Photo by Keith Bruns
Odd times and ambient groove
Interview by 5-Track, Part II
PSF: I notice that although you have a lot to say conceptually here, there isn't much about the actual "objective" sound of hEENd, if there is such a thing. So, if it is possible to describe it, what did the band actually sound like?
AW: We always had a hard time figuring out how to talk about that. We incorporated any influence we came across, but made zero effort to study particular styles, harmonic structures, or even rhythm forms. I think we were interested in discovering our own sound. But we also made zero effort to keep other styles from getting in there, so sometimes a strong recognizable flavor would drive a jam (and they were often referenced in the input we got from our audiences). We played in a lot of odd time-signatures, but tried to make those time-signatures sound natural, not jarring. Of all the stylistic influences, we most-naturally embraced certain classic-rock vocal harmonies and tones, though so much of our aesthetic was 180-degrees in the other direction – bohemian and home-made and improvised. Trying to give people just a little door to enter into the sound, we started calling it "Jazz-Buttrock Fission" (Adrian's term, I believe). In later years, so many people started telling us that we sounded like Zappa that we decided we should probably listen to some Zappa. I could see what they were talking about, so I made a conscious effort not to listen to very much Zappa. I think the comparison they were drawing had to do with the disregard for stylistic continuity, the complexity, the humor, and the theatrical interactivity. I'm not sure if I'm right about this, but I felt like we were a lot less cynical than Zappa. We also weren't nearly as virtuoso as players, so there was a certain sloppiness to our sound. And the weird, home-made instruments definitely added a lo-fi almost "indie" vibe, even though the complexity and funk of what we were doing clashed aggressively with most of what other indie bands were doing at the time.
PSF: I would NEVER have guessed you and Adrian had either a background in either classical music or formal or experimental theater, though both make sense when I think about it a bit! Can you tell me a little bit about what kinds of experiences you two have had in those areas? (Did you tell me once that Adrian began life as a bass player?)
AW: I think Adrian actually played bass in his high-school jazz band for a while. He also filled in for us at one point on bass at a battle-of-the-bands audition before his voice had even changed. We were a 5-piece group playing classic rock and originals that sounded a bit like bad Journey.
We both played trumpet in school growing up. We were lucky enough to live in areas with pretty great music programs (my mom was a french-horn major who both taught music and sang professionally at different points in her life, so now I'm thinking that even though she never pushed us to play, she might've been thinking about the school's music programs when deciding where we would live?). I'm trying to think of the most relevant classical-music influences. It's not like we'd been playing the violin since age 4 or anything, but we had both taken piano lessons as kids and would go to the ballet or a symphonic concert together as a family once in a while -- at this fantastic half-outdoor amphitheater where Adrian and I could roll down a huge sloping grass hill if we got bored. And we would go see our mom's concerts. I played trumpet through half of high-school, at which point I became frustrated with how the structure of the music program required me to spend half of my time playing music purely to support sports (marching band, pep band). At around the same time, I started playing keyboards in my first rock band. I was taking jazz-theory lessons (on trumpet) outside of school at the time, but I pretty much dropped it all in my junior year and started focusing about half on rock and about half on classical piano-compositions that I would slowly teach myself at home.
Both Adrian and I took theater classes in high-school, but my extra-curricular music kept me from acting in any of the school-plays (which required daily after-school rehearsals that were at least a couple of hours long). By his junior year, Adrian was in most of them and was apparently enjoying this focus enough that he decided to apply for the directing program at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. It was a ridiculously competitive program (I think he flew to somewhere in California to audition with hundreds of other students for something like 5 slots), but he got in and did that for two years. It sounded like an amazing and very intense experience. After two years, he moved back and spent the early heenD years directing some highly experimental -- but genuinely impactful -- shows at Evergreen, including at least one completely awesome full-length play that he had written himself (in the play, a very unusual family lived very restrained lives trying and ultimately artfully failing to avoid acknowledging that they were living on a stage in front of an audience- the family's dog was played by a naked guy with a large beard).
PSF: It says in your ffrreeeellaabb bio that you fell in love with improvised music "abruptly" at a Phish show in 1991. When you say "abrupt," do you mean you had an epiphany of some kind? Were there angels, or voices in the sky? Was it something specific that the band did? Did you go right home that night and begin a life of manic improvisation? I mean, how did this eye-opening experience manifest in your immediate life-experience at that time?
AW: Crap! I knew I was stepping in it by leaving that particular bit of information in that paragraph. Several times I've considered taking it out, just because people are so hot and cold on Phish these days. I have to admit that it might've been hard to become a new Phish fan in the past 10 years – due at least partially to their cult-popularity. I have this hunch that it's hard to become a fan of something unique after it's already found a large audience. Maybe it's harder to make it yours? Of course there are other reasons over these past 10 years. But at that time, at that show, it's hard for me to imagine that anyone who was seeing them for the first time wouldn't have felt like they were discovering something shockingly new, genuine and fantastic.
I had improvised a bit on trumpet in Junior High. But that was all about trading solos over a style that probably made open listening and exploration difficult. A bit like improvising alone (which all composers do), but with a lot of added pressure. Somehow it always felt like more of an intellectual challenge than a connected conversation. It certainly wasn't group improv. At the time, I really didn't know what improv could feel like, and this experience with improvising solos was simultaneously a little unnerving and unsatisfying. Right around then, I moved across the country to a school district where the music programs were truly atrocious and so I mostly forgot about the whole idea for many years.
But back to that Phish show! It was a crowd of maybe three hundred at what was essentially a large bar in Olympia, WA. This was only a couple of weeks into my first year of college, and a brand-new friend invited me to the show before I had ever heard a recording of the band (which were mostly bootlegs in those days and possibly wouldn't have jibed well with my love of tightly-produced prog-albums. 'Artis the Spoon-man,' who I'd also never seen at the time, opened with a remarkably brave set of music and spontaneous philosophy. And then after a short break, when these random 4 dudes (Phish) took the stage. Really, something weird was up before they even started playing, but to answer part of your question, the "abrupt" realization wasn't so much angels or voices, just an ever-expanding grin that became so huge and lasted so long that by the second set, I had to deliberately relax my face in order to keep my neck from cramping up. I think I may have involuntarily laughed through half the show, just out of sheer amazement. It was clear that their whole idea of the band was just so huge!! And yet the scale was still small enough that it seemed like it was important that I personally got the joke.
At the time, my favorite bands were all dramatic, classically-influenced 'prog': Rush, Yes, Queen, Floyd, though I don't think I fully appreciated Pink Floyd at the time and I had yet to discover anything you might call "funk." For the previous 3 years, I had made some money playing bass and keys and singing in a classic-rock cover-band, but there was always a side project, skewing heavily towards complex original compositions. I swear I'll get to the improv here soon, but it's actually relevant that the thing that really blew me away at that Phish show wasn't just the improv. It was that they were doing it all! I loved vocal harmonies. They were doing 4-part vocal harmonies. I loved complex compositions. Compositional complexity doesn't go much further without becoming a parody of itself (at this point, I hadn't heard Zappa). The dynamic shifts were dramatic! It was hard to stop moving, and yet I was intellectually stimulated whenever I would stop to watch. It was rocking! There was a kind of undeniable humor that you can't exactly explain. Sometimes it was very quiet. Sometimes it was a bit scary. They just seemed to revel in everything at a time when most music was so painfully self-conscious and self-limited. It's a bit hard to remember, but I think I must've realized by late in the 1st set that not all of this insanity was pre-written. And beyond that, they were probably all improvising simultaneously! And that these parts often had ridiculous levels of energy. But unlike traditional jazz and other improv I could remember, the fact that they were doing all of this other stuff that I already valued made it harder to dismiss the improv. Somehow these guys had decided that improvisation was an essential ingredient in their stew. And the magnificence of the stew was completely self-evident.
For the first few weeks after that show I was elated, but also a bit confused by what to do with all of it. But within a year, my own trio had gone from fiendishly rehearsing the same 13 unbelievably complex prog songs four nights a week to smoking out and improvising. I knew that great composition could give the improv context and momentum, and it was starting to feel like that should actually be the primary function of our compositions. Still, it took a couple more years, until just before my brother came back from college and we started hEEnd, before I really felt comfortable improvising in front of an audience.
PSF: What got you started on home-made or found instruments? And, when did you begin to incorporate electronics, looping, etc.?
AW: I had been re-finishing my electric guitars – stripping off all of the hardware, sanding down the body and re-decorating it before putting everything back on – for a few years before I built that first percussion-kit for Adrian. But the kit was probably the big turning point. We fell in love with the idea of discovering and employing brand new sounds, even if they had their individual limitations. Between Adrian and I, we built an electric thumb-piano, a one-string bass with a drop-key, a series of progressively less-bizarre replacement kick-drums, and even a baritone 5-stringed instrument that used various gauges of weed-whacker cord for strings (featured on the heeNd tune "Simplasti") and many more. Sometimes the visual joke, or the usage of an available piece of lumber was the real strength of the design. We had a lot of time on our hands. I started building guitar-bodies from scratch and eventually whole guitars, culminating in the plank (a 9-string split-signal touch-guitar, ergonomically much like the Chapman Stick, but with its own tuning), which was probably my most ambitious instrument to date. It was a real relief that it was even usable, since I had spent probably $600 just on parts. And actually, it was a really fantastic instrument, with probably my favorite fretboard and tone of any guitar I've played, though the way it's held sort of keeps me from dancing, which is a bit of a bummer.
I had been doing my own solo vocal-looping experiments with high-feedback delays since sometime around my first year of college ('91), but didn't really bust them out again until I discovered a weird feature of the Digitech guitar multi-processors, which I started seriously exploring right about the time 'neon brown' was getting started. You can set the delay up to use the pedal to control feedback. If the pedal is all the way back, you'll get one loop-back of whatever you're playing and then it's gone. As you rock it forward, you get progressively more feedback until the pedal is all the way down, at which point, the unit just locks in the delay buffer, so you get infinite looping and it won't send your live signal to the delay any more, so you can just play over the top of it. It might not be obvious just from that description, but once you start playing around with it, you realize it's a super-powerful tool. You can remove things from an existing loop just by rocking the pedal back again, which sends anything new that you play into the delay and clears the delay buffer to the extent that you rock it back a little removes a little. And you can completely delete and/or simultaneously replace a piece of the loop just by rocking it all the way back during that part- if you rock it back just a little, it allows you to add to the loop and only slightly attenuates what's already in it. I still haven't heard anybody use it quite to the extent that we did, using multiple delays all running that same analog-feeling pedal-controlled hold/add/remove system but with the delay-times set to mathematically-significant relationships (for instance a polymeter of 7, 5, and 4 created by taking a base meter of half a second per beat and setting our 3 delays to 3.5 seconds, 2.5 seconds, and 2 seconds). Even though we were creating simpler melodic heads and building more open structures, we rediscovered rhythmic math-geeking in a big way (see "tippin the fridge" or "depth of field" for extreme examples).
At about the same time, Adrian had discovered a technique that was used a fair bit in certain experimental music circles where you create sound simply by amplifying signal-loops in a mixing board with no external input. Just the noise in the system was enough to generate a lot of sound (easily too much without a light touch and some tricks) when you re-amplified the same signal path recursively. A simple form would be running one output of a board into a channel input. As you bring up the level on the channel, you get feedback. To keep from getting horrendous high-pitched solid-state feedback, you'd run it through various delays, limiters, and other effects, which would allow you to control and color various crescendos of feedback. You can get some pretty surprising effects. You can hear this stuff sprinkled throughout the various 'neon brown' CD's. If you're wondering if it's a synthesizer, usually it's just Adrian on no-input-mixing-board (the breakdown of "Get Round" is an example that comes to mind).
PSF: hEend finished up in 2000. When did 'neon brown' get started, and how? What if anything happened in between?
AW: When HeenD split up, we had already been accepted into the North by NorthWest Music Festival (2000), so Adrian and I assembled a 5-piece group with Colin Higgins (the 4th hEEnd member), TQ Berg (a room-mate of Adrian's and a fantastic bassist who I collaborate with to this day, though he's more of a guitarist/vocalist these days) and their good friend, keyboardist/percussionist Tim Sautner. We eventually named the group "Falling Down Time." Never try to name a 5-piece group by consensus! It was during this period that I built the plank, at first just to differentiate my sound from the other guitar in the band. That group played a lot in a short period of time. It was a really great mix too. Those three other guys were all fantastic musicians (they were all vocalists too) and the material was quite diverse and chock-full of great springboards for instrumental improv. But ultimately – due to the resurfacing of unresolved issues from the last time the other three had been in a band together – the group lasted a little less than a year.
In spite of the abrupt ending, Adrian and I were even more energized by the experience of the 5-piece. We continued to play with the 'Falling Down Time' guys in various configurations, but we were also beginning to realize that the versatility of the plank-plus-loops setup would allow us to play as a duo. And we were equally excited by the path that those experiments were walking. Our shared history had apparently lined things up well for us. It was just so effortless. New, very different material began pouring out at an unprecedented rate. It seemed like we were developing something unique. Actually, of all my groups, 'neon brown' almost never got compared to other music. It was the first time where it seemed like the audience had as much trouble drawing comparisons as we did – which only reinforced the feeling that we were on to something worthwhile.
As for the concept/vision of the band, there was definitely some continuity with the ideas that we were exploring with heeNd. But we were also ready to drop the heavy catalog of past compositions and conceptual-modules and start over. The phrase that leads off our bio came together very early on and pretty well captures both the new and previously-established threads that we wanted to weave in: "Odd times and ambient groove. Cascading loops and vocal harmonies. Home-made instruments and funk for your butt."
"Odd Times": nothing new there (we'd been doing 5, 11, 13, whatever for years in HEEnD) but it felt like there was a new maturity and a new restraint to the sound that you could call "ambient groove." We realized quickly that we could get as much density as we wanted (easily too much!) with the loops, but we also wanted to be able to play without them and have the two sounds feel compatible. To a large extent this wasn't a problem, as we had always embraced wide dynamics, but we were also now trying to imply energy without playing it so explicitly. And the energy was more relaxed and rounded. Some of that changed when we moved to rehearsing at the the Jambox. It took us over a year to realize that we had started becoming more and more "hard-rock" just to hear our music over the bands in the neighboring rooms. The Nice Feathers album has a lot of the material written during the early Jambox years.
We quickly established a tradition of opening every show with a completely improvised loop-jam that built from silence. We had 3 or 4 stock delay-polymeters (overlapping loop-schemes) that we would switch between for these opening movements. Partly as a necessity of the looping, but also as an extension of what we'd been doing in our 5-piece, there was more of a natural emphasis on groove with neon brown.
Right away, there were a lot of new compositional ideas appearing. Sometimes I became conscious of the desire to write certain songs to balance out the show-experience ("we need a simple groove with light, peppy unison vocals here"). But mostly, we just built off of whatever we found ourselves playing. Over time, we realized that you could make a substantial rock-song with little more than bass, drums, and vocals, so we wrote a few of those ("Get Round" or "Inertia").
It was a lot harder to do the audience-interactive stuff well in the duo-format, my mind was already so occupied with the bass/treble split-hand [due to a primarily finger-tapped style on the Plank] plus singing that there just wasn't much attention left over for lyrical/conceptual improv and it always felt like it would be too limiting to do it over loops. In hEEnd, we had always been able to completely shift or stop the music in response to whatever came up conceptually. Plus without Terry's particular theatrical energy, Adrian and I just naturally gravitated more towards purely musical exploration. We tried to keep our complicated compositions shorter and more open ended. We made more room for improv in the structures (as opposed to around them), creating simpler jazz-head type arrangements and specializing in short funk-techno compositions that launched modal jams.
So yeah, only a little over a year into 'neon brown,' Victor Trey offered us a weekly gig at Mr. Spot's Chai House. We felt like weekly would be a little too frequent, but gladly took him up on a twice-monthly schedule. And the rest is history. The Mr. Spot's influence colors so much of the whole 'neon brown' era that the two can be hard to separate. I still have people try to write to me personally on myspace at the 'neon brown' page, thinking that 'neon brown' was always just the floating-roster improv-night that I began hosting after Adrian moved to Portland. But to Adrian and I, 'neon brown' is the two-piece group and the music we played as a two-piece at venues throughout the Northwest.
Nonetheless, there's so much to say about the 'Neon Brown Presents' series at Mr. Spot's (which included guest musicians as a primary feature right from the start), that it could fill a whole other interview! Since I just wrote a lengthy and cathartic wrap-up posting on my music blog, I won't go into it too much now, except to say that one of the best things about the series was that it introduced us to truly unique and visionary musicians on a yearly basis. At our first show there for instance, there was this clearly cracked dude improvising in a completely unsafe but obviously deeply-inspired and highly-effective way on the house piano. We talked to him for maybe 3 minutes before we played, and could immediately tell we could trust him. By the end of the evening, he had gone home and grabbed his guitar and returned to play an equally unprecedented 25-minute free-jam to close the night with us. Over time, that guy became known to us as 5-Track (ED NOTE: aka this article's author).
See Part III of the Andrew Woods interview
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