Melody, improvisation, and a plywood box.
Stepping into 75 Dollar Bill's practice space in Greenpoint is a bit forbidding at first. The building has a hermetic, industrial flavor compounded by the taste of wet paint. The elevator ride lands you in a bald hallway that echoes your words as you step out. Their studio, like the other rooms in the building, is guarded by a thick and anonymous metal door.
The other side of this door serves up a marked contrast—a snug den of strewn percussion instruments, keyboards in various states of disrepair, a makeshift recording studio with some fine trimmings, an old Japanese guitar, and a large plywood box. This is where Che Chen and Rick Brown, the two halves of 75 Dollar Bill, shape their sound.
Simple as their presentation might appear, both members have somewhat elaborate music histories. Che has played violin, guitars, and other instruments with a range of artists including True Primes, Jozef van Wissem, and Maher Shalal Hash Baz. In 75 Dollar Bill, he plays a refretted quarter-tone guitar made to approximate a range of modal systems, namely those used in the Maghreb region of western North Africa (in 2013, he spent some time in Mauritania studying the music). Rick has been active as a drummer and percussionist in the downtown New York scene since the early '80s, playing or recording with bands like V-Effect, Fish & Roses, and Run On, and collaborating with artists like Tortoise, Matmos, Yo La Tengo, Charles Hayward, and Fred Frith. In this project, Rick steps back from the drum kit in a big way. His stripped-down setup for the duo consists of some bits of metal percussion, a couple of maracas, and the plywood box.
Although they appear to have come from different musical backgrounds, a certain eclecticism brings the duo together. In 75 Dollar Bill, they have created an intimate language from the fringes of their musical experiences, hinting at everything from Arabic wedding songs, to distorted No Wave crunk, to some unadulterated Mississippi juke-joint shuffle. While sometimes seized by a kind of throbbing, Moorish boogie, their songs often congeal into cyclic patterns with a raw and jagged minimalism. And, despite some unusual time signatures, there is a locomotive pace to much of it, occasionally with the train coming down the mountain off its tracks. Other times, the ride is a bit less white knuckled, while still chugging forward with a loping, hypnotic intensity.
More than influences, though, is the reciprocity of spirit that pulls you into 75 Dollar Bill’s sound. When playing live, the band’s connection permeates the room, transfixing some and inspiriting others. In the same way, their barebones cassette recordings deliver music with a veritable human resonance. Their latest release, a full-length vinyl record on Other Music Recording, captures the raw drive of their live work, while also offering a different direction for the unit. Che and Rick sat down with me down to discuss Myspace hookups, playing in odd meters, and Mauritanian weddings.
Cal Lyall Che and I have talked a lot about the Mauritanian influence, particularly the Wallahi Le Zein!! compilation that we were both deep into when it came out a few years back. Of course, I'm hearing this when I listen to 75 Dollar Bill, but there's a lot more coming through, especially when I listen to your latest record. Where do you feel the sound is coming from?
Rick Brown Well, Che did play me that compilation, but that was really the first thing I had ever heard of it. I don't share with him the experience of visiting Mauritania or studying its music. For me, it’s not so much an influence. I would simply say it’s something he turned me on to—it's fascinating, but I don’t think it has pushed me to do any particular thing with what we are working on. I do hear the connections because, at this point, I’m almost able to hear some riffs and say, “Isn’t that the same mode as this other thing?” I hear little bits of modes he has explained to me.
Che Chen Mauritanian music is one facet of a much larger set of influences. Before this band started I was playing a lot of free improvisation, listening to a lot of minimalist composition, and generally just into music that is really about sound—the physicality of sound. But, at the same time, I was working at a record store, and, as all record-store employees do, I was sort of filtering through the used records that came in before they went out on the floor. I was interested in “ethnographic” records—things on the Ocora and UNESCO labels—these amazing, mostly French ethnographic records from the 1960s, ‘70s, and even ‘80s.
I was, and am, so attracted to traditional music from India, Africa, Indonesia, Central Asia, et cetera, because it is so much about sound. If you listen to music from these places, they often use what here we might call extended techniques. But these are really just techniques for getting a certain timbre or whatever. In addition to this very deep quality of sound and timbre, there is also rhythm and melody. A lot of this is folk or dance music, and contemplative music, like Indian classical music. It would be a long time before this band formed, but that’s where the thinking came from. I really wanted to do something that focused on rhythm and melody as the basic, most essential components, but also coming from a place that was really about sound.
CL I’m pretty familiar with a lot of Che’s free-improv work, and I know that you, Rick, have played with people working in that realm, like Fred Frith. So you’ve had a lot of experience with—
RB Sorry to interject, but yes, I know Fred well, and he produced a record I was on, but that was a rock record. Although I’ve done some free improv and played with people considered “leading lights” of the New York downtown scene or whatever, my world is different. I don’t really feel that free improvisation is a forte of mine. I’ve enjoyed that music very much, and I certainly sought out Che through situations in that realm. That’s what first attracted me to him as a musician. But free improv is not central to my musical life. I’ve dabbled in it, but I’ve always been in bands and song-oriented groups. The furthest afield from that was a drum trio, and even then I was the guy bringing in short, composed songs—and singing on them too. I guess I just don’t feel comfortable with too much focus on the free-improv thing. But part of what Che was saying before, I think, is that this angle with 75 Dollar Bill is a reaction to being in exactly that world.
CC Free improvisation was all I did for a while, and I really started to miss rhythm. But it's something I'm still interested in and that informs all the music I play in one way or another. It's starting to creep into 75 Dollar Bill now too. But yeah, in the beginning I was listening to so much music with incredible rhythmic sensibilities combined with really interesting ideas about how you put a melody together, and that was sort of the impetus.
CL So how did that impetus turn into reality? How did you guys meet and the band form?
RB We have this story that is maybe amusing: we tell people we met through Myspace. And the core of that is actually true! Somehow, approximately ten years ago, I stumbled upon the Myspace page for a band called True Primes. A friend mentioned them, and there they were. I listened to some stuff, liked it, and realized they were a real band and were playing some gigs. But the first time I saw either of them play was a solo gig by the other member of the duo, Rolyn Hu.
CC (laughter) Those were some crazy gigs!
RB I was at that show. It was nuts, but cool. And so I introduced myself, and probably freaked Rolyn out a bit, like she might have thought, “Who is this old guy?”
CC No, she said you were super nice.
RB Anyway, I started seeing them a bunch and was really attracted to this music they were doing. Che was playing all these different instruments—like everything. I was fascinated by that. I wanted to play with him, and I was in a period when I wasn’t regularly active with anything. I was trying to find something to do. About four years ago, I started having some friends come over, drink beer, and jam. Really the only parameter was to keep it to acoustic instruments, like horns and percussion.
CC I believe the rule was that if you used an amp, it had to be small enough to fit in a paper lunch bag.
RB (laughter) I don't remember it being formulated quite that way, but we pretty much stuck to that. I told Che, “You should come do this. I think you would fit in and bring something cool to it.” It took him a while. I kept bugging him, then he showed up and we had a great time. Among the instruments I used was a plywood crate I had found on the street years earlier. I didn’t really know what to do with it, but it sounded so cool when you smacked it with a big, heavy, soft mallet. Somehow that was an inkling, to Che, that we could work together, and he proposed this duo. That's how it started from my perspective.
CC From mine, I was playing a lot of different instruments but had stopped playing guitar for a couple years. I was playing anything but—like reed instruments, the violin, a lot of electronics and tapes. And, all the while, listening to modal music, strings from India and Africa. It was really hearing African guitar music that got me into the guitar again. I picked it up and started practicing, without any real idea in mind. I was just trying to find a way back into that instrument. The deeper I went, the more I started thinking about how melodic lines were being constructed in Persian or Indian music, in Arabic music, and so on. I wasn’t interested in chord changes at all, just melody lines. I knew I wanted to play with a drummer, but a drum set didn’t seem right at all, then I showed up at this Love Layers practice. Rick had this plywood box. He hit it and got all these really resonant tones out of it, several different pitches. I knew that was the sound.
CL So, the plywood box from the curb was the sound you were searching for all of these years?
RB It's nuts. I don't even know which street corner I got the damn thing from. Now my brother has me worrying about whether it will last because I’m beating it pretty hard. He happens to be a carpenter, so I asked him to make me a replica. I bought some plywood—not exactly the same type—and thought, “This will be alright.” I got the measurements all correct and took it all to my brother’s woodshop. He whipped it up really quick, then I hit it and thought it sounded pretty cool. But then I brought it back to my place, sat it right next to the original, and, well, it doesn’t sound anything like it!
CL (laughter) It needs to sit out in the rain a bit longer.
RB Maybe so. I've been beating it really hard to whip it into shape, and it might actually be sounding better, but it's not the same. I got really lucky with the original.
CL I’m hearing the box as an anchor for the main rhythmic ideas, and it features pretty prominently in all of your releases. Where are you pulling these ideas—for example, the stripped down approach with shakers in Wooden Bag?
RB You’ve heard our two cassettes, but on Wooden Bag the box is less present. There is so much maraca. It is a maraca-heavy record. And that's sort of the conceit of the title. We were just talking, the phrase popped up, and we thought it was funny. And maracas seem, somehow, like wooden bags to me. But the rhythms I am into on the box are not a big part of that album. We have unrecorded material, and material on the cassettes, that is much more indicative of that instrument.
Setting that aside, the rhythmic stuff that interests me has done so since the very beginning, when I played in very crude forms of odd meter. My very first band was three stoner guys from NYU playing in the basement of our dorm. I was composing things in 5/4 time, really slow, and that is what I made these two guitar guys play. I was in rock outfits saying, “Hey, I have this idea for a song in 9 and here's the way it goes.” That’s something my collaborators put up with.
But I've wavered in my insistence on that. The great English drummer Charles Hayward and my friend Guigou Chenevier—who is also an inspiring musician—and I had this drum trio. Playing with Charles was really exciting. He is a really complicated, interesting character, and very funny and sweet too. I was in awe of him—of his technical abilities. But one day we were talking about playing in, you know, 13 or whatever, and Charles just poo-pooed me entirely, saying, “Yeah, I can do that, but I always try to hear that type of stuff in simple terms, bringing it down to a really on-the-beat grounding of the sound.” And that was a revelation to me. It was a slap at my whole attitude, which was, “This is cool because it is off.” He would say, “Yes, that is cool, but bring it down to music.” And that, for me, is the crux of what I aspire to do with odd meters. I like the complexity and oddness of it, but I want rhythms to be accessible, and feel good, and groove. When we can play a twenty-one-beat pattern and play these interlocking parts that come and go, while having it all flow and feel natural—that is when I feel we are really doing well. It is so cool to find that the riffs, modes and melodies that Che is interested in fit really nicely with that.
We have plans to do more with this. Wooden Bag is a tangent, in a way. Its central thing is driving forward this 4/4, or maybe 1/1, pulse along with these textures. Rhythmically, there is more to come—odd-meter stuff, what some would call compound meter.
CL So, when you’re working with compound meter, do you think it’s an unconscious thing, because the both of you tend to bring things to the table in odd meters? Does it come together naturally, or are you actually sitting down, looking at the tune, and breaking it into divisions—here's part A and B of the form? How do you approach that?
CC It’s pretty deliberate. Speaking for myself, I don’t have the skills to just jump into something that’s divided into twenty-one beats. That is something we really work on.
RB Just today we were playing, and I said, “Let's try this thing in 5/4.” But we can’t suddenly play in a very odd meter and expect the other to pick it up no problem. It could be seen as analogous to the investigation of the modes. I see it in that way, where they are rhythmic modes. There is this way of playing 5/4 and that other way too—there is 2 and 3, or 3 and 2 … or, as we did it today: 2, 1, and 2. We don’t really divide things into parts, like you mentioned. But sometimes there might be two chunks, like eighteen beats, and then a transition from eighteen to eighteen—a tiny shift of tempo and a difference in the accents.
CC Despite all these seemingly mathematical complications, as Rick was saying, it's really about getting something to groove and feel natural. We will practice a lot as a way of distilling these things down to their most basic feeling. The meter shouldn’t be something you notice. We're not interested in these things because they are complicated. We are interested because they create a different feeling of time overall—a subtle thing that is communicated. Ultimately, it’s not about the math, but rather about imparting different feelings, through framing time differently. That is when a rhythm succeeds. If it is the first thing people notice and they start trying to count it out, then I feel it’s a failure. That’s not the point for me.
CL Let’s talk more about these modes. The Moorish system is obviously important, but you’ve been influenced by Indian music, Arabic maqamat, and just intonation as well. How are you approaching these systems to create moods for different songs?
CC The Mauritanian stuff is really interesting and definitely a big influence, but I was only there a week and a half. As you know, I was taking lessons with Jeich Ould Chigaly. He sort of gave me a crash course in the Moorish modal system—there are five modes and each has a black and a white variant. So, we spent a day on each one. Very intense. Then at night we would go to his gigs, which were all weddings. And it was amazing. It was the best way to learn, like learning a language. Total immersion. Still, it was just ten days. I have these recordings from that week and all these notes I’ve been digesting in the couple of years since that trip, but still it’s really a very skeletal understanding of that music. I’m definitely using things I learned there, but I'm certainly not playing “Moorish music.” Really, I'm just using that ten days of experience like a seed, and I’m playing or constructing new modes from there. Jeich isn't here to check up on me, so who knows how related what I am doing is to what he was trying to teach me.
CL (laughter) He isn’t here to scold you for bastardizing the strict classical style, which might be a good thing.
CC (laughter) Yes.
CL So you have, in effect, been creating your own modal systems for this band?
CC It’s certainly coming from a lot of places. I read about Indian music and Arabic maqam music, and all these different ideas about how modal music works are really fascinating to me—having scales that are asymmetrical, that differ when ascending and descending, or having notes that are ornamental, that you can just pass through but never land on. There are all these subtle rules you can use, and really if you have a melody that changes its intervals as it moves along, in effect, it creates the sensation of chord changes underneath, even though there isn’t really a chord change at all. Everybody still hears in relation to this constant tonic. But if you use the major third on the way up and minor third on the way down, it implies something else shifting, which was a revelation to me. You can imply changes just by shifting the distance between certain notes around.
CL That’s an interesting point, because sometimes in modal music—like in an Arabic taqsim improvisation—you’ll sense there’s a shifting of mood, but it’s difficult to put your finger on it right away. I suppose that it derives from this sort of approach. Some maqamat are asymmetrical across octaves, so when it goes to a higher octave it’s actually a new scale. That might create a section on its own within a song.
CC That’s something I have been playing with recently. Rick lent me this old Ace Tone organ that I like to work scales out on. Something that has interested me lately is having the right hand and the left playing different scales simultaneously, so the bass is doing one thing and melody over it is not necessarily using the same intervals.
CL Well, now you’re just making it difficult for yourself.
RB (laughter) Of course he is! How long have you known him!
CL So with all of the work that goes into building this sort of vocabulary, how do you feel when someone listens to 75 Dollar Bill and says, “Ah, it’s world music.” That sort of reaction is obviously out there, since there is still a cultural distance with music in non-equal temperament or which feels somehow exotic.
RB I understand why that kind of oversimplification happens. I get it. But if anybody really paid attention to what we are doing, then that wouldn’t really seem appropriate. Any piece of music we have—say, where Che is playing in a quasi-Mauritanian mode—doesn’t sound like any Mauritanian music. And I'm certainly not playing anything like what tbal [kettle drum] players do—though I’m trying to!
CC (laughter) No matter how hard you try!
CL So, what do you want an audience to take away from listening to 75 Dollar Bill?
CC I hope we are, in some sense, making music that is as direct as possible. That is the impetus and ties a lot of my aesthetic decisions together. The idea is to make the music just as straightforward as possible. I guess that’s always been important to me because discovering sound was a really direct experience. I really wanted to get back to the physicality of rhythm. I felt Rick had similar feelings, playing directly rather than—
CL Intellectualizing it?
CC Yeah. We’re not intellectualizing it, and not shying away from it, or thinking it’s passé or something.
CL You probably know Samm Bennett—he used to be a mainstay in the New York downtown scene and now lives in Tokyo. One of the big discussions we’ve had is about that very notion. Often in free-improv settings, there’s a reaction that happens when a beat-based rhythmic idea is introduced and everybody in the group is like, "Oh c'mon!" His feeling is that if it really was free improv, then this attitude might be stifling the chance to take it somewhere else.
RB When I started to play in bands there was an interesting thing happening—an interaction among different scenes that was fruitful for everyone concerned. There were people kind of in the loft-jazz scene, really after the heyday of that movement, but people like David Murray, Henry Threadgill, and Joseph Bowie. Those guys were playing in some of the same venues we would play in as really crude punkers or post-punkers. We were interacting to greater or lesser degree. And there was this band called The Microscopic Septet. The leaders were Phillip Johnston, on soprano sax, and Joel Forester, on piano. They were really friendly, and through them we could see some of the jazz world. John Zorn was also a member—the alto player in the original lineup. I met Fred Frith then, too.
All that stuff was happening, then there was the New York salsa scene, which was at a pretty high point in the late ’70s. I would go see double bills of great big bands in small dancehalls, and it was amazing. These bands were playing music that comes from a deep, deep rhythmic tradition with jazz elements layered on top. People danced and that was so big for me, seeing that, feeling that community thing and a real pleasure in the music. Really inspiring.
Again, I understand there might be this idea in the free-improv world that playing a regular beat—as Samm told Cal—is kind of anathema to some participants. But I was in song-based groups. The songs themselves were not pop songs. They were screwed up, weird little things. I wanted to sing. I did solo performances where I would freely improvise, but also sing a song. I don't really respect these divisions among musics.
CC I think this idea of pleasure is important. Pleasure and joy are these integral parts of music that can, in some contexts, be intellectualized away—intellectualized out of the experience.
Another thing we’re skirting the edges of is the idea of an art music versus a popular music. I recently came across this really amazing Ornette Coleman quote from when he traveled to Morocco and recorded an entire record with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. (This material is just locked away in some vault somewhere; hopefully someone will put it out one day.) He had grown up in Texas, in the 1940s, playing rhythm-and-blues saxophone, and he felt that he spent half his life playing that type of music for people, and that it really gave him a direct, visceral connection with the audience. But the other half of his life was spent playing his own music, which afforded him absolute freedom. While in Morocco, he realized you could have both. That is what he saw in those Jajouka bands—folk tradition and community music, but at the same time, the musicians were absolutely free to really push the form. That really resonated with me. In Mauritania, I experienced something similar, I think, to what Ornette was talking about. I would go to these wedding gigs with Jeich, and say, “This is wedding music!?” Men and women were playing this incredibly dynamic, alive music together—a living tradition that kept changing, with people pushing it in all these directions, but, at the same time, always in dialogue with the audience, whose members might be egging on the musicians by dancing or whispering poetry into a singer's ear.
CL So, it’s not necessarily that you’re looking for the audience to take some particular thing away, but rather that an environment be created where this kind of intercommunication can take place. Everybody is feeling, say, a connection through the music, but the players are still able to have creative freedom inside of that.
CC Yes, that’s what I would hope. And our choices about where and how we perform have often been about trying to encourage this type of situation, building some semblance of what happens in a place like Mauritania into the culture here maybe.
CL (laughter) Built into Brooklyn?
CC We are trying!
75 Dollar Bill’s album “Wooden Bag” is available from Other Music Recording Co.
Cal Lyall is a Tokyo-based musician and sound artist focusing on improvisation, folk music, and urban noise.