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. 
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