Interview: The Unsemble
Fri, 28 Feb 2014 11:43:54
The Unsemble sees iconic guitarist Duane Denison of The Jesus Lizard and Tomahawk tread new territory once more. Teaming up with Alexander Hacke [bass, electronics] and Brian Kotzur [drums, keyboards], this trio conjures up an inimitable instrumental journey that's both haunting and hypnotic. It could easily score a David Lynch flick, and that's a wonderful thing...
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Duane Denison discusses The Unsemble's full-length debut and so much more.
Did you approach the album with any kind of pre-conceived coherency? From a listener's perspective, the record does feel very connected.
Yes and no. Some of that was very much intentional. Obviously, there are little motifs that occur and re-occur throughout the album. It has a fairly organic feel. Some of that started happening almost accidentally. Especially on the improv stuff, things just fell into place. Without tooting our own horn too much, I was very pleased. I think one of the hardest things with any album is having enough variety to keep it interesting, but enough continuity to keep it coherent. Too much of one or the other is bad. I don't know if we necessarily nailed it this first try, but the fact that a couple of people have told me what you just told me makes me think, "Well, we must've gotten close".
You only spent two weeks in the studio too. That's impressive...
"The studio"...Well, it's basically my practice space with some microphones suspended, Alex's laptop, and some of Brian's outboard gear. Start-to-finish, it was about two weeks. We had some prep time before that. Obviously, in terms the compositions that were actually composed, some of that was done before. Some of the improv and arrangements happened on-the-fly. Then, we had to mix it and all of that. Those were some long days!
Did the three of you instantly lock in prior during rehearsals?
Brian and I have played together in other things for about ten years now. We've played with everyone from an alt country singer guy down here named Bobby Bare, Jr. to The Silver Jews. We did a session for a soul singer Beverly Knight. We've played well together in different things, and I've known Alex for a while. I guess it didn't take that long to get locked in.
What was your approach in terms of the guitar?
Because this is instrumental music, I didn't have a vocalist to fall back on. In the past, if something didn't feel quite interesting enough guitar wise, I'd remind myself, "Well, the vocals will be doing something here. Don't worry about it". With this, we didn't have that option. I had to be on my toes a lot more. I don't think I've ever done a session where going into it I knew we were going to be improvising almost half the album. That's a whole different mindset. You have to keep your ears open, be listening closely, and be willing to experiment and go with the flow of whatever the new ideas are. Typically, when you go in to make a rock album, you've rehearsed and rehearsed. You rehearse a lot so you can basically go in and knock those tracks out as quickly as possible since time is money. With this, we still had time constraints, but a lot of the improvisation is supposed to have rough edges to it. It isn't pre-occupied with trying to be so precise. Most of it was played live. Hopefully, if we get out and play shows, we'll be able to reproduce at least most of it live.
What are some of those motifs you mentioned?
There's one obvious thing. The second piece is called "Circles". Towards the back of the album, there's "Circles Revisited". In "Circles Revisited", I take the guitar theme riding on the top of "Circles" and play it half-time in the bass. What was the bass line is now played in an elaborated version in the guitar part. We reverted it and changed the timing. There are a lot of these little sonic landmarks, if you will. "Chaingang" has this one little guitar thing that shows up again. Part of the bass line from "Act 3" shows up in one of the improv parts. It just popped into my head. Some of that was intentional. Some of it was just sort of random occurrences, but it works so those are happy accidents. Maybe it's because those ideas were in the air already and unconsciously recycling them seemed like a good idea at the time.
There's a visual sensibility to the record. It comes off as very cinematic.
It's almost an inherent quality of instrumental music because you don't have the lyrics or a vocalist telling you what you're supposed to think. Usually, in the lyrics, someone is telling you their state of mind, how they feel, or how they think you should feel. They might be telling you a story. When that is taken away, all you have are tones, sounds, rhythmic patterns, and things that suggest gestures and shapes to me. That naturally lends itself to allowing your minds to more freely interpret things. Having said that, we do have a video coming out for "Act 3" that has helicopters and Amish people in it. From that point on, it's okay if your mind gets taken to that place for that one song.
It's interesting that The Unsemble follows Tomahawk's Oddfellows in your own personal catalog.
It's funny. Tomahawk is playing a show in Mexico in a couple of weeks. Just this afternoon, I ran through Oddfellows on guitar because I knew I'd have to start practicing the songs. It struck me that the guitar parts aren't that different. Obviously, those are songs, and I'm not just making songs and improvising.
What keeps you excited about playing guitar?
Every now and then, I come up with something new that I get excited about. Think about this. For me someone like me who's older and has done a lot of records and written or co-written over 200 songs at this point, it's harder and harder for me to come up with new things that don't sound like something I've already done. If you're a young player who's only done one album, the whole musical world is in front of you. You can do just about anything and you won't be repeating yourself. For me, that's not the case. I have to be very selective about what I do. On the one hand, I don't want to literally repeat myself. On the other hand, I think a certain amount of repetition is inevitable and, perhaps, is a good thing. That's how you have a definable style and a signature sound. Anyway, after all this time, if I'm working on a new song and I make a rough recording of it and I can listen to it the next day and still like it, that's what it's all about. I've never had an easy time writing. I just rework things. Sometimes, new ideas show up. I just catch them as they go by. It's good I happen to have a guitar or tape recorder running. That's what does it for me. If I share these ideas with other musicians and they like it too, they think it's good, and are excited about working on it, that's the next step. Then, you have an album out. It's almost a mysterious, alchemical process. You go from these rough ideas to this practice stage. The next thing you know, you've got this physical product in your hand with ideas on it. If you're lucky, other people will like it enough to want to buy it. I know that's how I am if I hear something I like. It doesn't matter who it's from. If I really like it and I want to hear it again, I will buy it. I don't have a problem with that. That whole thing is still a mystery to me, and it's still enjoyable.
What have you been listening to lately?
My listening is all over the place. There's what I'll listen to in my car oftentimes, when I'm driving my daughter to school. That's one thing. I got a new car this year, and it's got satellite radio. I'm still getting into that. There are four different hard rock stations and three classical stations as well as a 24-hour reggae station. There are stations that play nothing but music from the forties or the fifties. I'm still enjoying that and getting into it. As far as 2014 goes, I haven't bought any new rock albums. I enjoyed 2013. I liked David Bowie's album. I thought that was pretty good. I liked Queens of the Stone Age's ...Like Clockwork. I liked High on Fire's most recent record, De Vermis Mysteriis. It's scorching. It's almost too intense for me! Today, I was listening to the Dutch Louis Andriessen composer. To me, he's the best of the current minimalist tradition.
Hear the eponymous album streaming over at Pitchfork Advance, through March 3. Album available from us, here.
The Unsemble - Neon
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