Detroit metro times interview (FULL)
original article at www.MetroTimes.com
with Ana Gavrilovska
What does the name saajtak mean and how is it pronounced?
In one of the band bios, the group’s artistic practice is described as incorporating Jonathan and Alex’s love of jazz, Ben’s experience in the western art music tradition, and Simon’s work in multimedia and performance art technology -- can each person speak to what they bring?
Ben Willis: I think that this group communicates very much like a small chamber ensemble, like a string quartet. Often we rely on each other for subtle cues through the music, and our parts interlock and sometimes pass around the ensemble. As we compose our music together, having a background performing chamber music helps to inform ideas for instrument roles and also the sense of pacing and song form. Playing contemporary works for open instrumentation, like those of Pauline Oliveros and Frederic Rzewski, has certainly informed how I view my role in an ensemble, and what the possibilities between four people can be.
Simon Alexander-Adams: There are many facets of my creative practice that make their way into this group. My experience as a pianist and improviser are important components, but my playing and sound design is definitely informed by my experience as a sonic explorer - producing electronic music, building new interfaces for musical expression, creating interactive audio installations, and even doing sound design for theatre, dance, animation and film. It all comes together in both the sounds I create for saajtak - which involves everything from granular synthesis to turning random files on my computer into audio files.
Jon Taylor: While we come from different backgrounds with regards to our training, we all share an enthusiasm for sound. I know that we each have a very wide listening palate and love to share whatever it is we’re checking out. On the road we might jump from listening to improvised music to americana to punk to glitch to hip hop and take something from all of them. Playing together is kind of the same: we individually contribute our current state of mind and taste, and if successful, blend it into a cohesive musical statement.
Alex Koi: We focused on those practices in study before but our spheres of influence extend much further. Still though, that’s an interesting question because there are defining things brought to the table by each of us. Now that I think about it, I mostly conceptualize those differences with respect to personality, mode of intellect, and how we process ideas, not genre. Musically and interpersonally we balance each other well. That’s why the music feels so good.
Who has played with Wadada Leo Smith and Jaribu Shahid? Can you tell me a bit about it?
JT: I’ve had the chance to play with Wadada several times over the last few years, and I’m always astonished by the sheer gravity of his sound. For me there’s a trance-like quality to every note he plays, and that’s the mark of a master improviser: every single moment, every single sound is its own rich environment. Spending time with an artist that carries such a presence is completely invigorating. Jaribu is another artist that makes you dig deeper, every note, every second. I’ve made a point of involving him in my own recent compositional endeavors, and he always makes my writing sound much better than it deserves (laughs). He’s played with everyone I look up to, and has been doing it for a very long time. That kind of history translates to a certain wisdom and conviction both personally and musically that’s very special to be around.
Who are some musicians (or performers of any kind) you consider great influences?
SAA: Some big influences in my life include Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Autechre - among may others. I've always been into music spanning many styles. Recently I've been really into Ametsub - a Japanese artist who creates glitch ambient electronic music, and David Torn (who Ben hipped me to) who has an amazingly raw and textural sound, and is pretty genre-defying. They’re definitely important new influences for me.
AK: Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Kate Bush, Ornette Coleman, Bjork, John Coltrane, King Crimson, William Parker, Mike Patton, Imogen Heap, Wagner, Robert Ashley, Dolores O’Roirdan, Kathleen Hanna
BW: Meredith Monk, Diamanda Galas, Pauline Oliveros, Joëlle Léandre, Joni Mitchell, Kaija Saariaho, Lightning Bolt
JT: Don Cherry, Meredith Monk, Wadada Leo Smith, Geri Allen, Raymond Scott, Alla Rakha, Ed Blackwell, Carl Craig, The Melvins
What is an atypical or unconventional influence on your music? (You are not limited to music or even art with your answer.
AK: Interdisciplinary and experimental theatre à la Young Jean Lee’s “Untitled Feminist Show”, Ryoji Ikeda’s superposition, Bjork’s “Biophilia Live”, etc. I’m finally sinking my teeth into Meredith Monk’s work as well. I’ve always been awe-inspired by large-scale gestural paintings, Julie Mehretu and Anselm Kiefer amongst my favorites.
JT: It’s not particularly unconventional, but I draw a lot of inspiration from nature. I try to make it to Lake Superior a couple times a year both to recharge and help ground my creative endeavors. As cliché as it sounds, I believe there’s no purer music than the ambient sounds of the natural world. I learn a lot whenever I remove myself into the elements.
BW: This isn't something we've explicitly discussed, but everyone in the band has a strong relationship with visual art, and we all have different approaches to our visual artmaking. I think that allows us all to think more holistically about the music we're making, and also to have a similar understanding of broad-stroke ideas that translate across disciplines, like positive and negative space.
What are you trying to achieve with the way you manipulate sounds, both live and in the studio? (I assume this is different, or occurs in different ways, for everyone.)
SAA: For my setup I have the challenge of designing my sounds for each composition as we develop it. I work to find a couple really interesting parameters that I can manipulate live - which is usually the most I like to have on a given sound. I have knobs and sliders as well as foot pedals that I can map to these parameters so I can perform our whole set without touching the computer - a format that I really appreciate while playing live.
BW: While use of electronics opens up many worlds of timbral possibilities, it also comes with the risk of being unnecessarily dense or desultory. In all of our songs, we try to hone sounds that are complementary to each other. This is sometimes informed by instrument role--I may pitch-shift my bass up to a high "guitar-like" texture while Simon is holding down the lower information--but is often about finding timbres that gel with each other or contrast in effective ways.
AK: The vocal harmonies on the spokes EP took me three months of discipline and focus. Studio work is an opportunity for me to be absolutely tuned in to my tone, diction, register, blend, and I’m incredibly precise with harmony composition. Beyond that, even some of the lyrics didn’t fall into full realization until I had the board mix at my fingertips so I was handling multiple realms of material. It’s a challenging part of the process but enriching and informing. I can’t wait for the day we can afford to hire a twenty-piece choir and have these harmonies performed live.
Alex, you have said: “I’m an instrument, a texture, or a bass line” with regard to your role, as opposed to the traditional idea of a “singer” or “frontperson.” Can you tell me a bit about this?
AK: I was a kid that played in the dirt and created ornate murals on my bedroom walls. There was never any conversation or lesson on the correct way of doing those things. Singing was the same way. I explored and discovered. There were many years of learning purely from experimentation and by imitating records, both vocal and instrumental, first. All my music is based in a foundational center of feeling and play, so I like my singing to be limitless. Why confine an instrument to stereotypes and conventions? Traditional vocal words like “pretty”, “lyrical”, “floating” aren’t everything. I like grit, tragedy, and terror too because those experiences elicit reflection and explosive response.
What can you tell me about the songs that are on Spokes? Does anyone have a particular favorite, or even a specific moment in a song that stands out?
SAA: I have a lot of favorite moments, though one I always love playing is midway through “Asimo's Epilogue” when it reaches its dancier/funky section. It feels great to play.
BW: My loyalties shift, but my favorite song to perform live has often been “Spokes”, because I think we've constantly been able to find a greater degree of freedom within the song, so it feels very alive to me. My favorite moment on the EP is probably the transition into that dancier groove in “Asimo's Epilogue”. I'm excited to write more material that involves very simple grooves overlaid polymetrically.
AK: Best parts for me are Ben’s bowed bass parts and the middle section of “Underscore”. The first and last three minutes of “Spokes” too.
JT: I love how “Underscore” sounds on the EP. That’s a really hard song to perform live as everyone’s role is subverted. The drums are heavily prepared, Simon’s sounds dominate the low end, and Ben acts as sort of a lead guitarist. I don’t know if we’ve ever gotten a good live mix for that song, so it’s really satisfying to have the more curated studio cut that matches our intentions.
Can you speak to how you experience the differences between composition and improvisation in music?
BW: Improvisation can be thought of as a straight line between two points: the performer(s) and the audience/environment. (If the performers are strong listeners.) Composition is more like a triangle, three connected points, the third point being whatever outside referent the performers are responding to. Improvisation is more immediate for this reason, but the performance environment, to sensitive musicians, is always going to have an equal impact on the overall experience.
JT: The most successful improvisations I’ve participated in or observed were like living, breathing organisms wherein every sound aided a collective momentum. It’s like an ecosystem: many disparate parts operating under distinct cycles, but adding up to a cohesive environment. There’s magic in creating an environment in real time. Composition is basically the same process, but premeditated. I like it when a composed work feels like its own universe, be it loose parameters for improvisation, a through-composed chamber piece, a two minute punk song, whatever.
AK: We’ve never prescribed solo sections per se, but we’ve definitely come to understand the moments that make sense for a solo or duo improv to emerge from a composition. Sometimes we take those leads, sometimes we don’t. Depends on the night, depends on our treatment of the song thus far, etc. We keep it unpredictable and surprise each other.
Alex, can you briefly tell me a little bit about your subject matter in the lyrics?
AK: In the three years that we worked on the music of Spokes, we witnessed serious musical transformations and expansions in all four compositions. Ninety percent of the time I’m putting lyrics to a melody I’ve already got swimming in my head. With Spokes I encountered the challenging task of creating cohesive narrative arcs over a bumpy course of key changes, meter changes, and in the case of “Spokes”, an eleven-minute song. Strong lyric writing is aware of the minutiae of these musical changes and appropriately predicts, reacts to, or syncs with them all while creating a statement. Songs like “The Keeper”, an immersive retrospective on aging and living, and “Asimo’s Epilogue”, a thematic-based reflection on human nature, transhumanism, and illusion, are more traditional narratives complete with metaphor, character development and such. “Spokes” and “Underscore” are abstracted, more part-phrases and guttural sounds, so to imitate gestures of a mind’s unraveling amidst over-saturations of input and emotion. I’d say that while “Underscore” ends in helplessness, “Spokes” ends in apathy. All that being said, it’s important that the EP's many joyous expressions are noted as well. In "Asimo" for instance, I think: how marvelous it is that we've created this affectionate homage to our little robot heroine.
What do you consider your own personal goals within the music you make? Is there anything you are actively seeking to convey or have be understood? Not necessarily a material thing, either; this can be philosophy or a way of thinking about music, art, performance.
BW: I hope to make experiential music that allows people to shift their focus, to provide another space to view life from.
JT: One of my favorite improvisers, Frank Rosaly, said something along the lines of “powerful music makes one feel present, and to be present is to be alive.” Everyone knows that unnamable mental and spiritual space that comes from absorbing work, or from experiencing impactful art. My goal every day is to expand my relationship with that space, in practice, in listening, and in performance. Hopefully the listeners feel inspired and transported themselves.
AK: I make music for myself, and by extension, hope that others feel deeply from it. A more intellectual pursuit is to inspire listeners to readjust their perspective on vocalists and women musicians in general. In the Western musical tradition there’s all sorts of gendered stigmas hanging around the vocalist. A common one being that vocalists aren’t musicians. These stigmas are complicated and misogynistic. It’s meant as a compliment that fans tell me I’m a “true musician”, but often it’s said in a way that discredits me as a vocalist. I’ve had (male) listeners insist that I’m “more than a vocalist”, sometimes trying to argue the point with me, which is just silly, because I just poured my guts out on stage and also because what the hell is wrong with being a vocalist(?!) Our voices are the most amazing gift we have.
Being a woman and vocalist is deeply personal and challenging. For many years I’ve actively worked on shedding internalized forms of disdain for my instrument and self. The truth is that both of these identities hold such large responsibility and power. I hope people, men and women, not only witness and experience that at our shows, but also carry that with them into the world.
What is your relationship with the city of Detroit?
BW: While we’re all relatively new to the city, only being in the area for the last 2-4 years, Detroit has a really vital history of progressive music making that we’re excited to explore and be a part of. From pioneers of electronic music, to the legendary Faruq Z. Bey’s Griot Galaxy and connections to the AACM, Detroit has a very inspiring atmosphere that definitely informs what we do, and that we hope to uphold and continue.
JT: My family has a long history here. My great-grandfather, a kosher butcher, emigrated from the Ukraine and settled in Detroit as part of a wave of jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century. My grandfather and mother were born and raised in the city, and my paternal grandparents lived here for a time in the forties and fifties. In that sense I’ve always felt an abstract connection with the city. Living here now, I’m just happy to be witnessing and collaborating with so many incredible artists. As Ben said, the music runs deep here, thinking of the countless jazz masters, Underground Resistance, Motown, it’s an incredible lineage and to be involved with the current generation of artists is inspiring and exciting.
Is the EP self-released and is Bandcamp the best place to direct people to for obtaining the music? I am seeing digital and CD, those are the only formats, right? And would you say that this is the first official release, being that the other songs on Bandcamp are digital only?
AK: The Spokes EP is self-released and in digital and CD formats only. Bandcamp is the best place to purchase online, but hard copies and download codes are available at live shows.
Photo by Zachary Zweifler