Originally published on National Sawdust Log, April 13, 2018
Drummer Brian Chase is best known as a member of the vital indie-rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but that only reveals the tip of the iceberg where his creative life is concerned. A longtime participant in New York City’s busy underground-music scene, Chase has performed and recorded with a dizzying range of innovators, including Lee Ranaldo, Alan Licht, Tyondai Braxton, Andrea Parkins, Jeremiah Cymerman, and Mary Halvorson, as well as bands such as the Fretless Brothers, Oakley Hall, the Sway Machinery, and Man Forever. Recently, he was among the dozens of artists who joined John Zorn in bidding farewell to The Stone in its original East Village location.
As a solo artist, Chase for more than a decade has pursued an interest in the limitless possibilities of just intonation and drone, inspired by the iconic Dream House operated by the maverick artists La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. In 2013 he released Drums and Drones, the initial CD + DVD release devoted to his ongoing project of that name, on the esteemed experimental-music label Pogus Productions. The album’s DVD component included videos that New York artists Ursula Scherrer and Erik Z. made to complement Chase’s live performances. About that release, Chase explained at the time:
“Drums and percussion has seen some but not much exploration in Just Intonation, yet they are inherently designed to represent it as such: a drum head is tuned to a single pitch, one frequency, and resonates with rich harmonic detail. From there the overtone series can be uncovered and expressed. The Drums and Drones project deals directly with approaching drums and percussion from the standpoint of Just Intonation.”
Now, Chase will document the evolution and refinement of his pursuit with the forthcoming release of Drums and Drones: Decade, a three-CD package bundled with a 144-page book featuring essays about the project and its components, performance photos, and still images from the videos he's performed with. Encouraged by Zorn, Chase will release the set June 15 on his own newly established label, Chaikin Records. In a telephone interview, he discussed the album and label, and hinted at some of his future plans.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: The press materials announcing Drums and Drones: Decade mention that the project was inspired initially by your interest in the work of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. How did you become acquainted with their art?
BRIAN CHASE: For about a year and a half, I worked as a volunteer at the Dream House space… this was in 2005 or so. And that just sucked me in – I was hooked on the vibrations. And before that, I had met Jon Catler, who was a guitarist in La Monte's ensembles. So that's how I got introduced to La Monte Young, apart from history books: I met Jon and started playing in some of his groups, and Jon got me into just intonation and that whole scene, and that led me to La Monte. As I was working at the Dream House, I started to see parallels between just intonation and the resonance of a drum head.
I'd wondered how you made that leap. Most people, when they think of drums, think of the qualities of attack and impact, rather than sustain and resonance.
Yeah, but I was thinking about it… the way a drum is set up is that a drum head is tuned to have a pitch, but within that resonance there's a whole complex sound world, a complex array of harmonics. I started to develop my skills in tuning, where I could tune a drum head to a very specific frequency, and then from knowing the frequency, I would be able to know my harmonics, and where they exist on the frequency spectrum. The way the project developed was I would start by tuning the drum to a specific frequency, usually 480Hz, based on how La Monte went about tuning – he would tune to a fundamental of 80Hz, which is the hum of ConEd… or National Grid, whatever it is now – and from there, I would use digital EQ to boost the harmonics of that fundamental.
So that's the technical aspect. But I was also very much into the meditative aspect of listening that came with the Dream House: the idea of not being able to hear all of the sound all at once, and understanding listening as a process. The compositions developed with that in mind; they were structured to allow listening to unfold, and to be experienced as a subjective process for the listener.
Did you ever have any kind of personal interaction with La Monte and Marian?
I've had some over the years, yeah, little bits here and there. Social encounters, as opposed to artistic collaborations? Yeah. One memory I have is when I was working at the Dream House around holiday time, New Year's. I was finishing my shift, and La Monte stopped me and had gifts for me: "a gift for your body, a gift for your mind, and a gift for your soul." The gift for my body was homegrown chili peppers [laughs], and they were the hottest chili peppers I've ever had. The gift for my mind was some incense, and the gift for my soul was the Midnight ragas CD with Pandit Pran Nath.
You've been developing this body of work for more than a decade now, a process illustrated by your new album. How has your approach evolved over the years?
It's been a continual trial and error experience. [Laughs] The first album is very much about me finding the methods for the first time – which is really exciting. I love the spontaneity of that.
The second album [Drums and Drones II: Ataraxia] definitely shows a more refined approach to my methods. And then the third album [Drums and Drones III: Acoustic] is a purely acoustic album, because in the process of developing the electroacoustic material, I would discover new techniques of getting harmonics in an acoustic way. It took about eight or nine years before I had a full repertoire of developing methods to bring out the harmonics in a purely acoustic way from drums.
You've played these kinds of pieces everywhere from The Stone to Basilica Hudson. Is there an ideal space or an ideal acoustic for getting the results you're after? Can you do it literally anywhere, with the judicious use of electronics?
It can be dome anywhere, but the environment changes what is done. I have to learn how to adapt to the scenario.
Each performance is in a sense site-specific.
So you've got this massive project you want to put out into the worlds. What made you take the leap of starting your own label?
The label came about as an idea from Zorn. He knew I was developing some releases, but I didn't have the output for them. I told him of one label that was interested, but wanted me to pay for the manufacturing. Zorn said for that same money, I could start my own label.
And he would know.
Exactly. So I took his advice. It was kind of the next step for me, because I do have a lot of projects, and I'm very deeply involved with many different aspects of the New York City music community. I was starting to feel a little inhibited by not having a label. So while I wouldn't necessarily have envisioned it for myself, now that I'm in it and starting to do it, I see all the possibilities.
You've announced two more projects for future release already. One is untitled: after, your collaboration with Catherine Sikora. Can you talk a little bit about that?
That music is more on the avant-jazz side. Catherine is a brilliant improviser, and we've had a project for a number of years now.
It's fully improvised, rather than assembled with some compositional strategy?
Yeah. And the way we developed our pieces was we used pieces of text from a Beowulf translation.
Exactly. Catherine is a big fan of Beowulf and Seamus. She typed out some excerpts on an old typewriter that she had, and brought them into a rehearsal one day. We went through and developed some themes and motifs that provided a springboard for improvisation.
Is that basically a loose template, where every time you revisit that project it comes out differently?
Definitely. The pieces tend to have the same character, which is kind of cool, considering that they're all based on specific passages from the book. But yeah, the music is different.
I gather from the press-release statement about your third release, 13 Million Year Old Ghost, that you're not allowed to reveal the performer's true identity. But can you point toward the sound world the music occupies?
It does hint at the drone side of things, but it does kind of have more of a typical song aspect to it.
You can't divulge who it is for contractual reasons?
Well, it's a friend of mine from the rock world. We're doing the mastering next week, so I think after that we'll start to feel more confident about revealing more information.
Going forward, do you have a sense of what kinds of projects and artists you're interested in pursuing?
I've started thinking about another round – I like the idea of doing three releases at a time. We'll see how this goes, and if I break even or it's sustainable, then I'll look toward another batch. One idea I had was to feature some great Brooklyn music… there was a lot of great stuff happening on the Brooklyn rock scene that I don't think made it past its history, unfortunately. A lot of bands that were pivotal at the time, like from 2000 to 2006, that get overlooked when people talk about the Brooklyn scene. So I was thinking about doing a compilation in a similar format to No New York that features four bands. And maybe it would be a two-LP thing; maybe it would be four bands over two LPs, possibly. So that's something I was thinking of for next time.
Your use of the term LP just then begs the question of whether you'll be issuing Chaikin releases on formats other than CD. Any plans for vinyl or cassette?
Yeah, definitely, 13 Million Year Old Ghost will be an LP. I thought about doing the album with Catherine on cassette, also, but I think that'll just stay on CD. Doing a label, the economics of all of this is… very apparent. [laughs]
Drums and Drones: Decade is due June 15, 2018, on Chaikin Records.