Kohoutek | Interview | “Impro psych rock heaven”
Kohoutek is a long-running DC-to-Philly-based space-juggernaut. Their latest album, ‘Jurad’ is recorded by a quartet iteration of the always mutating ensemble.
The music on their latest one veers between the kind of psych-prog wallow for which Kohoutek is most often celebrated, and the less formally rockoid improvisational proclivities they sometimes display. Scott Verrastro (percussion, flute) also plays in Bardo Pond, Curanderos and a bunch of other bands. He also recorded on the latest Heavy Lidders album.
I think I first encountered your project in 2009 when I started writing my music blog. At the time I was completely obsessed with Ya Ho Wha 13. I interviewed several members later on. What’s your story with Ya Ho Wha 13?
Scott Verrastro: Kohoutek was named as an homage to two musical entities that have significantly informed my approach to making improvisational music: Ya Ho Wha 13 and Sun Ra. When trying to come up with an appropriate band name in 2003, Kohoutek dawned on me as something that held some mysterious power over a few musical outfits that have left an impression on me since I was in high school. Besides the two aforementioned acts, Kraftwerk had a song called ‘Kohoutek-Kometenmelodie’, and of course I love Kraftwerk. Then there’s ‘Kohoutek’ on the first Journey album (when they were 3/5 of Santana and actually pretty good!) and ‘Kohoutek’ on REM’s ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’. Sun Ra’s ‘Concert For the Comet Kohoutek’ isn’t my favorite Ra recording but it holds a very special place in my heart because I once took acid in college and listened to it one night and allowed me to really comprehend psychedelic free jazz. I was already into Miles and Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, but Ra was on another level with big-band improvisation. In addition to all that, I’ve always been a space junkie, and what’s more space rock than a fucking comet? Kohoutek just seemed like the perfect name for what I wanted to do.
Kohoutek actually does have a relationship with Ya Ho Wha 13 and were incredibly fortunate to have toured with them for five days in 2009 when they reunited. Both Kohoutek guitarist John Stanton and I had been huge Ya Ho Wha 13 fans for years but we didn’t actually know them, and were introduced to Djin by Steve Krakow of Plastic Crimewave Sound when we played a show together in 2008. We hit it off with Djin, and then Mike DeMonte released the Ya Ho Wha comeback album and the second Kohoutek album, ‘Lossless Loss’, in 2009 on his defunct label Prophase. We all have Aquarian names, and I even had them at my parents’ house in CT! It was a remarkable honor to share the stage with them.
Also, in 2013, the Source Family documentary was screened in Philadelphia, so I asked the curator if Kohoutek could play a special set after the film and he was into it. I asked Brother JT to front us as our Father Yod and we had liquid lights and projections to try to recreate the mystical happening that was a Ya Ho Wha show.
Is their 1973 album, ‘Kohoutek’ your favourite? And what do you take from it?
Kohoutek is actually not even in my top five Yod/Ya Ho Wha recordings, but it is the first. It’s hard to pick a favorite but ‘Penetration’ is up there along with ‘I’m Gonna Take You Home’, ‘Savage Sons of Ya Ho Wha’ and ‘Contraction’. Their approach to improv is so inspiring to me, the idea of not even discussing what you’re going to do, to just get together, soak in the vibe, and off you go. Kohoutek will sometimes have a rough idea, and we have tackled covers and written riffs/themes that we explored a few times, but the vast majority of Kohoutek sets are purely improvisational in the Ya Ho Wha spirit.
“Kohoutek really is a sonic stew of all influences”
Who are some other major musical influences?
Well, I’m a voracious music addict and have many influences, as do all the various members of the band. But to keep it simple and relevant, major influences are 1967-1977 Pink Floyd, Can, Hawkwind, King Crimson, This Heat, Amon Düül 2, Faust, Träd, Gräs & Stenar/Pärson Sound, Sonic Youth, Wire, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Spacemen 3, West Coast psych like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane, Velvet Underground, The Stooges, all free jazz especially Art Ensemble of Chicago and Albert Ayler, ‘Bitches Brew’, Les Rallizes Dénudés, Beefheart, My Bloody Valentine, Popul Vuh, Taj Mahal Travellers, Sun City Girls. Composers like Stockhausen, Xenakis, Penderecki, Ligeti and Gorecki. And our roots are solidly classic rock: we all love Sabbath and Hendrix and the Stones and the Kinks and Zeppelin. I learned how to drum by jamming on Sabbath and Zeppelin riffs.
As a percussionist, I’m highly influenced by Milford Graves, Han Bennink, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Tony Oxley, Jaki Liebezeit, Robert Wyatt, Charles Hayward, and above all, the two-headed beast of Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir on ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’. Still can’t get enough of John Bonham, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, and Ginger Baker.
Kohoutek really is a sonic stew of all these influences and more, and we only hope the end result just sounds like us.
I first encountered this project about ten years ago. I think I got a CD-r from a friend with recordings that originally appeared on lathe cut in 2009. How did it all originally start?
It all started in 2001, and our genesis is not entirely indicative of what we developed into. I moved to Washington DC from Boston in the summer of 2001 to live with one of my best friends, Greg Svitil, and try to get a job at Smithsonian Folkways. He had an ultra-literate jangle-pop band called The Mayflies, very much in the vein of The Smiths and The Go-Betweens and The Jam, real C86 and Flying Nun kind of material. I had been playing music for years but was too busy in college to have my own band, and when I moved to DC, I didn’t have much going on and The Mayflies needed a drummer, so I joined and we got a different singer and became The Traces. That band lasted only six months or so and played two shows, but I hit it off with the bassist, Craig Garrett, and we started practicing a lot, exploring more experimental territory. Greg formed The Antiques, which I was an occasional member of. Craig and I were honing our chops and refining our ideas and looking for the right musicians to collaborate with.
Then we met guitarist Luke Wyatt, who later went on to release albums under the name Torn Hawk on Mexican Summer and Not Not Fun. Luke is an amazingly talented guitarist with some wild concepts, and something clicked and that was it. In the early days, we were just an instrumental trio, mostly improv with some loose compositions. Stylistically, you’d have probably lumped us in with Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky. We played our first show in 2003 and recorded all of our rehearsals. Then I met Scott Allison in November 2003 and asked him to join. Scott plays analog electronics and field recordings and was an integral member of the band until 2012 when he moved to Massachusetts. He’s still in Kohoutek but isn’t able to travel down to Philly and DC much.
After a year, Luke proved to be quite noncommittal, or too frequently disinterested, and would flake on shows and practices, so we learned to adapt and played shows as a percussion/bass/electronics trio. We got tired of relying on Luke and started collaborating with other guitarists. I’m really into guitar-heavy psych and want that in the band, even though we have played many sets sans guitar. The second guitarist in Kohoutek was Jim Ayre, from Rake/From Quagmire/Fern Knight. Jim’s a good friend and played in Kohoutek a few times, and I returned the favor by drumming in Fern Knight for one show. The third guitarist was Jeff Barsky, who does Insect Factory and who has been a core member since 2005. Luke and Kohoutek split ways in 2006, but I must give him credit for editing/sculpting our first studio album, ‘Expansive Headache’. Luke’s work on that album is stunning and a good harbinger of what was to come. Luke is also on the very first official Kohoutek release, a self-titled CD-r in an edition of 200 with handpainted art that we released in 2005. It consists of two live pieces from 2004. Luke is also on ‘Hair on the Sidewalk’ (Sockets), a CD/DVD of a live set in Philly where we had our friend Jim Brophy ad lib vocals while we projected Death Wish. After Luke left, Craig and Scott and I decided to forge ahead with Jeff as we had momentum and felt like we were evolving at a rapid pace as musicians.
“We’re truly a live band”
‘The Trails Of Kohoutek’ was your first album followed by many similar releases. Would you like to share a few words about those recordings?
So, the first release was ‘Kohoutek’ in 2005, and the second was ‘The Trails of Kohoutek’, which was a limited edition tour CD-r in 2006, consisting of two home recordings and one live recording. ‘Hair on the Sidewalk’ came out in 2006 on Sean Peoples’ label Sockets. Then we did a collaboration with Soil Sing Through Me, who consisted of members of Sunburned Hand of the Man and Witch, called ‘New Milk’, which came out on CD on Wabana. Our first studio release was ‘Expansive Headache’, recorded in 2005 by Jim Ayre on the VHF mobile unit and released on Music Fellowship/New American Folk Hero in 2007 on CD. The second studio album, ‘Lossless Loss’, was recorded in 2007 and released in 2009 on Prophase. Then we released a live set on a lathe cut in 2009. There have been many small editions of CDs and cassettes since then, put out by myself (Clavius Productions) and many various labels. Most of it is live because we’re truly a live band. No two sets are the same, and we can be drastically different, stylistically and instrumentally.
“The hardest part is finding those who understand what you do”
There’s a ton of members listed on Discogs. Please clarify how the lineup works?
By 2008, I became the only member who has played every Kohoutek show. As I mentioned before, it didn’t start out that way, but I kept it going out of necessity and ambition. I always believed in what we were doing and enjoyed playing with my bandmates and didn’t want it to end. Craig and Scott were reliable for the first five years and will always be core members. But then I moved to Philly in 2008 and we all got older and committed to jobs and families, so the band became something that revolved around me and whoever I could get to join. I think of it as similar to how a jazz musician like Coltrane or Ayler would have many of the same sidemen but would include others. Every musician has his or her own flavor. The hardest part is finding those who understand what you do. There have been a couple of musicians who I asked to join who turned out to be a poor fit for us.
From 2008-2014, the lineup was extremely fluid and unpredictable. I was mixing and matching musicians from Virginia to Maine, playing shows all over the northeast US with whomever was available. But as I became involved in numerous other projects, I realized Kohoutek works best with the same core of veterans who just play so well together. We live in different cities hours apart and never rehearse, yet when we get on stage, the magic is there. That’s a hard thing to find.
At this point I feel like I should list all core members since 2006 and the bands they came from and have since formed:
Scott Verrastro – percussion/flutes/whistles (Bardo Pond, Curanderos, Jeffrey Alexander & the Heavy Lidders, Thee Ultimate VAG, Dirt Weed Revue, Kuschty Rye Ergot, Insect Factory, Erik Ruin’s Ominous Cloud Ensemble)
Scott Allison – electronics (Egg Eggs, Sunburned Hand of the Man)
Craig Garrett – bass (The Antiques, Teething Veils)
Jeff Barsky – guitar (Insect Factory, Mock Identity, Paper Balls)
John Stanton – guitar (The Redeemers, The Promise Breakers, Cash Slave Clique, Kuschty Rye Ergot, toured with Nik Turner and Harvey Bainbridge)
Vic Salazar – guitar (Facemat)
Chris Grier (deceased) – guitar (To Live and Shave in LA, Thee Ultimate VAG)
John Simler – electronics (Cash Slave Clique)
Greg Svitil – Farfisa/synth/guitar (The Antiques, Silo Halo, Teething Veils)
Griffin Vernor Drutchas – bass/guitar (Pneumagon)
Damian Languell – electronics/saxophone/synth/vocals (Twilight Memories of the Three Suns/Broken Generator)
There are probably another 30 to 40 people who have been in Kohoutek once or multiple times, such as Andrew WK, Brother JT, Nathan Bowles (of Pelt/Steve Gunn/Black Twigs), Don Fleming (Velvet Monkeys/B.A.L.L./Gumball), Junzo Suzuki, Little Howlin’ Wolf, Clint Takeda (Bardo Pond), Yuzo Iwata (Maher Shalal Hash Baz), and saxophonist Elliott Levin. Damien Taylor of (The Sounds of) Kaleidoscope and Flash Hits is another old member who still plays with us.
Is there a certain concept behind the group?
When we started, there wasn’t a specific concept behind the group other than to make largely improvised, epic psychedelic rock in the vein of Can, ‘Ummagumma’-era Floyd and atmospheric post-rock like GYBE. Luke is also a filmmaker and I’m a big fan of ’60s-style liquid lights, so there’s always been a visual component to the project. We all think cinematically and hope to create soundtracks for the listener’s inner film.
It evolved into an ensemble based around me, kind of like how Guru Guru revolved around Mani Neumeier or Magma revolves around Christian Vander. Kohoutek’s peers in this regard are Sunburned Hand of the Man and Jackie-O Motherfucker, outfits that always consist of one or two members with dozens of auxiliary members. It’s not a “collective” but pretty close. I’m responsible for booking shows and tours and making final decisions but the process of making the music is purely democratic. The Ya Ho Wha 13 ethos is obvious, as is the collective improvisational spirit of non-rock entities like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Taj Mahal Travellers and AMM.
You have a brand new record out on two of my favourite labels, Cardinal Fuzz and Feeding Tube Records. How long did it take to record it?
The new LP, ‘Jurad’, was recorded in one day in August 2012. We were all too busy with work and life stuff to work on it for a few years, plus we were finishing ‘Curious Aroma’, so it sat untouched until 2016. Intensive listening and editing and mixing took a couple of years, and by the time it was finished, it was 2018. I shopped it around and hoped to release it then, but it didn’t happen. Finally, in early 2020, Cardinal Fuzz and Feeding Tube agreed to corelease it, and here we are.
We move slowly! We take studio albums seriously and aim to make each one special. We also don’t feel the need to glut the market. And since we have no songs and rarely tour, there’s no need to pump albums out. The next studio release might be a session from 2007.
Can you share some further details on how your latest album ‘Jurad’ was recorded and released?
‘Jurad’ was recorded at a studio in Philly called Sex Dungeon that’s no longer extant. We prefer recording on tape but this was recorded digitally. We did some mixing via analog to give the recording that desired warmth. Our modus operandi is pretty simple: book a day at a studio, set up and get the levels perfect, get really high, maybe trip, then let the music flow. We usually end up with around four hours of material, which we cull the best parts from. ‘Lossless Loss’ and ‘Curious Aroma’ both ended up being one long piece culled from 3-4 hours. ‘Jurad’ is three pieces. We also recorded a 30-minute cover of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ that I’m planning to release someday.
A peek into your creative process please, digital or analog?
Even though we find ourselves in an actual studio every few years, we record every single show because they’re all different, and with improv, you never know when you’ll capture that ineffable magic. From 2011 to 2019, I recorded many sets on a 1974 Technics cassette deck, but it developed a grounding issue and was too cumbersome anyway, so I got a Zoom and have been using it since. Our dear friend Steve Sanford, who lives outside of DC, has been recording our sets since 2004 with top-shelf equipment, for which we are extremely grateful for. Many home sessions have been recorded on tape and digital format. We have hundreds of hours of material in the vaults.
Premeditation rarely plays a role in the process. We’re more interested in soaking in the atmosphere/environment and building with minimal parameters. After years of playing together, there does exist an intrinsic structure. For as much exploration as we do, I honestly feel that we’re able to avoid aimless noodling. I am loath to call us a jam band.
You have a ton of stuff going on with Bardo Pond, Curanderos and the new Heavy Lidders LP. What was that about? Where did you meet Jeffrey Alexander?
I’m not sure when I met Jeffrey but the first time I saw him was when he was touring with The Iditarod in 2001. I dug them and we may have talked after the show. I started booking shows in DC in 2003, and booked Black Forest/Black Sea in 2004, and we’ve been friends since. He’s hooked my bands up in his towns, and I’ve done the same. Jeffrey moved to Philadelphia in 2018, and asked me if I wanted to drum for what he envisioned as Dire Wolves East. Since I dig all of his bands, I was game even though I already have a ridiculous amount of projects. Fortunately, I don’t spend a lot of time rehearsing since most of them are improv.
After a few months, it was apparent that Dire Wolves East — also including Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner of Elkhorn — was its own entity, and became Jeffrey Alexander & the Heavy Lidders. We did a recording session right before Covid hit, and we have two upcoming LPs from that session. We also have a tape out on Baked Tapes. We do some improv but it’s mostly song-based, but real loose, like Crazy Horse and Trad Gras and ’72 Dead.
Hey, what about ‘Raven’s Head’ by Curanderos?
‘Raven’s Head’ is the second official Curanderos release, a live set on cassette. It’s from a show in November 2018 where I pulled double duty with the Lidders. We decided to release it because it’s particularly dynamic. The first Curanderos release came out on Fire Records in 2017, even though it was recorded in 2006. We also have tons of stuff in the vaults, all from Lemur House, where all the Bardo Pond records are recorded.
Curanderos started in 2006 when I started collaborating with the Bardo folks, and for a while was a loose combination of myself and Michael Gibbons and various members of Bardo Pond and Kohoutek, plus a few others. However, for the past few years, it’s been the Gibbons brothers and me.
You also played with The Antiques. Is there anything I’ve missed?
The Antiques was the project my old roommate and good friend Greg Svitil started after we were in The Traces. I really wasn’t involved in that other than playing a couple of shows and recording a couple of tracks. Kohoutek was my main priority for a few years, and then I formed Thee Ultimate VAG with guitarist Chris Grier in 2006 (Verrastro and Grier = VAG). Chris sadly passed away in 2014, but we were quite active for eight years. We never released anything but did record a session at Lemur House that I am hoping to put out someday. Chris and I once played a set with Gibby Haynes and Don Fleming, covering The Walker Brothers’ ‘The Electrician’.
Since 2007, I’ve been involved in many projects, defunct and active. PRV Trio, with guitarists Anthony Pirog and Ed Ricart, was active from 2007-2009. Anthony is now in the Messthetics with Joe Lally and Brendan Canty of Fugazi and has a solo album on Cuneiform. Simultaneously, Ed Ricart and I were doing Chromatic Mysteries, a free jazz ensemble that collaborated with Marshall Allen and Elliott Levin and Michael Gibbons. From 2013-2016, I was an occasional member of Shadow Band, who put out an album on Mexican Summer.
Being an improviser, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have collaborated with some musicians that I greatly admire, many from the avant-jazz world such as Marshall Allen, Peter Brotzmann, Khan Jamal, Burton Greene, and Paul Flaherty. Elliott Levin and I have been consistently collaborating for 14 years. Possibly the best night of my life was when Kohoutek played with Damo Suzuki in 2007. Close behind that was playing with Jandek in 2009. Kohoutek also has done a few short tours backing George Kinney of legendary Austin psych band The Golden Dawn. I’ve also played live with or recorded with Richard Pinhas, Mike Tamburo, Little Howlin’ Wolf, Max Ochs, Fern Knight, United Bible Studies, Sharron Kraus, Rat Bastard, Kenny Millions and Colin Fisher. There’s others that elude my memory.
Do you have any other active side-projects going on at this point?
In addition to Bardo Pond, Curanderos, and the Heavy Lidders, other active projects are Kuschty Rye Ergot, Insect Factory, Erik Ruin’s Ominous Cloud Ensemble, Haramindarangure, Dirt Weed Revue, Power Vacuum, Pneumagon and 23 Shedu. KRE is Kohoutek guitarist John Stanton’s baby, and Insect Factory is Jeff Barksy’s thing. I frequently perform in both. Ominous Cloud is Erik Ruin’s audio/visual concept, which consists of a large pool of Philly musicians who improvise while Erik projects his artwork. Haramindarangure is a duo with guitarist Junzo Suzuki of Miminokoto and 20 Guilders. Dirt Weed Revue is Delaware’s Empty Shapes with me drumming doing fried improv noise rock, like Flipper meets Dead C. Power Vacuum is with guitarist Nick Millevoi and bassist Alexi Papadopoulos (of Stinking Lizaveta). Pneumagon is Kohoutek bassist Griffin Vernor Drutchas’ project, and 23 Shedu is a duo with Philly analog synth builder Will Helmke. Each of these projects are special to me because they are all with friends whose art I respect and feel inspired by.
In addition to all that, I have a percussion duo with Nathan Bowles that released an LP on MIE in 2013, and a guitar/drums duo with Mark Feehan of Harry Pussy and Taiwan Housing Project. I’ve also been recently playing with DC guitarist Jon Camp.
In your dreams, who are you on tour with?
Honestly, I just want to tour with Kohoutek because those guys are my closest friends and we have such a blast doing what we do. It’d be nice to get some festival offers so we can afford to tour other continents, but we’re just too obscure. Hopefully that will change with ‘Jurad’!
Otherwise, I’m available if Neil Young wants me to replace Ralph Molina in Crazy Horse. Jamming on ‘Cortez the Killer’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ with Neil would be the closest thing to ecstatic bliss. I could get lost in Neil’s tone for hours.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
That’s a loaded question! Off the top of my head: Love ‘Forever Changes’, Fairport Convention ‘Liege & Lief’, Nick Drake ‘Pink Moon’, Can ‘Future Days’, Pentangle ‘Cruel Sister’, Amon Düül 2 ‘Yeti’, My Bloody Valentine ‘Loveless’, Pharoah Sanders ‘Tauhid’, Mellow Candle ‘Swaddling Songs’, Incredible String Band ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’, Black Sabbath ‘Master of Reality’, Stooges ‘Fun House’, Neil Young ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’.
I’m always discovering new stuff, but it’s usually from between 1967 and 1982. Recent new discoveries that have knocked me on my ass are Sume, Metabolist, Crawling Chaos, Happy Refugees, The Sleepers, Rex Holman, Pandora (thanks to you!), Phantasia, Mike Hart and The Liverpool Scene, Dick Gaughan, Robin Scott, Poobah and Left End. Recent rediscoveries have been The Only Ones, Blossom Toes, Pete Brown & Piblokto, Punishment of Luxury, Socrates Drank the Conium and Five Day Rain. I’ve been going down the late ’70s/early ’80s post-punk rabbit hole in a big way! Sume were this amazing band from Greenland, of all places. Imagine something like The Byrds meets Trad Gras. I’m also a folk junkie, trad and acid both, and always looking for obscure UK stuff on Trailer and Topic.
Thank you. Last word is yours.
I’d like to mention that I do have a Bandcamp page for Kohoutek and many of the other projects I am involved in, called Clavius Productions (which has been my booking company since 2003). I started it last year and am slowly uploading live sets from the vaults. There are some gems on there now, with many more to come as I digitize and transfer files. The live experience is such a significant part of Kohoutek and all my music, so I feel that it’s important to make these recordings available for those who dare to delve into the mystery. I’ll leave you with John Stanton to chime in with some thoughts…