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Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Setting the Record Straight

By Published: January 21, 2013
AAJ: Although founded in 2003, the unit's roots can be traced back to the late 1990s, when you and Peter Evans studied together at Oberlin. Moppa, how do you manage to maintain the ensemble's collective identity, while still serving as its primary composer and leader?

ME: MOPDtK's origin is in 2003, since the quartet is dependent on all four members for its identity. Peter and I had some fun precursor bands in school, but nothing like what MOPDtK was or has become. The collective identity IS the group, so I don't need to manage it in any way... actually, I'm not sure I understand this question. I write tunes for us to play, but we never play what I wrote exactly anyway. I pick the set list, but sometimes get overruled within the first measure. I count the tunes off, but that tempo might not ever actually happen. So I'm not really sure what I manage to maintain. I guess as the bandleader I have to deal with hotels and interviews and logistics and setting things up, most of which involves sending emails, not exactly an artistic expression.

AAJ: In a similar vein, how does each of the band member's different personalities and stylistic predilections influence your writing?

ME: Ah... well, I learned pretty early on that if I write anything that I want to be executed exactly, I'm in the wrong band. I take for granted that nothing I write will ever be played as written, but all of the elements will be used... so I try to write simple melodies and harmonies and forms, so that the tunes can be broken up into recognizable pieces and rearranged. I assume that Kevin will never play straight time, except when we least expect it, that Peter will ignore the melody from time to time and launch into screechy or farty noises, and that Jon will pretend to play what's written but change harmonies, articulations and timbres constantly. Oh, and I will usually play the root, but not always.

AAJ: What are your thoughts on studio recording versus live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation.

ME: Both are very different. On this last recording we were all in the same room, which helped create a little of the energy we have playing live, but every situation is different. In the studio, there are obvious barriers between the musicians, which tend to make studio recordings more risk-averse, but in live situations the sound can be just as challenging. Sometimes we can hear each other really well, and sometimes not, and we've all learned how to perform with this group in pretty much any context. Each environment will alter the music in major ways, but we try to find a way to make any situation we are in work.

JI: The collage pieces that we play live don't work in the studio, especially when we are trying to get new material down. However, the other elements that MOPDtK use regularly are still in play, like genre-shifting, sabotage, or insertion of standards, pop or classical songs.

PE: Part of it is the classic problem of atmosphere, energy and hard-to-define things that differentiate playing in a silent box from playing in a crowded room with people we don't know. We have never been a band that's rehearsed much so by default most of our time playing together is in performance. It takes some effort to get used to the studio vibe and for whatever reasons we seem to play better in short, focused bursts rather than sprawling collages. In a performance the time limits of the pieces are often felt/determined by the set length, whereas in the studio we are often looking at four or six hour oceans of time. It doesn't help us much in terms of concision.

AAJ: Recalling MOPDtK's dynamic live performances, Kevin is the most explicitly absurd (an heir apparent to Han Bennink, even), Peter is the most subtly subversive, while you and Jon tend to fall somewhere in-between. Despite the comedy, your roles are obviously incredibly technically demanding, as demonstrated by kaleidoscopic juxtapositions of multiple tunes. Can you explain the basic parameters of that collage-oriented concept?

ME: Well, there are about 40 tunes of mine in our repertoire, and any of them is fair game at any time. That being said, I think we all get a lot of satisfaction out of playing very cohesive music sometimes and very chaotic music other times. We do that by listening to each other and maintaining awareness of what everyone else is doing. Frequently someone will try to cue one of the tunes and no one will go with them, which is fun, so we all have to have faith that each person can make something cool happen on their own, even if they are abandoned by the rest of the group... that happens a lot. There are also a ton of standards that show up in our sets, some of which are arrangements we have and others are spontaneous. Since we all listen to a lot of the same music, we can choose to go with someone or against them when they reference a specific composition, mine or otherwise.

Kevin Shea: I want to respond to the Han Bennink reference. I love Han Bennink... however, it seems whenever a drummer does something "theatrical" in a jazz environment they are accused of being an heir to Han Bennink. As a kid, before I even knew who Han Bennink was, I was going to Motley Crüe concerts—Tommy Lee had a drum set on a platform that would float out over the audience and then turn upside down during his power rock drum solo. Tommy Lee would also bungee jump off of his drum platform into the audience. That was far more "explicitly absurd" than anything I have ever seen Han Bennink do. I was also a fan of Samuel Beckett's plays growing up, and his "explicitly absurd" choreography has been far more inspiring to me than Han Bennink. In addition, before ever knowing of Han Bennink, I was performing compositions like John Cage
John Cage
John Cage
1912 - 1992
's Theater Pieces—succumbing to theatrical consequences that may have often appeared "explicitly absurd," but were in fact to me very compassionate, without intention, and ZEN.

When I finally learned of Han Bennink, I had already been doing "explicitly absurd" theatrics based on a variety of influences—Han Bennink seemed normal to me. Other drummers don't hump stage monitors and do headstands on bass drums because they are too intimidated by their context and have absolutely zero background researching, investigating and participating in the broader spectrum of modern art... their close-minded, god-fearing educators should be fired—for, little do they know, they are in practice perpetuating a student-base unconsciously indoctrinated with not only a lack of compassion but a deep disgust for diversity—these are the beloved tenets of warmongers, and everything I protest against as a drummer, artist, human. In any case, I love me some Han Bennink.

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