Friday, June 7, 2013

A Long Chat with Drummer, Composer and Bandleader Mike Pride

The landscape of improvised music is nothing if not a celebration of diversity. With the most engaging musicians, it’s not so much of a “look and see all the things I do” approach but a natural inclination towards playing with like-minded individuals and presenting the varied fruits of that labor. Drummer Mike Pride is one who has his hands in a glorious array of different pots, from playing R&B-influenced jazz in From Bacteria to Boys, to noise-influenced free music with I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But The Blues (with guitarist Mick Barr and saxophonist Jon Irabagon), to brutal prog with Pulverize the Sound (Tim Dahl, bass; Peter Evans, trumpet). Pride also worked as the drummer-of-choice for MDC in the early Aughts and in the noise rock band Dynamite Club (with connections to Fushitsusha and Yoshihide Otomo). In advance of two albums coming out in May on the venerable New York avant-garde jazz label AUM Fidelity, Drummer’s Corpse and Birthing Days, each with an entirely different approach and ensemble, I spoke with Pride in April on many subjects not limited to death, rebirth, mentorship and teaching, composing, collaborating, and releasing music.

I. Drummer’s Corpse

If you could talk about this pair of new records and how you conceived them, we’ll go from there.

Well, I never really planned to pair them as such – they weren’t conceived that way. Drummer’s Corpse is something I started doing in 2005 after this big fire I had and that situation fucks you up a bit. Our cat died in the fire, so it wasn’t just possessions – not that I’m a big pet person or anything but my wife is, and dealing with that – it’s not really the way you want your cat to go. So that happened and I was working less and less – I’d just quit Millions of Dead Cops two weeks before the fire. That was a job and I could predict some kind of income. And so I quit that and two weeks later that shit happened. The way I left MDC was kind of nasty; not on anybody’s part really, but there was just a lot of disagreement between myself and Dave [Dictor], the lead singer, Ron [Posner], the guitarist who wrote the majority of that music, and the band management.

They’ve been around forever and there’s been a lot of flux in personnel over the years.

I’m one in a long line – not many drummers, though. There’s Al Schvitz, the drummer who was in there pretty much from the beginning, and I think he grew up with those guys. They went through many bass players; I can’t remember who is on the first Stains seven-inch – do you know MDC’s history?

Somewhat. They were originally an Austin band, right?

Yeah, that’s right. They were called The Stains in the late ‘70s. They put out the same recordings as MDC because there was another group called The Stains. Anyway, the drummer went to prison in the mid-to-late ‘90s so they went from a guy named Al Schvitz to a guy named Al Batross, who was a big fan of my rock band Dynamite Club. He was a big Zappa head and I guess he grew up knowing Ruth Underwood and he always told these great stories about sitting under her marimba. He was a cool guy who happened to be a great punk drummer and. So he joined MDC and then he left for some reason, and recommended me. I went in and auditioned without knowing who they were  – I jammed with them and tried to play punk beats as best I could and they wanted me to come back the next night. I liked them as people so I learned as many songs as I could, sixty songs or something, wrote down the charts, and I got the gig and went on tour with them four days later. I was in the band until the original drummer came back once he got out of prison.

So I left that band and my band Dynamite Club was working less and less – I wrote a lot of music for them, sang and played drums. We were an ecstatic avant-garde punk band, toured all the time and put out three records. The records did all right; the guitarist was Japanese and moved back to Tokyo to take care of his family. I had a band called Snuggle Stencil, with myself on drums, Jesse Krakow on bass and Mike Gamble on guitar – that was a progressive avant-metal band. It lived a very short existence, just did a couple of music festivals and never recorded.

I decided to have this thing called Drummer’s Corpse that could be super dark and when people want me to play rock shows now I don’t show up with a rock band anymore. I was always in so many rock bands, and – at least in the New York community those bands were well respected. What to do next? Fill up the room with drummers and go fucking nuts. I wanted to have this installation rather than a rock band, and that continued for – well, it still continues, going on eight years.

Have the personnel changed much?

Yeah, every time. There’ve been so many people and some performances where very few people were actually drummers by trade. Trying to find seven other drummers who can all do this thing, you know, and will do it for what I can afford to pay. Two performance artists, a guitar player, and I end up carting in all kinds of shit – it’s an intense gig.

Was there any conversation between you and Kid Millions or the Man Forever thing?

I know of it; I was asked to do double bass drums in that by Oran Canfield, the drummer from Child Abuse who’s on this Drummer’s Corpse record, and he was the first guy I needed to have. He’s always been part of it and the way he plays is how I want most guys to play – but I don’t want to have to tell people what to play. I only want to tell them what not to do. I’d done the 77 drummer thing with the Boredoms that Kid had done, and I was supposed to be a conductor on the one they did the next year with 88 drummers in California, but the funding fell out a couple of weeks before the gig and I had to back out. I know Kid a little bit; I don’t know Man Forever that well – I didn’t do the gig he’d asked me to do though I’ve seen some videos. It seems like more of a psychedelic rock thing where – what I saw, with the guitar element and what was going on seemed less focused than the drumming is.

He’s pretty didactic within the parameters of what he wants, from what I understand, but he’s trained quite differently than you are.

Yeah, I always got the feeling that he was a completely self-taught player. Whereas – well, for example, Weasel Walter is too but he’s a student of all of modern music, whether or not he plays it. I haven’t gotten that impression from Kid Millions – no judgment, just a different thing. I had certainly begun Drummer’s Corpse years previously; he started to do that from what I gather after the first Boredoms 77-drummer thing, and that makes perfect sense – I certainly got more inspired to kick up the gear with the Drummer’s Corpse thing after the Boredoms project.

What I understand is this is the first recording of Drummer’s Corpse.

Yeah, there’s nothing else that’s available. There are lots of recordings that have been made and there’s a great video that Torsten Meyer put together. He’s a banker who is very into extreme metal and stuff like that, and he came to one of the final shows at Tonic in 2004 that Judith Berkson booked. Legends played, Bloody Panda played, which was a doom-metal band that Dan Weiss was in and I took over for him. We did Drummer’s Corpse and Torsten filmed it, and it’s an amazing – he stood in the middle, the drummers are in a circle in the room, and you can hear each drummer individually as he moves around. That circulated the internet in pieces, but aside from that this is the first official document.

Is it scored at all? What’s the system? I noticed something in the package that looks graphic.

That’s just a drawing I did for [organist/engineer] Jamie Saft so he could mix it. I try to not tell people what to do and he’s a brilliant audio engineer with great ears. Other people I might feel like I need to take over from but if Jamie is mixing that’s not the case – I may suggest a different route here or there, but I don’t have to get too retroactive. He knew what it would be, we talked before it was recorded and he was planning to mix it all along. He gave me suggestions on how to mike the drums since he was going to mix it with seven drum sets and lots of vocal tracks, guitar and organ, nose flute, all kinds of shit. The drawing that’s on the back of the cover I drew to explain how the sound field looks in my mind’s eye, with the spread out of the drums and who’s where, Jamie followed that as I thought he would. That was actually only intended to convey how to mix the record; as I was preparing and designing the album artwork I felt it looked pretty rad and I do a lot of artwork anyway, both for album covers and having my own art shows, so I thought it should go there. There’s a legitimate score as well and it’s pretty standard – there are directions for the drummers and they aren’t playing specific drum parts. There’s a rule set that’s written on the score; I just convey that, I don’t give it to the drummers. It’s almost Cageian in how it looks, with a lot of text. There are the guitar chords, organ chords, the performance artists have specific things and I have a specific floor tom part that carries through the whole piece – that lays out how the whole piece moves. The vocal part is serialized rhythmically into different types of screams and directions for drummers, essentially.

It seems very visual in terms of the music and how it’s laid out. Are things lost in translation to a recorded setting?

That’s one reason I hadn’t released it before. I’ve never been shy about putting out records perhaps sooner than necessary. But with this one it was like, I’d always flirted with just putting out the video that Torsten made because that seemed to capture the whole thing. That never happened; I don’t think DVDs sell at all. Unless I had the access to a budget where I could do it right, there was no point in recording it because it would sound like garbage. All these things going at once, you know, and I don’t have the money to produce that myself.

The Kickstarter thing gave me the budget to do that, and people had been suggesting that I do a Kickstarter for about a year and a half. It wasn’t something I initially wanted to do – I didn’t want to ask people for money. I hate that. It just happened to coincide with the same two weeks that were slated to record the new From Bacteria to Boys record. It was a full time job for two months; it raised $9000, which for me is a huge amount of money, and was able to hire who I wanted to hire and pay them reasonably – everybody was only needed in the studio for three hours at a time.

It was all recorded in one day minus some of the recitations on the second piece; one of the artists broke her ankle the night before and I had to have someone else come in and do it instead. Aside from that everything was done in three-hour shifts and I was able to pay everyone $100/hour – enough that it would be respectable, that I could ask of them what I wanted, and cover their expenses. Fritz Welch, who is the male performance artist, was a strong artistic presence and involved from the beginning. Part of the way the piece is composed was using different artists who are important to me, using their name and somehow serializing that and creating a chord progression from it. He was one of those people. He moved to Scotland a couple of years ago and I knew he would be in town last summer, so we booked the studio time and I trusted it was meant to happen, and it did.

Originally I thought that I was going to put out the Drummer’s Corpse record – that was the goal, I thought I should, and then Zorn had some interest and it seemed like he would put it out on Tzadik. Then he decided not to, and by that point I was already prepping the From Bacteria to Boys record so I said ‘you know what? I have this album that is about the birth of my son and I have this other album that is about everything, you know, and if I was a fan of an artist that does uncompromising work, it would be interesting to me if both of those records came out together.’ Rather than diminishing the release of one by having it come out six months later, this would be a total statement. I didn’t have to change anything for it to happen this way – Drummer’s Corpse is about death and one of the jokes about the piece is that, especially after Mark Sandman died on stage, maybe I’ll do a performance of Drummer’s Corpse when I’m really old and end up dying on stage of a heart attack. And of course I played in Drum Corps.

Right, I figured the name was a play on that.

Yeah, not intentionally – just out of unthinking humor. Every time I performed it I wore a tight bodysuit that’s like a corpse, less good-looking now than it was five years ago but I stick with it, and it really was – when I first started doing this music it was a dark piece about dark things. It was about the death of many things both in myself and out.

It’s cathartic to listen to.

Yes, one hundred percent – that’s the goal. I feel like the first – so you have six chords and each chord is held for five minutes. That’s when the shifts happen. Live, every drummer starts when a female performance artist comes up and makes uncomfortable eye contact with them, and that’s when they start improvising. I start the clock and there’s three minutes of that. For the record I thought it would be nice to have a gong orchestra since I had access to all these great percussionists who had gongs and I had accrued a lot of gongs and always wanted to do something like that. It would be more interesting on record; in performance, it’s cool to see the uncomfortable moment when someone actually decides that’s enough eye contact and they start. On record it would be meaningless; all these drummers start and a chord drops in – I wanted it to build up to a ‘bam!’

The chords remind me a bit of Glenn Branca, especially with the guitar parts as they are – even though I guess that could be spurious.

I think that makes sense; I certainly am a big fan of the first couple Branca symphonies. I haven’t followed him beyond that. I was supposed to play on the World Trade Center thing a few years ago, maybe the last big project he did in the city that I know of. It may have gotten cancelled or something came up so I didn’t do it. When I was writing I was thinking of messianic organ music, especially the way that the individual pitches are serialized. There’s a certain way that the pitches move that is consistent; the intervals are moving around in a way that’s consistent with the floor tom part building in density and the vocal part adding more elements and getting closer together each time. I wanted these blocks of sound and the drummers are all repeating something. As soon as I cue in the chord – live I count down from five and everyone has to start doing something – and you just stick with it. It’s a physical and mental challenge. Also, because everyone has to start doing something and then immediately repeat it, whether a phrase or a technique, there are certain things you aren’t allowed to do – you can’t do anything groovy.

Drummer's Corpse

It would be anathema for it to sound like M’Boom or anything Afro-centric, obviously.

Yeah – I’m a farm boy from Maine and I love African American music, which is largely my favorite music. Max Roach, from We Insist! (Candid, 1960) all the way up through new R. Kelly music and the new Tyler, The Creator record is great also. But I’m a white kid from Maine, so it’s not even a question of allowing or not allowing something like that – it’s not me. There’ll be elements of that in my music – the new From Bacteria to Boys record has a lot of R&B elements – but that’s not trying to be part of any culture, it reflects a modern take on the art that I follow. That’s what I think an artist should be doing – reflecting what they’re into, not what they feel like they should do or what others want.

It’s interesting to think of an improvising percussion ensemble that doesn’t fit in with African or African American musical forms – M’Boom being one, and also Milford Graves’ Dialogues of the Drums with Andrew Cyrille and Rashied Ali. And there’s also the fact of modern classical percussion literature, which is also very different from what you do.

Yeah, I am into all those things equally, and specifically – I like Milford solo, I used to study with him but that record with Sonny Morgan [Percussion Ensemble, ESP, 1965] just doesn’t sound that good to me. I never found it that interesting. The duo with Andrew Cyrille [Dialogue of the Drums, IPS, 1974] – those are great but not well recorded. M’Boom is a little too tonal for me and exploits elements of arrangement that I personally find a little hackneyed. Back then it was probably cool to hear two triangles going at once, and I love Max Roach – he’s one of my heroes for sure, but…

In terms of tonal structure and arrangement, that’s Max Roach – that’s who he is.

Totally, and I loved Survivors (Soul Note, 1984) with his drums and a string quartet. That piece is incredible. The string quartet is weird; to me that record sounds like Max writing big band hits for a horn section and having that re-written for a string quartet, playing horn parts. But there’s not a lot – I guess as far as percussion music I like solo percussion. Andrew Cyrille’s solo record, What About? (BYG, 1969), is amazing and sounds great. It’s clearly not recorded expensively but the way they miked the cymbals sounds amazing – it’s a singular record. You can find a lot of percussion ensemble music on the classical side of things because there is money behind it. The Congotronics stuff is awesome, which is more recent, I get bored of because it’s the same pitch sets all of the time. Not a lot of stuff where a bunch of drummers are playing together do I think sounds any good.

With Drummer’s Corpse, everybody I wanted on it was available, and they are all people I thought would be interesting together representing a snapshot of a certain area of New York creative drumming, pan-stylistically. This is going as ‘old-school’ as Bobby Previte, for example.

I haven’t followed his sector of the music in a while and it was curious to see his name on this record.

He still records a lot; he hired me for a duo on a DVD boxed-set he’s doing. We did that and it was cool; he is a big fan of the Kalashnikov record – he came to the mastering session and I remember him saying ‘wow, you do all this stuff live?’ he’s always been really encouraging and he’s nice to be around. Fortunately I was able to record all of this music, mix it and make it sound good. I think it sounds great; it could be a deafening wall of sound. You can feel it shifting; the drummers’ loops, nobody is playing the same time signature and because everything is looping it’s constantly changing, so if people adhere to the rules, nothing will be the same. While it’s repeating it’s also a shifting bubble of sound, consistent with the drone of the guitar and the organ.

In no way is it ever overpowering.

I think it’s interesting – I can’t think of an album that has that much information happening where you really can hear everything. Hopefully the mix map inside really helps. Jaime did an amazing job and everyone was interesting in how they played – it was more committed to the aesthetic I had prepared than I would have thought. I was prepared to have to cut some things; how it was done was in shifts, and on one of the conducted parts I was able to observe things and there was a section I heard that I didn’t like that I couldn’t exactly stop in the middle, so I thought I’d just have to cut it later. I messed around with it at home and however it came out, you can’t hear it anyway. Which is strange because you can hear all of the angular shit crashing around it.

What are the proportions in terms of live or studio-built music here?

There’s no cutting and pasting at all; we laid down the organ, guitar and floor tom simultaneously. That’s live – Chris Welcome and I did that, with him on guitar and myself on vocal, organ and floor tom. We did another pass with Russell [Greenberg] and Oran, and Chris did another guitar pass. I had the other three drummers come in but they didn’t listen to the previous section – they only heard the chords and the scratch vocal. Live, I tape down the keys on the organ and right at the beginning of the piece you can hear the duct tape being torn off and my short fusing the keyboard. The first three minutes live, what you see is me tearing off tape – like 26 pieces of tape – as musicians are improvising, so it’s kind of an interesting performance for me to prepare the keys because the organ doesn’t have a sustain pedal. I did a vocal overdub for the final section, and I added some cymbal parts. At the very end of the night I had the shamanic parts added, but that’s how it came together – Marissa [Perel] was playing a hand-pumped organ, which was great, but we couldn’t actually use it because it diminished the quality of the chords I already had written. The second piece was recorded first thing in the morning with me, Chris and Eivind [Opsvik, bassist] – while Fritz and Marisa were in the studio later, I had them read the news broadcasts and we added that.

Did it make the Kickstarter irrelevant for Aum to put it out? I’m not sure how the label’s pay structure works, but did they license it from you already being paid for?

I told him that I made another record that would be coming out around the same time and that I didn’t want to hold it back, so I said ‘if you want it you can have it.’ It was mastered and ready to go – it didn’t cost me anything because of Kickstarter. He didn’t pay me back for it and it would have been taking advantage of people to sell it to somebody and get more money. That would seem fucked up.

I didn’t quite see how that worked and it surprised me to see it coming out on Aum, so it seemed like I should ask.

He paid for half of the manufacturing and that saved me $750, which is good. It’s not a big enough amount of money that I would have changed a decision I’d already come to. But after I thought Tzadik was interested and was kind of thrown of when that didn’t happen, I thought ‘why not put this out on a label with some business behind it rather than have another record on my Funhole Records label – which I have twelve or thirteen of that nobody knows about – because as far as I’m concerned, this is one of the heaviest records I’ve ever heard.’ Why not have people beyond the 120 or 130 that supported it via Kickstarter aware of it? It just seemed to make sense and it was cool that it could be offset by the Bacteria to Boys record; they’re both joyful, I guess, but coming from completely different places.

I didn’t know about this whole traumatic thing that went down several years ago until now.

Had it happened when I had a kid that would be another thing, but it happened when my life was a bit of a focal mess anyway, between quitting MDC and Dynamite Club drying up, and my committing myself to being a jazz musician, whatever that means to me, and also growing into being a man. I was going from being a sheltered kid raised by Born Again Christians and forced to go to church, to moving to New York and living with drag queens from Detroit, and becoming an angry white man for a couple of years – only because of what I gravitated towards artistically – and coming through that. The fire was a positive thing in a way; I was an avid collector of music, art, books and movies, and I lost a large portion of that stuff in the fire. It was really liberating to not have five or seven thousand CDs, three thousand records, a thousand DVDs and a bunch of VHS tapes, cassettes, books and all that shit. My house in Park Slope was where people would come and do their library check out. That was draining and I lost a lot of my collections, but it was just an obsession and after that I realized I’d lost $40,000 of stuff in a fire.

At least!

Yeah, right, and I’m no worse off for it – in fact my life is a bit easier because of it. I don’t spend $300 a week on media, as much as I wish everyone would do that and buy my media, it is what it is. I was an avid consumer and now I’m more frugal. I’m starting to buy music again but that is more because I’m sick of not buying music and hearing new things. I’m not spending what I was – I could afford it, but it would be disrespectful to my son’s future finances. I took in information and it made me part of the artist I am, but it was good to get out of that phase of my life.

From Bacteria To Boys
II. From Bacteria to Boys

From Bacteria to Boys started some time ago as a trio, right? Is that early music relevant to the arc of the group?

Yeah, I’m going to be pressing up the fourth pressing of that first record soon, hopefully before the next record comes out. The group started in 2006 because I was doing a solo East Coast tour and literally a month or two before I left, I decided I didn’t want to tour solo, from talking with [percussionist] Tatsuya Nakatani about how grueling it is. I knew that once I got back I would have to hit the grind teaching at the conservatory, and I didn’t want to come back exhausted. Evan Lipson, the bass player from Normal Love and Satanized who plays with [saxophonist] Jack Wright and used to be in Dynamite Club at one point – he was young and wanted to work. The tour wasn’t financially hooked up at all, and [alto saxophonist] Darius Jones had just moved to the city and [saxophonist] Andrew D’Angelo recommended that we play together. Because of Andrew’s recommendation we’d done some duo sessions that were quite good, so I said ‘hey, this is the tour – the money is crap but if you want to do it, I’d love to drive you guys around the East Coast for a week.’ We made a record to sell – I wrote music and we recorded in my living room. We got a gig in Philadelphia and luckily someone recorded that gig, because it was better performance-wise than what we did in my apartment. It was remastered and sounded good; we used one studio track and remixed it to sound live. That was the album that we toured around and we started playing around in 2006 – that became my band and it was shortly after I’d phased out MPThree, which was a band with [guitarist] Mary Halvorson and [bassist] Trevor Dunn (or Ken Filiano). I’d gotten tired of that instrumentation and wanted to do different trio music.

Mary probably was getting busy at that point.

Well, yeah, but it was never a scheduling issue. That was a bit before she blew up in the sense that she is now. Anyway, I needed a new band. It was a year after MDC and Dynamite Club were no longer happening for me and I needed something to do. That music certainly – the first trio record developed also from a specific kind of writing I was doing called statement music, which is like fragments of melody that repeat indefinitely – so it relates to Drummer’s Corpse. And every member of the band has fragments that don’t line up, so I was free to color in a neoclassical way or groove if appropriate. I still write music like that; there’s a piece on that first record called “I’m not afraid to be a man” that has a five-note cell that repeats for quite a long time. The second piece is a string of numbers. We did one of Darius’ funky pieces and the last piece was a thrash piece that we did and I wrote because I was angry with someone. The record was called Hang and it was a play on how fun Darius and Evan were to hang out with, but also that this one person could go and fucking hang himself. I was really angry, and rightfully so. Anyway, that record happened and that was my working band.

Where is the band name from?

String Theory. It was from a documentary that I was watching and the closing line was like “…the evolution of man, from bacteria to boys.” I wrote it down and it was something I’d wanted to use for years. Also, [guitarist] Chris Forsyth and I did a duo record that still hasn’t come out – it will someday – and I wanted it to call it that but Chris refused. It’s a ridiculous name – any time I meet someone who recognizes the string theory reference they think it’s the best name ever. There are just avant-weirdos who like awkward language, and I do too, so there’s that aspect. I don’t know enough about string theory to give a five-minute lecture on it but that’s where it came from, and I thought the name was interesting and it fit how the music was written, at least the trio music that I wrote for Darius and Evan. It was cellular material that grew and got bigger, and created this kind of architectural mass of sound. That seemed appropriate to evolutionary theory and I was like fuck it, I’ve wanted to use this name for years and everyone shoots it down – this is my band, my tour, I’ll call it what I want. People seemed entertained by it and that’s good, so it stuck.

The new record doesn’t say the band name on the cover – it just says Mike Pride, but on the spine it says the band name. That was a conscious decision I’d been thinking about for a while; I thought that I’d rather have it under my name because it is a lot of weight to carry around – it’s a lot of words and some people probably think it’s the dumbest name ever and they don’t want to listen to the record. Then Steven Joerg [owner of AUM Fidelity] proposed that same idea to me and I’d actually been thinking ‘am I egomaniacal enough that I don’t want a band name now?’ and he thought it should be called Mike Pride’s Birthing Days. I said ‘man, I’d been struggling over that for six weeks and what having it be just my record would say about me. If you say it should be that way, then it is.’

The lineup has shifted quite a bit, too.

Yeah, every record’s changed. I added Alexis [Marcelo] on piano because I was starting to write more angular, dissonant music but I was also trying to find ways to put chord changes around the music that hugged it a bit and made it feel pretty good. The first record was a big ‘fuck you’ in the best possible way – I like that in music. I’ve mellowed a bit, being married now, all of this stuff changes. Hopefully it continues to. I wanted legitimate harmony; I’m also getting deeper into what I think it means to be a jazz musician – myself being a drummer and trying to improvise in a harmonic manner, which doesn’t mean that I’m seeing 2-5-1 chord changes in my head, but I’m playing harmonically in my drums.

I want the chordal foundation to be part of it, so I added piano. As you add chord changes – I didn’t want it to be free, I wanted to integrate the two, even though I write fairly striking melodies. Obviously it’s a written line, and I still try to find ways to blur the lines between composition and improvisation as much as possible, or in regards to form. I wanted to keep chords going; Evan [Lipson] was very good at new music ways of approaching the bass, extended technique, density with a million notes and things like that.

As I wrote more harmonic music I wanted a more comfortable thing, functioning in a harmonic rather than textural role with the bass – we did a couple of gigs with Darius, two bass players and myself, and I used Peter Bitenc and Evan Lipson. We rehearsed with me singing alternate lines to the bass players while Darius played what I’d written. We had a gig at this music series I curated in Greenpoint at Alpha Beta with the two basses, and that was great, and then I got offered an Issue Project Room gig with their good piano and I thought I’d try it with one bassist and piano. I needed a bassist who was able to deal with harmonic information in a way that would cause me the least amount of work. I don’t like rehearsing if I’m trying to get people to play my music right; I love rehearsing if I’m the one trying to get the music right. I hate going measure by measure – for me it makes my own music irritating. So the band became Peter, Alex and Darius, and Darius hooked up the deal with AUM for the first record.

Then I’m always thinking in terms of records, so as soon as that one was done I started writing a new book, and in that process certain things came up that weren’t in Darius’ wheelhouse, musically or conceptually, and we both knew it wasn’t happening and personal relationships were getting strained because of musical stress. Jon Irabagon had been subbing for him on some gigs, as had Jonathan Moritz, and quite honestly those gigs were easier and the music seemed to sit in a place that I was hearing it – it has nothing to do with anything other than musical personalities. The thing I was trying to do musically had changed, and it will continue to change – I try to follow my id and not allow myself to be constricted by boredom. I didn’t know what to do or who to hire – they’re both able to play super-complex chord changes, but it was more of a decision that was based in leading a band. Moritz is a good friend and I wanted him to join my band, but he’s a public schoolteacher and can’t travel. Therefore, I had to hire Irabagon. Jonathan’s a genius and not someone who’s going to put that in your face. As far as what I was trying to do, I needed a saxophonist who could generate work as well as tour. Irabagon and I had a deep relationship from our I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues CD (Loyal Label, 2009), which was a duo at that point.

I had also been a sub for Mostly Other People Do the Killing when Kevin Shea couldn’t do it, and when I play that music it becomes completely different band. We were also playing in [reedman] Josh Sinton’s band Holus-Bolus. We got together every week to play, and we have a deep musical relationship. Both him and Moritz played on a bonus, download-only track from Betweenwhile that’s also on iTunes. Ben Gerstein played the trombone, and he was actually on one Bacteria to Boys gig with Darius and Bitenc playing the loop-based music. I had these guys come in and do this weird reggae track and I had Jon do more and more stuff – he plays alto and sopranino – and clearly that was the choice. My music was being realized most effectively with him. We still do statement music; I don’t care to define it quite as strictly now, but the whole first record, the first two tunes are in that vein, on Betweenwhile there’s a piece called “It Doesn’t Stop,” which is loop-based, and on the new record “Occupied Man” is like that.

What’s interesting to me is how seeing you guys at Zebulon and then getting the new record the other day, it’s memorable – I remembered the tunes from a while ago. It’s rare for a live gig that I saw some time ago, get the disc the next year and it’s all very familiar.

That’s kind of the point; the first record was my angry, aggro jazz record, and the second one was trying to really reflect my love of R&B music, and the new one is more reflective of everything. I don’t write music with a goal in mind – my goal is to make it sound good.

What is your writing process?

I don’t write until I hear something and when I do, I write it down. Typically, for the last record, I would write tunes – a composition that made sense traditionally. Then I would program it into Garageband and make changes there so I could hear them immediately. I didn’t want to rely on my trifling piano skills. I try to write on specific instruments, so if I’m writing something with an intense bass line – I know how to play bass and guitar, and saxophone to some degree, so I make sure that if I’m writing something complicated, that it’s possible. That way if a band member says it can’t be done I can show how it is possible. If they’re anything like me they’d go home and ‘shed it. As soon as I hear something I go home and work on it; it might be formed fully in thirty minutes or three years.

I only work when I’m inspired to work. When I come up with an idea, it’s like – okay, what am I hearing behind this? And then I analyze it, just like if I was analyzing a classical piece for school. Once I figure out what’s behind it, then I develop that. That’s why so many of my tunes are episodic and have dense heads; when I figure out a formula for a tune, I want to explode that formula. But I want it to feel good – I want it to have a ballad or an R&B tune, I want to reflect the hardcore and noise music I’m into, and that’s why the first tune has this weird, quiet stuff because I’ve done a lot of lowercase improv. It all can be part of the same thing.

Pulverize the Sound

III. Origins

You’re from Maine originally?

Yeah, I moved here in 2000 to go to the New School; I lived on the Upper West Side and studied for just one semester. I met Milford Graves at Tonic and told him I wanted to study with him; actually, he legitimately was the reason I moved to New York – I was a huge fan of his, despite never having seen him play. Those two Tzadik records and the duo with [saxophonist] David Murray I had while living in Maine, and I was specifically affected by his solo albums Stories (Tzadik, 2000) and Grand Unification (Tzadik, 1998). I met him and told him I wanted to study with him, but he was not interested in taking me on as a student through the New School. You can do that – you can approach someone and say you want to study with them, and the New School will pay them. He didn’t want anything to do with the New School; I became his understudy and ended up not really paying him the normal rate by his own choice. To bring it back to Tzadik, I also had known Zorn since I was 18 because he and Joey Baron would come through Massachusetts and Joey Baron’s drum teacher was my drum teacher’s father, from when I studied at the University of Southern Maine. Les Harris Sr. taught Baron and everyone who came through Berklee; he’s credited with having invented the sock cymbal because he put a sock in between the hi hats so it wouldn’t cause the needle to bounce on the Victrola.

Anyway, Milford was interested in talking with me, invited me to come out to his house, but only if I was not part of the New School so I dropped out. I went back to Maine for the summer and worked at a hotel, played in my brother’s wedding band, did one noise concert – there was no work for me there. I didn’t play much jazz until I moved to New York. Playing jazz was a way for me to get near Milford by being able to enroll at the New School and be in the city and have some parental support. I contacted Milford again, we immediately hit it off and I went out to his place in Queens off and on until we did a September 11th fundraiser at Tonic with Zorn and Cibo Matto, and he had me come up and do a duet with him at the end of his solo performance. I didn’t know he was going to do that – he was saying my initials, saying nice things about me, and I was like ‘is he talking about me?’ and we played a duet. He had me up on his shoulders and I would lean over and play his drums, he had me play solo on his kit while he went out into the audience and sang – it was really deep, and we didn’t talk for a year after that. He said “Mike is one of my best students and this was his best lesson.” We went there and got as deep as we could in whatever I was going for and what he was going for with me, and there was an area that couldn’t be crossed. There are a lot of people who study with him who try to become him.

Yeah, you don’t sound like him – not in an obvious way.

You can hear it on a record I did called Scrambler, with William Parker, Tony Malaby and Charlie Looker (Not Two, 2005). It’s a free jazz record and it’s dedicated to Milford. But I was quickly going somewhere else, and he knew that from paying attention to my vibrations. I wasn’t going to go the wild free jazz route. That wasn’t the end – it was part of it, but my whole thing is a sort of “Grand Unification” of everything I’m into.

As far as your studies Milford was the penultimate teacher, and you didn’t study with anyone after that – am I right?

Yeah, I didn’t study with anyone after that. I did a lot of studying on my own and still do; anything from abstraction to Jojo Meyer and Moller Technique videos, I’d watch these things and take notes, and I have a notebook that I’ve compiled over the past ten years that I study and look at with my own students, and that develops my understanding further. But yeah, I grew up in Maine in a very musically encouraging environment. My brother is seventeen or eighteen years older than me, and he was a professional musician, and he was somewhat of a father figure during my childhood because my dad was a traveling salesman. My other older brother is an accomplished choral singer, my mom was a clarinet player, and my dad didn’t express any interest in music whatsoever but he clearly wasn’t against it. He wasn’t present enough to have any say. My mother was very encouraging and I had an aunt in New Hampshire who seemed to be quite wealthy – to me anyway, coming from a middle class family. Realistically I grew up in an upper-middle-class family but when we were kids, it was projected on us that we were very low in the middle-class, and nothing was a handout, ever.

Anyway, I had this aunt who was a church organist and she ended up getting in a car accident, but she used to spoil me with musical gifts. She’d go to an auction and get me an 88-key Rhodes, and just give it to me. She also gave me a nice alto saxophone when I was a kid. I always had a recording studio that I saved up for and bought stuff for. My parents let me have that in their basement; it was also my art studio, so I had an enriching environment. I kept good grades and had a normal social life – at school everything was fine – and then I’d come home and do my thing. But I always studied drums; I played a little guitar when I was young and learned a few Weird Al tunes, then I played trombone for a while in middle school. I really wanted to play saxophone – I was a huge Eric Dolphy fan when I was a kid and the second album I ever bought was Out To Lunch (Blue Note, 1964). There wasn’t a bass clarinet option where I grew up, so I wanted to play alto but they wouldn’t let me play it in middle school. I chose percussion because my best friend was playing the drums and it seemed cool.

I did mallet percussion and timpani in high school, moved on to having a drum teacher and studied at the University of Southern Maine with Les Harris Jr., and studied with Amir Ziv when I was at the New School – not by choice but because I was a new student and didn’t pass out of whatever I should have passed out of. He was a drum-and-bass guy; I wanted to study with Joe Chambers, but it was very apparent that wouldn’t happen for many reasons. I’m a white guy so I got stuck with an Israeli drum-and-bass guy. I got some things out of it but when Milford invited me to stop going to school there and become his understudy, I jumped at that. Since then it’s been just my own thing. I never studied any other instrument too seriously beyond what I do for myself and my students.

The Spanish Donkey

IV. Present Process

Teaching seems to have become a big part of your life.

It’s a big part of my income and yeah, I don’t want to be – so many of my friends, I don’t know their financial situations but I have the feeling that it’s not very good for most people. I work a fair amount as a creative musician and I’ve had a number of somewhat high-profile gigs, and when I do my taxes at the end of the year I separate things in order to see what’s what. If I did the music thing and only that, I’d be totally fucked. No wonder my friends are hung up on money – it’s hard. I’m very fortunate, but I work hard and my students come to me because they want to be around what I do. They’re aware of what I do as an artist as are their parents or siblings, and it’s a very open thing. Also I develop my whole thing with my students – they’re there for the whole trip and they tell me what they want to do, and I take that where I want to take it.

Are they mostly jazz students or mostly rock students?

It’s a pretty thorough mix; I’ve got classical people, I give music production lessons and composition lessons – I did study composition before I moved to New York, from the year and a half I was at the University of Southern Maine. I started there as a filmmaker, though I always did music. I was also thinking about visual art school because I’d always done a lot of painting. I hated film school; it took all the fun out and I haven’t gone back to that. I minored in composition both in film and when I majored in jazz; I was actually considering the viability of becoming a classical composer, and my music definitely sounds how it sounds because I don’t come to it as a jazz musician, I come to it as whatever I think a composer is. I try to bring into it things that jazz musicians can play, however.

What about visual art? Do you exhibit or show it outside the context of album covers?

I used to; I’ve done five or six art shows in the city that people have approached me to be part of. Some were musician-related or indie-rock-related shows, which led to other things. It’s something I do because I like a certain visual aesthetic; I hired someone else to do the art for the new Period record and I didn’t like it, so I did it myself. I need to be a control freak sometimes and I should be that way sometimes. I wrote a novel when I was in my early twenties that I was sure would get published, I wrote film screenplays and stuff, made short films – I’m into all of that but there’s just not enough time and I decided to devote myself to music full time.

I first heard you with Locksmith Isidore in the mid-2000s, but you had obviously been working a lot before that point. I’m trying to figure out when the shift happened in terms of visibility for your work.

I think that was around 2005; I’d shifted from doing strictly avant-rock and ridiculous stuff like the Ned Muffelberger Band, which I haven’t done in a long time and was me singing and playing guitar, doing absurd things. It was like a performance art thing and the music was secondary. After the fire is when I began put music first; I’d always worked hard but what I presented as ‘what I do’ ended up all over the place and I was more invested in the attitude than the aesthetic. Then I began working more as a jazz musician, specifically hired to play drums in a band rather than someone to improvise with. I still meet people who are surprised I can read music because of what I do – I’m just not a drummer who plays in a way that stresses technique on paper, because for me it’s more of an emotional thing. I try to present that I’m feeling really hard rather than thinking hard.

Tell me more about Jaime Saft.

We’ve done a huge amount of work in a small amount of time. I met him because I renovated his house before he sold it and moved upstate. I was aware of who he was but not as aware of what he did. I knew he was a talented and interesting guy who played with Zorn, and I worked on his house for a year and we struck up a bond over a lot of the same things – we both love Mariah Carey, I tried to convince him of why Huey Lewis is awesome and he tried to convince me of why Bob Dylan is awesome. We hit it off and eventually I invited him to play with From Bacteria to Boys – he was the first piano player. He did a gig with Evan Lipson, Darius and I at the Stone, and while he didn’t play only piano as I had requested – he played toy guitar and organ – it was cool and it was a chance for him to check out the band. We did a project with the tenor player from Maine, Bill McHenry. Jaime’s wife is from Maine and he’s very much into Maine culture, the woodsy thing. He wanted to have a Downeast blues trio so he called it Whoopie Pie and put it out on his label. We also ended up doing a trio record with Andrew D’Angelo called The Angel Ov Death and we have our duo called Kalashnikov, which is two CDs of crazy, improvised microtonal metal, and in addition to that we put out an eighteen-hour download album called 1-866-CALL-SAAD for Ed Saad.

Anyway, people can still download the Saad stuff – it’s like eight zipped folders of music. We did that, we have The Spanish Donkey with Joe Morris, and it’s all based on the fact that we have a similar aesthetic. Any time we do stuff it gets pushed into this metal realm – I’ve tried to do mellower stuff with him and it’s clearly only going to happen if I try to take a forceful approach and make us relax. I have had an MDC piano trio record in mind using him on piano, for example, and for that I have MDC’s blessing. Anyway, the Kalashnikov material is all done live – me playing double bass drums and flutes and singing, Jaime doing keyboards and bass, and we create epic songs. We both have a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, but it’s weird because we only do abrasive stuff together – even though he’s the guy I get together with to talk about Mariah Carey and R. Kelly with.

Where does that interest stem from?

I’ve always liked singers – singers are my favorite.

I mean, the production values I can see as being interesting.

At times, sure. For Jaime, I have a feeling he got into it through producing for other people and running a studio for many years. He probably used to do five records a week and he still works a lot. For me, Mariah Carey Unplugged (Columbia, 1992) is a major vocal performance – it’s one of the most heavy in modern pop music, legitimately. I always have considered myself something of a vocalist, not a tremendously talented one but an inspired one. I was always fascinated by her and R. Kelly (who is hilarious and the real deal); Mariah Carey, as an artist I truly don’t give a shit, but as an instrumentalist with her voice she’s phenomenally talented. But the content is not there; with Kelly, you have a phenomenal voice and concept, and every time you listen, you hear something different. Fifteen years ago if you’d have told me I would be into R&B music I wouldn’t have believed you because outside of noise and improvised music, I was into angry straight-edge hardcore and I thought R&B was completely asinine. Now it’s what I want.

I don’t think I’ve heard you sing outside of the occasional vocalization.

It was largely with Dynamite Club; I sang lead vocals on half of those records, and I have many albums worth of my singing and guitar playing that I never put out. I will someday, though – it’s probably stranger than I realize.

Could you talk about I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues?

As I said, Jon Irabagon and I met when I subbed for Kevin Shea in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, and I knew who Jon was – this was somewhat before he took off. The first time I subbed, I played pretty against Kevin’s zany thing and adhered very strictly to Moppa’s tunes. My approach to that music was analytical because I wanted to do something different, and didn’t want to disrespect Kevin or myself by doing anything he does. Irabagon latched onto what I was doing and asked at the end of the gig if I wanted to play duets. So he came over to my house every week for months and we just played, and developed a concept to do a record where we just don’t stop playing until it’s over.

The first record was pretty casual – we did two takes each about the same length, and I brought in aspects of my playing with Charlie Looker and our duo Period (which is very thematically-based – even if the themes don’t relate to one another, they overlap). That was where Jon was interested in going and the concept has always been – every record we add a different person. We don’t necessarily play the same material we do as a duo, and we add different layers. There will probably be two or three more IDHNBTB records, each with me, Jon and now [guitarist] Mick Barr, and there will be another one within the next year. The last will add a bass player.

How did Mick Barr come in?

The trio with Mick came about because of a gig I had at the Stone, which would have been me, Jon and [guitarist] Nels Cline, and Nels couldn’t do it so Jon asked me about Mick. I’ve known Mick for a while because Orthrelm had shared bills with Period (then called The Aardvarks) when we played in Connecticut. Charlie Looker and Mick were friends I believe, and Mick and I had always been fans of one another and Mick really knows his shit about free jazz drumming. Maybe piano could be next – that’ll continue to evolve, and it’s funny that the records have done so well in terms of press. Out of nowhere, the first one got a lot of glowing press and it sold out. The new one has gotten good press, too. We’ll do another album within a year.

And there’s the trio with Peter Evans and Tim Dahl.

Yeah, that’s going to be recording soon, Pulverize the Sound. We rehearse every week and the music is very complicated – it feels hard and it is hard. There’s no cathartic moment, really – there’s no release. And Period has a new record called Period 2 that’s coming out in summer on Public Eyesore; Darius is on three tracks playing alto and Sam Hillmer is on tw tracks playing tenor.

It’s funny – I almost forget that Hillmer improvises.

Well, he came out of that and Charlie also played in Zs, so they have an ongoing relationship.

So what else is in the can for you?

Also, I’m putting out a solo record soon that’s a bit of solo percussion and some other elements as well. Apparently my friend in Slovenia had asked me to do a record for his label when I was there, and I had forgotten and now he’s inquiring about it. I’ve never done a solo record so there will be some drum pieces, a synthesizer quartet that I wrote, and some noise pieces. I still have to whittle it down – I have two hours of music picked out to choose from. A lot of it is through-composed; there’s a trio of practice pads miked in different ways, and there are vocal pieces – I knew there would be a time for it to be released and now that’s happening. I made a couple of tape pieces that were supposed to come out but didn’t, and those also need to come out. The budget isn’t enough for me to pay a band to make a jazz record, so it will be what I think it should be as a solo album.

You’ve got stuff on a variety of labels – how do you parcel out what music fits with what label?

I don’t think that my records have much to do with AUM Fidelity’s back catalog stylistically, for example, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m not going to make a William Parker record – I try to do me and if there is someone who is excited about what I do then I’m happy to give my music to them. Hopefully their excitement translates to a good business model – sometimes it has and sometimes it hasn’t. You live and learn. For a modern avant-garde jazz label that pays to make your record, AUM is great and there aren’t many like that around. The first From Bacteria to Boys record was not cheap to make; the new one cost about half because the market isn’t great and I don’t want someone to lose their house over putting out my music. I’ll submit the best work possible and I think my work is good, but I’m a white dude from Maine and I can’t be a hipster who shows up in flashy clothes and presents a marketable personality. To me that is the dumbest thing one could do – Anthony Braxton has always said art and commerce should be separate, and that’s always stuck with me. I feel like I do a good job with that, whether it’s an inside or an outside record. I also shop stuff around; with the new Period record I sent it to many, many labels and nobody would put it out. It never occurred to me to go to Public Eyesore, who put out a record of mine fifteen years ago that has long been sold out. They immediately wanted to release it. I’m pretty easy to negotiate with because first and foremost I want the work to be heard.

Most labels are run by people with other day jobs.

Yeah, it’s a sacrifice of their income to do this.

They’re not expecting to bank on it no matter how good it is.

AUM wants to – these three records are tied together, so I don’t make money until they all do well and honestly, me getting a fee up front isn’t going to make my life that much easier. It would buy a couple weeks’ worth of groceries – that’s all. I just take on more students if I have to and work like a real fuckin’ man instead of putting the label owner out. That’s fine, and how long are you going to hustle people for money, anyways? They’re going to see the hustle eventually and you won’t get anything. That dries up and you get too old to do that shit anyway. I’m somewhat fortunate having the work ethic that I have, though, and if I didn’t have a family it would be another story. Art doesn’t come first now, and you just realize that it can only reflect your life. If you live your life well it will be reflected in your art. I would like to create work that empowers people from all walks of life – there are many ways to make you feel good, and it doesn’t have to sound like Nelly or Xenakis to do that.

Thanks to Mike Pride and the New York City Jazz Record for making this interview possible. More information on Mike Pride and his work can be found here. Above photo of Mike Pride and images of Pulverize the Sound and The Spanish Donkey courtesy Peter Gannushkin. Other photos courtesy the artist.

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