A fixed goal, a wandering path
“Malcolm has introduced a poetic new vocabulary into the lexicon of acoustic guitar playing”, The Wire’s Edwin Pouncy avows about Swimming In It, Greg Malcolm’s early 2006 album for the Belgian (K-RAA-K)3 label. When we asked him how he looks on the release of the album he sais that “Swimming In It is about being surrounded by sound and using all limbs. I suppose I drown in my own way.” Malcolm is, besides New Zealand’s most interesting (acoustic) guitar-player, also a significant participant in today’s world of modern abstract music.
Since we “talked” to Malcolm, a few months ago, he already released two new records. Hung, his latest solo album, is more unruly than his mentioned oceanic piece. Most recently, he did a duo-record with Tetuzi Akiyama called Six Strings. Malcolm, like a lot of avant-garde musicians, has worked together with various others (Chris O’Connor, Tetuzi Akiyama, Alan Licht and Bruce Russell among others). In a scene with a very incestuous character, he in general notices only advantages. “My experience of the scene that I am involved in has been very positive. No jerks (so far). It seems to exist out of the good will of many idealists who are passionate about the music. As yet, I haven’t experienced a downside. It’s nice to tour and find out what friends and acquaintances are up too and to be involved in a group that contains many of the musicians I admire. Maybe we’ll have to wait a few generations to see what hideous creations the inbreeding will create.”
Some years ago this avantgarde, minimal artist began to build on a guitar that should reach his idea of a perfect sound. It would take him about two years to attain the rebuild, adapted acoustic guitar that he used for his early 2006 release, providing the music with renewed sound and dodgy angles. On this guitar that, we presume, was rebuild in a John Cage vein, he attached two pick-ups. This enabled him to intensify the sounds that are normally acknowledged as redundant and bothersome. Besides, he also uses a self-called floor guitar, a mini-fan and an E-bow. It is the floor guitar that provided his later releases with a drone-ridden atmosphere and that made us say that Swimming in it “is love boat after civil war, das boat minus the exaggerated testosterone and yellow submarine without the trapdoor of delight”.
We heard a splendid paradox between the technical character he displays on his adaptations and the lack of technique in his playing. Malcolm weaves that away with a short, relativating annotation: “Well, actually I’m really good, I just hide it well. You should hear me play the Sultans of Swing.” We of course never tried to contend that Malcolm isn’t technically skilled. Greg and White Heat had an overseas email conversation on an assortment of rainy October-evenings.
Pumice on a boat
Our fancy experimentalist wrote effective technical descriptions about his music on the back of the sleeve from Swimming in it. He thinks there is a sort of connection between writing liner notes and making music. “I would be interested in the technical aspect, so I hope other people are too. Sometimes I think of it being like big game fishing, where people state the equipment used i.e., breaking strain of line etc. It is interesting to know how you caught what you catch and deal with the handicaps you impose on yourself. Swimming In It was also the first vinyl that I have been on for a long time. You have all that space on the cover. The first thing I do when I get a record is slap it on, lye on my back and read the cover. Another reason why I write the technical description is because the nature of my set up is unstable and the composition could have easily, though no conscious effort of my own taken a different course.” We wondered how he would describe his music without the use of these technical descriptions? “I am working with the tension between melody and noise, controllable and uncontrollable factors.”
Hereby Malcolm testifies about space for coincidence and chance in his art. “The nature of my set up, as well as the compositional framework, enables the music to be steered on a course where the goal is fixed but the path may wander. I compare this to driving a truck on ice, which makes for a fresh and interesting journey each time. I have patented a system called maltronics where things frequently fuck up without warning.” Is it the process of construction or deconstruction that interests him most? “At the moment I am constructing rather than deconstruction and sometimes I’m reconstructing. At the moment I am working on a Leather and Lacy programme, where I reconstruct Lacy tunes by stripping them back and building them up. I think my first two albums Trust only this face and What is it Keith? were more deconstructing songs, pulling them to bits and jumping on them. Bad trip psychedelia.”
Is there a relationship between instrumentation and emotion? “Depends on your ear training. Pumice on a boat may not mean much to other listeners but it’s the association that I have with it, being the only memorable time that I spend with my father rowing a dingy in the lake and hitting the floating rocks at regular intervals.” It was Steve Reich, radical minimalist, who said in music the process is prior to the emotional effect. He dislikes listeners getting affected by it. For Malcolm that’s no point at all, although he doesn’t seem to favour one of them. “I like to be moved emotionally by music or sound. The sound of that pumice banging can trigger a strong emotional reaction, but I am also interested in the process.” Although Malcolm states that he “just plays guitar”, we wondered if it is important to be focused on his instrument? Malcolm affirms, “I enjoy playing and I often play for my own enjoyment. Other people may achieve more memorable results by not playing that much, but whatever works for you.”
Bullfrog, his royal charisma and rock n’ roll icon Mick Jagger said that a song is always a combination of a diary and imagination. Malcolm’s diary element is “the fact that I generally work with melodies that have been buzzing in my head. The imagination factor would be trying to invent a new angle when I approach each piece within the limitations of my set up.” We asked if, in between these limitations, there is something that he wants to bring about with the music? It appears somewhat blurry. “I must be working towards something but I don’t know what it is. I often ask myself why I do what I do, but I have no clear answers other than it’s something like a non-religious persons spiritual quest. There is certainly no money incentive. Sound has excited me all my life.” Could this lack of answers declare the fact that his music is instrumental? For Malcolm, there isn’t significance in the wordlessness at all. “My first two records were very wordy and still remain worst sellers and personal favourites.” It’s just a phase he’s going through.
Malcolm’s wife, Jenny Ward, who was the executive producer of his (K-RAA-K)3 release, fell asleep during the sessions, which is a huge compliment. “I find falling asleep when listening to music one of the most pleasurable things in life and as I like to give my girlfriend a good time I was happy with this response.” Much of Malcolm’s music works within the space between the conscious and unconscious, the area where the bizarre and the irrational flourish, where reality gets warped and laws of nature are turned upside down. It all happens in that frontal lobe of the brain that gives the capacity to imagine what does not yet exist and the creative power to challenge what is still unknown.
With his wife, who gave birth to a child a few months ago, Malcolm had a children’s musical theatre duo, called Such ‘n’ Such (1995). They released a tape which “features various musical instruments including xylophone, trumpet, bass and drums and of course some wicked dive bombs and wacky vocals”. They performed more than 350 times in schools and kindergartens. Are all children adults or all adults children? Or is there really a difference between an audience of children and one of adults? “Size. Children are smaller.” But, generally, there are aspects of attraction and rejection in Malcolm’s stance towards his audience. ”Sometimes I am ambivilous to the audience response. It is not that I try to consciouslly block them out. It’s just that I have a few things going on a once and get wrapped up in it. I try to create a situation that I think I would enjoy as an audience member.”
Gang of youth
In 1996 Greg Malcolm released Trust Only His Face, which contained The Ballad of Peter Plumbley-Walker, without supposing what could happen with that. By this song, reporting about a massively covered bondage death some years ago (with Plumbley-Walker as victim), Malcolm came in the centre of the vortex that was created by the vast ship called media. The song was a critique on media and its tendency of overblown coverage of more or less fait-divers. Ironically enough, it was picked up well by the ones it criticised.
When Sunday Star Times Journalist Edward Roony called Malcolm under the false condition of being a musical journalist, national newspaper, radio and television lost eyesight again. Rooney, not saturated by writing the article and on a quest for political correctness through incorrectness, sent “a photographer to Malcolm’s house and requested Malcolm pose for a photograph in bondage gear. This request was denied. Therefore a mug shot was taken. The article and photograph then appeared in the news section of the Sunday Star Times, headlined: Criticism over Cash Grant for Sex Song.” (Greg Malcolm website) Roony falsely stated that Malcolm got financial government support and pointed his finger at Malcolm saying that he was flogging on a dead man. On Malcolm’s site we can read the vast pressure on Malcolm’s private life: “Public Persecution forced Malcolm and partner Jenny Ward to flee New Zealand. Tearfully they boarded the first plane to Berlin – Schonefeld, taking with them the contraband CDs, a few personal belongings, and the memory of the life they were forced to leave behind.”
Greg and Jenny went ashore and were granted Artist Refugee Status Entry (A.R.S.E) as a direct result from the happenings in homeland New-Zealand (after being in a cell for two days). After the Berlin’s artistic community became aware of the happening, Record Company executive Volker Schneemann offered sponsorship and a place in the Refugee camp at Dunckerland. It was pretty harsh as the camp suffered from dirty and unsanitary conditions. However, this centre of the Avantgarde music, gave Malcolm and Ward the opportunity to work on their art. The club annexed to the camp, The Anorak was “frequented by some leading visionary minds as Conrad Novack, Fenella Baptista, Andrea Ermke and of course Volker Schneemann. But it were the lack of electricity, running water and other essential basics that meant the end of the camp and the club.” After a change in the board in homeland New Zealand, Greg and Jenny could return.
How does Malcolm sense the way media work today? “It seems to be a make happen system rather than a make aware system. I had a short stay in Israel once and saw coverage of the same incident on both the BBC and Israel News. The only way you could tell it was the same incident was that it was in the same place. Although both were probably factual, it was the selection of the facts they choose to reveal that created the story.” It’s not that Malcolm’s experiences completely changed his views on media, as he “has always found the media to be dubious. At 15 years old after just getting my drivers licence and being completely hyped after seeing Jimi Hendrix’s noise explode / improvisation at Woodstock. I drove my car on to a field to do wheelies and I got the car stuck. Ran home to get my mum to help tow me out before the cops came. She drove up in her nightie beside me and got stuck as well. The police arrived about the same time. The next morning we turned on the radio to hear a story about a gang of youths whose car got stuck in Sutherland Park when another carload of youths (my mum I suppose) came to tow them out and got stuck also. In this way I was introduced to the media and noise music at the same time. Maybe this has affected me in later life.”
Article by Peter, 2005