CBC Brave New Waves interview, September 2002
Patti Schmidt: Joining me is Jon Leidecker, aka Wobbly... hi Jon.
Jon Leidecker: Hello?
PS: How long have you been Wobbly?
JL: Well... the solo term probably popped up in 1994. But the word itself has been flying around since 1990.
PS: Where does it come from, is it just a favorite word?
JL: Back then, there was a group show named 'Wobbly Media Joke', composed of a revolving group of three to eight people on KCSB FM, down in Santa Barbara.
PS: And did you kill them off, is that why you got the name?
JL: No, but I was the only one to survive, make it up to San Francisco, the rest of them got into drug addiction, or got married, or went insane.
PS: It's all the same.
[postscript my on-air rudeness; these people are all, of course, my accomplished friends: Jason Brown, Chris Ball, Ryan Gold, Bryan Stokes, and Dave LaDelfa were a few of the many regular participants of the original 2 hour late night show.]
JL: Since '83 I'd been experimenting with whatever was around the house, there were two cassette decks, handy for sound on sound. Soon I graduated to a cassette four track. In 1987 I started doing occasional radio shows, live-mix, with various instruments.
PS: What was the source material on your early cassette deck experiment stuff like?
JL: Mainly keyboard instruments, counterpoint, melody, the main influences were probably things like Scott Joplin and Devo? My parents had Scott Joplin on the stereo a lot when I was growing up, my own playing owes a lot to his music.
PS: So you have training?
JL: No training, I've just been playing since I've been thirteen.
PS: You mentioned Charles Ives and Glenn Gould on your webpage, which I found intriguing, and which seemed to suggest some formal or academic training in there. I don't think of those two as things people just stumble on, necessarily.
JL: My link into Glenn Gould was "The Idea of North", his radio documentary, the first of his Solitude Trilogy.
PS: Steve Albini's apparently a big Glenn Gould freak, too... what is it about him?
JL: Well, Albini's maybe responding to Gould's approach to the recording process, he's the rare performer who understood exactly what it was fairly early on, really saw it coming. The article I've linked to on my site, "The Prospects of Recording", contains an interesting defense of his use of tape edits to compose an ideal performance out of several spontaneous takes. We take this for granted now but when that article came out, he encountered a lot of criticism simply for suggesting it as an option. There's a great anecdote I hope is true about him playing back an edited performance for some critics, daring them to spot the splices; they all confidently picked them out, as if naming flaws that ruined the natural piece, and they were all wrong. The real splices were undetectable. Gould's totally full of himself, but just in an admirable kind of way, listening to him talk about the music he loves is quite inspiring. Gould's radio documentaries are early masterpieces of editing.
PS: Well, there's another Canadian that figures pretty heavily into the work you do, and the work of a lot of your peers working in recombinant culture, however you want to define it... John Oswald, who coined the term 'Plunderphonics'...
JL: He did coin that term...
PS: Could you describe or define the influence or impact that his work has had on your stuff, because you do mention him as well...
JL: My record 'Wild Why' directly grew out of my exposure to a cassette album of his from 1983 entitled 'Kissing Jesus in the Dark', side one of which was composed with two of his roommates I think, Marvin Green and Miguel Frasconi. They had a cassette deck, tuned to a local R&B station, and they used the mechanical pause button during recording to introduce these bizarre squirky rhythms, totally coloring the basic sound as it printed to tape. Oswald then took the tapes and compiled them into a very 'live' sounding half hour piece. What's neat about his early Mystery Tapes is that they document his learning process, they show him figuring out his method, before his later writings, the articles that attempt a strict definition of 'Plunderphonics'. Many of the tapes have early working versions of pieces that later showed up on the Plunderphonic albums, but they've got more play to them, they're unfinished, mutating, existing in many versions, there's no one definitive set... And it was actually hearing the early versions that got me all inspired. The later works are so calculated, so finished, they're too intimidating, they're the last word. But going back to the early tapes, it seems more like a living breathing practice, they get me thinking instead of just listening. I love the later works, 'Plexure' was my sleep record for a few months there in the early 90's, but it wasn't until I heard the Mystery Tapes that it occurred to me to adapt any of those principles myself.
PS: When about was that?
JL: Lloyd Dunn mailed me his digital transfers of them back in 96, 97?
PS: And so you were already interested in collage, in cut and paste culture?
JL: My first encounter with any of this stuff was Negativland's weekly radio show Over The Edge, which I randomly channel surfed into when I was 15, back in 1985. Up until that point most of the live music I'd seen were compromised attempts to bring studio productions onstage... my record collection included electronic and concrete, but that obviously wasn't live music... and when I found this show, you could _hear_ the studio being played live, every thing lying about was being utilized. I mean, they'd mike the mixing board, this was audibly a live performance, it just occurred to me 'oh, this is the sound of contemporary live music.' It was my first exposure to anything like that. Don introduced me to a lot of music, I was just lucky that Over The Edge was a local show.
PS: You got involved with Over The Edge as well, and did various performances with Don Joyce?
JL: Once I heard the show, I hunted them down, went to their live shows, brought my casiotone down to the station and filled the air with... horrible Philip Glass arpeggios. Terrible. I sure hope no one was taping.
PS: Do you still do Over The Edge work? What's your role now?
JL: Basically do what I do live, bring my banks of samplers, CD players, a mixer, and improvise my way through the mix with Don. We set up and play.
PS: Any discussion of themes or concepts before a show?
JL: Oh yeah. Early Over the Edge was much more of a free for all, the whole group would show up each week, there would be themes, scripts and insane productions but it was the improv that held it together. Early tapes are ground zero. Improvisation's a tricky thing to rely on every week though, by the time I showed up in 87, shows were being organized around fairly defined themes, someone would pick an idea and we'd co-ordinate our sources rather completely. Still total freedom as to how those tapes would come together live though. These days for his solo shows he's gone even further in the documentary direction, fewer sources, more structure, spending hours every week on pre-production. Increasingly intentional, but it's still just about the strangest thing on the air.
PS: So what was the last program that you did?
JL: Well actually... so let me contradict everything just said, the recent project is a group called the Chopping Channel, which is trying to bring the earlier Over The Edge aesthetic into concerts, improvising on stage. With two other members, David Wills and Peter Conheim, we don't give each other too much advance warning, we just show up with the sounds. I admit there's a basic vague set list, and a few rehearsals, but within it's... very free.
PS: You're very out that you're a sample artist, you don't hide it, you list the sources, you know, the back of 'Wild Why' mentions 'various corporate hiphop radio broadcasts'. Although you have mentioned that releasing this kind of stuff makes you nervous, you obviously are ready to defend yourself on some level. So, what would that defense be?
JL: I would hope that the work itself would be the defense. It's obviously required a great deal of work to prepare, I don't think it'd occur to anyone who's heard one of my pieces that something distinct from the original has been created. Although some people might simply think 'why in the world would you have done this to this lovely song'. I don't think it needs much of a defense these days though, certainly not as far as lawsuits are concerned. Negativland and Oswald took the blows for the rest of us. The literal definition of the avant garde.
PS: What's your definition of public domain?
JL: Anything that's been commercially released is pretty much public domain, I mean, if it's been set as a recorded piece of media, I don't see why it isn't someone else's right to evolve it, manipulate it, come up with their own variation, that's always been the way it is. If it exists, how can you stop it from inspiring someone. It's just these days the nature of the tools allow for precise identification of the 'inspirations'.
PS: So are you for copyright of any kind?
JL: If you evolve the work, and it's different, that'd be a new copyright perhaps. I'd hope common sense could resolve those cases where a piece owes 'most' of it's existence to a previous copyright, but would hate to see any attempts to implement further legal definition, these things just can't be precisely defined. Several of my friends were indignant upon seeing the copyright sign on the back of my album, 'isn't it supposed to be NO copyright', but no, I don't have anything against the idea of copyright.
PS: There is something to be balanced between the artist, who comes up with the work, who've traditionally been exploited by the laws, or lack of laws that always seem to favor corporate interests. There's still a reason for copyright, in that place.
JL: Of course, it was invented to protect the artist. And the second that law was established, the corporations drew up new contracts requiring artists to sign over their copyrights. So the corporations are wielding the copyrights, to horrible effect, giving them a bad name, but without them it'd be a step backwards. That being said, copyright is no longer serving its stated purpose, to encourage the creation of new works. It's making the creation of new works illegal. As far as morality is concerned, if you're sampling something obscure, it's good form to list the sample. Well, that's the weird thing about music, it resists all analysis, there's no room for an audio footnote, you can't stop the music to include a voiceover pointing out where everything you're hearing is from.
PS: That'd be pretty funny.
JL: Pretty... pretty anal. You can be loud about it, you can be open about sharing where your sources come from with those who are interested.
(music clip: Wild Why Parts 26 & 27 from 'Wild Why')
PS: Have you ever had feedback from anyone you've mulched?
JL: Yeah, Anton Batagov, the performer of 'Vingt Regards', the Messiaen piece that I cover at the end of 'Regards', I mailed him a copy, and he, uh, he liked it. So that made me quite happy, as I'm a huge fan of his work. Friends, I record their playing, and they respond.
PS: That's fairly flattering and safe, for them.
JL: I'm certainly not strictly a sampling artist specializing in creating work entirely from other people's finished, released works. I manipulate pre-recordings, is all, don't matter to me sometimes where they come from, as long as the result coheres. You shouldn't always get too bound up in the meanings and histories attached to the sounds to the point that the piece depends on knowledge of them to sustain it, I mean, the history is important, and you're responsible to anything you utilize in your own work, but to the degree that the connections are extra-musical, it's not a stable ground to stand your piece on.
PS: The live aspect seems to be something that you emphasize in various releases, and it certainly comes out of the radio performances, there's a giant list of radio performances you've been involved in. Why such a profound interest in live, immediate things?
JL: I guess in the early 90's it was occuring to me that I felt a bit dwarfed by my influences, I was all young and feeling the whole weight of musical history weigh against any attempt to find and trust my own voice. There's certainly a long history of live performance in my micro-field as well, but it does seem to be a field I'm comfortable in. Even when I was growing up, electronic music was still pretty much stuck in the studio, the tools were still fairly rudimentary. But by now, a piece like 'Poeme Electronique' that required months of backbreaking studio composition to realize: all of the transformations that are contained in that piece, technology has made available to improvisers in real time, no latency. There's new expressive potential to try out, the sounds that seemed cold and inhuman fifty years ago have become quite human. And Oswald doesn't consider Plunderphonics a music for performance, there are only a couple of pieces that exist in rudimentary performance editions.
PS: Are they just playback?
JL: Most of them are just playback, there are a couple pieces where elements are transcibed to samplers, there's a version of "Seventh" for sampling keyboard, but most of the time it's the noble tradition of tape music. [note added april 03: Oswald's 'Spinvolver' sure sounds interesting, though!] Even Negativland, when they play out live, the accent isn't on improvising. Don will take all the tapes he painstakingly edited together for the record, separate the pieces back onto individual tapes, and then physically execute the same sequence of clips from separate tape decks, using the studio version as a score.
PS: Have you brought this up with him?
JL: Yes, I'm just astonished. But that's their dynamic, they're perfectionists striving for an ideal, and studio composition is all about the ideal. For me live music seems like the opportunity. It's also an imperative complement to studio work, which can become maddening, 'Wild Why' took 3 years because every single edit had to be tried out 10 different ways...
PS: How many edits per piece?
JL: I have no idea. They're all manual, excepting several drone sections that employ granulated synthesis but all the layered rhythms were composed manually, one edit at a time.
PS: Have you done the tape and razor blade thing?
JL: Yes, that's how I came up in the eighties, that's all there was for anyone. I went digital in 98, up until then everything was tape music, quarter-inch and cassette.
PS: When you present music in a live context before an audience as opposed to radio, what is the gear that you bring?
JL: Usually toys so that when they break it doesn't hurt? Three samplers, the Dr. Sample. Two SP-202's and one SP-303. I still use my Casio SK-5.
PS: How important is cause and effect when you play? Guitar strummed, sound comes out of amplifier, etc.
JL: Right, gesture. That's why I like the Dr. Samples, they've got big red shiny buttons that light up visibly from clear across the room. So even though I'm working with pre-recordings that have been heavily edited beforehand at home, long before the performance: because of the gestures, the audience can see precisely which edits are being physically executed before them. They can see and hear the decisions. They see the samplers, the CD players, the mixer, the effects, by this point everyone knows what these things are capable of as instruments. So even though a lot of the sounds are strictly pre-recorded, canned even, they can see how the instrument is transforming those sounds. One basic rule for pre-recorded structures is, there's no limit to the length of any one sample you play, you can play someone else's pop song unaccompanied for three minutes, whatever, as long as you yourself don't know when you're going to pause, or do something else with the mix. If you've locked yourself into a structure where you're playing atop a backing tape, rhythm tracks printed with bass lines, etc., and if you paused it the flow would be ruined, then that's toploading your 'live' mix, but hey anything's legal if it works. As long as you've got a performance aesthetic where anything can happen at any moment, sure, play the sample through, the whole point is mutual listening. I'll find myself opening up a fragment to let the intact song through, thinking 'oh yeah, I like this song.'
PS: Like what, what do you let go through?
JL: There was a Francoise Hardy song one time that took over.
PS: Any guilty pleasures, something that might surprise people?
JL: No guilty pleasures, Joni Mitchell 1975-1979 recently.
PS: Wow, that's three Canadians.
JL: Yeah, her late seventies records are amazing.
PS: You and Vicki Bennett, 'People Like Us', have performed many radio gigs, plus various collaborations... is this an official release, this new album 'There Goes Nothing'?
JL: Web only, available from Vicki's site, or gigs.
PS: You seem to have a very fruitful working relationship, do you know what that's based on?
JL: Just one of those lucky things. The first time she came out to California in 1998, we (along with Don Joyce and the projector group Wet Gate) had three radio shows and a concert scheduled on four consecutive days. Originally the concert was going to be four individual sets, but the radio shows were approached as pure improv and went miraculously, we just got home each night listening to the tapes all happy. So we carried it over to the live show, having developed a set. It's always been fairly automatic, we don't rehearse, we just play and it seems to develop by itself.
(music clip: People Like Us and Wobbly : 'Pain' from 'There Goes Nothing')
PS: Is it important to you to have peers and colleagues who are also working in similar ways, to band together in the case of copyright attacks from above?
JL: I'm not really expecting any attacks at this point. It does feel like there's a developing group, but at the same time, it's pretty odd there's a precise catch-all term for a music that by definition can sound like absolutely anything. The term applies to the method, not the result, not the way it _sounds_. Reviews of Vicki's records that say 'sounds like Negativland' have always just left me slack-jawed, how much more careless a description of someone's work could be offered? Much of the work getting uniformly defined or described as 'plunderphonics' often couldn't have less in common when it comes to the actual content.
PS: The 'Wild Why' record, 'Regards', 'Playlist', all seem to have an internal logic to them, how would you describe the politic of your stuff, is there an overarching kind of idea, about cultural recycling, or a critique?
JL: I dunno, I think to a degree I'm one of these thoughtlessly ungrateful second generation people who takes all these techniques for granted. Good and bad things about that, but if people are continuing with the practice now that it's no longer inherently new, then there must be something here. I mean, I'm just making music, I might not know why yet.
PS: All right, do you have a friendly relationship with Hip Hop?
JL: In the 80's, it was the only kind of pop music worth listening to, that's for sure.
PS: What happened?
JL: Went pop. Blew up. Money stepped in. Lawyers. Record Industry People. And beyond that, it just normally ran its course and codified into a 'perfect pop' format. In the 80's, though, even the groups that used pop song structure, the content was so warped it made everything new. There was just something unedited going on there, now it sounds better than ever. Even today, though it's more formulaic, there's some astonishing work being done. I mean, it took over for a reason.
PS: With 'Wild Why' you seem to have made some conscious choices about what bits get to live and what bits get to die, well we wouldn't even know which ones died, but the bits that get to live on the finished CD, why were they chosen?
JL: I guess the idea is, most of the lyrical content of hip hop has starched itself down to some fairly cliched basics. But the actual production, the sound sets being used, are often blazingly experimental. As always, right back from the beginning, hip hop is the field where producers have actually dared to figure out what the new technology can actually do for pop music. The idea of 'Wild Why' was to turn modern hip hop back into a pure experiment with sound by cutting away the accumulated pop. 4/4 rhythms do take the pain away, but in pop they're often deployed as a mere narcotic. I like cutting away the rhythms and cliched lyrics so you can actually hear the vocalists sing, so you're not being lulled to sleep, so you can actually finally directly hear the sounds that you're being exposed to. Part of this is self-defense; the pop shapes are stifling, you want them to go away.
PS: You seem to have just left the 'yeahs' and the 'oh ohs', almost the extraneous lyrical content in many tracks.
JL: I did keep more than just the joints, there's quite a lot being said there. Even the basic scat singing, that's meaningful. Going back to Louis Armstrong. [well, before that of course, but those are the earliest recordings I personally own.] The actual delivery of the joints, there's more meaning there than in most of the lyrics these days. I have sympathy for lyricists grinding it out on a pop music production schedule, there's barely any room to innovate lyrically in corporate rap... in any case, cutting away the lyrical cliches seemed to bring out some of the interesting things in the music.
PS: Radio figures quite heavily into the method, the process and the source material as well... since you seem to rely on radio a lot for source material, are you starting to get frustrated by the monopoly of radio station ownership in the US?
JL: The station I just spent the last three years sourcing from has just been acquired by the Clear Channel.
PS: Those are the guys, right, KISS FM everything?
JL: They own both of the mainstream hip hop stations in town now. I was capturing about eight hours worth of audio from one of those stations, came back to edit the eight hours... to my horror, I realized they've narrowed their playlist to like seven or eight songs. Eight hours, eight songs, 20 minutes of ads an hour. Unlistenable.
PS: Where are you going to go for stuff?
JL: The internet?
PS: Would this qualify as peer-to-peer piracy?
JL: Not piracy. People buy what they like, however they learn about it. The problem for major labels, really, is that Napster leads to diversification of interests, less people buying pop album product because they can hear they're only getting 2 good songs per album, and more people getting into obscurer, weirder or simply older forms of music that personally suit them more. Not only is this music often on minor labels that haven't been properly absorbed by the big five labels yet, but the entire industry runs on the saturation principle of making one stupid album sell 20 million copies. They make less money when 20 albums sell 1 million each because it's increasingly difficult to target those separate audiences and sell them tie-in lunchboxes. The idea of the market splintering into micro-demographics just terrifies them, that's why they want to kill Napster, to kill all but the blandest Internet Radio stations, to prevent any further diversification of individual musical tastes. If they can't retain total control over what people are exposed to, they lose money. They can't admit any of this, the public argument has to be phrased entirely in terms of piracy, rather than control, which is unfortunate for them, because their argument doesn't hold up under scrutiny.
PS: Can you tell me about the opera you're planning to do with Kevin Blechdom?
JL: Not much material yet, but we have a 20 minute treatment, the heroine's name is Nasty, and she's a girl who's filled with zest, vim and love of live, and she's dating a serialist composer who is completely insane, and whose demand for infinite variation in music has crossed over to their relationship, where he's demanding that they take other lovers, namely this girl Mousey. Nasty and Mousey meet and discover a profound love for each other which leaves the serialist out in the cold, which leads to, well anyway that's the first five minutes. There's also the Querydog, the pet who's always wondering.
PS: Will this be performed live?
JL: Minimal staging, I'm the composer and the Querydog, Kristin's Nasty and Mousey.
PS: Just to make it that much easier to follow.
JL: Actually we've resorted to some fairly transparent, sophomoric 'doppelganger' narrative devices. I mean, I'm sorry.
PS: Will you be releasing this?
JL: There's a version of 'Nasty' on Kristin's new album, but the opera version will be different. When she was at Mills, she was studying composition with Fred Frith, who heard her music and was amazed that she'd never heard the Residents, so he loaned her 'Not Available' and the Commercial Album and the debut, and she took them home and was all... 'So? Isn't this all self-evident, isn't this just what everyone's doing anyway?' She's so great. In any case the Residents' 'Walter Westinghouse', 'Not Available', that's modern opera, even if Kristin's unimpressed.
PS: Any other stuff that you're working on?
JL: The sequel to 'Regards' right now. 'Wild Why' has always sounded much better live than on record, so maybe edits of live performances of 'Wild Why'.
PS: On CD?
JL: No, vinyl, like a battle record... I'm doing a concert with Matmos and People Like Us in a few weeks, all country and western. And there's an Art Bears remix project with Thomas Dimuzio, we have the original multitracks to the album 'Winter Songs'...
PS: Really, where did you get that from?
JL: From Cutler, he's compiling a 25th anniversary remix record. The lineup is amazing, all my Recommended Records heroes, such an amazing record label. Dimuzio was doing his, I was doing mine, and we each generated tons of material while composing our pieces, so we teamed up and began smashing the results together live in a series of concerts... The remix record should be out in September.
PS: It's about time the Art Bears got back in circulation I think.
JL: Those are classic records. I'm pushing for the reunion show.
PS: Jon, I'd like to thank you very much for coming in.
JL: Thank you.
thanks to Patti Schmidt, Yuani Frugata and the CBC.