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In Extremis

Post-Colonialcore: Master Musicians Of Bukkake Interviewed
Rory Gibb , July 20th, 2011 06:50

As their Totem trilogy comes to an end, Rory Gibb talks to Master Musicians Of Bukkake about the humour and seriousness to what they do, ideas of 'world music' and "post-colonialcore"

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What's in a name? In the case of mysterious Seattle voyagers Master Musicians Of Bukkake, more than might meet the eye, given the frankly hair-raising sexual practice they've pilfered it from. By subverting any potential seriousness with a playful (if slightly graphic) pun, the group's moniker, a riff on Moroccan maestros Master Musicians Of Jajouka, neatly encapsulates the contradictions that drive the band and their music. On the one hand they're as straight-faced as it's possible to be for a band of their psychedelic ilk, unashamedly labyrinthine of composition, global in their absorption of influences and with a fondness for sprawling track titles that subtly reference Western excesses and Eastern mysticism. On the other hand – and just as crucial to their identity – they're arch tricksters in the vein of contemporaries and sometime collaborators Sun City Girls, operating with a knowing grin that does a good job of preventing their lysergic visions of 'world' musics from attracting accusations of cheap appropriation.

The group recently completed and released the final album in their Totem Trilogy, a series that started in 2009 with its heaviest instalment and moved seamlessly into the the drone-led meditational spaces of last year's second volume. Totem 3 is the series' most accessible, lighter on heavy-lidded distortion and paying audible homage to the scorched desert blues of North Africa in addition to their usual cyclic, raga-like guitar figures. It remains a hypnotic listen, if a little friendlier for casual listening, but closes with perhaps the series' most intense moment of all: the horrifying synth-psych of 'Failed Future', which gradually drags a snakelike guitar line beneath a sea of John Carpenter-esque frazzled electronics. It's a particularly unsettling way to end, closing the series on a note that's more question than resolution.

It's always surprising, at a time when an entire world's worth of information sits seemingly at our fingertips, to find very little out there about a band – but then, given the nature of their music, the fact that it's tough to discover more about Master Musicians of Bukkake seems appropriate. Even the group's membership remains at least in part a mystery, though they have collaborated with Sun City Girls' Alan Bishop and late drummer Charlie Gocher and include former members of Earth. But that they've chosen to record a trilogy whose concept has so far remained enigmatic leaves burning questions in the wake of its final instalment - so The Quietus caught up with the band's Randall Dunn to discuss their history, the globe-spanning cultural networks that inform their music and why the group's future might already have failed.

It occurred to me today that despite the fact that I know your Totem records, I actually know very little about you as a band. Which perhaps is the way you like it, as there's not a whole lot of information about you out there. Do you make an effort to keep it that way?

Randall Dunn: I think it's just not the most important thing we want to put out there, what we're all up to when we're in our plain clothes and going about our days. We always try to keep the band's focus more on this entity rather than the individuals that make it up. It is out there though, a lot of people know who's in there. But we just haven't really done a lot of interviews.

As far as I can tell the Master Musicians line-up seems fairly fluid and organic. Has there been a series of changes as you've been going?

RD: A few. But to be honest everyone who's in there is still [from the original line-up], there's a few people who've come and gone who were newer. Like Bill Horst, a fantastic guitar player, he was in the band for a little while, and he's actually writing novels now. And Dave Abramson who came into the band about four years ago from a band called Diminished Men – we'd always talked about having two drummers. Currently, Tim Harris from Secret Chiefs who replaced Bill has been here for the last year, which has been incredible, he's such a great musician.

Thinking about the concepts and ideas behind the band, you're obviously influenced by so many different cultures and different musics from across the world. What drew you to start working like that, as opposed to being, as you said before, a 'normal rock band'?

RD: That's kind of complicated, because for each of us that answer would be different. I can only speak mostly for myself, but I know we all hold a kinship to this: just being inspired by a lot of traditional musics' process of having a purpose other than selling beer, or entertaining. I would never say that we're playing religious or traditional music by any means, it's all a synthesised, impressionistic view of a lot of those things. Being inspired by the Gnawa music of Morocco and West African music, the sort of polyrhythmic mentality a lot of African music or Middle Eastern music can have, where everything is interlocking and there are these unison melodies playing. And going for a sound that's more like that, in a non-Western rock & roll way. To unify a style of playing and also hopefully create the same sort of trance-inducing feeling you get from a lot of that music. But then twist it back into a rock band situation. So it's kind of abandoning the rock band, but then ending up back there again [laughs].

And then being influenced too by a lot of Eastern rock bands, who were influenced by American music but then assimilated the opposite way, in their own culture. Turkish musicians like Erkin Koray, who were taking 50s progressions but then going 'oh, this has a relationship with this maqam or this Turkish folk song', and then twisting it into rock & roll. So I feel that we're the yet-another-generation videotape of that: we've been influenced by traditional music and by rock musicians from other countries who were influenced by their [own] traditional music.

That's one reason. And then there's also the collectiveness of playing together in that way, it can be a really liberating thing not to think 'I have to solo here' – instead coming up with these thematic things that are more like a chamber ensemble, or just a group of musicians in a hut, or something! Trying to get away from the bravo-ness of rock, I suppose.

What you said about 'having a purpose' – a lot of non-Western musics are more intrinsically a part of society than they necessarily are in the West. There's an element of that in your music, that bringing-people-together aspect that often gets ignored in Western pop music in favour of the audience-popstar dichotomy.

RD: Absolutely. A lot about trying to do that as a musician - to come at Eastern music from the West - is that lament, that atrophy we have, at least in America, of music not being a huge part of our culture. Whereas if you go to, say, certain places in the Middle East or even parts of Europe, music is such a part of the culture, and so ingrained in everything. You can get jealous of that pretty easily, as an American, that we're lacking that particular aspect. So it's fun to hopefully satisfy that aspect. I think there are a lot of people doing that – trying to find a new way of expressing that in culture and trying to bring some of those traditions back. Re-looking at them, and being more aware of these things.

So how then do you go about getting into the sort of headspace where you can escape from the constant background noise of US pop culture, and actually write in a way that's comparatively free of geographical limitations?

RD: I've travelled a bunch, a lot of us have done a lot of travelling and have been informed that way. But I don't think we're necessarily trying to escape being American, some of it more represents just the frustration of being an American writing music like that. Or not trying to get away from pop culture in America, but actually embrace it into that synthesised style you might find in Egypt or something, where hip-hop autotune ends up in a traditional song all of a sudden. We get inspired by, or interested in, those sorts of twists, and try to achieve similar things by assimilating that into what we're doing. So we're definitely not doing anything that's 'purely' traditional or religious. I feel like, in some sense, we're trying to get away from the same old processes that bands would use, but we're not trying to escape who we are, and the culture that we're in. If anything we're trying to make statements about it, and some of the problems with it on a global level – definitely through the use of irony sometimes.

Obviously your name is the first thing that springs to mind when you mention the use of irony. It does quite a good job of subverting the potential seriousness of your music, which I presume was the intention behind it?

RD: Definitely one of the intentions is never to take ourselves too seriously. For me that's part of foiling the aspect of a psychedelic rock band that can happen, where they can start creating a sort of pseudo-spirituality with their audience, and then start believing that it's actually happening. Then it's not long before a cult-like aspect can emerge. For us, you can't have intense seriousness without intense humour, and you can't deal with some of these things we're talking about without having a gentleness or sleight of hand. And also, for me, it's always been a commentary on 'world music' in general, this thing that's been presented to us as 'world music' – like, what is that?

A lot of the time, I think bands that are po-faced or too serious with this idea of 'world music' can risk being accused of shallow appropriation.

RD: Yeah. And we're definitely shallow appropriators! [laughs]

I'm kidding, but I'm serious too, in the sense that a lot of the things we do we even laugh at ourselves, like 'that almost sounds like a New Age record!' We embrace that aspect of where we've ended up as our perception of Eastern music or religious music, dealing with something like them, and not trying to take a stance on them, like we're 'above' anything. What can happen with a lot of these 'world music' bands is that they think they're above looking at themselves as colonial appropriators, vultures, you know? So I always jest and call our music 'post-colonialcore', and I've always wanted that to stick. Or 'No-Age'. So we always try to keep ourselves in check on that, and the name always helps every time we feel like we're doing something beyond our actual cultural background. It keeps us grounded – 'Oh yeah, that's right, we're from Seattle…'

I imagine it helps in audience terms. I'm sure there's a level at which listeners will be hyperaware of the sense of irony and non-seriousness that has to surround an approach like that.

RD: Yeah. There is an intense seriousness and there is an intense non-seriousness to the name, too. It's not all funny. A lot of us have talked about this – [we want to] bring awareness to those sorts of thoughts too. Even our singer, he thinks really in depth about his outfits he wears on stage, things like wearing a burqa in places where burqas have been outlawed, making a statement about traditionalism and traditionalism being attacked. The fact that we're losing these cultures through a dumbed-down version of where society's heading, we're extracting these beautiful colours from the kaleidoscope and eventually it's just going to be this mono grey colour. If we're not careful, we're going to lose these things.

That humorous, tricksterish aspect reminds me of Sun City Girls, whom you mentioned earlier. That certainly comes into play within their music.

RD: Seriousness in one hand, and a joke handshake buzzer in the other! They're definitely a strong influence. Also, as a band you don't want to alienate people by beating them over the head with these huge topics that are sort of outside of where they should be being talked about anyway. You don't want to weigh people down, you still want to entertain and be engaging, and not have those things be so confrontational that they're off-putting. So that they're more inclusive, and more about the music and the experience. Then if you get some of [the serious issues] out of it too, that's such a plus, for [myself] and for what we've always wanted to do.

On the subject of Sun City Girls, you've hooked up with Alan Bishop for some of your records. How did that come about?

RD: He's just a really old friend, and we've all played music together for a long time. Our very first record was out on his record label. So for the three Totem records, we felt like we had to have Alan involved really. And also the Totems sort of represent… It would be very complicated to explain, but Charlie Gocher, the drummer from Sun City Girls, appears on our first record, and he passed away a few years back, which was the end of Sun City Girls. And I think we all realised then, after we had been dormant for a little while, that you don't really get the opportunity to play music with the people you do, in that kind of way, for very long. So we [felt that we] should honour that and get active again, and do something ambitious. That prodded us to take it up again and start doing it, so all three Totem records are dedicated to each one of those guys, actually. So it's that inspiration: the kind of brotherhood that they had, it's really amazing and worth honoring. And it's a small part of how we ended up as a band, so to deny that would be crazy. So put it out there – and get Alan involved!

Well, that, and Alan's kind of unstoppable. He's almost twice our age and by the time two o'clock in the afternoon rolls around he's done more than I'm going to do all week [laughs]. You can't really stop the guy.

So was that the defining concept or idea behind the Totem records – honoring that interaction?

RD: Yeah, it was honouring that, and also a thought about some of the things I was talking about – where the world has been, where it's going and where it could end up. The journey of this culture that may or may not be ours, going through this extracting of tradition and religion. [Then] being replaced with something synthetic, which still seems like it's the original organic culture or religion but ends up being this twisted version of that, which sort of fails at the end. I think everyone wanted the Totem things to keep arising into light, but it's actually a descent the whole way.

So is that what you mean by the 'Failed Future'?

RD: Yeah, it's where we're at now. We're in a future that failed. It's obvious that a lot of things are great about the world right now, but there's a lot of things that are just failing now more than ever. So it's this past idea of what the future was going to be like, in the 50s, you know, flying cars…

Retrofuturistic visions.

RD: Yeah, we thought it was going to be all stylish automobiles and stuff like that. So the idea of the 'Failed Future' is that.

It's interesting, because that track ['Failed Future' is the final track of Totem 3] particularly shows off the John Carpenter influence, which seems quite apt given its name. There is a certain existential horror, almost, to that phrase, the idea of the 'Failed Future'.

RD: Exactly. We talked about it and we realised that there's no other way you can express extreme horror than through a Giallo soundtrack or a John Carpenter thing. You certainly can't do it through something that sounds like a fake raga! And also it was a commentary about replacing some of the more traditional instruments with absolute synthetics. Everything is synthesised, you know, so that's the end. But it's also the beginning of our next wave of stuff too, in a lot of ways - so I don't know, maybe our future has already failed by [using synthetic instruments on that piece]! But it's cool you picked up on that, because that was definitely the intent in all of that.

I think it really threw some people through a loop, too - like 'What? I don't want to be here!' We kind of left them in a negative place or something.

What made you decide to do it as a trilogy?

RD: It started as an artwork concept, actually. And I thought we can't have this tree of the religion of the future be one panel, that won't work. So what we could do would be three. The whole concept changed and morphed a lot. I kind of knew what the narrative was going to be about, and we had talked pretty in depth about where it was going to head, but we didn't know what all the music was going to be. There were some song titles that followed a thread based on this Hindu mythology of Kali Yuga and a French writer named René Guénon, who wrote a lot of books in the early 1900s about the rise of the New Age. So the whole Totem trilogy is about, obliquely in a way, the rise of this synthetic religion, and the failure of everyone to see that what really mattered was being replaced with this synthetic version – and everyone sort of being ok with that happening.

So it started with making this artwork, then [turning] it into a trilogy. And you know, there's something so archetypal about a trilogy. Expressing a descent or even an ascent, if you use a trilogy it resonates deeply with the whole of our subconscious. And it's actually a cool, liberating thing to be able to do, because instead of having to fit the whole thing on one record you can really take more time and have more space to give the feeling of that going on. And you can also be more oblique and abstract about how much information you want to give in the music over a longer period of time. I was really freaked out when we finished and I realised that all of them together comes to almost two hours exactly. Which really was never planned.

There are definitely very strong identities to each of the three too. In terms of writing and recording, was each recorded totally separately? Or was there a certain amount of exchange going on?

RD: There were little echoes of each, like an idea that sprouted in one session maybe ended up coming to fruition on the next record. But more often than not, all three were written and played in the time that we did them. With some of the styles of music - especially the composed pieces which Jim Davis, our bass player, did, the more orchestral pieces – we knew those were the anchor points of the records. We wanted to express this dark Catholic music, or a more European darkness, rather than just the mystery of Tibetan religious music or something like that. We wanted to incorporate the schisms of East and West, and allude to that in his compositions. So the styles of music that he composed in, and those pieces [themselves], ended up being well thought out by him way ahead of time, and ended up being anchors for mainly the last two records.

How do you feel now that they're all done, looking back at this trilogy that you've created?

RD: I never thought we were going to finish, personally. [laughs] But having finished all three records, it feels really good to be finished. One, because you can finally move on from the concept, out of the sort of wizard prison you create for yourself, you know? Now we can go on along a different branch of the same tree. So that feels really good, and it feels good to have made that statement we felt so strongly about. And also to hear each record grow – the musicianship and the interaction as musicians get better from record to record - it's really interesting for me to hear that, and the execution of the concept. It's just really satisfying.

rich
Jul 20, 2011 4:48pm

"Wizard Prison" would make a fucking amazing band name.

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