A respected music journalist and solo recording artist, guitarist Barry Cleveland has recently joined forces with composer, guitarist and 'electronics innovator' Richard Pinhas for Mu. An album where a dreamy, if still hard hitting, selection of avant-garde world music is presented through lush instrumental pieces that constantly move and sway with atmospheric mystery. It's a challenging, deep album which constantly evolves while staying true to its core ideals and messages. Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid delved deep into the music and motivations of Cleveland as they discussed everything from Mu to Joe Meek and much, much more…
Your most recent release, Mu, is an album that finds you collaborating with the respected and prolific musician Richard Pinhas. How did the two of you come to start working together?
Richard and I had been talking about making a record together for years and were thrilled when the stars finally aligned to make it possible. We were also extraordinarily fortunate that bassist Michael Manring and drummer Celso Alberti were available for the date, given their jam-packed schedules. I've worked with Michael for years, and he and Celso were both featured on my previous album, Hologramatron, as well as in the band of the same name. Hologramatron had opened for Richard a couple of times here in California, so he was familiar with Michael and Celso's playing, and readily agreed that we should record together as a quartet.
Over the years Richard has collaborated on a hugely eclectic catalogue of albums with an equally diverse selections of musicians. Can you describe how the process of the collaboration actually worked between you? Did the two of you sit down together to write the album, was it done through file sharing, or more a case of the two of you presenting nearly completed work for the other the embellish - or none of the above?
We basically pulled a rabbit out of a hat. The core tracks for nearly the entire album were improvised by the quartet in my studio during a single four-hour session. Two long stretches were consistent enough to be used in their entirety and ultimately became "I Wish I Could Talk In Technicolor" and "Zen/Unzen." Subsequently, I spent many months developing the music by recording additional guitars and numerous other instruments, and arranging, processing, and mixing everything to create complete musical statements.
I should also mention that although Celso Alberti played an electronic drum kit when we recorded the basic tracks as a quartet, he later replaced most of those parts with acoustic drums, because he felt they would sound better and allow for more dynamic and nuanced performances. If anyone else had proposed rerecording the drum parts on wildly nonlinear improvisations lasting 26 minutes and 10 minutes respectively, I would have just laughed. But Celso not only pulled it off, he did it in single takes, and the parts were even better than the already superb originals. The only exception was during a sort of 'drum and bass' stretch of "I Wish I Could Talk In Technicolor," which we didn't feel could be improved upon.
The opening piece, "Forgotten Man," began as a textural guitar-synth track by Richard. I programmed layers of polyrhythmic percussion to accompany it and then added the guitar-synth melody lines and a few other parts. "Parting Waves" is mostly my composition, though bits of Richard's original improvised guitar track can be heard here and there, and Michael Manring overdubbed a replacement fretless bass part that he played using an Ebow.
It's clear how much you respect Michael and Celso, but are there special qualities they provide to a project like this?
Michael was featured on my Volcano and Hologramatron albums and we also played together in the improvisational quintet Cloud Chamber, which released an album called Dark Matter. He is one of the most forward-thinking proponents of his instrument alive today, and arguably the greatest solo electric bassist in the world, as well as being a brilliant improviser.
Celso is also a superb and highly diverse musician and improviser, and he and Michael have worked together on various projects for decades, so they are totally in sync. Given that so much of the music on Mu was improvised, it is fair to say that without their singular contributions the album could never have taken the form that it did.
When I was listening to the album it really struck me how much you all rely on each other to create the atmosphere and mood of the music. The contribution from each musician key in allowing the others the room to really express the nuances and emotion of the music. Was that something that you really had to focus on as a group of musicians, or did that aspect simply click into place due to the ability of those involved?
I'd say the latter, as all of the musicians are seasoned improvisers. Of course, even skilled improvisers can come up empty handed without the blessing of The Muse, and we were extremely fortunate to get so much strong material from a single and relatively short session.
To most Mu will be an unusual name for an album. However there is a strong meaning behind the name, the description in the press release explaining it as… 'one day a troubled monk approached Joshu, a renowned Chinese Zen master, intending to ask him for guidance. A dog walked by and the monk asked Joshu, "Has that dog a Buddha Nature or not?" The monk had barely completed his question when Joshu shouted: "Mu!"' Who was it that initially came up with the theme for the album and can you elaborate on it?
To be honest, I came up with the title after the album was completed. I had been reading several books on Zen and was struck by the parallels between the states of mind cultivated in Zen meditation and the states of mind most conducive to improvisation. Richard is also deeply interested in philosophy and consciousness, and so the concept resonated with him, as well. He came up with the title "Zen/Unzen."
The album does a tremendous job of conveying those sentiments. How much of a challenge was it to convey such a deep idea in the music you created?
I would say that it was the other way around; the idea was inherent in the music before I happened to connect it to the Zen theme. One of the most direct connections is that the more deeply into improvisation you are drawn, the more tenuous your sense of "self" tends to become; much in the same way that meditation tends to reveal that tenuousness.
In fact the album has a real ability to remove the listener from the realities of life and place them into the world the music is trying to portray. That atmospheric, otherworldly aspect 'Mu' has must be something you're really pleased with?
Yes, for me one of the most significant qualities of music is its ability to transport the listener to spaces outside of their usual awareness, especially improvised music, which in its most potent forms may be experienced as a direct or at least relatively unfiltered transmission from The Beyond. In the case of Mu, much of that quality was present in the original improvisations, but benefitted from being brought more clearly into focus during the post-production and mixing phases. In other cases, the effect was achieved with overdubs and ambient processors of various types.
Prior to Mu you have released five solo albums, the first in 1986, the most recent in 2010. That most recent release, Hologramatron, is described as an avant-rock 21st Century protest album. I'm intrigued to discover some of the inspiration behind an album with that ethos, both musically and in spirit.
Hologramatron is the only record I've made that was centered on songs with vocals and lyrics. The lyrics started out as disjointed fragments of things I'd written in response to my frustration with the actions of the second Bush administration, and eventually became more. For example, "Lake of Fire" addresses the comingling of religious fundamentalism and right-wing ideology; "Money Speaks" is mostly about the corrupting influence of corporate media, K Street, and Madison Avenue on society and the democratic process; and "Suicide Train" takes the traditional metaphor of the train as a vehicle of salvation and turns it on its head to illustrate the seemingly irreversible rush to personal and planetary destruction that includes environmental degradation, overpopulation, and soulless consumerism.
Amy X Neuburg was the featured vocalist on the record, with help from Harry Manx and Deborah Holland. Michael Masley (a.k.a. The Artist General) contributed an impromptu rant titled "Warning," for which we made a fun video that may be viewed on YouTube and my website. I sang "Suicide Train."
Hologramatron was also the first 'rock' album I'd made, though stylistically it is actually all over the map, drawing on progressive, psychedelic, metal, ambient, trance, funk, electronic, and various world musics, with contributions from a wide variety of incredible musicians, including pedal-steel innovator Robert Mathew Powell, who played on my Voluntary Dreaming album as well. Also included are covers of Malvina Reynolds anti-nuke classic "What Have They Done to the Rain" and Joe Meek's "Telstar."
However if the differences between Mu and Hologramatron appear quite vast, then that's a feature across a solo catalogue that takes in African Afro-Haitian rhythms mixed with jazz, ambient and world music, an album with electronic inspiration, an album where guitar works alongside blowhammer cymbalom, woodwind, synth and light percussion, whereas your first release was focused on a more ambient outlook. By anyone's standards that's an eclectic collection of work. A lot of artists seem to want to carve out a niche and stay almost blinkeredly true to it. Would it be fair to suggest that you've actually gone out of your way to avoid following that ethos?
Some artists stick to one thing so as not to risk financial loss resulting from alienating their followers. Because I harbor no illusions of achieving or sustaining widespread commercial success—especially these days—I feel free to do whatever interests me with complete impunity.
Obviously you're hugely busy as a writer and have also contributed to many other musical projects and albums over the years. However do you think that your desire not to, or maybe even refusal to simply repeat yourself is one of the reason why your solo recordings have been so infrequent over the years?
Not really. The music and the timing have had as much to do with opportunity as they have with intent. For example, my first widely available album, Mythos, was recorded two years before Larry Fast's Audion Recording Company label released it, and the music was mostly improvised, which is why it sounds the way it does. The follow-up album, Voluntary Dreaming, was intentionally more electronic sounding because Audion was billed as an "electronic music" label, though, ironically, Audion folded before the record's release and it came out on Scarlet Music instead.
My third album, Volcano, came about when percussionist Michael Pluznick recorded some African and Afro-Haitian rhythm tracks and asked me to compose music based on them. I brought in Michael Manring and sax, flute, and clarinet virtuoso Norbert Stachel, who injected the jazzier elements into the music. A few years later I released Memory & Imagination, a 2-CD set comprising the best parts of my first two albums on one disc, and loop-based solo guitar pieces, some also with percussion, on the other.
The long stretch after that before releasing my 'protest album', Hologramatron, was mostly the result of my taking so much time to make the record, which was a huge undertaking. And then it was a few more years before Richard Pinhas and I finally had a chance to record together, and Mu sounds the way it does primarily because the music was mostly improvised and not composed.
Do you have any other music in the works for future solo albums or collaborations?
Stephan Thelen of Sonar, one of my favorite bands, asked me to play on a song for his upcoming solo album, which I'm really excited about. I played the Vocalizer 1000 woodwind synth in addition to guitar. And I created a soundscape for Swedish jazz guitarist and composer Johan Berke's great new album, Simpatico. Additionally, I composed the theme music for a video game pilot, as well as a dozen cues for Telepictures that have been used on Warner TV shows and CNN documentaries.
I'd also like to ask you about The Lodge. Can you give us an insight into the original Lodge idea and how you hope to use that ethos in your music writing, please?
The Lodge was my former home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Between 1990 and 1994 it was the scene for gatherings attended by a wide variety of musicians, all of whom adhered to two principles: No matter who you imagined yourself to be, you checked your ego at the door, and as far as possible you refrained from playing anything you had played previously. Some extraordinary improvisations took place there. I call my blog The Lodge in that same spirit, eschewing the inane egoism characteristic of much contemporary 'music journalism', while celebrating creative transcendence.
With The Lodge originally being a way to collaborate without the usual pitfalls such as ego getting involved, would you like to see your incarnation of The Lodge begin to grow to include other like-minded writers?
I have no such plans at present.
You've also written a book about legendary British producer Joe Meek. However rather than focus on his lifestyle and untimely death, you've decided to focus on his studio and production techniques. Why was this something you were so passionate to shine a light on?
I actually signed the book deal with Mix Books before I knew very much about Meek. Originally, it was going to be a 'Barry's big ideas on creative production' sort of thing, using anecdotal stories about Meek to illustrate the points. But after a few months of research, aided by dozens of amazing people here and in the U.K., I came to realize that rather than being a mere footnote in British recording history, Meek had been profoundly influential on numerous levels, and that became the story. It is no exaggeration to say that if you record music, many of the techniques and perspectives you take for granted originated with Meek.
In some ways do you think his huge contribution to modern production techniques have been forgotten?
I'd say that was the case before my book, Joe Meek's Bold Techniques, was published, but not now. For example, Meek topped New Musical Express' list of "The 50 Greatest Producers Ever" in 2012, edging out legends such as George Martin, Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, and Brian Eno. And a major documentary film about Meek will debut later this year.
And what other writing projects do you have lined up for the future?
I hope to do more with The Lodge, and I also write an occasional recording column for Reverb.com, but otherwise I'm currently focused on other activities.
Barry Cleveland photographs by Jeff Fasano
(Click here to read our reviews of Mu)