THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 060
Normally, I try to get these newsletters out on Friday. But as I was scurrying to put it together, the news from Wisconsin blinked onto my computer screen and it suddenly felt awful to be dropping this nonsense into the world. I don't know about you, but I struggle all the time with the necessity of my writing and my personal obsessions when there's so much work to be done on the front lines of social justice and climate change.
Later that day, another notice came across my desk from my friend Andrew Neerman who runs the incredible label Beacon Sound. His email was, in part, promoting the imprint's latest release by Lebanese artist Anthony Sahyoun, but it was also a philippic against the noise of popular culture over the past few weeks. As he put it in the intro:
While the neoliberal elite at the NYT, Conde Nast, etc shine their lights on the same mediocre shit over and over again, artists like Beirut, Lebanon musician Anthony Sahyoun –representing the "dark matter" that author Gregory Sholette writes about– spend years working on the periphery, negotiating corrupt authorities, suffering through blackouts, food shortages, and violence to gift the world challenging, substantial, and compelling music that will never get the engagement it deserves.
Andrew did exactly what he set out to do. He pissed some folks off and, for others like myself, reignited the fire to keep trying to shout down the noise that is clogging up vinyl pressing plants and big box stores and my Twitter feed.
I'm in an incredibly privileged place to say shit like this, living as a cis-gendered white male in a comfortably middle class household and supported by a wife with a well-paying job. And I don't intend to decry anyone who can and does write for major publications about major label artists. I just want to do something different and make sure that those artists and filmmakers and writers that are making vital work below the cultural radar are heard and seen and read. I don't delude myself into thinking that this irregularly published newsletter is going to have some huge impact on the world at large. But it's what I can do with the resources and skills that I have.
If you want to support this work, do consider becoming a paid subscriber. You'll be able to see all the newsletters rather than just the smattering I'll drop for everybody and I'll treat you with free music and other goodies. If at least 20 people becomes subscribers, I'll even start giving away a free vinyl album each month. Either a new piece from an indie label or a choice used LP, based on your interests and tastes.
With that, let's get into this edition of the newsletter, which features interviews with post-punk supergroup ONETWOTHREE and modern composers Jacob Cooper and Steven Bradshaw, as well as three reviews of some recent releases. I hope you enjoy it.
Everything about the debut album by ONETWOTHREE, a trio assembled from the fragments of the Swiss punk scene of the late ’70s/early ’80s, runs counter to standard operating procedures of modern music. The members of the group—Madlaina Peer (ex-TNT / Souldawn), Sara Schär (ex-The Knownos), and Klaudia Schifferle (ex-Kleenex / LiLiPuT)—are all women of a certain age and all three are bassists. The music that they make is unadorned and unpretentious, relying on the unwavering pulse of a drum machine and simple, intertwining instrumentation. Their lyrics are like Dadaist sound poetry—chanted phrases and repeated rhythms ("Hip things / forgotten things / screeching woolly posh things / perfect things / fragile things / exciting horny selected things") that have a vertiginous effect. Expectations are low. Spirits are high. The Swiss government footed the bill. And each day you feel nicer.
I’m assuming you all knew each other from playing shows together in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but why did it take until now for you to decide to start collaborating and to put together ONETWOTHREE?
Madlaina Peer: Klaudia has been living in Italy and in the south of Switzerland for a long time. When she came back we talked about music but were all in other formations till we decided to do music together.
The lineup is unusual with three bassists leading the charge. Was that the vision you had for this project from the beginning or was that just a necessity because you all play bass guitar?
Sara Schär: When we started discussing making music together, we did not talk about who plays what. But it was clear that we want to create something new – warmed up old stuff was out of the question. For the first session, we all arrived with a bass in our hands. We found out that each one of us had a different sound and a different way to play the instrument. Soon the first song was born out of this experimentation. That was a magic moment.
What is the songwriting process like for this project? A lot of jamming until a structure comes together or each one of you introducing a fully formed tune to the other two?
Klaudia Schifferle: The songs come about different ways. Often we jam and try out different things once we have a basic melody. But sometimes there is a lyric first or a melody, a bassline. In any case, our music is created by playing and arranging together.
The lyrics for all these songs have a perfect simplicity to them - like chanting slogans or nursery rhymes. What was the thinking behind that? Were you just wanting to make the songs as simple and accessible as possible or playing around with language?
KS: The lyrics are created individually. Someone writes to a theme that fits the time. The mostly short lyrics have nothing to do with nursery rhymes. They are rather musically transposed haikus. Rather they have to do with slogans, which always surround us and which are easy to remember and sing. But we are mainly interested in the content of the texts, even if they are kept short, they are extracts that can bring the content across sharpened. And a portion of humor is always important to us!
To dip into your past a bit... what can you tell me about the period when you all started playing music in the ‘70s? What was it like in Switzerland to have punk rock finding its way into the music scene there? What impact did it have?
MP: It was fresh and anarchic. Everyone could play everything on whatever instrument. Nearly everybody was in a band, everyone was an actor, an artist or just himself. Punk rock got bigger and more diverse, the hardcore ones (like Black Flag) or more melodic instrumental experimental ones. The music scene here was very lively and international that time. You could go every three days to a concert.
SS: The energy was incredible. To be part of something completely new, self-made, independent – you can’t beat that. The scene was self-organizing most of the concerts. Two or three bands were playing and the whole rest of the scene was in the audience, danced pogo and sang along. It was a lot of fun.
The British and American music press liked to make a big deal at the time about women fronting punk bands or starting groups or their own... was that something that the press in your home country made a lot of fuss about or was it seen as not a big deal?
KS: In the ‘70s that was noticed, but was also smiled and not taken seriously as far as the music was concerned. But Switzerland is a small country and the music scene at that time was smaller. There were not many clubs to perform. Even today, it is only 9% women who play here on rock stages!
SS: There were not many Swiss music journals. The few ones and some of the newspapers reported - if at all - on the punk scene as ugly guys making noisy music - male or female, we all were equally suspect to them. Swiss punk fanzines covered and celebrated all bands, regardless of the gender of the band members. Unfortunately there were only a few female performers anyway...
What did it mean for the rest of the music community in Switzerland to see Kleenex and LiLiPUT getting the attention that it did outside the country? And what does it mean to have the music of those groups still in circulation thanks to labels like Kill Rock Stars keeping it in print?
KS: It was a long time ago, but that was very important at that time, that we as a female band were already present in England and America after a short time! We were very early with our authentic music and the music scene at the time (punk, rock), which consisted almost exclusively of men, was baffled, what was happening. Switzerland is a very small country, but has a broad music scene, which is unfortunately still very little noticed abroad. Occasionally a band manages to peek over the borders! Today, whit the new media, more is possible, fortunately! Labels like Kill Rock Stars are extremely important, (unfortunately rare, unique in this form), that music from alternative bands, women’s bands, queer bands are supported at all in this form to the outside and audible!
Sara – you kept up a pretty busy musical life trough the ‘90s... were there projects you were working on after Souldawn ended or were you on to other pursuits?
SS: After Souldawn I was a bit tired to start a new band again. Because of the techno wave, opportunities for rock bands to perform became less. I focused on my karate training—that I practice since I was sixteen—taught, became a referee. Also I became a mother. So I was busy with my family and jobs to make a living. But I kept contact with the rock stage in various projects and guest appearances. Jailbreak, an AC/DC cover band I co-founded with friends from Celtic Frost, Coroner, Krokus, Souldawn, Calhoun Conquer. We played many shows, the fun project was on and off over the years. Then I especially enjoyed being part of Hilarious Ltd. by Rudolf Dietrich, guitarist of the first Swiss punk band Nasal Boys, who re-recorded songs from his complete oeuvre and asked me to do some backing vocals and the lead vocals live. Or I gathered musician friends and former bandmates to perform a few of my favorite songs at my latest round birthday party. A Motörhead song was the ticket for my bass out of retirement. From then on, the time was ready to form a new band.
Madlaina – according to the small history of your work in the booklet for the ONETWOTHREE CD, you played in a couple of bands (which I can find very little information about online) before working in theater...did you miss making music and playing in bands before ONETWOTHREE started? Were you recording things on your own during this time? And if not, how does it feel to be doing it again?
MP: When I played with others I mostly played bass guitar but I never liked to play it for me alone, so then I played guitar, piano or took singing lessons while not being in a band. To compose music, listening is as important as to play.
Are you all paying attention to what’s going on in the music scene of Switzerland? If so, are there any artists you think we should know about?
MP: We are not influenced by the music scene here. For sure there are good musicians but it is a small world here.
What comes next for this project? More music? Maybe some touring?
SS: We have requests for gigs that we like to play, next is our record release show in Zurich in December. Right now, we are working on new songs. There is a film project about women in German punk rock that we’re involved in. Once the situation allows bands to tour again, we'd like to do that. We will see what possibilities arise.
What are you listening to / reading / watching these days?
KS: I listen to different kind of music, depending on my mood and what interests me at the moment and when reading it is the same. My interests are very open and broad. I like to be surprised by new things. Watching: I like short “trouvailles” at YouTube
MP: Similar with me, I love to explore new sounds, never liked to listen always the same. I am listening music of all times and styles. Also love radio because you never know what comes next. Reading writers from today like Annie Ernaux (French author), American writers from today but also classics. I also love to go to the cinema.
SS: I am a film lover too. The last movie I saw was Dune. At the moment, I read my way through Look Homeward, Angel from Thomas Wolfe. Music is all around – sometimes I just enjoy silence or the sound of the birds.
Jacob Cooper & Steven Bradshaw
Jacob Cooper's compositions evoke the sensation of memory, a hazy pulling of a thread that is hopefully connected to some recent or distant event that just barely comes into focus. His elegiac piano piece "Clifton Gates," as performed by Vicky Chow on her 2016 album Aorta, draws out fuzzy images of long dead loved ones and the snap of an autumn afternoon. And on his recent work SUNRISE, a 32-minute composition created with vocalist Steven Bradshaw, Cooper echoes the range of emotions that seem to swirl through us all during every day of our pandemic reality. To do so, Bradshaw and Cooper looked back to the influenza pandemic of the early 20th century, landing on "The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise," a hopeful, yet mournful ballad written by Ernest Seitz and Gene Lockhart that has been recorded dozens of times over the past 100 years. Manipulating various recordings of that tune, including their own, Cooper and Bradshaw built SUNRISE into a shattering work that evolves from honking weirdness into a darkly sinister middle section before slowly slipping into a frazzled acceptance through its glittering final minutes.
How have you been doing over the past 19+ months of this pandemic insanity?
Steven Bradshaw: I was very lucky in that I had many ensembles and colleagues who were determined to keep finding ways to stay creative and active. We recorded albums, made musical films, and even staged outdoor performances in the woods. When that failed, I turned to visual art: my more solitary devotion. And Jacob and I made this record! I’ve basically been back at it full-time since April… for which I’m extremely grateful.
Jacob Cooper: I've been okay, despite my whole family getting COVID last winter! I definitely experienced some transition woes moving to online teaching for a year (I teach music composition and production at West Chester University), but it ultimately afforded me more time to work on this project. In the professional world, having so many gigs canceled/postponed was undoubtedly horrible, so I do feel really fortunate that this project came along.
How did you two get to know each other? Were you familiar with one another (and your work) before collaborating on this project?
SB: We were familiar. Jacob is a mutual friend/colleague of composer Ted Hearne with whom I’ve collaborated extensively. Jacob is also writing a piece for the women of The Crossing and we discussed the prospect of him writing a piece for my sextet Variant 6. We had a friendly relationship from seeing each other at local art events and I admired his work. The individual who commissioned SUNRISE asked me at lunch if we knew each other. I answered enthusiastically in the affirmative. Hours after lunch, he emailed me proposing the idea of collaborating on a work with Jacob with his help and I readily agreed! Jacob and I were on the phone later that afternoon talking about possible concepts.
What can you tell me about the research process that led you to find the song that inspired this work? Were you immediately looking for a musical connection to the flu pandemic or was it happenstance that you found the song?
SB: We wanted to filter an old Americana tune through our own emotional prism and we both set out in search of the perfect jumping-off point. It became clear that it was the perfect choice once it was suggested for that exact reason.
JC: Yes, and we particularly were looking for music that was written during last century's pandemic.
As it says in the notes for this work, it started with a "soundscape drone." How was that built? What sort of tone or atmosphere were you trying to create in response to the "World Is Waiting…"?
SB: That initial drone was sent to me by Jacob. My first contribution was in reaction to that drone in the form of a mini arrangement of the original tune’s refrain with a juxtaposed counter melody and a repeated triad figure… which later became the spine of movement 3.
JC: This initial drone ("initial" in the sense that it was the first thing composed, not the first sound in the final piece) is a result of me processing old World is Waiting for the Sunrise records with resonant delay lines (a good description of the technique here). You can hear the drone most clearly around 10 minutes in. Re: tone or atmosphere, we liked the idea of bringing a different interpretation to the piece than its traditional associations, like Les Paul / Mary Ford's super-peppy '50s version.
About halfway through the piece, the music takes a turn toward some really dark sounds akin to black metal. Was that something that came about naturally or did you map out the dynamics of this work ahead of time knowing you were going to hit a peak in the middle?
SB: I think we knew early on that the doomscape drone would eventually overcome us but exactly how early… I'm not certain.
JC: This was not mapped out ahead of time. I came across the sound while progressively distorting Steven's vocals (which you hear in the previous section), and distorting that resonant-delay-line drone. Once I heard the resulting sound, I knew it needed to go on longer and have a dedicated section.
You used some samples of recordings of "World Is Waiting..." in the piece. What were you looking for when listening to those previous performances? What made a certain moment feel worthy of being clipped out and used in your work
JC: Beyond simply being to the idea of sampling old recordings, my decisions here were more musical than conceptual: I was mostly just looking for moments that sounded dramatic and musical when spliced and processed.
Was it important to let some recognizable phrases and clear elements of the lyrics float to the surface of this work rather than obscuring it completely as you do throughout the piece?
SB:I think it ended up being important. Much of the material is independently generated or only indirectly inspired by the original tune. The source material only reveals itself in traces until it fully emerges towards the end of the piece. That’s mostly the result of us following our instincts to their conclusion. Our inclination was to keep the catalyst material obscure and distorted. I think we surprised ourselves in that regard.
JC: Yes, I liked the idea of mostly-but-not-totally obscured!
It sounds like the process of creating this piece was a pleasantly laborious one, with each of you sending ideas through to the other and building it slowly to create this dense work. When did you know it was finished?
SB: The process was deeply layered. There was so much correspondence... especially when the form and structure of the piece had been completed. The movements were conceived out of order but the shape did eventually emerge in a way that was obvious to both of us. We continued with a lengthy process of sculpting the details after that. We agreed to release the album with Cold Blue long before the piece was finished. It became a race to polish and maximize all of the meticulous details to our collective satisfaction before the final hour. Our having to release the record pried it from our clenched hands (probably mercifully and healthily)
JC: I'll add that, about halfway through composing the piece, I settled on the idea of there being 5 different large sections--that felt like the right amount. Each section gradually got longer, and that's how we ended up with a 32-minute piece. So the end of our creative timeline didn't involve internal debate about whether to add new sections, just a lot of perfecting/revising what was already there.
SB: Devin brought his sonic expertise to the project with additional mixing that really brought the piece to the next level. He’s a real wizard in the recording studio and a very gifted producer. He had a profound timbral effect on the recording itself. He really responded to and connected with our piece and offered his services as a videographer in addition to his work on the recording. We loved working with him in the audio-realm so we were very excited and pleased with the suggestion. I love what he did with it!
JC: And it's probably worth noting that we initially toyed with the idea of commissioning a film to accompany the entire piece; but soon realized that someone would need to put in a LOT of time to make a 32-minute film on the level that we'd want it; so visuals to accompany a trailer seemed like a good consolation!
What comes next for you both?
SB: I’ll be reprising my role in Ted Hearne’s PLACE with the LA Philharmonic—a piece that made him a Pulitzer finalist for the second time. My second album with Variant Six will be released this spring in addition to a vinyl release of our first record. I just finished recording a film score composed by Hollywood composer Carter Burwell with Roomful of Teeth. I’ll also be working extensively with Philadelphia-based vocal ensemble The Crossing throughout the year. Also see what I’m creating at stevenbradshawart.com
JC: My largest project currently is an evening-length work for The Crossing (though it's just for the women in the group, so sadly Steven won't be singing in it!).
What are you listening to / reading / watching these days?
SB: Listening: For the sentimental and poetic hemisphere of my brain: I’ve been listening to Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan. His singing is so uniquely, virtuosically, and poetically delivered. For the hemisphere of my brain that seeks out the more foreboding and chaotic side of music, I’m oscillating between ZU, an Italian instrumental hardcore trio, Pantera, and late Coltrane (usually when I’m trying to shake loose some right-brained activity while drawing). And Bach Collegium Japan recordings of the cantatas absolutely never fail me.
Watching: I’m on a Coen Bros. kick at the moment. I think No Country For Old Men is nothing short of masterful. I also recommend a less-celebrated Coen Brothers crime drama called Miller’s Crossing with the highest confidence.
Reading: I picked up this tiny little 50-page novella called Patriotism. I only purchased it because the edgy and elegant cover caught my eye. It’s just a jet white cover with subtle red blood speckles. It depicts a lieutenant in the Japanese army making love to his wife before committing seppuku to avoid a conundrum of loyalty. It’s very short and incredibly emotionally draining. Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, a fascinating bit of writing from Oscar Zeta Acosta, a civil rights attorney who is the real-life menacing lunatic sidekick depicted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Francis Bacon In Your Blood, a memoir of a close associate of Bacon (my favorite painter) chronicling 30+ years of drinking themselves into oblivion. Enveloping stuff!
JC: Listening: Some of my heavy album rotation in recent months = Malouma, Nour; Nico, Desertshore and The Marble Index; Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air; Backxwash, I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and Dresses; Young Nudy, Rich Shooter, Olivia Rodrigo, Sour; Lost Girls, Menneskekollektivet
Reading: I finally got to read a novel recently and loved it—Abraham Verghese's Cutting For Stone
Watching: Squid Game (like, I guess, everyone else?), stupid Tik-Tok videos (like, I guess, everyone else?), and Once Upon a Time in Queens, the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary on the 1986 Mets (like, I guess, everyone else who is a long-suffering Mets fan?).
Devin Hoff: Voices From The Empty Moor (Kill Rock Stars)
Songwriter and singer Anne Briggs, as Rob Young puts it in his book Electric Eden, straddled "two eras of folk music, bridging the period from the late-1950s industrial repertoire to the star-kissed folk-pastoralia of the late 1960s." She was the perfect conduit for the evolution of folk in the U.K. as players steeped in jazz and rock began to adapt decades' old melodies to their psychedelicized ends. Briggs adored the traditional songs, often singing them a cappella, and was inspired by their mood and lilt when she wrote her own material. The openness of her approach left her originals wide open for interpretation and evolutionary ascension. Bassist Devin Hoff understands that openness as a player who has wended his way around the improvisational and art rock worlds. His tribute to Briggs circles excitedly around the melodies of traditional folk ballads like "She Moved Through the Fair" and "Willie O' Winsbury"—songs that Briggs recorded on her slim discography—while bringing in a few vocalists (Shannon Lay and Julia Holter, among them) and instrumentalists (including saxophonist Howard Wiley and Dirty Three member Jim White) to play off of. Like the source material included within, the album strikes that perfect balance of dark and light, warm and cold, like sitting in front of a bonfire on an otherwise chilly beach. [Bandcamp | Kill Rock Stars]
Giorgos Tabakis: hEre nOw theN (Efkrassis Productions)
Greek composer/guitarist Giorgios Tabakis seems restless on his first truly solo album. Or maybe he's just elated with the possibilities available to him via his chosen instrument: an eight-string guitar that looks like a piece of brutalist sculpture. The tones and overtones he's able to pluck out of this unusual apparatus are vast, bursting at the center of each song or humming in the distance like a reed flute being played just over the horizon. Sticking the record into a lone genre then becomes an unnecessary task. Tabakis excitedly slips through so many of them, blending the traditional music of his home country with jazz, modern classical, Chet Atkins-style hen-pecking, and experimental sounds that verge on rock. The shifts in mood and approach feel natural and smooth, like a DJ managing to create a exciting set of music using a box of 45s chosen at random. [Bandcamp]
Beach Fossils: The Other Side of Life: Piano Ballads (Bayonet)
The inability of artists to tour or, in some case, leave their homes over the past two years has resulted in some fascinating pandemic projects, and encouraged others to indulge in outside the box ideas like this album that finds Beach Fossils leader Dustin Payseur reimagining a handful of songs from the band's catalog as piano jazz. According to the press notes, Payseur hit upon this concept when listening to his friend and drummer Tommy Gardner improvise Beach Fossils tunes on a piano while they were on tour. In other words, it's the kind of half-serious idea that comes out of backstage downtime that is usually forgotten about an hour later. But with even more time to kill during lockdown, the plan returned and took root and resulted in this well-intended, throwaway release. There's little reason to reduce the sugary dreampop of "What A Pleasure" to a pseudo-Chet Baker creak or pretend that the wonderful jangle of "That's All For Now" makes sense as Vince Guaraldi cocktail hour background noise. [Bandcamp | Bayonet]
If you're not sick of me and my words yet, visit Oregon Arts Watch to read my latest column on live music in Portland. I interviewed the singer/guitarist for black metal trio Bewitcher and the guitarist for prog-metal band Baroness, as well as writing a review of recent gigs by Soccer Mommy and IDLES that focuses on what the guitar techs for these artists did and didn't do.
Or you can go listen to the latest episode of the podcast I do with my buddy Hiram Lucke where we talk about a different song by The Fall every episode. This month, we were joined by author Cynthia Cruz to discuss "The N.W.R.A."
Back again next time with, hopefully, my interview with Robert Görl of D.A.F. And other stuff and nonsense. Love you all. Do no harm and take no shit.
Artwork for this edition of the newsletter comes from Between, an exhibition of photography on display at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art through February 10, 2022.