5 Old Favorites in 5 Days
A Mini-Retrospective of Grex Songs Past
Day 1 (10/21): Mole Cricket
This odd little ditty hails from a crisis point in the band's history, somewhere in the halcyon days of 2013. Grex was in the midst of an explosive transition, searching for a clear identity at a time when the scene we'd been born into seemed to be fissuring. We found a very empathetic compatriot in the brilliant Robert Lopez, whose intense energy and directness of attack helped push the band into the deep abstraction of 2014's Monster Music.
Our preoccupation at the time was finding as many ways as we could to denature the linearity of a given song form without collapsing it completely. This one is *right* up against the edge. I'm still weirdly proud of the decision to forgo the heroic guitar feature, owing something to Sonny Sharrock's iconic and chaotic cameos in the 60's-70's, but lest it get too navel-gazey, what sticks with me half a decade later are Rei's affecting, eerily tremulous vocals and Robert's shatteringly heavy drum interjections. Props, too, to Jamie Riotto's sensitive and very clued-in work behind the board.
Fun fact: for reasons that escape my understanding, there is no one record of ours that gets brought up on tour more frequently than Monster Music. Back in 2014 it felt like a blip and onto the next thing. There's a catharsis and surreal feeling swirling around the record we're now assembling, and there were a few moments these past few months when I'd look up from behind my now overheavy guitar, inside Rei and Robert's whorl of sound, and rejoice in the fact that the more things change, the more they'll always stay the same.
Day 2 (10/22): Round Trip
Electric Ghost Parade was/is a concept album by default, if not by design. Some time after the deep-dive surrealism of Monster Music I'd gotten invested in the the interstitial material between brute force psych rock and primitive noise. There's a tradition there that encompasses not only Hendrix's wild studio experimentation but also the ragged eclecticism of proto-punk and the garage-y squall of some early European and Japanese Free Improvisation. I just wondered what it would be like to shunt the aesthetics of guitar noise into these relatively straightforward musical containers.
Round Trip remains one of my favorite things we ever did. There are a lot of bits and pieces here, from Rei's weary and wary lyrics to the near-atonal, quasi-Lifetime freakout at the end. Cory Wright and Theo Padouvas, whom I'll credit from now until eternity for their considered work in all parts of life (not just music), help fulfill this bizarre need I had to hear free jazz horns bubbling underneath stentorian vocals. It bears notice that the great Phil Manley--who recorded the basic tracks for this record with us--intuitively and absolutely understood what we were going for here, which was something like the chaos of our live set contained between two ears.
My favorite little detail, above all else, happens around 2 mins in (at the top of the second verse). You can hear a bus pull up right outside of Berkeley Arts. The acoustic piano you hear here was one of the room's grands (thanks to Phillip Greenlief for letting us track there). I didn't notice the noise until mixing, but by that time, BA was in the advanced stages of closing up shop, and I wanted to leave it in in order to commemorate, as so much of our music does, a time, place, and frame of mind.
Day 3 (10/23): Resolution
As infatuated as I am with jazz history, I think that a lot of the work in the idiom I've most enjoyed hearing in the past decade or so bypasses the question of traditionalist authenticity altogether--and much of this music, like Jordan Glenn's Wiener Kids, Seattle's astonishing Bad Luck, or the more liminal work of Flying Lotus or The Comet is Coming--captures the energy of the 60's free music I grew up on in a very real way. I see no break in the continuum between this aggressively reformist music and the work of living masters like Evan Parker, Joe McPhee, or Louis Moholo-Moholo--i.e., folks who have histories working with younger conceptualists in ever more exciting ways.
Grex Plays A Love Supreme was an idea that kerneled at a tour stop in Arlington, Virginia several years ago, Robert Lopez and I talking about the idea of trying to collapse the oversized sounds of Coltrane's masterpiece into an unlikely trio format. When time came to follow through with this, I was insistent that the music both honor the energy and intention of the original record and sound as personal as possible. The resulting record is not so much a "cover" of the original as it is a series of more or less original pieces decoded from Coltrane's original charts.
I have a special pride in Resolution as it's probably the most efficient and direct of the pieces we performed. A lot of homework went into the orchestration/arrangement process--I went back to both the Impulse recording and Trane's handwritten notes, reduced every section into what I understood to be its most basic motivic elements, and refracted these elements through compositional ideas totally alien to the original music.
The basic feel and harmonic matrix of Resolution is borrowed from A Tribe Called Quest's "Excursions," funneled through a rhythmic form that involves non-repeating groupings of 2 and 3 beats. The melodic details--from the drastically simplified melody to the abbreviated version of the bass intro--are meant to imply the original music in the most basic ways, analogous to vector art or a Matisse cut-out. I wanted things to sound solid and direct, like a sense of hardened, unwavering resolve pivoting around the inner turmoil of the guitar and drums.
The album was recorded in a couple of hours with the great Myles Boisen who--now as ever--is a master at creating an accommodating environment and letting the music breathe on its own. The brilliant LA trumpeter Dan Clucas joined us for the recording (he gets some killer solo features--just not on this track!). I have vivid memories of sitting on a bench at Lake Merritt eating burritos somewhere in the middle of the session.
This project was/is meant to presage the original music that I'll inevitably get to in the fullness of time. in the meanwhile, further excursions await--with a new Grex album on the way next year (yes, it has all the songs everyone wants on record).
Day 4 (10/24): Stump Fuckers
Just hearing the acoustic (!) piano and pinched DS-1 guitar squall brings me back to another time entirely. We recorded our second record, cheekily entitled Second Marriage, in the antediluvian year of 2011. I have fond memories of workshopping this material at the very unlikely environs of Trinity Chapel in Berkeley, marveling at the opportunity to make sounds so strange on a stage some several feet larger than the corner pocket of Mama Buzz Cafe (RIP).
Just to get it out of the way first, "Stump Fucker" is a regional name for a kind of wasp that lays its eggs in trees. The larvae of said wasp will bore into the wood and live there for several years prior to maturation. Rei will know the specifics better than I, as she both wrote the lyrics and has had to spend a significant amount of time explaining the title to confused/horrified colleagues and audience members.
I might go as far as to say that this is my single favorite thing we wrote in the early years, and it has all the trademarks--stabbing odd-metered passages, a luxuriant vocal, the spark of poetic ambiguity, and a kind of disarming sparseness that was the magic we discovered by virtue of necessity and not design. As a relentless self-critic I'm actually fairly proud of the anti-solo partway through--the realization of a desire to make something with dynamics and shape that was nonetheless subsumed into the whole.
We recorded the entire album inside of two marathon recording sessions at the dearly departed Studio 1510. The patient and brilliantly insightful Scott Looney sat behind the board, and I can still remember him reaching into the grand with a tuning hammer in-between takes.
Like the other bygone moments mentioned herein, the music from Second Marriage reached a kind of surreal apotheosis when our duo had the privilege of playing Great American (under the auspices of Fred Frith, who is greater still) with Cosa Brava and our friends in Jack O' the Clock somewhere between the two sessions. As a proud husband/bandmate, I'll always remember Rei's power to captivate with this song, being not so much inviting as permissive in the disarming intimacy of her vocal.
Day 5 (10/25): Retlaw
Retlaw is the first song Rei and I really worked on together, waaaay back in the spring of 2009. Grex was initiated as a sort of distraction from the rigorous self-evaluation of grad school (our first collaboration was a piece of sound art revolving around atonal vocal harmonies and these chordal concepts I cribbed from Julius Hemphill, the second a set of unfinished lyrics told from the standpoint of a Pink Floyd-type band existing in the Star Wars universe). Retlaw was our attempt at taking some received academic concepts--mixed meter passages, sectional composition, polytonality, etc.--and sculpting something pithy and twee out of them.
The Retlaw in question is the Hotel Retlaw, located in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin. Said hotel is one of America's great "haunted rooms," and it's said that the hotel's long-dead founder, Walter Schroeder (hint: read his first name backwards), can be found wandering the halls on occasion.
This song marks one of the few occasions upon which Rei and I composed in tandem--trading specific lines and re-sculpting passages wholesale to accommodate quickly unspooling ideas. We debuted the piece at my thesis concert (!), but the process of refining the basic materials of the song continued for years--first with the recording you hear below--our first album ever, recorded for the most part in the Ensemble Room at Mills--later expanding to a full quintet and, finally, paring down to a trio version with the great Robert Lopez.
Trio version HERE
One big thing persists in memory when it comes to this song. I'd spent so much of my time in grad school questioning, re-evaluating, and failing to find proper context for my tendencies as an improviser and guitarist. From the first second of the first time Grex ever played, I felt a kind of freedom and clarity that is impossible to really communicate in text. Inhabiting that basic feeling has borne me through basically all of the technical and personal challenges I've encountered since.
I mean, there's bigger stuff for both me and the band ahead, but if you listen to that solo at the end of Retlaw--recorded some ten years ago at this point--it's the sound of someone finding his path. I wish the same for absolutely everyone, regardless of genre, place, etc.
California's AB5 Bill (9/13/19)