INTERVIEW BY JASON GROSS (January 1998)Even if he had never touched a guitar, Alan Licht would still be god-send. He's probably one of the best music writers around and that's just something he does on the side. His articles in Halana about minimalism have led to reissues of old, forgotten classics and sent curious fans scurrying around looks for these gems (like me)- thanks in part to him, we have reissues of Tony Conrad, Richard Youngs, Charlemagne Palesteine and who knows how many more in the future. Thankfully, Drag City had enough smarts to fork over some money to him to write a book (most likely a compilation of previous material with some new stuff).
But yes, Alan has put down the pen most of the time for his guitar. This has taken him through the 'pop cacoon' of Love Child, the improv-rock of Blue Humans with Rudolph Grey and now an intriguing rock band, Run On (whose Sort Of was one of the highlights of last year). Even beyond that is his solo works such asThe Evan Dando of Noise? (another of last year's highlights, which includes pig calls and pipe organs) and his work with Loren Mazzacane Connors (Mercury) which are gaunlet-throwin' challenges about what (guitar) improv is and will be. Making note of his writing skills, the liner notes to Dando are some of the most lucid, spot-on music writing I've seen in years- it's even better than PEOPLE or TIME's music coverage!
PSF: How'd you first get interested in music?
Initially, I hated rock music. (laughs) I was more of a classical music fan when I was little, 5 to 8 years old. Tchaikovsky I think I really liked and then in fourth grade, I decided that I did like rock music. I started listening to the radio. But I also started playing guitar around then, in the fall of '78. I hadn't listened to that much rock music before then. Just the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the usual classic rock stuff.
PSF: You've written a lot about minimalist music. Could you talk about your interest in this?
There's so many different strains within it. There's the drone-based kind and then there's the more rhythmic based. What it comes down to is modalism. My whole interest in minimalism came out of hearing the modal Coltrane stuff like "My Favorite Things" and all those records. I took jazz guitar lessons in high school and I asked my teacher if there was other stuff out there like that. He had that this one record that he'd only listened to once that he gave me: Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians. I listened to it and it totally blew my mind. It was like you could tell he was doing some of the stuff that you could hear in rock music like the Velvet Underground with one ostanto figure repeating with changing over it and the steady pulse. So I immediately connected all these different things. Also, just the whole sonic element to it- in LaMonte (Young)'s music and (Philip) Glass' music, this kind of psycho-acoustic phenomenon happening. I also starting listening to Glenn Branca at a certain point and that was another kind of meeting point between this kind of minimal stuff and the rock music I had grown up with.
PSF: How did that seem different from the older classical music you started listening to?
I used to listen to it LOUD so maybe that's the main point of comparison, louder than I listened to rock music. There's the "1812 Overture" where my mother had a recording where they used real cannons- I used to blast that all the time. Other than that, I don't see too much connection because in straight classical music, they don't dwell on any one thing for too long, it kind of hops around. There would also be a certain part that I'd like and parts that I didn't like with all these peaks and valleys. Minimalism just takes one idea and keep expanding on it and looking at it in different ways.
PSF: With these influences, do you find some continuity where your work would in turn go on to influence others then?
I don't know if I've seen that much influence, not like people sounding like me. But I think there's been some things I've been interested in where I'd be the first to do it and then it was done by other people. With the Blue Humans for example, I only knew a couple of groups that were transposing free jazz to electric guitars and drums. Now look around- there's dozens of these groups worldwide. It's incredible. I haven't done anything like that for a while though. Even with Love Child, I knew about SST and Homestead and all this stuff, but by the time we released our single, there were all these other bands doing similar stuff like Sebadoh or Pavement or Beat Happening. I had no idea until I started playing out in clubs and figuring out what the scene was.
PSF: Do you see any kind of factor or sensibility that you bring to the different bands and projects that you do?
I think in every case, since I took guitar lessons when I grew up, that's been more than anyone else in the bands- they're by and large self-taught and have limited training. That's kind of a different element. I'm usually maybe a little more radical (laughs) in my thinking sometimes in terms of what I'm playing or ideas about structuring things. I hope it's not a case where I'm complicating things but adding more of a sophisticated way of doing things.
PSF: I don't know too many people that like the Germs and LaMonte too. I guess they're both minimalist in their own way.
I don't know if the Germs are too minimalist (laughs). I actually almost put the Seeds album on that the more recent Top 10 Minimalism List (for Halana Magazine). It's like a minimal masterpiece. Everything on that record is all these different fixed elements recombined. It all kind of sounds the same but every song sounds like two songs before it with parts from the last song. It's really cool.
PSF: Improvisation is a pretty important part of your work. How do you try to do this?
It kind of depends on the context. With Loren Mazzacane Connors, a lot of it is that he's playing and then contextualizing it and then I'm recontextualizing it. If he's playing a certain thing, I'll pick out chords behind it that will be a more natural harmony to fit in with it and then I'll shift it to turn it around harmonically to spur him into taking it into a different course. Sometimes I'll intertwine with him more. It depends. In the Blue Humans, I was playing off the drums and interfacing with Rudolph Grey too.
In solo improvisation, I'll have a general idea of what I'll want to do and then I'll go where it takes me. 'Mistakes' or unplanned moves are the basis for any kind of improvisation. You have to see what happens and where it takes you.
PSF: You've talked about pop versus improv before in the letter with THE EVAN DANDO OF NOISE?. What's your thoughts about this in the context of something like Coltrane doing a standard? He would take a song to where the composers would have never imagined.
That's actually something that in recent months I've been thinking about a lot more. The idea of a standard, how in jazz you have a standard tune but you hear all these different versions of it. They'll sound completely different. "My Funny Valentine" is a good example- some people do it fast, singers and instrumentalists do it different ways. It's interesting how the song form is stretched to the limit. I was also reading about how in jazz a solo is a commentary on the melody and the set of chord changes. I'm attracted to this kind of analysis. Also, the minimal stuff is an investigation of one sound or idea or chord. There's a bit of a connection there. The other thing I never really bring up in that letter is Sun Ra's Singles. There's something that explodes the idea of what a song is or what free improv is- they were packaged as songs and some of them ARE songs but some of them are excerpts from longer improvised pieces.
PSF: How do you see good improv versus bad improv?
It's so hard to tell. Derek Bailey once said that improvisation is a still-born art form. You can be pretty successful on a purely intuitive basis or after having a lot of musical training. By the same token, you can be unsuccessful in both those ways too. Even if you really understand the philosophy of it and the aesthetic of it, there's always going to be periods in any kind of improvisational piece where you're just treading water, waiting for something else to happen. I think there's a degree of success and failure in any improvised music. I always say that it's like living a day of your life, it's not one exciting minute after another- it's periods of excitement and boredom.
PSF: You've also talked about putting together pop and improv. Do you think you've been successful in doing that with your work?
I think I've been most successful in trying to improvise within a fairly structured context, especially in Run On. I tried to improvise as much as I could within that context just by playing the same songs and always giving them a different shading from one night to the next. I haven't done that many improvised concerts- with Loren, I've done that frequently in the last year and the Blue Humans did that pretty frequently too for about a year or two. I've done a lot more playing as a band member though. They both feed into each other- even when I'm improvising, I'm thinking about structure a lot. There, you have to structure it in the moment as opposed to beforehand. It's not just a free-for-all. In that respect, I have been successful in having this sensibility develop in different contexts.
PSF: Since you were talking about Run On and Love Child, what was different about them as you see it?
One major difference is just rhythmic- there are a lot more time signature differences in Run On than there ever were in Love Child. Love Child was more of a straight rock band though there was a lot of weird stuff going on there. Originally, all of the songs were two minutes long. There were three songwriters in that band and we would all trade instruments like Beat Happening used to. In a way, originally there was a lot less collaboration- one person would have their song and everyone else would play on it. After Will was out of the band, it became a little more collaborative. Me and Rebecca were still dictating a lot of the drum parts to Brendan. Run On was always conceived as a totally collaborative project- every song was totally developed collaboratively. For the most part, it was much more democrat. By the same token, I think the songs, to a certain extent, were stronger in Love Child just because they were so... pure in a way. It would be one person's idea. We rejected a lot more songs than in Run On where we'd be more inclined to work on something until it was better. In Love Child, if a song wasn't a good idea right off the bat, it would just get discarded.
PSF: You've been interested in all kinds of ways to deconstruct music. Have you thought about doing the same thing to the processes around music? I mean, with recordings, concerts and such.
Once something is recorded or fixed, it becomes a commodity in some way and it can be diced and sliced and re-arranged. The actual process can't be deconstructed in the same way. People have tried to do this. I don't how you would deconstruct a concert, except for the Public Image thing of playing behind a screen or Jim O'Rourke where he played the guitar by remote control. When I think of that kind of deconstruction, that's what I think- once you have something that's fixed, you can go about re-arranging it.
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