Friday, January 26, 2007

INTERVIEW: Loto Ball of the Loto Ball Show/ Phantom Limbs

I remember starting to hear about the Phantom Limbs on the east coast on account of their Hot Knives and Hornets 7" which was making the rounds, and based on the descriptions I was hearing, I knew I wanted to check this band out. Unfortunately, their first New York show rather incidentally happened on (or around) September 11, 2001, so needless to say I missed it. But after tracking down that record and seeing them in San Francisco, I quickly became a convert. Upon paying a little bit of attention to the Limbs millieu, I quickly found out about the other Bay Area bands on a similar trip that were popping (Sixteens, Subtonix, etc). Hungry Eye was lucky to do a few records with the Phantom Limbs, and needless to say I'm indebted to that initial encounter for what Hungry Eye wound up becoming today.

RK Shuq, aka Loto Ball (the artist previously known as Hopeless) was the very visible singer of that band, and I got to know him as a result of the music, but he is also the great sole who re-designed the Hungry Eye site and helped a great deal with the webmaster. The following interview was done over a series of conversations over the internet over the course of the holidays at the tail end of 2006. Upon reading this myself, I notice there's a lack questions addressing band histories and more pragmatic matters. I suppose it's important when reading the following to keep in mind that this was a bit of an excuse to engage someone I respect and whose work I follow in a formal discussion about some issues I thought he'd have some interesting input on. Below you'll find the first of a two part interview based on that.

Of course, in the meantime, you'll also learn some new things about Loto's new band the Loto Ball Show, as well as the gallery in Chicago he is currently running, Reversible Eye.

Exhibit 1: Moment of repose. Photo by Nicole Pretti

Augenmusik: To start with, you recently relocated from the Bay Area to Chicago. What prompted this move?

Loto: I fel like I was coming to the end of significant activities there. One was the art degrees; I graduated. The other was the band that was very important and hard to leave but needed to be closed. Chicago would not have been my first choice amongst places to go, but a very important person was there and she wanted to stay. Now that I've been in Chicago for a couple years, I've found it to be beneficial in the same ways she has. The number one reason would be good artist support and networking, sharing of contacts,

Augenmusik: When you mention the band coming to an end, I assume you mean the Phantom Limbs. How do you mean it needed to come to a close? Do you mean this creatively or personally-- if you can separate the two? I put it this way because you weren't known for having a great deal of regard for your physical well being during Limbs shows...

Loto: Do you mean like falling on broken glass or asking to get punched in the head? I don't feel like that was necessarily a requirement for singing for that band. The band’s voice got more restrictive as it became stronger and more completely formed. The physical expression, which was sometimes dangerous, was me trying to find freedom or expressing a need to break bonds or break out of my skin. The whole naked thing that was happening too was left at naked because i couldn't really go any further.

Exhibit 2: Loto on display. Video for Phantom Limbs' "Active Verbs" by the Chicago Kid

Augenmusik: So it never got to the point where the performance or expressive aspect of the Limbs (the falling on glass thing) got restrictive? I've heard from other folks with a very visceral stage presence that it would sometimes get to the point that the audience would come to expect or demand certain things, which can become stifling.

Loto: Well, it became stifling, very literally, when i would be closed in on all sides by a bunch of dudes mauling me the entire performance preventing me from dancing. I believe you were at the one show in SF where i put shirt over my head so i could beat back everyone without having to discriminate on who i was pushing / hitting. I ended up hitting my girlfriend. But really, I was not sure what to do except flail at everything. In performing I like to find the unexpected. I like to be surprised myself by what happens. I don't want everything to be what I've seen in rehearsal. It is controlled with openings for unexpected things… But I didn't want to be floated on the audience all the time. I didnt want to be stripped bare all the time, getting my shoes and belt stolen in the process. Shoes and belt stolen meant another $15 i would have to come up with to spend at Salvation Army. Shoes and belt stolen meant I was gonna be pantsless when it wasn't my decision. I suppose we could've played large stages with bouncers all the time. We were headed that way. We could've changed. I guess I needed to do my own thing. The band wasn't organized to engender open dialogue. The musicians had a hard time changing direction if I was going somewhere else with a song. We had meetings occasionally and I would mention some dissatisfactions. Maybe I didn't push hard enough, not enough room to develop with the work…. To be fair, suggestions were taken from all members when songwriting. It’s nobody’s fault necessarily, but a band can get stuck in certain ways of working and it can become restrictive and formulaic.

Augenmusik: Having said all that about the Limbs and performing, what are you up to now musically? Could you describe your current bands and musical endeavors for us?

Loto: The thing I'm doing now is called the Loto Ball Show. It is material I write and people I bring in to work with me. My current band would not be possible without Brandon Davis, the guitarist, who has spurred me on and has been very helpful in getting shit going. He also plays with the Electric Set and Indian Jewelry. I play trumpet and keys and vocals. Alejandro Morales is our drummer. Shaye Cohn is doing keys as well. I am taking a long time recording the newer material. Hopefully, I will have that up on myspace by February or March. I just added Dan Browning on bass and Don Fiasco on Sax.

Augenmusik: I've only heard a few tracks by Loto Ball Show, on myspace. There's some comparisons to the Phantom Limbs stuff; you can tell there's a connection there. One of the themes that seems to run through you work is a carnie-esque marching band sound (if I may put it in that awkward way)... which is even more pronounced in the Loto Ball Show. What's the appeal for you to that kind of music?

Loto: A couple of those old songs that we are doing were written specifically for circus performances, so that's one answer. Really , this is just traditional eastern and european sounds being incorporated into modern music. People associate the eastern and european traditional music with the circus or carnival because that's where they've heard this music before. I've listened to arabic music all my life so that's a big influence. As far as the Limbs, Stevenson just likes lots of european and eastern piano stuff and plays it well.

Augenmusik: There's been a good amount of eastern european music finding its way into US-based bands on the indie market. One thinks of Beirut or Gogol Bordello as examples. But I wouldn't put the Limbs or the Loto Ball Show in the same category as those bands. Beirut's got some good songs, but it seems there's a bit of a fetishism in the american music scene when it comes to incorporating aspects of other music as a selling point. I mean, both of those bands have some good songs for sure, but a band like the Warsaw Village Band has a much more difficult time in the states, even though they are, for all intents and purposes, a band that does what Beirut claims to do. I'm not accusing you of this; quite the contrary. It seems like your music seems to fuse the rhythm and instrumentation of arabic or eastern music in a way that's decidedly--- punk, if I may take recourse to that. Having said that, I'm curious what your take is on the influx of hyped indie bands injecting "world music" in their sound to critical acclaim (you see it in electronic music as well, with the likes of MIA or Diplo and brazilian dancehall), and how one might be able properly mix music without creating a mere pastiche or novelty act.

Exhibit 3: Smoking; Loto in Slovenia

Loto: I was socialized from early teens as punk and grew up with my dad playing eastern music. I've been playing keyboards the same way (basically) since I was a teenager. I'm not as familiar as you, I think, with the “novelty bands.” Perhaps i'm in one. I guess my band Mucca Pazza could be called a novelty band but not as contrived as some of the other groups. I guess I would say if it sounds contrived, it's because it is. Some people sat down and planned to fuse these styles. There is a difference in how trained musicians approach the hybrid and untrained, too. I think trained musicians have more generic approaches a lot of the time. The postpunk thing is pretty infused in my music because at 16 and 17, I would listen to Flipper, Factrix, Tuxedomoon, etc and think that's the shit. It was part of my upbringing.

Augenmusik: Perhaps my using the term "novelty" is a bit misleading... since I don't mean to imply that a band or musician shouldn't have some idea of what they're coming up with in advance. I tend to believe that even when some folks say they're approaching writing music without any plans or preconceptions, it's a bit bullshit. Between the Limbs and you're new stuff, I rather like all the stuff I've heard that you've been involved with. I guess it seems like a lot of prominent bands and musicians (I've named a couple) have been gaining quite a bit of notoriety in amalgamating different music styles and are almost looked to as representatives for their influences and a lot of that seems to be very fetishistic.... perhaps on the part of the industry more than the musicians themselves. It's difficult to express over this instant messenger, but when I say you seem to be doing something else, that's a positive thing...

Loto: Oh i didn't take it the wrong way at all. The only group you mention that I've heard or seen is Gogol Bordello, and if by fetishistic you mean it becomes symbolic, then I would agree. There are bands like Tuxedomoon for instance, who use eastern sounds but are not doing an obvious hybrid band.

Augnemusik: I realize, at this point, this puts you in the awkward position of having to describe your bands! But can you explain a bit about Mucca Pazza, the Loto Ball Show, and whatever else you're currently doing.... the fact that you're running an art gallery and that you’ve mentioned writing music for a circusleads me to believe you've got some multi-media intentions going on here.

Loto: I'll go chronologically. The circus songs I mentioned earlier were written for Circus performances. I was the organist in Circus Ridiculous some time ago. And after that I wrote stuff that would work in San Francisco for large scale multi-media environments, with a sort of 3-ring, lots-of-stuff-going-on-at-once atmosphere. I was playing with Valley Fever with this guy Scott Banning and some other people at that point. Anyways, those songs have carried over to Loto Ball Show because I want them to be heard. Also, I did not do any composition in Phantom Limbs, so I brought back the old stuff to re-work it and re-vitalize it. Now I am writing stuff with vocals that is more post-punk because was written to stand on its own and not for use in a film or environment like some of the other stuff. Other stuff besides Loto Ball Show is playing trumpet for Mucca Pazza and also collaborating with the music program of the non-profit organization Arts of Life.

Augenmusik: It seems like Loto Ball Show is pretty active. Is this the one you're now writing music to stand alone on? This is the band you played the Drop Dead Festival with, correct?

Loto: Yes. The Loto Ball Show played Drop Dead and we have new material. The recording process and also the composition process is going slow, but the demo should be done in a month, god willing! We are sort of active and play every now and then. I feel like I'm in the beginning stages of getting it to be something really special. The current band is sounding very good, very tough yet with lots of beautiful sections.

Augenmusik: What kind of sounds can we expect from this band in the future? It'll probably attract a good amount of Limbs fans. How would you explain how it's different from the Phantom Limbs?

Loto: It's gonna be similar. it has more dynamics, shifts in mood, loud and crazy to more pensive or thoughtful. So, I think there's a little more variety in feeling. but there's similarities. Still using keyboards, still same singer… the drummer's attack is still urgent and tom-oriented. The guitarist has a bit more freedom. But it’ll be more funky. I think the rhythm and timing is a little different. I'm very into the groove.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Kernkrach Records

As most of it’s followers already know, the early electro scene gave rise to a wealth of records, some of which rival their American Hardcore counterparts in terms of obscurity and value. For sure, it was the British bands wound up hogging international praise, but as great as some of those early records were by Yazoo, Human League, Fad Gadget, or Caberet Voltaire might have been, most of those folks (Fad Gadget notwithstanding) soon went off into an entirely different direction or went totally pop. Some bands, not necessarily from the UK and definitely without the commercial success of a Depeche Mode, continue with cult-followings up until today, an example of which might be the french band Norma Loy.

But there’s still a mine of great (and, undoubtedly, not-so-great) stuff left to be unearthed and preserved for those who don’t feel like dropping $100+ on a piece of vinyl. Thankfully there’s a number of European labels taking up this task, and even a newly formed American label by the name of Minmal Wave, run by Veronica Vasicka, the DJ of the weekly East Village Radio show of the same name. Kernkrach Records is one of those Euros who’ve taken up the mandate of both re-issuing old material and releasing new stuff heavily influenced the days of yore, all with some quite distinctive packaging that runs the gammut from roof shingle- record covers, to X-ray 45 sleeves. They do quite a job; I was quite happy to acquire three of their releases so far:

Nachtraum’s LP is an impressive collection of distorted bleeps and crackles originally put to tape in 1983. Some great cold-wave they’ve managed to capture here, with obligatory icy vocals, and plodding beats that recall early Killing Joke. They hit all the right spots with their anxious, foreboading synths.
Dig on their track Tiere Schreit.

Sickdoll, a new band, goes for a more synth-pop approach on their 7”, but keep it dark, like a DIY Orchestral Manouevers in the Dark. Distant sounding keyboards contrast with very present vocals that are up front in the mix, but enough low end to put some bass in your bedroom dance-party. Here's their trackSohn Geht Auf.

2 Hemden 2 Hosen keep it trashy sounding, but don’t expect some electroclash avant la lettre. While these guys retain a distinctly early 80’s european sound, you definitely hear elements of Cali synthpunk as Factrix and Nervous Gender come to mind. In some moments, they come off sounding like certain early material by our dear friends, Sixteens.

One issue of note: all these little gems are super limited, and word is the Nachtraum LP, my favorite of the bunch, has already sold out. Though you might try to try Fusetron Sound if you're stateside and want to pick up some Kernkrach material.