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.