Okraïna #8: the making-of (interview with Glenn Jones)

jones-greenberger-corsano-c-photo-by-barbara-price-640Glenn Jones (first left) w/ David Greenberger and Chris Corsano
An Idea in Everything recording sessions (Greenwich NY – February 2013) – photo by Barbara Price

– Glenn, how did you first discover The Duplex Planet ?

Glenn Jones: A mutual friend introduced me to the magazine, around 1980 or so if memory serves. You could find it in some hip stores, but it was mainly available by subscription. Along with David’s interviews, there were poems and music reviews and photos — its arrival in the mail every other month was something I so looked forward to — I loved the magazine so much I took out subscriptions for my mom and for friends!

– Did you also meet David Greenberger then? You were both living in the Boston area at the time, no?

Yes. I knew of David because of his band Men & Volts, who at the time was strictly a Captain Beefheart cover band — I’d seen them live a couple times. But I didn’t actually meet David till after I’d discovered the magazine.

– But you never really recorded together before. So how did this project with Chris Corsano come about?

It’s kind of funny. At first David was only publishing the magazine. But after the Duplex Nursing Home closed, David moved to upstate New York and began working with various musicians and bands and crafting real performances built around his interviews. These were wonderful events and I caught as many as I could.For me the series of four shows he did over the span of a month or so, each with a different theme, at St. Anne’s in New York City were the most impressive. (I took my mom to the Mother’s Day show.) David had an amazing coterie of musicians working with him, including members of NRBQ and the Sun Ra Arkestra, among others. Any musician sympathetic to what David was doing would have asked himself or herself, “What would I do in this situation? How would I support these stories musically?”

Now, at the time this record came together, David and I had been friends for some 30+ years. And while I had contributed music to several of the Lyrics of Ernest Noyes Brookings albums, those were things I did for David, not with him.

I’d first heard Chris Corsano play at the Brattleboro (Vermont) Free Folk Festival, which was such a watershed event for so many people — it was there I also met Jack Rose, Tom Carter, MV and EE and so many others.Well, in the summer of 2012, David, Chris Corsano and I all happened to meet up at our friends Bryon Coley’s and Lili Dwight’s annual July 4th barbecue in western Massachusetts. Chris had played on my album The Wanting. I‘d sent a copy to David and when we met at the barbecue the first thing he said to me was, “Thanks for the album. That drummer on Side 4 – man, oh man!” I said, “Oh, he’s here; I’ll introduce you.”

After chatting for a while, David and Chris discovered they lived very near each other in upstate New York, and sometime later they got together. I don’t think Chris knew anything of the Duplex Planet at the time and David loaded him up with albums and magazines. I think it’s safe to say that Chris was blown away by what David was doing – like me, he was an instant convert.

But to Chris’s question to us, “Why haven’t you guys ever done anything together?” we had no answer! So Chris proposed that the three of us collaborate, and on a snowy weekend in February, 2013, we all met up at David’s and his wife Barbara’s home in Greenwich, New York. This record is the result.

– Can you explain a little bit what happened, how you worked together?

I wish I could say the album was improvised, but I have too much respect for what people like Chris do to call myself an improviser. It’s not my forte. The sessions, however, were loose and spontaneous and everything happened very fast. There was no advance preparation; we arrived not knowing whether it would work or how it might work.

Not everything came together in the same fashion, but for most of the pieces I invented new tunings for guitar or banjo on the spot. Then I’d find some little riff or figure and apply some structure to it. David, listening to what I was doing, rifled through hundreds of pages of stories till he found something that seemed to resonate emotionally with what I was playing. Chris glued everything together with his drum parts and in short order we turned on the tape recorder.

I don’t think we spent more than 10 or 15 minutes coming up with any of these tracks, and most of the recordings were first takes. We recorded 29 songs over three days, rejecting just one that we didn’t think worked – a pretty good rate of success I’d say!

– So, the three of you were a little bit outside your “comfort zones,” outside the way you typically make and record music?

David has worked with all sorts of musicians and I suspect his approach varies depending on who he’s working with and their preferred methods. He kind of makes his own comfort zone.

And Chris! I don’t think there is a comfort zone for him to be out of, frankly! You can throw anything at that guy and he won’t flinch, and his confidence is such that you feel more confident yourself just working with him.

The only thing I’ve done remotely similar to this was during the tours Cul de Sac did with Damo Suzuki. Damo’s edict to us was, “No rehearsal, no covers, no improvisation.” The first time he gave us these instructions, I knew we were in for it — what else is there after all?! But what Damo wanted, it turned out, was for us to invent songs on the spot, songs we’d never played before and would never play again. I’d say we failed far more often than we succeeded but for Damo failure was an acceptable part of the process.

Of course, this type of “instant composition” is harder to pull off onstage in front of an audience than it was in the comfort of David’s living room, where it was just the three of us, but still, it was a challenge, at least for me.

– You said the recording session was spontaneous…

Yes, it was a spontaneously crafted thing, but it’s not audio verite by any means. Chris overdubbed a couple drum parts later on and Matthew Azevedo and I tinkered endlessly with the tracks during the mixing process. Some pieces, like “Trouble Don,” “Sing Sing Sing,” and “Like Ted Lewis Says” especially bear the imprint of being forged in the studio. As David said, “This isn’t something that just happened – it’s something that we made.”

– How did this project end up on Okraïna?

While we were eager to find someone to put out the record, it was very important to us that that someone, first and foremost, be sympathetic to David’s vision, that they “get it.”

There was interest from a couple labels right off the bat, people who knew Chris’s work or mine, but inevitably it seemed, not David’s. Just hearing the rough mixes, without making any apparent attempt to come to grips with what David has spent his lifetime doing, they thought the stories were just weird or goofy fabrications that David made up. One label seemed very excited to hear the project, but after sending them the sound files, they didn’t even bother to reply. Disheartening.

But I felt the project was special and unlike anything else, and I was sure we’d eventually find the right fit.

Our connection with Okraïna was fortuitous and almost accidental, but it was clear from the start that we were all on the same page. (The fact that Okraïna was strictly a 10“ label was the fortuitous part – we wanted to include all 28 tracks that we felt good about, but they wouldn’t fit on a single 12” record. However, they fit perfectly on the four sides of two 10” LPs!)

Gwénola Carrère’s artwork was the icing on the cake – Chris, David and I loved her stuff from the minute we saw it.

– Is there a risk that some people won’t understand this project, won’t really get what is going on here?

Of course. And you could see that from the way some labels responded – or didn’t respond – to the project. I think we all knew going into it that it wasn’t for everybody.

Some people are, naturally, uneasy thinking about mortality and what happens to us as we grow older. And we live in a culture that is geared mainly to the looks, the fashions, the careers, the buying habits and carryings-on of young people.

As I watched my mom age, I saw how people treated her differently. Many people, I saw, were overly solicitous when dealing with older people, or condescending; handling them with kid gloves, talking to and treating them like children.

What I admired when I first discovered the Duplex was David’s straightforward way of engaging the elderly, provocatively, with a light touch, and especially, with humor.

Asking some old geezer if he’d swim in coffee if it wasn’t too hot?! [Laughs.] You quickly realize this isn’t Sociology 101, or an attempt to understand history through the memories of our older citizens!

To that question, you might get a thoughtful answer, you might get an impatient or annoyed answer, you might get an answer that was triggered by the words “coffee” or “swim,” and you might get an answer that had nothing to do with the question David asked.

But David’s method of getting people to open up, of getting to know them, was playful and empathetic, and it often brought out the unexpected.

However our lives differ from one another’s, however we make our livings, where we live,what our politics are, our habits, hobbies, likes and dislikes, someday we’re all going to be in the same place. Why should that place be so scary that we can’t bear to look at it?

I was going to say that David has given a voice to the disenfranchised or marginalized among us, but that’s a bit of a cliché and maybe it’s putting it too strong.

But David has made a place at the grown-up’s table for people who have become invisible; he’s invited them to be part of the conversation. He’s also made getting older less fearful for me.

– I get the sense that this album is very important to you.

 Very much so. In the course of recording, mixing, tinkering, sequencing, mastering — all the things that go into making a record — I’ve probably listened to this album more than 100 times. I haven’t grown the slightest bit tired of it. I still marvel at it; I still find things to think about in it that didn’t occur to me before.

On a personal level, it’s also a testimonial to my friendship with David and Chris, both of whom I admire enormously. I can’t tell you how proud I am of it, of how grateful I am to Chris Corsano for making it happen, to Okraïna for putting it out.

>> Listen to An Idea in Everything on BandCamp

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