While former King Crimson member Trey Gunn's explorations have always found him navigating through diverse sounding musical channels, his latest release, a collaborative effort with drummer Marco Minnemann entitled Modulator, was his most daunting one yet.
For this project Trey was given a rather unenviable task of writing his own music to accompany Minnemann's fifty-one minute, improvised drum solo, something Minnemann has also done with fellow musicians such as Mike Keneally and Alex Machacek to name a few. The complexities involved in the creative process challenged him as a composer and forced him to think even further outside of the box. The results are almost an hour of some of the most demanding, complex and richly layered playing of Gunn's career.
Read on to find more about how this unique pairing came to be and how it pushed him into uncharted compositional waters. He also filled me in on how he's been experimenting with playing his famous Warr guitar horizontally, and the status of the next release from his multi-media outlet Quodia, which by all accounts sounds like it will definitely be his most ambitious project yet!
Ryan Sparks- Sea Of Tranquility: First of all congratulations on the recent release of Modulator. I understand that for yourself the creative process behind this record wasn't one which you were accustomed to. Can you tell me what specifically made this project such a daunting one for you?
Trey Gunn: Not only was it something I wasn't accustomed to, it wasn't something I wanted to do or something I would have chosen for myself [laughing]. I wouldn't have chosen it, but that's a good thing to know because it may be that we would often avoid things that are really good for ourselves because they're outside of our comfort zone.
This project is not without precedence but it is extremely unique in that Marco Minnemann, this uber-drummer from Germany, who I've worked with on another project, recorded a fifty one minute drum solo with no overdubs and presented this drum solo to a bunch of musicians to see if they would write music to it. He presented it to me and I said "No thank you. I love you and your playing", and I'm not a huge fan of drum solos anyway, but an hour long one sounded like "Are you out of your mind?"
People will come to me with a tune, but not a whole album's worth of music. He persisted and six months later he said "Just let me send you the files and you can check it out". So I took the files and put them into my system and I just looked at them and thought that I still felt the same. I'm looking at this eight microphone recording of this live drum kit, and the file is just this scary looking thing. I'm dropping the cursor down and listening here and there and I didn't know what I was hearing or how it went together, so I had no idea even where to begin.
Another six months goes by and Marco and I are in rehearsals for Eddie Jobson's UKZ with Alex Machacek. Marco told me that Mike Keneally had already finished his record and I was like "Mike Keneally is doing one?" Marco described what he had done with his record which was he took a lot of voice interviews with people and edited a lot of the voices to the drum parts which wasn't at all what I thought they would do. Then Marco played me one of the tracks that Alex had done and it was fantastic. I thought "Well these guys are doing this and it sounds pretty cool." When I heard Alex's stuff, I was impressed. I don't have Alex's musical language or vocabulary, so I couldn't do what he did. But I do have my own language and I wondered if it would work.
I listened to the first three minutes of the piece and I did my approach. And it worked. I sent it to Marco to see if he would like it or not and it didn't make any difference at all because Marco likes everything [laughs]. He was just really happy for us to do whatever we wanted so I thought "Ok I'm in". I started working on it, and it went really great for a couple of months and then it got really, really hard [laughs]. I picked all the obvious, groovy stuff to work with because that spoke to me right away and I was able to do bunch of different things. I didn't work sequentially -- I just picked the parts that were the most musical that I could merge with. Working through the record I kind of ticked off all the stuff that was easier to work with and then ended up left with the stuff that was much more challenging. So the recording process just got harder and harder, and slower and slower.
SoT: So that was the main reason why this project took as long as it did?
Trey : Oh yeah. Also there were a few things that I did that I felt really great about. This material was so nice, that I thought that I couldn't run at 60% for the stuff that was harder. It was like a giant crossword puzzle; you want it to look like a piece of art at the end, and not like you just filled in all the squares. At least I didn't because I thought that some of the stuff that I had filled in was really special. So the standard of the project just got higher and higher. And so the problem solving got more challenging. Basically, by the end of the project I was going at such a crawl that sixty seconds of music took about a week to do. I'm not talking about ten hour days because I could only do four hours at a shot, but it was a crawl. There are a couple of sections, like a thirty second section that I spent more than a week on, just trying to figure out what would work and what wouldn't. I know I'm talking about it kind of abstractly for people who may be reading this and don't know what I'm talking about.
SoT: I have to ask, being someone who is quite adept at improvising yourself did you ever entertain the thought of improvising the whole thing all the way through in one shot or with just a few overdubs here and there?
Trey: I didn't throw that completely out of the concept and I did improvise in some sections, but I can't say I really entertained the idea of doing it that way all the way through. That didn't sound very interesting to me. Here's the thing, you would have had two sounds through the whole record – Marco's drums and my Warr Guitar. To me that didn't sound very interesting. In order for this record to work you'd have to have such an incredibly rich palette of musical statements.
Marco actually still plays this drum solo three times per week, so for him it's not exactly a routine; I can tell he's improvising in places but he has these structures in there. Some of them are very tight and I can tell they are composed, but then they drift off into something else. So the idea of merging with that at an improvisational level is beyond me, for whatever that's worth. It could be interesting as a performance, but for me a recording has to have a lot more sonic-ness and I just can't play my instrument interestingly enough for me to want to listen to it for an hour -- with the same sounds. I did try it in sections and there are improvised bits within it, but that's not, in general, the process that was successful for me. The process that was more successful for me was some level of dinking around; I pretty much had to get at least two different ideas happening simultaneously that worked with what Marco was doing. Either with two different sounds, or two different ideas. But even just sounds wasn't enough, I had to get some kind of musical statement. And really it took three, If I could get three instruments, with three different ideas happening, then I knew I could flush it out into a piece of music and weave all those together. If I could only get one I would just toss it and start again.
This is kind of a gross analogy but… you have a wall, and you pick up some mud and throw it on the wall and see if it sticks. If it doesn't stick, pick up some clay and throw that. Ok I have a little clay, now I'm going to throw something else. You have to just throw something up until it feels like it fits and works, then you have to grow the thing. It wasn't so much getting something to stick right away; it was the growing of it that was very challenging.
Marco of course plays it straight through -- there's rarely a beginning or end to the sections -- so I had to find a musical statement that would work with him. I had to figure out what the hell he was playing sometimes. Sometimes I could just play to it and it would work and other times -- I'm very rhythmically oriented, but this has challenged me beyond any norms -- I would have no idea what he was doing. Sometimes when I would go in and try to figure out what he was doing, I would find it unbelievably daunting that a human being could even play some of these things. In a couple of sections he's playing unbelievable poly-rhythms and very tight. Now that I had figured out what it is, do I just play across it or do I pick up one of them? Like he's playing in seven and eight at the same time, and subdividing the beat into 72 beats, what do I do? [ laughs]
The biggest challenge, but for me the most fascinating and the most frustrating, was working with the transitions. Here's an example, I would have a two minute section here and I know it was going to work. I had found my idea and I just had to flush it out and make the music make sense. Then I would have another two minute section near it and it would be the same thing, in that it would be working great. But I had left a thirty or forty-five second gap between these two pieces, so there was a little room to finish an idea before the next one comes. I wouldn't worry about it because I thought I could do some transitional thing and it would be fine. Maybe I had left sixty seconds in between these two totally different ideas. Then it becomes time to sew them up; I've finished enough of the ideas but I can't complete them because I have to sew them together. Do I put something transitional in there, another little piece or a chord swell? Or do I write them together? Maybe I can just sew them together and I just needed another thirty seconds on this one, and another forty seconds on the other one and then I could sew them together.
Well it happened twice on the record where I went in and started playing around in that sixty second section and I actually came up with a cool little musical idea. I was like "Ok that's cool I don't want to lose that idea. Let me just kind of expand that forwards and backwards and merge it with the other pieces." Though as I expanded this little sixty second idea, it started growing a little more and now it wasn't going to work within sixty seconds, it needed to be a hundred and twenty seconds. So now I had to dissolve some of the previous piece and some of the following one. Now I'm into this kind of meta-juggling, where before it was this tiny little crossword puzzle, now I'm trying to make this fit into the whole novel. And Man! Talk about challenging your compositional and production chops! How do you get all these sounds to work?
SoT: So you were writing and re-writing.
Trey: The interesting thing about this project and I'm trying to bring it into my teaching process as well, is that there was a lot of re-writing. Somebody who deals with a speaking language or a writing language, fiction or non-fiction, they re-write all the time. Musicians don't re-write. If we have an idea and we get stuck in it, we're done with it. We put it to the side and begin with a new idea. But to actually re-write is unbelievably valuable and a kind of distilling of the idea. So I really appreciate this project for pushing me to do that extremely unpleasant thing. It's not so scary to me anymore. You have this fear of re-writing that you're going to lose the original idea. I had never done much re-writing, either the piece worked or you just kind of smoothed it out so it felt completed. Or you just started something new. To re-write was a distilling process, both production and creation wise.
SoT: As a listener I realize that how I perceive the music and how as it comes across to me will differ and not exactly be in line with the overall vision and intention of the artist creating it, but regardless one of the main things about Modulator that really stuck out for me was, in addition to your trademark rich tapestries of sound and textures, is its overall cohesiveness. You've broken it into twenty two different pieces and yet it all feels like one piece of music, which I guess in some way brings it back to its original state as one piece like Marco presented it to you, do you know what I mean?
Trey: I do, but to be fair to Trey, he wanted that to happen and he spent a frickin' lot of energy to make sure it was like that [laughs]. Here's the thing for me, as a creator I still love the long form musical statement. Just a bunch of tracks stuck together isn't interesting to me. So the idea of trying to get you to want to listen to the whole thing is part of my challenge. One of the ways you do that is by having enough variety; you can't always have the same sounds going on, so I'm always looking for different sounds. I also did a lot of processing of the drums. The rule was that we couldn't edit the drums, but sometimes I was sick of the drum sound so I was going to Squarepusher it out or whatever. I think one time I had a snare drum go into a big thing of reverb and I turned the kit down really low after that so I could kind of have an end, because Marco didn't give us any endings. So I really struggled to make the whole thing listenable as a long-term experience, by having a lot of variety and not having things go on too long. If you put together a whole bunch of little pieces you can end up fatigued. I still challenge someone to listen to the whole recording [laughs]. What I tell people is that if they can't absorb the whole thing at once I totally understand. It's like a week's worth of food as a snack.
SoT: I've had no problem with that. I've played it from beginning to end quite a few times, but I've noticed that sometimes I'm listening more intently and other times it's there in the background. I think it depends on the level of attention you're giving it.
Trey: At least for me, when I'm giving it a lot of attention I get a lot back from it – because as you said it's a rich tapestry. And obviously, I listen differently because it's my project.
SoT: If someone didn't know the background or the details behind this project there wouldn't be any way to tell that this was a drums first recording.
Trey: Well that was the main aim, to make it seem like only those drums could have been there so you wouldn't ask that question. I would also say that I think a lot of it does sound pretty improvisational and freely played. Not all of it, but some of it. Everything comes together in one big musical statement, but there is a… I don't know… Some of it, kind of has the spirit of Coltrane for me. Not a lot, but just some of the free weirdness
SoT: Ever since I first became aware of your work with King Crimson, although you are currently no longer with the band I find there's still a lot of Crimson traits and sounds flowing through the various projects you've been involved in since. I guess that is a testament to the considerable amount of musical ground covered by King Crimson and the various off shoots as well as what you brought to the table. Do you see what you're doing now on your own with Quodia or with Pat in TU for example as continuing to build on what you did with King Crimson?
Trey: [long pause] [long pause] I'm probably not the best person to ask that question to. I'd probably say no but that's just because of how I think of it. I agree with your perspective, but for me: no. Crimson is its own little hermetically sealed bubble as far as my experience of being a musician in the band goes. It operated unlike other things. Life inside that project was different than life outside of it, where there's a lot more cohesiveness. It was kind of its own universe. That being said, there's still a lot of crossover with the vocabulary, and there's definitely vocabulary on Modulator that sounds a lot like Crimson, or maybe it sounds more like the Tool version of Crimson [laughs].
People probably don't know this and I don't necessarily attribute it to myself, but Robert and I were working on discovering the next Crimson vocabulary for a couple of years before the Thrak record. There were these little ideas floating around, being played with and developed. How unique the 90's Crimson was from earlier versions I don't know, I'm not a historian and I'm not interested knowing whether these little vocabularies were actually created in '73 or '93. It doesn't matter to me.
There were sections in Modulator where I had no idea what to do. I'll give you an example; I think it was the track "Slingcharm". I listened to the drums and there was this crazy drum filling, with kick drums going bananas for three minutes straight. And they just kept getting faster and faster. I was like "What do you do?" There was this splattering of drums playing everywhere and unbelievably fast. But then I noticed over on the right there was this open hi-hat going through the whole thing. I backed it up and listened to it and I thought Holy Moly! This guy is playing this open hi-hat in steady quarter notes while the rest of the drums are building up frantically with double kick drums, little splashes and toms, and this hi-hat has not moved. I even put it on the grid and that hi-hat had not moved while the rest of the drum kit was going wild-ape around it and growing. I couldn't handle trying to figure out what those drums were doing, but I can hear that hi-hat playing quarter notes. So I figured I would just play some heavy groove to that quarter note and let the drums be the solo on top. It turned out this heavy, chunking Crimson kind of thing that seemed to work best. So that was in my vocabulary and I was going to use that and put it in this particular context. This is where something like that worked and it actually saved my skin, because if I had to go in and figure out what all the rest of those drums were doing you're talking about another years worth of work [laughing]. I don't know if you've heard Alex's record 24 Tales?
SoT: I haven't yet no.
Trey: You've got to hear it. Even if you don't like the vocabulary and I'm sure you would, though it's more fusion oriented than my disc. I don't even know how to describe it but he's gone in and done that. Alex goes in and transcribes Marco's drums right from the start and then puts melodies in there. So his version is totally different than mine.
SoT: Since the last time we spoke have there been any more developments on playing your Warr guitar horizontally?
Trey: We haven't built the new horizontal instrument yet, but I have been approaching the playing style very seriously and looking at my hands and experimenting. Actually what I've been doing since we spoke last is I've been playing one string horizontally. Just exploring one string and seeing how much I can do on that one string. I've been writing these pieces, little studies essentially, of finding a particular way of playing and seeing if I can write a piece with it using just one string. So I have been taking it very seriously but we have not built a new instrument yet. Though I am convinced it is the future of playing a tapped instrument. At least for me.
SoT: Last question, how close are you to completing your Orpheus and Eurydice project?
Trey: : You know it's essentially done. I just have to find a time slot to take it on; you're talking about the next Quodia release. I need to sort out some stuff with the poet. I would like to put it out this fall, as it's essentially done. I had a similar problem with Modulator. It's not really a problem, but it's one of these things where when you work on something long enough your capacity to do it well increases. After working on Modulator for twelve months my production chops were so much better that I needed to go back to some of the original stuff and remix it. The Orpheus and Eurydice piece is a little bit like that. I can't go back and remix the original version because it's mixed and I'm happy with it, but it's a double CD with the second CD being all instrumental. Because I've been working on it for a couple of years, every time I go back and listen to it I think to myself that I can make it better now. So that's kind of one of the challenges, I just have to decide to let go of it and find a time slot to release it, as I'm putting it out myself.
SoT: So the first disc consists of your music set to Gregory Orr's poetry is that right?
Trey: Yes although it's really more like a scored film the way I see it. The words were put down first and then I went in, and very specifically sometimes, scored around the syllables. Sometimes the music is very drippy and kind of wide open, but other times the events and their sound designs are really put in there like you're sound designing a film. So at a certain point, and I don't know where that is, but there's some edge there where it's not music anymore, but its sound design.
SoT: Will there be a visual tie in as well?
Trey: I don't know. It depends on how ambitious I feel. I've done one little one that is ok, but I really don't know what to do with this project. It would be so cool to perform it, but the music is so complicated because of how it was woven in to the words. If I ever performed the words live they would never fall rhythmically the same way, so you'd have to build some other kind of structure. Also I would want video, and it's challenging for people to listen to poetry, you're asking for a different kind of…
SoT: Commitment I guess.
Trey: Yeah and a different kind of participation so they can engage with it. Progressive rock fans don't listen to poetry. In fact, most music fans don't listen to poetry. As usual I've kind of composed myself out of the normal boxes [laughs], but it's still an awesome poem. The work is cool and the instrumental disc is really interesting.
SoT: Thanks again for your time Trey. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.
Trey: Thanks Ryan.