Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Forse-Harmony; Dischi Amici Records, 2020


So this last summer, Mrs. Amnesiac and myself painted our garage. Naturally, I wanted to listen to music during this process. We chose a lot of CDs by guys and girls strumming acoustic guitars for ballad types of forms, and these mellower types of vibes really fit into the process, along with enhancing the desired mood. Over the course of several of these painting sessions, Disaster Amnesiac was reminded how cool the simple, stripped down approach to music can be. 

This reminder primed me for Harmony, the 2020 release from Forse. The 13 tracks that make up this digital/cassette release are all written and performed by this one guy. He seems to be coming from the Jonathan Richman school of naive, self contained song writing. This is not to say that Harmony's songs are simple jacks of Richman or any other, for they are not. His singing style is sweetly naif as it invites the listener to sing along about issues such as finding employment in I'm Looking For a Job and simply being content in Alright, Sincerely. Listeners with children will find a great family singalong in Put Your Finger Everywhere (think boogers...ear wax...), and the star obsessed, within the global musical underground, will love Henry Flynt and Moe!/Salaryman. Disaster Amnesiac hopes that the latter is about Oakland based drummer/composer Moe! Staiano, that's for sure. 

Harmony's musical sparseness is astute. Forse generally keeps things pretty simple, with cleanly strummed guitar lines or simple keyboard progressions providing the musical backdrop of the songs. This simplicity makes for an inviting vibe throughout. The instrumental - provides a fine example of what Disaster Amnesiac is talking about here, as does opening track She's Afraid Of the Dark and penultimate piece Something You Have To Change. He's not afraid to use tastefully placed overdubs and multi-tracking on many of the pieces on Harmony, though, and these give the album a band-produced feel. I actually had to send Dischi Amici label head Vasco an email to clarify that Forse is indeed one person! Said simplicity makes for a fun, hassle-free listening experience. You'll surely find yourself singing along as meanwhile these riffs will be sticking to your perception like paste onto paper. 

With Harmony, Forse has crafted a very catchy, user friendly album of very enjoyable Loner Pop.  Cop it, press play, and prepare for some smiles, no matter what you may be doing or undoing.




Sunday, October 18, 2020

Grex Interview!


SF Bay Area duo Grex's new album, Everything You Said Was Wrong, has made its way into Disaster Amnesiac's listening rotation, and I'm very glad for it. As I've heard the 16 tracks of this great release, I've often had thoughts about Fusion. Mind you, it's not a Fusion of the 1970's variety. In terms of said style for Grex, I have to say that it feels to Disaster Amnesiac that they are working on more of a 21st Century Fusion. The tracks within Everything You Said Was Wrong show thoughtful, crafty blending of elements that shape music currently, at least as far as I can perceive it. Hip Hop, Jazz, Free Improvisation, the various strains of Dub, Heavy Rock: all of these and more rise to the surface. That said, it's a delight, the way that keyboard player/vocalist Rei Scampavia and guitarist/vocalist Karl Evangelista, aided on the LP by percussionists Nava Dunkelman and Robert Lopez, mix these various elements into a sound that is very much their own. It's easy to hear and feel their unique band voice. Surely, that's not an insignificant achievement within the music industry, and Grex should be acknowledged and rewarded for this. In Disaster Amnesiac's view, there are tunes on Everything that could and should be hit singles. The musical craft and intelligence shown on tunes such as Beepocalypse, Husk, Gone, and Goodnight would seem so refreshing on my Youtube feed of current industry offerings, if for no other reason save the knowledge that there's music like this out there. Then you have the gorgeous Satie-like craft of Walking Ayler in Tarzana and the spooky Trip Hop of Boo Ghost or Margot Tenenbaum providing lateral moves into more abstract zones, by turns cerebral and concrete. The way that it all hangs together, all the while within a clearly defined band voice, man, I like it. A lot. As such, Disaster Amnesiac wanted to reach out to Grex, ask some questions, and get the skinny on this fine release from the minds of its creators. Hopefully its title does not refer to things said inside of their musical world, because they are doing just about everything right therein. 

For people who aren't familiar with Grex, please give a bit of background. What are Grex's origins?

Karl: Grex is an Oakland, CA-based art rock/experimental duo comprised of me, Karl A.D. Evangelista, on guitar, vocals, etc. and Margaret Rei Scampavia on keys, vocals, etc. Drummer/percussionist Robert Lopez sometimes joins.


Grex was formed in 2009 at Mills College. I had been studying under (the great) Fred Frith and Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder Roscoe Mitchell, both whom of emphasized the importance of rigorous practice and personal discipline. Rei and I formed Grex as a kind of amateurish escape - a way of rediscovering the joy of the creative process away from external pressures.


In biological terms, a "grex" is an entity - a slime mold - composed of several smaller organisms. Rei selected the name. We thought it appropriate for this project, which was always intended to be a converge of disciplines, genres, and interest.

Grex songs are very unique. I am curious as to what your song writing processes are. Do you have multiple methods of song development? What goes into the act of crafting a Grex song? 

Karl: Thanks so much for saying so!


Our creative process has has gone through a series of very significant changes over the course of our time together. At first, Rei and I co-composed in a very literal sense, writing lyrics in alternating couplets and assembling harmonic structures one chord at a time. These days, one of us will write either most or all of a song independently, applying finishing touches in rehearsal.


The one significant (practical) change you may detect on Everything You Said Was Wrong is the dominance of samples and electronic sounds. Every sample on the record was first “performed” in real time (i.e., nothing was programmed in the pedantic sense, and we refrained from using quantization), and a lot of the record was written using drum and percussion elements, rather than guitar or keyboard parts, as a base. 


As I've listened to Everything You Said Was Wrong, I've marveled at the lyrics. Karl's seem to be from a declaratory place, while Rei's seem more like Symbolist poetry at times. Please describe some of the influences or aspirations in your lyrics. 

Karl: Grex has traditionally traded in surrealism and lyrical abstraction, and Rei’s lyrics in particular  (on “Beepocalypse” and “Feather Chaser”) continue this practice. Even the songs that I (Karl) wrote for Rei’s voice - like “The Other Mouses” and “Ikki” - are meant to sound evasive and, well, lyrical. We borrow liberally from a tradition of poetic irony that encompasses both classic psychedelic rock (including Pete Brown, who was Jack Bruce’s lyricist) and more contemporary songwriters like Fiona Apple, St. Vincent, and Mitski.


Karl’s leads are a new element, and they’re the end result of a long process of navigating the balance between aggressive abstraction and political grousing. At this time in history, it feels necessary to speak directly and explicitly to social concerns, even if your language is itself kind of elliptical and stream-of-consciousness. The male verses are hip-hop (n the plainest sense), and we take our cues from the likes of MF Doom, Death Grips, Quelle Chris, Moor Mother, and Odd Future.


Also regarding lyrics, I get a sense that you're both pretty literate. Some of the lyrics give me an almost Cyberpunk feeling. Are either of you Sci-Fi fans?

Karl: Yes, absolutely. Rei has a pretty long history with creative writing. As a tandem, we’re sort of science fantasy-type people (e.g., Star Wars or Dune), but Rei is very well-versed in more traditionalist or “hard” sci-fi - Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, etc. We’re also big into magical realist literature, which is, I guess, a kind of second cousin to sci-fi - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Junot Diaz, and so on.  

Musically, Grex are both pretty obviously VERY adept with your instruments. Karl, I hear lots of Jazz and Improvisational influences in your guitar (Sharrock, Abercrombie, Frisell). Assuming this is the case, what are some other strands of music that you pull from? What is your general set up for realizing Grex music?

Karl: Wildly kind of you to say, and we thank you.


Your list of guitar influences is pretty dead-on - Sharrock is the dominant thread, but I also took a lot of direct influence from Mr. Frith, paradigmatic free improvisers like Derek Bailey, Henry Kaiser, and (sort of) Ray Russell, straight-ahead jazz players like Grant Green and Joe Pass, and, of course, Hendrix. Among newer players, I love Mary Halvorson, LIberty Ellman, Ava Mendoza, and my good friend Will Northlich-Redmond. I also, admittedly, tend to listen to sax players more intently than guitarists - the canonical free jazz guys (Ayler, Ornette, Coltrane and Pharoah, Dudu Pukwana, Roscoe, etc.) first and foremost.


I have used the same basic set up for years - a Gibson Les Paul Classic, a ZT Club (which is appropriate for small settings but can project in large rooms), and some combination of 60s fuzz tone, a Digitech Whammy, a DL4 Delay Modeler, and whatever volume pedal isn’t broken. 


Rei, you move from Baroque sounds to Sun Ra interplanetary blasts on the album. Where are you getting all of this? What's your set up for Grex music?

Rei: That’s a very astute observation.  My earliest exposure to music was very structured and mainly classical, from Bach to Beethoven.  Growing up, I listened to a lot of late nineties/early aughts pop and rock, plus “classic” rock (Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Fiona Apple, Portishead, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, etc.).  In college, my exposure to and taste in music started to broaden especially after meeting Karl.  For Grex, I try to model myself after the likes of Horace Tapscott, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra, but I also end up borrowing just as much from groups like Deerhoof, the Unicorns, and Sonic Youth.


A couple years ago I made the liberating switch from an 88-key, weighted keyboard to a synth (a Rolland V-Combo) and a small Casio, and I couldn’t be happier.  I use a distortion and a delay pedal for the synth.


This question is kind of addendum to the previous. I just wanted to ask you both about your personal musical growth. Please describe your development if you'd like to do so.


Karl: I started on guitar at 12 - which I now recognize is somewhat late - and developed an early focus on blues and rock guitar. I got into jazz around the same time, and this helped to focus my energies on improvisation as a kind of non-specific practice (i.e., I’ve long been interested in the idea of making non-prepared, or non-precomposed music, whether that entails absolute abstraction or focused study of chord progressions, culturally-coded musical traditions like kulintang or gamelan, and so on).


If there’s any lasting merit to my musicianship, I’d like to think that it comes from my unflagging commitment to regular practice. This is something that I really learned from Fred and Roscoe - that music is not just a creative discipline or even a job, but also a kind of psycho-physical craft that needs to be maintained and honed. To my benefit and detriment, I like to think of music as both an ongoing challenge and an opportunity to exercise purpose.


Rei: My earliest exposure to music was singing in church (I went on to play flute in the choir when I was older), and classical piano training.  I played flute in elementary school as well, it probably sounded atrocious, and part of middle school before switching to tenor saxophone.  In high school, I played both piano and tenor sax in various jazz combos through school.  Around middle school, I had a rebellious streak and started listening to more subversive, but still relatively mainstream, music.  At Mills I was primarily a biology major, but I still participated in the music department.  Some of my biggest influences were Daniel Schmidt, who taught gamelan (an Indonesian gong orchestra), and Maggie Payne’s electronic music class.  Post-college, I would say that Karl has really shaped a lot of the progression in my taste in music, as well as my playing, since the majority of the music I play is either in Grex or other projects Karl is working on.

Who programs the beats for Grex?

Karl: I do - though none of the beats are programmed per se. I tend to pull samples from all manner of places - wildly obscure free jazz and soul records, old personal recording sessions, household objects - and use a SPD-SX sample pad as a kind of surrogate kit. All of the beats on Everything You Said Was Wrong were performed first - as in I played them live, through a PA, with sticks - and later looped.


The beat for “Blood,” for example, is actually a takeoff on a pattern that Milford Graves showed us (a 6/8 rhythm that is meant to be slightly asymmetrical, mirroring a heartbeat). It’s kind of impossible to quantize or pre-program this stuff, as the human element is so essential to the sound of it - so we’re more or less looping performances rather than regimented beats, if that makes sense. 


You have two great drummers, Nava Dunkelman and Robert Lopez on Everything You Said Was Wrong. Please give some descriptions of what it's like to collaborate with them.


Karl: To start, Nava and Robert are two of our favorite people. Robert has played some five or six tours with us at this point, and he was a regular part of the band from roughly 2012-2015. Karl has been playing with Nava in improvised settings for years, though her addition to Grex as a live and studio entity is relatively recent. It goes without saying, but both Robert and Nava are exceptionally easy to be around, which is an underrated plus when it comes to the sometimes tense and fatiguing world of tour or pressurized performance.


The main thing about including a live percussionist in Grex is that this music is meant to come out of free jazz, whether or not the resulting sound reflects those intentions. There are some energies you just can’t access without having a third musician reacting to the music in real time.

Where was the album recorded, and who engineered it?

Karl: The album was recorded and engineered by Myles Boisen at his studio. Virtually everything was performed live and edited appropriately. We’re pretty hardcore about using live basic tracks as a base for studio recordings, and so every single beat on the album was performed/looped at home and played back in real time at Myles’s studio. This is, I think, an inversion of normal electronic music procedures, and it made for a really fun, but profoundly bizarre, mixing process - some beats were manually re-performed and/or re-programmed after the fact. 


Is the Ayler you mention a dog?


Karl: Yes! Ayler was (and is) our family’s dog for many years - a Belgian Malinois mix. The song “Walking Ayler in Tarzana” commemorates our time spent with him in the San Fernando Valley, taking midnight strolls through the suburban sprawl. Our memories of Ayler remain some of the fondest we can claim from our decade+ time as Grex. 


Any closing thoughts you'd like to impart?


Karl: Everything You Said Was Wrong was written to reflect the reality of living and making art in the Oakland of 2020. It’s both an ode to the embattled Bay Area arts community and a very overt criticism of the dominance of oligarchical, often fascistic politics both in America and elsewhere.


My (Karl’s) Aunt, Miriam Defensor Santiago, was a lifelong crusader for progressive politics in the Philippines. She passed away not long after running against current President Rodrigo Duterte, whose bloodthirsty anti-crime campaign has undermined both the Filipino constitution and the ethical responsibility of our country’s highest office. I feel that it is my duty (as both a Filipino and an American) to speak to these issues, continuing my Aunt’s battle for justice in new and specifically effective ways (re: the song “Criminal”).


Finally, I’d like to stress that at a time of exceptional instability for working artists and peril for marginalized peoples everywhere, it feels irresponsible to “just” make music for the sake of turning profit. All proceeds from this record are being directed to our friend and hero, innovative drummer and educator Milford Graves, and the likes of the ACLU and Black Organizing Project in Oakland.


Photo Credit: Lenny Gonzalez 





Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Goodbye Edward Van Halen


As Disaster Amnesiac pondered writing an obit for Edward Van Halen, I pondered what it must have been like to do the same for, say, Gene Krupa in 1973. How does one communicate the timelessness of the music of a person that has become an iconic figure to a more seasoned generation and probably just a "name" to those that are younger? Does this even matter? As I've reflected on the music that seemed so important to so many, I have to admit that I've also reflected on the passing of time, and the fact that Van Halen's cultural relevance is so far removed in time. Thanks to Classic Rock radio formatting, it's very much an Establishment thing, but, again, Culturally, it strikes me as being of a period that is rapidly fading off into the distant past. Is this thought callous in light of his untimely passing?

All that being said, man, Edward Van Halen's guitar playing sure did have its effect on the culture of its time. He took the Guitar Hero model and exploded it, revamped it in his own image, and held that ground for a good ten years or so. Disaster Amnesiac can definitely recall being blown away on first hearings of Eruption, with its wild, pyrotechnic virtuosity. For a Rock fan, that solo virtuosity was key, of course, but let's not forget those riffs! Mean Streets, And the Cradle Will Rock, Dance the Night Away, Jump, Light Up the Sky, Atomic Punk.....just on and on. Edward Van Halen could conjure 'em up. The fact that he had such a swinging rhythm section behind him didn't hurt, but you've got to figure that it was his genius that provided the initial sparks for them. For that, he was awarded icon status by a huge chunk of the masses, and deservedly so. He had that magic touch on his axe and a persona that people adored to go along with those vast musical talents. The man had a gift, and his fans, Disaster Amnesiac among them, are grateful that he had a chance to share it with them. 

Goodbye Edward Van Halen, your run was epic!