Thursday, 4 July 2013
Interview with DAVE KERMAN (5UUs,U TOTEM,PRESENT,THINKING PLAGUE...etc.etc.)
What does music mean in your life?
Well, it’s pretty much connected to everything I do. Besides playing drums, I’m a composer, lyricist, producer, sometimes bandleader, tour organizer, concert promoter, music publisher, compact disc distributor and the President of a Record label. Music is sort of an “addiction”, I guess, and would be a difficult thing to extricate myself from.
You were something of an “enfant prodige”. Did this help you to early step out of standard music?
That’s a nice compliment, but I was no prodigy. Had I been, I wouldn’t have failed the percussion audition in primary school, and “faked” the timpani parts in the High School orchestra. I merely started making my own way, and my own rules, early in life, and came from an admittedly affluent place at a propitious time in history when this sort of behaviour was tolerated. Luckily, this fortunate set of circumstances allowed me lots of leniencies and connections; Even though I could never read music very well, I got studio work at a young age, playing radio and television commercials, and on lots of record company demos, which gave me some years’ worth of studio experience even before I started to write my own material. Later it became a conscience decision to NOT play overtly commercial music, because I’d already done enough of that for other people. That’s why I pretty much bowed out of standard music, and was intrigued by the world of Recommended Records and Rock In Opposition when introduced to it in the late 70’s. This school of aesthetic hard knocks appeared to eschew anything offered by commercial record labels, hoping instead to promote something more D.I.Y in terms of artistic merit. That concept fit me well at the time, as it still does.
Was 5UUs your first professional group? What about your former groups?
In the mid seventies, perhaps aged 15, I was in a group that covered Progressive Rock tunes; Yes’ Siberian Khatru, lots of songs from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, In a Glass House, Brain Salad Surgery…that kind of stuff. We morphed with another group that were writing original stuff, and the next step was for me to enlist the vocalist, Curt Wilson, and to start 5uu’s with some of my other pals. So, the first record deal I can remember for any of us was indeed the 5uu’s contract with Recommended Records. And it was with that band that I cut my teeth, so to speak.
Which influences shaped the music of 5UUs?
I was a rabid fan of everything in the ReR/ Recommended catalog, long before being given a contract with them; Art Bears, This Heat, Faust, Univers Zero, Etron Fou, Henry Cow, ZNR, The Residents, Art Zoyd….man, the list is endless. And because of this, it took a while for the band to establish its own musical style and leanings. But, once we became comfortable with taking chances with the approach to our instruments and the way the music was composed, as opposed to simply emulating what had already been offered us, things greatly improved. We had a good amount of determination in the beginning, despite the fact that some of our pals in the L.A. rehearsal rooms (Ratt, Great White, The Motels, Missing Persons) were headed towards superstar-dom in the Hard Rock and New Wave worlds, and thought we were batshit crazy to play the sort of music we did. So, I’d have to say that diligence itself was an influence; it wasn’t until some years later that we were introduced to some local bands that shared much the same musical inspiration; these, in turn, also influenced us.
5UUs formed and disbanded several times? Which is the opus of the group you find more representative?
It wasn’t so much a case of a group disbanding, as much as a set of circumstances where I had the opportunity to interest different people to play my little tunes. All of these sub-sets still sound quite varied to me. But, the early-to-mid 90’s group, which made two subsequent albums (“Hunger’s Teeth and “Crisis In Clay”) was the 5uu’s working process that lasted the longest. As well, this material was played live during some European tours when we were living on the continent, whereas the USA versions of the band usually stuck to home recording or recording studios, and live radio broadcasts. So, in all honesty I’d say that the living-in-Europe formation of the group was in many ways the apex of its achievements. There’s now talk of rejuvenating this particular line-up in 2014, after almost 20 years, with some additional players; We’ll just have to wait and see if the old days can be improved upon.
Considering that you are the principal composer of 5UUs, what kind of relationship do you have with the group? Is 5UUs the alter ego of Dave Kerman?
I hate to look at it that way, and at the height of the band the others had lots of input. But, yeagh, traditionally 5uu’s was my baby, for better or worse. In the beginning there were five of us, all with varied musical persuasions. Some of the things that we could surely agree upon were drinking copious amounts of beer, improvising and making a lot of racket, which we invariably did. But once I began to write songs, they took to that vocation also, in their own styles, and were quite good at it. So they’ve each continued in that direction to this day. In the meanwhile it was only natural for me to keep the name and continue doing my own musings. Over the years, while this particular band has been primarily my personal vision (music, words, arrangements, production), almost everyone else that has ever been involved has had their own aspirations, compositions, and indeed their own bands, which I’ve be involved with, solely as a drummer. It’s become rather domestic, you see, like taking turns serving Christmas Dinner every year at a different family member’s home. My meals, let’s say, might be the most homespun, as I am not so experienced or traditional in the musical theory kitchen, whereas the others usually have a good deal of compositional training under their aprons. I’m serving mixed cuisine Tacos to their exquisitely prepared Caviar and Foie Gras. Thankfully, everyone likes the simple things in life from time to time.
You are a composer, musician, producer, writer; you play your composition and the ones of other composers. Is there a role you prefer?
I enjoy the process of creation, so it’s difficult to choose one aspect of what I do over another. I will say that different jobs have assorted responsibilities, and some come easier to me than others. For instance, I’ve been drumming for a long time, so that’s fast and simple. By comparison, composing an album’s worth of material is, for me, an arduous, all-encompassing swine. Due to certain inabilities brought about by a lack of training, the process can take anywhere from many weeks to many months, depending on how focused I’m allowed to be. On another front, producing someone else’s recordings is only sometimes difficult for me conceptually, if the artist isn’t convinced of my approach. But, I do what I do, the way I do it…It’s always MY way…always has been that way…
You play in many groups: Present, U Totem, Thinking Plague, Motor Totemist Guild, Ahvak, Blast, Les Reines Prochaines, Aranis, Nimby. What do they have in common? And which are the peculiarities of each group you mostly appreciate?
Each of these bands has made it a point to be largely self-sufficient with regards to their careers. They have paid their own bills, piecemeal and sometimes with difficulty, in an attempt to get their music into peoples’ ears. The majority are signed to Cuneiform Records in Maryland, the USA’s most forward-thinking record label, and are given almost 100% complete artistic freedom to create their product as they desire. Stylistically, each group helps to run the gamut from simple-but-subversively-intelligent “Pop” music (NIMBY and LES REINES PROCHAINES) to “Avant Chamber” music (U-TOTEM and ARANIS), and then off to rehearsal-intensive “Updated Progressive Rock” (AHVAK, THINKING PLAGUE and PRESENT) before ending up in some fairly wild, “Through Composed” territory (BLAST and MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD). As well, the instrumentation in some of these bands can be quite different than that of a typical Rock band; We’ve used bassoon, harmonium, chromatic accordion, violin and classical woodwinds in some of them, and home-made industrial machines and cement mixers in others. Besides having played in each of these groups myself, there are other crossovers of musicians at our hypothetical Christmas Dinner table; there seems to be a constant, revolving stable of musicians and friends sharing one another’s programmes. On a musical level, we sought out one another because our styles somewhat meshed, and we thought it would be fun to play in each other’s bands. In personal terms, most of us have known one another for many years; a few have romances, while others have even gotten married.
You lived for long periods in foreign countries like Belgium, France, and Israel could you speak to us about these experiences?
I have spent considerable time in Belgium, but have never actually lived there. But, in a nutshell, I’ve played in bands from several countries. This gave me the opportunity to live in France, Slovenia, Italy, Israel and now in Switzerland. What I find great is just how much language, location and culture tend to influence the musical tendencies of bands, almost to a stereotypical degree; For instance, BLAST’s music “sounds” like Holland to me – colourful, busy and crazy, but also assuaging and with an economy of means. PRESENT and ARANIS’ music “sounds” like Belgium to my ears – dark, cold, secretive and foreboding, whilst somehow extending much human warmth and a kindred sense of care. AHVAK “sounds” like Israel to me – young, educated, and aggressive, but with eagerness and wisdom beyond its years. LES REINES PROCHAINES “sounds” like Switzerland to me – wacky, multi-faceted, isolated and roughly hewn, offset by lenience, independence and longevity. I’m certain that these correlations are more than chance observations on my part, or the culminations of my experiences in these places. Rather, these are the ways by which culture can become ingrained in a group’s creative mindset, musical tendencies and poetic language. I suppose I’ve assimilated enough of these traits to consider myself a “man without a country”, which might explain why my personal tastes are a bit esoteric, and all over the map. I’m a bit of a Wandering Jew.
What is your relationship with Bob Drake?
We met in Los Angeles, my neck of the woods, when Bob moved there from Denver in the late ‘80’s to work in a big Hollywood studio. He was still playing drums for Thinking Plague at this point, but enlisted me for that job, so he could play bass in the band. At the same time, I asked him to play bass, sing and engineer 5uu’s. At this point, we also recorded the second Hail album together, with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Susanne Lewis. After a couple of years of working both bands, and eating tons of Middle Eastern food in Burbank, we were given the opportunity to live in the South of France, in a bucolic setting – a historic, converted dairy farm - owned by the principals of Recommended Records, who wanted to turn the complex into a recording studio, artists’ space and living quarters. We did lots of good work there in the first two years; Ample recording, touring and building construction, after which I returned to the USA. Bob stayed on, and has been there almost 20 years now, churning out solo albums at an admirable rate, working in lots of bands, and offering his engineering and producing expertise to others. Since then, we’ve been in other bands together, like NIMBY, TOWERING INFERNO and his own band, CABINET OF CURIOSITIES. He and E.M. Thomas administer it as ……… and it’s arguably the coolest place on earth to record, whilst enjoying the scenery of France’s Department 11, the Aude.
How did you start your experience with ReR USA and how are you organized?
Since the late 70’s, I had wanted to have a Recommended Records affiliate in America. It took years to come about, but in 2003 I made a serious proposal to the head of the label, Chris Cutler, who took it to heart. For the longest time we were based in Denver, Colorado. But, I eventually relocated to Basel, where I now administer the company’s affairs. The warehouse was shipped to New York, and is now run by our second-in-command, Keith Macksoud, who is also the bass player for the Belgian band, PRESENT. Besides the ReR/Recommended Records titles, we also vend our own label, Ad Hoc Records, and Fred Frith’s label, Fred Records.
What about American musical market?
Yeagh, well…for sheer numbers, the market in North America has never been especially keen on our sort of wares. There is, however, an interested fan base of loyal listeners, who have been supportive of the music covered by this genre. It’s to them that we continue to cater, because they have impeccable taste, and are quite musically knowledgeable. For a while now, I’ve insisted on a delicate balance of artistic merit and pro-active business principals; it’s my opinion that the combination of the two is the method that stands the best chance of getting quality music into peoples’ ears. More and more, it becomes an uphill battle against the sort of ever-changing and advancing technology that threatens to unhinge upon itself financially. But the music we admire and believe in has never been concerned with the notions of fashion and overt consumerism, so we stick to our own guerrilla rules, just like it ever was.
Do you have any new project coming out on Ad Hoc records?
As far as new signings, we are keeping a fairly low profile for the moment, instead putting as much energy as possible into ReR and Fred Records’ new releases. Ad Hoc has had its most success when re-issuing long out-of-print, impossible to find, classic albums; But a failing economy worldwide, which has led to less expendable income than in the past, has geared us towards promoting newly created releases. These are ostensibly the most important projects anyway, being able to both progress, in terms of musical excellence, and fight artistic stagnation.
Are there any new groups you are playing with in the future?
I’m currently playing with two new bands here in Switzerland. One is from the city of Basel, and is simply called MU. We had our series of debut performances earlier this year in an Avant Garde production of Luzius Rohner’s “Herakles”. Our parts were performed in a large metal foundry, so the music we came up with was quite industrial. We often banged loudly on anything in sight, and the composed parts were free enough that I could play the drums with cake mixers, hammers and chains. It was bizarre visually, as well. We dressed in union suits and fake muscles, so it looked like a meeting of Hulk Hogan and Clockwork Orange. The other group I currently play with here, STEPMOTHER, is rather cosmopolitan and is more along the lines of London-Scene / Rec Rec Art rock. The co-conspirators are Lukas Simonis (Dull Schicksall, Vril, AA Kismet), Bill Gilonis (The Work, The Lowest Notes, News From Babel) and Jeroen Visser (Pale Nudes, Cedric Vuille, Tetras). Against all odds, the Swiss government has deemed us worthy enough to receive a grant, which will allow us to record and mix our first album. So, off we go……
Could you speak us about your experience with the four ladies of Les Reines Prochaines that brought to the release of their record “Blut”?
LES REINES PROCHAINES is the long-standing musical voice of a loosely-knit collective of artists/ technicians that work with one another on different projects here in Switzerland. Besides music, there is a lot of video work going on, photography, performance art, computer and sound generated installations and documentary production. The band part of this, LES REINES, has been around for over twenty years, and is normally comprised of four women, though at times can include one or two more, and sometimes – as of late – myself on drums. I first met them at a festival in Portugal and, after eventually marrying one of them, was asked to play drums on their multimedia whodunnit musical extravaganza, “DINGS”, throughout the country. Running concurrently with this travelling performance was the recording of the album “BLUT”, which they asked me to produce and play drums on. For me it was a totally different sort of production than that which I’m used to, as the working process and aesthetics initially came from a place somewhere in the realm of Modern Art as opposed to the concert stage. While most bands produce music as a means to examine art, LES REINES creates art as a means to express music. Theirs is a fantastic approach actually, and has made them a bit infamous in these parts. Just the other day, they were the featured models for a grocery chain’s advertisements, and could be seen holding slabs of enticing meat, dairy products and vegetables up to the camera.
Do you believe R.I.O. ( new musics ) are still vital nowadays?
I believe that some forms of forward-thinking or innovative art, including music, can be important philosophies. If they are able to transcend cultural and geographic boundaries, they can potentially be an active form of international, non-violent communication. But, it’s different than how it used to be, even with regards to recent history. In the 60’s, when most of the original RIO members were learning their craft, many people believed that music could change the world, to make it a better place. In reality it couldn’t, and still can’t. Proof of this fact is that politics dictates the very economics needed to acquire and propagate most sorts of art, even though art might strongly criticize politics. And often an artist’s work, even when radicalized, ends up as a rallying point for that which it faults; Bertolt Brecht’s output, for instance, was mostly written to embolden the poor and the working class, but it has traditionally been the upper class and money-elite that keep his writings alive, and go to the theatre to see his plays. Amidst the contradiction, those who create this kind of music must also battle the blockades of differing cultural axioms and spoken languages. The five original RIO bands were enlisted partly because their artisanship did indeed evolve independently of one another, both in terms of national diversity and the fact that they were ignored by the music industry in their respective countries. Though the original movement quickly fizzled, what grew from it was an important attitude, which survives today style adopted by quite a few newer bands which neither had any chance with a major record label, nor the opportunity to have their art appropriated by any institution with a differing viewpoint. Here then is a preciously unspoiled repository of ideas, self-generated, self-administered, and self-sufficient, that has so far been successful with the practical intention to create, which is the antithesis of the human penchant to destroy.
Some interesting links:
and some videos: