Cul de Sac Interview
The following are excerpts from an incredibly long interview given by guitarist Glenn Jones to some Italian magazine. Comments by Chris Fujiwara and A. S. Hamrah are in boldface and identified by "C.F./A.S.H."
1.) When did Cul de Sac start? How are melded far off musical experiences to create your original sound?
Glenn: Cul de Sac was born one day when the sun didn't shine. Our first drummer, Chris Guttmacher (Bullet Lavolta) had heard other bands I'd been in (Shut-Up, Mommy, 7 or 8 Worm Hearts) and expressed an interest in playing with me. Robin Amos (The Girls, Shut-Up) planned a one-off, farewell show prior to his leaving the Boston area for the west coast, and asked Chris and I to back him up. Ultimately Robin's plans to leave fell through, but by then Chris G. and I had played together a time or two and liked the chemistry. Robin had all but ceased playing music publicly and had to be cajoled into coming to check things out, but after a few jam sessions, he signed on. We found bassist Chris Fujiwara (10 Stolen Vibes) through a flyer he'd posted in a used record store -- a propitious discovery.
The band also initially included Ed Yazijian (7 or 8 Worm Hearts, Dredd Foole & the Din) on steel guitar and fiddle, but, because we were "too loud," Ed left, eventually joining Kustomized, the loudest band since Blue Cheer! Tape manipulator / collagist Phil Milstein (a.k.a. Pep Lester) (Uzi, Mommy, 7 or 8 Worm Hearts) was also asked to join, but when he realized that Cul de Sac weren't interested in helping him spearhead the glam-rock revival, he bailed. Both "gentlemen" guest on our first release, ECIM, however.
This lineup of CdS recorded four singles and two albums (see discography).
At the end of 1993 drummer Chris Guttmacher left Cul de Sac in search of his dream -- to play drums with the most legendary San Francisco band of all time. Unfortunately the Charlatans we're no longer in need of a drummer, having broken up more than 25 years ago.
Drummer Jon Proudman (Men & Volts) joined Cul de Sac in early 1994; he made his recorded debut with the band on China Gate, our third album, about which more below.
2.) Is Cul de Sac the definitive expression of your artistic sensitivity? Do you have other parallel projects?
Cul de Sac is the most musically satisfying band I've been in, and comes closest to being the band I'd dreamed of forming. It allows me to combine my love of open-tuned guitar, played finger-style, with my love for electronics and noise, all placed within a rhythmic rock framework. In terms of the demands CdS makes upon me, and in spite its occasional frustrations, Cul de Sac is successful and very satisfying for me on a personal level. I'm sure the rest of the band would second me -- if you don't ask Chris.
3.) What fuels the engine of your imaginativeness? Past and present musical influences?
What would I do if I didn't do this, or something very like it? The expressive outlet that today finds its voice in Cul de Sac is, for me, no lark, no hobby, not something I dabble in on the weekends, not something I take lightly or casually. I am no Sunday painter. I play music every day of my life -- it is primary; it gives me my sense of worth. If no one else cared a fig for us, that would matter little to me. Music sustains me in all ways (except financial) and I will always make music.
Typically musicians come to music in response to something they hear -- they're excited by a style of music or by a particular musician and take up an instrument to try to play that music or to emulate their heroes. I didn't. I never learned the requisite rock riffs, or the standard rock songs everyone played. I lack the abilities of my heroes. I never learned music methodology.
There are lots of guitarists, composers, bands that I like very much, and many genres and styles of music I listen to. Surely I'm influenced to some degree by what I love in terms of how I play or what I write -- but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many examples of the music I like in what I write.
I was inspired, like thousands of other kids, by Jimi Hendrix and bought my first guitar at age 14 -- after hearing Axis: Bold as Love. But, not an electric -- I got a $45.00 Harmony acoustic. I wouldn't own an electric guitar till I was 27, when Robin invited me to join Shut-Up.
I'm also very fond of the music of the so-called "American primitive" acoustic guitarist, John Fahey. (Cul de Sac rearranged Fahey's beautiful "Portland Cement Factory at Monolith California" for our first album, ECIM.) I tried to absorb the right hand pattern picking / alternating bass style that is characteristic of his playing, but often I found that style didn't suit my own compositional ideas, so I invented variations on his technique to suit myself.
In spite of influences however, I've made my own way, for better or for worse; and whatever I have to offer I've come by the hard way. I feel that what I write is mine, and that there is no one guitarist or writer to whom I can be closely compared, just as there is no other band to whom Cul de Sac can be adequately compared. I have always accepted guitarist Robbie Basho's dictum, "Soul first, technique later," . . .
4.) New sounds are coming from the USA: Tortoise, Labradford, Jessamine, Ui, Sabalon Glitz, Trans Am and, of course, Cul de Sac. Some authors are writing about this "phenomenon" as American Post Rock. I would like to know your point of view and -- if it exists -- what is the shared denominator between you and these other bands?
Many people are wary of categories, and well they should be. Most rock music strikes me as superficial and dishonest. Much of it, whether avant-garde or popular, seems to emphasize technique or attitude over feeling, and yet so much of it pretends to be all about feeling.
No music is more self-plagiarizing than than rock 'n' roll, certainly -- which isn't necessarily bad -- unless the stuff being plagiarized is tired and not very interesting. Rock seems nearly exhausted to me. It is no longer about rebellion; it is about conservatism and consolidation. It seems enough for many listeners that as long as new music is similar enough to something they already understand and have a preference for, and, so long as it has the earmarks and traces of something that was once creative, original and expressive, then real originality, creativity and expression are not important.
Perhaps I'm jaded, but I seldom look to contemporary rock music, "post" or otherwise, as a source for solace, excitement, inspiration, identification, renewal. Occasionally I'm pleasantly shocked by something new, but I'm hard-pressed right now to think of an example. (I'm more turned on by Sony's reissue of the 1920s recordings of Emmett Miller than by any new rock records I've heard.)
. . . "Post-rock." Six months ago we'd never heard the term, suddenly everyone and their uncle is asking us about the "movement" and our place in it. I'm familiar with many of the bands who are lumped together under this rubric, (Trans Am, Tortoise, Ui, Jessamine, Labradford, Flying Saucer Attack, etc.), there are some I've yet to hear (Sabolon Glitz, Space Needle). . . .
Post-rock seems to be a term loosely used to describe a number of bands that have emerged in the '90s. Many of them are largely instrumental, eschewing vocals for the most part (and the ones that don't probably should). Their concerns seem to be with texture and color, repetition, mood. Melodies and musical structure are minimal, if they exist at all. Generally, the music unfolds and possesses an apparently unforced or organic quality and may synthesize elements or techniques of older musical styles. The musical language of these bands is distinctly different from that of their punk or grunge forebears, and may borrow from '60s / '70s psychedelia, dub, Krautrock, lounge, acid-jazz, folk, disco, industrial or ambient styles -- and others, possibly.
Cul de Sac do share traits with some of these bands: We are mainly instrumental, we love repetition, we play with texture and color in all of our pieces, we value dramatic contrast. It is our intention to establish a certain mood, to take listeners (and ourselves) somewhere else with our music, to evoke the "green lightning over the cupolas."
That said, I think there are more differences than similarities between us and our post-rock brethren, of whom the rest of Cul de Sac is largely ignorant of, or indifferent to. (For that matter, I hear very little connection between most other so-called post rock bands -- if there is a common ground shared by Trans Am and Tortoise, for instance, I sure don't hear it.)
There is a strong melodic sensibility in our music, both in what I write and in the way Chris approaches bass, which is very linear and melodic. Our composed music is largely formally structured, though most of our pieces have space where different things can happen, and not necessarily solos, per se. Though our music is about mood and emotion, we try to give each piece we work up its own character and quality. (Robin won't repeat synthesizer patches, for instance.) We hope no two songs sound the same, but nonetheless sound like Cul de Sac.
Though the bands that make up "post rock" may have something to offer, they are no less likely to be free of hackneyedism than bands playing any other kind of music. The motivation for playing music for the genuinely creative artist has to lie with the music itself, not with vogue categories (I wish!). Though I have listened to some of these bands with pleasure, the creeping suspicion occasionally rises in me that the music is ultimately thin and of little consequence. The worst of it strikes me as amplified Windham Hill music -- pretty, seductive, but ultimately vacant -- all surface. I feel like many of these bands are hiding their lack of ideas or their indecision about who they are and what they want to say behind the sheen of their influences, or in the clouds of atmospheric smoke they kick up.
It would be disingenuous of me to say how or where I think Cul de Sac fit into the post rock sweepstakes. Suffice to say, I hope our music stands apart from all others and that our success (or failure) is dependent on our music, not on where we happen to be slotted this week.
5.) Faust, Gate, Thurston Moore and Cul de Sac: a happening (May 1994) arranged by the Table of the Elements label at Real Art Ways (in Hartford, Connecticut): Could you describe that concert and what you experienced playing with the legendary Faust?
I enjoyed myself very much. It was an outdoor show, and consisted mostly of waiting around in the rain for several hours while Faust made last minute repairs to the stage. Due to this delay we only got to play an abbreviated set. Keiji Haino followed with his assault on the eardrums; Gate (with Lee Renaldo) I thought were more interesting, playing with varying levels of noise and sound textures in a thoughtful manner. The Thurston Moore Band, with guitarist Tim Foljahn and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, was perplexing. (I remember these lyrics: "Kick out the jacks, and I'll buy the snacks. . . .Superchrist!" Is he trying to sound Japanese?) But, what the hell -- the kids seemed to like it.
It was dark by the time Faust took the stage. I enjoyed their mix of sonic mayhem, involving as it did televisions being smashed, industrial percussion (jack hammers and such), explosions, etc., which was contrasted by some very attractive fingerpicked nylon-string guitar, a quiet little song sung to a goldfish in a bowl -- you get the idea! The night, the weirdly lit stage, the roar of trains passing just 200 feet away -- contributed to the sense that this was something special.
But my feelings about Faust are mixed. Faust have certainly earned their reputation as innovators. I love their albums. In contrast to the rest of the bands that played, Faust offered a show of heightened contrasts, and, even if some of what they did was occasionally embarrassing and silly, Faust was nonetheless ambitious in what they attempted. (They arrived in Hartford two days before the show to visit salvage years and dumps for the materials for their stage props.) They seemed willing to fail, and were unconcerned about appearing cool or trendy.
When Faust began their avant hijinks in the early '70s, what they were doing, generally, hadn't been tried in rock before; one had to look to the artists of the Happening and Fluxus movements of the '60s to find something comparable. (Folks were destroying pianos and television sets long before Faust came along.) For Faust to be doing this 30-plus years later seemed a bit pointless and passé, as though they felt the need to seize a place in the history books that they feared might be denied them. (". . . we were the first!")
So, the day was memorable, spectacular, but one can't help but question Faust's reasons for doing much of what they did. Taking off your clothes, painting murals, smashing TV sets with sledge hammers isn't particularly shocking today. People seemed more bemused than anything else.
How has Faust grown as a creative group of musicians? If Faust are important, and I certainly believe they are, one must ask this question, too.
6.) Often your tracks are the results of spontaneous improvisations. How do you determine the title of a track? Does it coincide to the particular musical content? Are there hidden meanings inside "Lower Hate, Massachusetts," "Abandoned Hospital," "Graveyard for Robots," etc., or are they just "depictions?"
I understand the Ventures get asked this question a lot, too. Our titles are a reflection of our experiences, come directly from life and are exact descriptions of their musical counterparts.
Some are very specific -- "Nico's Dream" for instance.
7.) . . . and about the child with the headphones: why is she crying? What is she listening to?
She? Yes.The child on the cover of I Don't Want to Go to Bed -- that is a childhood picture of our synth player Robin Amos. He's crying because he just had a premonition of his future.
8.) What are the "contraption" and "G.D. Flexitone" [from the album credits to I Don't Want to Go to Bed]; which kinds of sounds do they produce?
The contraption is a "prepared" guitar. The term was first applied by John Cage to the piano, which he began toying with in the '40s and '50s. He inserted nuts, bolts, pieces of rubber, wood and plastic between the strings of the piano to alter its sound. In the '60s Keith Rowe (and later Fred Frith) applied Cage's idea to the guitar. My prepared guitar is a made from a '40s Hawaiian lap steel. It is strung and tuned randomly, is played with kitchen utensils, the signal is processed through various effects boxes, and the whole thing is mounted on a large oblong box with a big eye painted on the front that sits atop of walker [this was Contraption Mach II, which, though not enirely put out to pasture, was recently replaced by Contraption Mach III. Contraption Mach I is belived to be in the possession of Byron Coley].
It's important that my effects boxes be at a level where I can manipulate them with my hands as I play. I use a lot of effects boxes, 20 or more, and I use them actively -- that is I change their parameters and settings in the middle of songs, rather than just turning them off and on with my feet.
9.) "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Naked Lunch," "Videodrome," "Strange Days," "Brazil," "Alien," "Un chien andalou," "Until the End of the World." Which of these films would you like to write the music to, if you could?
C.F./A.S.H.: With the exception of "Un chien andalou" and possibly "Videodrome," all these films would have to be extensively reshot and reedited before we could consider gracing them with our musics. Especially "2001," which is inferior to William Asher's "The 27th Day."
10.) We have heard a lot about the films that accompany Cul de Sac's live shows. Can you tell us something about them?
C.F./A.S.H.: Our films are prophecies of an alternative past. We are resolutely opposed to the so-called cinema of transgression. We consider ourselves solitary flight attendants on the voyage of the cinema of retrogression. In our films, we freely indulge our obsession with outmoded and unpopular forms of filmic expression. Perhaps this is why our films cannot be described accurately in any still extant language. They speak too clearly of bygone mists and eras.
By the way, we take our collective helmet off to the great masters of Italian cinema, Mario Bava, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio Cottafavi, Riccardo Freda. We were moved to hear of the passing of their great compatriot, Lucio Fulci, one of the last proponents of the cinema that knows no compromise. God rest his soul. Do you know Sergio Sollima's phone number or e-mail address? Or his home address? Or his agent's address, phone number, or e-mail address? We need him desperately to direct our next video.
11.) Which bands/records do you recommend today?
In no particular order, I like the music of John Fahey, Morton Feldman, Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, Sun Ra, Giancinto Scelsi, Neu!, Robbie Basho, Hans Reichel, Erik Satie, Skip James, AMM, International Harvester, Charles Ives, Bongo Joe, Hendrix, Tim Buckley, the Ventures, Jr. Kimbrough, Yo La Tengo, Miles Davis (especially his electric period), Love, Washington Phillips, Popul Vuh, Stockhausen (especially the electronic stuff), Ennio Morricone, Greek rembetika, Portuguese fado, French musette, and much, much more -- for whatever it's worth.
12.) Do you have a special message for your Italian fans?
Please send us art books by Dino Buzzati!
C.F./A.S.H.: We also want a video of "Traviata '53" by Vittorio Cottafavi, or any other Cottafavi film. Also any films by Riccardo Freda; Mario Bava's work for Italian TV; Rossellini's "Dov'è la Libertà?", "Napoli '43" (from "Amori di Mezzo Secolo"), "L'India vista di Rossellini," "Anima Nera," "L'Età del Ferro," "La Lotta dell'Uomo per la sua Sopravvivenza," "Idea di un'Isola" (preferably in color), "Cartesius," and "The World Population." We also need all films by Sergio Sollima and Domenico Paolella.
We also badly need "Le Amiche," "Prefazione" (from "I Tre Volti"), and "Chung Kuo Cina" by Antonioni, and also his short documentaries from 1947-50.
A.S.H.: I need a Vespa.