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Jack Dangers: The Mind of Meat Beat Manifesto

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After more than fifteen years recording, Meat Beat Manifesto leader Jack Dangers is something of an electronic music elder statesman. Early recordings like Storm the Studio (1989) and Satyricon (1992) got MBM tagged as, respectively, an industrial and electronica act, but Dangers has always followed his own path. The new Meat Beat Manifesto CD At the Center, released on Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, sees Dangers continuing the real-time, electric jazz explorations he began with 1998's Actual Sounds + Voices; it's one of the best albums of the year in any genre. I spoke with Dangers about the new CD, his upcoming Off Centre EP, the history of electronic music (a subject about which Dangers is both a scholar and enthusiast), the future of video sampling, and more.

All About Jazz: Let's start by talking about the new Thirsty Ear Meat Beat Manifesto CD, At the Center. This is something of a departure for you in that, while its textures and beats do mark it definitely as MBM music, it's very much a group record with flutist Peter Gordon, drummer Dave King and keyboardist Craig Taborn—all musicians associated to some extent with the Thirsty Ear label. It's not altogether unprecedented for you to work with other musicians; "Supersoul, from your 2002 RUOK album, has some live drumming from Lynn Farmer and, I think, bass guitar from you. But this new one incorporates a lot more live instrumentation than older MBM recordings. What motivated this recording project?

Jack Dangers: Well, I've worked on stuff like this on previous Meat Beat records. I don't know if you know the record Actual Sounds and Voices; there are a couple tracks on there which were done in the studio with Bennie Maupin and Pat Gleason, who used to do a lot of work with Herbie Hancock in the seventies. Bennie basically was the motivation for me to attempt to pick up a bass clarinet and make some noise out of it.

AAJ: Sure, I love his stuff in Herbie's Mwandishi band.

JD: Right. He played bass clarinet and flute. He did some solo records as well. I've always liked his work; I really liked it on the stuff he did with Herbie Hancock. I did some studio work with them back in '96, so it's not so unprecedented for me to work in that sort of style. I've always liked jazz and reggae; those are two of my favorite types of music, along with electronic music, like the more classical stuff—musique concrète, the stuff which came out of Germany in the fifties and France in the sixties. Etcetera, etcetera—it's a bit of a gamut if you throw it all together. Even on the very first Meat Beat album, and even in the band I was in before Meat Beat, I used to play soprano saxophone—until it got stolen at a show back in the late eighties. I used to use it more as a sort of noise instrument along the lines of Blurt, Ornette Coleman, that sort of style, but going through a noise gate and being triggered—a side chain triggering the sax from a beat or any other sort of a rhythmical trigger. You'd get this sort of very staccato-sounding strangeness. Again, just picking up an instrument and making noise of it.

It probably started when I first heard Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart. There's a bit of bass clarinet on there as well. So I picked one up twelve years ago, started playing with it. Recently I've sort of gotten into bass flute, mainly through seeing Hermeto Pascoal play a couple of times. So I've been playing that. And so I've always had these elements in my music. I sampled "Song for My Father by Horace Silver back when Meat Beat was supposedly this industrial band; that got some reaction at the time. I actually got the approval to use it, paid for it, all that sort of stuff. It was all above board! So I have always had these elements in the music—jazz elements, and dub. That's sort of been my musical life.

AAJ: You must have thought quite a bit about the instrumentation you wanted on this record. For example, Peter Gordon's flute is a very prominent component of this music, and, for that matter, so are Craig Taborn's keyboards. Was it the actual instruments or the specific musicians that motivated you on this project?

JD: It's a bit of both, really. I'd heard some of Peter's flute work on some remixes I did for one of the projects on Thirsty Ear for DJ Wally and I really liked his flute textures. So when it came to doing a record for Thirsty Ear, that was the first thing I sort of asked for—if he could play flute on it. Then I could bounce off of that with the bass flute. Craig and Dave more or less came in through Peter. I'd heard some of Dave's work and I'd heard a couple of things Craig had done and really liked his style. So it just seemed to sort of fall together. But yeah, the flute of Peter Gordon was definitely a main anchor—probably more of an anchor than what the keyboards were, to be honest with you.

AAJ: Let's take the song "Wild from the CD as a starting point. It's built around a bass clarinet vamp, and to me it has a kind of Bitches Brew vibe in its overall density. Taborn's playing, I think, Fender Rhodes and Hammond.

JD: He's playing piano and Fender Rhodes at the same time. It was great to be able to get that double texture. Actually, that came from his line on the Fender Rhodes; I just sort of followed it on the bass clarinet instead of the other way around.

AAJ: So it's built around a Fender Rhodes vamp. Maybe it was your bass clarinet on the track that evoked Bitches Brew to me because, although it's not a leading instrument on that album, it's threading through the textures.

JD: Again, that's Bennie Maupin playing that.

AAJ: How is a song like this composed? Did it come out of the band actually playing together in real time or written and tracked in increments?

JD: A bit of both. The whole album was stretched over a period of a year. So we did the initial studio recordings. Then I had it here in San Francisco to send through some of the gear I've got hear and sort of take it somewhere else. But we didn't do the flute at the same time as the drums and the keyboards, so the flute work was put on afterwards. That's why it more or less follows—well, it's sort of vice-versa. Some of it follows the keyboards. Some of it was already put down as a scratch track—like melodies, sounds I'd had in the computer. So it was a bit of everything, really, over a long period of time as well. So you could go back and refine things, change things. We weren't working on it every day, you know; it was stretched over that period and I think it was good to have that luxury of being able to relax and not listen to it for a couple of weeks, then go back. Sometimes, especially if you're being pushed into a tour/album/tour/album—when you're in a contract with a label—you don't have that luxury of space and time.

AAJ: And it gets so hard to even tell if what you've been working on is good or not, I suppose.

JD: Yeah, it definitely turns into a routine. You've got to have this finished by this date because we're going into the rehearsal rooms, and you know—it becomes a bit of a manufactured machine at that point. I like the freedom this particular record gave me.

AAJ: On this same tune, "Wild, Dave King is playing live drums here, as he is throughout the album. Did then you loop them after the fact or cut them up, manipulate them in some way?

JD: Not generally, no. He's so incredibly tight. If you could actually see his drums as a wave form in the program I was using—compared to a click track, which we use as a metronome, it was pretty frightening to zoom in and see how precise it was. On some of the tracks, I might repeat a piece after sixty bars or something like that, but generally—not really, no. There's a couple of tracks where the drums were mainly an eight-bar loop or something, but then it goes into another territory. But on the whole, no.

AAJ: I'm very impressed with him—and a little surprised, just because he is so metronomic that I was convinced you must have looped him.

JD: On a couple of tracks, I definitely did that. But not through the whole song; there are no songs where the same loop is going all the way through. I think "United Nations, that has a short loop, but then it goes into this other place right in the middle. But most of the tracks were as-is, and I might have just faded them out for a breakdown or something like that. He's just incredibly tight.

AAJ: "Wild seems like a San Francisco anthem with its spoken-word soundbite references to Pacific time and earthquakes.

JD: [Laughing] Yeah. That's actually going to be a single. It's coming out, I think, at the end of October. It's going to be on an EP called Off Centre, with three other tracks from the same session which aren't on the album and some live tracks from the last tour. So that's going to be an interesting little accompaniment to this.

AAJ: My favorite song on the CD is "Murita Cycles.

JD: Ah, that's actually my favorite, too.

AAJ: In its own studio-spooky kind of way, it's perhaps the jazziest song on this CD—certainly, it's Dave King's most traditionally jazz-oriented drumming on the album . There's an overall sense of anxiety and claustrophobia to the tune, but there's also a great deal of beauty.

JD: That's an interesting thing to say about this track because I feel the same way. It's got that claustrophobic sound—mainly, I think, because of Dave's brushwork. Brushes seem to do that; they give you the space, the sound of the room. It's named after one of my favorite films, a film which came out in the seventies. It was a student film about this guy's dad, who was a compulsive, obsessive collector of things. It's a really interesting film. I think you can get it on DVD now; it's by Barry Braverman.

That's the story of the track—you've got to see the film. But musically, yeah, that one's my favorite. I like the drum sound on that. I think the drums work on it better than any of the other tracks. I think it's got the best flute work; Peter tends to sometimes bathe his flute in digital effects and I like to sort of have it clean and send it through old spring reverbs, things like that. So it's got that old sixties flute sound to it. Once again, the bass clarinet's more or less following the bass line, Bennie Maupin-style, like Bitches Brew and Herbie Hancock's Sextant. It's the obvious thing to do, especially if you're a bassist, you know: follow it along with another bass instrument.

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