“I’ve played in small villages in Western Europe, in Africa. When you go to these small places –especially when you travel with sound– it makes you realize most folk cultures are the same. These people gather up instruments from their environment and try to imitate their environment. These cats are between the earth and the stars trying to figure out this shit.”
Chatted with cornetist-composer-beatmaker-seeker Ben LaMar Gay about “The Alphabet Song,” oxygen flowing through machines, records-as-portals and songs-as-portraits, ducking around the 1, the Brazilian notion of samba de mesa, and having both Igbo and Kinyarwanda on his new album.
“In my first meeting with Matador on Zoom, I said, ‘Thanks for being here. Thanks for working with me. I really want to jump off a building.’ They set me up with a stuntman, Talin Chat, who is seen in The Mandalorian and Chicago Fire, and I had to go train with him and it was hilarious. I was in this YMCA gymnasium and I was the oldest person in there by like 15 years. And I was training with two other people. One was this 11-year-old who was going to be a Chicago Fire person who falls out of a window. The other were these twins that were doing back flips and crazy gymnasts. And I was just this kind of geriatric chick who showed up in boots.
“And yeah, the day of, I fell from this 9-foot rooftop onto a bunch of pads. And it was in March and the weather is so crazy in Chicago in March. It’s gorgeous. It was the first day of sun the whole year, and Mother Nature has really looked out for me on this record campaign, I have to say. It was life-affirming, though, that experience.”
“It can be difficult to talk about making music with people because they conflate ‘making music’ with ‘popular success’ and image and brand and all these other frightening, soul-destroying late-stage-capitalist concerns.”
In July, I began a weeklong email correspondence with Leslie Winer, to chat about her life and When I Hit You – You’ll Feel It, a new compilation of her decades of musical works. Due to personal concerns, it would be the lone interview she gave. I wonder if I should make a ‘zine of that long, winding exchange…but in the interim, here’s the published story.
“September 11 gave people a keyhole…a way to understand Basinski’s music. It was catastrophic beyond imagination, not just physically but to our psyche. It affected everyone’s lives. That opened up possibilities for people to stop and listen.”
Like William Basinski, I too climbed to the rooftop of my home in Williamsburg on September 11th, watching the tragedy just across the river and also struggled with the resultant trauma of what we bore witness to on that fateful day. Some 20 years on, I profiled Basinski for Texas Monthly, exploring trauma, music as a healing force, the scent of orange juice and cigarettes, and the blues.
(Below the jump, I also added a few paragraphs that were ultimately cut due to space, going deeper into Basinski’s childhood and upbringing and early days in NYC.)
(In homage to the passing of Lee Perry, here’s an unpublished essay I originally wrote for the Believer about football, head injuries, MKULTRA, video “hash,” Roger Staubach, MNF, Burroughs, 1200 lb. videotape machines, digital delay, and dub reggae. Fun fact, I wrote parts of it while suffering from a concussion myself.)
Calling the meek and the ‘umble Welcome to Blackboard Jungle So don’t you fumble Just be ‘umble-umble-mble. -Introductory incant to “Black Panta” from the Upsetters’ 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle
Shadowing the past few campaigns of the National Football League like a corner in man-to-man coverage has been the medical revelation of irreparable brain damage caused by merely playing the game. With every post-game recap, there seemed to follow even more news on helmet-to-helmet hits, new scientific studies revealing the depths of such trauma, all of it lingering over the game like post-concussion symptoms. Commentary last year alone ranged from 60 Minutes profiles to Time (deflated pigskin cover on its 2009 story: “The Most Dangerous Game”) to the New Yorker, where Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Offensive Play” discussed the brown tau and beta-amyloid stains that appear on damaged players’ brains from too many head-on collisions. He noted that NFL players suffered a five times higher than average diagnoses of “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease” after their playing years were behind them, adding a lineman’s description of a standard downfield drive: “Every play, collision, collision, collision…literally, these white explosions –boom, boom, boom– lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.”
“To be enamored with that strangeness, that perpetual smoke screen of his, means getting caught in Scratch’s most profound musical trap. His own music could veer towards the nonsensical and ribald, but his greatest productions were also powerful and prophetic, the sound of a real revolutionary embodying the type of Black empowerment and pride.”
As a teenager in South Texas in the early ’90s (ie, before that Grand Royal issue came out and blew everyone’s minds), I came across a copy of Super Ape, having zero knowledge about what reggae was or who this band the Upsetters even were. But it passed the “King Kong with a Tommy Chong spliff” test so I took it home, unprepared for the heavy roots and nyabinghi thunder that awaited me. Decades on, I feel like I’m still learning about Perry’s tireless discography and profound vision. Perhaps the song I’ve returned to most this summer is Junior Byles’ “Curley Locks,” which is mentioned in my Scratch tribute.
“Native peoples have another conception of time, of land, in relation to the vitality of the place where they live. An organic and sacred relationship that is not understood overnight. To understand them, you have to dedicate time, listen, and desire to know the unknown.”
“Moki’s tapestries were a living part of the music because they were all over the place; they were everywhere. They provided a creative and emotional impetus, they were like mandalas in a way. The tapestries you could go deeply inside of them. There’s the whole thing, but you could investigate different sections of the tapestry. You’re just in this environment where they’re all over the place so you found yourself being subtly influenced by these colors and these images that she did, these quilts and tapestries with all these different designs. It would have been impossible not to be influenced by them. They were part of the home, but also you begin to see how they became part of the music.”
A few years ago, I got the chance to talk with Neneh Cherry about her parents’ vision of music and art, her mother’s mantra: “The stage is the home and the home is the stage.” Now I got to see it through with a story investigating Moki Cherry’s presence and work alongside Don Cherry, with crucial insight from her, Terry Riley, and Hamid Drake.
Right before the global pandemic landed, I was in the process of flying out to Chicago to profile visual artist Lisa Alvarado for Texas Monthly. And while that didn’t happen, I was able to spend a year in conversation with her, while also wholly immersed in the music of her group with husband Joshua Abrams, Natural Information Society.
“Looking at Lisa Alvarado’s canvases, you get the feeling that you can see more the longer you gaze at them. Lines start to slip, patterns teem, sharp angles shift, colors brighten, curled paint starts to loosen its coil, your eye imagining just how the shapes might move if they weren’t fixed in paint. In exhibition spaces, the oversized pieces exude a distinctive sense of presenceLooking at her canvases, you get the feeling that you can see more the longer you gaze at them. Lines start to slip, patterns teem, sharp angles shift, colors brighten, curled paint starts to loosen its coil, your eye imagining just how the shapes might move if they weren’t fixed in paint. In exhibition spaces, the oversized pieces exude a distinctive sense of presence.”