Monday, December 27, 2010

Interview: Mike Judge (USA; Sinthome, The Nerve Institute)

Mike Judge is a multi-instrumentalist who has released music under various names, the latest being Sinthome and currently, The Nerve Institute.

To introduce him to you, here is the bio he provided for his PA page:

"The Nerve Institute is the current incarnation of a one-man project that's been active in some form for nearly a decade now. Variously has been called The Wolf Tickets, Jerusalem, and Sinthome; Ficciones was released by ReR/Ad Hoc under Sinthome. I cut my proverbial teeth on the D.I.Y./punk scene in Kansas City, which back around 2000 appeared to hold semi-utopian promise to the very naïve kind of kid I was at the time. I drummed or played guitar or bass in a number of bands of whom maybe a dozen people on Earth have very sharp memories and who were passed over like the Hebrews in Egypt on the night of the Tenth Plague by everyone else: Culture Camp (noisy art-punk), Kill Brochtune (sort of prog-punk that in retrospect was strikingly ahead of its time -- I didn't write the material, hence my boastfulness), Dish (power-pop), Jimmy D and the Rotten 3 (ridiculous meltdown), the Wrecking Ball (backing band for the tremendously talented singer-songwriter Ben Summers), Mind the Gap (free improv). This led to some session & live work of various sorts, maybe most notably with It's Over -- onetime Next Big Thing of Kansas City -- and Tut Tut, the solo project of Alex Abnos of the recently-signed group Secret Cities.

Architects of Flesh-Density is my eighth LP of new compositions, the first under the Nerve Institute name. Entirely self-composed, self-played, self-recorded, self-produced as per all the others, save their occasional guest spots. Most notable among these was probably the appearance of Jacob Holm-Lupo (White Willow, the Opium Cartel) on Ficciones, donating some guitar and synth. I haven't performed any of my music live for almost six years, due variously to a distaste for teaching people to play it to my tremendously anal standards, disgust with the whole enterprise of The Music Business and, frankly, with audiences in general, and less dire stuff as well -- getting a B.A. in English lit, giving a few lectures at philosophy conferences, currently finishing a novel to be published next year.

Of the records I've made, the only ones I would claim today are the two Sinthome records, Ficiciones and the unreleased A Woman Has Given Birth to a Calf's Head (2008), and of course the new Nerve Institute LP."

After the Jump is the interview I conducted with Mike and I'd like to thank him for taking the time to answer in length to the questions.

1. Tell us about yourself and your musical background? How and when did you get into music, playing, composing etc.? musical influences?

I started playing drums when I was about 10 -- the usual Beatles fantasies and so forth.  My playing situation was sort of odd in that, as someone who'd been playing for several years as a teenager, there were basically two places I could actually get gigs, namely school jazz bands or local punk and noise groups, which is what I did.  So everything I learned until I was maybe 18 was very much along these two poles, though I really didn't care about jazz at all until I was about 17 (this would be 2004-ish) and finally made my way around to A Love Supreme, Bitches Brew,Mahavishnu Orchestra, and especially mid-'60s Blue Note stuff: Wayne Shorter's Juju and Speak No Evil, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, and the major one for me, Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch.  Coming from a DIY rock scene that very highly prized sonic violence and supposed 'anarchy,' and from stuff like Zappa and Mr. Bungle that I'd discovered on my own, hearing Dolphy was like the alchemists' Great Synthesis moment: you could do all this together, all the things I liked about 20th century composition, improvising, noise and chaos, and it could still be funky and swing. 

As a 'composer' I guess I probably started when I was about 14 by manhandling some borrowed guitars and writing awful garage-rock songs (not that garage-rock is at all awful by necessity; mine certainly was, though).  Started writing songs in earnest at about 16 after teaching myself some basic piano and rifling through the entire Beatles catalogue, at which point I must have decided that Hey, I Could Do This.  Thereupon followed a couple years of writing fake '60s Britpop songs very much indebted to the Pretty Things, the Action, and especially the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle -- used to play "A Rose for Emily" all the time at solo gigs.  My interest in the Baroque aspects and especially the harmonic complexity of that music led me through King Crimson and Yes and Genesis, and from there to the quote-unquote prog that has had the biggest influence on me: Henry Cow, Univers Zéro, the Mars Volta, This Heat, and Zappa again, who I'd liked as a kid because of the Dada humor and to whom I really returned hard as a composer about five years ago.  Probably the most important transition period for me between being basically a pop songwriter and whatever I am now was the year I spent transcribing, or attempting to transcribe, the Zappa stuff that terrified me the most: "Inca Roads," "Andy," "The Black Page," "Echidna's Arf/Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?," "RDNZL."  (Somewhere I've still got the score for an arrangement I did of "Evelyn, a Modified Dog" by transcribing the voice-over track and dividing it up into weird subgroupings over a constant tempo.)  By the time I had gone through all that, writing more or less consonant, diatonic, three-minute songs seemed kind of myopic.  I did go to the University of North Texas in 2006 for their well-known jazz program but quit almost immediately -- that, I can affirm, had zero influence on any of my work, except for instilling me with a deep distaste for the kind of blandness that seems to result from their training.  Is Scott Walker prog?  Scott Walker, always & evermore Scott Walker.

I should mention as well that literature and film are at least as influential on my work as a musician as music is on my writing: people like William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, Iain Sinclair, Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, et al have warped my thought process in ways that surely have some kind of intermedia residue.  Several of the pieces from my last few records have been directly 'based on' books or movies in a sort of synesthetic form of translation:

A Woman Has Given Birth to a Calf's Head, the first Sinthome record (2008), is more or less a tone poem dedicated to Eliot's The Waste Land and Bergman's Seventh Seal (waiting with enthusiasm for the Apocalypse); "Francis Bacon" is about, uh, Francis Bacon (the painter, not the empiricist), and more generally about the psychic fallout of Irish Catholicism (I was raised Catholic and went to religious school for about 16 years, the effects of which are hardly overestimable);

on Ficciones (recorded 2009, released January 2010), "The Confidence-Man" takes its title from Herman Melville's last novel and "With Joy We Espy the Sarcophagus" its from a phrase in another later Melville work, Pierre, or the Ambiguities; the phrases "knives of summer" and "knives of winter" are indirectly from Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow; Rayuela is the Spanish title of Julio Cortázar's novel Hopscotch, which I happened to live out quite accidentally while reading it; and "Docile Bodies" takes title, theme, and description of physical attitudes from Michel Foucault'sDiscipline & Punish;

and on Architects, the latest (2010, not yet released), "« La jalousie »" is from Alain Robbe-Grillet's novel of the same name, and "Die neue Moritat von Mackie Messer" comes not from "Mack the Knife" but from G.W. Pabst's film of The Threepenny Opera (the opening sequence especially -- put 'em together sometime).

2. You've worked under various names (The Wolf Tickets, Jerusalem, and Sinthome and now The Nerve Institute). Was each project trying to achieve something else, a different sound or approach?

Really I change names because I get sick of them: it seems to me equally uncomfortable to use my own name, because I don't want to project this music as a sort of singer-songwriter Romantic Hero venture, and to keep the same name for every project, because they have manifestly different aims.  I think I'll probably keep the Nerve Institute title for a while, as it's the most suitably inscrutable I've managed to come up with yet (even Sinthome attracts the Lacan enthusiasts, who are not necessarily the company I desire).  Although recent episodes of total isolation, resulting from similarly total failure as a college English professor, have yielded unto me the vision that I have to do something under the name Last Assault on Mount Flavor.  Maybe an R&B record ...

3. Why do you choose to record your albums all by yourself? How is the composition process for you? Do you actively search for themes or happen on them by chance? Also, how do you compose all the various layers of instruments and sounds you have on the Ficciones album? Where do you do all these processes of recording, mixing etc?

I've been working by myself since the beginning, at first as a matter of necessity -- I didn't know anyone -- then convenience -- to avoid the internal politics of Bandism, or rather to avoid becoming the miniature Hitler I'd have to be in order to get this music done right.  (I say "miniature," but really I'm about five inches taller than Hitler, and with better hair.)  And finally it's come back to necessity, as I've gotten used to employing certain extended techniques for guitar and drums that are very normal to me but would be very alien to anyone but Fred Frith or Derek Bailey if I tried to teach him/her this music.  Basically I hate the attachment of personal baggage to art in general and especially to my art -- it's inevitable, of course, but when it becomes raison d'être I utterly lose interest -- and there is always the risk that, for example, I'll spend three hours trying to get some weird atonal guitar part right and then decide that it's unnecessary; if someone else had been forced to learn and play it, and then to endure its erasure, there would be necrosis between us, I'm sure. 

Compositionally I tend to stumble upon some little cell or unit, a harmonic change, a melody, a rhythmic figure, whatever, and then extrapolate its different potentials until I've got some idea of a superstructure for it, at which I point I leave it until it can get recorded.  I actually prefer not to know exactly what I'm doing when I go into the studio, as immoderate dedication to any preconceived idea will stop me from actually hearing anything -- I'll be so attached to the goal of concretizing what I've already written that I won't pause to see if it's good or not.  This is, I think, basically the case with "Rag & Bone Men" on A Woman ... I was excited by the idea of doing something very long, something written at least partly in twelve-tone rows, and something in which the beginning piano rubato becomes kind of a march at the end.  I managed to do all that; what I didn't manage was to write a good piece of music, which "Rag & Bone Men" isn't.  It's much more effective for me to into the studio with a thousand loose scraps of score paper and stitch it together on the fly; half the time I'll make decisions about a piece's structure while playing the drumkit tracks for it, which always come first. 

In terms of layering and orchestration, it all just sort of happens.  I usually have at least some idea what kind of sonic elements I'm interested in collating for a particular section, and sometimes the timbres or their arrangements precede the actual notes.  "Grimoire," on Ficciones, was almost entirely written before I'd actually decided anything about the melody and harmony, because it's based on the interaction of a bunch of little cycling rhythmic cells; the chords and such I filled in as I went along.  It can also go in exactly the opposite way: "A Game of Chess" (A Woman ...) was originally a kind of "Sympathy for the Devil" fake-samba.  If that sounds hugely irritating, you're right, it was, but I knew there was something worth saving in the harmonic structure, so I deleted everything but three guitar tracks and the vocals, laid on some percussion, and there it is.

All the actual tracking happens at my studio in Kansas City, Port of Saints; I've just finished my degree in English lit, so the last four albums have all been written at school in Denton, TX and then recorded over summers in Kansas City.  (Except, I think, for the end of "Hadassah Esther Cruciform" on Architects, which was recorded on a laptop in my last apartment in Texas while I was almost totally asleep -- I woke up and found that sitting on the desktop.  Strange.)  I'm still very primitive about recording techniques: everything is done to a digital 8-track, which means I have to bounce down to two tracks probably 15 times for the average composition, and then edited/EQd/compressed in whatever freeware music program I happen to be using.  It really wouldn't be difficult at all to modernize the process, but I like being forced to make decisions.  Something like, say, "Horror Vacui" from Architects probably has in the neighborhood of 150 tracks, counting multiple takes that I've edited together; because I still bounce down, I never have more than 5 or 6 of those at once to mix, whereas if I were ever faced with 150 separate tracks that needed organizing, I'd probably renounce the studio altogether and go join a royal gamelan in Java.

4. How was the contact made with ReR to have  Ficciones released and distributed digitally? Will the new album be distributed by them as well?

My projects seem always to operate by chance and accidents, and this was another.  Dave Kerman, of Présent/5uu's/Thinking Plague/et al and now the head of ReR's American subsidiary Ad Hoc, heard the music on my Myspace and liked it, I sent him a copy of Ficciones, and that was pretty much it.  I actually don't know if they're doing Architects; Dave has it but has been on tour until just recently, I think, so I'll probably hear from him within a few weeks.  If anyone wants to furnish me a multi-million-dollar indentured-slavery contract featuring Egyptian priestesses, medical-grade heroin, and projection of my appendages into the subconscious fantasies of tweens across Amerika, that would be fine, too, although you should give Dave and Chris Cutler some of the benefits.  Actually I don't know if either of them want any of the heroin.  I'll keep the heroin.

5. Who are the contributors/guests on your latest album, Architects of Flesh-Density and how did these contributions come about?

Actually, unless I'm forgetting anything, Architects is all me.  I'd talked with Chris Cutler about composing something based around a drum improvisation, sort of like what Marco Minneman has gone on to do with the Normalizer project (which I guess means I can't do it now), but nothing really developed.  Ficciones had Jacob Holm-Lupo of White Willow and the Opium Cartel playing some guitar and synth on a couple tracks; I've 'known' him online for a few years after, I think, writing him a nerdy fanboy email about WW's Ignis Fatuus.  He's probably been the biggest supporter of my work and, along with Dave K., Brian Godding (of the Blossom Toes and Keith Tippett's Centipede), and my guitar teacher John White, really should be thanked anywhere my name is mentioned.

6. Looking back at your previous releases, how do you feel about them now, in particular with your current output, Architects of Flesh-Density? How is Nerve Institute different from Sinthome, if at all?

Basically I think I make two types of records: ones on which I try something completely new and ones wherein I basically refine the craft of the previous one.  A Woman Has Given Birth to a Calf's Head was the most ambitious thing I'd ever done c. 2008, and though it's got lots of imperfections I still like it; Ficciones, on the other hand, I think is almost perfectly what-it-is, but I don't know how much I extended myself on it.  There's some good writing, but I was also being kind of lazy in terms of sound and arrangement; as I said about the compositional process above, I hear myself having already decided what to do rather than listening to what's happening in the moment.  Architects is maybe the first thing I've done that I feel is both exploratory and well-developed, and I definitely prefer it to any of my other records -- which is exactly why I don't want to make it again.  I think that album is the end of a certain line of inquiry, a certain methodology, and now there's gotta be something new.  The change of name to the Nerve Institute coincides primarily with my desire to push further into the avant-garde: the last Sinthome album is still predicated on pretty basic A-B-C-A-B-C structures, whereas Architects nearly disposes with them.

7. What's the future, musically, for you? Will you creep more into this type of sound and approach you've created, or venture out into different styles?

I haven't got any definite plans for the next record, as I've been working on other things and I slated to spend most of this year touring as a guitarist with the band Secret Cities.  I think, though, that it'll probably be much more abrasive and diffuse than anything I've done so far.  The stuff that's been fascinating me lately sort of deals with the emergence of micro-structures, miniature orders of stability inside a generally unstable milieu: I hear this in Scott Walker's The Drift and Tilt, in Cecil Taylor, in Ligeti and Bartók, in Flying Lotus and James Blake.  Probably more stark, more dissonant, and more concerned with the interaction between voice and instrument; what little I've got written for it uses kind of Greek chorus chanting and rhythmically notated monologues as much as 'singing.'  My goal with any upcoming album is really to scare the hell out of myself and anyone else who liked the previous one.

8. Aside from music, what are your other passions/occupations?

Most of my energy, and all of my cigarettes and alcohol, for the last four months or so have gone to writing the novel I'm just finishing, which is called Mikrokosmos, or Cities on the Marble Vein and will (hopefully) be published sometime this year.  (See comments above in regard to filthy amounts of money and drugs.)  It's the first of a six-novel set for which I'm assembling notes and scribblings, so I may not keep up with record-per-year release schedule I've had since 2006.  Although, what the hell, maybe I will -- if someone starts paying me for any of this, a novel and an LP in a year is entirely within my means; I work quickly, obsessively, and with the deranged decisiveness of a wartime president.  (Viz., all of them.)  Writing interests me more than music right now, because I've done it so much less; I expect the situation will change when I've finished more of the novels.  I've also been planning to make some films for a few years and will hopefully get around to actually doing it when I move to New York, probably this fall or winter.  The filmmaker Andy McGovern and I have been talking about doing an adaptation of Robbe-Grillet's novel Projet pour une révolution à New York, and maybe Christopher Petit's Robinson as well.  Occupations: I try not to have any.  I'm really completely unfit for anything like normal work & am given to delusion and mania when confronted with normal people doing normal things, so it's really better for everyone that I just stay in the basement ...

9. You mentioned you'll be touring with a band soon; who are they, what music will you be playing and where will you be touring?

They're a group called Secret Cities made up of my longtime friend/collaborator Alex Abnos, who has a solo project in Kansas City called Tut Tut, and two songwriters he met while Tut Tut was touring about five years ago, Marie Parker and Charlie Gokey from Fargo, ND.  They finally finished their debut Pink Graffiti (Western Vinyl) earlier this year and proceeded to blow the hell up in and on virtually every indie music magazine/blog/radio station; Pink Graffiti's been mentioned as one of the year's best records by Crawdaddy, National Public Radio, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Small Town Romance, Grimy Goods, Pasta Primavera, and some other places that I've never heard of but will pretend are a big deal because they'll make me seem famous.  Their first record is Baroque-ish chamber pop filtered through an obsession with electronics and reverb that comes from minimalist composers, musique concrète, and hip-hop; this touring will be coeval with the release of their 2nd LP, Strange Hearts, about which I shouldn't say too much except that it's very different.  I'm playing guitar and bass, singing harmonies, doing some live electronics.  We'll be doing a little tour of the Midwestern USA during February and March, then South by Southwest in Austin, TX and a larger American tour during the spring, and then probably playing in Europe for most of the summer. 

Check 'em out:

10. Anything else you'd like to add?

Hm.  How about:

Afterwards, we shall read your bones.
With a burning metal rod we shall touch each shoulderblade:
on the fractures, omens.
With black ink
we shall write messages to your descendants on your skeleton,
your engraved frame will serve as our herald:
ciphers, dates, whom we were,
the age that befell us to live in.
Afterwards, we shall protect everything with lacquer.

-- Severo Sarduy, Cobra

Here you can download the Sinthome album, Ficciones.

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