"Ornette Coleman playing on Soft
Machine's Fourth in hell." That's how my friend Zach described Talibam!
upon first hearing them, and yes, he was paying them a compliment. He also gave
a nice quick 'n' dirty version of what this NYC threesome is all about. Like
Coleman's work with Prime Time, Talibam!'s songs fan out and strive to break
free of idioms and constraints without losing their ear for beauty or the
"natural;' as ballsy as their pan-stylistic maneuvering may be, it's never
counterintuitive or forced. And the band's setup – drums (Kevin Shea),
synthesizer (Matthew Mottel), and saxophone (Ed Bear) – seems like the ideal
launching pad for proggoid ambition, but like Wyatt-era Soft Machine, Talibam!
justify their every pretension. Toss in the array of pedals and other sound
manipulating devices through which Bear's sax and Mottel's synth (which often
sounds more like an organ) are filtered, and you've got the hell part of the
equation. Their self-titled CD-R on Evolving Ear, released late last year, shows
that these guys have the finesse to get maximum mileage from their mayhem, too,
never regurgitating its ideas or petering out, even as its songs hedge towards
the unwieldy. On each of that album's three tracks, the band remains firmly in
control, communicating effectively even when the signals are most jammed and
I was able to talk with the band via e-mail after seeing them play two vibrant,
full-throttle sets in Athens on their last tour. Their words further elucidate
that which their music suggests: that Talibam!'s brand of shitstorm skronk is
grounded in more intelligent thought and dynamic group exchange than many of the
more hyped transmissions from the contemporary American "noise' underground.
How did Talibam! come about?
Matthew Mottel: I first became aware of Kevin Shea through a zine called Tuba
Frenzy, which was a heavy magazine in the late '90s. There was a Storm &
Stress interview, which, typically, only featured Ian. But he talked about this
amazing free jazz drummer in New York named Kevin Shea. I'm from New York and
had played with lots of other great drummers in town like Michael Evans, Sean
Meehan, Chris Corsano, Tim Barnes, etc, but none of those folks seemed too
interested in forming a group that would be a regular band. Then Kevin and I got
paired up on a free jazz gig in 2003 by saxophonist Ras Moshe. I was just about
through with college at the time and wanted to move back to New York City. We
ripped together and then it happened from there. We then met Ed at a gig a year
or so later and he added the extra wollop we were looking for.
Kevin Shea: It's like when I read Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum or
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson - at some point the fetish with semiotics
and cryptography escapes me, bores me. The masked-commercial writing yearns for
something more, something intellectual. Codes and signs are a default, albeit
questionable, way to achieve intellectual value. In contrast, Ulysses is
a long book, yet Joyce doesn't resort to an amassing cabbalistic tangent to
force an ever pointless inductive reasoning. James Joyce's
usage/manipulation/commentary on language/narrative/form/etc. doesn't patronize
you by petting your soft, cute little brain. Ulysses, rather, lets you
feel challenged/inspired through its humor, questioning and epiphanies of ideas
usually left behind by clichéd language/method. When I first played with Matt, I
felt this type of humor and questioning. Ed furthered these Ulysses-ismal
Ed Bear: I just saw them play and thought we would sound good together.
What other projects are you all involved in?
MM: Ed and I have a duo when our drum slut can't play called Clouds Crossing.
That's a fun band because it gets deeper into timbre and wail rather than full
percussive blast. We have a CD-R out on a tiny label called Durable Stimuli. I
also play in an ensemble with Cooper-Moore, who is one of the heaviest free jazz
older dudes around. That band also has Nioko Workman, who is a cello player.
Besides that NYC is the place to be to hang with other great musicians and
improvise and feed off each other's sonic abilities. I play in a lot of pick up
KS: I play with a bunch of bands, and within that bunch of bananas Talibam! is
unique. I want to be compassionate to the sonic identity of each band by trying
to develop a different approach on the drums for each band. I don't want to
collaborate with the bands by using indistinguishable methods. This highlights
the players - Matt and Ed both have inimitable approaches to their instruments
and to music. There are plenty of great players with technical chops and
versatility - but for me, also playing with people who are developing their own
language on their instrument, and with music, is invaluable. I have info about
some of the other bands I play in – like Coptic Light, People (both of whom had
debut releases within the past few months), Sexy Thoughts, Puttin' On The Ritz,
Storm and Stress, Moppa Elliott's Mostly Other People Do The Killing, etc. – at
EB: I've been playing solo shows under the name Ron Lessard for years but have
only produced written material for them this last year, so I've worked to keep
that growing. I'm adapting my favorite Ravel violin and cello sonata (opus 23)
for bari sax, bass clarinet, and electronics, with hope of performing it in a
context that would care. The short list of semi-regular bands I'm in (all
free-noise or hamburger-lady industrial): Titlantis, Auf Fetusehen, Cloister,
Crotch Blossom, Bear Flowers, and Retarded Music Ensemble. I'm expanding my
electrics know-how and birthing an analog video artist, some of which will
appear on our............(to be continued).
What kind of listening and playing background do you guys come from?
MM: I got spoiled growing up in New York City. I was seeing Sonic Youth gigs
when I was 15 like every other kid in USA, but was able to explore much deeper.
I started interning at the Knitting Factory a year later and pretty much from 16
to 22 I was hearing music almost every night if I could. I volunteered at the
Vision Festival for four years. I was in the front row for every John Zorn gig,
saw TEST play on the subway every week, hung out at No-Neck shows in their loft
in Harlem when I was 17, saw John Fahey there... As far as playing goes, I had
classical piano lessons until I was 12 or 13 and then gave it up because my
teacher killed my love of playing. Then I got into free music and bought a
synthesizer. I had a trio with my friends called Eye Door for a long time and
then just started playing with whoever I could in the free jazz/experimental
music scene from then on.
KS: I studied music from 5th grade into Berklee College of Music in Boston. I
didn't feel any vital connection with any music until high school, when I heard
Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Jim Black.
EB: I've been playing horns for 16 years. I heard the first track from New
Thing at Newport on the radio when I was 11 and was lucky enough to have
drawn Live at the Village Vanguard Again!. I really haven't focused on much of
anything other than music since.
Is the CD-R on Evolving Ear your only release? What other recordings are on
MM: So far it is our only official release. If someone wanted to be bad-ass,
they could track down all of our other damaged CD-Rs that are out there (at
least 300-500). The first Talibam! release is a split between me and Kevin and
then Ed, who plays solo as "Ron Lessard.' That's packaged in stolen Vice
magazine compilations, spray painted and mangled. We're about to release another
tiny record on Kitty Play.
KS: We won't regurgitate the same music record after record, yet also we are
wary of caged diversity like in those Benneton ads. And we may have a DVD-R on
Evolving Ear coming out in a few months.
EB: Upcoming DVD-R. We've got Evolving Ear's support and a ton of tour footage.
As Matt mentioned, we've around 20 different combinations of package and product
manifesting as small-run, very site-specific, money-grubbing, finger-printed,
ultra-hyphenated collector discs floating around the Northeast and Ohio.
How do you put your songs together? Is it entirely free? Do you have a set of
motifs you work into your improvs?
MM: It's the backwards free jazz principle: instead of starting with the head
and then blasting out from that, we start with the blast and then loosely go
into these semi-melodic and rhythmic sections. If we practiced more, the music
would get more complex, but we're comfortable with our sound as of now.
KS: The word "improv" is problematic. Some might rather say "spontaneous
composition," like how Giacinto Scelsci would record himself improvising on the
piano and then get some poor grad student to transcribe, learn, and perform it.
Today, I hear so many bands exploiting the improv for merely teleological
purposes – as a technique to supplement their folkish psych songs. But neither
the improvisations nor the songs are ever too compelling. It's like a spectacle
freak show - "look mom, they're improvising." They sound like they're
improvising, but it's an architectural/sculptural device - a tool supposedly
promoting a diversity of sound and realism of chaos/unknown, but that, sadly,
only functions to sway the listeners into some impression/belief of versatility
via some mapped-out poppy to-do. In Talibam!, we pretty much agree rehearsals
are for amateurs.
EB: Every emanation of sound is completely encompassed by the exact moments of
its birth (initial production and perception) and death (final production and
perception). With even cursory consideration with this temporality in mind,
performances have their preparatory measures voided. Classical musician practice
the same exercises that bebop (partial improv) or free-improv musicians do to
master their craft. In any performative iteration, the same "Cageian-chance-'seeds'"
exist. It's just the culture of the opera house that keeps the audiences'
contribution mim. We don't work within the polar concept of composition. Before
shows we often plan events, sonic and theatrical, on the spot; judging the
crowd/space vs. what we could get away with.
What's the one word you wouldn't want someone to use to describe your music?
MM: I think "angry' or "sprawling" or "wild" are words I'm not too into I guess.
If you don't listen closely to our music, it can sound like inconclusive
clutter. But I think we play beat to beat, moment to moment, hit to hit, so it
can have an effect of being indigestible or unapproachable, but if you really
focus and listen you hear everything that is in there.
KS: Floccinaucinihilipilificational. Floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or
habit of esteeming or describing something as worthless, or making something to
be worthless by said means.
EB: Dude____, cock____, boy____. While the music is masturbatory at times, I
think people assign it a masculine role. Fuck gender roles.
Junk, trash, and waste seems to play heavily into your aesthetic – there's
lots of noise in your music, the CD-R I have comes packaged in a discarded LP
sleeve, and I noticed Matt set up his synth on a trash can at both concerts.
What are you up to here?
MM: I set up my keyboard on things that have enough weight to sustain the wallop
I pound out. When I use keyboard stands, generally my shit floats around,
sometimes falling on the floor in big crashes. Trash cans are sturdier; for me
it's practical. But I do find amusement in using and "co-opting" garbage cans
(especially in clubs) and using them for something else. It gets really funny
when dudes who run shows are like, "Can't you use something else?" Like it's a
big fucking deal. With our CD-R too, that was a practical choice of not having a
budget for our record and trying to find the cheapest packaging out there. Plus
it looks more bad-ass then almost any digi-pack CD other bands come up with.
It's nice to also feel like our music is not just of "this time" in 2006 but
more timeless, and cutting up discarded shit pop albums helps us get that vibe
KS: Marx missed that contemporary consumers would re-appropriate
lost/disassociated/fetishized/mass-replicated products of yore and in turn
reacquire their power – consumers assign aura to spaces and products of
consumption, our imagination glossing over ugly global consequences. This is the
replication/success of pop/consumer culture. It's not about abandoning one's
desires to have a practical relation to production - we don't desire
connectivity/liability – the horrific future is already here. Vampires consume
from cloned blood banks rather than human jugulars; they frame
mass-replicated/cloned blood as some aesthetic apex. It's not trash anymore –
it's our experience, our worth, our identity.
EB: All the coolest material things I've ever discovered in this giant world
have come out of the trash.
Given your chaotic songs and junk-rock aesthetic, it would be easy for
someone to read your music as straight-up nihilism. Is Talibam! a headlong dive
into the eternal abyss, or is there more of a conflicted relationship between
skronk and beauty going on?
MM: I would really hope that people don't view our music as nihilistic at all. I
think the energy we put out makes it obvious we are really having a fun time and
are trying to put some passion back in music rather than bring it further into a
vapid hole. In some sense, that's what I see as being a problem in a lot of the
"noise' scene – when you see a band and just feel dead afterwards because their
approach to performance is so inward. Plus, I think we're different from a lot
of "noise" bands in that people can tell we are really playing rather than just
using delay pedals and mixing boards. We try and show that you can use blasting
tones and super loud volume, but that they can expand the thoughts and hopes of
people into a more liberated and positive flowing praxis rather than into one
devoid of hope. We believe that shit can get better, and this music is not just
self-congratulatory "scene" shit for people who can't imagine anyone else liking
it. When we play, we're eating a giant stew of "sound soup' and we want everyone
to dig in and get full.
KS: I agree. We believe in value – there are too many preconceived, calculated
and streamlined/duplicated processes in music. What's nihilistic to me is
popular radio, whose destructive ideology/instruction has no dialogue or empathy
with any disparate polemics whatsoever. Popular fiction/film is also to blame in
that it conforms to the narrative – but we all know the narrative is only one
form/method/direction. In fiction, check out Robbe-Grillet's Repetition,
or Blanchot's Death Sentence - there are multiple unreliable narrators,
broken promises/recollections, unknown contextual intentions - we find very
simply that pockets of individuation, perhaps the "itselves," are that they are
NOT themselves. Indeterminacy is perhaps passé - but the point in indeterminacy
is that we absolutely can't distinguish between good or bad guesses. The habit
of best guessing, or pragmatic interpretation, is all wrapped up in hegemonic
hubris. I am against this pragmatic guess because, for example, a problem with
psychoanalysis is that it eventually asserts a "proper" interpretation that in
turn alters one's perception of his/herself. But actually, oftentimes
colloquialisms can't be explained rationally.
EB: To attach the negative judgment to the Choas/Trash aesthetic is the reaction
of the over-culture's obsession with youth and production. The aesthetic, for
us, is commentary on that obsession.
Which artists and ideas have heavily influenced each of you?
MM: One of the heaviest experiences I had early on was when I was in college
visiting at Bard and took a course with Joan Retallack where we read Cage's
"Lecture on Nothing" out-loud for about an hour. It really put you in a
meditative mindset and helped condition you to be more receptive to all the
stimuli around you. I appreciate artists and musicians that make their own art
for themselves and if others like it then that's great, if not, oh well.
KS: One is Jean Dubuffet and his Art Brut. He was a wine seller, and didn't
start painting until he was in his forties. He wrote/lectured on his philosophy
of art and also made a few hilarious music recordings. Some quotes: "For me,
insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of
imagination, lack of creativity." "What culture lacks is the taste for
anonymous, innumerable germination. Culture is smitten with counting and
measuring; it feels out of place and uncomfortable with the innumerable; its
efforts tend, on the contrary, to limit the numbers in all domains; it tries to
count on its fingers."
EB: To not have your mind blown nearly ever day is the greatest disservice of
comfort, because to be influenced is to have learned. Learn, learn, learn, grow,
grow, grow... or stagnate?
Lots of lazy folks would look at your music and hear little more than a
backlash against the Britney Spears of the world. Those people are silly of
course, but I am curious as to whether there's anything that you guys are
specifically rocking "against."
MM: Well Kevin has a hard time understanding why people like songs and structure
as paradigms for music. But we are playing what we feel, nothing contrived or
orchestrated to fit into any one style or methodology that is making a specific
attempt to be anti- anything. In some ways, it's about time the shit that we're
doing gets included in the canon of "pop" music, instead of being viewed only as
dogmatic avant-garde tunage. If you think about it, Tony Oxley and Keith Moon
were contemporaries of each other. Yet one was chosen and brought up in pop
culture stature because he played supposedly "easier" music. It's bullshit. It's
time people decide for themselves what they want to hear instead of fascist
record labels skewing things in only one direction... people are tired of it.
KS: My feelings exactly.
EB: What do you think we are rocking towards?
What bands out there do you feel a particularly close kinship with?
MM: At this point, I've had to stop judging bands based on what they sound like,
and more on if they have their shit together and are good people. But some of
the best bands/people I've seen in the last couple of years are: Vernacular from
Cleveland, Rac-ooo-n from Iowa, Dan Deacon from Baltimore, our friend Orion, who
sings the best songs on cello and wurlitzer, In the Ozone (Tom Bruno from TEST
with Andres Nilson on guitar), Buddy Ship from Providence, any band Mike Pride
is in, Lance Romance, Matthu Stull from Pittsburgh (who is the most ridiculous
guitar player out there). In some ways I'm kind of excited and hopeful that the
best shit is still out there and has yet to be discovered. We played a big
festival day with Lighting Bolt, Parts and Labor, Japanther, etc, and six months
later these kids came up to me and Ed at a show and were like, "Are you dudes in
Talibam!? Cuz we saw ya'll at that parking lot show and you guys ruled the
heaviest out of all of them.' Kids are wising up to this shit, so hopefully
it'll turn out bigger and better.
KS: I feel more kinship to certain authors than to bands. Bands are like leeches
- it's hard to find one who isn't trying to suck your blood. Best show of 2005
was Ivo Papasov and his Bulgarian wedding band at Symphony Space. In 2004 it was
Jeff "Tain" Watts at Blue Note. Bands who play the same music night after night
leave no impression - that's the formula of Broadway. Extremely rehearsed bands
– and I'm not talking about Anton Webern or Xenakis here – put me to sleep. I
played in super-rehearsed symphonic bands or percussion ensembles all throughout
school – I know what's possible with rehearsal. That methodology is boring to
me. I played more intricate shit on the timpani than all of these monkey-scabs
EB: Anyone friendly spending their effort and profits to help change things.