Thrill Jockey 20th Anniversary: Guardian Alien (Greg Fox) “Without trying to play the piece, we play it.”

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: Rhyton; Next: Bettina Richards]

New York drummer Greg Fox first came to broader notoriety through his work with the avant-garde metal trio Liturgy, whose Aesthetica was one of the strongest and most highly regarded heavy music releases of 2011. Having left that group, there is now an opportunity for listeners — whether or not they were familiar with Liturgy — to explore a world of Fox’s own. Steering the collective of mostly instrumental-psych ensemble Guardian Alien is the drummer’s current focus, and their second record, See the World Given to a One Love Entity, was just released last month on Thrill Jockey. The ensemble itself is interesting, as it features voice, electronics, and shahi baaja (Indian electric zither) in addition to guitar, bass, and percussion. Guardian Alien will be playing tonight’s Thrill Jockey 20th anniversary show at Death By Audio.

It seems to me like Guardian Alien is directed, to a degree, but there’s a lot of ensemble openness. Could you talk about how the work on Thrill Jockey was developed, as well as live, and your ideas about the project?

As things came together and solidified, and as we played and toured more, we figured out what we were creating. Now to a certain extent we play it the same way every night, but there’s still a lot of room in there for people to do what they want. There is common ground, and it came from working within guidelines to carve the thing out. At this point we all know what the piece is and where the beginning is; where we’ll meet up along the way and what happens in between are determined by the players. Different elements would come in with varying frequency and it took a while for those to feel right.

I’m not composing parts for everybody; what I want to do on the drums and what I find exciting, I bring in and we work on it, and the music will come together. We’ve worked out everything live, for the most part, though one new development is that I just moved into a new practice space, so we’ll start spending more time in the studio.

What are the signposts and directions, and how did the composition on the record come to be?

I knew that I wanted to do the record with the title and the artwork already in mind, and I still can’t really pinpoint how to describe the experience of getting that information.

It is exciting for me though to feel that there is something speaking through this music, and even if it’s just my brain playing tricks on me that’s fine – it’s a good joke.

Right, I read that fascinating story of it coming to you in a no-mind meditative state.

We were playing the piece in a very amorphous state and it hadn’t really solidified. We played in Birmingham at the Bottle Tree, and everything came together in a certain way – the weather, the dinner we had, the opening band – so that night we got it to a point where it felt “right.” Something new happened, and at that point I decided to write out the piece and its structure. It was refined further from that, of course, but at least the sections became clear. And at that point the idea became specifically to record an A-side and a B-side of a record. It’s definitely made for vinyl, and it’s arranged with the idea that there’s a break in the music. Then during mixing I did a lot of arranging and cutting and pasting, capturing the best of what was in the can from a six-hour marathon session, and after a lot of work it emerged as the album. That also affected how we would play the music live, subsequently.

At that point you were approaching something from the recorded experience, and you then had to follow those signposts and leave a fair amount of room for reinterpretation.

Absolutely. It reaches a balance where everyone trusts one another; without trying to play the piece, we play it. Now, we’re working on the foundations of the next thing and hopefully we’ll be able to record that before 2013. It’s interesting because it seems like a continuation of how things had developed; we stopped and archived what we’d done, but then we ended up continuing to work on the music. The new stuff is different – the drumming is different, it’s got a different intensity and tempo, and technically it’s different, but it feels like it grew naturally out of what we had accomplished.

As far as how the band came together and has solidified, and how the compositions are structured, it seems percussion-heavy while also employing a broader approach. You hear about drummer-led bands being rhythmically complex quite often, worked out from the drum chair. As an instrumentalist and composer, how do you gestate the music for a bevy of different instruments?

I’m in a leadership position because of how it started, and because the drumming does do a lot [of] leading musically. When we started out it was basically me saying “OK, here are the guidelines for what I want to do – that’s it. Let’s play.” A lot of times people would strictly adhere to it, but there were also situations when players would throw my guidelines out the window. The first Guardian Alien performance was on WFMU, where I was invited to play solo and I thought I’d rather do something multi-instrumental. My solo work is often more fun to record than it is to play live; it’s mostly electronic. So I showed up with seven other people. Originally the idea was to do something where I’m leading with the drums, but keeping a sense of freedom happening. I figured that instead of having people just wailing away, if I present a couple of principles it would help things cohere, especially with up to 11 people onstage.

As things developed and there became a regular membership, the others involved started to develop their own language within those guidelines. The more we did it the tighter it became and the feedback loop got quicker. I had a general idea of what I wanted it to sound like, and based on what people did over the course of playing, we’d suggest doing things differently, or more frequently, or whatever. The next recording session won’t be one six hour day, but spread out over a few days, where we can try things out and see what works more collectively.

You also have a sound on the drums that is recognizable, and your personality comes through. You’ve been steadily working on your craft for a long time and it seems you’ve been committed to what you want to do on the instrument from a fairly early age.

Yeah, I started drumming when I was 12, and in middle school I would go into the band room and play drums during lunchtime. My grandfather, Henry, was a drummer so it was always in the back of my mind somewhere. Actually, my first instrument was the trumpet. In fourth grade I started on that, and I was pretty mediocre – fourth trumpet in 7th grade band or something like that – but it was kind of inevitable that I’d start playing drums. My grandfather had a kit and I started taking lessons, though it didn’t get serious for a long time. It wasn’t serious as a craft for me until I was about 17 – after I got out of high school I started working at a place called Manny’s Music, which isn’t around anymore.

Yeah, that’s a pretty famous music store – one that I’ve heard of, anyway.

It was. I got a job there as an “accessories salesman,” selling guitar pedals, strings, stuff like that. Eventually I found my way into the drums department, and one day a week I was the manager. While I worked there I became close with Guy Licata, a really great drummer who studied with Jim Chapin and Jojo Mayer. He taught me the Moeller hand technique, which is sort of the drummers’ equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls – he’d come up to the drum department, get out the drum pads and show me things that I would then practice all day. I cannot stress enough how much this completely changed my life. To him I would say: Guy Licata, THANK YOU.

The other thing was there would be days when there wasn’t much store traffic and I would practice and watch drum-instruction DVDs. I learned polyrhythms from watching Terry Bozzio tapes, for example. If I wasn’t busy, I was working on technique.

You also seem pretty keyed into the history of the drums; I was reading another interview where you were talking about how blast beats relate to certain Civil War martial drum techniques, so it seems like you’ve done your homework on where your approach is coming from.

It’s actually Moeller technique that comes from the Civil War drumming – the blast beat comes from Napalm Death. And yes, I am definitely concerned with the canon – the way I see it, it’s just like anything else and people pass things down. I’ve found myself in these situations where I’ve been given this information, been shown how to do these things and how to think about them, and I feel extremely fortunate that that has been the case many times over – that I can see myself in a context, as part of a lineage of drummers. I learned a particular hand technique from Guy Licata, who learned it from Jojo and Chapin, and I studied with Marvin “Bugalu” Smith, who studied a lot of master drummers, including Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, and Roy Haynes. I’m honored to be able to connect myself directly with the passing down of this knowledge through history, and to feel that connection tangibly.

I’ve found myself in these situations where I’ve been given this information, been shown how to do these things and how to think about them, and I feel extremely fortunate that that has been the case many times over – that I can see myself in a context, as part of a lineage of drummers.

The drums seem to lend themselves to that in a special way. They’re a communicative tool, culturally. At one point I was interviewing Alvin Fielder, and he would talk about sitting in the room with Kenny Clarke and listening to him talk about the drums. You learn things not necessarily by being shown specific techniques, but by being around the humanity of the person. The rhythms and ideas are infused with personality, and vice versa, so getting to know these people is an education.

I think it’s because the drums have a deep and meaningful history. It’s the heartbeat; societies have music and rhythms that are central to their culture. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the company of people who have influenced what I’m interested in, and I’ve been shown specific things that, when I play them, the people who have shown me those things are present, and it reaches back through drumming lineages. Through doing this thing I feel like I’m reaching back through a tangible history.

I just started meeting with Milford Graves. The first time I saw him play, he and Guy Licata shared a stage with John Zorn and Mike Patton at Tonic – it was a weird show. I was very much into breakbeats, jungle, and drum-and-bass at the time, and at the time I had only a very cursory appreciation of jazz – I was just getting into drummers like Elvin, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Papa Jo and Blakey. About a year or so ago, series of coincidences happened where Milford’s name kept popping up, so I contacted him, and many months later he called me, on the first morning of a tour. He told me to call him when I got back, which I did, and he invited me over to his house. We spent a long time talking and he said, “OK, I’ll let you know.” Two weeks later he called me and said, “I did my detective work on you, I want you to come back.” I’ve been over a couple of times since. We haven’t touched a drum yet. It’s almost all conversational.

He hooked me up to his heart machine. It’s in the early stages – we meet in his basement, which is a combination of a drum room and a laboratory, and I feel very comfortable down there. My mom’s dad was the drummer and my dad’s dad was a chemist, so my grandfathers had either a drum room or a laboratory in their basements. So it’s a crazy thing.

At this point we all know what the piece is and where the beginning is; where we’ll meet up along the way and what happens in between are determined by the players

As far as bringing it back to the ensemble, as far as your own work, what are some of the things with Guardian Alien that allow you to build on the history and science of what you’re doing?

I’d like to figure out ways to incorporate more guest musicians. I think free music is more interesting when enjoyed from the perspective of the individual players, as opposed to the group, so I find that integration presents a lot of challenges. In my opinion, and when it comes to having a band, I think you want to come together as much as possible on certain ideas, even if you are improvising. I’d like to fuse the way the band started with the openness that’s become part of it.

We’ve been talking about how the drums are a communicative tool, and how history is passed on through them, and I want to wrap that into the extra-band communicative level that Guardian Alien tries to operate at. Is the music a tool beyond itself in any way?

It might be, but I would hesitate to make an overly strong statement about that. It makes me think about the cover art – I didn’t make that up. I’m not going to go around and say that I was visited by an alien who gave me the album title and art, or that I’m channeling some higher intelligence, or it’s the Pookah, or something like that, because I just don’t know. It is exciting for me though to feel that there is something speaking through this music, and even if it’s just my brain playing tricks on me that’s fine – it’s a good joke. I’m pretty sure there won’t be any resolution to that. But I didn’t expect anyone to care about the record and my expectations were low in terms of someone releasing it. My lack of expectation has been exceeded multiple times.

Could you talk about your experience with Thrill Jockey?

I remember hearing Tortoise’s TNT and Nobukazu Takemura’s “Scope” in high school, and those are records I got into very deeply then. That left a good impression, but I didn’t have a huge concern for record labels at the time. Anyway, when Liturgy was in the process of releasing the last record, I had Thrill Jockey in mind because a bunch of Baltimore friends’ bands that I knew were doing records with them. Also, they were doing Boredoms, Dan Higgs, and all my favorite music. When TJ expressed interest it was basically a done deal.

And they seem to give artists a lot of freedom in choosing the cover art and so forth. It seems like a situation where you can present the music how you want without too much limitation, and that’s all one can hope for.

It’s definitely the ideal situation – they’re extremely nice people. When I quit Liturgy I was pleasantly surprised when I had a conversation with Bettina about it. I’m not sure what I was expecting exactly, but she was very understanding and told me to keep in touch. I’d send her things I was working on, and I was talking to some labels about the Guardian record and thought I’d ask her as well. I said we were almost done with it and would Thrill Jockey be interested, and she said yes! I think that might have been without even hearing the record. That was all we needed to hear. Working with these guys has been very easy and cool. They are hyper-functional in ways that many other labels I’ve worked with are not. From my point of view it’s an extremely secure label run by people I enjoy hanging out with, who have been very generous towards me, and I’m looking forward to adding more to their catalog in whatever ways I can. I think they really care about the artists they work with, and having had these experiences, I feel like Thrill Jockey is the best possible situation for Guardian Alien. You might say I am “thrilled.” I’d also like to give a shout-out, as I’ll be thrilled to school Jamie Proctor on the basketball court on the 14th before the Death By Audio show!

[Photo: Rebecca Smeyne]

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