Bill Brovold has been a fixture on the avant garde scene since the early 1980s as a member of groundbreaking no wave groups like Rhys Chatham Ensemble, East Village Orchestra, Fast Forward and the Zen Vikings. Today he heads up Larval, an ever-changing ensemble of musicians who break down the boundaries between rock, jazz, classical and many other types of music in an instantly accessible yet challenging mix. We talked to Brovold recently about his most recent album, his approach to writing and performing music, and his career at the forefront of musical and artistic experimentation.
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Splendid: When people talk about your work, they don't seem to be able to decide exactly what it is -- whether it's rock or jazz or classical or something else entirely. How do you describe what you do?
Bill Brovold: Well...I don't. I think other people don't know how to describe it because I haven't given it a description. I don't stick to any genre of music.
Splendid: But clearly you take some things from all three of those genres and maybe some others that I'm not familiar with.
Bill Brovold: There's some country music in some of my work.
Splendid: Really? Where is that? I have to listen for it.
Bill Brovold: Do you have any of my other CDs?
Splendid: No, I just have the one, but I may have to do a little shopping.
Bill Brovold: Childish Delusions (Brovold's 2000 solo album) has a song called "The Night Tammy Wynette Died". And "Majestic West" is almost orchestral country sound, almost like a Western movie. But yeah, I tend not to listen to a lot of music. At the same time, I'm always ... for example, I was working upstairs and there was an oldies station on, some Van Morrison. It's like the mind is a sponge.
Splendid: Yeah, it's interesting how sometimes that will happen -- you're in the grocery store or something and one of these old songs you haven't heard for ages comes on, and it's not all crap.
Bill Brovold: On one of the songs on Larval 2... I had never heard a Blue Oyster Cult song in my life, but at the end of one of the songs, there's a (sings a phrase), and I asked somebody, "What's that?" and they said, that's "Godzilla" from Blue Oyster Cult, and it was. I had heard it somewhere, and I really loved that riff and sort of went "pop", plopped it in in the last two measures of the song, something from Blue Oyster Cult. And on the Knitting Factory record, there's a Sinatra song.
Splendid: Huh. So, do you try to protect yourself from all this musical influence, or do you seek it out, or does it just come to you?
Bill Brovold: It comes to me. I don't seek it out. I don't really seek anything out. I have a recording studio, so people always bring me things. I grew up liking country music. As a kid...
Splendid: Did you grow up in Detroit?
Bill Brovold: No. I travelled all over. My dad was in the military. I ended up in Washington State.
AUDIO: Last Ditch
Splendid: How did you get interested in country and who were some of the singers that you liked?
Bill Brovold: Well, where I grew up was out in the country and a lot of people played it. In the early 1970s. It was almost more bluegrass than country. It's always had a meaningfulness. And some of the old country, like Hank Williams and some of the more traditional players, make a really rich, meaningful sound.
Splendid: I've had people say that to me, that I can't give up on country until I listen to Hank Williams, but I think that having heard so much of the commercial country that I just have never made the effort.
Bill Brovold: Oh, I never listen to that.
Splendid: But it's like any genre, I guess, that the stuff that's on the radio is the absolute worst of its type.
Bill Brovold: It's not unlike -- someone I know is a Baroque musician who, because I am a rock musician, will actually speak of me in the same sentence as he describes Britney Spears. That's rock music. Me and Britney Spears.
Splendid: And this is a friend of yours?
Bill Brovold: It's an acquaintance. He has never heard my music.
Splendid: I have this friend who is an incredible violinist and plays with St. Luke's and Orpheus, and she's always getting asked to play on things with pop musicians. And she'll say, "Who is David Byrne? Who is Lou Reed?" She's completely isolated from it, but she does these jobs.
Let's talk about how you write your songs. They seem very structured, but they also seem like there is probably some room for improvisation in them as well.
Bill Brovold: Well, yeah, I guess there is. There's not as much improvisation as one would think. I really write the stuff and come up with ideas and it's based on improvisation. I'll improvise over it, then I'll come back and build something on that, but I personally have a problem playing stuff like that. I get lost and the structure falls apart too often. I'm a fan of improvisational music, but with a big band it often doesn't work. It becomes a show boat. Someone has really got the desire to be a star -- if there's a cute girl looking on, he's like, wow, I've got to show every technical trick in the book.
Splendid: (cracking up) Is that what it's all about?
Bill Brovold: I think so.
Splendid: So are the pieces that you do pretty much the same from one performance to the next?
Bill Brovold: No. No way does it sound at all really like, well, like the recordings. It's structured -- note for note it's the same. But since we're not exactly the Beatles, we don't play in the biggest halls with our own sound man and sound systems. We'll play in a bar sometimes and get up on stage, which is torture, especially if you're playing rather tight stuff in a little space and the drums are right next to you, so the guy hits the cymbal and it's like sticking a knitting needle in my ear.
Splendid: Yeah, I've been to shows like that where the music was a little too complicated for the venue.
Bill Brovold: And the band is always really tight, so we can always pull it off. But it's an interesting exercise because you end up playing to everyone else's sound. Usually you can hear everyone else but yourself. You know, I'll be standing there with the guitar amp sticking up between my legs, and I can't hear anything, but everyone else can.
Splendid: So it's hard to stay together?
Bill Brovold: Yeah, but as I say, the band is pretty tight so we don't fall apart. Where there is improvisation as a group, it runs for a certain length of time and then someone will come in. When that individual comes in, on a beat or measure, that signals a change in structure. When the improvisation ends, you're ready. So there are a lot of signals. When a guy has a guitar straight up in the air, it means that at the end of this measure of 7/4, everyone changes to a different time.
Splendid: Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about the people who are on the current record, Obedience. It looks like it's a totally different crew from your last record.
Bill Brovold: Yeah, it's always different. There's almost no experimental music in Detroit, so everyone leaves.
Splendid: So how do you put the band together every time? Is it just whoever's in town, or are you looking for specific things?
Bill Brovold: I lot of what I've done is to go down to Ann Arbor, which is a college town, although that's starting to diminish more and more. It's the tail end of this real exciting music scene. Now you have a bunch of guys playing jazz, it almost sounds like they all have the same "How to Play Jazz" books.
Splendid: I should get one of those.
Bill Brovold: Yeah.
Splendid: That's all you need to know, right?
Bill Brovold: Yeah. I was working with a band late last night, and they sound like every college age improvisational jazz band. They've got the Jim Black drumming down, and the guy's kind of got the Jaco Pastorius bass player thing -- you know, Jimi Hendrix with four fat strings. It's a little more, you know, meaty, but they don't know how to stop or slow down. Anyway... The band changes periodically. I get people in the group for a stretch or time. Some of the guys who are either married or ensconced in businesses and jobs here came for longer periods of time. It's part of their life stage. They move their spouse and children.
Splendid: So how much of what you hear on the record happens all at the same time, and how much is layering things on in the studio?
Bill Brovold: Let me see. I did that -- I have almost three albums done right now. I have to think about how we recorded Obedience. On a lot of the stuff, it starts out just me and Toby (Summerfield, the other guitarist).
Splendid: And the rest of the stuff -- the violins and things -- comes in later.
Bill Brovold: Yes, the rest of the stuff gets added later. And on the second song, "Something Terrible", it was me, the drummer and Toby, who now lives in Chicago.
Splendid: And he's worked with you before?
Bill Brovold: Yeah, Toby's been with me since he was 19.
Splendid: How old is he now?
Bill Brovold: 25, something like that.
Splendid: I wanted to ask you about the titles of the five tracks on Obedience. It's almost like a story, you know. "Something Terrible's about to Happen", and then "When the Bullet Meets Flesh", and then "Her Last Good Day" and "And One I Just Kept on Walking". It's almost like a film score. Is there supposed to be a narrative? Is there a story going on?
Bill Brovold: Oh, well, for one thing, I draw storyboards for films.
Splendid: Yeah, I know you've been involved in writing film music.
Bill Brovold: I don't draw them for films. I draw them for my own stuff and then I don't make the movies. I just do the storyboards.
Splendid: But you also do some music for films?
Bill Brovold: I've done some writing for films. But there is a definite story and timed sequences, and in some of the songs, things happen in odd lengths of time because that's how long that part takes in my mind.
Splendid: So does this ever get realized, this storyboard? Do you ever do accompanying visuals?
Bill Brovold: The records are out.
Splendid: I guess when I hear the term "storyboard", I think of the kind of thing you'd create for a movie, where you'd have the characters doing this or that.
Bill Brovold: Well, the storyboard is the part where you're coming up with the concept and the ideas, and then you make the film. I'm just a little short of a camera and film.
Splendid: I see. That's interesting.
Bill Brovold: But there's almost a real literal time sequence to how things work.
AUDIO: When Bullet Meets Flesh
Splendid: Can you tell me about that, about how you create that?
Bill Brovold: Well, here's something that was brought up to me, and I had thought about it, but I hadn't actually put it in words before. You know how you watch a video, like a rock video on MTV, and it's, like, a whole story? It's three minutes and a week's worth of action. The guy goes out and meets a girl and they're driving in a car, or whatever they do. Mine are almost a reverse of that, where I take moments in time, like instants -- a couple of seconds of action -- and then look at it frame by frame.
Splendid: So it's more of a state of mind than an event?
Bill Brovold: Yeah. Or have you ever seen a photograph where a bullet goes through an apple? There is this incredible amount of action happening in a thousandth of a second. So I'm approaching it, you know -- "When the Bullet Meets the Flesh" is from that concept. That one hundred thousandth of a second of action and expansion and growth, which is the end of the passage.
Splendid: Interesting. I also noticed that you tend to have a middle passage that's calmer and more lyrical. That happens on "Last Ditch" and "Something Terrible"; you have a build-up where you add more and more instruments and then everything sort of stops. Does that have to do with something that's happening in the storyboard?
Bill Brovold: Yeah. When I'm in the frame of mind of writing things, I really get into it, and these things start getting heavy and dark, and then I consciously say, "Okay, time to back off." So I'll back off and work on it. Then I'll go, "It's too much nice."
Splendid: (laughs) Too much nice.
Bill Brovold: It's like life. Things get out of control, and then you need to get them under control pretty soon. If they're under control in the first place, they're going spin right back out of control.
Splendid: I wanted to ask you about the electric guitar. It's hard to play an electric guitar so it doesn't sound like rock, isn't it?
Bill Brovold: Oh, yeah.
Splendid: But does the way you play sound like rock because that's what you're going for, or is just the way the instrument sounds?
Bill Brovold: Well, how do I answer that? I think I'm trying to make it sound more rock and roll. There's an excitement level in rock guitar, for everybody from Robert Fripp, Glenn Branca in the avante-garde world to the Beatles. The rock guitar, the electric guitar, has an extreme range of sound capabilities, compared to the classical guitar or acoustic guitar.
Splendid: Do you use a lot of alternative tunings on Obedience?
Bill Brovold: Some.
Splendid: What do you get from them? Why do you do that?
Bill Brovold: One of the reasons I want to do that, the same reason I brought strings into this band... I tune the E to D at one point, and when you strum those you end up with this ring that happens, which to me does a cool thing, though it works back and forth a lot. You notice this a lot with the violins, wherever that's happening. It's almost like four guys in the string section. And the other thing is that with the tunings that I have, what I like about them is that you can have, like, six E strings, and you can bar all of them, and it makes it easier to create minor chords, and you can shift a little bit and you're taking some of them into microtonal levels. The chords may come out real confident, but they start shifting within the scope and they really react to the strings.
Splendid: And how did you say that relates to the way you use violins? Because they make those same kinds of sounds?
Bill Brovold: Well, when you have the ringing sound of the strings going back and forth, all those strings repeating, and there's bowing over that; the bowing of the violin seems to take a little bit away of the sound of a guitar being strummed and it turns it more into pure tone. It really emulates the strings and makes a very rich sound; without using a synthesizer, you get all the overtones of the strings ringing and weird harmonics and stuff happening behind the scenes. So live, it sounds really over the top. The records are quite calm compared to seeing us live.
Splendid: Let's talk about "Her Last Good Day". Is that dedicated to your mother?
Bill Brovold: Yeah.
Splendid: It's really beautiful. Tell me about writing that.
Bill Brovold: My mother studied piano at the London Conservatory right before World War II, which ended abruptly in the London Blitz. She's just always had that deep inside her. And when she got sick, I went and stayed with her and took care of her. She just kind of sunk in a dream world. She had brain cancer. She was always asleep. She would go away and come back, until after a while, she was gone more and more and coming back less and less. She would come to for a bit and say something funny. So there's a lightness to the song. It was very... it wasn't a happy time, but it was a peaceful time.
Splendid: It must have been hard, though. I also wanted to ask you about the last track, "One Day I Kept On Walking", which is my favorite track on the album.
Bill Brovold: Which blows my mind.
Splendid: Really, why?
Bill Brovold: Everyone says the same thing.
Splendid: Why does it make everyone feel so good? It's got this incredible thing, about eight minutes in, where it just picks you up and takes you away. What is that?
Bill Brovold: Yeah, well, I had a lot of stuff happening in my life. The frame of mind I was in, I just wanted to shake it all off. I guess, I never thought of this, but Forrest Gump, isn't that what he did? Don't say that -- oh, yeah, he wrote a song about Forrest Gump. But I think it was in that movie because it has a lot of resonance for people.
Splendid: It reminds me a little of -- do you know that Funkadelic song, "Maggot Brain"?
Bill Brovold: "Maggot Brain", sure.
Splendid: And you know the way it just sort of imperceptibly shifts from being a very sad song to being very uplifting, in the middle? Your song has that same kind of quality, where you're not really sure exactly what's happening, but all the sudden it just opens up and takes off.
Bill Brovold: Right. I think that's the idea of the song. We're not really sure what's happening, it's mindless wandering, until at some point you just decide to keep on walking.
Splendid: It's a great piece. Now let's talk a little about your background, which is really interesting. You were involved with Rhys Chatham and a whole bunch of other really influential no wave ensembles. How did you get started playing the guitar?
Bill Brovold: Well, I was born a poor black girl...
Splendid: (laughs) You don't have to go that far back.
Bill Brovold: I went to art school in New York. The School of Visual Arts.
Splendid: Were you playing guitar before that?
Bill Brovold: Yeah, well I played music. I hadn't performed much. I was very uncomfortable. I had played in front of people a few times, but the concept was very uncomfortable to me. I was building sets for people for MTV videos. I did sets for Cyndi Lauper...
Splendid: Early 1980s?
Bill Brovold: Yeah. And you know at that time, the art school and the music guys and girls were intertwined. I was doing sets for a couple of musicians. Rhys Chatham had done a lot of interdisciplinary multimedia projects and he wanted to work on building some things in my studio, and of course, it involved making trips there, and he saw that I had instruments... A few months later, I was on stage next to him, playing guitar.
Splendid: How did you get comfortable with that?
Bill Brovold: Well, he just said, "Oh, this looks fun, let's just plug and play. Why don't you come to this group?" It wasn't so overwhelming because there were a bunch of people. I was one of three guitarists. And then he talked me into it.
Splendid: What was so new about what you guys were doing? Wasn't it seen as really experimental and different?
Bill Brovold: Well, yeah -- Rhys was seen as a real heavyweight in modern avant-garde composition. Along with Lamont Young, Conrad and people like that. He was doing work, way back, with tape loops and horn pieces, and it was very new. I think it was the Ramones that inspired him the most.
Splendid: Oh yeah?
Bill Brovold: Yeah, he went and saw the Ramones, and...I don't know if you're familiar with how they perform -- you know how the music ends and they immediately go "two, three, four" into the next song?
Splendid: Yeah, I saw the Ramones a couple of times.
Bill Brovold: He actually thought it was one long song.
Splendid: (laughs) Well, in a way, maybe it was. Or the same song, over and over again.
Bill Brovold: Exactly. That's what he thought. That these punk rockers were doing this extended tonal avant garde stuff. But actually, on the record, there were separate songs.
AUDIO: One Day I Just Kept On Walking
Splendid: Did he ever meet them and talk about this?
Bill Brovold: I don't know. He knew a lot of people. He was involved in a lot of different projects, and there was a period of time when he was playing at the Knitting Factory and CBGB's and the Mudd Club and Max's Kansas City, playing for everybody.
Splendid: And after that, you went out on your own, and it looks like there were a whole bunch of groups that you were involved in.
Bill Brovold: Yeah, I played with different people here and there. I put my own band together. It had Ernie Brooks, who was in the Modern Lovers, and James Lo, who played with Live Skull.
Splendid: And Larval came into being in the mid-1990s.
Bill Brovold: I think 1996. I quit doing music for about five years.
Splendid: You were painting?
Bill Brovold: Yeah, I was painting. I was living out in Washington State. I lived in New York until 1990, and moved out into the country.
Splendid: I wanted to ask you about the painting -- do you see the visual and musical arts as related? I mean, when I see a painting I really like, I sort of hear music, and when I hear music that I like, sometimes I see colors and images. Do they come from the same place?
Bill Brovold: Absolutely. No doubt about it. That's why so many musicians are painters and vice versa. From Miles Davis to Tony Bennett to James Ensor.
Splendid: Some of them are better than others at their second thing.
Bill Brovold: Oh yeah, sure. There are people that do both for all the wrong reasons. There are people who have a certain amount of fame and use that fame to make a connection into the other world.
Splendid: Which do you see yourself as being, primarily -- a musician or a painter?
Bill Brovold: I don't want to answer that one. It depends on my mood.
Splendid: Do they help -- do they feed on each other?
Bill Brovold: Absolutely.
Splendid: So what's going on with Larval now? Are you doing any shows?
Bill Brovold: Actually, day after tomorrow, we have a show at the Detroit Arts Space. And then August third, which is a Friday, we're doing a project at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, which is the big art museum here.
Splendid: And you said you had other albums?
Bill Brovold: Two.
Splendid: Are they Larval albums or solo?
Bill Brovold: Well, if you read the credits on Obedience, "Her Last Good Day" is me on the bass, drums and guitar. So Larval pieces are written with me and Toby, and if it sounds good that way, it's solo. If it requires any good musicians, then we bring in the band.
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Jennifer Kelly est son la voiture. Pourquoi? Je ne sais pas.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - provided by the band :: credits graphics ]