Interview: Black Spirituals

PHOTO BY PER-OTTO OPPI CHRISTIANSEN

I first heard improvisatory duo Black Spirituals (based in the Bay Area and Atwater, CA) after picking up their incredible “Of Deconstruction” record last year. As the below interview will illustrate, both have a fascinating means of understanding and articulating sound, as well as the way in which sound connects to ideas around shape, energy and space. They are an absolute delight to experience live, and I strongly urge you to go see them should the opportunity arise.

You’ve recently returned from a tour with Earth. I was at the London show at the Islington Assembly Hall, and the crowd response seemed to be really enthusiastic. How was the tour on the whole?

Marshall: There are not enough words to describe how amazing and spectacular touring Europe for the first time was. I feel very fortunate to share in the experience the opportunity that Earth provided us in all aspects: sharing resources, spaces, sound, fans, musical influences, food, laughs, & wisdom. Many Earth fans, friends and family members of the Carlson’s came to our for the show at Islington which added to an overall feeling of warmth, home and intention. Packing up and traveling for 5 weeks with a sense of home is a dynamic complex that was transmitted and imprinted on us. I think that taking the time to reflect on a journey and laying that reflection down in a studio setting is a growth opportunity that can be really positive for bands. I think that the process makes the tour complete.

Zachary: Unbelievable experience. Marshall and I traverse the noise and improv scenes here in America. We have slowly built an audience along the West Coast through touring and regular Bay Area performances. It has been my vision to introduce our music to audiences who are interested in the rich lineage of creative psychedelic music, which led us to a deep performance in Portland back in 2013 where we shared a bill with Daniel Menche as well as the Tenses (Jackie / Ju Suk of SMEGMA). It was at this performance where we met our future label owners Aaron Turner and Faith Coloccia. While we dream of radical performance opportunities, touring with Earth was beyond our wildest dreams… Earth shared heavy gifts with Marshall and I. We experienced first hand how the larger music business conducts itself. Dylan Carlson is a powerful artist who has a deep heart and love for sound. He invited Marshall and I to witness the road and gave us an opportunity to meet their audience and transmit our “heavy mellow” shreds for them.

I’m not sure how apparent this was from where you were situated on stage, but the Islington Assembly Hall carried your music through a really thick, bright wooden echo. It sounded fantastic. To what extent is your music able to be spatially aware and spatially responsive, adapting itself to different room sizes, acoustic qualities, moods etc?

M: We have had the luxury of Earth’s resources which put us in good & great music halls with professional engineers and solid equipment. The Volksbuhne in Berlin, for example, is opera house that made Earth sound immense and warm. Black Spirituals made good use of our sound checks to run through our dynamics for each performance. As a percussionist, I have been able to explore my vernacular concepts ranging from tiny to blasting sounds in the sonic fields that Black Spirituals navigates. I experience the synergy of the vertical axis (x), which I produce, that includes my sound, energy and responsiveness; a horizontal “y” axis emanating from Zach’s rig (and thru the monitors, amps and such) that I am very sensitive to; and, finally, a “z’ axis which includes the outer dimensions of the hall architecturally & acoustically, and the people in it.

Z: Marshall and I enjoy playing rooms. All rooms are potential psychedelic chambers… I like to use the phrase “exciting spaces.” This tour gave us an opportunity to play venues otherwise unavailable to our specific vibe. Each day we were presented with large sound systems and in the case of Islington Assembly Hall a huge resonant room! One approach that helps us encounter new spaces is exciting the room with quick sounds which lend themselves to Marshall’s instrument while I might blast the room with a thick black noise in order to hear what the feedback thresholds are. These treatments become a part of our performance and inform our decisions… A depth of material can be generated from this one concern of testing spaces.  I am happy to hear that our sound translated in such a rich acoustic space.

As a listener, what really draws me to your sound is the co-existence of both separation and overlap, like two distinct pillars casting shadows on each other. There’s something very vivid about how your music shapes itself. How easy is it to burrow inward and point outward at the same time, focusing on your own ideas as soloists and maintaining an awareness of each other?

M: My good fortune to be apart of Black Spirituals includes an element of being apart of something that is ever-becoming or always-emerging. There is a historically blissful, musical fact called “negro spirituals” which is a responsive and responsible idiom of cultural production. Boldly, I say that Black Spirituals redefines the congregation of sound and possibility. Zachary can make practically any sound, while I strive to apply multiple aesthetic values to the terrain of the drum set. I believe that we are responding to a call that is greater than either one of us and I think it is evident in how we construct our sound and this project. I am very sensitive to Zachary’s dynamics as we create and maintain fields of sound in which something totally magical or ritually unexpected can occur. This is when the work becomes the Work.

Z: Powerful question.  We started our collaboration when I invited improvising guitarist living in Italy Morgan Craft and newly acquainted local musician Marshall Trammell along with myself to give a workshop at UC Santa Cruz back in 2012. This workshop laid a foundation for us to continue developing our solo vocabulary in a group performance context. We have maintained throughout that we are interested in creating a live sound that nurtures our individual solo vocabularies. At the same time, on a good day, Marshall and I listen to each other and interact with what we have learned about our individual concerns.  This has created a rich space where we have developed a new language based on the interaction of the two.

Your utilisation of pitch and harmonics is also extremely distinctive. I’m often reminded of composers such as Phill Niblock and Eliane Radigue for the way different tones interact and rub together. Are there any particular composers or ideas that inform this approach in this respect?

M: I am not familiar with those composers. However, while Black Spirituals deploys advanced technologies, we produce primitively elemental (container of) sound. I am careful to remember a tape recording of aboriginal music from Australia played for Hafez Modirzadeh’s Ethnomusicology class at San Francisco State University. In class, we heard rocks beating rocks and the drone-sound of a didgeridoo that was said to have been hollowed out by ants. The vernacular in that duo is masterful and super heavy. The pronouncement of their sense of Being in/for the World and a resounding connectivity of their sense of place in the Universe remains undeniable to my ears. These are elements that are key to why I remain an Improvisor and I have keen interest in preserving relationships with Improvisors in dynamic and strategic formations.

Z: Thank you for this comparison. I absolutely love these two composers and am influenced by their works. Early on, I had an opportunity to study Javanese Gamelan with Jarrad Powell in Seattle, Wa. These early experiences with unfamiliar intonations left a powerful mark on my ears. I was also interested in what I was hearing in Jamaican Dance Hall where the bass seemed to be off by some fractional amount… I loved the sensation these notes left.  As I dug deeper into the music of the world specifically Iran, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, I found that new sensations were aroused when listening to the various tunings that were employed with great mastery and ease. I also became interested in the spectral compositions of James Tenney. I devoured his writings on Gestalt and Just Intonation.  The Well Tuned Piano by La Monte Young as well as his writings on the piece where he tries to connect periodicity with the mechanical nature of our ears and cortex are deeply moving. Imagine a periodicity interval of 1000 years! This is not an interval designed for human consumption? I am interested in simple intervals being the gateway to more complex pitch space… I tune my guitar to a special harmonic tuning and all of my music for Black Spirituals lives within this harmonic territory.

MARSHALL TRAMMELL

MARSHALL TRAMMELL (PHOTO BY PER-OTTO OPPI CHRISTIANSEN)

Last year you released Of Deconstruction on SIGE Records. What can you tell me about the compositional / recording process of this album? What ideas/expectations did you bring into the studio with you?

M: We have recorded material for tapes as well as albums. Zachary continues to bring and build on organizational ideas in and out of the studio. He challenged me with material (tuning and compositional ideas) that he had developed for documentation. At the same time, I wanted to document my polyrhythmic and multi-aesthetic modular structures in our throughout the recording experience. Improvisation provides me with such an emotional release. I think we’ve been able to both inform our navigation of composed ideas with an emotional explosion that usually gets release through Improvisation, as well as Improvise compositionally.

Z: Very simple, we identified improviser/engineer Jacob Felix Heule with whom we approached to record and we booked the studio New, Improved Recording in Oakland. We recorded our record in one day. We mixed with up and coming engineer Andy Oswald at his Secret Bathroom and found three pieces that we believed represented our then current sound. When we performed in Portland with Menche and the Tenses where we met our future label owners, they were impressed with the performance and we began an exchange.

In fact, I came into your music as a follower of SIGE Records’ output. How did your relationship with SIGE begin?

M: My exposure to SIGE came through responding to Zachary’s call to play share a stage at LCM, an underground Noise venue in West Oakland, CA, with House of Low Culture, Helen Money and Sad Vicious in 2013. I had no previous exposure to Faith, Aaron or any of the works.. After 20-odd years in the Creative Music business in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had yet to experience such hungry enthusiasm backed by decisive and measured support. Since then I think of Aaron and Faith every single day. I follow, rather educate myself on, other SIGE artists that Zachary has been following for years.

I understand that Marshall has recently relocated from the Bay Area to Atwater, CA. Has this had any perceptible impact on your improvisatory dynamic? When you get together, are you noticing anything different within yourselves or each other, as a result of now living in different environments?

M: Black Spirituals toured from Los Angeles through New Mexico to the Northwest in 2014. In Albuquerque, we met Raven Chacon and William Fowler Collins (both SIGE artists). They expressed how their music practices has only sharpened in the small city communities that they reside in. I listened to them rehearse and record with new, inquisitive, and hopeful ears. At the time, Zach and I left Oakland, Ca for different semi-rural communities, where our families live, and we’ve made time to reflect on our environments and intentionally factor it into our practice. Another huge impact on our lives has been sharing hotel rooms, almost every meal, a Sprinter, and a stage for 5 weeks opening up for Earth. To further answer your question, Postcommodity artists Raven Chacon (SIGE) and Kade Twist hosted Black Spirituals in Guelph, Ontario, CA for performances and workshops last April (2015). I feel that we gave audiences truly confident and mature performances hugely reflective of how Zach and I navigate the spaces and distances between us. I think any analysis of our next record will have to include how we sonically and intrapersonally excite the spaces we occupy.

Z: While we both lived in the Bay, Marshall and I regularly met and rapped about various concerns and gigged regularly. However we have never had a regimented rehearsal routine. Our approach has always been to meet at the stage and work it out in real time.  With Marshall now 2 hours away, we can continue that tradition without substantial issues. We do accept less performance opportunities now as a result of the distance.

ZACHARY JAMES WATKINS (PHOTO BY PER-OTTO OPPI CHRISTIANSEN)

ZACHARY JAMES WATKINS (PHOTO BY PER-OTTO OPPI CHRISTIANSEN)

I watched an interview with you both conducted during your residency the Exploratorium, and I got the impression that shape, texture and other multi-sensory concepts play a part in your music. Where did your interest in these ideas originate from? Is there a synaesthetic aspect to your craft?

M: I think there is an intrinsic motivation in human cultures to stimulate expression across the array of our senses and capabilities. I really do not think that this work is not so different from the folkloric troupe that venerates their cultural legacies through sound, movement and craft. Again, much like Negro Spirituals themselves, Black Spirituals provides a kind of political education with multiple entry points from the elements of our sound, the placement of our ideas and the crafts of our presentation. Wayne Grim and the good people at the Exploratorium afforded us the opportunity to enthrall an audience with the sights, sounds and sensations that their technology provides. We embedded the triangular-based, quilt block patterns from the Underground Railroad-era into the triangular-based 100-speaker Myers Constellation Sound System. The 14 superimposed patterns made new formations continually bouncing sound above the heads and through bodies of our audience. I have to admit that I wish I was able to experience the full effect from the perspective of the audience, but I would not want anyone else my percussion system in my stead. It’s an impossibility.

Z: I am personally invested in the sensual experience of sound and light.  I am an advocate for psychedelic experiences.  For me, harmonics tap into deep feelings and experiences and I try to evoke these possibilities through my music. I feel that our ears are extremely sensitive tools able to receive complex vibrations and my work is concerned with understanding this intuition.

Equally, I understand that the music of Black Spirituals engages itself with social/historical context as well. How does this relationship manifest itself? Is it important for Black Spirituals to exist outside of a vacuum of pure sound?

M: Black Spirituals was born when Zachary found an artifact (on tape!) of Bernice Reagon, from Sweet Honey and the Rock, impressing, upon the bodies of her choir, the importance of proper inflection when singing Negro Spirituals. Our collaboration is a platform for investigation, immersion and transformation. Our first album includes images, texts, and other materials that demand attention and add to the contextualization of the music. We want our audiences to explore the depths of our inflection.

Z: As I am invested in sound, I feel that sound in itself has transformative power. I am also sensitive to social energies that inspire extra musical investigation.  For instance, identifying Marshall as a potential collaborator had as much to do about with his sound as it did with his person and individual social engagement.  However, I am curious how our social activism sounds.

What’s next for Black Spirituals?

M: We are in the midst of navigating our corner of the Music industry and planning to broaden and reimagine the field.

Z: We are currently working on mixing our recent follow up album recorded with Randall Dunn at Avast and with Andrew Oswald at his own Secret Bathroom and we hope to work with Sige again.  I am in Residence at the Headlands Center for The Arts this month and started my work here by reamping snare and bass drum tracks from this recent recording through tube guitar amps in the resonant Headlands Gymnasium. We hope to plan a greater American tour and future European jaunts!

 

Black Spirituals website – blackspirituals.com

Black Spirituals BandCamp (via SIGE) – sigerecords.bandcamp.com/album/of-deconstruction