John Leighton Beezer
JLB at the Chai House, 2007
Photographing The Unicorn
interview by 5-Track
Part 2 of 3
PSF: El Grande Conquistador, what's that all about?
JLB: El Grande Conquistador evolved out of the relationship between me and Whiting Tennis which is kind of complicated 'cos Whiting is sort of a unique individual and, I think he sees the [improv/rave-up] idea and is alternately fascinated and repelled by it. Originally he asked me to play bass in a band that he had and it was kind of against my principles but I figured I'm not going to take this so seriously, I just felt like hanging out with Whiting and playing music, and if that means I have to rehearse, fine. So I did it but I did it half-heartedly, and it was kind of fun but eventually one day Whiting shows up and goes, "Hey, I wanted you to see this single," and it's a single for our band, only I didn't even know he was recording a single. Kind of a funny way to get kicked out of a band, but it was very thoughtful of him to give me a copy.
Once that happened, it was like, we still wanted to play together and there was still this practice space that he had, so I just started recruiting people, a guy named Mark Iverson on bass, in fact I've worked with Mark for a long time. Mark didn't really play- he had an acoustic guitar and I'd heard him play one-string melodies on it and I actually thought he sort of had a gift for that, but that's pretty much kindergarten stuff. So I said, "I'm gonna loan you my bass, and just play the frets that are marked." And he really did have a gift for it! So he was adequate right off the bat and just steadily got better and better.
We went through a variety of drummers, a guy named Jim Wood from Stomach Pump who was really good but he kinda got more and more consumed by a job and family so we added Brian Van Yserloo on drums, he's a really good guy and great drummer, so it's been about ten years now that we've been playing on and off and it's probably the best of all these groups.
There's that [Mr Spot's] Chai House gig where everyone accused us of writing songs? Pfft - sorry! Whiting in particular, he plays guitar and he sings, what's curious about El Grande Conquistador is that because Whiting has this attraction repulsion sort of attitude towards the whole thing, it's a band that if we had management and a really regular gig schedule, I think we'd be blowing people away completely 'cos of what we're able to do. And that song "Egypt" is an example of that, I mean I'm not just talking. We managed to capture it in the studio one day.
PSF: You described it as "photographing the unicorn."
JLB: Yeah, exactly, 'cos we would get together and play for fun. It's something Whiting likes to do and he won't take it seriously, I don't think he's ever booked us a gig. He'll play a gig, but he won't book one. So we get these amazing sessions and I just sort of in my mind started thinking of it like, the unicorn will come out and play but if you bring out a camera it will run away, so you just can't prove to anyone that these amazing things are happening.
[You can hear "Egypt" by El Grande Conquistador at http://johnbeezer.com/music/egc.html]
PSF: My own awareness of you starts with the Columbia City Theater sometime in 2005.
JLB: There was a pretty big lull from the early '90's through the early '00's. Jason Dennie had the friend at Columbia City and that's when things started getting interesting. The owner at Columbia City just basically wanted musicians to know about it, so he opened it up. Great stage, great PA, great room. Jimi Hendrix used to practice there. We played every Thursday night for about ten weeks 'til people DID know about it, then they started booking it and they booted us out of there. A lot of that stuff was recorded. I don't know where it is. We had some great sessions, I met a lot of people.
There were three or four sort of different groups that all came together there. There were people that Jason knew through RealNetworks and all that crowd, there were people that Craig Diffenbach knew, and Craig was the owner of the theater and basically a Hendrix fanatic. He's been involved in all sorts of lawsuits on behalf of Jimi's brother and some other things so he's totally connected into the Seattle Hendrix-worshipping scene and he brought in some wicked guitar players. In fact, he brought in Jimi's brother, he was there, and it was funny 'cos that guy, his attitude is like, "No, I'm not Jimi's brother!" And someone said "you know, Jimi's brother is here," and I'm like, "omigod, Jimi Hendrix's brother is here, that's awesome," and then I saw some dude who COULD NOT HAVE BEEN ANYTHING BUT Jimi Hendrix's brother, he was dressed like him, he looked like him, he was walking around like he was cooler than everyone else, I thought "my god, that's Jimi Hendrix's brother!" And I asked, "is that him?"
"No, no that's not him!"
...Oh, okay. So he doesn't like people to know who he is, but he was there.
So a lot of great people came in, and just some amazing bands happened. It was unstable and it eventually blew up but for four or five weeks there, it got bigger every week and there were more and more great people coming down and playing some great music. I felt like I learned a lot too, 'cos I'd never had the opportunity like that to just have a night and do what I want with it. What we started to realize is that there were some problems, which is that people kind of felt like anybody could get onstage, so the more desperate you were to get on stage, the more likely you were to get on stage, and what that means is the really good players who have all the opportunity in the world to play really didn't work as hard to get on as the crappy players.
So it sorta took off for a while but then, the dynamic reversed to where there were just a whole lot of crappy people camping out to get onstage, doing weird shit, and the very end of it as I recall, I don't know if I got this story 100% true but here's what I understand happened. There was a woman and a man, I believe they had the relationship of, how do I say this, prostitute and pimp, and I think the man had the feeling that if the woman could just get a little more time on stage singing, that her music career would take off, and this was delusional. So we were actively trying to keep her off. And at one point that led to a gun being produced and displayed and at that point everybody said, "I don't know if I need to come back to this!" So that was the end of Columbia City. It was already deteriorating, that was the kind of scene that was going on and it led to the end of the road. But musically, it was already declining. I probably would have come back and braved the gunfire if it was musically hot.
But what was really cool about that is there were enough people that enjoyed it that when another opportunity came up, a lot of us came back together at the Chai House, for over a year which stunned me. I didn't think it could last that long! I think it started off slow. I think we knew what was possible from Columbia City, but I don't think we were blowing anyone's mind the first couple months of that. We were having fun and there were ten or fifteen people that might show up and then I think we got a little more organized and we started thinking we might want to start out with a certain line-up of personnel that we know is gonna be good rather than just kinda showing up and seeing what happens. So I thought for a while there it really started to grow rapidly and I think we were up to like fifty people a night on a good night, had some really good jams, the place was packed. They had this big glass window in the front, I'd watch total strangers go by, go all the way by, presumably do a double take offstage and come back and walk in. There were some pretty amazing jams going on there, and it was, in my mind, pretty much perfect. There was a lot of great stuff, lot of great musicians, lot of really good attitudes.
What I think ended up happening, it came undone just like Columbia City and my best way of explaining that is just that, I think my perspective is different from a lot of other people, meaning I don't really care about genre at all. If you want to play jazz, that's OK, if you want to play punk rock that's OK, if you want to do heavy metal or ambient, I don't care. I just want to know that it's coming out now, that it's fresh, that it's happening right now in response to this place and these people. And it's improvised. To me, that's all that's important. But I think a lot of people kind of broke down into factions, the noise guys and the Deadheads or whatever you want to call them, different kinds of attitudes about what good music is. Like for instance, Whiting is famous for hating slap bass, it's like fingernails on a chalkboard to him, so it was really hard to get El Grande Conqustador to play [as part of Snoose Junction at Mr Spot's Chai House] 'cos every time Whiting showed up, someone would play slap bass and he would hurl and run out the door.
That was kind of an extreme case, but there was a lot of that going on and to me, I didn't really see it, I thought it was all great. But once I started to realize it was kind of factional I also realized it was getting harder and harder to get a bunch of people together in a good mood. To be honest, I don't even know why it ended. I couldn't have done more and there was a lot that had to be done. If you or me or Foss wasn't prepared to keep it up, then I guess it's best that it stopped happening. I guess the whole theme of the last phase is that interesting things can happen but it's such a different way to play music that you really have to learn the whole game from scratch.
PSF: The whole rotating cast and then just the right degree of supervision or guidance without killing the vibe.
JLB: Exactly. It's like, if you're in a band that rehearses, you've also got this whole structure around you, the immediate circle. If there's four guys in the band there's probably also four girlfriends and then twenty close friends of the whole band and there's a rehearsal night or ten and it's all scheduled and arranged and structured. So if the band is gonna do something, the word just goes out. Or if any of the friends in the whole immediate circle are trying to plan something, they check to see if the band is doing anything that night. It's very structured and organized, it's not that hard to get fifteen or twenty people in the same place at the same time, for a show for example. When you're this chaotic, I never really know who's gonna be there to play! The classic is like, "uh, my cousin's friend's sister owns a drum set" - well, call her! Call her! Get her here now!
PSF: The 1-800-need-a-drummer line - and then that element of chaos, not knowing who's gonna be there, it ends up being a part of the improvisation.
JLB: Exactly. Definitely. We just did that show at Chromasound, as fate would have it that band Consider The Source was coming around and I thought they would possibly be great at improvising. Turns out they were amazing! They kicked everybody's ass. For every line-up, there was like one good jam, editing the tapes I had to stretch a little, but for them, there were like seven. So they were really good. They were coming around so we rented a studio and played a show and it was great and that's sort of the model I was hoping for. We had the local guys, we had people come in from out of town, you came up from L.A., even though you're from Seattle - or wherever you're from - I'm gonna try to get out to that party in Vermont, or maybe be down in L.A. in a few weeks, I'll play your living room. It doesn't matter I just want to be able to say I've done it. I'm happy with the way it turned out, but at least half the people I really wanted to see there couldn't make it for one reason or another. Of course Whiting did a drive by, he was there for five minutes... And then somebody, I can't remember who, was playing slap bass! Predictable...
PSF: Yeah, guaranteed to happen, don't know who that coulda been... [Um, that would be me, sorry Whiting!]
JLB: I was actually glad, that was the classic Whiting performance. He did what he does.
PSF: I was enjoying his drumming until he split.
JLB: Yeah, he's good at everything. The guy's a god! I bow down to his talent. It's just really hard getting him to a show environment where he's comfortable, so that's the trade-off.
PSF: Right after the Chai House factional implosion, a version of Snoose Junction got to perform on Sonarchy Radio, which allowed us some freedom to work with that chaos of personnel without a room full of people waiting for their turn to play.
JLB: Sonarchy, I've always wanted to do that, that's a radio show here in Seattle that showcases live music and I don't think there's ever been a bar band on there so I think if you're playing interesting music in Seattle, you haven't really accomplished anything til you've been on Sonarchy. There's a part from that session, I think it's the last track, "Why Do We Have To End It This Way?" There's two bass players, which is sort of unusual, but they lock into this descending bass groove that I really like, it's a standup bass and a regular bass, that's one of my favorite parts is the way that comes about.
[It's online as a free download at http://www.5-Track.com/CDSonarchy.html, among other places.]
PSF: Are there improv bands or other bands that have been an influence on you, or did you just sort of follow this idea on your own from where you started to where it went?
JLB: For quite a while, there were a lot of really influential bands, a whole lot of bands that, when I first heard them, I thought they were doing what I was doing. And I was real excited about it and in each case I learned that those were rehearsed songs, they're just trying to sound like they're out of control, so Sonic Youth was one of those. I remember seeing Sonic Youth and thinking, "I don't know if they're improvising or not, but I could sound like that, improvising, and I love it!" So Sonic Youth was influential.
I had that same experience the first time I heard Joy Division. Usually it takes me a while to like a band, but I heard that live Joy Division release in about 1982 or something and really liked it immediately, I felt excited about it and it was that same kind of thing. I knew for a fact they were playing songs, it didn't sound like they weren't playing songs, but the songs were simple enough and the attitude was sort of raw enough, that I really felt like I could play in a band that sounds like this without writing songs, and that really excited me.
It took me a long time to sort of unravel all of this, but Joy Division, one of the most influential bands for them was Can, and Can really did do that. Ultimately they had rehearsed songs, but the songs came out of these endless hippy jam sessions and just got chopped up and slapped on a record. So they became institutionalized as actual songs but the band improvised heavily if not exclusively. And they were gods of it, very rhythm based. I love Can's drummer in particular, I love them all, that's a great band. Basically I think that's what I was hearing even though at the time, I had no idea what it was all about, but I think the Can influence affected the Joy Division live show. And that was the sort of raw sound that I was hearing when I heard that thing and really really loved it the first time I heard it.
I used to think PIL was improvising, or could be, so I liked that. In fact, it's funny to think of this I remember in my dorm room in college in 1978, cranking PIL and I don't know if anybody else has this experience but sometimes when you're cranking music if it's really out there you're thinking, "what do my neighbors think?" I remember I was ashamed at the time and I turned PIL down 'cos I thought my neighbors would be offended.
PSF: Feeling all the negative attention floating around.
JLB: Yeah, yeah! It was so different, and today it doesn't seem all that different or out there but at the time I remember thinking, this is deviant music!
See Part 3 (of 3) of our John Leighton Beezer interview
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