Opposition from within
Volcano The Bear is an adventure. You see someone falling to the floor, but in the rhythm of the music. You hear some instruments you’ve never heard together before, asking why no one tried this. You get artwork that never ceases to shake your visual conceptions. An adventure starts when things happen you least expected. This is just what you can, well, expect from Volcano The Bear.
We talked to VTB and heard people playing in the same band, but with very different ideas of just what that band is. Along the interview, visions about VTB emerged, were shaded and continued in another form. We spoke with Aaron Moore, Daniel Padden and Clarence Manuelo, who were touring at that time (November 2007). Moore, we learned, seeks confrontation, is the passionate one; Padden seeks reconciliation, being the inspiring one; Manuelo finally would be looking for new concepts, being more reluctant but able to grab your attention with a sharp and noisy scratch. All this, you will find in the following conversation, as well as on stage.
At White Heat Magazine, we thought VTB deserved the best treatment, so we (MH & PC) decided to have an interview with the full staff. Two interviewers, three interviewees: success guaranteed, you would think. We opened the interview with a question about their tour.
Do they consider the playing as a constant rehearsal, refining the songs to the perfect version?
DP: There isn’t one. That’s the thing. I don’t think we have ever done a perfect version of one of our pieces. If we’d perform a song in this way, with these cords, we could say: We nailed that one. But because of the way we do it, there’s always that negotiation. There’s a constant pushing and pulling of the music between us. There isn’t a definitive version of the music we make which is why it is quite exciting to be on stage.
AM: Last night you said it was one of the best gigs we had ever done and I thought it wasn’t really good.
CM: There’s a constant assessment and bouncing of what you want to achieve and how you’re going to do it.
But you hold on to some structures?
DP: There’s a mixture of composition and improvisation. I think it’s probably more composed than people think. It’s less cool to say that, but that’s the truth.
AM: We have a set list and half the set is based around song, lyrics. We know that there’s this lyrical pattern that becomes the basis for whatever we’re going to play. Or it might be a drum idea, or a tape idea. We’ll go around that.
DP: The whole gig is improvised but it’s improvised around ideas we’re familiar with, so where that line is between improvisation and composition is difficult.
AM: It’s not spontaneous.
CM: It’s sometimes.
AM: Sometimes yes, sometimes it’s rock ‘n’ roll.
CM: We’ve got a map with certain themes we aim at throughout the night, or the show. Last night there was a lot of improvisation and development away from the theme that it came from, and that’s fantastic.
When is this improvisation going well?
CM: It’s obvious.
AM: It’s obvious to us, but not for the listener because we’re maybe trying to achieve something individually, collectively, and we might be greatly happy with that, but the audience hears it in a completely different way. We’re not trying to create a perfect thing, we’re trying to create an atmosphere more than anything and put on a performance and sometimes the music is almost…
AM: Not secondary but almost …
It’s a way of getting this atmosphere?
DP: Yes, there’ve been times that I know that I’ve played technically bad on a piece, but I know the piece has been fucking great. So it’s not about how well we as individuals play those drums or sings those notes. I can play terrible the piano but it’s great for the piece with all these other things going on.
AM: When we record and in the studio and play then Daniel might say: ‘Oh my playing is rubbish on this thing’ and I’ll say ‘it’s great, let’s keep it in’. I don’t know what we’re getting at but this is basically the essence of Volcano the Bear, this act of allowing things to be, even when personally you might not be in agreement. You can not think ‘I’ve performed badly’ if someone else says you played well. It was good, because of that, because of the wrong notes or whatever.
Expect the unexpected wrong note at the right place
When talking about VTB, a quote about The Residents often pops up: ‘They play wrong notes better than anybody’. The same might be said about VTB, although this doesn’t have to be concrete decision …
AM: It’s not deliberate.
CM: Thelonious Monk was good at playing wrong notes, or not wrong notes, you know what I mean.
DP: We realize the beauty of a note or sound placed in a particular context. The last note or sound you’d expect in a certain context is something of real interest to us and it always has been. And The Residents do it incredibly and they have kind of manufactured that sound. It takes real musicianship to be able to do that.
AM: Like Monk. I don’t think those wrong notes he played were accidental, or they might have been, but he knew exactly what he was doing. We don’t know exactly what we’re doing. I can’t play the trumpet for instance. I play an instrument that I can play, but when it comes to playing music on it, I’m not trained enough or haven’t played long enough to learn the scales. I got this instrument that I can make sound nice, but at the same time, I can make it sound completely wrong and it really winds me up because I don’t want to play the shit notes. But I always do.
Is this some kind of tension that you feel?
CM: It’s a pretty tensed guy.
AM: Me? Gosh! It’s a weird kind of challenge. We always play instruments we didn’t learn, and we play it to our ability, whether that is fantastic or not very good.
DP: The idea is that we can express ourselves without being technically gifted. But I’ve always had an idea – not in this crap-spiritual way – that there’s this music of Volcano the Bear over and above what we as three or sometimes four individuals make. Which is why that thing about us individually responsible for our thing, just feeds in that above thing, which is why we can have a personally mediocre gig but it might have fed really well in the overall sound or expression of whatever we’re doing.
AM: I think it’s very much the same with everything you do everyday in your life. Sometimes you do things really well, sometimes really bad and the things you do bad, people might not think that they’re bad.
DP: People love pieces that I can’t stand. Like Reah’s mort, that song never works live, it’s horrible, but we did it for about two or three gigs, then we stopped, but people say ‘oh, it’s my favourite ever’! But it was horrible.
AM: You’re going to remember strangers. You’re introduced to these people, you converse with them and a lot of the times you’re thinking ‘god what a twat’, and ‘did I say that?’ And no one knows, unless you’re being bloody obvious about it. We all feel comfortable / uncomfortable, vulnerable / impenetrable. We don’t know you, we’re having a chat, I could say something and think ‘oh did I just say that, he’s going to think I’m a real cunt’. And you wouldn’t have even heard it, it wouldn’t have had an impact on you. And that’s the same with the music. Although we’re responsible for it, if we do mess it up, it’s not necessary that the people listening to it hear it that way.
Trust, given and received
Three different people mean three different opinions. When playing on stage, the musicians consider themselves part of the audience, as much as anyone else. The unexpected moves and acts of their fellow musicians, surprises them and makes one thing clear: there’s three different musical standards working. Or aren’t there?
AM: I would think so.
CM: We have different ideas. It’s really simple, easy and obvious, for me anyway, why I’m doing this and it’s easy for me talking now and doing anything connected to all this. I’m really lucky to have three other individuals I can work with in a shape and form in an easy and obvious way without any headaches. It works well and it produces something that I know that I’d be pleased to hear or see or purchase if I wasn’t involved in this. And that’s a test for me.
DP: Individually, I guess we have our own standards. Last night you played shit drums, but I don’t think it affects in the performance.
AM: You want to make it work, most of the time it works. You want to do the best you can do. When you don’t make it work, you’re very aware of it. Otherwise you’d stop doing it.
But the things that work are different, for you as an individual? The standard is different.
AM: If I don’t think it’s working, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t.
PC: That’s what I mean. I wonder if in that way, it’s a kind of a contract, playing in VTB.
AM: There is something like that. There is a trust in everyone knowing that we are able to operate in a unique way as a band. The rules are you can do pretty much anything you want; as long as it’s the right thing for … I don’t know.
CM: There can be some material recorded – this is a good example – and I can give it to Daniel or Aaron or Nick and let them arrange it, mix it or whatever and I’ll be happy and easy about it, that sort of trust.
AM: It’s a trust in experimentation. And that’s ideally what it is. Sometimes you can get yourself caught up in the perception of what is supposed to be.
DP: There is a contrast, we have three different types of musicality, but there’s a trust that I can completely stop playing if I want to, because I know that these two will be able to continue.
AM: And we will carry on, or we will point to him and laugh, and if that did happen, that would be fine.
DP: Worst thing are technical problems, because you aren’t able to do what you want to do.
CM: Frustrating, last night we had some fuckups and it was frustrating. It’s deadly serious in one way, but it’s not too serious at the same time. It’s not the end of the world.
DP: I generally try to remind myself, on stage actually, ‘this is good, we’re travelling around Europe, playing some music, to people who mostly seem to like it, meet interesting people, play on stage …
CM: Some people really like it, some people remain indifferent…
DP: But basically it’s a good thing. It’s good to remind yourself of that. Even if there are four people in the audience, I still have the idea: this is a good thing.
AM: You get that many people to your shows? (Daniel Padden is touring with ‘The one ensemble’ at the same time, red)
We always liked music with a certain amount of humour to it. Nurse with Wound has it, Norway’s When has it (try listening to Loosing Figures without laughing) and certainly, VTB has it. Apart from the adventurous side of the band, the humour makes up part of what’s so appealing to their music. When asked about this aspect of Volcano the Bear, Aaron Moore strikes the ball back to us.
AM: How important is humour for you? As a human being, humour saves your soul. Absolutely. We spend all day long being utter twats.
CM: My life is one gagfest. What’s that Poulenc piece where they’re executing the nuns, there’s fourteen or so nuns dead, and I find that funny, although it’s not (CM refers to Poulenc’s opera Dialogues of the Carmelites dealing with the story of sixteen nuns executed during the French Revolution). Haven’t you heard that? They all go to the guillotine and the chorus gets less and less. Well… I don’t know if it’s meant to be funny.
AM: That girls that fell over on the street when we were walking, where was it?
DP: She had those shoes with wheels under it!
AM: She skeelered on the road and jumped on the curb and falls over and I just burst out laughing while no one else did.
DP: Is this our example for White Heat Magazine about what we find funny?
DP: I think the point is there is humour in our music. Not what is funny. I think it started out as us making music we enjoyed making, and we found funny.
AM: But I don’t think we make funny music. There’s things that make you laugh…
DP: Like Sex Transfusion…
AM: Yes, but there’s just some sound that we find [hesitates] interesting and that happens to be funny. We don’t choose to make it funny.
DP: No, but we choose it because it has a funny sound.
AM: I don’t know if we work like that. ‘Oh we must definitely use that because that’s 9 funny out of 10’.
CM: You can get moved in all sorts of ways. You can get moved in an elevated way, but the same piece of music can make you laugh. I love really complex, fucking serious music, because it makes me laugh. Really serious music can make me laugh because it’s so humourless.
DP: I find Climax Gold Twins (playing before VTB that evening – ed.) funny, they make me smile.
AM: I think maybe when we started to do live stuff and we started to be more theatrical and physical with each other, I think that was almost like a ‘fuck you’ to experimental music being really serious. With these guys like keep your head down. You celebrate it. There seems to be very little celebration in this music, apart from your free jazzers. Most of the time everyone is deadly serious. And all this laptop shit, you know: fuck off.
DP: There’s room for everyone, but in terms what we want to do, we’re quite inviting to an audience.
AM: We didn’t want any barrier. We did this so consciously we wanted everybody to come in and to find something in it and enjoy it and if you feel like laughing, please laugh. There’s times people come to me after the gigs and they say ‘it really made me laugh but I didn’t know if I could laugh’ which is really weird. People think about it, ‘oh in this context, am I allowed to enjoy it in a humorous was?’ There’s a lot of options in this world in everything you do, and we try and give ourselves and the audience as many options as possible. But musically we give ourselves too many options sometimes.
But the aspect of humour in VTB isn’t it that you put things that are strange to the musical context into that context?
AM: If that’s what you think, but it’s not deliberate.
Maybe not deliberate.
CM: It is deliberate. It’s perfectly natural if you think that’d be really good if something, if that happened there. It’s obvious, if it’s a good idea, let’s try it there.
AM: We’re just trying ideas out. Sound is more important than music, and all sounds are open to us. So, we can put that with that, and yes, there might be totally juxtaposed sounds, not fitting with each other in a traditional sense, but that’s exactly why we’re doing it, because we want to put them together and make them traditional.
Is this some kind of absurdism?
AM: We’re not trying to, it just happens. We’re very playful, we’re here to enjoy ourselves. We’re not too serious about it. We’re deadly serious about being playful. Why the hell not?
DP: We have come to the point where these thoughts don’t even come to our head. Why can’t we do that? We’ve just developed a way of making music that you’ve pointed out, you’re right.
Was this a difficult process?
DP: Like any band, you start in a certain place and it finds its way. We’ve got better playing our instruments, we’ve got better improvising over the years. So I guess it was harder, I think we got more experienced making the sound we wanted to make. We don’t discuss it much, we don’t talk about it.
Only in interviews.
DP: Yes, that’s why it’s difficult to do this. That’s why you make music, because that’s the best language for us, and when you try to put this into words, it becomes quite difficult. It sounds cheesy or false. So we don’t do lots of analysis of why or what we do.
Somewhere in the building a bell rings, the sign for Aaron and Daniel that the interview is over. Clarence remains with us, he seems puzzled. ‘It’s been weird for me,’ he tells us. ‘It just become clear to me when you were asking all these questions that it’s not so obvious. It was an interesting experience to get a little bit objectivity for my own personal perspective.’
Other bands interested in this unique form of band counselling: you know where to find us.
Interview by Maarten and Peter in Ghent, Belgium, 2006