Ray Off is yet another fascinating, genre-defying band from downunder, lead by James Currin, who also runs the brilliant United Fairy Moons label. There's no way on earth that I could pin down what New Zealand's Ray Off are doing in mere words. Their sound is way too complex and genre bending to be placed in any existing field, but I guess phrases like soft, dense clouds of psychedelic drone primitivism, haunting folk structures and glacial improv all are key ingredients.
In the midst of the uncompromising attitude and musical curiosity there’s a strong love for the simple: for the repeated acoustic guitar pattern, for the minimal drone, for the old guitar, for that postcard that never got sent, for nightly walks through fog-clad urban landscapes and for long-lasting front-porch tales. Ray Off lets all these somewhat nostalgic and solemn qualities seep through a filter of tranquil experimentalism and the result are never anything less than spellbinding.
I did both. Until the age of twelve I was the boy most likely to; at high school, the opposite. I've met so many people who're exactly the same. The streaming imperative comes into full effect in high school and....yeah, none of their options suited me. I don't know why it had to become such a struggle, though. Their leaning on me so hard only made me more 'eccentric'. I suppose they had their reasons, but looking back on it all as a full-grown and a parent myself they seem like pretty deeply fuckin' stupid people, frankly.
Primary school, on the other hand, was sort of a golden time. One particularly good thing about it was that I had a music teacher who had a knack for pushing me into doing things that I thought I was a bit too cool to do, you know? They had me gigging hard with the school brass band (I played the trombone) and singing massed choral shit from the age of 9 or something. So I was very lucky in that respect. That said, it was the music teacher at high school, a fully geeked Christian rocker, who first turned me onto free jazz and Charles Mingus. He was a fuckin' weirdo and pretty great. He even seemed kind of pleased when I stole his tapes!
All of my earliest memories have to do with either music or my dog... I can remember being obsessed with songs like '1-2-3 Red Light', 'Woolly Bully', 'Surfin' Bird', "The Monster Mash' and a lot of other tracks in that vein that my parents had around. I was completely revved every time Rod Stewart or Suzi Quattro was on the TV. This is when I was 2 or 3. I loved that song 'Hooked On A Feeling', just sang it non-stop. There's a Australian song called 'I Am Pegasus' that still obsesses me to this day. The music on Sesame St was also huge at that time. So much, man! Even if I wasn't all that jazzed by a track I'd still try to sing it and dance to it. I'm still a little the same. So yeah, music was always It. And also, my dad got me into Australian ballad poetry, which is very metric and meant to be recited musically, so I started writing poetry and stories from an early age. Geeky stuff about the Aussie bush.
The first three records I ever bought with my own money were The Celibate Rifles' 'Sideroxylon' LP, the Scientists 'This heart don't run on blood, this heart don't run on love' EP and a Wet Taxis single, 'C'mon'. Australian stuff. Australian music in the eighties was fuckin' amazing and a lot of it still hasn't had its' due. Bands like The Laughing Clowns, feedtime, Bloodloss, The Cannanes... they were all incredible. There were fantastic bands who played for a year or two, made a record that didn't sell any copies, and then disappeared. Ever hear Disband or Three-Toed Sloth or Matrimony or Slub or Thug? Probably not, but their records are great. Fungus Brains are possibly the greatest band ever that no-one ever gave a shit about. All THREE of their albums are mind-blowing classics. So that's where I was at then - the Australian eighties, and vaguely analogous stuff from o/s. Anything I could get my hands on basically. Light, dark, in-between, didn't matter.
I just always did. But probably it was hanging out with musicians who I thought were great, in my teens, that allowed me to, you know, unleash. See I didn't have any kind of background of artistic practice in my family, none. Seeing these musicians who I really loved just doing their thing, up close watching them play, watching them make cups of tea, talk about cars and dogs and whatever. A lot of these musicians made art, amazing art, too. That normalized the whole thing, or it sort of allowed me to imagine doing it myself. See I had always had the thing for sounds, and words, I just didn't know how you went about doing something about it. I still feel like I'm making it up as I go along, which is no bad thing.
No, no one ever asks me that question. So here goes. It's basically a small town with loads of backwards, bullshitty bumfuck attitudes, into which tens of thousands of students from all over the country (and world) get poured every year. Then you've got a tiny, tiny coterie of excellent people who help make the place interesting and liveable (you can't rely on the students for that anymore, they're generally as stupid as a television these days). And, you've got a long history of people who had the guts to go 'fuck this, I'm making my own fun, here at the end of the fucking earth' and did it really really well. Then, there's heaps of mental illness, birth defects, drug addiction, state-control weirdness, conspiracy theorists, UFO sightings, hauntings, fucked-up shamen, growers, farmers' kids, child abuse, war enthusiasts, sexual repression, highly literate autistics, really fucked alcoholics, you got masses of Prozac and Ritalin and valium and poppy tea and dope.... It's a far-flung colonial outpost that had it's supply lines cut, experienced world history via war veterans, sailors, books, national radio and one television channel, and bred a lot of ability, imagination and drive into a few seers and weirdos who went and fucked shit up for all time, as well as a general culture of thinkers and potterers. Well, that's my outsiders point of view anyway, only been here 7 years or so. To a lot of people like me, not born here, it's definitely some kind of uneasy refuge from either the big bad cities or the dead-end provinces. Dunedin does seems to drive people insane in interesting ways.
Recently I took a road trip with a friend and we got lost in this totally astonishing, hidden landscape - it was epic, man! And I remember thinking 'maybe people think this is what New Zealand is like all over'.... Yes there's a lack of overcrowding here, and a vast lack of proximity to 'the world'. Also there's a lack of history. Even the Maori people have only been here for about 1000 years. Speaking for myself, I react more to headspaces in people; I feel quite subjective as opposed to what you might call the objectivity of the physical fact of landscape. But one natural phenomena that deeply affected me, and which I'd never seen before I came to Dunedin, was that of Auroras. Recently I read an interview somewhere and someone was asked what they thought was the connection in feel between NZ and Scandinavian music was, and the fact that both places experience auroras was what occurred immediately to me. Maybe that's neither here nor there. Like auroras. But then, they have 'em in Canada too, right?
To be honest, though, I'm not a NZer but an Australian and the landscape there is to me intensely beautiful, the vegetation, the animal life... I mostly only get to live that stuff in my head these days and it gets pretty fervid in there sometimes.
After leaving Australia I gave up music for quite some time. I had this dream of being an organic vegetable farmer... do you want me to go that far back? It all seems very tottery to me. Anyway, the first few days I was in Dunedin I'd jammed with Sandoz Lab Technicians, Michael Morley, Alastair Galbraith and Peter Gutteridge so it seemed like my idea of forgetting music wasn't really happening... totter, totter... moved here for completely separate reasons but the tottering went on - jams with Flies Inside The Sun, a duo with Nathan Thompson, then forming Three Forks. Uh... one thing about Dunedin is that everything is extremely casual. Y'know, it took years for me to get a band together and even then, we hardly played, And I was getting the taste back, wanting to do more and more and more and more.... so my friend Sensual Dickens organised this gig called Electro Moshpit where anyone & everyone doing out-there stuff was invited to simply get up and play at any time. The thing went on non-stop for over 4 hours, and was, surprisingly really fucking good. I just mixed CDs and tapes of this electronic sound I'd come up with on my computer; but there I was on stage with people like Jon Chapman, Matt Middleton, Toki Wilson... totally awesome cats who I didn't even know as people at that point. It was such a blast. So that schtick became known as Ray Off. Stuck with a fucking joke name again! Then Ryan Cockburn (Spit) and I hitched our wagons a few times. He really was instrumental in getting me to think that it was worth persuing and that it might become a larger entity. Then I had a horrible split with my girlfriend, lost my job and crashed my car all within the space of a couple of weeks and that was when I started recording 'Ghost Wolf'. It came out right as Three Forks broke up and I started taking every single gig I could get, solo or with an increasing band of collaborators. And that's the tottering history....
I'm still quite amused by the 'musically-expansive meta-folk' description from the Wire's review of the Three Forks album. Tim and me throw that one around quite a lot. It's all a bit of a laugh, descriptions, catagorisations, I never can take it seriously. You can just make them do whatever you want. Once I somehow ended up at a lunch with an Australian film producer (he did 'Romper Stomper' and some other things). He asked me what kind of music my band at the time did. Realising he had a short attention span, I quickly said 'it's electric folk music crossed with cartoon theme tunes', which is, y'know, just a throwaway crap line. He goes 'Wow! What a pitch! You're hired!' (still waiting for that call-back!). Yeah. Whatever. One thing I hate, though, is to be called 'noise'. That's just so fuckin' 90's, I'm sorry. I just hope the music communicates something and if I'm called upon to describe it then I just make something up, get it over with as painlessly as possible, and forget about it. Shall I make one up now? Nah.
Um... it is largely improvised, yes. But then, 'Not In the Racing Sky' was totally through-composed, with improv elements (I was the only player not given any leeway). Parts of 'Ghost Wolf...' started from written ideas. 'Father Bean to Nimble Mum' is totally written (with Katrina improvising over the top). 'Methotrimeprazine' came out of a written thing which you hear a bit of at the beginning.... I'm basically a student of Donald McPherson in regards to improvisation. He showed me that you can improvise and still involve all the elements of music that I love in songs - hooks, harmony, building and layering repetitions etc etc, all in an articulate way. He tells stories with his music, ornate and beautiful and funny and deep and, you know, just good stories! But he also writes things all the time as well, which I think is really important. Writing is like the homework - by working out a song/piece structure, you learn the architecture of music and how you can use it to say what you want. Then when you go to improvise your vocabulary is expanded, you're less inclined to simply stick to one thing, one area, one feel. You can start to add layers and layers of nuance. Some of the best compliments we ever get are when someone comes up after a gig, when we've played for 30-40 minutes non-stop, and says 'wow, how did you guys learn all that??', and you have to tell them that you made it all up on the spot.
I think this inter-species of composed/improvised music needs to come out into the light a little more, 'cause it seems to me that that's how pretty much everything works, anyway. You 'compose', formulate a coherent idea; then you improvise, you play with it, make it come alive; and the other way 'round; and so on and so forth. I think the notion of totally 'free' music was revolutionary in it's time, but ultimately untenable. So many completely free groups end up sounding waaay more boring than the 'slaves' to composition that they initially stood opposed to. In the end it becomes about a fear of ideas rather than an openness to them. What is Free? I say, How Free Is Free?
-- Mats Gustafsson (3 July, 2007)