Boron: Dan Nelson Is Not Boring

September 22, 2011
By Brad Rose

I have been pretty vocal in my love for the Field Hymns label over the past year or so and one of the big reasons that the label so resonates with me is because of the excellent Boron.  Now that I know Boron began, for all intents & purposes, the night that Nelson and his friend MaryClare Brzytwa snuck into the room at Mills College where they keep their Moog III-P.  When you take into consideration his lack of familiarity with not just the III-P but modular synthesis in general it offers a particularly insight into the sounds captured that evening.  There’s a freshness in how Nelson approaches this music.  It sounds serious without ever taking itself too serious and it is that dichotomy which makes Boron’s first two cassettes so interesting and offers a lot of promise going forward.  It also doesn’t hurt that all his various art projects and installations are damn interesting and paint a much larger picture.

First off, can you give a little background on when you first started making music and how it eventually led to the Boron project?

Without necessarily being able to tie them all together, there are several threads to my musical life and Boron is just one of them. I’ve played drums for over twenty years and have been involved in a lot of bands, and currently play the set with Larry Yes, and the bass marching drum with the Original Duke of Hominy Brass Band. Then there’s the bedroom four-track stuff I’ve made under my own name, a lot of it emerging from my teenage love of the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, etc.

Then there’s Boron, which had a very distinct beginning. My good friend MaryClare Brzytwa, a brilliant and hilarious and dynamic musician who studied at Mills with Fred Frith, got us into the room one night where they keep the modular Moog III-P, one of only 3 or 4 in the world that are still operational. I’d never handled or even seen a modular synth. We plugged in my four-track and as I started messing around (somehow I figured some things out, this model has no keyboard), I became utterly gripped by this machine. It felt as if the machine was playing me. MC and I had been collaborating loosely, and playing with the Moog was the latest thing we were going to do, but instead I sort of just took over, there was something strange and powerful going on with me and that machine. So Boron was born I think in those few hours.

Why the name Boron?

Initially the name appealed to me because it sounds like a cross between “boring” and “moron.” As the sound I make under the name progresses, those terms lose their perjorative quality and express the delights of repetition and of the experiences that lie beyond the rational. Part of that comes from that evening with the Moog. As Boron’s field of play increases, a common theme to the music, no matter how different the manifestations are from release to release are and will be, is the act of erasing, emptying, being taken over, mildly possessed.

Just by looking through your website a bit, you’ve obviously got a lot of different things going on – I am particularly enamored with ‘The Origin & Future of Blood’ exhibit & imagery – but I wonder where your music endeavors fit in with the other art and creative outlets you have and if there’s a common thread that ties it all together?

Art is, to me, largely cerebral and what I put into it and get out of it is based in ideas. Even ‘The Origin & Future of Blood,’ which is visually very striking, is still a sort of conceptual piece. One of the attempts of that series of pieces, for example, was to somehow translate language into symbols of traffic sign-like immediacy. Most of the art I’ve made has played with ideas of language, communication, symbols, etc. There are overlaps of music and art, such as my book “All Know Metal Bands” and the illustrations for Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise,” but they are rooted in those ideas, and in my experience of music as a listener and a participant in musical culture, not as a practitioner.

How’d you hook up with the Field Hymns label?

Garth Klippert and I had a band in Oakland. He moved up to Portland in 2005 and soon connected with Dylan somehow. When I came up to visit, he was playing this goofy music in his car and said the creator was called Oxykitten (one of Dylan’s handles) and the disc was called “Library of Condo.” So the appeal of all that and also Garth telling me that we’d get along convinced me. But I didn’t actually meet Dylan until my wife and I moved here in 2009. I sent him a bunch of my home recordings, both the more poppy stuff under my own name, and “Decrresscenndo,” and he asked about putting it out. I wasn’t aware he had a label until then.

So the first Boron album, “DECRRESSCENNDO,” reminds me a lot of early electronic experimentalism and various ‘library sound’ records. Was stuff like that at all an inspiration for you or did your experimentation come from a different place?

I’d never even heard of library music until last year and am still trying to find any of it interesting. A lot of it’s kind of cute and funny, but…yeah, what’s the big deal?! I had heard Wendy Carlos and “Silver Apples of the Moon” and such. What’s funny is that the experience of recording the first Boron stuff is what influenced me the most and then got me interested in hearing what people like Pauline Oliveros and Delia Derbyshire had done with similar synths (and even without synths!). At the very bottom and foundation of what makes music great for me though is always the kosmische and krautrock bands, Cluster, Can, Faust, Conrad Schnitzler, Tangerine Dream, etc.

The pieces for the album were recorded years apart – were these just random experiments you recorded over the years or did you have this album (or something along these lines) in mind when you started it?

The material on “Aria Statica” was actually all recorded in 2006, prior to the material on “Decrresscenndo,” I think the 2011 date just refers to transferring the audio and EQ-ing it and such, which Dylan helped a lot with. But probably what came first or second isn’t very important because I see Boron’s activities as being not a linear progression or development, but a spreading out. I’m venturing out in the dark and getting a lay of this strange land.

I admit I’m only familiar with the Boron stuff but now you’ve got me curious about your various other projects and guises. What have you released and where, when it comes to that stuff?

The Boron stuff is the first of my music to be released by someone. I’ve made a few home records that are posted on a Bandcamp page, which I consider pop music, but my wife still thinks are weird. I’ve been in several bands, but only one—Top Brown—recorded anything, and we never found anyone to put that record out. I’m currently playing drums with a great songwriter and super-bro Larry Yes and we plan to do some recording this fall.

Are there any future Boron releases currently planned?

As a matter of fact, I’m deep in the process of the next Boron, which is a double-album length recording that’ll either be called “Stop Faking Sense” or “The Beige Album.” It has a good mix of abstract/abstruse weirdness and “pop” songs with vocals and beats and such—it’s basically the kitchen sink. I think—beyond the fact that it’s the newest thing and so the most interesting to me—that it’ll be by far the best material I’ve done. It has this air of that record from the Human League song “The Black Hit of Space,” the one that swallows everything and everyone up, it’s relentless and engulfing.

After that, I’ll be picking up on some field-recording-based stuff I started a few years ago, and hope to turn that into a sort of audio movie: dialogue (in Finnish), soundtrack, sound effects, etc., everything but the visual element. That might be the fourth Boron outing.

That story with the Moog III-P is amazing. Are any of those recordings on “Decrresscenndo” or “Aria Statica”?

Yeah, everything on “Decrresscenndo” except for the first three tracks is from that session with the Moog. “Aria Statica” is an entirely diffrenent beast, and is mostly sourced from shortwave radio.

I think it’s great that you mention Cluster, Tangerine Dream, etc. as big influences – and while I can certainly hear elements of that in your work, I wonder if you have ever thought doing something that’s got a more direct kosmische/Berlin-school kind of vibe to it?

I actually have the hardest time when someone asks me what a band sounds like, I can never compare one band to another, unless it’s two really disparate things brought together, like “Tori Amos meets Minor Threat” or something. In the same way, my attitude about what has influenced me is that what I produce is not necessarily the product of my favorite music, or even the music that makes the most sense, comparison-wise.

With the Boron tracks now in progress, I sometimes stop and say “Where the hell did that come from?” That’s a fun question to ask and think about, but it’s also bordering on criticism, which musicians have no business doing about themselves. There’s a reason why all musicians hate writing one-sheets, because it’s wrong! It’s not the musician or the artist’s job to place themselves in history or even in their own cultural moment, their job is to just do it, whatever it is. The act of saying “I/we sound like so-and-so” is irrelevant and unproductive.

And as much as I’d love to just play drums in a Can or Faust-like band, it’s been done many times over. And what I love about bands like that—the feeling of freedom and lightness and invention—would be defeated by playing music that just “does” that vibe. By doing whatever the hell you want, you embrace that spirit more than by aping the spontaneous. Don’t be the Broadway musical version of someone else’s ideas!

And speaking of Conrad Schnitzler and his death this past week, any words about his influence specifically?

The music that I think is great is more of an influence on my way of living and attitude towards the world, and the process and attitude of the players is often what shines through. Schnitzler was nearly the last of the kraut/kosmische crowd that I ended up hearing, and I can’t say he’s influenced me much at all. He’s more like someone I heard that made me say, “That’s my people! Let me hitch a ride with you off this planet!”, and reaffirmed that you should just deeply go into what you do and not overthink it.

What are some albums you’ve heard this year that you’ve really enjoyed?

The last major thing I got into is Grace Jones’ “Hurricane,” but that’s a few years old now. The new Battles disc is pretty swell, they were fantastic live. Looking forward to the new Yob. Still ga-ga-ing over that Autechre album “Quaristice.” What I listen to a lot is two of my friends who make incredible music that hasn’t been released yet: MaryClare Brzytwa’s disc “MCB” is right up my alley, weird and poppy at the same time. (http://avantot.com/wordpress/) And Stefan Jecusco recently finished his trilogy of albums based on Dante; you can download all three for nothing at http://www.stefanjecusco.bandcamp.com, and be blown away. I listen to those two constantly. Brad, your stuff is great, by the way, Altar Eagle, check it out people!

Dan Nelson’s Site

Field Hymns

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One Response to Boron: Dan Nelson Is Not Boring

  1. Boron & Foxy Digitalis interview | on September 23, 2011 at 4:36 pm

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