Can Portland's Creative Community Survive Development, Price Surge?
So in honor of tonight's final OTR show this year (in Portland), and to make things right—plus give pantsless frontman Arrington de Dionyso a platform to share his insightful, and hilarious, responses—we have included the entire interview (plus some new MP3s) after the jump. Brew up a cup of joe, and enjoy an interview that features the following quotes:
- "Tuvan throatsingers sing about Tuva, they sing about riding horses. I have never been to Tuva and I hate being around horses."
- "We're gonna fuckin' rock the temple of atomic sound!"
Yeah, and that's just the tip of the crazy iceberg. Enjoy!
There is an element of playful but unapologetic self-awareness to the band Old Time Relijun that makes their explorations of music and spiritualism more sophisticated, more sincere, and way more punk rock than those of groups who, say, dress in cult robes or pretend to be preachers. Indebted equally to the impassioned aesthetics of Albert Ayler and the Nation of Ulysses, they are a band of, by, and for people who believe that live music can be a means to transcendence, and boy do they ever play like it.
Sadly, Portlanders have only one chance in 2009 to witness the legendary musical maelstrom of the funny, the frightening, and the frenzied that is Old Time Relijun live. I spoke with frontman Arrington de Dionyso in the run-up to their hometown show about the band's plans for their 15th year and how they will move forward now that bassist Aaron Hartman has left the Northwest for New York.
MERCURY: Why is Old Time Relijun playing only three shows in 2009, and only one in Portland?
ARRINGTON DE DIONYSO: Old Time Relijun was on tour roughly six months a year from about 2003 until 2008. Working as hard as we were in this extremely busy period, we all figured we'd be a little bit more rich and famous by now with this project, and it hasn't quite come to pass, so we all figured it might make sense to pull back a bit and wait until we're invited to play All Tomorrow's Parties or something. You know, that stage where they'll want us to only play the songs from our first album from 1996 and have Daniel Johnston come up and do guest vocals on a song with Joanna Newsom playing tambourine, just for fun.
Now that Aaron is living in New York, will Old Time Relijun soldier on as an active, albeit bi-coastal band, or will the project be changing shape in some way?
We’re about as active as a Washington State volcano right now... could lay dormant for a few more years, or we could just blow the fuck up any minute without warning.
Why did Aaron move, anyhow? How did that affect Old Time Relijun, and how did you come to the conclusion to stay together to some extent?
He’s going to email you his answer for that one...
I mean, Aaron and I have been playing music together with this band for just about 15 years. We don’t have any reason to “break up,” but we both want to leave a little more room for some other projects right now. Like I said, still waiting on that All Tomorrow’s Parties gig....
Given that your creative workload seems to have ballooned in recent years—your solo musical projects, your visual art, The Naked Future, and whatever other collaborations I’m forgetting—is Old Time Relijun still an artistic priority for you?
I tend to stay really, really busy because I know that once I stop moving the entropy sets in pretty fast. My visual art is the unifying force in whatever musical group I am playing with. I leave lots of conceptual clues in the cover art for each album, no matter what name it’s released under or who the other musicians are, there’s a pretty consistent vision that I have been working with all these years and I use the drawings to tie it all together. Old Time Relijun started out as my only band, but we’ve played so much there are certain sets of expectations to the extent that we know right away whether or not a new piece “sounds” like it should be an Old Time Relijun song or not. I need a little more freedom to decide for myself what exactly constitutes the kind of music I am hearing in my head and what I need to do to make it a reality. It’s not just the commitment to a given project or band that matters, it also involves the commitments you have with the people you are collaborating with. I’ve got a lot of stuff in my head right now and it’s going to take many years and many kind of collaborations to get all the music recorded and documented, I don’t think it makes sense for all of that music to come out from just one band.
There are plenty of models out there for cross-country recording collaborations in the age of the internet. Will Old Time Relijun continue to be a recording band?
The idea of band practice via email is pretty abhorrent to me. Our music is energy music, it's spirit music... you can't fax that shit. When we mix our albums, we are all crawling around each other in front of the mixing board breathing on each other and leaving our fingerprints all over the miles of two-inch tape that it takes to make an Old Time Relijun album. The album I just finished kind of sounds a little like an Old Time Relijun album, but I recorded most of the instruments myself. All the songs are in Indonesian, there are a couple tunes that started out like Old Time Relijun jams but they mutated in the studio and now they've become something else entirely. I'm not sure what to call it, but we might do a "cover" of one my Indonesian songs at the Holocene show. It will be Old Time Relijun doing a cover of an Arrington de Dionyso song written in tribute to Old Time Relijun.
My first exposure to throat singing was seeing the Tuvan group Huun-Huur-Tu when I was in high school. Consequently, I’m probably unfairly skeptical of indie rock white folks who claim to be legitimate practitioners of a musical form that is very connected to a foreign ethnic identity. What is your relationship to throat singing like?
No, you should be skeptical! In Italy, we call that shit etno-minchia. It’s hard to translate, but it means something kind of like “ethno-cock.” It’s not good music when people try to do that, so I have to explain to you precisely why that is not what I do when I practice throat singing. Huun-Huur-Tu are great, I’ve met them, I have even sung with them. But I do not, and I have absolutely no interest in making any claim whatsoever to be performing “Tuvan” throat singing. Tuvan throat singers sing about Tuva, they sing about riding horses. I have never been to Tuva and I hate being around horses. That lifestyle has nothing to do with me. I discovered throat singing and other ways of modulating my voice years before I ever listened to music from Tuva or Mongolia. When I heard that music, I realized that there was a name for what I had been doing, and a very well-developed ancient musical culture that featured these vocal techniques prominently—so I had to give a good listen when I found that. However, what I have been doing with these vocal techniques in recordings and performance makes no effort to use traditional Tuvan music as a reference point, it’s just unavoidable that it would come up because of the obvious similarities, but the differences are just as important. Have you ever heard traditional Japanese or Indian music played on electric guitar? Are they trying to be “white” or “black” or “rock” or “jazz?” We can also see that rock ’n’ roll is played in some form in nearly every country in the world and takes many different shapes according to local hybrid syncretic forms, mixing with local traditions, or collisions of influences combining in surprising ways.
I like throat singing because I can make my voice sound just like my bass clarinet. Then I can make my bass clarinet sound just like my voice. That’s the best part. Nobody I have ever heard of in Tuva plays bass clarinet, so put that in your pipe and smoke it!
If I understand correctly, you are now leading throat singing workshops, and in six different languages, no less! Where are you teaching? What are the six languages, and how many of them do you personally speak?
I give the workshops anywhere that invites me and pays me what I am worth. So far that has mostly been in France and Italy, but also in London, Tel Aviv, Montreal, New York, and once in a while in Portland. I don’t do them very often in Portland because nobody around here ever seems to want to pay for anything. If somebody wants to pay me for a workshop, I will certainly do it. All the information is on myspace.com/arringtondedionyso. Oh... Spanish, French, Italian, English... my Hebrew and Japanese are not good enough to do a full workshop but with a translator’s assistance I can pull it off.
Foreign languages, scripts, and traditions are a recurring element in your music and art. Is there a conceptual underpinning, an artistic conceit, or are you just viscerally drawn to “exotic” systems?
I’m drawn out into some pretty far-out seeming directions, but to me it all makes sense as part of a unified vision. The artistic conceit is in the proof, I mean the putting together of the evidence at hand to prove to you that it all makes sense taken together as a whole. But this is an entire life’s work, there’s no way I am going to be able to get to all of the research I need to do to be able to convince anyone of anything at all, so I am stuck writing songs and making records and playing shows and painting pictures in hopes that someday my work can be used as a reference point by a civilization much more capable and advanced than our own to prove in their school debates that yes, way back in the 21st century there were a few of us who were trying to figure out a way to put human spiritual aesthetics all together and make sense out of our great big mess.
Viscerally speaking, I completely detest the idea of “weird for the sake of being weird,” “exotic for the sake of being exotic.” I am engaged in serious research in my visual and musical work, and I can’t help it if it doesn’t appeal to certain conventions. The conventions we now take for granted were all avant-garde at some point in the past. I’ll be the first to say that artists are generally horrible at trying to explain why they do what they do and provide any legitimate justification, I just have to say that I take what I am doing very seriously and I wish I had a better way to explain it, I just hope that the sheer joy I feel in discovering myself and my world through my work can somehow speak for itself where words and explanations may be lacking.
The Naked Future—the frenetic improv quartet you have been playing in with some other notable local players—just recently put out its debut album on noted label ESP-Disk. How did the Naked Future start playing together, and how did that project then come to be the first West Coast ensemble on ESP in years?
The story of how we all started playing together is the typical band story and not interesting in and of itself. I started playing with John [Niekrasz, also of Why I Must Be Careful] as a duo a couple of times, then we brought in an old friend from Olympia days Greg Skloff to play upright bass, and then we recorded the album when my good friend Thollem McDonas was in town (scorching, insanely talented piano player), and then Ben Kates added a second horn to stoke the flames in our live sets.
The ESP story is little more twisted but has to do with long-lost allies from many years ago turning up in higher places and suggesting that I mail them some music and make an introduction. It took less than four months after they received my music for them to start releasing it. The music of the Naked Future has a very original take on an aesthetic and spiritual vision pioneered many years ago by musicians working with that label, it’s evolved and taken various forms over the years but I think our work is very consistent with the ethos of the ESP-Disk label.
You and the rest of Old Time Relijun moved to Portland in 2006, if I recall correctly. What occasioned that move? Have you all been happy here? Aside from Aaron, do you see yourselves sticking around?
I was the last in the band to leave Olympia, the rest were all living here. I moved here for love... that didn’t work out quite the way I thought it would because I was on tour all of the time and that’s a bad recipe for stable home life.
There are some things I really love about Portland. I’ve been everywhere in the US, I don’t think there is any other American city I would rather live in, but like I said, if I’m not forcing myself to stay very, very busy, the entropy sets in quick. There are too many slackers in Portland for me to be totally comfortable, and it’s a little too provincial to feel very intellectually challenging. Portland is slightly less provincial than Olympia, but if you look at the demographics that is faint praise when comparing the cities’ sizes. I’m happy as long as the taqueria down the street from me stays open, and I love reading the newspaper sitting in the back of the dining room at New Seasons.
Do you have any special plans for your upcoming show at Holocene, given that you’ve only got this one chance to make a local impression in 2009?
We will probably play every single song we can remember from our last tour. We’re only meeting up for practice twice before the show, but seriously man, we toured six months out of the year! I can play those songs upside down drinking a glass of water blindfolded in the night if I have to. We’re gonna fuckin’ rock the temple of atomic sound!
You mentioned that there is an Old Time Relijun tribute record coming out. How does it feel to be a band that folks as vaunted as Mirah, Phil Elverum, and Mike Watt apparently feel is worthy of tribute?
Well, the tribute idea wasn't my idea, but it's nice to be able to show people who aren't ready-made "fans" of Old Time Relijun that my songwriting has a life of its own that still shines through, more or less, when you hear other people doing the songs. I say "more or less" because honestly I think it's really weird to hear other people singing my songs. It makes me slightly uncomfortable, really, to tell you the truth. What does "vaunted" mean? Mirah did her very first tour ever opening for Old Time Relijun on the West Coast, Phil [Elverum] played drums in our band from 1998-2001 before anybody had ever heard of the Microphones. We've left our special mark on people in all walks of life—it's about time they threw down some payback!
In discussing your visual and musical art, you described yourself as being “engaged in serious research” a few times. What do you mean when you describe your music-making as research? Do you think of it as science in some way? Or is there another meaning there you have in mind?
I’ve been calling my secret production company “Intuition and Science,” in that I believe the time has come for artists and visionaries around the world to put our efforts toward leading humanity into, let us call it, a post-utopian age. That is, unlike the surrealist movement of the 20th century which put the irrational upon the aesthetic pedestal, our task involves a serious and objective recherche into the TRANS-rational. This applies to all forms of art-making and music-making, in that, for example, while some critics might call some of my music “neo-primitive” or “shamanistic,” I am not seriously interested in defining a specific cosmological ontology per se, in terms of working with magically or ritually derived elements, but trying to be as objective as possible while studying the non-ordinary states of awareness that can be experienced through certain paths of music-making or art-making practice. To put that all in layman’s terms, we’ve known for thousands of years that music and trance go hand in hand, but is traditionally used to reinforce specific religious/mythological/doctrinal belief systems specific to a cultural time and place. If we remove, alter, or at least update those belief systems to the 21st century, what do we have? In that sense, I think the idea behind Old Time Relijun as a band concept has been poorly understood by the critics who seek to pigeonhole us as harkening back to an “old time” practice of paganism or what have you; rather the title is intended somewhat ironically as we seek to go beyond (transcend) any traditional approach to “union with the sacred,” i.e., religious ecstasy.
Are you the primary songwriter of OTR, or is the compositional process more collaborative?
I am the only songwriter, but musicians in Old Time Relijun are more or less responsible for the parts they play. The words are a dictatorship, the music is a democracy, more or less.
I’m a little bit confused about the state of the next Old Time Relijun album. My sense was that the Indonesian record you’re working on is a midstream reworking of tracks that OTR had recorded together. Is that right? If so, when and where did you record those tracks? Aaron said this: “We recorded about seven songs a few months ago. Arrington will overdub his vocals and other stuff eventually.” Are these the same songs as the Indonesian ones? I guess I’m just struggling to understand if this will be an OTR record, and Arrington record, or some stranger third kind of beast.
Ha ha! Aaron didn’t get to hear my new album until last night! It was a surprise for him, too. Actually, I only used a couple tracks from the recording session from last year to use for the Indonesian album (“Malaikat dan Singa”), everything else was recorded in four days at Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia, with Karl Blau acting as a producer. I’d like to think of the album as a stranger third kind of beast, because they are like Old Time Relijun songs in a sense, except I’m playing almost all of the instruments. A return to form you might say, the first version of OTR was established to work out my four-track tapes into a live setting.
Also, could you give me a little Old Time Relijun history lesson? Or is it too convoluted to communicate? I pieced a bunch together from what you and Aaron said but, frankly, I didn't realize that the band went all the way back to ’95, or that you'd been through 17,000 drummers. How did OTR begin?
Yes, so in the early ’90s I made about a dozen or so “albums” of songs recorded on four-track cassette tape. I gave them out to friends and traded them via zines. Before the internet came and destroyed the world there was a very strange network of people doing this all over the world—just mailing little cassette tapes to strangers to trade for strange things in the mail. By 1994 some college friends in Olympia (Aaron Hartman and Bryce Panic) heard the tapes, enjoyed them very much, and wanted to know why I wasn’t doing live shows. I just didn’t really know how to put my four-track ideas into a band, because I played everything myself and had never really had the “rock band” experience. So on New Year’s Day, in 1995, we met up in Aaron’s disgusting basement and started trying to figure out how to flesh out the songs in a live setting—our first show we probably played about 20 songs, each about two minutes long! Because I had this extensive back catalog that I had never tested out live before, it took some trial and error to learn what translated the best into a concert setting. Actually, a lot of our albums over the years have two or three songs on them where I am playing all of the instruments, four-track style, but you can’t always tell the difference if you aren’t listening for it. On Witchcraft Rebellion for example, I am playing about a third of those songs myself.
And the drummer thing, you know, Aaron and I wanted to tour a lot, so it was just a matter of getting things narrowed down to working with people who were compatible with the lifestyle just as much as the music. Lots of kids say they want to be in a band and go on tour all over the world, but just can’t hang once they see how much work it takes. You gotta be a road dog if you want to live like that. So yeah, I guess we’ve had about nine drummers, but that’s over almost 15 years. Old Time Relijun will always be me and Aaron, and for the last four years it’s also been Germaine Baca on drums and Aaron’s brother Benjamin Hartman on saxophones and auxiliary percussion.
Why is your new material written and sung in Indonesian? What’s the conceptual basis for that, and how have you gone about approaching adapting your writing and singing to a new language with its own poetic, musical, and syntactical traditions?
For the pure joy of it, and for love. The songs are inspired by and directed toward one specific person who understands the language and enjoys my music very much. All of the songs were written “in translation” meaning they were written specifically to fit the sound and cadence and vocabulary of Bahasa Indonesia. Some of the textual material is based on selections from the Zohar and also some quotations from William Blake, but it’s pretty heavily filtered through my own characteristic lens. As a vocalist I love the freedom of singing in other languages. I mean, I love singing in English, too, but this gives me a chance to step out a little more. We’ve released songs in Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese, and these songs always confound and delight our international audiences. I’m not planning to go to Indonesia any time soon, but I am sure I will try to go eventually. You might not realize, but there is a huge audience there for punk-rock related culture, but much of it is pretty heavily American influenced—look on YouTube and you can find some bands in Indonesia that sound exactly like Nirvana or Sonic Youth, and of course lots of hiphop and reggae and pop, etc. Of course, I studied gamelan, and music from all over the world, but musically speaking this project has nothing to do with that, I’m just putting a creative spin on the sounds of the language and mixing it with my own musical styles.
I made this record to impress a girl! Why else does anybody make great art? But I got really carried away. In the end, the songs actually have little to do with her or me as individuals. I think there’s a more collective terrain that gets tapped into here, a cosmological level of meaning that is about love but not just love associated with the human experience, something that transcends the human experience and envisions a more hallucinatory level of reality. That trans-utopian project I referred to earlier....
You said that you “detest the idea of ‘weird for the sake of being weird,’” but you must admit that certain aspects of Old Time Relijun's presentation can come across as willfully odd in a punk-rock way. For example, there’s you performing in your underwear. And then there’s the fact that, setting aside throat singing, your two primary instruments are a five-string guitar and bass clarinet. How do you explain those elements of Old Time Relijun and your role in it?
That’s only because it gets too hot on stage. I used to wear nice suits but a couple of times almost fainted. I generate too much heat onstage to do anything else. I took the sixth string off the guitar at the very beginning, it was just getting in the way, and the bass clarinet is just the best instrument that humans have ever invented, so of course I have to include that in the band!
The last time the Mercury spoke with you, we gleaned that a lesson you learned from Calvin Johnson and other artists up in Olympia was “if you do what you love long enough, eventually you’re going to find someone to pay you for it.” Do you still agree with that?
Absolutely, there’s no other choice, there’s no other way it could be.
From what you’ve said, it sounds as if you feel that Old Time Relijun has been wildly successful in artistic terms—making music of note for 15 years—but has perhaps failed to achieve a degree of more widespread cultural acceptance and, frankly, financial stability. Is that fair to say?
It would be fair to say if we were doing a post-mortem retrospective, but like I said, this project (my project and the band combined) is geared toward a long-term vision. There won’t be any way to judge how successful we have been for another 15 to 20 years. We haven’t made music to fit into any of the many fashion trends that come and go, we have made music that we hope invites and conducts a new wave of energy, that is in some ways reminiscent of primeval precedents and yet completely otherworldly at the same time. Sure, some of our records might be better than others, but the best is yet to come, and the recognition of its long-term cultural relevance is only just beginning, mostly among those small, scattered groups of people who bother to concern themselves with such issues.
Do you think that it is still possible in 2009 for Old Time Relijun—or for any band, for that matter—to be successful on all three of those fronts: aesthetic, cultural, and financial? Is that an ambition of yours?
Sure it’s possible. An artist just has to be able to differentiate between what is a true innovation that speaks to the mood of the times and what is simply a trend on the temporal landscape, a distraction from the spiritual. Everybody faces their various pitfalls and ego trips along the way, but we aim toward a program of ultimate transcendence of aesthetics, culture, and finances. Of course, there is no reason not to make money along the way. That’s where about half of Portland has it completely wrong, it’s inherited a perverted sense of money management especially within the art and music scenes here that is just going to keep all of us down if we don’t aim to rise above.
Is this album already slated to come out on K? If so, does it have an album name yet?
The album is going to be called Malaikat dan Singa, and it will be released mid-November provided I can get all the artwork finished before my deadlines. It’s going to be an Arrington de Dionyso record and that might be a surprise to those who have listened to my other solo albums.
As for the two tracks you sent me—who played on them? The OTR band? Just you?
On those two tracks I play everything with some assistance from Karl Blau, who was the producer for the project.
“Mani Malaikat,” one of the new songs you are working on in Indonesian, is the most interesting and engaging piece of music I’ve heard from you or Old Time Relijun. With its deep and minimal Eastern groove, impassioned Indonesian vocalizations, weird falsetto, demon-like laugh, and clarinet screeching—all quite musical—the song could be, depending on the listener’s frame of mind, profoundly scary, highly danceworthy, or really, really funny. You are obviously serious about your music, and comfortable talking about it in serious, theoretical terms. I wonder, though, what is the role of humor in Old Time Relijun?
In Old Time Relijun, we are all a cast of characters. We all think we’re funny. It’s sometimes kind of subjective whether we tell good jokes or very bad jokes, or if we’re just living out one gigantic “meta-joke” in the rock ’n’ roll experience.
Arrington de Dionyso - "Kedalaman Air"
Arrington de Dionyso - "Mani Malaikat"