Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mitchell Feldstein Interview

Lungfish can be a tough band to describe. Their sound is so unique. It's useless to compare them to other bands, from any era of Rock. They seemed to exist in and create their own musical world, unconcerned with just about every aspect of the music industry save for documenting their songs on tape. Their instrumental approach started out simple, and over the years they whittled it down further. On each successive release, the playing grew more minimal. It often sounded as if the players were attempting to go deeper and deeper into each note played. It would be a challenge to find a single wasted note on any of their later releases. The instrumental interaction was characterized by a weave of slowly picked guitar arpeggio, dub-like bass runs, and pattern based drumming. Much as in the music of Minimalist composers, a shimmering sound arises as the sum of the constituent parts. Lungfish is great headphone music in that regard. Live, they were heavy, without being oppressive, and it was fun to watch singer/lyricist Daniel Higgs gesture and contort himself.
I often marvel at the work of drummer Mitchell Feldstein. His simple, uncluttered patterns always sound elegant to me. I love the way Mitchell plays, and have often wanted to see him interviewed. Punk Planet, in their great Lungfish article in 2000, seemed to have neglected Mitchell (see if you can find it for the great interviews with Asa and Daniel). I contacted Dischord Records, who graciously put me in contact with him. Following are questions emailed to Mitchell Feldstein in June of 2008. Enjoy.

Q: What were your early musical experiences? Did you play in bands (school band, high school garage band, etc.)?

Mitchell: I remember my parents always listening to music around the house. My mother played piano. In fact, she even wrote her high school class song. After trying to play guitar for a few years, I settled on drums after my parents heard me tapping along with a song on the radio and asked me if I wanted to play. I still remember listening to the radio, back in the days when AM ruled and the play list was varied, with top hits from Rock and Soul. Never played in the high school band or anything like that. I remember going to Canso's records in Philadelphia with my sister and buying 45 RPM records. I was so excited when two of the records we wanted were and A and B side of the same record [it was by] the Monkees. We jumped with joy when it dawned on us that we could buy another 45. I think our other choices were by the Beach Boys and the Supremes, and the maybe the Four Tops and the Doors. It may come as a surprise or maybe not but I came of musical age before Punk. I would say glitter or Glitter or Glam has as big an effect on me. First concert ever seen was David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars, 1972, Tower Theater, Upper Derby PA. Not a bad way to be introduced to live Rock-n-Roll. I also loved T Rex. Saw them twice.

Q:What bands did you like early on? Were there any drummers in particular that you enjoyed? How about other instrumentalists?

Mitchell: The Kinks were quickly settled on as my favorite band during junior high/high school(and they still are). I still remember the first time I heard a Lou Reed song. I was listening to the radio and heard a song which left me amazed. I would not leave the car until the DJ said who it was; the song was Lisa Says. I think the line about a tongue in an ear kinda piqued my interest. I remember a divide happening in high school when some folks liked Frank Zappa. I smiled and listened to Black Sabbath. Have to credit the late, great Lester Bangs with teaching me loads about music via Creem magazine. I used to jump with joy when the new Creem or Circus or Crawdaddy was available at Haveline Pharmacy, in suburban Philadelphia. The Kinks, the Velvet Underground (John Cale/Lou Reed), Neil Young, Roxy Music, Brian Eno-all early favorites that I still listen to. I think I was more into melody than drums per se. But of course, what young white boy who liked Rock-n-Roll didn't like Keith Moon. I got to see the Who twice with Keith: once playing Quadrophenia and once on the last "Greatest Hits" tour. Fucking mind-blowing. Also, I always liked Charlie Watts as a drummer, and later Levon Helm was a favorite. Music meant a lot to me from an early age and it still means a lot today. Having seen Bob Dylan in 2001, when he was still a guitar slinger, is one of my later musical highlights. It kinda reminded me of Buddy Holly. Lungfish performed Well Alright for several years live, and it was always a blast. As far as other instrumentalists: Lou Reed, Richard Thompson, Neil Young, Preston Long (guitar), and Brian Eno, to name a few.

Q: Did you get into Punk at it's outset? If so, what attracted you to it.? What was Punk like in Baltimore?

Mitchell: Did I get into Punk?!? I helped fucking invent it! I liked the fact that the music was seemingly so connected to an anti-style that anyone could choose as long as they wanted to. I saw the Dead Boys at CBGB's destroy the Damned. I am from Philadelphia so I'm not sure what was happening in Baltimore during the 1970s. I saw the Fall destroy the Buzzcocks, and in fact I think I saw the Fall's first U.S. show. [The] Philly band, Ruin [were] a great unknown band. Bauhaus on their first tour, what an amazing Philly. Dan Higgs saw them in Baltimore on the same tour and we often talk about how great they were. Minutemen, 9:30 Club in WDC (music doesn't get much better than this). I saw the Undertones open up for the Clash and well jeez I kinda thought they were better. Saw the first ever Stranglers U.S. show, man were they good! Several years later in D.C. they were even better. I still hope that Punk is a valid youth movement, and smile whenever I pass through a college campus and see the odd mohawk or punk outfit. I still listen, too.

Q: How about D.C. Hardcore? Did you go to those shows?

Mitchell: No, but I became pretty good friends with one of the guys who helped formulate it!

Q: Did you drum in Reptile House?

Mitchell: No. I saw Reptile House two or three times and they always blew my mind. SO FUCKING GOOD. I actually saw Lungfish in their first incarnation with another drummer, Gary, whose last name I can't spell. They were so good I cried, and told Asa if they ever needed a drummer, give me a holler.

Q: How did Lungfish start? Did everyone know each other, or did you place ads, etc.?

Mitchell: I was friends with Asa from another band we played in. So, when [Lungfish] needed another drummer, they asked me. Baltimore was kind of a small scene, so I knew Danny. Not so much, John. There weren't too many degrees of separation between any of us. When I moved to Baltimore in 1985 I met Joey, a cousin (and bass player in Reptile House) of Danny's, through a musician help wanted ad; this got me introduced to the Baltimore music scene, or at least a portion of it.

Q: Lungfish's rhythm and melodic structure are famously spare and minimal. Was this approach a deliberate decision on the band's part, or did the songs just come out that way without much deliberation? Were there any bands or styles of music that influenced this direction?

Mitchell: I think a lot of the melody is due to Asa and his finely tuned sense of minimal beauty and the power of electric music. Lungfish, to my mind, always did the best we could. [We] never coasted. [We] never sold the audience short, never made "joke" music. The fact that we all were always exploring music by listening to it added to our overall sound. As far as influences, well we each brought our own to the table, the studio, and the stage. I think we are all thankful for the different influences we brought and introduced each other to.

Q: When working on Lungfish music , did you jam/improvise, or were parts pretty much written out beforehand, and then worked up at practice time?

Mitchell: The songs for the most part were written as the result of playing together. There was one album, Sound In Time, I think, that was written largely by myself and Asa by playing together several times a week in his basement over the course of a few months. At some point the seeds were presented to Dan and Sean and the germination took root. I can kinda remember working out parts for the song Non-Dual Bliss, but mainly the songs came from practicing together often, regularly and intensely. Danny's lyrics often [put] the music in focus.

Q: Some of the songs on Lungfish records have a feel that suggests that they were improvised in the studio. Is this the case?

Mitchell: I would guess that 10-15% of our songs were studio creations.

Q: What are some of your favorite Lungfish songs? How about favorite recordings?

Mitchell: I like Shapes in Space a lot. Recording was generally a very rewarding experience. I like Creation Story, Mother Made Me, Jonah, You are the War, and loads more. Actually I enjoyed playing live more than recording. Not by much, but I have to admit I like being on the road seeing things, meeting people, and playing in front of people. Since most of the sessions were done with Don and Ian, either actively involved or there providing support, the sessions were always intense, fruitful and rewarding. Recording with Tim Green in SF was a great change of pace. Tim is a friend and a bad-ass.

Q: What kind of drums do you play? How about cymbals? Any particular favorite piece of hardware that made your sound?

Mitchell: I play Tama drums, Zildjian K cymbals, and recently bought a custom made Maryland drum, a 4.5" snare which is a really sweet drum. My Tamas are made in Japan and may be from 1982 or so. They are the second kit I ever owned. They are the Superstar model (birch shells). Whenever I thought about getting new drums I would play them and they sounded so good. My first kit was a Rogers kit I got when I was 16 or so and wish I had kept. Drum Workshop makes great, tour-worthy hardware, a great hi-hat stand. Actually, I am a big fan of clubs having backline kits, as long as they are top shelf and in tune.

Q: Lungfish is on hiatus. Are you currently playing music?

Mitchell: A couple of years ago I played with Arboureteum for a bit and recorded five or six songs, several of which have been released. Otherwise, not to be obtuse, but I am always playing music, and I believe you have not heard the end of me yet!

Q: Is there any music happening currently that you find amazing?

Mitchell: No Age, Bats for Lashes, M.I.A., Battles, Jeff Parker, Chicago Underground, Tojiko Noriko, Cloudded, Sawako, Banned Books, Itoken, Califone, Takes by Trees, Malcolm Middleton, Sunset Rubdown, name more than just a few. Also, I have been listening to loads of contemporary music, such as Roger Reynolds, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Johnathan Harvery, Brian Ferneyhough, and Charles Wuorinen. Over the past ten years I have also begun to see the beauty in Jazz, thanks to Miles Davis, who has lead me to Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, Mccoy Tyner, and Bill Evans. If push came to shove, I might consider John Cale the overriding genius (if that term means anything) of modern music. All time favorites that I still listen to: the Kinks (1964-1974), the Velvet Underground, the Fall, Neil Young, Brian Eno, Boy Dylan, Richard Thompson. I you haven't noticed I tend to take things literally. Thanks for asking..................................

Post Script: thanks to Mitchell for doing the interview, and to Alec at Dischord for putting me in contact with Mitchell.


Anonymous said...

what a great interview! great to get some insight into the workings of one of my all time favorite bands. thanks.

Sirk Yiller said...

Loved reading this. Thanks for it!