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InterviewsAndre LaFosse gets Normalized but stays extraordinary

Posted on Sunday, June 27 2004 @ 15:53:00 CDT by Jedd Beaudoin
Progressive Rock Andre LaFosse's second outing Normalized asks the question "Can a musician be a DJ" and then answers with a resounding "Yes." While Normalized uses many sounds that listeners will typically identify as samples or synthesizers, the fact is that the California-based guitarist performed all parts with a guitar. Live.

Along with his first outing, Disruption Theory, Normalized displays the depths of LaFosse's genius and explains once more why he's grown a reputation within the guitar community as a fresh voice that deserves wider acclaim.

If you've not yet heard Normalized or Disruption Theory you owe it to yourself to do so today. Artists with LaFosse's impact are rare unique and deserve to be heard. Visit to learn more on the guitarist and his work and how to buy both Normalized and Disruption Theory

Sea of Tranquility: What I hear in your playing is a fascination with not only music but sound in general. Which came first for you, sound or music, or do you not separate them?

Andre LaFosse: I guess I think of sound as being a primary element of music, just as melody, rhythm, and harmony are. The main difference is that sound is a very, very specific thing, whereas the other three aspects are more universal.

In other words, a melody can be played on just about any pitched instrument, and a harmony can be played on anything that will play more than one note at a time. But sound itself is very specific to a particular instrument: if you play something on a Moog synthesizer, and then play the same thing on an acoustic piano, it's going to have a very different impact.

The electric guitar interests me a lot, strictly from a "sound" point of view, because it's fundamentally both electronic and acoustic. All of the electronics in an electric guitar are there to magnify something which is ultimately acoustical in nature: a steel string vibrating across a piece of wood. But because the final sound production is also fundamentally electronic, the instrument lends itself to being altered or manipulated with technology very easily.

So I see the electric guitar as a sort of literal bridge between the acoustic and electronic musical worlds. It's a great instrument for dealing with the idea of "sound" in and of itself, with all of the possibilities that both electronic and acoustic techniques offer. And it all originates with bare hands on steel strings, which is the most gratifying way of making music I've found.

SoT: I remember reading a Steve Vai interview where he said that he could never play the blues and another with Marty Friedman where he said he couldn't really emulate the "hot" players around him when he was growing up. Did you find, as you started playing, that you were less interested in emulating others and more interested in finding a connection between what you felt in your heart and heard in your head?

AL: You know, the whole "originality vs. emulation" issue is kind of a thorny one to talk about, because it can be such a personal and subjective thing. For some people, tapping into "what's in their heart and their head" isn't necessarily some kind of iconoclastic or radically original statement. They might find a lot of personal fulfillment in playing music that's well-defined by other people's influence.

To me, a person's musical identity is sort of like their physical body -there's a certain amount they can modify, and there's a certain amount that they have to accept as a fundamental part of who and what they are, for better or worse. Some folks can't help but stand out and look unusual, no matter how hard they try to fit it, and other people seem to naturally blend in anonymously.

From there, people experiment with different ways of "framing" their body - different haircuts and styles of clothes, for instance - to see what feels best. Some people are going to look better with a suit and tie and a pompadour, others prefer jeans and a t-shirt and a shaved head. And a few of them just can't find clothes or stylists they like, so they end up making their own wardrobe and cutting their hair themselves.

So what does this have to with emulating other musicians? I see it all as being very similar to what a musician goes through when they're finding their creative voice - people choose instruments to give themselves a particular kind of "body," and then they "dress" themselves with different styles and genres of music. And some people find a particular style of music that says everything they want to say, so they dedicate themselves to learning that style authentically, with a deep respect for the tradition they're working within. I think that's fantastic - when you see a performer whose life has been dedicated to mastering a particular historical discipline, and when it really resonates with them and through them, it's an incredibly powerful thing.

When I started playing guitar, I certainly spent my fair share of time playing along with a lot of other people's records, and I've studied a lot of different forms of music to get a sense of how they work. But I haven't found a "real" style that lets me say everything I want to, and when I do play within a particular style, I tend to feel like I'm "getting into character" - walking around wearing someone else's clothes, and affecting someone else's mannerisms, basically.

So making my own music is a way for me to be creatively active, in ways that feels like I'm really being "me," rather than getting into character and being "a rock guy" or "a jazz guy" or "a dance-music guy." Those things can be fun, and I enjoy doing gigs within a fixed genre. But if I'm thinking about my own thing, I don't really want to "play a style"––I want to play music. Let me play something, and then see how we describe it after the fact! As a creator, that's much more gratifying than starting from a definition (which is what a style really is, in many ways), and using that as a way of knowing what I'm "supposed" to play.

SoT: A few years ago, a friend and I had a discussion about writing and we arrived at the conclusion that there's not much new that can be done with fiction, that anything really innovative that's happening now has to do with form. Do you feel that there are certain similar limitations within music or do you think that music is less restricted because there are possibilities unencumbered by the "tangible" nature of language?

AL: That's a really good question, and I actually spend a lot of time thinking about the issue of how form influences content, and vice versa.

First off, in a very, very general sense, I don't think that form is the only frontier left to be conquered, because that implies that all of the available stories have already been told, and that all that's left is to find new ways of telling the same old stories.

I don't think I agree with that - I think the stories people tell are very largely defined by the types of people they are, and by the way the worlds they live in shape their lives. And since neither people nor their worlds are static things, there's no reason to assume that the stories they tell can't be just as dynamic and evolving as the form those stories are framed in. (I use the word "stories" to refer to whatever someone's outlet of expression is - a piece of music, a painting, a movie, whatever.)

This might sound like a nutty example for a guitar looper to use, but Ani DiFranco comes to mind as a great example of someone who often works with very conventional forms, in a general "context" (folk music, in her case) that's very well established... yet her music, to me, is extremely modern, because it's coming from a point of view that is distinctly reflective of its era. It isn't just the fact that a lot of her lyrical subject matter comes from a post-feminist, post-Reagan, openly bisexual point of view - her lyrical cadence owes a lot to hip-hop, and the way she plays guitar has roots in punk rock (as does a lot of her overall aesthetic). So people like her can absolutely breathe new life into very conventional forms.

Having said all that, I do think that this sot of personalization gets more difficult when you venture into the realm of instrumental music. A very large chunk of rock and pop music from the last several decades uses a lot of the same basic chord progressions and structures. If you look at them strictly from the point of view of instrumental melodies and chord progressions, it can become very difficult to tell individual songs/artists/styles apart, without the lyrical content, instrumentation, or vocal delivery there to distinguish one from another.

This is particularly an issue for someone like myself, who came of age as a guitarist at the height of the whole late-'80s instrumental guitar wave. It can be really, really difficult to use the electric guitar in an instrumental song-structure context without sounding like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, or Eric Johnson. So many of the guitarists who've done instrumental work since then keep falling back on the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-etc. approach, with the same kinds of chord progressions and the same kinds of melodic figures happening over the top of them. It's a very late-20th-century concept, really, and there's an immense amount of music from all over the world that sounds great without being beholden to a verse-chorus-bridge type of structure, which I think is ripe for exploration in a guitar-based context.

I don't know if this answers your question, or if it even makes sense, but it's interesting stuff to think about!

SoT: Well, I wanted to ask you about Normalized. It's a "soundscapes" record that's devoid of many of the things we think of when we think of soundscapes, in that rather than sounding like a guy with an effects rack, it sounds like a group, there are a variety of dimensions to the sound.

AL: There can be a lot of preconceptions about what guitar looping is "supposed" to be about. Saying this with all respect, I think the fact that you chose to use a Robert Fripp-derived term ("soundscapes") to describe a utterly un-Fripp-sounding record like Normalized is a good example of those kinds of preconceptions.

Robert wasn't the first guy to use looping by any means - Brian Eno introduced him to it, by which time people like Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and others had already been using it in both studio composition and live performance for several years. But when Fripp started doing, he'd already built up a career as a well-known rock guitarist, so any activity he took part in - especially something like looping, with its potential novelty factor - was going to have a high level of visibility. The fact that he coined idiosyncratic terms like "Frippertronics" and "soundscaping" to describe his own looping certainly helped as well. It's very cool that he's been able to turn people on to looping, but his association with that technology has been a bit of a double-edged sword.

When I got my Echoplex back in late '95, I'd already been listening to King Crimson for a few years. I was also becoming more aware of David Torn, who has also been using looping in his music since the '70s (and who ultimately became a much, much bigger influence on me, both looping-wise and music-wise in general, than Fripp ever was). Both of these guys were very outspoken advocates for using loops, so I'd listen to some of their recordings, and a lot of what I'd hear was ambient and textural and heavily-processed. So I sort of assumed that those were the things I was "supposed" to do with looping.

Over several years, though, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the ambient guitar approach. As with the analogy above, I felt like I was self-consciously dressing up in somebody else's clothes when I turned my Echoplex on. And I was starting to notice that there definitely was an ambient guitar genre, and that quite a number of other guitarists worked with long delay lines and effects boxes.

The biggest turning point probably came about three years ago, when I made a conscious decision to start from scratch with looping - no effects, no Ebow drones, just a guitar straight into a tube amp with an Echoplex in the signal path. It's been a process of elimination: when you get rid of the things you usually do, what will you start doing then?

That's the question I've been trying to answer for the last couple of years, and what I've found is that it's steered me back towards a lot of music that I've enjoyed for many, many years - hip hop, industrial, drum and bass, IDM. I've sort of stumbled into different ways to access that music, but doing so in a very organic sort of way, totally on the basis of what I do with the guitar and the Echoplex. It feels less like I'm playing to my expectation of loops, and more like I'm playing the loops the way I want to hear things anyway.

SoT: I really have to compliment you on "The Proposition" because that's so much, to me, the epitome of what you're doing––it's like Stevie Wonder showing up at a scratching contest.

AL: Thanks very much––you actually keyed into something fairly important to the record, because one of the reasons for opening with that track was to frame the overall album in a certain way. The concept of Normalized as a record, ultimately, is not that it's a display of flipped-out, glitchy looping chops, but rather that you're hearing a left-of-center funk record, played by a guitarist who grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop and electronic music, who's filtering those influences through what he plays on his instrument. And by starting the record with "The Proposition," it's a way of framing the whole CD from that point of view.

A lot of what I do with the Echoplex involves fragmenting my live guitar playing by using different looping functions - sort of like a turntablist will scratch a record until it sounds completely unlike what's originally on the record, I can chop loops up so that they sounds very different from the guitar line I played originally. But even the more flipped-out, angular, abstract performances still have a strong rhythmic drive to them. And to my ears, at least, they actually do have a lot of melodic material happening.

It may not be melody in the sense of a tune you'd hear on an unplugged singer-songwriter record, but to me one of the most powerful lessons of hip-hop is that "melody" can take a lot of different forms, and can manifest itself in some very angular and abstract ways. Public Enemy used to do tracks (which were played heavily on MTV in their era) where the closest thing to a melody would be a car horn or tea kettle whistle. But the music was constructed in such a way that these sounds started taking on very hooky, visceral, catchy qualities. I absolutely think that people's ears have been tuned to hear music in a very "sonic" way over the last couple of decades.

SoT: I also wanted to ask you about the song "Normalized," which suggests that you listen to music from around the world (I think of that track as being the blend of India, Africa and, in its way, the Mississippi Delta), what are some of your favorite non-American musics?

AL: Once again, you hit the nail on the head--the song "Normalized" was actually inspired when I was approached about submitting some music for a very left-of-center blues compilation which a contact of mine was assembling. He asked about the possibility of providing him with some new material, and I took the compilation theme as a cue to try and come up with something that had some sort of bluesy quality - but without resorting to something obvious, like playing pentatonic licks over a 12-bar blues progression.

As far as music from different cultures, Indian music is something I enjoy a lot as a listener. I spent a couple of semesters at CalArts taking Indian music lessons on my regular electric guitar, trying to find ways of translating the phrasing to my own instrument. I'd never say that I can actually play Indian music authentically - I don't even know a single raga, at this point. But the phrasing and ornamentation is something I've spent quite a bit of time studying - not with the intent of trying to play it verbatim, but to try and give me a different perspective on how I can phrase on my own instrument, in my own musical context.

Beyond Indian music, I'm a huge fan of Fela Kuti, the famous bandleader and composer from Nigeria. His music was definitely not what I'd call indigenous African music - he took a lot of influence from James Brown, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and other American and European musicians. But one of the amazing things about Fela's music is the way it makes all kinds of connections between traditional African music and 20th century jazz and funk, for instance. That's one thing that intrigues me about comparing music from different parts of history, in different parts of the world: hearing how much commonality there is, and how much there is to learn from all kinds of music, no matter what you play.

SoT: Disruption Theory contained songs that were sometimes longer and I guess I think of that as a great record as well but I see Normalized [as a party record for the "outside" set].

AL: I think the records are two sides of the same coin. The main idea is that they both deal with trying to stake out common ground between the electric guitar (and, by extension, various strains of rock, fusion, and "new music") on the one hand, and on the other hand, various post-DJ ideas of form, structure, and sound.

The main difference is that Disruption Theory treats the guitar and the electronics as two different elements that cross-pollinate and inform one another in various ways, while Normalized eliminates any distinction -the guitar becomes the electronic element, and the electronic element comes from different ways that the guitar is treated and performed.

So Disruption Theory is sort of a "guitar album" that was produced a lot like a dance record. Whereas Normalized is a dance record that was played on guitar, and is designed to be listened to not so much as a "guitar album" (where you'd expect to hear melodies and solos and things like that) but more as a glitch/hip-hop/electronic album, where the musical development happens based more on changes in grooves and sonic information.

SoT: You've developed something of a musical relationship with Yogi. What was it that brought the two of you together and what's your "take" on that relationship?

AL: Shawn and I crossed paths online late in 2000 - we'd seen mention of each other's work in a few different forums, and had been traveling in some of the same general circles of musical acquaintances. It turned out that we both dug each other's music quite a bit, which lead to my doing a lot of remix work for Yogi in 2001 and 2002. For about a year and a half, Yogi planned to have the remixes be the focal point of his Salve CD, but that plan was ultimately shelved in favor of emphasizing new, original material of his own. The Yogi remixes sort of became my "lost album," in a way - they were done in between Disruption Theory and Normalized and a big part of why Normalized is what it is has to do with what I went through in making those remixes.

Yogi and I have very similar musical backgrounds - we both came of age as guitarists during the same era, and we were both very heavily influenced by a lot of the same musicians (Rush, King's X, Living Colour, Steve Vai, people like that). We're only a couple of years apart age-wise, so there are a lot of similar cultural reference points as well.

If you compare our music, what's interesting is that, from our common background, he and I have taken very, very different paths. I think a big part of what I enjoy about Yogi's stuff is that his material very clearly and eloquently references a lot of the music I grew up with, so there's definitely an innate connection there for me. I think the remixes were a way for me to try and tap into that aspect of my own musical development, and try to deal with it in a way that I can't do with my own music, because I don't write songs the way Shawn does.

SoT: Your parents were musicians, did they impress certain things upon your early on or did you start developing into a musician, more or less, on your own?

ALMy parents actually met when they were both playing violin in a symphony orchestra, and the violin was (and still is, in the case of my mother) a huge part of their lives. So music has been a part of my own life from the very beginning. There are classical violin parts that are forever etched into my subconscious memory, simply because I heard so much of it growing up (and probably before I was even born). Up until I hit adolescence, all of my musical exploits were classically-oriented, including five years where I played cello.

My father, in particular, was delighted when I chose to play a classical stringed interment, and he was also horrified when I quit that instrument to focus on electric guitar. I can understand why - I was sort of "leaving the family," in a musical sense. I certainly didn't want to disappoint him, but it was painfully obvious that I was deeply intrigued by the electric guitar, and not very attached to the cello. He ultimately did come around, though, and in a relatively short stretch of time, as well.
He was incredibly supportive and encouraging of my music throughout the remainder of his life, even when he didn't always understand or relate to what I was doing on an aesthetic level. I think my mother seemed to be more intrigued than horrified with my move to electric guitar, and she continues to be extremely supportive and appreciative of my music.

SoT: You've talked in the past about how you "detox" yourself sometimes from a particular player's influence. Are there points where you find the urge to purge yourself of your own playing? That is, where you say, "Man, I play a lot of this pattern, what can I do to break out of that?"

AL: I don't worry about it too much at the "licks and riffs" level. At any given time, there are going to be certain figures or patterns that I find myself playing a lot, but those are almost always different from the licks I was playing a year ago, and they seem to end up being different from the licks I play a year down the road. So those things seem to work their way through the system pretty naturally. What I do spend time consciously trying to deal with is the "big picture" - the overall musical context that I'm operating in, and how that impacts what I do.

Put it this way: when a musician plays something, they're sort of presenting their answer to a question that's posed by the music. And if somebody's always being asked the same kinds of questions, and talking about the same sorts of subjects, it can be easy to repeat the same answers - or play the same licks - over and over.

But if they tackle a new subject, they might find that the old, familiar answers they always use don't work anymore, because they're not relevant to the new questions being posed to them. So I guess that's what I spend most of my time doing - looking for questions that I don't have easy answers to, and trying to come up with something worthwhile to say.

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