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Interviews

Chicago Underground Duo: Two Voices, One Sound

By Published: April 3, 2006
AAJ: The next one is "The Glass House, which is currently my favorite on the album. This is Chad alone playing percussion, mbira and maybe treated vibes?

CT: I'm playing all the instruments. It's mbira, vibraphone and drums—but then we both did a lot of post-production on it, just tweaking different sounds, taking some sounds out. We made the bass drum an octave lower. And a lot was trial by error; a lot of stuff we did sounded terrible. We probably spent the most time on that piece, just to get it right.

Originally, Rob had a beat that he made from some kind of analog synthesizer—a drum machine. I heard the beat and I was hearing something on the mbira, a kind of melodic thing, and I started playing that, and that became the song. Then we took the beat completely out. Then I played some drums on it and that became the basic piece, and then we did a whole bunch of post-production stuff.

What we were thinking about was more Plux Quba [the 1988 recording by mysteriously obscure electronic artist Nuno Canavarro]. I don't know if you know that record, but I think it's this guy who was a Portuguese electronic musician. So that was the inspiration for that piece. Even though I'm playing an African instrument, the inspiration was this electronic composer. That's where I was coming from.

AAJ: "The Glass House —and "Pangea and "In Praise of Shadows as well, actually—put me in a place where I'm just in the music. I'm not thinking about what instruments are being played. It turns off my inner dialogue completely.

RM: Once again, that's exactly the idea of the thing, and I think there are so many people who don't understand that way of listening that it's really difficult to put out a record like this and have people really understand it. Because those tunes, and maybe even the other songs—a lot of the stuff on the records and especially this one—have that quality. You're not supposed to—well, you can do whatever you want, but to me, the point is not to be like, "oh, he's playing this certain riff that Don Cherry played, or comparing it to something. I'm trying to use a certain analogy.

I like to use light as an analogy a lot just because one of my heroes is [artist] James Turrell [whose work deals with light and space], so I've been thinking about light a lot [laughing]. But I'm thinking of the concept of when you turn on a light, or when you see light, you're not necessarily thinking of what light is, of what the particles are, how it travels. Some of these songs, even "The Glass House, even "Falling Away, even "Pangea —they really don't mean to have a beginning an an end. If you listen to the end of "Pangea, it cuts off abruptly and then you have the little cymbal touch and we're into a whole other world ["Funeral of Dreams ]. Or it could be the same world; you just step into another threshold or something. But it's not necessarily the ending. It just keeps going, it's like a wave.

AAJ: Like a piece of music where you happened to walk in at a certain point and out at another, but it's continuing eternally.

RM: Yeah, well, I'd love it if someone would be able to listen to that until well into the next piece—you're in the next piece but for some reason the power and maybe horror and enlightenment of the last sound keeps lingering somewhere just above your head or below the floor. When I say "enlightenment, I'm not saying that our music is enlightening. I'm just saying that a sound can be enlightening. Anything can be enlightening.

AAJ: "Cities Without Citadels is a shorter one with Rob getting down pretty mightily on cornet. Is this another improvised one?

CT: It's pretty much improvised. The rhythm I'm playing is a candomblé rhythm—it's a very specific rhythm used in candomblé or santeria. I remember telling Rob that we should try to do something for Lester Bowie, who's been a big influence on us both. We were really trying to do a little something to show that influence based on that rhythm. It's not like Rob's playing something rhythmically in with what I'm doing—it's the rhythm on its own and he's playing over it.

AAJ: "Pangea is a sort of duet between the two of you.

CT: Is that the long organ piece?

AAJ: Is it? I thought it was some sort of tonal electric noisebox—that's an organ?

CT: [Laughing] Yes, that's the organ.

AAJ: Is that the first time you've used an organ on your records?

CT: It is. But the ironic thing is that when we first started—before we even recorded—we used to do a lot of stuff with organ. So doing this with the organ sort of brought us back to what we used to do ten years ago. That was a lot of fun for us to do something like that and just keep it very raw-sounding. Then there's the hard edit that happens and it just goes into the other piece. [Laughing} I'm finally remembering the record.

AAJ: Well, it's not like you were supposed to play it as homework before I telephoned.

CT: I have a really hard time listening to records that I've done because I'm very self-critical. You can't help but analyze everything.

AAJ [to RM]: So you're playing organ on "Pangea.

RM: Yes, and that's pretty much as is. Well, there was some post-production; certainly we were messing with the sound and whatnot, but not so much. On "Pangea, I was on organ, the Hammond organ at [John McEntire's] Soma [Studios]. I set up a couple different pedals for it—some kind of very old tape reverb unit or something. We wanted to get a very specific sound on the thing. The idea was pretty spontaneous. I had been playing keyboard quite a bit for various reasons and organ always struck me as a sound that's the sound of a wave, a wave moving through the ocean—not a destructive wave like tidal waves or tsunamis. But a gentle wave is also a powerful wave.

So the idea is of taking something from basically nothing and then expanding, expanding, to get the massive sound which happens towards the end. Which, on some occasions, almost cancels itself out. It's really hard to get a massive sound like that what we were looking for. So it starts small and then I kept on adding chords and different layers of chords and different hand movements, but there was no overdubbing. We did it all in one take. The only thing we did was we cut it; we made that cut right before the ending in order to push it through that threshold.

But "Pangea is special. It reminds me of some stuff I did with my group Mandarin Movie; we did a record that came out last year [a self-titled CD on the Aesthetics label]. I did it with [Guitarist] Alan Licht and [trombonist] Steve Swell from New York and some players from Chicago. That group is completely about volume and frequency—full-frequency projection.

AAJ [To RM]: I didn't know that was an organ on "Pangea. I just thought it was some kind of tonal box or something until Chad told me otherwise.

RM: [Laughing] "Tonal box. Well, it kind of is that, because I actually put it through a box—a reverb box.



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