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In Extremis

Life Is Rhythm: An Interview With Greg Fox Of Guardian Alien
Tristan Bath , January 15th, 2014 06:52

Formerly known for his powerful drumming in black metal group Liturgy, in the last two years Greg Fox has blasted off into progressively freer, looser and more colourful territories with Guardian Alien. With new album Spiritual Emergency released this month, he speaks to Tristan Bath about the rhythms of life and overcoming physical limitations

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Photo by Cheryl Georgette Arent

Greg Fox is the kind of musical polymath that, even in this multidisciplinary era, rarely comes along. Best known as the former drummer for Liturgy – the "spiritual black metal" group who continue to divide audiences – Fox's octopus-like reach now extends in a growing number of directions. He's spliced together extended slabs of concrète with Zs, woven beat-heavy psychedelic miniatures under the guise GDFX, toured and recorded with ambient Australian pin-up and fellow beard-lover Ben Frost (with a European tour and album both expected this year) and even tripped out in Kid Millions' drum circle exploration project Man Forever.

His flagship, however, is Guardian Alien, a freeform band that came together in Brooklyn over the course of a few years and dozens of sweaty, exploratory shows, of which he is both captain and hyperactive driving force. The group have put out the usual fare of cassettes, limited vinyl and free online downloads since 2010, but 2012's See The World Given To A One Love Entity was their first fully thought out statement. A 37-minute, one-track blowout, See The World trod a path fraught with explosive energy and splashes of free-rock colour, all grounded by Fox's impressively fractured drumming, which brings together disparate disciplines - the sort of tom-heavy jazz solos pioneered by Elvin Jones and Milford Graves, with the furious speed and superhuman pyrotechnics of post-Slayer metal.

The group's latest release, titled Spiritual Emergency and released this month, is a far subtler beast. With the band on this recording made up of Alexandra Drewchin (vocals/electronics), Bernard Gann (guitar), Turner Williams (shahai baaja) and Eli Winograd (bass), it opts to simmer rather than explode, adopting hitherto dormant sonic precision and broadening the group's aural repertoire. That having been said, the title track and grand finale houses perhaps Fox's most maddeningly herculean drumming ever – more calculated than Liturgy's blast beats, an even greater achievement in terms of sheer muscle and stamina. Over a dodgy Skype link, the Quietus caught up with Fox as he sped along a South Carolina highway to talk about psychotherapy, Spiritual Emergency and the genealogy of modern drumming.

How did drumming enter your life, and how does it influence your musical personality when you're away from the kit - your approach to composition and other things not so typically associated with the drums?

GF: Well my grandfather was a drummer, so I guess I started being interested in drumming 'cause of him. I guess to a certain degree I remember always feeling inevitable that I'd start playing the drums. I've been realising lately that there's a lot of different things about a lot of different types of music that I enjoy and excite me, and when I'm playing it's like I'm making gestures towards those different kinds of music that I like, but without fully making that gesture so as to signify one music or another. I dunno… I think that's something I've been realising about myself. I like trying to figure out the feeling of middle grounds between things - playing something that has elements of different things, but doesn't necessarily signify one of them.

'Spiritual Emergency' live

Does the fact that drumming's so universal, and occurs in every music, have anything to do with it?

GF: Yeah, definitely. Drumming is definitely musical, but I think drumming can exist outside of music. There's something about the way people respond to drumming, and the way that it feels to play the drums versus other instruments… it's 'pre-verbal' and something everybody has in them.

It's genetic. It's natural.

GF: I've been studying a bit with Milford Graves, and he talks a lot about how the heartbeat contains all the rhythms that drummers play. He showed me during a session. He made a recording of my heartbeat and then we were looking at the waveform. The heartbeat has a lot more than just the 'duh duh' sound, there's a lot going on you can't hear, and he was zooming in one little part of the waveform and upped the gain, and all of a sudden you have a shuffle beat. It was like all the Casio keyboard preset rhythms are right there in the heart. I think that's fascinating, that it doesn't matter where you're from - and people have tastes and like it louder or something - but generally everybody likes it, and it's because it's just there, an old thing and part of us. We operate on rhythm.

How did you meet Milford Graves?

GF: I'd always been told by a lot of folks who knew him that I should study with him, so it was something that had been floating around my head, but I didn't know much about him. Then Guardian Alien played a show with Talibam!, and Kevin Shea was telling me to meet Milford. Then the next day I was at this bookstore in New York and came across, you know John Zorn published all those Arcana books of musicians writing about music and esoterica and stuff. So I found one, flipped it open and went straight to Milford's essay in it. So all this serendipitous stuff was happening. I happened to be friendly with someone who was a friend of John Zorn's, so I emailed her and asked if I could get Milford's email address.

To me, jazz and metal are two of the most important movements for drums. Jazz and Milford Graves actually did a lot, putting drums forward for the first time as this sort of expressive instrument, while metal took it a sort of physical extreme it hadn't quite been to. Do you agree?

GF: Yeah I agree. What I always liked about metal was the drumming. When I was getting in to it in high school it took me a while to start 'liking' the vocals and the guitar stuff, but the drumming always really appealed to me. I like a lot of jazz drumming, but stuff more along the lines of what Milford does, which is more expressive, has appealed to me more. I like some jazz drummers a lot, but I'm way more excited about saxophone players. Rahsaan Roland Kirk is just one of my heroes! I'm obsessed with him and love his work. Opening up this expressive thing on the drums, which Milford still champions, and also look at this other side of things with metal, where it's about speed and power.

What do you think about physical limitations? You've consistently overcome them with Liturgy, and particularly on the title track of Spiritual Emergency. Do you find them inspiring?

GF: At the very beginning when you start playing the drums it's all this coordination stuff. You sit down, you try to do it and your brain can't make sense of it. But you keep trying, and eventually you can just do it. I've had that experience most directly with drumming, but with other things too – where you identify something you can't do, and just by virtue of continuing to try to do it, you eventually can do it. That moment of clicking where you suddenly can do this thing you couldn't do before – it's exhilarating, yeah.

Spiritual Emergency is quite a departure from the last album. It's less of a 'freakout' in the traditional sense; quieter and more abstract with a lot more space in it. How did that come about?

GF: Well, 'Spiritual Emergency', the piece, was something we'd been working on and playing live for a little while. I was interested in just trying to cover more ground. See The World had a real vision behind it, that sort of had a logic to its own, but with this record we already had a piece of music, but I didn't want to stretch it out over the whole album's length again. I felt like the way we'd been playing it [was good], following the themes and how the themes were presenting themselves. See The World is like this cannon blast in one direction, it just keeps going, which I like and feel good about, but at the same time… Spiritual Emergency has a murkier subject. It felt like the record should reflect that murkiness of subject matter. Also, right after recording, Eli and Turner both left the project, so I wanted it to be a representation of what we'd been working on as a five piece.

On the first track, 'Tranquilizer' you're not playing a kit, you're playing just a tabla with sticks. Do you find this constraint, like being limited to one drum, to be conducive to creativity?

GF: Well I'd come into owning this set of tablas and wanted to use them. It seemed like blasphemy to play them with sticks, but I just liked the way it sounded. I definitely like playing them and the way it sounds, but I also think it's just nice for the other people in the project for me to not be, I guess, "driving".

It's true; because you instantly hear what Alex [Drewchin – vocals] is doing on this record a lot more, as the drums aren't filling the entire stereo space this time.

GF: For a while Alex was just doing vocals, then on tour she played a bit of guitar, then Alex started getting into synthesis and started playing that with Guardian, and… I dunno, I think it's worked out really well. On 'Tranquiliser' you can really hear everybody.

Across the whole record it seems like voices are almost a theme, on 'Tranquilizer' and particularly in the cut-up samples on some of those shorter interlude tracks. It brings us back to the pre-verbal thing discussed earlier – it's like you've taken this verbal thing and made it non-verbal.

GF: Well the human voice is something that really draws people in. If you can hear somebody's voice, even if you can't hear what they're saying, it does something to your brain. I was just having a conversation maybe an hour ago about how when I wake up at night, as long as I don't hear anybody talk or read any words, I can go back to sleep. As soon as I hear somebody speak or read some words, I can't get back to sleep. It does something to your brain; it's this very specifically human thing.

With that one interlude with the cut up vocals and marimba ['Vapour'], it's like this pre-verbal sound but it's still so…I don't know. It's an interesting thing to play with. A lot of people do solo electronic stuff these days, and I do sometimes, but never with vocals. And I see some people do it with vocals, and it really draws in the crowd in this immediate way. If you're doing something more ambient or instrumental without vocals, people have to want to connect to it. With vocals, there's like this automatic connection that happens. It's interesting to play with, and turn that into an instrument, and Alex certainly does that with her vocals.

So the name Spiritual Emergency comes from a book by Stanislav Grof and that's him reading on the record. In it he discusses how meditation and spiritual 'episodes' are wrongfully perceived as being pathological, and he's often defended and encouraged the use of psychedelics. What are your thoughts on Grof and what he had to say?

GF: Well I've read a lot of his writing, and a lot by other people from that era who believed those substances could be used in a therapeutic way, and they had data, you know, they were doing experiments and helping people. I think that is really sad, first of all that it was all just completely ended and outlawed. It says something that these people were having results and helping people, and meanwhile the CIA was, you know, using acid to brainwash and torture people. The message there is that it's okay for the government to use it to achieve whatever their aims are, but it's not okay for doctors to help people? That's frustrating.

Also, the thing Grof is talking about doesn't just pertain to psychedelic therapy, it's just therapy in general. A lot of people need help at some time, and there's no shame in that. I've personally benefitted from therapy of various kinds, and there are people who I'm close to in my life who say things like "therapy's for weak people", or "therapists are scam artists", this kind of thing. There's a huge amount of misinformation, some of those people have subsequently gone into therapy and been helped by it. People in a crisis of one way or another… it's an opportunity. It's an opportunity to cultivate and to heal and to be better for it.

The metaphor can be extended to the global situation. You read a lot of people saying really pessimistic things about the state of the world, and they're right! You can really get down about the government, and the environment and all this stuff. If you step back, the world's in crisis. I think it's a tremendous opportunity. There's so much potential to fix these problems by actually dealing with them. There's work to do internally, and I think the more you've done the work internally, the more you'll be of service.

Both Guardian Alien and Liturgy have a lot of focus on immediacy, ephemerality and focusing on what's happening in the moment, while searching for transcendence in the longer term. The main difference is perhaps that Liturgy was much 'tighter' and less free than Guardian Alien. Is this what you were looking for when you left Liturgy?

GF: At the time, yeah. That and just… wanting something different, and trying to make some combination of all the different styles of drumming I'd gotten in to over the years. I'd always just been a collaborator too, which was also the case in Guardian Alien, but I was the band leader! So I ended up doing a lot of composition and stuff. It started out as a reaction to a situation I wanted to get out of, and ended up being this style of composition. For me it's all about just really not thinking. When there's as little inner critical voice as possible. It's just the sticks hitting the skins, and the actions doing themselves.

Guardian Alien's Spiritual Emergency is released on 27th January via Thrill Jockey