Reid Karris is a Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist, composer and improviser, as well as an all-around nice guy. He recently took some time to answer a few of our questions.
How many albums did you release / perform on in 2017? I’m counting four…
2017 did feel like a really productive year but sometimes it’s hard for me to keep track because a lot of times the music was recorded the previous year. It was also an important year because some of the releases were physical, which is something that I hadn’t done in a long time. There were three cassette releases and I am really happy with them, both the music on them as well as the way they look. I also self-released some live recordings. For this I guess I’ll talk about them in order of their release.
Divinatio Exitium was released in March 2017 on Lurker Bias. Work on this started in April or May of 2016 and the start was me taking unused solo drum kit recordings and working with them on my computer. I originally thought I would do something more conventional with them but rather quickly I started working in a collage type of way and decided that I would try to do something that was outside of the norm for me and make sounds that were drones of noise. I took a lot of these tracks and smashed them together, first individually and then laid them over one another and creating loops out of the results. I ended up with two tracks about the same length and didn’t really know what I wanted to do with them. I knew they didn’t sound like a lot of other things that I had done before and at first it seemed like what I had was the finished product but the more I listened to them I knew there could be more. In the end I added prepared guitar as well as metal bowls, which I have been collecting for quite some time and have used on a lot of my recordings. It made a lot of sense for this album to be released on Lurker Bias, as I had been listening to a lot of other releases on the label and wanted to do something that was in the same vein. I first came into contact with them a few years earlier when I was looking for a label to release a tape of the free improv band I had at the time, Set Self on Fire. Oddly enough, Lurker Bias worked out mainly because of the quick turn around with getting the tape put together but after meeting Alexander Adams, who runs the label, we started playing shows with his free improv group Galaxxu. In them we found real kindred spirits and I really enjoy playing with all of them and Alexander and I have worked on a few other projects too.
Arbor Philosophica was released in June 2017 digitally on PYR and self-released physically. While this album was released in 2017 and for the most part recorded in 2016 the idea for it goes back a number of years. I had been aware of the Harmony of the Spheres for a while and really wanted to figure out a way to use it to record an album. The idea came together quickly that each track would represent a planet and be based on the musical note that planet represented. I was also aware of the alchemic idea that each planet represented a different metal and knew I wanted to incorporate that into it as well. I put together a graphic score of sorts that had all the information on it like the planet, the element, the pitch and so forth but at the time I was working on other things so the idea sat around for a while until I finished recording Divinatio Exitumin. I pretty much started recording Arbor Philosophica right away. The recording process turned out to be very similar to my improvised albums where I would record all the tracks for one instrument and then move to the next without really listening to what I had already done until I was playing the next instrument. Each track started with a drone, which was me playing a piano in the key of the planet for about a minute in a very stream of consciences way and using a sort of formula I came up with to play different intervals within each key based on each elements atomic number. I then took the recordings, which were about a minute each and turned them into a drone that was about five or so minutes long. I also used the drones as gaps between each song where it would change from one pitch to the next. For each instrument I tried to come up with different ways to stay within the context of each track. For the table top guitar I just played it in an open tuning for the particular key that was being used. For the standard guitar I knew what chords were needed for the key and stayed within those boundaries. For the drum kit it came down to what I used on the kit, particularly on the snare. I had a large 10” cymbal for the outer planets, the gas giants, them a smaller pot lid for the inside planets which are rock and a splash for the sun. I also have a large assortment of metal mixing bowls for which I have figured out their pitch. I was able to use just a few that fit in with the key of each track instead of using almost all of them which is my usual approach. What’s nice about the idea is that from the Pythagoran stand point the order isn’t the same as it is in reality. That way when I mixed each track in the actual order they are it wasn’t just a chromatic scale. Early on I knew I wanted it to be a physical release but at first I couldn’t figure out how to split it for cassette and really didn’t want to have it be a disc. The whole thing felt like a suite or something that had to be played all the way through. The way around this was actually quite simple and side B is literally side A in reverse. This ended up making a lot of sense to me since the album would then be a trip from outside of solar system, straight in to the sun and then back out again and the music was just the journey between planets. Part of the idea with making a physical release was that I came across a lot of old pictures in regards to alchemy. They all had no color and were basically outlines so I though they looked like coloring pages. There were enough that I really liked for me to assemble them in an order to make a coloring book. I originally wanted to find packaging that was much bigger than a traditional cassette case but I couldn’t so the booklet became pretty small, but in the end I think that the size makes me like it more.
Eponym by Sleight of Hand was released in September 2017 on Orb Tapes. It used to be that any time I walked into a thrift store I was able to buy a metal mixing bowl that resonated well. For a while I was really adamant about it and ended up collecting quite a few. They were also really fun to incorporate them into my drum kit playing. After a while I started setting them all out on a table and using them as an instrument in my recording sessions while I was making studio albums. The idea of trying to base an acoustic improv band came from this and the idea had been there for a while when a show I was playing had the opener back out and I was offered to play two sets. It felt really natural that the other instruments would be clarinet and violin. Ethan had expressed interested in playing clarinet maybe a year or so prior when the thought first came to me. Hanna, his girlfriend, who plays violin was an obvious choice to be the third and I really love the interplay between them. At times I feel that my job is just to support the background while their two instruments intertwine with one another. At the gig it became really clear to me that we could get together and record an album of focused short track free improv. We ended up playing a weekday afternoon show at the Jefferson park library on the Chicago north side, then going to dinner and then recording the album. The live performance was completely different then what we recorded too, which I really liked. Although I sort of feel like the afternoon set was a warm up I do enjoy it a lot. It’s a really good example of more long form stream of consciences type of improv while the album is shorter takes that are more heavily involving us sort of feeding off one another and heading towards a common goal that we know isn’t more than five or so minutes away. An old friend who I used to be in bands with recorded it at the espresso machine repair shop that he works in so it was just a large garage-like room in an industrial part of town so it was really quiet except for us playing and a rainstorm outside, which actually comes through on the recording between songs. The afternoon set was also recorded and filmed. Sleight of Hand live.
Coffin Screws live sets (https://reidkarris.bandcamp.com/album/dec-7th-2016, https://reidkarris.bandcamp.com/album/june-10th-2017, https://reidkarris.bandcamp.com/album/dec-12th-2017). Towards the end of 2016 I started a new project called Coffin Screws. The idea was to have a group where myself on prepared guitars was the only constant member. At first I thought that each time it would be a different drummer and bassist and I did that a few times. In 2017 I started branching out with the project and putting together different kinds of groups. I did one that was a six piece (two drums, bass, keys, sax and myself) as well as one that was sort of a string quartet (drums, viola, cello and me) and then at the end of the year I formed a quartet (drums, keys, sax and me). Each time it was totally different but still very much the same idea. A lot of the same people were involved with each grouping and everyone came from a pool of friends that I know and have shared stages with. When I get a good recording from these shows I self-release them. In a way it feels really weird to have music that I made be available for people so soon after it was made, usually it takes at least a year when I record studio projects.
With efforts involving elaborate composition as well as free improv, how do you view that spectrum and your place(s) on it?
Improvisation is always the focus and the elaborate conceptual composition is usually a means to have some direction to the improv. Arbor Philosophica is a really good example of this. The composition was really a means to set boundaries for myself to work within. Once the backing foundational tracks were finished everything else was improv. I like the idea of setting up parameters to work within while recording in the studio. I find that it leads to recordings that have a very focused feel to them. Improv can be a strange thing to work with sometimes. When you are with other people you need to be willing to go in any direction that the music heads in and those situations are usually when I use the term free improv. But when you are with yourself it can be different and in a way I don’t think you can really play completely free improv when you are by yourself because there is less to feed off and less elements to drive the music in a certain direction. I also like setting limits for the improvisational playing I do by myself because it’s a good means of practice. I think that sometimes I get too caught up with all the various objects I have to use with prepared guitar and it’s healthy to back off and take a more minimalist approach. Also, a lot of times when I am recording there is a certain type of feeling that I am trying to convey and setting limits can ensure that I stay on course to get what I want.
Is any of the music you grew up listening to still influential in your own work?
While there is a lot of music that I grew up listening to that was influential to me but I am not sure much of it is still influencing my current work. I like to think of myself as a sound enthusiast and not limit myself to enjoying the sounds that come from what is commonly referred to as music. There is so much more sound out there to listen to and it really is all around us. During the summer there are birds and insects and those things but even in winter there are a lot of sounds. Just walk around your house and listen to the floor creak the heating system work or the ice making going in the freezer. The idea is to be mindful of what these sounds are. I am not sure when I really came to this realization but for some time now wherever I am it feels very second nature to be aware of the sounds around me.
Any formal training of note? Or are you self-taught, or some combination of both?
I am both, but I would say I am more in the realm of self-taught. My first experience with formal musical training was in fourth grade when I started playing trumpet, which I played until half way through senior year. In high school I really didn’t see eye to eye with the band director. He saw me as one of the kids in class that really didn’t take it seriously and I think he was right. It was the kind of thing where since that’s what was expected of me that’s what I did. At the time I really hadn’t gotten into jazz yet and didn’t feel like I had a real connection to the instrument. I started playing guitar in seventh grade and took lessons throughout high school. My teacher was a really talented player who could figure anything out by ear but I eventually realized that his own music didn’t have much taste to it. I think the most important lesson I learned was that there is a difference between taste and skill. You could have all the skill in the world but if the taste isn’t there it’s not going to be very interesting. I have always felt like I was very good at teaching myself things. Whether it was messing around with alternate guitar tunings and feedback or working to figure out how to play stuff on piano or teaching myself to play a drum kit. My life as a drummer I think predates everything. As a kid I was always banging on stuff, figuring out what rhythm was. Being an experimental musician isn’t something you can really have formal training for. I guess there is formal training you can have as an improvisor but I’ve never had any. To me it always seemed most important to know how to listen and even more importantly how to listen to everything that’s going on around you while you are playing. There is also an element of confidence that is needed and that can’t really be taught either. You have to believe that you know what you want in the end and work toward it. It’s not always a straight shot to the goal but I think that’s part of the fun.
Just about everything you’ve released is a “free” download. Obviously, this is great for us listeners, but do you think the online music world is beyond the point of no return when it comes to fairly compensating musicians?
It’s a really weird world that we live in and I think the idea of music as a commodity has really changed a lot in the last half century. The idea that music can be free or pay for shipping or whatever is a rather large step aside from the way in which recorded music has reached people. I think we’re starting to level out though cause it’s not like there isn’t still manufactured pop music for which the people involved are getting more than fairly compensated. I’ve released stuff on net labels where music is free or tape labels where the digital is free and cost of physical offsets the production and I like those worlds. The term “point of no return” is a little too much though I think. It’s more about how the concept of digital music taking its place with other media forms like tapes or records or whatever. Sometimes I think that there are not that many people who are interested in the music that I’m making so why not let anyone listen and hopefully find someone who wants to hear it. But music is not an income for me. In a lot of ways its always felt more like something I had to do more than I wanted to do. I have a family and a job and music is a side thing really. The question of how the culture of free music impacts those that make a living off music becomes somewhat different for people who do rely on music as income. I would like to think that the dust is settling and the concept of free music is starting to assimilate. In the end I like the idea that there are a lot of really great people out there making really great music and we have access to it. I recently blindly downloaded a new Lurker Bias record that turns out to be a free improv group from Italy that is amazing that I would otherwise never have known about. Those are still great moments, when you find new music that you enjoy and listening to it for the first time, that’s never going to go away.
Balancing work, a family, and your musical activities must be challenging – how do you manage to keep it all going?
Family comes first, work unfortunately comes second most of the time and then comes music. What’s worked well is that I’ve always been one to mull things over a lot so even though I don’t get to play music daily it’s usually what I’m always thinking about, so in reality when I say music comes in third that really only pertains to playing instruments. I like using the term sound enthusiast because I think it gets the point across, that it’s not just about music. Music is just the most widely used form of sound which we humans have found a way to work with, but for me it is about everything audible. I like to think of it in terms of being a musician that it is not always in the execution of making sound but in the way you think about sound. Playing instruments is just one way of making sound but I like that instruments can also be played in ways not intended and that instruments can be made and modified and invented. This way of thinking has worked out to blend nicely with a busy family and work life.
What do you have planned for 2018 in terms of releases, performances, personal goals?
The weird thing about studio recording is the lag time between finishing something up and having it released. With that in mind I am actually not sure if I am going to have a proper solo release in 2018. I have a project in mind that’s actually going to involve quite a lot of sound. Format for releasing music got me to thinking about possibilities and I really want to do something that is different. My first idea was to have an album released on a USB drive but then a friend of mine suggested mini sd cards what fit into a USB drive. That way each sd card could be its own album of sorts. This goes along well with what I am planning because I want it to be a few different things all released together. I have a bunch of tracks that are manipulations of voicemails that I have gotten and turning them into sample based pieces, most of them dealing with phasing. I am also working on some sample based long form drone pieces. I would like to record an improvised album utilizing a lot of found objects as well. In 2017 I started on expanding my solo performances to include an acoustic guitar and a small zither as well as my usual table top and on strap guitars and I would like to release some recordings of that set up. In all it’s probably going to amount to being way too much music but part of me really likes that. The idea is that I usually have different things going on in my head and I want to release them together instead of making each one their own independent release.
I have a couple of collaborative releases in the works too. Alexander Adams, who runs Lurker Bias and plays drums in Galaxxu, has become the most consistent drummer in Coffin Screws and this has led us to start working as a duo. We have played a few shows as a duo and also set up two recording sessions. From those sessions it looks like we’re going to have a solid 30 minute tape of duo music and we’re both really happy with what we got. This is going to be released on Personal Archives which is a label out of Dubuque, Iowa. There’s also a collaborative improv album that’s been in the works for a while now that more or less follows the same format as my past improv albums. The tracks started with me playing drums and then I sent them to Alexander to add more drums. I then added prepared guitars separately in different takes. After that I sent them out to a sax player in Rock Island, IL who does really compelling loud feedback effects stuff and he laid down tracks of saxophone feedback loops. It reminds me of the other things I’ve done that are similar but with the added bonus that it’s not just me and because of that the music has a different vibe to it. Even though Alexander plays drums on it I would say that it is more intense and heavier than our duo recordings. This one will come out on Lurker Bias and I’m thinking it will get released under the name Reid Karris Group or something like that as to differentiate it from my other Lurker Bias release which is just under my own name. These two albums are in the final stages so I am hoping they will come out by or before the middle of the year. As for the rest of the year I’m not really sure. I want to keep recording shows and have more Coffin Screws digital releases and maybe also digitally release some of the duo music performances and hopefully some more Sleight of Hand performances.
2017 also marked the beginning of me trying my hand at instrument building, particularly skatchboxes, which are cardboard boxes with a contact mic on the inside and things such as combs, washers, wooden dowel rods and other things glues to the top. They are played with combs that have been modified into different shapes that give different feels and sounds when you play. Skatchboxes were pioneered by a guy in San Francisco named Tom Nunn who makes other instruments as well and I’ve been aware of them for a long time but it was just recently that I started building and playing them. The sound is sort of like controlled white noise I guess. There are a good amount of instrument builders in Chicago and beyond as well. I am planning on putting together a show of instrument builders, probably from Chicago and Milwaukee, which has a great scene for experimental free improv. I would like to have at least five or six people involved and maybe to short duos and trios as well as all of us together.
In general I usually have this very antsy feeling when it comes to music and there is pretty much always something going on so it’s never been hard to keep myself busy.