Jon Nicholson


The Correspondences:

John Fell Ryan

Part 1: January 2006

J Kaw
First, a few straight-forward questions. I have found it hard to decipher which of the male vocals on Excepter's earlier works are Calder Martin and which are you. You're both listed as vocalists, and there does seem to be differences in the male voices I hear on the records. For example, is the droning voice which runs through "Shattered Skull", the first track on Ka, Calder, and the scream which constitutes a sort of climax of the track, you? or the opposite? or are both voices you? The same question goes for the especially-intense passage on side A of Obedience.

John Fell Ryan
The confusion comes in part from our tendency to imitate each other—even the Beatles did this. If Calder had cut his beard, you would have an even harder time telling us apart. The two-note vocal drone that runs throughout "Shattered Skull" is a slowed-down loop of Calder's voice and the screams are mine. I grumble the title of the track at the end, while Calder says, "Flip the switch." With Obedience, I assume you're referring to the Techno-ish track with the 4/4 808 kick we call "Are U War 2?" (A remix is featured on a K.48 magazine M.P.3 mix). On that track we're both screaming together. Then again, on "Interplay: Your House," I don't appear at all.

J Kaw
Excepter has made use of divers kinds of media in releasing its music: the debut C.D.R, Ag; a live cassette, Obedience; an L.P, Ka; a 12-inch 45, "Vacataion"/"'Forget Me'"; M.P.3's of gigs made available on your web site; and finally C.D's (the joint reissue of Ka and "Vacation"/"'Forget Me'"; the C.D/L.P Self Destruction; and the C.D. Throne). Was this largely a pragmatic course, or would you like to continue as such, exploring other options, like Minidiscs or D.V.D's?

John Fell Ryan
The various formats are usually the result of our agreements with our various record companies. Fusetron only wanted to do vinyl at first, Temple of Be Saint 777 only wanted to do a cassette. So we made the different projects fit those formats. Ka was sequenced as a two-sided L.P, with poppy vocal experiments on side one and the heavier, beat-oriented noise stuff on side two. Throne is designed to be listened as one long piece, so we didn't do a vinyl edition of that one. M.P.3 is perhaps the most exciting format, mainly because of the speed of transmission. For example, STREAM XX, we recorded, edited, and posted for download all in one evening, just in time for Christmas. Once you're finished with a C.D or L.P, it takes about five months for it to make its way through mastering/ pressing and distribution channels. Distributors take the longest. You have to be placed into their bureaucratic "street date schedule." Boxes of records sit in warehouses for months sometimes. Of course, with M.P.3's, you don't make any money; but C D's and records don't make us any money either, they just get us more famous because more people's money and attention are involved. We'd like to break the 80-minute mark with an M.P.3 some time in the future. Minidisc is too esoteric a format for which to really create a release, though we use them for recording. D.V.D, we're working on (top secret!).

J Kaw
I wonder if there is a conflict between Excepter as a live, improvising, collective enterprise and Excepter as the moniker for carefully crafted recordings. Though the number of performances I have either attended or heard through your Web site is small, and thus I do not have much to draw upon here, the only case where I have noticed music from gigs ending up on the records is on the Obedience cassette, where parts of what became "Vacation" and "'Forget Me'" appear on Side A and what became Throne on Side B. Do you prefer to keep the two separate?

On one hand, the difference between Excepter and The No-Neck Blues Band is clear, as the latter seem to rely largely on the relatively-simple editing-together of recordings of different live performances or studio takes; and, yet, Excepter also distinguish themselves from much electroacoustic music by concentrating on both improvised live music and studio recordings. I can only think of a few others: Yoshihide Otomo, Christian Fennesz, Jim O'Rourke, as well as, in a less-impressive way, several of the so-called "lowercase" artists. Of course, even with these artists, we must make reservations: O'Rourke has apparently left behind the long-form electroacoustic works of his earlier days (Scan or Rules of Reduction, for example) and in Fennesz's work a clear line divides live improvised performances from studio records. Moreover, the music on your records begins with live, improvised music made in the "studio," only to go through long editing processes, so as to arrive at records which for me do not seem like performances at all. As the group has refined its approach, and with the recent line-up change, has there been a shift toward the records, instead of live performences, defining what Excepter is, or do you prefer to see it as a project that is continually in flux?

John Fell Ryan
I would say the two sides of Excepter flow into one another and feed off each other; and there is more than one binary involved. You have on-stage and in-studio, improvised and programmed, live-to-stereo and multi-tracked, planned and surprised. We will use programmed beats, sequences, and samples again and again on stage and in the studio, improvising on top off them, searching for an elevated sound. "Vacation" and "'Forget Me'" were in the process of being assembled through multi-track over-dubbing in the studio for the single release when a pre-show stereo practice recording suddenly out-paced everything we were working on and became the released version. No recording of a "song" is ever really finished. The differences between the various recordings using the "Jrone" sample-loop illustrate our approach, and in this way we are similar to the Dub producer, using choice material again and again in fresh ways.

Actually, I think the recent line-up change has improved our live act tremendously and more than ever the live show is the end-focus of the band. Sunbomber was recorded live in one hour with editing only to separate the tracks. Alternation also features live tracks. I hate to say it, but much of the heavy editing used on Ka and STREAMS 09-19 was because I thought our continuous live material wasn't really up to snuff. One of the problems that arose out of our band conceit, with me editing and reconstructing material that the band freely improvises, is that it produced a perception within some members of the band that I had undue control. This led to certain members over-compensating for their perceived lack of control by over-playing or drowning out others with distortion, which in turn led to even-more editing by myself. It became a negative feed-back loop that necessitated the removal of certain members to save the group. Ka was edited down from twelve hours of original material to less than 40 minutes! With Self Destruction, we were working with multiple tracks, so much of the editing was just mixing people's parts in and out and paring things down, although the tracks on the second side did receive the kind of "stack editing" I used on the second side of Ka. Now, with Alternation, I tore down the original tracks only to build them back up again through over-dubbing, so expect a less-"minimal" result. At points we have like 14 tracks of vocals going!


Jon Nicholson

J Kaw
When we talked about The Fall before, I was skeptical when you praised their early-1990's records, where among other changes the use of electronic sequencing became prominent. However, recently, especially in listening to Code: Selfish, not only have I begun to realize that the musicians' contributions are not so bland as they seemed, but I have been intrigued by the differences in Mark E Smith's vocals in that period, compared to those in The Fall's music through, say, Bend Sinister. Despite Smith's infamous contempt for musicians, lest they display excessive much skill, the other Fall members in this period dominate the music more so than they did on the earlier records. The regularization of the beat, the perfunctory fullness of the music—in terms of the wide range of frequency—and the less-complex timbres... these factors give Smith less room to move, and make it so he is not, at least superficially, the center of attention, and does not strain to accomplish as much, lyrically and sonically, in his singing. Indeed, a common complaint about this period of The Fall is that Smith's work seems sloppy, with not much thought put behind it.

Yet, at the same time—and this is where I see similarities to Excepter—because he has to carry less weight, Smith is able to vocalize more freely; his singing can be more extemporaneous, less affected. In such a situation, the singer's part could eventually be more akin to a "field" recording of someone singing to himself, working out the possibilities of a melody, rather than a finished studio recording of a thought-out vocal performance. Given this perspective, I think Smith's later style could be seen as prescient of the vocal work of, say, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Will Hart of Circulatory System, Tim Rutili of Califone, and Will Oldham, all of whom you could say, as the musical arrangements which accompanied their songs grew in density and complexity, began to explore the space between song and conversation, to the point of even mumbling or whispering songs. Excepter's vocals too can sound at first like random vocables, mutterings, or disconnected sentences and phrases. One could say too that there similarities in style and between your voice and Smith's in The Fall's later music.

John Fell Ryan
The difference in Smith's pre-'90 and post-'90 vocal style I think you can also chalk up to the difference in recording the vocals live, along with a Rock band in the studio, and recording the vocals alone, in isolation, with headphones on. When you can really hear yourself, you get into the details of your voice, as opposed to making it fit into a raging, full-on band experience. It's a more-intimate, however less-immediate, style—maybe more about interacting with yourself than with others. Also, the more electronic you get, the less "bleed" between instruments you get in multi-track recording. This can result in a cleaner, "rounder" sound. You can certainly hear this difference in Self Destruction, in which all the instruments and voices are isolated into distinct tracks, even though they were, for the most part, recorded together, live. Of course, people used to hearing "rock" recordings, which have historically been recorded more live-in-the-room, might object to the "colder" sound, but I think the excitement lies in the chaos and distortion being transferred away from the recording and into the realm of audience perception. The confusion we aim to project is then not in the recording, but in the mind of the beholder—even more invisible. An ironic thing is when Smith returned to a raw, in-the-room sound with Are You Are Missing Winner, he gets pilloried in the press again! I like both styles, and in Excepter we try to mix it up. "Vacation"/ "'Forget Me'" was recorded live, in the room, with the monitors on and loud, and everything bleeding together. The same method was used for Sunbomber. "Shattered Skull" was recorded with headphones on and the monitors off. "Be Beyond Me" shows you what happens when everyone is wearing headphones and no one notices that the drum machine is ten times as loud as everything else and clipping like crazy! We had to use some compression on that one to keep everyone's stereos from breaking. For the next album, Alternation, we're mixing up various approaches. Some of the record is recorded live on stage, right off the board; some off it in a 24-track studio, with vocal over-dubs done with headphones on in the home studio.

J Kaw
During the July gig at Rothko, when the new, quartet version of the group debuted, I felt the urge to dance, not necessarily the kind of dancing you see at a nightclub, accompanying House-Techno or some other kind of dance music, but experimental/ avant-garde/ modern dancing (a la Merce Cunningham). Either way, the crowd there, as with most audiences at Rock shows and virtually all audiences at experimental- or improvised-music gigs, was dead-set on standing and watching only.

In turn, recently I came across an old book from the 1960's about popular music, The Age of Rock: Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution, and in particular an essay by Frank Kofsky about the mass appeal of Rock and its eclipse of Jazz and other options as the preeminent popular music. Analyzing Rock's "innovations," he notes that "the audience feels able to respond to the performance," while in Jazz the best musicians did not enjoy such intimacy and ease with their audiences, because they had "decided that their music was art rather than entertainment; and accordingly, they adopted a performing stance that they felt was more appropriate to that of an artist." He finds the historical roots of this shift in the rise of nouveau riche of capitalism, who used "art as a weapon in the campaign to establish themselves as the social equals of the hereditary landed aristocracy, winning the artists over to their side in the process." Both the artists and their patrons developed "elitist ideas," notably "separating music from its hitherto ever-present partner, the dance," which was overall seen as a low-brow form of entertainment. Jazz musicians and their audience, Kofsy claims, had taken a similar stance, because it was the only model available when they sought a way to distance themselves from mere entertainment; they were "hypnotized (as are all good middlebrows) by the European idea of what constitutes 'culture'" and thus "eager to repudiate dancing so as to demonstrate that jazz was as 'refined' (i.e., white and European) as 'serious' or 'classical' music." In contrast, Rock at that point in its history, with its "shared ethos [binding] artist and audience together in a shared endeavor," encouraged a "visceral response" to music, and thus had brought dancing back to the fore.

A similar process has occurred in Rock music, at least that which has come out of Punk-Indie, broadly defined. While the decline of Rock as a popular, dance music has in part come at the behest of its artists and their listeners, it has been caused to a greater extent by the rise of competing dance musics—generally speaking, Rap and Disco-House-Techno (of course the roots of these musics lie partially in Motown and Funk, which fit more comfortably into an entertainment role than Rock). What is intriguing about seeing Excepter as part of this historical development is that you use programmed beats and other kinds of sequencing; echo and other obvious effects; and, at least on "Vacation"/"'Forget Me'" and Self Destruction, what on the surface seem like straight-up, accessible synthesizer melodies. These aspects stand out in what is after all complex, nuanced "experimental" electroacoustic music. They are like phantoms of a dance-oriented music, taken from one context—appropriated or co-opted—and put into another. The influence of Dub on your music has just come to mind. I am not implying, though, that Excepter's relationship to dance music, or to the listener, is negative and confrontational. I wonder too if you would prefer more of a physical response from your audiences.

John Fell Ryan
I've always been a dancer, whether being the front-row enthusiast at Rock shows as a youth, or a performer with No-Neck, or at disco house parties, or in Excepter, so for me there's a natural connection between music and movement. But I also appreciate the less-danceable, more-intellectual forms found in the music of, say, La Monte Young or Earth. As far as the audience goes, I have no real requirements from them. I resent Rock-dance crossover bands like !!! actually telling people what to do at their shows, giving verbal orders to people to "shake their asses," or whatever. That shit should be in the music. We're not here to help the up-tight get over themselves. If anything, we're trying to give the up-tight more problems! Let them try to piece together their shattered reality on the Internet if they can. I can see parallels between Excepter and 1930's night-club Jazz in that we're both providing a cross-over between the pop and art worlds, as well as moving dance from the floor to the stage. I'm probably one of the best dancers in the city, and I think it's enough for an audience just to watch. Then again, it'd be cool if we got a sort of freak scene going, but don't expect us to take the place of Crash Worship. I always considered the real audience action in Excepter as taking place at home in front of the stereo, when you can do what you like with yourself without all the pressures of society around. In many ways, we're fundamentally an anti-social band. We don't make party music.










Jon Nicholson


Part 2: July 2006

J Kaw
We'll start again with the issue of who's singing when. I forgot that I wanted to ask not just about the two-note vocal drone that underlies "Shattered Skull," but also the similar, low-end voice that is present almost all of the track, perhaps singing along with/responding to the drone. My guess is that it's you, not Calder. On Obedience, side A, I was referring to the later part that features what became "Vacation"; though, listening to it recently, it seems that the male voice there is you.

John Fell Ryan
The lower, lead vocal on "Shattered Skull" is mine. Calder makes the more percussive utterances. The set list of Obedience, side A, is as follows: sequencer improvisation/ "Are U War 2?"/ "'Forget Me'"/ "Vacation"/ group improvisation/ canned exit drone. The lead vocals on "'Forget Me'" and "Vacation" are again mine, with Calder and Caitlin providing the backing screams and yelps. Calder takes the lead towards the end of "Are U War 2?" with lines like, "Please don't send me over," "This spaz of mine," and "Fucked by the devil," but for the most part of that number we are all screaming together.

J Kaw
An adjunct to this question, since we're talking about the performance documented on side A of Obedience: what was happening at the end of the performance, when there seems to be some sort of conflict between the group and the audience?

John Fell Ryan
Are you referring to the whole "More Bikini Kill in the Monitors" routine? That was more of a disarming, ironic construct, aimed less at the audience than at a more naive element inside the band letting a vocal mic feed back. If "Are U War 2?" raises a question, my typical off-the-cuff mic jive is the answer/s. They are negative reflections of what's happening, not to be taken literally. Nevertheless, my oblique, satirical maneuvers in assuming the role of the pantomime villain in performance sometimes results in hurt feelings. This artificial conflict is the kind of "synthetic protest" mentioned in our recent press releases.

J Kaw
While Excepter has made a selected number of concerts available via M.P.3 streams, do you have recordings of every performance the group has done? If so, will they all eventually be released? Such an approach would seem fitting in this era of music, with, on one hand, obsessive documentation of artists' activities and yet, on the other, the blurring of the lines separating the artist from the audience/ patrons.

John Fell Ryan
The answers would be no and no. Though we make the effort to record everything we do, inevitably recordings fall prey to digital malfunction and distortion, as well as human error. Of the recordings that do exist, we would only release, whether on vinyl, C.D, cassette, or M.P.3, those we would consider good enough for the public ear. We enjoy the freedom of experimentation, but not all experiments succeed. I am aware of the tendency in this digital age toward "interactivity," but I believe in editing too much. As blurry as lines get, there is still an artist's hand, dividing. Whether that hand is in the band, or in the mind of the object, there is still a conception of good and bad music. There is a struggle that goes on at every level, and that's what we're trying to illuminate.

J Kaw
When we first talked, at the No-Town Sound Festival in Atlanta, you mentioned in passing, and I later repeated, perhaps rashly, in my first essay on Excepter, that the group prefer to use electronic instruments only for a short time, to move on continually to new ones. To what extent have you actually used this approach?

With this subject, I return to something I talked about in the first correspondence: this notion of electronic dance music being recontextualized. At least some of the instruments we hear in Excepter's music are used in ways the makers did not necessarily intend; the instruments' original purpose is ignored, or we could perhaps say, subverted (especially in the case of drum machines and keyboard-synthesizers). With such an approach, accidents and unintentional results become more important. For example, this Yamaha synth I have, on the "electric piano" setting, will distort if several of the bass keys are pressed at once, creating a buzzing rumble of a sound; otherwise, in terms of texture, that setting is quite boring. The story of Phuture's "Acid Trax" comes to mind, as the Roland T.B.303, intended to serve as a synthesizer of formulaic bass sounds, but apparently sounding too-peculiar for such a purpose, was used in a way that diverged from this designated commercial role.

To add a caveat though: this kind of rerouting of electronic instruments allows the artist to make music akin to the earliest electroacoustic music, that of musique concrète and pre-keyboard synthesizers. From such a perspective, it was the rise of more accessible, often keyboard-based, electronic instruments that actually caused a disjuncture in the course of electroacoustic music.

John Fell Ryan
I think that the continual experimentation with and reconfiguring of the electronic-system format of the band has entered a refining phase in the past year, coinciding with the advent of the four-man line-up. On the 2006 tour, we juggled around the set-up a bit initially, but eventually focused on what we could do within a constant system. We even made an effort to try and reproduce songs off our upcoming double album. Since we were playing to a different audience every night, we had the freedom to repeat ourselves, and in this repetition: a search for perfection. I think it's important in an electronic band not to rely on any one piece of equipment. Machines break all the time and it's a good idea to have a number of different approaches, just in case. The essential thing is what we do with the machines, not the machines themselves.

I wouldn't estimate the intentions of the instrument designers. I have no idea what went on at the Roland corporation in the early 1980's, but it must have been something special. We use a combination of different approaches. Nathan and I mostly use Roland analog synthesizers that have no pre-set sounds. Jon and Dan mostly use Casio digital synthesizers with multiple, tweak-able pre-sets they also modify through effects pedals. I suppose we use both of the two types of approaches you describe above. There are exceptions, of course. Nathan uses an M P C sampler certainly in way it was meant to be used. Dan uses a circuit-bent drum pad. I use a number of pre-MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface (M.I.D.I, or "MIDI")] methods to synch-up different drum machines, sequencers, and synthesizers. I also use 1990's rave-era equipment that was designed specifically to make "trippy effects," and run the drum machine through a fancy filter of recent vintage. There are no hard rules or defined approaches in our band. Whatever works, works.

I suppose the trick of consumer electronics is to wait until the corporations fuck up and give us more instead of less; but in the end, I really think it's less about the equipment and more about group interaction. A system made up of special humans will yield more interesting results than a bunch of cool gear linked together. It's not for nothing the first few Excepter tracks are basically a cappella.

J Kaw
You talked last time of the "stack editing" used on the B-side tracks of Ka and Self Destruction. Your description of how you approached Alternation suggests that it is employed again there. I assume that you are in some way referring to the different audio tracks being stacked on top of each other in computer programs like Pro Tools and Nuendo. I wonder, though, if you meant something more particular.

John Fell Ryan
What I call "stack editing" is taking edits of entire multi-track recordings and stacking them on top of each other in Pro Tools, then utilizing the volume controls of that program to create invisible edits between different parts of a longer recording. For example, on "See Your Son," I took a 30-minute stereo recording of Calder and Caitlin singing through effects, cut it up into bits, and created the layered vocal sound through stacking the stereo bits on top of each other and fading them in and out to taste. On "B.B + B," I took an 20-minute eight-track recording, cut out ten minutes of the most dynamic parts, and stitched the eight-track segments together, stacking them in a sixteen-channel mix. On Alternation, the tracks "Ice Cream Van," "Knock Knock," and "Apt. Living" were also edited in this fashion, all cut down from 20-minute multi-track recording sessions, except for "Apt. Living," which was recorded in stereo. Vocal over-dubbing was also used on these Alternation tracks. This so-called "stack editing" technique is similar to D J mixing in that it is done on-the-beat and works from multiple copies of the original recording. Needless to say, without digital, this process would be much more difficult, but The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, and Miles Davis were all using this technique via tape. It's a way of composing, post-performance.

J Kaw
When we look back upon, say, the last decade of music, the rise and rapid spread in use of these kinds of programs will obviously be crucial to understanding how artists worked, what they did and did not accomplish. The result one would expect, when first pondering the issue—the easier conclusion—would be to say that these computer programs, with the greatly increased number of tracks available, the way in which alterations of the original recording can be done quickly and un-done almost as quickly, and so on, would cause the level of interest in electroacoustic sound to increase dramatically. Perhaps that is the case. After all, understanding music as the way in which they are visually presented in the programs' interfaces—essentially as sine waves that are grow less smooth, loss their shape, as the sound grows more complex in timbre—was once the province of small number of Academic artists and scientists of sound.

As you stated last time, an ideal with electronic sound and these advanced recording and editing methods would be to have "the chaos and distortion [...] transferred away from the recording and into the realm of audience perception." An appealing aspect of listening to electronic music, compared to, say, Rock music or Improvised music, is this notion I have in my head: that whatever I hear is part of the music, that it is supposed to be there, even if, as far as the artist was concerned, it was not. Whereas with Rock or Improvised, especially when listening via headphones, I strain to figure out what is happening; I want to decipher not so much what the different parts are—I do that with electronic music as well—but what they originally were in their live, acoustic form, and then see what they sound like now, on a recording, and perhaps after having been altered in some fashion (by amplification or some other electroacoustic effect). So, on "Shattered Skull," as we can see with the questions I have asked you about it, I strain to hear what the different parts were initially and what has been done to them. On "Bad Vibration," I skip this stage, and immediately begin to think about what is happening sonically, not even thinking about the piece as a performance done by individuals.

John Fell Ryan
Computers have been a great help to the band, no question, especially as an organizational tool for archiving and editing. But I don't know how much modern computers have shaped the sound of the band. We still perform everything with out-board equipment. Everything has its limitations. I use the cheapo version of Pro Tools, which only allows 24 tracks, so I still have to use tricks to fit everything I want in there, especially when performing multiple vocal over-dubs in addition to "stack editing" of multi-track recordings. The edit window of "Ice Cream Van" looks like a puzzle, like top-level Tetris, but the assemblage of the track was ultimately very simple: one brick on top of another, one track at a time, in real time, judged by intuitive reaction. The ear, not eye, still rules when evaluating sound. I tend to only use the visible sound waves in Pro Tools to synch-up different rhythm tracks. We use Pro Tools primarily as an editing and recording tool, not as a sound-processing tool. That's the province of other programs we go without. I reprocess tracks through out-board compressors, filters, reverbs, and echoes, but it's all old-fashioned rack gear, not software. I have no training; it's all done through intuition, trial-and-error, research, and feel.

Let me clarify what I meant by moving distortion from the recording into audience perception. Audiences, by their nature, form camps of thought. You have your Rock people, your Noise people, your Indie people—all with generalized prejudices. If you're the kind of person like us that doesn't show allegiance to any one camp and moves from sound to sound, you are bound to upset some of the more-dormant schools of thought. With Ka, we made a name for ourselves with a distorted, rough sound that appealed to people trained on Rock and Noise. When we came out with Self Destruction, with a sound more grounded in dance and pop, a lot of fans of Ka were left scratching their heads. This was a conscious move to shake people out of focusing on one thing over another, to get the big picture. For some of the Noise dudes out there, it was like as if we made a sequel to Commando featuring nothing but hospital scenes. It's not a sequel in the Hollywood sense, but a realistic reflection of what happens after such an explosion of violence and emotion: nothing left but the architecture. The neutron bomb. Life goes on.

Another way of looking at distortion in audience perception is to look at the way human consciousness deals with repetition. Make a loop of any short phrase and listen to it for an extended period of time. Your brain will eventually trick yourself into thinking the loop is being modulated, even though it remains the same every time. The distortion is in your head. Whatever "life" you remove from sound, will in time be reborn in the ears of the listener. Creativity can't be stopped.

J Kaw
To be the "devil's advocate" regarding computer programs, a contrary result is also possible. For another comparison, but in Rock music and with a different result than the one between "Shattered Skull" and "Bad Vibration," take two records, R.E.M's Automatic for the People and Beck's Sea Change, similar in the themes broached and moods evoked. While these two artists emerged in different contexts, one could imagine that Sea Change, given the artist's desire to engage in songwriting in a traditional way, would end up sounding a lot like Automatic for the People. But, alas, to me the differences say more about these records, and these differences lie in part with the recording processes. Listening to the R.E.M, I appreciate the nuances in the sound of Peter Buck's electric-guitar parts on "Try Not to Breathe" and "Sweetness Follows," the purposeful wavering and cracking of Michael Stipe's voice on "Nightswimming," how delicately placed Bill Berry's bass drum is on "Drive"... while on Sea Change, the instrumental parts are more geared toward creating a whole effect, and are for the most part generic. Despite the centrality of the voice, and the electroacoustic and electronic parts that selectively intersperse themselves, enveloping the work (in much the same way they do in The Olivia Tremor Control's music or Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), I'm still left with the impression that Sea Change just doesn't sound as good, that the sounds are not allowed to breathe, so to speak. Thus the listener has difficulty appreciating them as individual parts as a whole, but instead hears an overall, cinematic-like backdrop for the singer, closer to entertainment, "white noise" that will pass unnoticed.

Perhaps the relative ease with which, first, live performances are recorded and, second, this initial recording is then manipulated deprives music that is essentially performed, or improvised, of its timbral complexity. In such music, the process of recording and manipulating acoustic sound [though in the case where amplification is the crucial factor, the manipulating comes before the recording] is where the drama of the piece, timbrally speaking, unfolds. When that process is made routine, artists in Rock music—and in straight-ahead Jazz music, with its lack of emphasis on extended techniques—are discouraged from thinking about timbre and the recording process at all, let alone going to another level of complexity or nuance.

John Fell Ryan
I am unfamiliar with your examples, but I would say maybe the difference is that R.E.M is a live band, and Beck uses studio musicians. Maybe someday he'll grow up and become a real boy, with no strings to hold him down, but not if he's going to be wrapped up King Tut-style in some wack pyramid scheme. Some history's not worth saving. That's the trick of data purge.

I don't see how ease of recording and manipulation robs performances of timbral complexity, nor how Rock musicians are discouraged from thinking about the recording process. Rock has always been both a live genre and an electronic studio genre. Think of Rock 'n' Roll without the Sun Studios echo! I don't see how Dub techniques robbed Reggae of anything. If you're complaining about digital recordings' relative antiseptic quality, that's really up to the producer to counter-engineer. A dirty signal will remain dirty no matter how it's recorded. It's hard to reduce the timbral complexity of something through recording; it all depends on what and how you're recording. If anything, this complexity is the thing that's produced artificially, whether through amplification drive or what. These are all choices to be made by the producer or performing unit, not by mass trends in recording technology. I mean, every Excepter track has been recorded digitally. The relative timbral complexity is achieved in the various manipulations of the mixer and sound devices. The medium is fairly passive.

J Kaw
The examples you give illustrate my point further. What would the Sun Studios echo be without Sam Phillips? And the only people who may have been robbing Reggae music are Reggae artists who conceivably could have been uninterested in Dub techniques. But to detract from my own example, this dichotomy I've put forth may actually be more of a British-American divide, with R.E.M actually on the British side. The origins of Rock in Britain date from a few individuals listening to recordings imported from a distant, and to them exotic, place, while for Americans Rock and the musics it grew out of were present, live-performance traditions that commanded greater respect, but in turn (unfortunately) encouraged little in the way of experimentation with form and technique. While, in Britain, the artists were the ones pushing Rock forward as a recorded medium, a studio product, in America it was the men behind the scenes (Phillips or Tom Dowd) who played such a role, with a few significant exemptions (Frank Zappa, Silver Apples, The United States of America) and a few more minor ones (The Byrds, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, The Red Crayola). In the mainstream of U.S popular music, this tendency was redressed in the 1970's, most prominently in the work of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Lindsey Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac; Stevie Wonder's and Marvin Gaye's rebellions against Motown's regimented way of doing things; and James Brown's and George Clinton's concocting of an assembly-line-like approach on their own, without input from a producer or record company. Yet, American Punk, as well as Rap, did surprisingly little to continue these developments. So, we still have the likes of Beck, approaching music in a bifurcated way: the artist on one side, the producer (whether The Dust Brothers or Nigel Goodrich) on the other.

John Fell Ryan
It can be hard to for me to generalize, because the exceptions become so much the rule in my imagination, but I do think there is something offensive about the concept of the producer to the American ideal of democracy. Having a producer in a band negates the national conceit of equality, because one person is perceived to have more control over the music than the others. My production control of Excepter is ultimately the reason for the turn-over rate in the band. The existence of creative hierarchy is seen as "unfair." Producers in America are seen as these dark manipulators like Phil Spector. What a producer does is suspect because it's largely invisible and really only comprehended by an elite. The actors, not directors, are the stars of American movies, because actors can be seen and easily identified. To understand the work of a director, you need training, special knowledge. You are nearing the realm of the occult, which runs contrary to American fundamentalism and the "Show Me State" kind of hard-reality rationalism. Americans like people who "work with their hands." People who work with their minds aren't seen as "real" enough and are probably either members of the idle rich or witches fit for the stake.


Jon Nicholson

J Kaw
Returning to this argument of mine, that the relative ease of recording and of manipulating sound now possible with computer programs could deprive Rock and similar musics of their timbral complexity... as much as I agree with you that in the end the result depends on the artist in question, I also think that those artists who still think of themselves as live performers, before anything else, more often than not must be forced to think creatively about recording, not to treat it as an afterthought, or a burden they never quite overcome. If we look at the period of American Rock music when artists were most self-conscious of the recording process, which I would argue was in the post-Punk and post-Hardcore milieu of independent labels, including the "cassette underground," and of "low-fi" and "home-recording" artists, we find that its appearance coincided with the recording-industry bust of the late-1970's/ early-1980's, and thus the great number of artists arising, inspired by Punk, largely having to take the D.I.Y route, and yet also the existence of good-quality, yet cheap and accessible, analog recording devices. That is to say, developments in recording technology, and in the music industry, encouraged artists to think in depth, in a way they hadn't before, about recording and sound itself. By the early 1990's, a sort of ideological view about the whole matter set in, with the unfortunate but predictable result that simplistic ways of thinking began to predominate, such as there being a definite analog-digital divide, or that "low-fi" methods are preferable. What arose out of necessity became a calculated gesture reflecting intellectual and aesthetic laziness.

In the end, I think these contrasting results of the general shift toward digital recording, electronic sound, and computer programs could occur in the work of the same artist, maybe even the same track. In Excepter's case, if we compare side A of Ka with side B of Self Destruction, we may not think that emphasizing electronic sounds, and using computer programs, were fruitful methods (even as voices remain important in the latter). But, if we were to consider side A of Self Destruction, the difference in quality is certainly more a matter of kind; as I said above, in comparing "Shattered Skull" with "Bad Vibration," two remarkably-different listening experiences are produced. Indeed, "Bad Vibration" can be said to be superior, achieving the ideal of "ambient" music as described by Brian Eno: being a piece of music we can let drift in the background, paying it no mind, and yet we can listen to carefully as well. As your comments in the first correspondence about Excepter-as-performances versus Excepter-as-recordings suggest, Excepter seems to be coupling a shift toward electronic, as compared to concrète, sound and more complex recording processes with a desire to be a performing ensemble that can achieve via improvisation a cohesive work that keeps the listener captivated, even as it flows easily from other event to another, and as such runs the risk of not commanding attention. Thus, even with the dissonant, rich textures of Sunbomber, the possibility exists of its melding into the other sound patterns going on—the air-conditioning unit, cars passing, the television in another room—of it becoming "ambient" music. The same cannot be said of Ka or Throne; on those recordings, there is less open space, the music is compressed into its own sonic environment and cannot meld in others.

John Fell Ryan
That's ironic, because Throne ends with a few minutes of the sound of my room with the windows open. In fact, the early version of Throne on STREAM 09 has rain and thunderstorms mixed in. Field recordings of a fire by a stream and a stream under an over-pass were also mixed into the first song on Sunbomber. I suppose it all depends on what kind of "fruit" you want. There is not one single aim in this band. This binary you're setting up between "concrète" and "electronic" is odd, as our music has always been, outside of vocals and a bit of percussion, completely electronic. There's not much on our recordings in the way of "room sound" that hasn't been created artificially through samples, reverb or echo. The main difference between side A of Ka and side B of Self Destruction is the shift in ratio between long sounds and short sounds. We've been working on these rhythms, and electronic rhythms need space to operate. Since you seem curious about recording and production techniques, I'll break down both "Shattered Skull" and "Bad Vibration" for you.

"Shattered Skull" was recorded with three vocal mics and a contact mic connected to a maraca, all running through a mixing board. The board had controls for routing any signal separately through a delay pedal, a combination flanger and echo effect, and a gated reverb effect, and then back into the mixer. All the vocals and effects levels were mixed live during the performance, and a stereo recording was made directly from the board with no over-dubbing or post-production. The recording was a single edit from a longer improvisation by the players, all along the set make-up of vocals and percussion mixed through effects.

"Bad Vibration" was taken from a longer, continuous improvisation devoted to five channels of simultaneous recording: one vocal, one mono drum machine, one mono bass synthesizer, and one stereo polyphonic synthesizer. The five-track recording was then mixed and edited in Pro Tools, cutting the drum machine and stereo synthesizer in and out for effect. The bass was re-recorded through a compressor, with a slight stereo E.Q effect. The drum machine was re-recorded through two different filters and panned for stereo. I'm pretty sure reverb was added to the stereo synth, but that might have been on the original signal. Two additional vocals were also over-dubbed through a vocoder.

What's the real difference between these two tracks? On "Shattered Skull," we have multiple vocals clashing and fusing together in a dense, chaotic weave of effects. On "Bad Vibration," all the elements are clearly separated from each other and remain in their own individual, fixed sonic worlds. Together or separate—that's your difference. All the elements and techniques of each song serve to illuminate the emotional qualities of these concepts. Self Destruction was intended to be a downbeat, cold, and alienating record before recording even began. The recording and production techniques were chosen to serve this vision. As you'll hopefully see on Alternation, Pro Tools editing and mixing techniques need not suck the "life" out of a performance.

J Kaw
You're right to be wary of an electronic-concrète binary; the history of electroacoustic music unfortunately leads one to think in such a way, given the early ideological divide between French musique concrète and German electronic music. Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge is supposed to have ended that period. If anything, there's more of a dualistic relationship between acoustic sound and electroacoustic sound, between listening to music live, in person, and listening to recordings. In this perspective, electronic sound fits in either category, and our definition of electroacoustic sound expands greatly, even as the live manipulation of acoustic sound, such as with the electric guitar, would no longer be seen as electro-acoustic or concrète.

Either way, my perception of a shift in Excepter's music from concrète to electronic is based almost entirely on the recordings. Indeed, my perspective on music is grounded in listening to recordings, treating them as texts to be studied in and of themselves, in addition to understanding their social context. From my own personal experience, of the hey-day of Elephant Six in Athens and of a particularly fertile time for Free Jazz and experimental music in Atlanta (both in the local scene and the number of touring artists coming through), I have found that, from the perspective of the distant observer, recordings provide just as accurate a portrait of what the artists and the "scene" were like as the recollections of those who were there at the time. So, in comparing Ka —or at least side A of Ka—and Throne, on one hand, with Self Destruction and Sunbomber, on the other, the human voice is less significant in the latter records, despite exceptions (notably, "Shoot Me First," the first track on Self Destruction, and "One More Try," the first track on Sunbomber). And, to me, there is nothing more difficult, yet compelling, about the recording process, and, thus, of electroacoustic sound, than vocals. Precisely because, as you point out, Excepter is nonetheless principally an electronic band, it has made this transition well. As I suggest above, it is in Rock and Jazz musics that the duality between performance and recording is too often overwhelming.

John Fell Ryan
I'll say I'm plain wary of binaries in general. Binaries are a human way of ordering things, but they only serve as simple tools for understanding the thoroughly non-linear map of existence and communication. You can set up a purely logical point of view of right-or-wrong or this-or-that, but it will most likely be purely idealistic and vulnerable to destruction by the agents of totality, who order their ways not by ideas, but by instinct; not by laws, but through vision. I have a hard time talking about it, because in many ways it's not open for discussion. Obsessive action not only takes over, but never stops, and has never stopped either; it just is.

Recordings can serve as documents of live performances. We've certainly documented ourselves as much as aesthetics allow with the STREAMS series. I wanted to document not so much the music as heard by the microphone, but more the feelings and sensations surrounding the event of the live performance. So the music came to be edited for effect, with outside recordings, the sound of the city, voice-over commentaries, all added afterward. Maybe this reflects my drive to not record the hard-reality of performance, but to reproduce the intangible elements of temporary existence. Excepter members have commented that Excepter records don't really sound like the band, which is strange because it's the band playing and improvising the music. I reckon it's the addition and synthesis of my perspective on the band's music that changes the sound into something different. A detail here and a slight change there, and one reality transforms into another. A minor change in the ratio between the constants in the band of electronics and vocals, and Ka becomes Self Destruction. The Excepter records were not conceived nor recorded in a linear fashion. We have several projects going at once, and which project gets finished when is often up to the whims of circumstance. Principle recording for Alternation was completed before final production on Self Destruction commenced, which was recorded before the first track of Throne, which began life before Ka. Often the album art comes first, then the music! Anyway, I wouldn't worry about vocals receding in our music. Vocals take a prime position on Alternation.

J Kaw
Perhaps we should end this correspondence by discussing Excepter's origins. The first released recordings date from 2002; did the live performances begin then also? Although I know you were a member of The No-Neck Blues Band, I don't know much about the groups or projects you and the other members engaged in, or still do. I'm intrigued that No-Neck's Intonomancy, recorded in 2002, perhaps features more electronics than any of their other records, yet presumably you did not participate on that one.

Something in the message John Morton and Nathan Corbin sent out about their new label, Avant-God, caught my attention: the notion of a "new Renaissance" after September 11, 2001, "when people fled the city, all the money dried up, and all that was left were artists who were truly committed to what they were doing." Excepter, it notes, performed at the Avant-God parties that took place in this context, along with Morton's band Lycaon Pictus, Japanther, Sightings, et. al. Even given that the comment is perhaps an exaggeration, this apparent temporary break in the general tide of the gentrification of New York is intriguing, especially if, like myself, one was not there at the time, and assumed that, despite the obvious disjunctures in society and culture caused by "9-11," there was not a new "normalcy," of economic and social stagnation and the accompanying opening-up of new ways of thinking and doing, that set in, but instead an obsessive desire to return the city to its previous state. Would you say that this scene described by Morton and Corbin gives us at least a hint of the cultural milieu Excepter came from, or do you prefer to see Excepter as a product of the individuals members and their personal artistic development? Moreover, "the merging of electronics-oriented dance music with Punk/ Hardcore/ Metal/ Noise," which Morton and Corbin proclaim as Avant-God's goal, seems to me to be a good way to describe succinctly what Excepter accomplish.

John Fell Ryan
Dan, Macrae, and I had the benefit of having regular D.J gigs together, so we started playing live fairly soon after recording experiments began. We just plugged our gear into the D.J mixer and performed from the booth. After Calder and Caitlin joined, we started getting offers to perform at other D.J nights that had started to host live music. Those gigs and the release of Ka led to offers from traditional Rock clubs. I had quit No-Neck in early 2000 and spent the interim years developing the techniques I would come to use in Excepter. No-Neck and Excepter didn't really have much contact with each other until after Ka and Intonomancy were completed; you'll have to chalk-up any mutual electronic-isms to collective consciousness or blind chance.

I don't see the time directly after 9/11 as a "renaissance." It was no blossoming of the arts, but rather an elimination game of survival. I remember many dark nights of empty venues. Granted, it was this evacuation that allowed Excepter the freedom to play out right away without much pressure to be a popular draw, but different stakes other than money were raised at the time. When you witness thousands of people being killed just blocks away, you feel your own mortality in a significant way. As an artist, it was time to get cracking and work on something substantial, something that reflected what was going on: the big life-and-death themes. There are all sorts of references in the Excepter records not only to the towers falling, but also to the corrupt political machinations exposed in the process. Of course, these psychic observations and indirect recognitions get grafted onto emotional shapes and tied into abstract, mystical knot forms, but they are there.

As far as Avant-God's mission statement goes, it certainly describes Nathan's modus operandi. Add a few more traditions, like Folk, Blues, Reggae, Minimalism, and you'll have the full picture. We use the tools of electronic dance music, but in the services of dissolving boundaries between different kinds of music.

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