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Mike Ladd: Cerebral Refugee, Part 2-2

By Published: April 20, 2005
AAJ: Well, you are a writer.

ML: Yeah. That's the one thing I say I definitely am.

AAJ: Writers do research, but that doesn't mean that they have to report exactly what they hear. They're writing things. On this CD, your lyrics are acted out, as it were, by other vocalists. Was that the first time you'd ever experienced that?

ML: Yeah. Aside from Majesticons, but I did those two [Beauty Party and In What Language?] at the same time. And it was two completely different contexts, but to hear someone else deliver my words was the most exciting thing; I loved it. I'd like to do more of that. With the In What Language? project, we've done sixteen, seventeen shows.

AAJ: Yes, you just did one last weekend?

ML: Yeah, in Amherst. And then in Philadelphia.

AAJ: You managed to get pretty much everyone from the CD, didn't you?

ML: Everybody except [vocalist] Ajay Naidu and Dana Leong, who's a great trombone and cello player. Those were the only two personnel changes.

AAJ: The liner notes to the CD give the impression of having a division between musical composition and lyrical content: the lyrical content being supplied by you and the music from Vijay. Were the divisions really that distinct?

ML: No, it was a real back-and-forth to try to make a cohesive project. What we did have was an intention of [making] something that would work well together but that you could also dismantle. So ideally, you can take the texts home and appreciate them in a completely different space and get just as much out of it as you would with the music. Or you could find an instrumental copy [of the music alone] and take that and get just as much out of the project. Also, in terms of what I was trying to do with my verse in terms of the music—there are only three pieces that I give myself a passing grade for: "Taking Back the Airplane, "De Gaulle, and "Plastic Bag. Those are the three where I actually finally figured out how to make something that wasn't hip-hop, that wasn't spoken-word, that would still be very strong textually and land exactly where I wanted in the music so that you're hearing a poem with music but you feel like you're hearing a song.

AAJ: I'm glad you mentioned one of those songs, because I have to tell you that I am completely nuts about the tune "De Gaulle. Allison Easter's vocal on that really knocks me out.

ML: She's bad. You know, she worked for [performance artist/vocalist] Meredith Monk for a long time.

AAJ: Oh, I didn't know that; that actually makes sense to me. Did you do a lot of the drum programming for these tracks?

ML: The way those tracks worked is that Vijay has this very sophisticated rhythm structure that he uses. So I tried (laughter)—and then he'd be like, "let me do it. So he'd come in and do just the rough programs so the actual rhythm was there. Then I would work sounds and then stick in a few polyrhythms here and there, where he permitted, and just create the overall aesthetic sound of it.

AAJ: There's just something about that CD: the overall sound of it. I am so impressed with how successfully the drum parts go with the rest of the music.

ML: That's his rhythm structure. He's got this one [time signature] that's, like, twelve—but it's really twelve-and-a-half. It's just crazy.

AAJ: You've already told me about some of your collaborators—Vijay Iyer, Guillermo Brown—but tell me about Bruce Grant, who's credited with tape loops on quite a few of your albums going back for years.

ML: Bruce Grant is an old, old friend and in some ways a mentor. We started working together when I moved to New York in 1993 or '92. He used to hang out at the Fez—[poet] Bob Holman ran this thing called Rap Meets Poetry at the Fez, and everyone was there: that's where [hip-hop collective] Antipop [Consortium] met each other. This was even before [spoken-word performer] Saul Williams came to New York. [The Roots' human beatbox] Rahzel used to be down there, doing beatbox stuff. One of those classic New York situations, a bunch of people there doing some pretty cutting-edge stuff—and there was this guy Bruce who was working with another guy. They had had an electronics band back in the early eighties—I think once they opened up for Devo. Bruce just makes tape loops from, say, old answering machine tape cassettes. He makes tape loops out of those and runs ten of those on Walkmans into a mixer. He's this fifty-year-old guy, looks like a Vietnam veteran—but that's from his own personal Vietnam.

AAJ: Just analog cassette tapes?

ML: Yeah! He'll just run those—and he's got his own band called Huge Voodoo. He's had that band for years. They put out a record on a Japanese label. It's wild because it's really all done with tape loops.

AAJ: What's your next project?

ML: Well, I have to do the last in the Infesticons/Majesticons series. So I'm working on that. And Vijay and I are collaborating on a new project called Still Life with Commentator which I can't really explain yet. Well, I can: it has to do with sort of looking beyond the media, actually understanding the media as something like—the weather. Something that is completely a part of our environment and then getting beyond that. And trying to also understand ourselves as cerebral refugees. So we're working on that together. I just finished a project for ROIR Records called Father Divine, which is just another fake band I came up with.

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