Twisting Ears for Twenty Years
by Jim Allen
Since 1984, Maryland-based Cuneiform Records has been releasing what their website calls "progressive rock, experimental rock, new jazz, off-beat, contemporary and other indefinable musics from across the globe," to which label founder Steve Feigenbaum jokingly refers in conversation simply as "funny music."
Over the years, that definition has encompassed both new and archival releases, by the likes of Belgian avant-rockers Univers Zero, downtown NYC experimentalists Curlew, UK free jazzers Brotherhood of Breath, avant-garde guitarists Fred Frith & Henry Kaiser, lo-fi cult hero R. Stevie Moore, Philadelphia punk-funkers the Stickmen, and British jazz-rock legends Soft Machine. June of 2004 marked Cuneiform's 20th anniversary, with some 200 releases under its belt. Somehow, Cuneiform has managed to take challenging, resolutely noncommercial music, and make it a going concern, flying under the radar of big-business music industry monoliths while nurturing a small but ever-increasing audience.
The man behind most of this is Steve Feigenbaum. He ran Cuneiform as a one-man operation for its first eight years, with the small-but-valuable head-start of his Wayside independent music dealership already in place. Feigenbaum began his trip down the road less traveled early in life. "Around ninth grade, I think, I heard Uncle Meat by the Mothers of Invention and I remember a little door in my brain opening up." He discovered jazz at the same time via the Wheaton, MD library. "I took out John Coltrane's Ascension, (Charles Mingus') The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz...that was where it began for me."
Shortly thereafter, Feigenbaum who was also a guitarist at the time met the Muffins, a local avant-garde/progressive jazz-rock band, around 1973. After high school, he started Random Radar records in partnership with the Muffins, "because we all perceived there was no way anyone was going to sign the Muffins, or sign us, and so we'd have to do it ourselves; from about '77 to about '81, we put out eleven albums and one single. "I had a record out, there were a couple of Muffins records out, we licensed the first Art Bears record in America, we put out a Lol Coxhill record that's where I got my feet wet."
Armed with the Muffins' mailing list, Feigenbaum started the Wayside music catalog in January 1980. "I was working in a record store. I had some contacts, [I knew] how to buy records and [thought] maybe I should try this myself...January of 1980 was a long time ago, there wasn't the Internet of course, and there wasn't any way to find out about stuff, there wasn't really very much in the way of oddball music, other than maybe punk oddball music...so it just seemed like a good idea."
Feigenbaum eventually built up enough of a grass-roots groundswell to start releasing records on his own. While there was no shortage of interesting, unconventional music to be found, US channels of distribution were almost non-existent. Though Cuneiform would eventually become home to many intense, cerebral European artists, its flagship release was by Nashville (now New Jersey) DIY weirdo/genius cult figure R. Stevie Moore, whose 1984 album What's the Point? was the first LP for both Moore and Cuneiform.
"[WFMU DJ] Irwin Chusid was, at that point, R. Stevie Moore's manager, and he was selling a couple of compilation tapes, back in early cassette culture, and I carried them. I liked Stevie's work, and that's how R. Stevie Moore became my first release." Over the next couple of years, Feigenbaum expanded on the groundwork laid with Moore, putting out LPs by Belgian art-rockers Present (a Univers Zero offshoot), pioneering U.S. synthesizer ensemble Mother Mallard, and of course, the Muffins, among others, all with a forward-looking, experimental edge. "It all came together in a rather organic fashion. I figured out pretty quickly the type of stuff I was gonna do. I think the R. Stevie Moore record is a really great record, but it's a little out of character if you look at what Cuneiform is. By about the third record, with Present, I sort of had an idea, I had a direction."
Many of the bands on Cuneiform fall loosely into avant-rock subgenres beloved by the hardcore but arcane to the masses. The most prevalent of these are RIO and Zeuhl. The former stands for Rock in Opposition, and started out as a politically motivated European movement in the early '70s spearheaded by iconoclastic groups like Henry Cow, and the aforementioned Art Bears. It's typified by a technically demanding combination of jazz, rock, and contemporary classical music. Feigenbaum has a hearty predilection for the style. "It's generally rhythmically interesting. Some of that stuff uses a certain amount of almost like animal-brain-level building blocks, using folk-music forms, which I like no matter how much it's sort of perverted or twisted. Somebody once asked me to try to sum up what I'm interested in: I like bands that play rehearsal-intensive music, generally."
Zeuhl is the avant/prog wing directly inspired by the legendary French band Magma, who invented their own language to sing in and, under the leadership of drummer/composer Christian Vander, forged a strident, aggressive style melding jazz-rock with near-operatic, Carl Orff-influenced structures. "It is a niche sub-genre, but people are interested, there is a fanbase. And actually, that's an aspect of 'prog' that seems to be picked up on in terms of hip factor from places that may not normally be so interested in prog. The Guapo record we did is definitely a Zeuhl record with a lot of other elements, and it's getting a lot of attention. Magma is on the rise. All these magazines drop the name Magma, and so I'm thinking to myself, 'These people haven't even heard it, they just know that they're supposed to have heard of it.' They know that it's, you know, like Klingon space opera sung in their own language, but I'll bet they've never heard it."
Inured to constant shifts in the paradigm of hipster-approved coolness, Feigenbaum has a philosophical outlook. "I spent the early '80s buying a billion German records in a used record store, a bunch of Krautrock records for two dollars each, and then five years later they were all worth a hundred dollars, I don't know why. The same people who went "Eew, German stoned hippies," suddenly five years later were talking about "Wow, cool, stoned German hippies." The only thing that changed was the perception. Nothing changed about Amon Duul II. Phallus Dei (the band's seminal '69 album) did not change in any way: the only thing that changed was the perception of it. It was loved, then utterly reviled, then loved again, and now it's sort of like passι, I guess...it's on it's way to being utterly reviled again, but we're not quite there yet. I remember buying 250 copies of (Krautrock classic) Faust IV from a cutout wholesaler for 50 cents each. I sold them for two dollars. It comes around, it goes away. The fact that I'm hip now and I wasn't hip before and I won't be hip again...I was around then, I'm around now, I'll be around later. I can go back to hip magazine X not liking me, it's not gonna break my heart."
Another, older style of progressive music that remains close to Feigenbaum's heart is the fusion-tinged "Canterbury" sound, so named for the hometown of its progenitor, Soft Machine. Cuneiform has handily documented the scene via archival releases from Gilgamesh, Delivery, various projects by Softs founder Robert Wyatt, and of course numerous live recordings of Soft Machine themselves. "There's a little bit of interest again in the Canterbury thing. Soft Machine are kind of hip and respected again, and I'd like to hope that my records were part of that. I was a big Soft Machine fan. My being able to release Soft Machine records if you told me that when I was in high school, I would have laughed at you. I've been a Robert Wyatt fan forever, so Robert approaching me that was quite thrilling; he's an incredibly nice man, and just was very pleasant and fun to deal with."
Apparently, the good vibes are reciprocal. Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper calls Feigenbaum "a careful, conscientious person" and observes, "in the '80s and '90s most people had moved on from interest in that music, and it was only Cuneiform, and Voiceprint in the UK who considered releasing it. Thanks to them there has been a resurgence of interest."
Feigenbaum started out as a lone wolf, but in 1993, his wife Joyce (married to Steve since 1985), made Cuneiform a family affair by coming on board as publicist, becoming her husband's first official employee. More recently, a handful of assistants and interns have been added to the mix. Cuneiform's eclecticism puts Joyce in an unusual position when promoting new releases. "One of our challenges is often not being able to reveal the eclecticism of our catalogue. Some jazz magazines have no idea that we also release classical minimalism, while some progressive rock magazines know nothing about our jazz improv releases, and so on. The old-school misconception is that a label can only release one type of music. Obviously, this is no longer the case."
After two decades of hard work, Cuneiform has plenty to be proud of, like helping to revitalize the career of Univers Zero, and making '70s French electro-prog legend Heldon's work available. Steve's also justifiably proud of his refreshingly straight-up business practices. "Every six months I sit down, I pull all of the sales figures, and I prepare 200 royalty forms, and I write checks and everybody gets paid." Needless to say, in such a notoriously crooked business, the Cuneiform method is much appreciated by its artists. Avant-rock guitar hero Fred Frith calls the label boss, "extremely honest, hard-working, passionate, and punctiliously correct in all business matters, which already sets him apart from most of the rest of the industry!" His fellow axe-man and cohort Henry Kaiser concurs, noting that, "they (Cuneiform) feel like an ally, where most labels feel like an adversary."
Cuneiform entered the fray 20 years ago with more heart than business acumen, but perseverance, passion, and a touch of serendipity have conspired to foster its longevity. In the hummingbird-paced music world, where cash and cachet are recklessly tossed about, Steve cites patience and fiscal prudence as key contributors to Cuneiform's growth. In the business's great tortoise-and-hare race, he confirms "I am absolutely the tortoise."
Whatever you do, don't call his labor of love a "prog-rock" label. "I don't think of Cuneiform as strictly a prog-rock label. You know, certainly people do think of it that way, and it's not like a complete falsehood, it's just I think it's only part of the story. In 1985 prog was a really, really dirty word, so there was nobody else doing this sort of thing. Except now, everybody's discovering it again. I figure I'm gonna do this long enough to watch myself get un-cool and cool one more time. I'm gonna retire when I'm cool the next time."
20 Years of "Funny Music" a Cuneiform primerBirdsongs of the Mesozoic: The Iridium Controversy (2003) | This US band formed from the ashes of '80s post-punks Mission of Burma, and went in an entirely different direction, forging a distinctive fusion/neo-classical sound. Two decades and several lineup changes later, they're more breathtaking than ever. Founding keyboardist Erick Lindgren describes their sound as "contemporary classical composition with all sorts of other musical genres, ranging from Bulgarian music to psychedelic music to techno and beyond."
Brotherhood of Breath: Travelling Somewhere [sic] (2001) | Fiery 1973 live album by highly regarded free-jazz ensemble featuring some of the finest British and South African musicians of the era. "These guys split from apartheid South Africa, they were an integrated band, they eventually settled in London they had this huge band that manages to keep going for a period of years, and then suddenly they all die. And 25 years later, they're forgotten." Steve Feigenbaum
Curlew: A Beautiful Western Saddle (1993) | Downtown NYC avant-garde meets Americana and incorporates the words of poet Paul Haines. "A big deal kind of get-myself-into-heaven record." SF "A truly revolutionary work of avant-rock fusion." Joyce Feigenbaum
Fred Frith/Henry Kaiser: Friends & Enemies (1999) | A bracing round of fretboard fireworks from two avant-garde guitar heroes; England's Fred Frith (Henry Cow, Skeleton Crew, Art Bears, Massacre) and San Francisco iconoclast Henry Kaiser.
Guapo: Five Suns (2004) | Heavily inspired by the dark, forceful sound of Magma, British trio Guapo is one of the most exciting new bands on the Cuneiform roster, and their latest release outlines new paths for the "Zeuhl" sound.
Heldon: II: Allex Teia (1975) | 1992 reissue of French guitarist/synthesist Richard Pinhas's second album under the Heldon banner, featuring his early Robert Fripp-meets-Tangerine Dream sound. "A revolutionary precursor of industrial music should be as well known as Faust." JF
However: Calling (1985) | Pioneering US progressive group However's second and final album was Cuneiform's second release, blending jazz, rock, and classical influences in a unique, rigorously clichι-free way.
Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co.: 1970-1973 (1999) | Led by David Borden, Mother Mallard made hypnotic, cyclical music as organic as it was electronic. "A critical document of early electronic music, done by the world's first all-synth band." JF
Mujician: Spacetime (2002) | This British outfit includes some of the UK's most outstanding modern-jazz musicians (pianist Keith Tippett, saxman Paul Dunmall), and their most recent album blurs the lines between free improvisation and group composition on a series of short, concise pieces.
The Muffins: Manna/Mirage (1978) | The first album by Cuneiform honcho Steve Feigenbaum's old pals the Muffins quietly set a new standard for forward-looking American progressive music in the 1970s. Originally on Muffins/Feigenbaum collective label Random Radar, it was later reissued on Cuneiform.
Soft Machine: Backwards (2002) | This key archival release features live recordings from 1968-70, capturing the Canterbury jazz-rock legends in full flight, a crucial addition to the band's luminous discography.
The Stick Men: Insatiable (2001) | Manic early-'80s Philadelphia band the Stickmen burned briefly but brightly with a crazed punk-funk approach akin to the New York "No Wave" sound of James Chance & the Contortions. They might have been forever forgotten if Cuneiform hadn't rescued these sessions and made them available two decades after the fact.
Thinking Plague: In Extremis (1998) | One of the best representations of this Colorado group's defining ventures into the RIO (Rock in Opposition) style; challenging, uncompromising, and fascinating in a Zappa-meets-Stravinsky kind of way.
Univers Zero: Ceux Du Dehors (1981) | Reissued in 1997, the Belgian group's third album is an intense, moody work marked by highly sophisticated composition and ominous, near-gothic atmosphere. "The output of the neoclassical/chamber rock group Univers Zero ranks among the finest New Music/contemporary composition of the late 20th/early 21st century." JF "Why is Phillip Glass and his amplified keyboard instruments classical, and these guys are rock? It's all perception." SF
Also see Cuneiform Records and author Jim Allen's band Lazy Lions
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