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Barry Cleveland: Beyond Convention

Anil Prasad By

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The personal is the political for guitarist and composer Barry Cleveland. That perspective is evident on Hologramatron (MoonJune, 2010), his new album featuring songs that serve as a response to the socio-political and religious narratives woven by the voices dominating today's 24-hour news cycles. Cleveland is unafraid of telling it exactly as he sees it, with lyrics that delve deep into the paradoxical viewpoints that inform the morass of modern partisan discourse.

Hologramatron is only predictable in its unpredictability. It's a mostly vocal-based album that also includes four diverse instrumentals. The eclectic collection explores territory including progressive and psychedelic rock, world music, ambient textures, funk grooves, and metal. In addition to Cleveland's eight original pieces, the record contains two covers: Malvina Reynolds' anti-nuclear proliferation anthem "What Have They Done to the Rain" and Joe Meek's "Telstar."

Cleveland's collaborators on Hologramatron possess an expansive musical lexicon that made them ideal for interpreting his ambitious pieces. He's joined by avant-rock luminaries such as bassist Michael Manring, drummer and percussionist Celso Alberti, pedal-steel guitarist Robert Powell, and vocalists Amy X Neuburg, Deborah Holland, and Harry Manx. Percussionists Gino Robair and Rick Walker, cymbalom player Michael Masley, and guitarist Erdem Helvacioglu also contribute. Manring, Masley and Powell are also mainstays of Cleveland's previous all-instrumental releases: Volcano (Supersaturated, 2004), Memory & Imagination (Supersaturated, 2003), Voluntary Dreaming (Scarlet, 1990), and Mythos (Audion, 1986).

Outside of his work as a recording artist and performer, Cleveland is an editor at Guitar Player magazine. His status as a respected musician in his own right has enabled him to examine the work and psyche of some of the most important and influential guitarists with an impressive level of depth and insight.

All About Jazz: What motivated you to make a record with political commentary in the forefront?

Barry Cleveland: I didn't write these songs with the idea of changing the world, or even individual minds, but rather as a way of coming to grips with my own thoughts and feelings. I had been writing bits and pieces of lyrics for a long time, some of which were directly or indirectly political, but I hadn't tried to make them into complete songs. After living through a few years of the second Bush administration, however, I had become increasingly distraught, and began writing songs as a sort of coping mechanism. The problem with writing politically-oriented lyrics is that if they are too specific they risk being pretentious and preachy, and if they are too abstract they lose their punch. Also, since much of what I wrote was originally little more than stream-of-consciousness imagery, with all of the ambiguity inherent in material that just bubbles up from the unconscious, I had to find a way to retain the desirable aspects of that ambiguity while also providing enough linearity to give the songs direction. In the end I opted for a sort of in-your-face punk-folk approach. Poets say "show it, don't tell it," but punk songs and folksongs almost always tell it—often emphatically. I only ended up using three of the songs, however: "Lake of Fire," "Money Speaks," and "Suicide Train."

AAJ: Give me a snapshot of the topics you explore on those tracks.

BC: "Lake of Fire" was sparked by a documentary in which rightwing politicians, televangelists, and media pundits testified to their personal relationships with "Jesus," who advised them and presumably shared their views. The whole idea that Jesus, at least as presented in the New Testament, would support preemptive military strikes, institutionalized torture, tax advantages for the wealthy, a live-and-let-die approach to the poor, and all the other hallmarks of the far right agenda is preposterous—so I envisioned a scenario in which this right wing "Jesus" actually did return. The "evil Jesus" character in the song was also partially inspired by the depraved mechanical counterfeit of the saintly "Maria" in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).

"Money Speaks" is largely about the corrupting influence of corporate media, K Street, and Madison Avenue on society and the democratic process. "Suicide Train" turns the traditional metaphor of the train as a vehicle of salvation on its head, instead using it to illustrate the headlong and seemingly irreversible rush to personal and planetary destruction that includes environmental degradation, overpopulation, cultivated gluttony, soulless consumerism, and individual isolation and depression. The chorus of the song does, however, implore the passengers to turn the train around, and the hymn-like arrangement of that section connects it to early American folk and gospel traditions.

AAJ: Given the majority of your previous output is instrumental, were you concerned about alienating anyone by putting these perspectives out there?

Barry Cleveland's Hologramatron, from left: Michael Manring, Barry Cleveland Amy X. Neuburg, Celso Alberti, Robert Powell

BC: Not particularly. There's always the risk of alienating listeners when you change directions creatively, but the muse doesn't care about that. And the truth is that after not releasing an album in seven years, most of the people who hear Hologramatron won't be familiar with my previous work anyway. Hopefully, people who have enjoyed my instrumental music won't suddenly cease to do so simply because they happen to disagree with the political perspectives presented on the new record, but if so I'm prepared to accept that.

AAJ: Is this a direction you foresee exploring in future work?

BC: I have no idea if I will return to political themes in the future. At this point in time I don't feel any great desire to do so, but that may change. After all, we live within what is essentially a plutocracy in which a tiny percentage of the population control the vast majority of resources, we are perpetually at war to generate profits for the military-industrial complex, and the economy has been devastated as the result of unbridled greed and criminal chicanery—so there's a lot of material to work with.

AAJ: Musically, Hologramatron is incredibly diverse.  Describe the connective tissue that enables it to hang together.

BC: The album is bound together by the continuity of the sonics and the production values, and also by virtue of the fact that the same core musicians play on most of the tracks. In other words, there is a certain vibe to the recording overall. I also put quite a bit of thought into the sequencing of the songs, to ensure they flowed together in a way that kept things interesting from start to finish. And then there are the lyrics, which are more or less linked conceptually, except perhaps for "Stars of Sayulita," which is more personal and philosophical than political. Surprisingly, the most controversial aspect of the song selection has been the inclusion of the two '60s covers, which people tend to feel strongly about either one way or the other. 

AAJ: Describe how you went about choosing the collaborators for this album.

BC: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to have bassist Michael Manring and pedal-steel guitarist Robert Powell involved. I hadn't met Celso Alberti when I began recording, and I had gone through a couple of drummers early on before Robert introduced me to him. Celso is a fantastic musician and elevated the songs to a completely different level rhythmically, particularly the two in 13/8, which he somehow managed to make groove as if they were in common time. Celso also played some smoking djembe on "Telstar," and cool textural percussion on several other pieces.

When I originally started working on the songs, I fantasized about having Peter Hammill and Richie Havens sing them. Hammill was gracious enough to listen to some early demos with scratch vocals and although he declined to sing, he said that he liked "Suicide Train," and felt that my scratch vocal worked well and I should just go with that. I actually met with Havens, and gave him some very rough demos, but for various reasons things didn't work out. I was mostly hoping he would sing "What Have They Done to the Rain," as he's never covered it, but I didn't even have a demo of my version at the time, so that idea didn't get very far. I should have waited until the songs were farther along before approaching him, but the opportunity arose before that and I went with it.

So, about a year into writing and recording I still needed a vocalist, and that's when I met Amy X Neuburg. I was writing an article on looping for Guitar Player, and Amy's name kept coming up. She lives in the Bay Area, so I went to one of her solo looping performances, and I was blown away. Amy has a classically trained voice, but uses it mostly to pull off her "avant cabaret" songs, and she can pretty much sing in any style. She also has immaculate diction, which enables her to fire off fusillades of words at quick tempos with perfect clarity—something required to put across my lyrics, which tend to be more like rants than typical songs. She also brought lots of personality, humor, and irony to the songs, which made an immense difference. Her little tongue-in-cheek tag at the end of "Lake of Fire," for example, put a completely different twist on the meaning of the words. She is also a skilled arranger, and came up with some very creative harmony parts for "Money Speaks" and "What Have They Done to the Rain."

I met Harry Manx when he was playing at the 2008 Montreal Jazz Festival, and we became friends. Harry is an amazing guitarist and vocalist, and he was kind enough to sing "Stars of Sayulita," which fell pretty far from his more roots-blues style. Deborah Holland had heard some early mixes of songs and offered to sing something, but we couldn't find a song that fit her vocal range, so she wound up backing Harry on "Stars." Rather than singing typical vocal harmonies, however, she created some beautiful atmospheric and counterpoint parts.

The other musicians on Hologramatron were added for various reasons, usually as some need arose. For example, I had met Erdem Helvacioglu while I was visiting Istanbul, and I decided I'd like to have some Turkish-sounding melodic lines on "Abandoned Mines," so I asked him to contribute. Of course, although Erdem is Turkish and is familiar with macams and other traditional Turkish musical modalities, he's a cutting-edge electro-acoustic composer, and what he sent me didn't sound particularly "Turkish." He recorded a modern-sounding chord progression and a lot of wild electronic sounds and textures generated by playing his Ovation acoustic guitar through a rack of signal processors and a laptop running various sound-mangling plug-ins. The parts didn't work for "Abandoned Mines," but they were so good that I decided to use them as the basis of another song. They became the core tracks for "You'll Just Have to See It to Believe," which was otherwise entirely improvised.

Rick Walker was originally just going to play congas and dumbec on a couple of songs, but when I played him the basic guitar tracks for "Warning" he asked if he could take a shot at the drum part. He assembled a very unorthodox drum kit covered in thick metal chains that he played in the main sections, and he played a teapot with his fingers on the quieter sections. Although the riff is in 11, and quite difficult to follow, he knocked out the entire song in two takes. I really wanted Gino Robair to play on the album, because I love his approach to percussion, so I asked him to play dumbec and kendang on "What Have They Done to the Rain."

Evan Schiller is a great drummer and recording engineer in Seattle who had produced an amazing album with Michael Manring and Mike Keneally called Outer Spaces (Periscope, 2006). He offered to remix "Lake of Fire" and did a magnificent job, completely changing the way the different instruments were handled. Forrest Fang is a brilliant composer and musician who I have known for years, and he transformed the tracks from "Abandoned Mines" into a wholly new creation. It's really more of a re-composition than a remix.

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