AN INTERVIEW WITH IRON DOG:
THE 22 MAGAZINE: So first off let's talk a little bit about your histories. Can you each tell me a little about your musical backgrounds and how you eventually met and formed Iron Dog?
STUART POPEJOY: Sarah and I formed Iron Dog when we realized our improvisations had this moody, unique, heavy character—the name refers to us both being born in the year of the "metal dog"—and it also reflects a particular character of our musical relationship. Around 1990 we had a group that, while it wasn't improv, it had a similar cross-genre sensibility, so when we started playing together again around 2005 we really wanted to make the sound happen again, but this time with improvisation. My background starts with piano training at 6, and then guitar, bass and drums in the school-of-rock model. In high school I started really focusing on electric bass in a small-group jazz setting, but I was also involved in synthesizer work—a lot of the synth work I do now still reflects interests and directions I developed way back then. Later I drifted away from combo jazz, and got more into heavy rock, on guitar as well as bass. Coming back to improv and new music has been interesting, which partially started with Iron Dog. I also restarted my classical piano studies, and began serious investigations into composition, leading to my current focus on algorithmic compositions.
SARAH BERNSTEIN: I started piano at age 5, and switched to violin at 7 or 8. Most of my early music training was based on what was available in the public schools, and luckily for me, the schools had a lot to offer then—orchestra, chamber music, music theory, choir, and at times private lessons. I began composing chamber pieces in theory class, while writing "rock" songs on my own time. I got into jazz and improvisation, picking up LPs and taking workshops. After high school, I attended four undergraduate programs with some drop-out time in between before getting a bachelor's degree from the California Institute of the Arts. Cal Arts was a great place for my wide interests, I was overjoyed to land there after struggling with more traditional music departments. When I moved to New York, I decided to further pursue jazz studies in the context of a getting a master's degree at CUNY Queens college. My primary teacher was the very special Sir Roland Hanna. Around that time I played in a Charanga band (Afro-Cuban/Caribbean music) amongst other ensembles. For many years I had quite a range of gigs—from salsa to flamenco to pop bands to classical to jazz. I still do a lot of different work, but now I focus most on composition and my original projects. I met Stuart in 1988 through music, so we go way back. We lost touch at a certain point, met again in 2003 and started playing together seriously in 2005, in the context of Iron Dog. Andrew joined the group in 2009 and his sound has been a crucial addition. The three of us collectively influence and create the current direction of the band.
ANDREW DRURY: I started music in the 6th grade band on Bainbridge Island, Washington, near Seattle, and in about 9th grade I started taking the ferry boat into Seattle on Saturday mornings for drum lessons with Dave Coleman Sr. He'd make me cassettes and tell me about interesting performances coming through town and through him I encountered something so powerful it became my lens on the world. Also I listened to the radio every night to sports, CBS "Radio Mystery Theater," and to whatever interesting thing I could find, one of which was a grassroots community radio station called KRAB on which I heard Ed Blackwell for the first time. Later when I learned that Ed Blackwell taught at Wesleyan University, I went there and studied with him for a few years. The other thing early in my musical development was that we had a piano in our house and I would sit at it, picking out familiar melodies, improvising modally, trying to copy sounds I was hearing from Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, Monk and Mal Waldron. Over time I developed my own idiosyncratic relationship with the piano that gave me a foundation later when I started composing. I approached the piano and composition as a drummer, I listened widely, and I was fortunate to begin composing without a lot of pedagogical baggage. I moved to New York from Seattle in 1998 and I met Sarah and Stuart after I'd been in New York quite a while, maybe in 2008. I can't remember how Iron Dog formed. But I think it was before Iron Dog that they invited me to play solo drums at their wedding.
THE 22: Iron Dog is such an interesting mix, as it seems to bring together three prominent elements, algorithmic preciseness, improv/avant-garde, and classical. What do you think each of you brings to the project and how do the elements work together or sometimes don't?
AD: I agree that those three elements are near the core of Iron Dog but I think all three of us are pretty involved in all three of them, and maybe our ability to each access all of them at any time is a big part of what makes Iron Dog bark. But really I haven't stepped back to think analytically about Iron Dog—I think maybe the thing I enjoy most about it is that, in my mind anyway, it's really about Sarah, Stuart, and Andrew, and just being ourselves and doing what we are capable of doing together.
SP: We're all improvisers, and we all have backgrounds in jazz and rock, so I think there's a lot of common ground to start from. Also we're all very into sound and texture. The differences have never stood in our way at all, or posed any kind of obstacle, whereas the overarching challenges (to keep one's energy focused, to stay in control of one's instruments, to keep listening to each other) are always there.
SB: I agree that the disparate elements are inside each of us more than between us. A lot of times it is not possible to determine who is making what sound. The groove might be the violin, the melody might be the bass or the bowed cymbals.
THE 22: What is the main goal for each of you in music?
SP: I want music to "take a stand" one way or another, so if it's a trance-like, minimalist drone, or a big structural narrative-like arc, the main thing for me is that it have very definite character. If people like it, that's all the better, but I'd rather someone hate it than be indifferent.
AD: The main thing going on for me is that I'm involved in a process (music making) that I've devoted to since I was about 13 years old, and what I'm really thinking about when I sit at the drums whether it's Iron Dog or anyone else is whatever issues happen to be present for me on that path at that moment. I don't think about what I want people to hear at all, I'm just trying to do my best and to continue and contribute to the amazing, ancient traditions I feel I'm part of.
SB: It is interesting to me to find out what others hear when they listen to us. Friends in the audience have offered some great feedback like, "that's Space-Fuck music," or "Iron Dog's dark sonic overtaking of the world."
THE 22: Sarah you also work with Satoshi Takeishi. Tell me a little about that project and what sort of musical venture it is for you?
SB: Unearthish is the name of my duo with Satoshi. This work started as a solo project, and I still perform it that way as well. These compositions, for voice/violin/electronic processing/percussion, differ from what I do with Iron Dog in that the pieces are short, precise, defined compositions with limited improvisation, whereas Iron Dog's music is completely improvised. When I first played with Satoshi in another context, it struck me that his vast musical background and unique sensibilities would be a great fit for the Unearthish pieces, both rhythmically and sonically. Also, he shares my interest in words, how they pull and shape the music, and increase the conceptual aspect of the work. This fall we'll perform at Roulette in Brooklyn as part of the Vital Vox Festival on Oct 29.
AD: I have to give some props to Satoshi. He's an excellent and musical drummer, exquisite listener, and major innovator of the drum set, reinventing it with his own configuration. Very original and someone I admire a lot.
THE 22: Sarah you also grew up in San Francisco. How long were you there and has there been any difference in musical experiences between NY and San Francisco?
SB: I was born in San Francisco, lived there through childhood, except for a few years when I was out of the country. I grew up in a neighborhood called Ingleside, which most people haven't heard of, and where it is perpetually foggy. After high school I was in and out of town for some years, then I moved to New York in 1996. I felt strongly connected to SF growing up, the surrounding nature, the general state of creativity, flow, mix of people, political engagement. Now I think a lot about the area's unique nature and climate, I guess that is what is most location-specific. As for music and art, my experiences there were formative and amazing, though I didn't stay in town long enough to develop lasting projects. People often ask if I came to NY for music. I stumble over this question because I'm not sure where the separation is (between music and life), but in fact, I was drawn to New York the place, music included. Once I moved here I became a happier person, so for me it was a good choice.
THE 22: Sarah when did you start working with spoken word and poetry in your work?
SB: I started writing poetry intensely in high school, I also wrote lyrics to sing solo and in bands. I was inspired/influenced at that time by people like Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Kerouac, Burroughs. I saw the movie Poetry In Motion at the Roxie Cinema in the late 80's, and it introduced me to a lot of great poets in performance, some with music or other sound. Pretty much as soon as I began free-improvising on the violin as a teenager, I also incorporated poetry and spoken word. Later, as I pursued music formally through college and beyond, I mainly set aside the words. I would occasionally get involved in a project singing, speaking, writing, but then I'd switch gears again and focus on my goals as an instrumentalist. In the last several years I've finally been able to keep the spotlight on a more unified vision—words, voice, violin, composition.
THE 22: I recently saw your chamber works project debut. It was somewhat different, perhaps more playful than your other work. Can you tell us a little about this project?
SB: The Chamber Project consists of pieces for acoustic instruments which I've been composing for a while. These are through-composed pieces as well as works combining composition and improvisation. The concert you went to was very inspiring for me. The skill set required for performing this work is wide-ranging, from classical to jazz to free improvisation. Nine of my favorite musicians participated, bringing all of these skills and sensitivities, plus incredible chemistry. I'm glad you heard it as playful. I'm sure that is because we were having so much fun! Composing this music is actually not a new departure for me, though performing it as a cohesive event is new. I hope we can do more soon, as well as record.
THE 22: Stuart, you work with a variety of folks but you're works seems more electronic/rock based. When you think about your musical style what clearly comes to mind? How would you describe it?
SP: Yes, recently I've come to accept I'm an electronic musician…but it was a struggle at one point when I was doing a lot of jazz and wasn't really accepted because I insisted on playing electric (fretless) bass. People were into my sound and my approach but then I wouldn't get the call, while more boring players on acoustic bass were working all the time. This created a bit of a schism for me, where "serious" music was acoustic. Happily I've since become familiar with all the wonderful intersections between so-called "classical" music, electronics, computers, electric instruments, improv, acoustic players who sound electronic…I was certainly ignorant of these things before, but I also feel like we live in an exciting time where so many barriers have fallen, so that great, creative musicians can really express with any tool that fits the bill. Recently I've returned to this idea of aggressive, rock-informed improv, mainly because it's very natural to me. My metal band, Bassoon, has really been more an outlet for compositional ideas, whereas Iron Dog and other projects have allowed me to find an improvisational voice in the electric space.
THE 22: For those who might not know what SuperCollider is can you tell us a little about it and your work on it?
SP: SuperCollider is a really amazing computer-based environment for sound synthesis, similar to the more well-known laptop workhorse Max/MSP. SC has a harder learning curve since it's a programming language only, no buttons or graphics to help you out like Max. But it sounds amazing and has some really interesting concepts, both from a synthesis point of view as well as programming languages. I don't use SC in Iron Dog; however, I use a hardware synthesizer keyboard, a Nord Modular G2x. It's similar in that it's an open environment—you actually program it on the computer. "Modular" refers to the fact that it has no inherent structure, you assemble modules in the computer and connect them with virtual wires. Just like an old monstrous Moog or Serge with all the wires, except this doesn't weigh 100 pounds, it remembers different setups, and it stays in tune! Plus it's NOT a laptop—once it's on stage it's a synth, which is much better to perform with, and it doesn't crash. There's kind of a dialog between all of my electronic or computer-based approaches, be it SuperCollider, the Nord, or my compositional software in Java. Ideas born in one will end up on another. For instance, I put a lot of work into generating melodic ideas and chord progressions with a method employing the modulo-difference of intervals in a melody, wrote a few compositions with this. Later I programmed it into the Nord, to generate melodic material on the fly for live improv.
THE 22: What appeals to you about the process of processing music through machines?
SP: It's an avenue for experimentation, similar to using effects boxes on a guitar (or violin). On one hand you can get into the theory or the physics of it, which is fascinating, but you can also just plug things in differently and see how it sounds, get surprised and inspired that way. There's a formal element to it that interests me of course. Xenakis called his book about algorithmic composition "Formalized Music," and for me there's something attractive in a conceptual sense about writing a composition based on ideas about how notes and rhythms interact, instead of just "using your ear."
THE 22: Andrew, I was interested to see some of your pieces were inspired by Robert Smithson. Tell me a little about your outdoor solos and the experience of playing music outdoors as opposed to in a venue?
AD: Back in the late '80s and early '90s I was doing a series of drum solos in outdoor settings, all over the western US, and photographing them. I called them "Earth Solos," and they fused my medium (drumming) with my interests in environmental destruction, geography, and the legacy of colonialism. Smithson's piece "Six Mirror Displacements" (described in The Writings of Robert Smithson) excited me when I encountered it. Growing up in the western US, for me the landscape and nature were a constant presence, a source of awe, mystery, beauty, and inspiration. People's relationship to the environment is very different than in New York. When I moved to the East Coast to pursue music and college, I found I missed this tremendously. Reading Smithson was liberating to me—he could do his art anywhere. It made me wonder what my art could mean if I did it in unconventional spaces, if I treated space as an element of performance to be manipulated. I became involved in performance art and environmental theater and tried to do projects in Alaska's northern slope, my street theater piece in Central America, and other things. Smithson and Richard Schechner, the author of Environmental Theater, made me aware of the conventions that are assumed in jazz performance spaces, and I have messed with those periodically, too—putting decorations all around the audience, manipulating lighting, giving performers costumes. All of this is powerful stuff.
THE 22: Andrew, what appeals to you about the improvisational nature of music? Do you like music to surprise you?
AD: I should say I'm both a composer and an improviser, and that I love composing and playing composed music but my understanding of music is primarily rooted in my (limited) knowledge of West African music and spiritual practices in which one prepares oneself, and then if things work out, a god descends and possesses or mounts you, and you then experience time and space in a different way and become capable of performing superhuman deeds. I think both improvisation and composition are means of attaining a heightened state of being, and within that surprise is useful. Overused though, surprise ceases to be surprising. Surprise probably shakes us to a more primal level of perception too, and puts us in touch with our senses in a vital way (sort of a Surrealist goal I think)—a fine thing in an increasingly virtual, unphysical, passive society. I have to say too that part of the appeal of improvisation is practical—you just do it, you don't have to pay other musicians, spend a lot of time writing out parts and rehearsing, etc.
THE 22: Tell me a little about your work in Nicaragua and Guatemala, and in other social situations. What does drumming or music bring to a tense situation that other things cannot?
AD: This is a whole other part of my life and career. I've been teaching drumming in prisons, schools, homeless shelters, battered women's shelters, museums, Indian reservations, and other places since about 1989. I was out of college and needed money and by chance a job that I landed needed me to teach (and drive a bus, but the bus driving didn't stick). I came to realize that as a drummer, i.e. someone fluent in the language of African-diasporic rhythm, I possessed a special tool to communicate with a vast portion of humanity in the current era in which African diasporic rhythm is global and very important to many people. Drumming is technically simple in terms of sound production—no
expensive equipment, no intonation or embouchure issues, no special way to hold a bow. It's a non-verbal form of communication that instantaneously connects powerfully to groups of people who have little or no prior "formal" music experience. People LOVE drumming. At one point while traveling in Nicaragua I got invited by an Argentinian NGO called "Fundacion Entre Volcanes" to do workshops and performances in small villages on Isla Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. We would ride around in the back of a pickup truck from village to village and hook up with youth organizations. We were spending a day and a night in each village, giving drumming workshops and being hosted by local people who we never would have met otherwise. It all went great—participants seemed to have a blast—and we had a blast meeting people, seeing how they lived, and talking. My Spanish teacher from a remote and amazing Mayan town high in the mountains called Todos Santos Cuchumatan, took us to an even more remote place in Guatemala called San Sebastian Cuchumatan. San Sebastian was on an unbelievably steep mountainside above Huehuetenango, a two hour hike from the nearest road. There was this whole village on this mountainside and I did music workshops there for about a week. I spoke Spanish but the younger kids didn't so our communication was mainly through music, gesture, and a strong mutual desire to do something together. At night we slept on top of the desks in the one room school.
THE 22: Tell me a little about your 1993 street piece?
AD: My girlfriend (who I eventually married) and I wanted to get out of the U.S. at the time of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' 1492 voyage, a bad economic recession, and following the 1991 US/Iraq war. The war was the first time as an adult that I'd witnessed the U.S. political/military machine mobilize and unleash fury on a foreign population, and I was really bummed by how marginalized the voices of protest were, and how easily so much of the U.S. population devoured the blatant jingoism, self-righteousness, xenophobia, racism, and all the things that comprised the propaganda. We wanted to connect on a personal level with other people living all over the spectrum of Americas at the 500 year mark of this world changing event and see how people were doing. So we did a 25 minute wordless theater piece in about 25 public locations in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. The piece was our way to feel like we were not just consuming and taking during our travels but also giving something we considered unique to us—our art—to the people and places we visited.
THE 22: Back to Iron Dog, the group, "Interactive Album Rock" is your 2nd album? "Field Recordings I," the first?
SP: Yes."Field Recordings I" is all live, whereas "Interactive Album Rock" is a studio recording and the first with Andrew.
THE 22: "Field Recordings I" was pretty heavy, and "Interactive Album Rock"seems to rely a little more only ambient, semi-hypnotic, more electronic sounds. What were you musical goals on these albums?
SB: "Field Recordings I" is a good representation of the Iron Dog duo-vibe and the early days of the band. Interactive Album Rock introduces a lot more text, synthesizer, and Andrew on drums. So the sonic pallet grew exponentially, bringing more ambient possibilities and other complexities of direction. Another major difference i s"Field Recordings I" is a sampling of live shows, whereas we recorded our second album in one studio session, one day up at Jamie Saft's studio in the Catskills. So presumably IAR captures a more specific moment in time. Meanwhile, we're starting to compile more recordings of live shows, which we'll likely release as"Field Recordings II".
SP: I think the progression is to incorporate more elements into the music. The new CD also has more all-out improv, blowing-style stuff than the first, and there's also the text, so I feel like there's a lot more to hear. The first album documents back when we were strictly bass and violin (and drums on a few tracks). Interestingly, I think it was easier to achieve the heavy sound without drums; if Andrew started laying down big Black Sabbath beats I think we'd get dragged off into a stoner-rock dungeon and never return…
THE 22: Tell me a little about some of the instruments you guys use in Iron Dog?
SP: Andrew's probably the most inventive in this area. My bass is using a fairly straightforward set of effects: ring-modulation, distortion, filter, and echo. The Nord is of course completely open so I can wire in any number of effects; I feel like the most unique thing there is a lot of the sounds "play themselves" while I'm free to improvise more on the bass. Sarah gets some pretty wild sounds out of her rig!
AD: I played my drum set and had some gongs, including Sarah and Stuart's big (maybe 30" diameter) gong. I put things on the drum heads to change their sounds—mute their resonance, make them buzz, raise the pitch of the drum frequencies. I put clamps and strings of bells on cymbals. I drum with plastic chopsticks. I also used my extended techniques—things involving friction, air pressure, bowing, pressure points on the drum membranes. I scrape the drum head with slivers of bamboo while pressing bells on the head to make set of sounds. Bow a metal dustpan or a sheet of thin aluminum. A lot of these things let me do what I usually can't do as a drummer—sustain tones and work with pitch. This lets me interact with the other instruments in profoundly different ways. Many reviewers are unaware these sounds come from the drums. If you're not familiar with the sounds and you're just listening and not seeing what I'm doing you wouldn't know they were from drums.
SB: I process my violin with patches which I've programmed on the Boss GT8, and I process my voice with various settings on a delay/reverb pedal. My main focus vocally is spoken word, but I do add tone content and vocal improvisation at times. I'm looking into expanding my vocal effects, and also having Stuart process my voice through the synth.
THE 22: Sarah, many of your words sort of almost tell the stories of folks and a lot of them see to be poems almost about the folly of human misunderstanding or communication, as well as questions about our ability to be prepared for what's to come (is it for breaking?) What to you is the story behind this work?
SB: I think the word-side serves as a way to express that which is psychologically complicated, or otherwise resides precariously between reality and its various opposites. Often life's darker moments, but not exclusively. Though I might have written a poem for a certain reason or with a certain meaning, when it comes time to perform it, just as with a musical piece, I bring to the text my present concerns and emotional state. The reader or audience I assume is doing the same. Plus the band influences which direction I go with the words. So the meanings are somewhat flexible and improvisational. For me, the process of writing words is similar to composing music, though the impetus might be different. In both cases, I play with the original inspired elements and find shapes, form, development.
The 22: What do you guys see in the future for Iron Dog? Any current exciting projects?
SP: We're always wanting to do more with multimedia, specifically video, to create more of a "happening," enhance the psychedelic elements that way. We're at the Tank in Manhattan October 18 as part of a multimedia series, and our CD Release Concert is November 10 at JACK, a new venue for the arts in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Look out for that!