Graham Reid | | 5 min read
Since the week after our review back in July, one album has lodged itself in our Favourite Five Recent Releases page.
That is the longest any album has remained there in lifespan of Elsewhere, which now reaches beyond 15 years.
The album is I Was Real by 75 Dollar Bill, an innovative, genre-denying group from New York around guitarist Che Chen and percussion player Rick Brown.
In our review we groped towards explanation but concluded by saying, “75 Dollar Bill come at you from all kinds of interesting angles . . . but if the idea of an instrumental album which prods, provokes, seduces and sedates, and has reference points everywhere from avant-garde and Velvet Underground to West Africa and the South sounds even vaguely interesting, then I Was Real is certainly for you”.
We approached guitarist Chen to have a go at our Famous Innovator Questionnaire and just back from travelling he did exactly that.
And if you've read what Elsewhere wrote about the album and heard the music then it will come as no surprise that his responses are very interesting.
At the end of this we also supply links to 75 Dollar Bill's bandcamp page, their Thin Wrist label in the US and Glitterbeat in Europe and Chen's own bandcamp page as well as the small label he runs.
He's a busy and creative man, but took time out to answer questions . . .
The first piece of music which really affected you was . . .
I can’t remember. I do remember one of my older brother’s friends letting me have a go at his banana yellow Yamaha bass guitar when I was about 11 though. I was an instant convert.
Your first role models in experimental music were . . .
I don’t know about role models, but my friend Jorge Boehringer (Core of the Coalman) was key in opening my ears to the physics of sound, which completely changed the way I thought about “music”. My teachers have mostly been trial and error and the people I’ve had the good fortune of playing with, starting with Jorge, Rolyn Hu, Chie Mukai, Tori Kudo, Tetuzi Akiyama, Tony Conrad, and certainly, my partner in 75 Dollar Bill, Rick Brown. Jeich ould Chigaly actually sat me down and gave me lessons.
Did you grow up listening to rock music, and if so who or what bands when you were 14?
I grew up listening to the radio and watching MTV, as people did as teens in the 90s. This was in the DC suburbs of Maryland while Fugazi was in full swing. Their music and ethics really inspired me. At the same time, as a child of immigrants (my family is from Taiwan) I never saw anyone who looked remotely like me making pop music or even underground music at the time, so I found it hard to identify with rock or hardcore or hiphop like a lot of my friends were doing. I started listening to music from other parts of the world, African and Indian music, Gamelan, free jazz, etc. and it was a revelation (and comforting) to discover that the world was much bigger than the culture I happened to grow up in.
If music was denied you, your other career choice would be . . .
To me music isn’t a career or a choice. Life without it is a terrible thing to imagine, but I liked painting pictures when I was younger.
The three pieces of innovative music from any period (yours, or by others) you would love everyone to hear are . . .
It’s impossible for me to boil it down to three. I’d say the entire catalogs of Ornette Coleman, Nina Simone, and Eliane Radigue (especially the more recent instrumental pieces), Terry Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes and Shri Camel period, the Dagar Brothers, Don Cherry. I also love what Natural Information Society, Horse Lords and Catherine Lamb are doing right now. Whether or not this music is for everyone is not for me to say.
Any interesting, valuable or just plain strange musical memorabilia or instruments at home ...
I’ll go with strange and say my guitars, which I have been refretting for the last few years as I delve deeper into the world of non-tempered tunings. Also, the Acetone organ that I have on long term loan from Rick. It has separate tunable oscillators for each of the 12 notes, so it can be tuned microtonally.
The best book on music or musicians you have read is . . .
Treat it Gentle, the autobiography of Sidney Bechet. I also love reading interviews with musicians -- Art Taylor’s Notes & Tones and William Parker’s Conversations are great for those.
If you could get on stage with anyone it would be?
I like getting on stage with my friends.
The three films you'd insist anybody watch because they might understand you better are . . .
Mani Kaul’s Dhrupad
Shirley Clarke’s Ornette Coleman: Made in America
Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I
The last CD or vinyl album you bought was . . . (And your most recent downloads include…).
My most recent shopping cart on discogs had these CDs in it:
Billy Bang: Outline No.12
Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra: self-titled
One piece of mainstream pop music, royalties for life, never have to work again. The song by anyone, yourself included, which wouldn't embarrass you in that case would be . .
I’m not sure I understand this question...never having to work again sounds pretty good.
The poster, album cover or piece of art could you live with on your bedroom forever would be . . .
I tend to keep the walls pretty bare, but I could imagine living with a piece of marble or wood carved by Brancusi.
You are allowed just two albums of any genre to take on a month-long retreat, they are . . .
I’ve had stints of listening to certain recordings over and over again, for weeks or months at a time. Wallahi Le Zein: Wezin, Jakwar and Guitar Boogie from the Islamic Republic of Mauritania comes to mind. As does Mustapha Skandrani’s Istikhbar & Improvisations. I’m sure there have been and will be others.
David Bowie sang, “Five years, that's all we've got . . .” You would spend them where and doing what?
If I can keep doing what I’ve been doing I’ll feel very lucky.
People often speak of certain instrumental pieces as “music for imaginary films”. Is there a piece of your music you could say would fit perfectly in THAT film?
Music doesn’t need images and images don’t need music, but it can be nice when they go together.
75 Dollar Bill bandcamp page:
Their label in the US, Thin Wrist:
And in the EU:
Chen's personal bandcamp page, has solo and collaborations, mostly improvised music:
The small label he runs, Black Pollen Press: