An extended conversation with Alan Licht
by Dan Warburton
Alan Licht was born in New Jersey on June 6th 1968. "My parents liked Rodgers & Hammerstein, and my mom loved opera too. My brother liked Dixieland, and I only liked classical music until 1978, with two exceptions: "Love Will Keep Us Together" by the Captain and Tennille (liked the "I will, I will, I will" quasi-loop) and "Saturday Night" by the Bay City Rollers. I saw Shaun Cassidy sing "That's Rock and Roll" on the Hardy Boys and decided I liked rock music after all. From there I went to the Bee Gees, Wings - "Jet" was my favourite song for years - and to the Beatles and the rest of the classic rock canon." He started guitar lessons at the age of ten. "What made me want to play guitar was that painting of Wings in concert in the gatefold of Wings Over America. It looked so exciting.. I wanted to be part of it. There were a lot of rock movies in theatres back then (no MTV), so while I didn't go to many concerts I did see The Who documentary The Kids Are Alright, Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps, and The Decline of Western Civilization, and I think that inspired me even more than listening to radio or records. I later made a big point in the Evan Dando of Noise? liners about liking live music more than records, and I think seeing those movies was a part of that. When I saw The Who live in 1982 I was stuck in the back of a huge arena watching them play songs from It's Hard and it was nowhere near as cool as that footage of them doing "My Generation" in 1967 on the Smothers Brothers show where the amps blow up."
Advancing through the rock canon with the voracious appetite typical of the culture-hungry adolescent, Licht discovered the Velvet Underground when he was thirteen ("VU & Nico, then White Light White Heat"), and then "found a guy who had Loaded, 1969 Live and Live at Max's. We were in bands together all through high school, and I was listening to [Mission of] Burma, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, the Dream Syndicate, PiL, the Clash, New York Dolls and the Stooges. I heard Richard Hell when I was 14, Television later. Branca at 15 or so.. I remember buying The Ascension at 99 Records (the store, when it was still around). Sonic Youth when I was about 17, after reading about them in Robert Palmer's Pop Life Column." Licht also remembers borrowing a Cecil Taylor New World LP from the local library after reading a Greg Tate article on the pianist. "Tate also did a piece on the 70s electric Miles LPs in Downbeat in 1983, and through that I got into Pete Cosey. Tate dropped names like Robert Quine, Branca, Bad Brains, Keith Levene, Andy Gill, Adrian Belew, and Robert Fripp as people that sounded like they were influenced by Cosey, and since I liked all of them, I had to check him out. It took me years to find all those records, but I did it."
An aspiring guitarist himself, Licht was listening to a lot of different guitarists. "I even went to see Allan Holdsworth when I was 16 or 17, and a friend got me a tape of him jamming with Eddie Van Halen.. pretty cool!" Was he aware of New York's nascent Downtown scene? "I'd heard about the Zorn set, but when I was in high school the Knitting Factory didn't exist and I don't remember Roulette advertising that much. I wanted to check that stuff out but didn't know where to go to see it." Instead, he shifted his attention elsewhere, to jazz, especially modal-era Coltrane (""India" and "Afro-Blue", which blew me away cause I realized the Doors had played it in the middle of "Universal Mind" on Absolutely Live"). He asked his guitar teacher to recommend other music, "and he pulled out Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians, saying, 'I've only listened to this once, but you might like it.' Understatement of the year! I'd read about Reich and Glass in the early 80s, but it wasn't until that piece that I got into them. The first five minutes - all those changing harmonies over the ostinatos.. it was something I recognized from pop music that I'd never heard in a Western classical musical context. Repetition too. Rock songs are pretty repetitive to begin with, and then they're stuck in your head on infinite repeat!" Licht would later make the connection explicitly clear in "The Old Victrola", on his 2001 Crank Automotive album Plays Well, which loops the bridge of Donna Summer's disco hit "Dim All The Lights". "It's about recontextualizing: I heard that song on the radio and immediately connected that section where she holds one note over several bars of changing harmony with similar sections in compositions by Reich and Glass. I knew I had something to work with."
Licht had heard of La Monte Young but had a hard time finding his records. (Plus ça change..) "I'd read about Cale's role in the Theatre of Eternal Music in Uptight and Phil Milstein's VU fanzine What Goes On. Finally in 1987 Young did a whole series at Dia [Art Foundation], and one night was a tape concert of stuff from his archives - I heard all the Cale, Conrad, La Monte and Marian stuff and it totally floored me. It was the missing link between the Velvets or Sonic Youth and the Reich/Glass/Riley school. I was hooked." It took him a while to track down recordings, but Licht eventually acquired quite a collection, the more obscure items of which made it to a celebrated Minimalist Top Ten list compiled for Halana magazine in 1996. "I even had the Henry Flynt cassette ["You Are My Everlovin'"], which [Borbetomagus'] Donald Miller dubbed for me. Henry had given him a copy as a wedding present." His painstaking research into Young's music also culminated in an in-depth article for Forced Exposure #16 in 1990, "The History of La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music", which Young himself has spoken highly of on numerous occasions.
Majoring in Film Studies at Vassar in upstate NY, Licht also discovered experimental cinema: Ernie Gehr's Serene Velocity, Tony Conrad's The Flicker, plus work by Bruce Conner, Ken Jacobs and Joseph Cornell. And Michael Snow's Wavelength, a slow, relentless zoom across a near-empty loft space to focus on a photo on the wall that relates directly to Steve Reich's aesthetic of music as gradual process - indeed, the film's closing image was used as the cover art for the Shandar release of Reich's "Four Organs". Licht was quick to spot the connection. Other key discoveries at the time included Brian Eno's Discreet Music and Henry Kaiser's solo guitar track "It's A Wonderful Life". "Henry said he was influenced by Terry Riley, so I started buying Riley records. Henry Kaiser has been a real mentor to both Jim O'Rourke and me."
The combination of Reich and Kaiser's piece gave Licht the idea of doing extended instrumental composition with guitar. "Branca certainly broke the ground in terms of finding an audience, but I think Sonic Youth actually did it best in the mid or late 80s. Anton Fier was also an inspiration as someone who played in rock bands - Feelies, Pere Ubu, Peter Laughner's Friction, etc.- but also did free improv stuff. There's a lot more to rock than rock and roll, and that's what I'm trying to get at in my music and some of my writing. One of the first times I was over at Jim O'Rourke's house he put on Philip Glass' "Dances", knelt before his speakers and made the devil sign with his fingers, like a metal fan would.. that's when I knew I had a soul brother!"
Licht and O'Rourke first met backstage at the Knitting Factory in late 1994 after a Lee Ranaldo / William Hooker gig. O'Rourke recalls it was "just before I started working with Tony Conrad, but Alan of course had already written about him, Charlemagne [Palestine], etc.. so he was a beacon. We shared "war stories", i.e. how the fuck to get hold of FMP records. I can't overemphasize how few people in our generation were into that shit yet, definitely not free improv and jazz. The new "crowd" hadn't really grown outside of places like NY, where at least you could go see it." Licht recalls that he "didn't know much of Jim's work at the time, but he was a fan of Sink The Aging Process [Licht's 1994 solo guitar album on Siltbreeze], which was cool. I got to know Jim much better at the Musique Action festival in France in 1996, when Gastr del Sol and Run On both played. We travelled back to Paris together and talked non-stop for three hours, and we've stayed in touch ever since."
Licht's performing activities in high school had consisted of playing in cover bands, "mostly classic rock and AOR type stuff, but there were a couple of one-off hardcore bands, playing Swans covers from Cop", he recalled in an extended interview in Crank #4 in 1994. Moving upstate to study at Vassar, he played in "a couple of joke bands [..] one was called Winnebago Death Trip, that lasted a couple rehearsals, another one played out once called Heffer, which cleared the room out in about 30 seconds. It was just loud feedback looped." Licht's first impressions of Will Baum ("this kid from LA with Eraserhead kind of hair and Hawaiian shirts and shorts"), with whom he went on to form Love Child with Rebecca Odes in 1987, weren't exactly positive, but an offhand remark of Baum's one day to nobody in particular ("I wonder what would happen if I jumped out of the window and fell on my head") certainly sparked his curiosity. The group's first "rehearsal" consisted of little more than "going to a music store in a local mall and banging on the keyboards they had lying around," but their early demo recordings eventually found their way into the hands of Byron Coley, who offered to set up a gig for the group in Boston. Coley recalls: "I first met Alan when he was still a college student and he was annoyingly knowledgeable even then. He had a way of asking questions in such a way as to make you suspect that he knew more about the subject than you did, and that he was just waiting to trip you up when you answered incorrectly. Of course, this wasn't actually the case. He's never been anything but gracious in any situation in which I've seen him, but he had that strange glow of knowledge from a rather early age, and it has always been something that has made me wary of making the kind of flippant statements for which I'm well known locally, when he's around." With characteristic verbal panache, Coley quipped that the original Love Child line-up "was like if the Velvets were only Moe, Doug Yule, and Agnus MacLise," to which Licht countered brilliantly: "More like if the Beatles were just George, Ringo, and [former Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe's girlfriend] Astrid Kirchner."
Licht recalls that Love Child's first single (Trash Flow, 1989) beat out both the first Pavement and Superchunk singles in the AJAX catalogue's year end poll, and is still happy with their Moondog covers 7" (Love Child plays Moondog, Forced Exposure, 1990) but at the time was somewhat ambivalent regarding their first album, 1991's Okay? (Homestead). "I remember listening to the test pressing and saying, 'If I got this record in the mail, what would I think? I would think, "This sucks."'" By the time Okay? hit the streets Baum had departed, leaving Licht, Odes and drummer Brendan O'Malley to continue alone. 1992 saw two more singles, a couple of tracks on compilation albums, an unreleased session for the BBC's John Peel show, which Licht is still proud of, and a second "more Yo La Tengo-damaged" Homestead album, Witchcraft. Critical interest in Love Child was, however, beginning to wane by the time it came out, and Odes and Licht subsequently drifted apart. "Nobody ever pointed out how big our noses were/are," he later told Crank by way of epilogue. Big or not, Licht certainly managed to stick his nose into every nook and cranny of the rock guitar repertoire on Witchcraft. His tight, bright solo on "Obsessive-Compulsive" combines the melodic directness of Bob Mould with the angular punch of Robert Quine. "I've always liked crazy guitar solos in non-metal contexts, things like Adrian Belew in Talking Heads' "Great Curve" or Eddie Van Halen on Michael Jackson's "Beat It."" In the Crank interview Licht was effusive in his praise for Van Halen: "I'm sure he never listened to Hans Reichel or Fred Frith in his life, but [the] noises [he made] with the whammy bar, all the stuff he did is really extended guitar technique. He's kind of the Derek Bailey of rock." Licht also waxed lyrical about Van Halen in The Wire #187 (September 1999).
On tracks like "Stumbling Block" , on which he jammed a metal plate between the guitar strings à la Donald Miller, it's clear that Licht was looking even further afield in the world of extended guitar technique than Eddie Van Halen. He had already become involved with Rudolph Grey's mythic post No Wave free jazz outfit Blue Humans. He first came across Grey's work on the Tellus All Guitars cassette, and spotted Thurston Moore's ads announcing the forthcoming release of Grey's Ecstatic Peace album Transfixed, and invited him to Poughkeepsie for an interview on campus radio. Grey, who is probably better known for his extensive biographical research into the films of cult director Ed Wood, jumped at the opportunity of visiting Wood's home town. Licht later went to New York to interview Grey again for the fanzine Black To Comm, was plied with Frank Lowe's Black Beings ("I only play this for people I really like," he remembers Grey saying affectionately) and subsequently invited to play on a track, "Flaming Angels (Variation)" on the Blue Humans' 1991 Mask Of Light, which also featured drummer Rashied Ali and Borbetomagus' Jim Sauter. He recalls Grey's notorious "non organisation" with much affection. When asked what he was supposed to do, Grey responded: "A lot of feedback." While recording the Ecstatic Peace album Clear to Higher Time shortly afterwards (it wasn't released until a couple of years later "because Rudolph was slow preparing the cover art"), Licht asked Grey what the structure was for one of the pieces. "Five minutes," came the reply. The To Higher Time single (Ecstatic Peace 1993) documents the group's entire set headlining at CBGB's - and lasts just eleven minutes! "Rudolph just stopped," Licht recalls. "I figured, 'well, I guess this is the end.'" Twelve years down the road, Licht's Blue Humans outings still pack an awesome punch. "The album is pretty simple - one guitar in each channel, drums in the middle - it's great to listen to on headphones. A great No Wave meets free jazz record," was how he described it in Crank. He went further down the avenue of free rock several years later with The Max Factory, a group featuring Blue Humans drummer Tom Surgal, Lin Culbertson (who both subsequently teamed up in White Out) and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. "Kind of Ash Ra meets Blue Humans or something," was how he described it at the time. The album Tudor City was released on Byron Coley's Ecstatic Yod imprint in 1996 in the label's characteristic black and white gatefold that openly and hilariously parodied the mythic late 1960s free jazz label BYG Actuel.
After contributing some guitar to Bourbon County, Antietam's Tara Key's 1993 solo debut (which also featured Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley), Licht also toured briefly with another Sixties myth, Love's Arthur Lee. "I played bass on one gig, then took over on guitar when the guitarist couldn't do the tour. It was essentially a reformed Das Damen backing him up, and they asked me to do it again in '95 and I couldn't because Run On was recording Start Packing. As it turned out Lee was arrested so it didn't happen anyway." Licht evidently made a bigger impact than he realised at the time: "I went to Arthur's show last summer in New York and introduced myself to his current guitarist, and he said: 'Are you Alan Licht? In every city we've played on this tour someone comes up to me and says, "I know someone who used to play with Arthur named Alan Licht.." It became a tour joke!'"
Literally days after Love Child broke up, Licht was contacted by Rick Brown and Sue Garner (ex-Fish and Roses) with a view to forming a band. Run On's debut EP was released on Ajax in 1994, and the first of their two albums for Matador, Start Packing, appeared in 1996 to critical acclaim. Licht explained the group's chemistry by the fact that he was "more harmonically than rhythmically inclined, and more improvisation-oriented than Rick, who wasn't really an improvisor. In many ways we were opposites, but it worked." In a 1995 interview for Teen Looch (#8), Licht said that for him the band "clicked" with the arrival of David Newgarden. "When he was in [Hamish Kilgour's] Mad Scene he played super-simple organ and trumpet parts that totally held the songs together, so when Rick suggested getting a fourth member I immediately thought of him. He was a fan of both Fish and Roses, and Love Child. Having the extra range of organ, trumpet, and percussion (also banjo!) to play with really took our ideas to a logical conclusion not reachable as a live trio."
With typical musicological fervour and not a little humour, Licht, in the same interview, also added his "ever-so-clever" list of songs he thought Run On could eventually cover ("none of which these dopes have seen fit to accept"), which included material as diverse as Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher", Alex Chilton's "Bangkok", "Dear Betty Baby" from Mayo Thompson's cult solo album Corky's Debt To His Father and Miles Davis' churning organ drone "Rated X" (from Get Up With It). After a second album, No Way, released in 1997, the group eventually went their separate ways in 1998. Licht may regret they never performed Warren Zevon's "Gorilla" or The Who's "Circles", but does he nevertheless have a favourite Run On song? ""X-Mas Trip" is a great pop song and I still love "As Good As New.""
"I don't see a great difference between what I've done in rock bands and as an avant-garde musician. A lot of the same ideas are in both, just explored in different ways." - Alan LichtThe first recorded example of Alan Licht's solo guitar work was a contribution to Breathe on the Living, a 1990 triple LP compilation album on Locust. Entitled "Betty Page", it was a piece the guitarist developed and refined in performance and subsequently re-recorded as side two of his 1994 debut solo album, Sink the Aging Process (Siltbreeze). Laying the guitar on his lap and twirling and rocking a metal screwdriver across its strings, Licht creates a haze of rich harmonics - he adopts a special tuning for the instrument - and finishes with a thrilling percussive passage playing the open strings as if they were a set of bongos. He openly admits to being influenced by Charlemagne Palestine's Strumming Music and Angus MacLise's cembalum work, but what comes out is quintessentially Licht: systemic and minimal but simultaneously noisy, rocky and dangerous. "Betty Page"'s original introductory section was released separately ("I decided it sounded better on its own," Licht explains) as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" on a split 7" (with A Handful of Dust) that accompanied the aforementioned issue of Crank. The title refers to a notorious anti-Semitic text that "purported to be a document of a Jewish conspiracy to exterminate the gentile population and replace it with a Jewish empire," and Licht's explosive noise is accordingly apocalyptic.
Though "Betty Page" is the album's B side, Licht believes in retrospect it would have been better on side one ("better pacing.."). Sink's A side is in fact credited to Mike Watt of the Minutemen - another fine example of Licht being rigorously minimal and rocking out. He plays through the last four chords of the song "Polarity" (from the Minutemen's What Makes A Man Start Fires album), freezing the final chord in a digital delay loop and emphasizing different harmonics by subtly modulating the delay rate. "The pitch changes so slowly that you can't really tell it's changing," he told Crank. "There's this weird transference of motion, because as I'm speeding up [the rate of modulation], which means that the harmonics are changing much faster, the actual speed of the chord as it's pulsating is getting slower. So it's the idea of trying to make it seem like it's standing still." The whole album plays with time, sinking the aging process, as it were, which also ties in with the titular reference to Betty Page, the iconic pin-up girl who retired and all but disappeared at the peak of her career in 1957 aged 34. How did Mike Watt react when he heard Licht's version? "Apparently he freaked out when Thurston played it for him ("where's my tune, Thurston!? I don't hear my tune!"), but seemed to get a kick out of it. He's always been very nice when I've met him," Licht is pleased to report.
In "Nikki Sixx", which appeared on the splendidly titled 18-Wheeler 7" Calvin Johnson Has Ruined Rock For An Entire Generation (Free Kitten later retaliated by naming a track on their Nice Ass album "Alan Licht Has Ruined Music For An Entire Generation"), Licht constructed another harsh but arresting solo guitar tone poem. He described the work in the Teen Looch interview as follows: "I unplug the guitar with all my effect boxes still on, and rub the guitar chord on the amp, touch it with my thumb, wave it around, etc. It hums, feeds back and knocks the reverb unit around. But it's not just thrashing around, I try to sculpt it into something fairly linear, hence 'tone poem'."
Presenting his solo music to a predominantly rock audience was intimidating at first. "I felt like this art-damaged New York jerk playing with his digital delay," was how Licht described his appearance at the Siltbreeze Festival in Philadelphia in 1995. He elaborates: "That was "Polarity", where I was just sitting there twiddling knobs. This was years before people would go to see laptop performances and I think it was a bit much for an audience back then, especially the rock-oriented one at the Siltbreeze fest. When I started, there was no context - I had to create one in the indie rock milieu that I was familiar with. I did "Betty Page" opening for the Boredoms at Maxwell's in '94 or so and it went okay, but people still thought it was weird. Contextually, it was. When I did the Donna Summer thing ["The Old Victrola"] at Transmissions in 2000 it went over big, maybe because it was a festival of mostly solo acts, many of them guitarists, playing experimental stuff. David Grubbs and John Fahey were on the same bill, and I played right after Christian Fennesz. Also maybe because people were sick of all the laptops the night before!"Licht's activities as a writer were also beginning to attract attention. His "Minimalist Top Ten", published in issue one of the magazine Halana at the end of 1996, consisted of Charlemagne Palestine's Four Manifestations on Six Elements (Castelli-Sonnabend, 1974), Terry Riley's Reed Streams (Mass Arts, 1966), La Monte Young's Black Record (Edition X, West Germany, 1969, bootlegged in Italy in1992), Steve Reich's Four Organs (Shandar, 1971), Phill Niblock's Nothin' to Look at, Just a Record (India Navigation, 1979), Henry Flynt's You Are My Everlovin' (back then a self-released cassette, 1987), Faust and Tony Conrad's Outside the Dream Syndicate (Caroline, 1974), Jon Gibson's Two Solo Pieces (Chatham Square, 1977), Remko Scha's Machine Guitars (Kremlin, 1982), Terry Fox's Berlino (Het Apollohuis, 1983) and Richard Youngs' Advent (No Fans, 1990). Astute readers will have noted that there are not ten but eleven albums, "because I can't count". Where was Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, I wondered?
"That list was always about the rarity of the LPs in question," Licht replies. "It wasn't a list of the best minimal pieces ever, or even my own favourites. I like [Palestine's] Strumming Music more, but Four Manifestations is a private press double album so more desirable and more wide-ranging in terms of documenting his performances of the time. I never liked [Riley's] Reed Streams much either but it's still his rarest. The Poppy Nogood live CD is my favourite, and I also like "Mescalin Mix" and "Keyboard Study", and I prefer Olson III to In C. La Monte's music has never been properly documented on record or CD but I'll stand by those choices. I like the Wergo CD of Reich's early work better than the Shandar but you gotta love the Michael Snow sleeve. Henry Flynt's You Are My Everlovin is still my favourite thing by him. Phill's stuff is better on CD, but Outside the Dream Syndicate on vinyl is still great (the CD doesn't sound as good, but I haven't listened to the 30th anniversary edition yet). I might substitute Conrad's Four Violins now, on vinyl, which is probably almost as rare these days. The Gibson, Remko and Youngs stuff is still great. For Terry Fox I might substitute his LP Linkages which is rarer and better than Berlino. Maybe I'd add the Arthur Russell Chatham Square lp if I could find the goddamn thing! Since you asked, I've thought of two more additions to the list I might make: Harry Pussy's posthumous Let's Build a Pussy (a double album of one second of Adris' vocals looped and computer processed into a series of heavy drones, superb!) and Tetuzi Akiyama's recent Don't Forget to Boogie."
I put it to Licht that a name conspicuous in its absence first time round (though mentioned in a follow-up piece in Halana) is Terry Jennings, La Monte Young's early associate who John Cale once memorably described as "the slowest man in the world". The email reply comes rocketing back across cyberspace within minutes. "Dude! I've been trying to persuade Charles Curtis to release his version of Jennings' "Piece for Cello and Saxophone" for years now. He does it with cello playing the sax part and sine waves playing the cello part. It's criminal that piece is unavailable - it's my favourite piece ever, and I only have a three minute version performed by Jennings and Charlotte Moorman [until recently downloadable at www.ubuweb.com]." Good recordings also exist of Jennings performing his piano pieces at Yoko Ono's loft in 1962 and of Young and Jennings playing together, and Licht remains optimistic that Young, who handles Jennings' estate, might in due course be prepared to release them.
In October 1996 Atavistic released Gerry Miles, an album usually credited to Licht and Keiji Haino, a fact that unfortunately tends to obscure the key contributions of the group's other two musicians, pianist Melissa Weaver and clarinettist Connie Burg (aka Lucy Hamilton), formerly of No Wave pioneers Mars. Originally a trio without Haino featuring Licht on pipe organ, Gerry Miles rehearsed and subsequently recorded at St Peter's Church in Chelsea, "usually twice a week, never publicly or even in front of other people," Licht explains. "Gerry Miles," he adds, "was in fact a she.. it was Weaver's grandmother. Connie always liked to have her band names be people's names - I think for that group she chose the name Don King, and she apparently originally wanted Mars to be called Mick Jagger!" The album also features the distinctive vocals of Fushitsusha's Haino. Licht had described him in Crank as "pretty much my favourite guitarist", but a year later in Teen Looch stated he had "no interest in playing with him." Did he change his mind?
"We heard Haino was coming to town, and that he was a big Mars fan. I think David Newgarden was the connection to him, so we got in touch and invited him to do a session with us. We recorded one session direct to four-track, and another a day or two later which Leah Singer videotaped. The second one, which is still unreleased, is to my mind far superior to the CD. I wasn't and still am not interested in playing guitar with Haino: in Gerry Miles I played organ and he sang and did a little percussion." Though Bruce Russell, writing in Opprobrium, described the album as "a new benchmark for all fellow travellers to attempt to come up to [..] all group improvisations should sound like this," Licht is unhappy about the sound of the album as it was released. "It was mixed without me there, and the organ is way in the background, which is not what our sound was. It was more powerful and evenly divided. The "West Twenty" track on Evan Dando of Noise? is a better example of what I mean." Licht still has his own mixes of the recordings with Haino, and hasn't ruled out their eventual release.
Licht's second solo album, the magnificently titled The Evan Dando of Noise? was released in 1997 on Bruce Russell's Corpus Hermeticum imprint. New Zealand-based Russell, with whom Licht had been corresponding since the early 90s (Run On shared the bill with Russell's Dead C outfit in Washington DC in 1995), commissioned the work shortly after hearing Sink The Aging Process. Licht might have taken his time selecting material and preparing the accompanying text, but responds swiftly when questioned about the reference to the Lemonheads lead singer: "I've known Evan since we were 18. Several of his high school friends were classmates of mine at Vassar. Evan loves punk like the Angry Samoans but he also likes Alex Chilton and Marvin Gaye - so he's an "alternative" rocker but also a pretty boy with an okay voice. I like free improv and noise but also indie and classic rock and the occasional pop hit, and I write and sing songs. I'll never be a hard line improvisor like Keith Rowe or Derek Bailey, who gave up a traditional jazz guitar career. So I'm the Evan Dando of Noise." Perhaps future reissues of the album could dispense with that question mark, then.
Everything on Evan Dando was totally improvised, from the screes and howls of feedback of "I Hate Gate (Part 3)" (parts one and two were the first twenty minutes of the session that Licht deemed unfit for release) and "Ambulance Chaser", both recorded in April 1996, to the more sedate but equally pungent "For Jojo" (dating from July 1995). On "Lonesome Valley", recorded live in Chicago's Lounge Ax in November 1995, Licht reharmonises a recording of a South Carolina hollering competition (a technique also applied to an a cappella Captain Beefheart song subsequently released as "The Old Victrola" on Plays Well). The album's majestic centrepiece, "West Twenty" was recorded by the Gerry Miles trio, but as Licht explains "there was a problem with the mic on Melissa's piano, which is why you don't hear it on the track. So I just credited it to Connie and me."
Almost as influential as the album itself was the accompanying sixteen-page booklet of liner notes, an exchange of correspondence between Licht and Russell billed in glorious faux-Victorian English as "An Epistolatory Monomachy between the Editor and a Gentleman of Letters (Volume 1. No. 4 of Logopandocy, The Journal of Vain Erudition)". Licht's essay is nothing short of indispensable reading for anyone interested in music today, and the clearest exposé to date of his aesthetic. "I guess I don't make a big distinction between a harmonious, tonality, consonance, rhythm view of the universe as rationally ordered and the free noise / chaos theory. Order is a subset of chaos," he wrote. Referencing several key influences, including the films of Jacques Rivette and Michael Snow, the writings of Brian Eno and Philip K. Dick (notably "Man, Android and Machine") and including some telling remarks on improvisation by none other than Bob Dylan, whose film Renaldo and Clara he unhesitatingly hails as an absolute masterpiece, Licht's Epistolatory Monomachy established him as a writer to watch. "That text took a few months of writing," he recalls, "and since putting the CD itself together took a while, I updated it. I wouldn't say it was improvised, but it did just flow out, though I had to revisit certain pieces and take notes on things I stumbled upon while writing it. I try not to think of myself as either a musician or a writer - they're just the two activities I devote the most time to. In both I'm essentially recontextualizing or combining different ideas or things I've liked. That's as true of last winter's "Blank Generation" piece in the Wire as it is of a track like "The Old Victrola"" Licht's contributions to The Wire began in March 1999 (Wire #181) with a feature on Maryanne Amacher, and have continued with regular dispatches from his beloved New York on musicians as diverse as Suicide, Angus Maclise, Richard Hell, Lou Reed and Michael Gira, as well as a Primer on No Wave.
Talking of vain erudition, it was while sitting in a pizzeria in Hoboken NJ one night in 1998 that Licht heard again the old Thompson Twins hit "Hold Me Now". Realising that "you can forget about a song, but never really forget it", the experience set in movement a chain of thought that led him back to the music of his formative years. "Suddenly, for the first time in close to a decade, the Eighties were back in my life." He committed his MTV-addled recollections to print in the immensely entertaining (and thought-provoking) An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn - the title is a reference to Fielding Dawson's An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline - published last year by Drag City and described admirably by Ned Oldham as "a slacker-style gem of ethnomusicology on American underground music and pop." After the hilarious "Dance Hall Days 2000, A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Taste", a more serious tone is established in "The Clintonization of Rock", which traces the timeline forward from Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenneger's malevolent cyborg being for Licht a perfect metaphor for Ronald Reagan) to the Illbient and Chicago scenes of the mid Nineties ("I knew grunge was over when I heard the first Tortoise album at a party.."). Quite apart from being eminently readable, Licht's text ("I'm calling this sucker a book, and it's only 76 pages long") is a pertinent musicological / historical survey of the period, and a direct and honest analysis of how - and why - we listen to music.
"The only way out is to permutate" - Brion GysinLicht's next solo outing, 1999's Rabbi Sky (Siltbreeze), differs from Evan Dando in that it was composed from the outset. Sporting the abovementioned Gysin quotation, and following on from his research into La Monte Young's "The Four Dreams of China", in which four pitches are combined in numerous different inversions, the title track is perhaps Licht's most rigorous compositional structure to date. "'Rabbi Sky' was the name of a Jewish store near my hometown, where I bought a talis for my bar mitzvah. I felt the harmonies of the piece had a vaguely Jewish sound to them and I wanted to reference that in the title. The other Jewish link is the Kabbalah, which says that the world was created through permutations of the alphabet. The sky thing corresponded to the ethereal nature of the piece." It also, perhaps unconsciously, refers to Sky Saxon, since Licht's liners for the album also cite the first Seeds album as "another permutational masterpiece. Every song on that album is like an anagram of the first two or three songs, musically. It's a great trance album in that respect."
Plays Well, released on Crank Automotive in 2001, is another tour de force of Licht's fusion of rigorous minimalism and rock. James McNew's back cover photo of Alan Licht albums in a record shop bin in Nagoya, Japan sandwiched between Alabama3 and Alan Parsons Project is most apposite. The album was reviewed in some detail elsewhere on this site, but suffice it to say once more that Licht may be the only musician working today capable of putting Don Van Vliet and Donna Summer back to back and bringing it off with spectacular success. A brief note in the liners advises listeners to "listen to both pieces in their entirety, but separately first." Licht elaborates: "Consider it a two for one deal. There was room for both pieces on a CD. In both pieces I'm playing over loops. You could say the Donna Summer tune and the first version of [Beefheart's] "Well" slowly turn into something almost sinister too. Conceptually they fit together well."One of Licht's longest running collaborative ventures is with guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors. Prior to their first gig together in January 1993, both had previously contributed tracks to Breathe on the Living. Connors, in an email as stately and elegant as his guitar playing, recalls that "Alan used to come to most of my performances in the early 1990s. I learned about his music, and asked him to join me once when I was playing at Downtown Music Gallery." The pair went on to play several more shows in New York. "It was weird to go from the frenzy of the Blue Humans to playing quietly with Loren," Licht recalls, "but I soon realized they were similar situations where I was playing off what the other guy was doing."
Something about the combination seemed to work: Licht reharmonised and recontextualised Connors' elegiac, introspective lines, reactivating their myriad references to the wider world of guitar music - from Fahey-filtered folk and blues to austere art gallery minimalism. "I like the idea of reharmonizing: think of the Beefheart tune on Plays Well, and "Lonesome Valley" on Evan Dando Of Noise?. It's something I do very often, both in songs I've written with Love Child and Run On, and especially playing with Loren."
Live In New York, released on New World of Sound in 1996 (but recorded live at CB's Gallery in February 1994), was followed later that year by Two Nights (Road Cone, who also released 1997's Mercury), on which, as perennial Licht-watcher Bruce Russell noted, "Licht and Mazzacane play like they grew up together doing this on the front porch," adding significantly, "[but] it is anything but ambient - the tension between the two is palpable throughout."
" Alan and I never plan out anything," Connors continues. "We always improvise from scratch - but it's a built-up scratch, a built-up arsenal of approach, attitude, experience and aesthetics. Alan is an incredible historian of music from the past several decades, and a big collector. This gives him a certain insight about where music can go." The music went to Europe in 2002, where a brief tour yielded material for the latest Licht / Connors release, In France, on the French FBWL label.
Licht's recontextualization of the quiet intensity of Connors' playing reached its apotheosis on the 1998 Drag City album Hoffman Estates, which benefited from the production skills of Jim O'Rourke. "Jim saved my life with Hoffman Estates," writes Licht. "Right before that, Run On broke up, which was like strike two as far as making a band work professionally, in my mind. Both Run On's and Love Child's career trajectories had been pretty similar - started out good, with a lot of interest, but then a key member dropped out when the first album came out and we didn't tour behind it as a result. Then the second record came out and there was less interest, we toured more behind it but the tours didn't go well and people got frustrated and called it quits. At the same time I'd released a bunch of stuff with Loren and Evan Dando Of Noise? and other experimental stuff, but had nothing to show for it. The Wire never wrote about me, new music labels didn't know me, the improv scene didn't know me, and the records weren't selling that well. I'd been working at music for years and still felt like I was nowhere. People would come up to me at Run On shows and tell me they liked my Halana articles, nobody ever said they liked Run On! Even if I was better known or appreciated as a writer, I wasn't making money at it back then either. On top of that, I was laid off at my job at the film distribution company. So in the winter of 1998 I had no money and I was in pretty low spirits. The funny thing is this was happening during the Monica Lewinsky scandal with Clinton, and I really related to his feeling of being on the ropes back then. The Hoffman Estates sessions were the one bright spot in that period, the one thing that made me think I might still have some future playing music. It was Jim who booked the session, got the deal with Drag City and contacted the musicians, and his concept for it to be like either 70s Miles stuff or Ornette's Chappaqua Suite with an extended horn section. (I later realized it sounds a lot like that Larry Coryell track on the first Jazz Composer's Orchestra record, but that wasn't intentional.) Loren and I arranged the pieces on the spot, and Jim did overdubs later and edited it into the form it is now. He did a wonderful job."
Boosted by the critical success of Hoffman Estates, Licht renewed contacts with former La Monte Young associate composer Michael Schumacher (whose exquisite Room Pieces has just been released on Phill Niblock's XI label). After his 1996 contribution to a group show called "Constriction" in Brooklyn, a piece entitled The Downsizing of Don Dokken that featured a loop of a toy guitar "spitting out metal licks", Licht created his first solo sound installation Today I Am A Fountain Pen for Schumacher's Studio Five Beekman gallery space in 1998. Sourced in material of a uniquely personal and autobiographical nature, a recording of the 13 year old Licht chanting Haftorah Naso at his own bar mitzvah in Millburn, NJ in 1981, he selected twelve melodic extracts that are looped and superimposed to create a touching homage both to his Jewish upbringing and an exploration of traditional cantillation perfectly in line with his subsequent investigations into minimalism. "I was brought up by Conservative Jewish parents and sang in Synagogue Choir all through high school. The repetition in Jewish services, particularly the high holidays, where you're saying the same prayers over and over again for up to nine hours at a stretch, is unquestionably an influence on my use of repetition. It's also why I like films that stress repetition, Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielmann or Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day being two perfect examples."
"It's one thing to have eclectic tastes; it's another to make a practice of them." - Kenneth Goldsmith, in the liners to Licht's A New York MinuteA New York Minute, Licht's own long-awaited double album is next up for release on Phill Niblock's XI label, but if you're expecting it to open with a blast of guitar, you'll be surprised: the title track is a fifteen-minute montage of recordings of.. the local weather forecast. Licht explains: "Every day in January 2001 between 9 and 10am I recorded the weather on WINS 1010AM. They do the extended five-day forecasts every 20 minutes. My idea was to edit them down so that you only hear the current day's forecast and the next day's forecast. By placing them together in a row, you see how accurate the previous day's forecast was (or wasn't). The margin of error in the temperature forecasts is also reflected in the album's cover art, which shows two clocks set exactly a minute apart, as if the one of the left was a prediction of a particular time and the one on the right is what the particular time turned out to be. I always listened to the weather every day, and realized this was an example of aural repetition in my daily life - this corresponds to Phill's movies of people working, doing repetitive motions day in and day out. The recording of the subway is another example of aural repetition in my daily life - I hear those beeps at the turnstiles every day; a token booth worker would hear them continuously. Plus the sound of the coming and going of the subway itself. There's a sequence in Chantal Akerman's film News from Home which is an influence here - she simply filmed one fixed shot inside a subway car for three stops - five or six minutes of screen time." As a major fan of the movie Groundhog Day, Licht must also have been delighted to hear the WINS weathermen discussing the various appearances of local groundhogs.
" Muhammed Ali & the Crickets" is a welcome sign of something all too often lacking in new music - a sense of humour. It's a hilariously bizarre cocktail mixing insect recordings from an environmental sound LP, soundbites of Ali culled from William Klein's film profile, and other surprise samples that, at Licht's request, I'll leave you to discover yourself. Oddball humour is rare in the po-faced context of rigorous minimalism, but there are precedents for Licht's experiments, notably Snow's Wavelength, which, though best known for its relentless slowmotion zoom, also includes an amusing appearance of "Strawberry Fields Forever".
On the three extended works on A New York Minute, "Freaky Friday", "14, Second, Fifth" and "Remington Khan ('Hearing Test Mix' 12-string version)" Licht returns to his beloved minimalism. "Freaky Friday" (named after the Disney film in which a mother and daughter change personalities for a day) is the most composed of these pieces, although in the first section Licht says he was "improvising" with the ebow, tracking each note separately and reacting to what he had played on the previous track. His choice of pitches is predetermined but the speed of the dynamic changes is improvised. In the first section, ebowed notes enter one by one, (recorded in stereo), fading in and out. Two of these are on auto pan, starting from opposite directions and gradually moving back and forth from channel to channel. By the end of the section each ebow sustains its note at full volume without movement, at which point, after a brief transition, the sustained ebow notes go to mono, and the fingerpicked guitar, which comes in at the end of the first section, goes to stereo. Five different, interlocking fingerpicked guitar parts enter one by one, and are subsequently combined and subtracted in every possible permutation.
" 14, Second, Fifth" superposes a series of clusters on a loop of a perfect fifth. A specific tuning is called for, and the clusters use identical fingerings played on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings and thereafter the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings at ascending points on the guitar neck (the third, fifth, seventh and ninth fret, "and maybe some of the ones in between"). For the XI release Licht eliminated "some clusters that didn't sound good" but which had to be played live to respect the compositional process of the shifting fingerings; the original performance lasted 55 minutes, the track on the CD is 39 minutes. The duration of each individual cluster is not specified. "The harmonics in the coda were planned but their specific combinations of harmonics was improvised," Licht explains.
" After 39 minutes of "14, Second, Fifth" my ears needed a break from guitars, so I had the idea of doing a fade-in to "Remington Khan". Since I wasn't all that happy with the first ten minutes of RK, I hit upon the idea of a ten-minute fade-in, which to my knowledge no one has ever done before. Maryanne Amacher has a long fade-out, maybe as long as ten minutes, on the third track of her Tzadik CD, but psychologically that's much different than a fade-in. Allan Tucker, the mastering engineer, initially said no problem when I mentioned the idea, but when we sat down to do it, he realized it was sort of insane.. we figured it out though, and to our astonishment the ten minutes went by really quickly, and the fade-in itself was really smooth, which he didn't expect at all. "Remington Khan"'s loop and general sections are planned out too, but the durations are improvised."
" The pieces on the second CD are based on loops, so I don't think of them as "drone" pieces as such. There is a drone in the second half of "Freaky Friday", but with those interlocking guitar parts on top, I'd call it a pedal point rather than a drone. Drones - good ones - are harmonically rich and their extended duration allows you to get inside them, as La Monte used to say, and listen to the harmonics interact. Changing musical elements in relation to the drone - and thereby changing the drone's identity, i.e. changing it from the tonic to the fifth by introducing a different pitch - is something I'm still very attracted to. The best example of this ever is Terry Jennings' "Piece for Cello and Saxophone."
The distinction Licht makes between drones and loops is of critical importance not only to his own work, but as a means of clarifying the woolly terminology associated with minimal music. "Drone" can be taken to refer to predominantly static music (Young, Conrad, Jennings, Niblock..) while Riley, Reich and Glass et al. are more given to explore "loops", i.e. repeating units of musical material. And, as Licht's "Polarity" has shown us, loops can be messed around with: extended or truncated (see also Glass and Reich's linear additive procedures). Clearly, the two concepts are inextricably linked, a fact that Licht is well aware of. The gently interlocking guitar parts and eventual appearance of a bass line in "Freaky Friday" refer more to Reich's Counterpoint series and Glass' Music in Twelve Parts than they do to the austere drones of Niblock. Where Sink the Aging Process and Rabbi Sky pulsed with the raw edge of a guitar sound ever threatening to explode into noise, A New York Minute is a more poised and mature work.
"Here's hoping Licht gets bored like the arty dabbler he is." - Robert Christgau, Village VoiceCinema has long been a frequent reference for Alan Licht. Not only did he graduate in it in 1990, he has written about it extensively (see his review of Godard in The Wire #200) and, in the group Text Of Light, with William Hooker, Lee Ranaldo, DJ Olive and Ulrich Krieger, performs along with the films of Stan Brakhage. "I'm very happy with Text Of Light because it seems to have transcended the "supergroup" thing. When you hear who's playing in it, you imagine what it might sound like, yet surprisingly it never sounds like that. It's a very cooperative venture - nobody's the leader and nobody's showboating. We're not really doing soundtracks, it's more a live action collage of music and film. It's fun to improvise with film as another element in the improvisation; the film functions as a temporal guideline but also as an implied guideline for an evolving musical structure. It's also cool because many people going to see it have never seen a Brakhage film - they're coming as Sonic Youth fans or experimental music fans, so they're being exposed to something new but related to things they're already a fan of. That's great."
He has no difficulty citing his favourite films. "Anything by Robert Frank, Michael Snow, Cassavetes, Warhol, and Nic Roeg up through Bad Timing, Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop, Floyd Mutrux's Dusty and Sweets McGee, Nicholas Ray's In A Lonely Place, Mike Judge's Office Space, Milton Moses Ginsberg's Coming Apart, and Robert Klane's disco classic Thank God It's Friday. One of my all-time favourites is Bob Dylan's four hour Renaldo And Clara which was torn to shreds by the critics when it came out (I still remember reading the NY Times review the day it was released) and remains largely unavailable - it used to show on Euro cable now and then, which is how I got a video copy. A couple of concert numbers came out as a DVD with the recent Live 1975 Dylan thing but the whole film is amazing." Another film that was roundly panned by the critics but that Licht adores is Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls: "It's the most brilliant study of racial relations ever put on screen. Sun Ra would have loved Showgirls." Licht has a special fondness for long films, also citing Jacques Rivette's L'Amour Fou and Jean Eustache's La Maman et la Putain. "The dialogue is amazing; the whore character's monologue near the end of the film, where she nails the emptiness of the free love scene, is a classic. [Jean-Pierre] Léaud looks cool as hell. It's a very punk film. Sure, it's talky and there's no action, but so fucking what. If a film is at least three hours long, then it's a real experience. Otherwise, it's just a long TV show. People go to the theatre expecting it to last at least three hours, I don't know why they complain about film length." Unsurprisingly, he has a similar penchant for long pieces of music. "Phill Niblock's six-hour solstice music marathons are great, and I can stay in La Monte Young's Dream House for two hours at a time, no problem." He also lists Glass' Music in Twelve Parts and Einstein On The Beach as favourites, and considers Alan Silva's triple LP on BYG Actuel, The Seasons, as his favourite free jazz album.
Back in his 1995 Teen Looch piece Licht described himself as "feeling pretty burned out on free jazz. [..] I know [William] Hooker's delighted to be on [indie rock label] Homestead. There's a certain amount of curiosity in indie circles, but how many indie listeners can make the connection between a ten-minute Ira Kaplan feedback guitar solo and a ten-minute David Ware sax solo remains to be seen." Eight years down the line, is he still burned out on free jazz? "More than ever, I never listen to it. It picked up where hardcore punk left off in my listening habits. I was heavily into modal and late period Coltrane, which I extended to free jazz and minimalism in terms of supplemental listening. Right when I was getting into it, all of a sudden Forced Exposure was talking about it too. When I met Thurston and Tom Surgal, they were totally into it, and of course Rudolph turned me on to tons of stuff. So there were all these rock guys listening to free jazz between 1988 and 1990. That remark you mention about the Ira Kaplan solo is funny now considering Yo La Tengo's recent dalliance with free jazz players and Sun Ra covers. When I read Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids, I found out that Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith, the Stooges, MC5, Lou Reed, Alan Vega and others were all listening to free jazz too in the late 60s / early 70s. I think people are doing the same thing now with British folk - it's a genre that's being rediscovered by people who are burned out on underground noise rock or electronica or whatever. The free jazz scene today is, as far as I can tell, pretty much where it was before any of these guys signed to Homestead. When the economy is good, the margins open up; people take an interest in marginal music (like free jazz) because they can afford to. And I mean both audiences and record labels when I say "people." When the economy goes down the tube, the margins get squeezed out. So the free jazz scene is right back where it started, at least here in the States. But don't take this as an expert opinion - it's just an educated guess."
As both avid practitioner and rabid collector, how does Licht view current and possible future developments in improv? "This is a rambling mess of a subject, but to me improvisation is a mindset, and one I've assimilated into my overall creative framework and personal life. It's a very valuable frame of mind to have. As a musical genre though, I can't say I'm vitally interested in it right now. I told a fellow Cassavetes fan, Oren Ambarchi, that every improvisor (in fact I'd say every performer of any kind) should be required to watch Opening Night. That film is about learning how improvise successfully, both onstage and with whatever fastballs life throws your way." Last May, Licht had a chance to deal with some fastballs himself from the Godfather of Improv, Derek Bailey. "It was the last night of Company Week at Tonic. I got off the plane coming back from the Text of Light gig in Victoriaville, jumped in a cab with Lee, and went straight to Tonic onstage with Derek and Okkyung Lee! The best part about watching Derek perform is his eyebrows. When he or someone else does something great in the improvisation, that changes the way things are flowing, the eyebrows always go up - it's a good sign."
Alan Licht is busier now than he ever has been. He's becoming increasingly involved in The Pacific Ocean with Ed Baluyut, the original drummer in Versus, and Connie Lovatt, who was formerly in Containe with Fontaine Toups, Versus' bass player. "Versus were Love Child fans," he explains, "so I knew them a bit back then. They formed The Pacific Ocean back in 1997 or so, but I'd never heard them until Connie called me up and asked if I'd play on a couple of songs on their new (third) album, So Beautiful and Cheap and Warm on Teenbeat. Bill Callahan (aka (Smog)) was the producer, and I like him a lot, so I went ahead and played on four songs, three of which made it to the record. Last fall I started playing gigs with them, which are infrequent due to various complications, but we've been writing songs together. Some of mine date back to both Love Child and Run On, but they were either rejected or I never showed them. I came across several tapes of home demos I'd made in the early and mid 90s and discovered nearly fifty songs, or parts of songs, that neither band ever recorded, and I've been sifting through them and showing some of them to The Pacific Ocean folks."
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Bruce Russell waits. "Bruce and I have never actually played together, but I want that to happen someday." Meanwhile, Licht remains active with Text of Light (a CD is forthcoming), and further installation works are in the offing. He's not lost touch with those rock icons, either. A forthcoming installation for Schumacher's Diapason gallery space will feature a recording of Led Zeppelin's IV "which begins fading out at the beginning of side one, totally faded out by the end of "Stairway to Heaven", then begins fading back in at the start of side two and is at full volume by the end of "When the Levee Breaks." I think the sequencing lends itself to the fade-in/fadeout idea. Because "Stairway" is so overplayed, in this piece it becomes hard and then impossible to hear - as opposed to being hard or impossible not to hear on the radio in the 70s." Another book is in the works, and it looks unlikely The Wire will let him rest for long either. Apart from "the side project to end all side projects", Supreme Indifference, with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Jim O'Rourke, collaborations are mooted with Arto Lindsay and Matmos, and two further trio projects are in the pipeline, one with Aki Onda and Raz Mesinai, another with Oren Ambarchi and Tetuzi Akiyama. "I'm pretty excited by Tetuzi's stuff and really enjoy playing with him. The title of his new LP Don't Forget to Boogie says it all, and if I'm an influence on that kind of attitude - he dedicates one track on it to me - I'm honoured."
thanks to Jim O'Rourke, Loren Connors and Byron Coley DW
|Interview © by Dan Warburton. Thanks for visiting Paris Transatlantic. If you enjoyed this interview, you may also be interested in our talks with John Butcher or Radu Malfatti.|