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“We play rock & roll, but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.” – Walter Becker in 1974 (Rolling Stone)
The death of Walter Becker—the bespectacled and bearded guitarist, bassist, composer, lyricist, and one-half of the legendary duo Steely Dan—on September 3, 2017, ended a fifty-year friendship and a four-decade-old partnership with his co-collaborator, pianist, vocalist, and composer Donald Fagen. They were, to borrow a phrase used by Duke Ellington, “beyond category.” Simply put, from their debut LP, Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972), to their last studio CD, Everything Must Go (2003), Becker and Fagen existed as their own genre and played by their own rules. After a less-than-satisfying touring experience early in their career, they quit the road and focused on the studio until the ’90s. They were famous (or infamous) for their penchant for retakes until they achieved perfection. They named themselves after a steam-powered marital aid from William Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch, and wrote cynical, and dystopian songs about L.A. drug dealers (“Glamour Profession”), prophylactics (“The Fez”), class and immigration (“The Royal Scam”), mid-life identity crisis (“Deacon Blues”), incest (“Cousin Dupree”), middle-age lust (“Hey Nineteen”), and relationships (“Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”), along with hippie-fied, spaghetti-western ditties (“Here at the Western World”).
Steely Dan proved that pop music could be harmonically complex and quirky.
They proved that pop music could be harmonically complex and quirky in the early to mid-’70s, when the then-new FM format allowed for longer cuts, and more expansive playlists, genre-wise. In my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware—about 30 miles south of Philadelphia, where almost all of our television and radio stations broadcasted from—I heard black artists such as Howard University’s BlackByrds, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, and Billy Preston on WAMS-AM, a white station, and the powerhouse black station WDAS-FM played Elton John, David Bowie, Chicago, Rare Earth, Seals and Crofts, and Steely Dan. It was on WDAS that I heard their early hits like “Rikki…” and “Do It Again.”
Then, in 1977, they dropped their masterpiece LP, Aja. I completely and utterly lost my sixteen-year-old mind when I heard the first track from that LP, “Black Cow,” on WDAS. The track swung, with a lean, finessed funk I had never heard from them before. Who could make a song about a malt drink sound so funky? The music had “swagger,” with its perfect, in-the-pocket bassline, rock-steady drumming, laced with pithy, yet powerful horn lines, Becker’s twangy guitar chords and Fagen’s gravelly and unmistakably Brooklynesque, New Yawk/North New Jersey vocals. That station played other dynamic cuts from Aja, from the mid-tempo, Muscle Shoals-Motown-Beale Street beats of “Home at Last,” a paean to Homer’s The Odyssey, and “Josie,” a shout to a woman who “prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire,” to the cunningly lingual “I Got the News.”
In addition to the way the music sounded, thanks to Gary Katz’s excellent production, I wondered why this album spoke to me in the way that their earlier LPs did not. I got my answer on the title track: seven minutes and thirty-seven seconds of pure, musical nirvana. It wasn’t a cut or a tune, but a true composition of poetry, passion, and propulsion about some far away, Eastern exotic locale located on “a continent of the mind,” as the voice of Eartha Kitt purred on the TV commercial promoting the LP, where “angular banjos” sounded good to them.
Then, after Becker’s snaky arpeggios at four minutes and forty seconds into the song, “Galactus” a.k.a. Wayne Shorter, unfurls one of the most unforgettable tenor saxophone solos in rock history. Packed with the density of a white-hot dwarf star, Shorter writes his sonic signature on the epidermis of Becker and Fagen’s exquisite musical canvas with his concentrated, Coltranesque solo, which is powerfully pulsated by Steve Gadd’s vivid and volcanic drumming, paralleling Billy Cobham’s thunderous drumwork with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This was jazz fusion in its finest form.
“We had this piece [‘Aja’], which had this long modal section,” Fagen proudly told me in my interview with him in 2013 for Wax Poetics magazine. “And we thought, ‘who would be the ideal person for the track?’ And we said, ‘Wayne Shorter.’ On the first try, he said no. But we knew someone who knew him, and he asked him, because he didn’t know who we were. So we sent him the track, and he liked it and decided to come in. And he nailed it on the first take. That was one of the best moments for us.”
This is the same Wayne Shorter who co-founded the jazz fusion group Weather Report, and the same Wayne Shorter who played with Miles Davis and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. And there was also the keyboardist/vibraphonist Victor Feldman, who delivered a gorgeous, stop-time solo on “Black Cow.” He also played with Miles in the ’60s. And there were other jazz stars on Aja: keyboardists Don Grolnick and Joe Sample of the Crusaders; guitarists Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, and Steve Khan; drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (who hailed from nearby Elkton, Maryland), bassist Chuck Rainey, and saxophonists Tom Scott (on lyricon) and Pete Christlieb, (who delivered an impassioned, one-take, swinging solo on “Deacon Blues”) to name a select few.
This is the source of Steely Dan’s signature sound: their incorporation of the jazz aesthetic in every aspect of their already broad musical conception.
This is the source of Steely Dan’s signature sound: their incorporation of the jazz aesthetic in every aspect of their already broad musical conception, from the time they met at Bard College in 1967. With this realization, I dug into the crates of their early hits with a new divining rod that could detect their jazzy nuggets. I heard their perfect, note-for-note take on Duke Ellington’s 1927 classic “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” from Pretzel Logic (1974). I learned that the intro of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was inspired by pianist Horace Silver’s “Song for my Father.” I dug Phil Woods’ Charlie Parker-sweetened, alto saxophone solo on “Doctor Wu” from Katy Lied (1975). I loved Khan’s aquiline guitar lines on “Glamour Profession” from their Aja follow-up, Gaucho (1980), after which they disbanded for two decades. (Becker moved to Hawaii and Fagen stayed in New York, with both releasing solo projects.) I was also astonished by Chris Potter’s blistering, nearly four-minute tenor sax solo on “West of Hollywood” from their comeback CD, Two Against Nature (2000), which was released twenty years after Gaucho.
Steely Dan’s nine studio albums
Their love of jazz extended far back into their childhoods, as Becker and Fagen grew up in New York and New Jersey. Again, from my Wax Poetics interview with Fagen:
Well, my mother was a professional singer when she was young, from the age of five to fifteen. She used to sing from a club in the Catskills. She was a swing singer, although she didn’t stick with it. She sang around the house. So I heard a lot of standards as a kid, which is essentially the life force, the lingua franca of jazz—aside from original jazz tunes. So I was familiar with most of those tunes. And when I started playing the piano, I picked out those tunes on the piano. And then I had a cousin named Barbara, who was older than I—she was a good-lookin’ chick! She used to go into the Village and go to clubs. She actually became friendly with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and so on. And she had a great record collection. When we’d go over her house, she’d bring us down to her basement and play those great records: Thelonious Monk and Johnny Griffin live, and so on. I was nine or ten. I loved it, and I listened to a lot of radio broadcasts out of New York. That’s how I got into jazz.
Through the years, jazz musicians got into them.
And through the years, jazz musicians got into them, as evidenced by Ahmad Jamal’s bumpin’ version of “Black Cow,” from his album One (1978), Woody Herman’s big band take on the song “Aja” on his LP Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow (1978), and bassist Christian McBride’s ebullient rendition of the same song for his CD Sci-Fi (2000), as well as the long out-of-print LP Hoops McCann Plays the Music of Steely Dan (1988).
Today, to paraphrase Bud Powell, the scene has changed: a generation of young musicians, some of whom weren’t even born when Aja was released, play with the same, jazz-centric fluency that made Steely Dan unique, including the sidemen who played on their live gigs, which resumed in the ’90s. I reviewed their performance in October 2016 at New York’s Beacon Theater, where they performed the entire Aja album, for DownBeat. Fagen may be the frontman, but it was Becker who turned it out, instrumentally, effortlessly blending Grant Green, T-Bone Walker, and Johnny Guitar Watson into his own silken sound. At one point in their greatest hits segment, during Becker’s banter on “Hey Nineteen,” he said, motioning toward Fagen, “Can you believe I’ve known this guy for fifty years?”
The answer is an emphatic yes. And their music is all here—just like the song says—all done up, in blueprint blue.
The deaths last year of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, who were two thirds of the progressive rock power trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, elicited a great deal of renewed attention in the mainstream media for their once extremely popular but frequently maligned synthesis of rock and classical music. ELP’s grandiose and virtuosic performances—as well as those of other popular “prog” outfits such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Yes—reflected the zeitgeist of the 1970s—a time when rock went from being the soundtrack of teenage rebellion to something far more ambitious and, to its detractors, unbearably self-indulgent. But while so-called progressive rock was an attempt to create a music that went far beyond the trappings of rock, there were other even more ambitious musicians working within the rubric of progressive rock that wanted to take that music even further—exploring not just the structures and harmonic language of classical music, but also the rhythmic complexity and tonal instability of contemporary and avant-garde composers. Among the most successful and long-standing of such groups is the Robert Fripp-fronted British band King Crimson (which has included in its various line-ups some musicians from the United States since its early 1980s incarnation). Even more experimental are the German band Can (which was formed by composition students of Karlheinz Stockhausen) and the short-lived Henry Cow (which was rumored to have been named after maverick American composer Henry Cowell, but actually wasn’t), whose personnel included English guitarist Fred Frith who is currently a professor of composition in the music department at Mills College.
Prog rock in its various guises (both mainstream and fringe) was predominantly a European phenomenon, although many of its innovations can actually be traced to Americans such as Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) and Frank Zappa. However, in 1978, as the heyday of punk led most music fans to dismiss prog as bloated and irrelevant, two guys in Denver, Colorado, came together to form a prog cover band inspired by an unlikely combination of Yes and Henry Cow. Those two guys were multi-instrumentalist/recording engineer Bob Drake and self-taught guitarist/composer Mike Johnson, whose heroes were not just Steve Howe (of Yes) and Jimi Hendrix but also Shostakovich and William Schuman.
“I heard Stockhausen just a few times,” Johnson recalled when he visited us at the New Music USA office in late January. “I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album. And I thought, ‘Hmm, I could do that.’ But I guess I’m old fashioned. I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen. … I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker. That’s extremely high art in my mind.”
Pretty soon after Drake and Johnson’s initial rehearsals, they stopped playing covers and by 1982 they had enlisted a classically trained vocalist and morphed into a vehicle for performing Johnson’s own complex compositions, scored for a rock band instrumentation, playing their first gigs in venues in and around Denver in 1983 under the name Thinking Plague.
“I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on,” said Johnson. “Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band. I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.”
While not initially successful with local audiences, they labored on in the recording studio, self-releasing an eponymous debut EP in 1984 and pressing only 500 copies of it.
“We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it,” remembered Johnson. “We didn’t know anything about shopping it. We didn’t think that it was shoppable. … We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on. We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.”
But some important folks did take it seriously, including the legendary New Music Distribution Service, which took 30 of those 500 copies, Henry Cow’s former drummer Chris Cutler whose own independent label/distribution service Recommended Records stunningly took 200 copies, and—perhaps most importantly—Wayside Music, the mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform, a label whose roster includes pioneering electronic/minimalist composer David Borden and the iconic free jazz innovator Wadada Leo Smith. Though the band has gone through tons of incarnations since then—Johnson is the only original member of Thinking Plague—Cuneiform has been the band’s label ever since.
Thinking Plague’s ninth album, Hope Against Hope, was just released on February 10, 2017, and it is every bit as uncompromising as its predecessors. To realize Johnson’s musical conceptions, the musicians in the band—like members of a contemporary classical music ensemble—read from fully notated scores. Because of its instrumentation and volume, it still sounds somewhat like rock but it is light years away from popular music.
“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry,” Johnson opined. “I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it. I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music. It’s like I’m a person from another planet, as far as I can tell, where all this is concerned. But when it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living. … I’ve never gotten a grant for this band. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music. … But as to how much money there is in any of it, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music. Nobody. Not me. Not anybody else. We’re a dot-org phenomenon. As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website. There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is. It’s not for profit.”
Mike Johnson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at New Music USA
January 27, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: You’re pretty much self-taught as a composer and a guitarist, but you actually studied classical music as well as electronic music. I think these studies definitely wound up informing what you do, both as a composer and as a guitarist, so I’m interested in what you thought you were going to do back then, versus what you wound up doing.
Mike Johnson: Well, it really goes back even before that. When I was very little, my uncle gave a record to us—to my mom I guess, because my dad had no interest whatever in any kind of symphonic music but my grandfather on my mom’s side was an aficionado. So my uncle gave her an LP of Copland’s Billy the Kid with Appalachian Spring on the other side. I must have been three the first time I heard that—me and all my brothers got sucked in. This would have been the ‘50s when doo-wop music was on the radio. I didn’t listen to the radio; I was oblivious. But then I sort of discovered that my mother had some other classical records so I was listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and some Bach. There was even a Shostakovich piece in there mixed in on a compilation that I guess was on a 78. I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it was cool. I sort of forgot about all that later. I went to school and the English invasion took place. All of a sudden, everybody—even my brothers—were all agog and excited about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And that’s where I went. I got sucked into that after some resistance. Then my brother got a guitar, and they gave me a guitar for Christmas. He got an electric guitar that my cousin didn’t want, so they gave me a cheap acoustic guitar just to keep me quiet. There was this big trapezoidal box under the Christmas tree and I was like, “What in the world is that?” I was 11 years old. So when I opened it up I said, “What do you want me to do with this?” Because there were no music lessons in my family. My mother had had piano lessons as a kid and hated them, so she just decided her kids weren’t going to do that. More’s the pity is all I can say, again and again. But by the time I was 13, I taught myself to play guitar. My brother had sort of learned some, but I passed him right up. I was a lead guitar player in a rock and roll band with a bunch of guys that were 18 years old, because I was tall for my age. Then at some point my older brother went off to college. By that time we were living in Colorado. He came back for a break once with an armload of records. One of them was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, one of them was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and one of them was Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. There was something by Prokofiev—I forget what—and maybe one or two others. And he just said, “These are great; you’ve got to listen to these.” And he left them with me. Anything my brother said, I did.
“I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music.”
About the same time I started hanging out with these guys and we’d go down in this guy’s basement and play records. These guys turned me on to King Crimson. So I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music. Those things worked into my psyche and I didn’t really know what the heck to do with it. I was trying to play rock and roll and be a high school student, and I managed to get through high school but I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wasn’t interested in studying. I didn’t read music. I’d never had any lessons. It had not been a supportive family situation where your mom is going, “Oh, you’re interested in that?” It wasn’t like that in those days. It was just a bunch of boys, and we lived in North Carolina and it was the ‘50s and early-‘60s. So it was all about “shut up, get out of the kitchen, go outside, play football, we’ll call you when the food’s ready.” Basically that was the parenting. I didn’t think of myself as a prospective music student. I’m completely self-taught. Everything was by ear. But I was very interested in this stuff that these masters were doing, and I couldn’t figure it out.
FJO: So what did your family wind up thinking when you actually became a musician?
MJ: My parents, as far as I can remember, never saw me perform anywhere. Not when I was in teenage bands, you know, playing like Beatles, Stones, and Kinks. Not later when I was playing whatever it was, like early-‘70s rock and roll music. They didn’t view being a musician as a meaningful, viable option, particularly being a rock and roll musician. It was just something that they didn’t believe was legitimate in any way, shape, or form, even though my dad loved Chet Atkins and certain kinds of popular music as well as lots of guitar-type music. But rock and roll wasn’t acceptable.
Both my older brothers went to college and became engineers. That was considered how you go. So I was like, what do I do? In the meanwhile I got a letter from Uncle Sam saying that the Marines needed a few good men. It was 1970 or ‘71 and the draft lottery was still going on. I knew that my number was up, because they picked a certain amount of birthday numbers every year and mine was pretty low on the list. So I knew that I was going. My older brother had already gone in because he lost his college deferment. I ended up spending four year in the U.S. Navy during which time I played guitar a lot. I actually honed my skills probably more than any other time, sitting around playing scales and copying my hero then, Steve Howe of Yes. I was trying to learn to play like that. Before that it had been three-finger blues licks and Jimi Hendrix was my God.
FJO: Were you ever in any of the Navy bands?
“I never did get any kind of credentials in music.”
MJ: No, because you had to be a good player to be in those. I couldn’t read a note of music. I was a Navy patrol plane radio operator chasing after submarines in the Cold War. I was a lonely, enlisted man, but I went all over the world. I was in Iran. All kinds of stuff. But I didn’t want to be there. I figured I’d get the GI Bill out of it at least. All my friends back from high school were doing things. It was a tortuous kind of experience for me, but I came out of the Navy with some equipment and a lot more chops. Then I moved back home. I became a music major at the local city college, but they only had classical guitar or all the usual classical stuff; I was an electric guitar player and I didn’t want to play classical guitar. So I took all the theory classes, the history classes, sight singing and reading, all the usual first two-year and some of the third-year music classes, and then some general classes. Then I just wandered away from school because I was playing in bands and I needed to do other stuff. At one point I was playing six nights a week in a really skanky lounge band, from 9 to 2 every night. I literally fell asleep at one point while playing some song. I found myself in the next song and didn’t remember how I got there. But it was paying the bills. I went back to school later, in the ‘80s. Thinking Plague was already a thing. I took a different major and finished a bachelor’s degree. Then I went back to school later after that. But I never did get any kind of credentials in music.
FJO: So, to go back to when you started playing in various bands—I imagine these were basically cover bands. You were not doing any of your own music.
MJ: Not at all. Not a bit.
FJO: So how did you make the transition to doing your own music?
MJ: Well, when I was getting turned on to all of this 20th-century symphonic stuff, I was in bands with these guys who were turning me on to King Crimson, ELP, Yes, Genesis, and a lot of other bands that were way more minor than that. So I was just all aflutter with all these possibilities, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I had another band with the same guys a little later and I started trying to write some tunes kind of in the flavor of what I thought was Yes, but I didn’t really have the chops at the time to do that sort of thing. Subsequently to that—I must have been 18 or 19 and working some kind of stupid job—some friends of mine started a band. They were doing covers of progressive rock tunes and, in some cases, they were arranging them a little bit. I hung out at a rehearsal and they were working on this one tune. They wanted a middle part and they didn’t know what it was. I just had this idea jump in my head, and I started saying, “Here, bass, you play this.” And then I heard this kind of thing. “Guitar player, you play this.” I built this part for them right out of my head, just talking to them; they started playing it and they used it. That was the first example of me actually writing something in the genre that worked. It was really angular and tritone-y.
But nothing came of that because that’s when I started getting letters from Uncle Sam. I was just messing around. I didn’t know what I was doing, but they thought it was pretty cool. The seed was there, but I had to learn to believe I could do it and had to find a path that I thought was legitimate. When I was in the Navy, I was living with a friend at one point and trying to write some stuff. A lot of stuff had a 12-string, and I was doing finger picking, so it sounded a little bit like Mahavishnu [Orchestra] and there was stuff that sounded a little bit like Genesis with maybe a little bit more science fiction-y sounding chords. A lot of this stuff is recorded, very low quality, but it exists.
Then I was in a music store in 1978 in Denver and saw a little note on a bulletin board: “Seeking musicians who are into Henry Cow and Yes.” So I called the number, and it turned out to be Bob Drake. We started a proggy cover band that never got out of the basement despite eight months of rehearsing, but he and I hooked up. After that we were hanging out and doing wacky stuff on cassette decks. It was about 1979 or ’80 and we were recording some stuff which I would call early proto [Thinking] Plague kinds of music. There was at least one tune that never had any words, but it had a part A and a part B and a noise section, and that exists too, if you twist my arm hard enough; it was called “Doppelganger.”
Then I remember sitting down at a little table in the little kitchen where I was living in 1980 and writing this tune “Warheads” which ended up on the second Thinking Plague record some years later. That was when I think of [Thinking Plague] as officially being born; me and Drake did a four-track reel-to-reel demo of it with us singing and no keyboards and all kinds of wacky noise going on. That exists, too, by the way. Then by about ’82, we put together a band of sorts to try to play some of these songs, and I was coming up with more stuff. Basically I had written the songs that I wrote for our first LP. Then Bob put together a couple of wacky things and our singer at the time put together a zany little tune, and we had enough [material] for a record. But we had no idea what to do. We sat for a year trying to figure it out. We didn’t know anything about shopping it. We didn’t think that it was shoppable to some record label, although we were getting Option and all these other magazines in the ‘80s that were printed on cheap newsprint and which were chock full of ads from record labels and distributors. DIY independent recording was huge. We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on. We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously. So I talked to my oldest brother, who was the most staid, settled, and established member of the family, and he ended up loaning me enough money to press 500 copies. We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it. And we hand spray painted the album covers and stuck a little insert in that we had printed. I think we shrink wrapped them, but maybe we just had plastic sleeves that we put them in. Then we managed to contact Wayside Music [a mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform]. They took some of them. And we contacted Recommended Records.
FJO: I know that Cuneiform reissued the first two Thinking Plague albums on a single CD many years later, but I didn’t realize that your relationship with them went all the way back to the beginning.
MJ: All the way back to 1984. We got on their maps, even though at the time I thought we’re just nobody, small fry. We also sent music to New Music Distribution Service, which was in New York. They were famous for not paying people, so we never saw anything from them, but they took 30 copies. Then Chris Cutler at Recommended took 200 copies and boom. That was the year we established contact with some important people in the future. And by that time, I was thinking to myself, “I am the writer in this band.” Drake was the producer-arranger aesthetic vision guy. But I was writing. I was putting together the notes and the chords and the rhythms. And the words, too.
The members of Thinking Plague in 1987. Back row (left to right): Bob Drake, Mike Johnson, Eric Moon (Jacobson), and Lawrence Haugseth; front: Susanne Lewis and Mark Fuller. (Photographer unknown, photo courtesy Mike Johnson.)
FJO: I definitely want to talk with you about words, but first I want to riff on something you just said vis-à-vis not knowing what to do with this stuff or who would take it, and you making a connection to Cuneiform and, for better or worse, to New Music Distribution Service. We talk all the time these days about being in a post-genre environment, but during that period, roughly from the late-’70s to the early-’80s, labels formed like Cuneiform which released rock that was on the fringe as well as contemporary classical stuff and experimental jazz. And New Music Distribution Service distributed all this music without making distinctions between all of these things. These folks loved all of this stuff. It was all part of this larger umbrella of new music. In terms of what you were doing, you refer to it as rock and coming out of performing in a rock band, but you were listening to all these other kinds of music. So you were poised to enter this proto-post-genre environment.
“I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde.”
MJ: From way back when I was a teenager, I had this idea because I was listening to the ‘70s prog stuff, but for the most part they didn’t sound like 20th-century music. They sounded like 19th- or even 18th-century music combined with rock instruments. I had this idea of using a rock band to somehow communicate content or the essence of what these symphonic 20th-century guys were doing. I was interested in those kinds of polytonal or atonal harmonies and some of those odd rhythms, not just getting in 7/8 and staying there, but using changing meters as part of what you actually compose with as opposed to just laying down a framework that you now have to work on. The real composers use time and pitch as variables in expressing what they’re trying to express. This was all very germinal for me at the time, but it was in the back of my mind that this is what I wanted to do and did ten years later. So I was 27, 28 years old when I started moving in that direction and figuring out how to do it. I had to get the proggy stuff out of my system; I had to stop wanting to emulate the prog bands of the ‘70s. Henry Cow and the Art Bears helped me to do that—Art Bears in particular, and the last Henry Cow album, Western Culture. I was agog at it and it was inspirational for me. It showed me so many possibilities. So I wanted to do something more like that. That’s when the roots of Thinking Plague really took hold. So I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde, like Stockhausen, and later on I was never into minimalism and the pure aleatoric music of John Cage. I was into the dramatic, heavy stuff that those composers from the first half of the 20th century were doing, because I was so moved by it.
FJO: That’s funny because I hear elements of Stockhausen and even Philip Glass from time to time on Thinking Plague records.
MJ: Well, I have a little section called the Philip Glass moment in one of my tunes, but it was definitely a “Philip Glass moment.”
FJO: It’s on one of the later albums so we’ll get to that in a bit, but even early on I hear musique concrète elements and I know that you had studied electronic music. But maybe that was not in your initial conception of the material and came more from Drake during post-production.
MJ: Drake never studied anything as far as I know, other than just what he listened to. When I was living in California, I had one electronic music class. It was taught by Alan Strange and it was definitely out there. It was a junior college class out in the Bay area, basically an appreciation class, but it opened my mind and made me very interested. So there was a piece of that. Early on I would try to write these scores, because when I went to school the first time, I learned how to notate. I never learned to read music well, but I learned how to read music on paper without having to perform. I learned how to write music. I would draw shapes and say, “This is going to be a synthesizer.” So I had these graphic things going on in the midst of my muddled notes. I was envisioning this kind of electronically enhanced rock music—this was before techno or any of that stuff came out. I was still sort of thinking ‘70s style. And then, as you say, Drake was just into sound and noise. He and I were both inspired by Fred Frith’s prepared guitar stuff, so we did hours and hours of tape loops of scratching and assaulting pickups with paper clips and files and stuff like that. And we had a band that got together and we would improvise for two or three hours doing all this stuff with tapes. We recorded a bunch of it and most of it we’d just throw it away. We would do it maybe as a transition or as something in the middle of a piece. We’re going to go into some noisy, weird place and then we’re going to emerge on the other side of it. But there was never any conscious thinking about the avant-gardists per se because we didn’t really listen to them. I heard Stockhausen just a few times. I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album. And I thought, “Hmm. I could do that.” But I guess I’m old fashioned. I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen. I also believe that human beings can listen to anything and if they listen to it enough times, they’ll begin to build the associations even if it’s the sound of dirt falling on totally random insects, whatever. If you listen to it enough times, you’ll begin to hear patterns and your brain will make associations that were never there. That’s what humans do. But my preference always is to hear it in my head and guide what’s going on. To plan. It’s more old fashioned in that I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker. That’s extremely high art in my mind.
FJO: But Shostakovich and William Schuman both conceptualized their music, then wrote it down mostly for other people to play, whereas in a band situation you have a group of people coming together and it’s way more collaborative. It might be your tune and your chords and your words, but then it’s Drake’s drumming or whichever singer you have at any given time, what she brings to it. It’s what the reed player brings to it and the post-production. It’s all these levels. So in rock or other music that is created in a group situation and that is crafted in a recording studio, the urtext usually winds up being the produced album. Of course this music is also performed live in concert, sometimes very much like the original recording but also sometimes very different from it. I know that you made a point in the press release for your latest album that even though many things on it are multi-tracked, everything could also be done live. So I wonder what the urtext is for you.
MJ: Obviously the score. But it wasn’t always like that—only since about 1990. Before that there were rough scores, sometimes just scribbles in a book that I took to a rehearsal where I said, “Listen to this. Here play this; try this. We could stick this with that and we’ve got a song.”
(MJ:) The stuff from the ‘80s was written out, but it wasn’t necessarily finalized. I would generally write a primary bass part and I’d write the guitar parts and keyboard parts and I would sometimes write a vocal line, but there were never drum parts for it. For the first two records, I basically wrote the vocals lines and the words as I recall, except for one song by the lead singer on the first album, and then another song by the lead singer on the second album. For one of the songs on the first album, “How to Clean a Squid,” all the words are literally out of a cuisine magazine.
FJO: Yeah, that one is really bizarre; I love it.
MJ: It is bizarre. The drummer brought in that idea. He had this magazine and he gave it to the singer, and she went and figured out how to put it on top of the song we were working on.
FJO: I hope the recipe wasn’t under copyright.
MJ: Well, it was changed sufficiently enough. I like the part: “Turn body sac inside out. Turn body sac inside out.” We repeated it several times. “And clear away any grit or tissue. And clear away any grit or tissue.” That was just a Dadaist kind of thing, an Absurdist kind of a thing. We were into that. But over time, my tendency to want to compose started taking up more of the air in the band. By the time we did our third album, In This Life, I had pretty much written all the music, but I didn’t have finished vocal parts and I didn’t have words. I collaborated with our singer at the time, Susanne Lewis, to do that. For me, it was always a burden. I would write the music and I didn’t have the words yet. Sometimes I didn’t have the vocal lines. Or I did have vocal lines, but no words. That’s a real problem. You’re taking this structure and you sing, we need to put some syllables onto this that work. I had it sort of partly structured. I had motifs. I had names of songs that I wanted to use. But I didn’t have any words for them. So I presented all this to her and let her go. And that album is the result.
FJO: One of the songs on that album is completely by her, both words and music.
MJ: She contributed a song. And then she made decisions like what the vocal line would be in the song “Love,” because I didn’t have a vocal line for that song. So she just took the top note of the little chords that were going on and made a little melody out of it, which made perfect sense. And I said to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It all worked out pretty well. Her particular musical personality and style, and her whole underground ‘80s background—that Lydia Lunch/Nick Cave flavor—definitely comes across, but it becomes a new thing in that context. She does a lot of indefinite wandering pitch things. Sometimes it sounds like: can’t she sing the notes? But she definitely is doing everything on purpose. That woman could nail notes. Wonderful ear. It took some getting used to, but then it became like, “Wow, I love what she does.” Some of our fans either love her or can’t listen to it, but she found something. We got lucky on that album in terms of collaboration.
But then the band flew to pieces basically after we put that out. The key players moved, even though we just got onto Recommended Records and we had our first CD. It was the first RēR CD that was manufactured in the States. And it was one of the first that was CD-only, because in those days people would make an LP and they would make a CD. Anyway, I thought, “Wow, we could do something with this.” We were all working stiffs. Bob Drake was working for a guy who had a mobile car wash, a truck with a big tank on the back, and they’d go around and they’d wash people’s cars in parking lots in the middle of winter. Drake was in blue jeans full of holes and crummy sneakers that were full of holes and wet. It was 20 degrees and he got peanuts. He would go home and he would have generic spaghetti with tomato paste for his supper. That’s part of the reason he went to L.A. because he was tired of starving to death. He thought he could parlay his engineering skills into an actual engineering job, which he did. Susanne wanted to go off to New York because I think she thought New York was the place where her artistic tendencies and vision could be fulfilled. But I just stayed there. Anyway, we ended up putting together a few shows with some airlines involved, some long distance rehearsing with Dave Kerman and Bob Drake coming from L.A., driving in and then driving back after spending a week in a basement rehearsing. We were developing and practicing stuff, but then it really fell apart.
FJO: There’s something I don’t want to lose in your referencing of Lydia Lunch—which is something I definitely hear in her vocals, too, so I’m glad that you confirmed that. Lydia is definitely on the punk end of the musical spectrum. We talked about the divides between rock and classical music, but at that time—from the late ‘70s through the early to mid ’80s—there was also a real schism between the people who were into more proggy things and people who were into more punky kinds of things.
“The proggers were called dinosaurs.”
MJ: Absolutely. The proggers were called dinosaurs.
FJO: But now if you listen back there are lots of musical connections between the two. It’s sort of like that famous Stephen Sondheim comment when he was asked what the difference between opera and musical theater is, and he said it’s the venues that they’re performed in. The biggest difference between prog and punk might have been that they had very different audiences. If you listen to a Public Image Ltd record, it sounds very prog.
MJ: But it’s very different from the Sex Pistols.
FJO: That’s true. But Gang of Four was also very proggy and, only a few years later, so was Sonic Youth.
MJ: I actually played with those guys a couple of times. We opened for them in Denver in ’87 in some big old, noisy, echo-y theater and then I had another little band that opened for them in Denver in ’86 or something like that. I had no trouble communicating with them. They were cool guys. But they were as loud as loud can be. The best way to listen to them was outside the building through a wall. That’s what I got to do once—behind the stage, through a wall. You could hear everything. You could hear all the weird frequency bending and shifting. But back to your point, I think that in the ‘70s, one of the things about the progressive rock bands was that they allegedly had a level of virtuosity playing their instruments and a lot of the music was about showing off that virtuosity and making big, long songs that were involved and had lots of parts and would get quiet and get loud and blah, blah, blah, stuff like Genesis’s “Supper’s Ready.” Then the punks came along and it was all like: No. Two-minute songs. Three chords. Everything’s loud, and we’re yelling. And they were bitching with us because they thought we were pompous. I was calling myself we because I was into the prog thing, even though I wasn’t one of those people officially. It felt like it was a countercultural revolution. We were throwing out things we learned and going back to the beginning. We were actually going back to the ‘60s, just crude rock and roll, except we were trying to be a little bit more crude and the players were even worse. That’s how I felt, but it quickly changed. It quickly looked to me like this ethic of rebellion and destruction was literally a wave that passed through and, in its wake, it left the new wave as opposed to punk. And new wave immediately started getting more technical and strict. Then a lot of people, like Peter Gabriel, made this transition. Then The Police came along, and the musicianship levels started recovering quickly.
FJO: But by the time Thinking Plague officially became a band and started releasing recordings, prog was a dirty word.
MJ: Yes. Absolutely.
FJO: I remember living through that. The rock critics turned prog into a dirty word, even though you could clearly hear prog elements in some of the punk stuff.
MJ: But you couldn’t call it that.
FJO: Right, but you did. Or did you?
“I read something that said, ‘Thinking Plague RIO,’ and I said, ‘What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right? Uh, whatever.'”
MJ: I don’t think so. I don’t even remember what we called ourselves. I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on. I just knew that my influences were everything from Henry Cow and the Art Bears to Genesis and Mahavishnu, to Shostakovich and so on. I just knew that was what I was interested in. And Bob was kind of this enthusiastic “yeah, let’s do it” guy who would do anything but who had a Rickenbacker bass—still does—and he was a Chris Squire devotee. He liked lots of other stuff, too. He was a huge Henry Cow fan, so that threw him very left of the normal field of what most people listen to. So we stopped thinking about genres. I was always saying, “Well, this song is kind of like King Crimson” but he didn’t know about it. He didn’t listen to King Crimson and didn’t care. So we just didn’t deal in that. We let other people label us. The first time I ever heard this term RIO was in the ‘90s. I read something that said, “Thinking Plague RIO,” and I said, “What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right? Uh, whatever.” Then I read more and I tried to figure out what they were talking about, Rock In Opposition, but there were no musical descriptors in it, so I thought, “How come they’re grouping us with everything from Samla to Stormy Six plus Henry Cow? We don’t really sound like any of that stuff.” If you don’t like Henry Cow, that doesn’t mean you won’t like us. It’s what I always dislike about categorization: taking a bunch of things that are different but are similar enough to put into this box so that all the people that don’t like one of those things in that box automatically don’t like any of the things in the box. That’s why I objected to it. Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band. Sometimes I would use the term progressive rock, but that’s not really how I’d looked at it although I was informed by that. Frankly, I admired a lot of the musicianship of that. When I heard the term avant-progressive, I said, “Yeah, that’s probably the most accurate I’ve heard.” Whatever. I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.
FJO: But by the ‘90s the word progressive had been rehabilitated.
MJ: Right. The so-called resurgence.
FJO: Although after the band fell apart there was this long hiatus in the ’90s. There was almost a decade where Thinking Plague didn’t really function.
MJ: Except for what I was doing.
FJO: I’d like to know more about that. I know that you were involved with other groups. I know that you played with Dave Kerman’s 5uu’s.
MJ: I toured Europe for 2 months with them in 1995.
Mike Johnson (left) as a sideman for 5UU’s performing with Dave Kerman (drums) and Bob Drake (bass) in Grenoble, France, 1995. (Photo by Laurent Angeron, courtesy Mike Johnson/.)
FJO: But you never recorded with them. You were also part of this other group, Hamster Theatre, and you actually made several albums with them as a side man while your own projects were kind of on the back burner.
MJ: I never stopped working on it, or thinking about it. People moved away in ’89-’90, but we did a few more gigs in ’90 and we had plans. We had songs in the works. I would send recordings to Bob or we would get together. At one point, I went out and spent a week with Dave Kerman and Sanjay Kumar, who was the 5uu’s keyboardist, and Bob, in Bob’s little Burbank house behind the house, a little backyard house. Dave put blankets over his drums, because we couldn’t make too much noise. And we spent the week working up one of these tunes that I had sketched out in a book. But I came to find out later somehow that we weren’t all on the same page about what this project was about. I thought we were working on a song and it’s probably going to end up on a Thinking Plague record. I didn’t know, but I thought so. But I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if there was going to be another Thinking Plague record. It turns out that at least Kerman, and maybe Drake, were thinking this is a new project. It was a song called “This Weird Wind” and it’s on the In Extremis record. It sounds like if Yes tried to keep going in the direction they were going in when they did Relayer.
FJO: When I listened to it again recently, I made a note to myself that it sounded to me like a bizarre amalgam of Yes and the more experimental moments of The Beach Boys.
MJ: I never thought of that. Okay. But anyway, there was another song, “Kingdom Come,” which was something that I had written in the later part of the ‘80s. It was sitting on paper. I made a really awful sounding sequence of it on a synthesizer that I had that you had to step program everything in really tediously. It sounded horrible. I played it for Bob and he hated the way it sounded. He couldn’t get excited about the song, so for the longest time it just languished. But I was going to get this song done. So I sent Kerman a chart and I sent him that tape, I guess. He learned the drum parts. Then we flew him back to Denver, went into a studio, and recorded the drum tracks. I got another bass player who reads to come in and just play direct-in bass, really clean tones. Then I just built the tracks. Bob was never on it because he never showed any interest in it. He was in L.A. doing all this other stuff, but that song got assembled despite that. Then we had this song which we ended up calling “Les Etudes d’Organism” which was based on an earlier thing.
FJO: It sounds like an expansion of the track “Organism” from In This Life that Fred Frith appears on.
MJ: And there was one before that called “Etude for Combo” on the second album. We took themes from that and then themes from “Organism” and put them together. We were trying to figure out a way to make a live performance piece that incorporated this stuff. We called it “Etude for Organism” and we worked that up in the basement at another place in 1990. Then we performed it in Boulder and we played it in L.A. once. It was a little bit rougher, but the parts were sort of all there—this whole big wacky thing with all these silly tunes and big, huge sections. Bob was determined to finish that. And we recorded some of it. He recorded drums, bass, and a lot of other stuff in a big studio he was working out of there in the middle of the night. I recorded stuff in Denver and I took the sax player into a nice studio to record. Then we put the tracks together. It wasn’t finished until ’94 in terms of mixing. Shortly thereafter, both Kerman and Drake were in France. I was still thinking maybe there’s another chance for this thing, but now that they were in France it got a lot harder. The internet was not really a thing at the time. So I went and I spent a lot of time there, but by the end of that I knew this thing was dead. There’s no practical way with them on the other side of the ocean and there was not enough momentum or interest on their part. So I came back home and thought about it for a while and finally thought, “I’m going to reform this.” I had four other tunes sitting that I had worked up on Finale that I wanted to record, plus there was “Les Etudes” and “This Weird Wind” sitting in the can—I couldn’t stand over 20 minutes’ worth of music sitting in a can. This had to get out somehow.
FJO: As long as we’re talking about the material that eventually surfaced on the In Extremis album, is “Behold the Man” the track that has what you described as the Philip Glass part?
MJ: Exactly. We called it the Philip Glass part. That was a joke.
FJO: Before we leave this moment when you were finding a way to reform Thinking Plague, I think there’s an interesting distinction between the earlier and reformed groups. While it’s true that in the original line-up it was primarily your material compositionally, the end product was the result of a real collaboration involving several people. But with the re-formed Thinking Plague and everything that’s been happening since, it’s really been your band.
The members of Thinking Plague in 1990 (clockwise from lower left): Mike Johnson, Shane Hotle, Susanne Lewis, Mark Harris, Dave Kerman, and Bob Drake. (Photo by Andy Watson, courtesy Mike Johnson.)
MJ: That’s really true, and the musicians would tell you that. I became the overseer. The only way to get the music done was to just do it. More and more, the only way to get what I wanted was to do it myself. I was getting more invested in each piece, and I wanted to make sure that it fulfilled what I wanted to get from it. My experience with other people had always been that it’s a compromise and that things get watered down, so it misses the mark a little bit. Sometimes, certainly, there’s synergy, and sometimes it’s so much fun, but for the serious stuff when I wanted to really mine a vein, I found that I needed to do it alone.
FJO: Well I’m going to make a conjecture, and I could be totally wrong about this. We don’t really know each other and I’m reading into your life story. But it seems like it’s a reaction to that almost decade-long period, where the band was in hiatus and you were essentially a side man in 5uu’s—
MJ: —Just briefly—
FJO: —and Hamster Theatre—
MJ: That was about the same time that the new Plague was formed.
FJO: Yes, but I wonder if going from being a de facto co-leader of a group to spending your time being a side man in other people’s bands made you think that you really needed to grab the helm and be the leader of your own thing once and for all.
MJ: I would say it was more the departure of Drake in particular, but also Kerman. Kerman was a strong personality. You care about what he thinks; he’s got incredible ideas and he was enthusiastic. But he was gone, too. They were just gone—physically and mentally. But I was still invested in this thing. I felt it hadn’t fulfilled what it was trying to do. It hadn’t reached what I thought it could reach. I had no idea what it was gonna do, but I had to keep trying.
In terms of being a side man, I didn’t do that so much. I decided I needed to get out a little bit. Dave Willey contacted me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar with this project of his. So I said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.” I showed up and it was pretty weird; it took a few rehearsals to feel comfortable. There was some quick personnel shuffling and then it settled into a thing and it started to work. Then it got better and better and pretty soon, by ’97, ’98, I was pretty invested, but it was definitely not what I would normally do. It was much more charming and humorous or sweet sometimes, and a little weird, a little out there. Sometimes it got really out there because Dave’s got this streak of “RIO” and it’s pretty big. But that wasn’t really it. It was just the desire that had already been there to fulfill this thing so if nobody else was going to help me do it, then I was going to do it.
The members of Thinking Plague in 2003, left to right: David Shamrock (ex-Sleepytime Gorilla drummer/composer), Matt Mitchell, Dave Willey, Deborah Perry, Mark Harris, and Mike Johnson. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)
FJO: And curiously, you not only played in Dave Willey’s band Hamster Theatre, he wound up playing in Thinking Plague as well.
MJ: Well, that was a case of needing a bass player. I knew Dave Willey from ten years before, about ’88 probably. As a matter of fact, he was good friends with Deborah Perry, and when Susanne Lewis took off to New York, Deborah Perry came down with Dave. Dave brought her down to our little rehearsal basement, and she tried out with Thinking Plague in ’89. After we did In This Life and Susanne was gone, I was very interested but Bob Drake didn’t like her voice. He still doesn’t like her voice. So that didn’t happen. But I knew Dave was a guitar player. I didn’t know he was a bass player. When I got in his band, he was playing guitar, accordion, keyboards, and everything else. Then I got a taste of what he could do on bass, and I was like “Jesus!” I also realized from playing his music that I didn’t understand how musically deep and capable he was. So I asked him and he said, “Sure, I’ll try it.” Then it wasn’t too big of a leap to say to myself, “Well, I need a singer, what about his friend Deborah?” And she was willing to try it as well. The first song we did was “The Aesthete.” She had a cold and we did it anyway; I think it came out pretty well. This was after me trying to work with Janet Feder. She’s a prepared classical guitarist from Denver. She was recording on RēR for a little while. She does neat stuff and she’s done some stuff with Fred Frith. She sings a bit, so I tried to get her to sing. It was the song “Maelstrom.” She actually recorded the opening vocal tracks. I decided, “Nah,” but she made an effort. She did alright, but I didn’t think it was going to work. Then Deborah came along and she had a real ability to nail pitches and to find the notes. And she did homework. She studied her parts.
FJO: Since we’re talking about singers, you’ve been referring to all the Thinking Plague music as songs. One of my pet peeves is that we’ve reached a point in our history where we call every kind of piece of music a song so it has rendered the word meaningless. A lot of the things on the Thinking Plague albums I don’t think of as songs. For starters, many things are much longer.
FJO: Okay, but you also said that a lot of time the vocal lines and the words will come much later than your original conception. They start as instrumentals. And yet in every incarnation of Thinking Plague you’ve always included a singer, though there are instrumental tracks on many of the albums. Even though you’ve always been the leader of the group, whether de facto or total, you’ve never sung. In fact, with one exception where you featured a male singer, it’s always a female singer.
“I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play.”
MJ: Well, I never thought of myself as a strong singer. I still don’t, although I can sing. I do sing in other things sometimes. When I was young, I was a backup singer in rock and roll bands. But I was never strong; I have a soft voice and I have a fairly limited range, although I can do falsetto. I’m in a Beatles band right now, just for money. It’s money and kind of fun. We do realistic versions of Beatles recordings, and I have to sing so I do it. But, for Thinking Plague, my hands were full. I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play, so the vocalist is a full-time job on its own for the most part. The thing about having a woman developed over time. I began to feel that since the music was oftentimes so male, so angular, so mathematical sometimes, and so challenging and difficult, even off-putting, that if you placed a woman’s voice—and not some kind of growling or in-your-face blues or disco singer—but the idea was to have this little human heart that you could latch onto in the middle of this maelstrom of music that’s going on. And I think it works. It gives something for more normal listeners to latch onto. The human thread that goes through this music, which for a lot of people would not be a nice place to be traveling.
FJO: But it seems to me that there’s something else going on with having a singer who is singing lyrics. From the very beginning there were lyrics that were clearly political, such as “Warheads.” And almost everything on the last three albums has a political bent.
MJ: Definitely. Absolutely.
FJO: So, if vocal lines and lyrics are often an afterthought, I’m wondering where these things came from. Obviously, this band was originally formed in the early ’80s during the first term of Ronald Reagan. That has been called a great era for punk, which is essentially protest music. Some people have suggested that there could be a real re-flowering of punk now given the current political climate. Even the title of your new album, Hoping Against Hope, feels particularly timely though I know that you had already finished the album and had given it that title before the election.
“It is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.”
MJ: Yeah, I know. It was named well before, even before the campaign. And it was floating around as a possible name quite a long time before that, because the times just felt like that to me. Part of it was, after the last album, Elaine and I were talking and she said, “Can we do something that’s maybe a little bit more hopeful? Can we do something that offers some solutions or hope?” And I said, “Sure, if we can figure out how to do that.” Well, we didn’t really do that very well, but it made me think about trying to do that a little. I’ve never been able to go with a direction that’s just celebrating or joy and I have felt for a long time that it is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world. Part of that is my work background. Since the ‘80s, I have been working in human services programs, like working with the homeless, helping people to get shelter, helping people to get jobs. Then I worked with poor students to help them deal with all the issues that were keeping them from being able to be successful. I had a day career out of this, and I was good at it. That informed my music, because when I went back to college after the music stuff, I took a lot of social science classes—politics and sociology and all this kind of stuff. My perspective definitely moved left, and I’ve been there ever since. The cliché is that as men get older, they get more conservative. Me, I’m moving left. I’m left of left now. I don’t even know where I am.
“Warheads” was in response to the Iran hostage crisis. There was a wave of Islamophobia that came to the country then, like ’79 and ’80, and I was appalled by it. So I made a comment about that, and I got my younger brother, who fancies himself a poet, to write some lyrics with me and so the lyrics are pretty abstruse. But there’s this one part that deals with warheads and the board of trustees are counting up their funds, warheads are counting their guns. This all struck me at a time when our society seemed a lot more peaceful: there wasn’t gun violence all the time; we were not at war. But it struck me as ugly and that something needed to be said. I didn’t really try to make much in the way of political statements. The song “Moonsongs” has a kind of environmental pagan slant, using pagan things as kind of an angle for the earth, not that I was on a pagan kick.
Then, with In This Life, Susanne was in charge of the words basically. “Run Amok” is about when you have too many rats in a cage and their behavior starts to alter and they try to eat each other and kill each other. That’s what I felt was starting to happen on the planet. Every now and then, somebody goes nuts and kills a bunch of people. It was rare in those days; now it seems to be every other day on the news. I really think that parts of this society are now running amok. All I did was give Susanne this title and tell her what I was thinking. She took it and did her thing with it.
Then when it got to the phase where I was fully taking the reins, “Kingdom Come” had a definite angle that way. “Dead Silence” also has an environmental angle. And A History of Madness had its own themes, but they’re not unrelated.
FJO: And on Decline and Fall, there’s “Sleeper Cell Anthem,” which is intensely frightening.
MJ: It was supposed to be. The message was about who are really the terrorists here. “We are your daughters, sisters, and wives.” We’re the terrorists. We’re creating the terrorists. We’re creating the terror that’s creating the terrorists. Then on the new album, there’s a song about drones and execution from the skies called “Commuting to Murder.” I didn’t realize how timely that was. I wasn’t watching it at the time. People are seemingly being arbitrarily eliminated from on high without due process and without concern for collateral damage because it’s so important to us that we eliminate this Abu blah-blah-blah guy here. That was the one thing that I most objected to about Obama’s administration, the reliance on that. In general, I’m not disinterested in abstract poetic expressions that come from deep in the soul. But, in the absence of anything that’s hit me in the face, I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.
Thinking Plague in 2011 (left to right): Robin Chestnut, Dave Willey, Mark Harris, Elaine, Mike Johnson, and Kimara Sajn. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)
FJO: So, to attempt to tie this all together. You create very sophisticated music, but you perform it with a rock band, which is a medium that’s been very central to our popular culture for more than half a century at this point. In addition to the very sophisticated music, your songs frequently have super charged political lyrics. By getting these messages out, through what is essentially a popular medium even though the kinds of things you’re doing go against the spirit of most of what is popular, are you hoping this music is going to change people’s minds? What’s the goal in terms of changing the listener? Can the listener be changed? What’s the purpose of making art that has this charged message?
“I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.”
MJ: I honestly don’t know. After this last election, I’m not sure I know anything. You have to consider who listens to this music. They are all over the map politically, but they tend to be educated so the differences are not usually cultural at a level that’s just hopeless. So I always think maybe somebody will be—as opposed to converted—awakened about something, because a lot of guys that are into progressive music are sort of apolitical. They don’t like to deal with it. They want to deal with fairies and dragons, or with magic, strange mysterious glories. I’m trying to hit them with some gritty realities, but not in an overly literal, strident way. It’s a little bit subtle, I’d like to think, a little bit indirect. You have to read it and think about it. You have to actually pay attention, notice what the themes or the words are. But I keep thinking that somebody will be like, “Oh, that’s interesting. They’re talking about drones. I better think about that. I’d better look and see if I can find out what they mean.” So it’s kind of like saying, “If you’re listening to us, if you’re following us, if you like what we do, here’s something that we think you ought to think about if you listen hard enough and you care enough.”
But I don’t really have any expectations that it’s going to have any impact. You know, I wish. First of all, we don’t reach enough people, not as many as we could, and they are all over the world. There’s never that many on the ground in any one place. But if you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something. If it influences their thinking about social or political issues, great. I don’t know what else to write about really. I wrote a song on A History of Madness, which was a love song of sorts. But there were some other songs on there that had a humanity theme. So it’s always something about man’s inhumanity to man, the stupidity, the selfishness. Right now the list is so long of adjectives that you can talk about with things that should be addressed. It does seem like a lot of people are addressing them. So, in a way, it’s a hopeful thing. I like to say it can only get better, but I’m afraid that may not be true. There’s a lot to write about right now. I’m not a political activist who’s going to spend a lot of time working on issues in that way. My mission in life is to do music, so I feel like I’m obliged to have these kind of messages in the music, but not like strident marching songs.
FJO: It’s interesting to me that from the beginning up to this day, in the year 2017, Thinking Plague has always been about making albums that are these larger statements. There are pundits who claim that a lot of people don’t listen to albums anymore. They listen to individual tracks and everything gets mashed up.
“If you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.”
MJ: Right. They don’t download whole albums. They download single tracks.
FJO: It’s great that you have a label that’s so invested in you. I didn’t realize it went all the way back to the ‘80s, but I know they’ve reissued your whole catalog. To have your whole catalog in one place is tremendous—to have that support, and for albums to be carefully recorded, produced, designed, and released. But it’s sort of weird, because the economics of all of this is shifting. How do you survive in this environment if what you want to do is make records?
MJ: Well, like I said, I had a day career. And, in as much as I am rather moved on in years now, I managed to retire from that. I was working for a state community college system, so I have a state pension, one of those things that our current president would probably just as soon eliminate. But it’s based on investments, my whole existence is tangled up in the dirty money that I sometimes write about or I’m going to write about. And I figure that’s okay; we should extract whatever we can from them. I had to spend many years earning that.
I hear all the time from our label that they are struggling. They have made all of our records available on Bandcamp. You can go and you can listen to everything. Most of the older ones have now finally gone out of print because it is not cost effective to press them and sell them anymore, because they don’t sell enough and you have to be able to manufacture so many in order to have economies of scale. So it became impractical for them to do that.
“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.”
I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry. I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it. I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music. When it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living from recorded music. They say, “Oh, you’ve got to go out and play.” Yeah, if you’ve got a wide enough appeal, I guess. And if enough people have heard you. I don’t think going out and playing will make you very much money if they haven’t heard recordings of you first. So we’re at a kind of weird impasse. The ready availability of music in electronic form has made it basically too easy to get, and now it’s not worth much. People have gotten used to the idea of not paying much for it. I remember counting my pennies together until I had a couple of bucks and could go by a Beatles LP. I would listen to it until there was no vinyl left on it. You have to wonder if there is something about people’s psychology: if they pay something for it, do they value it more? Because they don’t seem to value it much now, except for those few people who actually care about the sounds coming into their ears and what it does to them, emotionally and otherwise.
Of course, there are so many people that love music, but they love it in different ways at different levels. It seems that for so many people now, music is just a background thing. It needs to keep a certain part of their brain busy, so they have it going in their ear buds as background all the time and it’s on shuffle, and they don’t really care what it is. And they listen to MP3s; they don’t care about high fidelity. They don’t care about really in-depth audio detail. It’s much less about what’s going on with the notes. It’s just a little hook melody and this over-processed drum groove and some pitch-corrected vocal parts. I don’t know what to think about all of that. I don’t know where it’s headed. But I do think that in its current model, it is unsustainable. I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue making records. I’ll have to make them myself or they’ll become electronic downloads only. I’ve had some guys say, “You should go hi-res.” But sooner or later, somebody will figure out a way to pirate that as well. But that’d be great. Let’s make the audio product something that’s really worth something—you really need to pore over it and listen to it. Everything that we do in the recording industry is reduced to 16 bits, no matter how it was produced before that. If it wasn’t, then the files would be too gigantic for most people. There are a certain number of techie guys that would download it all night onto their computer and love it that way. But most people want to put it on a player on their phones.
FJO: But there is a different economy that operates for a lot of the other music we’ve talked about— avant-garde music and even the music of people like William Schuman. All of that stuff doesn’t exist in the marketplace.
MJ: Of course.
FJO: And it never has. It exists either as the result of private funding or through grants from foundations or governments. Shostakovich, for better or worse—definitely worse under Stalin—was a state-sponsored composer. Over the past half century, jazz has also been embraced by the funding community and that has allowed it to continue to thrive now that it is often no longer remunerative in the marketplace. But that hasn’t happened with rock. We talked earlier about that moment in the late 1970s and early ‘80s when labels like Cuneiform and networks like New Music Distribution Service equally embraced avant-garde music that stemmed from classical music, free jazz, and fringe rock. There was no internet back then, but all of it is what we’d call dot-org music. Certainly what Thinking Plague does is dot-org music in the same way as the music of, say, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Wadada Leo Smith, etc.
MJ: I totally get that.
FJO: So might this music continue to exist if it’s somehow subsidized? Could that be the way to make it keep going?
“Nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.”
MJ: Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up. I’ve never gotten a grant for this band. The closest I can say I’ve come is a Kickstarter campaign that succeeded—not on a gigantic scale, but enough to make it work. I’m looking at some grants that would help us to be able to travel. There’s a RIO festival in Japan that has some money issues, but if I can get a grant they’ll bring it back to life, just for us to go play at it. So right now I’m trying to figure out where the band is going to be, in what condition. Our singer is completing her master’s degree in music. She’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up and she’s 46. God bless her. I can relate. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music. So then we’re not eligible for these jazz things. I’m not sure how many, but there may be cracks that we could squeeze into. We’ve got a horn player, so does that make us jazz? I almost got us invited to the Vancouver Jazz Festival. Almost. So this is something I need to look into. But as to how much money there is in any of it, again, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music. Nobody. Not me. Not anybody else. There’s never been that kind of income from the music—not even in 1985. Certainly not from In this Life or In Extremis, which was probably our best received record and the biggest explosion for us. It didn’t change our situation at all. We’re a dot-org phenomenon. As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website. There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is. It’s not for profit.
The members of Thinking Plague in 2009, front (L-R): Mark Harris and Mike Johnson; back: Dave Kerman, Kimara Sajn, Elaine di Falco, and Dave Willey. (Photo by S. Navarre, courtesy Mike Johnson.)
Zevious Passing Through the Wall
(Cuneiform Rune 367)
While it would have been particularly appropriate to begin the New Year with a write-up of a recording released in 2014, there’s actually still plenty of great 2013 music to catch up with. Greeting me upon my return to the office yesterday morning was a stack of goodies from the old year including a package from the always intriguing Cuneiform label. I was immediately struck by the cover of one of the discs therein, Passing Through the Wall, credited to a group called Zevious. Its repetitive sequences of diagonal lines in stark back and white, different but equally hypnotic patterns on both the front and back of the CD booklet cover as well as the tray card suggested that the music would be simultaneously primal and mind altering. And it indeed it is.
This trio of guitarist Mike Eber, cousin Jeff Eber on drums, and bassist Johnny DeBlase makes spare, taut music that is also chock full of dueling layers of angular counterpoint couched in polymeters. But despite its austerity and complexity, it’s surprisingly easy to listen to—perhaps an appropriate irony for a band whose name rhymes with devious! What might also be “zevious” is that the group began its performing career in jazz clubs as something of a straight-ahead trio, with DeBlase on upright bass. Then around five years ago they decided to go completely electric and even added effects pedals to the mix. Yet they’re still garnering rave reviews from the likes of All About Jazz which opined that the group now “leans more toward technical metal than jazz” but praised them for still “retain[ing] the skills of a jazz band.”
The opening track of Passing Through the Wall, “Attend to Your Configuration,” goes beyond a transition from jazz to fusion to rock to something that has a distinctly heavy metal feel to it, albeit without anything remotely resembling an attention-grabbing guitar solo. After about two and a half minutes, they slow down a tad and then simply stop playing. It sounds like these jazzers, unlike earlier generations of fusion-minded musicians, came to rock via punk. However, I was not fully prepared for what happens next—a six-minute track named “Was Solis.” It starts innocently enough, with a single guitar line moving in parallel motion with taps on a high-hat. The bass comes in, again mirroring every beat of the guitarist’s line, at first with a single note ostinato and then with a complimentary phrase. But then the guitar veers off into more syncopated terrain, actually not terribly far away from what a contemporary jazz guitar solo could sound like, but by a minute and half in, gnarly harmonies bathed in distortion take over. When individual voices again emerge they are much more menacing, with overtones screeching out against a throbbing beat. Then, the real surprise; the music gets extremely slow, with each individual long sustained note sounding more and more ominous. Although the pace finally picks up in its closing thirty seconds, the music has gone to a place from which it is not easy to return.
In a live performance of “Was Solis” from 2011, it comes across as slightly less dangerous, perhaps because they look so assured as they play through it, but you can still get the idea.
The remaining eight tracks on Passing Through the Wall navigate between these polarities. At first, “Pantocyclus” melds the angularity of Red-era King Crimson with the circular counterpoint of the reformed KC’s subsequent Discipline. But midway through it sounds a lot closer to Sunn O))); the music reaches a point of heightened dissonance and just stays there! “White Minus Red,” perhaps a nod to the aforementioned Crimson LP, is similarly relentless, alternating linear movement with big dissonant chords.
At the onset of “A Crime of Separate Action” a progression of two chords repeats over and over, but rather than establishing a tonality, it actually obfuscates it in a way that would have made Captain Beefheart proud. Two minutes in, however, the music transforms to something much murkier and trippier, which is somehow magical but hardly Magic Band, but it doesn’t stay there for more than 40 seconds, opting instead for another musical dead end. The music keeps morphing but it never resolves. “Entanglement” continues in this harmonically unstable terrain, with a single throbbing polytonal chord forming the basis of the melodies and harmonies. In “A Tiller in a Tempest,” the melodic instruments act as punctuation to insistent percussion riffs. The title track “Passing through the Wall” has something of a march-like feel to it, but it’s like a march off a cliff. But just when you might think the unremitting intensity will never let up, there’s a brief respite of relative calm before it starts up again. “This Could Be the End of the Line” is the shortest of all the disc’s offerings, just barely over two minutes, but it is by no means lighter fare. Insistent asymmetric ostinatos make it difficult to determine exactly where the downbeat it much of the time. By contrast, “Plying The Cold Trade,” is the longest, clocking it at slightly over eight minutes. It is also, by far, the slowest. From its mysterious, almost other-worldly opening salvo, it builds extremely gradually and mostly remains surprisingly low key given all the agitation of the nine previous tracks; it is further testimony to the remarkable range of this group.
There is precious little information on the disc or booklet besides the fact that Mike Eber composed all of the tracks except for “Was Solis,” “White Minus Red” and “Entanglement” which were composed by Johnny DeBlaze. But according to the press release that accompanied their disc, both composers have completely scored out all of the parts for their music—going still further afield from their jazz origins and ostensibly leaving little to chance. This is quite surprising, given how in the moment it all sounds. But what surprises me even more about Zevious is that I hadn’t known about them before listening to this album, yet the group hails from NYC, just played a gig in Brooklyn last month which I missed (damn it!) and this is their third album. Well, I’ll be making up for lost time by keeping this disc in rotation as well tracking down the rest of their discography.
In the booklet that accompanies the debut release from Big Farm, that includes Rinde Eckert (voice), Mark Haanstra (electric bass), Steve Mackey (guitar), and Jason Treuting (drums), there is a sort of artistic statement, which reads:
Big Farm is a place where serious counterpoint can meet burlesque, earnestness meet abandon; a place where they can kick it or take it to tea, reflect, attack, mourn, dance, pray, or mock with ease or determination, joy or fervor, using any and all means necessary. This world is a big farm–lots of different crops, changing weather, livestock, and a duck pond for good measure.
After a few listens, I would expand that statement to a safari-style farm, adding a giraffe, a tiger or two, and maybe even throwing some exotic underwater creatures into that duck pond. The mission of the group revolves around expressive freedom for each artist, and as a result, “eclectic” would be an understatement. The album has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel—but with classically trained composers at the helm, good spacial relations replace the sense of chaos that statement might imply. Indeed, each of the nine songs is rigorously constructed, often with gobs of musical information packed into relatively small spaces.
A prog-rock sound serves as the thread connecting all of the tracks (just check out the openings of “She Steps” or “Like An Animal” for clear and present examples) lending an inherent intensity and melodic bustle to the music. But there are plenty of other stylistic tidbits that peek out here and there; a touch of The Sea and Cake in “Margaret Ballinger,” or the gamelan-tinged percussion of “Ghosts.” Rinde Eckert’s vocals range from grungy-processed, impassioned, semi-spoken word, as in the off-kilter bluesy track “My Ship” to a lovely, pure countertenor in the refreshingly spare “John Knows.” While Eckert’s vocals often have a distinctly “trained” singer feel to my ears, the way they are juxtaposed with the rock-oriented instrumental music renders the full musical picture disarmingly unusual.
Mackey, Haanstra, and Treuting form a virtuosic instrumental team, performing all manner of contrapuntal twirlings and asymmetrical-yet-still-grooving rhythms. One of my favorite tracks is “Break Time,” which begins with recorded ticking clocks and a funky drum rhythm, upon which are gradually piled more and more unsynchronized clock sounds with loopy banjo and toy piano lines as Eckert delivers singsong lyrics. “Lost in Splendor” is perhaps the most chamber music-y of the tracks, adding on string quartet, but eventually it transforms into a fantastic, hard-driving drum set solo grounded by a thick wall of guitar and bass.
Lawson White’s production sounds, in a word, amazing. Every detail can be heard, and because there are a lot of details, repeated listening is rewarded with new sonic insights. I’m curious to know how a live performance will translate—if the exactitude present throughout the album can be captured live—as well as how much of the music is written down. A Big Farm concert might actually be the sort of performance where one could find audience members cradling drinks and scores.
A conversation at the The Cornell Club: June 30, 2011—4:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
In the lists of pioneers of live electronic music, important American minimalists, progressive rockers, genre-bending musicians, and composers born in the year 1938, one name that often gets omitted is David Borden. But Borden shrugs his shoulders and chalks it up to his being a perennial outsider:
I know that no one’s clearly one thing or another […] I enjoy doing my own things and going my own way, and if nobody notices that much, I’m lucky in that for some reason I always get great players who like my music. And we can go and do a few concerts once in a while. And that’s fine with me these days.
A self portrait by David Borden from 1968.
David Borden’s neglect is somewhat surprising, though, considering his formidable category-defying musical accomplishments which are a direct precedent to today’s largely DIY contemporary music landscape. Borden’s path is so related to the current scene that when The New York Times ran an article about the indie-classical movement in December 2011, the photo they chose to illustrate it with was not of any of the many 30-something composers cited therein, but rather an image of the septuagenarian Borden during a concert appearance at Brooklyn’s ISSUE Project Room back in June.
The day after Borden came down to New York City from Ithaca for that filled-way-beyond-capacity summer concert, we took the opportunity to finally sit down with him for an hour to talk about his composing and performing activities over the past half century. The story of how he wound up being one of the first people to use a Moog synthesizer in live performance—and how he broke a lot of the equipment in Robert Moog’s studio along the way—is a fascinating journey back to a time it is difficult to fathom now that almost all music-making involves electronics in some way. And the story of how Mother Mallard evolved from a new music group into a composer’s collective, then almost became a rock band before finally morphing into Borden’s own ensemble, is an abject lesson in how artistic sensibilities evolve and transform over time.
Yet Borden is hardly engaged in a nostalgia trip when he continues to play some of his early music decades later. Rather than trying to get older keyboards to function, he is content to adapt the music to work on newer equipment, even if the result sounds considerably different.
I am more interested in the actual notes than the actual timbre. I don’t say that I don’t care what the timbre is, but I mean, not to the extent where I have to have the actual original instruments. That would be fine if someone did it, but it’s not one of the primary concerns to me.
Some other people are starting to tackle this music. He was even invited to Tanglewood a couple of years ago when they devoted the annual festival of contemporary music there to music by composers born in the year 1938, although the only music of Borden’s that was played were his “Happy Birthday” arrangements for some of the other 1938 composers—John Harbison, Paul Chihara, and Alvin Curran. But there’s now a group in California called Brother Mallard that has been gradually tackling the twelve parts of Borden’s magnum opus, The Continuing Story of Counterpoint, a series of inter-related compositions lasting over three hours. Borden’s love of skewed counterpoint and unexpected harmonic progressions in that signature work, which he began composing 35 years ago, make it sound vibrant and fresh to this day, whatever instruments are ultimately used for its performance. While originally composed for just a handful of deft players, it could even be effective if arranged for a much larger ensemble, perhaps even a full orchestra. David Borden is certainly open to the idea. Hopefully an orchestra might step up to the plate at some point.
Frank J. Oteri: Nowadays, electronic music is everywhere. But when you started doing it, electronic music was music that existed almost exclusively in the studio. Since you were a pioneer of electronic music in live performance, I’m interested in your thoughts about studio versus live electronic music, then and now. I’m also curious about what drew you to the idea of performing electronic music live, given that it was a studio medium up to that point.
David Borden: I used to play jazz a lot. A live jazz performance, as you know, is much more exciting than just listening to recordings. So I’ve always been a proponent of live performance. After I got to know [Robert] Moog, I asked him if we could do this live, but he told me that synthesizers weren’t designed to exist in changing environments. I asked him originally because I’d gotten to know David Tudor and Gordon Mumma and David Behrman and, a little bit, John Cage. They were doing electronic stuff live with Merce Cunningham. I thought that was exciting, although I knew the stuff that we were going to be doing was quite different. Just a few years before that, everyone was criticizing Dylan for going electric. Amplified instruments being manipulated live by human beings was just not done very often, if at all. People would play tapes, which I thought was always a deadly thing. An audience sitting back and listening to a tape recording is kind of stupid, actually; I still think so. So anyway, Moog said, “Yes, you can try it, but I’ll tell you, you’ll be up against a lot of stuff. I mean, don’t let the sun on it. Don’t let the temperature vary that much. But yeah, I can let you use some of these things.” So we started trying it, and the first piece we did was Easter. It was only for two synthesizers plus a prepared tape at the time. We expanded on that and eventually I trained other people to play the synthesizers, and Bob was very generous. We had as much time during the day and night as we wanted to. After the Carlos recording [Switched-On Bach] came out, everyone thought you could go to a concert and hear an orchestral kind of synthesizer live. But that wasn’t true.
Pioneers of live electronic music (left to right): David Borden, Gordon Mumma, Robert Moog, and David Tudor.
After that came out, Chris Swanson decided to come to Trumansburg, New York, and visit Bob. He convinced Bob to let him be the composer-in-residence. I had no aspirations to be a composer-in-residence. I was making money in other ways. I think Bob paid him a little salary. Chris wanted to make the synthesizer into a Tonight Show band kind of thing with jazz soloists, because he was a big band composer. I just wanted it to sound like it sounded, find the different kinds of sound you could on the synthesizer. But it was tonal. Anyway, it was a different thing. But the thing about Chris was he wanted to do it live, too. So then Bob really got into trying to make synthesizers into more of a live performance thing. He even developed a little memory chip—that was for Chris, so that he didn’t have to worry about re-patching all the time. And it slowly evolved.
The Minimoog was the perfect on-stage instrument because it was not heavy and you didn’t have to put a lot of patch cords into it. It didn’t start out with that idea. It started out with the head engineer, Bill Hemsath, putting together old oscillators into one box to show clients what the synthesizer sounded like without scaring them to death by having to plug in dozens of patch cords. So he said, “Here, I’ll show you what it sounds like.” Bob actually didn’t like the idea. He didn’t see how cool that would be for someone, because it cut off a lot of possibilities. It’s pre-wired in many ways, and Bob wanted an open system for people to do crazy things if they wanted to. Eventually he was convinced. The engineers had to convince him, and then people loved the idea.
He got one huge order a few months before he had to almost declare bankruptcy. They were so borrowed out that they could not order the parts to make the Minimoogs for this huge order they got. It was just bad timing, and it was tragic. Bob left to go to Buffalo, and worked with this other guy. He could have gone bankrupt and forgotten the whole thing, but he decided that he would rather sell the business to this guy and keep the name going. Anyone who had bought his products in the years before could still get them repaired and tweaked. That’s why he did it. So he sold himself into slavery, more or less, for five years.
FJO: I want to go back to what you said about hearing a tape recorder concert and how that really didn’t do it for you. That wasn’t the kind of music that you were into. You were doing jazz stuff, so what got you interested in wanting to use electronic instruments in the first place?
DB: I had listened to a lot of Stockhausen on recordings. I found them very interesting, and actually, during my conservatory years, I was a Stravinsky nut. I love Stravinsky. He had nothing to do with any of this stuff. But when I got a Fulbright and went to Berlin, my teacher took me down to the basement of the Hochschule für Musik and he said, “I’m working on an opera and there’s a lot of electronic stuff. Would you like to see it?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” So he showed me around, and he said, “This is a synthesizer I made.” They were all specially made things by this engineer, and I found that very interesting. Then I saw a live performance by Stockhausen with all of these strange instruments, and that I found interesting. And that was about it really.
Then when I had this grant as a composer in public schools after my Fulbright, someone where I was in Ithaca, New York, told me that there was this guy in Trumansburg [named Bog Moog] who had an electronic studio that he made himself and that he had a whole business doing this. So that’s when Bob showed me the studio. I walked in and—as I’ve said to many people—it looked like the inside of a cockpit of a 727, which was the Boeing airplane of the day. You look into those and you figure how the hell do these people figure out where they’re going and what they’re doing. So, he calmly told me how it works and what to do. But he was using engineering terms. I had barely any science or engineering background; all of my education had been mostly in music. But rather than embarrass myself, I told him, “Oh yes, I understand.” Then when I started messing around in the studio, after I actually got sound out of it, I found it fascinating. Tudor and Mumma would bring in wired-up contraptions that only they knew how to work; I thought this would be a more standardized way of doing things. It appealed to me, because I had trouble hooking up my stereo at the time. It took me such a long time; it took me six months to actually learn the synthesizer and really be good at it. Bob said that I took longer than anyone else. And in the process, I ruined a lot of the modules and I’d be very embarrassed. When I ruined my first module, engineers came down and looked at it; they were like, “Oh, God.” They were talking all this engineering talk, and said they should call Bob down to look at this. They did, and Bob actually came down and looked at it just for about three seconds, and he said, “Holy shit!” And I thought, “Uh-oh. I’m out of here.” I kept apologizing. He’s not a shoulder-grabbing person, but he grabbed me around the shoulder and said, “Oh, that’s fine, Dave. Don’t worry about it. In fact I’ll take you up to my office and my secretary will give you a key and you can just come in here anytime. And in fact at night, no one’s here. You can use it all night. But just leave it set up, and don’t worry about a thing.”
He was using me to idiot proof the equipment! I reviewed the booklet he gave me in the first meeting; then I broke it down to its simple components. It looks complicated, but there were only three or four things you had to learn. But they took many different shapes and sizes in that module. So in that piece Easter, for instance, that’s a very sophisticated kind of sequencer setup. I mean, it’s very strange and idiosyncratic, but I knew what I was actually doing for most of it.
FJO: So basically you got into electronic music by working in a studio as a tester of equipment rather than through any kind of apprenticeship in any of the big electronic music studios. You were coming at it from a completely different place.
DB: Exactly. Yes.
FJO: But you’d heard that music. And so, to spiral back to something we didn’t completely resolve, I’m still curious about what was possible live versus what was possible in the studio. You mentioned hearing Stockhausen’s music. Pieces like Gesang der Jünglinge, Hymnen, or Telemusik could probably never be done live.
DB: Yeah. For the live things I actually ended up making simplified sounds that didn’t take as many patch cords. For our first Mother Mallard concerts, it was not so. Especially Steve Drews would make some beautiful sounds and—he could still do it—change the patch cords pretty quickly. But for the first few concerts we gave, we had rehearsals where we did not play any music. What we did was we’d patch and we’d get it so, if it took us ten minutes to patch this piece, then we got it down to like four minutes. And as long as we knew what the basic pitch was, that the main fine-tuning was going to be C or whatever, then the test would be after four minutes. You’d just hit the note and if it was the right sound, we did it! But still, it was so many minutes between pieces, we used to show cartoons between them. We used to get these really classic Disney things from the ‘30s. One was about mirrors in a crazy house, one was a great one about Pluto, and the audience loved them. One had Rudy Vallee in it, which was ridiculously stupid, but it was very funny. It was campy.
FJO: There wasn’t Donald Duck?
DB: I don’t know if we got any Donald Duck.
FJO: The reason I ask is because I’m curious about the whole evolution of the name Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company and all of the duck references everywhere in your music. What’s that about?
DB: Well, when we started this group, we didn’t want it to have an academic-sounding name. We wanted it to be more in the ballpark of what rock groups were calling themselves, rather than, like, The New Music Synthesizer Ensemble or something like that. I didn’t want to call it my name like the Philip Glass Ensemble because it was not exactly mine. All three members invested the same money to buy the equipment; we were equal partners. I was in the grocery store, and I saw Mrs. Smith’s Pies, and there was this picture of this friendly old lady on the thing. So I said, “I’ll name it after my grandmother.” My grandmother’s maiden name is Mallard—Mother Mallard, that was what people used to call her. So then we added the Portable Masterpiece Company. It was in tongue in cheek so that people would know we were actually serious, but we weren’t going to be terribly formal about it. That’s how the name evolved.
FJO: So what about all the duck stuff? I remember the first time we ever met. There was a piece of yours done at Merkin Concert Hall. I was an undergrad at Columbia, and I wanted to play some of your music on the university radio station, WKCR, where I had a program. So I said, “Please send me something.” And you sent me this cassette with a little duck sticker on it, which seemed odd, but since mallards are ducks I originally assumed there was a connection between ducks and the band’s name.
Mother Mallard in concert circa 1974 (David Borden in center), featuring Minimoogs and the band’s keepsake mallard duck decoy. Photo by Jon Reis.
DB: This is weird. We lived on the lake, and the house that we rented came with a little private dock, which was great. It sounds very fancy, but it was cheap. The day after we decided the name, I went out on my private dock, and someone had left a duck decoy there. I thought it was one of those synchronicity kinds of things; yes, the universe was telling me that was the right name. I usually bring it [to concerts]; I didn’t bring it this time. There were so many things to bring, I just forgot. But we usually have it sitting there, the same decoy. I’ve kept it all these years. Then people in the audience would come and bring ducks and give them to us. Little tiny duck items you know. Little schlocky duck things, and I have several of them at home. People would actually mail me things with ducks on them. At first I used to say, “No, no, it’s just named after my grandmother.” But then I said, “O.K., great, thank you.”
FJO: You said something else when you just told this story that I want to explore more. This whole question of naming yourself the way rock bands name themselves. It’s interesting because Mother Mallard went through an evolution. It started as a new music ensemble that played all different music. You played Robert Ashley; you played Philip Glass. In fact, you were the first group besides his own group to play Glass’s early minimalist pieces.
FJO: Then since you were all composers, you evolved into something of a composers’ collective, playing each other’s stuff. But in terms of the direction that your various musical muses took you, you weren’t that far away from what was going on in prog rock at the time. And eventually it evolved into your ensemble.
FJO: So how did those identities coalesce?
DB: When we first started, Steve Drews was a grad student at Cornell in music composition and I was the composer-pianist for dance. We both lamented the fact that at Cornell, there didn’t seem to be any cutting edge music being played. It was all academic stuff. So we learned the synthesizers. We hadn’t started doing them live yet. I had just done a few pieces on my own that I would play on tapes for the dance concerts that I would be responsible for. I had known Gordon Mumma and had met Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Alvin Lucier. They had that group called the Sonic Arts Union. We decided to do music by people like that. And I’d known Dan Lentz; I’d met him at Tanglewood in 1966.
Our first concert had music by Dan Lentz and also Allen Bryant from the Musica Elettronica Viva. We did his piece Pitch Out. One of our friends made the instruments you needed for that. The second half of the concert was called music for artists. We did John Cage’s Music for Marcel Duchamp, we did Morton Feldman’s Franz Kline [piece], de Kooning, and another one—I forget. And it was a big success. Dan Lentz had a piece about the birth of the baby grand and slides of grand pianos up and going boom, boom, boom, boom—it was a silly piece, but it was fun.
A surviving poster from the October 29, 1969 concert of Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company.
People loved that, so we decided to do another one, and I finally wrote a piece. I forget what it was. I think it was called Technique, Good Taste, and Hard Work because one of my teachers at Harvard, Billy Jim Layton, had just recently written a really critical review of a John Cage piece saying what John Cage really needed to do was sit down and get some technique, good taste, and do some hard work. I thought, “Oh, that’s so stupid.” So I named my piece that. And we did Terry Riley’s In C, we did a piece of Jon Hassell, and we did Music in Fifths by Philip Glass. We also did Piano Phase. Well, we did it on synthesizers. I talked to Steve [Reich] about it, and he said, “Fine. Just call it Synthesizer Phase.” And I did.
The personnel for the original Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company: Linda Fisher (left), Steve Drews (center), and David Borden (right).
Then we said, “O.K., this can work live. We can do that.” And so I did Easter, and then Steve Drews started doing his early pieces. Linda Fisher did a couple of pieces, but she was so self-critical, she didn’t continue doing them and then later she got more confidence and she moved.
Although we had started the band in ’69, we gave our first all-original synthesizer music [concert] in 1970. Then Linda wanted to leave. She got to know David Tudor and Rzewski and those people pretty well and she decided she wanted to move to New York [City] and work with them. So that’s when Judy Borsher joined the band unexpectedly. She had been a fan. I had no idea she had any keyboard technique or anything. We auditioned her, and she showed up and played one of the most difficult of our pieces note-perfect. We said great, Steve and I welcomed her, and she had a good time. We were together for about a year, and then Steve decided he wanted to move on and do something else. Steve was always almost finishing something and moving onto another thing. He now earns his living as a photographer in St. Louis. He’s very successful. We’re great friends still.
All that equipment. Mother Mallard in 1975 at the Sculpture Terrace of the Johnson Museum. (Left to right: Judy Borsher, Steve Drews, and David Borden.) Photo by Jon Reis.
Steve and I had bought out Linda’s share when she left, then I bought out Steve’s share. It was very expensive, so I actually went back into playing jazz in nightclubs around Ithaca—solo. I really practiced, and I re-immersed myself a little bit more in the jazz world and made friends with Dave McKenna. He just died a couple of years ago, but he was really one of the great solo jazz saloon players. And I studied my Thelonious Monk. I had studied with Jaki Byard, but I don’t have that kind of great harmonic jazz ear. I really have to practice it. If you listen to Keith Jarrett play any of those standards, he’s a master. I’m nowhere like that, but I’m not bad. So I worked in the nightclubs for a couple of years and made enough money and bought out Steve. So I had all these synthesizers and that’s when Chip Smith joined the band. He could read, and he did really well. He was great.
Keith Emerson (left) with David Borden in 2000. Photo by Vivian Lee.
FJO: So the rock question. You know, around the time that all of this was happening with Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk were happening in Germany and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band was happening in England. Obviously more mainstream groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer were doing a lot of live synthesizer stuff, too, but more in a song-oriented context. But those other groups were doing long repetitive instrumental synthesizer music, with unusual electronic timbres that each of them composed. And all those German guys had studied composition, too. Some prominent German rock musicians had even studied with Stockhausen. And ultimately the music they were doing wasn’t all that different from what you were doing. So I wonder, were you aware of that stuff? Were they aware of you? Were the audiences crossing over? What was the relationship?
The original LP cover for the first self-titled (and self-released) album by Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company.
DB: What I remember is that we had a recording and no one would put it out. We made a recording in 1970. We didn’t get to release it until 1973 (we did it ourselves), but that original vinyl recording only had things that we did from 1970. In the meantime, Tangerine Dream made a recording a year or so before and I remember playing it for Steve Drews, because I said, “These guys have scooped us, and I don’t think they’re as interesting.” And they’re not all really synthesizers; there’s guitar. One piece was kind of naïve, what you could tell they thought was far out really wasn’t. But we got to know each other after that because when our recording came out, and then especially when I did a little music for The Exorcist, they started paying attention. I would get these phone calls from either Franke or Froese. I didn’t ever talk to Klaus Schulze, but the other two would call, and we would talk about the synthesizer and the business. They came to New York once. I didn’t hear them, but their audience was different. There was a real pop audience there. And they had real guitars and their stuff was a lot simpler than ours, but it was in the same ballpark. I’ve known their stuff off and on, and they’re very commercially successful. For some reason, none of us in the band were interested in being that commercially successful. Except for one period. Right before Bob left to go to Buffalo, we thought maybe if we did some rock and roll songs, and used all of our expertise, we could make some money to fund our real work, you know. So we did, but no one was interested in that either.
FJO: So all your original recordings were self-released on, of course, Earth Quack Records.
DB: Right. Exactly.
FJO: But eventually Cuneiform found you. I know they have a broad range. They record folks like Wadada Leo Smith and John Hollenbeck. But primarily what they release is adventurous progressive rock, so there is yet another connection between what you do and prog.
CD cover for The Continuing Story of Counterpoint Parts 9-12 on Cuneiform
DB: I didn’t think about it too much, and I don’t pay that much attention to genres, you know. But Steve Feigenbaum lived in Ithaca for a while, and he knew some of our early concerts. So he asked me to send him any new stuff I was doing. I did, and he said, “Well, we’ve got to record this.” He wanted to record the entire Continuing Story of Counterpoint, which he did. And it’s good. I’d like to re-record some of them now because I can do them a lot better, but I’m always very grateful for that. Steve and his wife Joyce [are among] the few people in the record business who are pretty straightforward. They don’t want to take advantage of you or use your rights for your compositions; they won’t license it to anyone without your approval. It’s great working with them. Then, when the era started where people were getting back into analog after so much digital stuff, that’s when they re-released the early Earth Quack recordings, but we also put stuff on there that had never been released before.
A totally digital David Borden in 1990.
FJO: I’ve heard all the Cuneiform recordings many times and have also heard an older recording of just a couple of the 12 parts of the piece, which was actually released on another label, Arbiter. I also heard all 12 parts live back in 1990 at Town Hall and then a couple of the parts last night at ISSUE Project Room. In every performance, this music sounds somewhat different; part of the reason is that you’re always using different instruments.
FJO: There’s really no Mother Mallard period instrument sensibility. If you’re playing a piece from 1976, you don’t feel compelled to play it on the keyboard you played it on back in 1976. You don’t think that way at all.
DB: No, I don’t.
FJO: But playing the music on a different instrument actually changes it.
Mother Mallard in Concert back in the analog era: Chip Smith (left), the duck decoy (center) and David Borden (right). (Judy Borsher not pictured.) Photo by Steve Drews.
DB: I am more interested in the actual notes than the actual timbre. I don’t say that I don’t care what the timbre is, but not to the extent where I have to have the actual original instruments. That would be fine if someone did it, but it’s not one of the primary concerns to me.
FJO: Well, it’s interesting because parts two and eleven of The Continuing Story of Counterpoint exist in versions for synthesizers as well as in versions for piano duo.
DB: They were written for two pianos. They were written for Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann. Part Two is dedicated to Nurit; Part Eleven is dedicated to Edmund.
FJO: When you performed the entire cycle live at Town Hall those parts were done that way, but on the Cuneiform recordings they’re done with synthesizers.
DB: I know. We didn’t have enough money to actually have a studio with two pianos, and have them do it. So that’s why it’s not that way.
FJO: Another thing about how The Continuing Story of Counterpoint has evolved over time is that it doesn’t seem to have been composed in order. Parts One and Three are both from 1976, but Part Two came later, etc.
DB: Yeah, well, the original Part Two, I thought, “Oh, this sucks. I’m throwing it out.” The same with Part Four. There was another Part Four, I said, “No, this isn’t good enough for this.” I was very serious about that series. I wanted it to be really good and I was just starting to get into habits. I was discovering a whole new process; the four-track tape recorder changed the way I composed. I had always loved the art of counterpoint. I took extra courses and I kept thinking I’d get an epiphany, but I never got the epiphany beyond what I would hear in Bach. I thought they’d tell me the secret of why this is happening, doing what it’s doing, but no one could. You have to figure that out on your own, and have your own sort of inner voice, or inner intelligence direct you to what you think is important. And sometimes you get to it; you get to the piece and you say this is just working so well, and you look at it, and you figure out what’s going on in a descriptive way. Music theory doesn’t exist, you know. I mean, it isn’t theory; it’s description. There is no music theory. I didn’t realize that until this brilliant physicist friend of mine, who’s also a musician, told me that he was really excited to learn about music theory until he discovered it was just description. And I thought, you know, he’s really right.
The basic point was writing lines that could stand on their own, and be combined, and when they were combined, they’d be more than the sum of their parts. Besides that, they would be interesting to listen to in almost a spiritual way, or a powerful way that you couldn’t predict by just figuring out what goes with what. So I started writing single lines. Actually I started playing two lines at the same time, right hand and left hand, and would write those down, and play them, and repeat them a number of times. I’d go onto the next thing, and the next thing, and I did this maybe for 20 or 30 modules. Then I would add another part. I knew if this module was 27 beats long, I could divide it into five fives and one two, or four fives and a seven; then I would take the other person’s part and divide it differently. That’s why, when we’re playing, everybody is in a different meter. I would actually record one person’s part almost, if not all the way through, and then the other person’s part all the way through, listening to the other part. Then I would turn off the original part to do the third person’s and just listen to the second person’s part. I would know the mode and would change scales. Then at a certain point, for some reason that has no planning or anything, I would think, “This needs to be different.” So I would go from C Dorian to E Mixolydian, with no break, no transition. I remember when I first started playing this, I got a review in The Village Voice from Gregory Sandow saying, “O.K., this is minimalism, but he doesn’t understand what minimalism is. Minimalism isn’t jumping from one thing to another. It’s gradually going.” And he would explain how Philip Glass adds a beat at a time and Steve Reich would add a different pitch a little bit carefully. But I just cut it off. And I was thinking, “I understand minimalism, and that that’s what it does, but I’m not doing that.” I never wrote back to him. I think he’s a really good writer and a very intelligent man, and I don’t mean to criticize him, but I’m doing something different than other people. I wasn’t thinking of trying to be different; I was just evolving my voice.
FJO: Minimalism is a term that both Glass and Reich rejected at the time, although they now say that maybe it applies to their very earliest music, but certainly not what they’ve done since. What are your feelings about that?
DB: Well, I sort of took a humorous tack on it. No one likes to be put into a box. But what I think is the best thing about calling this stuff minimalist, was it made Milton Babbitt go tell everyone he was a maximalist, which I thought was the stupidest, stupidest thing. Nothing against Milton Babbitt; he was a great guy. But just having someone take notice and take that tack on it is sort of an academic kind of—I can’t even think of the word. I’m not sure what academic music means, but certain times people like to have this clarity of what you are. I think that’s what he was looking for. Whereas, I know that no one’s clearly one thing or another, you know what I mean.
FJO: This ties back to something you were saying before about genres.
DB: They spill into each other all the time. But I think it’s there for marketing purposes and for also critical ones; it’s good to have a point of departure when you’re talking with someone. I know it really helps to have labels. You can’t do away with them.
FJO: Well, now we’re living in this era where if you go to Amazon and you just bought Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, Amazon will suggest that maybe you should buy The Continuing Story of Counterpoint.
FJO: So you’d like that?
DB: Well, there’s a certain logic to it.
FJO: And perhaps Amazon would suggest you should buy a Tangerine Dream recording, too.
DB: But I never think of that when I sit down to do a piece.
FJO: There’s a comment that you made that I think I read in a program note somewhere years ago. You mentioned that you had perfect pitch, but you could never understand or hear functional tonality.
DB: I have a hard time with it. The composer Stanley Silverman is an old friend of mine. We used to play together a lot. We were accompanying some singer, so he said, “Oh Dave, this is really simple, just a few chords.” And I said, “Alright. O.K., great.” And I could not. He went from I, IV to VI or something, and I could not hear that it was IV. You know, he said, “It’s IV.” I said, “Just tell me the name.” So that’s my jazz problem right there. I can’t suddenly transpose everything from E-flat to G like so many great players can do.
FJO: The Greg Sandow review you mentioned, where he says that what you were doing wasn’t quite minimalism, is interesting to me because one of the aspects that I love and really relate to about the pieces in The Continuing Story of Counterpoint is how anything can lead to anything else. That’s what makes that music so exciting for me; I don’t know where it’s going from one chord to the next.
DB: Harmony is always very daunting to me. I would kind of cheat on those exams they gave in harmony class at Eastman, where a person would play a chorale all the way through four times and you’d take dictation. You’re supposed to be able to figure it out because you hear the functions of the chords. I would just zone in on the bass line, zone in on the soprano line, then the tenor, and then the alto line, and just write those, because I could hear them. I also can zone in if you’re playing a four-note chord; I can zone in on any note I want to. That’s how I do it. I don’t do it by the function.
I’m not doing the “I’m a poor person made good” thing, but I come from a poor family. My father was musical, but he didn’t have much education. He was a janitor for a living, but he had an appreciation for music. He read the children’s versions of the biographies of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to me when I was like four or five. He was looking for a really good teacher for me, and he finally found one. He went to the best music stores in Boston and asked the people at the sheet music counter which music teacher bought the best quality music for their students. Four out of five gave him this name, and it turned out, this guy taught at Phillips Exeter Academy, and took all of Boston’s Brahmin kids and taught them. He said he would consider taking me, and he gave me an ear test. He wanted to see if I could play scales, and I did. Then he told me to go to the other side of the room, and he’d play some chords, and he wanted to know what they were. And he meant major, minor, augmented. So he hit a chord and I said, D-minor, D-minor triad, you know. Then he said, what? I said D-minor triad. And he took one on the low register it was B-flat minor. I said B-flat minor, and then he would hit G-major, then he had a long conversation with my father, and that’s when I found out I had perfect pitch. I thought everybody could do that. That’s how I got to be a student of this really good piano teacher.
FJO: I’m curious about the vocal lines in the Continuing Story of Counterpoint pieces.
DB: They’re only there when I have a singer, but there are some that have singer parts.
FJO: On different recordings I’ve heard of those pieces, the lines are actually different. But something that I find so weird about the words is that they’re just names of theorists and counterpoint techniques.
DB: Oh, yes. Ellen Hargis had such a great voice. She still does. She’s a great singer. Part Ten, which we hardly ever do, calls for a jazz saxophone player and a soprano. The soprano just says the names of counterpoint theorists. I thought, we’ve got to give them a little credit; so say their names and give them little beautiful things. In Part Three, which is almost impossible to sing, they’re the names of contrapuntal composers. And then Part Four has contrapuntal devices, I think parallel fifths is one of them—things you should avoid.
FJO: You don’t really write much vocal music, or at least I haven’t really heard much of your vocal music. But what’s so funny about it is that so much vocal music is out there that doesn’t have good prosody in terms of how the music works with the text. You can’t really hear the words, or it doesn’t fall naturally. But I understand every word in your vocal music, even though it’s sort of this tongue-in-cheek stuff like names of people and techniques.
DB: Well, that’s a lot because of my jazz background. I always loved jazz singers, and I’ve loved beautiful standards. So I try to make them clear. I don’t try to make them avant-garde, strange, weird, or anything. I like to hear what Alec Wilder used to say was just the natural voice. I picked it up from jazz singers, that way of doing it, rather than the typical avant-garde thing of stretching all the intervals and guttural sounds, or anything like that.
FJO: Those lyrics about counterpoint, though, connect your music to much older classical music. Another thing that connects you is the music you’ve done that’s actually based on previously existing pieces, like that giant piece that you did for Kathleen Supové where you mirrored the exact structure of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
DB: One of my favorite pieces.
FJO: And you re-wrote one of the Mozart Violin Concertos.
DB: Well, not exactly. I didn’t touch the violin part.
FJO: Right, you kept that. But the music that gets played with the solo is entire new and yours; it’s somewhat disorienting.
DB: That’s from the influence of Buckminster Fuller. Synergy is a word that hardly anyone used back in the ‘60s or ‘70s. Then businesses hijacked the word to mean multi-tasking: the synergy of the thing where everyone’s working together. But Bucky Fuller’s definition of it is behavior of whole systems unpredicted by their parts taken separately. So I took the violin part separately, and now, it’s outside of the whole system that it was intended for. I just sort of moved it into a new apartment. That’s how I think of it. It’s now a new whole system.
FJO: I’m curious about how those pieces happened. Both of them were created outside of the context of Mother Mallard. There’s another one also, which I still haven’t heard—a piece for two fortepianos and chamber orchestra. I thought that it was a strange piece for you to write, considering that you’ve devoted your life to writing for instruments that were originally touted as being the instruments of the future—synthesizers. But here you’re going in the opposite direction, writing for instruments from the past and doing something new with them.
FJO: So I’m curious how those things arise, if your approach is different when you’re writing for somebody other than yourself or your own group.
DB: Well, when I was a student, I was a good orchestrator. In fact, I had the graduate assistantship in orchestration at Eastman. But ever since my synthesizer days, I have not looked at the instruments any more. This piece you mentioned is called Infinity Variations, and it follows the same harmonic path as Counterpoint Part 8, actually, or a lot of it. My friend Penny Crawford, who’s a fortepianist, asked me to do this. So I said, “I’m not so good at writing for one piano.” I don’t know why. I would do it for one piano now. I asked her about two pianos, and she said two would be fine. But I was never satisfied with the orchestration. I basically approached it the same way, but the big difference is it’s not as hands on as I want it to be. When I write for the synthesizers, I know that this is the exact way it’s going to sound if I tell it to sound this way. I’ll just program it for the other players to play it that way. My group has been the only one performing what I do, except now there’s a group formed in California called Brother Mallard that meets once in a while. It’s great. They performed Counterpoint Part 8 for me with these acoustic instruments mixed in with the electronic ones. It sounded differently than I would ever imagine, but it was good.
FJO: Were they playing it by ear?
DB: No. About two years ago, John Marr [who put together Brother Mallard] got in touch with me and I said, “You know, it’s great ‘cause you’re forcing me now to look at the scores and make it so that it can be performed by other ensembles.” I’ve known this, but I’ve been too busy doing other things. But now I’ve finished about half of them. Now I can have the scores and they have notes to them, and they have some history in the notes, and they tell you what you have to do and what you can’t do. When you look at the score, you think, “Oh, I’ll get a keyboard and play this.” But then you realize that each staff is for two different keyboards. So it’s trickier than it might seem. One of the reasons that I like doing this with laptops is I can program Reason, which is a program everyone has and it’ll probably be around for a long time, so the people know exactly what I had in mind.
FJO: Well, as far as other people doing your pieces go, I imagine that the pieces for two pianos would be relatively easy for other groups to do.
DB: Yes, they have been done. One was just done in Kansas this past year. A guy was getting his Ph.D. in music and wrote about Double Portrait, so he did Double Portrait.
FJO: Now, the big Goldberg-inspired piece, whose title is an anagram for Kathleen Supové.
FJO: That piece only exists as piano and pre-recorded sounds. Could that be fleshed out and turned into a piece for multiple keyboard players?
DB: That’s all done with Reason, and that’s in a score form. It’s there.
FJO: Some recent music of yours that you performed last night actually reminded me of Easter. Your music has come full circle back to the very beginning in terms of it playing with timbre more and a bit less with counterpoint and harmony, pitch and rhythm. For lack of a better term, it sounds less like minimalism and more like electronic music. I know that you don’t like labels and terminology per se, since the danger is that such things force you into a box. If you reject the label, you can write whatever you want.
Robert Moog (left) with David Borden in 1999
DB: Yeah. I always thought I could write whatever the hell I wanted. I was so taken with In C when I heard it because I was coming from all those composers wanting you to write nothing but serial music. Gunther Schuller wouldn’t even let me play an octave. I mean, it was ridiculous. You know, “That’s an octave, we don’t do that anymore.” That whole coterie around Milton was all like that. You had to do rows and all the hexachords and stuff. I did that for a while, but I did it through the window of late Stravinsky. He did that, but everyone would say, “That’s not really it.” So I hated all that stuff. In C is great in that, when you listen to Steve Reich and Philip Glass, those are intellectually thought out as well as being inspired and it’s a great balance. With In C all the air is let in and it’s like we’re gonna let a flat in over here and we’re just gonna do the sharp over here. But it’s all gonna be cool and you can go at your own pace. It’s O.K. We don’t care. Just play it as many times as you like, and that’s so liberating. I just love that. It was John Cage-ian in that way, but John Cage doesn’t like you taking that much liberty. If he tells you to do something with how to prepare the piano, and he tells you what to do in the music, he wants you to do that. But In C was just wonderful at the time when it hit. That’s what aesthetically turned me around, that’s what influenced the Easter kind of droning and staying on the same thing, and the technological influence was just Bob Moog, his great generosity and his friendship.
FJO: It’s funny your mentioning Cage in this context since you have a piece C.A.G.E. based on the letters of his name.
DB: I turned C, A, G, E into a tone row, more or less in a certain free way combining the Uncle Miltie and the John Cage folks. Same place.
FJO: But it sounds nothing like John Cage.
DB: It wasn’t meant to sound like John Cage. I did not know him well, but I hung out with him a few times and had several conversations with him. He was always very nice to me, and I think he appreciated that I did that. For a performance of one of his pieces, he wrote to me and asked if I could send him a big tape of it and they would loop it during the performance.
FJO: We’re going to end by me trying to put you in another box: this whole outsider tradition of American mavericks. It’s a tradition of non-tradition, as it were, that spirals back from William Billings and Charles Ives to Nancarrow and Harry Partch through to John Cage, all the minimalists and even outsider rock people. All of these people do it their own way. So do you. You were based at Cornell, but you never became an influential composition teacher there.
DB: Oh, not at all.
FJO: You stayed out of that. You’ve now got records on a respected independent label, but your earliest records were self-produced. All your music is still self-published. You finally got invited to Tanglewood, but that was a bit of a fluke. You were lucky to be born in the year 1938. So you’re not part of the official music establishment in any way, and in a way that’s really great. But in another way, it has left you out of a history that you really deserve to be more a part of.
DB: And don’t forget, no Guggenheims. I used to complain about that kind of thing. Now I sort of enjoy it. I’m not even going to apply for another Guggenheim. I enjoy doing my own things and going my own way, and if nobody notices that much, I’m lucky in that for some reason I always get great players who like my music. We can go and do a few concerts once in a while, and that’s fine with me these days. It wasn’t always like that, but I don’t know how the cosmic thing works. It seems that all so-called serious music is eventually taken over by larger institutions in some way. I think the real art starts somewhere outside the box and eventually as time goes on, you get included more, like when I was invited to Tanglewood. Musica Eletrronica Viva was there, too. They were so out of it; they told Alvin Curran and Dick Teitelbaum and Rzewski that their rehearsal was that afternoon, but they were going to do it without any electronics. [laughs] And Richard Teitelbaum said, “Can you believe it?” I mean, they had no idea. You know what pieces they played of mine there? They told me they couldn’t perform any of my pieces, but I do these variations on “Happy Birthday,” which hardly anyone knows about because they’re only meant for the people who have the birthdays. I usually just record them for the people that they’re intended for. But I had done one for Paul Chihara, I had done one for John Harbison, and I had done one for Alvin Curran, and sent them to them. So that’s what they played. And, actually, they were very well received. Everyone loved them, but you know, that was what they did. They didn’t do any of the heavy pieces.
FJO: So things that you wish, if you were given the keys to say, the Metropolitan Opera, or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or any other big musical institution in this country? Since this music eventually gets taken over by the big institutions, as you said, what would you want to see happen? What would you want to hear?
DB: Well, I’ve done some pieces that I think I would like to hear other people do. I’ve thought of making a chamber orchestra version of the piece I did for Kathy Supové, just for piano and chamber orchestra. I don’t know. I think electronic ensembles will become standardized in some way, especially with all the computer technology around. And people could do any of my pieces if they really looked at it and wanted to figure it out. I don’t know if they will.
Maybe some of the piano pieces will be more performed than the other pieces. But I think eventually though, there are going to be ensembles that are made up of just keyboards and laptops and other controllers. What I find now is when you say you have a laptop ensemble, most people think you’re just fooling around and that you don’t have any keyboard technique. There’s hardly anyone that has really great keyboard technique who knows a lot about computer software and music for live performances. The people who can do it better than anyone are probably the rock and roll bands, but they tend to play more simple things than what we were doing last night, you know what I mean? So, it’s kind of a problem.
FJO: But one that will hopefully be addressed. You mentioned that you are preparing a performance edition of The Continuing Story of Counterpoint.
DB: Yeah. I’m in the middle of it now.
FJO: So that will be something that ensembles could do. Let’s say a string orchestra wanted to play it, would you be O.K. with it being re-orchestrated?
DB: Yes, I would. Just like The Art of the Fugue is done.
It might seem somewhat incongruous for the following musings about an album recorded more than 45 years ago by one of the biggest (and most financially lucrative) musical acts of all time to be appearing within this web magazine devoted to new American music that is outside the commercial mainstream. But The Smile Sessions—a total of 144 tracks (in its most complete available form) from the 80 sessions recorded by The Beach Boys between 1966 and 1967 for the never-issued LP SMiLE, finally officially released commercially on November 1, 2011—contains some of the most provocative musical ideas of the last half-century in any genre of music. Although these were recordings for an album by what was—for all intents and purposes—the most successful popular music group of its day, the project morphed into something quite other. Randall Roberts, in one of several pieces on The Smile Sessions that ran recently in The Los Angeles Times, has stated that “every library of American recording history needs this; university composition departments, music professors, budding recording engineers and composers should study it.”
In the extensive hardcover booklet that accompanies the collector’s edition of The Smile Sessions, Beach Boy Bruce Johnston boasts that back in 1967 he was wondering if The Beach Boys’ record label Capitol would realize that the music contained herein should be released on Capitol’s classical division, Angel Records. Of course, it was never issued in 1967 on Capitol, Angel, or anywhere else for a complex web of reasons that are still not completely clear at this late date. But these 144 tracks of music, many of which will be brand new to listeners despite their age, deserve an extensive explication or at least an attempt at one, so here goes.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice…
A tantalizing photograph of the original master tapes for SMiLE which is featured on the cover of the LP-sized digipack that holds the 5 CDs contained in The Smile Sessions.
The Beach Boys’ album SMiLE, scheduled for release in 1967 but never issued, has been touted for decades as one of American music’s ultimate what-ifs: the most momentous might-have-been in music history, the musical road not taken which would have irrevocably changed music’s subsequent direction. For decades it has inspired voluminous conjecture comparable to speculative fiction like Philip K. Dick’s classic The Man In The High Castle, a novel not about the future but rather an alternative present which was the result of the Axis powers winning the Second World War. Over the past nearly half-century, knowing about SMiLE’s existence made you part of a cadre of arcane music cognoscenti. There was particular satisfaction in being part of the minority who had been let in on the secret that this group—frequently dismissed even by those who believed that popular music could aspire to a level equal to anything coming from so-called high art—had actually created something that was perhaps even more full of high art aspirations than anything else done at the time.
Like Scott Joplin’s first opera A Guest of Honor, whose performance materials no one saw fit to preserve, or Charles Ives’s Universe Symphony, which some of its champions have vociferously asserted can be completed from his surviving sketches while others (equally vociferous) claim was nothing more than a patchwork of unfinished and unrealizable sketches, SMiLE has become the stuff of legend and its legend has become larger than it or perhaps any work of art can ever be. Its pedigree certainly puts SMiLE in league with those Joplin and Ives pieces, as well as such music history would-that-they-weres as an opera by Giuseppe Verdi based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, which according to some accounts Verdi threw into the flames as soon as he completed it, or Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony, which its composer struggled in vain with for the last thirty years of his life and also ultimately destroyed. (Although some provocative fragments from what might be Sibelius’s 8th finally got their first performance in October 2011). Or closer to home, Charles Mingus’s Epitaph, which its jazz bassist creator was only able to record a portion of in 1962 and whose score was long thought to be lost, but which resurfaced in his papers after his death in 1979 (and only received its first hearing when Gunther Schuller led a performance of it a decade later in 1989).
The legend surrounding SMiLE also includes burning work, the release of less-than-complete portions of work, the music haunting its principal creator (The Beach Boys’ principal songwriter and musical arranger Brian Wilson) for decades, reconstructing a finished product long after that, and lost elements that miraculously resurfaced still later on. So what exactly is the story?
I Know There’s An Answer…
The somewhat lighthearted cover of Pet Sounds doesn’t really reflect the serious music contained on the album.
In a nutshell (though admittedly one for a rather large nut), by 1966—when the recording sessions for SMiLE began, The Beach Boys were at the top of their game. Their now platinum-selling album, Pet Sounds, which took full advantage of studio recording techniques and was filled with dense contrapuntal layering and elaborate orchestration, was released in May of that year. That album was the first piece of evidence that The Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson as auteur, were capable of a lot more than just churning out teen fare marrying layered vocal harmonies (from low bass to high falsetto) reminiscent of contemporaneous East Coast groups like The Four Seasons to a somewhat less edgy, though way more popular, approach to the regional surf rock subgenre from their native Southern California pioneered by Dick Dale. Pet Sounds earned Brian Wilson respectability and offered concrete evidence that he might actually be—as the band’s acolytes believed and Capitol Records’ marketing department had promulgated—a musical genius. Among its most celebrated fans was Paul McCartney of The Beatles (who had yet to complete the recording sessions for their album Revolver, which was issued in August 1966). By McCartney’s own admission, Pet Sounds heavily influenced him and directly led to the creation of The Beatles’ subsequent LP, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released on June 1, 1967), the album that has frequently been credited with the birth of the progressive rock genre as well as album-oriented rock overall. Pet Sounds is a clear precedent. Among its tracks are the astonishing songs “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “I Know There’s An Answer,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” and (the Brian Wilson solo) “Caroline, No,” whose ending (also the end of the album) is a barrage of sound effects. But despite the sophistication of these songs (whose lyrics also mostly eschewed the Boys’ previous summer fun fare thanks in part to Brian Wilson collaborating with an outside-the-band wordsmith, Tony Asher) and the album’s two equally surprising instrumentals, Pet Sounds was ultimately still a pop album.
Brian Wilson wanted to prove he could create something more significant than that, a fully integrated opus that demands to be listened to as a multi-movement composition containing various permutations of the same thematic material throughout, a project he at one point began describing as “a teenage symphony to God.” To further prove his seriousness, he enlisted the help of even more high-minded librettist—the erudite singer/songwriter Van Dyke Parks—to fashion lyrics for him that would be even further away from the boy-meets-girl and let’s-go-surfing fodder that had dominated the lyrics of most of The Beach Boys’ repertoire. The other members of The Beach Boys—Brian’s two brothers, Carl and Dennis, a cousin, Mike Love, high school classmate Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston, who had just joined the group in 1965—were frequently baffled by the new direction and Love was often openly hostile to it.
Before his collaboration with Parks got underway, in February 1966, Brian began recording an additional song—originally intended for Pet Sounds—that became so elaborate that he was not able to complete it in time for that album’s scheduled release. He ultimately worked on the song, “Good Vibrations” (whose infatuation-themed lyrics were, incidentally, by Mike Love), for more than six months thereafter. To perform his ornate arrangement of the song, Brian assembled an ensemble far larger than any he had put together heretofore which, in addition to the members of The Beach Boys included some of Los Angeles’s most in-demand studio musicians, such as Al De Lory on piano and harpsichord, Jesse Ehrlich on cello, Hal Blaine on timpani and other percussion, and—perhaps most memorably—trombonist Paul Tanner on an electronic musical instrument of his own invention. (Tanner’s instrument, which he had previously played on the Pet Sounds song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” has alternately been named the tannerin—in his honor—and the electro-theremin. As a result of the similar name and a somewhat similar sound, Tanner’s instrument, which is played by controlling a knob attached to a slider with string, rather than hand movements over antennae, has been frequently misidentified by theremin discographers; “Good Vibrations” does not use a theremin.) Perhaps more importantly, “Good Vibrations” was not performed in its entirely from start to finish during these recording sessions, but rather in modular sections, each with different instrumentation. It was later seamlessly layered and pieced together in the studio from a purported grand total of 90 hours of recordings. As a result, “Good Vibrations,” which was released independently as a Beach Boys single on October 10, 1966, and was slated to also be included on their next full-length album (SMiLE), sounds like no other pop song that had been recorded up to that point.
Brian’s approach to the recording of “Good Vibrations” would serve as the blueprint for how he would record everything that was planned for the SMiLE album. While no other track intended for the album had such an extensive production history, some of his arrangements were even more elaborate, such as “Heroes and Villains,” alternate parts of which were recorded on October 1966 and February 1967. All in all, the remaining sessions for SMiLE (excluding the earlier “Good Vibrations”) occurred over the course of 13 months from May 1966 until May 1967, during which time Brian Wilson grew more and more despondent due to clinical depression and drug abuse.
The original Frank Holmes cover illustration for SMiLE which has graced the cover of countless bootlegs which attempted to reconstruct SMiLE over the years and which was finally officially released as the album’s cover in November 2011.
Finally, the album was shelved despite heavy advertising and Capitol Records printing over 400,000 LP covers with an image that nevertheless became iconic. (This cover image, of a store selling smiles by Frank Holmes, is also the source of the typographical strangeness of the album’s title; it would have been among the earliest covers by a popular music group to feature original, specifically commissioned artwork rather than a photograph of the performers.)
The Smiley Smile cover also does not feature a photograph of the band, but rather a cabin in the middle of a forest that presumably contains the contents of SMiLE.
In order to fulfill their contractual obligation to release something in 1967, the remaining members of the group wrested artistic control from Brian and cobbled together an album containing “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” (which they truncated somewhat, re-recorded parts for in June 1967, and issued as a single in July 1967), and several other (but not all) intended SMiLE tracks. That LP, officially released on September 18, 1967 under the name Smiley Smile, is still quite fascinating and frequently extremely odd. (One of its most notorious tracks, “She’s Goin’ Bald,” even speeds up The Beach Boys’ voices in a rare example of musique concrète in the band’s oeuvre, a feat which undoubtedly, along with the electro-theremin and the extensive electronic manipulations on the aforementioned “Good Vibrations” which opens Side Two of the LP, earned Smiley Smile a place in the discography of Paul Griffiths’s seminal A Guide to Electronic Music published in 1979.) Yet the end result is far less ambitious than Brian’s original plan and Smiley Smile proved to be their least commercially successful venture up to that point. (Van Dyke Parks, his input rejected by the other members of The Beach Boys, embarked on his own solo debut album, an inter-related collection of his own music as well as words, tellingly called Song Cycle, in November 1967; it’s a very nice record and it launched his successful career, but it never reached the kind of an audience that SMiLE would have.)
Here’s the official version of the story being told now…
God Only Knows…
As the time when Brian Wilson attempted to realize SMiLE and forever change the history of American music—popular or otherwise—recedes further and further into history, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate actual facts from the mythology that has come to surround that era. The 1960s remain a watershed period in the history of music of all genres. In classical music, it was the time when many composers desiring to keep up with the zeitgeist were torn between the rigors of integral serialism and the process-oriented experimentation of indeterminacy and conceptualism, while performing musicians began seriously recreating the sound world of earlier eras (the de-facto birth of the so-called period instrument movement). It was also the decade that spawned minimalism as well as a time when electronic music became a viable performance and compositional possibility—Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach was the most commercially successful classical album of its day, Morton Subonick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, released in 1967, was the first electronic composition created expressly for release on a commercial recording (on Nonesuch, which was then a budget label devoted almost exclusively to contemporary and early music), and Charles Wuorinen’s Time’s Encomium, another Nonesuch release from the end of the decade, was the first all-electronic piece to win the Pulitzer Prize. In jazz, the chord changes that had underpinned musicians’ solos from the earliest recorded manifestations of the music up to bebop and beyond, had already given way to modality inspired by non-Western musical traditions as well as completely free improvisations, but this music grew further and further out as the decade progressed. Rock and roll, ostensibly a music associated with youth culture, grew even more rebellious but also more sophisticated, morphing forever into rock and eventually myriad subgenres. Rhythm and blues, which was basically a racially charged code name given to the rock and roll-type music being made by African Americans, evolved into soul and later funk, also getting more and more experimental in the process. Even composers of film music and Broadway shows somehow seemed to be aesthetically tilting toward the avant-garde, or at least toward a consciousness that went far beyond Western musical traditions. And music from all parts of the globe—from North India and the Far East to Southern Africa—not only profoundly influenced much of music being made in the West but it too became available to the general public in the West through commercially available recordings as well as live performances by some of its greatest practitioners who finally were given opportunities to tour.
We will never know all the music that Brian Wilson had heard up to the point where he began work on SMiLE and how much of it influenced the new music that he was trying to invent. He has acknowledged his indebtedness to Glenn Miller and much has been made over the years about how Paul McCartney’s admiration for Brian Wilson was not only mutual but also competitive. Brian saw himself in a race with The Beatles to create the great rock record. He also fancied himself a latter-day George Gershwin since he, too, as a teenager had become a world famous songwriter but by his mid-20s aspired to be something more—a serious composer, though one working in a thoroughly vernacular American idiom. (In recent years, Brian Wilson even secured the rights to complete some of Gershwin’s unfinished compositional fragments and recorded them in 2010.) Rumored among Brian Wilson’s earlier compositions is a piano sonata that he never completed, another musical holy grail. According to comments made by the late Dennis Wilson, Brian’s brother and the drummer for The Beach Boys, Brian had heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 at some point and was completely floored and humbled. But could he have also heard Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4, a work that finally received its world premiere in 1965, eleven years after the death of its composer, and a work that—all practicality be damned—was trying to redefine the symphony in much the same way that Wilson was attempting to redefine the popular song and the record album?
It would have been impossible for Brian Wilson to escape hearing the theme music for the TV show My Favorite Martian, which also featured Paul Tanner on the electro-theremin. As a Southern California native who knew many session musicians, he was probably also aware of Samuel J. Hoffman, who had recorded on an actual theremin for numerous film soundtracks including Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. But could he have possibly also heard Honegger’s 1935 oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher or Olivier Messiaen’s massive 1948 Turangalîla-Symphonie, both of which use the ondes martinot, another early electronic instrument, similarly to the way Brian eventually used the electro-theremin on “Good Vibrations”? What about John Cage, the composer who completely redefined music, making it more inclusive than anyone else had acknowledged it to be previously? At one point during his work on SMiLE, Brian Wilson considered recording an entire album of various sounds to accompany the album of songs that would make up SMiLE, but this idea never got much beyond the conceptual stage.
Listening with 2011 ears, Brian Wilson’s experiments in 1966 and 1967 seem normative of the kinds of things most interesting musicians in any genre were up to at that point and even tamer than some of them. The blurring of boundaries between musical genres was pretty much commonplace at that time, as was the attitude, however real or imagined, that just about any musical undertaking was somehow an expansion beyond anything that had come before it. In October 1966, John Cage mounted performances of his Variations VII, an all-encompassing live electronic music environment which included the amplification of sounds received from ten telephone lines which had been distributed in locations ranging from lost dog holding rooms at the ASPCA to the press room of The New York Times. By 1966, La Monte Young, now acknowledged as the father of musical minimalism, was exploring extended duration drone installations that lasted for months. In 1966, Meredith Monk gave the first public performance of her music, 16 Millimeter Earrings, a work involving her now signature extended vocal techniques as well as tapes. Across the Atlantic, German serialist-turned-electronic music guru Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose face is among those portrayed on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s proving that they knew who he was) created Hymnen, a Wagnerian two-hour magnetic tape composition based on national anthems from all over the world.
Among the jazz community, John Coltrane was in Japan mesmerizing a live audience with an hour-long interpretation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard “My Favorite Things” in addition to his own expansive compositions. In Chicago, Roscoe Mitchell was joined by fellow members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians on the first recording of his free-form music, a forerunner of the group that would soon be known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. On the East Coast, Cecil Taylor assembled his largest group to date to perform his gnarly atonal charts, and Albert Ayler was terrifying the denizens of the Village Vanguard with his otherworldly skronking. Before Miles Davis pioneered the fusion of jazz and rock in New York, another trumpeter, Los Angeles-based Don Ellis, outfitted the entire trumpet section of his latter-day big band with quarter-tone trumpets, fed his own instrument through a ring modulator, and made quintuple, septimal, and even higher prime-based rhythms sound perfectly natural. Around the same time, a seventeen-year-old trombonist Willie Colón went into the studio to record his first album, El Malo, blending Cuban and Puerto Rican music with jazz and soul, a style that would soon be universally described as salsa. For his score for the motion picture Wait Until Dark, released in October 1967 (but to this day never released on a separate audio soundtrack album), even the then dean of Hollywood composers, Henry Mancini, whose scores were tailor-made to please mainstream tastes, included two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart in his orchestration.
At the same time, rock music seemed equally poised to break beyond listener expectations. Almost every other pop song from that time seems to include either a harpsichord or a sitar or some kind of oddball-sounding electronic manipulation. San Francisco-area bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were already crafting musical statements that went on much longer than three-minute songs, as were groups in England as diverse as Pink Floyd and The Who. Hair, the first evening-length rock musical, debuted on Off-Broadway the same month that Wait Until Dark opened in movie theatres across the country and would move to Broadway the following year. Jimi Hendrix proved the electric guitar could be the vehicle for virtuosity as intense as on any classical or jazz instrument. Even rock’s premier poet-songwriter Bob Dylan (who was a role model to many aspiring wordsmiths at the time, undoubtedly including Van Dyke Parks) released a side-long track, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” on his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. And La Monte Young’s extended drones found their way into rock music via The Velvet Underground, a group whose original line-up included Young’s former musical collaborator John Cale (who several years later recorded a tribute song to Brian Wilson). Groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears would soon be crafting rock albums scored for almost symphonic ensembles. (BS&T’s debut album, released in February 1968, is coincidentally titled Child is Father To The Man, after a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, but its title is also eerily similar to “Child is Father Of The Man,” one of the key songs recorded for SMiLE that had never been officially released.)
Bigger, longer, and stranger was all the rage. While Frank Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention arguably advanced rock music further than anyone else at that time, scores of now-forgotten groups across the country, who sometimes only recorded one single, were making music that sounds even more eccentric. Record collectors to this day scour the bins for these rare, unknown psychedelic rock recordings hoping to track down the ultimate transformative musical experience. What has gone down in history as the breakthrough, however, is The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Soon after its release, everyone seemed to have an artistic response to it, from The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request to even Zappa and The Mothers’ We’re Only in It for the Money. Sgt. Pepper’s—with its eclectic mix of music hall, harpsichord, sitar and tabla, string quartet, and musique concrète—embraced a much larger musical language than most listeners thought possible in rock music. And since they were so famous, it made a statement that everyone heard. The only band that was anywhere near as famous at the time and poised for similar accolades from a broad audience was The Beach Boys. (They, like The Beatles, were even admired by Leonard Bernstein.) Despite how remarkable Sgt. Pepper’s was and still sounds 44 years later, had SMiLE actually been released, that honor probably would have, could have, and should have been accorded to it instead.
Heroes and Villains…
Undeniably the wide proliferation and relatively easy acquisition of a variety of mind-altering substances was part and parcel of the rampant experimentation that seemed ubiquitous in the music of this time. That many of these great ideas could ultimately not be sustained and developed into more substantive efforts is the creative chasm that the abuse of these substances took away from some extremely talented musicians; some fared worse, dying tragically young. Brian Wilson survived but nevertheless was one of drug addiction’s unfortunate casualties.
From Smiley Smile onward, Brian Wilson was no longer the de-facto leader of The Beach Boys. Although he still recorded with them and wrote new songs for them to perform until the early 1980s, he rarely appeared with them in live performance. Some of the subsequent Beach Boys’ albums have some interest, musical or otherwise. (Their 1969 album 20/20 actually includes a song that Brian’s brother Dennis co-wrote with the notorious Charles Manson as a result of Dennis hanging out with the “Family.”) But these efforts overall were rather lackluster compared with the band’s earlier output. Nevertheless, some of these albums occasionally contained a very unusual song which had invariably been intended for SMiLE. The bizarre closer of the December 1967 album Wild Honey, “Mama Said,” was originally created as a break for the SMiLE song “Vege-Tables” (released sans break on Smiley Smile). “Cabin Essence” appeared on 20/20 as “Cabinessence.” A less-than-SMiLE-monumental version of “Surf’s Up,” which Brian Wilson has described as the best song he ever wrote with Van Dyke Parks, served as the title track of a 1971 LP release.
Many of the SMiLE bootlegs that surfaced from the 1980s onward sported some version of the iconic Frank Holmes cover. The cover above, interestingly, does not call attention to the song “Good Vibrations.”
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, a variety of bootlegs of variable sound quality attempted to re-create Brian Wilson’s original SMiLE (based on the printed materials that had survived, such as ads and track lists) using unfinished masters that had leaked, plus the songs that had been released on Smiley Smile and other later Beach Boys albums. By that point in time, The Beach Boys had become mostly a nostalgia act, playing their famous early ‘60s hits for their aging fan-base, and Brian Wilson’s further degeneration and the exploitation of him by a megalomaniacal psychiatrist would occasionally make newspaper headlines.
The cover for the 2004 Nonesuch release Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE does not feature Holmes’s artwork, but nevertheless sports a similar font-style to the original.
Eventually Brian Wilson overcame his demons and embarked on a solo career which over the past decade has put him in the headlines for something other than his personal travails. In a live concert in 2002, he performed the entire Pet Sounds album accompanied by a group of ace players from a band called the Wondermints (and no one from The Beach Boys). Then in 2004, nearly 40 years after its original conception, Brian Wilson completed and performed SMiLE with many of the same players in front of a live audience and also recorded it for, of all labels, Nonesuch Records on an album titled Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. It sold widely and appealed to listeners across generations; iTunes actually describes it as “indie rock,” a genre for which SMiLE indeed is ultimately the progenitor. Mike Love tried to sue Brian Wilson for performing the music without his permission; Love lost. Everyone thought that was the end of the saga, until earlier this year.
I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times…
Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE is a wonderful album, but it is also not quite right. It is not and can never be a substitute for SMiLE, even though it might have originally been intended to be just that. By the time he recorded it in 2004, Brian Wilson was 61 years old and was a completely different person from the seemingly totally possessed (by drug addiction as much as by passion and genius) Brian Wilson who was only 23 years old at the beginning of more than a year of sessions for SMiLE. The young man who attempted to corral his sometimes reluctant brothers, cousin, and other bandmates into going along with his crazy musical ideas got noticeably different results than the Brian Wilson of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, a revered elder statesman whose assembled session musicians were willing and prepared to do every last iota of his bidding. Whereas Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE was the realization of a dream finally come true that came after decades of hardship and a great deal of hindsight, the original SMiLE was an innocent dream filled with youthful naïveté and vulnerability. Admittedly that original dream ultimately turned into a nightmare, but you can never quite dream the same dream again after you wake up.
Perhaps more importantly, the world into which the album Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE was released was a very different world than that of 1967. True, since the beginning of the 21st century there have been tons of people creating album-oriented music that mines the borders of rock and, for lack of a better term, contemporary classical music idioms—e.g. the music of Sufjan Stevens or Joanna Newsom, groups like Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, The Fiery Furnaces, Flaming Lips, My Brightest Diamond, and just about the entire discography of New Amsterdam Records immediately come to mind. And the LP, a format that requires sequential listening from start to finish, has been resurgent. But the zeitgeist (at least according to the pundits who control the spin) favors quick listening fixes packaged in non-corporeal files that get shuffled at the whim of their listeners. This is the antithesis of listening to an album which commands and demands attention for approximately an hour, sometimes longer. The very idea of an album is considered by some members of the my-laptop-contains-my-whole-life generation as needless clutter, the ultimate anachronism, and—perhaps worst of all—a quasi-fascistic attempt to force listeners to listen to what you want them to listen to rather than to rightfully allow them to determine that for themselves. SMiLE, to quote a lyric from Pet Sounds, just wasn’t made for these times.
But that didn’t stop Capitol Records (a subsidiary of EMI) from one-upping Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE by finally releasing on November 1, 2011 The Beach Boys’ actual recordings from the original SMiLE sessions in a variety of packagings, including what is destined to rank among the most lavish boxed sets in record history. For casual listeners, The Smile Sessions has been issued on a single CD or—for those who want to recreate a more authentically 1967 listening scenario—two LPs. This version attempts once and for all to present the album that would have come out back then, and throws in a few additional bonus tracks of out-takes for good measure. (The 2-LP package, like the 1980s vintage Original Jazz Classics reissues of classic Prestige and Riverside albums from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, attempts to eschew anything that might reveal it to be an artifact of now rather than then; it features Capitol’s originally album cover design and even their intended matrix number for it—T 2580—on the side of the sleeve jacket!) But folks wanting a broader context can get a 2-CD deluxe set containing even more out-takes from those sessions which reveal some of the real-time performances from which this music was assembled.
The unshelvable collector’s edition box of The Smile Sessions stands out even in a large record collection.
For die-hard completists, however, Capitol released a massive collector’s edition that comes in a huge box sporting a three-dimensional simulacrum of the original SMiLE album art on its cover. Inside the box are the two LPs, presented as described above, as well as the single CD, giving listeners both options. Plus there are four additional CDs containing all the fragments released in the deluxe set as well as—they claim—every other sliver of audio that survives from those 1966-67 sessions, some of which are as long as eight and a half minutes, others as short as 24 seconds. (It’s actually not everything; a strange track called “George Fell Into His French Horn” which appears on several widely-circulated SMiLE bootlegs is missing.) The box also includes two vinyl 7″s containing what The Beach Boys had intended to release as singles during the time of The Smile Sessions (the songs “Heroes and Villains” and “Vege-Tables”), a poster, and finally a lavish hardcover booklet filled with discographic annotations, essays, lyrics, and photographs taken during the session. The box is approximately three-inches wide and is slightly more than 13 by 13 inches in length and height. It doesn’t quite fit on standard record shelves and calls attention to itself wherever it winds up being put. Its unabashedly unapologetic thing-ness is an object of wonder in our era of non-corporeal sycophancy. The box is not cheap: it comes with a hefty triple-digit price-tag. But if you weren’t aware of SMiLE before reading this essay thus far and you’re still reading it, you’re probably well on your way to becoming a SMiLE enthusiast (or at least I hope so) and you should therefore at least consider the possibility of acquiring the whole thing. (Admittedly, all 144 tracks contained in the five CDs have also been made available as individual mp3s or bundled together as an album at a significantly lower price than the physical box which is yet another option if you completely can’t bear the thought of owning things.) Even if you already own Smiley Smile, or one of the various SMiLE bootlegs that sometimes surfaces in collector’s shops, or even the Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE CD, there will be something new for your ears herein. While SMiLE did not get to be the first piece of album-oriented rock, The Smile Sessions is perhaps poised to be the last (although I hope not).
The Smile Sessions’ attempt to recreate SMiLE is actually extremely convincing and sounds remarkably fresh, even after having heard all the other versions of this material over the years. The transitions from song to song (and the occasional instrumental interlude) feel completely natural, confirming the veracity of the track order of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE which served as a roadmap with the original recordings for The Smile Sessions’ version of SMiLE. (The track order on the back cover of the aborted 1967 LP is of no help since it instructs listeners to see the disc’s label for the correct playing order.) While at times the performances are not as polished as those on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, the occasional pitch or timbre gaffes I perceived make this feel all the more like a real 1960s album by a young rock band, rather than a perfected rendering realized by seasoned professionals.
As soon as the needle drops on the first side of SMiLE, however, it sounds nothing like most rock records. The opening track, “Our Prayer,” is an unaccompanied wordless chorale. The music is reminiscent of Bach and even earlier polyphonists, but the voices are The Beach Boys and there’s something about the music that is vaguely reminiscent of the backing vocal tracks of “Good Vibrations,” a song you would have already undoubtedly had heard before, even if this disc came out in 1967 as planned. Here “Good Vibrations” comes at the very end of the album, so the thematic relationships between the two function as bookends for the record. It isn’t actually terribly different from the way an opening chorale prelude and a final chorale are thematically related to one another in many of the Bach cantatas. However, before you have an opportunity to completely absorb the ethereality of “Our Prayer” something very down-to-earth occurs as soon as it ends: an almost scat-like coda (separately tracked herein and called “Gee”) which leads directly to “Heroes and Villains.”
On Smiley Smile, “Heroes and Villains” is a remarkable chain of somewhat unrelated fragments which baffle and amaze for sheer audacity. (“Good Vibrations”—however remarkable—sounds like just a warm up compared to this modular collage of different instrumentations and textures.) Here it also baffles and amazes, but even more so because all the disparate fragments somehow fit together. They actually fit together even more cleanly on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, but perhaps there they fit together too cleanly. “Do You Like Worms” (a.k.a. “Roll Plymouth Rock”) flows directly out of “Heroes and Villains,” continuing and further developing some of the same musical material.
“I’m In Great Shape,” “Barnyard,” and “My Only Sunshine” (a.k.a. “The Old Master Painter” / “You Are My Sunshine”) all come off as somewhat fragmentary, but seamlessly flow into one another and feel like harbingers of the much longer, subsequent “Cabin Essence.” Next up is “Wonderful” which is a truly beautiful song, with some great harpsichord riffs, that deserves to be a standard in its own right. But what follows is perhaps more awe inducing: “Look (for the Children)” and “Child is the Father Of The Man” form a completely integrated two-movement exploration of counterpoint and elaborate orchestration.
“Surf’s Up,” whose title seems a throwback to early Beach Boys fare, turns out to be nothing of the sort. It contains some of the most perplexing lyrics in the entire album, such as “columnated ruins domino,” and the leaps and disjointed rhythms of the melody Brian Wilson created to match Van Dyke Parks’s words is perhaps the most difficult thing he ever composed. In almost every other version I have heard of this song over the years, it never quite comes off. Particularly jarring for me has always been the setting of the following lines:
The glass was raised, the fired-roast,
The fullness of the wine. A dim last toasting.
In the various bootlegs of this I had previously heard, as well as the only official previously released version by The Beach Boys (on the 1971 album Surf’s Up), the group doesn’t quite sound together during those lines. And on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, though the ensemble is spot clean, Brian’s diction is somewhat garbled. Yet on the recording included for these Smile Sessions’ completed SMiLE, it all comes off without a hitch. It’s a musical miracle that alone justifies acquiring this recording. (Test this yourself: on the recordings of “Surf’s Up” that appear on both Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE and the first CD of The Smile Sessions, this line occurs from 2:06 to 2:10.)
Then comes a brief, somewhat jazz-tinged instrumental accompanied by various sounds of hammers and other tools (“I Wanna Be Around” / “Workshop”), another of the album’s more experimental tracks. I wish it would have been longer, but I’ll take what I can get. Then comes the delightfully goofy song “Vege-Tables,” a song about the joys of eating vegetables containing a variety of appropriate sound effects worthy of the Vienna-based Vegetable Orchestra (which would not be founded until 1998). The inclusion of the song’s original break (the aforementioned “Mama Said” found on Wild Honey) is the only immediately discernible difference here from the song as it appeared on Smiley Smile (under the less typographically obtuse title “Vegetables”). The brief track called “Holidays” which follows foreshadows a melodic motif that will later re-appear as a countermelody in “Good Vibrations”; it also serves as a prelude to “Wind Chimes.” The arrangement of “Wind Chimes”—which is much the same as the versions on various SMiLE bootlegs, as well as on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE—features some really nice mallet percussion. But for me it is one of the few instances where I actually prefer the less elaborate arrangement that was released on Smiley Smile. There it’s a sparse and somewhat creepy sounding track featuring vocals by brother Carl Wilson who whispers and at times clearly strains as he attempts to sing the tune Brian had composed for his own voice.
“The Elements: Fire” (a.k.a. “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”) is another peculiar instrumental with occasional wordless vocals. It was supposed to have been one of the movements of a four-movement Elements Suite that Brian eventually abandoned. Again, it shows a level of compositional and performance sophistication that few listeners are aware this group was capable of. Then another short fragment, “Love To Say Dada,” leads into the concluding “Good Vibrations,” a track which admittedly is difficult to listen to with fresh ears. But despite how extraordinary, as well as famous, “Good Vibrations” is and how some of its inner vocal lines parallel SMiLE’s opener, “Our Prayer,” which make it a fitting bookend for the entire album, it doesn’t quite sound right to me as the closing track. Brian Wilson was actually worried back in 1966 that “Good Vibrations” didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the album, even though it was created in much the same way and contains thematic allusions to other SMiLE songs. He asked Van Dyke Parks to write a new set of words for it (perhaps triggering the overall antipathy of Mike Love toward SMiLE), but Parks refused and the version with Love’s lyrics was released as an advance single. At one point, Brian tried to cut it from SMiLE, but it was so popular after it was released that Capitol Records insisted it stay on the album, so he opted to put it at the very end. But perhaps the fact that it doesn’t quite work as a finale to Brian Wilson’s sprawling sonic landscape leaves SMiLE perpetually sounding incomplete, which perhaps makes following it with tons of out-takes from those sessions the best of all possible worlds. The completed SMiLE fills three LP sides and a three-sided record would have been unthinkable in 1967. (Such things inevitably happened later on, perhaps most notably Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1975 The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color!) So even the LPs include some out-takes. And, as stated above, the CDs include (almost) every last one of them.
These bonus tracks are admittedly, for the most part, not the kind of things that will wind up in heavy rotation even on my playlist, with the possible exception of a wonderful jazz jam involving some of the session musicians but ironically not Brian Wilson or any other of The Beach Boys, here named “I Wanna Be Around” most likely because some of it, or some other version of it, later was used as one of the ingredients in the aforementioned unusual SMiLE album track “I Wanna Be Around” / “Workshop”. But listening to every one of these fragments is revelatory nevertheless. There’s almost an entire disc devoted to various scraps that became “Heroes and Villains” and another collecting the bits and pieces from which Brian Wilson assembled “Good Vibrations” (though only about an hour’s worth, as opposed to the 80 hours that were said to have been originally recorded). These musical shards offer up many of the secrets of Brian Wilson’s recording processes, his aspirations, and his attempts (not always successful) to realize what he was hearing in his head with physical musicians in real time—there was no written score for any of this music and remember, in 1966 and 1967, there were no computer consoles and no ProTools. That more than 80% of the deluxe collector’s edition of this never-completed album is devoted to unfinished pieces of songs is perhaps the most appropriate way for this record to finally enter the official discography.
I Wanna Be Around…
At least in my own home, the faux-1967 SMiLE LPs from The Smile Sessions have taken their rightful place on my wall of vinyl alongside the music of Bartók, Count Basie, The Beatles, and everyone else.
So will the release of The Smile Sessions and its carefully reassembled reconstruction of the lost SMiLE album finally earn Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys the same pride of place in American music history held by other great innovators like, say, Ives, Gershwin, Cage, Coltrane, James Brown, etc.? Sadly, probably not. But this has more to do with the vagaries of reception history than with actual history.
For many people, The Beach Boys will always be perceived as a light-hearted party band that drooled over “California Girls” while on a “Surfing Safari.” That image of the group has not been helped by the endless recycling of their greatest hits on recording compilations, their latter-day cover-band-version-of-their-former-selves concert appearances, and the lasting presence of these early songs as the soundtracks for countless commercials over the years encouraging revelers to have some “Summer Fun.”
I personally can’t remember the first time I had heard The Beach Boys. Their early pop hits were all around since before I was born, seemed ubiquitous when I was growing up, and have remained with us ever since. The first time I seriously thought about The Beach Boys was back in 1983 when a political brouhaha erupted after then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watt cancelled an appearance by them at the National Mall claiming that their music encouraged drug use and alcoholism. Watt subsequently apologized after then Vice President George H.W. Bush claimed that The Beach Boys were his friends and that he liked their music, and then President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan claimed they were also Beach Boys fans. After all, they were the all-American band; what was Watt thinking? Maybe James Watt had heard Smiley Smile or knew about the Manson Family connection. Perhaps he even knew about SMiLE.
I did not, so I couldn’t stop wondering why this wholesome—and to my mind innocuous—music had triggered such a strong reaction from a mainstream social conservative since the music of The Beach Boys seemed to me to be everything that interesting rock music was rebelling against. They were not counterculture rebels; he was picking on the wrong guys, hence the embarrassing apology. Then I read Paul Griffiths’s book, ostensibly to learn more about Stockhausen, and wound up reading about Smiley Smile. I tracked down a then out-of-print LP. It blew my mind. It truly was revolutionary. I gradually picked up their earlier recordings—if they had made something this interesting, the seeds for it had to exist in their earlier work. I became more open to those early songs; there are a lot of interesting voicings in the music that accompanies even the most insipidly worded narrative about meeting pretty girls at the beach. I even fell in love with their 1964 Christmas Album, which I pull off my shelves and spin every December without fail. Eventually I tracked down Pet Sounds, which to this day I think contains some of the most hauntingly beautiful music ever recorded. But then I learned that there was other music that Brian Wilson created in between Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile, music that was supposedly the most advanced music Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys had ever done. In an era before the internet, I scoured libraries and used record shops for more information, tracking down articles, and eventually a couple of bootlegs of attempts at reconstructing SMiLE, both of which sported the album’s planned Frank Holmes illustrated cover. I became one of those arcane musical cognoscenti, talking about the album whenever the subject of 1960s rock came up, or even whenever people talked about stylistic fusions between musical genres. To me, all the latter-day folks who thought that they were creating a new kind of music by fusing all of these disparate elements together were merely going down the path that Brian Wilson tried to take music to. But now, thanks to this ostentatious boxed set (or even one of the less complete manifestations of it now currently available from Capitol Records), you can be taken there as well.
Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Dec 8, 2011
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