John Seman: The Story of Monktail
I had separated the two, that improvisation in a jazz context while it is swimming in this melody and harmony and rhythm, it is established more here. There were other parameters. A great deal of it was left up to the performer. As an aspiring composer, I was unfamiliar with that concept. By the end of that year I was overwhelmingly a fan and a practitioner of indeterminacy, and it informed every little concept, whether it was jazz or rock or whatever.
Every summer I would go back to PA. Mark was a year behind me, and over the summer-I have got these cassettes that we would record-we would take this rock band setting and do indeterminate compositions with like electric guitar, electric bass, drums, saxophone, or, you know, screw drivers and beer bottles, or like a stapler. We had whatever was in the basement because we were all playing in these basements. We couldn't get a lot of gigs doing that [laughter], in the summer, but it was where the social experience of improvised music happened versus in the classroom where, at least for me, it still felt very isolated even though we were all doing it together. With a room full of composition students, everyone's kind of got their own thing sometimes, from my personal experience.
I was a big Frank Zappa fan in college, so much so that when I went to graduate school my thesis was going to be on the music of Frank Zappa as the twentieth century interloper, how he brought avant-garde aesthetics and ideas to popular music. All throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties these kids were going to these big rock concerts at the LA Forum and they had no idea that really it was being informed by John Cage, Penderecki, Varèse for sure, Stravinsky.
Once I was in DC I worked in a record store. It was a time when I wasn't a student so I had income and I had access because I worked in a record store. I was a big Ornette and Eric Dolphy fan, and electric Miles and Zappa. It wasn't until I got to Seattle, there was that unheard music series on Atavistic, and Nipples (1969) by [saxophonist] Peter Brotzmann was reissued, trumpeter Joe McPhee, so many records from the US but also the European school-[guitarist] Derek Bailey, [saxophonist] Evan Parker, [drummer] Han Bennink, and then they were coming here too. Earshot [festival] was bringing them in. It was to me the great connection of all those things, the humor and attitude of Zappa with the avant-garde, that it was some sort of high conceptual thing but I am actually going to put it down in the basest human comedy, almost like a sitcom, and the serious musical expression of any virtuoso performer that you would find in a concert setting, and with the free jazz aesthetic of American free jazz in the sixties and seventies. But before that, we had a free jazz trio in '92.
AAJ: Who was in that group?
JS: It was Mark, me, and our friend Larry, who played tenor saxophone in our high school jazz band. Lawrence Moore is his name and he is actually on the composition faculty at the University of Miami, a successful academic composer. We just basically improvised. I have some tapes that we did in that time between '91 and '94. We mostly did real fast bebop swing although it could be atonal, it could go anywhere. The European side of the free jazz thing wasn't in on it yet. That wasn't until much later but it was our best interpretation of like heavy metal meets bebop. The two things were separate. We were playing in this little pub and we did this Pauline Oliveros composition, and the audience was perplexed [laughter].
AAJ: What is your role in Monktail?
JS: I am cofounder; director, I would imagine; and bassist.
AAJ: Cofounder with Mark?
JS: Yeah, with Mark. The concept of Monktail was started in high school. Like I was saying, it was always Mark and me and a third party, sometimes more but it would be him and me and Larry, or our friend Mikey Collyer, who played guitar, or whoever else was around. We became a very tight rhythm section and we practiced as a rhythm section with that concept of Mingus and [drummer] Dannie Richmond, or [bassist] Bootsy [Collins] and drummer Clyde Stubblefield, this sort of aspect of it toward whatever we did whether it was a loud rock thing or a fast swing thing, or some more amorphous/indeterminate thing. We didn't have a name.
We had one name for that guitar/bass/drums trio, which was called Open. That is either a really good name or a really bad name for a band, but we were called Open mostly because it was always open as to who was going to perform with us. Larry, the saxophonist, he coined the term "Monktail" because he worked at a fish deli. It was a name that was knocked around and it was put on tapes, and it was sort of our alternate name-Monktail.
AAJ: Was this in Pennsylvania?