for us. then we discover bands like hella, dillinger escape plan and king crimson. those were all very big deals to us. once that switch is flipped there’s no really going back. then we start this new band. drummer shows us how to play in odd time signatures. everyone has fun. and that’s that. i do remember hearing the term math rock thrown around once or twice, but it was likely just in passing.
i guess it also seems like the current quality of math rock is definitely not what it was 10 years ago. it used to be a real musical subculture with deep roots, and now it’s just commonplace. feels like it’s been diluted, big time. when we saw bands like hella, the locust, botch or dillinger for the first time it was jaw dropping. like, shocking. it’s a bummer that the generation after us didn’t really get to witness such massive shifts in the music world like the ones we saw. i really don’t mean for that to sound pretentious. it just seems like the bar has been lowered for that kind of stuff. so maybe the internal problem i have with being labeled a math rock band has something to do with a fear of being a band playing under the “bar” that, for me, was set so high and blasted my mind open. we want to keep our band fresh and exciting. i still LOVE the idea of a community of bands that exist on the fringe and is working to move music forward. that’s what i want to be a part of.
AG: I’m now beginning to realize (being an oblivious east-coaster), that Tera Melos formed in a very interesting music scene. Can you wax poetic on your local scene of yesteryear? Are you considered the group that made it big from among them? What bands did you wish you were still playing shows with? How important was that scene to the band you are today?
NR: when we were younger nate and i were in punk bands that played around sacramento. there were some pretty crazy musical things happening (unbeknownst to us) up in grass valley/nevada city (about an hour north east of sacramento). bands like legs on earth (zach hill/spencer seim’s first band) were starting to play and freak people out. but it seemed pretty insulated and didn’t really trickle down into the sacramento punk scene. not that i remember at least. so in high school it was pretty much strictly punk and hardcore shows that we found ourselves hanging out at. at one point, in 2001, a friend of mine wanted to go see a band called chrime in choir. they were sort of this keyboard based, live electronic band. i think that’s how they were described to me. my friend told me they had this crazy drummer that could play drums like no one we’d seen before. i was really skeptical about that because there were a lot of great punk/hardcore drummers that we were really into. so we drove to a coffee shop in placerville (about 45 minutes outside sacramento) to see chrime in choir. turns out they had to cancel for some reason and instead a different band that shared the same drummer was going play. the band was hella (which would be zach and spencer’s second band after legs on earth). they played and just totally destroyed. from that point pretty much everyone in sacramento was shaken up. you’d even hear the crustiest of the punkers talking about these weird ripper guys from nevada city. there wasn’t really a local scene for that stuff yet. so hella played with punks bands, hip hop groups, hardcore bands etc. it was really trippy.
i don’t think we’d be the same band had we not come out of punk music. having that foundation was important in developing into an interesting band and how we allow it to breathe and exist. one of my all time favorite bands was this local band called diseptikons. they were a really fast hardcore punk/thrash band. they had this black flag/dri/early metallica vibe that was just paramount. incredible musicianship and great lyrics about the morals and ethics involved within the underground music scene. miss them for sure.
AG: Any parting words?
NR: “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man” -jebediah springfield
Well spoken. Check out X’ed Out from Sargent House, out on April 16th. Preorder and listen to some tracks here: at Tera Melos’s bandcamp, and just generally scope them out on Facebook.
I first got turned on to Why I Must Be Careful through their Kickstarter project (video found below), and have been hooked on what little the internet has to say about them since. Both for my own personal geeking out, and to put a little more information out into the world about this band, Seth Brown and John Niekrasz graciously put together this interview with me. Check out their website – http://whyimustbecareful.com/ for information on and an excerpt from their upcoming album, Honeycomb (which is excellent!), how to order, upcoming shows, and a death lottery.
AG: Can you give me an origin story of the band? Brief personal histories, how you found one another, and what the adventures have been like so far?
WIMBC: We met in Montana in 1998. Inspired by the presence of a 300lbs church organ, we began playing at John’s house in early 2001. Early songs were based on Ravi Shankar riffs and modern dance magnates. We traded a VCR for a Hammond organ to use at our first shows. Since those early days, John got a master’s degree, moved to Portland and became a board member of the Creative Music Guild. Seth also moved to Portland and developed a fascination for player pianos. He has recently acquired an Oregon Arts Council Grant to compose player piano roll music. We also have studied music abroad in recent years. John in India, Seth in Indonesia. We are currently working on our audition for the Norwegian Academy of Music. Our “adventures” together include a 24-hour performance as part of the 2009 Riverwest-24 Bike Race in Milwaukee, WI, performances at Portland Jazz Fest, DIY venues, and guerilla shows around the country.
AG: While Honeycomb is your first release, it sounds like you’ve been producing music for a good while longer than a newcomer might guess. Does Honeycomb represent a second or third “era” of the band, with the previous eras having gone undocumented? Do you have more material lying around that has yet to be recorded and released? Vague plans for further releases?
WIMBC: 11 years ago, we were writing complex, melodic, somewhat mathy songs. After a few years apart, we reassembled and spent lots of time improvising and performing very loose, free-form sets. Our current music draws from this history and catapults us forward like a magnet gun to new incarnations. We are working on a piece of musical theater composed with the hope of entering it in Edinborough’s Fringe festival. There are some earlier recordings out there if you can find them. We have very detailed plans for future releases and we look forward to touring abroad, especially Europe, Japan, & Korea.
AG: I get a strong sense of Zappa and Beefheart from your music. Am I assuming correctly? Are there some bands/musicians that have major influences on you that might be surprising, considering the type of music you’re making? Springsteen? Stravinsky? Jurassic 5?
WIMBC: John and I adore music and generate little ditties constantly whenever we’re together. But we don’t listen to very much music these days. We don’t care much for or know much Zappa or Beefheart. If anything we keep looking back to the music that originally inspired us to want to play.
Yeah, major influences are musicians from the 1990’s Chicago punk scene (including Assembly Line People Program, Cap’n Jazz, US Maple, Trenchmouth, etc.), John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, Noam Chomsky, late Coltrane, John Zorn, Balinese Gamelan, classical Hindustani, and more recently Bik Bent Braam, Carson McWhirter, Hamid Drake, Paper Mice, & Sun Ra. We look to iconoclast and revolutionary thinkers for inspiration. Our people, other art forms, and nature are more influential to us than other musical acts. Although seeing a lousy touring band has always been an inspiration for us. We would often leave shows saying, well, we’d better play out more because we have something more rigorous to offer.
AG: This is quite the question, but what is your songwriting process like? Am I right in understanding that there’s a lot of influence taken from speech sounds and rhythms in crafting your songs?
WIMBC: In addition to more standard compositional approaches, we do rely upon an idiosyncratic notation system we call Syllabic Composition. Written or spoken text provides the complex rhythmic underpinning upon which melodic passages are built and transformed. We find patterns in the scansion of stressed and unstressed syllables and then leave the words behind as a kind of scaffolding or lost wax. We hope to construct powerful, intricately-wrought melodies and rhythms which have the familiarity of speech but the vast emotional valences of music. Sometimes, we do present the verbal scaffolding as sung compositions. We’re not tied-down to any one way of composing. Being playful and innovative about seeking new paths to music that feels legitimate to us and staying open-minded about the process has proven crucial to our creativity.
AG: (If this goes unanswered in the previous question): Can you talk about the Braille booklet you include with the release? Are the “lyrical structures and notations” inspiration for the complex rhythms throughout Honeycomb, or simply a description thereof?
WIMBC: The Braille booklet is the notated score for the Honeycomb album and is a continuation of a pointillist theme we began with shotgunned band t-shirts. We are not interested in just making band “merch” and instead see an opportunity to additionally engage ourselves and others. We shot t-shirts with Seth’s shotgun leaving a tattered shot pattern over the words, Why I Must Be Careful. In contrast, we also made a WIMBC kevlar “bulletproof” t-shirt. We hand-loaded and have available WIMBC shotgun shells with lead-free safety glass. We have handmade WIMBC bricks that are accompanied by a 50-page list of all banks receiving money from the TARP Bailout. We like to think of each WIMBC brick thrown through the window of a corporate bank as an individual dot in the pointillist canvas of impending corporate financial ruin. Which lead us to create Why I Must Be Careful Stock Certificates. The value of each share fluctuates according to real wealth as measured by certain specific criteria. Both of us raise animals and grow food and so are interested in the ideas and actualities of function and waste.
AG: There are a lot of little things happening on the record that take an interesting stance on what form a recorded piece of music should take. I’m even talking strictly in terms of the audio, here, and not even the very cool packaging and Braille booklet that comes along with the album. Is there a uniting idea behind the presentation of your work? As the first generation of listeners who will have heard your music before seeing the band live is waiting in the wings, is this your way of maintaining control over the “performance?”
WIMBC: Even after 11 years of making music together, we’re still figuring out what the purpose of a recorded album is for a band like us. We love performing live and find it very difficult to capture the energy and spontaneity of the live show in the recording studio. Our approach to the music and art of this record was certainly very intentional. We feel a duty to be activists in certain respects. We’re not pop musicians and we’re seeking something other than fame. The best we can do is interact with others and try to fend off the nihilism.
AG: I’ve got this fascination with bands put together by a few stray instrumentalists (like WIMBC) and comparing them to academic avant-garde music (which I get pretty well exposed to, attending Lawrence University, with its very own Lawrence Conservatory). Honeycomb feels to me that, if this had been written down on a score and presented as a “Symphony for Piano and Percussion,” it would feel not at all out of place in that world of academia. But you’re a band, and as a result are presenting the music in the tradition of the rock album, essentially. I love that both worlds have (some sort of) an audience, and are essentially grappling with the same issues in music, and creating music that challenges listeners in a very similar way. Do thoughts like these consciously cross your mind? I see this music as uniting the kids in Black Flag shirts and the middle-aged Zappa-Dad English Professors. Have you gotten that sense from the response to your music? Is that a secondary goal of yours?
WIMBC: We have no real idea who would like this music. The music we love challenges its listeners and we don’t know any other way than to follow that lead. We don’t consider the demographic of our audience when we compose but the variety of people who respond to Why I Must Be Careful is surprisingly wide.
Rock is often trying to be popular, academia might be trying to be smart, whereas bebop was about rawness and expression and alienation. Seth saw a good wheatpaste about it in the Lloyd District.
AG: Speaking of academia, do either of you have degrees in music?
WIMBC: No. We feel like outsiders. Seth is self taught and John tries to act like he were. We have consistently been writing music much too difficult for us and progressing in technique only because of the needs of the music.
AG: How much is improvised on the record? I’m guessing not a whole lot of Side A. Those solos on Side B seem to be improvised, but what about the crazier, perhaps noisy stuff on Side B?
AG: Why the decision to make just two tracks on the album? I’m assuming the music wasn’t written – and seems not to be performed – in the two long-form tracks you present on the record.
WIMBC: In keeping with our live show, we don’t stop very often; we’re not playing discrete 4-minute songs; we tend push out a single, high-energy, long-form structured improvisation.
AG: Do you improvise live?
WIMBC: Yes. Purely improvised parts erupt all over the place. We often perform knowing we will touch upon a dozen or so compositions, but not knowing the order in which they will arise. The improvisational connective tissue between more set parts keeps things interesting for us.
AG: How much do you owe your sound to the simple fact that you are a two-piece band? It seems songs crafted with your level of precision can only be the result of a very small band, if not a one-person project. AU, Planets, Hella, Cheval de Frise, and, say, Colin Stetson, (an odd assortment, I’ll grant you) all achieve an impressive level of composed complexity that feels out of the reach of even a three-piece band – simply coordinating all three members would prove too much at the levels of complexity these groups work with. Do you agree? Was it a conscious choice to form the lean two-piece outfit that you are?
WIMBC: We suffer from Horror vacui. It’s both satisfying and detrimental in some ways. It’s a good battle. We remain a two piece for both aesthetic and practical reasons. But there are many examples of three piece or larger groups playing music with highly intricate levels of precision: Zs, Everybody, Realization Orchestra, Moisture Throne, etc. For us, the directness and immediacy of a good two-piece band is more satisfying than larger groups.
Thanks Addy Goldberg for your time and interest. It’s very flattering.
5eth & ]ohn
Shane Perlowin, the guitarist behind Ahleuchatistas, Doom Ribbons, Mind Vs. Target! and various solo recordings – the latest of which, Shaking the Phantom Limb, was perhaps my favorite album of last year – gave me the chance to shoot him some questions. Here is what he shot back.
AG: What are your major artistic influences outside of music?
SP: Movies and books. I’m a big fan of both. But, since I have been a full time musician, over five years now, the time I have to sit around and watch movies and read books has diminished tremendously because I am constantly working on music. Though, I do keep some books going always, and I rent a DVD now and then. I just recently watched Citizen Kane for the first time and was blown away by its style and story, about a man who was denied his childhood and the love that we all need. So he surrounds himself with things he thinks he wants, but ultimately he’s empty and it all comes crashing down. It’s an amazing portrait of a nervous breakdown and wonderful to see depicted a winner of capitalism coming face to face with his failure at living. I recently finished Orlando by Virginia Woolf, a book that made me literally say “wow” out loud while I was reading it on several occasions. The manic flights of the mind that she describes buzz off the pages like electricity. I will try to read everything she has written before I die, but like I said I am not as voracious a consumer of literature as I once was because I deal in the direct conveyance of feelings that is music. But life offers enough waiting rooms, standing in lines, visits to the toilet, and sleepy evenings that it might be possible. Currently I am more than halfway through Don Quixote by Cervantes, and will have to agree with the consensus that it is one of the greatest books ever written. Chivalry was the last culture of goddess worship, and is sorely and unknowingly missed by the miserable world of men.
AG: Do you draw much influence from other forms of artistic expression?
SP: Yes. I get a tingly feeling when I connect with someone’s work in any medium, and it fires up my imagination, puts me in an alpha state of pure receptivity, out of which arises new and better ideas all the time. I am always ready to receive. I wasn’t always so open, but it is something that has developed in me over time as I was more and more exposed to different peoples lives and artistic expressions. I have always wanted to keep moving forward, so I stay hungry, and keep feeding the fire that fuels creativity. That way I can just turn it on like a faucet and ideas flow.
AG: It sounds like you grew up with some pretty different music than one might guess from listening to Ahleuchatistas. What do you admire about the music that makes up your musical background, and what about it do you let shape your music, if not its style?
SP: Yeah, I grew up on a little of this and a little of that. I was mainly into the rock and roll music as a kid, Jimi Hendrix, Blue Oyster Cult, Queen… Though, I think the first cassette tape I bought was Run DMC’s “Raising Hell”. I loved that tape, I would play it on the bus on the way to school on my little tape player and the other kids would tell me to turn it up. At some point Iron Maiden made a big impact on me, like when I was 10 years old or so. I discovered them when I was raiding through my cousin’s record collection while he was away at college. Fugazi is definitely one of the most important bands to inspire me, not only musically, but politically and ethically. I saw them three times in concert. I got way into Pink Floyd during my psychedelic years around age 16. Around that time Bob Dylan blew my mind with his lyrics and delivery. I became an obsessive fan of whatever I was into and get all the albums from an artist. I got turned onto Frank Zappa when I was 16 or 17 and
I really absorbed his conceptual universe, though was always turned off by his sexism. I got into prog rock, and bought all the King Crimson CDs, and Bob Fripp really opened me up. A really huge change came when I was 17 and bought my first jazz CD, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. This opened up a whole new world and I fell in love with Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Billie Holiday, and the guitarists Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Django Reinhardt. I got inspired to become technically proficient at the guitar and to write music that was exciting and interesting and would hopefully blow people’s minds. That was the goal. But, I was also interested in moving people emotionally, beyond just being an impressive technician. I always shied away from the really slick and cheesy fusion stuff. Of course those players were really technical musicians, but the music lacked an edge, the emotional connection of deep folk and pop songs, and the dirtiness I love from free jazz and punk rock. This sort of summarizes my early musical listening experience. I consider myself a late bloomer, however. I started playing guitar when I was 14 and never had lessons, I just started to compose songs and come up with riffs. I was never a kid who learned to play complete songs by the bands I was into. Though, I do go back and do that sometimes now when I am teaching a student who really wants to learn the guitar solo from Comfortably Numb, for instance. So, it wasn’t until my mid 20’s that I really started to learn to read music and got any good at playing jazz, something I still work at and improve at because of the gigs I regularly play which help pay the bills… and I love the music. Jazz is a means to understanding other musics and learning things quickly, as well as writing unexpected parts that work because of its sophisticated harmonic conception, so there are more musical choices. Classical guitar and American fingerstyle tradition are very important to me right now as I play catch up with my right hand technique and develop my solo acoustic music. Of course, I continue expanding my palette, and have really come to love hip-hop more than just about any other music in the
world. No, I am not being ironic.
AG: There is a sense of fullness of sound that I’ve noticed you try to obtain in all of the Ahleuchatistas-related projects. As a trio, duo, and in your solo work, there is a sense of a distinct rhythmic element, a distinct bassy or background element, and then a lead voice happening on top. As a trio this was pretty clear and not much to notice, but as you’ve been moving towards more stripped down formats, you definitely maintain all three elements, even in the solo work. Has it been a conscious decision to maintain this balance? Where might this come from, if it isn’t a conscious decision?
SP: As a guitarist I spent many years focusing on the melodic aspect of music. I am not so much a multi-instrumentalist, and have only in recent years begun to train myself as a percussionist, bassist, and keyboardist. But, since all of my work is on guitar, and since the guitar is so multi-faceted, it still consumes 99% of my time. But, I have started to listen much closer to other aspects of songs, mainly focusing on the bass and drums. So, whereas in the past I would start writing something with a riff or a melodic statement, I am more often now beginning with a bassline or a rhythm. I think this is very important. I don’t know how I miss things like this, but I think my narrow focus has somehow helped me to develop my own voice as a writer
and player. Things that are obvious I just ignored, and this has le to some originality. But, to answer your question, yes! I am very much aware of completeness and strive for that in recordings and performances. Completeness can be very sparse, but it is what is just right, and I hope to achieve that to draw the listener in so they may have an experience.
AG: I think of your songs sometimes as really extraordinary experiments in form. Is that a large part of the goal of the band?
SP: In the earlier music, one thing led to another, one part got strung to another, and these songs with abnormal forms emerged. Looking back it is easy to see/hear that. My awareness of form at all was largely developed in my mid-20s when I went to school and got a philosophy degree. I wasn’t so comfortable with abstract thinking before that. So, the music was part-part-part-part…etc. Studying abstract systems called my attention to underlying forms. Of course, even if you string a series of unrelated events together, our minds will construct a form out of what emerges, or at least will try to. Nowadays, I definitely consider our music as forms which generate fresh performances every time we play. Ahleuchatistas, now more than
ever, straddles the boundaries between composition and improvisation. There are underlying forms and then degrees of composition, from a handful of elements to rigorously scored passages. This approach allows for there to be freshness at every gig, and that feeling of newness is something that is strongly transmitted to an audience, whether they are aware of exactly what it is or not.
AG: What are your thoughts on recording a song and playing that song live? Is the recording limited by what you can produce live? It seems you are been becoming more and more comfortable with producing records whose songs will likely take a different form live.
SP: Earlier recordings were deliberately stripped down to the limitations of a live performance. They were minimal in their production and I was also militantly anti-FX for a good number of years. When I was 17 years old it dawned on me at my practice space that I was surrounded by foot pedals that made all kinds of trippy sounds, but I did not have a handle on the guitar itself. So, I got rid of them all right away. By the time I was 24 and forming Ahleuchatistas, I was just plugging straight into the amp and not even using reverb at all. I wanted to create sounds with uncommon chords and unusual techniques, instead of stomping on a pedal to change my tone. This was one signature of the early Ahleuchatistas sound. I am nowadays not so limited in my use of accessories. I also have come to see the studio product as its own entity and am not so concerned with what can be duplicated live. I want the album experience and the show experience to be equally powerful, but in their own way.
AG: Here’s an almost generic, possibly annoying question. What do you think of the term “math-rock?” Genre names in general?
SP: I let people own their genre names. I personally don’t call anything I’ve done math rock, I don’t know what that means exactly. But, people can call it that if it helps them identify it as something they love or hate or whatever. I think math rock started in the 90’s, but I am not familiar with any of the bands that coined the term. I should really check it out, though, because I keep seeing that term. I explained the history of my background in the third question of this interview and it doesn’t include anything from the math rock tradition to my knowledge, though I think King Crimson and Dave Brubeck used odd time signatures, which involves the numbers 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, etc.
AG: To get maybe too broad here, what about describing music at all? I always think it’s a sign I’ve come across some great music when I have a whole lot of trouble explaining it.
SP: I love hearing people describe their experiences of music. It is my favorite thing to talk about. I am not an elitist at all, so I believe any interest in music is good and that people are affected by it whether they are active listeners or not. Hearing young kids describe music is remarkable, they are wide open and totally candid. Some people describe feelings, others see images in their head. Feelings and images excite me. And then, of course, there is the technical breakdown of any given music. But, feelings and images are where it’s at for the human experience.
AG: Do you have a favorite album or period of the band? If the answer is “this one” and “right now,” which is the sense I’m getting, and probably the best state of affairs, can I bug you to tell me your second favorite album/period? I ask because I find myself often getting introduced to a band through an album that people seem to discard as “non-canon” or something. I can see someone coming up to you after a show and saying “Man, I love what you’re doing right now, but Culture Industry absolutely cannot be topped.” What would your thoughts be? How do you find yourself looking back at your work that now is almost a decade old?
SP: I think we are on the cutting edge at this moment and doing our best and most interesting work now. That said, I think our second album, “The Same and the Other”, recorded in 2004, is a moment that I am very happy to have captured. It was recorded in 4 hours and is a complete, raw and militant statement. Courtney Chappell’s cover art is iconic and impacting. Some people are all about the third album, “What you Will”, which features the same trio, with Derek Poteat on bass and Sean Dail on drums, still in top form. I honestly don’t listen to my own music once it is finished. Although, recently, I have listened to a track here and there on youtube, like “Lacerate” or “Imperceptibility”, and was pleased that the music has withstood the test of time very well. It seems to improve with age, which is very special. I think that is true of all of the music from our catalog, even though it is disheveled much of the time and not as polished as it could be. That’s part of the character. The harmonic palette, the simple melodic originality, and the idiosyncrasies of the players set it apart it to my ears. And I know there are fans who feel that way and really connect with where we are coming from, even as we have evolved and changed members over the years. The fact that someone might say an earlier album, such as “On the Culture Industry” is their favorite is very flattering and humbling. I know I have my favorites of a particular artist and don’t appreciate everything they have done on an equal level. I am grateful that anyone is interested at all.
AG: As a follow up to that, I am noticing that maybe musicians more than any other type of artist is reminded of/expected to produce stuff similar to their previous works. Do you think this is good or bad? Or is that largely reflecting the fan’s perspective, and its not really a thought you are forced to deal with all that often?
SP: That is something I was afraid of when the band switched drummers from Sean Dail to Ryan Oslance in 2008 and again when we became a duo in 2009. But, I have found that people are open to the changes and even have become more enthusiastic as we have pushed forward. It makes sense that our audience would be open minded and ready to move forward always, and also that it would continue to grow as long as we put out high quality work. I am not interested in repeating myself over and over again. Our interests have shifted and grown, along with our technique and concepts. The experiences of the last two years have really given me confidence that we can do anything we want that is true to who we are and people will respond to it. So, I don’t care to meet anybody’s expectations except for the expectations of quality, honesty, and evolution. It is a very liberating feeling, and allows us to work in a total creative flow.
AG: Here is my big, personal question that I’ve had since I heard Shaking the Phantom Limb. I’m a guitarist, writing very similar music (I think, at least), to what appeared on Limb, and I’m writing that music because I heard bands like Ahleuchatistas, Tera Melos and Planets, who have amazing instrumentalists and ways of thinking about how a song can be put together, but stylistically have a very difficult sound to get into, for most people. It’s jagged and driving and messy. That is a large part of what I love about it, but I think many people who would be able to appreciate the music’s intricacies get turned away because of it. By taking the lessons learned from these bands and distilling it into the world of the solo acoustic guitar, you expose these really valuable bits of musical innovation. That’s how I think of what is happening, anyway. Is that at least part of the idea of writing for the solo acoustic guitar? Is there an acoustics album of Ahleuchatistas songs that could be in the works, with drums and acoustic guitar and few effects for this same reason?
SP: The solo acoustic work came about because I am constantly playing. My whole life is centered around music: playing, teaching, listening. And oftentimes I find myself alone. You can definitely expect more of this music to come out in the future, and very likely there will at some point be an acoustic Ahleuchatistas situation. I am still growing as a solo acoustic guitarist, so it may be some time, but it is an area that I spend most of my time developing these days, even when I am composing for other musicians. I think one effect of this format is that it makes some of the more complex composition strategies more listenable to most people, which I am not against. Music is a form of communication, so I want people to be able to receive it. Some of the music that I write for solo acoustic guitar ends up in other arrangements with different musicians. I no longer write music for exclusively one project or another. My music is shared between my solo efforts, Ahleuchatistas, Doom Ribbons, and whatever else I am involved with. This gives the music life and helps build a community of players. The big point here is that I am a devotee of the instrument and am interested in all its aspects and styles of application. So, noisy, layered, heavily processed soundscapes are fair game and so is an unplugged steel string played with a thumb pick in Open G tuning.
AG: Thanks again for doing this; I really enjoyed reading your responses. Thank you for taking the time to put together this type of an interview.
SP: Thanks for the opportunity. It was fun to put some thought into the past decade and more, and give a thoughtful and thorough overview.
I’m sitting in the WLFM office right now, rocking out to Meshuggah. As I’ve been doing this for the past hour now, I came to a realization: Meshuggah has been the only metal band I’ve been listening to for a while. Like nonstop. I can’t help it! They’re too good. I’ve been trying to figure out how to put this into words. All that usually comes out is something like, “They’re just…ahhh!” I don’t know. So let’s see if I can make something happen by telling you a little bit about the men who I think make up maybe the most metal band out there right now…Okay, maybe not as metal as Slayer. I mean, who is more metal than Slayer?
Meshuggah came to be in 1987 in the town of Umea, Sweden (the “a” in Umea has some sort of symbol that I don’t know how to pronounce. Just imagine it’s there). Still consisting of two of it’s original members, vocalist Jens Kidman and guitarist Fredrik Thordendal, Meshuggah has grown into a powerhouse in the metal genre. Known for their extremely complex poly-rhythms and sound that hits you so hard you go blind, Meshuggah has released six full-length albums with their follow-up to 2008’s ObZen due out on March 27th of this year. By the way, ObZen is fucking fantastic and you should give it a try. It’s hard to sit through and by the time you finish it, you probably won’t want to listen to anything for the rest of the day. But it’s an unbelievable album.
This is really hard, you guys. I have no idea where to go from here. Their sound is an immense juggernaut. Just an unstoppable for that continues to pummel you into submission but keeps you wanting more. I’m clearly not going anywhere special with this right now. So here is a video while I regain my thoughts.
But seriously, Bleed is a perfect example at what Meshuggah is capable of doing. You don’t need the video to know that Meshuggah is scary. Scary good, too. The precision in Bleed is unbelievable as well as incredibly difficult to do. Pick up a guitar and try playing that rhythm. You can’t. Okay, so their using 8-string guitars. But that’s besides the point. You still won’t be able to play that shit even if you did have 8-string. It’s a monstrous riff that is not easy to pull off on any of the instruments used by Meshuggah. And that’s something that sets them apart from the rest of metal. Heavy Metal is a genre that is centered around dexterity and accuracy, which culminates in the technicality of what makes the music so enticing. But Meshuggah’s music has so many complexities to it that they sound like no other band around.
Shit, my shift is almost up and now I’m listening to Cee-Lo and Clipse. Listen to Meshuggah. Just not for too long. I keep finding myself taking Advil after about an hour because their music provokes my brain to explode out of sheer awesomeness. Look for their new album Koloss, dropping March 27th, 2012. Koloss has been highly anticipated and according to Meshuggah’s website, it will “pulverize your being”. So if you’re like me and you get excited about music that will apparently obliterate your very existence, let’s hang out on march 27th and get pulverized into oblivion.
I don’t get much good music in. In fact, I’m sitting here at work now with no music to add. The cause of this is not just the fact that the CMJ Festival is happening right now (which all the MDs should be at). But it’s also because I’m a Loud Rock Director. I wade through miles of musical shit just to find one album. One album worthy enough to sit on my designated “Loud Rock” shelf for the rest of the term. Little did I know that that one awesome album, drenched in the shit of Queensryche’s latest effort, was a compilation of greatest hits…and it was Anvil.
Back in the early 1980’s, Anvil was the shit. Their stage presence was ridiculous. Lead guitarist/vocalist Steve “Lips” Kudlow could be seen playing guitar with dildos and wearing various bondage accessories. Not only that, but they played the hell out of their instruments. The documentary, Anvil! The Story of Anvil has several famous 80’s musicians, including Slash and Scott Ian, exclaiming how amazing Anvil’s drummer Robb Reiner (seriously, that’s his name) was. But, all of a sudden they fell off the face of the earth. Maybe it was the work of Aerosmith manager David Krebs failing to get them on a major record label or something else. But eventually, Anvil slipped into obscurity.
I’d like to make a quick side note here and mention that the Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a fantastic documentary. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time and it makes you really care for these guys. It’s hard to sit through some moments of the film, due to incredibly bizarre moments that seem very serious and tragic at times. But most of the time, it’s so ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh. My roommates and I couldn’t tell for sure whether this was a real group or just another Spinal Tap. But it is very real, indeed. I highly suggest that you watch it. Okay, not so quick of a side note. Sorry.
With the help of the documentary, Anvil has been able to achieve the success they deserve. And with the release of their “best of” album Monument of Metal: The Very Best of Anvil, Anvil has proven to be an immense contribution, as well as an inspiration, to what metal is today. Some tracks may seem a little too much like a caricature of metal music, like the track “Thumb Hang”. But don’t pass these tracks up and don’t let them turn you away from other tracks like “Winged Assassins” and “Mothra” that display phenomenal technique in both Lips’ and Reiner’s playing. Anvil may seem a little over the top. But they are a powerhouse of sound and not to be underestimated nor overlooked. Want to get back to your metal roots? Go back to Anvil and learn how to really rock.