Q&A: Rhys Chatham On Playing With Oneida, Taking Up Trumpet, And The Survival Of New York

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Even via Skype, Rhys Chatham remains profoundly, permanently enthused. The giddy 100-guitar maximalist/minimalist yin to Glenn Branca's foreboding 100-guitar maximalist/minimalist yang, Chatham's '70s/'80s innovations—rounded up by Table of the Elements on 2002's An Angel Moves Too Fast To See—remain a cornerstone of contemporary music. But, give or take performances like 2007's mammoth 400-guitar Crimson Grail (staged with 200 guitars at Lincoln Center two years later), Chatham has moved on. Born and raised in Greenwich Village, studying with avant-garde stalwarts like LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad, Chatham, 59, famously discovered the power of electric guitar after seeing the Ramones at CBGB. In recent years, he has returned to trumpet, for a series of albums that tip into tender, third stream improv.

This Saturday, he will take the stage with Oneida—and guitar in hand—as part of the Ecstatic Music Fest, which spotlights music that seems poised to reconnect his two modes of music. Paired by festival organizers, the night won't be the 10-hour Ocropolis extravaganza that he and the O-brahs originally proposed, but—with a half-dozen new collaborative pieces between them—it'll be assuredly be something new. Though Chatham moved to Paris in 1989, he remains a New York musician in absentia, befriending successive generations of underground Gothamites passing through Paris. When he caught Liturgy on a recent trip to New York—where he also played violin with Kid Millions' Matter Waves—he was surprised to see guitarist Bernard Gann, who he'd last seen as a 15-year old crashing on his Paris floor.

How familiar were you with Oneida before working with them on this performance?

I had heard them before, and was vaguely aware of their music, and took a serious listen to it and thought it was awesome. My manager checked it out and said, "Rhys, holy shit, these are not boys, these are men, and you've got to work with them." I was in Brooklyn for the Neon Marshmallow festival in October, and we did five rehearsals together at their rehearsal space in Brooklyn. We got together and jammed. I played trumpet through delay devices. They seemed like they were bending over backwards to play with me, and I got a little paranoid, and they said "no, man, that's the way we play." We were just jamming at that point, and I said, "wow, if that's the way it is, things are going to be okay."

They explained to me, "Well, what we really like to do is play for 10 hours, invite a bunch of different musicians." We proposed it to Merkin Hall, but decided—with union regulations—maybe we wouldn't do 10 hours. I went back in January especially to rehearse with them. In those sessions, I ended up playing guitar most of the time, and it was awesome. It seemed like a perfect fit, so I brought in some compositions and they brought in some compositions. They had like four or five. Plus, we recorded a 7-inch single together, though that may or may not come out.

Oneida aren't a minimalist band. They're what's happening today, but somehow I just didn't feel any difference in age or mindset or anything. We just all worked together as musicians because they're great musicians. In all our discussions we never talked about history, we just talked about stuff and then, when we actually played, I was just so surprised. It just seemed to work like a hand in a glove. I didn't have to do anything. I mean, seriously. I brought my stuff in and they played like they'd normally play. They nailed it. No problem-o. With their stuff, they come in with very specific ideas, an approach to sonority, and an approach to form and structure. I played guitar with it. I seemed to blend right in. I was so proud! I think [Ecstatic Music Fest] will mostly be a guitar program, but the men of Oneida have insisted that I play some trumpet, too, so one of the pieces will be a trumpet piece. But I really don't think we'll hear much of a difference between me and Oneida. i think we sound like a unified band.

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