After years of corresponding with Brian, it was neat to finally do an interview with him, for a brief MAGNET feature where I wasn't able to squeeze too much in; you can find my piece in the April 2013 issue.
What does the title "All My Relations" refer to?
Hey Ray, here we go!
"All my Relations" is a Native American phrase basically meaning "all my relatives" but also meaning "we are all one" as in we are all connected. I’ve taken part in a few sweat lodges and the phrase was always said by the leader at the beginning of the ceremony. I perceived it to mean he is inviting in his past relatives, or inviting us in to participate. I think for me it has two reasons to be the title; one, i felt like this was a diverse Black Pus album(though some may think it's not very diverse) and I wanted to bind the diversity into one record by giving it an inclusive name. I invited all the songs into the same ceremony together. And also, as the songs were divergent forces coming together so too is the world at this point, so it was a shout out to the state of the world, a diverse group of people who are connected and need to be reminded of their positive connections as much as possible. So the album title was talking inward toward the record and outward toward everyone it comes into contact with whether they listen to it or not.
You've done a bunch of self releases. How'd you get hooked up with Thrill Jockey?
I came to Thrill Jockey because I was looking for a label to put out this higher budget record. This was recorded in a studio(Machines with Magnets in RI, Keith Souza and Seth Manchester) and cost more than all my home recorded ones combined, so i wanted to get some help on the bill and i wanted to get what i thought was a solid good quality record out to as many people as i could. I love the self releasing because it's casual and there are no expectations and no deadlines, but I get tired of throwing music into the void and not ever hearing it bounce off a whole lot out there. I mean, I am lucky enough to always get responses to what i release but i want more. I want responses from the people i can't target with my own resources. So I asked some friends about different labels and came to the conclusion that Thrill Jockey might be the best fit and they were gracious enough to release the record for me. And so far I am really happy to be working with them. Also I have worked with very few labels and it seemed fun to try out something new. New label, new studio, new mastering engineer(Heba Kadry at The Lodge in NYC). Newness abounds.
Up to now, based on the responses you've received from people and via reviews and sales/download, which Black Pus album is the most lauded? What is it about that album, in your opinion, that stands out?
I think the best response I have gotten so far is for Pus Mortem, 2012’s Bandcamp release. It’s hard to gauge monetarily because they are all on different systems, the CDR’s have expenses because I buy the blank media and for Black Pus 0 and 4 I got them mastered which was a big expense. Load spent money on Primordial for mastering and to put it on vinyl and CD, so Pus Mortem was cheap as hell in comparison(the price of a few blank cassettes) and instantaneous and very easy for people to have the opportunity to listen to. Maybe that is why it got the most attention. By that I mean a handful of blog reviews and people cheering it on on Facebook and that sort of thing. Primordial seemed to be generally ignored. Too dirty, too sludgy maybe? I don’t know. I really like it. Maybe my recording techniques tightened up for Pus Mortem as well so it makes it a little gentler of a listen. My personal favorite might be Black Pus 3. I think it’s the least commercial in a way, the most “out there”. I did an experiment on that record where I would record a simple song, 4 chords, a straight beat, and then start layering more abstract stuff over it, more drums that played with or around the initial straight stuff, then I subtracted out the original straight layers leaving just the abstract. So it had a whisper down the lane effect. HuckDoll Finn was done that way. Black Pus 3 is intentionally scattered and abrasive, and I like that it stays in that mode pretty well. Black Pus 4 might also be one people continue to talk about, the pop one. I like it, to some extent, but it’s a bit high school sounding. Thin, light. Lofi in some bad ways, not raw but, weak? But it’s got some pretty catchy songs, simple songs I’m proud of and really like, and I think the catchiness has won over some fans. There are a lot of ideas I could follow up all over that record, ideas that could benefit from some higher fi recording techniques.
Tell me about the first time you recorded as Black Pus: when it happened and what it was like, the sense that you were onto something.
I’ve been playing by myself from the beginning of my drumming career in 1989. I’ve always liked to play alone. In high school I had a guitar I played as well, a nice Les Paul Sunburst(long since sold in one of my many broke periods) and I recorded songs on my 4 track as a whole band just myself. A practice I continued into college when I was in a few bands and I would self record songs and offer them up to be played. So I have been doing it for over 20 years. But when Lightning Bolt kicked in in ‘94 I got away from the solo recordings for the most part, there are a couple mid/late 90’s cassettes I put out under the name “Glemun” which no one has heard but for the most part I was focused on the band, and capturing the band and just playing live music. But the band works at it’s own pace and I play all the time, so the extra energy and ideas needed to find a home. I think it was maybe 2003 or 4 that I started to incorporate an oscillator into(actually onto) my set up that was triggered by the bass drum, it’s featured some on Hypermagic Mountain. Suddenly my solo practices began sounding like a realized thing, a very minimal band, so I started playing shows. The first CDR, Black Pus 1 was done as a challenge to create a “fake band” in late 2005. It was recorded in a couple days and quickly thrown on a CDR. And I think it holds up. It’s raw. I love making small things like a CDR or a zine or minicomic, something you have on you that you can give away. It’s harder and harder for me to keep this small thing practice up, I have been working on longer works as a comic artist or releasing online, but when I can get a handmade item together it’s a feeling of sharing like no other.
Talk to me a bit about the All My Relations cover art. Your releases have always had distinctively idiosyncratic covers, cryptic and earthy and whimsical and implicitly infinite notionally, sometimes all at the same time: there is always something arresting about them, with strong symbolism and burnt Fantagraphix overtones that complement the music. I feel like the new cover is in your lane but comes from a slightly different place. It's almost as though you painted canvas of day-glo colors, then layered a foil skein of impossible contradictions, then scratched through that top layer very painstakingly, and in the end it's hard to say where one image starts and the other ends.
I have always tried to move my art images forward at a similar pace as my music. So when it’s time to release a record, the small evolution in musical style can be matched by a small evolution in graphic style for the cover art. This new cover is part of something I have been working towards the last couple years in my fine art(which I conceptually separate from my narrative comic book art) which is to eradicate any overt story. Where I was for very long trying to have literal narrative in all my visual work, now my goal is to boil the narrative down, or dissolve it, so that what remains is suggestion versus announcement. This works to let the viewer take more control of “the meaning” of an image versus me ramming meaning down their throats. So yes, the cover is a shift away from past stuff though obviously connected, but I think the shift is a serious one.
It's interesting to hear you talk about sonic experimentation, because the most exciting aspects of Relations are where you're shoving techniques into new realms. "Word on the Street" is a good example; there's a madness and unevenness to it, a unhinged wobble to everything, and at some point it stops being a song in the sense that the listener can mentally erect fence posts and reason as to what was played and what's the product of loops, dubbing, other audio trickery. "Fly on the Wall" is like that too, only with your vocals multiplied to psychosis; "Hear No Evil" runs even further a field. The effect, to me, is that somehow this sense of unreality shifts Black Pus away a bit from the corporeal world with which it was once easier to associate the project - the hail of drum hits like billions of dying stars, the teeth-grinding riffs - and towards something...else. I'm still working out how to classify that something, but I enjoy it. Am I making sense? It's hard to quantify because your songs are getting weirder even as your melodies are getting stickier, but you're moving into a new place.
What’s interesting is that this record is still a fairly live experience. Word on the Street has zero overdubs and was just a live improvisational jam. It’s completely played live. There is a little bit of mixing work, an effect here and there to pull something back in that was trying to get away like a loop getting way too far off, or a few measures edited out that might make a change sound abrupt, but the song was played live. Which means drums and an oscillator triggered by the bass drum run through various effects but still maintaining a fairly droney signature. Vocals looped(no pre recorded stuff, no memory card just resung into the loop pedal for each perfomance) and then vocals sung overtop some more. It’s the base for all the songs. Every song save “All Out of Sorts” and “Nowhere to Run” are basically played live with maybe some redo on the vocals or oscillator. Occasionally, like on Fly on the Wall, I think we did some overdubs and left pieces of the old takes either out of laziness or for effect. Letting some loose ends linger. So there is a little bit of layering going on. I think what makes this feel like a different BP experience is that everything you have ever heard previously was recorded on a cassette tape and that gives it a very specific character. A campfire, dirt tunnel, squished squirrel character. Just lofi, warm, limited. Cassette puts everything on a very level playing field and maybe it takes the some of the edge of the sounds, fuzzes it out. This new Black Pus is Black Pus Colder Unlimited. Perhaps it’s capturing that details better and the details might have been weirder than we thought. Though I guess this recording is no more or less real a portrait than the other recordings. Specifically for Word On The Street I think I start speeding up the beat somewhere in the middle, which is something I tend to do, that probably explains some of its odd wobble.
I still remember the first time I heard Black Pus I. It blew me away. It was like being hit in the face with flying gravel. I've liked everything since - particularly Black Pus II - but I feel as though Pus Mortem and All My Relations are the first time since those early blasts that you're really killing it, really claiming something.
Black Pus II is so mean. I miss that stuff. Black Pus 0-4 are all layering, not live songs, instead just playing a beat by itself and making up shit to put over top. So it’s wide open, and I am more like 3 or 4 people approaching each song using drums, voice, sax, keyboards and oscillator. It’s very much from a different mind than what I am doing now. Since Primordial Pus it’s all been basically songs I can play live. So it’s very limited, just me, 1 person using a drumset, vocals, and an oscillator mainly manipulating them live. There was a switch in process when I started playing live shows, it should maybe be two different bands. It almost was. I was going to rename the live project to separate it from the recording project but I didn’t and now here I am. Primordial Pus was the first live album and it has some pretty old recordings on it, pretty base stuff. But as I go I am learning more about what I can do or need to do to make the live project fully fleshed out and interesting. But I do want to go back and make some crude noisey as hell not live at all recordings like the first batch of CD’s. It’s liberating. Two songs, “All out of Sorts” and “Nowhere to Run” on All My Relations are more of that old process, me jamming over beats without a preconceived live song in mind. But I was still limiting my instruments to the voice and oscillator.
Can you tell me about the genesis of "A Better Man"?
“A Better Man” is another song that was from my live show. I’m not sure where it came from, just another jam, the lyrics were kind of a late addition in the studio, that’s how I do lyrics, I’ll sing sounds that I find emotive live and then try to tighten it up in the studio lyrically. And then generally go back to sound based vocals for live shows again. But I like lyrics, I just can’t remember them all. And drum. And turn pedals on an off, flip loops and all that. Too much. Better Man lyrically is about competing with your fellow humans, and that you will always lose really. Someone will always come along who is better at everything. Better looking, healthier, faster, smarter. So in a way it’s a hate letter to the perfect man, or a hate letter to myself for not striving to be the perfect man. Either or. Or maybe a note to ones self to accept some of your natural weaknesses and get on with it anyway. But really A Better Man is a simple song that acts as a launch pad to get to the second half where it breaks down and spreads out musically. I love stomping on the bass drum at a leisurely pace and just rolling where ever I want on the toms and snare. It’s like taking a walk but letting your thoughts rage. Upper body lower body.
Who engineered Relations, and where did you record?
“Machine with Magnets” in Pawtucket Rhode Island. Keith Souza and Seth Manchester. Really great guys to work with. Their most well known work is probably the last two Battles records, and then the The Body LPs, Skull Defekts, a lot of other stuff. It’s a great place. They also have a show space, a gallery space and now a bar in there. Overachievers. The nicest guys and real smooth on the Pro Tools, or tape if that’s your preference.
I think the most surprising - and subtle, also - songs that I've heard from you recently is "Play God" from Pus Mortem, which reminded me a bit of Chic and Yello rhythmically while streaming this threshed-to-haunting vocal malfeasance over head. It was just very spare and direct, in its way. How did that song come together?
“Play God” was just another lucky break. That recording on Pus Mortem is the first time I ever played that song, it’s an improvisation that I limited to a song structure in the moment. When I practice I generally record a vocal loop and then jam on it for a while, trying different beats and structures. I just arrived at that beat and mumble vocal one day during a jam and it all came together. In Lightning Bolt and Black Pus I am very conscious of being recorded because I have recorded every practice since 1994. So I tend to improvise and jam in song length spurts for part of the night. Giving me lots of little recorded songs that are basically all finished in a rudimentary manner. Then for a chunk of the night’s session I let loose and try to turn off the song preconceptions and be ugly and wrong and long and boring or whatever. But I have a lot of random songs recorded that feel fairly complete just as a result of my approach to jamming.
You have a very intense percussive style, a heavy touring and practice/recording schedule. Do you have any chronic pain or trouble with injuries as a result of this? If you do experience that sort of thing, is it something you work around or become accustomed to?
I think my body is doing ok. Funny just the other night while practicing my wrist started to hurt and I was like, uh oh, here we go, it’s finally caught up with me. But I think I just banged it on something because now it’s fine. I popped some ribs out of place on a tour 2 years ago and missed one show because of it and was in some pain, but a chiropractor/masseuse in Portland Oregon cracked me back in shape. I try to be careful, I stretch and do some exercises after I practice when I can to be well rounded in what parts of the body are getting used. I’ve always been athletic but I am almost at the year 40 mark and everyone wears down eventually. We’ll see what happens. I may have to make some adjustments as I go, and maybe I already have it’s hard to tell. The elevator in my building has been broken for almost 2 years so now whenever I play a show I carry the 650 lbs of equipment for Black Pus up and down 3 very long flights of stairs. But I kind of like it. Kind of. My lower back hurts in the morning. I need a real mattress, this “found in a college dumpster” futon we have has long since lost it’s integrity.
Do you ever look back at everything you've accomplished musically and artistically and just find yourself agape at all of it? Do you find a sort of pride in what’s come before, overall, or is it more like "yeah, that's what I've done but I've got miles to go before I sleep"?
I’m proud of my output thus far. But I feel like a kid still figuring out how to steer the ship. I love what Lightning Bolt has done as a live band, but I think we are still searching for the perfect recorded capture of it. Black Pus grows each day and I also feel like it’s definitive record is still in it’s future. I look misty eyed back at my old Fort Thunder days, at how mentally and physically liberated we were back then. But with everything I have behind me I would never go back, I’m all about going forward. I hate to go to bed at night because I can’t ever get everything that needs to be finished done each day. I’ll go to my grave trying to catch up to and complete various ideas and schemes. So, “yeah, that's what I've done but I've got miles, like a planets worth, to go before I sleep"
What artists (musical, visual, whatever) and albums, new or old, are fueling you right now in terms of inspiration?
I’m really into Die Antwoord. I only recently discovered them. I really enjoyed the last Black Dice, Mr. Impossible. The last few year I’ve been listening to a lot of the new “world music” wave of vinyl, like Sublime Frequencies LP’s by Group Inerane or Doueh, Omar Souleyman or Sahel Sounds releases like Takamba or Music from Saharan Cellphones. I’m loving the immediacy of it most of it, the rawness of the recording styles and the fluidity of the playing. It’s an ocean of inspiration. I’ve listened a lot to Vybz Kartel’s Kingston Story this past year too, Dre Skull the producer is an old friend and he gave me a copy and it blew me away. Maybe because of my naivete of the genre, but whatever it is the album is just really smooth and sweet sounding. Good to listen to before you practice drumming.
When you play live these days, are you generally improvising, or playing specific songs or versions of songs?
It completely depends on the season. I just played a show here in Providence (I’m answering this in January) and it was maybe 70 percent improvised, very non linear wandering jam. That’s just where my head is at. Lost in Space. But when I do a month tour of the states this spring it will tighten up into a song framework with some open sections to improvise. I like to get strong at a specific live set and play songs to people on tour. Like drawing the same picture over and over and seeing how it fluctuates day by day but retains the same basic shape. Generally that song mindset is usually just for tour. In my practice space on any normal day, with both Black Pus and Lightning Bolt, I(we) tend to make new stuff up and try to move forward, or document the shifts of any of given day, not be held down by yesterday’s thought. “Private jammers, Public singer-songwriters”?