Jimy SeiTang (Stygian Stride, Rhyton, Psychic Ills): Interview
“I’m fascinated by the performer-audience concept; am I supposed to give you everything, or are you compelled enough to ask me questions and have me answer you?”
Brooklyn electronic musician and composer Jimy SeiTang is primarily known for his work these days as bassist in the psychedelic improvisational trio Rhyton, with string multi-instrumentalist David Shuford and drummer Spencer Herbst. He also was prominent in the 2008-10 iteration of Psychic Ills as an electronic wizard. SeiTang’s solo work is now available on record for the first time under the Stygian Stride alias, which was recently released on LP by estimable Chicago label Thrill Jockey.
SeiTang sat down with TMT in late January to discuss his solo music, the world of analog electronic music and sound, and his evolution from string and contrabass dedicatee to Krautrock-inspired avant-garde juggernaut.
We were talking about your transition from ensemble to solo music. Could you talk about that a bit?
Coming from the Psychic Ills thing, I was entrenched in this place with an ability to explore keyboards and synthesizers, sequencers, and drum-machines. When I started making solo music I was no longer with the Ills and was playing with Rhyton, and I’d left the Ills because they wanted to go back to a basic rock vibe.
Right, because the Ills recordings you’re on are a lot more drone-y. I can actually see them as being of a piece with Rhyton and what you’re doing now.
It’s out of that world, it’s ethereal for sure, and what I was trying to do with the Ills was to bring in a synergistic, organic electronic element. At that moment, I hadn’t seen a current band that could pull off a standard rock format with competent electronics. Often it’s a rock band with a keyboard player who may not really know how to use those instruments. So what I wanted to do was meld competency in electronic music with the rock ‘thing.’ In the past there were bands - mostly European - who could pull that off really well. That’s what I wanted to do, and because the Ills wanted to do something more rock-oriented, I left… Then, I asked myself whether I should try to integrate this with Rhyton or whether I should try to do something entirely by myself.
It seems like that element is emerging in Rhyton also.
Yes, but not through my genesis - it’s the collective understanding, and however that comes out is its own entity too. I would like to use that in an improvisatory sense; a lot of electronic music is very premeditated, and it’s predictable or sequenced mathematically. Patterns and so forth - you know? I wanted to explore it and beautify it, in a way that would be more organic, not the sort of ProTools environment. Why couldn’t we use generated sound-waves from these instruments? That’s organic; sound waves are everywhere; you can’t see them, but they’re everywhere. Vibrations are everywhere; why isn’t there a way to combine a compositional format with electronics and create songs? Rock musicians often use electronics in a way that isn’t competent and it’s noisy, and people accept that as the way to make music. I had a lot of difficulty trying to figure that out, and part of what I wanted to do with the Ills was develop these ideas. Part of my own baggage was that I didn’t know what to do with these ideas - it didn’t fit with Rhyton.
But you were brought into these bands for a certain reason, I’m assuming. They knew what you were about.
Yeah, exactly, but I’m saying that I wasn’t able to fully realize this part of myself until now. I’ve always had an extreme love for people who do soundtracks, like Vangelis, Goblin, Allan Holdsworth, John Carpenter - movies in which the sound is on par with the visual elements. History has shown over and over again that when you have a sick soundtrack and a sick movie, that’s something. At that point in my life the Ills were in discussion about doing something like that, which was nixed when the direction of the band shifted, and coming out of that I’d had all this research I wanted to share and nobody to share it with. I’d spent so much time rethinking and defining this music, and how was I going to put it down so that it was right?
What is the timeline for this work?
This was 2009-10, and in 2010 we did the Rhyton sessions, and in February 2011 I did the Stygian Stride record in Jason Meagher’s Black Dirt Studio. It was really cold, I remember that, and I decided I wanted to do something for myself. I’d never really thought of myself in the same vein as Klaus Schulze, Vangelis, Holdsworth, Jean-Michel Jarre - they are singular world-crafters, their music is complete when they play it. In essence I came to understand how to approach a singular way of music making. In the past, for me, making music like that was difficult because it was like talking to yourself - you have no bounce-back, I wasn’t being pushed or pulled like you would be with another human being. So I realized that I could do that with these instruments because they have their own personalities. I’m the sequencer-arranger-mediator with these instruments. I love the concepts and I wanted to find a place for them.
Leaving the Ills was difficult; I had to find pieces that would reflect those feelings then, now, and in the future. That’s how I came up with the songs - especially “Hindsight,” which was a lot about that, you know. Your vision is always 20/20 in hindsight, and that music reflects my experiences cathartically without feeling bad. I knew I’d be bitter if I didn’t take these ideas and do something with them.
So your departure from the Ills - was it acrimonious?
It was kind of rough for me. It wasn’t the way I left the Ills that frustrated me the most, it was the direction that the music was taking. The music is king, and that’s impossible to turn away from. But all things happen for a reason, and ultimately it was Rhyton that helped me to move forward and get me back on my own feet.
So you might have taken a more extended break had you not joined up with Rhyton?
No, not at all. I’d jammed with Dave [Shuford] a couple of times before the Ills went on tour with the Butthole Surfers, and that was the tour that kind of complicated things. Five weeks on the road is difficult. Normally you get back and take a break and you’re on your feet, but that wasn’t the case. Anyway, I had started playing bass with Rhyton but I didn’t want to approach it like a traditional bass player; I was listening to a lot of Throbbing Gristle and aggressive sound and noise, trying to get away from rock music and give myself some distance. It’s easy to get comfortable and you play what you know will get other people off, and that’s not what I wanted to do any more.
It’s funny you were mentioning Vangelis and Allan Holdsworth before, because they both disowned their more avant-garde recordings - Vangelis with [drummer] Tony Oxley, and Holdsworth with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. People always end up doing things outside the perceived expectations of their audience, and that goes for independent and underground music, too.
It’s like Klaus Schulze being a drummer in Ash Ra Tempel to what he’s known for today, which is very different. You use the wealth of your ability and your understanding of things in the world, and you can’t be afraid to translate that. When I did this music I wasn’t even sure if it was good; Jason [Meagher] was like the Conny Plank of Black Dirt and he was an active participant in the music. One of the ideas I’d had about this music was to use Jason in that role; I was listening to a lot of Cluster and early Kraftwerk, all the Eno/Moebius/Rodelius stuff. I even listened to the poppy things that Plank did, like the first Eurythmics record.
I’d forgotten Plank did that. I also think of him recording free jazz, like Alexander von Schlippenbach and Peter Brötzmann, experimental stuff like Wired, and things like that.
Totally - I was listening to Iggy Pop and the Berlin trilogy and thinking how rock music could meld with the German industrial sound world, also what Eno was doing around that time. The English and Continental sound worlds are so distinct, and when they are combined, what was the result? I wanted to figure out that sort of cross-pollination for my own music.
You’ve talked about the importance of technique before, but when I listen to this record, I’m thinking more along the lines of texture.
Right, but you have to have technique to make those textures happen. Synthesizers are machines - it’s not like a stringed instrument, but there is an intuitive vibe you can get from them. It’s a box that just sits there until you do something with it.
How did you start working with electronic instruments? How did you begin to translate your own string playing to electronic music?
That all started with the Ills; Tres pulled the Neil Young on Nils Lofgren thing - Nils wanted to play rhythm guitar and Neil had him play piano on After the Gold Rush. He did that and he made it great; he went beyond his instrument and used his musicality. A lot of artists are good but their identity as a musician ends up being the instrument they play.
The identity of the musician regardless is what’s interesting.
Yeah, sure, but a lot of musicians base everything on what they play and how they present that to the outside world. When I began playing with the Ills it was a challenge that I was able to transform into something of my own. I transcended what was normal and safe for me, in music, and tried to find out how to understand the concepts of the synthesizer on my own terms.
I remember doing juries and they’d always be violin or viola professors, and they would always tell me I was too swinging - I thought it was a criticism that I was too loose and I needed to be more rigid. I spent like six hours a day trying to figure out how to do that, and then realized I had something that was good, and that I had to utilize it.
So you hadn’t worked with electronics at all before the Ills?
I’d played piano and I knew the keyboard format, but the whole system-operating thing - how the ring modulator and the envelope work, the pulse wave, sawtooth and square wave - all that language I didn’t know. I remember I was working with some synthesizer stuff, and I was very frustrated trying to understand this shit, and I had an epiphany and realized that the machine and its operating system are like a body. It’s your mouth, your fingers, your breath. With a stringed instrument, you dig deeper and your bodily actions reflect that. You don’t think about how to do it - it’s part of you. Doing these physical adjustments on a guitar, it’s like - you want to hit harder? Hit harder. With a machine like this, you can’t do that.
You have to transliterate it from the body into something else.
Into sound-wave manipulation, basically. It’s not digital; you shape a sound wave electronically. I tried to understand early synthesizers and researched Morton Subotnick and all the experimental synth stuff while I was with the Ills - Laurie Spiegel, I relate to her very well because she is a classical musician and her way of looking at the instrument is similar to mine. It’s about how to adjust the language. This was it - all of the parts I had here were just as if I was playing the guitar; changing my hand position would result in different sounds and so forth. That was an epiphany. I’m still learning, but at least now I have a place that I can sit and hold onto it. Before, I would get frustrated because I’d make a sound, leave it alone, and I couldn’t figure out how to come back to it. I wanted to be able to consistently repeat things.
But that’s hard with any instrument as you’re learning - whether it’s a saxophone, a bass, or a guitar. Like, I used to play the cello, so…
With cello, vibrato is easy - you’re taught that every note should have vibrato, and it’s pretty simple to vibrate with the roll of a hand. Telling a machine how to do that is entirely different - making these actions into electronic commands is another thing.
There’s a gestural memory you have with other instruments.
Yeah, and there’s no muscle memory in playing synthesizers - there’s no, “Oh, if I do this, it’ll make this happen.” It’s all about the waveform and where it is. You can actually hear it when it’s cold - it’s brittle and sounds rigid. In a heated room it’s smooth and round. You can hear that sound; it’s subtle, but it’s there.
That’s why analog and digital electronic music sound so different.
Exactly. The way that the sound waves move, the pixilation with zeroes and ones doesn’t allow for the human curve that we desire. When you take a tuning fork and put it in water and see the vibrations, that’s real. When you see that, it’s fascinating. When I was a kid I loved that stuff. When I realized how to play the upright bass, my freshman year of college, I got really into free improvisation. To this day I remember being told that the upright was a huge box of air, and you have things that vibrate and move - when I heard it put that way it changed everything about how I hear bass music to this day. It’s not just about technique and how many changes you can play through. Those are good to know and are important, but not something to obsess about. I feel like the freest musicians are the one who can play the most standard ballads - knowing the “box” allows you to play the furthest outside of it.
One of the reasons that it was good to play with the Ills for me was that my classical training allowed me to understand how to play with form and order, so it was easier to make disorder. I knew exactly what order was so I could go in the extreme opposite direction. I feel like the best free artists are the most disciplined - if you are uncontrolled, then it’s not open-ended. You have to have discipline because it allows you to understand where you are and you’ll be more effective. There are so many cases with free improvisers where they aren’t even really improvising - they’re just waiting for something else to happen. The best improvisers know how to take the bull by the horns. Now I’m very into prime electric Miles Davis - Get Up With It, Dark Magus, Agharta, and Pangaea. Al Foster, Michael Henderson - that kind of vibe is so important, and a lot of it is live, which is crazy.
It’s very orchestrated while being free and dense.
At times, it just sounds like one big instrument - the horns, the bass, the organs, and the drums sound like one cohesive thing. It’s one sound.
There’s a lot of detail within it, too, though.
But that’s where the beauty lies. I was really pushing that with the Ills - that was something that hadn’t been achieved in this setting. I was trying to find things that were unique in music that I could bring to this setting aggressively enough that it would make a difference. It’s a risk - but maybe that’s who I am in general. I like to take risks as an artist, and I don’t want everything to be controlled. It’s easy to be jaded if you know too much - one has to have the balance of knowledge and intuition. All good musicians have that. If you have too much technique you’ll just be progging out, nerding out. But you also have to groove; as much as some people disassociate themselves from that, it’s an essential component to music making. Whether it’s miniscule or massive, groove makes music move. I don’t want to sound cheesy but it’s true.
With Rhyton that’s definitely there.
Well, with any music, even the freest stuff has a movement to it. It doesn’t have to be like R&B. As long as it has a cycle that repeats itself in some way that makes sense and propels the music.
Right, if you listen to drummers like Sunny Murray or John Stevens, they swing even if the music is diffuse.
So that’s the thing with making that music for me - it was about trying to figure out these little things that I brought upon to do with the Ills. Now that I had a new skill, what would I do with it? I’d proven myself and felt I had to make the record. It also brought my identity out - I could understand myself a little better; the music was sometimes a little scary to make because I didn’t know what was going to happen. Now I feel like I can associate myself with the music I really like, and I know that I can make something like that and most importantly, it’s made me feel like I can make more of this music in the future.
Was it finished two years ago, or were you tweaking it a lot over time?
It was basically finished in May 2012. We did like two mixing sessions and that was it; then I shopped it around. I remember when I finished it, I thought maybe it was too ambitious to send it to Thrill Jockey right away, so I shopped it around and other labels weren’t interested or couldn’t do it right away. I was talking to Dave and asked him if Bettina [Richards, of Thrill Jockey] would check it out; I sent it to her and she casually mentioned at dinner that she’d like to put it out, which was surprising. That’s when things came together. Now I’m thinking on concepts that I’d like to go deeper into for the next record.
A lot of electronic music is very premeditated, and it’s predictable or sequenced mathematically. Patterns and so forth - you know? I wanted to explore it and beautify it, in a way that would be more organic, not the sort of ProTools environment.
Like what would be an example?
For me it’ll be more of trying to understand the electronic elements and take them further, that’s all.
Do you play bass on the record or is it strictly electronic?
It’s entirely electronic - synthesizers, keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers. The next record I might add the drum element into it - if you listen to a lot of what I’m influenced by, that’s a part of it. That will make it propulsive.
It does have a flow, though.
Yeah, but to add live drums - it’s very hard to pull off because the drummer is always chasing the machine, and the drummer has to be on the hunt, on a marathon going forever. That’s always been around in rock, and when you do that in electronic music, the machine almost has a man in it. It’s so easy to dismiss electronics as being lifeless and dead; fixed, you know - when you’re talking about analog oscillators, they get out of tune all the time and they’re different depending on the temperature, so that’s one thing that a lot of artists don’t deal with correctly. That, for me, comes from having played acoustic instruments, and when you’re an acoustic player, from hall to hall and room to room your instrument will change. You have to understand that your responsibility is to make up the difference at all times. It was always strange to me how people didn’t understand how to compensate for that with their instruments - if the room is cold, the wood’s going to contract. If you haven’t practiced, your embouchure is weak. All that contributes to the final output, and I’ve always thought that as a musician, it was part of the job description.
Being sensitive to that as an electronic musician is interesting, and I can tell you that I hadn’t thought about it before.
I spent a lot of time trying to come to terms with it - I had to, because if I didn’t I would’ve delved deep into this baggage without unloading it properly. It’s become a new road of discovery; sometimes you have to dig deep to find some good stuff. It can’t be so easy or trivial - most good art doesn’t come from that. It’s a struggle and it’s got to be something you want to learn and be committed to. I remember that year when I was making the record, I was invested in it and made sure I knew everything I possibly could without going nuts.
How would you do the music live?
That’s where I’m at now - I never intended it to be live, but the way I would conceive it is how Miles did in that middle period. He had a jam that he had sketched out; we’ve got a box and we can’t deviate from that, but what happens inside of it is what happens.
He had a very codified style of orchestration from his horn. It’s gestural and from the trumpet; the ensemble is following those moves in a horizontal, allover manner.
What made a big impact on me was reading a Keith Jarrett interview from that time; Miles brought him in and told him not to play piano, but keyboard. I understood that I had to force myself to be a little uncomfortable. Miles trusted his musicality enough that he would wrestle it and figure it out. Sometimes you have to push yourself and have others push you.
Going back to the live thing, now I have to think about it, and I’m not going to focus on note-for-note recreation, but a vibe, a gist, and make something that’s easier to digest live and also easier to play. I might bring in one other person [Rob Smith was on drums for the album release show at Brooklyn’s Death By Audio], but I still think I can do it all myself. I also feel that the shows I want to do going forward are going to be the template for the next record. I want the listener to be interested in what I’m doing now enough to follow where I’m going. I’m fascinated by the performer-audience concept; am I supposed to give you everything, or are you compelled enough to ask me questions and have me answer you? I think a lot of Miles’ anti-crowd vibe was that he wanted to get an emotion from that.
But that’s real-time arrangement, and he’s directing the band spatially.
I don’t think that the concepts I’ve had are that crazy - they’ve lied dormant until it made sense to bring them out for other people. This record has opened another door for me in that I have the ability to make this music happen. I’d love to do some film scoring, for example.
I saw that film teaser you had for “Drift.” Is there more?
Yeah, there’s another one for “Taiga” and there’s actually an event that happens with that. We actually left the music video open-ended to evoke (hopefully) the response of wanting more, which is good. I collaborated with a good friend from college who did videos for Psychic Ills; he does a lot of video work, and he’s always been the visual outlet for a lot of this stuff. That is also key to what the project is all about - the work is important, but it has to be good enough to stand alone. Musicians want visuals but often it’s run-of-the-mill stuff with nothing going on, and I wanted to do something more than that - the music is actually set to something active in the film, they’re not separate or abstracted from one another. We’ve got enough of that going on already.
There are a lot of interesting film-music collaborations - Stan Brakhage and James Tenney, for example.
Actually, my inspiration was Florian Fricke’s (Popol Vuh) relationship with Werner Herzog. That, to me, is the template. That’s what the tune “Fade into Bolivian” is a reference to, as a cross-reference to Aguirre and Mike Tyson - Tyson said that in an interview when he meant to say “fade into oblivion.” Is he fading or is he emerging? That drone in the last piece is heavily influenced by that kind of madness.
Of course, in Aguirre the funny thing is the madder Kinski gets, the clearer the film becomes.
Exactly, that’s exactly it. The descent is actually an ascent, and the more you’re into this level of craziness, the more holy and pure it gets. I feel like a lot of artists don’t take the time to do this - it takes too long and it’s risky, and they don’t have control. It’s hard to come to terms with, and I think in the past a lot of musicians relied on nature to see this through.
I think musicians and artists aren’t always able to deal with time correctly. Being able to trust in the evolution of one’s work over a long period of time doesn’t really exist very often today.
For me, that’s what it’s all about - as obsessive as I am about the artists I’m into, what I like to do most is trace their evolution. What took them from this place to that place? You can hear the progression naturally with really interesting artists. When someone does a big, weird jump, it’s suspect - you should just let it happen.
As in Chick Corea, moving from Blue Mitchell to Anthony Braxton to Return to Forever.
Well, that was Scientology.
Yeah, we know that now - I don’t think it was as obvious then. And he’s still a respected musician and composer. There’s no doubt he’s an excellent artist, even if some of his ideas became corny.
Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul could have been on the same path - they were acoustic piano players that went into the realm of electronics. That was another thing I realized, my synthesizers predated a lot of things, and that goes back to the bass, which was my entryway into the 1970s jazz-rock fusion. I remember I was always mesmerized watching Zawinul play live with Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine, and Alex Acuña. He’s surrounded by a bank of synthesizers - when I was 12 or 13, watching those concert films I thought that shit was crazy. He looked like he was in a space station - two Arps, a Rhodes, a piano - it’s a world of sounds. I began to understand his thinking - things that influenced me growing up weren’t just around the bass.
When did you start playing electric bass?
I was in eighth grade, but I did one of those things where as soon as I found the beauty of the upright, I ditched the electric - once I found out about Scott La Faro and Paul Chambers, that was it. I begged and begged - originally I wanted to play cello because I love Bach so much. It’s like a mechanized time machine, those cello suites - they’re so ingrained in my mind. I had to learn one of them for bass in college for a recital, and there’s the whole thing with bass players where you can transcribe the cello suites down or at pitch, in which you play the bass in a high register with all sorts of crazy finger and bridge positions, coupled with the intense bowing you have to do. It’s crazy. If you’re gifted, that’s commitment - learning the cello suites, they are swinging and I remember my bass teacher would always tell me I swung too much. I was down on myself for that, but it was the beginning of my understanding that technique wasn’t the endgame. There are some innate gifts that aren’t technique-based, and I have a lot of those. To be able to recall feel over and over again is not easy to do. I remember doing juries and they’d always be violin or viola professors, and they would always tell me I was too swinging - I thought it was a criticism that I was too loose and I needed to be more rigid. I spent like six hours a day trying to figure out how to do that, and then realized I had something that was good, and that I had to utilize it.
It’s funny because when you listen to Janos Starker’s Kodaly or Bach cello suites, he’s actually not as rigid and that’s what’s great about him. Those performances have got personality.
Pablo Casals versus Yo-Yo Ma, versus Mstislav Rostropovich, or Pierre Fournier, Gregor Piatigorsky, they’ve all got a different approach. I remember being in high school and watching the Beethoven trios with Piatigorsky, Jascha Heifetz, and William Primrose, and they’re so in sync. Everyone’s notes start and end at the same place, their ability to lock in is very different from rock - it’s grander. They’re lifting, beginning and ending at the same time.
Gesture in classical music versus jazz or rock is codified in an entirely different way, though.
That understanding is ingrained from an early age - there’s a section leader, you look at the principal, the stand partner. That has made me able to be the improviser that I am - knowing how to read between the lines when the music is being played. There are very subtle things that are happening while you’re playing the music. Otherwise, you’re lost - you literally feel naked because you missed something and it’s very apparent. Everybody knows it - you’ve got to stay in line. When you’re in the groove, though, it builds and it’s lovely. I feel like a lot of that intimacy, knowing how to play chamber music, is very important.
What translates to you as a solo composer and musician, as far as what you’ve learned from chamber music?
A lot of that is in the arranging, and my now-developing relationship with arrangement. I had never thought of myself that way and I’ve realized that you can be subtle to that effect. Miles could look at you and change the whole vibe.
That’s arranging, in a sense.
It is and it isn’t - how that translates to solo performance is understanding how to build the music up and act like an orchestral conductor. You need to know when to bring in the strings or push the brass out, but you have to be responsible with that sort of power. You’re bestowed with an opportunity - you’re the one that’s pushing the buttons.