AMN Interviews: Damon Waitkus (Jack ‘O The Clock)

DSC_1290We recently sent a few questions to Damon Waitkus of the critically-acclaimed San Francisco area band Jack ‘O The Clock. He was kind enough to reply at length. Previously, we reviewed their most recent release, All My Friends.

The group is playing on on 11/8/13 at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, CA, with Inner Ear Brigade and Chuck Johnson.

Your music has been described using references to Henry Cow, Gentle Giant, Sufjan Stevens, Frank Zappa and others. Are those individuals and groups your actual influences as well? What other influences do you have?

I was into first-generation progressive rock as a teenager and those guys were in there for sure, but I also loved melodic, lyric-driven music like Paul Simon and (a bit later) Leonard Cohen, also The Smiths, David Bowie, and early R.E.M., among a whole lot of others. In my early 20s I discovered Henry Cow and Laurie Anderson, who were gateways to Modernism and contemporary experimentalism. Then I found Charles Ives, Morton Feldman and Gyorgy Ligeti, became “serious” about composition and foreswore songwriting as a guilty habit every two weeks or so. Scott Walker and David Sylvian helped me find my way back a few years ago. Around this time Nicci Reisnour, who was also studying composition at Mills, said the only sort of rock or pop music she thought would be worth making might sound something like Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan album, I thought that was good enough for me and we founded Jack O’ The Clock.

Kind of a caricature of 20-odd years of listening, but it does the job. I’m speaking only for myself here. No one else in the band except maybe Jason had any sort of prog rock listening background, and everyone has other influences, including some folk across the board. To paint the others’ backgrounds with an even broader brush, Jason’s coming from metal and improv, Jordan from jazz and improv, Emily and Kate from the classical and new music performance world. Kate’s trained as a conductor as well as a bassoonist.

The avant/progressive rock community has been very supportive so far and that has probably one reason that pedigree turns up. And of course Fred Frith has had a huge influence on the band as a musician and mentor, so you often see us described as a RIO band even though we have little in common with that very specific sound, which is also true of a lot of Fred’s music for that matter. If it was the singer-songwriter community that responded to us, I think you’d see a different list of reference points.

When I talk about influences I sometimes feel that I’m drawing an arbitrary line between music and other art, and ignoring huge tributaries of aesthetic information. Kafka and Beckett are impossible to ignore. Also Chekhov, Grace Paley, J.M. Coetzee, and Raymond Carver. And films by Charlie Kaufman, Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog, Atom Egoyan, Coen Brothers, Stan Brackhage, Jan Svankmajer, Harmony Korine. There’s a spiritual heft to much of this stuff that’s hard to find in popular music.

Compositionally, are Jack ‘O The Clock’s tracks the work of one or two main writers, or are they group efforts?

I’ve done most of the writing so far, with Jason contributing some music to the second two albums. The simpler songs we put together in the usual singer-songwriterly way: by ear, with my guitar or hammer dulcimer providing the chords and backbone, the others working out their own parts, sometimes with a notated head or detail-idea also coming from me. More involved pieces like First Of The Year I often bring to the group unfinished–there won’t be a full score, but there will be some fully notated passages, some passages where I furnish chord changes, and others which we work out together by ear, and all of this will be subject to change as we rehearse and see what works. Seeing how my ideas are transformed by other musicians is one of my favorite things in the world, and it’s distinctly different with an open-minded band than it is with “composed” music in that the band takes ownership, feels free to improvise in places, vetoes certain ideas, changes certain harmonies: you don’t go back and rewrite endlessly as the composer, the music is just given over to the band at whatever stage it emerges and evolves because everyone is free to tweak what they want without breaking protocol. It does mean you have slips of paper half x-ed out all over the place and no score, but who cares about that, we’re usually trying to get it to memory anyway.

Lately though our composing has been more truly group-oriented, with Jason and Jordan beginning to bring notated music and initiating ideas. Emily has also provided harmonic material for a couple songs we’re just beginning to perform, and we’ve composed-out ideas based on recorded improvisations. Often the lyrics will make certain demands of the basic structure, and those are still coming from me, though the music can put pressure on the lyrics as well. This material isn’t recorded yet, but is some of the most comfortable-sitting, fun to play, organic music we’ve come up with and I think that comes across live. Our live sound engineer, Sarah Howe, has also been getting more involved in the new pieces, recording and triggering samples that become integral parts of the songs, and is additionally working on a video for The Pilot.

I’ve been talking about the live band. I have a somewhat heavier hand in the recordings because there are always several songs on each album that are composed for the studio, like Old Friend In A Hole and Blue Tail Fly, where I take advantage of certain instruments and effects in ways that would be impractical live. The rest of the band has an enormous influence on these too, but they contribute a bit more blindly, adding parts as the pieces are recorded without hearing the as-yet-unrealized sections of them, and I see them through myself.

For the most part, All My Friends sounds highly composed. Do you improvise as well, either in the studio or live?

Yes to both, though you’re right that it’s not the way most of the music is made.

Well, I feel like free improvisation and improvisation within a song are two different questions. Jason and Jordan are brilliant free improvisers and play out regularly in that capacity with other musicians. Jack O’ The Clock has done a little of this, usually circumscribed pretty strictly by song or set, in the tune Analemma for example. I have been slow to admit to myself that different standards of pacing apply to songs than apply to free improvisation and instrumental art music, but for some reason when you introduce words and melodies, it’s very difficult to then drone convincingly for twenty minutes. As I’ve moved away from writing instrumental music (and lain off the Feldman a little bit), I’ve found myself tightening up the songs, and this probably accounts for an increase in brevity and density since Rare Weather. I find myself bringing different pacing standards to bear depending on what sort of music I’m listening to, and a nicely-paced free improvisation can be sublime, but I try to keep my songs as fat-free as possible. Half of them still can’t fit through the door.

As for improvisation within a song with a predetermined structure, that happens all the time, both on recordings and live. Usually not by me.

The lyrics to All My Friends are evocative, touching, and a bit creepy at times. Aside from perhaps friendship, are there any major themes therein?

Thanks for asking about the lyrics: they are half of the experience as far as I’m concerned, but the music gets most of the attention, which may be my own fault to some extent for insisting on such dense arrangements.

I think I’m coming to the end of a long period of writing preoccupied with alienation, isolation, decay, and the end of life. Over the past decade or two I’ve watched a striking number of people from my parents’ mostly Catholic, working-class social and familial circle succumb to alcoholism and mental illness in their 50s and 60s, and it has thwarted a lot of my expectations about the predictability of the arc of life. It’s hard for me to extricate the increasing dominance of fear I observed in my parents, which led to self-isolation and self-destructive behaviors, from their arguably self-defeating rightward political shift, all of which seemed to precipitate early decay. In the background were their stolid, often difficult, strong-willed immigrant and first-generation parents, who worked hard, were engaged in politics and community, and lived long, more or less healthy lives. I got to know my grandparents’ growing up, and the difference between the two generations has become increasingly apparent to me as I’ve gotten older. Songs like All My Friends Are Dead and I Watch The Planes canalize voices from that older generation, whereas Shrinking and Fire At Noon are more focused on the middle generation. There are a lot of mysteries there, and with a lot of my lyrics for the first three albums and the upcoming one, I’m trying to put a wedge into those cracks, to attempt to better understand, but also to concretize those uncanny feelings in hopes that others can experience them. Most of my impressions are of an emotional and spiritual nature, so it is usually more important to try to create an experience than to say, “see, this is what I think is going on here, here’s the cause and here’s the effect…” I hope to keep the narratives from being moralistic or polemical. Many of the lyrics are dreamlike because they actually do derive from big dreams or waking fantasies that incorporate unconscious elements. The album covers are cut from the same cloth, selected from boxes in attics and thrift stores because they seem so scintillate with similar unanswerable questions about the past.

All My Friends feels sunnier to me than much of the earlier work, including the bulk of the new album we’re working on (which includes a lot of older writing from this same period), maybe because it’s beginning to turn towards the present a bit more, introducing lateral friendships even as those darker, vertical obsessions persist. I like a little bit of a gothic patina from time to time but I’m wary of fetishizing the underbelly of life. Even What To Do In Our Neighborhood and Old Friend In A Hole, which deal with depression and suicide, include some sort of apotheosis, though it’s an uneasy one.

Listening to your three releases in order, a progression from a more experimental-folk approach to a more avant-rock approach can be heard. Do you see the band continuing along this path, or taking a left turn or two?

Stacks of steel strings and vocal harmonies are two sounds I’ve never been able to get enough of, I don’t imagine they’re going to disappear completely from anything Jack O’ The Clock produces, but hand in hand with the band becoming itself as a band and collaborating more readily is a desire to let the live band sound take center stage a bit more. Also, there are aspects of the “folk” that came out of left field as far as I’m concerned, organically enough because I don’t remember deliberately trying on any hats, but which I’m not as enamored of as I apparently was, fast-pickin’ banjo tunes for example. I’m not a big fan of camp or of museum-piece music, and some “folk” gets under my skin for being too precious or sanctimonious. I like the sounds and respect the virtuosity of serious players, but reverence is boring.

Your releases have received quite a bit of acclaim. How does that make you feel?

Good! It’s also good practice for seeing the ego for what it is, because you never get exactly what you want, whatever that is. But I’ll take it, I’m glad someone’s listening.

Any plans for the band to play somewhere other than the west coast?

A trip to the UK or mainland Europe would be fabulous, not to mention the East Coast, but I can’t say anything definite yet. It’s all logistics and money. We’re a bunch of professional musicians and teachers and everything we do is self-funded on a shoestring budget, no label.

When can we expect to hear new material from Jack ‘O The Clock?

Something will have to have gone seriously wrong if we don’t have a new album in 2014, maybe relatively early. I was compiling an EP’s worth of tunes that were either too bizarre for one of the earlier albums or couldn’t find a comfortable place in the sequence of songs–they get mad at me when I call them outtakes–but the set kept feeling incomplete. Maybe it was because there was no guitar or dulcimer on any of it and I couldn’t take it. So we’ve been working on recording a couple more songs from our live sets to add to it as well as a few new in-studio productions and making a full-length out of it, currently called Night Loops. They’re all nocturnes, pretty haunted.

What do you do when you’re not composing, practicing or playing?

Emily and I have a 17-month-old daughter whose development has been indescribable to watch. We spend a lot of time together, and I’m sure she has had a hand in bringing about a shift away from past-orientation and deathmongering. I also teach music, do some volunteering in the mental health field, try to practice yoga, and go poking around in the woods whenever possible.

Aside from anyone mentioned earlier, what have you been listening to lately?

The new album by ex-Books’ Nick Zammuto is beautiful and stunningly produced. Dirty Projectors do things live that others struggle to fake in the studio, and their latest album has some of the best melodies I’ve ever heard on it–that have the ghost of familiarity about them while being far too idiosyncratic to sound cliched. It’s so rare in rock to hear sunny, ebullient music with so much punch to it as those two artists, and I find them both really open-hearted, along with Sufjan Stevens who we’ve already mentioned.

I think Joanna Newsom is a tremendous songwriter, maybe the best I’ve heard of our generation, and is only getting better.

I also listen to a lot of solo guitar: John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Bill Frisell, Tom Lattanand, Chuck Johnson.

Others I return to periodically: Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure, Randy Newman, Japanese Gagaku, Eric Dolphy and a host of other 60s Blue Note recordings, Fairlight-era Kate Bush, Gil Scott-Heron, Bach, Bulgarian Women’s Choir, Ghazal, Art Elliot, The Band, Chimney Choir, The Cardiacs, late Coltrane, Malcolm Dalglish, Cassandra Wilson, Anthony Braxton, Elvis Costello…

Upcoming Atlas Arts Events in DC

Tim Berne, at the Vortex, London 27/3/07

From Atlas Arts:

WADADA LEO SMITH: TEN FREEDOM SUMMERS
October 25 and 26, 2013
In celebration of the the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Experience the complete presentation of jazz trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize finalist composer Wadada Leo Smith’s epic Ten Freedom Summers in 3 performances spread over two days. Each performance is a different chapter of Smith’s homage to Civil Rights heroes including Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Medger Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Presented in 3 performances, each performance is a different chapter and may be seen separately.

Tim Berne – Snakeoil
October 9 at 8:00 PM
In the game since 1970, Tim Berne still amazes with each new project he leads. Snakeoil Quartet is no different. Called “one of the most forward thinking and fearless composers in jazz” (All About Jazz), Berne’s music never fails to challenge and delight the human ear. Snakeoil Quartet includes pianist, Matt Mitchell, percussionist, Ches Smith, and Oscar Noriega on bass clarinet, acclaimed musicians in their own right who master Berne’s compositions and challenge each other through skillful improvisation.

Claire Chase by David Michalek
October 12, 2013
The Atlas welcomes 2012 MacArthur Fellow, Claire Chase to the stage as she uses her passion for playing the flute to push the instrument beyond traditional notes. Chase has given critically acclaimed solo recitals recently at Weill Recital Hall as part of the Great Performers Series at Lincoln Center. As a soloist, collaborative artist and arts entrepreneur, Chase has premiered over 100 new works for flute in the past decade. She is also founder of the award winning International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

October 23, 2013
Brian Settles & Central Union
Influenced by jazz greats such as Davey Yarborough, Charlie Young, and Arnie Lawrence, DC native Brian Settles, presents a style all his own. A Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Howard University alum, Settles became known for his, “creative, risk-taking,” freely swinging between traditional and unconventional forms of jazz. His band, Central Union, featuring Corcoran Holt on bass, Jeremy Carlstedt on drums, percussionist, Jean Marie Collatin-Faye and pianist, Neil Podgurski, forms a cohesive unit of melody and flow.

November 13, 2013
Steve Lehman Octet
New York born, alto saxophonist, Steve Lehman, is considered one of the gifted trailblazers of jazz in the 21st Century (The Guardian UK). His sound oscillates between jazz as we know it and jazz as it will be, involving innovative instrumentation and composition leaning into the new music genre. Performing sets from his critically acclaimed album, Travail, Transformation and Flow, Steve Lehman Octet features Mark Shim, Jonathan Finlayson, Tim Albright, Chris Dingman, Jose Davila, Drew Gress, Tyshawn Sorey.

December 19, 2013
Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O
Grammy nominee, drummer, Matt Wilson, livens up the holiday season with his one-of-a-kind Christmas Tree-O! As one of today’s most celebrated jazz artists, he is recognized for his melodic drumming style as well as his strength as a composer and bandleader. With Jeff Lederer and Paul Sikivie, the fun and delightful Wilson offers up all of our Holiday favorites without letting go his jazzy, snazzy flow. Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, this is the perfect holiday treat!

January 16, 2013
Anthony Pirog Trio
Anthony Pirog is making his mark on the guitar playing universe, one sonically enthralling, diversely influenced project after another. From his work on Janel andAnthony’s “Where is Home,” described in Guitar Player Magazine as “approachable experimentalism,” to his “pristinely executed rock guitar solos” with Skysaw,Anthony displays a “crystalline tone that’s immediately recognizable as his own” in his ever-evolving conception of how a guitar can sound. Featuring Michael Formanek on bass and Ches Smith on drums.

January 29, 2014
Ellery Eskelin Trio New York II with Gary Versace, Gerald Cleaver
Raised in Baltimore and based in New York City, Ellery Eskelin is called the “most inventive American tenor player in creative music” (DownBeat). Having played with bakdav drummer, Arto Tuncboyaciyan, accordionist, Andrea Parkins, and including organist, Gary Versace, in his Trio New York, Eskelin seeks unusual musical collaboration and instrumentation. Trio New York, also featuring Gerald Cleaver, reanimates the Great American Songbook with Eskelin’s love and dedication to jazz and American music.

February 12, 2014
Curtis Hasselbring’s Number Stations with Mary Halvorson, Trevor Dunn, Chris Speed
Curtis Hasselbring, or “Curha,” as he is commonly called in the jazz scene, does not shy away from experimentation with other genres and instrumental arrangements. His newest project Number Stations, alludes to short wave radio stations that emit lingering, mysterious signals and messages. In this way, Hasselbring, along with Mary Halvorson, Trevor Dunn, and Chris Speed, projects a style that is both enigmatic and humorously dark, while maintaining a mastery of jazz tradition and leaning into rock rhythms.

March 19, 2014
Washington Women in Jazz Festival featuring Mary Halvorson and Allison Miller
Amy K. Bormet, founder of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival (WWJF), returns to the Atlas with the Washington Women in Jazz All Stars featuring guitarist, Mary Halvorson and drummer, Allison Miller. Approaching its fourth year, the Washington Women in Jazz Festival celebrates the DC area’s finest female jazz artists in spite of a male-dominated jazz scene, whose talents span the continuum of the jazz genre.

March 26, 2014
Linda Oh Quartet
Rising star, composer and bassist, Linda Oh, draws upon her Chinese heritage, and Malaysian and Australian beginnings to create what the New York Times can only describe as “graceful and sometimes aggressive” musical compositions. She is a part of a new and fearless generation of jazz progressives applying her rock and classical foundations to create her own jazz aesthetic. Leading her Quartet on a mean bass, Oh is joined by pianist, Fabian Almazan, Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone, and drummer, Rudy Royston.

May 10, 2014
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
Young, gifted and obsessed with swing, Darcy James Argue brings his Secret Society, the 18-piece big band, back to the Atlas for the 3rd time! The GRAMMY-nominated, Darcy James Argues’ Secret Society conjures the spirit of the big band Swing Era while adding its own reminiscence of the dance orchestra style. New York Times called it, “A wickedly intelligent dispatch from the fading border between orchestral jazz and post-rock and classical minimalism…” The Secret Society presents a genre of jazz unique unto itself.

Interview with Mary Halvorson & Brandon Seabrook

English: Mary Halvorson, Jazz guitarist; Pictu...

From Roulette Blog:

In a crowded field of guitarists here, there, and everywhere, Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook stand out for the unique ways that they each explore and re-engage with the possibilities of the “new” through the guitar as an instrument of performance and as the nexus of cutting-edge compositions. Coming up this Friday, October 11th at 8pm at Roulette, Halvorson, who has worked as a guitarist and band leader with the finest musicians in avant-jazz, improv, and more (Anthony Braxton, Marc Ribot, Ingrid Laubrock, Jessica Pavone), and Seabrook, who blazes away in Seabrook Power Plant, and more recently, in Gerald Cleaver’s avant-jazz ensemble, Black Host, come together for their second-ever performance as a duo. In this interview, the two Boston natives and current Brooklyn-ites discuss their upcoming performance, influences, and give a shout out to the – er – Boston Celtics.

Stockhausen/Nono at the Royal Festival Hall Reviewed

English: Shiraz Arts Festival, Karlheinz Stock...

From The Arts Desk:

These are the decades that challenge the First Law of the Avant-Garde, which states that any piece of music considered difficult today will be guaranteed a performance on Classic FM within 50 years. Seventy years later, we’re still waiting. That said, if any concert was to convince you that Integral Serialism might finally be having its day it was last night’s.

Newsbits: A Bunch of UK Shows / Dead Neanderthals / Stockhausen and Boulez in London / David Krakauer’s PledgeMusic Campaign / New Potlatch Release

Louis Moholo
Louis Moholo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hideous Porta, a monthly series at Ryan’s Bar in London, will feature Some Truths, Wanda Group, and Roberto Crippa & Caleb Wood on October 20, 8pm.

On October 30th, 2013 – 8pm, On the Edge in Brighton UK ARC: Sylvia Hallett, Danny Kingshill, Gus Garside plus Alison Blunt and Annie Kerr. At the Safehouse, 132 Dyke Road, Brighton BN1 3TE.

Also coming to Brighton on November 2nd are Louis Moholo-Moholo and Alexander Hawkins at the Brighton Unitarian Church, New Road, Brighton, BN1 1UF.

The latest effort from the grindcore sax / drums outfit Dead Neanderthals is reviewed.

A London Stockhausen and Boulez performance is reviewed.

Now in the final stages of setting up the live show and creating the visuals, David Krakauer has started a PledgeMusic campaign in order to bring this project to life, where he will be posting exclusive and behind-the-scenes content. This will enable him to launch the show with a New York City residency in early 2014 before taking the band and screens on the road to bring The Big Picture! to the world.

Potlatch has a new release out featuring Klaus Filip: sinewaves and Dafne Vicente-Sandoval: bassoon.

Musique Machine Reviews

Merzbow on stage
Merzbow on stage (Photo credit: TinkerThom)

From Musique Machine:

Luca Forcucci – Fog Horns
Emit – Spectre Music Of An Antiquary
Dead Body Collection/Faggot Front – From Destruction Comes Rebirth Vol 4
Forecast/Toxic Bliss – From Destruction Comes Rebirth Vol 1
Cory Strand – Moon Pix: A Reinterpretation
Angus Carlyle and Rupert Cox – Air Pressure
Clive Henry – III
Nar – Silent Treatment
Mathias Delplanque – Chutes
Merzbow vs Nordvargr – Partikel III
Crystal Plumage – Night Conference

Tri-Centric Orchestra Commissioning Series at Roulette Reviewed

English: Steve Lehman, moers festival 2010
English: Steve Lehman, moers festival 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From All About Jazz:

Addressing the audience at Roulette on Sept. 24, halfway through the first of two nights of the Tri-Centric Presenting Series, trumpeter and foundation executive director Taylor Ho Bynum acknowledged the influence of Artistic Director and spiritual godfather Anthony Braxton.

“Anthony Braxton often brings up the idea of scale,” he said. “He wants to work solo, he wants to do orchestral work, he wants to do operas, he wants to do string quartets.”

Such could be taken as the model for the two nights at as well, which included four works for large ensembles (including the premiere performance of Braxton’s 1973 Composition No. 27), an electroacoustic trio led by Steve Lehman and an ambitious staging of a horn quartet by Chris Jonas.