Interview: SPURGE

Spurge

Drawing parallels to the work of mighty Frank Zappa and David Bowie, as well as Isis, Cult of Luna, the Mars Volta and the Dear Hunter, the Atlanta-based band Spurge seems like a promising act. But delving deeper to their most recent release, an EP simply titled “Four More Songs” reveals plethora of different sounds and vibes.

The creator of the band, bassist Jen Hodges gives us an insight into the world of Spurge, their writing process, and more.

What made you go for the name Spurge?

When I first got players together in Nashville, this was just a solo project and I was releasing material as Jen Hodges.  My musicians were wanting like a “Jen Hodges and something or other” name.  I told them I was down and whatever they picked was good for me.  My drummer at the time had a very endearing lisp and excited called out “Sthpurge!”  We were all kind of unsure what he said at first. He said it again and told us it was a kind of weed.  We all dug the double entendre.  For a while we called ourselves Jen Hodges and Spurge.  We dropped the Jen Hodges this year because the band feels like a total group effort at this point.

How do you usually describe your music?

I like to call it progressive post rock.  Most of the time people have no idea what that means so I end up explaining that we play post rock type textures but add in guitar/bass/drum solos.  I’ve heard people call it neo-classical rock, experimental,  ambient, and fusion before.  I believe someone called us a jam band once as well.

What is your writing process like?

Whenever I’m noodling around on the bass or guitar by myself I’ll come up with a few riffs I dig.  I’ll usually collect 15 or so riffs over the course of six months and start stringing them together using theory to craft transitions.  I record a scratch take with me playing all the instruments and send it out to my band.  My band are all top tier at what they do, so I tell them whatever guitar/drum parts they write is cool with me.  They always come back with some pretty sick stuff.  We rehearse it, record it, then I’ll go back in and record my bass solos as the finishing touch.  It’s an odd approach but I like how loose and open it is.  The creative process is my favorite part of playing.

Who or what is your inspiration, if you have any?

There are a lot of players I admire.  Their music inspires me to contribute to humanity’s little collection of sound.  I’ve never been able to duplicate other people’s styles.  Mostly due to my bass being upside down and backwards.  However, I like being a part of the musician community and hearing other people’s music motivates me to keep writing.  Some of the musicians who influenced me at an early age are Flea, Buckethead, Jimmy Urine, Layne Staley, David Gilmore, John Paul Jones, Victor Wooten, and Thundercat.

Four More Songs

What is your favourite piece on the new EP “Four More Songs” and why?

Oof.  That’s tough.  I like the bass solo best in Amphibian.   I like the verse in Om the best.  I like the piano solo in Rain the best.  I like the guitar riffs in David Bowie the best.  I like Miles’ vocals in Amphibian the best.  I don’t think I can pick an overall piece I like best though.

What makes “Four More Songs” different?

Different than my other albums?  Or different in general?  Different than my other albums because I had an idea about what I wanted before I started writing.  I knew for sure I wanted to write a 7 minute song, a David Bowie tribute, a schizophrenic piece with a metal bridge, and I wanted to finish Rain.  I had been in the process of writing Rain for five years at that point.  It was a reject song from a previous band.   The record is different in general because it’s got my style in it.  All my music is different than most stuff out there.  I am proud about that.  I feel like I finally found my sound.

What should music lovers expect from “Four More Songs”?

Beauty, ugliness, groove.  A lot of texture.  Some experimentation in recording techniques.  We recorded Wayford’s vocals on Om by putting a box fan between him and the mic.  I broke a major rule and stacked 4 bass lines on top of one another in David Bowie.  My poor producer wasn’t too happy about it.  He’s the man though and heard my idea and made it work.   I think this is a record you can listen to all the way through and be sucked in enough not to skip any parts.  There is no filler.  And you never know what’s coming next.

What kind of emotions would you like your audience to feel when they listen to your music?

All of the emotions.  (I just made myself laugh.)  I’d like them to feel content, relaxed even.  I’d like them to forget about their phones and their responsibilities and allow themselves to be taken through the story.  Maybe hype during the more exciting parts.  Entertained.  I’d like them to feel entertained.  Whatever emotion produces that outcome is fine with me.  As long as they are indeed feeling something.  Then I’ve done my job.

Spurge band

Which do you like most, life in the studio or on tour?

I’ve never been on tour where we don’t sleep in the van or on the floor or in someone’s basement so I’d have to say studio life.   I’d love to experience tour where we get a hotel room each night.  That might change my mind a little bit.  Tours have been fun, yet exhausting.  Studios are sacred spaces.  The creative process is my favorite part of playing so the studio is hard to beat.  I know a lot of people can get stressed out in the studio, but I’ve always been comfortable not having control so I just let people be themselves on the tracks.  If I don’t like it, I’ll edit it later.  I think the music reflects the positive vibes in the studio.

Pick your three favourite albums that you would take on a desert island with you.

Wow that’s tough too.  Only 3?  John Prine Live, Dark Side of the Moon, and RHCP Mother’s Milk.  I just looked those choices over for about two minutes and I’m sticking with my answer.

“Four More Songs” is available from Bandcamp. Stay in contact with Spurge via Facebook and Twitter, and visit their website for more information and news.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=4034617188/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/transparent=true/

Hiromi’s “Alive”: Jazz for Progarchists!

The petite, dynamic, big-haired bundle of mesmerizing musical energy named Hiromi Uehara (official website) recently released her ninth solo album in eleven years. Titled “Alive” (Concord Music Group, 2014), it is arguably her most overtly jazz album. Yet it also contains plenty of fusion, rock, and, yes, prog influences, as have her previous releases, which are marked by an instantly recognizable combination of breathtaking technique, astounding precision and speed, complex time changes, and boundless, mind-boggling virtuosity. I’ve been following her career since her debut album, “Another Mind” (2003), and have been both amazed and enriched by her music.hiromi_alive

However, one of the criticisms leveled against Hiromi, by some inside and outside the jazz world, is that her prodigious technical abilities tend to overshadow—or even overwhelm—other qualities, including nuance, emotion, and interpretive insight and dialogue. I think there is some merit to those criticisms, but I take them with a grain of salt. Frankly, the Argument From Lack of Emotion is, at best, quite subjective. Some people simply don’t like, or cannot handle, a cascade of notes (and last time I looked, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson are both, rightly, hailed as jazz greats; and Hiromi loves Peterson’s music). Plus, I think many such critics miss the apparent fact that Hiromi, while clearly working within the broad realm of jazz, is also very much a prog-rocker in her heart of hearts—as well as a player of funk, soul, R&B, metal, electronica and, well, you get the idea. And all of us here at Progarchy.com know how often prog rock is criticized for having an abundance of technique but a lack of emotion resonance, a criticism that almost alway tells me much more about the critic than it does the music.

Hiromi’s acknowledged influences include the obvious—Ahmad Jamal (a mentor, and a jazz giant), Chick Corea (they recorded a duet album), Bach and Franz Liszt (the classical influences are often front and center)—and the not so obvious, at least to many listeners: Dream Theater, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, and Robert Fripp. The short bio on ProgArchives.com site states, “Her style brings a wholly new approach to jazz fusion, as her prog influence is derived primarily from such artists as King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and Frank Zappa rather than earlier jazz fusion artists. Her music is almost orchestral in scope, and each of the musicians she plays with has a virtuosic grasp of their instrument, allowing for each instrumentalist to have an approximately equal role in the direction of the music. Her music is more melodious than traditional jazz fusion but with an equally complex sense of rhythm. Time signature changes are not in short supply here.” It’s impossible for a prog rock lover to hear, say, “Return of the Kung-Fu Champion” (from her second album, “Brain”), and not hear a lot of prog influences in the mix:

Continue reading “Hiromi’s “Alive”: Jazz for Progarchists!”

Brand X – rare recordings

As a teenager I was a big fan of Genesis (and still am), and as a budding, slightly obsessive completist I sought out the solo material and extra-mural projects of band members as well as the group recordings (as much as my limited income at the time would allow). It was through this route that I had my first real encounter with Jazz Rock Fusion, in the guise of Phil Collins’ solo project, ‘Brand X’.

I was quickly blown away by the virtuosity, energy and inventiveness of Messrs Collins, Goodsall, Lumley Jones & Pert, with later contributions from Robinson, Giblin & Clark. This was exciting music, which took me to places that Prog rock didn’t, and I loved it (and it took me into the multi-faceted realms of more conventional jazz, too). I even managed to catch the band on tour in 1980 at Bradford University, sharing the bill with Bruford, which was a particular joy.

I was delighted to discover that some of the band’s rarer material had become more widely available recently. One was a live recording of a show the band performed in September 1979 at the Roxy, LA. Most of the material here is from the ‘Product’ album (the first of their recordings that I bought, and which they were promoting at the time), and the recordings are of a slightly poor quality, probably being audience-recorded bootlegs. There is a good interaction between band and crowd, with some attempts at Pythonesque humour in places (the band had Michael Palin write sleeve notes for ‘Do They Hurt’ in 1980), though there are some slightly annoying ‘whoops’ from the audience at times: throughout, the musicianship is first rate, as one would expect.

The other is a collection of early session recordings from 1975 & 1976 with early versions of tunes from their first couple of albums, and other material which never made the official releases. So we have ‘Dead Pretty’, which became ‘Born Ugly’; ‘Why Won’t You Lend Me Yours?’ which emerges as ‘Why Should I Lend You Mine (When You’ve Broken Yours Off Already)’; and an early version of live standard ‘Malaga Virgen’, which begins life as ‘Miserable Virgin’.

An interesting couple of collections, which give some insights into the workings of this great group of musicians.

Poor Richard’s Inconsequential Idea

Heaven knows I admire Richard M. Weaver.ideas

The great Southern scholar and philosopher hails from my neck of the woods.  He grew up in Weaverville, NC, just up the road from my mother’s people in Leicester.  His Southern Essays is a book I hold almost as closely as the Bible; it reminds me of who I am and where I come from.  It introduced me (before Russell Kirk) to my early American political hero, that colorful, bull-whip cracking intransigent, John Randolph of Roanoke, with his special blend of “social bond individualism.”  Weaver shaped my understanding and thinking in ways that will ever remain with me.

His most famous book is Ideas Have Consequences, a tour de force in traditional conservative thought and social commentary.   Weaver saw the rejection of universals as the harbinger of a disordered mind and disordered society.   Symptomatic, in his view, were certain elements of pop culture, notably jazz music.  On this score, just as Randolph broke with Jefferson, I have to break with the great intellect.

Edward Feser wrote a fantastic 2010 blog post that took Weaver’s ideas on jazz to task.

Weaver and I agree that it was a catastrophe to abandon realism about universals, to deny that things – including, most importantly, human beings – have essences which define an objective standard of goodness for them. But realism comes in different forms, and the different forms have different moral, theological, cultural, and political implications.

Feser draws a distinction between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies and finds Weaver defaulting to a Manichean view of music.

[Weaver] tells us that jazz is a mark of modern civilization’s “barbarism,” “disintegration,” and “primitivism.” Why? His reasons seem to boil down to four: First, jazz evinces “a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement” and an eschewal of “form or ritual”; second, its celebration of the soloist’s virtuosity is a mark of “egotism” or “individualization”; third, its appeal lies in “titillation” and its themes are often “sexual or farcical,” appealing to the “lower” rather than “higher centers,” so that it fails to raise us to “our metaphysical dream”; fourth, it is “the music of equality.” Obviously, what he says about jazz applies also to other elements of modern pop culture.

Let’s consider Weaver’s concerns in order. First, it is, of course, by now a commonplace that to accuse jazz of formlessness or lack of structure is the height of superficiality. From swing to bop to modal jazz to fusion to acid jazz, it does not take much listening to discern the order underlying even the freest improvisation. Even free jazz has structure, though as I indicated in my previous post, it is so abstract that it can (in my view, anyway) only ever be of purely intellectual rather than aesthetic interest. It is hard not to see in Weaver’s criticism the Platonist’s impatience with the messiness and complexity of the real world, a desire for all form or order to be simple and evident enough to be accessible from the armchair. As the Aristotelian realizes…to know the essences of things we actually have to get our hands dirty and investigate them empirically, in all their rich detail. If the structure of jazz is complex and unobvious, it is in that respect only mimicking the world of our experience.

To which I say, “amen.”  Certainly this applies to progressive music as well.  Perhaps none combined fusion elements better than a band that came up in Weaver’s back yard, the Dixie Dregs.  Begun as a lab project at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, the Dregs engaged one another in complex musical conversations that exemplified a flair and swagger secured in its own kind of social bond individualism.

At least I have to believe the audacious John Randolph would have celebrated the Dixie Dregs, even if Richard Weaver would have been freaked out.

So here’s to ideas and their consequences — to getting our hands dirty —  from the appropriately titled Dregs of the Earth.