Thrill Jockey built its cache on sterling albums by Chicago groups like Tortoise and The Sea And Cake in the mid-1990s, but over the course of 20 years, the Chicago-based label’s reach has expanded much further, encompassing jazz (Fred Anderson, Rob Mazurek), metal (Liturgy), punk (Gaunt, Nerves, Bobby Conn), folk/Americana (Freakwater, Catherine Erwin, Black Twig Pickers, Jack Rose), electronic music (Oval, Mouse on Mars, Nobukazu Takemura), and forward-looking rock (Eleventh Dream Day, Fiery Furnaces, A Minor Forest) from all over the world. Starting this month, the label is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a slew of reissues, a poster series, a comedy LP, and a handful of shows (hosted in Portland, Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and London). We thought we’d join in the celebration by talking extensively with several new Thrill Jockey signings and chatting with label founder Bettina Richards. [Previous: Dan Friel; Next: Rhyton]
Percussionist and composer John Colpitts (Kid Millions) is best known for his work as part of the band Oneida, but his Man Forever project is an intriguing and weighty drum-focused offshoot, more akin to Sven Åke Johansson’s Schlingerland or Steve Reich’s Drumming ensemble pieces. Skull-reshaping phase patterns and beat-oriented drones are part and parcel of the Man Forever experience, but it is far, far from a free-for all. One of the most unique records in the Thrill Jockey catalog, Pansophical Cataract is the second Man Forever release and the first to be unleashed on a somewhat wider audience.
Man Forever will be playing as part of the Thrill Jockey concerts at Death By Audio in Brooklyn on Friday, September 14.
I’d been aware of Oneida but it was outside of my musical periphery, and when I got the Man Forever disc from Thrill Jockey it wasn’t something I knew of before, but certainly fit within my musical interests in improvisation and modern composition. I had been reading that Man Forever stems in part from a fascination with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. I wanted to get an idea of how you conceived the project and how it’s evolved, because as I understand it, at least through some of the live clips I’ve watched, there’s been quite an evolution taking place in the concept and approach.
In 2009, JagJaguwar, the label that releases Oneida, had a small-print-run, vinyl-only label (St. Ives, which released the fabled original, handmade version of Animal Collective’s Hollinndagain LP among many others), and they wanted me to do a solo album. I thought, well, “Yeah, I’ll do one,” but had no idea what to do. My main focus has always been Oneida but I was ready to evolve at some level. I had no idea what I would do so I tabled it for a while, and had some more song-based stuff in the can but it didn’t really work. I ended up at the Miller Theater performance of Metal Machine Music in 2010 by the Fireworks Ensemble, which is led by Brian Coughlin, one of my oldest friends. He performed Ulrich Krieger’s transcription for chamber orchestra, and I was blown away by the sound and the experience and idea. The program notes were interesting, transcribing feedback. He learned from Reed what open tuning the guitars were, and the tape effects, so if you cue Lou Reed’s album and the live recording of Krieger’s version, you can a/b them and they sound a lot alike. At the show a couple of different strands came to mind – a conversation I had with Brian Chase about tuning drums using just intonation and then the idea of an acoustic noise experience. I thought I would do a sort of Metal Machine Music for drums; I’d send them through my tape machine and use a similar approach. I tuned my drums to a number of pitches, and when I mixed it I varied the pitches further through speeding up or slowing down the tape. The result would be a collage, and that was the first Man Forever record.
Pretty soon afterward I had the opportunity to perform, and I thought I’d get five drummers and five kits, tune them to a bunch of different pitches and that would be that. We did a tour and I was able to record a live album for St. Ives. The band I assembled for this got kind of tired of touring, because you had all these drums that we spent hours tuning every day. Most drummers don’t tune to pitches in the first place. What I loved about the performances and what I wanted to get in a more nuanced way was the phasing that happens when everyone plays balls-out, but achieve it with a greater sense of control. I had the opportunity to do something for WFMU and they wanted a really stripped-down performance. So Chase and I went to his practice space and spent an hour breaking down what we could do, until we got to a point where we were doing just single-stroke rolls on a snare drum. We thought it would be perfect, and that was the second phase and we’ve been building on that.
It definitely seems really tight and it also gets into the underlying drones that are created by the pitches and how they’re phased, and it almost reminds me of a stripped-down version of Steve Reich’s Drumming (DGG, 1971)
It’s definitely inspired by that, for sure, but I didn’t go to conservatory so it’s a little more of a punk approach, for want of a better term.
It was powerful and overwhelming enough, and I didn’t want extended techniques or anything on top of that. I didn’t even want to focus on the rhythm of the drums; basically I set up rules and was hard about it, but I knew the music would sort itself out.
But watching the duo with Ryan Sawyer, it’s explosive – it holds itself at the tipping point right before things go haywire. They never do, and it’s fascinating to watch the coiled energy within the music. It’s also quite different from the stereotyped concert percussion piece or whatever.
Definitely – I like the tension and dramatic elements, too. There’s a visual element that is interesting when there are more drummers as well.
Is it now officially pared down to you and one other drummer, or is it still a variable performance concept?
Man Forever is a compositional vehicle for me, so the show at Death By Audio will be something new. What I’ve done for the last four months and what I will do through the end of the year will be playing compositions from the album. I’ll get musicians from each town to fill out the music; it’s hard to play but it’s easy to learn, so we spend a few minutes before the show going over the timed events, run it through and play it live. It’s not improvised in any way.
Early on wasn’t there some amount of improvisation in the performance, though? Or am I misreading it?
No – well, yes and no. There are rules. For the first phase of the piece I didn’t want people to express themselves or have it be a showcase for people’s personalities. I wanted it to be about the sound and resonance of the drums and I wanted to get those out there by people playing as quickly and powerfully as they could on as many drums as they could for 15-minute chunks. I didn’t want people to try to play together; I wanted to avoid any kind of conscious group playing, working off each other and stuff. I just hated the idea of that – I didn’t want it to be about individuals, I wanted it to be one thing every time. It was powerful and overwhelming enough, and I didn’t want extended techniques or anything on top of that. I didn’t even want to focus on the rhythm of the drums; basically I set up rules and was hard about it, but I knew the music would sort itself out.
I didn’t want people to hit the cymbal, like there are no hi-hats except for one instance, where one can only hit the cymbal three times and it always has to follow a hit from me. There are moments live where somebody hits the cymbal and everyone in the ensemble hits it as quickly as they can, following that punctuating moment. You sit down and play and it’s not like I’m telling you which drums to hit; it’s about sound rather than self-expression, and it’s a nuanced difference but it is different.
Were you interested in working with egoless concepts of arranging sound before this project – was there a gestation long before, something you wanted to explore prior to Man Forever, or did the presentation of a solo project “flip a switch” as it were?
I guess what happened was – and I don’t want this to come out wrong – but I did the Boredoms 77 project, which was the most powerful musical experience of my life up to that point. It had a lot of unknowns, we didn’t know if it would come across, and there were so many drummers. Before we set up there was a staging area where all these drummers were banging away, and I thought “god, I fucking hate drummers!” I don’t, of course, but I don’t like the insecurity and technical obsession that is often a tool to hide one’s own issues. The need to wank away and bang on shit, you know.
Well, I guess I feel technique is a tool for self-expression in the ideal sense.
Yeah, improvisation is something I do, but I think it’s a bit overrated. It’s become a clichéd desire and drive behind music and I think that’s misguided. This is a massive contradiction in a sense, but there are a lot of cultural assumptions about self-expression, in music in that it’s VERY important, and beyond that it’s SO essential that every advertisement you see for an iPhone or iPad is about YOUR individuality. There’s something wrong about that, and I wanted to get away from the idea of ego. That was a moment that I had – “people need to just shut the fuck up!” It got to me, and it was a catalyst.
I wanted to do something that sounded like certain other music, but have it be about something else. You don’t have to worry – people get so anxious when they’re about to do these pieces, like “what BPM do you want me to play” and I don’t give a fuck – play a single-stroke roll evenly, and do it without adding anything. It’s the people who are like “Dude, it would be awesome if I sped it up at the end or hit the rim” and I’m like “No, just… don’t. It’s not about any of us.” I don’t have anything at stake – I’m there, I go and play, but it’s not about me. I sell the records and stuff, but in a live setting playing badly doesn’t even come into it. There are ways to play the piece better and worse, of course, but at the end of the day that’s not super important.
Being a vessel or conduit for the sound and the music – I think I understand what you’re getting at. I come from a perspective where I’m very interested in improvisation and the openness or freedom that can be part of it, so my bias looks for the nuances in the music whether or not the composer or performer intends them. My ears go for that, so if I see Sawyer’s little flourishes and the expression on his face when he’s playing this piece, I gravitate toward it, whether or not it’s intended as part of the work. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does. Let me go a little further. My point is that it’s going to come out; I don’t want people to try to bring it out. All that shit’s going to be there, and I don’t want to imply that I’m trying to obliterate that. It’s there – don’t worry about it, the expression will happen, I just don’t want people to will it. When we were rehearsing the first Man Forever show, there were moments in practice where people were jamming with each other and it wasn’t something I wanted. There would be something different that would eventually come out that would be more interesting to me. I had to tell people not to worry or get anxious or insist on forcing something into being. If you follow the instructions, all that nuanced material will be there and it’ll be interesting, but I didn’t want people to be histrionic and try to get somewhere else with it.
The band I assembled for this got kind of tired of touring, because you had all these drums that we spent hours tuning every day. Most drummers don’t tune to pitches in the first place.
Do you have any ideas beyond the project that you’re looking toward, or is it a much more microcosmic process?
Right now I am working on new stuff and I want to do a piece that has nothing to do with the record, but when I tour I’ll play the present pieces. I want to play those compositions and get them out there; I don’t want to prematurely lock anything down. I am trying to develop something new that’s both compositional and drum-related, and it’ll be similar, but it will explore some other aspects.
For some artists there is a sense of closure where they’re onto the next thing the moment the master is sent in, but that’s not your approach at all – the composition still needs time to breathe and to be heard.
It is refined. The piece on the new record is different now in terms of how it’s being played. Earlier I made a video of instructions for how to play the piece, and at this point, it’s wrong. The only thing that has remained the same is the drums, and now I want it to be different from how it was originally played. It’s just gotten more minimal.
I would think it would naturally change inflection over time, because you’re dealing with a malleable instrument.
Yeah, totally. I think my instructions are different for musicians now, too. I used to want it to be more open-ended, and now I feel that I know how the piece works well enough that I can tell people what I want them to do in order to make it sound right. I had to come to terms with that self-expression bias, too, where I felt bad telling someone how to do something. “Oh dude, I don’t want you to do your own thing – sorry! I want you to do something very specific.” I’m a rocker and an improv guy, and I had to get over and get comfortable with instruction.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the work in terms of specific requirements; that’s refreshing and rare. To approach the music with a clear understanding of what you want isn’t too common. I’d listened to these pieces without a guide, and hearing you speak about them is certainly a new window into their conception, performance, and process.
Yeah, for me there is a wrong way to do this music, and once it starts, it starts. I’m in there playing and I can’t get up and change the whole thing around, though I’ve considered it – telling someone mid-stroke to stop soloing or whatever.
I thought “god, I fucking hate drummers!” I don’t, of course, but I don’t like the insecurity and technical obsession that is often a tool to hide one’s own issues. The need to wank away and bang on shit, you know.
With the piece being shortened on the recording versus how it’s sometimes performed as a longer work, how did that affect your concept? It was edited, right?
I don’t know; I was looking at it and in a way it’s hilarious, because this is not commercial music! But I wanted it to be a bit more digestible. I’m getting an opportunity to present this music with Thrill Jockey, and I figured I could make it an 18-minute version, keeping it on a side of a record, and I was cool with treating it differently as a discrete listening experience. Going to a show and putting on a record are such different experiences anyway, you know? I can’t even think about playing music the same way anymore, as far as recording goes, so it was really just a practical thing. I had to think about engaging what a hypothetical listener might be able to endure. It was the right choice for my first “big” record. I did two records before, but they were on a tiny vinyl-only label where nobody even knew they came out. I wanted it to restate my previous records – hey, this is something I’m doing and these are the pieces I wrote, and I want to get them down and in this form.
There’s like a four-minute excerpt on YouTube, trying to encapsulate the idea of a much longer piece (a la the Ascension juke box single), and I thought that was interesting.
Yeah, that was my girlfriend’s video. She wanted to bring out some of the humor in it. I don’t take the piece as seriously as you might think, and I thought that this version was cool. Is there really a single of Coltrane’s Ascension?
Yeah, a jukebox picture sleeve edition, three minutes A-Side, that was sent out to radio stations back in the day. It gives you a brief idea of something much larger, and it’s a curio in and of itself. I guess if you had done the piece in its entirety for Thrill Jockey, it could have been two CDs…
Yeah, I didn’t know how people would take it and who it would connect with, so I wanted to keep the release simple and hope it works out.
[Photo: Joshua Bright]