Pre-Moogfest Q+A with Craig Leon

Craig Leon with the late musician/engineer/inventor/producer Walter Sear’s old modular Moog. Image courtesy of Leon.

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Sure, the Moogfest lineup is star-studded (I’m looking at you, M.I.A., Kraftwek and Niles Rodgers). But the roster — which includes over 100 acts just for the night program alone — includes some lesser-known gems worth discovering. This series of email interviews is culled from my personal list of interesting artists I plan to check out.

Among the elder statesmen of this year’s Moogfest is musician/composer/producer Craig Leon, whose music you know, even if his name is unfamiliar. Leon’s work has been in movies like Karate Kid and 200 Cigarettes, as well as on classical recordings by Luciano Pavarotti and Joshua Bell, among others. But his career hasn’t been all symphony-going and film scoring. In fact, after moving to New York City in the ‘70s to work with Sire Records, Leon signed The Ramones and the Talking Heads and worked on Blondie’s early records. The 150-plus records that he’s produced over the years include projects by Richard Hell, Guy Clark and Cowboy Junkies, as well as his own albums.

At Moogfest, he’ll perform his 1980 album, Nommos, in collaboration with a quartet from the Asheville Symphony. The record is “enshrouded in impenetrable mystery – from its understated artwork to the rich assemblage of analog synths contained inside,” according to press notes. Head Heritage said Nommos is the ‘missing link between the proto-industrial rhythm and drone of SUICIDE and the whole minimalist drone / static / repetition method of Terry Riley and La Monte Young.’”

Craig Leon performs at Moogfest on Saturday, April 26, at Diana Wortham Theatre, at 9:30 p.m.

Mountain Xpress: Beyond amplification and electronic instruments, what ways do you see music/art and technology intersecting?

Craig Leon: There is a growing need for entertainment and music projects to have strong multimedia content. This obviously is best served by digital technology linking up the audio, visual and other elements of the performance/recording. Also for streaming of live performances over the internet, to cinemas and other venues outside of just the concert hall. Actually, it’s an exciting time for all.

How do you feel about playing a festival that’s equally dedicated to technology/invention and to music?

Thrilled. I’m hoping to explore new ways of writing my music and getting it heard and seen and to experience first hand what others are doing in the same area.

What Moog instruments do you play or wish you owned?

Over the years I think I used most configurations on projects that I produced and on my own. The ones that come to mind are Moog modular 70s version, Minimoog D, Polymoog first version. I am currently using the Arturia software based Moog Modular in the performance at Moogfest and in other live shows.

What other Moogfest artist would you most like to collaborate with?

This year I’m recreating an older album of mine from 1980 called Nommos for a performance that utilizes a string quartet. At Moogfest, we will be joined by a quartet from the Asheville Symphony. I would like to collaborate with the symphony in the future performing larger scale works for full orchestra integrated with synthesizer that I will be touring in Europe later this year and next.

What are the top three sounds, sights or ideas inspiring you recently?

There are too many to list only three but this morning as I type it’s the sounds of Carl Ruggles, Virgil Thomson and Austin Pitre.

When you create music, do you have an audience in mind? If so, for whom?

No. I only write down what I hear in my head and hope that someone listens.

As a listener, what experience do you seek from music?

Transport from day to day existence. To create a sense of Ecstasy using the term as Arthur Machen uses it relating to literature on his 1902 book, Hieroglyphics. This doesn’t mean it all has to be serious. Fun counts as Ecstasy as well.

Anything you’re looking forward to doing in Asheville beyond Moogfest?

Looking forward to seeing the Blue Ridge Mountains again and maybe getting an hour or two to listen to some bluegrass music.

How it’s done: Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs

True to form, the crowd at last Friday’s Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs show at The Grey Eagle, wore cowboy boots. That’s just how it’s done when going to hear one of the baddest garage-rockabilly duos in the business.

True to form, Holly — who doesn’t seem very uptight about doing things how they’re done — wore sneakers. The twosome claimed to be rusty when they took the stage (not so: They opened with a fierce rendition of the Piedmont Blues song “Crow Jane”). They claimed they hadn’t been practicing much. Also untrue, but Holly and her one-man-backing-band Lawyer Dave (on guitar, vocals and a couple of kick drums) do create this casual atmosphere, like this is their front porch and you just happened to wander past.

In a way, that is what’s going on. Holly (originally from the U.K.) and Dave (from Texas) are based in the countryside outside of Athens, Ga., and their songs are often inspired by real life. The sideshow thrill of “Burn O’Junk Pile,” with its slinky beat, was inspired by an annoying neighbor who, said Dave, “has already started to mow.” The same neighbor who called the cops on Holly and Dave’s chickens.

"Get Out of My House," a gritty stomp-blues number underscoring Holly’s girlish voice, pokes fun at house guests. When it comes to songwriting, everything is fair game. And while some of the darker offerings (the witty-yet-dangerous "My 45," for example) are more likely based in fiction than truth, Holly and Dave do seem to find humor in the mundane.

Not that their lives seem to be terribly mundane. A pair of songs were introduced as “the song that got us kicked out of Salt Lake City” and “the song that’s going to get us kicked out of Salt Lake City again.” The first, “Ain’t Nobody Gonna’ Love me Like the Devil Do,” showcases the couple’s style. Dave provides the structure of the song — its teeth, its menace, its bone-rattling thump and mournful hollow-body guitar — while Holly’s vocal, at turns eerie and unaffected, seals it to the subconscious.

The new song, called “Salt Lake City,” might have earned the duo a return visit to that devil-hating locale, but it’s not likely to be adopted by the Chamber of Commerce. Roadhouse guitars and honky-tonk swagger are matched with an easy beat. “Why you want go into Salt Lake City / Where you can’t get f**ked up, can’t get sh*tty?” the song asks, simultaneously ribald and friendly. Pretty much like Holly and Dave.

That song is on the new record, All Her Fault, released last month.

Seeing the Lighght: Kishi Bashi in Asheville

The thing about a Kishi Bashi concert is that you don’t necessarily have to be familiar with the songs to get the show. In fact, there’s something to be said for coming into contact with a Kishi Bashi (the project of singer-songwriter/violinist/composer K Ishibashi) song for the first time. They’re not so much songs in the verse-chorus-verse sense as tiny worlds encapsulated in sound that ranges from bubbly pop to sweeping classical composition.

Fresh from the studio where he’s been recording Lighght (out on May 13), K and his band (which included opener Tall Tall Trees, the project of banjo player Mike Savino — more about him in a minute) hit the Grey Eagle stage new offering “Philosophize It! Chemicalize With It!” That song, brisk and light, soaring on updrafts and falsetto swoops,  is in line with previous cuts, such as “Bright Whites,” which got some play on a Microsoft commercial. In fact, that was the second song of the night, setting a buoyant mood for a varied crowd that included belly dancers and dads with kids perched on shoulders.

Kishi Bashi is known for building songs through series of loops, sound samples, beat boxing, layered vocals (including is aerial falsetto) and violin parts. (Watch his NPR Tiny Desk Concert here.) Those songs are a wonder to witness in the making. At times the Jenga tower of sounds threatens to collapse in on itself, but K is skilled at creating order from the chaos and the audience responds to propulsive and cartoon-bright madness-turned-hooky melody.

A note here about Savino of Tall Tall Trees: his addition to Kishi Bashi’s band was odd and yet utterly perfect. Formerly a band leader himself, Savino is now a solo act and, like K, utilizes loops and effects to turn his banjo into a pocket orchestra. Not a fan of the banjo’s twang and old-timey pluck? Give Tall Tall Trees a listen — Savino stretches and bends the instruments capabilities, playing it more like an electric guitar, pairing it with Mr. T samples, and using a drum stick on the banjo head for added percussion.

But many of Kishi Bashi’s new songs veer away from loops, relying more on the band to craft the textured and nuanced sound. “Carry On Phenomenon,” from Lighght, gallops through heavy percussion and waves of violin that cut the thickness of the song. Even without all of the effects, K’s voice is formidable. Dusky in his low register and swooning in the high notes, he sounded especially sweet on the dreamy-romantic “Q&A.”

The band also attempted its first-ever live performance of “One Upon A Lucid Dream (in Afrikaans).” It was not a flawless performance, but there was something exciting about witnessing a Kishi Bashi song pre-polish. The rawness along with the hand claps, and the rhythmic complexity of Afropop-meets-California country rock, was a glimpse into K’s creative process.

A highlight of the night — and it was a show that rode a crest from start to finish — was K’s chill-inducing solo performance of “I Am the Antichrist to You.” That song, from the elegantly plucked strings at its opening to the full-force orchestration of looped violin and lush vocals, always feels like a new discovery. It’s a piece that begs to be played with a full orchestra. Which is not to say that the song as it is lacks substance. Even as a solo performance, it’s symphonic and huge — overwhelming, really. It’s an emotional roller coaster, a catharsis, a vision realized, a universe captured in the sonic equivalent of a snow globe.

Cake walk: Coconut Cake at Jack of the Wood

Good luck finding local Congolese rumba band Coconut Cake on Facebook. Unless it’s an event page for one of the band’s all-too rare shows — like last weekend’s set at Jack of the Wood. But the project, led by multi-instrumentalist Michael Libramento, really isn’t elusive. It gets plenty of mileage just by word of mouth.
And for good reason. Like the confection it’s named for, Coconut Cake is complex, richly textured and sophisticated — and easily digestible. The current lineup includes (among others) Jason Krekel (The Krektones, The Moodees) on guitar, Ryan Oslance (Ahleuchatistas) on drums, Matt Shepard on bass and Ami Worthen (The Moodees) on auxiliary percussion. The only thing the evening was lacking was rumba dancers — too bad because Asheville is a dance town and the rumba is arguably the most seductive and bar-worthy of the ballroom dances.

There was dancing, though. It would have been hard to sit still — and that’s no surprise considering the lineup. But in a way, the instrumental set was a departure for all of the band’s members. Libramento is known for being able to play pretty much anything, from jazz to experimental rock. Lately he’s been playing bass with pop-rock outfit Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. It’s a great gig for an up-and-coming musician, but realistically, Libramento could probably play those radio-ready songs with one hand tied behind his back. A project like Coconut Cake gives him the opportunity to really showcase his musicianship.

And then there’s Oslance, a force of nature behind the drum kit in Ahleuchatistas. But for all of his might and wild energy in that band, on stage with Coconut Cake, Oslance was all control and taste.

Libramento’s guitar carried the melody in loops and flourishes of expressive sound. The bass was plenty melodic, too. Krekel, on rhythm guitar, stepped away from his usual role as the proficient frontman. In Coconut Cake both he and Worthen built a steady foundation on which the artfully nuanced songs could take shape. It requires seasoned players to be both that steady and that free of ego — to step back from the spotlight and simply give the music what it needs.

The entire set played out like a whole greater than the sum of its parts. A story that unfolded as it was being told — all warm notes and gentle breezes. A beachy scene infused with sunlight but more aligned with night time. Sultry evenings spent, sand between the tones, within earshot of pounding waves. A play of dark and light, rough and soft felt in the pulse of each song. A play of well-matched opposites, kind of like the band’s name.

Because coconut cake is a tropical dessert, but it’s also a funeral dish. Mourning and celebration, bitter and sweet. There’s sadness inherent in the rumba — the long, slow note that drags the beat, trying to make the moment last. Trying to wrest every bit of joy from the quick notes each time they cycle back around.

Wonderfully weird: Hidden Harbor by Miles Cramer

There’s absolutely nothing expected about Hidden Harbor by local multi-instrumentalist Miles Cramer. To start, Cramer is probably best known for playing drums with avant-rock outfit Asian Teacher Factory. Or for brewing a fine cup of tea at Dobra. On his five-song EP, released at the beginning of this year, he also sings and plays guitar and keys.

But there are hints of both alt-rock and the transformative properties of tea. From the acoustic-psychedelic explorations of lead track “Love in the Neon Light,” Cramer reveals his vocal range (from a dusky baritone to an aerial tenor). He uses his voice expressively, unconcerned with technical correctness, sliding up and down scales and in and out of harmonies while the melodies swirl dreamily over a heavily syncopated beat. “I’m digging a hole / in the Blue Ridge Mountains / I wish you all happiness and harmony,” he sings at the song’s conclusion.

"Aquarium," luminous and haunted, echoes with reverb and atmospherics. It’s part Gregorian chant, part Space Odyssey, part Bedouin camel train. The song is a spiritual rite stitched at odd angles to a Carnival fun house. It works because it’s more than a song, it’s a piece of performance art. (IN the album notes, Cramer describes the EP as "a humble attempt to bring to sound a battle of desire and inner peace through the muck of heavy emotions and a world of many fruits.")

“Cul-De-Sac” is built on Eastern rhythms and sweeping, swooning lyrics. Mystic and dense, the song morphs in rhythm and intent, taking the listener on a guided visualization that requires a certain level of suspended belief. The trust fall is worth the momentary jitter of uncertainty. Cramer’s methods as a composer are unorthodox, for sure, but the resulting sonic tapestry is akin to a magic carpet. The addition of a soaring vocal by Sage Sansone certainly enhances the journey.

With its hushed beginning, “The Shadow People” brings the energy back down. Momentarily. Even here, on an initially quiet track, the album is far from spare or minimalist. A resonant French horn, played by Zach Cramer, provides balance to shimmery percussion and mounting vocal and instrumental drama. Plenty of other star players guest on Hidden Harbor: Matt Williams on violin and electric guitar, Amy Lovinger on violin, Franklin Keel on cello and Noah Wilson on sitar, just to name a few.

The EP closes with “Dark Blue Light,” an almost-folky almost-lullaby. The nocturne is brief by charming — a duet over strummed guitar and shooting star effects. Breathlessly romantic, yet ambling cooly through melody and atmospherics, the song perfectly sums up the album’s wonderful weirdness.

Rock ‘n’ roll forever: The Whigs at The Grey Eagle

The Whigs are either from Nashville or from Athens, Ga., depending on who you ask. Not that it matters, when it comes to their live show. The band played The Grey Eagle last Friday on the heels of two cancelled shows, and they performed with the kind of out-of-the-gate intensity of a band kept cooped up too long.

The trio — singer/guitarist Parker Gispert, drummer Julian Dorio and bassist Timothy Deaux — walked onstage to piped-in intro music before launching into “Hot Bed.” Not that there was a warm-up period to the show, but by the second number — the heavy “Black Lotus,” Dorio was already punishing his drum kit and Gispert was lunging and hair-flinging. But even though The Whigs are loud, they’re still crisp. Theirs is a wall of sound built on an armory of percussion, and yet each nuance is felt, each lyric is heard.

“Already Young,” driving and malicious, bobs and weaves around the hook, “I don’t care what your old man thinks.” It’s a rock anthem with teeth — the kind of riled romance that The Whigs do well. Dorio’s drumming was so intense that it could be felt through the floor boards; Gispert and Deaux shook streams of feed back from their guitars. (For anyone keeping count, Deaux had three basses on stage and Gispert had six guitars.)

This is a band that knows how to write an anthem. “Staying Alive” — their original, not a BeeGees cover — starts off with a hiccuping rhythm that plows into an apocalyptic jam that isn’t really a jam as much as a sonic assault. Dorio’s hair whipped, frenzied, in the tempest of his full-body drumming. Gispert writhed on the floor and Deaux stripped down to a tank-top before the maelstrom dropped off to a cool calm.

The crowd (not nearly as large as the band deserved) undulated in a communal stunned wiggle. At least one guy head-banged until the mood shifted with the funkier, Bo Diddley-esque lead-in to “Production City.” From that song (from 2008’s Mission Control) to catchy new single, “Hit Me,” (from the forthcoming album Modern Creation), Gispert has this way of singing that’s both emotive and easygoing. Like he’s figured out how to get the passion across without torturing his vocal chords.

The Whigs also really get the importance of dynamics in music. Yes, they play hard, but their songs are heavy and hooky. Hard, with room for softness. Loud, but with turn-on-dime moments of utter control and reserve. A Whigs song is probably best turned up to teeth-chattering volume, but play any album softly in a pair of headphones and it’s every bit as keenly forceful.

The band tried out another new song — “Friday Night,” a just-shy-of-thrash number that came off like a speeded-up Ramones song. In a good way. Garage-y and poppy with a pedal-to-metal thrust. And, because The Whigs are not a post-punk band, they rounded out the sound with plenty of big, spacey, psychedelic-leaning atmospherics.

The rest of the evening was dedicated to older material: “Hundred/Million,” with its spoken-word verses and Gispert wrestling weird notes from the neck of his guitar, his fingers flying like he was dodging electric sparks. The more dancey “Half The World Away,” with Gispert on keys (“Do you have a really lonely reverb you could put on that?” he asked the sound man before beginning the song). And — after taking a Polaroid photo of the audience, “Rock and Roll Forever.”

That song is, of course, anthemic. Wryly so. A rallying cry with a wink. That’s what The Whigs do, and that’s why the prospect of a new album this spring is so exciting.

This track is pretty much killing me softly. The dense crush of sound, the high sparkle and the thick beat. A good falsetto always gets me and the vocal here is achingly pure. The whole track, the whole velvety-dark pop confection of it is as narcotic as sleep and as icy-cool as new snow.

Listen to: Ruin by VEDAS

Tags: Vedas

I’ve loved The Whigs since the first time I heard “Written Invitation” and while I fully expect to like each new release, I’m always glad to have my love proved again and again.

"Hit Me" promises great things for The Whigs’ April release. It has the coiled energy, smart/simple songwriting, massive percussion and cool indie-rock guy thing that The Whigs do so well. And yet it never seems like they’re trying all that hard.

In fact, I’d say that Parker Gispert’s current beard situation is proof that this is a band that cares about making good music and isn’t bothered about much else. I’m good with that.

Don’t count out The Low Counts

It’s hard to talk about drum-and-guitar duos these days without drawing comparisons to The Black Keys. Statesville’s The Low Counts definitely recall that band. But the duo of Matt Walsh (vocals, guitar) and Austin Hicks (drums) share much more with the Black Keys’ early, gritty Fat Possum days than with their slick, full-band and expensive leather jackets iteration. Plus — and this would have made fat Possum proud — the Low Counts opened with a Muddy Waters cover.

But the band’s show at Jack of the Wood last weekend was far more about originals than covers. Right out the gate, Walsh and Hicks performed their grungy, blues-soaked “Cut Me Out,” driven by a slinky beat (kick drum and shakers) and Walsh’s deep growl of a vocal.

By three songs in, girls were dancing with girls and hair was flying. Mostly Walsh’s hair. Hicks keeps his hip-length mane anchored in a ponytail, but he had to abandoned his glasses, which kept sliding off his nose as the room heated up. Both musicians played as if they were locked in an isolation booth. Without every making eye contact (difficult through whipping hair), they deadlocked on a shared rhythm and never veered from that forged connection. No matter how wildly frenzied the song got.

The thing about a drum-and-guitar duo (Flat Duo Jets, White Stripes, Ghost Wolves, The Cedric Burnside Project) is that it can’t be timid. Both players have to drum/strum/sing as hard as possible to create a full-band sound with just two instruments. The Low Counts have that part down. The trick is, to play hard and still leave room (and energy) for the music to build.

The Low Counts managed to do that, too.

From searing songs like “Lush,” with its ragged guitar licks and pummeling percussion, to a fierce cover of Bo Diddley’s “Mona,” they delivered a kind of uncontrolled burn. Theirs is not a layered sound so much as an assault. Fuel tossed on a fire. Even a slow song, with the moody line, “Every thing you do, everything you say, I feel the same way,” felt less like couple’s dance and more like a Hendrix jam. Heavy, convoluted and wrung out, the song railed against its own emotional edge, its atonal notes slicing at the melody.

In the best way.

Playing Pool with Ryan Barrington Cox

If you’ve been missing Asheville-based indie-rockers The If You Wannas, consider getting friendly with Pool — the latest solo project from The If’s guitarist Ryan Barrington Cox. The album (released last November) is comfortable in both its weirdness and its hooky popness. Which is also what made The If You Wannas such a fun band — the way you could not really get what they were doing, and still be totally connected to it. Here, Cox blends quirky samples and unusual instrumentation with rhythmic jangle.

Lead track “Watch Pot” is at once cozy and nostalgic, though reminiscent of what, it’s hard to say. Cox plays most of the parts himself, from a grungy electric guitar to a ringing xylophone. His wife, Emily Keebler (Shod My Feet, Lassos) sings back up.

Keebler has a lot of range, both vocally and in terms of the characters she seems to inject into her singing. It’s a high-low mix of serious and tongue-in-cheek that serves Pool well. Cox, on the other hand, tends to sing in one voice — a smooth tenor that goes exactly where it needs to. His straightforward delivery on the roiling and staccato “Get Free(er)” keeps the song from venturing too far into fringey experimentation.

“Eyelid Flowers” is a standout track, full of heartwarming chords, rhumba beats and sweet harmonies. Its alt-alt-country tenderness recalls a more polished Claire and Bain’s Maple Yum Yum. In fact, it’s possible that Cox and Keebler (and their resulting duo, Lassos) is the happy ever after that Claire and Bain didn’t find in their collaboration.

“Boy With Red Balloon” is another slow dance. The minute-long track is a box waltz that makes its slow-quick-quick way through languid percussion, heart-beat thump and eerie, metallic string tones.

The album ends with the driving “Take It Back,” which matches jogging indie-rock with crackling drums and a stumbling, sometimes atonal melody that adds a layer of interest to the song. What Cox does best is pair strong lyric writing with off-kilter sounds so that everything feels almost catchy and nothing is ever exactly what it seems. The best example is “Riverside Dr,” a folk-rocker with bluesy inclinations. The guitar snarls, the percussion is an array of offhandedly cool clunks and pops, and the lyrics meander through Asheville landmarks and twitchy mental states.

It’s great.

Also great: Cox manages to put out an album every year or so, and this song collection contains the kind of material that continues to reveal new meanings and sounds with each listen.