Taking noisy and experimental music out of the basement and into the mainstream has been a long journey. From Brian Eno and Lou Reed popularizing it in the 1970s to the current generation performing at large festivals, we’ve reached a point where it’s not only critically praised but a genre with a serious following.
Dan Friel and Brian Chippendale (Lightning Bolt, Black Pus) — creative souls each with challenging yet accessible new solo albums — recently sat down and talked about the freedom of solo work, performing on the street in the United Arab Emirates, and drunk viking synthesizers.
Brian Chippendale: You just made a super pop record that opens with a 12-minute song, and you didn’t have to bounce the song order or album direction off any band members! Do you feel mega-liberated by that? Or trapped because you had to make every decision?
Dan Friel: 100% liberation. Zero trap. And the track order was an especially fun call to make. With that said, I always end up bouncing ideas off of the same few helpful friends as my solo-project research panel (even if I reserve the right to then do whatever I want).
So how go your travels? Seems like you’re somewhere in the Middle East, and it looks awesome. Where are you? What are you up to on this trip?
BC: Yeah, I wandered off to the United Arab Emirates for a 10-day trip, which was awesome. Ten drummers playing in various formations, either alone or in threes or fives or all 10 outside in the streets of Sharjah, a city in the Emirate next to Dubai. It was great to be playing with awesome drummers I have seen before like Kevin Shea, Tatsuya Yoshida (Ruins), Yoshimi P-We (Boredoms), Morten Olsen (MoHa!), and then seeing drummers I’ve only heard of or have never heard of, like Jim Black, Susie Ibarra, Lukas Ligeti, Cevdet Erek, and Uriel Barthelemi.
The whole thing was put together by a Lebanese sound artist named Tarek Atoui as part of the Sharjah Biennial. Tarek had a structural framework for us to play in, like physical settings and loose ideas, and we filled it all out through improvisations. It was rad — playing outside, in the hot sun, in the Middle East, for people on the street who seemed very curious and accepting (as long as you stopped when it was time for one of the five daily prayers). A really nice trip. Came back to grey, slushy, freezing grossness.
DF: That sounds incredible! Have you done much playing outside the traditional US / Europe / Japan / Australia routes?
BC: I have been running that same loop you probably have with those exact countries. It felt great to enter into a new place. The Middle East is so misunderstood by the US, and I assume we are misunderstood by them, so it feels important to go there, to be a presence. People were incredibly nice and gentle. Just don’t fuck with prayer time, which is a simple and easy gesture of respect. I hope to visit more areas; I made some Lebanese connections through this trip. We’ll see.
Speaking of new phases, you just had a kid? Whoa! That is amazing. Your first I assume?
BC: What now?
DF: Fun, surreal baby time. The strangest part for me is that we seem to have the exact same eyes, and there isn’t much you do with newborns other than stare at each other.
BC: Children’s music?
DF: I think I might already be doing that. Kids seem to respond well, anyway, and I like it. Ever play Black Pus for kids?
BC: No Black Pus for kids yet, though in Sharjah I drummed for some little guys, which felt great (and it wasn’t viciously loud). Will you let this influence you? Do you have a choice?
DF: I doubt there’s really a choice, but I do think you can steer the ways in which something like this shows up in music and art.
BC: Getting any sleep? Touring?
DF: Not really. It’s just a long string of three-hour days that are 50% sleep. It radically changes the way life is structured. I’m taking it slow for a few months, but I will do some touring in the US and UK this fall. I really miss it already.
BC: Did you set out to make a thoroughly poppy record, or did you just find yourself there as you played it?
DF:I didn’t go in thinking pop, but I wanted to make something that was very pretty and very heavy, trying to push both sides of that equation in equal measure. I think of some of the songs as pop songs, and some more as folk jams in major keys, but I doubt anyone else makes that distinction. I consider “Thumper” and “Valedictorian” pop songs, influenced by pure pop like Guided By Voices or The Magnetic Fields, but I think of tracks like “Ulysses” or “Badlands” more like positive Godflesh.
BC: I just gave your record another listen with the idea of posi-Godflesh in mind, and I totally heard it, especially in “Ulysses.” Godflesh was the best. I wonder if they are still in the vocabulary of modern listeners. Streetcleaner — oh, my god. But you pull out the same low end distorto heaviness mixed with the warbling, piercing high sounds Godflesh used. I think I try to grab some of that too coming from my oscillator, the sound of a thick chunks of electricity. Also on this, my third or fourth listen to your album, the poppiness (almost some Pixies moments in there) started to fall to the side, and the heaviness took more center stage.
I think as the album goes on, it gets poppier perhaps, so the lingering feeling is that it’s a pop album…but really, the opener is a heavy, long journey of a song. Funny to make an album and listen to it a hundred times in all these different orders, and then the order is decided and that’s the context the listener hears it in — that juxtaposition of songs. Though that is fading with digital radio and iTunes loading your album in backwards and whatnot. Maybe all the time and focus I put into the order is a waste of energy.
Another thing I pulled out of this listen was the sort of layer of sounds — like on “Scavengers,” there are melodies sort of “sung” by the electronics in a few different simultaneous voices that don’t quite line up, like a crew of drunken sailors. You use the drunken-sailor effect a few times, letting sounds play in “almost unison.” It creates a nice party atmosphere. Drunk viking synthesizers down at the pub singing 3013 folk songs.
Isn’t it rad to make decisions in a one-man-band framework? There’s no one to say “no” to an idea!
DF: It’s awesome. Solo projects obviously let you make something that is hyper-focused, but they also turn into this deeper mission to figure out exactly what you want from music. The moments when you’re building something great completely on your own aren’t like anything else. The tricky part is that I feel like I have to work twice as hard to keep ideas from becoming too homogenous or predictable. You become solely responsible for maintaining the diversity in the idea pool that happens automatically when you’re collaborating with other people. I end up consuming a lot more music and art to keep new info coming in.
I think people can probably figure out what ideas you’re getting to explore more with this project, but the added focus on vocals is the thing that stands out to me. Is that exciting for you? I feel like there is some serious release in those vocals. It sounds fun.
BC: Yeah, I’m into the vocals. That side of music for me has been expanding over the last five or six years. It is fun to sing, to focus in on it. It’s obviously in a more developmental stage than my drumming, and it’s a challenge. But it’s a huge part of Black Pus as a lot of the sounds are vocal loops, as well as the non-looped singing that sits over the top. Drumming and singing are the core music ingredients for me. It’s elemental stuff, caveman style.