Photos by Tim Bugbee
Nathan Bowles is a multi-instrumentalist from Virginia whose musical orbit includes his primary groups, Pelt and The Black Twig Pickers, but whose extended sonic universe accommodates the Spiral Joy Band and collaborations with Glenn Jones, Charlie Parr, Jack Rose and M.C. Taylor, among others. In recent years, Bowles has added banjo to his repertoire, releasing his debut solo record on Soft Abuse last year. A Bottle, A Buckeye is as stirring and essential as any document in the current wave of solo string instrument practitioners, from Jones' superlative My Garden State to Cian Nugent's transfixing Doubles and Willie Lane's under-the-radar Guitar Army of One.
At this year's Hopscotch festival, Bowles was given a cherry slot as one of the first acts on the first night in the aurally impeccable Fletcher Opera House, inaugurating a night of music that would include Angel Olsen and Grouper. Bowles seized the moment, delivering an hour's worth of impeccable tunes that demonstrated his emerging mastery of the banjo. “I did some of the more out pieces I don't do in other venues, because it's a room where people are sitting," he says. "In Black Twigs, we're like a bar band most of the time. It's interesting to structure a set around some of the slower-paced material. Like tonight, the only thing I could hear were coughs and camera shutters.”
Musicians today have more options than ever before to max out a solo performance: pre-recorded backing accompaniments, cooperative electronic hardware, live laptop processing. With some technological assistance, a single person can build a piece of music that contains more sounds and textures than he or she could ever produce alone. Dustin Wong demonstrates the potential of maximal solo performance perhaps more fully than any of his contemporaries, though he does so with only a Fender Telecaster and a small semi-circle of pedals. After collaborating with j-pop goddess Takako Minekawa on Toropical Circle earlier this year, the former Ponytail guitarist returns to solo sessions for the third entry in his trilogy of guitar-focused albums, following 2010's Infinite Love and 2012's Dream, Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads. The expansive Mediation of Ecstatic Energy, due out September 17 via Thrill Jockey, showcases his most developed compositions to date, layered sky-high with melodies and rhythms that interlock against evolving backdrops of looped guitar. Though his brain and hands can function with ridiculous speed in live performance, Wong moves through our conversation at a measured pace, taking time to ponder each point before articulating aspects of his creative process with remarkable clarity and self-perception. I talked with him over Skype about loop-based composition, motivation, guitar tones and coming home to Japan, where he grew up.
Ad Hoc: What's life like these days?
Dustin Wong: Right now, I'm just kind of working on music with Takako, and working on a music video for the new album. I just got this video projector, and I went to a hardware shop and got little turntables. I've been putting these prisms on there, and then playing video through them. It's really nice to just have in your room-- it's like a disco ball with video.
Between her considerable training in classical music theory and her elusive, deceptively homebrewed recording process, there's something about Julia Holter's repertoire that makes it inherently difficult to discuss. It's a catalog that’s begging to be over-intellectualized. In the midst of breaking out to a wider audience, it seems destined to be pigeonholed as something careful, sophisticated, and generally made for smart people who are sitting down. But even when she references situational drama from Greek mythology, as she did on her breakout LP, Tragedy, I’ve always felt that her music possessed accessible, sensual tendencies, in direct opposition to the rigid image that many hold of The Conservatory. Think, for example, of the bass groove midway through "This is Ekstasis;" it's a cut from sophomore record Ekstasis that evokes the raw avant-rock of Eno in Roxy Music more than say, Laurie Anderson, to whom Holter is frequently compared. Still, more than her influences, Holter’s knack for universal human portraiture is what shines through.
It's a gift that feels particularly evident on her forthcoming third LP, Loud City Song, and as we got deeper into conversation in a corner of the Tribeca Grand Hotel lobby, it felt like an affirmation of her true artistic identity. Loud City Song is, by her own admission, her first real collaboration-- most prominently, with Los Angeles indie sound guru and former Haunted Graffiti member Cole M. Grief-Neill as her engineer, producer, and general brainstormer--but it retains the solitary intimacy of her previously mostly-homemade output. Though she still relies heavily on allusion to examine interpersonal relationships, the primary source is something a little chintzier than heavy Greek drama: the Lerner-Loewe musical film Gigi, the source inspiration for much of the album, particularly centerpiece tracks “Maxim’s I” and “II.” During our conversation, Holter talked to me about what it was like working in a new environment and the complexities of making art that references other art.
Ad Hoc: What was different about working on Loud City Song compared to your previous albums?
Julia Holter: It was great, because it was the best of both worlds. I was using material that I’d written alone-- in the same way that I had usually written and had made demos--, but I got to explore a lot of things without feeling the pressure of making those initial demos the final versions. It was actually really freeing. I tried a bunch of stuff being like, “I’m going to do this but when we record it, we can do it better.” So, I basically came up with the atmosphere for every song, and then was able to work with people like Cole, who knows so much about sound and can deal with it really subtlely. I’m so heavy-handed with everything because I don’t really know what I’m doing, so it was helpful getting to work with someone who's knowledgeable about that while I still get to direct the atmosphere. He can just execute things better than I can, in terms of cueing a voice so it’s the way I want it, but he would also make decisions. Like, I would have a recording of a street sound and he would play with ideas of where to put that. And I had these amazing players-- I had parts written out for all of them, but they’re all different. Some of the songs would be wholly written out, but then some would be just chords and they’d improvise within that framework. So it varied. I recorded a lot at home as well-- I recorded all my keyboard parts at home, and did vocals at Cole’s house rather than in the studio. He has a very nice microphone, but it wasn’t a real studio, so it wasn’t like I suddenly had to go full pro. It was a very, very comfortable process, a much better way than I was doing it before.
Last month, The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles premiered a documentary series on their YouTube channel called The Art Of Punk. Each episode explores the roots and stories behind the iconic artwork of seminal punk bands. It makes sense that one of the figures that MOCA got in touch with was Bryan Ray Turcotte, one of the foremost experts on the punk movement. Turcotte is responsible for Fucked Up + Photocopied: Instant Art of the Punk Rock Movement, published in 1999 and winner of the Firecracker Alternative Book Award for Music, and Punk is Dead: Punk is Everything!, published in 2007. These volumes chronicle the flyers, ephemera, and iconography that helped shape the punk movement of the '70s and '80s. So far, Turcotte has helmed episodes on Black Flag, Crass, and The Dead Kennedys, interviewing legends such as Ray Pettibon, Jello Biafra, and Henry Rollins. I called Turcotte to talk about the enduring power of flyering and the future of The Art Of Punk.
Ad Hoc: The Art Of Punk seems like a logical progression from what you did with Fucked Up + Photocopied. How did the idea for that book get off the ground?
Bryan Ray Turcotte: I grew up in the San Francisco punk scene when I was a kid. I was playing in bands when I was 13, 14, 15, opening up for bands like The Dead Kennedys and stuff in the mid-'80s. So that’s where it started, in terms of collecting flyers. I wallpapered my room with flyers when I was a kid, and we used to skateboard around town pulling flyers off of poles so that we knew what shows were happening. Eventually I graduated from high school and moved to LA to try and become a musician in a band, and I carried the flyers with me.
At some point I got a job at Slash Records and met Henry Rollins. The idea for a book had come up, but no one seemed to really think that it would do well or no one seemed to really care. So I just started doing it on my own. Jello [Biafra] was my first phone call and he gave me a bunch of numbers to different guys, like Joey [Keithley] from D.O.A. One call led to another and led to another and eventually-- after about, I don’t know, a year-- I probably had 20,000 or 30,000 flyers from upwards of 200 different contributors from all over the country. And just with stupid luck, I ended up meeting a guy who changed the whole thing around and introduced me to the guys at Gingko Press, and I showed them what I had and the book sort of started.
In another weird set of circumstances, it just became a best seller. It sort of came out of nowhere. I had never designed a book before, I had never published a book before, never fashioned myself a publisher or a writer or a designer. But it just sort of struck a chord with people, because I felt like I did have something to say and I could make a book feel the way the scene felt for me-- just chaotic and crazy. You have to twist the book around to read half the stuff, and every time you look at it you find new little things that you didn’t see before, and all kinds of secret stuff. I felt like I knew how to capture the right energy, and it just kind of struck a chord. It’s been out 13 years now, and we probably have 15, 16 editions or something like that.
If all labels had in-house bands like Cream Juice, I'm certain the music industry would be in better shape. The duo of Keith Rankin (Giant Claw) and Seth Graham (Henry Dawson) not only collaborate on all aspects of one of the best and most consistent labels, Orange Milk, they manage to find time to crank out some of the strangest tunes around under the Cream Juice moniker. Their latest effort, Man Feelings, is one of the year's most zonked. One of the most impressive aspects of the racket Rank and Graham make is the strange dichotomy of total chaos paired with precise, intricate compositional aspects. Elements of free jazz, noise, and chiptune might be most obvious, but dig deeper and hip-hop, dub, and musique concrete factions are revealed. Man Feelings is an album with incredible depth.
Rank and Graham took time to answer a handful of questions about their creative process in Cream Juice and the inner operations of Orange Milk.
Ad Hoc: I've professed my love for both your solo projects (Giant Claw and Henry Dawson, respectively) on many platforms before and when I listen to your solo work, there are obvious aural connections between the two in my mind even though they're very, very different. There's a sort of ADHD-quality (for lack of a better phrase) to both of them - it's hard to sit still when listening to any of your albums, if I'm honest. So first let's get into how Cream Juice started and the decision behind deciding to start a collaborative project. When did it start? You all had been running Orange Milk together for a while before CJ was an entity, right? Or at least, the label had released quite a bit of stuff before your first album came out. I'm getting long-winded here, but basically I just want to know about the origins of the project.
Seth Graham: Keith and I talked about playing together since 2008 or '09? It was long before Orange Milk came to be. I ran a tiny tape label called QUILT and released a tape for Keith, called Darkness Light Darkness, which is a great tape by the way. After that, playing together came up often. But it wasn’t until we started Orange Milk that we began working on specific ideas. I think the first time we recorded was summer of 2010 or so. It took us a while to finish the first record due to other solo obligations and Orange Milk.
Keith Rankin: I should also mention that me and Seth met and started thinking about Cream Juice and Orange Milk while we were living in Dayton, Ohio, which has a pretty small and insular music scene. We first crossed paths at a community college political science class. Seth would try to rile up our teacher by claiming to be a hardcore, no-exceptions Libertarian, which is really funny in hindsight. At the time, though, I thought he was a bit of a dick, and was probably afraid of his massive beard. But the teacher was really bad, and I stopped going to the class without getting a chance to talk. We met up later when both of our bands randomly played a show together, and bonded over the music from Twin Peaks and Katamari Damacy. Seth was really nice and easy to talk to. It was great to meet someone in Dayton who shared an open view on music and didn't really hold any ideas too sacred. So that initial distaste for musical sacred cows is definitely a defining element in Cream Juice.
SG: I remember thinking in that class, I know that gangly awkward guy, hes in bands, turns out Keith is a badass.
Now that they have produced a string of EPs and their first full-length, Compendium, it seems fitting to inquire a bit further into the arcane world of Old Apparatus. As a collective, they have worked hard to remove any traces of human presence, replacing it with striking imagery and rare media appearances constituting the stage for their manifesto. Their earlier images consisted of old Victorian portraits or mug-shots, the human heads removed and replaced by old and grotesque science equipment. It was during this time that OA released a self-titled 12” on the legendary dubstep producer Mala’s label, Deep Medi. It was a mesmeric debut, incorporating noise, industrial, and dubstep with a plethora of sounds and instruments. It created a big stir in the UK scene and was a perfect introduction to the limitless sounds of Old Apparatus.
After a second release on Deep Medi and a handful of remixes, including one for the Shangaan Electro album on Honest Jons, the group found a new home for their esoteric material in the formation of their own label, Sullen Tone. This move resulted in a highly fertile period for the group, with the release of a series of genre-hopping EPs in 2012-- each with its own, striking, occultish cover image. The first EP from the new label was attributed to the group, but the three that would follow were produced individually by the band members LTO, A Levitas, and Harem. It is the music from these four EPs that leads us to Compendium.
At this point, I feel like my DNA is intertwined with the Flying Lotus discography. I spent most of my teenage years as a listener on hip hop, more specifically then-modern stuff-- Three 6 Mafia’s Da Unbreakables, Lil’ Wayne’s Dedication II, Young Jeezy’s Thug Motivation 101, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint hung around for a long time-- but started to feel constrained by the palate. I could relate to the sounds, but the beat was always sort of subject to a particular vocal; I could relate to the mood, but didn’t boast the same set of life experiences. There were spiritual and historical elements so prevalent in hip hop, and electronic music at large, that seemed supressed by the climate-- a formula set in.
Though he got started well before, Lotus’ Los Angeles changed all that. An entire wave of progressive, predominantly instrumental, producer-oriented hip hop projects were given life by that record. It'd be possible to trace the roots further back to Dilla’s late beat tape work, but L.A. and beyond’s brightest in abstract hip hop owe ample credit to FlyLo. Finding the hottest new experiment used to be as easy as checking his top five myspace friends (which at times included Matthewdavid and Samiyam).
Charting his evolution over the years reveals obvious roots in rap, but bridges to George Duke, Sun Ra, Aphex Twin, Drexciya, El-P, and cinema soundtrack were littered everywhere. Cosmogramma, his follow-up, only expanded that vision: an ambitiously paced art-rock album that tackled the ancient drama of the universe itself, brimming with excited, luscious orchestration and strange compositional turns that forced an album-length listen every time.
One would imagine that made the task of his recent follow-up record, Until the Quiet Comes, that much more daunting, but as I excitedly held on the phone line in an empty cafe for producer Steven Ellison a few weeks before it’s release, he seemed youthful and elated. “Hold on a second, hear he comes,” his publicist told me before handing off the phone. “Oh, he’s making racing noises, you get the special attention!” I had listened to a preview copy, and was intrigued and entranced by the new direction-- broader strokes in the stereo field, muted contrasts of night-time colors, intimacy and mano a mano whispers in place of Cosmo’s grand conversation with the Spirit-- but it was when I heard his evident peace as we started to geek out over records, his creative process, and travelling the world, that I started to feel as though it had already told me all his secrets.