Q&A: Ches Smith Of Congs For Brums And These Arches On Playing With Marc Ribot And Drumming In All-Night Vodou Ceremonies

Categories: Interviews

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Ziga Koritnik
Brooklyn-via-Cali drums heavyweight Ches Smith is a master of percussion, an omnipresent figurehead about town who holds the beats down for the likes of avant-jazz heroes like Marc Ribot, Darius Jones, Trevor Dunn and Mary Halvorson and can also be found pulling all-nighters drumming in Haitian vodou ceremonies. Smith also leads These Arches, a big-band free-improv supergroup with Halvorson, Tony Malaby and Andrea Parkins.

During his time as student of legendary avant-garde percussionist extraordinaire William Winant Smith hatched the concept for his Congs for Brums project, where he goes it solo—not with just a drum set, but with piano and cheapo electronics as well. On that project's third record—Psycho Predictions, on bassist Shahzad Ismaily's 88 Records—his gnarly lo-fi post-jazz propulsions are composed as one continuous, yet melodic piece with no overdubs, but lots of improv-meets-funk mashed beats and noisy electronics splatter.

Sound of the City sat down with Smith at his kitchen table to talk Halvorson's astrology readings, playing with his buddy Dunn, Haitian vodou drumming and Psycho Predictions.

Are you from the Bay Area?

I'm from Sacramento originally. I lived in the Bay Area for about ten years.

When did you move here to Brooklyn?

In 2008, so it's coming up on four years ago now.

Why did you move here? Was it for the music?

Strictly. [laughs] I was already in a few bands from here and it was just much easier [to move here]. There was a period I was touring so much and my wife and I lived in L.A., but I was never there at all. I was coming here more than there.

How do the Cali and New York scenes compare?

It depends on the kind of music. There was a lot of really good jazz players. When I was in that scene, there was a lot of restaurant gigs and stuff like that and the creative music scene was pretty... there's this guy named Jeff Gauthier out there putting out a lot of stuff, and he's great. Nels Cline was doing a lot of stuff before that. It seemed to be drying up as far as venues but there's no lack of players. When I was there, there was a place called Tropicale [in L.A.] for a little while and that closed. I don't know if there was a lot going on but now there's this place The Blue Whale, which is great. I think it's picking up again. Chris Speed and David Binney have been going out there a bunch. There was also the Kneebody guys and people like that. They are from there, as well. It was hard for me to work there and especially touring. I do a lot of touring in Europe and it was just really hard to get there from the West coast, obviously. [Laughing]

Do you find it's way more active here?

Yeah! For what I want to play, definitely. I felt like people were really down to play, like it wasn't hard to get sessions together and gigs.

You seemed entrenched in the Cali scene when you lived there, though.

I'd say I was a little more involved with Northern California bands, like this band Xiu Xiu—they're kinda from all over the place at this point. Xiu Xiu and Secret Chiefs 3 and Mr. Bungle and just offshoots of that [Bungle] and that's how I met Trevor Dunn. Actually, Trevor's trio [trio-convulsant] was pretty much started back here—the version Mary [Halvorson] and I are in.

Is Trevor's trio-convulsant still active?

Actually, yeah. It's taken a big break while Trevor was doing his rock band Madlove for a while. I'm not sure if he's writing yet but he's trying to book a week at The Stone next year. He's writing another trio record but with a string quartet. That kinda sounds like kind of an involved project.

You play with Trevor a lot and were on some of Ipecac Records' releases—Sister Phantom Owl Fish came out on that label.

Trevor's trio record and Madlove, as well. We toured with the Melvins and Fantômas and bands that are on that label.

The Melvins just played here recently.

Oh! Was that with Trevor or the two drummers?

The two drummers. They're going to tour with Trevor for the new record, Freak Puke.

Yeah, they're gonna do, like, all 50 states in the fall or something like that.

Sound of the City interviewed Buzz recently.

Buzz is absolutely hilarious. I had two pretty long U.S. tours with him and it was superfun, just opening for the Melvins in Fantômas. He's a really good guy. That was both with Trevor and the trio-convulsant.

Did you grow up on stuff like the Melvins?

Like come high school, yeah. Earlier than that it was like "whatever." I was listening to a lot of Hip Hop and, you know, like "drummer music." [laughs] My older brother was into like Rush so he'd make me learn all those parts. It was good for me.

What about Theory of Ruin, an early band you were in? And you're wearing the t-shirt.

I can't believe I'm wearing this shirt. It was a band with this guy Alex Newport, who was in Fudge Tunnel and this band Nailbomb with Max of Sepultura. [Alex] was more on the heavy music side of things. Theory of Ruin was too arty for the metal dudes and then too heavy for the art people. It was great; everyone hated it.

The trio-convulsant got pretty heavy. Trevor had a metal thing going in there.

That's pretty much from Trevor. Mary's a total lunatic, but I wouldn't call her a metalhead. She's definitely into punk stuff but probably more out than metal.

You have tons of projects going on, from playing with Darius Jones to playing in your own bands. Do you bring different mind-sets into different situations?

Not really, but I could be guilty of bringing too much of the wrong vibe to something. But people seem to be OK with it. [laughs] Like last week, I played a gig with Mary at Cornelia Street, then went to play a Haitian vodou ceremony all night and then got home just in time for my kid to wake up, hung out with him, then went down to D.C. with Darius. It was all in the same 30 hours or so.

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