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In Extremis

Get Off Your Ass And Jam: Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura Interviewed
Danny Riley , October 15th, 2015 08:39

Purveyors of explosive live shows and chaotic jams, the Manchester guitar Arkestra talk to Danny Riley about being the new standard bearers for DIY transcendentalism in the UK and finding artistry in the undignified

Call it the curse that comes with the blessing of our age of all-access cultural saturation, but it often happens that our first introduction to new musicians is via the unflattering conduit of some tinny laptop speakers and a YouTube or SoundCloud link. Perhaps, rather frighteningly, all too often I find myself skipping to the next thing before I really give the music the attention it deserves. In these conditions, it takes something really startling to puncture the digital numbness.

Most recently, it was done by a jam band, of all things. Well, jam band in the loosest, least-worthy-of-your-righteous derision sense. The 20-minute video of Manchester freak-rock collective Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura at last year's Tusk festival very well stopped me in my tracks. Three guitarists, two drummers, a bassist and one yelping, wordless vocalist surfing a volcanic torrent of furious jazz-metal-raga shredding, with no sign of let-up or cooldown. Think of the most cranium-cresting sections of all your favourite German, Japanese and Swedish freak-rock records piled chaotically on top of each other in an explosive ascent to the highest level of dharma, or the explorative solos of Jerry Garcia and John McLaughlin played with the curious Zen logic of Vibracathedral Orchestra.

With all this talk of shredding, guitar workouts and endless soloing, you'd be forgiven in thinking that the music of DVSD was just one orgy of solipsistic noise - a virtuosic ritual dedicated to the sin of Onan. However it's really all geared towards an immersive communal experience that involves the listener as much as the band. Psychedelic excess and scum-soaked experimentalism is rolled into one in DSVD's transcendental mess-thetic. I caught up with band mastermind and underground impresario Nick Mitchell for a schooling in the tenets of free rock in ekstasis.

Your line-up seems pretty fluid. Would you be able to list who currently plays in the band?

Nick Mitchell: Glad you called it a band, not a collective, as a lot of people tend to refer to it. It's me [guitar], Edwin Stevens [guitar], Dylan Hughes [guitar], Andrew Cheetham [drums], who I met when we played a Guitar Trio piece with Rhys Chatham, Tom Settle [guitar], Dave Birchall [guitar] and Otto Willberg [bass], who's been on the improvised music scene locally for about a year now. Dom Tanner, who masters all the Golden Lab releases and plays in Salford Media City, just played bass with us on the tour and is likely to join the line-up on a more regular basis. We've also had others involved over the years, including Joincey, who came up with the name and played bass, Zak Hane, who played bass, Ros Murray from Trash Kit, who played guitar, Tim Horrocks from Wode played guitar and Kate Armitage from Silver Dick comes and goes as our singer.

Where did the concept for DSDV come from, if there is a concept?

NM: I was always a fan of big bands. Santana's early groups have been a big tower of joy for me. Royal Trux when they had two rhythm sections. Boredoms, Vermonster, Glenn Branca, Funkadelic. My favourite parts of rock records have always been the ecstatic jamming parts at the end, where everything goes into overload - 'Sister Ray' obviously springs to mind. What I wanted to do was make those the whole focus of the group, just do that for the length of a side of an LP or for the length of a show - 30 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour at a time.

The basic premise of the band is pretty uncompromising. How have audiences reacted to your performances?

NM: The local scene here in Manchester - they tend not to dig it so much as elsewhere, thinking it's a big wank-off. But out on the road, it's almost as if we'd planned the reaction. People always use words like 'immersion' and say they felt unable to escape the relentlessness, that they were enveloped by it. I mean, it's really grand because that's exactly what we want to get from playing it, so it gives us a sense of purpose to take it on the road, rather than just holing-up in a jam space and doing it just for us. Initially, when I started the band, I had a much more weird idea in mind than the thing it became. But then we all just played solos and it was what it was, which is loud. I don't know about uncompromising, I find it really more ecstatic. It does for me as a player what Master Musicians of Joujouka do for me as a listener, and I think some people who dig the group will know what I mean by that.

Improvisation forms the greater part of your sound. Do you have any idea what you will play when you go on stage or in the studio?

NM: It's all improvised - nothing is planned. I've got this internal monologue running constantly about how freedom in music needs to be redefined, because I think the non-idiomatic guys are so precious about what they mean when they say 'free' and it's become this sacrosanct monster that's really pushed a lot of non-idiomatic music into something of a stylistic corner it can't get out of. There's nothing semantically free about that. It's a prison of freedom. And, even though we're employing spontaneous time signatures and discernible rhythms and melodies at times, it's the connection between the players and the moments at which things happen that free them from rigidity.

I want to talk about ecstasy. It feels to me like this is a big part of what you do - your jams seem like they're always climbing, intensifying, reaching for this overwhelming effect. Could you perhaps tell me about what that feels like to play?

NM: I am a hedonistic loner at heart. I like to smoke a lot of weed, drink red wine and lie on the sofa with the stereo turned up loud and fall into an oblivion of aural ecstasy that's compounded by what I imbibe. DSDV allows me to achieve something as close as dammit to that feeling, but with an additional visceral buzz from chopping at the guitar. I think it's something to do with my disgust for the seemingly species-wide dogma of dignity. I think there's artistry in the undignified and I want to explore that. Oblivion is only crass if you're looking at it from a very conservative perspective. That's why I resent the idea of music being recontextualised in order to give it cultural gravitas. You put the same group of fools bashing at pots and pans in a basement in Whalley Range and the majority of the middle classes would either think it something to laugh at or something that they might have to keep an eye on in case the police need calling. You put that same group in a white concrete room with a few paintings hanging about and a gift shop and people think it's genius and worthy of attention. For me, the artistry is in the impact, which I hope is transitory in some kind of unintelligible way. Ecstatic, transitory, oblivion-bound - whatever you want to call it.

I think you'll agree that virtuosity, especially on the guitar, has something of a dirty name in a lot of discourse around music. I can hear a lot of virtuosity in the band, what with the shredding, the endless soloing - shit, you're the only guitarist I've seen doing tapping who hasn't been in a hair metal band. Are you trying to restore the good name of shredding?

NM: I'm not a virtuoso by any stretch of the imagination and I'm a cack-handed fret tapper. It's a totally punk rock way of tapping. I saw Neil Hagerty tapping in New York a couple of years back and I realised it had more experimental potential than I'd previously realised, so I gave it a whirl when I got home. I think there are some great players in the band and some of us come from a punk rock perspective, like me, Ed and Dylan, some of us come from an improv perspective, like Dave and Tom Settle, and some from a more schooled scene like Andrew and Otto, who are closer to this idea of virtuoso you mention, the opposition to which is a bit of a redundant post-punk attitude, that I used to feel an affinity with in my early twenties. I remember a time when I only liked music made by people who couldn't play, recorded on Walkmans - The Dead C, Skullflower, etc. I still love that now, it's just that my pleasure receptors have expanded over the years to feel the vibes of all kinds of other stuff. These days, all I want to listen to is Jerry Garcia guitar solos. They take you places you didn't even know you could go.

Could you tell me a bit about Golden Lab Records? Do you run it by yourself or are other people involved?

NM: It's just me. Ten years. Sixty-odd releases. Lot of hard work. Lot of lost money. Lot of beautiful records I'm honoured to have put out there. Matt Valentine's new one is a highlight. The Howling Hex three-LP live set. The new Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides record. The label sort of happened by accident 'cause I wanted to release a 7" by my band I Had An Inkling back in 2005 and when that sold really well and really fast and Neptune from Boston asked me to put out a record, I guess I just thought, why the hell not? It's hard to keep up to as I'm doing so many records these days and working a full-time writing job, but I will probably be doing it until I croak or until the pressing plants all shut down, whichever happens first.

Do you think there's still such a thing as the underground in the modern British music scene? How healthy do you think alternative culture is in general in this country?

NM: I remember when the word 'alternative' started being bandied about by the mainstream media in the '90s and, even then, people on the underground were pissed off at it because they weren't making music to be reactionary or provide an alternative to anything, they were just doing it because it felt good and because that's just what came out of their instruments when they played. And I think there will always be a handful of people around the world who eschew straightness within populist forms and will reach out for things that excite them by means of confusion. The fact that more people were open to it in times gone by doesn't tell of a step-change in the auditory pleasure derived by humanity, though, inasmuch as it tells of a step-change in the power of the media to paint something as worthy of your attention or otherwise. Most people just want to be told what to like and, even if it's weirder than a horse with udders, they'll dig it if they're told to, and that's what's weird about the mainstream media's insistence on making culture so insipid and devoid of meaning - I guess it's because it's run by people who fear strangeness and its political potential.

Yes, Britain has an underground though. Muscletusk and Usurper up in Edinburgh, Acrid Lactations and their crew and Smoke Jaguar in Glasgow, us and Jon Collin and Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides in Manchester, Vibracathedral and Ashtray Navigations and everyone over in Leeds, the Singing Knives guys in Sheffield, and so on. You'd never have a band like Sonic Youth become millionaire rock stars now, though. It just wouldn't happen. They were really the last of their kind in terms of that gigantic, otherworldly, rock iconography. If the world operated in the same way, Magik Markers would be a household name. I'd like to disband the internet and go back in time and burn the original copy of Naomi Klein's well-meaning but ultimately terrifyingly damaging No Logo before it made it to publication. I think that would make for a better world.

Clifton Park, NY, Vol. 1 & 2 are out now on Golden Lab Records. Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura play A Carefully Planned Festival #5 in Manchester on October 17; for full details and tickets, head here