INTERVIEW: Man Forever
, July 28th, 2012 17:06
Ahead of Sunday's Man Forever gig, Teeth Of The Sea's Sam Barton interviews Kid Millions, the powerhouse drummer behind the project
Man Forever, Oneida drummer Kid Millions’s experimental drumming side-project, play Cafe Oto this Sunday. Tickets for the gig, £7 advance, are still available from their site here, so book them while you can.
The original iteration - a five/six drum set ensemble performing a “punk-infused Metal Machine Music for drums” - has become something more stripped-down, with the material on this year’s Pansophical Cataract album taking the repeated patterns of two drummers playing single stroke rolls on a single drum and melding them with drone-like motifs. While the tracks were honed down to 18 minutes per side on record, live performances go way beyond this, extending to upwards of 30 minutes.
Sam Barton from Teeth Of The Sea will be playing bass at Sunday's set, joining the extensive list of live collaborators, which includes Oneida's Shahin Motia, Chris Baio from Vampire Weekend and Brian Chase from Yeah Yeah Yeahs. We asked him to fire a few questions at Kid Millions, giving us an introduction to the world of Man Forever.
Sam Barton: Okay, boring opener but for the uninitiated can you give us a basic introduction to Man Forever - what was the inspiration behind it and what were the initial aims of the project?
Kid Millions: No problem! Da story: St Ives Records (a small, now dissolved, LP-only record label run by Secretly Canadian) asked me to do a solo album back in 2009. I was game but had no idea what to do... so I stalled. I told them it would be called Drum and Drummer and then stopped thinking about it. Cut to January 2010: Miller Theatre, Columbia University. Fireworks Ensemble plays Ulrich Krieger's acoustic chamber transcription of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. I absolutely loved the performance. Krieger also wrote the program notes and talked about how Reed recorded the original record. He talked about the tunings, talked about the tape manipulation, the multi-tracking... and I had a record album idea. I would record an acoustic drum version of MMM.
The tuning stuff got me thinking about a conversation I'd had with Brian Chase about just intonation tuning for drums, and I thought, "let's have a ton of multi-tracked carefully tuned drums and smash them all together and see what happens". I recorded them to tape and manipulated the speed of the playback to get different pitches from the original tracks: boom, there's a record. And then I created a band, and we took it on tour.
That's where we got Learned Helplessness in Rats - the second St Ives release that no one aside from people who have seen Man Forever live have ever heard of.
Then I decided to make Man Forever a vehicle for my compositions. I wrote some new pieces kind of based on this idea of tuned drums and acoustic sound waves smashing against each other and there you have it. I've also written voice and guitar pieces but those aren't things I've toured as much.
SB: I think it's interesting that you originally started out using five or six drummers but have now settled on using just two. How do the live performances generally differ with the different sizes of ensemble and what were the reasons for streamlining it in this way?
KM: Well - first it was a matter of logistics and tuning. The first tour was 5 drum sets - with each drum head tuned to a specific pitch. That obviously took a ton of work: about 3-4 hours a night of just tuning. It was an amazing effect - but it was not sustainable for a tour.
So I started to think about a way I could simplify it. Brian Chase and I had to perform for WFMU, in a small space for a show called, umm, ‘The Best Show on WFMU’ and so we went into his practice space and started breaking down the multiple sets to see what worked. We winnowed it down to two guys playing on a single snare drum. It seemed elegant and obvious. Yes, you have all the phasing stuff with Reich's music; that's there. But we liked the aleatoric thing that two off-speed single stroke rolls brought to the drums.
So yeah - just a way to make it more of a practical touring ensemble and to make playing live sustainable. Also the band got bored of the first piece. . .so I needed to write a new one.
SB: In previous interviews you've spoken about Man Forever being very much a process-led project and I think somebody who hadn't heard it could be forgiven for thinking it could be quite a dry, Reichian thing, whereas in fact for me there's a great deal of fun being had with how menacing and malevolent it sounds. Is this intentional or just me interposing my own aesthetic on the proceedings (and if it is the latter how, as the work's creator, does that make you feel)?
KM: Well it's true experimental music - in that I really didn't know what it would sound like before the pieces were performed. It was just something like, “what would it sound like if I multi-tracked single stroke rolls with no reference to each other onto a tape machine?" - and it turned out that it sounded pretty great, or at least I liked it. Then you get a bunch of drummers together to do this thing and it actually sounds quite surprising and the sounds that emerge from the drum when two people play on the same drum are alien. You are moving your hands and sticks but the sounds that emerge are not correlating. I think that's fun and disorienting for the drummers.
There's also a visual element I'm going for; so yeah, I think the electric instruments being loud and just the fact that it's a few drummers makes it a compelling piece. There's also a small element of “how are they doing that?" and “how long is this going to last?"... there's a lot of tension. Drummers have never been forced to do this kind of thing, which is good because it's kind of damaging physically after a while - the drummers are really facing some perceived physical limits. All this stuff is very accessible, drummers just didn't realize it I guess.
SB: In terms of both the sheer volume of work you do (Oneida, Man Forever, running the Ocropolis studio and Brah record label plus stints with Ex Models and cameos too numerous to mention) and your intense, repetitive, long-form style of playing and composing, it strikes one that there's clearly a ridiculous amount of stamina and self-discipline involved. Do you have any words of wisdom on this subject that you can impart to Quietus readers (including the members of Teeth Of The Sea)?
KM: Hmm, well, it's important to have collaborators who are really dedicated to their craft and dedicated producing material. Without the guys in Oneida I wouldn't be very productive. There's also something in me that just makes me want to finish something - even if it doesn't feel complete. I just let go: perfectionism gets in the way of finishing projects - or letting go of projects. So I would say I just don't allow myself to censor my ideas or my ambitions. I see an opportunity to finish a project or even start one and I just move on it. It's not easy, I am a lazy person by nature. So my discipline is seeing and identifying my tendency towards stasis and to just fight it as best I can.
Also I don't worry about what people think about me or my music or my playing. I care about it - but I don't listen to the voices: the discipline is blocking anything out of my mind that's negative towards my projects and music. Just say yes to everything, find a way to get it done - imagine crazy ideas and then try to accomplish them. They are usually not as hard as they seemed as an idea. Cherish your naiveté I think!
SB: The 'performance notes' Vimeo you send to all the live participants is a real treat [see below] mixing clear performance directives with humour and a couple of celebrity guests. Have you ever thought about combining these elements into your own 'drum school' DVD series? It would beat the crap out of all the ones you see in music shops now (e.g. who's Dave Garibaldi?).
KM: Oh wow - I like idea. The funny thing is, the piece has changed from when I made the video. It's evolved! But one thing that I have to give credit to Sarah Richardson for is her conception of the first Man Forever video - the fun aspects of it (I'm making donuts in it). I think she has a good sense about who I am as a person. I have a lot of fun - I have my hang ups - but I like to think I have a sense of humor and I really don't give a shit about the seriousness of things. Yes, Man Forever are as serious as a heart attack, but it's also joyful. It's about getting people together and making an extraordinary racket together. The participants (which of course include me) find that it's a surprisingly exciting and life-affirming experience for them. I say that it includes me because I sometimes lose faith while I'm on the road; I lose faith that this music and experience does touch people and transport them somewhere very positive. Not everyone - but a surprising number. Man Forever are addictive... Be careful.