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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

ILL Q+A: Jason Crumer


Oakland, Calif's Jason Crumer may well be the Grace Kelly of noise music, crafting careful stretches of intricate animus that surreptitiously segue from dead silence to intense chaos. Power electronics are a core ingredient, but oftentimes, recordings of extracurricular acts figure into the Crumer stew; for example, 2008's Ottoman Black necessitated "my friend Joe and I stabbing chickens, punching sandbags, running in place, crushing fruit, and throwing lumber around."

In late June, Ill With The Composition interviewed
Crumer via email about his writing and recording process, how he keeps body and soul together, and what's he's been reading lately.

Ill With The Composition: You've had an extensive, storied musical career thus far, having been part of almost a half-dozen projects aside from your solo, eponymous work. What experiences - in terms of influences, experiences, and otherwise - first drew you into recording, compos
ing, and performance?

Jason Crumer: My dad was adopted by a black family and thus I grew up as his "first blood relative" and in a black church. Watching the old black men and women sing hymns on a weekly basis was probably the best possible introduction to sacred and spiritual music. As a smaller than average white in a fully black culture, I was also introduced early to isolation and boyish loneliness. I was constantly alone and deeply under-stimulated. I took to music very early. My first musical output was embarrassingly - but not surprisingly, considering the circumstances - rap. I'd generate the beats by the old 'pause/record/rewind' process and rap over them in the air through two boom boxes. Thankfully, none of this material exists now. At the time, my dad installed cable for a living, so when MTV came out, we had it. It opened up an entirely new world of music to my 8-year old brain that was previously unavailable; it didn't matter that it was 'bad music.' I asked for a toy guitar for Christmas in 3rd grade to add cheesy hooks to my bad rap music as well as look cool while doing it, and my dad got me a real guitar and decent Marshall practice amplifier. The next year - 4th grade - Christmas brought me a radio-shack mixer and stereo realistic microphone, and chance brought me Glenn Jackson. I randomly found a lost paycheck on the ground and showed it to my dad, and it turned out to belong to an old friend of his. He encouraged me to bring it to his house, and told me that Glenn had a studio in his basement. I gave him the check and asked if I could use his studio. He - amazingly - took me seriously (I was 9) and said I could use his studio, but only after I took some guitar lessons with him. He drilled into me the importance of 'meaning it' and 'paying your dues' in a militaristic fashion that completely scared any popular culture or rap influences out of me and, I think, ultimately set me on this course.

Ill With The Composition: Interesting, your background. I'm African American, and my paternal grandmother runs a Baptist church in Baltimore City. There's definitely a very intense, emotional religiosity about the experience of those services; I can totally see how that - and rap, too - carries over to the force of the music you make now. When you're writing or composing, do you flash back to those early years - to learning from Glenn, to church?

Jason Crumer: If I am trying to make a particularly angelic part, maybe I'll summon a vague idea of 'church' or 'religion' or 'deeply important on a fanatical level,' and there is no getting around where it comes from. When I attempt to generate something "evil" it's very clear where my ideas of "good" came from. The answer to your question though, is no; those are just the experiences that shaped the raw materials, influences to build on. My age was the reason for the large impact of the influence.

Ill With The Composition: As your career has progressed, your records sound increasingly refined; I think part of the reason Walk With Me (Misanthropic Agenda) hit me as hard as it did when I heard it was because it seemed, to me, so restrained and sculpted and almost orchestral. What Is Love? felt pretty raw - though it was rawness with a clear purpose - and last year's Ottoman Black had a considered feel to it too, but Walk was just on a totally different level. What were you going for with Walk, in terms of how it was composed and the underlying themes?

Jason Crumer: On all my records, I have a set of goals or objectives or 'scenes' that I strive to include in the pieces, and then struggle to put them together. These are the product of several months of fantasizing before any recording takes place. It takes a long time for me to find inspiration to record the first seeds of an album, but once it hits, they are recorded very quickly - within a span of two to three months, usually. Then it's piecing them together, which is what takes the longest. On Walk With Me, I tried to solve a lot of personal problems regarding composition and was a little more loose with the editing. Editing is hard for me since what was played and written with passion must be looked at critically, corrected, extended, and condensed to fit the form. I sometimes have to go against my instincts and be merciless - destroy things that were written with love and inspiration. In the past, I was careless. I didn't realize the importance of critical examination of the original sketch. For this reason, my older work was loosely held together with the seams always showing. Walk With Me is an attempt to fix this. While recording Walk With Me, I came to the understanding that my music will never make good examples of form. I can fix what is wrong with my inherent musical nature through editing, but I can't change it intrinsically. I know having specific scenes in my music is as possible and absurd as trying to make it say "good morning" or "good night," but it's the only way I can get things going mentally. It's a big reason why I've had a harder and harder time with live performance: I don't get to set the context, and it feels like meaningless spectacle.

Ill With The Composition: Do you find the process of collaboration more freeing than writing by your lonesome?

Jason Crumer: No.

Ill With The Composition: What's the most frustrated or confused a piece of music has ever made you?

Jason Crumer: Burning In Hell was the hardest thing to record due to it's physicality. It was the only recording I've ever made that I began to wonder what I'd gotten myself into. To record a marginal / back-up track for nuance or a simple thickening element required a huge physical effort. With Ottoman Black, I hated the amount of great material I had to throw away. The fight scene was a real pain to edit as it was generated digitally from hours of "in series" recordings of my friend Joe and I stabbing chickens, punching sandbags, running in place, crushing fruit, throwing lumber around etc. The ambient parts of Ottoman Black could've made an album but were demoted to marginal nuance or completely eliminated in order to fit the parts that did make it. Collaborations are much harder to do than solo works. My collaborations are true collaborations, the middle ground between two people's work. I can't just say "make the album about this..." so they're naturally a lot less specific. I hope they carry their own personal charm, and I tend to collaborate with people whose music I respect or whose process fascinates me.
The collaboration with
Roxann Spikula was frustrating because of various reasons; mostly, if you started to get ideas based on the sound you had to take 15 minutes and make a cassette loop with something resembling what you originally thought. It made it very hard to gain momentum. It has a detached sound that I am not capable of producing myself and I suppose that's the middle ground. Suppression in The Third was recorded on borrowed gear, made using only someone else's laptop and a boom box with loop tapes. The laptop owner deleted the entire album - at least what we had, to that point - and forced us to rely on a cassette of the material featuring older mix downs and questionable overall recording quality. That was frustrating. Trying to be appropriately 'grateful' for the allowed use of the machine while completely pissed off. Frustrations and annoyances during the recording process, simply put, make the record.

Ill With The Composition: A while back, you mentioned wanting to cut back on touring. Why is that?

Jason Crumer: It's more satisfying for me to see something really come together than to entertain a group of people. It always blows my mind that people who identify as some sort of misanthrope travel the world showing people a good time. facedowninshit played literally thousands of shows and it burned me out; completely burned me out. Music was always an escape from reality, a fantasy, and the more shows you play the more it becomes 'your reality.' What do you do then, to escape your reality? If you are of the mind that can never live in the moment and can never be part of what is actually happening, requiring for your sanity to keep a decent-sized buffer of bullshit between you and the world, the hyper-social world of touring is not for you. I have a reputation with certain people because I can't be around more than two of them at a time without consuming drugs and alcohol. My time is better spent still and sober.

Ill With The Composition: For a lot of artists, especially the anti-social ones, touring is - in large part - more a financial proposition than anything else, I think.

Jason Crumer: The amount of money people make is rarely high enough for that logic to make sense. I think some people truly love touring, I'm just not one of them. I do like (non-musical) traveling though.

Ill With The Composition: The thrill of new places and experiences, without the burden of having to be any particular place at any particular time for sound check?

Jason Crumer: I love Nature, capital N. I'm not a real camper type, but I can look at a rock formation or the ocean all day, walk in the woods all day. When I'm in Oakland, I spend at least a few days of each week in some sort of natural environment. I love California for it's absurdly tight pockets of wildly differing natural beauty. I feel at home walking into truck stops and eating road food. I like regional accents. I like travel for probably the same reasons anyone else does.

Ill With The Composition: What are, for lack of a better phrase, the tools of your trade? Are the electronics and sound generators you use in the studio different from the ones you use on stage?

Jason Crumer: Recording, I just use whatever I need to use, mostly microphones and acoustic things or things that make a loud sound in the room, that is, not a lot of line in. The answer to your question about both live and studio sound generating is "it's always different." I love to record small sounds and make them loud in the studio, something you can't do live so much due to feedback. I like acoustic and naturally harsh sounds more than electronics, but when using electronics recently I enjoy when they come out dead, dull, and as pure as possible. Lately, I've been getting into tape loops. It really always changes, and I'll never be able to answer this question.

Ill With The Composition: Is there anything in particular that you've been listening to for pleasure, lately?

Jason Crumer: Cold Electric Fire In Night's Dream We Are Ghosts CD, Michael Jackson Thriller LP single, instrumental side, on 16 speed, Led Zeppelin II on 16 speed, Ray Price various collection, Learned Helplessness Older Women tape and waiting for that Hank Snow LP Roxann has been promising me - hint!

Ill With The Composition: Can you tell me about how you created "Home Wreck," from What Is Love? To me it sounded like you actually got hold of a wrecker and were literally trashing a house.

Jason Crumer: Unfortunately, it's just a field recording of a house being destroyed. There is some personal symbolism behind it in relation to what was going on at the time, but yeah, I didn't actually destroy a house to make that track; would rule if I did, though.

Ill With The Composition: Are you reading anything in particular right now?

Jason Crumer: Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schoenburg. My granny lent it to me.

Ill With The Composition: Are you able to make a living at music? If not, what do you do for a day job?

Jason Crumer: I make almost no money from noise but sometimes I do, and it rules when that happens. I can't make a living at anything I do, so why try?

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