Friday, June 23, 2006

Alastair Galbraith Interview

conducted via e-mail
photography & interview by Dan Cohoon
Alastair Galbraith has been making beautiful and harsh music (sometimes at the same time) for almost a quarter century. He has the ability to transform the mundane into the magical. He took a memory of a terrifying bag pipe concert (His grand mother told him that the bag pipes would cause his blood to boil; poor Alastair believed her) and made the wondrous “Screaming E.”
Alastair Galbraith @ The Middle East (Cambridge, MA) 1996
photo: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa
Over the years Alastair has worked with what seems like every musician on the South Island of New Zealand (and a few from the North). From his earliest collaborations with The Rip started with his school yard chum Robbie Muir, to his later collaborations with the brothers Jefferies on various projects, also with his noise workout with Bruce Russell in Handful of Dust and later as a solo artist, he has made music that is deeply felt. It has been rumored that Bruce Russell started the Xpressway label just so he could release Alastair’s work (for that I am eternally grateful).

Alastair Galbraith now is a proud poppa. Table of the Elements will be re-releasing four of his solo albums. He continues to make music and collaborate with musicians in New Zealand and across the globe. From the first time I heard Alastair Galbraith’s South Island drawl across static-y college radio airwaves I have been entranced by his music. I am very happy that Alastair took the time to answer my questions. Dan Cohoon (June 2006)

Dan Cohoon: What is your earliest and/or most powerful musical memory? What kind of music did your family listen to growing up?
AG: My earliest memory of becoming aware of the quality of sounds was playing with the tone control on my parents' radiogram, spending hours adding and subtracting bass and treble. But my mother recently told me that when I was less than one year old traveling in the car (in the days before baby car restraints) I would struggle to escape from her arms and would not stop till I had one ear resting on top of the gear-stick! My father just got used to changing gears with me there!

As soon as she told me this I recalled the sensation of doing it; I'd have the most detailed mental journey-pictures produced by the variations in the vibrations, and I saw the hills in terms of accelerating noise! My mother played classical music on an old upright piano and I loved sitting right against it while she played, feeling the music going through my body. I also remember going to an unfamiliar house and asking if they had a washing machine I could listen to.

DC: What do you think it is about Dunedin, New Zealand that caused it to produce so much great music and artists? What was the scene like (if there was any) when you started? How has it changed? Is there still a sense of community there?
AG: Once upon a time I felt like that - that there was almost a glut of talent at the one time and place, co-operative and friendly, a party community, because pubs closed at 11 so you went to people's houses for parties. Gigs started at 8, finished at 11--same two bands Friday and Saturday

It helped the atmosphere that The Empire had maximum band room occupancy of about 60. Every weekend you could hear truly inspired music, so many tickets to heaven, the clear sharp sea of ringing metal that was David Kilgour's guitar in which The Clean so powerfully boated, some kind of honesty personified. Incendiary Stones gigs - streaming blazing true sarcasm and deep power grooves and blinding guitar strum - Wayne had this clear guitar sound, a haze of bite. Lush intense chiming Chills evenings, Terry Moore the bass-player a conduit of pure concentration blinking each time Martin Bull smashed the cymbal near him. Empire birthday parties, with free cocktails for musicians; people stood on tables to see better, hoarding sidecars and fluffy ducks and whisky sours. Verlaines transcending in a bleeding blur, when they were still rough and honest.

It is a strange notion that Dunedin caused this; perhaps it was just coincidence. Perhaps it was the wake left by the early Clean. Something shifted for me when Wayne [Elsey, of the Stones and Doublehappys] was killed and the endless drinking parties seemed much darker, and I drifted away to hang with the Jefferies brothers who had arrived swaying into town. Years later in 1991 I really missed that sense of a large community of friends, all artists, so I started Super 8, an arts co-op in an old 3 story warehouse down by the wharves. 300 musicians, painters, writers, film-makers etc joined and each paid $30 membership which covered a year's rent. That was a wild exponential time as well - the Dead C, the 3ds, Snapper, Tongue, Dadamah, Peter Jefferies solo.
Morse & Gaudylight (cover art)Posted by Picasa
DC: Besides being a musician, you are a visual artist as well. Is there a relationship between your sound work and your paintings? What visual and sound artists inspire you?
AG: I don't know how the paintings relate to the music except that they both are sort of leaves of diaries. It’s just plain old life that inspires me - so much more than art or music. There are artists whose work I love, but eventually it's just you and an instrument and whatever's going on at the time, or you in a room full of boards slippery with house-paint feeling your way. In either case - towards something inside – not outside -that's where most of what I’d call inspiration comes from

DC: When and how did The Rip come about? Were you involved in any other projects previous to The Rip?
Robbie Muir and I decided when we were 14 or 15 to start a band. We'd been pretty inspired by some of the gigs we'd seen. We were called Doppelganger to begin with, then The Rip. At first it was just me and him playing guitar and bass through the same little practice amp in his bedroom, then we got Nicholas Neill from pushbutton death! to drum with us. Our first gig was at the Empire supporting Gamaunche, but Nick's mother wouldn't let him come cos he was 14 and us two were 15. Gamaunche’s drummer, who was a pretty scary guy, played with us instead, crashing around insensitively and mockingly, and I think we only finished 2 songs and were ready to slink off forever till Wayne Elsey took me aside and said he'd seen something that meant we had to keep going. He loaned us stuff, and Sneaky Feelings gave us gigs, and from there we were launched to be the perennial support band. For a few years we played about 30 weekends a year.

DC: You started out recording in studios and then started making home recordings (the reverse of most artists). What advantages or disadvantages does home recording offer?
AG: The Rip won the “Battle of the Bands” and the prize was recording time in a really fancy studio, and so finally Roger [Shepherd, founder of Flying Nun Records] agreed to release an E.P. on Flying Nun, pestered as he was to do so by Hamish Kilgour who then worked there. We went to a really bizarre studio called Cavendish or something in Christchurch, and Terry Moore came to engineer it. The equipment was over the top; the monitor speakers were so good that they made everything sound wonderful (till we got home). Nothing was properly explained to us; we just watched in awe and went home with a really weird thin sounding record.

Skip to when This Kind of Punishment played at the Oriental and Peter [Jefferies] showed an interest in recording The Rip, which barely existed by that stage. Robbie and I would go round to the New Joy ice cream shop, a dingy brick Coronation Street house where Peter and Graeme [Jefferies] were recording “In the Same Room” and eat ginger nuts and drink coffee and learn about the marvels of an immediate sound, the clarity of the 4-track, the presence it conveys (so long as things aren't swamped in effects), and the idea of artist as his own best engineer. I think they were right and I've stayed recording that way ever since, owning the time it takes me and the gear to do it.

DC: How did you meet up with Peter and Graeme Jefferies? What projects have you worked with them on? What is your relationship like with them now?
AG: Peter Jefferies and I went through a lot together, him recording The Rip, then Plagal Grind, then being friends and confidantes, culminating in a grueling tour of the States and then one of Europe. By the end of that we'd seen enough of each other for a while, and he moved to Canada and we pretty much lost touch. I phoned him to see if he was into the Plagal Grind reunion in 2000, but he wasn't, so Robbie Yeats filled in (beautifully). Graeme and I had an intense friendship for only several weeks at a time, recording Timebomb in the Dominion building in Christchurch, and then when he came to stay with me for a month while recording World of Sand. Your interview with him [Ed. note: Jim Ebenhoh did the interview with Graeme Jefferies] really brought me up to speed with his life.
Alastair Galbraith @ The Middle East (Cambridge, MA) 1998
photo: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa
DC: How did the Xpressway label come about? Did you realize at the time how important the record label would become? What are your feelings about people thinking of Xpressway as a golden era of great music?
AG: Bruce Russell worked for Flying Nun when they were still based in Christchurch, and he's such an efficient, intelligent guy - he just picked through their mail-order and when they dropped half their acts at once and moved to Auckland he stepped into that breach with the (then) cassette-only label XPRESSWAY. It was supposedly a co-operative, but as far as most of the label work went - Bruce did it, Peter Jefferies mastered a lot of stuff, I held gigs at my warehouse with lucky ticket numbers winning a bottle of port, Bruce as master of ceremonies, or Dave Merritt. Plagal Grind played there and the Dead C and The Terminals and Peter Jefferies solo, and Chris Heazlewood and Olla, and Stephen and Angelhead and me and maybe the last ever This Kind of Punishment.

I only knew the music was very good, not whether it was important or not. But Bruce probably had a good idea where it fitted in the “world" of music at that time and he just kept pushing the thing, without pay, for years.

DC: Talk to me about your project Handful of Dust. How is it different from your solo work, your work with The Rip & Plagal Grind?
AG: Way back in the days of The Rip, Bruce had a solo act involving intoned poetry and cassette manipulation and strangled detuned guitar and he called it Handful of Dust. After a few years he stopped doing it much, and then later he and I made Concord for Twisted Village. Bruce said “Let's make a record where we both play string instruments without plucking the strings, live onto a 2 track. Let’s not talk about what we're going to do. But whatever we do will be the record.” He had a shocking hangover, and at one point rushes off to vomit.

It was a magic I hadn't experienced so intensely before – communicating about the music through the music only, and letting the stuff come from the great nowhere. I've rarely had my eyes open during Handful of Dust, and the time just flies.
John Darnielle & Alastair Galbraith
@ The Middle East (Cambridge, MA) 1996
photo: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa
DC: How did you hook up with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats?
AG: He was on the same bill at a show I did in Pomona outside L.A. He played first and I wrote him a note of how the immediacy of his lyrics placed me. I played, he wrote notes, and we went to a barbecue at Dennis Callaci's house - scrubby land with prickly bushes; there were a few tiny foil windmills in the sand picking up the low desert winds, and we all kept passing a guitar around for hours. John Darnielle wrote a year later, suggesting we tour the States together, and we did in 1996 and had a really great time, mainly staying on people's floors and couches and one incredible mansion in Detroit. He was newly vegetarian and preaching maniacally and insisted we stop at a Buddhist temple and asked a monk to bless us, and we were given tiny Buddha amulets to wear around our necks!

After the East Coast shows we got to Chicago, and he and I and Bill Meyer flew to Texas and rented a car, and Bill was the driver. Craig, who runs Emperor Jones, met us and we rented a motel and I swam in the swimming pool and it felt like my only rock star photo moment. Stayed with Tom and Christina from Charalambides used a Butthole Surfer's megaphone in Austin!

We saw the Grand Canyon and communed with ravens there, perched above the oranges, reds and yellows of prehistoric time. I found a deer-antler toggle in the car-park there! It had 6 red triangular mountains etched in it and was very old, and years later I presented it to a Native American singer whose grandmother had just died after finishing his cloak.

We did another tour together in ‘98 which culminated in our shows at Terrastock in San Francisco. I got to play violin for Tom Rapp and Neutral Milk Hotel and the Lothars, and raised money from the crowd to buy a blow-up boat and go paddling in the bay outside the venue (which was non-smoking). I can't remember what year we made Orange Raja / Blood Royal which came out on Walt Records in New York.
Alastair Galbraith @ The Middle East (Cambridge, MA) 1998
photo: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa
DC: When did you become aware of the following that New Zealand music had in the States? What was your impression of America when you toured the States—what did you like or hate about America? What were your favorite places to play, and who were your favorite people to play with?
AG: I guess I realized there was American interest when Siltbreeze wanted to release Gaudylight. Then John Henderson of Feel Good All Over (a Chicago label) offered to release a kind of anthology covering the last few years called Seely Girn. He then got this idea of paying for me to go and tour the U.S with a reformed Young Marble Giants (this would have been around 1990 -1991), and he flew over to New Zealand to discuss the whole thing. He arrived on a cold Dunedin day, and we were having a show at my warehouse in Stafford St; I made him come out to Allan's Beach and help stuff bull kelp into the boot of my super minx. Then he had to help me hang it all over the warehouse. Anyway, Stuart Moxham and his wife had a baby so that tour never happened. But around a year later he paid for my ticket and Ajax Records paid for Peter Jefferies’ ticket for the first Xpressway U.S. tour, and Seely Girn finally came out.

My first impressions of America were of stupid amounts of wealth in central Chicago, buildings with domes literally plated with gold. My previous overseas experiences were in Europe mainly, and central Chicago made me think of a hundred great modern cathedrals sitting in each other's laps, built to worship money. The human atmosphere reflected this - the aptly named Division Street. With fresh kiwi eyes I saw lively all-ages street parties in poor black areas and utterly deserted rows of driveways in the rich white areas; they were so lonely to drive through compared to the east side, where men played chess and kids played games and old sofas were dragged outside and barbecues set up on the footpath.

I felt that my life was cheaper than in N.Z. Because I had no money I kept asking people annoying questions like “What is the name of the tribe indigenous to your city?” and “Why are there only 2 political parties?” “Why have you allowed this weird double standard of living -- those with insurance and jobs, and those without literally begging and diseased?” But of course NZ has drifted that way as well over the intervening years.

I loved playing in New York, just because it was New York and the Knitting Factory and there was a Bailter Space after-party on a rooftop, and Philadelphia with the incredible Strapping Fieldhands, drinking tons of whisky, and Maxwell’s In New Jersey, staying at Yo La Tengo’s house where the diabetic cat had to be shot up if he got too lethargic, and forming a band with Peter and Hamish Kilgour and Wayne and Kate Biggar.

In some ways much of it was a dream come true, but I was in personal turmoil. Ten days before I left New Zealand, I got kicked out of the warehouse I'd lived in for years and years; I had that long to find somewhere to move all my stuff and a place for my girlfriend to live while I was away. Also I'd not long found out that my birth-mother had terminal cancer. So I couldn't really celebrate normally, and the pressure of being filmed the entire time - not just while playing, but in the car - and eating at Wendy's and getting drunk - that was awful and made me cringe away a lot. I felt a lot of desolation on the interstates, staring into the chrome hub reflections of 18-wheelers.
Runner compilation
Next Best Way (cover art)Posted by Picasa
DC: I bought the Runner compilation from you when you played in Boston during the mid to late 1990's. Are you still doing your Next Best Way record label? Does the label have any over-arching goals or aesthetics?
AG: It was Runner that really ended the label. Apparently my packaging aesthetic was largely to blame. I had no idea that compilations in thin cardboard sleeves are normally giveaways in the States. And of course they don't fit anti-theft devices, so they get put in shoeboxes on or under the counter. Plus the artists' share was 30 per cent of the pressing. I had always planned that whatever money it returned was for the next release, but it never returned enough. Recently I've been summoning the courage to maybe take a small loan and start it again, make it a limited edition home-made CDR label, and do great weird packaging. I almost have the first release mixed - a new solo album (with actual songs!) untitled as yet.

DC: Are there any new artists or groups from New Zealand that we should keep on the lookout for?
AG: Since I became a parent I'm a bad person to ask (my son Ra is now 2!). I don't have the time or the discretionary income to see bands or buy CDs. Currently we are swamped with major label "kiwi" pop in this country. It's hyped so hard and often that it suffocates any news about real music that might otherwise have filtered down to me.
Cry (cover art)Posted by Picasa
DC: On most of your solo work you have chosen to work without a drummer. What led you to work with the drummer Constantine Karlis on your album Cry? Is that a drum machine on "One Method" (my favorite track of the disc) or simply just a reversed drum track?
AG: One method is reversed drum machine. I saw Dino (Constantine) drumming one night at Arc (for h.d.u.) and was spellbound - at one point I heard hoofbeats scattering tripping down a sheer face. There are movements in what he does, and they're moving as thought moves. I told him I'd loved it, and he said let's jam together. When I did finally get round there, he had just had a minor operation on his shoulder and had taken the option of purchasing video footage of the procedure. So we watched that first. The magnification was so intense that the surgeon's scalpel looked like a fat blunt knitting needle, which he kept irritating a miniscule rubber-band of tendon with, till it broke.

We agreed to record what we were about to do, and he set up his cassette deck, and then we just drifted in. Later - several months, maybe a year - he said he was leaving Dunedin, and we decided to do a live gig together, before h.d.u. It was really good, it spoke, but it never got recorded. So the next day - Sunday - we met at Arc with only one other person there cleaning, and recorded the album Radiant in one hit. He e-mailed recently, and we'll play together at the Lines of Flight part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival in October.

DC: Tell me about your collaboration with Matt De Gennaro.
AG: I met Matt De Gennaro in Detroit in ‘93 when he offered to arrange some pretty amazing accommodation for the night, and he did the same in ‘96, (thanks David Di Chiera), and I woke up to what I thought was the sound of great trains shunting - which was Matt, playing the building, by stroking tensioned wires in the attic. He showed me how to do it, and I loved the intense ballet-like physical interaction you can have with such a long instrument, and soon found harmonics and shrieks. In about 1997 he visited NZ, and I was still involved with the arts co-operative Everything Incorporated, and he and I did a show there playing wires down in the bomb-shelter basement and the chip shop gallery above, and he gave a slideshow lecture before. Much of that night became the Corpus Hermeticum album Wire Music.

In 1999 I organized a tour of public art galleries in New Zealand. We wanted to compare the sound of these spaces as instruments. I loved that tour; I kept thinking "we should tour India doing this" perhaps because it was freezing in the middle of winter. Perhaps because I thought the music had some primal, universal quality. We made some really wonderful rules for ourselves:

1. His performance had to be in darkness - total darkness if possible (this took away all the self-consciousness). No-one could read your face as you played, only the music itself.

2. We had a ten-minute smoke break interval halfway through.

DC: What is your current recording set-up like? What are your feelings about digital vs. analog? Or does that not matter anymore?
AG: My recording set-up is the same as it was almost 20 years ago: a Teac 4-track reel-to-reel, a Teac 8-channel desk, one lovely AKG C451, a PZM and several crappy but solid-sounding mikes. I master stuff digitally to a CD recorder, or sometimes my computer.

DC: Your songs are almost like poems. Why with your solo work are most of your songs so short?
I think just because that's all there is to say, without saying too much. So many thoughts and sense-impressions are quite fleeting; "inspiration" comes in poem chunks, which I choose not to fit together very often.

DC: The natural landscape seems to inspire a lot of your music. Tell me about some of your favorite natural places. Has development threatened or altered any of them?
AG: New Zealand has a very powerful vibe - a dark ancient gravity; some places have an unbearable feeling of sorrow and emptiness about them. Some of the beaches on our coastline take you to different worlds at sunset. It makes me wonder what has happened here - some pre-human tragedy? Development is slowly threatening most of the beautiful beaches; now huge mansions overlook as you explore the rock pools, or the rates [property taxes] in those areas go up and up till they drive all the non-rich out.
Alastair Galbraith @ The Middle East (Cambridge, MA) 1998
photo: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa
DC: What are your future plans? Are there artists or bands that you are currently working with?
AG: Table of the Elements is re-releasing my first 4 solo albums Morse/Gaudylight, Talisman, Mirrorwork and Cry. Two in July, two in December. And they recently put out From the Dark, (Long Wires in Dark Museums Volume 2).

Also I persuaded Craig Stewart of Emperor Jones to do one last CD for me: Waves and Particles by the Hundred Dollar Band, which was me and my partner Maxine Funke and Mike Dooley, playing mainly violin, cello and drums between 2001 and 2003. I’m so excited about that one; it somehow really rocks - and it's addictive.

Time Lag Records are putting out a collaborative album I did with Richard Youngs and Alex Neilsen sending tapes back and forth between Dunedin and Glasgow. It's on vinyl and the test pressing was gorgeous; Alex is such an atmospheric percussionist, and Richard's voice! Wow, so medieval. It’s called Belsayer Time.

Just a couple of live shows this year; me and Dino at Lines of Flight, hopefully with Max on bass, and a Handful of Dust show. Also I'll be a part of STRORK, the improvisational string orchestra led by Alan Starrett. All these are Fringe Festival gigs in late September early October - hope we can get all that babysitting!

Alastair Galbraith
Emperor Jones Records
Table of the Elements
Time-Lag Records