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David Minnick: Absolutely Crabid


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Going into college, the only classical composers I was really fond of were Bartok and Bach. After a few years of studying, it's like, wow, there's a lot of composers with an actual sense of humor.
David Minnick David Minnick has emerged from the densely populated Internet music marketplace as an exceptionally talented and unique composer. Based in Waterford, Michigan, Minnick once served as the guitarist for Detroit's legendary ska outfit Gangster Fun, and later co-founded the Crabid Music label with his brother and fellow Gangster Fun alum, Chris Minnick. Along with the enigmatic Oven Mitt Johnson and the free jazz trio Zermos, Crabid's label roster is dominated by David's genre-hopping band the Sursiks, whose music draws ingeniously from pre-recorded, non-musical material. Absurd humor is a defining characteristic of David Minnick's work: the music on the Sursiks' 2006 debut I Didn't Know I Was Singing (Crabid, 2006) is built around answering machine messages; on Lydia Grace (Crabid, 2007), the songs are written and sung by Minnick's then-three-year-old daughter.

Christmas in March (Crabid, 2009), is a sidesplitting combination of media satire and compositional virtuosity. News broadcasts, infomercials, spoken-word recordings, political speeches, and other sources are dissected and rebuilt as highly melodic, rhythmically engaging tunes, and each listen reveals new layers of intricacy. As a composer, Minnick occasionally crosses over into jazz territory, but fans in any genre will appreciate his fresh take on music—provided they have a sense of humor.

All About Jazz: Where did you get the idea for Christmas in March?

David Minnick: Christmas in March used to be [a group] called Weapons of Mass Consumption. We practiced at a bar, and anybody could just walk in and hear us practice. The backing track was drums with sampled voices, and everything else was live instruments. But the guy that was putting money into it wanted to make it so huge, with dancers and video, all this stuff, and it just sort of crumbled under its own weight.

AAJ: The CD is relentlessly funny. How did you put it together?

DM: Every song on the CD was redone many times. One new sample could change the entire focus and subject matter of a track. Every time I thought a song was finished, I'd end up taking it apart and putting it back together with new instruments and an entirely different arrangement. Miraculously, it finally did reach a point where I knew each song was finished. Linking the songs together was a relatively late decision, two months prior to mastering. I just wanted to highlight the connections between the songs that were already there.

AAJ: The variety of sampled sources is pretty staggering.

DM: "That Lovin' Feelin" is sung by the guys on some old episode of Survivor. Most of the other voices on that are from a Jehovah's Witness tape. Every time they'd stop by, I'd ask them for tapes, till they started inviting me to their meetings—I figured I had enough tapes then. The "I'll Eat You For Dinner" clip is [children's TV character] Mr. Dressup doing his rendition of Three Billy Goats Gruff.

AAJ: How would you describe your early musical experiences?

David Minnick / The Sursiks DM: When I was a small kid, I used to set up an entire room full of pots of pans in a big circle around the room and bang on them. My parents finally forced me to take drum lessons when I was 11 or so. By that point I had already figured out how to make multi-track recordings with two cassette decks, and I figured out guitar and piano for that purpose.

I took drum lessons for an awfully long time, and then went into college as a percussion major. I got tired of dressing up in a tux to play three triangle notes, so I switched over to composition, and found that that's what I ought to be doing.

AAJ: Which artists have influenced your work?

DM: I was a huge Negativland fanatic all through college. I heard Helter Stupid (SST, 1989) for the first time, and figured out what it was about, and I was like, "Oh my God, that's amazing. I can't believe that they did that." And then [Negativland's EP] U2 (SST, 1991) came out...there are so many jaw-dropping things that Negativland has done. There's an idea of mixing up mass media and linking the music they do to society at large. It's not like a lot of bands you hear that just complain about their own lives.

The musical influences get pretty strange when you're a composition major. Going in, the only classical composers I was really fond of were Bartok and Bach. After a few years of studying, it's like, wow, there's a lot of composers...Messiaen, Kagel, and all these people with an actual sense of humor. A lot of the stuff I write is using the composition major method of writing something by math, without actually hearing it, and then seeing what it sounds like and working with that.

AAJ: Let's talk about Gangster Fun. How did the band form?

DM: [Gangster Fun member] Josh Silverstein set up a studio in his basement. I was monopolizing the studio a little bit. A few of my other friends wanted to get something together that had nothing to do with me, because they were tired of hearing my stuff—that's how Gangster Fun started. Then they needed a guitarist, so I ended up joining in 1987. I graduated from Indiana in 1990, and that's when the band started playing some pretty big shows. We recorded a few records, and never really thought to get signed or anything like that.

AAJ: Why a ska band?

DM: Because it was the most ridiculous sort of band to start in 1986. Ska had just fizzled out, so it was a joke band. We ended up being the only ska band that didn't listen to ska and didn't take ourselves seriously. We'd do classic rock tunes but not in a ska vein, every once in a while—just to mess with people. Every time we did interviews, it was complete lies. We'd make stuff up to see it printed and play it all totally straight. I think we did one radio interview where we pretended not to speak English.

AAJ: What led you to start the Crabid Music label?

DM: In 2000, Gangster Fun just sort of fell apart, for one reason or another. I decided it was worth the investment to buy some recording equipment. I put together all kinds of weird projects that seemed impossible when I started them. After years, though, I managed to finish them. I didn't know what to do with these things, and I talked to my brother [Chris Minnick], who does web pages for a living, and said, "You know, we ought to start a label. I've got all kinds of music we can put out." So that's how Crabid happened. Any crazy idea I get, I can sell at least 20 copies.

David Minnick / The Sursiks AAJ: Give me some background on Crabid's CD releases, beginning with the Sursiks' debut, I Didn't Know I Was Singing.

DM: Josh [Silverstein] gave me ten phone messages on a CD. I'm listening to this like, "I might be able to use this for something." I couldn't chop it up and rearrange it to make it any funnier—it was already pretty funny. What else could I do? So one night, I tried to notate one of them. And with that stuff, it's so tedious—I would go two seconds at a time, play four words over and over, figure it out, record that piece, and go on to the next two seconds. After a while, there was a melody, but it was a mess. It didn't make any sense rhythmically, and I couldn't harmonize it. But if I put drums to it and kept amplifying the melody, it started to sound more legitimate.

I wasn't planning on a record, but then [saxophonist] Gary [Robertson] came over and said, "Dave, you've got to hear this message I got." He had no idea I was working on any other phone messages. I figured that was a sign, so I just kept going.

"Sursiks" is a word that my wife and I would use to talk about cigarettes when the children were around. "I'm going to go outside and check the sursiks." We'd seen [the film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)] years ago and that line ("I must show her the sursiks") just sort of stuck.

AAJ: And the Sursiks' follow-up, Lydia Grace.

DM: My oldest daughter would always come into the studio while I was working, and she always wanted to grab the microphone and say things. Over a period of a few months, I amassed a couple hours of a three-year-old girl talking and singing. Working backwards, I figured out what notes she was singing and put music to it. The things a three-year-old comes up with are actually better than a lot of the things adults come up with for songs. I learned that if you stop excluding the kids from the music, it takes a lot less energy, and plus you can get some really great stuff.

AAJ: Oven Mitt Johnson, Hot Guitar (Crabid, 2005).

DM: All the guitar solos and a lot of the rhythm guitar parts are done with an oven mitt. You should try it with an oven mitt. It's very free—you don't worry about hitting the right notes. The bass and keyboards and everything else is just played normally.

The Sursiks (l:r): David Minnick, Gary Robertson, Judith Teasdle

AAJ: Zermos, The Last Night of August (Crabid, 2006).

DM: Gary Robertson does sax on just about everything—Gangster Fun, the Sursiks records, Oven Mitt Johnson. Zermos was me, Gary, and my sister-in-law's friend [Ryan Enderle], who plays jazz stand-up bass. We recorded two hours of totally free improv for bass, piano, and alto sax. The nice thing about that is that I didn't have to master it; very little time was spent on it, because we just edited it down to an hour from two hours, and didn't try to fix anything. That worked out well. It was cheap and quick [laughs].

[Before Crabid], the hassle of trying to put records out was more than I wanted to deal with. I'd just go on to the next [project]. It's nice now that at least a few people can hear them. I usually get tunnel vision when I'm working on something, and I don't even think about it coming out. I just get into the individual notes, rhythms and sounds. When it's done, I don't know what to do—I usually get sick when I finish something! But it's a great feeling to create something that didn't exist before.

Selected Discography

The Sursiks, Christmas in March (Crabid, 2009)
The 180-Gs, 180 D'Gs to the Future! (Seeland, 2007)
The Sursiks, Lydia Grace (Crabid, 2007)
Zermos, The Last Night of August (Crabid, 2006)
The Sursiks, I Didn't Know I Was Singing (Crabid, 2006)
Oven Mitt Johnson, Hot Guitar (Crabid, 2005)
Gangster Fun, Graphospasm (Self-released, 2000)
Gangster Fun, Pure Sound, Pure Hogwash, Pure Amphetamines (Jump Up, 1998)
Gangster Fun, Time Flies When You're Gangster Fun (1 Cupp, 1992)
Gangster Fun, Come See Come Ska (Ska Records, 1989)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of David Minnick and Crabid Music

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