Rent Romus has been a name in creative music for over 20 years. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Rent can be heard as a key member of Lords of the Outland and various other ensembles. He also runs Edgetone Records.
How did you initially get into creative music?
When I was 2 my family moved from most northern part of Upper Michigan to the San Francisco Bay Area, and like most it seems I started on the piano at the age of 5 or 6. My mother came from a large Finnish American family where it was expected that everyone play an instrument. As a child I remember many times sitting at the piano at home after going through my lesson just making up songs hours after which no one seemed to mind I was diverting from the “plan”.
At the age of around 10 or 11, I took up my mother’s instrument the alto saxophone. It was one of those old Bundy models, the ones you could drag along the floor behind you and still play it. This was about the same time a horrid state law known as California proposition 13 came into being which gutted the public school system in the south bay area and found its music and art programs dismantled just so people could avoid paying their fair share of property taxes. Lucky for me there was one music teacher left in the district who for reasons unknown felt the need to teach music in something like 6 elementary/middle schools. He must have had to work sixty hours a week on a teacher’s salary just to keep up with us kids. I’ll always remember him for that even though I can’t remember his name it’s been so long. I would say his dedication to keep music in the schools kept me playing and eventually became good enough even though I was only 13 to play in the High School marching band.
At this point I was hooked, obsessed with marching music, formations, I would day dream while in class about the marching band. I would listen to modern marching bands on tape at home at night while my peers were listening to 80’s rock and pop. A few years later I discovered the public library and LP records where I’d find Woody Herman next to Sun Ra and Arthur Blythe. I still have boxes of cassette tapes stored in my home from those days. While school music education was being gutted, Stanford University began to offer their Jazz Workshops. I attended the same years Stan Getz was there as well as Dizzy Gillespie and other local luminaries. One such local player was Bruce Forman who was put in charge of my combo. Many know Bruce as a formal bebop player, but for some reason that first Summer I attended, Bruce decided our combo was going to play nothing but free jazz and original compositions. I look back at that week and can say that was the beginning of the end for me when it came to jazz education. Everywhere else I turned the concept of free improvisation was shunned by the straightjacket of process. To this day I’ll never know what possessed Bruce to spend a whole week playing free improvisation with us kids. Since then I’ve never been able to just play within the confines of the chord progression, or stick to a patterned rule set in any genre. I’ve spent the last thirty three years locked in on letting the music burst fourth into what form come as it may be it with an understanding that all music is built from the premise of exploration and rule breaking even if it’s within a specific genre.
Eventually after working in the jazz scene in San Francisco I fell upon the Luggage Store Gallery where I now curate new and experimental music performances. Later that same time I met composer, guitarist and practitioner of sonic mayhem Ernesto Diaz-Infante. I note Ernesto in particular because he opened the final door that helped plunge me into the San Francisco wild and vibrant underground community giving me the opportunity to play with people I could never had imagined existed before then.
Lords of the Outland, Tri-Cornered Tent Show, The Abstractions, Bloom Project…these are all groups you’ve led or participated in. But I see your name on many other recordings. What are some of the additional efforts you’ve been involved in?
Before Lords of Outland I ran Jazz On the Line and released 3 albums the third featuring Chico Freeman. After that the Lords of Outland was born formally in the spring of 1994. This year 2014 I’ll be marking twenty years of this ever changing collective that have featured a wide range of players including the late great John Tchicai, multi-reedist Vinny Golia. I also sit in with a collective known as Key West from time to time as well as various groupings that pop up in the scene. I also resurrected the PKD Vortex Project I started in 1998 of music inspired by the ranting of author Phil K. Dick as well as a new group called The Ruminations with a similar no holds narrative The Abstractions had during its tenure. Speaking of resurrection, a band that plays roughly every ten years plays this year known as Guinea Pig with Sacramento saxophonist Tony Passarell. I’m also writing two Suites this year one based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories and the other inspired by the pantheon of Finnish Rune Poetry and it’s Gods and Heroes.
In addition to the various ensembles and projects I play music in I also run Outsound Presents with other like minded musician curators. I started the organization as the SIMM Series in 2000 in SF which currently presents 20 shows a year at the Musicians Union Hall. We also curate 80 shows at the Luggage Store New Music Series and a full week long festival at the end of July known as the Outsound New Music Summit where we’re in our 13th year. I have always had this passion for performance presentation since I was about 16 years old.
You seem equally comfortable with free-jazz blowouts, string quartets, and other arrangements. How do you go about putting together these diverse groups?
The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most creative centers in the country for new and experimental and explorations in music. My work as a curator keeps me informed in finding new artists or groups to work with. This is partially due to the open ended attitude of the music community meaning compartmentalization is not the hard rule here. Also, feeder programs from Mills College and other schools keeps new people coming on a regular basis, so finding a noise artist willing to play with a classically trained cellist to play with a street wise jazz drummer to present a set of free improvisations is no harder then a few emails or attending a few shows over the period of a week.
What kind of roles do composition and improvisation take in your works? Do some projects focus more on one or the other?
Compositionally I work in terms of thematic story arcs. I started out writing before I even knew how by coming up with the melodic context first then throwing chords out to see where they may fall. However, working with free improvisers who are willing to play thematically has also opened the door to creating graphic scores, instructional text based, or image based compositions. For instance Bloom Project with pianist Thollem McDonas is a combination of free improvised as well as graphic, and instructional compositions. Lords of Outland is a cross section of all of the above. One recording You Can Sleep When your Dead was all photo collage. Improvisation plays a heavy role across all areas even in notational composition. Even now when I write a structure note for note I still expect the performers to change the piece on the fly, and I ensure that by changing it on them in live performance, which many of my fellow musicians have come to expect from me.
When I listen to your playing, I probably could guess at your influences, but no obvious ones come to mind. Who are your sax heroes?
Early on Stan Getz whom I had the privilege to meet, learn, and one time play with in my early teens, Arthur Blythe and Chico Freeman later on as well as Thomas Chapin long ago who’s work lead me to Rashaann Roland Kirk, as well as Oliver Lake, with great love and admiration the work of Albert Ayler. Also Alicia Mangan, John Tchicai, Vinny Golia, Jim Pepper, Kevin Robinson, Josh Allen, Jack Wright. This is the short list, the influences never end as new and interesting ideas and musicians are always popping up.
If my understanding is correct, you started Edgetone Records as a way to release your own material, and later decided to release recordings by others. How did this change come about?
I guess one could say I have this need to see the under appreciated hard working practitioners of music and exploration get support. I started Edgetone Records because the “system” at the time some 25 years ago would have none of me, and I guess that was a blessing since the “music industry” is lacking of interest for local communities across the board. I’m so glad to see more and smaller musician run entities filling up the gaping holes left by an unwilling and uncaring business model slowly drifting away under its own weight. Also, vanity labels only go so far and are only as strong as it’s catalog. Distribution either digitally or hard copy is a more likely scenario if the catalog is a cross section of recording artists.
What is it like running a niche label in 2014? Are the economics depressing or can one still make a viable go at it without artistic compromise?
The word “viable” can mean a great many things from my perspective. Edgetone Records for me personally is a labor of artistic survival, love, and dedication. If you mean financially viable like it pays all my bills, well then I guess it’s a complete and wonderful failure. Edgetone turns 25 in less than 2 years from now with over 140 releases supporting over 65 artists and growing rapidly. For the most part expenses are paid, which I guess I can celebrate, but the real achievement is it’s a testament to the dedication and hard work that musicians do to make their work alive in the world. Edgetone is more of a conduit for recording artists who would otherwise put their own music out without a label. There are advantages in numbers, our digital distribution is strong at the moment, and various avenues of e-commerce are used to sell the music to the public. If economics was part of the equation for starting a label without artistic compromise there would be no label. Money is not a good measure of success in any situation, it should be a pleasant an after thought.