Drums & Drones: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: The name says it all
File next to: La Monte Young, Brian Eno, Tim Hecker
Playing: Friday Oct. 17 at the Music Gallery for the X AVANT Festival

Brian Chase is likely best known to the music-listening public as the drummer for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the dance-punk trio that came to prominence as part of the “Yes New York” scene circa 2003 – yet he’s also an accomplished and prolific experimental musician. While the YYYs lay low after promoting their fourth record, 2013’s Mosquito, singer Karen O has jumped back on the tour circuit in support of her emotive solo album Crush Songs, guitarist Nick Zinner is out there producing, DJing and collaborating, and Chase has delved back into collaborating and creating work of a more abstract and immersive nature. Drums & Drones is his “sonic/optic” collab with projection artist Ursula Scherrer, and Wavelength is pleased to co-present its Canadian premiere this Friday (Oct. 17) as part of the X Avant Festival. Wavelength’s Jonny Dovercourt spoke to Brian about all things Drummy & Droney.

How would you explain Drums & Drones to someone who knows little to nothing about Just Intonation or minimalist music?

Drums & Drones is a project designed to go “inside the sound of a drum,” like peeking through a door that’s slightly cracked open and discovering what’s on the other side. A key component is that it uses the natural acoustic resonance of the instrument as its starting point, and with this uncovers unlimited sonic terrain. The pieces are composed in a tuning system called Just Intonation, one that is commonly referred to as “nature’s tuning system,” since it uses as its basis a natural occurring acoustic phenomenon known as the overtone series. JI is probably the oldest science for precisely determining pitch relationship with documentation dating back to Pythagoras. This tuning system is well suited to a “minimalist” approach, as the perception of what is being heard changes over time even if what is being played remains static.

Drums & Drones was partially inspired by your time spent volunteering at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House in New York. What was that experience like? Did you have much interaction with La Monte and Marian?

Yes, Drums & Drones is greatly inspired by the legendary Dream House installation by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, which is still going and open to the public. I volunteered there for a little over a year, mostly greeting people as they entered and chatting with them as they left. In that time, my ears opened to the brilliant depths of the installation, and the power of Just Intonation. It really seemed to be about the notion of perception, and how the purity of the tuning system allowed us to perceive a multiplicity of dazzling viewpoints, while maintaining a sense of stillness at the foundation; this perception would continue to expand with prolonged exposed to the sound/light environment. I only had brief interaction with La Monte and Marian. Once, for a holiday present, La Monte gave me some chilis that were homegrown; they were extraordinarily hot.

Ursula Scherrer’s visuals are a big component of Drums & Drones as a “sonic/optic” project. Was it envisioned that way from the start? How do the sound and visuals interact with one another?

The visual component to Drums & Drones came after the music, but bringing it in was a natural fit. There is a very “visual” element to the music, and what Ursula does with her projections entrances and dazzles the eyes as the music is there to do for the ears; it greatly enhances the live experience. Her background also has connections to La Monte and Marian. The album Drums & Drones comes with a DVD which includes videos, or “moving paintings,” as I like to call them, for each of the 10 tracks by Ursula and another video artist name Erik Zajaceskovsky.

In what context(s) do you recommend listening to the Drums & Drones audio?

Drums & Drones audio can work in a variety of contexts. Initially, the pieces came about from my sitting on my couch, listening. I would feel my senses slowly being absorbed by the tones, and I would get into the mode of listening as an active process. This is hard to describe as it’s more about doing it and discovering what happens. As for other contexts: well, I once head a friend of mine, David Watson, DJ a hip late night Italian eatery in Brooklyn; it wasn’t dance party DJ’ing, but more background music to set a mood. He played a La Monte Young record for me, The Black Record, and it was amazing how I felt it make the air in the room seem almost tangible, perhaps something with a renewed awareness of feeling the vibrations of the invisible sound waves.

What’s happening on the New York experimental music scene nowadays? Any people or places you want to give a shout out to?

The New York experimental scene is super busy, especially in Brooklyn, continually filled with performers and composes pushing the boundary across all genres. On the classical/new music side, you have great composers like Tristan Perich and Tyondai Braxton, along with ensembles like Yarn/Wire and So Percussion. On the improv side, you have stunning performers reinventing his/her instrument and making great new music, such as Ingrid Laubrock, Jeremiah Cymerman, and Chris Pitsiokos. Coming from the rock/noise/psych side, you have amazing people like Kid Millions/Man Forever/Oneida, Angus Tarnawsky, and Beech Creeps. And, in addition, there are the amazing musicians that have paved the way for the experimental scene that are still performing and continuing to lead the way. This list is in no way fair as it leaves out too many people. As for places to mention, there is The Stone, John Zorn’s club in the Lower East Side, home base for much of this scene. In Brooklyn, there is Secret Project Robot, Trans-Pecos, and Silent Barn which are on the more DIY side, and Roulette and Issue Project Room on the more formal side.

This Friday, you’re playing the X Avant Festival at the Music Gallery, which has a near-40-year history on the Toronto new music scene, having been founded by members of CCMC (including Michael Snow and John Oswald). Are you familiar with much of the more experimental goings-on here in T.O.?

Wow, that’s awesome about the history of the Festival and the Gallery. I’m familiar with Michael Snow and John Oswald, but, admittedly, I’m not that familiar with the current scene in Toronto, though I do know Colin Fisher… I dig his playing, talented dude.

What’s going on with Yeah Yeah Yeahs nowadays? Are you guys on a bit of a break? Do you get much of a chance to catch up and check in on each other’s solo activity?

Yup, YYYs are on a break. Usually, after a busy album cycle we take an extended break to process, immerse ourselves with other aspects of life and living, and grow a little bit. Right now each of us have been busy with different projects. Karen put out an absolutely jaw-droopingly beautiful solo record called Crush Songs and toured for that. Nick has been doing more producing in the studio as well as DJ’ing and getting to playing some of his own music; he has often had an exhibition of his photos to keep him busy. We support each other’s solo endeavours, which is great. A highlight was when Nick and I got to join Karen on stage for a New York performance of one of her solo shows!

Drums & Drones at Studio 10, Excerpt 1, Bushwick, NY, April, 2014. Brian Chase: drum & electronics, Ursula Scherrer: projections from Brian Chase on Vimeo.

How do you recommend the audience prepare for the live Drums & Drones experience on Friday

… by embracing the process of listening and watching.