Alex Machacek: A Very Tall Tale


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Be careful what you wish for, for you may get it-so the saying goes. When Alex Machacek asked drummer Marco Minnemann if he had a drum solo he could pass his way to compose around, he could never have expected a drum improvisation lasting 51 minutes. Before he could say, "Hey, 13/16 is a really odd meter," he found himself committed to composing, or recomposing as he puts it, around the entire piece.

Minnemann's drum improvisation is amazing in and of itself; the layers of rhythm, the shifting meters, the contrasting dynamics, and the sheer musicality from start to finish make it something rather special. Machacek, not unreasonably slightly daunted by the task ahead of him, elected to divide the improvisation into sections, hence the title of the album. His response to Minnemann's challenge is also something special; compositionally, 24 Tales (Abstract Logix, 2010) is as sensitive to the brilliance of Minnemann's playing as it is technically impressive. It is also adrenaline-charged and emotive, like a 51-minute amusement park ride. Machacek's compositional approach, which largely places improvisation on the back burner, yields music of a complexity and beauty which bears favorable comparison to the best composed works of Frank Zappa.

All About Jazz: 24 Tales is a pretty stunning recording. How do you view it in the context of your discography?

Alex Machacek: Well, thank you first up. How do I look upon it now? I'm so glad it's done and finally finished. It took me a while. I'm actually happy the way it turned out.

AAJ: You recorded a duet for drum and guitar with Terry Bozzio some years back on Delete and Roll (Next Generation Enterprises, 2004). Would you say that the genesis of 24 Tales goes back that far or maybe even further back? Was this something you've wanted to do for a long time?

AM: I remember that when I recorded with Terry, I asked him if he could record me a drum solo just before I was going back to Europe and he said, "Yeah, sure." That became the title track of the album [sic] (Abstract Logix, 2006). So yeah, I guess that was the genesis.

The whole story with Marco [Minnemann] is that I started playing with him just after I released [sic], and I asked him if he had a drum solo recorded and he said yes. It turned out to be 50 minutes [laughs]. At first I thought I'd just take a part or a section, but after a while Marco came up with the idea of giving the same solo to different people as an experiment. So, he gave the solo to Mike Keneally, Trey Gunn, John Czajkosski, Mario Brinkmann, Phil Yan-Zeek and he'd do a version himself; that's when I decided to take on the whole solo. First, I'd thought maybe five, maybe eight minutes maximum [laughs]. After a while I thought, "Okay, let's do 50 minutes."

AAJ: On [sic] there are several tracks based around Terry Bozzio's drumming. You once said that "Don Jon" was so difficult to compose because it was so long at over nine minutes; just how daunting was it composing around 51minutes of Minnemann's drumming?

AM: Well, when you are young you think nine minutes are long, and as you get older you think 50 minutes are long-I don't know. Actually, that was one of the reasons I divided it into 24 sections. One song-or part, whatever you want to call it-of nine minutes length, I knew how intimidating that could be, so I thought, "Let's chop it up into sections and make it much more manageable." You're just fooling yourself because at the end it's still 50 minutes, right? But while you're working on it, you think this section is only 1:30 seconds, which seems doable; then the next one and the next one. Somebody asked me if I would do it again and I said, "Well, maybe not right away." [Laughs.]

AAJ: It'll be fascinating to hear the other versions, for sure. You played with Minnemann in UKZ and there's a great video on YouTube of you and Minnemann playing in a trio with
Kai Eckhardt at the Baked Potato. How far do you and Minnemann go back?

From Left: Alex Machacek, Marco Minnemann Performing with UKZ in New York City, 2009

AM: I guess it was around '06. J.K. Kleutgens, the bassist, hired us both and we played a couple of gigs at the Baked Potato. That's when it started. Then with Kai, I think the first time we played together was in '07. We gradually played a little bit more and did a tour in Japan; so, on and off.

AAJ: What do you like about Minnemann's drumming?

AM: Well, I don't get bored. What can you say about Marco? He's got it all. It's amazing; he's like one of those uber-drummers. It's hard to find words for what he's doing. He's a very musical drummer. When you play with him, he really reacts to everything and when you work out stuff with him it's not a problem because, yeah, he can play it.

AAJ: You're obviously attracted to the drums and you yourself have training in classical percussion. Who among drummers most inspired you, apart from Terry Bozzio, whose influence on you is well documented already?

AM: I have to say Phil Gould from Level 42, and I'm talking about when I was really young. I was listening to rock music and stuff, and a friend of mine gave me Level 42's Strategy, The Early Tapes (Polydor Records, 1982), and I really liked Phil Gould's funky drumming. I thought, "Wow, that's cool." I liked his higher-pitched snare sound. From then on, discovering more and more music-well, there were so many drummers, the usual suspects.

AAJ: 24 Tales is 51 minutes of music, but how much time did you spend putting it all together?

AM: Well, I started in 2007 and then I got interrupted by so many things. I started again in '10, but it's really hard to say-a couple of solid months. A couple of really solid months.

AAJ: It's not difficult to imagine that this was a fairly intense project. What was the most challenging aspect of it for you?

AM: One, getting it done. And let's say you are in minute 14, you know that you have to do 50 minutes. It's not like you don't know where you are on the timeline-that's challenging. The other thing was doing every part by yourself, because that's what I've been doing. Marco gave me the solo, but after that it was solitary confinement in my room, which was sometimes a little challenging. And I really have to credit my wife, because I always play her everything ; she's a good listener and tells me if she likes this or doesn't like that. Just for the fact that she was listening to it, she deserves huge credit.

AAJ: Was there ever a moment when you thought it was too much for you and you thought you'd rather not have started?

AM: Oh, many times, but then on the other hand I told myself, "No, come on, I can do this." Of course, you always have doubts whatever you do, at least I do. So, there was always a little doubt factor, but one step at a time.

AAJ: On several of the tracks you play a distinctly impressive piano. You're no slouch.

AM: Do you want to know how I do that? I punch every note in with a mouse click on the computer because I am not a pianist, but I like piano, and this my version of how I would play piano if I could.

AAJ: That must have been incredibly time consuming, no?

AM: [laughs] Yeah, but if you don't have friends, you have a lot of time on your hands, right?

AAJ:: You play a host of instruments on this album. Did you employ the same approach as you did for the piano?

AM: The bass is also programmed- -it's wholly programmed. It was the same approach for everything except the guitar. Putting in the music note-by-note is like doing something in slow-mo-you can really observe the process and it can open your compositional mind. There were two different approaches and they can run in parallel or they can go exclusively.

AAJ: On this CD, your improvisation on guitar is reasonably limited. Was that the intention from the outset, and was there, maybe, a temptation to improvise more because that would have eased the process?

AM: If you were just to improvise to it you would be done in 50 minutes, or I don't know, maybe two hours or ten hours. But for me, Marco's playing is so intricate and there are so many layers of beauty. He's doing so many things that you would automatically miss it if you don't know what he's doing. It really deserves more attention. That's why I thought, "Okay, I won't just go and improvise over it. I really want to capture and put my light on those details." That's how I felt. From the beginning, I wanted to have more of a compositional approach; that's what made the most sense to me.

If I had wanted to have an improvisational album then I would have asked for more interaction. But let's put it this way-I'm putting a musical magnifying glass on all those details that might be in danger of getting lost, unless you're one of those people who has great ears and hears everything in the first seconds, and that's not me.

AAJ: On the track "Minnemann's in Da House" you ask whether playing in 13/16 time is really difficult, to which he replies, "No." Was this to put your own mind at rest? How difficult was it to compose around this section?

AM: Well, Marco is really good at every odd meter and I'm not so good at it, and once we had this little talk and he said, "Oh, it's really easy, it's just a combination of two and three," and whenever we played some odd meter I always remember Marco told me how he counted, or how he could count. With the computer voice, I emulated how Marco would count that. I thought at this point in the album we need some comic relief. I thought if you've made it up to this point, you deserve a good laugh. It's also a little reminder that even if it doesn't sound really complicated it is actually really complicated, at least to me. For Marco it's easy, but that's Marco and that's me. Sometimes for me, yes, it is hard; I don't have a natural talent for any odd meters. I really have to practice that; it's difficult.

AAJ: Was there a particular part of Minnemann's drumming which caused you real difficulties to compose around?

AM: If you recompose around any part that's already rather dense, it's difficult because there isn't too much space for you. There's one song, "Sweet Torture"-Marco has a 9/16 ostinato going on and there is plenty of stuff going on over that. This makes it a bit more difficult, in terms of overall density, because Marco is already accompanying himself.

AAJ: Is there a barking dog in the background of "Eau De Conlon"?

AM: [laughs] No, that's your imagination. No animals were abused in the making of this record.

AAJ The only other musician on the CD, with the exception of your wife on vocals on one track, is trombonist Martin Ptak. Why involve just one musician? It just seems so close to none, especially considering you programmed all the other instruments.

AM: He's a friend of mine who stayed at my house, and I think he got a little bored and I said, "I'll give you something to do." I like the quality of the trombone, and he just happened to be at my house, so I thought, "Okay, that could be nice. Let's do it."

AAJ: So he was an accidental tourist.

AM: Yes. And with Sumitra on the second track, it's the same thing. I thought I wanted to do something like this, and next thing: "Hey, hey, can you sing this?" She sang it and I thought, "Hey, cool." So she just ended up doing these atmospheric vocals on one little part. Some people might think it's a sample and not a real singer, but it's her.

AAJ: I'm guessing it would be impossibly complicated to perform the whole piece live, no?

AM: [laughs] I guess. First of all, I would have to practice really hard, just on my parts. Secondly, there are so many guitar layers, so many tracks, and you would have to rehearse that. I'll say this-don't expect it to be played live. Actually, I wouldn't want to, because to me this album is done; next thing. It doesn't really lend itself to be played live.

AAJ: When you released [sic], you told All About Jazz that if you could record an album of entirely programmed music better than you were able to play it, you would. Do you think 24 tales maybe signals a change in direction towards more composed music? Do you have a desire to do a lot more composed music?

AM: Absolutely; a trio is nice and improvising is nice but I also really enjoy the compositional part. They are two different things and I'd get a little bored only doing one thing. The only problem with composed music is then being able to perform it live, because then you need rehearsals and it has to be playable.

I'm sure you know I'm a huge Frank Zappa fan, and you listen to some of the Zappa stuff and you think, "Wow, that's so nicely composed." I don't get bored listening to that. I like the process. Sometimes I get a little bit bored with the typical song format: solo, solo, solo, solo, head. Composition, I think, can never be underrated, or shouldn't be.

Selected Discography

Alex Machacek/Marco Minnemann, 24 Tales (Abstract Logix, 2010)

Alex Machacek/Neal Fountain/Jeff Sipe, Official Triangle Sessions (Abstract Logix, 2009)

Alex Machacek, Jeff Sipe, Mathew Garrison, Improvision (Abstract Logix, 2007)

Alex Machacek, [sic] (Abstract Logix, 2006)

The Out Trio, (DVD) Live at the Steamboat (Altitude Digital, 2004)

Sumitra, Indian Girl (Next Generation Enterprises, 2004)

BPM, Delete and Roll (Next Generation Enterprises, 2004)

The Next Generation of Sound, Musical Universal (Next Generation Enterprises, 2001)

Mc Hacek, Featuring Ourselves (Next Generation Enterprises, 1999)

Photo Credits

All Photos: Courtesy of Benny's UKZ Tour 09 NYC and Alex Machacek

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