Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fun with Not Not Fun

Now, I know that experimental underground psychedelic drone noise rock may not be everyone's cup of tea (wait..come back!), and to be fair, it is an acquired taste, but with Blimpy posting the Sun Araw track a while back, I reasoned there was at least some interest in what is personally my favourite record label; Not Not Fun records. So here's a bit of background:

Not Not Fun is a DIY record label run by the lovely Britt and Amanda out of their house in Eagle Rock, California. The label started out as an indie-ish/alt-folk style label (see the Foot Foot track below), putting out mostly local talent (current 'proper magazine' (Mojo, Q, NME have all featured/reviewed them) luminaries such as Abe Vigoda and Mika Miko both cut their teeth on early NNF records) on very limited cassettes and CD's with the occasional vinyl. In the early days, the packaging was the key for NNF releases, I seem to remember one cassette coming with a free beer!!

I got on board pretty early, I can't quite recall how I heard about NNF, but I found myself on their website and on a whim and judging by the description alone, I ordered a copy of the Haunted Castle/ Grey Skull 10" direct from the label. I was over the moon when, just over a week later (come on, California to Tokyo!) a package arrived, containing not only the 10" i'd ordered complete with skull shaped die-cut sleeve adorned with fake cobwebs and a plastic spider, but also another complete LP (stitched sleeve with glued on cloth aeroplanes and sequins) by Weirdo/Begeirdo (which I later learned was Britt and Amanda in their first efforts at music making - imagine a less annoying Moldy Peaches) absolutely free! Now, this could have been a cold and calculated marketing strategy (akin to a dealer giving a free sample), or it could have been a genuine wish to get their music out to as many people as possible, whichever it was, it worked, and 25 LP's (or split LP's), 4 10"'s and 21 7"' s later, i'm still a loyal customer.

Amanda is one half of my NNF faves Pocahaunted and Britt is part of minimal-drone-verging-on-avant-garde-ambient-metal group Robedoor.

The label has evolved a lot since the early days, the releases are still limited, but now mostly vinyl (yay!), with the odd cassette and CD (not to mention 3" CDR freebies!) and the music is now a almost exclusively drone/psychedelic with the odd bit of free jazz noise thrown in (see the Ettrick track below).

This is not a best of, but just a random representative sample of the kind of sounds they put out:

Foot Foot - Pilgrim Hat In Indian Summer
Foot Village - World Fantasy
Haunted Castle - Bleaches and Canyons
Raccoo-oo-oon - Visage of the Fox
Pocahaunted - Silk Fog Traveler
Ettrick - Sky Bellower


goneforeign said...

I did 'see the Ettrick track below' and I wonder how the word 'jazz' ever became associated with that? I think that's taking liberties with the language and defaming the music.

Abahachi said...

Well, they do describe themselves as part free jazz, and since that's hardly the royal route to fame and riches it seems a bit churlish to refuse them entry - given the importance of improvisation, and the obvious influence from people like Albert Ayler, they seem to me to have as much claim to the label as, say, Jamie Cullum.

Speaking as a fan of this sort of noise, I have to say that I thought they were quite fun but not terribly good - the drumming really isn't up to more than the usual death metal thrash, whereas people like Han Bennink were exploring extreme parameters of rhythm at the same time as the saxophonists made horrible noises. Still, very interesting stuff.

Japanther said...

Like the Turner prize...i'm glad it's glad it's inspiring at least some reaction!

Personally I agree with Abahachi that Ettrick are not particularly talented, and actually NNF have put out better free jazz/noise tracks, but I wanted to give a representation of what the label was about about and I think that Ettrick represent the more Noise end of the free jazz/Noise genre, which is a bit closer to the labels core values than other tracks I could have posted...

Japanther said...

oh...Abahachi, while you are here, I wanted to thank yourself and May1366.

As a result of your excellent podcast and May1366's comments, I bought my first ever jazz LP!!

After reading the comments and checking Wikkipedia etc, I decided that Ornette Coleman's "The Shape of Jazz to Come" would be the best place to start.

(BTW, I was delighted to discover a couple of obvious links between Ornette Coleman and "my world", namely the blatant ripping off by Swedish punk pioneers Refused for the album title "The Shape of Punk to Come" and the album cover appropriation by Clinic for their "Internal Wrangler" LP - both albums I absolutely adore).

So, I dutifully wrote the details on a carefully folded Post-It (as is my custom) and made a mental note to investigate in the new year. But....I was out Christmas shopping, and, just to get out of the cold, I ducked into my local record emporium, and....just to like, get my jazz bearings, i checked the "jazz" section for the first time ever. And, lo and behold, there was a copy of "The Shape of Jazz to Come" (on vinyl of course) at a cheap cheap price...so I snapped it up,

well....it wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but I love it!!! And the more I listen to it, the more it grows on me,,,,here's to many more!!!

Abahachi said...

I'm a big Ornette fan, but it has to be said that, compared with the stuff that was being produced by the end of the 60s by people like Ayler and Broetzmann, it's sometimes hard to see why he was regarded as anti-jazz. If you come at it from earlier jazz, be-bop or cool fifties jazz, then it does sound more radical (as much for the slightly ramshackle sound, a deliberate evocation of the old New Orleans marching bands, as for the free approach to harmony), and I do have friends who regard Coleman as a complete fraud who couldn't play properly. I tend to focus on the wonderful melodies of his early records, and the interplay between the four musicians. Free Jazz is more like the standard model of free jazz noise, but personally I think it's a bit of a shambles.

You should look out for John Coltrane's Ascension - a nasty shock for everyone who loved A Love Supreme, and there was no way anyone was going to accuse Coltrane of being unable to play properly...

goneforeign said...

Abahachi: I hadn't read your last post when I wrote this.

After I posted my comment I thought perhaps I was rather brusque and I intended to come back with some questions, maybe Abahachi or you can clarify my confusion. On hearing that piece my initial reaction was 'why on earth would anyone choose to listen to this, much less pay for the privilege?' And that really is my first question; given Abahachi's points re. 'this sort of noise' and conceding that the drumming isn't up to much, to put it kindly' and 'the saxophonists made horrible noises', using the word saxophonists is more than generous, that's not improvising, that's randomly hitting keys, so how do you reach the conclusion that it was 'quite fun?' If this is quite fun what's at the extreme, how good does it get? What sort of enjoyment do you get from it? If it's not musical, what is it? You say 'very interesting stuff', I'd like to know what's interesting and how it relates to music, to me it's not interesting, it's definitely not boring, it's cacophony for it's own sake.

Part two would be, assuming a degree of competence, why would a musician embark on this course, which as you say is hardly a route to fame and riches although perhaps he listened to too much Coltrane and thought that he also could become that famous?

My second question would be, 'how' do you listen to this; on headphones, or whilst doing the dishes as background noise or do you go to clubs where you can hear this sort of thing all night, and if you do, do you dance?

Jamie Cullum, Han Bennink and Albert Ayler, I only know of the latter, I just went into the other room to pull some records by him, Ornette, Dewey Redman, Cecil Taylor and World Sax quartet, records I've bought out of curiosity over the years but have never fallen in love with. I've tried to understand not only what they were up to but also why, and as you might guess, so far without much success.

I don't think there's any chance that you'll make me a convert but I really would like to hear your responses to my questions.

Japanther said...

@Abahachi - exactly! What I meant by "not what I was expecting" was that "The Shape.." wasn't radical in the slightest and didn't even sound particularly "free", but i'm approaching it as a punk/noise fan that has Ettrick records in my collection, so....!
What I like about it though is that it is a completely new sound for me, having no other jazz reference points. The discovery of new and interesting sounds and ideas is the main thing for me when listening to music...

...which brings me on to...

your reaction is completely understandable (Mrs Japanther said much the same thing - that it is just a load of noise requiring no talent whatsoever that anybody could do and that is a miracle that they even got it released when there are so many talented bands languishing in garages with no record deal - or words to that effect..in Japanese!!)

This may be true, but as I said above, my main purpose in listening to music is not only to "enjoy" it in the traditional sense but also to broaden my mind and discover new sounds and ideas. The Ettrick record is one I put on occasionally (pretty much as background whilst i'm on the internet or whatever) and always find pleasure in hearing new quirks and noises........but I do realise that it's not everyone's cup of tea!

Abahachi said...

GF, these are all incredibly good questions, and I could happily write you a several thousand word essay on the subject (if I wasn't supposed to be writing several thousand words on something completely different) - not to try to convert you but because I think it's really interesting and well worth talking about - and says a lot about the state of jazz today, whatever your views on the 'music' concerned.

To start with the easy question: I usually listen to this stuff at home or in the car (Mrs Abahachi doesn't like jazz much at all, but this is absolutely unacceptable). I listen to what i would consider relatively mild free jazz - Coleman, Dolphy, Zentralquartett - at any time, because I don't actually think of it as being different from the jazz that I listen to the rest of the time; I do have to be in the right mood for a bit of Last Exit or Cecil Taylor. I've never heard anything like this in a club, because there are precious few jazz clubs that would put on anything remotely this avant-garde; I'm off to Berlin for my birthday next year (big four zero) and am praying that someone from the FMP label may be playing a gig then so that I can experience it for the first time.

Part of my answer to the big question is that 'noise' can be fun, exhilerating, liberating, emotional. It's also, to me, interesting in its own right, esp. the question of what we perceive as noise and why - given that more or less every form of jazz and other modern music has been perceived as noise at some point or other. This perception can be provoked by unfamiliar rhythms (Stravinsky), complex and unusual harmonies (Charlie Parker), dissonance, unusual instrumental sounds or the lack of familiar structures as well as sheer volume.

Now, one key strand within jazz has always been the urge to experiment, to probe at the limits of what is currently acceptable, whether in terms of rhythm, harmony, structure, dissonance or sound - and even the boundary between 'music' and 'noise' - what did you think, for example, of the Mingus version of A Foggy Day, which aims at the musical recreation of noise? In hindsight, there is a clear logic to where people like Coltrane and Davis end up in the 1960s, simply because they were restless experimenters. Actually I find Bitches Brew harder to listen to than Ascension, let alone anything by Ornette, but that's a different topic...

So, it's a creative choice, whether as a reaction against contemporary music or the dead hand of tradition, or simply because this is where the music seems to want to go. One problem with that is that this is the key example of musicians ending up so far away from the expectations of the audience that they lose the audience altogether. I think it is necessary to learn how to listen to avant-garde jazz, just as it is necessary to learn how to listen to almost any music. Trouble is, the step is so great, especially as mainstream jazz has if anything regressed in terms of harmony and structure, and there is the clear fear that it might not be worth the effort to learn, that it might all be a fraud after all. It's exactly the dilemma of all modern art; it's not immediately accessible, it really needs lots of background knowledge to appreciate, and because it doesn't conform to standard aesthetic criteria - indeed, it tends to question those criteria - there is always the suspicion that actually it's all a secret, elitist joke.

Does this help at all? There is so much I could ramble on about: the way that radical music sometimes gets domesticated (Kind of Blue) and sometimes doesn't, the definition of jazz, perceptions of noise, the relation of music to political and economic structures. And that's before I get onto the music in this genre that I love, rather than just defending the genre in general terms. And I really must try to do some proper work...

Abahachi said...

Incidentally, GF, if you haven't previously encountered Jamie Cullum, I don't know if I need to clarify that he belongs in a list with John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor in the way that Dan Brown belongs in a list with Thomas Mann, Charles Dickens and George Eliot.

goneforeign said...

Abahachi: Japanther: Thank you for those lucid responses, you've hit many right points and it's what I expected of you. I need to re-read both a couple of times before I respond but in many ways we're on the same page.

Blimpy said...

Epic post and comments! Can't wait to digest - just have to listen to 15 more Festive 50 tracks first!!

goneforeign said...

Ok, sorry for the slight delay, a couple of things came up that I had to deal with.
First off thank you both for your responses, I've gone through them and made a few notes. Right off the bat I'll concede one of Ah's points, ie. "every form of jazz and other modern music has been perceived as noise at some point or other having complex and unusual harmonies (Charlie Parker),'
Absolutely, personally I was devoted to New Orleans Jazz exclusively in the immediate post war period, along came bebop, or rebop as it was initially called. I absolutely couldn't stand it, I recognised the instruments and the tunes but the form was at total odds with what I thought jazz to be. Charlie Parker was the devil incarnate. It took several years with repeated listenings before the penny finally dropped, now I probably have Bird's entire collection and regard him in the same league as Louis. When I say I was devoted to N.O. jazz exclusively that's not quite true, I'd also discovered Duke Ellington and I'm still in awe after hundreds of listenings to what he was doing musically and harmonically in the late '20's, he was taking jazz off into totally new and exciting realms. So there's no disagreement on this point, but I don't accept/understand your suggestion that " it does sound more radical (as much for the slightly ramshackle sound, a deliberate evocation of the old New Orleans marching bands". I'd need something specific to chew on for that one.

Re. "I don't actually think of it as being different from the jazz that I listen to the rest of the time; " I have a hunch that the jazz that you listen to the rest of the time dates almost exclusively from the '60's 'til now? Don't take this as a criticism, to each his own, but I get the feeling reading jazz related comments on the Spill that most of us think that jazz begins and ends with Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, Mingus, Ornette, et al; musicians of a certain period and style and totally ignores the 99% of the iceberg that's hidden, ie the huge fund of talent that preceded them that contains musicians that are above and beyond any of them! obviously this is a subjective view but one I think far more widely held than the Spill's comments would suggest.
The quote 'dead hand of tradition' jumped out,' I actually don't think of tradition has having a dead hand, I rather like it, if we step outside of music where does the dead hand fit with the Parthenon or the Pantheon or the Washington Monument or St. Pauls or Wells or Canterbury, does everything have to look like the Bilbau museum?

There's other issues, Miles for example, I don't rate as a very good trumpeter, were he recording today he might be since all of his glitches and bad notes could be 'photoshopped' out and replaced in post-production with perfect notes and pitch, there's dozens that came before him that blew perfect notes but they didn't have what Miles had, a creative imagination that took him via Gil Evans into new territories. Much of Miles success lies with Gil.
Re. the question related to Mingus's 'A foggy Day', I thought it was rather gimmicky, something he might churn out for the SF chamber of commerce, but not of great musical consequence because of the musical sound effects. Not his greatest work.

"You should look out for John Coltrane's Ascension - a nasty shock for everyone who loved A Love Supreme, and there was no way anyone was going to accuse Coltrane of being unable to play properly..."
I just took a look and I don't have that one, I have a fair bit of his mid '50's and early '60's stuff but not that one. Coltrane lost me towards the end of his career, I have a slight hunch that he might be responsible for the likes of Ettrick et al. I liked his wife's music.
Quote: "What I like about it though is that it is a completely new sound for me, having no other jazz reference points.
My main purpose in listening to music is not only to "enjoy" it in the traditional sense but also to broaden my mind and discover new sounds and ideas. "
A couple of thoughts re. these two quotes; consider widening your reference points, investigate some of my previous suggestions, definitely check out Ellington late 20's [pre Cotton Club], ie Black & Tan Fantasy, The Mooche, Mood Indigo etc. and also his late 30's Ko-Ko, Harlem Airshaft etc.
I should think that you must be in the ideal location to indulge discovering new sounds, have you investigated much of Asian music?
Ok, this could go on forever but this seems a good quitting point, we've come a long way from 'Sky Bellower', it would be nice if there were more voices.

Mnemonic said...

This is brief but I'm another fan of "noise", drone and free jazz but I think all of them work best as live performance (although it was nice to have that reminder of how good Foot Village can be). In fact, I tend to use the recorded versions to bring back the live experience. I don't think I'd ever have listened to Wolf Eyes, for example, if I hadn't first seen a monumental live performance about five years ago. Did a momentary double take at Bleaches and Canyons - I'm an admirer of Black Dice's album of almost identical name. Ettrick is the weakest of this otherwise rather special playlist.

Abahachi said...

Trying as hard as possible to be brief... I think I've rambled on previously about tradition and the past, partly because this relates closely to stuff I do as part of the day job. It's always a dialogue, a continual dialectic between the past as inspirational and enabling and the past as stultifying, and one of the things I love about jazz - almost all jazz - is that it's very conscious of this. Coleman, for example, saw himself as doing something both new and old - his stated purpose was to return to (his idea of) old New Orleans jazz, with collective improvisation rather than the theme-solo-solo-theme approach that had become a cliche.

Actually I don't think jazz started in the 60s, although some of my favourite artists date from that era; I love Armstrong, I love Ellington, I listen to quite a lot of other swing and an enormous amount of bebop. Not so keen on the old New Orleans stuff on record, but those have been some of the most enjoyable gigs I've attended.

I'm thinking about putting together a podcast on the subject of 'noise'; not with the aim of persuading anyone, but simply because this is such a fascinating subject.

Japanther said...

@GF - advice duly taken! Was in town DIY equipment shopping yesterday and managed to pick up the cheapest LP I could find (it only set me back about 2 pounds!) of Duke Ellington's early stuff. It's got all the 20's tracks you mentioned on it, and some 30's ones not mentioned...
....initial reactions are that I like it (quite a lot actually), but it didn't blow me away...will give it a few more listens though to form a more concrete opinion.

Another bonus was that Mrs Japanther liked it too, which doesn't happen very often with the records that I usually bring home, and it even led her to forego the usual mindless variety shows that normally accompany dinnertime to listen to it, and not many records can do that!

@Abahachi - a Podcast on "noise" sounds fantastic!

goneforeign said...

Japanther: Great! That's just a beginning, I think you'll grow to appreciate Duke's talent and his musicians, Wiki might be helpful. Consider what he was doing compared to everything else on the jazz scene then.

Jacob Felix Heule said...

Hey guys. This is Jacob from Ettrick. Thank you for engaging with our music. Despite what our bio occasionally says, we don't consider ourselves to be playing jazz, free or otherwise. We're as free jazz as we are black metal, and we're clearly neither. Speaking or thinking or listening to us in relation to Ornette Coleman is probably going to leave you cold. We have nothing to do with that guy. I like his Prime Time music a lot, and the tone of his plastic alto sax on The Shape of Jazz to Come is really great, but we're playing completely different music. And I love Han Bennink a lot, but again our music is quite different. We lack the rhythmic play of Han Bennink because we're not super interested in that. Ettrick's music is about texture, timbre, intensity, mythology, juxtaposition and tenacity. Thinking of us as noise music is a lot closer to the mark, though of course we're aesthetically and technically influenced by free jazz, european free improv, electroacoustic improvisation, black metal, grindcore, and a bunch of other things.

To call us "not particularly talented" is foolish. I personally have played saxophone for 17 years, and drum set for 14 years. I play in a wide range of styles, and I'm super serious about what I do. No need to go any further with this.

Our music is certainly better live. I think this applies to most music, certainly improvised music, and especially music with such a strong physical/performative element. I'm sure we haven't yet made the best Ettrick record possible, but even that would fall short of the excitement, expectancy and intensity of a live show. The major problem here, however, is that you seem to be listening to the music the wrong way, with the wrong context, listening for the wrong things. Get Ornette Colemen out of your head, and get Not Not Fun out of your head while you're at it (because we certainly are an outlier on that fine label), and you may better understand.

Abahachi said...

Very interesting (also, of course, rather scary, if it implies that next time I'm rude about U2 I'm going to have Bono forcefully putting me in my place; after all, Maddy has been getting critical feedback from Gilbert O'Sullivan...).

Would be the first to concede that I'm almost certainly not listening to the music in the right context, but simply trying to make sense of it in terms of my own points of reference, and also that it is entirely unfair of me to criticise on the basis that they're not doing something that they had no intention of doing (e.g. rhythmic exploration a la Bennink).

However - and this links back to some of the issues raised in the earlier discussion about the need to learn how to listen so as to stop hearing it as 'noise' in a negative sense, and how to tell whether it's really worth the effort - some of my musical reference points aren't too distant, not just the European free improv but also a teenage liking for Napalm Death and their ilk, and yet I still can't hear anything terribly special or different here, just the enormous pleasure of making a horrible racket. Which suggests that either there actually isn't anything much going on - not so likely, given one of the track's creator's eloquent comments - or that more could be done to engage with an audience beyond a very hard-core minority of the minority of people who like noise.

Mnemonic said...

Pocahaunted arrived in yesterday's post and on uploading to the computer, GraceNotes describes it as Reggae. Wonder who assigned that one to it?

Blimpy said...

Personally speaking I used to be more excited about music when it pretty much existed (to me) outside any context at all (I am going back pretty much to childhood/early teens here).

I liked the Ettrick track, but how am I supposed to know what context it should be listened to in to appreciate it fully? The logical conclusion of this train of thought, persuing context, leads to a dry/sterile outcome which probs has no feeling/enjoyment to it whatsoever.