18 dicembre 2008

Gravitar interview with Geoff Walker and Eric Cook

Pillaloo è vivo e se sonnecchia lo fa come l'alligatore prima che azzanni la preda. (Mi ricordo che in un documentario si vedeva questo alligatore che sbucava fuori dall'acqua e si scagliava contro una scimmia che passeggiava lì sulla riva, forse in villeggiatura. Credendo che quei luridi schizzi di fango e bava avessero a che vedere con uno dei giochi organizzati da quel mattacchione dell'animatore del villaggio, la scimmia faceva un simpatico zompo all'indietro, quasi ridacchiando. Non troppo rapida però perché l'alligatore intanto s'era portato via mano e parte dell'avambraccio destro, così che la scimmia si guardava penzolare quel che restava di ossa legamenti nervi sanguinolenti). Tutto questo per dire anche che prendo la palla al balzo per proporre in versione integrale l'intervista fatta qualche mese fa a Eric Cook e Geoff Walker dei Gravitar, gruppo che già a inizio anni '90 anticipava certe tendenze del noise attuale sia a livello musicale (uso sfrenato di pedali/effetti, virate psych/free) che a livello estetico (formati vari a latere della loro discografia ufficiale/plurime collaborazioni ecc.). Anche se con meno gloria basta vedere quel che han combinato i due dopo lo scioglimento del gruppo: Geoff perso in mille cose e Eric con la sua carriera solista di musicista elettronico. Di tutto questo si è parlato nel numero di luglio-agosto di "Blow Up" ma è Pillaloo a beccarsi la versione totalmente integrale e uncut di un'intervista che è utile non solo per conoscere aspetti sconosciuti della musica e della storia dei Gravitar, ma che ci permette di gettare un occhio proprio sullo stato dell'arte che porterà dieci anni dopo a trovare un altro gruppo del Michigan, i Wolf Eyes, nientemeno che su Sub Pop. E da allora di cose nella musica brutta ne sono successe già tante...
Il testo è rimasto così com'è nato e si è sviluppato, senza troppe pippe. E anche questa è in inglese, sì.

Why Gravitar as band name?

Geoff: Gravitar was Harold's idea. Eric and I liked it because it evoked feelings of weight and thickness, and it sounded super-hero-esque. We (at least Eric and I didn't, I don't know now if Harold didn't) didn't know at the time about the Atari video game. Oh well. We had several other names before Gravitar, but decided to stick with the one we played our first show as, so as to not have to begin promoting a new name....

How did you meet each others?

Geoff: Harold and Eric had played together with John D'Agostini in a band called Stinkeye in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. John and Harold were in college and met Eric when he played drums for Morbid Fear, with a guy I went to High School with (in the great north, 8 hours north of Detroit by car, very remote). Anyway, they all played together and kept it up when Harold moved to Ann Arbor and John to Dearborn. Harold used to come into Schoolkids records, where I worked in Ann Arbor, which was a legendary Midwestern record store. We had the same taste in records, so he asked if I played music. When I said yes, he invited me to his house, where
Eric came and picked us up, and we drove to John's. Eric lived in East Lansing at the time, so he drove an hour to meet us and then an hour to get to John's. He was very dedicated.
Anyway, I met them because I was into weird records and so was Harold.

I'm curious to know your opinion about Wolf Eyes and related projects and, in general, about the michiganoise scene. Why right from that state we've had so many noise bands/projects? What are the reasons in your opinion? From Universal Indians to the latest generations of musicians...

Eric: Wolf Eyes are great, though I think their records pale somewhat in comparison to the experience of their live shows (but that's the case with a lot of noise acts, really). As far as the larger Michigan noise scene goes... I don't really know what's going on these days. I really checked out of being involved with the music scene when I came back to grad school in 2003, and a lot has changed since then. I think I've played two shows and been to maybe 3 others in that whole time. But I run into John Olson and Aaron Dilloway around town now and then, and email with the Timestereo guys some. I can't speak for them, or about the other people in that scene that I don't know personally, but I think a large part of the reason that they've all done so well is their work ethic. All those guys are freakin' machines -- just churning out release after release, band after band, tour after tour. I don't know how they've had the stamina to keep it up all these years. And they have been doing it for *years*. I met all those guys originally in the early 90s, and they were all doing music/noise/art then.. so to still be cranking it out some 15+ years later, that's impressive.

The Nicodemus split was one of your weirdest releases on vynil...

Ah yeah, the Nicodemus split. I think that is probably my least favorite Gravitar release, or at least it is the one that I was least involved with and least invested in. I think I've listened to it twice since it came out. Geoff took the lead on that one. I understand what he was shooting for, and certainly his motivation for wanting to do something with Nicodemus (who was quite a character, and a pretty big personal influence on Geoff for a while then). But I don't think it came together, sonically or in terms of direction and approach.

I've listened to the collaboration of Geoff with Blue Sabbath Black Cheer and it's great. It's weird that someone some years ago wrote that Gravitar were influenced also by Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer...
Eric: I haven't heard that one. I've only been marginally in touch the past few years, after he moved to San Francisco and I started back at grad school. But yeah, Sabbath was of course a big influence on all of us, all sorts of heavy guitar psych stuff like Blue Cheer... We even had a song on the "Brief history of.." tape/CDR called 'Blue Sabbath' (small joke there, the song wasn't quite heavy enough to be 'black', so it was just blue..)

It would be good if you've some anecdotes to share with us...

Eric: Hm... I've been thinking about anecdotes and stories, but it is a little hard for me to guess what would be most interesting or useful for you. Do you want stories about how the band was formed, how various records came about, how things developed over time, or..? If you frame it a bit more, I can be more detailed and on point...

Rehearsal spots 1993-1994:
We used to have a rehearsal room in an office building in downtown Ann Arbor, which we shared with another band called the Zug Island Quartet (named after a Detroit area industrial zone). We could only practice between 11 pm and 5 am. We would do these marathon latenight sessions, and then I would drive the hour home to East Lansing where I was living at the time, with the sun coming up...

The building was strangely on the down and out -- it did have a few operating businesses in it (and downtown ann arbor is fairly upscale overall), but there would be homeless guys asleep in the elevator when we hauled our equipment in at night, etc. Things got stranger and sketchier after a while; John Westerman, the guy from Zug Island who paid the rent on the room took our collective monthly payment to the property management company that he had been dealing with. The woman he had been dealing with there was gone (fired? left? it was unclear), and they informed him that they *weren't* in fact the owners or managers of the building. What was that all about? Did they lose possession of it somehow, or had we been paying rent to the wrong person while effectively squatting illegally in the building? We never found out, but we just stopped paying rent, and no one came asking why were there.. So I suppose at that point we went from effectively squatting to definitely squatting.

The building kept going further downhill over the next few months, ceiling tiles falling down, just generally a sense of disrepair kicking. More homeless guys in the building. We heard stories of one of the other office rooms being broken into, so Westerman took it on himself to reinforce our door with extra locks and plywood (a good job too). Then one day, we came it, and saw that someone had kicked a man-sized hole in the wall thru the drywall next to one of the door, and looted it. Needless to say, it was clear that our door reinforcement wasn't going to do the trick in response to that. Time was up, and it was clear that we need to find better practice space.

The next spot was in a self-storage facility in Westland, a suburb outside of Detroit. I can't remember how we found the spot, there weren't any other bands in there, and none of us lived near Westland. I do remember that it was convenient to get to from the highway, so maybe that was a factor. In any case, here we were again in practice spot that wasn't, really. These were little 10x10 rooms, made of corrugated steel, with us running a powercord out the door and plugging into some industrial outlet around the corner from our building with 2 or three extension cords. I'm not sure exactly I can convey what kind of ear damage that induced.. we used to rehearse *loud*. Turn up any of the gravitar CDs as loud as your stereo will go, and then put it all in a room entirely made of metal. There would be this high pitched shimmer that would hang in the air as the walls and doors vibrated and shook.

This ended after about 6 months. Again, we were paying rent, but sneaking in to do rehearsals only after business hours, here from about 9 pm to midnight. One day Harold drove out to play guitar by himself during the day.. not sure why. The actual owner of the facility was unfortunately on site, and came flying into the room, red-faced and apoplectic, asking Harold what he thought he was doing. "I thought you were using power tools in this unit!" When Harold recounted the story, I got the impression that power tools would have been marginally better than a guitar, amps and chains of pedals, but not by much. In any case, that was that for Secured Self Storage. We were without a rehearsal spot for a few months then, until Mike Walker moved to Ann Arbor and then joined the band. But that's another story.

Let me know if you're agree with who says that "Now the Road of Knives" is your best album.

Eric: Best? That's hard to say. It's a good album, and definitely the most studio intensive, which is something I was really interested in pursuing at the time. It is hard for me to say, to get far enough removed from the process and evaluate it as a standalone object.

Knives was early on in the post-Harold period, and so the more studio-intensive approach was both a result of wanting to make a clear and distinct break from the early records, as well as partly out of necessity, since we were still redeveloping ourselves as a live band with the new lineup. Warren Defever's influence was really helpful on that one as well, since he served more as a producer than we had had previously - John D'Agostini was a stalwart friend and engineer throughout the life of Gravitar, but he definitely took a more hands off approach with us in terms of suggesting what to include and what to exclude, and how we should approach the material and each record. He was a facilitator, rather than a producer, if you see my distinction.

My favorite overall is probably a toss up between "you must first learn to draw the real" and "Edifier". I think "draw the real" is the tightest and most focused of the records, which sometimes suffered from meandering a bit longer than they need too, with the occasional dud track included for reasons that had more to do with individual egos than the ultimate good of each album. But Edifier has some of my favorite performances of the Geoff/Mike/Eric lineup, and probably caught us near the top of our time playing together (as well as being a nice sounding record!)

Geoff, you've been involved in may ways into the noise scene, so tell me something about your current and past projects.

Side projects include:

This was with John Olson of Wolf Eyes before he was in Wolf Eyes and Lisa Colwell. We were a multi-instrumental and vocal trio that was part of the Michigan Progressive movement in the late 20th century. The three of us set up many shows for traveling acts from around the country and world, including Mainliner, No Neck Blues Band, Rubber O Cement, and many more. One of our bands usually played the shows.

El Bombastico. This was with John D'Agostini and me who is Gravitar's usual engineer - we made lots of kinds of music using samples and instruments. John
has self-released some of our material. A cassette recently came out on What We Do Is Secret.

Magnetic Lucifer. This is me by myself. I use all manner of noise and range from psychedelic noise a la Masonna to twisted covers of Dolly Parton and Lee Hazelwood.

I've recently sat in with Awesome Color when they opened for Sonic Youth at the Fillmore in San Francisco and with Dinosaur Jr in Portland, Oregon.

Where do you live now and how did you get in touch with the guys of Blue Sabbath Black Cheer?

Geoff: I live in Washington State, not far from Portland. BSBC (Blue Sabbath Black Cheer) is in Seattle, about 3 hours north. I met Stan Reed at the Nurse With Wound show he played in San Francisco, just before I moved to Washington. Funny that I met him there because he
and Wm. had been in BSBC together for a while already. BSBC is named after a Gravitar song, Blue Sabbath, so it does make sense for me to play with them. I've
known Wm. for 13 years now. Gravitar did a west coast tour with his old band Tekachi in 1995. In 1996 Wm. came to Michigan and joined Gravitar for a couple shows. We were supporting Zeni Geva for their Michigan dates. Wm. and ZG and Bambi Nonymous (ZG's
tour manager, from Tragic Mulatto, Mudwimmin) all stayed at my house in Hamtramck, which is a small town entirely surrounded by Detroit. We had a grand time.

I like playing with BSBC - I've played with lots of people and bands over the years, and BSBC is one of very few that consistently works well - we just fucking nail it every time.

Other projects?

Most recently, I'm playing in Spider Tombs with Mark Howe, aka Loopletcher, aka ImLooLoo
We make a dynamic racket. He provides the lows and I make the highs, and we creak and squeak and rumble and explode.

Jesus, there are lots of other side projects, like the Transitional Phase cd with the crew from Subarachnoid Space, Flue and Outerdrive. Outerdrive were a bunch of Michigan guys I moved to Colorado with for a short period of time, centering around bassist extraordinaire and recordist Scott Hill. Psychedelic rock like psychedelic freak rock was meant to be. Scott still lives there and records as The Left Channel. We released two cds - one a super limited cdr and one on the Elsie and Jack Marino imprint

John Olson and I played together as Melted Shop Vac and have at least one release on American Tapes, though it's hard to keep up with all the stuff John has released with me on it. For instance, I haven't even seen the 19cdr box set that came out on American tapes last year and Basketcase apparently makes up a whole cd.

To be honest, I haven't kept up too much on what's been going on in the Michigan noise scene. I'm more interested in what's going on here in the Pacific Northwest

What about the new generations of noise musicians? Why Michigan as one of the cradles of this kind of music?

Geoff: The new generations are like new generations of anything - there's lots that's great and creative and lots that's just crap - I mean, any movement has good and bad. Michigan is a great place for loud music and noise because it's one way people can feel like they are empowered in an otherwise bleak existence. While the landscape is beautiful, the economy is terrible, and during the winter it is easy to stay inside with your records and amplifiers and not go out into the cold. Turning up your speakers so loud that your clothes flutter in the air waves and playing at
full volume just plain feels great. When you connect with your band-mates in that space it's unlike any other kind of communication. There were times with Gravitar that I felt as though energy was solid in the air and all I had to do was think of what I was going to do next and Mike and Eric knew and we neither led nor followed but pushed forward together in an
unparalleled assault.

Any anecdotes about the band on the stage...

Geoff: There was a time at the Green Room in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where the sound man measured us at 116 db while we were tuning up, before he turned on the PA system. We were massive that night. We cleared the audience out completely. I thought they'd left because they didn't like it, but when we went out front into the night air Jay Heikes (who did the cover art for Now The Road Of Knives) said "That was great!" "You didn't even hear it - you left, " I said. He replied "No! we were all out here listening! It was way too loud in there, we had to come out...but you sounded great."

What about the improvisation in your music?

Geoff: I think that our improv was equal parts free jazz, psych rock, garage, and funk, like Funkadelic (also from Detroit) on Alice in my fantasies, from Standing on the verge of getting it on

What was the role of John D'Agostini in the band's history?

Geoff: I cannot stress enough the importance of John D'Agostini. He was an original member of Gravitar, before we chose the name. He played bass. He continued with us as our engineer and friend, and we continued without a bass. No bass on any recordings. just guitars with whammy pedals.

Why the band disbanded at least?

Geoff: Eric decided not to continue, and there were no other drummers. He is the best drummer I ever played with. But more than that, at that point, to me, Gravitar was a family and it wouldn't have been Gravitar without him.

Back to the first records...

Geoff: There weren't any albums before Chinga, just the 7" and some tape appearances... The first single was our first real release - we'd been on a cassette comp before, but this was vinyl! and exciting. Computers were a lot slower then. working on cover art and mixing took lots of time, and was often sort of hit or miss....

We (or at least I was) were listening to lots of Japanese music, lots of garage punk, lots of american heavy music, lots of jazz like Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages.

We recorded both of our first two albums at Electric Landlandy studios with John D'Agostini at the helm. Mike played on one song on the second disc, joining full time shortly after it was recorded. We would go to John's studio and stay for two days at a time, playing, mixing, and hanging out. There was a real joy and excitement in the process.

Then I'd like to know something more and how you were able to write a fucking free noise album like "Now the Road of Knives". And if you think it's your best one or so. Looks like the textures of the songs exploded...

It was a difficult time in that we had to let Harold go at the end of '95, and had to re-organize our sound. That was real hard because his playing was so integral to Gravitar. He had a way of playing on and off time at the same time that I still haven't heard anywhere else. Eric has a collection of songs that really showcase Harold that have yet to be released. Maybe some Italian label would be interested in them.....It was a major challenge for me and Mike to cover the guitar responsibilities, but it ultimately worked out well for us. Mike is a great rhythm
player, and together we were able to carve out a lot of sonic space. I grew up playing bass, so my guitar playing is very rhythmic as well. The fact that we're brothers made it easy to communicate and trade off low and high parts, using whammy pedals to create octave up, and octave down crunch rhythms, squealing leads, and the all out sonic mayhem that rides over the top of some of the songs on that album. We used a lot of pedals. Back then there weren't nearly as many boutique brands, and we didn't have all the old classics - we used lots of digitech pedals. Nowadays in the noise scene people scoff at digitech and Line 6 when they see them in someone's gear, which I think is stupid. Unless you make your own pedals you bought them, and just because one person buys something from a smaller weirder company doesn't make them cooler than the person who only has things they can get from a chain store. It's what the person does with those pedals that counts, and we made some pretty wild sounds with those mainstream machines.

Anyway, though it was at first challenging to work without Harold, the time around and just after that album became our most creative. We became stronger and our vision clearer. Our improvising improved, as did our songwriting. We recorded tracks with D'Agostini, and with Warren Defever (His Name Is Alive, Princess Dragon Mom, etc) and took what we felt were the best of both and mashed them together.

And here the improvisation comes...

Geoff: Our songwriting process was based on our improvisation. We would take a riff that someone had come up with, improvise on it until something clicked, repeat that, and then make that into the theme or jumping-off point.

It all seemed very easy and natural once we ironed out the guitar issues. Mike and I both had been doing vocals and horns. With him on guitar full time and me playing horns, vocals, and
guitar it really just took off. Listen to URR on "You Must First Learn To Draw The Real" - that song pretty much encapsulates the experience for me. I remember recording it in the basement of 328 John st in Ann Arbor - there was palpable electricity in the air when we left the 'jumping-off' point - a song called Uncle Rick that we were playing a lot then - and it roared
into its new and fuller self, URR (Uncle Ricks Revenge). A new song out of an old one - it remains my personal favorite of our tracks.

I think you're right in saying the textures of our songs exploded. It was as if we kept pushing each other to get bigger within an already bulging framework. There was a constant musical challenge, but also constant support. Playing with Gravitar at that time was one of the best things that's happened in my life. "You Must First Learn To Draw the Real" was originally intended to be a 3 song 10 inch or 12 inch. It was recorded on 4 tracks in the basement, re-mixed in the living room in Hamtramck, mastered and tweaked by Eric and John.

"Freedom..." was a collection of outtakes. Not second tier material, just things we didn't have room for on the albums. I love that record. It was Wm. Rage's idea, from Enterruption. I believe I talked about him before in relation to the Zeni Geva stories...

"Edifier" was recorded with Geoff Streadwick, who was one of Mike's best friends, and tragically died in a carbon monoxide poisoning accident before we finished the record. We were in a really strong place musically and were branching out in different directions that indicate where we might have gone if Eric hadn't decided to give up the drums.

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