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James Wilson & the Politics of Twang

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Back in the olden days, when rock was young, a group etched itself on the collective psyche by releasing three great LPs in as many years (or, rather, anticipating the moment when a work would transcend mere physical formats, three great albums). Anyone can cut a great single – even a Wild Man Fischer or a Lene Lovich – all they have to do is register the uniqueness of a voice. Any functioning band can release one great LP, the set of songs they’ve sweated blood to put together and present to the world, their break-out from everyday life. But three? Now you are talking the hallowed ground of rock artistry: the Stoogesimage, the Saints, the Only Ones, Throwing Muses. Bands with songwriters capable of taking success in their stride, of keeping their mainstreet eyes open to the rubbish and lies of the biz, shrugging off the phony accolades of fools, chancers, managers and breadheads. Ah early days, ah youth, ah lost times …

Today, of course, everything is different. Pop acts have become so knowing about the game that the very impulse to resist is already a unit available readymade from the shelf, like a Farfisa sample on a digital keyboard. Genre-bending far more violently than the blurbs trotted out by professional publicists, Pop today is now a Classical Music, a set of techniques anyone with the privilege of time and money can master. The middleclasses have taken over. Today’s mainstream acts may claim to have songwriters onboard, but they are just reassembling the already known, it’s all repertoire: genuine innovation has been forced underground, to the margins, to the Weird. Given this situation, it’s tempting to adopt the Weird – and the downtrodden, and the obscure – simply because they’ve not been shaped by marketing consultants and biz gurus. But it’s tiring. Even radical music, said Theodor Adorno, can suffer from the fact that commercial music absorbes the resources for music making (its “productive vigour”), thus making what remains “threadbare” (Theodor Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music (1962), p. 125). So the worn-out radicals begin wondering about the plush avenues of compromise, and all the tensions wilt.

But then … some musicians come along and change the rules of the game. Musicians who can use today’s gulf between promoted culture and relevant aesthetics to personal advantage. Having worked together in the Kym Farbach Quartet and Big Spider Band in Melbourne in the 1990s – improv revolts against jazz repertory – guitarist James Wilson and saxophonist Simon Bereux recorded three albums as Music With My Insane Friend: 11, (Technically) Winter and I to I. In so doing, they changed the face of music. Listening to these three studio dates recorded between April 2011 and September 2012, I’m still undecided whether what I’m hearing is Rock or Improv or Noise or Fusion or Electronica or Spectral or Bloody Ballet, my indecision made still starker because the music sounds utterly decisive, as if these musicians could play no other way.

image11 starts out in analogue PA glitch’n’scratch, luxuriating in the dodgy-contact interference “professional” soundpersons strive to avoid, though beneath the fluff and reverb a musical argument starts that is unstoppable. Sixteen minutes later it emerges, an E Major blues “gash” chord with a nagging G-natural hammered down with the earth-magic immoveability of a track by Howlin’ Wolf. In common with all shamans of rock’s Fender-Gibson-Leslie magic triangle, Music With My Insane Friend have no problem at all with natural harmonics: the immoveability we hear invokes a reverberant universe which predates the key-system’s historical division of the sound spectrum into productive little strips. In this, MWMIF resemble the Romanian “spectral” composers Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana Maria Avram. Their music likewise crawls with event in every nook and cranny, an entire seething microcosm. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Music With My Insane Friend might be compared to Bruce Russell and The Dead C in New Zealand, who likewise invented a music based on natural harmonics; but MWMIF are a parallel development, not an imitation. James Wilson is certainly a builder of sonic environments, but he’s also a guitar man: his environments come directly out of his struggle with the instrument and its legacy: “My jazz muso friends were getting nostalgic about Led Zeppelin, who were always much of a muchness to me. So I played them Zappa’s “Yo Mama”. The response was typical: “Got some nice ideas but sounds like his technique lets him down.” They can’t hear it. To me, Frank’s playing is amazing, but it’s the music that gets me: “Yo Mama”, “Transylvania Boogie”, “Sleep Dirt”, “While You Were Out”, “Stucco Homes”, his solo on “Revised Music For Guitar and Low Budget Orchestra”, both solos on side one of Burnt Weeny Sandwich, the blistering solo on “Son of Orange County” from Roxy & Elsewhere …”

Simon Bereux is the other half of Music With My Insane Friend. His saxophone doesn’t suffer from the copycat syndrome which afflicts jazz. There’s no American model for his playing, no formal dues-paying; instead I’m reminded of the unguarded lyricism of the best saxophonists I’ve witnessed playing live in the UK: Lol Coxhill, Xero Slingsby, Alan Wilkinson, Charlie Wharf. Bereux also plays “the gafukra”, a homemade electronic assemblage of rewired mobile phones, drum machine and “an actual snare”. Together, the two musicians achieve an easy flow which is uncommon in musics using such a plethora of “unmusical” sounds. However unearthly and grandiose their sonic caverns, there’s no system, no structuralism, no doctrine: we’re being blasted with expressive urgencies phrased with physical logic. The playing is intensely vocalised, as if the blues burst its banks and flooded all music.

image(Technically) Winter and I to I do not repeat 11‘s formula, except in the sense that the pair again risk everything in a single unbroken performance. In opposition to the implications of its name, (Technically) Winter breaks the curse of formality: the spell which reduces musical life – from primary school talent-nights to South Bank shows – to a frozen readymeal, performances straitened and immobilised by the audience’s fear of responding to lack of talent, lack of training, imperfection, “what my seven-year-old could do”. Sorry, sir – as Asger Jorn might say – it’s what your seven-year-old can do and you can’t which interests us. Wilson’s plunge into the intricacies of distortion and effect recalls animal and baby art, where the gestural splat is unconstrained by adult calculation, and so beautiful (“natural”); but his musicianship is also a fantastic editor, avoiding the hazy blur of wig-outs by limited players: everything is crisp, detailed, violent, rugged. Bereux’s sax is almost unbearably wet and emotional, heating up Wilson into highflown abstract arguments guitarists in British Improv (except Stefan Jaworzyn) are too genteel to broach (so this is what you heard in Ray Russell! I want to shout at Angel Air). I and I has sick, nostalgic passages not heard on record since Gavin Bryars’ (original) Sinking of the Titanic. Jagged metal storms rip open to reveal pastoral hallucinations worthy of Egg, Kevin Ayers or John Surman in the early 70s: musical animé, sonic Studio Ghibli, pre-Raphaelite landscapes inserted into a Merz assemblage …

Bereux and Wilson presented the three Music With My Insane Friend albums to the world as free downloads on a blog set up by Bereux (Wilson’s dayjob as a picture-framer allows him the luxury of freedom from commerce; Bereux has a rock band called Konk Zooben). This method of dissemination is appropriate. Over the last decade, some of the most righteous voices in politics and journalism (at least in the UK) have arisen from the blogosphere. So why not new voices in music too? MWMIF carry this blog sensibility into its very grain, using speech as sound material. On I and I, Bereux’s gafukra overlays object-oriented academico-babble in English and German, plus readings of Kant and Nietzsche. Politican soundbytes (or the voice of William Burroughs) are familiar in avantesque releases, but this is something else: MWMIF chip away at the distinction between reasoned discourse and instinctual response, achieving surreal moments of intellectual and sensual insight, as well as slashes of cruel satire.The musicians’ scorn for mere concepts, their yearning for real experience, becomes graphic, lurid, deliriously funny. For Wilson, creative music is inherently revolutionary: “To conventional minds, music must be channelled toward the “respectable” and functional, much like the human mental state (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, “Recovery” etc). The only way for the alienated and exploited workers of the world to participate is to fawn over the talents of those who have conquered the exchange value mountain. I say, Fuck that!”

imageSo, three epic albums and Music With My Insane Friend as a band to believe in. But Wilson has also used the MWMIF blog and SoundCloud to develop an argument about the guitar and how it could be used, taking advantage of the interweb: its lack of mediation (arguments with managers about what to release), its instantaneity and directness. There are momentous rock tracks here (“Images of Konk”, “Gimp 1.7.2”, “Punkchewayshun”) with atmospheric depths and beat intoxication worthy of early Tangerine Dream or Mandré (the great forgotten mystery artist on Motown in the mid-70s). Wilson’s guitar delivers such a NYC harmolodic sting you know James Chance wouldn’t need to look far for a guitarist on an Australian tour (“Phone Me When You’re Sick”). But there’s also an extended series of numbered guitar pieces called “Bailey Recognisable” (now in the mid-50s). Having established himself as a guitarist at home in freak rock, P-funk, free jazz, No Wave and skronk, Wilson now takes on the Lenin of Free Improvisation: this is Derek Bailey reinterpreted as no-one, but no-one (not even Eugene Chadbourne) has done before.

Wilson: “Musos can’t tell if Frank and Derek can “really play” or not (you know, normal music). There’s no safety net. That for me is political – revolutionary, in fact. To hold firm in your creative autonomy no matter the forces around you trying to herd you into the Same Old Same Old. That’s the door to the world of musical creativity Frank and Derek have flung open for me. It’s a fucking huge world, open and endless. Sophisticats [this is Wilson’s own neologism and refers to “Yo Cats”, the song on Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention which vilifies Hollywood session musicians] slam that door shut in your face: those fucking hierarchies that get me down so much. A good friend wanted me to go see Pat Metheny recently, he was touring here, but I just can’t do it. It’s as if he’s saying, I’m up here for a reason, and you’re down there watching for another, and ain’t nothing gonna bridge that gap. I reckon Karl Marx was saying that gap is bullshit, a lie. Everyone should be able to access that place.”

James Wilson is a guitar-player’s guitar-player, with the kind of chops London guitar honchos Simon King and Paul Seacroft would bracket with a Dave Barbour or a Freddie Roulette, but he loathes muso neck-down lifelessness. In contradistinction to Chadbourne, who disparaged Frank Zappa’s guitar playing in his Invisible Jukebox with David Keenan (Wire 376), Wilson adores the charnel-house filth and fox-stink of Zappa’s guitar: “Tom Fryer, a guitar player here in Melbourne, lent me a Eugene Chadbourne and Frank Lowe record on cassette. First time I’d heard Eugene. They played standards, and Eugene just cracked me up, the same Sonny Rollins did on “Now’s The Time”, some weird vinyl I had called The Alternative Rollins. That Chadbourne had the balls to play like that staggered me. It just wasn’t what you’re “supposed” to do – but he fucking did it. Jazz is weird that way, if you venture too far from its modus operandi people get pissed off. Though the same shit can be found among the more avant-garde guardians as well! But I don’t agree with Chadbourne on Zappa as guitarist. I love Zappa’s playing.”

imageNow, if you like both Zappa and Bailey, you are headed for trouble. Rock aesthetics were developed in the 60s and 70s around the commodity form – “the good album”. In contrast, in-person performance is the life essence of Free Improvisation (why it is predicated on interrupting the social function of music, today expertly managed by the moneypeople). Also, Bailey’s approach to the guitar – the stretched intervallic leaps, the various attacks on the string, the absolutely unprecedented gamut of “chords” (what modern composers call “clusters”), the instantaneity of repartee – eschews the narrative logic Zappa inherited from Stravinsky (you can follow every Zappa track like a composition, draw it in your mind). Although it does eventually open up to the glittering omniverse of post-Webernian atonality, where every note is a twinkling gesture, Bailey’s approach is “dry” for those who stick to the blues-base of rock. In fact, it feels like the opposite of rock (when living in a flat shared by a Rolling Stones’ costumier in the mid-60s, Bailey played tapes of Anton Webern to ward off the “fashionable hairies”). So Derek and Zappa shouldn’t go together. But Wilson shows that their virtues – Zappa’s atmosphere, sultriness and twang and Bailey’s interrogation, algebra and poignancy – have been separated for too long.

Chadbourne’s deafness to Zappa’s guitarism stems from commitment to the emotional sunburst that’s possible during a song (his most achieved album is probably the set of Hendrix covers he played with drummer Jimmy Carl Black and pianist Pat Thomas in an Italian girls’ school). In his Invisible Jukebox, Chadbourne dismissed the solo on “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” on Absolutely Free (Zappa’s first extended guitar solo on record) as “nonsense”, but this track inaugurated Zappa’s whole programme: using rock to present modern compositions, each one a unique collage of elements irreducible to any previous schema (one of Adorno’s prescriptions for authentic modern compositions). The tune purposely borrowed the chords of Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets. This linear, compositional approach is meat and drink to Wilson. He uses Derek Bailey’s extended techniques – played with a firmness and velocity that comes from applying known fingerings rather than “experimenting” (kind-of like how Sonny Stitt sounds more forceful, if less movingly creative, than Charlie Parker) – to realise wilfully intricate and elaborate compositional ideas.

Wilson also uses Logic computer software to realise brain-popping musical cameos (these also get posted on the blog, though not named “Bailey Recognisable”). Wilson’s forays into the digital realm predated the 1986 release of Frank Zappa’s album of Synclavier tunes Jazz from Hell (although Wilson does credit Jazz from Hell for allowing him to think of these personal indulgences as “genuine music”). On these pieces, Wilson can unleash all the musical ideas in his head, and the results are unbelievable: there is nothing in the world of academic composition quite so dense, hectic and surprising (check “Short & Sweet” or “Nylon Cleansed”). Sure, they’re miles away from Chadbourne’s Technicolored, mulberry-coloured 3D-LSD ab-ex guitar-solo firestorms, but they’re definitely not “nonsense”.

Wilson explains his aesthetic like this: “When DJ Ninj comes on and Derek is raging over the top it is NOT what you expect to hear. It just isn’t. It is completely jarring and unexpected. And he maintains it. My word for it is recalcitrance. Frank’s guitar playing has a similar recalcitrance to Derek, but perhaps subtler. His playing is rooted in blues and R&B, but he won’t “practice” the idiosyncrasies out of his playing. All those speech-influenced rhythms he uses, odd tuplets, weird rhythmic groupings, are a product of his natural psyche and physiology. Tendencies that he saw as a bonus. He made use of those things because he saw music in them. They weren’t things to practice out in order to convince others you can play “properly”, with “good technique”. That’s the erect stiff middle finger of recalcitrance: giving the bird to the Berkeley school and all those sophisticats which jazz, fusion and classical music create, and even rock. This recalcitrance really pisses musos off.”

Music With My Insane Friend break the cosy pact which allows mainstream and avant, commerce and art, music and politics to flow gently along in separate channels. Not in the marketing (where of course claims to “break boundaries” are ubiquitous, the adworld being, as the Situationists pointed, always somehow both “avantgarde” and “popular”), since Music With My Insane Friend don’t market themselves, but in the arrangement of the notes themselves, and hence in the weaving of our impulses, hopes and values at a preconceptual level. What they are playing is not “avant product”, aimed at a certain class of hipster consumers, it’s pop music, aimed at everyone.

imageThe blogger from Beyond Invisibility declared that Music With My Insane Friend should be played “everywhere – in lifts, in car parks, at the dentist, in schools; there’s an unforced, organic, natural flow to it that is absent in a lot of avant-garde (for want of a better term) music”. He’s right. To borrow an adjective from American record-man lingo, MWMIF make “good-for-listening records”. James Wilson may be a tortured soul, his blog rife with political quandaries (he calls this “sabotage” of anyone looking for heroes), but there’s no doubts in the music. In the last months he’s been posting duets with guitarist Ashley Cross, a veteran accomplice, a dialogue between the left (Cross) and right (I Digress Indeed) speakers of your computer. A world away from the purple spectral apocalypse of the Big Spider Band, these duets are fresh and intimate and humble, quivering with curiosity about what guitar strings can do: the series was called “So You Think You Can Change the World”.

Quoth James: “I ain’t done a gig for fucking years. That’s why, when Derek said that improvisation was something he could do anywhere, anytime, without having to find a performance space for it – “You haven’t heard my kitchen before, have you?” [this is the opening to one of Bailey’s famous spoken-word tracks, originally an audio letter on tape cassette] – I was as relieved as anything. Permission granted, just play wherever you fucking are. The urge to freely improvise defies all that we’ve been taught is worthy, in so many ways. As Bailey says, “improv is better in the provinces”. It’s even better in the kitchen, while you listen to Sun Ra and do the dishes. And often it’s the laughter afterwards that makes it so worthwhile.”

When invited to participate in a festival of “radical” music in 1978, Derek Bailey refused, saying: “Sorry, I have virtually no interest at all in the ‘extreme’ stuff or the ‘much wider modes of creative expression’ as you call it.” However, he did add: “If you ever put on a Just Music festival – I will be very pleased to take part.” [This is taken from Rants, a collection of writings Derek Bailey compiled for posthumous publication, soon to be available from Unkant, edited by Ben Watson]. Though Derek himself might look askance at a guitarist able to deploy his personal techniques so artfully, Music With My Insane Friend are very precisely the Just Music he was talking about. Whether or not it’ll change the world, though, depends on you.

Images: James Wilson
Text: Ben Watson

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Blogography:

The MWMIF blog: http://www.musicwithmyinsanefriend.com/

An hour’s Internet radio placing James Wilson in the context of guitarists Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne and Mary Halvorson: https://archive.org/details/AnHourOfTwang1X2014

An hour’s Internet radio featuring three guitarists influenced by Derek Bailey: Eugene Chadbourne, James Wilson and Joe Morris: https://archive.org/details/Derekology11-iii-2015

Three hours of Internet radio dedicated to James Wilson’s music: https://archive.org/details/IngressionAsNeed1-vii-2015; https://archive.org/details/WilsonCuminOucherEars8-vii-2015; https://archive.org/details/JamesTheThird15-vii-2015

 

A version of this article appeared in The Wire 379 September 2015 <www.thewire.co.uk>

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