So for how long have you been working on Far West?
Far West is a concept. It came around through Totem 2, and existing far longer as a concept than it did as any actual recording or writing. Two of the pieces came together about a year and a half ago, and they were written by our bass player James Davis and our drummer Don McGreevy. The recording all went down pretty fast; maybe a week and a half of tracking and then mixing. So the actual making of the album happened pretty fast, but the time it needed to culture it and bring it to life took a little longer.
Up until Far West you’ve been immersed in the Totem trilogy, and have therefore been focusing on a solitary conceptual idea spread across three albums. Was it energising to be working on something completely fresh for the first time in a while?
Yeah, it was just liberating in general. The Totem stuff had such a focus on, and I don’t use this term loosely, “Eastern” music, and certain aspects of Tibetan music or Turkish music. With this record we were able to use rhythms in a much different manner than we have done for a long time. We were focusing on that and weaving in the narrative concepts. It was good to be able to start from a place that is the flipside of the yin-yang to those Totem records; to start somewhere where we didn’t have any preconception of having to be this or that. It made the writing a lot more open, and it also made the sonic approach a lot more open. I could do some things that I probably wouldn’t have done in the Totem trilogy because it wouldn’t have fit in that world, so that’s pretty nice.
So conceptually, what is the premise behind Far West?
I realise that’s a big question to answer.
We try to keep the super-intense stuff oblique in the record, so it’s not the foreground. Enjoying the music and being able to get your own experience out of it is important. Conceptually, we talked about impermanence or an elusory existence; the dissolving of the body and what’s left. To keep it in good humour, it’s also focused on this strange lens of the new age movement that exists on Mount Shasta – the mythical thought of this giant mountain as being the placeholder where you can pass through these places to get “further West”. And sort of…this is going to be incredibly convoluted for you…but it’s a very light metaphor for Western expansionism, like the Louisiana Purchase and the Donner Party. These are all things that we learn in public schools here, about the “Old West” in the United States.
To me, it’s also about how a Westerner can approach a lot of these things, like spirituality, as a devourer – it’s about thinking of ways to not fall into that trap, and remembering that life is an illusion. Impermanence is a good step in that direction I think.
I haven’t seen you guys play live, but I imagine that idea of impermanence carries through particularly well in the performance environment. I see you played some live dates recently…was that all new material?
It was about 75% new stuff from the record. It went great, and playing it was such a different animal to the recording. In recording you can get away with being much quieter and more dynamic in a way that you can’t do live, but the intensity of the music took a much grander aspect in performance, and I really started to appreciate that. It’s great that the live experience has a connection with the record while being a separate experience too.
I read that the track “Circular Ruins” could repeat and progress indefinitely were it not for the durational boundaries imposed upon the recorded format. Do you take advantage of being liberated from the limits of duration when playing live?
Yeah, I think it’s a great place where a lot of the guys, who are all great instrumentalists, can expand and meditate on what we’re doing. We have these open sections where there’s just this conceptual starting point, and it’s mostly improvised. So all of these guys can just open up and expand on the material in a way that is additive to the recordings – it really puts those two worlds together.
For us it’s one and the same, and the more records we do, the more I start to realise that they’re all one continuous thought. Even if it changes or moves in another sonic direction, they’re all interconnected in a way that we don’t always know when we’re doing it, but that you’re able to see when you pull back. The live stuff always has these shards of things that, when we’re improvising, end up becoming like song shrapnel, you know? We’re able to pick them out and go “let’s make that into an idea”, and then vice versa.
So is that generally how the writing process works? Is your music formed out of unspoken jams instead of there being any explicit dictation as to what it’s going to be?
I think it’s about 50/50. There are some really concrete ideas as to the type of music we want to go for, and there are some songs that are just written pieces of music that adhere to the over-arching concept. So some stuff is really composed and some stuff isn’t, but then each of those things ends up being treated like the other – stuff that’s improvised we end up making into compositions, and the stuff that’s compositional we end up making into freer explorations.
For me, the production of Far West helps to evoke a vivid sense of “being somewhere” – I get the impression that you spend a lot of time on the production of your sound.
I’m in a fortunate position where I work in a great studio and have years of production experience, so a lot of my role in the band is to cultivate the sonic space with everyone. I’m handed over these songs that these guys compose, and then I add my stuff to it, and then all of us guide it together to make these pieces that hopefully occupy their own sonic space and are evocative. So it’s really awesome that you think that.
I’ve just realised that I told a lie to you earlier on…I saw you live at Supersonic Festival 2010 with oud player Khyam Allami.
Oh, yeah! That was a fun show. It got cut short, because how we had to set up around Swans’ gear was pretty disorienting for what we were doing. That show was mostly under Khyam’s guidance actually; I think that he knew what are strengths were, so I think we did two of his pieces and one of ours. But we just had one rehearsal for that, and then just got up and winged it. He’s an incredible musician and a really sweet guy though. That was a real honour for us.
It must have been surreal to have his solo pieces expanded through your instruments and ideas.
I’ve always been really interested in 70s Egyptian or Turkish music, where the synthesiser is used to play some of the tonalities that you can’t play in Western music. You can do things with oscillators that you can’t do with normal keyboards and organs. And I’ve always been interested in going deeper into that, and I definitely will when I’ve got more time to study the actual traditions of a lot of that music.
How true is Master Musicians’ music to the traditions of other cultures? Is it quite a loose adaption, or is there a strong adherence to those traditions?
None of it’s traditional at all. Maybe there’s a rhythm from a particular region or era, but as far as listening to our music and saying, “oh that sounds Turkish”…if you played it for a Turkish person they’d probably think you’re crazy. There is one song where we had a musician from Istanbul play something based on a traditional song, and his contribution is absolutely traditional. But also, a lot of those classical musicians don’t get the opportunity to do something that you can do when you’re slumming with a psychedelic rock band.
There’s always a reverence and deep respect for that music. I think there’s a sort of surrealist or dada aspect of pulling those things in, and pulling in the notion of world music, and what is traditional and what isn’t traditional, and who’s doing the thing that’s the most pure anyway, and what even is that? I mean, even with our name…there are several groups in the world music community that always fight over the moniker of the “Master Musicians” of this or that. So it’s fun to be the Master Musicians of like…nothing! Just to mess with the notion; I mean, to think of ourselves as master musicians is the most ridiculous thing we could do. It keeps up in check and stops us thinking that what we’re doing is somehow “high art” in the world music community, you know?
I’ve seen you talking about this idea of “world music” before. It often seems to act as a Western description of anything that exists beyond our immediate sonic surroundings.
Sure. I think the West will just group anything that’s not Western into one huge category. The frightening thing about that is that the music that exists outside of Western concepts is the majority. We’re just on a small island.
It’s evident in the fact that I questioned whether your music is in any way traditional. I think there’s something innate in Western people that perceives all “world music” as traditional; something pristine and incapable of adapting to a world that changes around it.
I think that any time there’s a Western gaze upon the East, or any time there’s an exoticising of the occult or Eastern mysticism, it gets blown out of proportion so that it becomes a very dangerous question of who’s the most reliable source. Having a very positive relationship with that stuff as a Westerner is very difficult, and some of the Totem stuff is about that; being a Westerner and realising that the role that music plays in our culture is completely irrelevant of any spiritual substance, or any kind of cultural relativism. It’s not ingrained in the culture – it’s separate from it. It’s kind of trying to think of rock band music in a different way, where you can do music that’s more ceremonial in a conceptual way – not necessarily a religious way – and get back towards a collectivism of sound that you find in a lot of Eastern music. Again I use that term loosely.
Do you find it problematic that there’s not an ingraining of Western culture within Western music?
In Europe, I think there are definitely examples of the music and culture being related. Maybe it’s more of an American problem sometimes. I mean, we’re lucky that we have the blues and jazz and bluegrass…that’s a glimpse of ingraining in the culture. But I definitely think that in public schools and education, music as a way of learning and enriching life is being marginalised. And I think that anything like that – whether you take people having access to a different spiritual life or musical life, or any kind of connection that younger people can have to their internal selves – if that’s being marginalised in society then that can’t be good. Now I’m calling out American public schools! [laughs]
It’ll make quite a headline for this article I think.
I want to talk about the album artwork, which is not only a gorgeous illustration in itself, but also a stark contrast to the Totem sleeves. When was it created?
I talked to Simon Fowler about it two years ago, and gave him a general conceptual idea for what I wanted it to be: was a sort of late 1800s thought, like an American thought of Japanese art that exists. I wanted it to be black and white and have an antiquated look to it, and to be rooted in this thought of old Americana mysticism, for lack of a better description. We wanted it to relate back to the original concept too. He’s very interested in Japanese print art, so for him I think it was just a really great idea, and he ended up going so much further with it than I ever imagined. When I got it, I just remember being like, “this is unbelievable” – I couldn’t even fathom what he did, you know?
The only straightforward metaphor on there is this organ inside this hardened rock. It’s thinking about this record being a hardened thing, and wondering how to get to the internal music or the internal life; thinking about this giant monolithic mountain that’s hardened, and then inside there are songs.
It sounds as though you perceive the music and artwork to marry nicely within that single vision.
Yeah, for sure. They’re always closely related, along with the song titles, the music itself…it comes together toward the end, and then we pull it into this statement that we started with. We always go off in several directions that either relate or don’t relate, but I guess they relate because they happen. We pull it back with the final artwork and photos, and try to create a world that’s provocative; to provoke people into seeking a story out that might work for them.
So what’s next for you guys?
That’s always a good question. I really love the world of this new record. We just put it out, so we’re probably going to hang out here a little while. I think we’re going to do a 7” with some covers, which we’ve always done live but I’ve always been interested in releasing. One’s a Roxy Music track we’ve been doing for a long time. There might be some guests on that too.
There’s a lot of snippets of material left over from Far West, so I think we’re going to make a companion record to go along with it that you can put in the other sleeve…and maybe even play simultaneously. I don’t know. It sounds like a lot of work so don’t quote me on that, but that’s something that’s been thrown around the past few weeks.
Any plans to come over here? I see you missed the UK on your recent string of dates.
We did. It’s becoming increasingly hard to play the UK, with the expense of getting there and fees and stuff. We’re just trying to make it so it works out for us, so that we don’t have to come home and sell our gear or something. But there’s a possibility that we could be over in November – there are a couple of interesting things that could happen. If we do come over, we’ll probably come with this band Rose Windows who are also from Seattle. They did a lot of the choral vocals on the record. They’re a great band, and they’re pretty cool in the Seattle music scene right now, so it’s fun to watch them starting to tour and stuff.
Was their appearance on Far West the first time you’ve worked with them?
Yeah, they’re new friends of ours – they represent a really cool younger part of the Seattle music scene. I worked on debut record that came out on Sub Pop just recently – it’s really cool rock/psych and really beautiful music. And I think Dave McGreevy will be over with his Noir band the Diminished Men. So all of these things might happen around November.
Master Musicians Of Bukkake website – http://www.mmobmusic.com/