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