Interview by Dan Warburton
Paris, March 25th 2007
Photo by Laura Forlin
What's the origin of the name Robair? Sounds rather French to me.
Robair is actually my middle name. My father was a hairdresser, and wanted his business to have a European-sounding name. His first name was Gino and his partner's name was Robertson, and so I was about to come out of the oven and they named me after the business. The real family name was Forlin, which was from Northern Italy. I still have family there. In fact I was there visiting them just a few months ago.
Was it a musical family?
A generation back, yes, on my mother’s side. My maternal grandfather was an itinerant musician of Hungarian ancestry. He played violin – mostly Hungarian music. When he was young, he had a band with some of his cousins and friends and played czardas and things like that. So that's where I get some of my musical background from. When I was growing up, he would get the violin out for weddings and stuff like that.
What was your first instrument?
I played guitar, because my dad played a little. And then I kept hitting the pots and pans with wooden spoons so they bought me a drum kit when I was seven.
They bought you a drum kit? Did you have neighbours?
In Southern California the houses are very far apart! (laughs)
My son says he wants to play drums.
Let him carry some drum cases around, he'll change his mind.
What kind of music were you playing?
I was playing anything. I just liked hitting drums. I took some lessons for a couple of years but I didn't have any contacts. I grew up in Riverside, in Southern California, where's there's no culture whatsoever. My dad just listened to Country & Western and on my mom's side of the family it was polkas. So I gave it up and took up sport instead until Junior High School when I had a kind of epiphany: my cousin was visiting from Canada and he played me [The Beatles'] Let It Be and I said, I can play that.
Not exactly difficult to play as well as Ringo, is it?
Yeah, that's what I thought! (laughs) If he can do that, so can I. So I started playing again and joined the Junior High School band and orchestra. I was listening to a lot of Beatles and Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which was the first record I actually owned. My cousin bought me that. I liked the sound of the drums on those records. They used to put delay on them, they sounded like you were hitting them with two sticks. I was like, how 'd they do that? (laughs)
You didn't know any jazz at the time, then.
My father had [Dave Brubeck's] Take Five and there were a lot of Herb Alpert records in the house. That was my world of jazz. I grew up with working class immigrants in Southern California who still listened to their immigrant music. I didn't learn about jazz until Junior High School, and when I did it was a bad experience. At the time, jazz was very narrowly defined as big band, and everything was written out in the charts and there was no room for improvisation. It was just ding-dinga-ding-dinga-ding..
It still is in most American music schools…
Right. But I never heard drums like that. By that time, about 1976 or so, I was listening to Heavy Metal, Ozzy and all that kind of stuff. I never really got into jazz. But I stayed with it, because there were only two drummers in school and I was one of them. I was gigging, and also taking piano lessons from a church organist. I wound up playing timpani. My first professional gigs were playing in local churches, holidays and Christmas and stuff. I went to band camp and I met the timpanist from the LA Philharmonic, William Kraft, who was also a composer. I wanted composition lessons from him. His first question was, do you know what the tessitura for all the stringed instruments are? I said, no. He said, take percussion lessons from me first and we'll ease the composition in later. I studied timpani with him for two or three years, but we never got to the composition part! But he wrote me a really nice letter or recommendation to get into the Composition Department at the University of Redlands.
What kind of music were you writing at the time?
I started doing tape composition when I was at High School – my parents had bought me a four-track reel-to-reel and I'd started splicing and overdubbing stuff. By that time I had a Residents record and a Cage record, so I was into making sound. In my senior year at High School I made a piece that was kind of drone / musique concrète stuff and [drummer] Thomas Scandura [of the Molecules] and I improvised over it. I was really into that world. The university I went to had a really strong 20th Century music programme, so I got a concurrent degree in percussion and composition. One of the women there, Virginia Anderson was really into the Scratch Orchestra, and we had an improv ensemble called the Anything Goes Orchestra. The first release on Rastascan was an AGO set.
So you got into improv via avant-garde, not jazz.
Yes, I was completely into 20th Century music. But I had heard some AMM things, because they were playing that in some of the jazz shows at Redlands. When I got out of university I wanted to study improvisation further, but there was no program, so Virginia said, why don't you go and study with Eddie Prévost? She wrote him a letter and he said fine, so when I graduated I moved over to England. I had a temporary work visa so I could work in shops and go see bands all the time. Mostly new music and improv, not free jazz.
What year was this?
1985, '86. I sold my drum set and didn't do any playing while I was there, except for a Channel Four documentary on Cardew where they did some of The Great Learning. I played in that. But I was really shy. I'd just go to the shows and hang out. I went to England to listen.
AMM, the post-Scratch Orchestra people. I didn't really connect with the LMC world as such. I did see Derek [Bailey], Evan [Parker], and Lol Coxhill though.
What did Eddie Prévost teach you?
His reaction was, "well you have a degree in music so what can I teach you?” But I'd always thought there had to be something behind the AMM approach, which for me was kind of impenetrable. Turns out what was behind it was extra-musical. It was interesting to see how musicians interact and live in this music, how Eddie fit in in terms of the scene, as a person who puts on concerts, runs a band and has a label. I wanted to run a record label.
But you already had one, didn't you?
We'd released a flexidisc of the improv orchestra in Op magazine in 1982 or ‘83. That was the first Rastascan release. Then we released some cassettes. But the first serious release was when I moved to the Bay Area when I came back from England. Until then it had been a collective but then I took it over.
What was the first serious release for you, then?
The Anthony Braxton Duets 1987. I saw Braxton play with the quartet when I was in England, the concert that came out as the London Quartet on Leo. Eddie and I went to see that and we both had a really negative reaction. At the time I didn't realise how difficult it was to read that music. Anthony was amazing and Marilyn [Crispell] was amazing, but Gerry [Hemingway] was struggling with it. It was only later, when I studied with Braxton's scores, that I realised how difficult they were.
How did you end up studying with him?
I went backstage and spoke to Braxton and he said, if you want to study with me come to Mills [College, Oakland]. My work permit was about to end, so I moved back to California and applied there.
You weren't tempted to return to Southern California, then.
No, I moved to the Bay Area because there was nothing going on in Southern California. It was very post-punk, or very strictly West Coast new music like the guys from the Cold Blue label, who I knew from college. They were inspired by Harold Budd and La Monte [Young]. I liked that kind of music but I didn't make that kind of music myself.
Who was on the faculty at Mills at that time?
There was David Rosenboom, Larry Polansky, Lou Harrison and Anthony, who was a visiting faculty member at the time. I think he had a four- or five-year chairmanship: the Milhaud chair. So I went to his classes. He taught orchestration and composition (which meant basically studying his music), and then there was his performance class, where we'd meet three times a week at 9am and play through his scores. That was the best bit for me, reading those impenetrable scores. At that time at Mills there weren't many performers but a lot of programmers, people who weren't necessarily music majors, and it was a real challenge for us to approach that really difficult notation.
What was it like?
There was everything: graphic scores, scores with noteheads but no rhythms, scores with complex dense rhythmic stuff. Every day something different: a new piece every day. 9am. It would kick your ass. He'd come in with these scores, there'd be like three saxophones, a woman on steel pan and me on snare drum, and he'd say, Gino you play the flute part. So I played the flute part on snare drum. That's how you play his scores. At first you think it's insane, but then you realise that for him it's not about purity of orchestration, it's about density and movement. If he gives a piccolo part to a bass player it's because he doesn't want those pitches, he wants something in that time frame that's rhythmically similar, with the same kinds of shapes. The whole thing about layering, the collage aspect turned me on.
You also studied with Lou Harrison. What was that like?
It was fantastic. At the time Mills had a Gamelan program, and I got heavily into that. I was also into tuning at the time. I built a monochord. Lou lived in Santa Cruz so I'd go over there. I'd just bring pieces in and we'd talk about them. I was more into timbre, but Lou was into form and melody, he had this really keen sense of keeping melody going. He was very old-school composition and I liked that, because at Mills the program was very loose. Lou kicked my ass, and would things say like, "why are you doing that?” When I was at Redlands it was the same with Barney Childs; he'd say, "why are you doing that? Are you sure you really want to do that or are you just bullshitting because you see someone else doing it?” That was good for me. Lou was cool. He came to my concert, half of which was in Just Intonation, the other half in what Lou used to call "Industrial Tunings", different kinds of equal temperaments. They had some Partch instruments at Mills, so I put them in equal temperaments and had a rock band play along with them. School stuff. Lou was cool, but I don't think he got the noise thing, and he certainly didn't get the improv thing.
What was the California improv scene like at the time, and how did you get into it?
I got into it in 1986 when ROVA brought Zorn out to do Cobra in San Francisco. That was my first professional gig in the new music scene, a tentet with ROVA plus David Slusser, Chris Brown, Myles Boisen, William Winant, a guitarist whose name escapes me and myself. That's how Splatter Trio [with Boisen and Dave Barrett] formed, and how I got into the local improv scene. It was a fantastic experience. The control Zorn takes away from you is a little frustrating, but you have to buy into that if you're going to play his piece. I think those Game Piece concepts were remarkable. I don't think Zorn liked my drumming that much though, even if he appreciated my participation in the project. I'm not a hardcore kind of drummer. At that time the improv scene was kind of in a lull. There was a high point when the ROVA guys started and Jon Raskin was running his series, but when I got there it was mostly new musick-y things. There were a lot of post-Braxton things, and a lot of free jazz. After I graduated, some people, including Dan Plonsey and myself, started organising things, and realised that our little scene was part of a bigger one. So we started to make some connections. It was only about ten years ago that it all started to really coalesce.
Where did you get the name Rastascan from?
It was the name of a reggae band started by Scott Vance, who built a bass he called the Rasta Bass. He had also built his own computer that created sounds depending on where you touched a television screen. A raster scanner is what draws a line on a TV screen, so our reggae band became Rastascan. When we left the reggae behind and got into improv the name kind of stuck.
How many releases do you have out now?
With the forthcoming Braxton DVD, due for release in October 2007, it'll be about 60. It's a follow-up to the Six Compositions (GTM) 2001 box. That was co-financed by me, John Shiurba [Limited Sedition] and Scott Rosenberg [Barely Auditable]. We brought Anthony back out to California in 2003 for a set of 12-tet Ghost Trance recordings. We ended up with six and a half hours of music, which would normally be like a seven CD set, but who the fuck's going buy that? It's hard enough to sell the four CD box. So I decided to put it on two DVDs at a price more people can afford.
What's Scott Rosenberg up to? He seems to have dropped off the radar somewhat.
Scott got frustrated with the improv thing. He made this big band record in Chicago – not the one that came out on New World, another one – and he spent a lot of money on it and couldn't get anybody to put it out, so I think he just decided fuck it. So he's gone into singer / songwriter mode. He's moved back to the Bay Area and got his own band, P.A.F. And I'm in a rock band with him, Kyle Bruckmann, John Shiurba and a singer named Sam Coomes called Pink Mountain. We're making our second record.
Will that be coming out on Rastascan?
No, because I don't want to do rock any more on Rastascan: it's too confusing for my distributors. And I like to get my music on other labels as well. So the first Pink Mountain album came out on Frenetic. Kyle has really good connections with that label.
How did you end up reissuing the early Eugene Chadbourne solo recordings?
At that point Rastascan was making money, so I could afford it. I wanted to reissue his first disc but Eugene said he couldn't find the master! (laughs) So we got the second LP instead and remastered it. It was recorded in this studio in Calgary with a classical engineer with really good mics, but when it came out on LP it was heavily compressed and sounded like shit, so we took it over to Fantasy Records and they did a really nice job on it. In terms of playing I think it's the best thing he ever did, but if I tell him that he gets really pissed off! So I can't say that! (laughs)
What's the best selling album on the label?
The Hans Reichel
Lower Lurum, I think. It's out of print now, and we've lost the artwork
so we're going to have to come up with new artwork for the reissue. The
European big names are good sellers. The Evan Parker trio [Breaths
and Heartbeats, with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton] and the [Parker]
duo [Arch Duo] with Derek have slowly ramped up. And the Brötzmann
trio [Sacred Scrape, with William Parker and Gregg Bendian].
It's easy to start a label and put out nothing but Brötzmann records,
but it's good to put out something really unique by less well-known names.
When Gianni Gebbia came to the States, Myles Boisen and I heard him and
looked at each other like, fuck. He didn't have a record out in the States
so we said, come to the studio next day, and we made H Portraits.
These days I'm more picky about what comes out. I try and put a few things out at a same time so I can mail them out together. You get tired of sending out promo copies on your own dime. We used to send out two or three hundred, 150 or so to radio stations – I had a publicist who tracked it all, and we were getting reviews – but then a bunch of distributors went belly up and I lost about $4,000. I'm still recovering from that. Never got the CDs back either. Now it's about 60 promos. Every year I email everybody to make sure they're still around. We print 500 to 1000 copies of a disc. Yellowcake we only did 300 – just something to sell at gigs.
Did Keith Rowe have anything to do with the cover art on that disc?
No, but we thanked him because I've always loved his artwork. I wanted to get him to do the artwork but I couldn't contact him, and I didn't want to bother him. So Aurora Josephson did a lino cut and I gave it to my designer with some of Keith's other covers and damned if it didn't come out like a Keith Rowe cover. Keith and Fred Frith were two of the strongest influences on me as a percussionist: you take a tabletop guitar and it's no longer a guitar. It's beyond guitar. That's why I love playing with John Butcher. He's gone beyond the saxophone. I've always wanted to take percussion beyond percussion, flip over the snares and play them with Ebows, amplifying it all. Trying to figure out ways to get beyond sticks and brushes.
How did you hook up with Butcher?
Beanbenders booked him to play in about 96. I'd heard that quartet CD, Spellings, he'd done with Georg Graewe as Frisque Concordance and we decided to bring him out on the basis of that. So I called him and said, if you come out let's put out a solo record [London and Cologne Saxophone Solos] and have a release party! He came out and we did a duo, started talking and playing. It kind of built from there.
One of my favourite albums of yours is 12 Milagritos, with John and Matthew Sperry. Matthew's death must have been a real shock for you.
It was. I worked a lot with Matthew. When we played together you couldn't figure out who was doing what. And he was just getting a name for himself. He was riding his bike to work and there was a woman coming round the corner who just hit him. He died instantly. Turns out she was an unlicensed driver in a borrowed car. She got off with about a $200 fine.
What are you working on at the moment?
Running the label is about the last thing on my list of things to do. I've written an opera, and I want to get that performed and released. It's called I, Norton, and it's based on texts by Emperor Norton [eccentric self-proclaimed "Emperor of the United States" go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_A._Norton for more information], from his proclamations, and from some letters he wrote to a 19-year-old girl he was courting at the time. From the texts I generate scores. Some of the music is improvised, some of it is fully notated and there's a sort of grey area in between. That's what I'm structuring right now. It should be out by the end of 2007.
What about the libretto?
There is no libretto per se. It's an opera in the old fashioned sense. It's got everything. It's kind of a work in progress, in that it'll probably never be finished, like a book of possibilities you can call from. It can be for any number of performers and can be any length. That's one of the things I learned from Lou Harrison: he would compose pieces as a kit, come up with a tuning, a scale and an instrumentation, but it would be up to the musicians to put it together themselves in performance. It's sort like a cross between a conduction and Cobra, but with some concrete structures I can insert. But it's not adversarial like Cobra, which for me was always more of a showmanship thing – the opera is about setting up different ensembles and letting them interact with each other. The improv and the graphic scores and the hand cued material are all designed to be played by non-musicians too, and there's live video, dancers, actors. When we did it in Milan in October 2006, we had three days of workshops and picked up people from all over the place. We had five real opera singers who weren’t improvisers, and an Italian actor who pretended he could speak English.
Is there a visual element?
There is if there's live video. In my imagination there would be improvised scenery too, fully improvised with different elements. At this point I have enough stuff down to release it as a CD, and then I'm going to do a DVD, something more like a Robert Ashley piece. I have so many ideas, how do you decide which is the best one? That's one of the reasons I got into improvisation – there is no best one: today you insert this one.
This kind of music doesn't exactly pay the bills though, does it? Do you have a day job?
In Southern California I used to be a professional musician, in the Musicians Union, and when I moved to the Bay Area I did commercials for Starbucks and these corporate things, and I was music director for a Saturday morning cartoon on CBS for a while [The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat]. But when we had our second child, my wife, who's a nurse, had to go part time and I had to get a day job. So I ended up writing for the magazine Electronic Musician, and now I'm Editor. A regular 9 to 5 day job.
Good, I'll leave you to edit this then.
Yeah, I'll dot all the i's! (laughs) At times it's really intense, but I meet a lot of musicians through it. I get a lot of gear to work with. I teach an introduction to ProTools class and I get a lot of software to examine. That's great, because as I said my whole thing about playing percussion has always been to make acoustic instruments sound electronic, not sound like drums.
What you call "energized surfaces"..
Yes, I refer to it as the fricative school of drumming. All the rage now is to put rosin on your heads and play with friction, and I have little motors and I put them on different things, not just cymbals, but also the floor. If something falls off and ends up the floor I just surround it with things. I also have some horns and reed instruments I stick on top of the drums and blow through and get another kind of resonance, and there's the faux-daxophone, where I find objects and move them around over the side of the drum, finding pitches. So when I put "percussion" on the record and nobody hears anything being hit, just horn tones and squeaking, it just gets too confusing. So I call it "energized surfaces". After all, when you see Sean Meehan or Ninh Lê Quan, they're not playing drums anymore. Those days are dead.