Saturday, February 18, 2006

Interview with Alan Licht

As an improv guitarist and member of avant-garde rock acts Run On, Love Child and Blue Humans, Alan Licht is the greatest musicologist you've never heard. Through recordings like The Evan Dando of Noise? and his latest offering, A New York Minute, the Jersey-born Licht has emerged as a seminal figure in New York's art music scene. His approach has more in common with the ornate minimalism of Steve Reich and La Monte Young, and the directionless skronk of Derek Bailey, than the strum of most ax-men.

Now, touring with his first book, An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn (published by Drag City Press), a recollection of his own life told via the pop music and politics of the '80s and '90s, Licht reconsiders the past, present and future of pop music through the eyes of an unwitting participant.

Chad Radford: Your book is titled An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn, but it has nothing to do with Martha Quinn. Why Martha Quinn and not Alan Licht?

Alan Licht: It's a play on the title of the Fielding Dawson book, An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline. It's meant to be ironic. I've never met Martha Quinn. But so much of the book dwells in the early '80s that I wanted to use something that referenced the era.

You often refer to specific people in your record titles but never make any literal connections to them. Records like The Evan Dando of Noise?, Tone Poem For Nikki Sixx Million and Calvin Johnson Has Ruined Rock For An Entire Generation have nothing to do with the names in the titles. What draws you to them?

I've seen it done in other art forms. Fluxus artists would drop names in titles of things, and it always catches my attention when someone makes a reference to someone well-known, but it's not specifically a vehicle for that well-known person.

Martha Quinn retraces your life through pop music and events. Have you learned anything new about yourself by touring and reading from the book?

During my first reading, I realized that I had never read any of it out loud before and I was horrified at how some of it sounded. I had to be very selective with what was read. Now when I write I'm really conscious of how it will sound if it's read out loud. Specifically, some of the things I say about Billy Corgan are funny in print, but to go out and be pontificating about them just sounds mean.

You also write various blurbs on songs by the Eagles, Dire Straits, Duran Duran and many others. What do these songs mean to you?

Pop music isn't that different from minimalism, these songs are extremely repetitive and they get stuck in your head like they're on infinite repeat. With Steve Reich or Philip Glass, it's all about repetition and that's how they crossed over into pop music.

What was the first record you ever bought?

As a child I was way more into classical music than pop music. The first pop record I bought was by Shawn Cassidy, then the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and then Band on the Run by the Wings. I had a lot of classical records before that and in a way my first heavy metal record was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture where they used real cannon fire. I liked to play it really loud.

Are you a classically trained musician?

No, I failed out of harmony class in school.

In the book you draw a strong correlation between the attitude of pop music in the '80s and '90s with the politics of the time. Where do you see pop culture now in relation to the Bush White House, the War on Terror and the flailing economy?

During the '90s, there was a boom in the economy and there was room for experimentation for both musicians and audiences. People had enough money to check out something that was popular, but also things that weren't so popular. Now that the economy has taken a dive, there's no room for that anymore. It's all about survival of the fittest. A group like the White Stripes is playing music that references tried and true songwriting. It's new in that it's a duo with no bass, but fundamentally it's a conservative movement that reflects the conservativism of the time.

--Chad Radford

Published by Creative Loafing (10.02.03)

Collapsing into grace
Einstürzende Neubauten rumbles from a roar to a whisper

“There are too many devils in the United States these days,” warns a wary Blixa Bargeld, the caustic voice in command of Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings), one of the most destructive forces in 20th-century music. From wielding power tools to sledge-hammers to their own bodies for nearly 25 years, the Berlin-based deconstructionists have risked life and limb to rally behind Bargeld’s banshee howl. Debuting in America in 1982, the group’s calamitous industrial clatter transcended punk and no-wave to forge a soundtrack to a frenzied avant-garde nightmare.

Over time, the group’s dissonant roar has cooled to a whisper, culminating with the profound spaciousness of its most recent release, Perpetuum Mobile (Mute Records). And in light of decades of experience performing around the globe, touring the United States has not gotten easier.

Perched inside his tour bus at New York City’s Irving Plaza on the second night of Neubauten’s U.S. tour, Bargeld’s curtness is a far cry from his own devilish stage persona. Sporting a timeless black-on-black suit and bare feet, Bargeld takes the time prior to the show to address his own devils: nefarious and unwelcome business associates Clear Channel and Ticketmaster.

“Ticket prices are up like hell and it doesn’t change anything for the artists’ fee,” says Bargeld. “All the money goes to Ticketmaster and we’ve already had a legal dispute with Clear Channel on this tour, and we did win it.”

The dispute was over the group’s right to record and sell its performances at the end of the night; on which Clear Channel claimed to have a patent, but had previously given written permission for Neubauten to do so. It’s a minor victory for the group, but dealing with lawyers and limitations in the shadow of a corporate brute is an immensely discouraging headache. Bargeld confirms the sentiment onstage, declaring that this will most likely be Neubauten’s final U.S. tour, before wafting into Perpetuum Mobile’s opening track, “Ich Gehe Jetzt” (“I’m Going Now”).

Despite its refined nature, Perpetuum Mobile arrives on the heels of a tumultuous time in Neubauten’s career. While recording Ende Neu in 1996, long-standing bassist and publisher Mark Chung, and percussionist FM Einheit left the group, upsetting a 15-year-old lineup.

Chung went on to become the vice president of Sony Records, but Einheit has remained relatively silent. It was Einheit’s absence that posed the greatest threat to the future of Neubauten. For decades he had served as the fiery percussive thrust driving Neubauten’s engine.

But instead of falling apart the group quickly recruited Die Haut guitarist Jochen Arbeit and drummer Rudolf Moser as replacements. Joining the ranks of core multi-instrumentalists Alexander Hacke and Andrew (N.U. Unruh) Chuddy, the group released Silence is Sexy in 2000, laying the foundation for a graceful next step in the band’s evolution.

Furthermore, since 1984, Bargeld had also doubled as guitarist for Australian rough riders Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But when Neubauten convened to assemble Perpetuum Mobile, Bargeld left the Bad Seeds to focus on Neubauten. Working within the Bad Seeds’ songwriter-driven dusky dirge for nearly 20 years -- the polar opposite of Neubauten’s approach -- left a mark on Bargeld’s presence, though to what degree he’s hesitant to say. Judging by his sharpening toungue and and rising volume it’s a sore subject.

“I left the Bad Seeds and I also stopped smoking two-and-a-half years ago. It was much harder to give up smoking,” huffs Bargeld. “If I learned anything from the Bad Seeds its how a particular form reflects contents. They’re coming from an Australia-Anglo-American cover version band back ground and that’s something I’m missing. I come from Kraut rock. I do improvisation and noise and I embrace new ideas and that’s something I brought to the Bad Seeds. It’s hard to say how I would follow in their context.”

With Perpetuum Mobile, Neubauten’s metal-on-metal klang is reduced to a drone. Songs like “Ein Seltener Vogel” (“A Rare Bird”) and “Ozean und Brandung” (“Ocean and Surf”) layer hissing air compressors and a sprinkling of metallic percussion to forge a sound that’s much more at peace than ever before. Bargeld’s delicate vocal tones resonating throughout “Paradiesseits” and “Youme & Meyou” only bolsters the quiet makeover.

“What I did in my 20s is certainly different from what I did in my 30s and from what I’m doing in my 40s,” says Bargeld. “But if you look at the history of Neubauten, it is all genuinely Neubauten and nothing but Neubauten. If I still played like I did when I was 22, I wouldn’t be sitting here anymore. But, nevertheless, because of the way the business is done over here, [this tour] will probably be the last.”

-- Chad Radford

(Published by Creative Loafing on 05.13.04. Re-edited by Chad Radford)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Acid Mothers Temple Mantra of Love review

Mantra of Love

Mantra of Love is a jam for the bearded and bespectacled college freshman who’s buying nickels on his parents’ dime and luring ladies back to his dorm with nag champa and red wine. Offering up two epic drone-rock pieces Japanese psych rockers Acid Mothers Temple went to the Godspeed You! Black Emperor school for this fast/slow, high/low double header. As the 30-minute opening track "La Le Lo" takes shape vocalist Cotton Casino’s ethereal chanting of those very, um, words yields only to brash and brain-bending washes of guitar that wax and wane at will. Ten minutes deep into the song there are no more surprises. Another 10 min. later it has gone on for 15 min. too long. Absent is the upfront and cerebral intensity AMT’s releases usually radiate. But with a name like Mantra of Love one can hardly expect to hear anything other than the sounds of Tantric masturbation.
"L’Ambition dans le Mirror" follows suit, this time clocking in at exactly half the length of the opener. This second number is driven by a more spaced-out layering of sci-fi sounds and falling melodies that swirl and collapse upon each other.
As the group continues riding the snake, the trip mellows off, bubbling and churning and maintaining the same psychedelic sluggishness with which it started. Like the college freshman who wields it as a sensual weapon Mantra strikes out.


(First published by Creative Loafing 6/10/04. Re-edited by Chad Radford)