Perfect Sound Forever

Cul de Sac

Cul de Sac
left to right: Robin Amos, Glenn Jones, Jon Proudman, Chris Fujiwara

Glenn Jones interview by Dave Lang (March 1998)


My first exposure to Bostonís Cul de Sac came about in early 1993, when, on a whim spurred on by a review that name-dropped Pere Ubu and Can, I purchased their debut CD, ECIM. That very CD still stands as my number one choice for Best Rock Release of the Ď90's. Nothing comes close. The brilliant, flowing mix of an entire history of 'fringe' music being blended into one, singular unique brew is a headstorm that still gets me today. From the opening rhythmic propulsion of "Death Kit Train" to the dreamy, FX-laden "Nicoís Dream" to the ending avant-folk of "Laurenís Blues," the record truly paint a picture of a band with some serious historical baggage (i.e. awareness) and a willingness to expand on that knowledge of sound and build on it. Thereís the drive of the Velvets and Neu!, the twang of Morricone and the Ventures, the jerky ryhthms of Beefheart, the outer-space churn of Syd Barrettís Pink Floyd and Ď70's Miles Davis, the electronic buzz of Stockhausen, the strum of Robbie Basho and John Fahey and so much more. In other words: the perfect amalgamation of OUR music stirred just the right way. And thereís more...

After a few singles on various labels came the 1995 stop-gap 2-LP effort, I Donít Want To Go To Bed, which collected together several rehearsals and outtakes. The songs were up to par, the recordings occasionally a tad rough, but damnit, Iíll take any Cul de Sac I can get. Following that was the next studio monster, 1996ís China Gate, which once again saw the band set the standards for contemporary 'rock.' The surf element to their sound was emphasised more, with the eventual outcome approximating some kind of John Cale/Dick Dale/Stockhausen/Jaki Liebezeit quartet or something. Neither 'Space Rock,' 'Psychedelic Rock' and certainly not 'Neo-Krautrock' or (ugh!) 'Post-Rock' would sum up the equation adequately.

The story continues until late last year when the band collaborated with their longtime hero, 'primitive/avant-folk' legend, John Fahey, on the CD, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. The results will surprise: it sounds truly nothing like 'Cul de Sac meets John Fahey,' but instead something totally organic and new. Thereís a gamelan-style piece, a few vaguely psych-ish blues numbers, some droney Minimalism that couldíve come out of NY circa 1964, and a whole lot more. For myself, it was the tied best 'new' release of last year (along with an Arthur Doyle CD, but thatís another story...), and given their schedule to start recording again very soon, it looks like Iím in for some more treats.

So thatís the basics, but then again it in effect explains nothing about the band and why you should really listen to them. Thatís up to you, or pehaps guitarist Glenn Jones, whom I interviewed to get a bigger picture on the group. Glenn is a rare bird: an intelligent and articulate musician. I in fact interviewed him for my own piddly fanzine some three and a half years ago, so I can honestly say that his direct, honest, humourous and insightful answers this time around arenít merely a fluke. Glenn puts the entire point of the interview down succinctly when he states this: 'There will always be a handful of people who are compelled to look beyond the obvious, who understand that to discover something about any art is to discover something about themselves... among that special handful is the audience Cul de Sac seeks.' In a world where contemporary rock music has come to have near-zero relevance to my life (which, considering all that punk rock hoo-ha meant EVERYTHING to me as a teenager, is a small tragedy in itself), Cul de Sac are a true beacon of hope.


PSF: Typical opening question: tell us about the history of the band?

Formed in Boston, late 1990. Robin Amos, electronics; Chris Fujiwara, bass; Chris Guttmacher, drums; Glenn Jones, guitars.

Releases:
ECIM (1992)
I Don't Want to Go to Bed (1993)
"Sakhalin" b/w "Cant" 45 (1992)
"Doldrums" b/w ". . . his teeth got lost in the mattress. . . ." 45 (1992)
"Frankie Machine" b/w "K" 45 (1993)
"Milk Devil" b/w "Rain Moths" 45 (1993)

1994: Guttmacher leaves; Jon Proudman (drums) joins.
Releases:
China Gate (1996)
The Epiphany of Glenn Jones (w/ John Fahey) (1997)

1996: Proudman ousted; Michael Knoblach (drums) joins. Two tours of the U.S. done by this line-up in 1997.
Releases:
"Crashes to Light, Minutes to its Fall" b/w "The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California" (1998; forthcoming)

1998: Chris Fujiwara leaves; Michael Bloom (bass) joins. Michael Knoblach leaves; Jon Proudman (drums) returns. Begins work on fifth album in May.


PSF: Did you really have a sound in your head as to what you wanted the band to be?

Not really a clearly formed idea, no. I wanted an opportunity to explore different styles of guitar that were important to me -- the elegant Robbie Basho / John Fahey-esque open-tuned fingerstyle guitar (but applied to electric), the experimental approach as defined by Hans Reichel and AMM's Keith Rowe. The concept, if you can call it that, was to combine my idiosyncratic guitar style with Amos' belligerent electronics, to which I had a special fondness and attachment to. That, ultimately, we were supported by the steadily propulsive groove of Guttmacher and then-neophyte bassist Fujiwara was serendipitous -- a stroke of luck, rather than a pre-formed idea.


PSF: What about your musical history? What were you listening to back in high school?

In high school, the stuff I'm willing to admit I was listening to included Love, Captain Beefheart, the first Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground albums, Stockhausen's Hymnen, Muddy Waters, MC-5, Stooges, Doors, Hendrix, Dylan, Mothers of Invention, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Incredible String Band, Pearls Before Swine, etc. Lest you think my tastes are unrepentantly retro (they are) let me state that I graduated from high school in '71, so these were currently active artists in my high school years, many of whom I was seeing live at the time as well. Listening to top 40 radio at that time wasn't a bad thing -- you could hear a huge variety of music; Motown, Beach Boys, Stones, soul, the girl groups, etc., -- all on the same station. However, the discovery of FM radio, the ESP and Takoma labels -- and an underground consciousness -- was profoundly affecting.


PSF: What touring has the band embarked on? Most memorable gigs?

We've done two extensive sojourns: a three-week, east-coast, southern and mid-west tour in March 1997, and a west coast tour in November 1997. Most memorable gig: opening for Faust at an outdoor concert in Hartford, Connecticut in '95. Memphis, Tennessee and Durham, North Carolina were memorable for being places where we were especially warmly received on the first '97 tour.


PSF: What is your opinion on the whole "post-rock" shebang of the last 2 years? Do you believe in such a thing as "post-rock", and if so, does CdS fit into it anywhere?

Writer/critic Simon Reynolds, who popularized the term "post rock," unleashed a bastard Frankenstein's monster, in a sense (though a monster incapable of doing much harm, as it turned out). Reynolds may have meant for "post rock" to be the banner for certain "disenfranchised" bands to rally under. That's an OK idea, I guess. But the term was soon being tossed about indiscriminately by other writers, and applied to virtually any group working outside the rock mainstream. I've seen Cul de Sac's name lumped together with Trans Am, Ui, Tortoise, Run On, the Mermen, Labradford, Flying Saucer Attack. Regardless of what I thought of those bands once I heard them, I couldn't fathom what on earth people thought we had in common. In some cases the connecting threads were very tenuous, if any existed at all. Like most attempts at classification, the term "post rock" swiftly wore out its welcome. But at least people stopped using "krautrock" in connection with us for a while.


PSF: How about the "krautrock" tag?

Oops! Spoke too soon! We've been asked this question so often that it's hard to come up with a new answer, so I'll amplify on the old one: I feel that anyone who truly thinks Cul de Sac sounds like Can or Neu! -- or whoever -- is either not listening to them or not listening to us. Don't get me wrong, we have an enormous fondness for our German brethren. But I feel Cul de Sac could have happened only in America. Our reference points, however far-flung, are synthesized in way that is not only unique to us, but are somehow peculiar to an "American" sensibility: raggedy-assed, largely self-taught (i.e.; non-academic), primitive, excessive, vulgar, sentimental, contradictory, flinty, non-discriminating between "high" and "low" means of expression, non-technical.

I'd go even farther and say that CdS strikes me as very "New England" in a way (somewhat ephemeral and hard to define). When you lug your amps and instruments through ice and snow for six months of every year, that experience seeps into your music somehow. CdS couldn't have emerged from California, Texas, Nebraska or Minnesota, I don't think.


PSF: You're also renowned film buffs. Tell me about your use of films in a live setting, and about your loves of film in general, fave directors, etc.

We haven't worked with films in a live setting for a year or more now, but when we do, it is with films created by our former bassist Chris Fujiwara and his (and our) friend and associate, Scott Hamrah. The films were made to accompany specific songs, so the order of films needs to be re-edited each time we play out to match the set we play. The films are shot on Super-8, not video. Chris and Scott are passionate and knowledgeable about film and film theory. (The pair, under the name Club Havana, are publishing some of the best film criticism ever written. Chris has just finished a book on film noir director Jacques Tourneur, for which Martin Scorcese has written the introduction). The rest of us are pikers in comparison. Some of my favorite directors, however, are Ozu, Renoir, Tati, Lang, Hitchcock, Preminger, the Ray Brothers (Satiyajat and Nicholas).


PSF: CdS could almost be considered a "critics" band, due to all the high praise you receive; how do you feel about all the good words?

Well, yeah, it's gratifying when one's efforts are well-received by those supposedly in-the-know, especially when they're in a position to help spread the word about what you're doing. Since Cul de Sac offers nothing significant in the way of financial rewards, the response of press and fans is especially important to us, and not only for ego-gratification; I doubt we would have been able to attract the attention of labels without it.

But I have no illusions about the press and their loyalties. The very nature of their work means that they're chewing-up-and-spitting-out one minute what they're praising another, all the while their eyes scan the horizon for the next thing. I'd like to think we could live without that flimsy love that so often turns to scorn, but the truth is I'm glad we haven't had to -- yet.

Even without it, though, I like to think we'd still cling to what we do. The music is our outlet, our engagement with our creative sides and each other. There are few considerations beyond satisfying ourselves that enter into the Cul de Sac equation (some would argue this isn't necessarily a good thing) but we don't do this to be loved, we do it to satisfy something "inner."

PSF: What are your opinions on the current state of "rock". Does it as a genre thrill you anymore? Is something amiss?

It's easy to be jaded about the current state of rock 'n' roll. Certainly, given the sheer number of bands out there, the mediocrity of much of the music is inevitable. It must be damned hard for the casual listener. Not only is there so much new stuff spilling through the floodgates, there has never been a time when so much historical (i.e. pre-current) material has been available. Records I haunted used stores for decades trying to find are now readily available on CD in the local mall store. This is both good and bad. Someone with a real passion for a particular artist or a style of music -- be it krautrock, the recordings of Harry Partch, Joe Meek, the Ventures or pygmy rainforest music -- can satisfy that craving to an extent never before possible. But for the casual listener, the sheer number of choices must be intimidating. And to find the good stuff -- where do you start without some kind of guide: books, magazines, fanzines, etc.?

That there is little new or original happening has to some degree always been true, but it seems now that the most interesting stuff is only happening on the fringes, whereas in the past one could occasionally hear interesting music in the mainstream as well. But the industry has never been interested in shaking things up; sounding derivative is encouraged, applauded, rewarded, especially since it can always be marketed as "groundbreaking," regardless of its conservatism, to an audience unfamiliar with rock's past. Since rock is music for youth, largely, and no one expects young people to take the past into account, there will always be an emerging generation for whom style, fashion and peer acceptance are greater considerations than any other in what they choose to listen to. But, there will also always be a handful of people who are compelled to look beyond the obvious, who understand that to discover something about any art is to discover something about themselves (and the best art leads one to question oneself, one's preconceived notions, belief systems, etc., rather than reinforcing the status quo through repetition of the same formulae, as is typical with pop music). Among that special handful is the audience Cul de Sac seeks.


PSF: As a big fan of the Stooges, do you believe that something truly exciting like that can ever happen again?

In the sense that someone will make important music that will go largely unrecognized in its time, but will eventually find an audience and influence future music? Sure; these things are hardly unique. But we may not recognize it when it does happen, and the ones to be influenced may be in diapers right now. And the music that inspires them may be as meaningful to us as Fun House is to your grandma!


PSF: Can you relate to "modern rock"? Where do you think music is "heading", so to speak?

What is "modern rock"? Rock music has splintered into so many shards, the term is so loose-as-a-goose as to be almost meaningless. We'd probably agree it includes a band such as Sonic Youth, for instance; does it follow that rock also includes bands and artists with whom they've associated then? Jim O'Rourke, Oval, Gate, Loren MazzaCane Connors, Boredoms, et al.? If so, I can relate. If you mean by modern rock, though, bands like Prodigy, Blur, Oasis, Pavement -- I don't care about them. Though I haven't found much techno that inspires me, some of it's probably OK. I don't have any interest in pop music, which seems as processed and phony as ever.


PSF: How about modern jazz, or improv or classical or blues then? Can you "relate" to those genres more?

Certainly, but not to the exclusion of the modern (i.e.; progressive) world of music.


PSF: Do you believe that a total disenchantment with rock comes about due to an intense fandom of it earlier in life, then some sort of realization later on that it has "let you down" in some way? Do you feel this?

I think the let-down comes in trying to replicate an experience that is unique, a time of one's life that cannot -- and should not -- last forever. Take the music of Frank Zappa, for instance. This is music for, essentially, people whose emotional growth is stunted by an obsession with kidstuff. It is sexless, with little insight, passion, love, hatred, joy or poetry. Which isn't to say that you can't get something from old Frank Zappa records (or Star Trek reruns or heavy metal music or whatever) -- IF you're a 16-year-old boy, for whom that stuff is custom-made. (Enjoy it while you can, fellers.) But it's also important to know when to let go. Otherwise you're just another arrested-development case.

On the other hand are bands such as the Stooges or the Velvets. Remember the Stooges were laughing stock at the time they were making records, even among friends of mine whose taste in other matters I shared. (The Stooges' two Elektra albums were in the $1.99 bins so fast, I can't tell you.) By the time people were able to appreciate these bands, they no longer existed. But they created enduring music, passionate, angry, filled with a hatred born of confusion and isolation (often a hatred of self), but also full of wildness, abandon, awe. They were sexy. Not like wanna-go-to-bed-with-you sexy (though, I'm sure, for some, they were that too); rather their ideas were sexy, what they expressed spoke to the doubts of young people with any self-awareness. For another generation it might have been Nick Drake, Joy Division or Nirvana who touched that spot. But such artists couldn't do what they were doing forever, not if they were to remain honest to themselves. So they stopped (in some cases forever), or they grew, or their audiences changed, or the times changed. But the past still has the power to speak to us, far more than the Frank Zappas of the world -- for whom there is little love or hate or hope, only cynicism -- can admit.

Disappointment is natural; what you do with your disappointment is crucial. The Stooges, Velvets -- whoever you've loved and lost to the past -- are gone. They won't happen again, no matter how great the bands who take up their gauntlets, or how steadfast to the vision of their heroes they remain. For me the '70s were not the dire time musically they were for some. I didn't have Hendrix anymore, true, but during that decade I discovered Hank Williams and hard-core country, Gene Vincent and rockabilly, world music, prewar country blues, Miles Davis, John Fahey. I further explored electronic music and the 20th century avant-garde, and the music of Sun Ra, in which I'd already had an interest. Most importantly I began playing more and more, developing something that might eventually become self expression. For these discoveries, I have to thank the Elton Johns, Eagles and Peter Framptons of the world and their ilk: their music was so shallow, ugly and repellent -- and yet so omni-present -- that one had to take action of some kind.


PSF: CdS, to me, comes across like a perfect synthesization of your musical loves: the avant-garde, psychedelic rock and primitive folk. Do you see the band in this way, as a collage of your musical loves melded together into a unique brew?

I think so. As I say, we didn't have a clear idea in mind when we started out of what we'd sound like, it just came out in the music as we played together. Not having to worry about a singer was very liberating, of course; it eliminated a world of concerns and allowed us to focus on the purer aspects of playing. But I hope that we don't only sound like the product of several impressive record collections, if you will.


PSF: Who are the artists -- musical, visual, literary, whatever -- that in fact you would say "influenced" the CdS sound?

That's very hard to answer. Some of them I've already named, and I'm reluctant to just list more people whose work I like (for that see my favorite albums). The larger implications of the question gets into our whole aesthetic make-up, and relates to the times we grew up in, the role of -- not just music, but film, literature and painting -- forming an aesthetic. In spite of our cultural similarities in the key years of our youth (Robin, Michael and I were born within a seven month period), we find that we disagree (in some cases, very strongly) on many things. The band is as much a product of our differences as of our similarities. In fact, Cul de Sac may be the only thing we all agree on, and not even that all the time.


PSF: How did the John Fahey meeting all come about? You'd actually met him some years previous, hadn't you?

I've known John since the late '70s, and had corresponded with him for years. I've visited him in Portland, Oregon, gone thrift store shopping with him, etc. And we'd always spent time together whenever he played in the Boston area. Geffen Records considered doing an album around the time of Byron Coley's Fahey article for Spin a few years ago (which had the affect of resuscitating John's career). Geffen wanted Byron and I to co-produce the record. Their idea was to involve Fahey with Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo, Beck, Cul de Sac and others. Ray Farrell from Geffen and I met to discuss the project. But the album never got off the ground due to logistical and budgetary restraints. Later, Robin happened to mention it as "a project that never was" to Peter Gordon, who heads up our US label, Thirsty Ear. He was excited and revived the project, as a Cul de Sac / Fahey venture.


PSF: Do you feel it was all worth it, as the liner notes seem to denote a slight sense of disappointment with the project?

Not at all! I love the record; I love that there's so much "space" in it. The liner notes were meant to convey a sense of what it was like to work with John, how difficult he was, how ego-shattering and confrontational the experience was, how much we (me and Jon Proudman especially) had to give up in order for the album to happen. To compare it to something as painful, I have to think back to such emotional upheavals as breakups with high school sweethearts or the like. Now, finally, I'm beginning to be able to hear the record and not the exasperation of making it. But make no mistake, I'm terribly proud of the album.

PSF: Would you ever do something like that again?

Depending of the circumstances, yes; it's not out of the question.


PSF: Is there any bad blood between yourself and JF now?

Not at all. We did a show with Fahey in Portland, Oregon on our west coast jaunt; he joined us for one number, played well and thoughtfully. We still talk on the phone every couple months or so. I know John likes the album. He called the first time he played the finished record and said he thought it might be the best record he'd ever done. Which is ridiculous. Not that John wasn't being frank -- it's just that John also changes his mind a lot. He thought City of Refuge (which I didn't care for at all) was his best record for a while too; now he thinks he went "too far" on it.

PSF: How have the reviews been?

Really positive -- more so than I expected actually. It seemed to me an album that might be difficult for people to enter, hard to approach. But the album is also very lush, beautiful in its own strange, dark, mysterious way. The few reviewers who expressed qualifications quibbled over the inclusion of the two spoken word pieces tacked on at the end of the record. (One critic spent two paragraphs praising the album, then said the record was "ruined" by the last two tracks. Hell, man, there's a full hour of music before the spoken word stuff, so cut us some slack! That's why we put them at the end. I don't want to come off as an apologist for those tracks -- the first of the two spoken word things I like very much; I haven't tired of it. And the second spoken-word piece was important to John).


PSF: Where abouts do CdS really fit in contemporary music? Would you consider yourself a self-conscious band?

I'm not sure. I have wondered who our audience is. What do they get out of hearing us play? I like to think the music is trippy, in the sense that it flows, when it's working right, and can take you somewhere else. The audience for it, I hope, are folks who aren't afraid to feel something, who are willing to go a little ways with us, to let go; people for whom music is not just background static for other activities. I don't know if we're self-conscious, so much as subconscious, or extra-conscious. But, how we're viewed isn't something I've ever considered very much. We do what we do and we hope that by pleasing ourselves, we'll please whatever audience there is for it.


PSF: What's the future for CdS? Future recordings?

We start our fifth album in May, '98.


PSF: Does the band ever get frustrating to the point of wanting to pack it up?

Of course. I've lost track of how many times Robin has "quit the band." It's bound to be frustrating. Chris Fujiwara's departure had much to do with his growing impatience with the music, the sense that it was no longer a viable or satisfactory vehicle for his own expression. Playing music is all bound up in egos and such ephemeral matters as taste. But we're still rolling along, and the music, I feel, is still meaningful, provocative, exciting, gives pleasure. That outweighs the frustrations. We have been called dysfunctional (by our old drummer, Michael Knoblach, who was in a position to know), and he's right. But I'm beginning to think that dysfunctional = normal. Everything is a challenge, everything takes work, and you only stop when you're dead.



See some of Glenn's favorite music


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