In a series of 34 interviews, illustrator and musician Brian Walsby gives us a glimpse into the world of being a self employed artist in modern times. Walsby, being self employed himself, makes a living, among other things, drawing images and selling them on tour with rock heavyweight band the Melvins. He has illustrated t-shirts through Bifocal Media for the Melvins, Jeff Pinkus (Butthole Surfers), and Redd Kross among others. In his spare time he has written 7 volumes of his book Manchild, a series that reads like a comic book about musicians and musical experiences.
The book is 476 pages with interviews of artists Walsby met on the road while touring with the Melvins, folks he’s met over the years attending concerts and through his own musical endeavors as a drummer for quite a few bands in Raleigh and Simi Valley. In addition to his career as a cartoonis, Brian is an excellent drummer and he performed in bands Scared Straight, Wwax, Snake Nation, Willard, the Patty Duke Syndrome, Double Negative among others.
Many of the interviews read alot like conversations with Brian providing interesting dialogue. One such exchange comes in an interview with Alice in Chains singer and guitarist William DuVall, who also played in the 80’s punk band Neon Christ.
Walsby: I wasn’t a super fan of Alice in Chains but I liked Dirt alot and to this day maintain that the band has a unique sound…that is the band’s own and they maintain it seamlessly as they did with their late lead singer Layne Staley. What was it like to slot yourself in there musically with Jerry?
William: The harmonizing was always pretty easy from the start. All you have to do is listen. I will say that on our records a lot of attention is given to phrasing and pronunciation. Whichever one of us writes the lyric usually sings it first in the studio. The the other guy has to match the phrasing EXACTLY, even down to the slightest variation of vowel sounds.
For those aspiring to be in the self employed status, Self Empunishment provides a realistic and sometimes enlightening look into what is needed to start working for yourself. With 35 different perspectives on the topic, one picture becomes clear, that of not giving up. Walsby discusses a point in his life when he wasn’t drawing as much as he was previously in an interview with fellow illustrator Chris Shary. Shary called him up and asked him what had happened to him, and according to Walsby this is a big part of what inspired him to start drawing again.
Walsby first illustrated for zines like Maximum Rock and Roll and has drawn fliers and comics of bands and music, which encouraged him to work in two careers that competed, as an illustrator and drummer. He describes that the drawing won out.
The book contains a few themes that he discusses with a few folks he interviews. One theme revolves around parenthood. With both Dale Crover (Melvins, Redd Kross) and Lou Barlow (Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr.) Brian discusses what it’s like to be an artist and a parent. He hit’s on something that I certainly relate to, waiting until your child has gone to bed and trying to pick back up the inspired for something you thought of several hours ago. Barlow claims that he started getting the hang of parenting on his 3rd child, which makes me a bit nervous as a new father of a 5 month old.
Another theme that might be obvious to those who already follow Walsby’s work is that almost everyone in this book knows Buzz Osborne and thinks very highly of him. I mean, I certainly do, and his interview is really interesting and fun as he discusses running his business of the Melvins like they’re going out of business in the next 6 months. While Dale Crover’s interview is quite funny, Buzz seems like someone who’s figured out things on a whole different level than most. The idea is discussed that being out on tour can actually allow more time at home with family than working say a 9-5 job when things are all said and done. After all, there are quite a few months out of the year where work is needed to be done on recording new material and this isn’t done on the road.
While in the interview with Crover, he and Walsby cover the point in time when Crover played in Nirvana and how he decided not to continue to work with them and instead to move to San Francisco to follow Osbourne. To touch on the topic of self-employment, Crover and Osbourne recount working briefly but then in a sense going out on a limb to work on the Melvins full time and despite the odds being stacking against them they simply worked hard and it’s lasted well over 30 years now. They probably say it way better that it would be possible to describe our write about so it’s alone a great reason to buy the book.
As amazing as all of the interviews with musicians are and I can go on naming names, Eugene Robinson (Oxbow) and Dale Flattum (Steel Pole Bathtub- note: his isn’t actually an interview but more of some words he wrote and sent to Brian in case he wanted to include it in the book). The musicians’ stories are all unique and fucking great, it’s the folks I’m less familiar with like Toshi Kasai (Sound Engineer for the Melvins among others) and Tom Hazelmeyer (U-Men, Amphetamine Reptile) that round out the book, showing many different sides of making a living from one’s own artistic endeavors. Rebecca Severin (Frightwig) tells some rad stories of what it was like to be the costume designer for Gene Simmons and Bob Hannam (The Colossus of Destiny, A Melvins Tale) recounts his time working sound for Neil Young and Crazy Horse as well as what it was like working the tour of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Another theme that seems noteworthy in this book is that drums are cool. As previously mentioned, Walsby is a drummer. He is claiming to be retired from working as a drummer, but being in a group part-time with Mike Dean means that drums aren’t something he doesn’t do anymore. Also, a chapter entitled An Essay on Drums is the illustrator’s own self history from the days he played in the band Scared Straight all the way to his most recent group Davidians.
Slated to be released on October 10th, 2020, on Pelekinesis Self Empunishment is an opportunity for music enthusiasts to delve into the world of free lance artists. Great read.
Jeff Pinkus is one of my favorite bass players on the planet. After reading his interview in Brian Walsby’s new book Self Empunishment, I pondered over a theme in the book regarding interviews of famous drummers. I thought to myself if I ever had the chance to do a similar book, or a similar theme in any manner it would probably revolve around my favorite bass players. I ran into Jeff at the post office and pitched an interview idea to him. He obliged and we had a chat to discuss his solo banjo project as well as his bass projects with numerous bands including the Melvins, Butthole Surfers, Honky, and Helios Creed among others.
DJStrangeblood: I want to ask about your newest album, Keep on the grass, it was produced by Danny Barnes from the Bad Livers. Their first record ‘Delusions of “Banjuer’ was produced by Paul Leary, so you guys go back a bit?
JD Pinkus: Yeah, actually I brought Paul out to come watch them play and he liked them so much he was willing to invest thousands of his own dollars to do it and I wasn’t quite that enthusiastic about producing a band , but he did an amazing job on it, and the stuff they did before that, you know Lust for Life (Iggy Pop cover), I used to go see them at Saxon Pub every Monday and all of my friends would get up on stage with them. You know, when we took them on tour with us (Butthole Surfers) for half of the tour, they just never stopped playing, especially Danny. He’d be busking outside of the bus and he’d be playing backstage before and after the show. He would just never stop playing. I don’t know if it’s a nervous habit or what, I love my banjo too so I can kind of relate.
DJ Strangeblood: You have completely different styles of playing but I can hear your influences on one another. I can remember buying the first record when it came out. They did a cover of Pee Pee the Sailor and in the album photo Mark Rubin had a Butthole Surfers sticker on his bass.
JD Pinkus: Yeah, those guys were pretty punk rock. You know Danny’s been sober for quite a while, he was wrestling some of his demons back in those days. You know I played in a guitar, drums and bass band back in those times and we called it the Danny Barnes Experience. We played at Emo’s. I have a live recording of it. I always knew the nice Danny Barnes, I never knew the Bad Liver demon that made him probably want to quit drinking. He’s never been nothing other than an extremely solid individual. His Barnyard Electronics record was really when I knew I wanted to work with him that way. Everytime I would say “Hey man, show me something” he would say, “Naw man, I like what you do”
DJStrangeblood: Well I do too
JD Pinkus: Yeah, well it was really fun to see the way he picked apart my songs, he took them back and mixed them himself and I liked everyone of them. And I was impressed with the attention he payed to every detail, and I used the guy that he liked for mastering and I thought the mastering was amazing. And that was all on him. You know it’s kind of hard to go back, you know with everything that’s going on now and with the distance and the time I might just end up mixing mine now. You know he’s doing his own little art trip right now. I don’t know he’s actually got the time to mix but we were actually working on the next one, before all of this happened. We’ve got about 5 or 6 songs and he was gonna come down. I was actually gonna record with both Mark and Danny in the middle of April and do a Stanley Brothers styled (group) is at least what was originally planned but with this whole thing (Covid 19), you know, he doesn’t want to leave his house now and he’s got people around him at his house that he can’t risk coming back from doing shows, but he’s been starting to do these kind of comic book kind of art pieces and also doing some block printing and and some other things. I got one of them from him he did, it’s got mushroom banjos, it’s got water colors. So, that’s doing really well for him. That can keep him at his house, you know up where he lives, so he can just jam with (David) Grisman and stay with his wife and all. Hopefully someday we’ll get to record but I’m not counting on it at this point.
DJ Strangeblood: Yeah, the West Coast is pretty far away.
JD Pinkus: Yeah, we were going to do it in Austin. There were going to be some Bad Livers shows. They were going to do some different guests for different nights. With both of them playing. They don’t play with Ralph anymore, the original fiddle player. He was on a couple of my Honky records playing fiddle. He’s a really amazing musician, has an amazing fretless banjo style. He plays the accordion, plays the thumb piano. He doesn’t like using even mics if he can help it. He’s a purist. It was fun playing with him because I’m so not the purist.
DJ Strangeblood: Well, getting back to Keep on the Grass, there are a few songs from Daddy Longhead and some from a band you recorded with recently, called Pure Luck, can you talk some about how the songs came together and (about) Pure Luck?
JD Pinkus: Pure Luck was a direction I had wanted my band Honky to go into a while back and we (Honky) ended up going a little bit more in the metal kind of world so it was nice to have something a little bit more laid back and tonally not as harsh and concentrate on singing and it was also fun because I had two other songwriters that I liked the way they write and when I asked all of these guys to play I asked one of the guys if he could play lead guitar and he was like “Yeah” and it turned out he really couldn’t, but he was a really great songwriter and it turned out that he became a pretty badass guitar player.
It’s been alot of fun doing that but these are alot of the songs I wrote on guitar and banjo especially so it’s good to kind of take them apart and play them on my solo stuff.
And the Daddy Longhead stuff, that was just alot of fun and they’re aren’t alot of folks who’ve heard of Daddy Longhead or know any of the songs on that so it was kind of fun to take a twist on that and I guess repurpose those songs in a way because I still enjoy playing them.
I couldn’t have picked a better time to do a solo thing (laughs) I mean its hard enough to get people to go to practice when there isn’t a pandemic going on. And I’m doing alot of songs that no band has done, that would just be Honky songs or Pure Luck songs. And since I’m not really around anybody right now, maybe I’ll repurpose my solo songs to rock songs later.
I was really looking forward to meeting some musicians out here (Asheville) and playing some new stuff. I’ve been actually meeting a few. Speaking of Pure Luck, Claude Coleman Jr. played on that record and I was just actually at his birthday party yesterday. An outdoor socially distanced Mexican themed birthday party. It’s fun to know he’s here in town. I know one good drummer. So that was one reason to come here to Asheville, was to be in a more banjo environment and also to meet a few players so I can explore some different shit. So, hopefully that opportunity will happen when things get a little bit easier.
DJ Strangeblood: Well, that’s interesting that you mention that, because the band you were in Daddy Longhead while you were in the Buttholes with Rey Washam and Jimbo Young did a cover of the Allman Brothers song Whipping Post. I was wondering if you could talk some about that band and if you and Warren Haynes from Asheville have ever met?
JD Pinkus: No, I’ve never met Warren Haynes. I know Bobby (Landgraf also in the band Down) from Honky is a huge, huge fan so I’ve heard the stuff plenty. But, playing with Rey Washam (Scratch Acid, Daddy Longhead) was quite an experience, because King from the Butthole Surfers, well he calls his playing primitive and he learned to play on phone books and playing with a monster primitive drummer as calls it and then playing with an extremely technical drummer like Rey Washam who could read music and write his drum parts out and he’s got like 8 different drum parts in his head for every song that we played, so its kind of fun going from a band who was less concerned about some of the musical aspects to be in a group with these guys who were kind of like savants, and were amazing musicians, so it really pushed me, to play with some folks that were so musical. I was playing in a band that was say, theatrical and artsy maybe, more than a lot of technicalities. So, to play with Rey Washam, you had to be tight and to push it to another level.
I just can’t imagine being in one band. I just think people have more than one side to them. You know, sometimes I want to play banjo and sometimes I want to play bass with the Melvins. You know there’s different sides to people and we’re not so cut and dry. There’s people who are just metal, and that’s interesting. I don’t understand how people can just be a purist at one type of music or at least have some other kind of art, maybe painting or something to show the other side of art, but yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to have played with some folks that, well, we must’ve covered about every emotion.(laughter)
DJ Strangeblood (laughing also) I have some close friends who are related to Warren, and I think we need to get you both in touch with one another. He does this concert in Asheville around Christmas called the Christmas jam where he performs with alot of guests. I think they were saying it might be streamed this year, but that’s still kind of up in the air…
JD Pinkus Yeah, man that would definitely push me out of my box man, you know, I mean I always admire people that can jam, because you know, I like to write songs and so when I see people that can just play with anybody at any time, know where they’re going, and be able to make something musical out of it, and not just kind of barely tag along, I know quite a few players like that, it just blows me away. I wish I could be more of one, to me I just really enjoy writing songs and there’s something about that to me, you know that’s what I get my satisfaction out of. I understand why people get together musically, to create something no one has even thought of before they start playing it. I’ve done that before but I can’t say I’m really good at it.
DJ Strangeblood: Could you elaborate more on the artistic side of your work in your bands through cover art or by using films? Were those films created by you?
JD Pinkus: I collaborated with my buddy Pat Casey on that stuff. He did alot of that stuff. We kind of talked about what we were going for and he’s done it for me live before and we’ve talked about which parts we like and I gave him my set list and we talked about some things. It was pretty general and I did one on the West Coast, I did 58 shows and I changed it in between the two tours because there were certain parts of it that I liked and certain parts that I didn’t so I re-edited it. I don’t always play with the movies. I enjoy playing with the movies and I set up myself to do a soundtrack with it. I actually time myself with it and I do pretty well with that, I give myself a little bit of space in between songs so I can kind of fudge around if I want to. I like the videos because there’s not to much to look at when I’m just sitting there playing the banjo, I’ve got my pedal boards so I’m not out there dancing around or anything like that. One time my wife told me, and she wasn’t even talking about me when she said it, “It’s just kind of weird to have to look at one person on stage for 40 minutes” and maybe if you’re not a huge fan or you don’t know someone’s music it’s hard to pay attention to just one person, you can’t shift your attention to anybody else and that might make the audience feel uncomfortable. I never thought of that. So it’s nice to have a distraction with the movies and to try to sync them up with it and a lot of the stuff came out really nicely when I played it right, when I got the timing right that is.
DJ Strangeblood: Honky had a song called “Smokin Weed with Helios Creed” and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about you time playing in his band? Did you travel to the West Coast for that?
JD Pinkus: No, He’s also been in Kansas is where his family is from. Manhattan, Kansas where there was that church that got burned down with a bunch of people in it a long time ago. Its close to that little college town of Lawrence, Kansas.
So, he’s lived there a couple of times, he went back there when he had some bad health, but other than that he’s been on the West Coast for a long time. And when I went to record with him for Activated Condition was the name of that record. We’d talked about it and he’d sold the record to Tom Hazelmeyer, so it was going to be an Am Rep record and then he sold it to Kozik for the same amount of money. I think he was selling records but he was just a little behind on projects and product so he was selling an album that was not made yet and he was getting ahead of himself. But at that time Hazelmeyer was like “you know, I don’t care, I’ll let Kozik put it out” so it came out on Kozik’s record label. We had the drummer Frank Gary Martin, he’s now playing the band We are the Asteroid from Austin. I brought him up there. He’s got a really tribal drumming sound, he’s even got a tribal tattoo. He played in Daddy Longhead at the end of Daddy Longhead. We worked out about 11 songs before we went up there. We had two weeks to go up there. Helios was like, “hey, lets jam” and so we played this song and he was like ”that’s cool” and we played this other song and he was like “that’s great” and we were like “What do you got man? I mean lay something down for us” and he was like “oh, I don’t have any songs”. So we did all 11 of our songs, but he did have one that was my favorite on the record and I believe it’s the last song on there but it’s an old one called Spacefirewater, it’s an old one from the Chrome era and it came off really fucking cool, but the other stuff, he sent it to me and I mastered it in Austin and I wanted it to be like a Chrome record where there were no gaps in between the songs and I had fun doing the mastering on that because I was a hug fan of Half Machine Lip Moves. It was a ground breaking record for me as far as opening up my head so I kind of went with that vibe with it. So, it was an interesting experience and he used some of those songs on different albums. And I played on another one that he did where he recorded in Austin. I played on a couple of tracks on (Deep Blue)Love Vacuum or something like that and then he used some for “NUGG” the transport but it was an interesting experience, it was fun to work with him, looking back at it, that I got a chance to do that stuff. But, everybody’s got their own style. It was fun to hear those tones and to see how he works. You get better and you just feel better the more people you work with and just jam with musically. Some people are jamming and some people are just writing songs or you seeing how you play on someone else’s songs, so I think it’s real satisfying rather than just playing with the same people.
DJ Strangeblood: So, I know you mentioned playing with the Melvins and there was one song ‘Bride of Crankenstine’ that was on Keep on the Grass and it’s so different from the Melvins version. I was wondering if you have banjo versions of all of the songs, because the record it’s on, you did alot of the writing on?
JD Pinkus: Well, not really, but I could and it’s alot of fun to do that. Right now, those guys are just starting to get together to work on another thing that got screwed over by the pandemic, to work on an acoustic record with the Melvins and its actually in the works and Buzz just did a solo record with Trevor Dunn and Toshi, and they’re behind on touring to support that. And Redd Kross just released a bunch of shit that Steven and Dale need to go out and support as soon as it’s possible. As far as the time frame goes on when this will go out and when the tour will happen it will probably be well off in the future, but at least I know the talking is over and the work is starting to happen on it. Those guys are a few albums ahead of themselves. Those guys have like 10 albums ready to come out at any time. So, I’m really looking forward to that because what little we have done together was a lot of fun and it’s definitely in my wheelhouse with the banjo. They want to do a song that I did with them called ‘Don’t forget to breathe’ and I’ve kind of redacted that song to a 3 part song, that’s 9 minutes long. So, I’ll probably have to go back and re-edit it to a 3 minute song to do it with them, but I think a lot of it’s not going to be new original songs but older songs.
DJ Strangeblood: Well I hope you guys play Asheville, I know Redd Kross was supposed to play here and Dale had some back issues, that would be an amazing night.
JD Pinkus: You know I hadn’t seen those guys in a long time, but when I saw them play with Dale they just had so much power. It was really cool. We used to play with them with the Butthole Surfers but it was a long long time ago.
DJ Strangeblood: You played banjo in the early 90’s on the single for the Flaming Lips’ song “Turn it Up” and you played banjo on that song if I’m correct. So, which came first, the banjo or the bass?
JD Pinkus: Oh, I messed around with the banjo when I was a kid, but the bass. I have a sister who was playing piano when I was growing up. My parents aren’t really musical, but my sister was musical. So I grew up hearing her play Elton John, songs like ‘Levon’ and ‘Bridge over troubled water’, that kind of thing, hearing lots of melodies and lots of keys. She was older than me, and she would go through instruments and we both got acoustic guitars and a guy tried to teach us ‘Puff the magic dragon’ and I told my Mom I didn’t like the dude and now I love that song. For some reason I didn’t think that was cool. I was really young then. My sister didn’t really play so she ended up trading both of them in on an electric guitar and she didn’t play that so I started playing on that a little bit and then I traded that in on a Fender Mustang bass and I had a bass amp that was owned by some guy who played for Paul Revere and the Raiders. I bought it at Rhythm City in Atlanta, Georgia. I just fell in love with it when I heard that low end and I could feel it in my gut. Some of the stuff that was on the radio was bass heavy so that was that tone. The guitar didn’t really do it for me. That tone that I was hearing from the bass, I didn’t really know where it was coming from when I was a little kid until I realized it was the bass guitar. I’m not one of those frustrated guitar players that was forced to play bass. The guitar kind of bores me because its tough to hear someone do something on it that I haven’t already heard a bunch of times on it. Which it’s kind of sad to think of it because it’s really not too different than a banjo. You know you can just tune a guitar differently. I guess there’s just way more people doing different things and that’s why you’ve heard it on guitar before. But, I was up for something new I guess. So, yeah, bass before banjo.
DJ Strangeblood: You played in the Butthole Surfers during my favorite period of that band, the Touch and Go years, The last time you played live together at the Growler’s Beach Party in 2017 and I was wondering if you think you’ll play together again sometime?
JD Pinkus: There’s definitely nothing in the works, I know we’ve been approached about doing the online shows and with the technology getting better that might be a way for some of the folks to feel better about doing it but that wouldn’t be the same thing. So, unless there’s a large festival out there that offers an extremely large amount of money I can’t see it happening. I think the days are done.
DJ Strangeblood: Did you know that the book written about the Butthole Surfers entitled ‘What does regret mean’ is out of print?
JD Pinkus: That was the one written by James Burns, right? I didn’t know that he had sold out of them. I thought maybe the hardback one, but, yeah, I bet he would love to sell more. I don’t think he meant to make it a limited edition thing. I talk to him, quite often actually. So, I’ll ask him about that. I gave mine to my kid, I think I read mine up to the part when I left the band and he said he wanted to read it, but I thought it was pretty accurate, and James liked something I said that someone’s book was total shit because they didn’t talk to us, but James Burns’ book is extremely accurate as far as I can tell and in fact it was so accurate in the beginning it was like reading Leviticus in the Bible, and then they begot whence on the bass…It was pretty accurate. James is a great guy. I know he did it out of the love of his heart because I don’t think he much money on it.
There’s somebody who wants to do a documentary now on us. This guy named Tom Stern, he did the 10 minute long Butthole Surfers movie years ago. The Entering Texas (Bar-B-Que Movie) one. It was actually Alex Winter (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). It was Alex Winter and Tom Stern and his partner Glasshouse Productions and they both wrote that up and did that in like 3 days, and having not talked to them in a while, they did the movie Freaked. Gibby was involved in that and Paul did some soundtrack stuff. It turns out he wants to do a documentary now and it may be some animated recreations and maybe that will spur something new to happen. I know me and Paul wrote songs thinking we were doing Butthole Surfers music. Now, he’s got a solo album and I’ve got about 6 songs I’ll figure out what to do with some day, so maybe a show will come out of it, who knows.
Paul was the one who said we’re going to do one for sure and then he was the one who said its not going to happen, so I don’t feel bad talking about it. I’ve got some really cool songs and I’ve got some great musicians to play on mine. I want to try to find someone who’s really badass at making videos and do video singles of the songs, I want to try to find some good visual artists that can work with me. The one guy I was trying to (use), the guy who did some of the bouncing cows, this guy Cyriak. He’s done some Residents stuff and all that. He was nice enough to get back to me, and said, I’m taking a break on doing consignment work, because my lazy ass needs to work on my own shit and knowing me it will take a really long time. He was my first choice and now I have to do some research.
Hopefully now that Gibby is done with his kids book he’ll get back into making some music. You know he does a dj show at private parties and stuff like that.
Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington brought his band to the Orange Peel in Asheville, NC for a Valentine’s weekend performance in 2020. Since his breakout record The Epic was released in 2015 Washington has grown in the Harmony of Difference ep Heaven and Earth release. On this particular night, the audience turned out, and so did Mr. Washington.
Hailing from LA, Washington included his father (Rickey Washington) as a special guest on soprano saxophone and flute. His set included some of his most memorable recordings including Street Fighter Mas, Truth, Fists of Fury and Will You Sing.
Washington has worked with a number of today’s hottest artists including Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus to name a few. His sound beckons back to jazz artists of the 1960’s and early 70’s such as Pharoah Sanders and the Liberation Music Orchestra. Singer Patrice Quinn has a remarkable voice as an instrument and is powerful whether singing lyrically or harmonically.
The crowd was energetic and clearly into the concert. If you haven’t seen him yet, make sure to check Kamasi out when he comes to your city.
Some 27 years ago I made my first voyage to Victoriaville Quebec, all because Fred Frith was performing and I was realizing his importance to music I most appreciated. At that Festival I saw the London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. Led by bassist Barry Guy, this group included many amazing musicians including Evan Parker. It really seemed like about the best thing in the world at the time. For 10 years, Big Ears Music Festival has been bringing some uncompromising sounds to the city of Knoxville, TN. It can evoke the feeling of one of the best things in the world as well.
For 10 years, Big Ears Music Festival has been bringing uncompromising sounds to the city of Knoxville, TN.
Over my lifetime, there have been, on occasion some lineups that lured me to attend a specific event and this year at Big Ears was no exception. When I learned This is Not This Heat and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were performing, I knew I had to attend. Also, Wadada Leo Smith and Alvin Lucier are among my top tier of artists who performed at this year’s Big Ears. To be perfectly honest, we planned our trip to Big Ears to focus on the weekend due to work schedules and regrettably, missed some wonderful performances that are ‘top tier’ as well. However, with the exception of some mentions of a few missed artists, this article will focus on the great experiences we had a the festival and some observations.
So, one might ask, ‘what makes Big Ears special among all of the music festivals all over the world?’ One special aspect of Big Ears this year was the music from the ECM record label. This is one of the biggest record labels in the world in improvised music and this year they celebrate their 50th anniversary. Of ECM artists hailing from the US, this festival represented all, if not most of those I hold in high regard. And the international contingent was fairly strong as well, even though Alexander von Schlippenbach (who recorded Improvisations on the Japo subsidiary label) ultimately had to cancel his performance due to Visa difficulty. Nonetheless, I had previously seen the Schlippenbach trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton in San Francisco when they performed a few concerts prior to a concert at the aforementioned FIMAV in Victoriaville.
Another thing that makes Big Ears special is the surprise component. Though the festival isn’t actually very fluid in scheduling, numerous last minute concerts, including additional sets added by artists and discussions make this festival worth attending. While it is really quite unique and beautiful, some difficult choices need to be made at times and some artists that audience members would like to see must ultimately be deferred or performances chopped in half by concert hopping. We chose to see as much of each individual performance as possible as difficult as it was to watch other opportunities vanish into thin air. One such performance was that of Mats Gustafsson’s Fire. I was able to accept not seeing Fire because I had once seen Gustafsson in the 1998 in Chapel Hill with his AALY trio and Ken Vandermark. We chose instead to catch Mercury Rev’s Clear Light Ensemble performing improvised work for the Film ‘A Carnival of Souls’ featuring founders Jonathon Donahue and Grasshopper along with Steve Shelley, Tim Berne, James Sclavunous, Ben Neill, Mimi Goesse, and Jesse Chandler.
Another thing that makes Big Ears stand apart is the inclusion of emerging artists at the festival. Noteworthy artists from the modern scene included Makaya McCraven, Shabaka Hutchings performing in both The Comet is Coming and in Sons of Kemet, and Mary Halvorson performing both as band leader in her band Code Girl and in Columbia Icefield.
Carl Stone and Alvin Lucier both performed at the Knoxville Museum of Art. They also are two of the world’s most famous electronic musicians. Joan La Barbara performed both a piece with Lucier’s group as well as one of her classic works Voice is the original instrument.
Stephen O’Malley from the band Sunn O)))) had a few performances with his group KTL as well as performing in Lucier’s Ever Present Orchestra.
Also taking me back to a time around 27 years ago were the performances by Spiritualized and Mercury Rev at this year’s festival. After Spacemen 3 disbanded, who wasn’t a huge fan of Spiritualized in the early 90’s.
So, in a sense, there are several competing genres at the festival, vying for attention. This year’s festival strengthened the genre of Americana/Folk as a part of the fabric. I can say it isn’t usually what floats my boat, but with some exceptions. With Rhiannon Giddens performing early on Thursday (and competing directly with Spiritualized on Friday) it was wonderful to see her busking along with MC Demeanor in the Market Square. This might be a good thing to bring up, where is the hip hop? Last year at Big Ears featured Kid Koala’s Nufonia must fall while the music of hip hop was noticably absent from this year’s lineup. Other than someone noticing I wore a Hieroglyphics hat, Demeanor was it. I can still remember when Steve Coleman and the Five Elements performed at FIMAV. It almost seemed controversial among some attendees who claimed that hip hop wasn’t “Musique Actuel”. Well, I can imagine that tastes have evolved over the past 20 some years and what would be better at a future Big Ears than Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra and Deltron 3030? I would only hope they wouldn’t compete against one another at the same time slot!!!
So, are there things the festival could improve upon as well? Sure. I’ll speak first here about the fare. The main concert hall was the Mill and the Mine for us. There was a tent outside of the hall with snacks and drinks, so you could stay checked into the venue, however they didn’t have any vegan options. We tried the Bijou bistro and while it had a few vegan options, they were fairly bland. As meat heavy as San Francisco is in it’s fare, if you ever attend Outside Lands, or any type of festival in the bay, they have vegan food included for attendees. Now, I know there were two food trucks with vegan fare on Gay St., but after they only made one of our two meals and had no beverages at all to sell we decided not to go back. There was also the taco shop that served tacos that didn’t have cheese listed as an ingredient with cheese. We finally took some time off from the festival and drove outside of the downtown area to a grocery store called Three Rivers Market. This market would be a great candidate to invite to the festival to cater delicious foods for all concert goers (hint, hint). While food may not sound like the thing to get picky about, it ties right in with the other area that is challenging about Big Ears. that it’s tiring. A body needs sustenance to trot around to all of the different venues.
I do believe the festival has tried in some ways to address some issues of fatigue and food by providing seats and the food tent at the Mill and the Mine (along with a huge array of coctails for sale many including Red Bull). Also, the seating and priority status VIP tickets can help stave off the brutal pace of the festival. However, many of the improvised festivals I’ve attended including MiMi Festival in Arles, France, Musique Action in Nancy, France and FIMAV in Victoriaville are able to pull off a splash while giving concert goers perhaps a little space from the festival to settle into the town as well. While some may argue this makes a festival less exciting, it also means concert goers who paid for a festival or day pass aren’t standing outside while a concert is occurring because the venue reached capacity.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad I was able to attend this year’s festival. Pretty amazing overall. I never thought I would get to see the music of one of my favorite bands This Heat live. I also never imagined seeing the Art Ensemble of Chicago and their performance was astounding. With so many artists in town too, it was interesting be in the hotel lobby and to say hello to Roscoe Mitchell as they wowed at seeing someone wearing the shirts they sold as well as meeting Mark Nauseef for the first time and talking about his album with David Torn, Jack Bruce and Miroslav Tadic. Talking to Jeff Parker about his last tour with Tortoise was really special. This was an experience I won’t soon forget. It is an experience we may very well repeat. Knoxville is a great town for such a festival as Big Ears. If you get the chance to go, it’s hard to imagine regretting it.
There are moments when life presents us with musical experiences that warrant braving the wet and cold and sitting in a room of strangers (or future friends as I like to think of it). As for myself, moments like this can be few and far between. Stumbling on the listing of a band getting set to perform the 1960 masterpiece ‘We insist!’ by Max Roach brought back memories of attending a concert in what was then a new town to me in that of Raleigh, the year of 1990. At the time, I had just moved to Raleigh to attend NC State. The week I moved there was a record show at the Daniel Boone Village in Hillborough. I had frequented the record shows for the past year or two and went to a booth of two folks I new as aquaintances. When I picked up a couple of James Blood Ulmer records from their booth they informed me Mr. Ulmer would be perfoming later that night in Durham. I went to the concert and it spoke to me on so many levels. As an alum of Ornette Coleman’s band, his music had a certain appeal and I actually had only one record by him at the time. So, then I was on the verge of discovery.
Fast forward nearly 30 years, I found myself again in a fairly new town to me and while internet has certainly makes finding concerts much easier, you still need to look for them. With this in mind I stumbled across a concert slated for February 23rd 2019 that seemed like it could’ve just as easily not been discovered by me. An interpretation of one of the best jazz records of its time, ‘We Insist!’ is replete with stellar musicians, song writing and politics of race and desegregation.
For me, going to see a great jazz show is equally as exciting as most people might find their favorite modern concert to be. It can be more thrilling than walking into a hip hop or rock experience to know someone or some jazz group is who’s talented and going to deliver. What’s more, this particular concert featured music written by one of North Carolina’s most heralded jazz musicians along with singer Oscar Brown Jr. Undoubtedly this band is one capable to deliver such a crisp and fiery show.
It can be more thrilling than walking into a hip hop or rock experience to know of someone or some jazz group who’s is talented and going to deliver.
Much like the aforementioned Mr. Ulmer moves me on several levels, so does the music of Max Roach, albeit differently. Max Roach had the jazz life of a legendary status, performing with Mingus, Parker and Ellington as well as transitioning to contemporary jazz artists such as Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor. ‘We insist!’ is ground breaking in that it shares a social commentary on the year 1960 in a way others had thought art perhaps might better play it safe and avoid. Unlike modern social media explorations, Roach, along with his wife Abbey Lincoln, Coleman Hawkins and Booker Little made commentary that is rare in that it had no need to research it’s user or track data to find out more about us, it was and is a form of art that mirrored life of that moment.
Brooklyn based singer/flutist Melanie Charles released two recordings, one self released in 2010 as well as her 2017 recording ‘The Girl With the Green Shoes’. She has alsorecorded with brittish virtual progers Gorillaz. New York-Philadelphia based Fresh Cut Orchestra are led by Josh Lawrence on Trumpet, Jason Fraticelli on bass and Anwar Marshall on drums. Commissioned by Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, the group transcribed the music by listening to the original recording. Support was provided by UNC Asheville, NC Arts Council and Come Hear North Carolina. Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center is a wonderful music venue. In addition to bringing life to the college that existed nearly 30 minutes from Asheville from 1933-1957, Ms Charles and the Fresh Cut Orchestrea added their own perspectives as guitarist Tim Conley added treatments and samples to create a new interpretation. On the final song of the album Tears for Johannesburg a serious interplay took place between the samples Conley treated as the call and Marshall then interpreted on drums.
Kikagaku Moyo performing live at the Mothlight 10/20/18
The most recent record, Masana Temples, released this year is a follow up to last year’s brilliant Stone Garden, also released by Guru Guru Brain. The group was formed in 2012 by guitarist Tomouki Katsurada (also known as Zura) and drummer Go Kurosawa. The group also contains sitar player Ryu Kurosawa, guitarist Daoul Popal and bass player Kotsuguy. The group is on their 2nd tour of the US. Don’t miss this opportunity to see an emerging group with something to say.
Japanese psychedelic band Kikagaku Moyo
Originally formed in 2012, from a duo that would busk the streets of Tokyo, they added the other members prior to recording their initial self titled release, which featured singer/ theramin player Angie Gotopo. The band members were involved in the creation of Guru Guru Brain records. In addition to the six full length and e.p. recordings the group has released in their 6 years together they also put out a split 7″s with Moon Duo and Kinski with Mokoto Kawabata from the aforementioned Acid Mother’s Temple & Melting Paraiso U.F.O.