Ut Gret interview with Joee Conroy
Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview! When and where was Ut Gret born?
Santa Cruz California was the birthplace of the Grets. I had moved there from Louisville Kentucky in 1979 after graduating from the University of Louisville with a very useful degree in Philosophy. My final project involved Gong, Material, Mother Gong, Yosko Seffer, Easter Island and the group I was playing guitar for at the time, Bu Meringue Pi. Whole long story. In 1980 I had a late night radio show on KZSC (the Crazy 88) called Alternate Currents. In the middle of the night we would do “Pirate Radio Hour” where David Stilley and I would experiment with turntables, Terry Riley type tape loops and live instruments. Very tongue in cheek and not sanctioned by the station. I also had a rock band called “Invisible Dinosaur”. We played this gig with “Big City Orchestra” and they were playing a cover of Henry Cow’s “The Birth of War”. We were playing Henry Cow’s arrangement of Robert Wyatt’s “Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road”. I thought that was really odd. That’s how I met James Potter. He became David’s roommate and we all started to play music together. We all played in Big City Orchestra who also had Dave Kerman in it latter. We loved Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble, Spontaneous Music Ensemble,the RIO and the Canterbury music groups so the music was developed out of these strands.
Tell us about the beginning of the band?
The first gig we did as Ut Gret was in Monterrey in 1981 with a bunch of Punk bands. They started heckling us because they saw a clarinet and alto sax. Saying “Jazz sucks” and expecting wimpy soft music. We had this drummer at the beginning named Chris Roe and he had been playing drums longer than any of us had been alive. He had disappeared and we found him in a fetal position under the stage and sweat was just pouring off of him. When asked if he was ok, he told us he had just taken a bunch of sheep adrenaline for the show. We went on stage and the audience started heckling us about being jazz wimps because we of the clarinet and sax. We then launched into the most blistering paint-peeling relentless music you can imagine. When we finally stopped the whole place was dead silence except for on one 60 year old guy from New York named Harry Newmark. He said it was wonderful and became our biggest fan. He caught every show but one where he had to choose between us and John Zorn playing on the same night. The band has been active ever since. Started as a free jazz quartet. Gave up on drummers and became a chamber music trio and I started playing guitar and violin and we expanded to using the full range of saxophone family from bass sax to sopranino and from contrabass clarinet to Bb. When we moved to Louisville Kentucky in 1989 we were a duo with just me and David Stilley but we were still performing more varied music than ever.
Why the name Ut Gret?
Ut is the lowest note on the organ in medieval music and thus would be the base note you would want to tune to. The Grets were one of the last of the Barbarian invasions into the west at around the 12th Century. Not much noted by the historians of the day because they traveled in small groups and though they were disruptive, they didn’t have quite the impact of say the Huns, Mongols, Saxons, Vandals or the Visigoths. Still largely ignored by contemporary historians. I think the name suites us. Also, the name appears in many languages including, Finnish, Olde English, Mongolian, Afrikaner, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish. The Grets seem to have got around. When we did a concert with Fred Frith, he asked if we were Don Martin, Mad Magazine fans and told us the name was used regularly in that comic and Johnathan Segel of Camper van Beethoven showed me a Swamp Thing comic with the name in it. It refers crumbling civilization or the triumph of the primitive. I keep finding new references all the time. It shows up in Dada manifestos. I first heard it used by college friend, Jeff and Steve Jones to refer to the more music concrete, out sections in Frank Zappa’s music.
You are probably a huge fan of progressive rock and world music. What are some of your influences?
We all love Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Miles Davis and Soft Machine. Steve Roberts is a big Return to Forever, Genesis and Yes fan. Gary Pahler loves Weather Report and progressive jazz in general. Bill Bruford is his favorite drummer. Steve Good loves the crazy out-jazz of Cecil Taylor, Ornette, Coltrane, Evan Parker. For myself, I love all the Canterbury Music bands, Hatfield and the North, Gong, Steve Hillage and the RIO music that comes out of Henry Cow and the Zuehl bands like Magma and Universe Zero. Greg Acker was mostly into world music. We both Studied Gamelan music, me with Trish Nielsen who was Lou Harrison’s music director. I always considered myself a second wave American free improvisor after that first wave of Eugene Chadbourne, John Zorn, Henry Kaiser, Greg Goodman, Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith. That music informs a lot of my direction and I have always tried to connect improvisation to composition in my own writing. Plus, I look to the earlier pre-progressive bands that laid the ground work of this music like Traffic and the Jefferson Airplane whose music had social meaning and still sounds dangerous.
Before you were in Ut Gret were you in any other bands. Any releases of those?
I played cello, violin, mandolin, etc with Paul K and the Weathermen for six years and play on half a dozen of his recordings. I have played with Eugene Chadbourne since the mid-eighties and play on a dozen of his recordings including a new one with the late great Jimmy Carl Black. Steve Good and I toured with them as a quartet. I played with Camper van Beethoven on their Camper van Chadbourne record in the eighties. I play on the Crappy Nightmareville “Shadow Garden”. I have been playing with opera composer Danny Dutton for the last two decades in his Operas, “Changeling and the Bear”, The Road” “Love and Time” and a new one that we are currently recording. MY first record I was on was with a group called Northwind that was produced by George Winston before he was on the Windham Hill label. That was New Age Music before there was a name for it. I’m on a vinyl record called KARK that is a Sapat Spin-off. I play vibes on a great new record coming out by a sixteen piece ensemble called “Another 7
Astronauts”. The best thing I did with Chadbourne is a record that was a double 10″ psychedelic vinyl released only in Europe called “Young and Innocent Days” where we each chose our favorite 60s composers and did them in a different style while still true to the original. We did Jethro
Tull’s “The Teacher” as a bluegrass number and Love’s “Andmoreagain” with a Led Zeppelin interlude. I have played in a dozen odd bands like my guitar trio “The New Minty Crystals”, I have a SciFi Avant Garde group called the “Cosmological Constant” whose focus is Non-idomatic free improvisation where I play prepared guitars on a table a la Fred Frith who is one of my heroes. I had a Celtic-Contradance group called “Pataphysical Country” and there was an Ut Gret spin-off group called UBE that played Afro-pop music during the Grunge years of the early 90’s. We played original music inspired by the two kings, King Sunny Ade and King Crimson. I have backed singer songwriters and played music with some of the great improvisors of the day including Vinny Golia, John Butcher, Paul Lovens, ROVA, Jack Wright, Greg Goodman, Henry kaiser, Davy Williams, John Oswald, Tom Djll, Lukas Ligeti and too many to mention. I had a string quartet called the 21st Century String Quartet. I play guitar on the new French TV release, “I Forgive You for All My Unhappiness”. And that is just me. Other members are just as busy. Steve Good is about to record
with “The Liberation Prophecy”. Gary and Steve Good had a rock band called “the Web” that I play cello on their new vinyl release on Noise Polution. Gregory Acker has played with Simon Shaheen, rap groups like Code Red, Steve Ferguson, etc. New Bassoon player Jackie Royce plays in the
orchestra, chamber ensembles and a free improvising group called Bone Crusher. Louisville has an unbelievable music scene so there are tons of opportunities, even more than the west coast.
Time of the Grets in 1990 is your first release. What can you tell me about it?
We had several recordings released as cassettes during the “Option” DIY days when they were taking cassettes seriously. These were free improvisation recordings as a quartet, trio, duo with guests like Fred Lomburg-holm, Henry Kaiser, Greg Goodman, John Oswald and Charles K. Noyes. With “Time of the Grets”, we had just moved to Louisville and we decided to make a multi-track recording. David Stilley had these ideas for “Friend of the Cow” that involved using seventeen different time signatures (23 changes in all) and we wanted to honor one of our all time favorite bands, Henry Cow. Even though its multi-tracked, everything was essentially one take after another. It was recorded and mixed in two days. All David’s horn parts were done in twenty minutes and all the guitars and Chapman Stick parts were done in quick succession. I don’t remember any 2nd takes. Then when Davey Williams was visiting he laid down his great guitar track. Same went for “Magama Futura”. David had hall these themes worked out in his head and on a work station. The two live cuts like “Silly Hat Frontier” were cut at 1750 Arch Studios in Oakland, California with Henry Kaiser and Greg Goodman live without overdubs and edited to length. Those sessions were done through Henry Kaiser’s generous spirit. As a whole the album represented a transition of going from doing free improvisation to using structures within an improvised music. The Chadbourne cut was done when we were recording a studio record of his songs and he just played this Charlie Parker solo on guitar (I believe from “The Time is Now”) and we went for it. It was unplanned but the tape was rolling and he wasn’t going to use it. I thought it tied us back to the Jazz Tradition. How Eugene can do that is just mind blowing. The little hidden track in the end is a preview of how World music was becoming a part of our vocabulary which really shows up on the 1st disc of “Recent Fossils”.
“Recent Fossils” is a triple CD set from 2007. disc 1 contains “Compositions for Experimental Gamelan,” disc 2, :Idiomatic & Non-idiomatic Improvisations,” disc 3 is Terry Riley’s “In C.” I really like the whole set. I would like if you can tell me how did you decided to record triple CD set and how do you remember the recording sessions?
Gregory Acker is an instrument builder and wanted to do a series of recordings that featured them. Ut Gret has done concerts that featured these instruments and we wanted showcase their sound so that became disc 1. It was recorded over a five day period with Steve Good helping us work on doing some overdubs. But I didn’t want it just to be one ethnomusicologist suite. We had accumulated many recordings from my string quartet to the bruising funk things so my idea was to use these improvisations that had historical significance to the group. The last cut on disc two “Mercury Paw”, for instance is the first time Steve Roberts played with us and was a transitional moment of going from a world music trio with Misha Feigin to a quintet with rock structures. Misha became a solo artist and Steve moved to keyboards when Gary joined in 1999. David had moved back to Santa Cruz in 1995 and Ut Gret became just me and Greg, then Misha and finally Steve Good replaced Misha and we turned into the line up on “Radical Symmetry”. The third disc of “In C” is the first concert Ut Gret played in Louisville that had Gregory Acker. He was part of another duo with Mark Englert called “Animals on Foot” so we joined forces under the name “Local Universe”. It was also the night I met Steve Good and we have been playing music together ever since. So it was an historically significant event and it signaled the unique perspective that Ut Gret shares that improvisation and composition are two sides of the same coin. It’s a sprawling set of music but we were trying to make a grand statement about the nature of our music that I think is original.
“Later Than You Think” is CDR limited edition of 100 copies. It’s your first recording with newest member Jackie Royce-bassoon/flute. Why did you decide to make only 100 copies? Are you happy with the lineup?
We were so excited to find Jackie. One thing I loved about Henry Cow was Lindsay Cooper’s bassoon playing and I had a chance to see her and Chris Cutler with David Thomas. I wanted that sound so much that I talked Steve Good into buying David’s Bassoon. Unfortunately, I had to browbeat him into playing it. I was driving down the street one day and I see this street musician playing bassoon and he is improvising. We met and he loved our music but when I asked him what his long range plans were, he said he was going to the East Coast to study composition for Grad School. I told him I was going to ask him to join the group and he said there was another bassoon player that might be open to playing. “Yeah but he isn’t as good as you” , I said. “Actually, he is a she and she is better than me”. “But she can’t improvise like you”. “Well, she plays in an improvising group called “Bone Crusher”. I had to meet her. We got together to play and she was amazing. So,nothing like throwing one’s feet in the fire, we decided to record with her immediately. We set up over at our friend, Mark Englert’s house whose whole bottom floor is filled with instruments that he had invented and he had been a big inspiration to Greg’s instrument building. The music was really beautiful, but Gary couldn’t make it so we decided to offer it as a limited edition of the kind of structured improvisations we do. I thought it important to signal Jackie’s arrival and as kind of an initiation to the crazy world of the Grets.
“Radical Symmetry” is your latest release. I would like if you can present the album. I can hear influences from progressive rock, jazz and also world music…
The album opens with “Insect Probe” which is one of the first pieces I wrote for this ensemble and has long been a concert favorite. You can hear the Canterbury influence, it has a touch of humor with a little spy music. “Souvenir City” is Greg’s. It’s a jazz number but you can hear the Soft Machine in the bass and keyboards. Dane Waters sings beautifully on it. She is so sensual on it she takes my breath away. I love Steve Good’s solo on the Bossa Nova section. The third piece begins a ballet that continues in sequence for the rest of the CD. It tells the Garden of Eden Story but from a feminist point of view. “The Infinite Regress” is Steve Robert’s and I think the best thing on the “Radical Symmetry”. I wanted it to open the album but was outvoted. It opens with free improvisation and runs through seven distinct themes and ends with chaos. Its the Big Bang then rest. You can hear Zeuhl and RIO themes and even a Spanish mode. For Viswa is Gregory’s ode to teaching which he is and it honors one of his teachers. It is an original raga in a traditional Indian mode but Gary plays dumbec, not tablas. (Even though Greg is a good tabla player). “Walk in the Garden” is right out of Happy the Man via Genesis with a Clearlight Symphony type interlude for the Flute solo. “Rouse Brown Mouse”n is my only guitar solo and has two edits in it but was recorded in 45 seconds. I dedicate it to my Mentors on guitar, Henry Kaiser, Eugene Chadbourne, Davy Williams and Fred Frith. “Cobra in a Basket” pays homage to my Arabian roots and is about Eve’s relationship with the serpent described as “the cleverest of God’s Creatures”. I wrote this in several complex time signatures in an Arabic Mode. You can hear Gong in the rhythmic configurations. James Vaughn cello solo, “Last Impression” is the funkiest thing a cello could ever do. “Rule 110” is my favorite composition. You can hear King Crimson, Mingus Steve Hillage KLezmer and something altogether different in it. “Sword of Damocles” has Dane’s beautiful vocals again. The words are from Rumi and all of the music in the Ballet has a Rumi poem that corresponds to the music. When we performed live, the poems were read between these pieces with distinct musical accompaniment to frame the concepts. The last part of the Ballet is “Sword of Damocles” which is both a lament and celebration of the exhilaration of freedom and the tenderness of the universe. Dane’s singing brings to mind Julie Tippetts. The Rhythm at the end is an Akbekor warrior beat from West Africa. The last piece, “Vegetable Matters” is my ode to Monk, one of my favorite composers. I didn’t want to put it on the album because I thought going over an hour was too long but Gary’s drumming was so good, James cello solo at the end was so wonderful and Steve Good’s solo on clarinet so original that we had to include it, so it acts as a coda that recaps our jazz roots. We cut this record in three days with long cuts like, “Infinite Regress” being captured in a single take. No cut required more than two takes. We were really well prepared and recorded 16 tracks in total.
I know you are working on an interesting project right now. What can
you tell us about it?
I am working on a bunch of diverse music projects right now. Opera composer Daniel Dutton is recording a new Opera called “Welcome to You’ll Always Come Back” which I play guitar. I play vibraphone on “Another 7 Astronauts” which is through composed new minimalism with a string section, five percussionists multiple keyboards and a horn section with Dane Waters singing. I want to record my guitar trio “The New Minty Crystals” which is really all about unfettered guitar playing. My improvising group with Steve Good and Norman Minogue (Moog), “Cosmological Constant” where I play prepared guitar and Chapman Stick in a Fred Frith guitars on the table is working and I would like to record it. And the thing I am most excited about is recording Ut Gret with our new Bassoon player, Jackie Royce who is a monster player at just 19 years old (as of this writing). We have almost a dozen new works we have been working and playing. Kevin Ratterman who recorded the new “My Morning Jacket” and recorded “Another 7 Astronauts” is as excited about working with us as we are with him. I also want to try to record some of our earlier work like some of the music we did for our shadow puppet opera, “Karl and Kali” about the meeting of Karl Marx and Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. Misha Feigin who played with Ut Gret in the mid 90’s sang the part of Karl Marx and played on the early Ut Gret CDs. Once a Gret, always a Gret. So lots of new music and collaborations are swirling around and The Grets have lots of new areas yet to cover.
How is touring going? Are you happy with how things are going?
Touring, setting up a tour without management, coordinating everyone’s schedules with day jobs is next to impossible. We would like to take our music to Europe but to just break even would take considerable effort but we are working on it. Perhaps in the coming year.
Thank you very much for your time and effort. Do you have anything else to say about the band or yourself, that I didn’t ask?
Thanks for this chance to talk about the Grets.
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2011
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