Thursday 25 October 2012

Interview with Dennis Rea

You may well have not heard of Dennis Rea, so let me introduce you to a guitarist who should be up there with all the usual stellar names if there was any justice in this curious world. In a 40-year musical career on the fringes, both geographically and musically, including a time living in China, Dennis has played with many fine musicians and made some quite remarkable music.

It is my duty to spread the word, so put your feet up, hit Play ^ and read on.

Roger: Do you come from a musical family?

Dennis: Neither my parents nor my siblings played an instrument, and most of my family had only a cursory interest in music. The one exception was my (much) older brother Woody, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz (and one of the largest record collections I've ever seen). He began indoctrinating me into jazz and quality rock music at an early age and was the most important early influence on my developing musical sensibilities. (His son Michael, guitarist for Queensryche, certainly benefited from his influence as well.) I also had an uncle who was an aficionado of mainstream classical music; he became an unwitting benefactor when I discovered the music of John Cage, Luciano Berio, and other avant-garde composers in the boxes of unwanted record-club bonus LPs he unloaded on my family each Christmas – a real ear-opener.

Roger: How long have you been playing the guitar and what/who were your earliest influences?

Dennis: I began playing guitar at age 9 or 10, so I've been at it for roughly 45 years at this point – I'd damned well better have something to show for it by now ;) People are always amused to learn that the player who first inspired me to take up the instrument was Mike Nesmith of the Monkees; although he was in fact a decent guitarist, it came out that he wasn't even playing on the early Monkees records – so much for role models.

Apart from the previously mentioned influences, two other watershed moments in my young musical life were hearing King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King not long after it came out, as well as György Ligeti's astonishing music on the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both granted me entry into a world of expanded tonality and limitless imagination that made a mockery of the commercial music that pollutes this planet. There was no turning back after that.

Roger: Can you remember your first appearance on stage? Were you in a High School band? What kind of music did you play?

Dennis: My first band, in my hometown of Utica, New York, was named Atmosphere and mostly played covers, but rather atypical covers for a high-school band – Pink Floyd's "Echoes," Curved Air, PFM, Strawbs... Prior to that I had been jamming with teenage peers on tunes by the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin, but hearing In the Court spun me off on a more progressive trajectory. Atmosphere eventually evolved into Zuir, a guitar-bass-drums trio that focused on my own original material – convoluted 12-minute-long psych/prog sagas with gratuitously knotty time signatures and the like. We stuck out like a nun in a whorehouse in musically conservative Utica but did manage to build a small, devoted local following. The band played a handful of shows, usually DIY affairs in rented spaces, and actually had the audacity to strike out for Seattle right after we graduated from high school, with the notion of 'making it' there with my brother Woody’s managerial assistance. Nothing came of it – we weren’t even old enough to be allowed into most music venues – and the band eventually returned to Utica and drifted apart, but the experience served as our rite of passage into adulthood. A few years later I returned to Seattle, where I reside to this day.

Roger: Do you play any other instruments?

Dennis: Only the kalimba, and not in the conventional way, as evidenced on the recent CD release by Tempered Steel, on which I play electronically processed thumb pianos alongside my partners Ffej and Frank Junk.

Roger: As we can see from your impressive discography you have covered many different styles of music. Do you have a particular favourite style, particularly in a live setting?

Dennis: Not to sound evasive, but no, not really. I take as much satisfaction in playing rigorously composed music, as I do in Moraine, as in unscripted improvisation. My only real “rule” when it comes to playing music is that it must be original, either my own work or that of the close collaborators I choose to work with.

Roger: What has been your proudest musical moment?

Dennis: In terms of live performance, it would have to be Moraine's appearance at NEARfest 2010, which was a wholly unexpected turn of events for what was basically an unknown band with only one recently released CD to show for ourselves. Indeed, the prog bulletin boards all exhaled a collective "Who?!" when we were announced. But I do feel that we rose to the occasion rather well, and I'm quite proud of the performance captured on Metamorphic Rock: Live at NEARfest 2010.

Moraine @ NEARfest2010

In terms of recordings, I consider my 'solo' CD Views from Chicheng Precipice to be my most fully realised work to date – it's far and away the most ambitious project I've ever undertaken with regard to the arrangements and the instrumental resources involved. In terms of collaborations, having had the chance to work with the late, great composer Hector Zazou has probably been my greatest honour.

Roger: One of, and possibly THE heaviest thing you've done was the quite wonderful Iron Kim Style which as well as being musically stunning as it was completely improvised, something I was frankly amazed to find out, displayed a mischievous sense of humour. Where did the idea for that band and the subject matter of the song titles come from?

"Farewell to Kims"
Dennis: Iron Kim Style was never conceived of as a ‘band’ but was simply a group of friends who got together to improvise on a very occasional basis. I'm usually erroneously pinned as being the 'leader' of IKS, but the impetus in fact came from my friend Ryan Berg, a bassist with whom I'd been involved in various musical configurations since we both lived in Taiwan in the early 1990s. It was also Ryan's idea to call the project Iron Kim Style, borrowing the name of a Korean martial arts discipline founded by the high-flying Grandmaster "Iron" Kim. There was no correlation between our name and our music – we simply found it comical. But since the name Kim inevitably brings to mind the infamous lineage of North Korean dictators, we started weaving cryptic satirical references to the Dear Leader into our announcements and titles just for laughs. We used to joke that we were likely to be taken out on stage one day by either a North Korean assassination squad or a posse of furious martial artists.

Encouraged by the results of our jam sessions, we began doing the occasional live performance and eventually went into the studio to stockpile material for a CD. The end result was a private edition of 100 copies, meant to be given to friends, but when Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records heard it, he insisted on releasing it on MoonJune. The rest is hysteria.
The material on Iron Kim Style is indeed 100-percent improvised, with no cosmetic doctoring after the fact. Like you, many have marvelled at its cohesiveness, but you need to understand that we extracted only the strongest material from about six hours' worth of sessions, not all of which was up to that level.

Iron Kim Style amicably parted ways earlier this year, or at least went on a lengthy hiatus, largely because various members were increasingly busy with other musical commitments.

Roger: Another of my other favourites – admittedly I am not that familiar with the earlier releases, and I hope to be pleasantly surprised when I find the time to investigate - is the quite beguiling and deeply spiritual Views From Chicheng Precipice, which you mentioned earlier. It is about as different from Iron Kim Style as can be imagined. A meditation from your time living in China and Taiwan; what inspired you in the first instance to live there, or was it a work-related move? Did you play many gigs there, and how did that experience compare with gigs back home?

Dennis: Work-related to an extent, but more accurately love-related – my then fiancée Anne, a China Studies graduate, had accepted a teaching position in the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province as part of an academic exchange program. Anne arranged a position for me as well and I joined her there in January 1989. At first I had scant expectation of playing music publicly in what I expected to be a repressive authoritarian state, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Shortly after my arrival I was sought out by members of our university’s guitar club, and from there I embarked on a surreal musical rollercoaster ride throughout China and later in Taiwan. Altogether I played more than 100 concerts at cultural centers, sports arenas, universities, music conservatories, and clubs, and on provincial and national radio and television, including three of the earliest concert tours of China by progressive Western bands. I also performed with some of the most influential Chinese musicians of the era, such as Cui Jian and Zhang Xing. 

Roger: That sounds like an amazing experience, and it is all documented in Dennis' book "Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan" (see for more details and purchasing info (USA), and (UK)).

The time you spent in China was well before the country's current capitalist flirtation and the subsequent opening up of its borders, and I'd imagine it must have been quite difficult for an American to go about his daily business? A bit "James Bond", but were you followed everywhere?

Dennis: In general, I was given surprisingly free rein to pursue my musical activities in China, even receiving encouragement and support from our university and various governmental entities. I was even allowed to record a solo instrumental album for the state-owned China Record Company, Shadow in Dreams (1990), which was almost unprecedented at the time. The record sold an astonishing (for me) 40,000 copies, for which I received roughly US$500. But I did show up in China at a particularly fraught time, during the run-up to the events in Tiananmen Square. Chengdu experienced its own brutal crackdown and mass civil unrest, and Anne and I found ourselves swept up in the chaos and witness to casualties. To the best of my knowledge, my book contains the only detailed account published to date of the carnage in Chengdu, as the international press corps was almost entirely fixated on what was transpiring at the same time in Beijing.

Onstage with Vagaries in the People's Republic
Roger: Are you still in touch with the musicians you met there?

Dennis: I’ve drifted out of contact with my former musical associates to some extent – at this point it’s been fully 15 years since I last visited the mainland, though I have done two concert tours of Taiwan in the past decade – but I still keep tabs on their activities through mutual friends, particularly Cui Jian.

Roger: Some of your recent releases have come out on MoonJune Records, a label known for its championing of the adventurous side of music. How did you get together with MoonJune, which seems to me to be a marriage made in heaven?

Dennis: My encounter with MoonJune was a matter of pure serendipity. As a partisan of many of the musicians MoonJune promotes, I’d been aware of the label and its larger-than-life founder Leonardo Pavkovic for some years. When I read that MoonJune had released a rare archival Soft Machine concert (Drop), as a huge Soft Machine fan I placed an order for the CD through the label website. Shortly thereafter I received a personal note from Leonardo apprising me that the disc was on backorder. Grateful for the personal touch, I took the opportunity to respond and congratulate him on his fine catalog. He apparently grew curious about me and visited my website, where the first thing that attracted his attention was my Chinese odyssey. He wrote back and told me that he, too, had traveled extensively in China, even earlier than I had, so I thought he might enjoy my book and offered to send him a copy. At this point there had been no discussion of my music, but reading my book piqued Leonardo's curiosity, so he asked me to send him some samples of my work. Right around that time I had just completed the first Moraine recording and was about to shop it around. I sent a copy to Leonardo and he immediately offered to release it on MoonJune. Of course I was delighted at this turn of events, particularly because it had happened so naturally, without any solicitation on my part. Leonardo has been incredibly supportive of me ever since, and has released four of my CDs on his label to date. He has quite literally changed my life by exposing my work to an international audience.

Roger: You can count me in that number, and Leo deserves much praise for his efforts in unearthing artists, yourself included, that we otherwise would not have heard of.

I read somewhere that one of the many musicians you have collaborated with in the past was Trey Gunn. What project was that liaison for? As a big fan of Trey's work, I'd sure like to hear it.

Dennis: Once again, mentioning a 'big name' on my CV has come back to bite me ;) My collaboration with Trey was in fact limited to a single performance, when he subbed for bassist Fred Chalenor for one concert with Jeff Greinke's Land, a band I played in for much of the 1990s. There is no documentation of that event, but I was very impressed with how quickly Trey came to terms with our music. Trey was the natural choice as he was a close collaborator with our then drummer Bill Rieflin. We were acquaintances beforehand and have many friends in common, and I still run into him in Seattle from time to time.

Roger: Who would like to work with in the current music scene?

Dennis: Honestly, I'm perfectly content to be working with the community of musicians I belong to right now in Seattle. Our shared values and experiences have enabled us to evolve a common musical language; we've grown together over the years and share in each other’s successes. That's not to say that I wouldn't be delighted to play with any number of international musicians I greatly admire, it's just that I'd rather allow any such encounters to happen naturally, rather than force them.

One thing that I feel characterizes the Seattle creative music community is that we're perfectly comfortable going into a musical situation without a stated game plan or prior discussion; unless a given situation involves a predetermined repertoire, we simply pick up our instruments and play, and the results are often surprisingly compelling. Genre distinctions are pretty meaningless to most of us – we're equally happy playing adventurous rock, jazz, free improvisation, or experimental music, and don't privilege one approach over the other.

I’m an outspoken advocate of decentralization in music, and lament the thinking and economic conditions that lead so many talented musicians to abandon their home cities in favor of making the well-worn trek to New York or a handful of other major musical nodes in search of success. My own efforts are focused on building a strong, mutually supportive regional scene, for example through the concert series I co-present, Zero-G Concerts (, which aims to break down the silos separating musicians who work in the areas of creative rock, jazz, and improvised music, respectively, and foster greater collaboration. At the moment, Seattle is blessed with an incredibly rich community of accomplished, open-minded musicians that I feel stand head-to-head with their counterparts in more vaunted cities elsewhere.

Roger: With the ending of Iron Kim Style, is your other current band project Moraine still functioning? I recall reading an interview you did with my good friend Raffaella Berry last year where you said you almost had enough material for a third CD. Is that still in the pipeline?

Dennis: Moraine is very much alive and remains my primary musical involvement. We’re just now emerging from a half-year hiatus, during which we brought new drummer Tom Zgonc into the fold following the departure of his predecessor Stephen Cavit, who accepted a richly deserved composer residency. Our first shows with Tom take place in early November, after which we have additional shows planned in Portland and Los Angeles, and some tantalizing international touring opportunities that we hope will materialize in 2013.

We do indeed have enough fresh material for a third MoonJune CD and just want to give the reconfigured lineup a little seasoning before heading into the studio. Expect the new record sometime in 2013.

Roger: Great - can't wait for that!  

Moraine's music although it could loosely be described as jazz-fusion is a much friendlier beast than some of the more cerebral offerings in that genre and the instrumentation is wider too, including violin and woodwind, and in a previous line up, cello. Another occasional problem with fusion is improv for the sake of it, something Moraine does not suffer from in my opinion. Is the music arranged beforehand, and how much came from the individual players' musical streams of consciousness?

Dennis: Cellist and founding member Ruth Davidson left the band a few years back to pursue academic goals; her place was taken by woodwind player James DeJoie. It was at that point that the band transitioned from its initial ‘chamber rock’ orientation to a more forceful and dynamic sound – having James’ baritone sax is sometimes like having a second electric guitar in the band.

Most of Moraine’s music is meticulously through-composed; in fact, I consider Moraine the primary vehicle for my output as a composer, though most of the other members also contribute original material. But we always allow ample room for improvisation even in our tightest pieces. One of the things that separates Moraine from the prog-rock pack is the relative brevity of most of our songs – we’re more interested in concision and clarity than in developing grandiose side-long suites, and that’s made us a target for some orthodox prog-rock enthusiasts. But frankly, I don’t consider Moraine to be a ‘prog rock’ group, and I take pains to distance us from that descriptor; while I clearly have roots in progressive rock, the others don’t, and other influences ranging from Mahavishnu-era fusion to ECM jazz to contemporary classical composition to ancient Chinese folk music are equally important ingredients in the mix.

Roger: Earlier we've touched upon Views From Chicheng Precipice, a quite remarkable and unusual record full of ethnic flavour. How did that come about?

Dennis: I envisioned Views from Chicheng Precipice as a sort of sonic counterpart to my book; taken together, they bookend my China experience. The project is my homage to the music of East Asia, a collection of personalized interpretations of traditional pieces and original Asian-inspired works that blend unusual arrangements of ancient and contemporary themes with sonic experimentation and expansive improvisation. I wanted the record to be boldly unorthodox in its choice of instrumentation and treatment of traditional musical material while remaining warmly respectful of its sources.

Roger: Keeping us all on our toes, your two latest releases, Subduction Zone and Tempered Steel are as different as can be imagined. Tell us a little about those two albums.

Dennis: Subduction Zone captures a freely improvised session between me, celebrated saxophonist Wally Shoup, and drummer Tom Zgonc, also of Moraine and my trio Dennis and the Reaniers. We felt the session was strong enough to warrant public release, so I made it the first title on my recently founded Nunatak microlabel. In general it’s a more extroverted, woollier affair than what most of my MoonJune audience has come to expect of me, revealing another important facet of my musical personality.

The second Nunatak release, Tempered Steel, documents my longstanding kalimba trio with Ffej and Frank Junk. Some years back, the three of us discovered that we’d each been experimenting with amplifying and electronically processing thumb pianos, so we joined forces. Our real-time improvisations conjure everything from phantom harpsichords and subaquatic percussion to imaginary stringed instruments, vintage musique concrète, and the music of Harry Partch. I guarantee that this release will surprise anyone who’s only familiar with my guitar playing.

Roger: Yes, it sure surprised me!

In my all too brief relationship with your music I've noticed that you do not use singers. Have you used vocalists in the past and would you do so again?

Dennis: Actually, the piece “Aviariations on ‘100 Birds Serenade the Phoenix,'” on Views from Chicheng Precipice, is a showcase for the stunning vocals of Catarina de Re. But you’re correct that I rarely involve myself with vocal music, though I've done so at various times in my distant past and even sang myself for a brief time. My problem with vocal music isn’t so much the singing as the content, which is typically narcissistic and banal. I’m often reminded of Brian Eno’s remark to the effect that lyrics limit the range of possible interpretations of a given piece of music, basically telling the listener how to interpret it. Instrumental music, on the other hand, leaves far more to the imagination.

Of course there are consequences to my decision to focus exclusively on instrumental music; since for the vast majority of people, singing is music, I eliminated 95 percent of my potential audience right from the outset. For whatever reasons, most people seem unable to process purely instrumental music and need the mediation of language (or some other extramusical distractor, such as a light show or a pretty face) as a way in. I find instrumental music completely satisfying in its own right and take full responsibility for my decision to work in an area of marginal public interest.

It’s sometimes assumed that because I play instrumental music, I don’t like vocal music, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that I much prefer those singers whose subject matter and delivery break the typical mold – people like Annette Peacock, Robert Wyatt, Scott Walker, Rodriguez…

Roger: You're so right about the prevalence of banal lyrics, a particular bugbear of mine! Probably why a lot of music, particularly in alternative fields is sensibly entirely instrumental.

With so many strings to your bow it is impossible to pigeonhole you as a composer in a particular style, which is great for the both of us; but, if you had to describe your musical leanings on a resume, how would you go about it?

Dennis: You’re not making it easy on me, are you? ;) Every musician I know dreads that question, and most of us have come up with evasive strategies to avoid being pinned down. That’s why I was so relieved to hit upon the title of Moraine’s last record, Metamorphic Rock, as it made for an ideal response to the perennial question, ‘What kind of music do you make?’ Answer: ‘Metamorphic rock.’ 

Roger: Nice one!

And now for a probably rhetorical question: do you manage to make a living from your music?

Dennis: You're joking, right? Far from it – I lose at least ten times more money than I make from my performances and record sales. I've literally never seen a dime from most of the titles in my discography. As for gigs, of the 50-60 I'll have played this year, my total income probably won't add up to $500. I'd reckon that among those musicians who, like myself, play non-mainstream instrumental music, fewer than one percent can actually sustain themselves through their musical activities, and even then need to supplement their gig income and record sales with teaching posts and so on.

I’ve always had a full-time job in parallel with my music career. Indeed, I instinctively made the decision to separate money-making from music-making long ago, to prevent the former polluting the latter. I’d much rather work a day job that I can tolerate (and that pays better) than find myself making musical compromises just to get by. Playing commercial music just isn’t in my DNA, so I’ve made my peace with leading a double life. But there’s no question where most of my passion and energy are focused.

Roger: What is your view of illegal download culture? I think, especially for artists who may otherwise remain well under the radar, that it can actually help in getting otherwise unavailable exposure. If a European music fan who would probably never get the chance to see you play live downloads one of your albums on a whim and subsequently buys that or other releases, then is that not one fan gained? If he listens once and then deletes it, you've not lost anything. Illegal downloads may well affect sales of established artists who let's face it probably do not need the sales anyway - Radiohead making albums available for free shows a band who know how to work the new-fangled interwebby to their advantage - and it may well lead to the permanent demise of big labels, but frankly who needs them anyway? Just my view!

Dennis: As someone said recently, “We used to get our water for free and pay for our music; now we get our music for free and pay for water.” Sometimes it seems as though there’s a conspiracy afoot to devalue music, as if to punish us subversive types. I understand all the arguments on both sides of this divisive issue and am more or less resigned to the fact that the public is highly unlikely to go back to paying for music. But that doesn’t mean that I like the new paradigm. For me, there's a simple economic equation in play here that so many ‘consumers’ don’t seem to get, and which is basically a matter of life or death for my career as a recording artist: that is, if I can’t hope to ever recover the basic costs of creating a record, the time will come when I’ll no longer be able to make them, and all the downloaders showering me with ‘free publicity’ will wait in vain for another record from me.

I make my records as economically as possible but still go into the hole anywhere from $3-5,000 for each small-run title I produce; in the case of Moraine’s latest, even more. A year after its release, worldwide sales of Metamorphic Rock have amounted to only a fraction of my outlay, and income from legal downloads has been laughably minute. Meanwhile, within a week of its release, I did a web search and found Metamorphic Rock available as a free download on more than 100 different sites. I’m not really concerned with making a profit, but you tell me how I’m supposed to continue making records when there’s not a prayer of recouping my basic costs? Or how an exemplary small record label like MoonJune will be able to meet its operating expenses?

Roger: I was playing Devil's Advocate there to an extent. It's an intractable issue that's not going away, unfortunately. Funnily enough, a search of an infamous Russian site reveals no titles by Dennis Rea or Moraine, but I suppose bloggers who provide links to downloads are the primary cause of concern. And that kind of reprehensible practice is something I would never entertain on this blog, you'll be pleased to hear.

Changing tack, will you ever play in England with Moraine, or with anyone else come to that? A completely selfish question, I know, but I had to ask!

Dennis: Believe me, we'd play in England in a heartbeat, but it would cost at least $5000 just to get the band over there, and let's face it, no UK promoter will lay out that kind of money for a virtually unknown band playing a decidedly unpopular kind of music. But if you know of any festival promoters with deep pockets, by all means put us in touch!
Roger: You have probably heard of your compatriots French TV, and Mike from that band has asked me the same question. If I ever win big on the lottery, then I may well be that deep-pocketed promoter :)

What do you currently listen to for pleasure? What was the last CD you bought?

Dennis: I just returned from New York City, where I played an improvised set at Downtown Music Gallery, in my estimation the greatest record shop in the world, at least for my peculiar tastes. Naturally, I came back with an armload of CDs, including titles by Sam Rivers, Dave Holland & Barry Altschul; Keith Tippett; Volker Kriegel; Nicole Mitchell; and Spencer Barefield. I’ve also been pretty mesmerized lately by the two ‘lost’ records by Rodriguez, and by the new reissue of Terje Rypdal’s Odyssey on ECM, augmented by a fantastic live recording from 1976.

Roger: ...and as I check this script, Rypdal's Vossabrygg has just finished spinning on the CD player - there's serendipity for you!

What's next for you musically?

Dennis: Now that Moraine’s back in action, I foresee plenty of activity on that front, including possible trips to Indonesia, Brazil, and the U.S. East Coast in 2013 – and of course a new record. Ideas are forming for another solo CD for MoonJune, with a varied cast of characters, and including some rather formal chamber compositions, a new area of exploration for me. I’m also working with a relatively new trio, Dennis and the Reaniers, with bassist John Seman and drummer Tom Zgonc, as a vehicle for my jazzier pieces that aren’t a good fit for Moraine. And of course I’ll continue to play improvised and experimental music and jazz with various aggregates here in Seattle. I’m happy to say that 2012 has been my busiest year ever musically, and with any luck, the trend will continue into next year...

Many thanks for your kind interest in my music! It means the world to me.

Roger: The pleasure has been all mine, Dennis. Best of luck with your ongoing projects. Right, I'm off to grab a copy of your book....

Soon to come in Part Two - a trawl through Dennis' large and esoteric discography, with brief descriptions from the man himself.

Grab some of this!

MoonJune Records (with samples):

Moraine - Manifest Density
Moraine - Metamorphic Rock
Iron Kim Style - Iron Kim Style
Dennis Rea - Views From Chicheng Precipice

Dennis Rea's website:

Tempered Steel 
Subduction Zone

NEARfest photos - Joe del Tufo

1 comment:

  1. Noil as he is affectionately known does a good interview !! yea


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