Chris Schlarb: Are You Creative?
“ We asked these kids,"raise your hands if you think you're creative" and not one kid raised their hand. There were twenty-five kids. ”
Guitarist and producer Chris Schlarb has been at the heart of creative, underground music in Los Angeles for a number of years. His involvement in bands like I Heart Lung and the fifty-member collective Create(!) has resulted in improvisational music of great imagination, no little dissonance and undeniable beauty, as witnessed on the outstanding albums Between Them a Forest Grew, Trackless and Quiet (SAA, 2007) and A Prospect of Freedom (SAA, 2006)
His first solo album, Twilight & Ghost Stories (Asthmatic Kitty, 2007), a four-year project with recorded contributions from fifty artists, is a collage of field recordings, music and voice which exerts a strangely hypnotic effect on the listener. It may be too early to call it a classic of our time, but it is at the very least a work of tremendous imagination which connects strongly with the emotions and stirs memory.
Chris Schlarb took time out to talk with AAJ's Ian Patterson about this fascinating project, and speaks about his independent record label Sounds Are Active, the underground scene in America, and the power of music as a catalyst for personal change.
All About Jazz: Let's start with your first solo album, Twilight & Ghost Stories, which is an unusual solo album in a number of ways, not least because there are contributions from fifty musicians. Can you take a deep breath and tell us how this album came together?
Chris Schlarb: I was going through a separation from my ex-wife, my family. She'd taken our children and moved away. I was still in the same home all of us had lived in. It was totally disorienting. I had basically quit my job, my entire family was gone. When you take out all of the things give you structure, order, you know, I honestly did not know what to do with my time.
Slowly, I cut off all interaction with the outside world. I was picking my kids up once a week at that point to see them, or I had them every weekend. But during the week I was completely alone and getting unemployment checks. I just totally stopped interacting with the world altogether.
And then a massive rainstorm came through town. You know, in Long Beach, California there aren't really any seasons other than summer [laughs] so when it started raining, and it rained for two weeks straight, a massive storm by southern Californian standards, the constant rain again altered the structure of my day. I ended up setting up two microphones, one on the north side and one on the south side of my apartment, and I just recorded forty minutes of rain.
When I went back to listen to the recording, which is exactly as it is on the album, I started thinking: "I could put something at twenty minutes, and then I could put something at seventeen minutes, and thirty-five minutes, and I started thinking I could compose one piece of music and throw linear time out the window, which was an interesting analogy for how I was feeling at the time because I had no centre.
So I sat down at the piano, which ironically had been given to me by my ex-wife's family, and interestingly, the first thing I really recorded was that kind of intro, that first section.
AAJ: That piano intro is very beautiful, and it sounds to me like rain.
CS: Yeah, maybe there was that kind of subliminal, sympathetic ear that came together with the guitar and the piano in that first section. It was interesting because I had actually tuned my acoustic guitar to a standard C tuning, so I was playing it in a tuning I'd never played before. And then I started messing around a little bit, and I recorded another piano part and another guitar part and then I brought them all together and that's really what you hear in that first section, parts recorded separately from one another.
AAJ: Would you describe this process as a kind of catharsis then?
CS: I didn't set out for it to be that but it definitely turned into that. I figured out over time that by asking all these different people to participate with me it was two things: in one respect it was an act of faith, I was hoping that people I had no relationship with would have enough faith in my idea, this construct that I was giving them, to send me something; the second thing was it was a way that I was able to interact with people and they wouldn't judge the situation I was in. I had stopped going to church, and I'd stopped mingling with friends because every time it was, "What's going on with your family? or, "What's going on with the divorce? I didn't want to have to keep repeating... you know?
AAJ: You didn't need to be reminded all the time?
CS: Exactly, and this was a way I was able to begin dealing with it. There are recordings on the album of my ex-wife in conversation with me, with our children, recordings of my wife Adriana, there are recordings of my children playing, my son's heartbeat is on there when he was still in the womb, and there's also a recording of my wife Adriana when she was a little girl.
There's commingling of all these things and at different times it was difficult to listen to these things, but I felt it was really important that history not be erased. So that, combined with all the music, is the underlying narrative.
AAJ: I've listened to the album a lot, and to me it sounds like an evocation of memory.
CS: Yeah, absolutely. In a weird way that's what the whole piece is about; it's about time and memory. There's recordings on there of my children playing this little wind-up pump-organ at around seven or eight minute mark, I mean, those are instruments that my kids were playing with. Then later on I have the music box that I took out of its casing and was playing the individual springs on it.
There's this weird concept that I've seen attributed to Frank Zappa, xenochrony I believe, and he used to do all these live recordings and then he would go back into the studio and overdub a guitar solo. He was constantly acting as though a piece was always in the process of being written. I found out about that a few months ago and I thought it was really interesting because it's a very similar idea, time is not a straight line here because not only was the piece composed out of order it was assembled and written completely asynchronous as if there was no beginning and no end and those things only happen because we really have no choice.
All these people were contributing parts to it and they had no idea where it was going to end up or in what context or anything.
AAJ: What has been the reaction of the musicians involved on hearing the final piece?
CS: Really, really encouraging and very positive. It's funny because maybe half the people on the album were people that I had never met before or had a relationship musically with them, and I'm really curious to know what they think now that I've been sending out copies of the record, because they heard from me once, maybe three or four years ago, and they never heard from me again. The next time I pop up it's like, "Do you remember participating...?
The feedback I got from a totally disparate group of musicians, like Bhob Rainey the saxophonist, who said it was a fantastic piece and said how much he enjoyed hearing his saxophone used in a completely foreign environment. Nick Rossi, who plays with Dave Douglas and Philip Glass, said it was a really interesting piece, and it goes on and on, I've been really happily surprised. It was really a wonderful experience from beginning to end.
I'm used to making, I don't know, maybe adventurous music that I'm not used to people connecting with on an emotional level, and that seems to be really happening with Twilight & Ghost Stories. People are connecting with it on a deeper emotional level, and it's kind of allowing them to absorb all of these weird things that are in the piece.
It takes a lot for an audience to get past the unfamiliarity of the musical environment; they get hung up on live sounds or dissonant sounds, and I thought that would happen with this too, but it's not and it's kind of disarming [laughs]!
I was constantly heartened by people's willingness to give something of themselves, without really knowing; you know it could have been a total disaster [laughs]! I think about that every once in awhile; I really could have done something that all these people disliked, shot myself in the foot, you know, all these great artists whom I admire so much.
AAJ: You are promoting the album in quite an interesting way, could you tell us about that?
CS: We're doing a number of listening events across the country with the album in quadraphonic sound. I've just completed a quadraphonic mix, and the relationship between all these sounds and listening to it on four speakers is totally different. The normal mix on the record is very dense, there's a lot constantly happening; on four speakers all of a sudden it hits that space in a very different way.
You know, I'm looking forward to seeing how these listening events go because all the people I was giving copies of the record too, the people that were really connecting with it, were all telling me, "I went on a bike ride... or "I went for a walk. And I put it on my iPod, or "I was driving in my car and I had to drive for three hours, and I listened to the record over and over again. Every single time somebody was forced to focus on it, forced to listen to it, and I started thinking that if we had some listening events that's going to be the probably the best way for people to be introduced to this piece of music, hopefully in an environment where there aren't a lot of distractions.
So there's going to be events all over the country and at each listening one of the people who collaborated on the project will be hosting that event. I didn't want there to be any listenings in any cities where there wasn't going to be an actual representative. I got invited to a festival in Athens, Georgia, and I'll actually be performing Twilight & Ghost Stories the same night all the listening events are happening all over the country.
AAJ: What are the challenges of performing this piece live?
CS: Oh man, I was actually really stressing out about that. I got invited to this festival, and as soon as they told me that they would pay for my ticket I thought, "absolutely, I'll do it, and I hadn't given a whole lot of thought into having to put an ensemble together, and I would only have a day to rehearse. So I got about four or five different musicians that lived in the area, and a few coming in from out of town.
I have a lighting box with five light switches, each corresponding to a light on an extension chord and each light will be assigned to a different musician so I'll be essentially conducting them with lights; I'll turn the light on when they're supposed to come in, so it'll be like a visual representation of what happened on the record. I want there to be a tether between the two, an audio-visual connect.
If I can, I'm also going to play some sounds in the audience, but that's dependent on the equipment that's available to me. Ideally I'd like to have to have prerecorded sounds in playback devices in speakers in the audience. It will almost confuse them even more [laughs]! Ambient sounds of people in amongst people... making ambient sounds [laughs] .
AAJ: Anyone on drugs is in for an interesting of a night!
CS: They might be trying to get into the speakers [laughs].
AAJ : Chris, can you tell us a little bit about Twilight Variations?
CS: Because the piece is so dense and so much is happening, I thought if I took a section of the composition it would be really neat if I opened it up and let people see what were all of the building blocks to what they're hearing. So I put all the raw audio files that I got from the musicians or recordings I'd made and put it all in a garage-band file or just in regular WAV files, so really high quality files.
They can go in, take things out or listen to only one element, or a few elements, kind of mix-and-match, and if they want they can add new sounds and then send it back to me and I'll catalogue them on the website and keep track of all these different variations. Not to trivialize it, I am also hoping it might deepen the listener's understanding of how much went in to this. It's dense and this is why it's so dense. I'm just sharing this with everybody; I'm opening it up, and not trying to hoard everything.
AAJ: It's an interesting concept for sure. I'd like to ask you about your record label, Sounds Are Active, which you founded about a decade ago; are you happy with the way it has evolved?
CS: Financially, Sounds Are Active has never been a profitable exercise. Emotionally and artistically, let's say I could never have put out Twilight & Ghost Stories or composed it without Sounds Are Active. I'm finally able to focus more on being an artist than being an administrator. I'm getting to a point where I want to concentrate more on being a musician rather than being an executor of all these responsibilities.
AAJ: Twilight & Ghost Stories came out on the Asthmatic Kitty label; why not out on your own Sounds Are Active?
CS: There area couple reasons, but the most important involved money and I think a certain amount of notoriety; Asthmatic Kitty has a larger infrastructure and they have a bit more of a cache. I'm certain that there wouldn't be as much attention for Twilight & Ghost Stories if I had released it on Sounds Are Active. It's amazing that those types of things make a difference.
At the same time a lot of the musicians on the album are on the Asthmatic Kitty roster; Liz Janes and Half-Handed Cloud and Castanets are all on Asthmatic Kitty.
AAJ: You are involved in a lot of projects and one which is particularly interesting one is Create(!), which is an interesting concept; could you explain how that started and how it has evolved?
CS: Create(!) really started for me and Steve Richardson and Orlando Greenhill, it was just a trio project. We'd played with each other at different points. I was coming out of a band in which I'd rehearsed for a year and played one show, or two shows, and then joined Create(!), and the second time we ever played was a live show so it was a total about-face. It was like boot camp, musically [laughs]. It was a total kick in the pants, to stop trying to refine and formulate, and just create, and just do something, just be something, right now. If it's good, great, and if it's bad, just keep moving forward.
To me it was probably the most perfect thing that I could have been involved in at that time. As the group evolved and changed it's been so many different kinds of band; it's never made a concession to anything, it's been its own, bizarre, metamorphic entity. For five minutes it could be a live drum 'n' bass, and a few minutes later it could be like a Latin jazz band and then total free-jazz chaos. We've played with live MCs with all these guys rapping over us, improvising, and we've had DJs sitting in with us, and we've had saxophone players and woodwind players sitting in with us at the next show.
For me it was a great way to just play music and not think about stuff and not over-analyze but just to do it. And it still exists in that space now. It's weird in a way, because Create(!) has never advanced commercially or even compositionally, because Create(!) was never anybody's band; nobody ever really took control of it. Nobody took ownership, which is kind of wonderful....
AAJ: It's a collective, isn't it?
CS: That word is so overused but it really is an honest-to-god, free-form organizational, collective entity. It doesn't really exist in the abstract. It's only when the community comes together does it actually exist.
AAJ: Create(!) conducts workshops in schools and public parks in LA County; what form do these workshops take?
CS: Usually they are with children, anywhere from three or four to teenagers, and what we try to do is break down the active being an artist, being a musician to the kind of root essentials of telling all these kids that you are artists, you are musicians. The heartbeat is the first instrument, this rhythm, this drum.
I think that so much of society is geared towards consuming culture and information, and not actually creating any, and what we try to do is just instill that fire that you can create something, you can make something. If you hear music on the radio you can play along with that music, it is not just a passive consumption.
I remember this one class that we did in a park and we asked these kids: "Raise your hand if you think you are creative, and not one kid raised their hand. There were twenty, twenty-five kids there. By the end of that class, we had given them all small percussion instruments to take home and the kids were like, "Now I can play along to the radio and "Now me and the kid who lives next door to me can play music together. It was a total change, "I can do something. It was empowering.
We try to educate them and we play them videos of Fela Kuti and Coltrane, try and expose them to different things. Then we'd have a hip-hop DJ and an MC come in and then we'd bring in a master African djembe drummer. We show them these different kinds of music and show them different ways of expressing yourself.
AAJ: So, you're like musical missionaries?
CS: In a way, it's so much fun. When you do something like that and you see the difference it makes, exponentially...you know Create(!) had a show last week and Orlando, the bassist has been doing these weekly workshops with kids for a year and these kids got up and opened for Create(!), these kids were playing punk songs! This little ten-year old black kid sits down on electric bass and plays "Smoke on the Water ! I couldn't believe it, it was so encouraging.
This kid was totally obnoxious, horrible and ill-mannered, and annoying, and then he sits down and concentrates and he's totally focused. It really can show immediately the difference. Imagine if this kid wasn't doing this? These kids who have no outlet, they feel confused, or angry or abandoned. They have no outlet. They don't know that there is a part of them that they can work through, this kind of cathartic experience. And all of a sudden you hand them a bass guitar and there they go, like a fish to water.
AAJ: I think whether its Los Angles, London or Paris there are a lot of disenchanted kids; you see the riots in France last week, there are a lot of angry kids who, never mind the future, haven't got much of a present and nobody helps them to realize potential or even to recognize that they have potential. It doesn't take an awful lot of encouragement for the creativity in a young kid to come out or want to come out, but someone's got to help them.
CS: Totally. There's no faster way to kill nihilism than to give the option to debate nihilism, to talk about something. They have to be empowered in some small way and then they can immediately begin to transform their surroundings. They are changing so, their surroundings will then change.
AAJ: In 2004, you and drummer Tom Steck founded I Heart Lung, and this year you released Between Them a Forest Grew, Trackless and Quiet which, I have to say, I think is a stunning album; you two seem to click very well together. What brought you together and how do you see your musical relationship with Tom?
CS: I'll be honest, I've probably never been more comfortable playing with any musician as I have with Tom. We both have a very skewed sense of rhythm. I play with very heavy strings on my guitar so sometimes my guitar playing can have a big, percussive angle to it and, from the very first time we played together, I thought this guy is playing the kind of drums that I've always wanted to play with; I wanted to play over it, and through it, and wanted his drums to play on top of my guitar.
Tom is a really gifted fine artist also, and he did the artwork for our first record and the next thing you know we went on a thirty-date tour across the country, really, with no résumé. We had done one thing that we were giving away free on the web.
AAJ: Money doesn't seem to be a massive motivator, the first Create(!) album is also available on your website for free; why do you give this music away? It's not common.
CS: in some ways I think it's becoming more common. There's so much competition for peoples' attention: TV, video, movies, and I think sometimes as an artist you have to show an act of good will; if you give something to someone first it's almost like you're shaking their hand, and saying, "I'm going to put the ball in your court, you can decide what you want to do with this.
People want to listen to it first, live with it a little, decide, you know? With Create(!), with I Heart Lung, we just wanted to get it out, we wanted some feedback and we got it immediately. I'll never forget, we played in Rochester, New York, all the way on the other side of the country and we had people requesting songs, shouting out song titles, Wheelchair Graduation!
Nobody's really making a living playing the kind of music that we are playing and we don't have that expectation. I think that's the worst thing as an artist is to expect something in return, and we don't. We just do what we do and if people like it, awesome.
AAJ: I imagine it's quite difficult for Create(!) and I Heart Lung to get gigs, given the type of music you play.
CS: There's definitely an active underground in the United States, and in almost any city you're going to have this group of outcasts [laughs] who are going to be open to what we're doing, and we've probably played in all those places [laughs]. A few months ago, Tom and I did this gig in Denver, Colorado, at this really run-down, kind of putrid venue, the smell of wet garbage, this amazing perfume of filth, but the show we had was amazing! They were so into what we were doing. The only downside to that show was that we had to sleep in the venue. Other than that it was amazing, and these places are all over the country, and you can get shows and tours together.
AAJ: Sounds Are Active released a very interesting DVD in 2006 called Forty Bands/Eighty Minutes (Soundsareactive, 2006). Can you tell us about your involvement in that project?
CS: I found out about the actual event a couple of weeks prior, and then I sent the organizer Sean Carnage an email saying, "I Heart Lung were just back from a tour and we'd love to do this is if you have a spot for us, and he said, "Absolutely. He's a big King Crimson fan, Robert Wyatt, and he's putting all these crazy experimental shows together. He's an educated music listener and music fan, and he knew that what we were doing would add a different texture that night.
Tom and I drove out there, it was raining and there were more people in such a small place than I've ever seen. You could barely get up to the area to plug my guitar in. I'd sprained my ankle prior and I was having a hell of a time getting up to the front. I couldn't even wedge in between people. But it was amazing, we played and people went crazy! What kind of parallel universe did we wander into?
I figured this was going to be something special and I called Sean up a couple of weeks after the event and I said, "Look, I have a record label, I have to put this out. I saw that twenty years from now people would look back to this as a legitimate document of what was going on in the Los Angeles underground music scene.
At the time when the movie came out, we got a fair amount of press attention, but a lot of people in the current music establishment, or unde rground, independent music scene, they thought it was too fringe, too experimental, and too not what they thought the independent music scene was like, and I have this feeling that ten or fifteen years from now people are going to look back and think, "Wow, I can't believe all these people were together and doing this stuff. Already a year later, five or six of the bands in that film are starting to get a lot of press attention from the same venues, the same publications who shunned the movie when I sent it to them. The irony! It never ceases.
AAJ: Just a curiosity, but where did you get the title from for Between Them a Forest Grew, Trackless and Quiet?
CS: I think it's from a Toni Morrison novel. Tom said, "I don't know why, but I've got this Toni Morrison line stuck in my head. It's such a beautiful, lyrical line.
AAJ: It is, and I have to add that the artwork for Sounds Are Active is fantastic. The presentation of the CD covers is really beautiful.
CS: Thank you very much. It means so much to me, the aesthetics of each record, how it sounds and how it kind of feels, how it looks. My wife did the photography for the Create(!) A Prospect of Freedom record, and remembers seeing that photograph and thinking, "That's an album cover, and there can't be any words on it because that would totally ruin it. Those things are so important to me, from beginning to end, down to the most minute detail.
AAJ: You seem to be involved in so many projects, that I wonder how you manage your time?
CS: I don't know what most people do but I don't really drink, I don't watch TV, I don't smoke and I'm not very good at making small talk with people. I have two children and a wife, and if I'm not spending time with my kids then I'm watching a movie with my wife. I have a really healthy family environment now, and if I have to take a couple of days to record, or go to a show, my wife is totally supportive of that. It makes such a big difference to have a spouse who is totally supportive, and she knows that I'll come home after a show and do a load of laundry or do some dishes.
AAJ: Listening to your music, whether it be I Heart Lung, or Create(!) or Ghost Stories, I find it very hard to imagine that you were ever an insurance adjustor.
CS: [laughs] That was probably the worst job I've ever had. It totally sucked the life out of me. You're trying to help people, talking to people all day who've been in accidents, but the whole structure is not necessarily set up to help them as much as it is to put them on a conveyor belt. If you listen to Twilight & Ghost Stories, there are some recordings of peopleI recorded their messages to me, and there's one guy who you can hear him saying, "You're the only person that helped me. You're the only person who took five minutes to talk to me. [laughs] I ended up throwing that in.
I stuck it out as long as I could. I was there for a year-and-a-half and, although there were some great people there, I knew that if I didn't get out I was going to be fifty years old and miserable. One day my daughter had a ballet recital, just down the street from my job, and I told the people at the insurance company that I was going to move my lunch hour up half an hour, and they said, "You can't do that. I said, "I'm not asking you, I'm telling you, I'm not taking more time I'm just changing the lunch hour, and I thought, "Yeah, I've got to get out of here, or I'll kill somebody if I have to keep putting up with this kind of decision making.
AAJ: What are you working on now, what can we expect from you in the near future?
CS: I'm actually working on the music, the soundtrack for a video game which I'm really enjoying. I'm doing some engineering and mastering for a couple of records and the next big project I have is I'm arranging and producing a record with Liz Janes; this is going to be a soul, R&B record, which I'm really looking forward to because I've always wanted to do a really good soul record.
Then there's the new I Heart lung record, Interocean, and Tom and I have been working on that record for a couple of years. It's four longer drum-based compositions, each ten or fifteen minutes long. Nels Cline plays electric sitar and guitar on a few tracks, and Dave Easley from the Brian Blade Fellowship plays pedal steel guitar. Honestly, two total heroes of mine and to be able to collaborate with them in a decent, intimate way is totally mindboggling.
Chris Schlarb, Twilight & Ghost Stories (Asthmatic Kitty, 2007)
I Heart Lung, Between Them a Forest Grew, Trackless and Quiet (SAA, 2007)
Anthony Shadduck Quartet, Debut (SAA, 2007)
Ellul, Ellul (SAA, 2007)
Create(!), A Prospect of Freedom (SAA, 2006)
Various Artists, 40 Bands/Eighty minutes (SAA, 2006) (DVD)
Bizzart, Bloodshot Mama (SAA, 2006)
I Heart Lung, The Kannenberg Sessions (SAA, 2006)
I Heart Lung, I Heart Christmas (SAA, 2006)
Liz Janes & Create(!), (SAA, 2005)
I Heart Lung, Blood and Light (SAA, 2004)
Create(!), Patterns (SAA, 2001)
Create(!), Moth Nor Rust (SAA, 2000)