That’s not art! With RRIICCEE Vincent Gallo finds purpose in directionless music.
It’s hard to know what to make of it when Vincent Gallo blurts out that the biggest insult one can hurl at him is to call his films or music “art.” It’s an odd declaration for the 46 year old musician, actor, writer and director of such films as Buffalo 66 and The Brown Bunny. His works are touted as sleazy descendants of such art house luminaries as John Cassavetes and Jean-Luc Godard, but for Gallo the comparisons couldn’t be further off-base. “Art is something that is done without purpose and I have a very clear purpose,” he says. “I’m making music and films for enjoyment. I would never do something without purpose.”
His words require some explanation, especially when considering that his new musical project RRIICCEE (not pronounced like the food, but spelled out) is a free form ensemble that goes on-stage each night to perform spontaneous compositions that are free of any pre-written songs, melodies or genre allegiances. Sound pretentious? It wouldn’t bare the fingerprint of Vincent Gallo if it didn’t. After all, this is the same guy who offers his sperm for sale under the merchandise link on his website (www.vgmerchandise.com) for the paltry sum of $1,000,000.00. In the ‘80s he played in the no wave band Gray, alongside the king of pomp, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. He also cast himself in his film The Brown Bunny in which he receives a real, on-screen blow job from actress Chloe Sevigny. Post-modern megalomania is his calling card. But the genuine enthusiasm in his voice and his methodically defined intentions that he spells-out over the phone from his home in Los Angeles bring the implications of such a band full-circle.
The line-up for the group features Nikolas Haas (drum kit and a drum machine), Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson (bass, drum machine and electronic gadgets), Rebecca Casabian (keyboards) and Gallo (melotrons, melodica, guitar and bass). Needless to say the group’s approach does not jive with the idea of recording, and to date RRIICCEE has no plans to record any material for public consumption.
The aim of RRIICCEE is to capture a pure, beautiful and in-the-moment musical experience. Gallo is delicate with his words when he explains this all, being careful not to employ that dreaded “a” word. “The goal is always to make work that is better than yourself,” he adds. “I am a buffoon. If my work is only as good as me, then it is buffoonery. So I wanted to go past myself.”
This is not experimental music made for the sake of experimentation. As Gallo explains, improvisation is not the right word for the group’s brand of spontaneous composition and performance. “Improvisation means committing to a musical form or vocabulary,” he says. “We’re creating composition, which means we need to be conscious and reflective. We are spontaneous and we are inventing, but we’re not wallowing in scales. We’re trying to organize structures that we recognize in the moment, that make compositional sense and build upon those. 'Conscious' is the best word for what we’re doing.”
Gallo wields the word “conscious,” almost as a weapon as he blasts the average band for what he describes as “pantomiming cabaret” and performing the same songs and going through the same motions every night.
RRIICCEE strives to break free by not placing any limitations on what happens on-stage. As dangerous and self-indulgent as this sounds, he stands by the group’s drive not to be musical contrarians, but to create beautiful music as a proactive band. “I am trying to be as open as possible,” he adds. “If I’m not making music that is better than me or beyond me being the asshole that I am, then I’m establishing a level and then eventually I will create my own cliché and I’m hoping to avoid that as much as possible. There are a lot of risks with that, but I would still rather go see a band play a show that was harder to get into, than see a show that was totally predictable.”
Getting the chance to do an interview with Vincent Gallo for this story was exciting if not unnerving. While working on the story anyone to whom I mentioned Gallo’s name hit me off with some variation of the following: a.) Ewww, he's a conservative Republican… b.) Ha ha that guy sells his sperm on the internet… or c.) Dude, man. Ask him about the Chloe scene… was that really for real?!?!
Throughout our conversation none of these things came up. Gallo dominated the phone call. He was not the combative or the unpleasant tormentor or the pretentious jerk off that many people speculated that he would be. If anything it was pretty much like talking to one of my bros. There was a genuine and infectious sense of enthusiasm in his voice from moment that I answered the phone. His ideas are sound, but I had an undeniable sense that he was staving off wide-eyed mania when he got ramped-up about what ever he was talking about. I really wanted to convey that underlying manic tone to his words, which is hard to pull off in a short feature for a weekly newspaper. To do so I have added the unedited transcript of our conversation, which follows:
Vincent Gallo: Hello, yes… Is this Chad Radford, the world famous journalist from the Atlanta arts weekly, Creative Loafing?
Chad Radford: This is he.
Oh, so this is Chad Radford?
So you mean to tell me that I am to believe that I am speaking with thee Chad Radford, that’s what you’re telling me?
Yep, you got it.
So I’ve got the right guy then?
Chad, you know what?
You have some really amazingly beautiful women in Atlanta, you know that?
Yes, I do know that, I see them everyday.
I mean totally amazing, like nowhere else on earth, not like here anyway. I mean we have beautiful women here in LA, but not like Atlanta.
Yep. Man, I live here and I deal with it every day.
Amazing women… Just amazing. So what else do you know, Chad?
Well I’m writing a story about this new project that you have called RRIICCEE, which I assume is pronounced like the food, rice, correct?
Well, I pronounce it R-R-I-I-C-C-E-E. However, other people have called it Rice. When people say that I don’t take offense, but it’s not how I see it.
That’s par for the course when you give a group a name that isn’t something totally cut and dry.
Yes it sure is. When I thought about a band name, the concept of the name was to create imagery and branding that would transcend itself; that would be both extremely modern but esoteric. To come up with a logo or a brand name in that way is very challenging. When people get together and they decide to name themselves they usually relate to things that are small-minded or personal, or things that have to do with their taste. Things that are only as good as the people involved. The goal here is always to make work that is better than yourself. Me, I am a buffoon. I’m an idiot. If my work is only as good as me, then it is buffoonery. So I wanted to go past myself. To create a brand that is more complex, deeper, more philosophical, more iconic and more profound than my own small mindedness. I felt that this was the best that I can come up with for now. I hired this guy named Doug Boyd who’s a very upper guy in creative advertising. He’s one of the smartest guys that I know. He does big conventional advertising for like Gucci and things like that. He’s the creative director for companies like that. I hired him to do the logo for the band name. He did a really beautiful job.
That’s the first time that I have collaborated with anybody, graphically, for a long time. For 20 years I have done the layouts, the fonts, the designs for all of my albums and posters etc. This is the first time that I have chosen to connect with somebody else in that way and I felt that he went past my abilities, which is not that hard, but still it was nice to work with him and come up with something like that.
Well, it’s a pretty simple logo and that goes a long way in branding. The fast food chains do a good job with that… The Golden Arches are recognizable in any language...
That’s right. It has to work in several ways: It has to work in retrospect. It has to work on cases of things. It has to fit into other graphic designs as you change and as you grow. The graphic has to be able to step forward, into or behind other things as you grow and change without too much conflict. Everything that I do is sort of important to me, and it’s important to my partners in this project. So when we make decisions -- maybe they’re done with humor or in some sort of spirit of fun -- they are always very thorough and very well thought through; what ever they are.
There is so much protocol in music, and in creativity and even in administration. Especially administration, in the way governments regulate and litigate, and the ways industries; the music industry or the film industry will job things out or organize things that to just be a less unconscious person, and more of a reflect person you start to realize how unconscious a lot of decision are made. Let’s send it out to this company to make the posters, send it over here to do the process. This is where the tapes are made and so on. If you stop to think about it, the status quo is not that spectacular. It’s certainly not the best potential for mankind.
I get the impression that what we’re talking about here is what RRIICCEE is all about.
Yes, the band certainly reflects that spirit.
And you think that improvisation is not the right word for what the group does?
That’s right, because improvisation means committing to a musical form or vocabulary. Jazz guys are improvising in the jazz vocabulary. Rock guys are improvising in the rock vocabulary. Even blues guys are improvising in the blues vocabulary. They’re soloing around blues things. The goal here is to create composition, which means we need to be conscious and reflective and in the moment. We are spontaneous and we are inventing. But we’re doing so with extreme consciousness and reflectivity, so we’re not wallowing in scales freely. Instead were trying to organize structures that we recognize in the moment that make compositional sense and then building on those.
What sort of instruments are you guys playing?
Nikolas Hass is coping with mostly percussive things. He in a sense has the most traditional kit in that he has a drum kit. He will move around it and mic it and strike it, maybe sometimes very classically and sometimes not. It’s important that you know that we’re not doing anything based on reaction. If he’s playing drums in a somewhat traditional sense it’s because they sound really beautiful and if it doesn’t sound really beautiful than he will move into playing something that does. But he won’t be doing anything experimental just to show how contrary he is. We’re not a reactionary project. We’re still proactive. Still coming from the heart. Conscious is the best word for what we’re doing.
But yeah, he plays drums and drum machines.
Eric Erlandson plays a lot of effects, drum machine, bass and more electronic things, gadget kind of things.
Rebecca Casabian plays mostly keyboarded instruments.
I play melotrons, melodica and guitar and bass.
When you see bands on stage, pantomiming their cabaret act, no matter how cool they began or no matter how sensitive they may be, on some level they let themselves become unconscious to allow themselves to play this cabaret act. And the minutia that they get caught up in and repetitive variations that they get caught up in are all very personal to them. But it’s not authentic. Rick Rubin has a lot of pull in the night club scene. We used to go out a lot and see bands here and there. He would insist on only watching from the side of the stage. He’s a pampered person, like King Tut or something. So he comes in and everything has to be lubricated for him. He doesn’t want any kind of confrontation, so we would lubricate him to the side of the stage and watch one song per band. There were several years where I was only seeing one song from a band and seeing it from the side of the stage. What that gave me, unfortunately, was the ability to see clearly how much bands are unconscious and just pantomiming cabaret. They seemed ridiculous. Even their heartfelt moves were repeated, seemed contrived and habitual. It would make me embarrassed to watch them. People with whom I was friends and liked their recorded work.
Johnny Ramone who was my close friend for a long time and who gave me so much joy from sharing his experiences, talked about every show he had seen, and he had seen everybody, and I mean everybody… He saw with Page, without page, just everybody. The Beatles, everybody. He told me the best show he had ever seen in his life… He saw the Doors play. They came out two hours late. The band came on and just started a riff. Half-an-hour later Morrison came out and sang maybe one line of a song, and just started screaming ‘fuck the pigs!’ They had to settle everybody down and the band started play again and he laid down for another half-an-hour and then jumped up and started screaming ‘fuck the pigs’ again. A riot broke out and they had to end the show. None of it was contrived and none of it was faked. It was all everybody reflecting off of everyone else. It was all an example of what the collective consciousness was riding on at that moment. It was so pure. Cut to 35 years later and I’m hanging out with PJ Harvey on the East coast and she’s playing her last show on a tour with U2. To say thank you to the band U2 she decides to cover one of their songs. She does a four-minute version of one of their songs as a tribute to the band. Thank you for touring together. Here’s me playing a piece of your music to show that I like and respect what you’re doing. U2’s response to that… The Edge was back stage, breaking things. Just smashing things because she put the U2 appearance four minutes over schedule. That’s what music has become. The stage crew bad vibes you. They want to get home and when you say that you’re going on they say ‘what’s your stage clock?’ What time are you going to be done? It’s all so ugly.
You were around and making music in New York during the no wave era and a lot of what you’re saying to me feels very much like the No Wave spirit.
On some levels yes, and on other levels no. Sonic Youth, who are an extension of that and who fantasize about having been from that period of time, even though they were just people in the crowd, you can tell that they play in some musical clichés. The play the same sets and they jam… like Neil Young jam. Thurston is one of the smartest and funniest people that I have ever met in my whole life, and Kim is the greatest girl that I have ever known in my whole life but the band still takes three minute pop songs and stretches them out into the Neil Young-type jams in an attempt to reference the no wave.
Back to the no wave thing, those bands were getting up there and playing their songs. Their songs were more original, more iconoclast and more entertaining to me, but if any of those bands were on tour they were doing cabaret. And the bands who emulate them now, like Magic Markers, and bands like that, even though they are very dynamic, they’re still doing songs. And for example, the Magic Markers new record, which I think is lame, like some singer songwriter bullshit. Alicia has got a lot more dynamic range and potential than a lame record like that.
What I mean by no wave is the sense of irreverence and energy, and the grainy quality of the music capturing a really distinctive sense of grit and spontaneity.
Yeah, but if you listen to DNA’s record, or a Contortions record or a Mars record, they’re still playing the same songs. If you listen to the Beatles in 1964 and then in 1968, they grow so much philosophically, in their lyrics and in their musical vocabulary, in their influences, in their diets, in their hair cuts and in their lifestyles, and their shoes… Bands seem to sort of level off and not grow. I am trying to be as open as possible and yes, I am coming from that spirit and that background but if I’m not making music that is better than me or beyond me being the asshole that I am, then I’m establishing a level and then eventually I will create my own cliché and I’m hoping to avoid that as much as possible. There are lot of risks with that. There are a lot of downsides. There are going to be a lot of shows where things come together less dynamically. But I would still rather go see a band play a show that was harder to get into, as opposed to seeing a show that was totally predictable.
You’re not recording anything with this group?
The idea of recording the show would only be for personal enjoyment and to reflect on the path. If we go in and record music… I have a very fine recording studio that I am working toward… if we do that, then that recorded music will be like our live shows, a documentation of that show. It won’t be like an enhancement to try to modify or clean up half-baked ideas. I t won’t have anything to do with the Rick Rubin production or the musical clichés around what a lot of the big producers are doing. It will be more like the documentation of the creation, rather than an interpretation of a creation.
This sounds sort of like a John Cage kind of philosophy.
I never knew John personally, and I didn’t relate to his music personally, so I don’t really know about that. But I’ll tell you what I do know... What I really listen to and what I play have nothing to do with one another.
That’s interesting, because a lot of musicians like to wear their influences on their sleeves and really get some mileage out of them…
The things that I like are so far fetched from what I create that it couldn’t be any more far fetched, and the films that I enjoy… And that’s why when people watch my films and reference things like John Cassavettes or whatever they connect me with, they have no clue what I would watch. And for the record I watch movies mostly on air planes. And I would watch a Sandy Bullock film 1,000 times before I would go see some bullshit, like The Squid and…. Oh what was the name of that stupid movie that came out last year?
The Squid and the Whale?
Yeah, that’s the one! Or you know whatever is out there and whatever thing that takes a position like that. When I’m making music or making films, in my mind I am making entertainment in the same spirit as some of my influences. So let’s say I wrote Michael Jackson, which I do. He’s one of my favorites of all time. So let’s say I am listening to a song like “Butterflies,” or “I Can’t help It If I Wanted to,” which I’m really into right now.
That’s a great song…
I am so into that song right now. In my mind, that’s how I’m connecting to them, I’m connecting on a certain melody that I am seeing, or a certain minor chord that I am hearing. So when I’m playing them back for people that’s what I assume they’re hearing. But they’re hearing things that are natural abstractions that are natural to what comes out of me that I am less conscious of. I’m surprised when they interpret them in that way. When they think of it as avant-garde or difficult or artistic…. Oh god, when they call it art it is so insulting to me. That’s not where I’m coming from at all. Art is something that is done without purpose and I have a very clear purpose. I’m making music or films for enjoyment. I would never do something with out purpose. It’s so hurtful when people write me e-mails and try to relate to me like that. I wish Michael Jackson would write me an e-mail, instead of someone who sends me a tape or a reel of something that’s very dark and hard to watch and says ‘I’m an artist like you, man. Fuck the Hollywood scene and all of that.’ That’s not where I’m coming from. I’m not reactionary like that. If we put out a record I am going to assume that it will sell 100,000,000 copies because everyone will think it’s so beautiful. But when it only sells 10 copies I will think wow, how odd that people see it differently. I won’t be disappointed, but I will think that it is odd.
Right, and there is no way to gauge anything like that, either.
No, I gauge it like this. I went into the woods and found the most beautiful apple tree I have ever seen. It has the most beautiful apple sand they taste so good… I say ‘come with me’ and I show people the apple tree and they say ‘I don’t know, it’s okay.’ And then you say yeah, but just taste this apple ad they so, ‘it’s okay, it tastes like an apple and I’m not really into apples. Let’s go back to McDonalds, I really need some French fires,’ and your like oh, okay. You’re just surprised because it was so clear and beautiful to you, so you just visit that place alone.
When we’re on stage we’re going to be trying to make the most beautiful music possible. If you see us on stage and you think that we’re just making noise or doing something difficult just to abstract something, than you let me know. I would be really surprised if you felt that way.
Have you caught yourself playing the same sort of musical phrases or anything that resembles a signature sound?
It hasn’t happened in the past, but I will tell you what always will happen. You will always have a limitation by where your taste is, and this happens with any connoisseur. Say if you are a collector of hand bags. Your first ones will be the alligator ones and then eventually ten years later you will realize that the plain gray bag with no latches is the most beautiful one. As you continue on something you will identify things as more or less beautiful.
And first of all, I can’t read or understand music in that way, so I can’t repeat things anywhere. Even the When album, which is the most conventional musical form that I ever committed to, I have to have other people show me how to play the songs. It’s like learning someone else’s songs. None of it makes sense to me. In fact, when people show it to me, I’m like ‘oh wow, cool. Interesting… How I thought of that… I don’t know.’ It’s so simple, but … when I play with people who are more… who have an easier time with musical forms that are more common, people who can play all kinds of music and learn records. When they hear my record they can learn the chords but they have a hard time getting the feel or the timing, because it’s not structured… It doesn’t stay in the same time. For me to say hey, can you play “Waiting so Long” by Eddie Money ,these people would say yeah, no problem and they would nail it in one take. But if I would say play “Laura” it would take a week to get the feel and the flow and the harmonics. That came from being very conscious and so it’s hard to get back there sometimes.
Do you buy a lot of records?
Well yeah, I have 20,000 of them. I love to buy records.
That’s a lot of records….
I would say 5,000 of them I haven’t even listened to. But you know you feel like you would die if you didn’t have them.
You buy mostly vinyl?
Yeah. I don’t have any CDs. The clanging of a CD makes me mad. Just to hear the plastic, but I do like to hear some super sonic hard rive. The only limitation of digital is software. And the only problem with software is that people are still writing linear software. When they start moving into algarhythms digital will really not be a problem. The circle will be a spiriling line. It won’t be a bunch of lines, but a circle. One day I fantisize about having an interface with a button and a list and that’s it. I don’t want to have to scroll through everything. Like a juke box where you have a piece of paper and you punch in I23 and boom. Even an iPod is too much for me, and that’s one of the best interfaces that anyone has ever come up with. Even that is too complex. I want a piece of paper in alphabetical order…
I wish Macintosh or Apple – those animals, those barbarians, those vultures -- were that consistent with all of their other software and interfaces and would make them all that good. But they won’t because they’re caught up in preserving that learning curve. Imagine anybody who is any good with computer softaware getting 100,000 calls every week from his friends who need help. What kind of world do we live in? What the fuck have we done to ourselves?
Chad I think I have to go because I’m late for the next guy, but I hope to see you at the show.
I will be there, man. Thank you for your time.
No way, man. Thank you…. Buh Bye!