Jono El Grande

Q&A: Jono El Grande

Jono El Grande: Phantom StimulanceJono El Grande: Phantom Stimulance (Rune Grammofon, 2/1/11)

Jono El Grande: “Borrelia Boogie”

[audio:|titles=Jono El Grande: “Borrelia Boogie”]

The off-kilter art rock of Norwegian bandleader, composer, singer, guitarist, and kazoo player Jono El Grande is like candy to fans of Frank Zappa and whimsical, progressive rock. In his 10 years of playing with The Luxury Band (née The Jono El Grande Orchestra), he has released four albums, including the multi-layered Neo-Dada in 2009 and the raucous Phantom Stimulance this winter.

Though he has enjoyed success in his native Norway, Jono’s delightfully eccentric music isn’t yet as well known overseas. Here he opens up about composing, why there’s no such thing as a “live favorite,” and how songs can take more than a decade to record.

According to your label, only one song on your newest record, Phantom Stimulance, is newly composed, with the rest being unreleased live favorites, compiled to commemorate your 10 years as a bandleader and 15 as a composer. Why did you decide to record these songs to celebrate this occasion?

There are two brand-new compositions on the album, not one — “Borrelia Boogie” and “Rise Of The Baseless Press-Base Toy.” The other songs are completely rearranged versions of songs that never reached an album and new arrangements of earlier-released songs that have evolved so much on stage during the years that they deserved to be released again, with new titles. “Live favorites” is a term that the record company came up with. Even if this record is presented as an anniversary, it is nevertheless the music that is most important. Always.

Why hadn’t the songs on Phantom Stimulance been recorded previously? Were they more suited to live performance than the studio? Are there any live favorites still yet to be recorded?

I am a composer who likes to develop compositions over time at live shows by adding new themes and parts to them. My working process is very often like this: I write the basic scores at home, then the band rehearses the music, and then we play the material live and mold it until I feel that it is ready to be recorded. And I never know exactly when each song is ready. The reason why these tracks haven’t been recorded previously is that, on earlier albums, there were other compositions that I felt were more ready than ones on Phantom Stimulance. You may call them “live favorites” — to me these tunes were the hard ones, the ones that I had to work a little extra with to make them worthy to be immortalized on an album. We used 40 to 60 tracks on each song. “La Dolce Vidda” contains 10 drum tracks, I think.

It was actually quite the same with Neo-Dada. Some compositions there date back to the ’90s. And to the last question: yes, there will be more “live favorites” to be released in the future. I just have to compose them first.

Wagon Christ

Q&A: Wagon Christ

Wagon Christ Wagon Christ: Toomorrow (Ninja Tune, 3/07/11)

Wagon Christ: “Manalyze This!”

[audio:|titles=Wagon Christ: “Manalyze This!”]

Electronic producer Luke Vibert is a man of many sounds and aliases. Since the early ’90s, Vibert has recorded under his own name as well as under Wagon Christ, Plug, and several others to accommodate his sheer girth of recorded output.  His brand new release as Wagon Christ, Toomorrow, retraces his funky roots while pasting disparate vocal samples over waving bass lines and hip-hop beats.

Toomorrow is a 15-track collection that demonstrates Vibert’s humorous fusions and reflects the slinky rhythms of his Wagon Christ alias.  Here Vibert discusses the making of his newest record, the truth behind live electronic music, and how technological innovations have affected his material.

Your first record, Phat Lab Nightmare, was based on a lie, but you eventually got your foot in the door with Rising High. Do you think your approach to music would have been different had you not started with an impromptu ambient record?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked before. Yeah, I’m sure it would have been, probably. I have to recover, in a way, from that album. At the time, I think if I could have made anything, if I could have been totally free and making anything, I would have probably made very similar stuff to now. Like more funky break beats, and not so obviously ambient. But I sort of forced myself to try and make ambient music, and actually really enjoyed it. So then, slowly, that influenced the rest of my tracks. After a few years, I kept coming back to the album and thinking, “Actually, I quite like that.” So yeah, it definitely changed me for some reason, but it’s hard to think of how because it was so long ago.

Wagon Christ came about in the mid-’90s. How has the evolution of house and the abundance of new musical influences changed or affected Wagon Christ’s material?

It’s funny — I think, in a way, that it makes me more try to find my own sound and stick to that. I’ve had lots of people tell me, “Oh, man, your sound is quite dated, and the tracks sound very ’90s, and some people — kind of friends, really, all people I meet in clubs — often say, “Don’t you like dubstep?” (or some new thing), and I say, “Yeah — yeah, I do.” But I don’t really want to make it. I just want to find my own thing that I like doing.

Especially now that I’ve got kids and more work to do — like looking after them, and then more gigs that I have because the records don’t make so much money — I’m always off traveling around, touring. So I think when I do come to make music now, I just kind of really want to be me and forget about all new music. I don’t take much influence, really, from all the millions of new styles that have developed over the years. My stuff still sounds pretty old and basic.


Q&A: Dylan Carlson of Earth

Earth: Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light 1Earth: Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Vol. 1 (Southern Lord, 2/22/11)

Earth: “Father Midnight”

[audio:|titles=Earth: “Father Midnight”]

Most God-fearing people would probably characterize Earth’s cinematic drone-rock music as dark, and the assumption is not without merit. Since 1989, Earth’s founder and guitarist, Dylan Carlson, has specialized in a kind of down-tempo, almost lethargic style of slow rock that easily allows listeners to conjure thoughts of an emotional purgatory.

Carlson describes Earth’s musical destinations in a conversely different light. For him, the band’s resonant, slow-forming instrumentation represents a musically cerebral path to some sort of middle ground, but it’s not so much as a waiting room to hell as it is a medieval common area, where people are free to simply be, free to do as much or as little as they’d like. Earth’s womb-like melodic cocoon is in many ways an external and extremely personal catharsis — an intimate attempt to make sense of an ever-present melancholy that pervades Carlson’s vision of humanity.

What do you think has allowed Earth to maintain the same musical continuity for so long, while so many other bands from your time period have faded from the radar, sold out, died, or come back playing something completely different than what they started?

I think it’s still pretty similar. I think the main difference is more seen by working with [drummer] Adrienne [Davies] and working with the other members of the band more; it’s more of a collective experience than before. There were times when there were very few members of the band — no members of the band — [laughs] except me, so it was definitely more of a solitary pursuit at points, where now I have the luxury of being able to attract musicians to play with me and are able to play with me for at least a couple years at a time, instead of album by album.

That’s different, and I like that. I’ve always viewed Earth as a band, and wanted it to be a band, but it’s not always the easiest thing to find musicians to work with and keep them. I’m more cognizant of what I’m doing than before.

Do you think your sobriety has played a role in that?

Yeah, I definitely think so. I’m definitely more focused on doing music now and not wasting my time running around chasing [pauses] other things [laughs], so that’s good. And I’ve obviously been more productive in this second go-around than I was in the first, in terms of output and performing live.

Has your creative process changed at all over the years?

Yeah, I mean, for the most part, I guess. To me, there are certain things that need to be there for it to be Earth, otherwise I’d do something different. Within that, it should be slow, it should be simple, and hopefully be on the longer end of letting things develop — the longer end of the scale. There’s some wiggle room to do some other things, but if those three things aren’t there, then I should do a different project.

And if I were going to do something different, I’d do something completely different and wouldn’t try to sell that off as Earth. I think Earth has an identity of its own. I don’t think that would be fair to people to make something really fast and new-wave-y and call it Earth [laughs]; that wouldn’t be Earth. That would be my really fast new-wave-y project.

Todd Reynolds

Q&A: Todd Reynolds

Todd Reynolds: OuterboroughTodd Reynolds: Outerborough (Innova, 3/29/11)

Todd Reynolds: “Transamerica”

[audio:|titles=Todd Reynolds: “Transamerica”]

Violinist, composer, and producer Todd Reynolds has taken on an outsider, almost renegade role in music. Though he had a strict classical upbringing and a leading seat in an orchestra, Reynolds took his own path for a more personal means of expression, utilizing electronic loops and effects as a context for his dizzying improvisational instrumentation and emotive compositions.

His new double album, Outerborough, is an all-encompassing look at the myriad ways that the artist creates and collaborates, with one half of the album composed and performed entirely by Reynolds, and the other a disc of Reynolds performing pieces written by friends such as Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong of The Books, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Phil Kline, and more.  Speaking with Reynolds from his home studio, the virtuoso experimentalist shares his passion for music and explains why he choose the path that he did.

What was your musical upbringing?

Well, I’ve been playing the violin since the age of four. Around high school, I ended up studying with the late, great violinist Jascha Heifetz, one of the most famous concert violinists who ever lived. I then went to music school back in Rochester, joined the Rochester Philharmonic, and was principle second violin. I then moved back to New York, went back to school, and began my career.

When did you start exploring electronics as part of your compositions?

Even from my earliest days of college, I was interested in the outside aspects and the avant-garde side of music. So I was pretty heavily invested in that music. But I started using electronics shortly after I left the orchestra. I went back to school to get a master’s degree, and it was in that time that I went in that direction.

Young Widows

Q&A: Young Widows

Young Widows: In and Out of Youth and LightnessYoung Widows: In and Out of Youth and Lightness (Temporary Residence, 4/12/11)

Young Widows: “Future Heart”

[audio:|titles=Young Widows: “Future Heart”]

Though not a strict departure from previous material, the new album by post-hardcore outfit Young Widows displays a different phase of the band’s career. Calling it a “progression” might apply regressive traits to its first two albums, but In and Out of Youth and Lightness turns down the Cro-Magnon wallop and continues the band’s history of accomplished noise rock.

Its last album, Old Wounds, was a mostly live recording by Kurt Ballou (Converge, Coliseum, Pygmy Lush). In contrast, the new album was produced by the band and Kevin Ratterman (My Morning Jacket) at The Funeral Home in its hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Guitarist and vocalist Evan Patterson joined us to answer a few questions about the band’s songwriting process and what bands people should check out.

How do you describe your music?

I don’t, but if you were a clerk at a gas station, I would tell you that we are a rock band. That’s as far as I can go.

On the new album, there’s a bit of a weird blues influence — less Jesus Lizard pummel and more of a Liars atmospheric vibe. What did you want to do new or different? What did you want to keep the same?

Music has to progress. There are no specific influences. The goal with this album was to find my voice, and that was wholeheartedly achieved. Lyrically, [they’re] the heaviest and most affective songs that I’ve created. Old blues has that same effect on me. It speaks to me. The bridge between modern rock music and blues is a short one, and it’s inevitable that those characteristics will be riding in the same vehicle to achieve certain goals.

Maggie Björklund

Q&A: Maggie Björklund

Maggie Björklund: Coming HomeMaggie Björklund: Coming Home (Bloodshot, 3/22/11)

Maggie Björklund: “The Anchor Song”

[audio:|titles=Maggie Björklund: “The Anchor Song”]

Coming Home, the debut solo album from Danish songwriter/guitarist Maggie Björklund, is a warm and inviting record of richly textured compositions highlighting her masterful pedal-steel guitar. Recorded in and evocative of the Southwest United States’ particularly melancholic brand of folk, the album also features turns by Calexico, Mark Lanegan, Rachel Flotard, and Jon Auer, and already is one of ALARM’s favorite albums of the week.

As Björklund prepared to fly back to Europe after spending some time in the US, we caught up about the new album and the benefits of opening up musically.

What have you been up to while in the States?

Oh, I’ve done a lot of things on this trip. We made two fantastic videos. We recorded my songs played live with most of the guys from the album (Mark Lanegan, Jon Auer, and Rachel Flotard). That was really great and fun to do. We just got back from SXSW; I played a bunch of shows, including my official showcase. It went really well.

Was that your first time at SXSW?

Well, this was the first time with my own music. I’ve played there before. I know the turmoil of the 6th Street nightlife. But I had good responses at SXSW; people really stop and listen. It was very positive.

How did you become involved in music originally?

Well, I have always played music, since I was really little. It’s not something that I chose in that way; it’s just been a part of my life always. But as for becoming professional in music, I formed my band The Darleens in Denmark (after being a session guitarist in Hollywood). We were signed to Sony Music almost immediately, and that was my entrance.

When did you start playing the pedal-steel guitar? Why?

That was only 8 or 9 years ago, I think. I completely fell in love with it as soon as I started. It’s been with me every day since. The story with the pedal steel is that I had bought it several years earlier, because I love instruments and I always want to try and see what everything is like to play. So I bought the pedal steel from a friend and tried to play, but I just could not get anything good out of that instrument. I put it in a cupboard for a couple years; I was really annoyed with both the instrument and myself. But then a few years later I took it out again, and for some reason I had matured musically or whatever and I got some good sounds out of it. I was so thrilled.

Liz Harris (Grouper)

Q&A: Liz Harris of Grouper

Liz Harris: DivideLiz Harris: Divide (Root Strata, 2010)

When a contemporary artist creates with the basic ideas of darkness, light, and nature in mind, the results can be bewitching and intriguing on a very primal level. These concepts can yield wonderful images and sounds in capable hands. Such is the case with Liz Harris, better known as Grouper.

Harris has been experimenting with the mediums of video, sound, and illustrations since 2005, with the release of her self-titled CD-R, Grouper. She also has enjoyed success with albums on myriad labels, including Root Strata, Weird Forest, and Type Records. Because these limited-pressing CDs and LPs come and go so quickly, there have been three pressings of her last full-length, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (the last of which was released on Harris’ own label, the simply named Grouper).

With Harris’ most recent contribution, Divide, she combines her own personal drawings and a DVD of augmented, aquatic imagery for a celebration of life’s abstract wonders. For those not familiar with Grouper or Liz Harris, her brand of oceanic and hypnotizing art is absolutely unique. In the following conversation, we get a rare glimpse behind the multi-layered black curtain that is her craft, as well as some insight into her new book.

What was your inspiration for your recent book of drawings?

I started making art in this style about six or seven years ago, at the same time that I started making music as Grouper (the first piece I made was for the Way Their Crept insert). A desire to escape from anxiety definitely guided the trajectory of both. I feel, as with music, that I often understand the nature of a piece after it is done. The initial concept is intuitive, autonomous, and outside.

What I’ve learned about the pieces in Divide, by observation, is that they talk about gateways across various separations — between people, within various elements of one’s own character. I feel invested in questioning the permanence perceived in certain boundaries, in regards to space, and to [the] nature of our selves. The idea that these items are flexible is terrifying and mesmerizing.

I have a strong urge, like a lot of people, to make things black and white, to make sense of what frustrates or frightens me, make it fit in to a grid. Making patterns feels like a way to unwind knots, like picking the way through a labyrinth. What I most enjoy in them is that they give me that satisfaction of finding an order in things, while reminding me of the impossibility/absurdity of that task, all at once — a pattern that unfolds and changes to incorporate its own flaws.

The War on Drugs

Q&A: The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs: Future Weather EPThe War on Drugs: Future Weather EP (Secretly Canadian, 10/26/10)

The War on Drugs: “Comin’ Through”

[audio:|titles=The War on Drugs: “Comin’ Through”]

Though it won’t be the top result in a typical Internet search, Philadelphia-based The War on Drugs is definitely taking the title of America’s longest-running, most counter-productive conflict and making it its own. Aside from the very specific cultural reference and obvious inclination toward psychedelia, “The War on Drugs” is a vague band name — referentially devoid of musical context. That’s exactly why singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel was first attracted to the name when he came up with it years ago, drinking wine with a friend in Oakland, California.

Almost 10 years later, Granduciel and The War on Drugs use a discordant miasma of oblong and tangled tape-loops, anxious drum beats, gnarled knots of guitar riffs, and a dissociative lyrical narrative to speak to forgotten, lovelorn have-nots. The trio has undergone various lineup tweaks, including the subtraction of band co-founder Kurt Vile to his solo project, but it has continued to successively build upon its uncanny sound with each new release.

On its most recent release, Future Weather, the group’s sound moves away from the classic-rock influences to more ambient landscapes where Granduciel can better articulate the lachrymose environment that surrounds him. Yet, through the course of the album, The War on Drugs ultimately ends up in the same rustic dust storm of a musical illusion that it started in: translating the hum of a busy train station, crafting nomadic anthems for vagabond romantics with enough self-awareness and ambition to stave off desperation.

In advance of a North American tour with Destroyer, Granduciel recently took some time to answer a few questions about The War on Drugs, its “Americana” sound, and how it’s really just a kind of jam band.

From the live shows that I’ve seen, there seems to be a somewhat raw or spontaneous musical aesthetic rather than a polished one. Does that play a factor in how you prepare for live shows? Do you like to work out songs in a live setting as a way of making each show different from the last?

I don’t know which shows you saw because, really, it probably went one of two ways — the other way being legendarily sloppy, yet hopefully somewhat inspiring. We don’t really over-rehearse, though — just jam the songs for a few days before a tour, and things usually come together pretty quickly. After our practices for this tour, I’m really, really excited for the growth that we’ll see on this Destroyer tour.

Does It Offend You, Yeah?

Q&A: Does It Offend You, Yeah?

Does It Offend You, Yeah?: Don't Say We Didn't Warn YouDoes It Offend You, Yeah?: Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You (The End / Cooking Vinyl, 3/15/11)

Does It Offend You, Yeah?: “We Are The Dead”

[audio:|titles=Does It Offend You, Yeah?: “We Are The Dead”]

Following its debut in 2008, Does It Offend You, Yeah? challenged Virgin Records’ ideas for its music, and the frustration caused by demanding executives and mainstream models is evident in the band’s outspoken nature today. Although it took nearly three years to release its second album, the five-piece outfit from Reading, England has ditched its major-label constraints, disregarded boundaries, and comfortably created a musical adventure titled Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You.

The album fuses psychedelic acoustic interludes, electro-pop attacks, dirty-grime raps, and one synth-free ballad into a single collection. One of the band’s founders, synth player Dan Coop, recently took some time while touring the States to answer our questions.

First and foremost, your animosity towards the mass-music media, major record labels, genre tags, etc. is justifiable. But if you believe that mainstream musicians have simply found an obvious “formula,” can you explain how your approach to music is different?

Well, I think we just write tunes that we like and run with them. We’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with the first record. We were getting a lot of pressure from our ex-major label to do stuff we weren’t comfortable with, so in that way, we see it as a quite naïve and pretty disjointed album.  At one end, you’ve got ’80s synth pop, and then at the other, you’ve got produced dance-floor tracks. Luckily, I think it kind of worked out, as we’ve got fans coming at us from lots of different “scenes” so to speak, be it the metal scene who liked “Heavy Heart” and “Let’s Make Out,” the electro crowd who liked “Rockstars” and “Weird Science,” or the indie kids who liked “Dawn of The Dead.”

It’s a bit of a cliché, but it really pains us to be just dumped in a pigeonhole. The UK press really tried to put us into the whole “new rave” debacle, which was pretty funny as there really was no such thing as new rave until some journo thought of it, and, of course, since we use a synth in our songs, it was automatically assumed we were part of it. The only thing we want to do with our band is play sold-out shows and write songs we would like to hear on the radio. Scenes are fine if you want stereotypes; we just want to do our own thing.

Wires Under Tension

Q&A: Wires Under Tension

Wires Under Tension: Light ScienceWires Under Tension: Light Science (Western Vinyl, 2/8/11)

Wires Under Tension: “Electricity Turns Them On”

[audio:|titles=Wires Under Tension: “Electricity Turns Them On”]

The revolution may not be televised, but the Zombiepocolypse will be soundtracked by Wires Under Tension. The duo’s newest album, Light Science, meanders around the musical spaces between hopeful and hopeless, maintaining its taut excitement throughout.

Classically trained violinist Christopher Tignor brings the carefully orchestrated strings, while Theo Metz manages to organize the chaos with his syncopated rhythms. Loops, bleeps, and boops chime in from somewhere beyond the present. WUT never intended to make popular music, and it succeeded spectacularly. Between tour dates, Tignor was kind enough to answer a few of ALARM’s questions.

You discuss making music in a very intense, detailed, deliberate way. (“This violin technique, known as bariolage, makes use of high-energy string crossings to create melodic arcs which convey the very essence of the instrument.”) What formal musical training do you have, and how does that influence the sound?

Theo and I both grew up playing in rock bands and also [had] some classical training. As a violinist, that was the first way I began playing music, so dealing with scores is built in. As with discussing the music, I’d say we create music for an audience that isn’t interested in being underestimated and that would be excited at the prospect of bumping into new ideas. I think we’re in a unique position to do that, given our intense and varied musical backgrounds.

The first image that came to mind when I heard “Сказал Сказала” was the abandoned cityscape in 28 Days Later. The second thought was, “This is the soundtrack playing in my head when I’m lost in the Bronx.” What’s the connection between the album and the new neighborhood?

The neighborhood I live in the Bronx is Mott Haven. It’s a very down-to-earth residential place, in essence the antidote to hipster-dom. After living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for 13 years and seeing its changes, I find that quite refreshing. There’s a real urban energy tied up with risk and struggle that a place loses when [it] starts feeling more like an extension of some liberal-art college campus. Just like string instruments, without tension there is no resonance.

Daniel Bernard Roumain

Q&A: Daniel Bernard Roumain

Daniel Bernard Roumain: Symphony for the Dance Floor

The acronym DBR might sound like a spinoff of PBR, the bargain-priced, hipster-approved lager, but it actually belongs to something even more buzz-inducing: the music of violinist and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain. This classically trained musician gets W.A. Mozart aficionados to buy hip-hop records along with symphony tickets and makes clubgoers rock out to sounds inspired by Johannes Brahms and Ludwig van Beethoven.

His latest opus, Symphony for the Dance Floor, is a fusion of electronica, symphonic sounds, and lots of hip hop, created via collaboration with choreographer Millicent Johnnie and photographer Jonathan Mannion (whose shots of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Eminem have appeared on the most memorable album covers of the past 15 years). The piece premiered at Arizona State University on February 5, 2011 and will be performed again this fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.

ALARM spoke with Roumain about Symphony for the Dance Floor, his curious moniker, and how playing the violin can start a revolution, both in the musical world and the sociopolitical landscape.

What was on your mind when you began composing Symphony for the Dance Floor?

I’d been thinking a lot about the concept of performance. There’s a lot of art-making and art consumption in mainstream America right now. There are shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Glee that have revealed a real excitement about performance in the US, and even in Europe and Asia and East India. So Symphony for the Dance Floor is a response to this unique movement that’s happening, one that makes singing shows the first, second, and third most-watched programs. That’s really unusual and remarkable, and I’m excited for what it means for the violin and for composers.


Q&A: Deerhoof

Deerhoof: Deerhoof vs. EvilDeerhoof: Deerhoof vs. Evil (Polyvinyl, 1/25/11)

Deerhoof: “The Merry Barracks”

[audio:|titles=Deerhoof: “The Merry Barracks”]

If you’re familiar with the band, it takes less than 10 seconds to recognize a Deerhoof song. If bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki‘s beautiful, extraterrestrial voice and seemingly improvised lyrics don’t tip you off, surely the impetuous drumming of Greg Saunier, or the sharply jangled guitars of John Dieterich and Greg Rodriguez, will. Like a Galapagos of music, the quartet has evolved purely on its own, each member an island and each song a new creation found nowhere else on Earth.

The band’s dynamic approach to songwriting has led to a catalog stuffed to the brim with experimentation, and its tenth studio album, Deerhoof vs. Evil, is no exception. Here, Dieterich answers some questions from the road and kindly reveals his secret weapon in the ongoing battle against evil.

What happened in the past two years to influence the sound of the new record?

I guess the main thing that happened was that we all moved away from the San Francisco area and ended up in different cities.  So we have had to figure out a new way of operating as a band and try to stay connected, even from far away.

What is the current dynamic in the band in terms of songwriting? How are the songs constructed?

Each song is different, but the basic method is the same, in that everyone writes on their own and brings in their ideas, whether it’s in the form of recorded ideas and demos, or a guitar or bass riff or a vocal line, or whatever.  Then, as a band, we just try to get it to a place where everyone is happy with it and feels like it’s something we want to do.  A lot of material gets thrown away, as well.