Q&A: C. Spencer Yeh On Self-Definition, The Perils Of Sequencing, And Going Semi-Indie

Tonight, the prolix, improvisation-happy Ohioan C. Spencer Yeh will play a set with cellist Okkyung Lee and pianist Magda Mayas at the Knitting Factory. And while there's no way to predict what his set might sound like, it's a fair bet that it'll differ from the two shows he played last week and from his forthcoming solo album 1975, due out Oct. 1 on Intransitive Recordings. To qualify as an official Yeh stan, one should possess (a) tons of shelf and hard/or drive space, (b) a dedicated credit card, and (c) a strong sense of musical adventure.

From the bicycle-chain scrape of 2006's Solo Violin I-X to the abstract crack jazz he's made with Storm of Corpses to the fanged, chronological layer-cake Papercuts Theater (recorded with Burning Star Core, his long-running noise project with members of Lexington, Kentucky grist-atomizers Hair Police) to the giddy sides cut with Cali laptop-noise guy John Wiese, Yeh's sprawling, multi-instrumental oeuvre can be summed up in one word: "possibility." (You can sample a few of them here.)

1975, by contrast, can come across at first blush as stubbornly incurious, insular, slight, and too fussed over; like a cavernous gallery space of canvases painted a stark white, it sometimes doesn't seem to go far enough. The first half is all ooze: drones come on like augurs turning in slow motion; masticated vocalizations get the Jiffy Pop treatment; tremulous, ribbon-like tones that breed like domesticated rabbits when not inching in and out of earshot. Antagonistic track-titling doesn't help much. (No kidding, there are three songs on this album entitled "Drone.") Even when Yeh ups the edge—as on contextually abrasive cuts labeled as skits, and some abrasive-given-the-context delirium-o-ramas—everything initially feels infused with a degree of antiseptic hesitancy.

Then something strange happens: 1975's studied insolvency wins by imperceptibly softening into a cozy, alien hang suite, its innate insolvency an asset for those Beats By Dre headphone moments when traditional ambient is too contiguous, hard noise is too brutal, and you're feening for a diffuse sound that's less Tazer-shock intense than low-impact cerebral massage. In other words, if you can't identify which song you're listening to most points on 1975—and if you can barely muster the will to check—that's pretty much as it should be.

Sound of the City recently emailed with Yeh about 1975, how hip-hop doesn't own the concept of skits, and the violin as albatross.

1975 is the year of your birth; what was the significance or titling this particular collection of songs as such?

I feel like you can only get away with using this sort of thing as a title once in your life, so I thought for what I considered my first proper solo record, why not? I just that read The-Dream put out a record called 1977, and under his own name as well. I think he was chasing after some kind of emotional and personal vulnerability, by just stripping away the pseudonym and "laying bare" and being as concrete as possible.

I find that sometimes in being very concrete and specific—or dry, if you will—you actually achieve a way more evocative effect; not always so much in interpretation, but more so stimulating and soliciting an audience's own specific moments and thoughts towards the work. Like some kind of theme party with a very specific dress code dictated; you end up with all these personal interpretations of "tropical" or "cocktail" that people dress themselves up in. People shouldn't just bring themselves in jeans and t-shirts to an affair called 1975, versus, say, Points On A Line Tracing The Horizon Birth More Lines And Points.

I'm interested in the sense in which you think of this as your "first proper solo record"; I mean, you've had a few releases over the past couple years bearing your name alone, some CDrs and LPs and such. How is 1975 different from those?

It's just the first collection of material that hadn't seen proper release that I felt conceptually—as both a whole and in parts—works to fulfill whatever criteria I have for such a thing. For example, previous records included the solo violin record on Tone Filth that was a re-edit of prepared violin studies I had done previously on cassette, and others were mostly collaborations. So those records sort of had concerns and circumstances around them which really kept the work grounded in a category. I guess you can look at Kevin Drumm's first record, which I helped produce a vinyl reissue of for the label Thin Wrist; though you can consider it a solo improv record, it really has a sort of arc and feel that makes it more than just a series of instant compositions. It feels like a statement beyond collected noodling; that it's "just guitar" really just adds a layer of tension that expands the work and the air around it, rather than grounding it.

I wasn't thinking about the whole "first proper solo" at the time these works were created, but at a certain point I had these various pieces sitting around which didn't really fit into other projects or contexts; I thought they were fine by themselves, that was about it. Over time as these particular pieces were created, they sort of made friends with each other on the bench, and after a while decided to throw a themed party called 1975. In some ways I found this the first opportunity that felt best to say "fuck it, this is my big statement for now" and then I can move on and build from there. The stakes can be higher next time of course; if your first party is a ripper, you better be ready with buckets of animal blood next time. Though I feel like 1975 is one of those thirty something sort of parties where everyone just sort of sits there, sipping drinks, and staring at the walls, realizing they're just not up for making prank calls or running around naked anymore.

1975 to me is interesting in the sense that it doesn't entirely feel like a departure from Burning Star Core albums like Challenger or Cincinnati; those albums had cuts like these, sort of staring-contest drone studies and blazing-kindling electronics freak-outs that feel fractal but are really pretty controlled. But by grouping so many specimens from this genus in one place—these more austere, contemplative pieces—that they come into sharper focus, their differences reveal themselves. There's a real sense of humor here, like on the fourth track, "Voice," there's a fractured, skipping blip that recalls Woody Woodpecker; and when I noticed that you'd labeled the two tracks most possibly associated with natural real-world sounds as "skits," I had to laugh, since skits are usually the province of hip-hop.

There's definitely an adjustment of one's ears and brain when approaching these pieces; sort of a shift in expectation that's necessary, and yeah, part of the reason why these tracks all ended up on 1975 is because of what you had observed. Especially like with some of the Burning Star Core material, or other collaborative works where there is a bit more of a "narrative" content constantly being pushed forward; information of changes and things unfolding. Whereas with 1975—though I suppose there is similar peripheral content in terms of the sequencing of the tracks, track title, album title, photos, and so on—the dominant expectation of progression in music, even experimental, is put in the backseat.

The pressure of waiting for "what's next" is hopefully off. You can just put a track on and hang out with it in a vertical sense, versus sort of following it for a more linear information. I've actually hung out with these tracks for a long time before even considering letting them out of their virtual cages.

And yeah, good catch there on the "skits" reference. Those "skit" tracks are the closest to pure field recordings, much in the same way that the skits on rap albums attempt to present this enhanced "slice of life" moment of the artist. So instead of prank calling my lawyer or flirting with a cop, I'm unwrapping this Bhob Rainey CD and messing around with it.

Have you ever prank called a lawyer?

I'm not going to answer that until I talk to my lawyer.

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