This interview with Jerry Granelli, J. Anthony Granelli and Christian Kögel was conducted by phone and email during April-May 2009.
Tony Reif: This is V16’s third record. The first was a studio date in Minneapolis shortly after the band formed, with its original bassist Anthony Cox (who never actually toured with the band). The second (The Sonic Temple) consisted of a 2-night stand at the 2006 Atlantic Jazz Festival in Halifax. The concerts were held in the controlled conditions of a good-sounding recording studio in front of small, attentive audiences. Both evenings had the same set-list, and the concerts were released in the order played, giving listeners two audiophile snapshots of the band in action. And now we have a studio recording in Vancouver (recorded multi-track, live off the floor, no isolation or headphones, not much editing, and mixed to clarify the interaction to the max) plus a live concert DVD (in the best possible sound you can get on a DVD video) of your October 2008 gig here. Not that many jazz groups – and I guess V16 is a jazz group if you have to categorize it (more on that later) – release concert DVDs, although of course bands are taking advantage of the internet to post excerpts of live performances (necessarily with highly compressed video and audio). What exactly did you have in mind doing this DVD? And do you think that the way the three V16 records were made affected in significant ways how the music was played, and/or how it comes across?
Jerry Granelli: Part of the reason for doing the DVD is a direct result of doing The Sonic Temple. Each time you finish a project, hopefully the seeds of the next project are there. So after doing a live record, the next logical step is to allow people to see the dynamic of the band visually – which answers a lot of questions about how it works, such as why the guitars work so well together – because in the DVD you can actually see their appreciation for each other. Another reason is to highlight the difference between a live performance and the energy of that, and the studio. You have an audience there, a certain energy that’s collected that night. And perhaps there’s a certain looseness in the playing that comes with knowing that it’s gone, that it’s not being preserved (except in its live form this time it is). You get the energy of the event, and the way the material hangs together – on the DVD pieces morph into each other, and there’s older material. There’s a certain energy to this band when it records live, everyone has a certain degree of performer to them. And I really wanted to share that with people. I’ve come to peace with the fact that I’ve been performing all my life. As Tronzo points out, part of it is how we take the stage. The band switches on, it knows when it’s on stage. And I think most great bands do that.
TR: And with V16 there’s always that joy of improvising…
JG: In some ways we’re going on stage to celebrate that public risk. There are great composers who hate performing, and part of the tradition of this music is great composers who love to share that moment or at least are willing to share that moment with an audience – that moment of not knowing what’s actually going to happen. I think in some ways that’s what attracts people to come listen to improvised music. And in the DVD you can connect to that process, visually. There’s a great moment where Christian is going to come in, but he never comes in – he’s listening to Tronz and his hands are moving on the frets but he never enters, and to me that’s really a wonderful moment, it shows the total involvement at all times in the music, without having to jump in just to express himself, to get to play. At any moment if the music dictates he could jump in, but he didn’t. And there are other moments like that all the way through with all the people in the band. In “Brutto” when the drum solo starts someone yells “Oh!” I mean, it’s not “Oh, a drum solo, time to get a drink of water.” Plus hopefully people seeing the DVD will want to come and see the band perform. And because people are using YouTube and Facebook and MySpace it will give them another way to access the music – parts of the DVD will be going up on the internet. Another reason to release it as a DVD was to present the concert in 5 channels and great sound.
J. Anthony Granelli: I think that the band plays its best live and was always conceived as a project that did its best thinking on its feet so to speak. Although Vancouver ’08 was done in a studio the point was to capture what we had developed during the preceding tour. I kinda looked at it like doing a gig with no audience.
Christian Kögel: All the records were recorded live without much isolation, so the live vibe is always there. Although, on the first recording, we did some overdubs.
JG: I think the way the studio was set up – pretty much like playing live, this time even more it seems to me than with Sonic Temple – gives it a bit more of a raw quality, sonically. Each record has a different sound, which may say something about me as a producer, willing to work with the nature of the music rather than superimposing my sound, or the engineer’s sound – for example the fact that there’s not a lot of reverb, it’s a room sound. Everybody was playing with their own dynamics, and that’s a reflection of the band’s interconnectedness and total attention – and you can really hear the details. No headphones – what we were hearing in that room was being translated and captured. Also, if you look at the room we chose (The Factory), and your decision to have John Raham do the engineering, although I’d never worked with him or the studio, there’s a certain mutual trust you and I have developed over 6 records – it’s becoming a pretty good history of making music together.
TR: I feel the same. Here’s a question for everyone: how would you characterize the evolution of this band? – its repertoire, approach to improvising, the musical relationships between its members. Jerry (and Christian), has this band developed in ways similar or different from your previous 2-guitar band, UFB?
JG: When I started looking at how this record turned out I was looking at it from a very long view, because I have a long history going back to the 60s, when some of this music was born. A lot of it goes back to something that was happening to music in the 60s that people maybe weren’t seeing so clearly then. and that was related to something that was going on in society, a breaking down of solid, pre-determined roles for the instruments in the band, and the whole idea of not having a fixed soloist but collective playing. That’s what we are all doing, collectively going at it. Any moment anything can happen in terms of the focus shifting, and I think that all of the compositions reflect that this time. If you were to look from piece to piece, there’s almost a different role for each instrument in every composition. In “Planting” the drums are the main soloist, I solo all the way through – that’s in the design of the composition, except for the group improvisation in the middle. And then if you look at “The Truth,” Tronzo and I are basically the rhythm players, the bass is the melody instrument. It’s really different from the music on Sonic Temple – this use of the instruments in different ways is now built into the compositions. There we made a shift of breaking away from the idea of stating the theme and then playing on it. Now, even more the roles are broken down. It’s a way of composing for the instruments that’s less predictable, and much more open or vast – it has a bigger view. Looking at it from the drums, sometimes I’m the main soloist, sometimes I’m just pointing to the pulse, sometimes I’m maintaining it.
TR: How much leeway is there in these compositionally defined roles to change things up from time to time or performance to performance?
JG: It’s completely optional, it’s up to us. The compositions aren’t just conceptual, they come out of the history of this band playing together, and they’re driven by a need of the band, to express itself or to move forward. On the DVD there’s a lot more liberties or adventures being taken than on the record. In some ways the compositions are based on that old chemical reaction, that we’ll make something out of them that’s pretty unique to us. When you put something in front of this band it does something with it, it can’t help itself…like all great bands really. Miles’s bands, or Monk, or Duke, they played the same material but it was always just them, without ever sacrificing the material. Keith’s trio, the same thing. Or take Etta James, Sinatra, Nina Simone…they all bring their own thing to the material. Little Jimmy Scott singing “Dream” – his phrasing, it’s not a learned thing. Frisell is always going to have that weird chemistry. It’s what attracts people to bands, and why bands strive to stay together.
As for UFB, I actually started the two-guitar thing in Boulder in 1975, a band called Visions, young musicians from Colorado…it had a pedal-steel guitar player, Lemuel Whitney Eisenwinter – he played classical music and country and western, had never improvised before. It’s partly about 2 guitars and the electric quality, but it’s also about people who are willing to work in this collective, spontaneous, orchestral way. Guitars and electric bass are fantastic for this sonically because they have so many different sonic aspects. A lot of it has to do with the pedals, and also for example the way Tronzo prepares the guitar, and in this band the totally distinct sound of the two guitars – plus J on bass has his effects too – which definitely affects the timbres that I then apply with the drums, as well as the volume at which I can play. The timbres and electricity of the guitars provide a tremendous access for me and for the music.
CK: For me, V16 has developed differently from UFB, there is more constant improvisation going on, and we get more the thing of the one big giant guitar. Also, because the three string players are really different in their approach to their instruments and the music, the diversity within this16-string organism helps it to grow and still become more one.
JAG: The band has always been into questioning just what it is and why we do it. The ability to ask why is very important and a special attribute of this group of musicians. Everyone in the band has a very developed sense of style and the modalities of how they like to play. It would be very easy for each of us to say, “Hey this is how I do it, it works, so don’t mess with it,” but that has never happened. Consequently, the band has always had to move forward. I think the new record is a great document of a moment in time, a point in development, but not some kind of place of arrival.
TR: Jerry, could you talk about the kinds of activities the band is involved in during its annual residency at the Creative Music Workshop, a two-week intensive music camp for jazz students you’ve organized in conjunction with the Atlantic Jazz Festival?
JG: The Creative Music Workshop has been a sustaining part of the band – teaching together – and has also provided us a chance to be together for 2 weeks every year and work on our own music, so it’s been a really good way to help keep the band together and pass on this tradition of improvising.
TR: J, quite a few of the tunes on this record are yours, and you have also acted as producer or co-producer on both this record and the last one. Could you and Jerry talk a bit about what it’s like to run a father-son band? How does that affect the dynamics of the band and its music? And could you say more about this 16-stringed beast and how it works?
JAG: I don’t think that we view it as a father and son band. I share a very close musical relationship with my dad, but as far as the practicalities of playing goes, it’s all about playing and contributing at the highest level possible. We have made our relationship work in this context by keeping the musical part of it as free of the father and son thing as possible. As far as producing the CDs goes, we’ve had a shared vision of the projects and also have had differences of opinion that both of us have gone to the mat over. But in the end, we are both willing to let the music make the decisions.
JG: I never think of it that way either. That’s not the reason J’s in the band. When Anthony Cox left the band, had to go in a different direction at that time, the first response from Christian and Tronzo was: let’s get J. Without me they already had their separate relationships with J.
I think of myself as a gathering point for this band, and sometimes they demand from me that I really lead and make the decisions about the direction or draw the consensus together, but there’s a lot of disagreement and process, and in terms of J and me he’s not going to give in to me just because I’m his Dad. He might give in to me because in some way it’s my band. And I won’t play one of his tunes just because he wrote it. It’s all about the music. J challenges me. For this record he and everybody else pulled my coat pretty strongly about pushing myself more – in my understanding and commitment to the material. And in some ways saying no, you don’t get to coast, you have to push, you have to go further, we need your full attention here, buddy – on all kinds of levels – to pull this together and to lead.
I don’t think I’d be playing in this band if it wasn’t so challenging and exciting. To hear the CD or DVD and go, how the hell did I do that, and how the hell can I ever do that again? – that’s really great. As for the 16-string beast, everyone in the band feels a deep love for the sound of strings. I feel that we are just trying to create the biggest bad-ass guitar in the universe when we play.
TR: Jerry, this time you’ve included a quote from your teacher Chogyam Trungpa in the packaging: “We no longer regard a work of art as a gimmick or as confirmation. It is simply expression – not even self expression, just expression. We could safely say that there is such a thing as unconditional expression that does not come from self or other. It manifests out of nowhere, like mushrooms in a meadow, like hailstones, like thundershowers.” For The Sonic Temple you wrote: “This band is like a chemical reaction, whenever we get together or whatever music we approach just seems to turn into this wonderful sonic adventure always on the edge, and always in this wonderful world of nowness.” In 1976 you were largely responsible for establishing the music department at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. You’ve been a Buddhist for over 30 years, and this band is an expression of that. To extend the chemical metaphor, perhaps your Buddhist experience and understanding is a catalyst for what happens when the band plays – creating the space for anyone to take the music anywhere at any time (or perhaps it would be better to say: the space for the music to be taken anywhere at any time). As a bandleader, how do you facilitate this ideal of four people making music together in the moment, with intention but without personal ego getting in the way?
JG: Since I encountered Buddhism, and particularly Trungpa Rinpoche, who you know was an artist (he did calligraphy, flower arranging, furniture design, he did full installations creating whole rooms, he wrote lyrics, he made films, and there’s a whole series of his teachings called Dharma Art), and since the beginning of the Naropa Institute, there’s been this whole idea of how an artist doesn’t pollute, that the art is a way of waking people up and not laying trips on them. Those are interesting questions that I had and was developing from playing the music – that somehow it was about getting it down to this simple task orientation of serving the music, and trying not to govern the audience’s experience, letting everyone have their own experience of what they’re hearing, including hating it…that the music is a reflection in some sense of the musician’s mind, the openness that they might be experiencing in that moment.
Trungpa Rinpoche said when he heard music what he heard was the mind of the artist. So therefore he wasn’t bound to one particular style of music. I included that quote because I had a great conversation with Dave Douglas about this, and I sent him that quote. It’s a good question for artists to look at. And from a Buddhist point of view, since self doesn’t really exist as a solid entity, what’s it expressing? So it’s less a question of what, it’s more natural or organic. A tree is just being a tree. Jackson Pollock was trying to express fractals – simplicity. I think it comes down to the artist doing their practice of art – sticking to it, almost no matter what feedback it gets. For me when I’m performing I’m just being, just doing this task, and doing it requires discipline, skill. What people experience, hopefully it wakes them up. I put that quote in there to spring some debate. Hopefully it will make people wonder, question.
TR: Does jazz (or at least more or less freely improvised music), by its very nature, encourage musicians to communicate better than we all usually do in our normal day-to-day interactions? Can jazz studies and practice themselves set an example, and help create the conditions to live more genuine, productive, joyful lives, or is it all in the attitude you bring to music-making – for instance, a collective desire to play for each other and the music rather than for one’s own advancement?
CK: Improvised music is communication on a total different level, if you play improvised music you have to communicate on that different level. That communication is different from a normal day-to-day interaction, it doesn’t help me on that level. But I still hope it helps me become a more human being.
TR: J, you’ve made a couple of interesting characterizations of the music recently. We were talking about V16 as a rock band – and you also called it a slow band – that the music is predominantly slow. Of course, sometimes it’s neither. In any case, in your writing for the band you’re writing for musicians you know intimately, and the compositions may grow out of previous group improvising. So my question is, do you find you write differently for this band than for others you’re involved with? And is this “slow” tendency more important given its exploratory, group-oriented dynamic?
JAG: We all try to make music with the big M, which is to say we are more concerned with playing than with what particular style is being accessed at any given point. My goal is to try and get to the atomic level of music, the most fundamental level. Composing for the band is great because I can write parts for a specific person, and know that their musicianship and instincts will tease out the meaning in the notes as opposed to just executing what is on the page. I trust them all with taking my character sketch and turning it into a real live walking breathing person. As far as tempo goes, slow is way more challenging than fast. Any fool can play fast, given a few hours and a metronome to practice. I love slower tempos because there is no room for faking it, each and every note is important, and the placement, timbre, and context of each musical gesture is profoundly meaningful. In writing for the band I always want to hear clarity of the parts, the strings all sounding as one, the rub of the dissonance and the openness of the resolution. I like to be able to chew on the music for a while.
JG: I would use the word spacious rather than slow. In any tune things may get fast in the sense of there’s a lot of activity. We don’t ever think we need a fast tune, because any tune can become “fast” – Tronzo’s line comes flying though there, or the bass….I think the music’s really rich – all the people in the band have similar experiences and yet vastly different experiences with music. Some of them are listening to music I never listen to and vice versa. There’s a lot of musical scholarship in this band. And I think that’s true of a lot of musicians of those guys’ ages – the understanding of styles and techniques and what it takes to make something sound like it’s a real experience, that if it grooves it really grooves. Like the Mingus tune really swings in a weird way.
As for rock, I don’t pursue the techniques needed to play that music, although I practice a lot just for the control and to make something part of my arsenal. But I love bands like The Meters, Tower of Power….and Radiohead’s a great band, their compositions and sonically what they’re doing.
Our music doesn’t fit into a mainstream slot, but in Halifax 80% of our audiences are young people – students and the 30s crowd. And we’ve played those kinds of clubs in Germany where a lot of young people come to hear all kinds of music. I feel like this third record/DVD is important in showing that we can carry a night. I don’t think this band would have any problem walking up and just rocking the house, because we have! Get Tronzo turned on and he’ll just tear you limb from limb. And Kögel works those kinds of rock bands and Turkish bands in Berlin, where he plays oud as well as guitar.