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Aug062007

JEREMY STRACHAN (solo/FEUERMUSIK) - July 30/07

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In a relatively short period of time, the 28-year-old Jeremy Strachan has amassed a C.V. of impressive proportions. Initially the bassist for three releases with influential local art-punk trio Rockets Red Glare, Strachan went on to play in Sea Snakes, a gorgeous tapestry of indie-balladry. Along the way, he lent his saxophone talents to recordings and live shows by (deep breath) The Constantines, Fembots, Deadly Snakes, Nathan Lawr, Jon-Rae and the River, I Am Robot and Proud, and (exhale) we're just getting started.

Not impressed yet? Well, his membership in the 13-member chamber pop instrumentalist group the Hylozoists might sway your opinion a bit more. He even recently tackled John Coltrane's infamously impenetrable 40-minute piece Ascension with a live band at Toronto's Tranzac in July (listen to it and tell me you would try it...). However, what's truly gonna stop you dead in your tracks are his two most recent projects.

In 2004, he and former RRG drummer Gus Weinkauf formed the duo Feuermusik and, in 2006, released Goodbye, Lucille. One of last year's best Canuck albums, it is an album of songs played on woodwinds and buckets and it is no novelty. Check it out.

Finally, this year saw the release of The Heart Of The Matter, a collection of solo saxophone and bass clarinet pieces inspired by Toronto artist Katie Bond Pretti. It is this record's ability to adapt Pretti's Twombly-esque works into aural sketches that solidifies Strachan's position as one of our city's unsung MVPs. Oh, did we mention that he has a U of T degree in classical guitar and is working on his MA in ethnomusicology at Memorial University in St. John's? It's OK to feel small now.

Soundscapes' John Crossingham gets the word on Heart's genesis, the no man's land of improvisation, his renewed appreciation for Toronto talent, and just what the heck an ethnomusicologist is, anyway.

Soundscapes:  How did you first come across Pretti's work?

Jeremy Strachan: Actually, the first time I saw Katie's work was a long time ago--a few years ago, at least. She's Alex Durlak's partner; Alex is the guy who runs Standard Form who put out the record. I went to Alex's apartment to lay out the Feuermusik record--he did that too--and he had just these massive, massive pieces of hers on his wall. Massive. They looked really great and I had sort of seen a few more of her pieces and the things that she was doing that way. And I also knew that she liked Rockets Red Glare, the band that I used to play in with Gus (Weinkauf, his partner in Feuermusik) and she told me that she does some of her pieces while she listens to music, and that she also worked a lot listening to Rockets. So there was that kind of (relationship). Again, her pieces seem responsive and I'm gathering that her way of working, at least in that series, was quite possibly informed by music as well. So, some time passed and I was on her website late one night, 'cause she has this whole series...

SS: Yeah, I've been to it, it's quite a nice site.

JS: For sure. And yeah, the idea came to me that it might be interesting to try and do some kind of response piece, or set of response pieces. And I chose The Heart Of The Matter (a four painting series) for some reason, whatever reason; it just resonated with me, I just sort of immediately connected with that series. So, that's how that kind of germinated.

But in tandem with that, Alex had been bugging to record me for over a year at that point. He wanted to record me playing guitar in weird spaces. He was just like, "I want us to go into an alley or some bizarre environment and try and see what happens." No budget, just for the sake of seeing what happens. He'd liked my guitar playing and some of the rough guitar music I'd recorded on my own. But I was not really, I was sort of getting further and further away from playing guitar, so I approached him about that and he was working at the Power Plant (Gallery, where Heart was recorded) at that time. He managed to be free two nights last August in this massive, massive gallery. So one night I did The Heart of the Matter and a whole bunch of other stuff, just solo. The night before that I recorded a series of duets with Nilan Perera, who's a fantastic guitarist and artist who's been making music in this city for decades. And we just kinda bashed out a few things, and tried a few ideas in this ridiculously reverberant gallery space.

SS: It turned out really well. The choice of the space was appropriate for a bunch of reasons, but it definitely seemed to suit the way you were playing as well. I was wondering how much the space became an extra character? It feels like you were very consciously playing in that manner because of the reverb in the room.

JS: Yeah, for sure. There's no doubt that the entire shape of the music (pauses) I mean, I'm thinking in terms of thematic choices for lack of a better term. Those were spontaneous, but the way that they developed and the way that the pieces kind of evolved in the room were totally, I mean, it was the room for sure. It was crazy. All of the almost inaudible components of playing the horn suddenly became these massive entities. Anything like a faint key click would just go "TJUUHHhhhhhh..." (slowly fades the sound). Even just a squeak on the clarinet would be this note that just hung in the air for a few seconds. So it reduced the actual amount of notes that I was playing in a lot of cases. The actual phrasing, sort of the gestural qualities of what I was doing.

It's funny because I did that in one night and I didn't listen to it for a very long time, and then I heard it, and it was like, "Wow!" You don't really remember what you're doing and these improvisations start to take on a life of their own. You start to listen to them like pieces, y'know? Which is what I think a lot of people have problems with when they listen to purely improvised music, if that even exists, on record is that it sounds like it's a document of some event that happened with a bunch of musicians or whatever. But with this, you could tell that there was this ridiculously large, almost ominous presence of the room that kept saying, you gotta play less, 'cause everything that you play is just going to be magnified to the point that it's just hanging in the air. The room had everything to do with those pieces and how I was playing them.

SS: And how conscious were you of the artwork, the pieces themselves?

JS: Uh, they were there. I was more interested in the idea of the record, as opposed to me staring at these pieces and going, "Oh, I think now I'm going to do this line." That was there for sure. I tried to engage with each of the pieces' inherent shape and form and however that translated into my head when I was playing. But it's like anything. There's a certain amount of literal reading of the pieces, but it was more the whole idea that I was intrigued by and that Katie seemed to be intrigued by too. So the whole thing was kinda to see how it would work out. I think the idea of the pieces being responsive, that was the conceptual lynchpin that gave the record some kind of idealistic shape. As opposed to, I think that the record could have just be made and released without any of that stuff, but it might not have been as interesting a record.

SS: Do you think that providing the shape helps people get past issues? I was reading an interview with you where the whole notion of experimental music came up, like when is it too far gone, does it matter? When do you have to try and sort of justify as an experimental musician that there is some sort of purpose and focus behind it?

JS: Sure.

SS: How different is it for you when you're making it? Is the focus (to the improvisation) welcome for yourself as well?

JS: Yeah, for sure it's welcome, because it provides a starting point. There's a certain amount of merit in being able to just say "I'm going to play with musicians--we're going to improve and make music." I don't think that necessarily means it's experimental in any way. The reason people say that something is experimental or abstract is because that an easy way of codifying that kind of music. And that's what it is, it serves a purpose. But no one wants to go, "Hi I'm Jeremy Strachan, experimental musician. Nice to meet you!" I mean, I remember, I think it was a few years ago, there was the Wavelength 300 anniversary and they had the panel discussions and the question was like, "What is indie?" It's the same kind of thing. Who knows? Who cares? It's one of these, it's a way of putting things into some kind of perspective. But, I think that people develop personal vocabularies and there's certain amount of licence that you take into consideration when you're playing with different people. That why I like playing, and I think most musicians who improvise like playing with as many musicians as they possibly can, because of hearing what other players have developed over time, what they've incorporated into their own syntax as players. You're constantly absorbing all these kinds of things and adding to your own repertoire, etc. But from the point of view of somebody making solo improvised pieces, I think that it's a little bit tricky. I think a lot of people are put off by that. A lot of people think that it's, I always hate saying 'a lot of people', but, at least in my own awareness, I'm aware of it being thought of as indulgent, a little bit self-aggrandizing. Like, "I am going to release a solo record of my pure expression on this instrument." Which doesn't really appeal to me. So, this is a very long-winded way of answering your question, I hope, but it makes the record more interesting for everybody, and if it piques someone's curiosity who wouldn't otherwise be interested in something like this, then that's great.

SS: You are classically trained as a guitar player, but it seems that you play woodwinds almost exclusively now. What happened, or even what didn't happen, for you with the guitar?

JS: I've never had any kind of instruction as a woodwind player so to me it's very much still terra incognita and it's like every time I put the horn in my mouth--new shit happens, all the time. I spent a lot of time studying guitar, classical guitar, and the way that I've steadily made most of my income over the last four or five years has been as a guitar teacher. It's a very boring instrument to me. It's just that when I play the guitar, 75% of the time, all of these red flags come up: "Don't do that," "Don't play that," "This is how you play this." So, it's kinda like this inverse relationship I have between the horns and the guitar, where I'm very conscious of the fact that I don't have any kind of training as a reed player, and so when I'm forced to read charts that are a bit tricky, I don't have that sort of fall-back mechanism of just being able to sight-read or sight-transpose. I'm getting better at it, because I've been having to do more and more of it over the last little while.

I had to play an hour-long suite of music by this jazz trumpeter in St. John's where the first time I saw the music was when I stepped up on the bandstand to play it. It was bass clarinet and I had to sight-transpose and read. It was slightly mortifying. Whereas on the guitar, it's the same kinda thing. I can just translate. I can sight-read a part or a score or I can... I'm just a really clean guitar player. I'm not trying to say like, "I'm a great guitar player." I mean, it's a very clean instrument to me, whereas the saxophone, bass clarinet and flute are really dirty instruments that I like to get really mucky with. Does that kinda make sense?

SS: That's great. I mean, it makes sense, but it's also kind of an interesting relationship because I think for a lot of people the reverse is true.

JS: Hmm.

SS: As much as I really like the saxophone, I know a lot of friends who shy away from it because for them saxophone means late period like, Dire Straits, G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live band...

JS: Oh yeah.

SS: ...the smooth, schmaltzy tones of it. And even though they're aware of any number of really reckless, abrasive saxophone players, it's still an instrument they shy away from, whereas obviously guitar is one of the angriest instruments that you can come across.

JS: Sure.

feuermusik-harthouse.jpgSS: You brought up reading, which kinda brings me to something I wanted to ask. In Feuermusik's Goodbye, Lucille you transcribed the lead pieces (as sheet music), and it occurred to me just how many professional musicians out there can't read music. How do you feel about written music? Is it in a decline, or does that not really matter? Has it always been a skill that is specialized?

JS: Well, yeah. This is the question that plagues musicologists and trained musicians all the time. Written, notated music is a set of instructions with varying degrees of specificity. It also has varying degrees of non-specificity. When you're reading a sheet of music how you do, like where does it say on the sheet of music, "put your heart into these four bars, more than the previous four bars"? Stuff like that. I mean it's like, it's just one way of reading music. It's one way of mediating one's intentions to somebody else. The lead sheets that are in Goodbye, Lucille are kind of--it's not an inside joke or anything, I don't mean it to be--but the impetus behind that was that we kinda wanted to have something that resembled not jazz sheets, but the sing-a-long sheets that you'd find for old showtunes. "Put on our record and you can sing along with the melody!" And it was mostly Gus who pushed for that more than me, 'cause I was the one who had to transcribe all the stuff that I was playing. And a lot of it's very ineffective. We had a lot of arguments about that. I would say, "Look man, I'm not going to sit here and transcribe a fucking improvisation that I did!"

SS: Mm-hmm.

JS: Because I think it's ridiculous and the concept behind putting those sheets in now is at odds with what you're getting. But we also wanted to have something inside the record that, y'know, as somebody who's been around and made a few records on a pretty shoestring budget, half the time you open up the CD and it's just a flap like this (opens an imaginary single-fold cover). So we wanted to have something that was a little more substantial and tactile inside of it, that people would open up and go, "Wow, that's kinda weird." But there's no lyrics, so why not have some other kind of visual representation of what's going on?

SS: Well, that happens a lot, especially with instrumental music, that you tend not to have much art.

JS: Yeah, but to get back to your question about reading music, most of the musicians that I have the most respect for can't read music at all or read very poorly. And these are most of the musicians that I've played with over the last, y'know, definitely over the formative years of my music-making, ages 18 to 20-whatever. And it's only over the last little while that I've actually started to play with musicians who come from a trained background, who've gone to music school in one way, one shape or another, or musicians who have spent a lot of time devoting themselves to their instruments. But it's interesting because it's not in a, I mean I couldn't, I wouldn't get up in front of people in just a straight jazz combo and just play over changes. I mean it's not where I'm coming from. But there's a lot of musicians that I've been playing with where that's exactly where they've been coming from, but we meet in this kind of no man's land of improvisation. Like that becomes a part of the music-making, but it also doesn't become a part of the music-making, because it's being kind of recontextualized and taken apart bit by bit.

So, I used to think I had some kind of an advantage because I could read music and be able to tell you all the notes inside of a G-flat 13th chord, but I definitely don't think that's very important anymore in the music that I'm making, or with the people that I'm playing with. It's always been more of a roadblock.

SS: How do you go about translating something like Ascension? You mention saying to Gus, "No way in hell you're getting me to transcribe any of these improvisations," so how do you translate something that is by its nature really just a couple of changes and everything else is up to individual wills?

JS: Well, that was interesting because I, y'know, Ascension is one of those records that I think a lot of people have a weird relationship with because it's not something you just put on and have playing at a party.

SS: That's fair to say! (laughs) 

JS: Or even compared to others of Coltrane's records like A Love Supreme, they've all got these kinds of feels to them, but Ascension is just this one massive thing. And so I thought, well, I've owned the record a really long time, and I've never really listened to it. Like, I never really was entirely aware of how it was put together. And so I spent a lot of time listening to it over and over again. Weeks at a time I just had it on my MP3 player walking around St. John's. And it occurred to me that it's actually not that, um, it's structured like a pretty straightforward piece. It has a head that starts and ends the piece; there's a chord sequence; and then there are solo sections. And that's it. However, it's stretched out over such a long period of time that each chord is one massive block of sound where players refer to fairly simple motivic material in each of the sections and then sort of take off from there.

So how did I put that together? Well, I made a road map of the areas and the themes, and just transcribed the head for everyone, which is very simple, it's just (sings) "da-nah-nah da-naaah".  So it's dead easy, it's just a little blues thing. And we just, actually at the rehearsal we spent most of the time just talking about it. Spent most of the time talking about how to put it together. How we should go into different sections? What does the record sound like? Should we play it like the record? Should we not play it like the record? I mean, the thing I felt bad about most was cutting people off when they were soloing, but I just was aware of the time and I knew it had to be over by a certain time. And there were a few times I could tell that people were really getting into it, but I just had to (taps wrist), y'know. But it worked well.

SS: So did you have a cane on stage? (both laugh)

JS: No, that wasn't necessary.

SS: You mention walking around St. John's. Moving there to work on your MA, has the change in environment -- going from a community that is pretty fertile in a lot of different genres to one that is much smaller and isolated -- helped you get more cerebral about music? Does it help it become more of an internal thought process as opposed to seeing other people, playing in clubs, practicing with friends? Not to say it's Alert, way up in Baffin Island or something, but it's a different environment.

JS: Yeah, and actually I didn't think that it would be. I was so unbelievably surprised by how different it was. I thought that it wouldn't be much different. Total naivete on my part! I assumed that I would go to this other city in Canada and find like-minded musicians and there would be things going on. And it's really not like that--I mean, there are a handful of players out there, but when it became clear to me that I wasn't going to be playing as much as I thought I was, it took me a little while. Like, when it sunk in I was like, "Holy shit! I got a lot of free time on my hands!" I never had free time, and I don't have free time when I'm back here. But I spent a lot of time practicing in my room. My girlfriend and I rented a house in downtown St. John's, and I got to do something which I never, ever get a chance to do, which is sit in a room with a saxophone or a flute or whatever for hours and hours at a time. Play, and go over things, sight read, work on exercises and scales. Y'know, work on those aspects of playing that I don't really possess to the same extent that other trained players have.

It occurred to me that the thing that I missed most was just playing with other people. More than anything, just having this availability of players. I mean audiences, audiences are always small for improvised music, unless it's big name, unless it's like a William Parker coming to do a series and they pack the Arraymusic space three nights in a row. I mean, the reality is that, at least my experience is that, most of the time you're going to be playing for smaller groups of people. And that's totally fine with me. I remember with Sea Snakes and Rockets Red Glare that as we played more and more you could see audience levels go like this (gestures upward), especially sort of incrementally increasing in places like Toronto and Montreal. Touring, not so much, but that's how it is. But it's just players, it's musicians, like in Toronto, it's just overflowing with musicians of unbelievable calibre. And it seems like every show I go to, everytime I talk to somebody, there's three or four new players or names where it's like, "Oh, do you know blah-blah-blah?" "No, I've never heard of this person." "Oh, you gotta meet this person!" The energy that's here, I took it for granted I think before I left.

SS: When you talk about being in an indie band, I feel that in terms of what influences musicians, I think the crossover between those two kinda camps -- experimental and indie -- it's always getting kinda closer.

JS: Sure.

SS: There's a lot of blurring of lines and there has been for some time.

JS: Sure.

SS: Jazz and rock have always traded ideas, but I feel like they are getting more and more integrated. Having spent time in both camps, what the major differences are between the two?

JS: Gear. (laughs) I don't have to lug around a bass and a bass amp anymore. It's great!

SS: Yeah! Well, gear is something, for guitar players, that is used to create mayhem, whereas with a saxophone player or drummer or stand-up bass player, you have to rely on your own skills to create that mayhem.

JS: Sure. Differences, um, there's not... It's kind of like there's a set of references that are like... I'm thinking in terms of being in collaborative environments where there are people who rehearse regularly in a band together and you go into this room and you're trying, you're constantly working towards creating these things that become songs, right? So, the life of a band is determined, to a certain extent, by this output of music that they generate progressively. And it's played live, and at some point hopefully is documented, in some way or another in a recording studio, and then you have a record. So there will be signposts, like The Musical Life of a Band. To me that seems very much different than my experience, and this is only my experience playing improvised music, where it seems to be much more like work. Y'know? It's much more like you do this thing; you show up at a place; you play music; sometimes it gets recorded, sometimes it doesn't; sometimes it's bad, sometimes it's fantastic, sometimes you're absolutely horrified to be on stage and you wanna run and hide because it's going awfully.

SS: (laughs) Right.

JS: And so for me, it's being there. It's producing, activity. It's less of a...

SS: Documentation.

JS: Yeah. I'm not concerned with making record after record after record. Whereas, my experience playing with other bands is you're constantly referring back to this record that you made. This album. So to me, that's the biggest difference. It's less focused on producing compositions and churning out records. Because the music, in a sense, is a bit more disposable. Now, a lot of the (improv) guys that I've met are making a ton of records. AIM Toronto (the Association for Improvised Musicians), they have a thing every Friday called Leftover Daylight, and every set is documented and recorded and put into this constantly growing archive. And it's a documentation of the activity of musicians coming together once a week and improvising music together. And to me it's just like, it's fantastic that this archive is being totally documented, for better or for worse. The music might not be happening, or there might be great music happening, but it's less a documentation of these reproducible, y'know, things that musicians and bands constantly judge themselves by, as opposed to it's this continuous archive of the comings and goings of a fluid scene that is constantly in states of regeneration and flux.

SS: Right, right.

JS: So yeah, to me, that's a huge fundamental difference between the two. But at the same time, um, you're totally right, I mean, things are getting closer and closer for sure.

SS: You brought up the idea of musician as occupation, that it was like work. In your studies for ethnomusicology, I would imagine that you spend a lot of time studying music from cultures like Africa and Eastern Europe, where a musician is a part of a community on par with baker, doctor, barber. A servant, a component of the town. There's humility in the way you provide for the community and there's a level of respect there.

JS: Sure.

SS: Something that in North America that we don't really have an understanding of. Musicians tend to serve themselves primarily rather than others.

JS: Well, it's really interesting because a lot of the stuff that I look at in school and that we talk about in seminars, we actually spend very little time looking at music. We look at how music functions in a social context. We look at why this music exists. We look at who's making the music, who's experiencing the music. Who this music is affecting and how it's affecting them. And ethnomusicologists have different ways of analyzing music and they have different theoretical frameworks that they apply. But the one main difference is that the notion of the musician as artist, the musician being somehow removed from that milieu, I think comes from idealized, Euro-centric, Germanic importation that has dominated the canonical ways of thinking about music. Like the composer writes the music, and then the trained performer plays it. They're up here (gestures with hand). And then an offshoot of that is the creative, experimental music maker, who is trained and is the avant-garde. Y'know, big "Avant-Garde" in quotations, an expired term. And somehow that's different from the guy who's been listening to both Coltrane and Sonic Youth in his teens and doesn't know how to read a note of music. Like somehow (the trained musicians) are better than that. Umm, to me, it's a totally useless distinction because you're coming at it from, you're approaching the same... it's the same kind of goal, I guess. From just different points of departure.

The difference between all that kinda stuff and people in non-Western communities making music, it's basically the difference between music as art and music as function. Music as functional component, music as a daily thing, as something that's lived and experienced by everybody. It's like, when we go to Sneaky Dee's or the Tiger Bar or whatever, we're still going into this closed environment where we're going to see music being made on stage by people who are craftsmen of some sort. I think that the big difference. You as the musician, as a craftsman, as opposed to the musician fulfilling some sort of occupational role. So I don't know, it's tricky. I like being a craftsman (laughs), to think of myself as an artist. It gives me a little bounce in my step. But people will probably disagree with that. "You're not an artist--you're just a dude who tries to make rent every month!" So, it's better to think of it as an activity, I guess.

SS: Well, where I got the idea for this question was a Wavelength interview you did a while back where you mentioned Toronto having a "silly cult of celebrity" about it. That was what I was really getting at: the notion that, even on small scales, we attach celebrity to a musician. How much does that get in the way of music being appreciated, that you have to attain a certain kind of celebrity before your music is viewed a certain way? How does the knowledge of that as an artist pollute your ability to do what you do?

JS: For sure. I mean it's a drag. It's a really good question, but I don't know. I don't really know how to answer that, other than that from my own experience, it's a nice thing when you are receiving attention and people seem to take some kind of interest in what it is that you're doing as a musician. But that doesn't necessarily...You can find yourself getting caught in these cycles where you're not doing anything new. You're just playing the same stuff over and over again and you're talking about the same things over and over again. But this is on the level of a local scene--I mean, I don't know how much of a national scene there is in Canada. It seems problematic to me that there is, because Canada is populated by a lot of distinct regional scenes.  But the scale of things seems to be so small that like, that's why I think I said it was "silly", because in the grand scheme of things, you're only talking about a very small minority of people who know or care about this indie celebrity or whatever. And I'm not sure I care about it the way that I did. Even just hearing you bringing that up, I'm kinda cringing that I might've said something like that and people were reading it! (both laugh)

But, going away from Toronto and coming back, there are a lot of great bands here, and I really took them for granted. I thought, "This is boring, it's the same kind of shit." Then you go somewhere else and you see that (Toronto's) vitality and that diversity is just like, it's astonishing how much and how many different kinds of things are being not only produced--again to use that commodification angle--but also just people actually taking an interest in it. And even that kind of celebrity is inflated by message boards and things like Eye and NOW and things like that, where you have people talking and writing about people. It's great for them, I think, it's absolutely fantastic to be noticed. Because it's probably going to be, unless you're one of a very small percentage of Canadian musicians who are truly gifted--I'm thinking of Owen Pallett or someone similar--it's gonna go like this (gestures downward). I mean, in six months people aren't going to be asking me for interviews, so you've gotta roll with the punches a bit.

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