Is the spirit of Motor Totemist Guild still alive and well in your nowadays musical evolution?
When we released the first album, “Infra Dig” in 1984, I was interested in combining opposites: high and low-brow musical styles, electronic and acoustic instruments, improvisation and composition, old and new ideas, and so on. This attitude has continued. I’ll never be a “pure” musician.
L-R: James Grigsby, Christine Clements, Thomas Dodge
What about the other original members of the group do you still have contacts with them?
I exchange Facebook messages with some of the alumni of Motor Totemist Guild (MTG). I had lunch recently with Roger Whitridge, who painted the first two album covers. He is a musician and writer too and has recently published a fantastic novel about the origins of Theosophy. I’d love to see some others who seem to have disappeared to me; maybe they will notice this interview and contact me!
Could you speak to us about the realization of City of Mirrors?
U Totem performed across Europe in 1993 and during the time we were in the Netherlands I was able to meet the master composer Louis Andriessen. I was asking about composers who might have been influential to him and he gave me a remarkable answer, “The music of Stan Kenton is more important to me than the music of Gustav Mahler.” This impressed me and when I returned home I began to study Kenton–especially the works arranged by Ruggolo and Graettinger–they were attempting a hybrid of the most recent advances in jazz and classical concert music. I was fascinated by the high standards and relentless creativity of this music, which led me back to Ellington and the other great bandleaders of the Swing Era. Naturally I wanted to try to express this in the context of MTG, so I needed to expand the group. I added several players associated with Vinny Golia’s Nine Winds records–a modern jazz label based on the West Coast–as well as some local players from classical and rock traditions. We rehearsed regularly for a few months, performed one concert, and spent a very long day in the recording studio. Later, I added some overdubs, mixed, and edited to create the album sequence. The title is partly a reference to Kenton’s City of Glass album, but also the first in a series of “City” albums for me. It was a great experience working with everyone and I wish it could have continued for longer. It gives me great respect for large ensembles, like the Willem Breuker Kollecktief, that are able to remain together over many years.
L-R: Becky Heninger, James Grigsby, Lynn Johnston
Is the last published effort of Motor Totemist Guild “All America City” a kind of forgotten soundtrack?
It’s a theoretical soundtrack for a film that was never made.
Could you speak us about the related film "Parachute Kids" aka "Yu Gakusei" you have written?
I wrote the screenplay and made an attempt to find a literary agent. However the story doesn’t adhere to certain standards of storytelling that might interest a film maker in investing in its production. The story is about a young teacher in California who meets a Japanese exchange student. The student works in a “hostess bar” with another girl who commits suicide – or was it murder? The teacher and student try to understand why her friend died and along the way they meet gangsters and a ghost who communicates through dreams.
Could you explain us how you worked to realize this project?
Half of the music was composed on the computer, so there were no limitations. One section could be a string quartet with percussion, another section a jazz combo, and so on. The music was composed using the Finale music notation software, so every note and rhythm was specified. On the other hand, half of the music was recorded live with musicians reacting to a graphic score. The graphics suggest but don’t dictate the outcome of the music. Using graphic notation made it possible to create moods related to the screenplay, without specific melodies or rhythms that might detract from the ambience of the scene.
L-R: Becky Heninger, Ken Ando, Lynn Johnston, James Grigsby
Which is the importance of cinema in your life? Which are your favourite directors?
I think film is the dominant art form of our time. It has eclipsed painting, ballet, theatre, music, and literature. This isn’t a desirable outcome, but here we are. There are many film directors whom I consider to be fine artists: Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, and Jean-Luc Godard, to name a few.
L-R: James Grigsby, Lynn Johnston, Eric Strauss, Becky Heninger, Emily Hay
L-R: Eric Strauss, Lynn Johnston, James Grigsby, Emily Hay, David Kerman, Becky Heninger
What about your activity of novelist, scenarist, (film director?) do you hide other artistic secrets?
Essentially I am a writer, whether it is music or words. I am definitely not a film director, though I do enjoy making abstract videos of natural events like leaves being blown by wind. These modest little film clips of mine are inspired by the great film artist Stan Brakhage, who achieved a high level of beauty working with film as a pure medium not tethered to a narrative sequence.
U Totem 1989
L-R: Sanjay Kumar, Emily Hay, David Kerman, James Grigsby, Eric Johnson-Tamai
Is U Totem the result of a musical mix between your musical world and the one of Dave Kerman?
Yes, we started collaborating during sessions for “Elements” by 5 UU’s and “Shapuno Zoo” by Motor Totemist Guild. They were both recorded during the same time at a recording studio named Telstar and we shared ideas and musicians throughout the sessions. Kerman and I wanted to continue working together, but we didn’t get the idea to combine our groups until I got a request from Recommended Records in Germany to bring a group to the Art Rock Festival in Frankfurt in 1988. We thought we could achieve something special by mixing our different approaches to music. The first album was a balanced mix of these two worlds. Our second album, “Strange Attractors” was closer to my musical world. At this time, Kerman had already reformed 5 UU’s with Bob Drake of Thinking Plague and was busy composing for their “Hungers Teeth” project.
U Totem 1990
L-R: Emily Hay, James Grigsby, Eric Johnson-Tamai, David Kerman, Sanjay Kumar
What about your experience with Nimby?
After the MTG “All America City” CD, which contained some of my most abstract recordings and was difficult to sell, I moved away from performing and recording for a few years and concentrated on writing music. I developed a system using complementary polytonal scales mapped to symbols on tarot playing cards. I became so involved in theory that I stopped playing any musical instruments. Then one day I just picked up my guitar and started writing songs. What a relief it was! I made a song-cycle with different forms such as ballad, bossa nova, tango, hard rock, and so on. I taught the songs to Jerry Wheeler, who I had known before as a trombone player, and now found him to be a fine singer. We travelled to France to work with the amazing Bob Drake and of course Kerman on drums. In a week we had recorded an album. Later Drake spent much more time mixing and adding his magic. It was the first time I hadn’t been involved in mixing my music. I was anxious at first, but ultimately very happy with all of Drake’s efforts.
L-R: Bob Drake, James Grigsby, Jerry Wheeler, David Kerman
Are U Totem & Nimby still working projects?
If the situation is right, any of these projects could be reborn. A second album of “More Songs for Adults” has been written for NIMBY as well as the third album of the MTG “City” series. I have numerous live recordings of U Totem that have never been released and I would like to compile the best into a set for commercial release. I’d also love to remix the U Totem albums. I still have the multitrack analog masters and I know they would sound amazing with the aid of modern digital techniques. Of course I am still in contact with Kerman, so if the opportunity arises for a new U Totem project, we would welcome it.
Do you prefer to work alone or you like the confrontation with other composers in the group?
I love to collaborate with other composers and musicians. It provides a great impetus to achieve much more that you can alone. The first U Totem album is still my most successful, and I believe that is because it was the most collaborative project.
How did your music philosophy evolve during last 25 years?
I grew up in a transitional time when acoustic sound was being replaced by electronic sound in the human environment. At the time I saw this as an addition rather than a replacement. Now I feel a bit sad that today’s music is almost always transmitted to people’s ears from the cones of speakers or headphones. To hear a musical instrument or voice unaided by amplification is becoming rare. This hasn’t changed the way I write music yet, but I am more aware of the beauty of acoustic sound and less interested in the latest technological advances. Everything is so easy now with computers, compared to the days of splicing tape and mixing tracks in real-time. Perhaps some of the joy in musique concrete was found in the arduous process of discovering new sounds.
Is the label Rotary Totem still active?
I think of Rotary Totem as a music production company. Other than the “All America City” CD, Rotary Totem hasn’t functioned as a label since we started working with labels such as ADN, No Man’s Land, and Cuneiform. RotaryTotem.com is still available for direct purchase of our projects.
Which were/are your contacts with LAFMS and other musicians of the area?
I knew about the LAFMS, first through their LPs. They were one of the earliest independent labels that I heard, and the idea of Do It Yourself was very attractive to me. I attended a concert by Chip Chapman at Cal Arts during my student years; it was a score for household appliances like electric can openers. Later, when I formed my own independent label, I received lots of cassette tapes from Brad Laner showcasing a new group called Steaming Coils. I decided to release their first album on Rotary Totem, and I discovered that Rick Potts from LAFMS was part of the group. During this time I also met Tom Recchion who collaborated on a track from MTG’s Shapuno Zoo and participated in a musical happening I curated called “Intersection for Four Groups and a Traffic Cop.” From the mid-1980s through the 1990s there was a close community of alternative musicians in the Los Angeles area and there was much collaboration and cross-pollination.
Which music are you listening at the moment? Is there something that caught your attention lately?
2013 is the 100th anniversary of the debut of The Rite of Spring, so I have been listening to a lot of music by Stravinsky as well as reading his musical scores and books about his life and music. There is a lot to learn just from The Rite of Spring, though I find his skill and personality in everything he wrote. I am also interested in today’s music, if and when it is interesting! Paolo Angeli–who plays the prepared Sardinian guitar but is much more than just an instrumentalist–is a fine example of a musician who is doing fascinating things today.
What are you doing at the moment? Are you still playing live?
I formed a new version of MTG in 2010 but due to scheduling conflicts, we were not able to perform. I would love to play live if I could get enough rehearsal time with a group. I have been learning some piano pieces by Erik Satie and I think it would be fun to transform his music into the context of a modern ensemble. That would be a project well suited to cabaret performance.
L-R: Jeremy Keller, Bridget Convey, Eric Johnson-Tamai, Brad Dutz, Rod Poole, Jeff Kaiser, James Grigsby, Emily Hay, Jerry Wheeler, Hannes Giger, Vinny Golia, Joseph Berardi
Which are your records about which you are more satisfied at present?
It’s a good question, but I really haven’t listened to any of my albums for a long time. I can tell you that the first U Totem album is the most popular among listeners.
Which is the situation of your kind of music in nowadays US? Is it worse than 25 years ago?
To me everything seems to be the opposite of what it was. It was expensive and difficult to create recorded music; now it is simple and inexpensive. It was relatively easy to find an audience for recorded music; now it is much harder to sell recorded music. It was possible to find musicians willing to devote long hours to rehearsing for a concert; now it seems impossible.
Did internet have a positive or negative influence on your artistic activity?
People have gotten used to hearing music for free on the Internet, so it has negatively affected music commerce. But I don’t think the Internet per se has had any effect on music creation. Software and digital sound have actually made the creation of music easier… sometimes it seems like it’s too easy!
Can you speak us about your blog concerning Charli Vandal?
This is a piece of historical fiction about an American artist who takes the name of Charli Vandal and lives to create art based on her version of the ideas of the Dada and Situationist movements, though she is removed from their European roots. She goes from Los Angeles in the 1960s to San Francisco in the 1970s to New York in the 1980s, finally visiting Europe as the Berlin Wall is falling. The narrative begins as the memories of a childhood friend, continues with excerpts from the artist’s journal, and ends with an interview with the artist’s son. The story is infused with many quotations from key thinkers of the times–primarily Guy Debord, John Cage, and Marshall McLuhan–to provide a counterpoint to the narrative. There are also many references to music from those three decades to establish the mood and attitude of the times.
Which are your future projects?
I am still looking for a group to perform the music to “City of Angles” the last part of MTG’s “City” trilogy. I am also working on another historical fiction, this time based on the years that J.S. Bach spent at the Köthen court from 1717-1723, when he met his second wife Anna Magdelena and composed the Brandenburg Concertos. We often think of Bach as a stoic father-figure, a “Papa Bach.” But as a young man there was much drama in his life and I think it’s high time to remake his image.
MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD