Supporting the theory that this century's best experimental music springs from the American Midwest, St. Louis' Joseph Raglani released two killer, career-spanning albums last year. Husk, on Arbor, is from what press releases call his early period-- a selection of tracks from various small-batch releases dating from 2004 to 2009. Real Colors of the Physical World, on Editions Mego, was recorded recently, and pursues a similar aesthetic via longer-form compositional style. In what follows, Raglani will describe this aesthetic as "American electronic," a malleable categorization that expands to include peers like Keith Fullerton Whitman, Steve Hauschildt, and Greg Davis. What sets Raglani apart from his cohorts-- what makes his music especially vital-- is its combination of emotional lightness and cerebral density. Much like his cover art, his sounds harken to a future that would seem, in its physics and its forms, governed by utopian dream logic.
What's the story behind your first synthesizer?
Well, the first modular synthesizer I ever saw was either Sonic Boom's Serge or Jim O'Rourke's A-100. I had no idea what it was and I asked everyone I knew in the room, "What the hell is that thing?" About a year later, the friend I went to Chicago with to see this Yoshihide/O'Rourke/Ruins gig called me up and said the magic word: "Doepfer!" I started saving money and searched eBay every day for about two-and-a-half years. Eventually someone listed a A-100 system, and I had exactly the amount of money in the bank to cover it. It ended up being Bill Leeb's system. He was in Front Line Assembly, and maybe even an early version of Skinny Puppy. He was a nice bloke. He even bothered to explain to me that a ring mod needed two inputs to get an output. But yeah, it was almost three years before anything "Doepfer" popped up on eBay. Nowadays, it's a different story. I had no idea whatsoever what to make of this box I'd gotten. I think I probably cried because I thought I'd blown 3k on something that didn't work. The A-100 came with a fairly large manual, which I carried around with me everywhere for years, vainly trying to understand it. Eventually, it started to sink in. But I'm afraid to admit that the first year I had it I was afraid to pull the patch out because I didn't know if I'd get sound out of it again.
How did the gear theft after No Fun Fest a few years back effect you?
Well, it really crushed me, obviously. I had plans to do some tours and go overseas. I had quit my job and had all the tools there finally to really make a go at it: a PA, road cases, killer synths, etc.. A whole life saving up and preparing just got taken away from me in a blink of an eye. It caused all kinds of personal and financial problems. Some opportunities slipped through my fingers because I wasn't able to tour or put out records quickly enough. But if you dwell on all that you'll just end up bitter and creatively crippled. So I've learned to trust the universe and its plans for me. I took two very positive things away from it. The first thing that I immediately realized was that people actually cared and gave a shit about me, which I honestly did not believe before the theft. The number of people who wrote me letters or donated money so I could buy a synthesizer was astounding to me. I was totally caught off-guard, and it really gave me hope. It sounds silly, but it really opened me up to the concept of kindness, and of helping your fellow humans out. It was personally and creatively transformative. I had to totally rethink my approach with music, and re-learn how to do it with very few tools. Out of that came the Temporal Marauder/ Jean Logarin/ Max Tanguy projects. I freed myself up considerably, and began to have lots of fun again. I let myself run amok in a fictional persona and sound world. I had to construct a sort of freedom out of what was initially a restriction. So I gave myself a new history, a new modus operandi. I believe I developed new forms of music, which is a notion I would have scoffed at a few years ago. The Temporal Marauder experience was paramount to me. I think you can really hear Jean's influence on the new record, ha ha.
If we entered some sort of wide-scale permanent blackout-- like in The Road, for example-- what would you do to make music?
Well, hopefully I'd have a Gamelan handy. Honestly, in a situation like that, just the existence of any music would be a miracle. I think music would seriously be recharged and regain its visceral power. I think people who make overtly abstract music in today's world do it to remind people of the transcendental power of sound. If we were returned to some primal state of being technologically, I think I'd be fine being part of anything creative or artistic. I imagine the brutality of that kind of existence would make one very grateful for simple creative acts. I still have my acoustic guitar from when I was a kid; maybe I'd be a troubadour spinning tales of the old world in which the monsters of complacency ruled the land.
Sidebar: in a The Road-type situation, how quick would it be before you resorted to cannibalism? Do you see yourself as capable of "carrying the fire?"
I'm a vegetarian! I would probably be eaten up right away.
Should experimental music be difficult or accessible?
Both? I think it's a problem of the audience not being willing to make the leap. I don't think there is a lack of awesome, challenging music out there-- I think there is a lack of an audience that enjoys being entertained by challenging music. I saw this footage of Pierre Henry from French TV in the mid '60s. He's doing this "happening," you know, and the host is asking the people leaving the show what they thought of it. I was blown away by the fact that it was people of all ages, from all sectors of society. Some liked it, and some didn't, but the point was they all wanted to experience it, because it was new. I think there is a serious lack of that today. People WANT formula and cheap thrills in general. Look at the music scene from the mid-'60s through the '70s-- the amount of experimentation and risk-[taking], the utter abundance of recorded output. That could have only happened because there was an audience for it, or at the very least an amount of respect for the ideal of "progress." I'm afraid we've entered a new dark age in which we've constructed these tools to free us, but we've become completely accepting of the cheapest, most immediate thrill. I'm not sure I've answered your question though...
How does today's komische relate to other retrospective scenes, like '60s revivalism, or the fascination with old soul and funk in '90s hip-hop?
I don't know. I don't think of myself as a Kosmische musician; I think of myself as an American electronic composer working in the present. Terms like Kosmische or Musique Concrete get dropped into press releases to provide some historical context for the work. To say that a strain of today's electronic music is related to the past is not like some "revival," but more like a philosophy or science. Musique Concrete, for example-- it sets up problems to be worked on. It's development, not a revival. There's been no real break, and it's not a question of repeating that material-- it's a question of developing its themes.