Perfect Sound Forever


interview by Dominique Leone
(March 2003)

Bob Drake has been making strange sounds since he was a kid in the 60s and 70s. His website details portable tape deck recordings "featuring a lot of arrhythmic drumming and shrieking," which is oddly close to how someone might describe his relentlessly creative 2002 solo disc, Skull Mailbox (and Other Horrors) and this year’s 13 Songs & A Thing. Drake lived in Denver, Colorado for most of the 1980's, working as a sound engineer on low budget horror movies, performing with many of that city’s experimental rock bands ("innumerable"), and forming a the first version of out-rockers Thinking Plague. He relocated to Los Angeles at the close of the '80's, and worked as a recording engineer on stuff ranging from Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted to a Charo album. And, while a daily regiment of knobs and "vibe" worthy of the Mixerman saga might turn your everyday engineer into California mush, it seemed only to have been a catalyst for Drake’s artistic development – in addition to providing him access to the best studios in the world to record his own music.

Despite a 1994 self-pressed solo album, Drake made his biggest splash as a member of the avant-prog outfit 5uus, via 1994’s Hunger’s Teeth. For many prog diehards, their brand of complex, aggressive music was a godsend in an era before bands like Ruins and the army of post-rockers gave the sound a good name in hip circles. Throughout the '90's, Drake’s music with 5uus, Thinking Plague and other projects like the Science Group (with Chris Cutler and Fred Frith) provided sustenance for a legion of Internet-informed prog fans, but his solo records revealed still another wrinkle. Where many experimental musicians are damned for emphasizing "elitist" tendencies, Drake’s music is inviting, and not easily associated with any particular style of music (unless avant-hillbilly is a genre). Currently, Drake is at work on his next solo release, and was recently working on the CD remasters for The Homosexuals and The Art Bears for Cutler’s ReR label.

This interview was conducted via email in February 2003, and hopefully sheds some light on a musician accustomed to dark, scary places.

PSF: For people who might not be familiar with you, we should get a little history. Can you speak about your background, musical and otherwise?

Born in '57, grew up in the Midwest USA in a small town and was always interested in music and sound more than anything else. First thing I recall doing with a musical instrument would be in 1969 or 70 with a friend's electric guitar. I didn't know how to play it in a "normal" way or even tune it but loved making sounds and feedback with it. My sister had an acoustic guitar and a Mel Bay guitar instruction book with photos of where to place your fingers to play basic chords so I started playing around with that too. Another friend had a drum kit which he never played so he let me use it. I heard Yes' Fragile in 1972 and that made me want to play bass so I bought my Rickenbacker 4001, same one I still use today.

Played in all kinds of top 40 bands, country gigs, whatever. I wanted to do new and strange music but had no idea where to find anyone to do that with in my rural Midwestern area. I figured I had to go to a BIG CITY to meet interesting musicians so in '78 I went to Denver because I knew someone there who'd let me sleep on their couch. I put a notice on a music shop bulletin board, something like: "Bassist wants to form or join original group, influences - Yes, Henry Cow, Art Bears." The first and only person to respond, maybe even the same day, was Mike Johnson! (Mike is the composer/guitarist of Thinking Plague) So in a way, Thinking Plague was spawned that very night.

Eventually, I got into all sorts of interesting bands in Denver so it worked out really well from a musical standpoint. First thing I was involved with that anyone outside Denver might have heard would be the first Thinking Plague album ...a Thinking Plague. Mike borrowed some money from a relative and we pressed 500 copies. Must have been 1982-83. Cheapest possible vinyl pressing, sounded like cardboard. I sent a copy to Recommended Records, not even expecting a response, but they wrote back immediately asking for 200 copies! I didn't even know Chris Cutler ran Recommended until I got that response, so that was a big thrill for me too.

PSF: I first heard you perform on the 5uus release, Hunger's Teeth (1994), which seems squarely in the avant-prog realm to me. Yet, your solo work makes reference to bluegrass, soundtrack music and even approaches noise.

I only try to satisfy myself and my own desires and standards at the time. Since I didn't grow up on another planet naturally it falls in a certain realm due to the musical influences throughout my life, my own tastes, and those of any other people involved, your life at that time, what you've learned or discovered since the last album, who knows what else...whether unconsciously or deliberately... it doesn't matter as long as it seems exciting and/or fun and/or somehow meaningful when doing it. I don't know why. About 5uus - I'd never heard of the term "avant prog" at the time anyway, and if I had I would have said let's do what we want to do and not worry about what someone else might call it. I think the only discussing about the direction was that we all agreed I would give it a more aggressive sound with the vocals and bass having a more prominent role than their previous albums. About noisy things, I don't know why I enjoy noisy or lo-fi things but I don't know why I enjoy anything else either.

PSF: What kinds of things were you listening to when you were growing up and what influences do you think might have had the greatest impact on your music now?

The earliest would be Dominic Frontiere's music from the original 1960's Outer Limits TV show. Then, like many people of my generation I grew up hearing the Beatles because my mom was crazy about them so that must have made some impression. I'd say certainly my love of extreme stereo imaging in my mixes came from growing up with those Beatle albums, so when I started mixing things myself it just seemed natural to pan the whole drumkit to one speaker and the voices and bass to the other, that sort of thing.

In the early '70's, I had pretty standard tastes for a Midwestern USA teenager: Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Led Zeppelin. Rare Earth, especially their weird version of "I'm Losin' You"! In fact Rare Earth's Ecology was the first album I ever bought, but the rest of the album wasn't as weird as that track unfortunately. I heard Yes' Fragile in 1972 and I loved that, it was different than the rock stuff I'd been into and that's the album which made me want to play bass. Then it must have been 1974 or thereabouts I heard Henry Cow Unrest and that made a very big impression, they were doing something I felt was a lot closer to what I was imagining I'd like to do - "complex" intricate songs and arrangements, noisy things going on which fit organically in the music, and less emphasis on "perfect" studio overcooked impersonal perfection. So it would be easiest to say Fragile and Unrest were two big albums for me at the start.

Of course there are a million other things too... and there is something about Charles Ives... I don't even care for a lot of his music but there is something there that speaks to me.

PSF: I've often found it hard to describe your music to other people.

That's OK. It should sound like itself because something else already sounds like something else.

PSF: What would you say it is?

Fortunately these days with the Internet it's really nice to be able to say "you can hear some clips on my website" instead of trying to come up with a meaningful one-sentence description. I always hated having to do that! Even if I'd force myself to think one up to describe one of my albums it wouldn't help much to describe Hail, or the Science Group, or AA Kismet, etc.

PSF: Do you feel a part of any musical community, with peers who are performing along a similar trajectory?

No, I felt that way from about 1982 til 1987, part of the decade I spent in Denver when I was playing in several bands all of which shared members with several other bands, all doing our own music, all very different but sharing similar attitudes, and I was always recording strange interesting local bands who didn't want to sound like normal groups. There were a lot of places for our bands to play. It seemed like an actual thriving "music community" for a time and that was great, a fun and creative time but it isn't anything I seek out now or feel is necessary. As for peers doing something similar, I have no idea. I'm sure there are plenty of people doing music like mine who have never heard of me and vice versa.

PSF: You're based in France now, after stints in Denver and Los Angeles. When you think of these places and how they have affected your work (if at all), what comes to mind? Also, why France?

France because I had the opportunity to come and live here and it was obviously such a better place for me in all regards. How has France affected my work? For one thing I can devote all my time to the music and art of my choice without starving, and that's all I really ever wanted out of life! And anywhere I've lived the landscape and surroundings of course have some effect on the music but I couldn't begin to say exactly how.

My 10 years in Denver (1979-89) I'd sum up as a mixture of intensely hard times due to being utterly dirt poor most of the time, and the real beginning of my musical growth where I could purge all my old stale musical ideas and ways of thinking and have many opportunities to use what I had learned up til then in a serious new way. I ended up working with some of the best musicians I have ever known like Mark Fuller, Mike Johnson, Bruce Odland, Eric Moon, Mark McCoin, Susanne Lewis and so many others. We were all so different but we all had this same intense desire to push ourselves so hard all the time to advance our skills and ideas and not become complacent or satisfied with doing things in the usual ways. It was a good intense time and the same spirit is in whatever I do since then. That whole music scene just evaporated towards the end of the 80's, as many of those interesting musicians had moved to other places, greener pastures as it were, so it became harder and harder to get anything musically interesting going on. On top of that, I was always so utterly flat broke and so sick and tired of starving so I knew I had to go somewhere else too because I was going nowhere fast in Denver.

L.A. was the beginning of finding my own music. I hadn't really had a chance for that before because I was always working with other groups, other songwriters.

PSF: How in the world did you become involved in commercial music recording, given the idiosyncrasy of your own work?

It was impossible to get any paying engineering gigs in Denver. The whole studio scene there in the 80's was small and very very conservative. I've no idea what it's like now. I knew I was good but my natural skills were becoming more and more utterly useless in Denver. I was tired of looking for quarters along Colfax Avenue in winter with holey shoes and a coat that didn't button. On top of it, there was nothing going on musically and I couldn't see anything coming down the road there but more poverty, more awful temporary labor jobs, more scraping just to survive. So I decided I'd take my chances in LA looking for engineering gigs. A friend of mine from LA was visiting Denver so I stashed my few belongings at Mike Johnson's place and rode back with my friend to L.A.. All I had was my dog, a blanket, and seven cents. In L.A., sure enough I started working at the first major studio I walked into, on the same day. And got PAID for it. I was kicking myself for having waited so long! All those years of starving...

Anyway my first session there happened to be with a rapper. I did a good job of it so by word of mouth I ended up doing a lot of rap and hip-hop sessions. I'd never paid much attention to rap before that, yet ended up engineering on so many rap albums from the early '90's. Maybe the fact I came with a fresh approach and no preconceptions helped, who knows. Anyway, I did sessions in big studios with a variety of "famous people" for two or three years, that was enough. I wanted more time to spend on my own ideas so I started working at a smaller studio down the road, just a few sessions per week. I brought in a lot of work for which the owner was grateful so he'd let me use the studio for my own stuff at no cost. That's where I did 5uu's Hunger's Teeth, my first solo album What Day is it, Hail's Kirk, and I mixed The EC Nudes album there.

About "given the idiosyncrasy of your own work," well I know how to make standard "state of the art" recordings and mixes just like all the other experienced engineers on the planet. I just don't feel like doing that. I did enough of it already and that direction isn't my deep interest.

PSF: Also, to set the record straight, you worked with Ice Cube, and NOT Ice T, right?

That's right, Cube and not T.

PSF: You were involved in remastering part of Faust's Wumme Years (2000) box set. I'm guessing you're a fan, but what was it like tackling their music (especially given that, from what I've heard, some of it was in pretty dire condition)?

I first heard Faust in 1995 or 96, The Faust Tapes CD. The raw recording and brilliant editing impressed me but it was more like a reminder of the kind of sound and production I really liked and that I'd been sort of neglecting some of the better and crazier aspects of my own work. It helped me to get back to what I enjoyed doing best. As for the remastering, yes what I was given to remaster was in very badly degraded condition, I spent a lot of time on each song until I figured it was about as reasonably good as it could get.

PSF: Can you speak about your first release, What Day Is It? (1994)? I know it features drummer Dave Kerman (5uus, Thinking Plague), but have found it tough to track down.

It captured something I was going for at the time as best as I could, I guess, which is maybe all you can say about any album. Again the landscape and surroundings - the climate, the deserts, the dusty hills around L.A. - all had a big effect on it. It was also my first try at being the lead singer on a recording, along with Hunger's Teeth which I was recording during the same period, so a lot of the vocals sound a bit "belabored" to me now, which makes it hard for me to listen to. I learned a lot of things from that album I wanted to avoid in the future, but it does have some bits I still think are good. I pressed it myself, 1000 copies, and still have most of them here on the shelf which I'll sell or trade if anyone asks but in general I don't mind if it fades into obscurity- it was heard by enough people who liked it and let's move on. And yeah, Dave liked what I was doing and was very supportive of my first song attempts so I got him to play on a few of them.

PSF: In all of your music that I've heard, there is a strong undercurrent of traditional American folk music. In the U.S., American folk has undergone something of a revival (Coen Brothers films notwithstanding). What is your feeling for that music?

Back in the '80's, I'd done a bit of guitar and fiddle playing on different projects where you could hear that country flavor trying to come out. Who can say why, I'd never paid much attention to country or bluegrass before that. Then around 1990 after getting settled in L.A., I started "getting serious" about playing guitar and trying to come up with ideas for the first solo album. That country-ish flavor just appeared by itself, it was a surprise to me and I really liked it. So oddly enough it was my own guitar playing which led me to seek out bluegrass and country and even old blues music, which in turn led to my love of banjo music, which in turn ended up being the biggest inspiration for my guitar playing!

I guess my feeling at the moment is that I'd like to make music that has one or two deep roots somewhere in traditional American folk styles but comes out differently and doesn't sound like I'm trying to be "folky" or "traditional" at all, by any means.

PSF: I've always wondered if you felt any particular affinity for the work of folk/world music archivist and historian Alan Lomax, especially given that he was also very much interested in capturing sound. Has his work been an inspiration for your own?

It's certain that he must have recorded some of the things which have been inspirational for me over the years so I'd say yes, though I don't know of any specific examples offhand.

PSF: With last year's Skull Mailbox and Other Horrors, you seemed to move in a more song-oriented direction (though still pretty far from a "verse-chorus-verse" formula) than on either Medallion Animal Carpet (1999) or Little Black Train (1998). Was this a conscious decision?

Sure, I like to have a rough plan at the start of making a new album to try and avoid starting out on the exact same road as the previous album. Get it rolling in another direction and then follow where it rolls. Skull Mailbox was supposed to be a bunch of separate little songs that each told a horrible, strange, funny little story, and would be based around my nylon stringed classical guitar and a cheap little organ, recorded in the barn.

Medallion Animal Carpet's plan was to take a lot of different musical ideas and just string them all together, deliberately avoiding anything like "developing the ideas", ignoring whether any part of it related to any other part or not. That became "part one" of the album. I had the medley of noisy country-ish songs already recorded, I really liked that so I put it on there as "part two." I figured it fit the theme, since it had nothing to do with the first part!

Little Black Train was intended to be dirtier and messier than the first album... which was generally very neat and tidy, and I tried to make it an instrumental album because the previous was more vocal- oriented. It turned out "mostly" instrumental which was close enough.

The next album will be based around my beautiful new banjo, and I'd like it to be one piece of music which lasts 45 minutes or an hour, with some recurring themes etc, strangely recorded. We'll see how that goes! I'm only now (Feb 2003) just collecting some general ideas for it so it won't appear until sometime next year. I'm excited about it! I've never used a banjo before except a few very small details on one or two albums and it was an incredibly cheap and hard to play stiff untuneable thing. This new banjo sounds so good and is such a pleasure to play.

PSF: Would you ever consider releasing a record of straight songs?

Do you mean like a standard "singer/songwriter" pop tune album with nothing too unexpected? As much as I love a well-done song like that I don't have much interest in trying to make them myself.

PSF: Skull Mailbox is ostensibly a musical collection of Lovecraftian imagery and rustic fear reminiscent of classic Poe, yet when I listen to it, it almost seems uplifting (or even lighthearted). Were you trying to scare people with this music?

It was supposed to be scary and funny... but I'm not going to try to "explain" the music. It should be whatever you want it to be, if anything.

PSF: On your website, you describe your newest record, 13 Songs and A Thing, as being "balanced a bit more towards the instrumental side", as well as containing generally longer compositions than your recent standard. Is this your prog album?

Well it does have a Mellotron on one piece, haha. I wanted some longer songs because the previous album (Skull Mailbox) had so many songs of 1 minute or less, so longer songs was another road to start out on. But "long" by my standards means maybe 4 minutes apparently. It ended up biased towards the instrumental side because there didn't seem to be a need for singing on a lot of it. This also helped take it a different direction than the vocally Skull Mailbox. Still there are one or two songs there with a lot of vocals but overall it doesn't seem like a lot.

PSF: Having played with some of the best American avant-prog bands in existence, as well as having close ties to musicians like Chris Cutler and Fred Frith, how do you feel your music relates to progressive rock (and are you tired of people comparing your voice to Jon Anderson's)?

I don't think about or care whether my stuff "relates" to progressive rock or to anything else, it's just what it is and anyone listening can imagine anything they want about it. And no I don't mind if people still keep saying I sound like Jon Anderson. At least there's some truth behind it, though I'd say it's been over-emphasized by some people especially on anything later than Hunger's Teeth and What Day is it. I consider it a compliment in any case.

PSF: I'd regret it if I didn't ask when you're going to give US audiences a chance to see you perform your music live. Any chance soon?

No plans for any tours or shows as far as I can see but who knows What tomorrow might bring.

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