Thrill Jockey 20th Anniversary: Rhyton : Interview
“There is a strong feeling where the music is an abstraction, or an overarching figure, and that is leading us. You feel somewhat disembodied, but in a good way.”
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: Man Forever; Next: Guardian Alien]
Instrumental trio Rhyton are one of the most recent New York bands to be welcomed into the Thrill Jockey stable. Made up of string multi-instrumentalist David Charles Shuford (D. Charles Speer & The Helix, No Neck Blues Band), bassist Jimy SeiTang (Psychic Ills), and drummer Spencer Herbst (Matta Llama, Messages), they’ve released one self-titled LP on Thrill Jockey and its companion volume, The Emerald Tablet, on Three Lobed. They will be playing the Brooklyn installment of Thrill Jockey 20 at Death By Audio tonight (September 14).
I’d like to start at the beginning. What’s your musical background?
Jimy SeiTang: I went to school for classical bass and did that whole circuit. It gave me a lot of knowledge and understanding of how to play with people. When you play in an orchestra, you’ve got to really be able to listen – you can’t zone out. My experience has made it easier to improvise, though classical music is pretty rigid. If you take that to an open context it works well. A lot of my life was spent doing classical music, but I don’t do it anymore.
David Charles Shuford: Well, you don’t have the syndrome a lot of classical musicians have where they can’t cut loose.
JS: I was never the top dog; I would practice eight hours a day, but I never achieved that level of playing.
DCS: You weren’t necessarily the star soloist.
JS: No, and it was frustrating but when I took myself out of that scene and started doing this kind of music, it made me realize why I wasn’t there. I have the ability to look at music in a technical way and the discipline to put things together, but I could free myself and take it out.
What about you, Spencer?
Spencer Herbst: Oh, I learned how to play drums in the basement on a secondhand kit I got for Christmas, cheap cymbals that I broke within the first two days. I was a 4-foot-7 punk kid. I played on and off throughout adolescence while in Colorado.
Take your drums up to the top of Pike’s Peak?
SH: I used to work on Pike’s Peak, on the cog railway. I’d dig snow ditches in the winter and in the summer I’d put in railroad ties. Anyway, once I moved to New York I played with people here and there and developed a sort of mainstay with Matta Llama.
I saw that group at Tonic one time and it blew my mind. But all I could remember about the gig was the drumming.
SH: Thanks. We were called Mountains of Matta Llama, then Matta Llama, then just Mountains (casually by our friends). Arik wanted us to be called Mountains of Shadow and I wanted us to be called Llama, so we tried to compromise. I consider myself like a cave man of a drummer; my musical education was playing the snare in sixth grade and teachers trying to hip me to “The Beat Goes On” by Sonny & Cher, and I’d never heard the song in my life! There was a kit in band class, so I’d stay after school and try to play it. My friend Joey Bradley had a seven-piece Vistalite set in his bedroom and he’d show me some things.
So you’re self-taught.
SH: Yeah, but you can do that with the drums.
But you’re pretty swinging, too.
SH: That’s what happens when you get to play with people! It really helps things along. I haven’t played the drums alone since I was 17, so I’m looking forward to doing that again someday.
Maybe you could give a capsule version of your own history, Dave, which is pretty long and varied.
DCS: I took some piano lessons; I really liked classical music when I was a kid, but I did better with the written exercises than the performance aspect. Then later I got into thrash metal and wanted to get a shredder guitar, so my mom got me a white Ibanez for my 14th birthday, and that had high-gain pickups, which was good.
This was in Atlanta?
DCS: Yeah, and I couldn’t play fast stuff like I wanted to, but I learned a couple of Black Sabbath songs and played with my buddies in basements and so forth. I was never in a band then; we’d just play. I got into weird groups here – I did a solo feedback microphone thing, which was the first show I played in New York, just some coffeehouse scene but it was pretty good. I fooled around with a band called Malta in college, which also had Jeff from Excepter in it, and that was a pretty abstract project that did well. Some of the No-Neck guys saw one of our shows and invited me to join that band, and then I got into the No-Neck trajectory, which took up a lot of time and energy (in a good way) for a long time, and somewhere along the line I started hearing the old Greek stuff in my mind, so I got a bouzouki when I went to Greece.
Your heritage is Greek, right?
DCS: Yeah, my mom is Greek-American.
I’d rather be called psychedelic than something that doesn’t exist.
I think when we first met you were talking about getting into Greek music.
DCS: Yes, I always liked the sound of the instrument and wanted to explore those roots a little more. That was the first “atypical” instrument I got into, and then I got folk fiddles and stuff. I got into bluegrass mandolin, and amassed a weird assortment of instruments that could be suitable for a number of projects.
Yeah, when we met the Greek music was strong, and you were also talking about Cajun music a lot.
DCS: I still have all the instruments for a Cajun ensemble and a Greek ensemble at my house. I don’t have drums, but everything else – accordion, triangle, bouzouki, and we did a pseudo-Cajun thing on a Speer record.
How did you three converge?
DCS: Me and Spencer met a long time ago when he was living with a mutual friend in a large firehouse on 11th St., about 15 years ago.
SH: Longer than that – ’95, ’96.
DCS: Spencer’s old band Matta Llama played gigs with No-Neck and the Suntanama, so we’d been hanging for years but never really worked together until the latter stages of Suntanama, and that was just [when he sat in on] two gigs or so.
That would’ve been about 2003?
SH: 2004, maybe?
DCS: There was not much activity, though. That was our meeting and genesis, and of course we shared some musical interests. The Suntanama situation was a weird one anyway. Regardless, we thought we would probably play together again later on.
SH: Pretty much when Dave moved to Brooklyn, all three of us would go to the same bar, end up in the same circles and what not. We got a dialogue going about music and what we could do together.
DCS: In the Speer band I’d played a gig with Jimy’s old band Ways, and I saw that he was the bass master.
JS: We hung out and got the juices flowing and wanted to put that into action. I was playing with Psychic Ills at the time and we were going to go on this big tour. When I got back, I was able to focus more on our playing and less on the Ills, and doing it in a way that it wouldn’t just be one of many things, phoning it in or whatever. I don’t like to approach anything like that, so I needed to be in a space where I could feel connected to it.
Well, you’re all in so many bands – when Rhyton crossed my path I figured it would be just one of a litany of interesting projects that you all are involved in. But by the time the second record rolled around it was clearly a proper band.
DCS: I don’t think any of us came into it as a one-off experience. Especially after the initial stages of our practicing together, I think everyone felt really good. It was like, we should give it a lot of concentration because it deserves it, there’s a good connection and we wanted to see what would grow out of this music.
SH: We didn’t have to dip a toe in the water – we went in fully clothed.
DCS: As with most bands it did take a minute, maybe a couple of months, to play a gig.
And it grew out of some of the stuff you were working on solo, right Dave?
DCS: Semi – it was more that I had a lick or two that we used to mess around with. It was material that would make sense to explore with the group, but ultimately it wasn’t one of the best takes.
SH: Especially in a studio setting, it was good to have something fixed in case things got shady, and so that stuff worked to get the wheels turning and make the session worthwhile.
JS: The record sat on the shelf for a while, and we revisited and treated it, and we were able to figure out how we would frame all this music we’d recorded.
DCS: It was a super-productive session, so that was great.
So the Thrill Jockey and Three Lobed records are culled from the same session?
DCS: Yeah. They sound somewhat similar but I think each record has a different identity.
SH: The Emerald Tablet is more expansive, to say the least.
It definitely has a dusky feeling to it, and the timbre of the instrumentation hews to that as well. Was there a conscious effort to avoid certain textures or instruments?
SH: Well, firstly it should be noted that the music is completely improvised.
JS: A lot of it has to do with the fact that we were all listening to one another. When we did the session, I remember my biggest thing was to try not to play the bass. I ended up playing, of course, but I didn’t want to get into the “bassist mentality.” What I look for is having intimacy with the rhythm section or giving a sonic support and melody that’s not derivative of the guitar. A lot of that came across pretty well, I think.
Plasticity seems like a big part of the trio’s M.O.
JS: Yes, that’s a big part of what we do.
Was it a conscious choice for you, Dave, to keep to a lower end of the spectrum?
DCS: I seem to have an attraction to the extremes of different ranges; it used to be more extreme when I would just play bass and mandolin in Suntanama. The baritone guitar and electric mandolin are guitar-esque, but you get a different accentuation on where the voicing is. I like the character and slight differences one gets from that. The improvising also brought a probing or questing thing and that adds to the vibe, and we’re comfortable enough in our relationship that it seems like we’re reaching into a certain realm to see what we pull out, rather than stumbling down a hallway. We know what we’re doing, so we end up looking at the material from different angles as we play.
When I was writing about the first record, I kept trying to apply the term “guitarist” to what you do, even though “string multi-instrumentalist” is probably closer. The sonorities are different from what one usually hears with the instrument.
DCS: You get a couple more things available to you, but at the same time it’s going through a guitar amp and effects, so it’s working in that realm, it’s just a matter of the different instruments allowing more options to be available.
I assume the electric mandolin is the same size as a regular mandolin.
DCS: It is – it’s the same scale length, and that defines it as a mandolin. It is a single stringed instrument, because doubled strings cause clouding in an electric instrument. Most of them have been single string in recorded history; the electric mandolin mainly comes out of Western swing, resulting from its trying to compete sound-wise. The tradition of jazz instrumentation is loud, and acoustic guitars couldn’t keep up so you basically got amplification out of that. The mandolin doesn’t cut the same way a fiddle does, so players took a string off and plugged in. It works within the realm of amplified strings, and the techniques are a bit different for playing it – less tremolo, for example – and since the amplification obviates the problem of sustain, you can play it more like longer-scale instruments. You hit a note and it’s there, so you can keep on going. I am working with an instrument from the tradition of Western Swing; it has no prevalence anywhere else, to my knowledge.
I hadn’t listened to much mandolin until I moved to Texas and heard Western Swing on the radio, but the way you approach it made me think of Quicksilver, or Ron Miller’s playing with Alan Silva. Those were my only sonic touchstones.
DCS: It sneaks into certain things, and Peter Buck plays one occasionally, as does Mike Campbell. In a rock context, you have to jack it in or else you’d be screwed.
As far as Rhyton is concerned, it’s pretty easy to put into the psychedelic bag, for better or for worse. You have to call something by a name at this point, at least from a critical standpoint. What’s your thinking on this?
SH: I’d rather be called psychedelic than something that doesn’t exist. I have great love for a lot of that music so I have no problem with that.
DCS: I think it’s appropriate in this case; you know, we have a lot of the usual trappings of that realm. There’s a desire for exploration, trance elements, long forms, so I think it’s accurate. Not to be on some high horse, but we’re more true purveyors of the original wave of exploratory sounds, as some psych groups sound like beat bands from the Sixties, or they’re wearing paisley so they’re psychedelic. Or they have three-minute songs but they have a fuzz guitar solo. To me that’s garage-rock.
Or orchestral pop stuff – I can’t think of the Millennium as psychedelic, for example. The first things that came to mind when I heard the music were San Francisco Bay Area vibes, not to say that one is trying to recreate things, but that there’s something in the water.
SH: That’s definitely in my bloodstream.
DCS: I think we’ve also taken a lot from the international rock scene in terms of our interests – Japanese, German, Swedish, Turkish, African music.
When we did the session, I remember my biggest thing was to try not to play the bass. I ended up playing, of course, but I didn’t want to get into the “bassist mentality.” What I look for is having intimacy with the rhythm section or giving a sonic support and melody that’s not derivative of the guitar.
Psychedelia for me seems too closely aligned with the “trip” or chemical assistance, rather than a transportational sonic device, which would be pretty musically broad. It’s also interesting to hear you bring up more traditional Americana and country music, because that’s a big part of The Helix. I was certainly aware of those records, and listening to Rhyton almost made me forget how deeply connected to that tradition you are.
JS: Let me add that another reason I think we work well together is because while we have similar tastes in music, we have other tastes we have that don’t cross so much, and when we come together and play those things are a nice pairing. We’re all showing one another things, and it’s good for people to hear a band where we’re not all into the same shit. There’s thought put into it, too.
DCS: That keeps us in our own unique realm, rather than trying to be like a highlife band or something and just doing that. That’s a crucial aspect of my favorite bands.
Right, it’s not so much about what’s being played but who’s playing it and the overall context. Who the person is and what they’re bringing to the table is most important.
SH: Definitely – we each come with our own baggage, and I feel that we all do a good job of not forcing it when we add things to the equation. Everything comes about naturally in a way that’s really magnificent.
JS: You take the instrumentation of baritone guitar, mandolin, bass, and drums, and then add in an oscillator… Or when Spencer does vocal stuff… That adds a different element that a lot of bands couldn’t necessarily pull off. It all works as part of the whole fabric, and a variety of influences come together.
SH: Those pieces were decisions that we made in time; it’s no different than any other music we make – minimal or angular territories still have the same pulse.
JS: But I don’t think anyone feels awkward; we’re all in it together, and it’s a shared experience.
It’s funny, too, the instrumentation is that of a power trio but you think of, like, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity (ESP, 1964), which is made up of tenor, bass, and drums and is considered a free-jazz power trio, but it’s really a “group listening” record. There are a lot of quiet moments and they’re listening to one another and responding. What you’re saying with Rhyton is that the music grows out of listening to one another; as much as it may get intense, it’s definitely not balls-to-the-wall.
DCS: There is a strong feeling where the music is an abstraction, or an overarching figure, and that is leading us. You feel somewhat disembodied, but in a good way. It may be the simple fact that we’re joining together and that’s the outside entity, and we’re very clear about keeping it alive. It’s a great feeling because it’s like, you get these feelings like, “Wow, I didn’t know I could do that,” or “I didn’t know that could happen.”
JS: I get the feeling when listening back to our records that they seem very composed, because we’re so in sync.
SH: We have done a good job of not getting ahead of ourselves and in our time together as players we’ve developed a vocabulary that is feasible, morphing, and tangible. And it happens in space. We rarely discuss things beforehand – it’s more after the fact.
DCS: We talk about teasing out certain aspects, but it’s never like, “Oh, that was great, we should do it just like that again.”
There is at least one composition that you work with in the book.
SH: “Shank Raids” we’ve done multiple times live.
DCS: That was a composition, and “Stone Colored” has clear enough parameters that it could be recreated easily. It was an instant composition that became something we could do live. It’s got a vibe that’s kind of stepped-back, and to have it available as something we can pull out – we’ve done certain other things where we will repeat an opening figure or a head or something. In terms of recording, everything that’s been released has been improvised except for “Shank Raids.”
With the two records being lifted from one super-session, is it too early to talk about the evolution of the group and things you’re thinking about doing?
DCS: No, not at all – we’ve been talking about it quite a bit. We’ve been thinking about transitioning out of, or not being bound to the rock-trio format. Spencer does noise and electronic stuff, and I am starting to use more of the oscillator and pure electronic things, and Jimy has a sort of mixmaster thing and uses delays and stuff. We’ve talked about incorporating some of that live as well as in the next studio record. Not like we’ve worn out the other things, but it seems good to do it – “Dale Odalíski” was an example, but Spencer was still using drums on that.
JS: I look at it as an integration of all these other aspects into what we already have going, so it won’t take away from that, and just adds to it and makes the music more robust.
How did Thrill Jockey approach you, Dave? I know you’ve been with them for quite a while on other projects.
DCS: Actually, I sent my music to them. The Thrill Jockey thing was 100 percent Jack Rose; we recorded with him as The Helix, through the project that came out as Ragged and Right (2010). We were going to have live recordings added, and Byron was going to put it [out] on Father Yod. The record was basically stranded because that fell through, and we just had a short album assembled. Bettina is really into EPs, so she had signed Jack to do a record and asked him to do an EP as well. He sent that material to Thrill Jockey, and ultimately that was our first appearance on the label. He passed away about five days after telling me he’d sent it in, so it fell to me to do the art and figure everything out about its release, and I developed a relationship with Bettina out of that. I asked her if she wanted to put out any Helix stuff and she said yes, and then I sent her my solo stuff as well.
Rhyton was the same sort of thing where I was like, “We’ve got this project we’re working real hard on, and we’ve got these recordings, so check it out.” We’d sat on it for a while and then we remixed what we had, and it was pretty immediately signed off on.
She seems amenable to a lot of things and has broad tastes.
DCS: She adjusts on the fly and tries to keep up with stuff. It’s kind of cool that the Thrill Jockey 20 shows in New York are mostly bands that have been on the label for less than three years, and it just shows she’s constantly seeking out stuff and is restless in the way that musicians can be restless. Instead of putting [out] records by five bands, they have over 200 releases.
JS: Bettina is going to put out my record, too – that wouldn’t have happened without Dave putting it onto her and suggest that she check it out. That material is totally different from what I do with Rhyton – it’s all electronics and analog synthesizers. But when you listen to it, it makes sense because it’s definitely out of a similar vibe to other projects I’ve been involved with.
[Photo: Bryan Leitgeb]