October 19, 2011
So what would it sound and feel like to experience Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws with John Williams’ signature score replaced with the experimental, ambient drone of distorted synthesizers? The duo of Spielberger have imagined it, though it was purely inspired by the chapter titles of the DVD, and they swear they never watched the movie as they came up with the music. Heck, they even admit they did not exactly create the music from scratch, as they used a program available as an iPhone app to “generate” the music. Though both Ed Matus and Bert Rodriguez are musicians who can play a guitar if they wanted to, they chose to explore musicality in quite a different way. The result adds a strange, ethereal sense of gravitas to the movie, in a remote sort of way. If you know the film as well as I do, then just the titles of the tracks, like “Hooper Goes In” or “Town Meeting,” conjure images of the iconic film. The collision of these titles and the haunting drone of the music that seeps forth like the sludge of an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack for a David Lynch movie, brings an unknown artsy quality to the movie while still capturing the film’s over-all dread.
Already at work on a third collection of music, Spielberger are currently promoting this recently released conceptual ambient album entitled Chrissie’s Last Swim (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It is available at all the expected mp3 download sites for purchase without the album art, as the iTunes store rejected Rodriguez’ design, a play on the famous Jaws poster art (but join their Facebook page, and you can get the album for free, with the original art). Rodriguez is actually best known as an artist. He’s received numerous grants for his work and has exhibited at the esteemed Bass Museum in his Miami neighborhood, at well as Art Basel Miami Beach, but also at New York’s Whitney during the 2008 Whitney Biennial and in London during the Frieze Art Fair. Most recently he was the focus of a feature-length documentary that played at the Miami International Film Festival and screened theatrically at the Miami Beach Cinematheque called Making Sh*t Up.
A conceptual artist who never limits himself to any medium, Rodriguez adores the prankster aesthetic of the Fluxus movement of the 1960s. A post-Dada, post-futurist, post-surrealist movement, Fluxus owes a debt to all those movements but is probably best known for its wit. For instance, staging a dramatic play with the curtain lifted a couple of inches to only ever reveal the shoes of the performers. Rodriguez notes one stunt he is famous for that involved him buying up picture frames from retail stores and replacing them for purchase soon after with the sample pictures replaced by photographs of himself. He noted that for the Whitney Biennial, he designed a space…
… with comfy chairs, a tissue box, etc. to give psycho-therapy sessions to anyone who registered for an appointment on the Whitney’s web page, in effect creating a living, breathing example of transference between the artist and the spectator with art object taken out. In some ways he does not take himself too seriously, yet he does. “It’s like if Andy Kaufman were in a gallery,” he sums up.
He and Matus recently dropped by my apartment in the Kendall suburbs of South Florida to casually talk about these mp3s they recently conjured up. Rodriguez sits still in the corner of my couch and always seems to look straight ahead as he talks, looking at the blank TV screen in front of him. “This was a way for us to do something fun and awesome,” he said simply of the collaboration.
Matus, who was once known as the singular artist behind the experimental electronica act H.A.L.O. Vessel and most recently as a member as the eclectro-pop-rock outfit the Waterford Landing, looks for a record to put on and immediately gravitates to my Neu! box set. Rodriquez approves, and Matus selects the Krautrock masters’ 1972 debut. They both marvel at the timelessness of the grooves that inspired everyone from David Bowie to Stereolab and maybe even them, a bit.
Spielberger’s debut EP, Music for Cruises, came from a project Rodriguez had developed as a commission for a cruise line, inspired by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, the concept album that paved the way for what Eno would term “ambient music,” an unobtrusive and atmospheric instrumental form of music that was part of the spatial environment where it was played. Though Rodriquez said the client liked the music he generated using the iPhone app called Mixtikl, they went another way. The music did not go to waste, however, and after some treatments by Matus, they released Music for Cruises (the cover art for the EP features the duo with their “instruments”). Matus, who first appeared on the local music scene as a member of the art-rock/hardcore/punk outfit Subliminal Criminal in the early nineties, spent a great part of the later years of that decade experimenting with electronic music (Here’s a story I wrote for the “Miami New Times” about his early forays using keyboards and a bank of effects pedals for instrumentation). “We were discussing that there really isn’t any ambient music,” Matus said. “Nobody’s done a real serious ambient album like Eno in the seventies.”
But, one must wonder, what sort of musicianship does Mixtikl call for? The pair both admit “none.” Rodriguez explained the parameters to create the music requires some vision, however. “It takes a certain level of intention, discipline and comfort with the capabilities and limitations of the tool itself to produce a sophisticated sound that can be guided or coaxed to create a mood or express an idea effectively,” he explains further via email. “Those qualities have very little to do with what is traditionally defined as ‘Musicianship.’ All those qualities I mentioned above are what define creative intellect as opposed to technical skill. Although one is not better than the other, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. At the end of the day, the music has to be good and/or interesting regardless of how it was produced, and that can only be decided by a third party.”
Though they are working with a program that comes finely tuned, Matus notes it does call on a musical aptitude to realize some sort of vision. “Bert and I are both trained musicians,” he explains via email, “so there is a bit more clarity when it comes to knowing how to intentionally create a certain mood, as opposed to messing around blindly.”
The program indeed offers an intimidating amount of variety that calls on musical creativity to produce a specific form of music, as demonstrated by the poster art promoting it (click the image below for a larger view of the various screens involved):
Rodriguez had said, in the end, it’s not too different from how Eno designed works like Music for Airports or its predecessor, 1975’s Discreet Music. “It’s just how Eno would have done it. You set up certain parameters, you pick key, scale, whether it’s major, minor, then you pick tempo, and the banks of sound [the program offers].” He also noted that Mixtikl “was created by the same guys who created Koan, which Eno pioneered the use of around ’95, ’96.”
The result of the duo’s first collaboration, Music for Cruises, can be streamed in its entirety right here:
For ambient music, it does offer quite a dynamism, from the rhythmic ebb and flow of the tracks to the variety of pulsing electronic sounds that offer an array of tonal color and textures. It sounds kind of like post-Dark Side of the Moon era Pink Floyd with the guitars, drums and voices stripped away, leaving only the bare, skeletal hum of the backing electronics sighing and groaning on their own.
Spielberger’s latest effort, Chrissie’s Last Swim, already reveals a bit of a departure for the duo. Opening with the white noise of “The Town Meeting,” the album starts with a roar, like a long frozen moment of horror that is the shark attack. “The Expert,” arrives to bring some calm to the proceedings, as a whispering howl ever so slowly fades in for over a minute and then seems to blow and recede, as a soft metallic metronome beat keeps a rhythm for the ghostly sound that only seems to follow the pattern of the wind. “July 4th” opens with a metallic quaver that sounds like it must come from an electric guitar, yet one cannot discern any plucking on it. The noise ebbs and flows for eight minutes to reveal a calm layer of whistling synth noise below the din, which quietly fades away over the course of a minute. Steve Reich would be proud.
From the album title to the individual tracks, all the titles are indeed lifted from the chapter insert found inside the DVD case of Jaws. The album rounds out with the following tracks:
4. Face to Face
5. Hooper Goes In
6. End Titles
Rodriguez explained that Spielberg the director has no direct influence over the music or its theme. “We never really chose Spielberg in favor of any other director or something. Our relationship to him is actually pretty random. It’s just become a starting point for an ongoing joke that started with how the name came up for the group. We never set out to make fun or pay homage to him over any other director or even anyone else at all for that matter. It was a funny exploration that has led to the images I’ve created thus far, which we’ll either move on from or not.”
Rodriguez shared more images that iTunes would probably never allow as future album covers. All are variations of famous posters for even more famous Spielberg movies, while offering a typical example of Rodriguez repurposing existing art as his own. Though he created an array of these images, he and Matus have not committed to future albums designed the same way as Chrissie’s Last Swim, with music named after other chapter titles from other Spielberg DVDs. Rodriguez presents Music For Cruises as an example contrary to such assumptions, which he called “a riff on Eno’s Music For Films .” In that album’s case the titles were inspired by the feminine word for “Sea” in different languages, Rodriguez noted. “There is really no reference to Spielberg in that record at all,” he said.
Matus even noted that to consider Spielberger only a musical project would be unfair. He and Rodriguez did hint that they are trying to conceive a live show out of it sometime before year’s end. “We can reproduce what we do live,” Matus stated. “However, due to the generative nature of the program, things will be different. The mood of the song will be the same, and there’ll be enough for someone to recognize it, but the events will be happening at different times, intervals etc. … We do plan on doing this live. However, we don’t want to define ourselves as just a music project or a band. Spielberger has many facets, which we hope to show during our performance, as well as the follow-up to Chrissie’s Last Swim, which we are working on now. Our intention was to create a vehicle in which anything and everything can happen. We are currently planning a performance in which the generative aspect is a tiny component among many. Hopefully, this will happen in December.
Rodriguez goes into further detail: “… the nature of ‘Generative Music’ is such that once you create and play that composition the first time, any time after that, even if the rules and parameters are exactly the same, it’s never the same exact composition. We can definitely save those parameters and perform a likeness to the original but, it will never be exactly note-for-note to the original. That’s also really liberating and exciting for me because it gives us a chance creatively to think about live performance outside of the traditional way where you sit there and play music while a bunch of people just sit there and watch you do it … That’s why I describe Spielberger as an ‘experimental duo’ formed of… We created Spielberger as a platform for us to be able to explore and execute any idea we had musically or otherwise. This is just the beginning. We’re working on a new record which will sound nothing like the last two records. And we already have ideas for other recordings in the future that are even less like any of those. We have ideas for some videos, even some limited edition projects or releases. We have lots of plans for things that also have nothing to do with music at all. I believe we both enjoy using this program so much and have so much yet to explore within it that we’ll probably continue to release generative compositions like the ones on the first two records in the future. We’ve only really worked together for a few months and have produced a great deal of music in a short time. For our live show, we’re planning on incorporating the music into a much larger context of what a performance can be, from anywhere between Andy Kaufman, Stanley Kubrick and the Pet Shop Boys.”
So, consider these two releases Spielberger’s calling card for something much grander to come… stay tuned.
The other day, I shared an interview compiled from a series of emails exchanged with the UK-based poet Rick Holland, who most recently worked on a collaborative album with rock’s most famous intellectual, Brian Eno (Eno collaborator/poet Rick Holland corresponds on craft – An Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 1 of 2]). Drums Between the Bells (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the limited edition on Amazon) saw release by Warp Records back in July. I had been exchanging emails with Holland since late June, as he considered several questions I had about his collaborative work with Eno.
He took his time, and I offered it to him. He wrote out my questions and journaled answers in hand-written notebooks before writing me back with thoughtful answers. But he also sent me back some spontaneous emails with thoughts on further questions. Though this certainly allowed for much editing of thoughts, I think it appropriately reflected the craft of what he and Eno did together. After all, Drums Between the Bells, with its electonic-based music and deliberately read poetry (sometimes presented in a haze of another layer of electronics), is anything but a jam record. The Eno/Holland collaboration is a thoughtful work, and grows with age and listening investment.
When I began my undergrad art studies in the early nineties, I took a mix of Eno’s instrumental music on a portable cassette player to art galleries and parks. Who better to offer musical accompaniment to art? His music can range from subtle drones to hyperkinectic layers of poly-rhythmic dissonance. It also defined a new genre of music in the mid-seventies that Eno himself coined: ambient. What better composer to offer a musical track to a poet who crafts artistic prose that can both observe the world on its existential face and cut into the fabric of perceptions? My favorite track on Drums, must be “Pour It Out,” adapted from Holland’s poem “New York” from his Story the Flowers book (It’s all there):
But then the album as a whole offers its own dynamic journey through a variety of prose and musicality (In the interview below, Holland notes the complete process of writing, recording and producing this album took eight years). Throughout our correspondence, Holland offered some dense insight into the process of crafting Drums Between the Bells, and also provided an illuminating look into the mind of a poet well-suited to work with someone as intellectual as Brian Eno. Before I continue with this interview, which you will find concluded below, I feel it’s important to contextualize the significance of a new, original, Eno-composed album featuring words.
Eno has been recording solo albums since 1973. He broke out of England’s post-prog scene of glitter and feathers glam rock, after leaving Roxy Music. All the while, he made a career of coming to terms with the role of words in music. Eno famously considers the function of words within songs as just another instrument rather than a literary narrative with a message, as the implications behind the latter throw in a huge monkey-wrench into the ideas of composition for him.
Citing from Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, the Eno-centric website More Dark Than Shark, quoted Eno as having said, “[Lyrics] always impose something that is so unmysterious compared to the sound of the music [that] they debase the music for me, in most cases.” That was back in 1985. I thought surely his attitude towards lyrics had changed by the time he recorded his first solo vocal album in 25 years, 2005’s Another Day on Earth (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It seems it has. In an interview with Sound on Sound (a music magazine for the studio engineer) promoting that album, Eno said of his return to music with vocals: “The simple answer is that five or six years ago I noticed that I was starting to sing again and enjoying it. Also, since I stopped doing vocal albums and worked on the landscape side of music, certain technological developments have happened that give you the possibility to shape your voice, and that reawakened my interest.”
This technological idea of obscuring the voice of the singer was key for Eno, in that it seems to separate identifying the singer with the words he is singing. “One of the reasons I stopped making vocal records was because I was fed up with the identification that’s always made between the voice on the record and the composer, as if this person singing was some sort of extension of my personality,” he continued in the 2005 interview. “But I don’t care about my personality being the content of the thing. I always liked the idea of seeing what I was doing the way a playwright might think of a play or a novelist might think of a book.” So chalk up Eno’s growing distaste for lyrics to the influence of mostly “illiterate” music journalists and fans he must have encountered during his many years as a rocker.
To the ears of this writer, Eno’s attitude to lyrics produced some amazingly surreal and pure prose in his early years, but the later years of his lyrics never seemed to stand out as some of his more remarkable works, as it all must have worn thin on him by then. Now here comes the 32-year-old Holland, invited by the 63-year-old Eno to provide him with some of the most refreshing words in many years for Eno to work with. The result, which suitably features an array of guest vocalists who have nothing to do with the rock world– as noted in the first part of this interview series– certainly has brought my attention back to words entangled in Eno’s music. In the end, Drums Between the Bells offers something even more interesting than Eno’s most recent work with a better known songwriter and long-time collaborator, David Byrne, for the pleasant, albeit predictable, 2008 album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).
With that context in place, on with the interview with Holland, who, in this part of the feature, offers his ruminations on the best place to listen to Drums Between the Bells, the music of words and even an evaluation Eno’s early explorations of lyric-writing on 1973′s Here Come the Warm Jets (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) and 1974′s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon)…
Hans Morgenstern: Can I just say that I read this article (Clash Music’s Aug. 7 interview with Holland), and the fact that Brian says Drums Between the Bells is a good album to “wash up to” was funny to me because that was the first way I heard it (whilst taking a shower). So where’s the best place to hear the album in your opinion?
Rick Holland: In a state of stillness akin to lucid dreaming where surface concerns are replaced by free and contemplative activity that is not self-conscious. In the absence of this elusive brain state, washing up sounds a pretty strong contender. I have most enjoyed listening while driving on a long journey; though the best time for achieving this brain state seems to be in the middle of the night listening to incidental sounds mashing up – I like to use the sounds as triggers to imagine whatever comes into my mind. A flow is achievable in this state that is very much reduced when ‘recording’ art from imagination to medium. Getting near to that state is probably ‘the best place’ to listen to this album, where judging brain is dampened and imagining brain is electric, and as free to move as electric as long as the circuit is in place and not interrupted.
As I noted in an earlier post on Drums Between the Bells (Brian Eno reveals full streams of 3 tracks from new album), I was attracted to this Eno record because he seems to finally be dealing with lyrics on a deeper level than usual. Has he told you why he was interested in putting your words to music?
Strangely enough we have never had that conversation, we just got to work. I did learn through the process that ‘lyrics’ served a greater master: ‘sound’ in world Eno, but also that he was not closed to them as carriers of their own potential, but that he was overjoyed for the ‘meaning’ to become tied in with different axes of sound and atmosphere, and be loosely and ambiguously tied to the more conventional systems of language.
The whole album could have been done differently; it spanned eight years or so, and at any particular juncture in that time I would have had strong ideas about what could have been done differently. There were techniques available in the last three weeks of work that were not available in the first seven years, and early tracks with components that were lost forever in archival glitches and were rebuilt. There were times when I wanted only to feature the voice, and other times I wanted the voice obliterated into signals bearing no obvious resemblance to speech. At various points we would try versions of each of our visions, and make a piece that really and truly was not the end product of either of those visions. I would make the whole album differently if we started again tomorrow, and so would Brian. From ‘Drums Between The Bells’, all of the experiments have been successes in my eyes, but all of them have also suggested future alternatives. People who listen to the record will have strong ideas of what can be done differently too. That is one of the album’s great strengths; it moves in between territories, music, words, sound, that are familiar and then alien and many points in between. That aspect of it I wouldn’t change at all.
Do you have any rhythm or music in mind when your poems come out of you?
The words themselves dictate the rhythm, set it running like a free drum part, but I would say I have an instinctive relationship to music and rhythm in my writing more than a trained one. To steal directly from something I heard Rakim say in a documentary the other night, ‘I was trying to rhyme like John Coltrane played the sax’. Fundamental rhythms and music have moved me since I can remember, and these are definitely built in to my writing without ever feeling the need to adhere strictly to traditional ‘poetic’ forms and meter.
From what source do you find most inspiration comes from when composing?
The world playing out in front of me. If pushed to identify a trigger, I would say pattern formation followed closely by sound. ‘Artificially’ speaking, music and especially live performance fills my gut with a kind of adrenalised need to express something.
Have you read reviews of the album? What do you think of the reception? Do you think music critics are “getting” it?
I went on a journey with the criticisms of the album. I ignored common wisdom that says ‘do not read reviews’ and actually ended up being encouraged to read them and respond in a ‘blog conversation’ with Brian (which itself headed off piste straight away). Like everything, some are good and some are bad, but of the critics who were able to put time and investment into listening and avoid the understandable traps of rushing out copy, I think the reception was fair. For a reviewer wanting to be transported without challenge, ‘Drums Between The Bells’ may seem an unnecessary challenge of disparate ideas and sounds. And it is completely reasonable to expect music to be a portal to elsewhere that doesn’t need to be ‘got’. If a reviewer came to the album with no expectations and a little time to think, they almost unanimously found things that resonated strongly in the experience. There are of course plenty of comments, good and bad, that are wide of a mark that I would recognize, and a few that have made me want to contact the writer and vent some spleen, but life is short.
I would say that our need as a society to quickly package anything is indicative of a wider approach to the world that has serious pitfalls, but I am not so self-important to think that someone ‘not getting’ this album is significantly important to the wider good of humanity. I wish people would stop harping on so much about ‘Art’, ‘Poet’, ‘genre’ and other blanding agents, but it is for each person to decide how he or she perceives what is really only a collection of sounds and relationships, like any music. Brian and I came up with some categories for songs when putting the running order together, they were ‘think’, ‘look’, ‘feel’ and ‘soul,’ I think, or similar with several crossovers.
I’m very curious of what you think of Eno’s early forays into lyrics, which he himself has called nonsense, but I feel have an unabashed surreal quality.
I scanned (thanks to Enoweb) through the lyrics for ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ because I haven’t listened to that album, so I thought it would be a good appraisal of the ‘lyrics’ as standalone … the scanning happened quite fast until I hit ‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk.’ This was the first thing that caught me as more than words to be sung that had been transcribed. From what I know of Brian, the sounds will most likely have come before the actual words, but in this automation there is still subconscious coupling of sounds with emotions, and emotions with word choices, and word choices with streams of more ‘macro’ patterns of thought.
Rappers freestyle in 16 bar salvos. Through practising and writing more, the rhythms and internal variations within those rhythms develop so much so in the best rappers that they become second nature until they act as a conduit for whatever the consciousness wants to express. I think good lyrics are the same beast and are no less ‘poetry’ because of it; if anything they are more so, as they are perhaps more likely to avoid the pitfalls of over-analysis on the way out.
‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk’ on the page could be about any ‘authority’ figure in any walk of life who is more bluff than balls, and it also has interjections from less primary sources of input like modernist poetry (which may have taken that tendency to mix and match from a world of songs and televisions and technology anyway). ‘More fool me, bless my soul’ sounds like a blues phrase co-opted, especially repeated. The ‘perfect masters/thrive on disasters/look so harmless/til they find their way up here’ is pure 16 bar beat riffing when I read it on the page. So, in the interests of science, I listened to the song after reading the lyrics to see what happens to them in the song…
At which point I realised I have heard this song before! No matter, I wrote all the above before realising that. The ‘more fool me, bless my soul’ was unsurprisingly musical, though more Buddy Holly than I was expecting. The lyrics in this song are certainly not nonsense, though that doesn’t mean that they have been set out to work as words on a page (which, in this case, they certainly do. I enjoyed reading them).
I’ll try the same approach with the ‘Whale’ song [“Mother Whale Eyeless”] you mentioned, which I haven’t heard before.
This reads like an appraisal of life in a country even more at the mercy of its media and propagandas than the one we live in now. It reads as highly political and highly poetic. ‘Don’t ever trust those meters’, ‘there is a cloud containing the sea’, ‘parachutes caught on steeples’, these all sound like the product of automatic writing that has been introduced to and bedded into an environment; the environment has been made by constantly observing the world in an imaginative way (‘stirring the air’ I called this in my own early poems about escaping from the claustrophobic world around me). At its start it reminded me of the impression I got from ‘A Day in the Life’ when I listened to it as a kid. ‘Got up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…. somebody spoke and I went into a dream’. It says the details of our politicised lives are as ridiculous as they are pervasive, and that we, as individuals, are in turn angered, powerless and gloriously alienated from those details. Our bonds in life are all constructs ultimately.
Then I listened to the song…
“Mother Whale Eyeless” is a fascinating song, unmistakably Brian in places, I would have to say. That brilliant simple guitar riff after about two minutes, the change and shift with the female chorus vocal. But anyway, the words, the words. The thing is, the morning papers, tea and other details are already shaken to their core by the way they are sung and spiral away from the details I picked up reading the lyrics straight away. It says a lot about the ‘lyrics’ debates that go on, the words on a page are a wholly different animal from the words performed and adorned.
If I had just listened to that song straight away, I would not have listened closely to most of the words, I must admit (though certainly would have picked up more with repeated listens). I would have started in the kitchen, then moved on to the guitar-feeling and then moved into the otherworld of the clipped female chorus and settled on the statement, ‘In another country, with another name/ Maybe things are different, maybe they’re the same’ as a carte blanche for anything that doesn’t make sense to float on unrepentant for being nonsense, because it might make sense under different circumstances, and the next evocation of something more ‘graspable’ may be just around the corner. I’ve always made these kinds of allowances listening to music, ever since I can remember. There is something perfectly sensible about that approach to writing words and to listening to them too. The eyeless whale chuckles at the world’s myths. Nonsense?
If I had to choose between the two experiences, in this case, I would choose reading the words, which is a surprising outcome. ‘Mother Whale Eyeless’ is a poem on the page for me (maybe because I approached it like this first) and the song is an event with some exciting moments but holding less meaning overall for me, at this moment. Perhaps this tells us that anything is ultimately what we make it. Perhaps it also tells us that Brian was writing poetry in spite of himself, and perhaps it also tells us that his instinctively curious approach to the world manifests itself clearly in the groups of words he chooses to fit together, which certainly isn’t a surprising outcome. I mentioned (skilled) rappers earlier so used to their molten bedrock that what they can sprinkle on top of it is almost instinctive. This doesn’t make their output less important or interesting.
Brian understands his vocabularies and their potentials so well that the more cumbersome ‘word’ part I would imagine does not excite him as much as other things: ‘sound’, ‘voice’, ‘space’, ‘colour’ being a few. Doubly so when you consider that he has been making music for several decades and is always keen to explore new possibilities.
* * *
Many thanks to Rick for taking the time to entertain these questions and offering such an enlightening look into the experience that culminated in one of the richest albums 2011 has had to offer! Not to mention indulging me with his honest view of some early iconic Eno glam rock songs that he had never heard to start with.
September 5, 2011
A couple of months ago, I sent poet Rick Holland a link to my post sharing my excitement about the results of his participation with Brian Eno, Drums Between the Bells (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the limited edition on Amazon). He wrote back graciously expressing his appreciation for my “kind words.” He also said he would pass my email on to Warp Records, as I had expressed an interest in an advance listen of the album.* Though that did not happen, I stayed in touch with Holland for a profile piece on “Independent Ethos,” the results of which are now ready for posting in this multi-part interview series.
Holland identifies himself as “Rick” as the sender in email correspondence. It’s a nice detail that offers an appropriate gateway to understanding the young man (he’s 32) who wrote the lyrics of “The Real:”
you really seem to see the real
the exact and actual reality
of the real in things you seem to see
And that is only a taste of the mind-bending words Holland explores in “the Real.” The song opens with the crystal clean voice of 22-year-old Elisha Mudly. Like many of the participants on Drums Between the Bells, the “vocalists” are not rock stars (though some of the reading was done by Eno). Mudly is a drama/psychology student and dancer who had worked for Eno “around the studio, sorting stuff etc.,” she told me via Facebook. “Brian and Rick were working on this project and they just asked if I’d like to read something quickly. So, had some tea, read some poetry and then we said goodbye,” she explained (as the interview with Holland continues below, he emphasizes the serendipitous appearance of Mudly in the studio, as a happy coincidence that resulted in the smooth recording of that track).
On “the Real,” Mudly reads with quiet, ethereal purpose as ambient drones swell and recede, like the wash of waves on the sea shore, beneath her voice. Taking the words to a whole other brilliant level, the bed of drones continue as the words are repeated. This time, however, Eno slows down Mudly’s voice a notch and decorates it with a shimmering vocoder effect, repeating the words exactly as before… but not. The implications of the words and Eno’s use of them reveals a brilliant creative connection between the two artists.
Holland’s awareness of the subjective quality of perceptions seemed to reveal an intellect that would indeed find a kinship with the mind of a thinking musician like Eno. In an interview with Michael Engelbrecht on the Germany-based blog, Manafonistas, Holland described a true collaborative relationship with Eno, when he described an instance when he requested a certain “sound” from the music: “I do offer musical ideas and also extremely vague and over-reaching requests: ‘Can you make this part sound more like primordial sludge, Brian?’ That kind of thing. Of course, his answers tend to be, ‘Yes, yes, I can.’”
Holland’s own direction to Eno sounds just like the sort of language Eno would understand well, as abstract as it might sound. Eno is the guy who devised the Oblique Strategies card set with painter Peter Schmidt in the early seventies with similar sorts of directions, if sometimes even more obtuse (Read all about Oblique Strategies).
I wanted to know more about their album, Drums Between the Bells, which has easily grown into one of my favorite Eno albums in many years, and I do consider it among the best albums I have heard this year. Though Holland is certainly in the shadows next to a man often called the pioneer of ambient music and known as the producer of U2’s and Coldplay’s highest regarded albums, Holland’s contributions of words to Drums Between the Bells is key to elevating this work to a higher level. Just as earlier Eno collaborations, like Fourth World Vol. 1 – Possible Musics, would have never been the same without Jon Hassell’s trumpet or Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror without Harold Budd’s piano, Drums would have never floated to its otherworldly quality without the words of Holland (an instrumental-only second disc in the deluxe version of this album provides the bare evidence of this).
I wanted to ask him about working with Eno and how the collaboration worked. The problem was I live in Miami and Holland splits up his time in London and Dorset, England, so long distance would be rough on either of us struggling writers. I had done email interviews in the past (Read one I did with Melt Banana here), so I was wary (Melt Banana, being Japanese noise surrealists provided perfect answers in their own quirky way, but I was really hoping for some deep insight from Holland on working with Eno). When he told me he would write out my questions to respond via notebook and then write them again in an email, I knew I would be in for some interesting, thoughtful responses. So allow me to begin the interview with that: Why would Holland go through such trouble to respond to my questions…
After I explained my own experience with the effect of writing longhand and then re-writing in a computer (the process alone seems akin to writing as many as three drafts before coming up with a finalized piece), Holland wrote back the following:
Definitely of the school of rewriting … I have come full cycle back to notebooks, having started with pieces of paper.
I think writing by hand, poetry or lyric-wise and probably longer pieces or articles too, is the best approach in the early stages. The closest I have come to the same effect electronically is by emailing myself repeatedly. Write ‘poem’, email it to self, redraft on first reading, email it to self, fiddle, email it to self, go to bed, read it and email to self. Continue process to finish or abandonment. This approach allows the same kind of overall approach that doesn’t cripple the piece in self-analysis but does allow small and important changes to feed into the work without too much head-scratching or too many changes at once.
The temptation to edit while you write is too strong on a word processor of any kind, I find. Now, if I have a eureka moment (very rare at a computer anyway) I write it in my notebook if I have it– I usually carry it around everywhere– or on a piece of paper, or increasingly as a ‘draft’ on my mobile phone. The trick is to remember to check the ‘drafts’ or look again at the notebook or transfer the scribble to notebook or computer. If I transfer it early to a computer and do the ‘email thing’ then it is likely to get finished. If I don’t, then it may re-emerge as something quite different in the future.
This is what I started my blog [rickholland’s posterous] for as well actually (see you have got me started now) : a live notebook, to air ideas and return to them. Because they are in a public place, it probably means my vanity will make me check back over them more than I would do in a paper notebook. This is no bad thing, as I tweak them online, and consumer behaviour (I think) doesn’t really pay much attention to old blog entries anyway, so the effect really is only that of an evolving notebook. I have conditioned myself to ‘post’ things on there in their imperfect state, which is against our instincts, and sometimes they remain just fine as imperfects… another ‘condition’ is to only post things that I am genuinely working on at the time or am finding interesting and learning about.
I thought that email was a candid response that offered an intimate glimpse into how this young poet works and how seriously he takes the significance of words.
In an interview on aqnb, Holland noted he has actually known Eno as far back as 10 years ago, when Eno happened on Holland’s debut poetry performance with musical accompaniment. “It was at my first show with the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal College of Art,” Holland said. “The short of it is we did this improvised music and poetry section for it. Brian was there and I met him after.” Holland went on to explain that beyond some experiments with Eno, nothing resulted until only recently, which seemed to begin with something called “Speaker Flowers,” last year. It was Holland’s and Eno’s first “public performance,” which was really an art installation at Marlborough House, during the Brighton Art Festival, in May 2010. Eno was selected as artistic director that year. As the title of the project suggests, the installation included small speakers on stems jutting out of the ground and vases like floral arrangements. From these “speaker flowers” came the hum, whistle and drone of ambient music by Eno to the words of Holland. Someone actually shot part of it on what looks to be cellphone video:
Then came Holland’s first book of poems, Story the Flowers, which contains many of the poems– in slightly varying forms– that were part of “Speaker Flowers” became the words to the tracks on Drums Between the Bells (One can still purchase first edition, signed copies of the book direct from the poet on his website: rjholland.com). Any changes to the poems were subtle, Holland told me. So, with some of the history and context now of the album out of the way, take in a preview of every track on Drums:
… and now the beginning of my email interview with Holland:
Hans Morgenstern: Did Eno give you any parameters when composing the lyrics? Or did he give you any “Guidance”?
Rick Holland: No, he never gave me parameters for composing the lyrics, he either chose what most appealed to him or I suggested what I thought best ‘fitted’ the music he had started. There were occasions in the ‘sung’ material that he flagged difficult words ‘the elemental’ being replaced by ‘nature’s’ (from ‘Breath of Crows’) is an example that springs to mind. When treated as spoken, it was rarer for lexical changes to be needed but the ‘poem’ itself was repositioned in a musical world, and in that world it sometimes needed to change shape, which I was happy to experiment with in a way that a more traditional ‘poet’ may not have been.
Did these lyrics exist unto themselves as poems and the music followed? Did you have any say about the music? Was there anything he did musically with your words you were surprised by?
We worked together in his studio throughout the intensive final weeks and also at most of the sessions that spawned the initial ‘skeletons’ of the tracks over the years. I think we both took some steps away from our comfort zones over these sessions, which is what collaborating relies on, and there was certainly never a sense that he ‘did’ music and I ‘did’ words. Poems and Music were equally likely to change in the process of making, and the making process was an open forum of ideas.
‘The Real’ is perhaps the most recent example of a ‘school’ of song formation whereby Brian would have several pieces on the go and I would provide or write words for the ones that most spoke to me. The first stage in these tracks was to superimpose a vocal over the existing music. Sometimes, a vocal just steers the piece towards its final shape and many musical ideas were provided by the vocalists, not directly, but in the nuances of their readings and more specifically their own ways of forming spoken words.
The components of this one just fell into place with a combination of reshaping an existing ‘poem’ I had been working on, and the beautiful chance arrival at the studio of Elisha Mudley, who really did appear like an angel that day, unannounced, and just in time for us to record. Not all days ran that smoothly!”
It may seem an obvious thing to say, but Brian is interested in a world of
sound. When selecting the reading voices he would almost always choose a female voice, and one that was not a native English speaker; these choices were made because they best served his world of sound. The readers would also not spend time ‘rehearsing’ the readings. Again, the readings- like the readers – were designed not with rigid ideas of poetic performance in mind but rather to produce interesting worlds of sound; and secondarily from words that would hold resonance too once placed in new conditions. These decisions were Brian’s, or rather, the ‘conditions’ were from Brian’s vision.
Male voices that appear on the various recordings (while admittedly not representative of the whole male speaking world) tend to thicken out a bass end, and to accentuate that kind of pulse when treated in a musical sense. Female voices, in the same terms of generalisation, tend to ‘sing’ a treble end, and introduce more variables to the overall music. Where possible I think we tried to achieve music in the voices without reverting to totally digitally rebuilding the voice recordings, we tried to accentuate those musical characteristics that are in voices already rather than craft entirely artificial ones.
Again these conditions were mostly Brian’s and I tended to try to carve my contributions into words that would both serve music and feed back from it. It was a process that required a great deal of dexterity, and a mind open to
allowing ‘meanings’ to flood from one chamber to fill a different one, at the risk of sounding esoteric. Occasionally that involved mourning a good early edit as it disappeared down river to become something else, but without that process the banks of communication through words and music could not be tested for interesting leaks.
‘Voice choice’ therefore involved taking the stress away from ‘what is poetic?’ and ‘what is polished?’ and towards ‘what is voice?’ and ‘what is music?’. Some readers read as though reading an important truth, others as though reading a list, and some read just to get through each syllable and finish. All kinds hold potential.
It should be added that female voices also belong to women, and there is no doubt that a woman vastly improves the atmosphere of a recording studio, and a most welcome change in dynamic from the one that existed between us two
men, with the occasional input of more men, like Nick (Robertson) and Peter (Chilvers).
* * *
This interview continues in Part 2, (Rick Holland Poet/Eno collaborator ruminates on the music of words), where Holland ruminates on the best place to hear the album, the music of words and even evaluates Eno’s early explorations of lyric-writing on 1973’s Here Come the Warm Jets and 1974’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).
*I was able to buy a deluxe edition hardcover, double CD version via DeepDiscount.com, as it sold out on many sites during pre-order (it is now, once again, appearing in many stores).
(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
This post continues my conversation with Mike Garson, which took place May 4, 2004. I sat down with him backstage at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, in a small, isolated dressing room set up with just his Yamaha Motif. He told me he always liked to practice for a couple of hours before hitting the stage. In a few hours he was to join David Bowie and his band on stage, during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami. But, as detailed, earlier (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive, From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1 of 5), From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2 of 5), From the Archives: Mike Garson goes from jazz to Bowie (Part 3 of 5)), that show would be cancelled.
Still, in my 20 years of interviewing musicians, my conversation with Mike was one of the more memorable I have had with an artist of such talent and experience. I was delighted to have encountered a musician whose roots not only went back to the heyday of the glam rock era of the seventies, but even further to the roots of the experimental New York free jazz scene, and none of it had seemed to have gone to his head. He spoke of his apprehension of playing with jazz men of such greatness as Bill Evans, and offered patient insight into his memories of working with Bowie, probably his most famous collaborator.
In this part of our conversation we go a little deeper into Garson’s own ideas of his approach to the piano. It’s an intimate conversation that reveals an interesting and humble mentality to man’s place in music. This continues directly from the last post…
Hans Morgenstern: You mention how the improvisation just comes out of you. It must really take an unself-conscious sort of mindset.
Mike Garson: There is no ego when it’s going right. I have an ego, but it’s not usually in the way when I’m playing best, like the Lennie Tristano thing. He did a record that nobody even knows about because it sold so few, but I happened to get it in the sixties. He’s playing bass line with his left hand and improvising with his right hand. It sounded like this…
… and jazz musicians like to take simple songs and just do theme and variation on them. You’d expect it to do that in jazz, but in Classical you don’t expect that. You’d expect it to be written out, but when I write out music I would sound like maybe secondhand Rachmaninov or Liszt or Chopin or Stravinsky, but when I was improvising, it became apparent that’s how I create, so that became my form of music, so when I realized I had the ability to get it written out through the player piano because I recorded into the Yamaha Disklavier, which is a 9-foot grand I have in the house. I put the floppy disc in, push record and then give the guy the disk and then he prints it out. I’ll look it over to see that it’s right. Then I pass it on to be played by some concert pianist. I don’t play them but that one time, but they sound like a classical piece. Like what I just did for you, a few minutes ago, that we don’t have a recording of. It’s gone. I could have recorded them in here…
[I point to the recorder].
Oh, yeah, that there, but it wasn’t that good, the classical thing today. The jazz thing was actually better, but you never know what’s actually going to be what, when and where … But to answer your question, it’s a combination of a hundred thousand hours of playing the piano since I was 7, and I’m 58, so I’ve been playing 51 years, so, if you think about it, if you can’t be good after all that time (he laughs) you’re really just in the wrong profession. That’s just on a very physical level, but musically, spiritually and emotionally it’s kind of like … (He pauses). You’re somewhat channeling. It’s like the music’s passing through you or like the notes are there, and I’m grabbing them, or they’re grabbing me. I haven’t figured it out.
I’ve heard Robert Fripp talk about that.
Has he talked about that? Any great artist will somehow or other get around to it, somehow, someway, and I know that it’s kind of like the expression: God helps those who help themselves. I mean, let’s face it, I’ve done a lot of homework, so I couldn’t do this on violin or French horn. I would sound terrible. So I have worked hard, but I know a lot of people who play the piano very well and have played as many hours, but they don’t have that freedom to just create and improvise. There is obviously some gift and some portion of me that is able to get out of my own way because I’ve never had composer’s block.
That goes back to when you were much younger, in your 20s and before Bowie invited you to play with him, you mentioned some of these jazz guys, and you were intimidated by that, basically.
So what happened to that guy? How did you break that barrier? How did he break through his fear of feeling inadequate to play with some jazz people?
I had to break through something that Vladimir Horowitz never broke through. People used to ask him, “How come you don’t compose?”
He said, “Well, my friend is Rachmaninov, who’s a genius.” I studied Chopin. You can’t beat that. I grew up with that mentality, and as long as you think that, that’s what you get, and it’s pretty logical thinking, so I had that for about half of my life. Then one day, I said, “fuck it.” I have to change my mindset, and I have to adopt a new paradigm: “Oh, I can be as good as any of my jazz heroes. I can be as good as any of my classical heroes. I can be as good as any composer but as Mike Garson.” What do I have to do to do that kind of a thing? And then I started to work toward this music that I call my Now Music, which is all this improvised classical stuff. But I do it in pop, I do it in rock. If you take the “Aladdin Sane” solo away from the rock track, it’s like the stuff that I’m playing. It would sound like …
… So that’s where my joy lies these days, but the theory behind this way of playing, and that’s really what I do with David Bowie on those albums, and I’ve had it on my mind for 30 or 40 years, and I learned it from Lennie Tristano, the blind pianist that I was telling you about, which is he told me he felt that true jazz was really playing what you hear on the spot, in the moment. And a lot of guys play a lot of licks, and things they have memorized and worked out. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I certainly have done that, but I like the concept of trying to play what you feel in the present time, at the moment, and that’s what I’ve been developing for the last many years. It’s not much different than this conversation, in a way, you ask about this, and I start branching out, and it starts to become its own improvisation.
A lot of what I’m hearing here reminds me of what I saw on Michael Apted’s documentary, Inspirations, where he filmed you guys recording “A Small Plot of Land,” and he asked David Bowie about his creative process on the computer.
I never saw that.
You never saw that? Not even many Bowie fans know this film was released. It’s about these different artists, Lichtenstein, is another, and about the inspirations behind their art.
I’d love to see it. Was I in it?
Well, it was during the Outside sessions.
Those were great sessions.
You were on “A Small Plot of Land,” right?
I played piano.
But he was mainly focused on David.
I think conceptually, [David is] in a similar place, philosophically, to me. Except that he’s working in pop music, in rock ‘n’ roll. He does have to go out and sing “Rebel Rebel” and some of these songs the same every night, and the band has to be tight, and the arrangements have to be tight. But, I think, when the music evolves and develops, he’s probably doing his version of what I was just doing in real-time for you. It’s not always the same thing.
That’s why I’m attracted to artists like him and you because it’s not always the same thing.
It’s not always the same thing … The thing is, Mozart and those people, Brahms, Beethoven, most of them didn’t live past 40, so I have this opportunity now, being 58 to still keep learning and absorbing things, so I’ll be around this other music that I’ve been talking about for the last 15 minutes, and I’ll be around David and this band, each person in this band is so creative and talented in their own way. The drummer, Sterling [Campbell], he’s the one who’s on “A Small Plot of Land” with me, and we improvised those sessions on Outside. David didn’t even let us tell each other what keys we were playing in. We basically played two weeks straight, four hours a day onto tape, the improvisations. They have tons of tape. Outside is just some songs that got made and put together by [co-producer Brian] Eno. Him and David would take these improvs that were all on these tapes, and then they’d hear a little hook here and a little hook there and cut it up. They would create a song like “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” which I wrote with him and the other guys. That ended up in the movie Seven. It must have been something that they heard, and then they formed it into a song. We were just improvising the way I was just doing it now.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if every artist stayed at what they do, they eventually come to similar realizations regarding the creative process, the inspirational aspects, the channeling, but I think what people sometimes do is they try to jump there, and they haven’t done any basics or fundamentals, and their art sometimes doesn’t have enough substance. I don’t object to it because of the fact if anyone is creating, all the more power to them, but, personally, if you want to have some more depth, I think you have to do some more work along the way. I probably do too much work coz I studied so much, but then I had to undo all the studying to find my own voice, which is what I did between maybe 20 and 45. It’s really starting to come out, the older I get. It probably always was there, but I guess I’m refining it, at this point in my life. But you do get some wisdom as you get older just because you see so much junk go down. I’ve lost so many friends for so many different reasons, a lot of it drugs and this and that. But you start to come to realizations about things, and it affects your music and your art.
One of the words I can’t help to use in my reviews of songs of David Bowie that I hear you on is “angular.”
I’m just wondering if it’s a good word.
It is a good word. It is a good word. I don’t know how that came about. I know that sometimes I’ve had the thought if David Bowie, when I’m playing a solo for him like on “Small Plot of Land” or “Battle For Britain” or “Aladdin Sane,” I’m almost being him. I’m trying to play the piano like he would play, if he had the technique, so it might be more him than me that I’m playing at that moment because, as an artist, I also have this sort of chameleon ability to almost turn into anything that I’m around. The big joke is the last thing I hear before I go on stage might end up in the show. I was sitting at a club last week, and the club owner in Austin, Texas starts talking to me about, “Oh, we used to have these barrel house boogie-woogie players,” and I went up and sat in with a guitar player who was playing a rock show, and then I stopped the band and played some crazy like boogie-woogie piano like on steroids, very fast and crazy. But, I’d just been talking about it, so it brought it back to me. So, there’s something where I’m trying to connect myself, my spirituality, my life, my experiences and the music, using that as sort of the vehicle for how I feel.
There’s wisdom in music.
And it comes from a lot of years. Probably it might come from other lifetimes. Who knows? You know what I mean? The biggest problem for an artist, I think, who gets very good at what they do, is to stay somewhat humble and recognize that their music is a gift, and it’s coming through them. They’re offering it as a contribution to people who are listening to it, but if they get too wrapped up in themselves, sometimes the music suffers, and then they end up suffering.
A lot of it sounds like psychology, too. If you’re gonna put up the mental block, then you’re not going to be happy.
Right, and that’s the question you brought up 25 minutes ago regarding the ego and the self being out of the way and all that. I mean, I’ve written tons of songs, like “Letting Go,” is the name of one song, and “Selflessness,” because you’re always trying to figure out how to get away from your humanness because all our humanness sometimes tends to hold us all back. The way you’re creating the art, you sort of want the art to be a little purer, so you’re trying to be a servant to the music, and it’s hard to be a servant to the music when people are clapping for you every night and signing autographs all day long and praising you. You need to acknowledge the compliment from the person who is saying that is sincere, so you want to give them time of their communication, but if you let it go to your head, which is what happens to most artists, it’s the beginning of the end. Consequently, all the guys who ruin themselves, blow themselves off or die or get nuts or get perverted or crazy, it’s just the whole story, so that’s the challenge. I don’t think the challenge is practicing or keeping up my chops. The challenge is how not to get destroyed by the fame.
I totally think of Kurt Cobain and what happened with him, you know?
Right, yeah. The funniest thing is I never worked with him, but the fact that I worked with Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins a few years. I toured with Nine Inch Nails and I recorded with them the Fragile album with Trent Reznor.
It’s a great album. But it’s always struck me that those kind of people gravitated to me. Obviously, they liked my music, but beyond that, there must have been something they wanted that was a part of me that they felt maybe could enhance their life. For example, I never used drugs, and I’ve been married for 36 years. I have two kids, two grandchildren. In other words, I’m not a normal musician in that way, and I’m probably proud of it in a lot ways because it feels more honest. I think people do all those other things just to keep themselves alive. They’re trying to keep their mind from haunting them and possessing them, so they’re trying to move it out of the way with drinking or with drugs.
The real thing is to embrace that. It’s like the shadow Carl Jung talks about.
It’s exactly that, and a lot of people are not willing to go through the pain of that, so they cover it up, and then it manifests itself in another form, and it just keeps getting them, until they confront it. Sooner or later they decide to get it together, or they just fade away or die or whatever. Certain artists have been lucky enough to sort of come through it.
Going back to your angular style: how do you choose the notes you play? Because they seem to be a bit off, but they work.
I think if there was a lot of music that had not been written I’d play more unangular (laughs). If things like this hadn’t been written…
… If those things weren’t done, I might have been the one to choose to do that, but since so much has been done, I was probably looking to find a voice that had a new contribution, so you have all that classical and baroque and romantic music in the 1600s to the 1900s, so by the time I started creating in the sixties and the seventies and eighties, there was this thing of avant-garde music, and contemporary classical music and atonal music, so I heard a lot of that. I didn’t love it, but I found a way to use it in David’s music and some other people’s music that seemed to fit. I think because rebellious artists and people like us we’re always looking to sort of go against the grain a little bit, and I think people appreciate that type of originality. But it wasn’t really calculated, when it came about because I was doing it when I was 14, 15, 16 and 17. It’s just that nobody knew it. There were no records.
You mean you were playing like that?
There were parts of me that fooled around with that. If I look at some of my earlier classical pieces that I used to write by hand, they were out there … I think I’m also subject to the times that I’m in. As artists, we actually follow the waves of what’s going on in the world, so if bombs are going off and atom bombs and hydrogen bombs are going off, music isn’t always going to be very tonal. It’s going to start having some dissonance and angularity. That’s part of what’s going on in life.
I’m thinking about the futurists, in the 1920s. The real creation of the avant-garde came about at the turn of the century, and they were all about: destruction will create the new art.
That fits into that. I’m not too much later than that. Forty years later. You know what I mean? And a lot of those people didn’t fully complete their missions or whatever.
I think after all these manifestos came out about how we must destroy the libraries and museums to create the new art, World War I came about and all their friends, famous poets and painters died, and the movement sort of lost its thrust. It came about in Russia and Italy (and some France).
Right. The history of art is fascinating. David really knows about all that stuff, an expert. I spent all my time practicing that I actually missed out on studying on a lot of things that I wished I knew, but I learned it through just being it, but I actually didn’t read it historically, which a lot of people are very well read about those things. I was just so obsessed with the piano. Like David’s such a natural voice and singer, and he just comes up and sings. You don’t hear him practicing. I was practicing eight hours a day and all that stuff, and then I’d do a gig for six hours, so the day would go by very fast, and that happened all through my teens and 20s.
* * *
This is continued from Part 3: From the Archives: Mike Garson goes from jazz to Bowie (Part 3 of 5)
This archival interview series continues here: From the Archives: Rounding up Mike Garson, his Now Music, visual art and a bit more Bowie (Part 5 of 5)
Forget Brian Eno, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. One of David Bowie’s most consistent and important collaborators has been his stalwart keyboardist, Mike Garson. Ever since Bowie’s 1972 tour as Ziggy Stardust, down to his final live performance in 2006, baring a few key albums, Garson has been there, adding a distinct flavor to many of Bowie’s songs. With his abstract, angular improvisations, Garson has helped define the sound of such iconic Bowie tracks going as far back as 1973’s frantic, glitter avalanche that was “Aladdin Sane (1913- 1939- 197?)” to as recent as the spare, atmospheric jazz-inspired number “Bring Me the Disco King,” off Bowie’s last album, 2oo3’s Reality (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).
Ever since he abruptly halted a world tour in support of Reality, in 2004, Bowie quietly sidestepped the spotlight. The catalyst of this slowdown happened on stage in Germany after he complained of pain in his arm while performing. He was soon rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to clear a blocked artery (read the BBC article here). Bowie then gradually headed into a low-key kind of retirement following a smattering of appearances as a guest vocalist on other recording artists’ albums and a couple of one-off live performances. No full-length albums have followed nor any tours or full concerts. According to his wife, supermodel Iman, he is living the quiet life under his birth name as a family man in New York City. In a recent interview with the UK’s “Times Magazine,” she said, “I am NOT married to David Bowie … I am married to David Jones. They are two totally different people.” With Bowie no longer recording or performing, who knows if the rock star known as “David Bowie” even exists any more, slipping away through the ether of awareness like the otherworldly life form he has so often been described as.
Now comes Garson to step forward with a tribute album to Bowie, entitled The Bowie Variations For Piano (Garson will sign a copy of the CD for anyone that orders directly from his website). There is probably no other side musician more qualified to interpret Bowie’s music than the classically trained jazz musician who happens to be, as Bowie once put it, “the best rock pianist in the world because he does not play rock.”
I first met Garson in 2004 after proposing a “Goldmine” cover story that would encompass his years with Bowie. The cover would be granted should I have the chance to get some exclusive quotes from Bowie. However, Bowie’s representatives, who have always supported my coverage of their client since I was writing for a university paper in my undergrad years with advance listens to albums and free tickets for shows, would only allow me to speak with Garson. He had agreed to an interview backstage at the James L. Knight Center during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami on May 4, 2004. We had 45 minutes, but wound up chatting for close to an hour and a half. Garson had even given me an after show pass and promised to introduce me to Bowie. But, right between the opening performance by Stereophonics and Bowie’s show, a local stagehand had climbed into the light rigging without a safety harness and plunged to his death onstage. Bowie cancelled the show and any festivities following it out of respect to the deceased.
With the release of The Bowie Variations, I got back in touch with Garson, and he spoke with me over the phone from his Los Angeles home, over the weekend. “I remember we had a very good conversation that night,” he said reflecting on our first meeting (NOTE: bookmark this blog post or subscribe to the right for the transcription of that entire interview coming soon). “It was just so sad that that unfortunate thing happened that night. In all the years of touring, I’ve never seen that kind of a thing.”
But here we are in the future, with blog posts allowing for more diverse audiences, unconstrained by the limits of print space, so here is a good chunk of our most recent conversation on the Bowie Variations for Piano, with more to come shortly:
Hans Morgenstern: What label’s releasing it?
Mike Garson: It’s called Reference Recordings, and they’re an audiophile label, very high quality. They do mostly classical stuff. They’ve done a few albums for me over the years. I might have had the highest selling of all their albums, jazz and classical, in the last 25 years, an album called Serendipity that I did with Stanley Clarke on bass, Billy Mintz on drums (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It was a great trio album.
The release will be on the high quality HDCD format, but do they plan to release a vinyl version?
They plan on it, they’re looking for the right people who can do vinyl. It’s become a dead art, but they do release higher [quality mp3] versions on the Internet. There’s a way to do it, but iTunes can’t provide it, but they do offer a CD-quality one and then there’s the normal mp3.
Where did the idea to make such an album come from?
I had been thinking about the Bowie album for a very long time, and I was thinking of doing it as a jazz treatment with a band and guitar and sax, but that didn’t feel good. I was thinking of doing covers with a lot of great singers I worked with, and that didn’t fly for me. So each time I’d let it go for months and months. I even talked, 10 years ago, to Tony Visconti [a longtime producer of Bowie’s albums] about a concept, and he was into it, but some record company at the time, I don’t know who they were, they didn’t have the budget I was looking for, and I was not going to do it with a small budget. It had to be done right. Then, a good friend of mine who’s a journalist in France and also a singer/songwriter and has written a book on David Bowie, his name is Jérôme Soligny, he said, ‘Mike, the obvious thing is playing solo piano. Just play the music how you feel,’ and I said, ‘Jesus, why didn’t I think of something so simple?’” (laughs).
Was the album recorded live?
Well, the whole album is an improvised album. There’s three or four tracks that has piano overdubs, as you probably heard on “Let’s Dance’ and “‘Heroes'” and on the “Tribute to David,” there’s a delay where the same track plays about a quarter to a half second later than the first track … very subtle, and “‘Heroes'” has three pianos and “Let’s Dance” has three pianos and there’s a crazy medley that, at the very end, I add an extra hand, like a third hand … but everything was improvised, even the overdubs, so I would record them when I felt them, and it was a very interesting process.
Your take on “‘Heroes'” sounds particularly layered, is there any influence there from the Philip Glass interpretation?
It’s funny you would say that. There’s that one piano part that goes on and on, like minimalist … and it’s never the way I actually play. Although, I’ve written a few minimalist pieces, but nothing the way Philip draws it out slowly and builds and builds and builds. But in this particular case I was able to just keep playing it and improvising around it. I varied it. If you listen very closely they change in and out. But a lot of repetition, and I just fell in love with it. I guess if I’ve ever been influenced by Philip it would have been just in that moment in time because I know his works a little bit but nothing very deeply. I just think that growing up in that same era it would have influenced me a little.
How do you think Bowie fans unfamiliar with your solo albums will react to this music?
You realize that even Mark [aka Total Blam Blam] who runs the Bowie site didn’t recognize most of the songs (laughs), and I’ve been experiencing this, case after case, so I knew that many people who are just my fans who have nothing to do with Bowie, I knew that they would hear it as Mike again improvising. There’s some jazz, there’s some classical, there’s some pop elements, some avant-garde, and then I knew the hardcore Bowie fans wouldn’t cease to stop listening to it till they heard it. For, example, if you go back and listen to “Ashes to Ashes,” all I’m playing is the three-bar hook on that song that was sort of done on a piano … I never played the song. That’s why it’s called “variations.” … There are certain songs that I paid much more respect to his melody and many that I turned inside and out. On “Changes,” I did a combination of both. “Let’s Dance,” I built most of it off the bass line. I did a lot of crazy improvising and ended up with a crazy stride piano at the end, which is reminiscent of “Time,” from Aladdin Sane, but much quicker. With the same bass line going. It has its own wildness:
And here’s the original video from 1983:
One of the most interesting pieces on the album has to be your medley of some the later period Bowie songs.
On the medley, I actually use part of my solo from Earthling, on “Battle for Britain,” and I altered it and changed it. Then I did “Loneliest Guy,” which I played the accompaniment part on the Reality CD, but here I played a little melody and improvised very slow, and then on “Disco King,” I used some of the original recording material. I had some of my original MIDI files that I had of my playing mixed with some improvisations … That was the hardest work to put together cause it was the longest. It’s about seven minutes. And “Life on Mars,” the first two minutes of that, I make up my own piece, totally my own piece inspired by David’s song and then I go into the song. That one you can hear the melody pretty straight. “Space Oddity” has two versions, and they’re pretty self-evident, although the second one gets a little more adventurous. But because I’m an instrumentalist, and I’ve never focused a whole lot on lyrics, it’s very easy for me to hear it and see it that way, but a lot of people who are used to those words and his phrasing, I’m telling ‘ya, they probably wouldn’t recognize seven or eight out of the 11 songs. They just wouldn’t know it. Like “Heroes,” it was just some approximation of the bass line, and I hardly play the melody, and when I did, it was kind of tongue-in-cheek, and then I had that Philip Glass line going, and then I had all my improvisation above that. So it’s a very honest album, Hans … because that’s all I do. I’m an improvising musician.
Then there is one piece that doesn’t seem to derive from any previous Bowie track, “Tribute to David.” What was your starting point for that one?
Purely homage. A tribute to David. It was just my way of writing a piece for him that just came from my world, and that’s what came out.
What were your thoughts when you played it?
It was more the intention to write a beautiful piece that seemed to feel like him, from my viewpoint. Nothing else. The reason I know that is because it came out in one shot, in just three minutes or whatever the song is.
How did you choose the songs?
Well, I didn’t want to do any of the ones I was known for. If there is a Volume 2 of the Bowie variations, I would do “Aladdin Sane” and “Time” and “Lady Grinning Soul” in my own way because I’m known for those. I didn’t think that was fair on the first one.
But you are interested to see what it would be like to revisit those early Aladdin Sane songs?
Yeah… but … I was really being respectful to him as a songwriter. Even though they were done in my bizarre kinda way, I still respected his song. If the album is successfully received and people would like a second volume, I would do the ones I’m known for, but since it would be solo piano, I have to find a way to make them sound good without a bass and drums and guitar. That would be very challenging.
What was the last thing you did with Bowie?
The two last appearances that he’s done in the last six or seven years [including one with] just piano and voice, one was with Alicia Keys for an AIDS benefit, and we all did “Changes” together. She asked me to play the piano, and him and her sang it, and we used her band. That was never televised. And then we did one on television where we did “Life on Mars.” It was just me and him, and it was the first time he did anything after the tour, and that was his first performance he did after his problem with his heart. So, I was very fortunate to be part of those two extremely magical performances because they were both great in different ways, and nothing since then.”
Some shaky video exists of the performance of “Changes” with Keys:
For good measure, here is the Fashion Rocks show where Garson and Bowie performed “Life on Mars.” It aired on CBS in 2006:
Any plans to work together again?
We haven’t talked about anything like that. I know that when he feels ready, he’ll call, and if he feels ready. But the thing I’ve always liked about him is, if he’s not feeling something, he’s not going to do it. So, if and when he feels it, he’ll do it, and if and when he thinks I can contribute to something, he’ll call me. If he hears something else, he’ll call somebody else or not have piano. I don’t know any more than anybody else does on that. I haven’t been lead to believe anything either way … When you’re forcing doing music, when you don’t hear it in your head and feel it, which obviously he hasn’t in this last period of time, it would be dishonest, and that’s the last thing he would do because, one thing about him, whether you like his music or not, no one can say that he’s not honest because he does what he feels like, when he feels like it, how feels like it, and his body of work shows it … I think that’s what we do have in common. We’re both pretty honest to our music.”
* * *
It was a nice conversation that, again, lasted longer than I expected and offered much insight into this original recording that seems to deconstruct music and build it back again as something altogether different. David Bowie Variations seems to compliment the découpage style of writing Bowie often employed in his lyric writing to nearly surreal effect.
For even more insight into Garson’s style and how it has grown and changed alongside Bowie’s own unique songcraft, as well as Garson’s history before and beyond Bowie, follow this link for the start of an early, extensive unpublished interview I had with Garson from 2004:
From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1 of 5). All parts are linked together.
The word “indie” is so abused by the mainstream media nowadays. But in the early part of the nineties, this term came into the music lexicon as a reference to bands or fans of music who released music, oftentimes home recordings, on their own labels, independent of major label support or distribution with little interest in becoming celebrities or getting rich. Those bands thrived on non-commercial college radio thanks to program directors like yours truly who were actual undergrad students searching for something new in music, no matter the label. From that pure process of releasing music to the public, a particular sound emerged, as rough-edged as punk but as catchy as pop. Bands like Yo La Tengo, Sebadoh, Superchunk and others loved rock ‘n’ roll, and they were not ashamed to show it.
Most recently, the UK band Yuck garnered a lot of hype for being kids inspired by nineties indie rock though too young to have lived it. Despite the band’s recently released self-titled debut’s scarily close survey of the variety of sounds of nineties indie music— from the slow to the punk— it still lacks some of the verve of the real deal and loses its sheen fast (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the LP on Amazon). On the other hand, Love of Everything’s up-coming 4-track EP, “Sooner I Wish” is a home-recorded little masterpiece that stays focused in its minimalism while maintaining a passion for musical expression. It recalls the bouncy spirit of nineties indie rock while tackling the morose subject of honest lost love, as singer/guitarist Bobby Burg tangles with the ups and downs of his real marriage that recently ended in divorce, according to the press materials accompanying this release by Polyvinyl Records.
The solo project of Burg (Joan of Arc and Make Believe), Love of Everything has released seven albums to date. This amazingly tight but unceasingly giving 7-inch will officially make it out to the public on Aug. 2, but click on its title above to pre-order it if you want one of only 300 manufactured on white vinyl and an instant download of the entire EP. Polyvinyl is offering a free mp3 of the opening song, “Three Way Answers”: download or stream it here. On this opener, Burg concocts an impressive, repetitive hook by just traveling up and down his guitar neck as Matt Holland (Air Waves, Vacations) smacks out a steady drum beat while a bass plods along on a similar rhythm (possibly Burg tracked over). Burg comes on with his cutesy, nasal voice that brings to mind Mac McCaughan of Superchunk*, and the minimal musical backdrop provides him with a canvas to throw his emphasis where he likes. The music is perpetual and entrancing. It’s so hypnotic in its self-indulgence that I would have not minded it lasting five more minutes, but Burg knows the value of a tease at a run time of 1:37.
The second track, “Sooner I Wish,” opens with some seemingly random high-pitched plucks of the guitar that offers a misleading tone to the song that ultimately takes shape. It actually has a similar repetitious manner as “Three Way Answers” but on a faster tempo. Fuzzy reverb creates an audio hallucinatory effect of more than one guitar bashing out the hook, and the intro that opened the track seems to haunt the rest of the song in the background, barely there, as if it were an echo from a previous time. Creepy.
“Here Come the Warm Regrets” follows with a more ominous feel. The only instrumental on the 7-inch is propelled by a sinister guitar line that sounds like the beginning of a Sonic Youth song that never goes beyond its opening. To tease you, an elastic guitar solo appears from the corner to bend out whiny, steady guitar notes. When the guitar seems to tire, a melodica appears to take over the same series of notes before the song trickles to a halt. Going back further than the nineties aesthetic that influences this 7-inch, anyone who knows Brian Eno’s oeuvre will pick out not only the titular allusion of “Here Come the Warm Regrets” to Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets” but also the fuzzed out, musical references to the unrelenting distorted guitars that propelled the 1973 song, which closed out Eno’s debut album of the same name. This is the sort of hefty substance behind “Sooner I Wish” that makes it stand up beyond its reference to nineties indie rock. It reaches back to the art rock that came before it, even if only in sly reference.
The 7-inch closes with “Want,” which adds on layers of hooks. A ringing guitar part propels the song as a lushly strummed hook is coated over it. Never have I heard such a flagrant abuse of the loop pedal with such simple, indulgent results and loved it as much as this little record. All the tracks on this 7-inch seem constructed on hooks alone and never let go of their grooves. There’s an over-the-top indulgence that gives every track a delightful, mesmerizing quality.
As a whole, “Sooner I Wish” has a lo-fi, fuzzy quality throughout, permeated with a reverb seemingly created from the levels recorded too high. As is the case with many of the great lo-fi recordings that defined the nineties, a subtle psycho-acoustic effect emerges that invites interpretation from the listener. Maybe some listeners will notice phantom melodies that accompany the music, recalling some of the best creators of lo-fi music working on low-grade recording equipment like Guided By Voices, early Dinosaur Jr. and Smog.
In the end, Burg never gives up on what I liked best about the lo-fi rock of the early to mid-nineties: this love of catchy, perpetual electric guitar lines that never stop or even slow down to take a breath. Love of Everything brings it to the edge and takes a flying leap with fuzzy guitars blaring.
*In the nineties, McCaughan founded Merge Records, which recently made rock history as the first indie label to earn a Grammy with Arcade Fire’s latest, the Suburbs. Arcade Fire has been on the label since thier first album brought them word-of-mouth buzz by many popular bands and musicians, including David Bowie, back in 2004.
It seems like just the other day Brian Eno came out with Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon). Well, eight months later, here comes another all-new full length by the art-rock and ambient music pioneer: Drums Between the Bells (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the limited edition on Amazon).
I have already received several emails hyping this release, with preview streams and a free download, but in a third email I received yesterday, the album’s website on Eno’s homepage, revealed one song that struck me as one of the most gorgeous I have heard him produce in years, “Pour It Out”:
Something about the leisurely guitar work reminds me a bit of “Deep Blue Day” from Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the CD on Amazon). But what’s more striking is the rhythmic use of the woman reciting the poetry of Rick Holland, who wrote all the “lyrics” for this new album due out on July 5. The delicate delivery of the words, which have their own surreal quality, adds a beautiful layer to the work.
Just this past weekend, I caught a segment of NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” during which host Bob Boilen interviewed Eno, who played DJ. It was a great conversation and featured the above track plus Eno’s story behind it. I would recommend you hear the show for yourself, as Eno talks about the early rock ‘n’ roll music that moved him as a child, as well as his own music, on top of some of the new music he admires (he chooses an amazing song off the highly underrated Portishead Third album [Support the Independent Ethos, buy the LP on Amazon]).
Eno has also made two other tracks available as free streams:
Though more frenetic than “Pour It Out,” both of the above cuts are quality experiments of music melded with poetry and bode well for this new album, which is so far sounding like one of Eno’s strongest in years.
Warp Records will release Drums Between The Bells in a variety of formats:
-A 44-page hardcover book with a double CD (one disc features instrumental versions of the tracks)
-A double LP (with a download for the instrumental version of the album)
-A single CD in a digipak
-A digital download
All have their own unique covers, all designed by Eno himself: