Memory, texture, and tradition.
Joshua Abrams and Nathan Bowles have never played music together, to my knowledge, though they have played on the same bill. They don’t live in the same city, nor do they play the same instrument. They do, however, share a certain approach to music—one that both describe in pictorial, as opposed to narrative, terms. All of which to say, I thought they’d have much to discuss.
Joshua Abrams is a well-regarded jazz bassist best known in rock circles as one the founders of the Chicago-based band Town & Country, as well as the Sticks and Stones trio with Matana Roberts and Chad Taylor. He’s played with Jazz luminaries like Hamid Drake and John Tchicai, and—according to his label, Eremite records—he cites AACM, Don Cherry, Arnold Dryblatt, Hamza el Din, Popul Vuh, and Pharoah Sanders as influences. A fixture in the Chicago scene for that last decade and a half, he’s appeared on countless records by everyone from Bonny “Prince” Billy to Rhys Chatham, and from Loren Mazzacane Connors to The Roots. His current project is Natural Information Society, which has released two records to date: Natural Information in 2010, and Represencing in 2012. A new album, Magentoception, is out in May on Eremite. These albums all feature the guimbri—a Moroccan, camel-skinned, stringed instrument that both sounds and looks like a banjo crossed with a bass. Traditional gnawa musicians use it to create hypnotic, circular rhythms and bass lines. Here, the meditative thrum and buzz of Abrams’s guimbri is the centerpiece, around which swirls a wide range of sounds and textures—everything from electronic beats and samplers, to electric guitar, harmonium, and more. The result is a highly focused and beautiful tapestry—to borrow Abrams’s imagery—within which time seems to stand still.
Nathan Bowles’s recent solo record, Nansemond, was released by Paradise of Bachelors and is a haunting collection of compositions and improvisations by the banjo player and a handful of friends. The album is also a delving into memory, as the title is the name of the river in Virginia near where he grew up. It’s a beautiful, patient, and accomplished work with one foot in traditional American music and one in the contemporary experimental music world. His work with the long-lived, rural, experimental collective known as Pelt covers similar ground, but Nansemond is a truly solo record—the focused expression of an individual's vision. Bowles is also an accomplished drummer and currently plays in Steve Gunn’s band. He also plays banjo, percussion, and whatever else is needed with the Black Twig Pickers, who recently released an album with Gunn on Thrill Jockey titled Seasonal Hire.
I spoke to the two musicians about stopping time, tradition and experimentation, memory, and W. G. Sebald.
Clinton Krute Joshua, maybe you could start by describing your background a little.
Joshua Abrams Sure. I’ve been playing jazz and improvised music in Chicago for over twenty years or so, though it’s taken a lot of detours stylistically. Perhaps “detours” is not the right word; it’s more that I’m interested in music that seems alive to me. It’s not a purist’s aesthetic.
CK In terms of only playing improvised music?
JA Yeah, or only playing anything, really. It’s more that, if the music feels alive and can give some energy to the participants and the listener, then that’s the goal, rather than pursuing one aesthetic or another.
CK Did you study music formally growing up?
JA I studied some classical music at school, and with a great electric bass player named Gerald Veasley. I also took some lessons with Tyrone Brown, who played with Max Roach.
CK Nathan, what’s your musical background?
Nathan Bowles I have a background in improvisation, but not a “capital-J” jazz background. I didn’t study at school or anything. I’ve been playing music all my life and started on piano early on. I started playing drums from a pretty early age too. When I got to college I started playing in garage bands, and my horizons just kept widening as I discovered records and listened to different types of music. I got pretty obsessed with improvising, meeting other improvisers, and playing music. I never took any kind of jazz lessons, but I tended to gravitate toward some of that kind of music because, as Josh was saying, it’s exciting and fresh, and it's the kind of music that keeps players trying new things. But mostly I was playing a lot of drum kit or percussion. I didn’t really get into string playing and banjo until like 2006 or 2007.
CK What led you to that?
NB I had started playing traditional Appalachian music with one of the guys from Pelt, Mike Gangloff. He was playing a lot of banjo at the time, old-time music. I was really intrigued by the way he played and the sound of it. So, I started playing with him, mostly doing percussion, then when he wanted to move more toward playing fiddle I took over the main banjo role in that group. I came to it mostly just by watching and being grabbed by the percussiveness of playing that instrument in the clawhammer style.
CK Josh, maybe you could talk about the tension, if one exists or not for you, between composition and improvisation. Are the songs on Represencing and Natural Information improvised live, or are they composed? What was the recording and composition process like for those records?
JA The music on those records is composed for the most part, but composed with improvisation in mind. There are structures and material to work with, but there’s also room for everybody to make decisions. When I started that project I thought one of the advantages we have as improvisers is that there’s a great pool of musicians you begin to know in many places. I thought about creating forms that musicians could enter quickly, especially with with a foundation of a few people who were familiar with the ensemble sound. Then other improvising musicians could join the group more easily. That’s since evolved. I still feel that way, but it’s gotten more specific.
CK In terms of the group members?
JA Yeah, in terms of the group members and also in terms of what’s involved in the composition—to try to make them both open and particular at the same time. There’s sometimes a certain amount of instruction about what not to do, as much as there is about what to do. Then there’s a certain focus on continuity and trying to reach a place where everyone can be heard or felt, continuing to evolve the music, but without necessarily trying to create a dynamic arc. It’s more flat and interwoven, like you’re looking at a Persian rug.
CK As opposed to a buildup to a climax and then a release?
JA Yes, exactly. It’s also about not trying to be about solos. On the first record, guitarist Emmett Kelly was really active, but it’s not like there’s a guitar solo featured. At times he’s strumming, at times we’re both playing lines and all the melodies can intermingle. It doesn’t sound like Ornette Coleman, but I admire how he offers that possibility to the musicians in his group. Everyone has a certain amount of independence and interdependence. We’re constantly working with that, and then each piece has different particularities. Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, I’m just going to play an ostintato,” and sometimes it’s about moving around more. Sometimes there’s a chord progression, sometimes not.
All of Represencing was recorded in my apartment. The first record was more mixed; there’s one piece that was recorded in a studio and there’s one live at a venue. There were a couple pieces recorded in my friend Jason Adasiewicz‘s attic. The pieces with him and Nori Tanaka were recorded at his house.
CK Were those records recorded live or did you do any tracking at all?
JA There’s some tracking on Represencing. I don’t know if there’s tracking on Natural Information—maybe a little bit, a solo piece or two where I’m playing a low harp, then I put some synthesizer on it. On Represencing, though, there was certainly more tracking, sometimes out of necessity. The record coming out next is more live. There’s a bit of overdubbing, but we were able to find a situation where we could record the whole band live to two track, then just add a few elements here and there.
NB When you were talking about not having a dynamic arc but having a lot of stuff going on at once, I was reminded of something I recently read—a description of music that used that same Persian rug image. It might have been Morton Feldman.
JA Yeah, Feldman loves that, definitely.
NB I love that too, because I tend to enjoy a lot of improvised music that sits on textures, like when things are happening within the texture and there’s a greater block of vertically stacked sounds, as opposed to laying them out horizontally across time.
JA Yeah. “How can all these things be happening at once?” There’s enough room that they can all keep changing and evolving too, and without it becoming about going from this idiom to that idiom.
NB Right, right.
JA That can be fun in improvised music too, but to me it’s more interesting when things just kind of keep unfolding according their own logic.
CK “Idiom” is a good word here, because imposing a narrative arc and identifying idioms is a fairly ingrained way for a listener to find their way into music. But you have this sound texture that you’re referring to as a three-dimensional space, and that opens up very different, perhaps non-narrative, interactions for a listener.
JA I like to think of them as environments sometimes. Traveling, too, is a metaphor people use to describe listening to it, and that makes sense to me too.
CK I’m going to change gears a little. Nathan, maybe you could talk about your record, Nansemond. Where’d the title come from?
NB I grew up in Suffolk, Virginia, which used to be part of a bigger county called Nansemond County before being renamed Suffolk County in the ’50s. But that’s also the name of a river that ran right by my house there. A lot of the mental imagery I was thinking about while writing some of the tunes—or states of mind I was in when improvising some of the more open tunes on the record—tended to be about where I had grown up. I don’t have a lot of discrete memories of childhood. I think I’ve blocked a lot of it for various reasons, but I've been through a couple of life changes in the last couple years and been thinking more about my youth and where I grew up.
It’s funny, some of the reviews I’ve read seem to harp on certain things about this music—that it‘s evocative of a certain time or place. If it is, it’s not purposefully so. That said, I was definitely thinking more generally about geography and physical forms in nature when I was writing the record, so it makes sense.
CK That reminds me of the W. G. Sebald quote you include in the the liner notes.
NB It’s about the dead and the living occupying the same space. That book has meant a lot to me.
CK Is that from Austerlitz?
NB Yeah. It approaches memory, trauma, and geography—all in a really evocative, touching way. I’ve read it a few times over the last couple years, and the way it made me feel was very influential to how I approached some of the pieces on the record. That quote just seemed like something I wanted to include.
JA When you work with this material live how do you return to that space?
NB I feel some of the pieces are kind of like constructed little worlds, and so I pretty much play them the same way each time. Some parts get stretched out, or the tempo is a little different, but overall they seem clearly evocative to me. But, with some of the other pieces, ones that was almost wholly improvised on the record, then it’s way different every time.
When I play solo banjo I feel there’s such a world of sound in there. I can get enveloped in it and pretty tranced out. It’s easy—or easier—for me to lose myself with banjo than it is with percussion. In part, that might just be the way I play, the clawhammer form, and the circular, rhythmic nature of it. I don’t know, Joshua, if you feel that when you’re playing guimbri, but it’s like a self-perpetuating machine. There’s something about that motion.
JA Yeah, we had started to talk about that in Belgium, where we realized that the motions are similar. There’s definitely a connection between those two instruments.
CK Both are very rhythmic.
JA Yeah, fully rhythmic sometimes. The guimbri is like the original 808 [drum machine] or something: you get the low tone and you get the percussive sound. It's an instrument that has definitely taken over my brain, and it’s been interesting seeing what it dictates, as well as where I try to take it. It definitely lends itself to that ongoing, continuous unraveling that we were speaking about before.
NB For me, the clawhammer form is simultaneously restricting and really fun. I love to just tease out what I can with that basic rhythm and basic approach.
CK Clawhammer banjo is all based on the “bum-ditty” rhythm on the fifth string, right?
NB Yeah, totally. Depending on what you do with your thumb and how you accent different things, the rhythm is sort of locked in. You can take away or add elements here and there, but you have to be kind of creative about it as opposed to fingerpicking. Then you can just pick in whatever syncopation you want to.
CK It’s much more hypnotic as a result.
NB Totally. And you unlock different ways to pull at the threads of that rhythm, or just change something up slightly and suddenly be looking at the rhythm from a different angle. Combine that with all the different ways you can tune the banjo, and there are a lot of possibilities. But I think I’m just so rhythmically inclined—it’s like what Josh is saying about guimbri taking over your brain. It’s kind of like that for me too. It’s affected the way that I think about how sound can be organized, and now it just tends to be this resting rhythm in my life all the time.
CK Josh, can you talk a little bit more about the guimbri and how you came to play it?
JA I think I heard it first a couple places, but the most memorable is this recording with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania and Pharoah Sanders called Trance of the Seven Colors. The sound of it kind of just grabbed me, naturally. As a bass player, a lot of people have that reaction. In 1998, I got to go to Morocco, but I didn’t really get to study, just hang out a little bit. I was in Marrakesh and Essaouira, and in both of those places I got to hear some music. In Essaouira, I got to hang out with a guy named Najib Soudani, and that’s how I started to gather some of the technique.
I came back and thought, “Okay, what am I going to do with this. Is this right for me to play? Is this too much of someone else’s culture? Is it not?” The great drummer Hamid Drake, who’s a friend and a mentor, was always encouraging me to just get beyond that. He would ask, “Have you been playing the guimbri?” It was clear he wanted me to, and so it was that simple because I love getting the chance to play music with him. From there it grew.
Hamid’s one of the master drummers. He’s an amazing improviser, but he can really do it. People like to say that someone can play anything—
NB That’s really true for Hamid. He is bonkers. I don’t get bowled over by musicians that often, where I’m just like, “Holy shit.” It just doesn’t happen to me that much anymore. But seeing him play is just like, “Whoa!”
JA He has that sort of presence, both as a musician and as a person.
Both Nathan and I had the chance to go to Belgium recently to play at this wonderful festival called “Eastern Daze.” Bachir Attar and The Master Musicians of Jajouka from Morocco were there, and it was wonderful to meet them. We were talking a bit, and I asked, “So you probably know Hamid?” And he says, “Of course I know Hamid!” Hamid knows everybody. Bachir says, “I have Hamid’s slippers. I’m sending them to New York next week, hopefully.” I was like, “I’ll tell him that. No problem.” (laughter)
I’m deeply thankful for all the music and encouragement he’s given me over the years.
CK So he’s who got you to focus on playing guimbri.
JA Absolutely. I would bring it around and we would have sessions. The first time I recorded it was with Fred Anderson on a record we did called From the River to the Ocean. It was also at Hamid’s behest. He was the informal producer of that record. He even at one point said, “You guys should play a duet.” Fred is another master of the music, and I was like, “Wow. Next to Fred, I’m a beginner on an instrument that I actually know how to play. How am I going to play a duet with him on this other instrument?” But it worked out beautifully.
From there I just kept playing, trying to get better and develop something personal with the instrument. That also involved learning how to write for it, how to situate it. That started to tie in with things I’d been thinking about for years—primarily what we were talking about earlier, creating spaces that continue, creating environments, interweaving a lot of rhythm and rhythmic improvisation into that while still maintaining a meditative space.
CK It seems rhythm is maybe one of the keys for achieving that too, right? As opposed to a melody-driven composition?
JA Yeah, thinking about how the rhythm can intertwine with things that are more, let’s say, drone-driven.
NB That’s a major organizing principle for Pelt too—thinking of this textural space and how rhythms can be really subtle. You can have rhythms generated almost entirely by different drones and intervals.
JA The beating of sounds.
NB It feels like a lot of the music at that festival in Belgium adheres to those principles. I think that was one of the threads that brought it all together. There was a lot of music that’s based on a vertical organization of sound—
CK Vertical integration?
NB Corporate! (laughter) It was a very corporate festival. It was all about that. (laughter) But the music at that festival wasn’t as narrative or forward-driven.
JA They had an interesting take on music, and on dealing with traditional instruments of different sorts, but then not trying to necessarily present tradition—that is, with the possible exception of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. But even they have always been really open to experimentation.
NB Totally, yeah.
JA They’re some of the first musicians from Morocco to collaborate with Westerners: Ornette Coleman, Burroughs, Brian Jones …
CK You both play music that comes out of a tradition but is not adhering or recreating traditional music in any conscious way. And you both are more interested in using traditions as tools, or rather, in using tools you’ve borrowed from those traditions for more idiosyncratic ends. Do you think about that much, Nathan, when you’re playing with Pelt, or your own music?
NB With Pelt, that band went through different changes and textures and instrumentation choices before I joined. I came in pretty well after they had made this slow move towards all-acoustic music, and I think a lot of that move happened as sort of an organic offshoot of the individual members pursuing an interest in American folk music. When Jack Rose was still in the band, his move from electric guitar and prepared electric guitar to suddenly focusing on just six-string and twelve-string acoustic was because he was delving further into finger-style guitar. Mike Gangloff was really getting more and more into banjo playing, then eventually fiddle playing.
Now when Pelt gets together, we think in terms of instrumentation and timbres that we want to utilize for whatever it is that we’re trying to create, but it’s just a natural outgrowth. That also comes from playing improvised music that is texture-based and fully improvised. That has a tradition too. We draw on the traditions of getting drunk together and freaking out together about AMM records. (laughter) That’s folk music to us too. That’s a tradition as much as any old-time music is.
JA Evan Parker said, “My roots are in my record player.”
NB My solo music is a little more directly influenced by listening to old recordings of solo banjo players, mostly field recordings, and also by listening to how banjo fits into string-band music. I live in a part of the country where there are a lot of people who still play this type of music. It’s not a music that needs saving. It’s alive and well, so I get to hear a lot of good players both young and old. That influences me pretty heavily, although the longer I play banjo, the more I find myself writing my own music for it. My first record [A Bottle, A Buckeye (2012)] was almost half folk tunes, and the second one much less so. For me, the timbre, physical reality of the instrument, and the way I play it dictate so much of what I do.
I’m picky about all music, but I don’t see myself as trying to break traditional forms. And, on the other hand, I’m definitely not trying to museum-ify the music, add sepia tones. That’s the least interesting thing.
JA It’s about whatever inspires, ultimately. Whatever gets you to that sort of vibrant place that we were talking about earlier where you say, “Okay, this is a form that’s engaging, everyone’s playing it, and everyone has room to be engaged.” Then we can create a space that does not fall into a neat category, where the listener hears it and thinks, “Oh yeah, they’re doing this thing that I already know.”
I think, no matter what the style, whenever someone gets to that place they are commanding it. It doesn’t matter if you are playing Prokofiev, the most traditional folk music, or improvising. It’s completely in the moment, if you’re able to get to there. For me, this in-between form is the way I can get to that place where the music feels active and living. Then it seems to offer that possibility for the listener too.
NB It’s so obvious when music isn’t that. If you’re listening to music either live or on a record, it’s either alive or it’s not. It’s such an ineffable thing, but it’s also very clear to me. It’s so much about finding a voice. Even if you are playing something that’s super-idiomatic, if you have your own voice, it’s like night and day.
JA Sometimes, I’ll hear music that, at the time, I’m put off by because of one sound or another. I can’t get over how they recorded a keyboard, or the bass, or something. But then I come back to it and think, “Yeah, it’s not the same aesthetically as how I’d record something, but this music is so happening!” As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten over certain aesthetic biases and recognized that there’s something there even if there are elements that I’m not really into.
NB Yeah, I’m the same way. I feel like the older I get, the more forgiving I am in terms of production techniques tied to certain time periods.
JA Yeah, exactly.
NB When I was younger I’d just be like, “Oh my fucking god! I can’t even deal with all this compression and the bass tone sounds like shit!” But then you just get older, and you’re like, “Nah man, this is pretty good.”
I like what you’re saying—the players are getting it, it’s happening, I just need to chill out and stop being such a tone asshole. I’m still super picky, especially about music that I’m making or working with. The tone, timbre, and texture has to be dialed in, but the older I get, the more I’m listening for the player and the playing instead of saying, “Oh my god! I can’t believe they used digital reverb all over this!” (laughter)
JA It’s hilarious, but sometimes the thing you hated, you shoot for later. (laughter)
CK Once you achieve enough knowledge and distance, you can take what’s good and leave the rest. Or take it all.
JA And you use it by making it live. You don’t use it by just copping someone’s idea and then presenting it as your own. You use it because it activates the thing that keeps you engaged in what you’re doing.
CK It can become part of your alphabet, or your own personal idiom. Josh, you mentioned something earlier about playing with a specific group of people and the project being more open when you first started. How has that interplay developed?
JA One of the first gigs I ever did with this project shared a bill with Jack Rose. I was playing solo in Chicago, and I just played the guimbi. I don’t even know if I played the bass, but I had some tracks on the MPC and had a bunch of different instruments, and from there I just started to build up collaborations. I went to Brazil and played a version with Mauricio Takara. When the group played in Montreal we were joined by Efrim Mennuck on guitar. This form allowed me to easily bring in other people. The idea was inspired by Damo Suzuki’s Network a little. He has a network of improvisers all over the world. Now the group has coalesced more, but there are versions with Lisa and I, and some musicians from Poland—Artur Majewski and Kuba Suchar. That lineup is drums, trumpet, guimbri, and harmonium. In Chicago, the main group is Frank Rosaly and Mikel Avery playing drums, Emmett Kelly playing electric guitar, and Ben Boye playing the electric autoharp. On the upcoming record, Hamid Drake’s playing drums, and Jeff Parker and Emmett Kelly play guitars. Lisa and Ben Boye are also on there.
CK Are you planning on touring at all with this group?
JA Yeah. Probably the group that will play more is the former one with two drummers. I think we’re going to be at Victoriaville in May, and so hopefully we can make it to at least some other places as well.
CK Nathan what’s your live situation like when you play shows? How are you playing shows for this new record?
NB It’s pretty much just me. Occasionally, if I’m playing a show locally, maybe I’ll have friends of mine—either Mike or another friend, Steve Kruger, who plays fiddle—on one song. But mostly I’m doing the songs solo, which is fine because most from the record are almost totally solo banjo anyway. There’s some piano in there as well, but it’s usually just me. I’m doing this tour in January with Elisa Ambrogio, and I might be drumming some with her, and she might play electric guitar on this one song from the record that is mostly improvised.
JA Are you coming out this way?
NB I think it might go out to Chicago and down into Texas. It’s actually a really funny tour. I’m playing like four dates in Florida. Should be interesting.
Clinton Krute is the editor of BOMB Daily.