Although he was born and raised in New Jersey, Alan Licht was from an early age greatly influenced by the music that emerged during his youth in nearby New York City, a place that would define the tone of his body of work; his recordings – early ones with bands such as Love Child, Run On, and Blue Humans; later solo albums such as Sink the Aging Process, Plays Well, and A New York Minute; and collaborations with artists such as Loren Mazzacane Connors and Aki Onda - are imbued with the minimalist and punk aesthetics of the Downtown Scene that fascinated him as a young man. Licht’s artistic work runs far beyond music; he studied film at Vassar College, and is also a prolific writer, having just released his third book (for which he acts as editor) in the UK (soon to be released in the US), a collaboration with Will Oldham that focuses on Oldham’s work, for the distinguished Faber & Faber and W.W. Norton publishing houses, respectively; his previous books are An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn and Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories. He has also contributed to many excellent publications such as Artforum, Sight & Sound, The Wire, The New York Sun, BOMB, and The Village Voice, and many others; one of his most well-known articles is “Alan Licht’s Minimal Top Ten,” which he wrote for the remarkable, now defunct Halana Magazine, in which he brought to light (with his characteristic dry humor) eleven rare works by composers such as Charlemagne Palestine, La Monte Young, and Jon Gibson. He spoke recently to Foxy Digitalis via phone about his approach to, and his work process in relation to, his music.
(Photo credit: Bryony McIntyre)
[Note: some of the interview has been edited for clarity. Tape does not begin until into the first answer; the first question is written from memory.]
On Plays Well or A New York Minute for example, it seems like you utilize, as you call it in an interview with Paris Transatlantic [publication], loops – a sustained note over underlying, continuously shifting chords – would this be called a pedal point? What is it about this kind of musical form that you feel attracts you to it?
[It's] kind of a sustained pitch that in classical music would be holding one pitch and then playing melodies and chords or whatever on top of that. So it’s similar to that… there’s actually another term called “cantus firmus” which is almost like a bed that the other things are kind of piled up on…
I actually did a sound installation at Audio Visual Arts gallery a couple of years ago called “On Deaf Ears.” I had someone reading an article about hearing loss that was caused by the use of ear buds with iPods and things like that, and it was kind of like a newspaper article originally. And I had someone read it out loud, I had that going as a loop on the speakers outside of the gallery, and so people would walk by, you couldn’t really hear it unless you were right in front of the gallery, the storefront. And so I also made kind of a field recording of right outside the gallery of all different sounds, you know, that would happen in the course of two or three hours while this thing was playing outside the gallery.
So in that way I felt that that recording which I was looping then became kind of a cantus firmus for all these other kind of ambient sounds that were going on, that obviously were indeterminate that I hadn’t planned, but it was interesting to see the different patterns that would happen, like the amount of times a car would pass or … there were actually a lot of people walking down the block with a rolling suitcase, just kind of indiscriminately…
But to get back to your question, I think what you’re talking about, there is a much shorter loop, probably you might be thinking of the second CD of A New York Minute album, right, like “14, Second, Fifth” where it’s just like a pretty short loop of a perfect fifth right where you pile all this stuff on top of it. And the one for “Remington Khan” is even shorter. It’s like just a one or two second two note – almost a kind of ostenato kind of going over and over and over again.
So the idea there was… some of it comes out of Brian Eno tape loop stuff… and a lot of the solo guitar stuff I do I kind of got into through listening to the solo guitar piece that Henry Kaiser did in the late 70s and the early 80s, which is one piece he did called “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is a side long 18- or 19-minute extended suite, and he’s doing a lot of stuff with delay units, sometimes using loops, not always, but he’s still sort of, the idea was to use extended guitar techniques, signal processing, things like that, to just sort of expand the range of the instrument and then you know, also if you’re a one man band… you know solo playing to me, originally you think of a solo guitarist as being someone like Segovia, or then later maybe Joe Pass or somebody like that, and then when I encountered Henry’s work, I realized that through pedals and things like that I could actually do something that was having sort of orchestral implications, just not quite that expansive, but you were still sort of, you could generate a very wide field of sound with only one specific instrument, you know, one kind of source.
Would you say that there’s… an almost philosophical idea behind the loops… it seems like you maybe talk about certain rhythms within life that occur – like the way with the weather reports [on A New York Minute], you’ve talked about in an interview that came out of checking the weather reports on a daily basis and then creating this relationship between the way that a weather report would be compared to the next day’s weather, creating these sort of cycles out of that…
Yeah, well it’s a pattern, I mean on some level every day you kind of get up and then you kind of leave your house and then eventually you come back to your house, you’re always making a loop, it might be the exact same route every day, I mean when you’re doing a loop, the thing is, it’s like you’re repeating something absolutely, right, in music. [side of tape ends]
If you listen to a loop for a minute, as opposed to listening to it for five minutes, as opposed to listening to it for 20 minutes, as opposed to listening to it for an hour, as opposed to it for five or six hours, as opposed to listening to it for 24 hours, your relationship to it is going to change, in some way; you’re not going to hear it the same way, the same way as if you have a painting on your wall the way you look at it the first day you put it up, and the way you look at it five years later, is not going to be the same. So that a lot of times loops are, sort of, goes in with art music, or are things that people might compare to visual art. That’s probably what the reasoning behind that is, because by doing a tape loop or sound loop, or something like that, you’re actually trying to approach a stasis, a kind of static thing. So, because of the extreme repetition of it, it then becomes like jogging in place.
Another question I was going to ask is – it seems like there’s this subtle type of humor that often runs through the titles of your work, and – the first question I would ask about that is, it seems like a kind of humor a lot of people wouldn’t get, if you have a joke about Calvin Johnson [Licht released a 7" called Calvin Johnson Has Ruined Rock for an Entire Generation and a CD called The Evan Dando of Noise?], I was wondering if a lot of times people don’t really – like to me that’s really funny because I really dislike Calvin Johnson. I read for example that I think [record label] Asthmatic Kitty made a joke title that was like, Alan Licht Has Ruined… – you know it seems like they were making fun of the title, but it almost seems like they didn’t get it? I don’t know if you know about that or not…
Um, that vaguely rings a bell… I don’t remember exactly what it was, I mean, I think they sort of do get it, and if they don’t get it, you know, I don’t really care. I mean that Calvin Johnson thing, that was a single that the label called 18 Wheeler put out and actually the guy that ran the label was … [comedian] Tom Scharpling… [indecipherable] and he’s made some music videos, then, so you know basically, I figured that the channels that that thing would be distributed to would probably be familiar with Calvin Johnson, and then the whole point of the record is that, you know, it’s this kind of noise record so it doesn’t really have anything to do with Calvin Johnson [laughs].
And also, this is something that is a part of it that I’m sure almost nobody would get, but that title actually came from a t-shirt that had been made by a friend of Calvin Johnson’s, Nils Bernstein, who was then the publicist at Sub Pop Records and is now the publicist at Matador. So it’s not – I was actually borrowing that whole expression and the t-shirt I think, and I think the cover of the single was kind of modeled after the lettering on the t-shirt. It was all kind of appropriated. I think that that was sort of in-jokey and I think I just, The Evan Dando of Noise, it’s all sort of… in-jokey. It’s more for my amusement, as much as anything else, if people get it, they can appreciate it, if not, they don’t. I think I was a little more inclined to do that in the 90′s than I might be now.
[Note: here I make an interjection on film that I've left out of the interview]
… So I was also going to ask what the actual writing process is for you right now, like how often you write, because I think you’ve published two books, is that right?
Yeah with the third basically out, or as of next week, it’ll be out in the UK, and then it’s coming out in the fall over here, which is a book with Will Oldham, which is called Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. It’s basically, you know, conversations between Will and myself, covering his entire career.
So when did you start writing, I guess, just… I guess it must have been pretty early I imagine because you must have been obviously writing critical work at Vassar?
Well at that point I was sort of, while I was going to school there I was kind of contributing to a couple different fanzines, you know, and… I was writing for one and I expressed interest in doing kind of a longer piece on La Monte Young, cause I was into him, and the guy was like well, that might be a little too arty for my magazine, but why don’t you try Forced Exposure, and I guess Forced Exposure had maybe already reviewed the Love Child tape, demo tape or something, and so I already maybe had a little connection to them there, and I kind of… asked them about doing that, and they were into it, that’s kind of when they were first starting to get their toe into more experimental music when… you might see a picture of Derek Bailey in there or something like that, so… It seemed like the time was right to do sort of do something like that.
And so I did that, and then… in the, kind of the Love Child era I kind of backed off from doing it because I was kind of pretty busy, going on tours and you know, making records and stuff like that. I did a little bit more when Run On was around, I think that’s maybe when I did the Halana “Minimalism Top Ten” piece and stuff like that, then people always responded pretty well to that sort of thing, and it was something I was interested in doing, but… trying to find time between that and working on music and… by the late-90s I didn’t have to go to band practice three times a week [laughs]. I had a bit more time to work on things like that and then there was a profile of me in The Wire and after that I found out that this woman named Maryanne Amacher was releasing a CD on Tzadik, and Maryanne Amacher had never released a CD before and she was a really amazing experimental composer, and I’d seen this concert by her in the early 90s which to this day is the greatest concert I’ve ever seen, in any genre by anyone. And so I asked The Wire if I could do an article about her because I thought the CD’s coming out, but it’s more than another CD coming out, it’s actually kind of a big deal that they should know about, so they were into that… and from that point on I kept writing for them.
And probably around the same time Drag City asked me to write a book because Dan Koretzky had actually seen, amazingly enough, a couple of record reviews I’d done in the campus radio station, I don’t know if it was a magazine or newsletter or something, at Vassar, because a friend of his from high school was someone that I was sort of friendly with at school, and we… both did radio shows. And so that’s actually kind of how I met Dan at Drag City. Which was way way back there, I think I was almost out of college but not quite and it was sort of through this other guy that had been a high school friend of his, and Dan, I met him at a New Year’s Eve party and I think he had either just started Drag City or was saying he was just about to start a label called Drag City. That’s my recollection of it.
And so do you write on a daily basis, would you say?
It depends if I have a writing project going. Like if I know I’m doing a piece for Artforum or whatever else comes along, than I generally will work on that piece pretty much every day for a period of time, whether it’s researching it, or just kind of fine-tuning it, or whatever.
With the Will book, that was something where, you know, I went down and spent a week with him… doing the interviews, and then came back and spent a month transcribing everything, and then, you know, it would basically be just about every day editing, that was maybe at least six months of that, and then probably had a draft together, and then we kind of did some follow up interviews and so there was more editing, so on and so forth. So, I don’t know if it ends up being every day but it’s certainly most days.
I guess to go back to an earlier question, I was going to ask what is your interest in film like right now, like what has been interesting you lately in terms of directors or…
Almost nothing… [laughs]. I feel like I’ve sort of fallen off the wagon there with film. I mean in the 90s I worked for a film distribution company, so I could get into kind of any revival movie house for free, so I would still kind of go and see a lot of stuff, and just kind of being in that office before, talking about movies, and it was more something I was a little more keen on kind of keeping up with.
Also with the closing of video stores it’s a lot harder for me, though, cause sometimes I would just be like, well, if I would feel like watching something, I would just walk into a video store and see what was new, or just see… whatever. And then, I haven’t really been doing that at all. There’s one video store that’s sort of close to me but it’s not that close, so it’s… like a real expedition to actually go by there. I’m not on Netflix or anything like that…
We’re still doing the Text of Light project, you know, which is with mostly Stan Brakhage films, but sometimes other experimental films, so that part of it I’m still kind of interested in, in seeing other films that we might be able to perform with…
I mean, in fact there’s I guess a couple movies that I’ve seen recently that I really just didn’t like at all, and it sort of made me question whether I should be even [indecipherable] into a movie theater to see a movie.
I think that television has actually come a long way – movies seem to have stagnated – but television seems like there’s a lot more – it’s a lot more growth, in TV series. Something that my girlfriend and I kind of watch at home was like the full run of Mad Men, you know? We’ve been catching up with that on DVD, and Breaking Bad also, and I was really impressed at how cinematic those really are…
One of the things I really liked in film was really long films like three hours or more, and the thing with a series like Mad Men is it basically becomes this – it’s like 13 hours a season, and it’s four seasons, so it’s actually like this giant… really mammoth storytelling thing, I think a lot more like novels were in the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens was serializing, you know, his novels and then at the end, you know, he would have this big fat book that was collecting these… serialized stories [that] would come out in a newspaper or however they were done. So I think it’s much more like that, but then it’s the moving image. With a novel you can only describe things but there’s only so much you can do, with television and film there’s… color and there’s sound… and it just comes to life much more.
I was going to ask who your favorite writers are, like who maybe inspires you to write?
In terms of writing about music you know when I was a kid it was people like Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches. And Ellen Willis actually, I kind of rediscovered Ellen Willis when this collection of her writing came out recently and I realized I had read a bunch of things… and I think they made more of an impression than I had remembered. It was really fun to kind of rediscover her writing and then Paul Nelson was somebody who I realized I read a lot of in Rolling Stone when I was a kid… I probably didn’t connect with him quite as much because there were some things he was really into that I liked and then some of the more singer-songwriter stuff back then I didn’t care for quite as much.
So that’s in terms of rock music writers. There’s a guy named Geoffrey O’Brien who has written a few books that I was really into, there’s one about film called The Phantom Empire then there was one about music called Sonata for Jukeboxes, he writes for the New York Review of Books and he used to write for The Village Voice back in the day. He is someone I really liked and Paul Williams I liked. And then these guys like Jonathan Lethem or Geoff Dyer who kind of … write on a bunch of subjects… [Note: at this point in the interview I make an irrelevant digression on Geoff Dyer.] I like them, but then only up to a point, because basically they’re these guys who are soaking up all this different cultural stuff, and I’m someone that’s sort of doing that but I’m also a performer… I can only relate to them up to a point because I’m not only writing about things, I’m also producing things that other people are writing about, and not just books, you know, whatever. You know I read this memoir that James Wolcott did of the 70s – do you know the writer James Wolcott, he writes for Vanity Fair now – actually back in the 70s he was writing for The Voice and he was one of the main people covering the CBGB’s scene when it first started happening. And he was also kind of a close friend of Pauline Kael’s… and I got to the end of the book and I realized this guy never really did anything, I mean this guy, he sat there and he was kind of in the audience at CBGB’s, he was in the audience with Pauline Kael at the movie, I mean he was in the audience at the ballet, he was in the audience everywhere, he’s always an audience member, he’s just some audience member that took the initiative to then write about it for national media, but it’s this memoir of the 70s and what did he actually do? He didn’t really do anything. He just kind of looked around, he’s just kind of an observer. And I’m never going to be in that position because I’m also someone that is making records and playing concerts and doing sound installations and whatever else it is, in addition to being a historian of things like that and a curator.
I know in the Paris Transatlantic interview, which seems really extensive, you mention that in 1998 there was for you this kind of – I don’t know if you would call it self-doubt – but there was a period where you didn’t really know where your music or writing were going. I was wondering if you’ve had other moments like that and how you’ve got through them – you know, if you ever struggle with self-doubt, like how that’s something you overcome, because obviously you seemed to get through it, because it’s 14 years later and you’re obviously still making lots of work.
That was sort of a low point, that was when Run On broke up and that was the second band breakup of that decade. And those were both disappointing, to a certain extent. And I think at that point… a couple of things just sort of changed. Part of it was that Jim O’Rourke – I mean I talked about this in that interview I think – that Jim kind of organized the recording session of Hoffman Estates in Chicago with Loren Mazzacane Connors and then a bunch of other people. And I was really happy with that record, and that also got me a little more attention from the sort of experimental music world, I think because Jim had put his imprint on it. And the whole reason The Wire did this profile of me was that… seemed to garner more interest from them than there may have been before. Although I think I’d had other records reviewed in there, but that was sort of a turning point, in terms of that. And then I also started working at [New York music venue] Tonic; Chris Corsano had been working there assisting the people who were running it and he told me he was leaving, and I suggested myself to replace him, and I replaced him and worked there from 2000 until the close in 2007. And from working at Tonic I got to meet all the people in the experimental music world. And I was playing there pretty regularly also, so that was another thing that made a big difference. And then, like I said, writing for The Wire, it’s just kind of getting involved in another scene, I didn’t really want to do another indie rock band, of course now I’m playing in Lee Ranaldo’s band, I’m sort of back in that world [laughs], but it’s a much different situation obviously, than it would be to form my own band. Some of the things that would take up my time in doing that are already taken care of. So it’s interesting to kind of go back to it, but it doesn’t have the same position in my life that being in a band would have, you know during the 90s. So the answer to the question is… fortunately enough people have been interested in hearing more music from me and then offering me situations to make that happen. And that’s why it keeps continuing. And also [laughs], I’m not really qualified to do anything else. I think at a certain point I tried to get something like a more straight job and I had no success whatsoever, so I’m pretty much stuck doing this. [laughs]
Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that.
No, I’m not too worried about it. [laughs]
Alan Licht’s artist page at Drag City Records is here:
Special thanks to Drew Samuel for his help with this interview