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A Quietus Interview

Alpha Waves: An Interview & Mix From Death Comet Crew
JR Moores , January 22nd, 2014 08:37

1980s NYC hip hop/no-wave/funk collective Death Comet Crew return this month with full-length album, Ghost Among The Crew, that takes their abrasive hybrid sound into cosmic new zones. JR Moores speaks to the band's Stuart Argabright about the art of genre-splicing, plus listen to an exclusive mix

Death Comet Crew are one of the many recording projects of Stuart Argabright, the genre-straddling audio alchemist behind such groups as Ike Yard, Black Rain, and Dominatrix. The 'Crew were originally formed by Argabright back in 1983 along with Ike Yard's Michael Diekmann, Shinichi Shimokawa (of Black Rain), DJ High Priest, and the legendary NYC rapper/artist Rammellzee. Based in New York at a time of highly fertile stylistic cross-pollination, a musical environment that was simultaneously giving rise to contemporaries as varied as Swans, Run DMC, Arthur Russell and Sonic Youth, the troupe released two EPs of abrasive, diced-up electro-rap-funk-noise before disbanding. These original releases, along with a series of live recordings, were eventually compiled on 2004 release This Is Riphop, coinciding with the group reforming for a series of live performances.

After several years of sporadic activity - and following Argabright's recent broader return to public attention via a resurgent Ike Yard and Black Rain - Death Comet Crew have made a welcome full return this month with both the Galacticoast EP and their debut full-length album Ghost Among The Crew, released through Diagonal. The record and its title are dedicated to Rammellzee, who passed away in 2010, and a fine tribute it is too, updating the group's sound for the 21st century and incorporating elements of frazzled jazz-fusion and sci-fi funk while keeping one moon-booted foot planted in their original, harder-edged aesthetic.

With Death Comet Crew's new material just released, the Quietus caught up with Stuart Argabright to discuss the band's inception, drawing inspiration from NYC and soundtracking William Gibson. The band have also put together an exclusive mix for the Quietus that draws in a range of influences and musical loves both old and new, from Morricone, Weather Report and Miles Davis to Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim and oOoOO. Listen to it via the embed below, and see the bottom of the feature for full tracklist.

It can be tricky to describe the sound of Death Comet Crew, both the older and newer material. I end up sputtering hazy things like "a unique concoction of noise, no wave, post-punk, hip-hop, industrial and yada, yada, yada" but this kind of flailing ragbag of labels never does your music the justice it deserves. If you were a music journalist yourself, how would you describe Death Comet Crew?

Stuart Argabright: I'm pretty sure I can't really pull off describing DCC as a music journalist, and in fact sometimes genre-splicing name-grouping can be accurate! The unit we made that started out as Arena Sex Death, became Death Star Crew, and ended up as Death Comet Crew can be seen in context with Ike Yard - Ike Yard as it ended in 1983 - and Dominatrix's 'The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight' 12" in 1984. Michael Diekmann's early role in the unit was as FX guitar, with Shinichi feeding that through a digital delay box and trying various dub-outs as jams went along. And while Shinichi was mainly our bassist, he also played guitar and keyboards and had good ideas about arranging and producing. We were friends and sometime roommates too, so we were listening to records together, talking and partying about music.

Death Comet Crew - Mix For The Quietus by The Quietus on Mixcloud

We all lived around town, within 15-20 minutes' walk of each other. Diekmann lived on East 12th Street in a building with Arthur Russell, Richard Hell, Allen Ginsberg and Harley from Cro-Mags, among others. Michael had a double cassette deck and I could load two tapes at a time. I was programming drums, FX tapes, scratch and mix, and vocals here and there. Once we had this unit running, we played at The Pyramid Club on the Lower East Side with guest Pyramid DJ Ivan Ivan, who had worked on Dominatrix. The four-piece DCC really came together when DJ High Priest (Nick Taylor) came into the group. Nick was in Gray [Jean-Michel Basquiat's band] and had already been working with [MC Phase Two]. I knew Nick from the Mudd Club scene, we all got along and could jam. The two shows at Danceteria with Nick created our best template for the four-piece. At the first one we opened with MC Phase Two rapping "We are death star …" over Nick's scratched beats. By the time the rest of DCC came onstage the sound had built into beats plus bass, barely-in-control delayed guitar swoops and harmonised vocal carnage (to be released in 2014 on Streetwise/Traffic).

1984 was a big year... art was bigger, records sounded bigger. I began working with the artist Robert Longo. Bigger budgets followed. I was 'producing', and was able to get my guys in for the soundtrack to his Marble Fog performance. Bigger tech followed. Artist Gretchen Bender could hire me to do original music for a new electronic theatre piece. Gretchen and Amber Denker were able to access early CG Tech to create the cover art for the DCC's At The Marble Bar 12" on Beggars Banquet.

Blade Runner, Videodrome, Terminator, and the Star Wars series were quickly becoming 'classics', and some of these provided well-made sound design for sampling, layering, and manipulating. Each time we went into a studio there was a new sampling delay or some such device. 

Was "riphop" a label you had used when the group was originally active, or was it retrospectively fabricated for the This Is Riphop compilation?

SA: When we were reissued in 2001 on the Gomma label's Anti NY compilation and again in 2003 - the 'America' 12" on Troubleman Unlimited - and then This Is Riphop in 2004, I was using 'riphop' to describe part of the sound, specifically the points where 2-3-4 sounds and/or genres hit together and created a wave we dubbed out over the block beats. Riphop seemed as good a term as hiphop, or punk for that matter.

How did the reformation of Death Comet Crew occur?

SA: Once Riphop was out, it made sense to see if we could still play together. In 2001-2002 I was producing Rammellzee's Bi-Conicals album for Gomma so we had Shockdell and K-Rob in to do some special s**t on those tracks. Next, Ramm wanted to bring Shockdell along for the first live shows at Knitting Factory for CMJ. Later, Ramm would bring CX Kidtronik by the studio when we rehearsed, and invited Rapscallion into the studio for what became 'Me, Czar Of The Magyars' [Ghost Among The Crew's cyber-rap opening number].

After initially reforming for the live shows in 2003, were you hesitant to write and record new DCC material?

SA: Once we began playing again, we knew if it kept going long enough we should make a new record of it. So we began working up materials, and things clicked just as they had before. Maybe things clicked even better than before, with 'Drag Racing' and 'Deep Space Woman' coming from the first rush of sessions. We also began getting offers to do European shows. Gomma got us into Venice's Biennale Festival in 2005, so we got a booker and made a tour of it. We played Toulouse with The Bug, Paris, Berlin, Ghent, Rotterdam, Lyon, Amiens' Nuit Blanche... We also toured Japan, but couldn't get a show in London! We recorded all through that period, overdubbing, shifting sounds to more accurately detail each 'scape.

How far had you gotten with the writing/recording of the new stuff when Rammellzee passed away in 2010?

SA: We were all done by then, thankfully. Ramm tracked all his works by 2007 or so. I believe we got some of Ramm's best works.

Tell us about some of the guest musicians on Ghost Among The Crew. How did these collaborations surface?

SA: With Nomi Ruiz, I spotted her image on an flyer for one of her early shows and got in touch. DJ High Priest has also worked with her on tracks, and eventually she came in to record those two songs with us. Wonderful voice, character, and wit. Carolyn 'Honeychild' Coleman is a guitarist and vocalist originally from Kentucky. She's made records with DJ Olive, Badawi, and Apollo Heights. Rapscallion is a filmmaker who Ramm brought in specially to do 'Me, Czar Of The Magyars'.

Your music seems strongly attached to place and particularly urban environments. Ghost Among The Crew expands on the sound of This Is Riphop, yet both immediately evoke the atmosphere of the city in a general sense, as well as New York City specifically. It's loud and bustling, with different noises and voices fighting to be heard over each other. How important is your sense of "place" to the type of art you create?

SA: Supra (sic) important. I only want to make new places in music. Ike Yard, Dominatrix, DCC, Dystopians, and Black Rain are all in their own environments and scenarios.

New York has transformed dramatically since the 1980s when DCC were first active. Can this transformation be detected in the contrasting sounds of DCC's old and new material?

SA: What was clear when we reformed was that we had all done a few things since we last played, which gave us a bit more widescreen to add genres we had not ventured in on our internal trip. It never hurt that three of us - Michael Diekmann, DJ High Priest, and myself - all still lived in the neighbourhood.

Do you feel there are many continuities between the New York of then and now that are perhaps neglected by those wishing to push the popular narrative of the city's rejuvenation?

SA: Hmmm. It's the same city of ideas it always has been. Prices have gone up and the people change, but there are always so many quality things going on any given day or night, so many people coming into and out of town every cycle. All the music, artists, authors, friends, mates, women, anyone could ever want.

Death Comet Crew in Tokyo, 2007 (L-R DJ High Priest, Shinichi Shimokawa, Rammellzee, Stuart Argabright, Michael Diekmann)

How have your writing and recording methods changed since DCC's early output?

SA: A lot has stayed about the same. We used to rent rehearsal space when needed, we also worked at Michael's on 12th St. from after the first EP through most of DCC. After reforming we could come to my apartment and jam, plus rent if needed. And DCC continued with help from engineer Paul Geluso who had worked with Ike Yard (as well as on early Animal Collective and Antony & the Johnsons). I like to start from an idea, a title or direction.

How weird does it feel to be releasing what is technically Death Comet Crew's debut album, around thirty years after the group were originally formed?

SA: Hmmm, it feels good. Especially to work with people who are excited by the music.

Can we expect further music from DCC?

SA: I believe so. I was just looking through CD-Rs of DCC live from those tours we did between 2005 and 2007, the second 'cyber machine phase' music has yet to be released and last time we tried, the unit was jamming, improvising as well as ever. I imagine we could be a "music machine" for some cool MC(s) in London or over here.

You've mentioned the works of sci-fi authors such as Ballard and Burroughs as significant influences on your music. Do they continue to provide you with creative inspiration?

SA: No, but they were major likes and influences. Burroughs > Ballard = Gibson... up 'til the second series. I was wanting the new DCC album to have some feeling of 'music made while we were away' - away on our own trips, away from the planet, and now we were coming back down to report what we'd seen. For my part, I have kept on with sci-fi. I was working with William Gibson from 84 to 95 and did production and post-production work on Johnny Mnemonic and scored it as Black Rain. Also Bruce Sterling, Jack Womack (with William Gibson), and KW Jeter. I'm currently writing and developing book projects in near future milieu with Evan Calder Williams.

Tell us more about your brush with Hollywood.

SA: Sure. A year after getting a cassette tape full of music to Nicolas Roeg in 1984, ace producer Jeremy Thomas called up to make a deal for DCC's 'America' to be used in Insignificance, in the elevator scenes with 'The Indian', while another piece (uncredited and unpaid for) was utilised in the 'world's ending' flash scenes. Insignificance was the first soundtrack gig for one Hans Zimmer! If you read his comments on the Inception score, it seems to me Hans may have been played our 'world's burnt ending' music that they used. Quite possibly Hans had to cover my music piece or some such...

Dominatrix has been in plenty of movies, e.g. Grosse Pointe Blank, and between 1997 and 2002 I scored over eighty cable TV shows for the NY Times' TV division with partner Chuck Hammer (guitarist with Lou Reed, synth guitar with David Bowie on 'Ashes To Ashes' etc.). In 2001 we were nominated for an Emmy, losing out to Walking With Dinosaurs from the Discovery Channel. I composed using drum machine and keyboards, Chuck on guitars. We would be making a few pieces of new music a day, scoring to pictures. We were often asked to set scenes like 'accident in Miami' or 'gunshot in Cali' which called for certain tempos and resolution. One thing genre-wise was that I brought in Ed Rush & Optical, and we would introduce drum & bass beats into shows like Trauma: Life In The E.R.

How did you find the experience of scoring Johnny Mnemonic?

SA: I began relations with William Gibson in 1984 , the same year I began working with Robert Longo [the film's director]. The pre-production on Johnny began when Robert asked me one day, "What movie should I do out of Gibson's work?" To which I replied "Might as well start at the beginning", which for me was Johnny Mnemonic. I introduced Robert to Gibson. My partner William Barg and I introduced Terminator producer BJ Rack to the production. Early on, Gibson and Longo asked me to score the movie, and Black Rain had just completed the Neuromancer audiobook soundtrack production, so we were right there and in the mode. After shooting I was flown to Toronto to do the first music pass on the movie, spotting music on scenes, with the Sony Columbia music catalog at our disposal.

With Keanu Reeves coming off Speed at that time, Sony got to thinking they had a hit on their hands and then wanted to fill the movie soundtrack with their artists - many of whom I had placed on the movie. The problem was that Black Rain had already done the key scenes and the music worked well. So Sony was made to buy us out for about $10k. Seeing the movie at the screening with Gibson, I remember tearing up, as it just wasn't that great. Walking out and down the street with Gibson afterwards, I said "We can do better", so Barg and I embarked on years of trying to produce that 'next Gibson movie'. But those are stories for another time and place, perhaps.

Photo by Tim Saccenti

What are you working on now/next?

SA: Currently we've seen through the Ike Yard Factory album remix EP series, so that leaves the first EP to be reissued/remixed, coming up. Dominatrix has its anniversary this year, with a major reissue coming on Streetwise/Traffic and possibly new music too, now that I re-found my new frontwoman. Black Rain's new album I just finished programming.

And artists have been asking for vocals, so we have the Certain Creatures 'Sparkle' collab, out now, with a Samuel Kerridge remix coming. The JBLA EP is coming up with remixes by Vereker and L.I.E.S.' Ron Morelli with Svengalisghost. Killer! In 2013 Tri Angle Records called and got me together with Evian Christ, so here's hoping the beat I brought gets turned into something as cool as the potential of that collab. And Pete Swanson, Vessel and I jammed one day in November, and that will become one dense f*ing record we're looking for a home for... And this year I will complete my own EP and album, Programmable Matter, with some 'return to club musik' as I feel the genre can be updated the more I think about it.

A good deal of my time recently has been spent working on a software project, TBA. This follows a tech line from my father working at the Pentagon on the Mo-Net (military internet) for the army through to producing/directing/scoring CD-ROMs in the mid 90s. At some point, one way or another, I need to publish my 'Diaries of Nightclubbing' - i.e. every day and night from 1978 (my arrival in NYC from DC) to 1980 (when the best scene(s) kicked it in the head), so we are talking to archivists at universities and looking for a publisher.

During 2013's twenty city tour - five dates with Ike Yard, fifteen with Black Rain - I was actively vetting what cities were worth moving to, but did not find exactly that. This summer on tour with Cut Hands I may have - that would be the California San Francisco Bay Area/Marin County/Silicon Valley. London has been great lately as well. Japan calls, but has its plusses and minuses.

Where do you find the energy to be so prolific?

SA: We were living in the middle of the whole decade-long explosion/collision/meeting of minds among artists, music, and multimedia, and one wanted to keep moving forward. A simple fact with Ike Yard and DCC was that, after our second records, the labels did not ask for another release, so we would have been continuing to make music - the third records - that didn't find any release. After that one would want to move onto something else, the next cool hybrid. I've been lucky to be in place and with the right people and the right tools to produce these musics. The trick is to do them well enough, supra detailed and custom-tailored, to avoid sounding dated later on.

What is it that drives you to keep making new fresh music?

SA: The same energies that make one move towards that striking woman you see on the street or on the train one day or night. You get into that flow state where time flies by, sweat flies, and when you get up or look up - boom - there it is.

Death Comet Crew's Ghost Among The Crew is out now on Diagonal, and the Galacticoast EP is out now on Citinite

The tracklist for Death Comet Crew's Mix for the Quietus runs as follows:

Ennio Morricone - 'Man With a Harmonica'
Son House - 'Death Letter'
Exuma - 'Exuma, the Obeah Man'
Public Enemy - 'Welcome to the Terrordome (Terrormmental mix)'
Davy DMX - 'One for the Treble' / Augustus Pablo - 'AP Special'
Miles Davis - 'On the Corner'
Weather Report - 'Non-stop Home'
Death Comet Crew - 'Alpha Delta (Hieroglyphic Being reinterpretation)'
Liquid Liquid - 'Lock Groove (out)'
Eric B and Rakim - 'Follow the Leader'
Man Parrish - 'Hip-Hop Be Bop'
Mantronix - 'King of the Beats'
Phase II - 'The Roxy (7" mix)'
Treacherous Three - 'Body Rock'
oOoOO - 'Sedsumting'
Konono No.1 - 'T.P. Couleur Cafe'
Tricky - 'Ponderosa'
Alice Coltrane - 'Huntington Ashram Monastery'
Jon Hassell - 'Delta Rain Dream'
Weather Report - 'Adios'