This interview was conducted by email with Sean Noonan and Aram Bajakian, July 2008
Tony Reif: Sean, since Stories to Tell, your previous record combining African and Celtic influences with jazz, rock, blues and improv, what directions have you been taking the Brewed by Noon band in?
Sean Noonan: I would like to first say that Brewed by Noon is more of a concept than a band. Brewed by Noon is really who I am or what my musical philosophy is about. I approach my music and composing as if I were some kind of musical chef that sits in a kitchen brewing various types of dish to serve to my listeners. I strive to create my own original recipes that accommodate each composition, made out of my finest ingredients. When I am in the brewing process I make sure my albums, which I think of as dishes, contain diverse courses that incorporate original musical concepts, that use authentic traditions and cultures, and include a specific lineup of musicians that fit the instrumentation I am writing for. Each time I begin a new project or album I immediately decide what the theme or musical idea is I want to present. Brewed by Noon has no limitations in terms of direction or possibilities. If the brew requires a specific instrumentation, band lineup or type of composition, I will make the project fit that specification. But at the same time when I define my concept I always have limitations and boundaries.
Since Stories to Tell the main concept has been the wandering folk music theory, which has further evolved over the course of three albums, becoming most evident on Boxing Dreams. I think of my songs as old wine in new bottles, where my mission is to truly further understand and preserve folklore and to present it in a modern context. A major aspect of Boxing Dreams is how the music adapts storytelling, folklore and post-modern jazz, merging ingredients from the Bardic and Griot traditions. Important contributions in the brewing of the record came from Susan McKeown (Irish vocalist) and Abdoulaye Diabaté (Malian vocalist), as they seamlessly interact telling stories and communally creating modern interpretations of folkore. Their contributions help preserve and present the ancient languages of Gaelic and Bambara in a modern context.
You can see the evolution of this technique over three albums. First was Stories to Tell, which was where I discovered the concept, and where the direction of record is quite unpredictable and the tracks have fewer relationships to each other – you can hear me trying different ideas and different combinations of musicians from track to track. After the album came out I went on tour with the ensemble, allowing the music to grow more organically and providing the opportunity for experimentation, especially with using vocals on all the songs. This year I released Being Brewed by Noon (Innova), which is a CD that has all live performances of some of the Stories to Tell pieces, and you can hear a more interactive and riskier approach in the music. My next goal was to create new compositions that involve the entire ensemble. In Stories to Tell that wasn’t the case, but Boxing Dreams sounds more like one big connected composition, and I feel each composition complements and relates to the others in a cohesive way.
TR: So what new stories are you telling here?
SN: The main effect I wanted in Boxing Dreams was to create the impression that the entire record is a single boxed dream, where each song captures a different dreamed or imagined story. One of the dreams I boxed is “Morpheus,” which in some ways kind of sets the dreamy mood of the album. “Morpheus” (which is what the composition is depicting) is the god of dreams, who assumes any shape and form. On this song Susan McKeown sings from an Irish Gaelic aisling or dream poem called “Magic Mist”:
I lay down dejected and weeping
In a sheltered wood laden with nuts, by myself
Praying to the bright King of Glory
And no word but mercy on my lips
By my side sat a beautiful fairy maid
In figure and form like a saint
In her face were bright rose
And white – and I know not which lost
Other tracks tell completely different types of stories taking you around the globe and even inside dreams that I have experienced. “Courage” is a tribute to my hometown boxing legend Rocky Marciano. Born and raised in Brockton, Massachusetts, Rocky Marciano remains the only heavyweight champion in boxing history to retire having won every fight in his professional career. He was the heavyweight champion of the world from 1952 to 1956 (later inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame) with a record of 49-0. He only ever fell down, until one day his airplane crashed killing him. Later, Brockton became known as the city of champions, grooming other boxing champions such as ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler. Susan McKeown and Abdoulaye Diabate sing a tribute praise song using the text from “Breastplate II,” an ancient Celtic invocation:
I call on the seven daughters of the sea
Who shape the threads of long life
Three deaths be taken from me
Three lives given to me
Seven waves of plenty poured for me
May ghosts not injure me on my journey
in my radiant breastplate without stain
May my name not be pledged in vain
May death not come to me until I am old
I call on Senach of the seven lives
Whom fairy women suckled on the breasts of god fortune
May my seven candles not be quenched
I am an invincible fortress
I am an unshakeable cliff
I am a precious stone
I am the symbol of seven riches
“The Return of the Peanut Butter Queen” was first a dream I had about a queen named Ilylea who taught her fellow peanuts the magic of making peanut butter, creating great prosperity and hope in the land of peanut. Suddenly one day Ilylea was overthrown by an evil warlord, creating great havoc. Later I wandered this story into a composition – I don’t want to give the ending away, so go ahead and find out what happens.
Another different type of story is a country-style instrumental narrative based on the story of Casey Jones. Each of the three sections re-enacts what happened on the famous train engineer’s journey to the promised land in 1900. Jones lost his life saving his passengers and was found dead still gripping the train’s brakes, saving his fellows when he collided with Old No. 9 in Tennessee.
TR: Can you give us an idea of how these ideas turn into complete compositions?
SN: A few of these tunes were some of my first compositions, pieces written between 7 and 10 years ago, and are my first experiences using the wandering folk music theory. So I’ve been able to witness that process taking shape over time. With the new compositions I initially spent a lot of time by myself shedding them, figuring out the most interesting harmonies, forms, and melodies etc. When I was satisfied, I would start playing them on my drums. That way I could really tell if these tunes were starting to become something. When they did work they started being a part of me to the point where I would even find myself hearing them in my sleep. In my sleep, I would constantly be playing these songs back and forth. It was like my dreams were further composing the pieces subconsciously, and when I awoke, I would go back to work on them with these adjustments in mind. If the changes felt right and sounded good, then I was heading in the right direction. As Stravinsky would say, if you are still unsure of any idea keep modifying and tackling the problem from every angle. Try to hear it in every possible way and you will eventually come up with what truly works best. For some of my tunes there were tons of revisions.
TR: How much of the final form and feel of a song is pre-determined and how much is the result of rehearsals and elaboration/improvisation in the moment?
SN: Each track comes from an idea, none of them was completely free improvisation. I would try to think of every possible scenario in terms of how I wanted to use the instrumentation. After that I would play them instrumentally, record rehearsals and listen to how they sounded, and after a while I would add the vocals, but always go back to the drawing board when any particular part didn’t feel or sound right.
In the studio I recorded only my best compositions, recording every tune the same way in complete takes, with the vocals tracked later. For “Morpheus” though I wanted to try an experiment, which was to construct a piece completely through editing. I had a basic idea what the tune might sound like, but in the studio I recorded all the sections separately, and tried all sorts of different versions from take to take. In the studio I never thought about how the song should sound. It was when I was at home editing that I created the forms and concept of the tune. For the most part the experiment worked – in this situation, being open-minded and flexible in the studio would later create the most exciting and interesting music.
TR: What about the lyrics, where do they come from and how important are they to what you want to convey?
SN: Well, the content of lyrics is ultimately determined and sung by the vocalists, but I want the lyrics to be related to what the song is about. I always like my compositions to have a diverse range of topics. Not many people around here understand these languages so we’ve done translations of what they are singing. Susan McKeown really discovered and presented some amazing Irish literature, and I learned so much as a result about my own roots.
TR: How much freedom do the vocalists have to create the music/lyrics?
SN: Like in Stories to Tell I continue to use a similar process based on the wandering folk music theory [basically, if I understand Sean correctly, this is the simple idea that folk music and folk tales have been diffused between cultures in various ways and that commonalities can be found in the folk material of cultures that never were in contact, all of which in today’s post-modern world can become grist for the mill of intentional cross-cultural re-invention], where communal creation is at the forefront in the construction of the lyrics of these pieces. When I was sketching the compositions I allowed the vocalists to determine how their parts would fit within the song. Generally I had a partial idea of how and where the vocals would fit inside the song, but the singers were given the artistic freedom to interpret and express what they felt in regards to the storytelling and lyrics of all the songs. I would first have them listen to the song and then told them what the basic theme was and have them sing about what they visualized. Both Susan McKeown and Abdoulaye Diabaté surprised me in how they complemented the instrumental arrangements that I created. But when I’m working on those instrumental arrangements, Aram Bajakian’s input has been a crucial and consistent ingredient in the compositions I’ve written for Brewed by Noon.
TR: So let’s now ask Aram a question: what kind of mindset must a guitarist have when playing a melody or harmony written by another musician, especially a drummer?
Aram Bakajian: A lot of times instrumentalists will write in a way that translates very well on their instrument, but might not necessarily work on another instrument. You might have a sax player write unplayable lines, or a pianist write overly complex voicings. You would assume that being a drummer, Sean would base most of his tunes on complex rhythms. While there is certainly that aspect to his tunes (“Noonbrews” and “Over-n-Out” come to mind). I’ve come to think of Sean more as a composer than a drummer. In the same way, when I think of Monk or Mingus, I don’t necessarily think of them as a pianist and bassist, though they were certainly masters in that regard. I tend to think of them primarily as composers who happened to play their respective instruments.
In this sense Sean’s tunes are very musical, and oftentimes the melodies just flow. “Mayrose” for example is just beautiful. It just flows off the instrument and is a piece that I don’t think a lot of drummers would intuitively write. The biggest challenges with Sean’s tunes are the forms – oftentimes they are very complex. In this session it was really important that Sean, Thierno and I were locked together on the forms. That way Marc, Mat and Jamaaladeen could do their thing without having to worry as much about where they were in the form.
TR: Aram, when you were learning these tunes did you ever doubt that some of Sean’s ideas would work?
AB: On Stories to Tell I doubted Sean’s ideas constantly. But when I finally heard the completed album I was able to hear the reality and completed forms of his ideas. So in planning Boxing Dreams I tried to take a much different approach. I really trusted Sean’s vision and tried to hear things as he was hearing them. It can be difficult, because a lot of times there were ideas that went against my gut instinct. But in time I was able to hear them in the way he was hearing, and it all made sense. Certainly, I always offer my opinion, and there were things that we worked on and developed together. But the approach was very different on my end. In observing how Marc approaches these tunes, I’ve seen that he is very much like this. He really tries to get into each tune, into what the composer is trying to say. The best phrase to describe it, as corny as it sounds, is that he “honors” the music and the composer’s intention. There is a real sense of honor and respect that he gives the tunes. This is actually something that has helped me immensely working with other projects as well – I’ve found that it’s very important to be able to aid the vision of the composer. This seems like common sense, but in reality it’s a very difficult thing to do. You have to look beyond your own reality as a musician and instrumentalist, and extend beyond that to make sure that what you’re playing promotes the vision and music, and isn’t just some bullshit.
One thing that I’ve really come to admire is the grandeur of Sean’s vision. That’s perhaps the best adjective to describe his music – grand or grandiose. A lot of musicians would say, “Yeah let’s do something with an African singer.” But Sean had a Malian Singer, a Senegalese singer, and Irish singer, Marc Ribot, Mat Maneri, Jamaaladeen Tacuma all on the same album! Just the idea to think of doing something like that is amazing!! But then to actually pull it off is awe-inspiring.
TR: Sean, could you say something about each of the band members and how you work with them, what their contributions are to the final result?
SN: Each of the nine musicians’ roles was different. The core rhythm section, Aram, Thierno Camara and myself, were really behind learning and executing all the essential and difficult parts. There are so many dynamic cultural differences between this large cast that it felt like a musical melting pot. This is my biggest production as a recording artist, and I probably won’t try something like it again for a while, unless someone like Michael Flatley decided to hire me to compose music for one of his new dance productions.
TR: Aram, what was it like for you to record and work with this large cast of musicians?
AB: It was an absolute honor, something I will forever be grateful for having the opportunity to experience. Mat is one of the deepest most soulful musicians around. I’ve been listening to him since I was in high school, and to be able to play with him so much has been such an amazing experience. I really feel that on tour Mat and I developed a way of playing together, a synergy that was really cool. Sometimes we sound like we’re one instrument, and then he’ll break off and start playing these sick lines. It’s awesome!
Marc has been really supportive of me as a player, which I can’t say enough how grateful I am for. Being in NYC, there are so many great musicians, and there are times when you start to wonder if you have what it takes to keep drudging through it all. But Marc was one of the first big-time players who told me I had something happening. It really gave me that extra boost of confidence to keep pushing my own voice and to keep going at it. The first time I heard Marc was on Ellery Eskelin’s album The Sun Died. It was a turning point for me. At the time I was a freshman in college and was surrounded by a lot of bop players. I love bebop, but I had really started to neglect my roots – punk and blues. Marc was the first guitarist I heard who punked in a jazz context. Growing up listening to Fugazi and Sonic Youth, and blues players (my uncle was a master blues player), it was a real turning point for me hearing how Marc approached music. He has such a wealth of knowledge too. The way he plays country on “Story of Jones” – that solo is a masterpiece. And then he’ll get all Thurston Moore on other tunes. Not a lot of players are able to be a chameleon like that. And Marc does it so tastefully. Jamaaladeen is the most grooving bass player ever! And his sound is so HUGE. What else can I say?! And Abdoulaye has such an amazing presence. His smile literally lights up the room. And his voice has such passion! I’ve learned so much from him.
TR: Sean, what as it like putting these pieces together and working them out for recording?
SN: Rehearsals and gigs consisted always of meeting individually or in group rehearsals and trying to get as many of the musicians together as possible. I would drive all over New York City picking up the guys to rehearse and to do practice gigs. Aram and I even drove down to Philly to play with Jamaaladeen. For the most part my own personal schedule had to fit in and be convenient to accommodate these musicians. It was an incredibly difficult and challenging feat where I often found myself completely exhausted from doing all the legwork. It got frustrating at times since sometimes the guys wouldn’t show up, or would even be asking for money and other kinds of favors.
For this album in so many ways I was a producer and had to do everything. I had to plan and assist all these musicians, and if that didn’t happen then the album would suffer or even fail. On this album I had a lot of problems with Thierno, who in the beginning stages was a big part of the project. I decided to include him on this recording but I knew he would be difficult, irrational and unpredictable, so I had to be really patient, diplomatic, and always had to mediate keeping a positive and constructive vibe. I’m not sure I will be able to do such a thing ever again since it was the most stressful thing I’ve ever had to do. I was both emotionally and physically drained.
Actually one of my favorite drummers, Boston-based Bob Moses, told me he made When Elephants Dream of Music in a very similar way. This is the first time I’ve made this connection, but Boxing Dreams and When Elephants Dream of Music truly do have a connection. Besides the titles being similar and both being produced by a drummer/composer, they were actually organized in a similar way. Moses told me he drove all around Boston doing the same thing, dealing and finding a way to work with busy musicians and their schedules. He wound up recording the whole album in two days (24 hours straight) in the studio, where he would have different groups of musicians show up at certain times until the job was done. Since then recording albums has changed, but I guess some things remain the same! Anyone who listens to my record should definitely check his out.
TR: Aram, with such a heterogeneous group of people coming from very different backgrounds, from your point of view were there any problems or, on the other hand, unexpected synergies in putting these musicians together?
AB: For the most part, everything has gelled very well. I think because we had an opportunity to tour before recording Boxing Dreams, everything really came together a lot easier than on Stories to Tell. I love the way Susan’s voice goes with Mat’s playing on the record. There’s something really, really eerie about it. And then Abdoulaye will come in, and it brings a smile to your face. This album has a lot of juxtapositions like that. On the other hand, one of the challenges with having so many people playing is that there’s a very dense soundscape that you’re working with. Sean did a really great job mixing this one – making sure that there was a range of textures and not just constant all-outness.
TR: What about the two guitarists and two bassists – how are their roles defined in the band, and how do they work together?
AB: Well, I think it’s a real testament to how great Thierno and Jamaaladeen are that they were able to make it work so well. Jamaal’s sound is very thick, and supportive, while Thierno’s playing kind of reminds me of the bass notes on a kora – it’s lighter. The combination of the two was really cool. In terms of playing guitar with Marc, it’s been a blast being able to play with him so much. It really pushes me to the next level and makes me want to reach. I have a big ego, and always want to kick ass. And Marc sets the bar really, really high so it pushes me to play even better.
At the same time, I think there are a lot of similarities in how we approach the instrument, which is one of the reasons why I’ve always loved his playing. A lot of guitarists don’t really play the guitar. They might be badass, but they don’t push the instrument and explore the instrument – they may set their amp to the same settings all the time, they have a sound that never really changes. But Marc, myself, Nels Cline, Frisell, we are players who like to see what sounds we can get out of this beautiful hunk of wood that we love so much. I saw Frisell play back in January, and he did this one solo where one of his strings was out of tune. But he kept on emphasizing that string until it turned into something disarmingly beautiful. It’s that same approach, of loving all the sounds that you are able to conjure out of the instrument that Marc has, and that I love as well.
TR: Has this recording experience had any influence on your overall approach to guitar?
AB: Of course! As a player I’ve grown immensely since the last album. I think I’ll probably have a better idea of how this album has affected my playing in a few years. But one thing I know for sure is that on this album my playing is much more of a presence. On the last album I think I supported more, and certainly I had some solos. But on this album my playing is right there with everyone else. It’s very cool to see that development of confidence in my playing. This has definitely inspired me to start writing more of my own tunes and to start working on my own projects. Sean has such enthusiasm that it really catches on with you!
TR: Sean, who are your biggest influences/inspirations as a drummer, and how has your approach to percussion and rhythm – as a drummer and as a composer/bandleader – developed between our last record and this one?
SN: Well, lately I’ve been intrigued by the physical intensity of boxing, the use of body movement and the energy that comes from different types of movements. I’ve started incorporating this concept into my own style and technique. I have my own mortal enemy, Pumpkinhead, who is a space alien that travels to earth to challenge me in a fight. As a result I have turned into a boxing drummer who uses rhythms from various patterns we would spar off of – I’m beginning to visualize these movements and apply boxing concepts in my drumming. What I learned from boxing is how to use and focus your energy, how to develop power in the most direct and effective way. So I’m looking to use this to further refine the presence, tone, control, rhythmic timing, and dynamics in my drumming.
TR: On another topic, you tour quite a lot in Europe but not much in the States apart from gigs in New York. Why is that?
SN: This question might be answered differently if I’d focused my time and energy on performing in other parts of the world. If I’m better known in NY and Europe it’s because of my own experience of grassroots bookings of the thrash-jazz trio The Hub with Tim Dahl. We first decided to focus on that part of the world, and I realized it’s better to try to break into one musical territory before trying another scene altogether. Sometimes in Europe we did stretch ourselves too thin and wound up driving long distances, but over the years we became more experienced with how each country’s music scene works. Over the last ten years we’ve learned to network and to manage ourselves, since we realized it was easier for us to do it ourselves. We knew that we would work harder than an agent or manager. So as a result we developed some very close friendships all over the European continent, to the point where it felt like we’d been adopted by friends and families that took us into their homes. I think people like to meet and interact with musicians, and as a result I have made strong bonds with people all over Europe. Over the years, people began to know our entire repertoire, and they would see the changes and evolution in the music. This is a human connection that big pop artists rarely are able to attain with the public.
TR: Aram, since Stories to Tell you’ve done two tours with Sean, can you tell us about your experiences? Do you think there are different types of audiences for this music in North America and Europe?
AB: The best part of the experience was the opportunity to really delve into these tunes night after night. We got to the point where the band was like a well-tuned Ferrari, we just killed it night after night. In terms of audiences, there is definitely a greater appreciation for this type of music in Europe. I remember walking out into the lobby after a show we did in Brussels and the 20 or so people that were there all started clapping. It brought tears to my eyes, because here I am, a guitarist living in a shitty NYC apartment trying to make ends meet, and these people really respected what I was doing in such a genuine and enthusiastic way. I’ve never experienced that in the States.
TR: Sean, what further new directions or in-fusions are you planning for the Brewed by Noon concept?
SN: Well, in many ways Boxing Dreams has been my most ambitious and boldest project. At certain times I wasn’t sure if I was trying to do too much, since I wanted to see how far I could go with using dense layers, heavy drum and bass orientated grooves, and intense vocals and guitars to achieve climatic forms, etc. After dedicating an enormous amount of time to it I believe it is the best Songlines album yet, or at least the loudest one! But thanks to you Tony, who have been very supportive and a true believer in my vision, making this all happen so many ways too. After this I’m not stopping, I’m going to continue to develop and further perform these songs live in October 2008 on a European tour (check out myspace.com/brewedbynoon for tour dates). But since completing this album I’ve had a curiosity and craving to strip the band down and try a minimal approach using the same Afro-Celtic wandering folk music idea. So you might see an acoustic unplugged Boxing Dreams-type album in the future. I do have to say I want to compose more tunes for my singers and express more traditional folk music elements. In my next project I will eliminate the bass and redefine the progressive jazz improvisation concepts. I just have a motivation to try to go in a sort of opposite direction, still using themes and ingredients integral to this album. Just stick around and see what happens!