Anything but child’s play
Far away from the iconography so typical to Doom, you find Asva. No crosses or witchery, no darkness surrounding the graveyards at midnight here. So be polite, and don’t call them a doom band, George Stuart Dalquist (bass) and Greg Gilmore (drums) are bothered by it. Because of the preconceived notion of what the genre really is about, something Dalquist and Gilmore couldn’t care less about. Still, ocassionaly Dalquist wished he had a bit of fog on stage. So, where are we here?
At the Californians’ Myspace they describe themselves as Ambient, Down Tempo and Trance. But it’s not because Mubarak doesn’t like to be called a dictator, that he isn’t. Asva uses slow, down-tuned guitars, a thick sound and minor tonality and dissonance. It’s true that Asva accords to those spects of Doom, but their music also shows a sensibility to seventies hard rock, pop music, drones, ambient and so on. Asva’s output has also changed since – we guess – Gilmore came in. In the aftermath of the interview, somewhere between a whiskey and a Belgian beer, things became even clearer. Dalquist – an underestimated musician and composer (read the Burning Witch article) – notified that Asva songs have the same structure as the songs of Earth, Wind and Fire. Right: the famous funk and R&B band.
We spoke to Dalquist – aka Bootsykronos – and Gilmore the evening before they did a massive show at the 4ad venue in Diksmuide, Belgium, January 24th 2009. Since then the line-up has little to do with the band we saw. It already was almost another band from the one that recorded the two albums Asva released so far. Dalquist and Gimore today seem to be the backbone of Asva. They’re working on a new album called Presences of Absences that will be released by Important Records in May. In September 2009 Dalquist wrote that “it sounds like a cross between Arvo Pärt (minus the orchestra) and Burning Witch (minus drums and vocals)”.
The talk took place at Jeroen Pede’s apartment in Ghent. He is the owner of the Belgian Luchtrat, a label that has released limited demos, live registrations and raw material in special formats from bands like Menace Ruine and Virus. Every now and then he interfered in the conversation.
Asva’s first album was called Futurist Against The Ocean. Are there aspects of Futurism in Asva?
Dalquist: I’m very much taken by the artwork and poetry of that Russian movement . Actually, I’ve been putting together some artwork that probably will be used for our next record that is reminiscent of stuff done during the Futurist’s movement. I’m studying the ideas on colour theory within artwork from Joseph Albers (German / American artist that combined European styles like Bauhaus and constructivism with American styles and had a big influence on later genres like Hard-edge painting and Optical art, red). So, that whole movement kills me. Not musically, but artistically. I’m a terrible artist but I have ideas, and looking at it I realised that there is a way to get them across.
No matter what your limitations are, you just have to find the means to get the ideas accomplished?
Dalquist: You just work within your limitations. Playing bass for instance: I’m a pretty good bass player and what I’ve decided over the last 15 years is to seriously pull away from the fast, technical side of bass, and try to work within single notes and get single notes to do different things in the course of the duration that I’m holding it for. It’s much more an interior creativity, and I hear what is going on.
Gilmore: There’s a lot about what we are doing that is very sophisticated in spite of how simple it may seem on the surface.
Dalquist: The music essentially is incredibly simple music. Anybody could do this stuff. But, there’s a subtlety to it. Here’s a good way of saying it. I have an art book called A Child Of Six Can Do It, and it has paintings by Jackson Pollock. (loud) Well, try to do it. Good luck! You can spill all the paint you want, but it’s not going to look like a Jackson Pollock. It’s the same thing with what we’re doing, with what Sunn O))) is doing. It sounds incredibly simple, but it’s not. There are no limitations to a lack of skill. There are other things that you can focus on and get incredibly good at. People might not necessarily be able to hear it.
You also have the aspect of the idea. For example: anyone can play 4’33” from John Cage. But no one “composed” it before him.
In the Futurist movement there’s a central idea that one should make art like it’s a game. Does that also count for Asva?
Dalquist: Actually, on What You Don’t Know Is Frontier there’s a track called A Game in Hell, Hard Work in Heaven.
The movement also inspired the title?
Dalquist: Absolutely! That title came from a piece of art from that movement. I can’t say this for sure, but I think ‘hell’ for me would be that you haven’t been recognised for the things that you have done despite your hard work. At the same time that gives a certain sense of freedom. I’m doing this for such a long time, and I’m not really any further than I ever was. Nobody has a preconceived notion of what I could be doing. I write whatever I feel like writing. It means that I don’t have to write to the expectation. The lack of expectation frequently creates a better output in the long end.
The lack of recognition has a positive function, but has it ever frustrated you?
Dalquist: Yeah, definitely. You know, I have trouble paying my bills. But that frustration is strictly financial, not artistic. The reason I never got into a real job is because I have always known this is going to be what I’m always going to do. But it bothers my wife.
Another aspect about the futurists is that they want to create art without rules. Do you think that is possible?
Gilmore: I don’t think it is.
Dalquist: Your question opens up the door to what is called Found art (genre also called Readymade or Objet Trouvé, that was first defined by dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s Roue De Bicyclette (a bicycle wheel on a pedestal) and Fountain (a urinal). Everyday objects were presented as art, red). Art is creation.
Gilmore: But, it only has meaning in a context, no matter how thin or abstract that context is. You could interchange the world with rules. The context is the thing that art happens in. Those are the rules it happens in. I hate to say that, because I don’t like that idea.
Dalquist: I agree with you, except for you saying that it is the artist that creates the rules.
Gilmore: It gets meaning by its context or rules. Nothing exists in a vacuum.
Dalquist: I should also say that when the Futurist’s movement was going on, there were rules. (takes some stuff from the kitchen table) The rules were based on what you could get your hands on. That makes a huge difference. What is available also shapes art. Because of all the possibilities today also a lot of crap comes out of it. And back then, at the end of the twentieth century and thereafter there was not much more than paper, pen, ink and colours, definitely in Russia.
And maybe not having rules is a rule too.
Dalquist: In a way it is. Yeah, that sounds like a line out of Star Trek (mutual laughter).
Pede: Maybe now everything has been done. The Futurist’s had their limitations. And now it’s like all limits are erased. Because everything is done, it’s more important than ever to look at the way things are put in a context.
Dalquist: I have a hard time considering Juxtaposition art.
Gilmore: It is art! It’s reducing art to its fundament. That is what really happens (juxtaposes two objects). You can dress it up, but it’s fundamentally the same.
Dalquist: Just putting a can opener next to this beer glass, that is juxtaposition, but it’s not art. But when I would take a photograph of it, it could be something different. You have the juxtaposition, but you also have to have the medium that it is presented in before it becomes art.
Gilmore: So, the medium is part of the art?
Gilmore: I agree, but I would say that is context. That same juxtaposition either photographed or painted has two completely different meanings. It’s completely different art.
Dalquist: Right, but if you’re just talking about juxtaposition as art, you cannot escape art. In that case, even these two dishtowels are art. It’s like you said, it’s the context that makes the difference.
A wrong turn
Are there aspects or irrationality in Asva?
Dalquist: The way I write this stuff is usually by trial and error. We’re doing a new song called New World Order Rising (which still isn’t released, so who is slow here, red). It doesn’t repeat itself for twelve minutes. It’s never the same progression the whole time. A piece of music like that, takes me a long time to do it. I wanted to do that kind of song for a long time. It’s a serious thing to figure out how to phrase things. When I’m writing stuff, it’s experimentation. It’s not irrational though. I don’t think that a series of thoughtful mistakes is irrational. What You Don’t Know Is Frontier is a track that to some people may sound completely irrational. But that track is absolutely on time, repeating itself in the same way every time. That entire 14-minute track doesn’t change throughout it. It sounds like it does something else. What people hear are all the accents that I have put on the different parts of the track. But there is nothing irrational or unplanned about it at all. The stuff that is more abstract, Zaum; Beyondsense for example, comes more to that irrational thought. But still, I don’t think that is irrational, that is more improvisational. Depending on what you consider irrational.
Would you call it rational then?
Dalquist: Absolutely, I would call it rational. If rational is the same thought as approach and idea. Sure.
Gilmore: Most of what you hear is considered. All of it, virtually.
Dalquist: Very little of it, is up to chance. The basic idea is essentially improvised but even that improvisation is being done over days of doing different takes. It starts off as improvisation, and that finally becomes a fully formed idea or approach. Live there is a lot of improvisation, because different things can happen. A string can brake, your amps acting differently. But that is not particularly irrational. Do I think that irrationality is the same as not knowing what you’re doing? Yes. We know what we’re doing. The only time I can think that I don’t know what I am doing is when I don’t know what anybody else is doing. But I very rarely second guess myself at all, unless I can’t hear what is happening. That can change everything. But, that still doesn’t make it irrational. You’re attempting to focus on what happens. It’s like focussing on kissing your girlfriend but you have a bee stinging on the back of your head at the same time. If that is a good analogy. (mutual laughter)
Can you explain how the process of an Avsa-song goes?
Dalquist: In the past I wrote some sort of sketches. I made an arrangement and a basic idea of a chord progression. It’s kind of a rhythmic sensibility of what’s going on. And then I just send music of to the other guys, and then these guys – hopefully – work out their parts or in some cases show up in the studio and figure it out then. Which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a not so good thing. Then we were just taking all these bits, and essentially layer them on top of whatever I put together. The way we work now is considerably different. The basis of the music we’re working on is still starting from my sketches, but we’re actually working on things instead of off-tape. We’re working on things as a band on rehearsals. The songs develop in a much more organic way, instead of sitting in a studio and listening to it over and over again. We’re actually writing things as we play them and we’re coming up with ideas in live time, you know. I think the work in the studio will progress much faster. We’re going to have a much better idea what we want to do.
What You Don’t Know Is Frontier already sounded more organic than Futurists Against The Ocean. How do you explain that?
Dalquist: I think the only reason that album is sounding more organic is because we used a solid two years recording it. We spent way more time in the studio on it. There was a little more time to develop a more thoughtful approach to what we really wanted to accomplish. I don’t know how much time I spent on listening to rough mixes, but I would venture five or six hundred hours on doing nothing but listening. And I know that Randall Dunn (producer of Asva albums, red) also spent a considerable amount of time. Not only on recording other people, but also on listening. So, we had a lot more places to pull things from and way more tracks to deal with. We had at least seventeen tracks. What you’re hearing on that record is maybe a third of what is actually recorded. There’s an astounding amount of music that had to be let go of. And maybe that is where the organic thing comes from. But it is actually similarly written to the first one. I sat down and wrote, basically.
Greg, how do you see your involvement in Asva as a matter of writing?
Gilmore: I want to bring something to this that I don’t hear in almost any other music that I know of or that’s considered in [Doom]. I don’t know what that means exactly, except to just play different. I think this music is incredibly musical and rich. It’d be easy to just play to the obvious aspects. It’s not because there is a big loud part, you have to make a lot of noise too. I can go to so much more incredibly places. We just started to discover what that is. In a purely practical or technical example: overall the stuff is pretty loud and pretty thick already between bass, guitars and keyboards. There’s no reason for the drummer to try to compete with these sounds. And there’s so much that these sounds are not doing and that’s where I’m after.
Is that at the same time a sort of critic on the previous Asva-albums?
Gilmore: A little bit, but it’s just my personal view.
Dalquist: I have a really shitty drum-machine. There are two beats I like on it. One is a waltz that I like a lot (WH laughs), that I have actually wrote a lot of stuff to. And the other thing I like is a techno beat. I listen to a fair amount of techno and a lot of jazz. I pretty much never listen to doom metal. It doesn’t interest me that much. For the last several years, what I wanted to do is bringing in a kind of a beat over the top of the music. When I started this, there were two things that I brought up that were interesting. The first thing is Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, which is an impossibly good record. On that record the drumming is as good as it can get. And there’s another guy called Ronald Shannon Jackson (composer and drummer that played with Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler en Cecil Taylor among others, red), probably the loudest jazz drummer I’m aware of. For years I have been thinking that I wanted to combine these two things. The Talk Talk record has this gentle totally aware style of drumming. You can tell that band is listening to each and everything part of what every else is doing the whole time. What I hoped to get is something that essentially has that type of awareness, with the fluid power of a guy like Jackson. I mentioned that to Greg and he was like: “those are two of my favourite things”. Not in that voice however (laughs). It’s listening to what is going on and figuring out where you can place whatever it is in an effective way. It’s not about showing off, but about bringing the entire piece to a higher level. B.R.A.D. (former Asva and Burning Witch drummer, now in The Accüsed, red) is very capable of doing that, but Greg is doing that in a much different way. But the idea is completely similar. Drawing attention isn’t the intention.
Interview took place in Ghent, January 23th 2009
Article by Peter, 2011