Q&A: Colin Langenus On Country-Rock Minimalism And Life After The USA Is A Monster
"That's exactly what I'm going for: psychedelic yacht-rock."
There's no keeping-up with Colin Langenus these days. Ever since the USA Is a Monster, America's premiere prog-noise outfit for most of the last decade, called it a day in 2009, the burly singer-songwriter and guitarist has been hurdling through the murky ether of his raw creativity at warp speed. Unlike drummer and longtime Monster cohort Tom Hohmann (who relocated to rural southeast Michigan to start a new-age-punk farm and commune), Langenus stayed put in New York, eventually hopping from Brooklyn to Queens. Musically speaking, though, he's undergone a drastic transformation over the last year and a half. Kicking the noise rock to the curb, Langenus now oversees two groups: the CSC Funk Band, a large and unruly ensemble churning out eccentric Afrobeat for freakers and weirdoes, and the Colin L. Orchestra, another big band that produces a cloudy blend of classic rock, country folk, and Rhys Chatham-inspired minimalism. On top of all this, he's been involved in a bevy of short-lived multi-media projects, from Bongladesh (which released a hellishly psychedelic long-form video not too far back) to a month-long residency at Zebulon Café last autumn. Oh, and by the way, the Monster recently released a posthumous album, R.I.P., on the Northern Spy label.
So yeah, dude is busy. Even interviewing Langenus is an art project in and of itself: The guy is nervy, garrulous, and exploding with energy. Though he successfully juggles about a million things, he isn't keen on supplying specifics; he's also a big fan of stream-of-consciousness conversation that's about as direct as the hedge maze in The Shining. He and I chatted not long before the CSC Funk Band, whose debut full-length is due out on the Fat Beats imprint this year, went out on its winter tour of the West Coast.
You've been super busy since laying the USA is a Monster to rest: The Colin L. Orchestra, CSC Funk Band, Bongladesh, a month-long residency at Brooklyn's Zebulon. Lets start with the Orchestra's debut album, Infinite Ease. A promo copy has been floating around for some time now. Is there an official release date?
Infinite Ease is due out on the Northern Spy label in May -- vinyl, no CD. It has been re-mastered professionally and sounds pretty amazing.
It's a fantastic record: droning psychedelia and stoner Americana, which is an under-explored aesthetic these days. The great Muleskinner, with Clarence White on guitar, dabbled in it back in the day.
I like combining the country melodies I write with long, mellow grooves. Somebody recently compared the orchestra to Christopher Cross' "Ride Like the Wind." That's exactly what I'm going for: psychedelic yacht-rock.
Most of the songs are real epics, however, like 10 minutes and more. Cross never did anything like that!
True. Right now the Orchestra plays three songs live, and two of them are on Infinite Ease. It's a 40-minute set: two 10-minute songs and one 20-minute song. They're all gentle and minimal, with pretty singing. We also have four guitarists soloing at the same time. It's all about hooks, plus tons of spacey improv.
From what I understand, your second solo record is just about done as well. What's the story behind that?
The title is Good God. It's done and mastered. It's similar but way different to Infinite Ease. It's 10 songs of pretty straight-ahead country-rock -- short songs and ballads. Northern Spy is waiting to see what happens with Infinite Ease. Maybe they'll release Good God in the fall; maybe someone else will. A free download will be available on Last.fm in the next couple of weeks. I also have another Orchestra record, which I haven't started yet, that I plan on making with Northern Spy. It's going to be a doozy, maybe a double LP. Also, the CSC Funk Band is doing an LP with the label.
All the music you're making nowadays is a radical departure from the noise rock USA is a Monster churned out.
The Monster was an athletic math-noise-prog freak out. The Orchestra isn't loud. There are nine people, but our amps are pretty low.
The first couple Monster records, specifically Citizens of the Universe and the Masonic Chronic EP, had their twangy moments, but those disappeared by the time Load Records put out Tasheyana Compost in 1993.
At one point Tommy said, "I don't want to play rock 'n' roll anymore." That's when we turned into a prog band. That was fun, but it wasn't my deal, totally. I'm doing minimalism right now.
Now about the CSC Funk Band: It's a large ensemble like the Orchestra, and it consists of many of the same musicians, right?
More or less, plus a few changes in instrumentation. The Funk Band has been playing for over two years, working on rhythm & blues and repetition. We've put out two seven-inches. Our drummer, Jimmy Thomson, who is the best percussionist I know, started a label that is kicking ass. It's called Electric Cowbell. It's a 45 label. He released six this year.
Repetition and minimalism are vital components to both the Orchestra and the Funk Band. Working with minimalist composer Rhys Chatham must've influenced your current projects.
Definitely. Just about every motherfucker who was in the 200 Guitar Orchestra is doing a minimalism thing right now. Playing with him, I also got to work with Jonathan Kane. He is hugely influenced by Rhys as well. He basically makes boogie-woogie versions of Rhys' pieces. I then took that concept in a country-swing direction with the Orchestra.
Can you talk a little more about working with Rhys?
I was in the 200 Guitar Orchestra the year it got rained out. That was either 2007 or '08, basically the year before it was recorded for Nonesuch Records. But I also did 100 Guitars with Rhys. And I did G3 with him. He is incredibly inspiring. His music makes you high. The overtones create elation.
Let's turn to the USA is a Monster. There is a new album out called R.I.P. Its existence must come as a surprise to all the fans who assumed the band was over.
This new label called Northern Spy released it. Folks still want to put out the Monster. Both Tom and I think that's cool. As for the record, it came out in November, and it's a doozie -- six months of overdubs and mixing. It's a motherfucker.
Did you guys record R.I.P. before or after the farewell show back in May of 2009?
We had two recording sessions. One was the day before the farewell show, actually. Tom then did his overdubs in the few weeks after the farewell show, before he left New York for Michigan. I sat on the record for about six months. Then this dude Max Hodes and I mixed it. That took months. It's a big production: three-part harmonies and all kinds of psychedelic shit. Folks might like Space Programs better, because we sound like a band. Whereas, with this one, it's Tom's music, and then it's my music.
R.I.P. documents the last incarnation of the Monster, which included two extra musicians, Maxx Katz and Peter Schuette, both on synths. Looking back, why did you and Tom add them?
For our second-to-last record, Space Programs, we purposefully added tons of overdubs, layers, and textures that could not be recreated by a two-piece live. Tom, especially, was feeling constricted by the two-piece thing. At some point after that, we took a hiatus. When we regrouped to determine the future of the band, we decided to beef up the sound by adding personnel. Up to then Tom had been playing foot organ, keyboards, vocals, and drums, all at the same time. We put an end to that. He just played drums and sang on the last tour, while I just played guitar and sang, no octave pedal.
You and Tom threw a record-release party last November, yet the Monster didn't play. Who did, exactly?
The show was rad! All kinds of people came: old friends, kids, random people off the street. While some were confused, it seemed really obvious and natural that Tom and I should spotlight our new bands: mine, the Colin L. Orchestra, and Tom's (from) the Sky. An USA is a Monster "reunion" never crossed our minds. Jonathan Kane played, too.
Speaking of live shows, last October you were in residency at Zebulon in Brooklyn. That must've been a blast and really kind of mind-blowing, considering the great Richard Bishop was there back in July.
It was great. I want people to sit down when listening to my music, and Zebulon has chairs. I wasn't trying to make them move. I tried to make them chill and space out.
What does a month-long residency at Zebulon entail, exactly?
Sir Richard Bishop did a month of Mondays last summer, and it was so much fun. I booked the whole night, every Monday, even DJs. I basically needed an excuse to get my Orchestra to be a real band and not just a special-occasion one. We're too many dudes to do a tour right off the bat, plus I can't get that many musicians in a room for rehearsals very often. So, a residency was the perfect solution. I just asked Zebulon. They said yes. It was amazing. I got [Jonny] Corndawg to play, Marc Orleans and Tom Carter, and other folks. The band got way better over that month.
On to Bongladesh. The video, which was posted to YouTube and Vimeo, blew my mind -- 19 minutes of trippy-ass animation and twisted stoner-rock gloriousness. What's up with that beast?
Bongladesh was a project with the people I used to live with in Greenpoint. We all said, "Lets do some kind of silly one-off project." The Funk Band is like Bongladesh, actually. Both are minimalism, repetition, and improvisation. But with Bongladesh, it was like, "Hey, lets make a video for YouTube." That was the concept, and it took a year to complete.
That's a long time to spend on a one-off project.
Yeah. We agreed to this, but then handed [animator, bassist and co-composer] Sara Shapouri a 19-minute song. The video, which is so amazing, took her a really long time.
Speaking of visual art, you and your partner, artist Deya Ramsden, had an exhibit at Mountain Fold, on Fifth Avenue, last summer. How did that turn out?
The Mountain Fold gallery is home to some of our favorite friends here in New York. More than a year ago they said we really need to do a show there. It was called The Outdoors Upstairs, and it was just Deya and I doing our thing. Deya's art is so natural and rad. Mine is a hobby. I'm not particularly great, but I don't care. I think I did stuff for the show that is some of my best. I turned my gnarly scribbles into three-dimensional window hangings -- finally something good!
So, did we miss anything?
Oh yeah. I'm working on a song right now that I want to sell to [Americana singer] Jonny Corndawg. It would be a Corndawg/Juiceboxxx country-rap-disco tune. I listened to a lot of disco this year, so I wanted to write a super-pop song about being broke. I want it to sound like Pro Tools country music. They'll never do it, but they should!