A Likely History of Cul de Sac, or
Surviving in Spite of Ourselves
This history is offered as edification and / or amusement to anyone who cares.
Writers take note! You may wish to look this over. If and when you talk to us, you'll impress us with how well you've done your homework, and possibly, you'll be able to spare us some of the old questions (how'd you get started?; what was it really like working with John Fahey?; why so many bass players, etc.,). Thanks!
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Cul de Sac was formed at the end of 1990.
The 1991 release of their debut album, ECIM (Rough Trade in the UK / Northeastern in the U.S.), drew praise from the underground rock cognoscenti, both in Europe and in the band's native U.S. (We're from Boston, folks.) Four singles and an unusual follow-up album, I Don't Want To Go to Bed (Flying Nun / Nuf Sed / Thirsty Ear), confirmed Cul de Sac's place in the forefront of a "wildly unpredictable, indefinably eclectic, stubbornly progressive" movement that critics (so-called) eventually dubbed "post-rock." (Stay with us -- it gets worse.)
Turning their backs on grunge and fashionable "alternative" trends, Cul de Sac drew inspiration from purer sources such as '60s psychedelia, surf, Middle Eastern trance and folk music, Krautrock, and the more industrial elements of the avant-garde.
Cul de Sac began at the doorstep of guitarist Glenn Jones, who cooked up the idea for the band with friends Robin Amos (hitherto a member of Boston's legendary dada-punk band, the Girls) and Chris Guttmacher (original drummer in Bullet La Volta). The concept -- though fuzzy and never clearly articulated as such -- was to combine Jones's melodicism and idiosyncratic guitar-playing with Amos's bristling orgy of electronics, charged with a propulsive groove that wouldn't quit. To this end, the band recruited virtual neophyte bassist (and filmmaker, author and poet) Chris Fujiwara -- whose main qualification at that time was his great personal charm.
The mix of talents jelled (or we wouldn't be here today). ECIM showcased Jones's writing skills along with Amos's startling synthesizer textures and the occasional guest singing of Boston legend, Dredd Foole. Cul de Sac's ambitious live shows, often enhanced by the aquatic delights of films by Fujiwara and A.S. Hamrah, soon caught the attention of small but devoted audiences, mainly on the Eastern seaboard.
To meet the demand for a follow-up album, Guttmacher assembled his favorite tracks from three years worth of cassettes in his voluminous library of rehearsal-jam tapes. However unredeemably low-fi the resulting release, I Don't Want to Go to Bed, was, if anything, more rapturously acclaimed than its studio-pristine predecessor. The album was issued in a limited pressing in the US by Brandan Kearney's Nuf Sed label (later reissued by Thirsty Ear), and in Europe by the highly respected indie label, Flying Nun (about whom Cul de Sac has nothing but praise and wistful memories).
In late 1993, Chris Guttmacher left Boston for the west coast. After auditioning several possible replacements, Cul de Sac recruited drummer Jon Proudman. Jon grew up in Connecticut where, as a teenager, he studied drums in his parent's basement rec-room with former Ornette Coleman / John Coltrane drummer, Ed Blackwell. After leaving high school, Proudman moved to Boston to attend drum classes at New England Conservatory, but soon was cutting his teeth in Men & Volts, a band that, to their credit, never fit into any of Boston's clique-y scenes, and were all but ignored for their trouble.
After a year of intense rehearsal, Cul de Sac recorded its third album, China Gate, where Proudman's hard-hitting yet intricate, subtle attack drove the band to new heights. This was the band's most far-ranging musical expedition yet, and a summing up of all that they'd learned in the first five years of their existence.
Then came the dawn. . . .
In 1995 Geffen Records, flush with the phenomenal success of Nirvana, decided to piss their money away on an album by maverick guitarist, John Fahey, then recovering from the debilitating effects of Epstein-Barr Syndrome, which had all but immobilized him for most of the previous decade.
The conceit of the project was to unite Fahey in the studio with "fellow travelers" -- members of Sonic Youth, Beck, Cul de Sac and others. The project was to be produced by music writer / Fahey champion Byron Coley, and Cul de Sac's Glenn Jones, who'd befriended Fahey in the mid-'70s.
As a trial balloon, the project never even left the ground, mainly because no one at Geffen pumped air into it its flaccid little envelope. The idea withered and died before it was even born.
Some months later Robin Amos mentioned "the album that never was" to Thirsty Ear's prexy, Peter Gordon. Recognizing that Beck and Sonic Youth would probably expect to be paid something for their work, Gordon eagerly revived the project as a Cul de Sac / Fahey collaboration.
And so in November of 1996 the band and John Fahey began rehearsal for what was to become The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, an album that would strain to the breaking point the resourcefulness of everyone involved in its creation.
After more than a week of rehearsal, the band, Fahey, and producer Jon Williams made their way to a studio in down-at-heels Warren, Rhode Island, to begin recording. Two days into the project Fahey summarily announced that he wasn't going to play any of the material he'd worked up with the band. John dug in his heels, the band splintered into warring factions, and the album, as it had been conceived, went down in flames.
(Photo by Creamer; courtesy of Bill Morrison and the Groton Landmark; October 28, 1998)How it rose again, phoenix-like, from the ashes of defeat, is recounted in painful detail in the notes to the album, so don't expect us to regale you with the gory particulars for free here. (Buy a copy!) Suffice to say, many people consider The Epiphany of Glenn Jones to be a shining example of triumph over adversity and ego, and one of the bright spots in the discographies of both artists.
Ultimately however (the album aside), the effects of this project would be profound, exacting an especially severe toll on Proudman. Disappointed and bitter at the change in direction the album had taken, and at his wit's end emotionally, Jon was in little shape to go on the road, and was reluctantly ousted from the band right before their first major East Coast and Midwest tour (in March and April of 1997).
Joining Cul de Sac for the next year-and-a-half would be drummer Michael Knoblach. Michael's attention to texture, his love of the sound of vintage marching, parade and circus drums, and exotic percussion (some of it found in the trash) served the band remarkably well. Though he appears on only two recordings -- the band's 1999 Earworm single, and as a guest on one track on Crashes to Light, Minutes to its Fall -- Michael's thoughtful, well-considered approach to percussion was a strong influence on the band's arrangements of several songs still in its repertoire.
Saved in the nick of time? It appeared so, till suddenly, with the tour now all but booked, bassist Chris Fujiwara announced that he would not be joining the band on the road. An unregenerate Northerner and devout homebody whose notions of "southern hospitality" were informed by too many viewings of Deliverance, Chris couldn't picture himself sleeping on the floor next to Robin Amos.
With almost no notice, their asses on the line, Boston's tireless Jonathan LaMaster, a longtime fan of the group, and "a friend indeed," stepped into the fray to sub for Chris on bass, and violin.
This version of the band is the one that eight or nine of you may remember from Cul de Sac's first tour, which must be counted a modest success, with especially memorable shows in Durham / Chapel Hill, Chicago, Detroit and Memphis (where the band met Jeff Buckley, and invited him to perform with them that night; by showtime, however, he was too shit-faced to do so -- to Cul de Sac's everlasting regret). The tour culminated in a performance at the first Terrastock Festival, in Providence, Rhode Island.
After the tour, Chris Fujiwara took up his old position in Cul de Sac, but it quickly became apparent that his heart was no longer in the music, and he and the band agreed he should take a sabbatical from the group.
Chris had already begun conducting research into the films and career of director Jacques Tourneur (The Cat People, Out of the Past, I Walked with a Zombie, Night of the Demon), research that would lead to the publication of Chris's first book, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (John Hopkins Press) with an introduction by Martin Scorsese. (Chris is currently working on the authorized critical biography of Otto Preminger.)
By early '98, Chris's hiatus had turned into a permanent departure.
Bassist Michael Bloom accepted the unenviable task of filling Fujiwara's monster feet -- though personal charm had nothing to do with his getting the job. Michael is a damn fine bassist. While Fujiwara's kamikaze approach would be sorely missed, Michael brought to the band instead an architectural and grounded approach, his composed parts adding complexity, suspense and beauty to the band's songs.
This version of the band toured the West Coast in October and November of 1997, even sharing a bill with John Fahey, who joined them on-stage at their show in Portland, Oregon -- the last time they'd work together.
When the band returned to Boston to begin rehearsals for their as-yet-untitled fifth album, Michael Knoblach announced that he was leaving the band. Cul de Sac cautiously invited Jon Proudman back into its ranks. (This isn't quite the order of events, but it sounds better.)
Proudman's playing was as magnificent as ever, and this version of the band played one of the best live sets of its career at the second Terrastock Festival in early 1998, in San Francisco.
In May they began recording Crashes to Light, Minutes to Its Fall. The record was issued on May 4, 1999, and was -- in the opinion of the opinion-makers -- the finest studio album of the band's career to date.
Other stuff happened, a short tour, money difficulties, logistical problems finding a rehearsal space, issues with the record label, etc.
By mid '99, Cul de Sac began laying the groundwork for its next album, which would -- nearly three years later -- emerge as Death of the Sun. In the midst of the earliest stages of preparation, however, Michael Bloom joined the swelling ranks of ex-Cul de Sac bass players. (Sigh.)
With almost no cajoling, bassist / violinist Jonathan LaMaster, who had toured with the band two years earlier, happily stepped into the Abyss and became a full-time member. (Jonathan is active [hyperactive!] in the area of free improv. He's performed with New York reed, trumpet and flute player Daniel Carter, double bass players Peter Kowald and William Parker, and guitarist Elliott Sharp, among many others. He founded Sublingual Records [www.sublingual.com] in 1998 to document some of the adventurous music that inspires him.)
Meanwhile Robin, who'd been looking for someone with expertise in the area of digital sampling and sequencing, soon found himself shaking hands with electronic whiz-kid Jake Trussell, who (as Electro Organic Sound Systems) was part of Boston's nascent Toneburst Collective, musical troublemakers, who, disregard the city's gasping rock scene, carved out a niche for themselves via appearances at art galleries, lofts, museums, colleges and the like.
What began as a Cul de Sac / E.O.S.S. collaboration took wings as Jake signed on as the band's fifth member.
Yes, but why did Death of the Sun take three years to make?
First, in the midst of recording DOTS, Boston-based Cityscape Motion Pictures commissioned the band to compose music for their production of The Strangler's Wife, to be overseen and released by cult-film director Roger Corman. This project had to be started almost right away.
Second, ex-Can vocalist, Damo Suzuki, in the midst of cleaning his apartment one day, played a copy of I Don't Want to Go to Bed -- given to him by a fan -- contacted the band, and proposed they tour the US together.
With so much time having already elapsed since the group's last album; with DOTS still leagues beyond completion; with several new projects suddenly on the front burners, Cul de Sac scrambled for something to fill in the ever-widening gap between studio albums, and remembered a live recording made at WBRS, the student radio station at Brandeis University, in 1999, by the Crashes to Light version of the band.
The band prized the recording dearly; had toyed with the idea of releasing it privately to sell at shows and via the website, but had never really considered issuing the album "officially."
Chris Scofield would have something to say about that.
Even before Cul de Sac's contract with Thirsty Ear expired, the band knew that as soon as they possibly could, they'd sign on with Chris Scofield's fledgling -- but already impressive -- Strange Attractors Audio House label. Chris heard a copy of the Brandeis recording, loved it, and convinced the band to let him issue it.
And so Immortality Lessons -- an album that felt to Cul de Sac like a stopgap measure to keep their name dimly alight in people's minds -- was released in 2002.
. . . and ended up being among the most enthusiastically received albums of their career. Go figure.
Following the release of Immortality Lessons, the theatrical showing of The Strangler's Wife (and its subsequent release on DVD and video), and a three-week tour of the United States and Canada with Damo Suzuki (all in 2002), Cul de Sac finally returned to Vortex Studios in Vermont and hammered in the last nail on Death of the Sun.
Which you should be blasting into your crania right now, and not reading this. (Don't you have classes tomorrow?!)
Current plans include a short series of gigs in the U.S. in February, 2003, followed by Cul de Sac's first tour of Europe (both tours will be with Damo Suzuki) in February and March 2003.
Beyond that, your guess is as as good as anyone's.