With a film by Robert Longo: Pictures for Music (1979)
10 February 2007
Electric guitars:
Rhys Chatham
David Daniell (San Agustin, Essentialist)
Andrew Broder (Fog)
Erik Fratzke (Happy Apple)
Robert Lowe (Lichens)
Todd Rittmann (USMaple)
Ben Vida (Bird Show)
Electric bass: Greg Norton (Hüsker Dü)
Drums: Tim Glenn (Fog)
House engineer: Patrick Scott (from Chicago)
Tour recording engineer: Eric Block (Semaphore Recording Studio)
Tour manager: Regina Greene of Front Porch Productions
The trip to Minneapolis was only five hours or so and uneventful. We arrived at the Coffman Memorial Union building at the University of Minnesota. The Whole Music Club was located on the basement level, so we gratefully carried our equipment "down" rather than "up" a bunch of stairs.
We walked into the space, everything was painted grey and there were concrete columns everywhere. Chairs were available for people to sit in as well as all kinds of nooks and crannies where people could sit and hang out. A juice bar was located at one of the far walls, the sound controls were in the center of the room, enclosed in a cage. The stage was carpeted and only slightly raised off the floor at the center of one of the walls of the room.
It was an oddly proportioned space with high ceiling for a basement, but pleasant to be in. It somehow avoided that depressing institutional flavor that a lot of university rooms have.
The first person I noticed was a guy roughly my age who was hanging out with a really cool looking electric bass. "Holy shit,” I thought, "that must be Greg Norton," of Hüsker Dü fame. Hüsker Dü first gained notice in the early 80s as a hardcore punk band with thrashing tempos and screamed vocals, but also with a melodic, soulful edge that became more pronounced in the band's mid-career as they drifted away from their early sound, becoming one of the earliest and most influential bands in American alternative rock in the process. So I introduced myself and we chatted for a while.
There was a group sound checking on stage when we arrived, which turned out to be Fog, who were going to open for us. Fog is a band from Minneapolis that plays experimental rock and was started by Andrew Broder in 1999. The band consists of Broder, Tim Glenn and Mark Erickson. Fog is on Lex Records, and has a new album coming out in the late summer 2007.
After Fog had finished sound checking, I talked Andrew and Tim and met Erik Fratzke of the group Happy Apple. Happy Apple could be called a "punk" jazz band, and are as likely to explore microtonality, free-jazz, hard funk, free bop or groove music while at the same time evoking words like "rollicking,” "explosive,” "telepathic,” "boisterous,” "unruly,” "irreverent" and "subversive”! Erik plays electric bass in this group, but was joining us on G3 as an electric guitarist.
After everyone had chatted for a bit, we set up our equipment and got a stage sound. Greg Norton usually plays with his fingers rather than a pick, so he asked me if I had a preference. I said to use whichever he was most comfortable with, that it really didn't matter, so he went with his fingers.
During Fog's soundcheck, I noticed that Todd Rittmann was changing all the strings on his guitar. I said something about this, and Todd said that, "yeah, I like to change strings after every third performance.” I thought this sounded like a good idea, so soon I was doing the same thing along with Todd. David spied us, and not to be outdone, he started changing his strings, too! Neither of us had had a chance to change strings since Buffalo, or at least I hadn't, so this was probably a good idea in our case.
It really does sound better having new strings, I must say. Especially for G3. The overtones ring out more and the sound is fresher. So thanks, Todd, for this great idea!
The sound check went smoothly. Greg had a very particular rhythmic way of playing bass on G3 that worked quite well, both in defining the phrasing of the piece as well as grounding it and giving a clear sense of where we were, thus enabling us to bliss out with our guitar playing, something that we were getting into more and more with this band.
After sound check, we went out to dinner to a restaurant where the bar was on the second level and the place where one choose the food was on the ground level. Everyone in the core band, particularly David, Regina, Eric and me, were dead tired by this time from playing every night with a new group. We were all hungry and were a bit like walking zombies. I mean, we walked into the restaurant and it was, like, "Night of the Living Dead!” I went upstairs to get a couple pitchers of beer for everyone, and it turned out to be complicated, for procedural reasons, to bring the beer down from the second to first floor. I tried to understand what the bar guy was saying, I really did, but none of it made any sense. I kept asking him to repeat himself. Finally we arrived at a solution where a server would bring the pitchers down to us.
When the beer didn't come, Regina went up to try to work things out. She came back 15 minutes later, no luck. It was really getting to be like something out of Spinal Tap, with everyone in the band putting his or her two cents in on how to solve this problem with the beer. Finally, it turned out that we could buy beer on the first floor...geez! Why didn't they say that in the first place? So we finally got our beer, and thus refreshed, I was sitting at a table with Ben, Todd and Rob. We talked about how Ben and Todd are forming a new group together, I think with Ben's brother Adam Vida, who had played with us in Chicago. We came up with a number of names for the new band, but none of them stuck. So if anyone has any ideas on this, do let Todd know.
We left the restaurant and hung out in the pleasant dressing room, which was not far from the stage. The promoters had thoughtfully provided refreshments, and I got to talking with Greg, who in addition to being a bass player, is also a fantastic chef. In my checkered past I have also been a restaurant person, working for a number of years in a kitchen (a real one, not the performing arts center in Manhattan...) as well as working as a barman. So we talked a little shop. It turns out he opened his own restaurant a few of years back called The Nortons' Restaurant, operated with his wife, Sarah. Since then, he met Dave King of Bad Plus, and they had a crazy idea of putting a band together that would be more than just your standard fusion of punk junk jazz avant-garde industrial metal noise... ;-) The result was a configuration called The Gang Font, which in fact turned out to be more on the punkprogfreefunkmathmetal side of things, and includes, among other people, our own Erik Fratzke of Happy Apple. More info on Greg's projects can be found at http://www.myspace.com/gregnorton.
Fog went on first. Andrew Broder was the singer and played electric guitar, Tim was on drums, and Mark Erickson was the bass player. I liked it, Andrew's voice was haunting and his guitar had a piercing sound to it that was great. I guess you could call what they played indie rock, the music definitely has an edge to it. Mark had a really nice way of moving while he was playing bass. Good performers all three, and they played to a receptive house.
Then it was out turn to play. We all managed to squeeze together on the relatively small stage, as you can see on this extract of the performance. As we were playing I often went out in to the audience, since the stage was low off the ground. It's fun to be so close to the audience.
During the set, as usual, I brought David in first since he knows the piece the best and kind of functions as the concert master, i.e. the person everyone looks at if I somehow get lost or otherwise become incapacitated! David and I did a little duet together. After bringing in the other guitarists one by one, I worked a lot with Greg and Tim, as we three were the primary rhythmic reference. I quite enjoyed their approach. Tim was reacting naturally to the characteristic rhythm of G3 and Greg responded to it in his own unique fashion, which I appreciated. It's great to hear such interesting interpretations of this piece. I've been working with primarily one bass player over the years, Ernie Brooks of the Modern Lovers, who is brilliant. So it was quite an eye opener for me to see how other amazing bass players play this piece and their different and varying approaches to it. Not to mention drummers!
As I was establishing eye contact with the audience and checking them out during the performance, I noticed that this was a particularly good-looking crowd, both the men and the women. Often at university gigs you get the blue jean crowd, as students are usually on a tight budget. Now I usually wear blue jeans myself (black ones, naturally), so I have nothing against them, but these people really had a cool, non-definable street look. The crowd was mostly graduate and undergraduate age, yet they all looked fantastic. Does this have something to do with Minneapolis? Or perhaps they were art students... Yes, that must be it. Art students tend to be more visually oriented, I would imagine. Anyway, this audience was a pleasure to play for as well as look at!
At one point in the middle, I realized that I wasn't coming out of the sound system, so I signaled to Patrick Scott, who was on house sound, to turn me up in the monitor. He did, and I still couldn't really hear myself, so I turned my amp up a bit, much to David and Eric's horror (we were recording the session).
I STILL couldn't hear myself very well and was getting pissed off. I was about to give Patrick a really dirty look, when Ben and Rob noticed that my guitar jack had separated from my digital tuner (which in turn was connected to the amp). How embarrassing... Also, this kind of thing happening is a drag because it effects the recording negatively. Anyway, we soon resolved the problem as the music continued. Next time we'll figure out a way to avoid situations like that.
After the drop out scare, Todd and I got into a duet kind of thing in the last six-string section. Ben was in guitar heaven again throughout this, relating to Todd and me from across the stage in an ecstatic fashion. Well, I think that by the last 6-string section all of us were pretty much in guitar paradise. And Robert Lowe, freed of his responsibilities of cueing the drummer (from the last gig) was really rocking out, both musically and movement wise, I couldn't keep up with him! He has this thing he does of arching his spine backwards while playing the guitar. I'm gonna try to imitate him at the next gig!
Wafts of viscous, gelatinous waves of harmonics continued to envelope the audience, delivering its message not of doom, not of gloom, but the pure joy of listening to music at such obscenely high levels of sound. Of directly experiencing and engaging this music at its source in a way which allows the transcendence of its original musical meaning, while at the same time imploding it; to such a degree that meaning is no longer possible or even desirable, but rather exactly the reverse: to experience initiation in a rite of decimation of musical meaning and thought in order to partake of the fascination which results from daring such a thing.
At least that was the idea. In any case, the audience seemed to go along with it. And they demanded an encore, which we were happy to provide.
Standing from left to right: David Daniell, Erik Fratze, Greg Norton, David Hill, Eric Block. Kneeling from left to right: Robert Lowe, Andrew Broder, Tim Glenn, Benjamin Vida. Sitting from left to right: Rhys, Todd Rittmann © Rhys Chatham
G3 performance at The Whole Music Club