Ulrich Rois interview
With the Along The Belt, Around The Bend tape, Ulrich Rois made a beautiful banjo record between folk and avant-garde.
Why did you decide to make this record as a solo record? Did you feel like you made kind of a full circle (because your first Bird People records were solo recordings too)?
Bird People kind of started as a solo project but actually the first few recordings are with a band line-up and more song-oriented than the stuff I did in the last few years. I had fun doing Bird People as a solo project but a while ago I realized that the kind of music I want to make with that project really needs the social and musical interaction with other people. So Bird People is now an open collective with shifting line-ups but I don’t do it solo anymore. Therefore, I wanted to have another outlet for the music I make on my own.
Why did you want to release this record using your own name?
It can be a lot of fun coming up with different project names but for this, it just somehow seemed right to me to use my real name. I might still use other monikers for solo work (for example for my electronic stuff) but with this album it just seemed right like this. The music is really stripped down and I also didn’t want any other devices, like a stage name or flashy artwork, to deflect the attention. Maybe it’s about more vulnerability, I’m not sure.
Why did you choose a more reduced way of making music: away from effect pedals, away from overdubs?
Several reasons. For one, I’ve used fx pedals extensively in some earlier incarnations of Bird People and I just got a bit bored with them. When playing completely acoustic, I also enjoy the lack of things that could go wrong with the equipment. Then again, it’s about allowing more vulnerability in the music, stripping away all the excess layers. It’s pretty easy creating long drones with a looper but it’s more interesting to try and do it without one. Bird People is also mostly acoustic nowadays, sometimes we use a synth for drones but we don’t use any time-based effects, etc.
Bill Orcutt recorded his A New Way To Pay Old Depts album in an apartment in San Francisco with the windows open, so you can hear a car driving by on that album. Did you do the same thing? Recording with the windows open. Is what you do than, as Orcutt calls it: “A field recording, made in a room where a musician is playing”?
I don’t know that album actually but sounds interesting, I’ll have to check it out. Yes, the idea is pretty similar. It’s a field recording with a musician playing in a room, yeah. I love how the music interacts with the sounds of the environment and on that tape, I also wanted to have that contrast between tracks recorded in the city and those recorded at my mum’s place in the countryside. The environmental sounds are very different on both occasions and I think that also influences my playing a lot.
Why did you choose traditional folk instruments such as a banjo, fiddle, a sruti box, singing bowls and a gong?
This tape was supposed to be primarily a banjo album. There’s one fiddle track and the interludes where I used gong, shruti box and singing bowls, yeah. My first instrument was the guitar and I still feel most comfortable with string instruments. Then I also like instruments which are suitable for playing drones, so banjo and fiddle, shruti box and all kinds of cymbals are perfect for that. I’m very interested in old time music, so banjo and fiddle were also kind of natural choices in that way.
Do you see the tracks on Along The Belt, Around The Bend as songs or more as free improvisations?
I think they’re a little bit of both. That’s also one of the constants in my work across all genres, I think, and one of the things I like most about music – this balance of structure and free form, composition and improvisation. Most of the tracks on this tape are based on a simple idea, something like a riff or a scale and then I take it from there. I definitely always want to have some improvisational freedom when I play, I’m not very interested in playing something exactly the same twice.
This tape reminds me of the music of Mike Gangloff and Nathan Bowles, but also the older generation of ‘new traditionalists’ like Henry Flynt or Tony Conrad. Is this your musical inspiration: the point where folk and avant-garde meet?
Yes, all those names are definitely important musical figures in my life. And yes, that point where folk and avant-garde meet is definitely something that’s very interesting to me. What I like about a lot of folk music is that it was able to preserve some archaic elements that got kinda lost in Western Classical music and were re-discovered by the avant-garde through their interest in Indian Classical Music so to speak. I specifically mean the use of drones. That drone-based, modal approach is what I love about a lot of folk music and also other musical traditions. And composers like Henry Flynt, Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, etc. they all incorporated extended tones and heavy repetition into academic music in very interesting ways. Especially Henry Flynt was important in the dissolution of boundaries between the worlds of academic or ‘serious’ music and a more folk or DIY approach. Mike Gangloff and Nathan Bowles are also important to me as fellow banjo players. I think they’re both two of the most interesting players around. I love all their recent solo albums (or in Mike’s case his project with Cara Gangloff) and their band The Black Twig Pickers is a perfect example of how to play traditional music with a sensibility for avant-garde and a DIY approach. And then there’s their other band Pelt, of course. They’re just one of my favorite bands. They’ve always been one of the most interesting drone/noise bands and I really love how they can still sound totally heavy even when they play all-acoustic nowadays.
“Music is never a fixed thing”
You’re from Austria but I hear little Austrian tradition in your music. Is is true what Melted Men said in an interview for ‘15 Questions’: “We’re all online, we all travel. There’s no such thing as ‘local music’ anymore”?
Yeah, I think that’s true. Of course this is getting more and more so with the internet but in essence it’s also not a new phenomenon. People have always traveled and listened to music from other places. So any idea of ‘pure’ local music is stupid anyway, I think. But in my opinion that’s the beautiful thing about music: It’s never a fixed thing, it’s always a process and there’s always an exchange of ideas going on. I do think there still are specifically local expressions of music and I’m very interested in those but they’re also never really completely isolated.
Along The Belt is released as a tape. You were part of the ‘Home taping is killing the music industry’. Do you feel like, by releasing on tape or running a tape label, that you’re part of a music industry? Or against the ‘real’ music industry? Or rather outside of the music industry?
Well, that all depends on your perspective and what exactly you mean when using the word ‘industry’. I think the traditional music industry, you know, major labels but also some bigger indies, etc. is really not a good model. A lot of it is based on bad power structures, etc. and it’s also just pure capitalism. I think the DIY model can be a good alternative. There is a lot of sharing and trading involved, even though the financial aspect still can’t be taken totally out of the balance. People still need to pay rent and buy food and also pay for the tapes, etc. So it’s never a black-and-white thing but I definitely think that there are better vibes in the DIY scene than in the traditional music industry. So I think we’re more or less outside the traditional music industry and we don’t even have to be against it since it’s a dying model anyway.
Because this is an interview for a magazine called ‘Psychedelic Baby’, I ask this question in almost every interview: on the Feathered Coyote site, you describe what you’re doing as ‘psychedelic’. What is your definition of ‘psychedelic’?
Oh, ‘psychedelic’ is such a loaded word and one that’s often used excessively, especially in a musical context. There is so much ‘psych rock’ that I don’t find psychedelic at all. But having said that, I believe there are psychedelic experiences to be had everywhere and through all kinds of means. Entheogens are one, pretty reliable, but there are many others. For me a psychedelic experience is something that somehow breaks open new layers of perception or changes the way you look at the world. Both listening to and playing music can absolutely be a psychedelic experience. If I remember correctly, Anne Shulgin said that falling in love can be one of the most profound psychedelic experiences and I totally agree with her on that!
– Joeri Bruyninckx