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Low Culture

Will Your Anchor Hold? 75 Dollar Bill Interviewed
Jennifer Lucy Allan , May 1st, 2022 15:12

As 75 Dollar Bill release the latest in our Singularity series of tracks, exclusive to our Sound & Vision subscribers, Jennifer Lucy Allan asks them about defying genre and pattern building

"A lot of things we released during the pandemic were live recordings that were much more social, from those situations that we were all missing," says 74 Dollar Bill's Che Chen over Zoom. "Then for this, we were doing something on the longer side so it made sense to make it more introverted, or meditative."

While 75 Dollar Bill's music is often social, boisterous, and heavily rhythmic, 'Anchor Dragging Behind' (their track for our Singularity series of releases to Quietus subscribers) occupies a rapt and dreamy space, a dialled back band that is no less brilliant for it. The title, 'Anchor Dragging Behind', is part of an ongoing inside joke between Rick Brown and Che Chen – while they've been known to fill a whole LP side with a single piece, their track titles also frequently sneak in references to The Minutemen (whose tracks are a minute long). Chen jokes they might one day do a covers set of epically long Minutemen covers (which tQ would very much like to hear). Despite this tongue-in-cheek reference, the title works as to triangulate a description of the piece: A drone (the anchor) pulled by bow from strings (dragging) begins ever so slowly to evolve (is left behind by) an emerging rhythm, halting and unhurried. Chen's guitar arrives when the zone is locked in, a double line that is restrained but light; vivid like night-blooming flowers.

"To me, 'Anchor Dragging Behind' could be compared to both the 'Worm' section of the suite on side three of I Was Real or that album's title track," says Brown. "I guess I don't think of these slowly unfolding – or sometimes even static – pieces as 'introspective'. The drone and long repetition of simple – or sometimes less simple – phrases have always been central to our music. Meditative seems a little pretentious a word for it, but playing something like 'I Was Real' is the closest I personally get to that state."

The piece is built on rehearsal recordings made in the studio some years ago with Yasi Perera, a figure who is hard to pin down, who Chen has known for going on two decades. He studied linguistics at Berkeley and worked with Don Buchla, and his band Park Details (with Chris Cohen) regularly bemused audiences when they supported 75 Dollar Bill on tour. Perera, Chen says "doesn't really care about recording". "Ahead of a set with him, we rehearsed some things, and one of the things we had been looking at was different versions of the same, the same rhythmic pattern. It has this cyclical sort of lope to it."

"We were just having so much fun we played for hours, trying all sorts of stuff," recalls Brown. "What we've ended up with on this track is something much more 'studio' and closer to the feel of our non-'live' recordings."

Most audiences this side of the pond will have seen Chen and Brown play as a duo, but their line-up is fluid, and often expands to bring in friends and other musicians to play alongside them. They have also been cultivating a 75 Dollar Bill 'little big band' with whom they played at Big Ears festival in Knoxville recently. Over lockdown the pair spent a long time going through many of their old live recordings – three albums were released from their sessions at Troost in Brooklyn. They are boisterous affairs, and are truly social music, particularly the mad stomping medley of MC5 and Dolly Parton on Social Music Volume Three, in which Sue Garner belts out the chorus to '9 to 5' with more catharsis and joy, than melody.

Chen and Brown have been recording music together for around a decade, but their friendship precedes this (they connected on MySpace, if you want to put a rough date on their meeting). Brown's background is in punk and rock bands, and in 75 Dollar Bill he plays not drums but a plywood box and various beaters, as well as horns. Guitarist Chen's background leans more towards the experimental and improvised music scenes. "Even though I feel very connected to that music, at the same time, I sometimes feel a desire to connect to something that's a little more... universal?" He says. "I feel like experimental music is almost an occult thing. It's a very deep world, but it's not necessarily accessible to a lot of people."

Chen says that they're interested in getting away from categories and genres though, partly because as an Asian American he didn't feel he was part of a lineage or tradition. Starting out, he couldn't see one in the same way as there is, for example, an African American musical tradition. "Not seeing anyone that looked like me in music, made me think well, if I'm interested in music, how do I participate in it without any examples or role models? Part of that made me start looking to other cultures and other places. In a way, it was liberating, because none of this music belonged to me. What is Asian American music? There's no such thing, and it's not a homogenous community either."

Much of our experience of music in industrialised or metropolitan societies is as listeners, not music makers, and Chen – influenced by brief time spent studying guitar in Mauritania – is interested in cultivating those scenarios, where music is a social activity. He began exploring how music functioned in other places and cultures, particularly in pre-capitalist societies, and describes to me the participation of audiences at shows in Mauritania, where the crowd's clapping rhythms coalesce into complex polyrhythms. The feeling that the audience can participate in various ways is what they're interested in, even just to loosen buttoned up expectations around experimental or improvised gigs. When he and Brown play, the audience doesn't always feel they can engage in social ways, but sometimes, just one seat dancer is enough to change the room. "There's a barrier," Chen admits, "but we see people wiggling in their seats. Often it just takes one person to get up and start dancing. If that happens, there is almost always a bunch of other people that are given licence and will get up too. It definitely doesn't always happen, but it's so great when it does."

To receive 'Anchor Dragging Behind' by 75 Dollar Bill, as well as a host of other benefits including exclusive essays, podcasts and playlists, and loads more specially-commissioned music, become a Quietus Sound & Vision subscriber. You can do so here. Past exclusive releases to our subscribers have included collaborations between GNOD and JK Flesh, Nik Void and Alexander Tucker, Richard Skelton and Roger Robinson, alongside VÄLVE, Matmos, Seaford Mods, Better Corners, Siavash Amini, Alison Cotton. Get involved!