June 28, 2004

Inteview: Tyondai Braxton

Connecticut native Tyondai Braxton (pronounced TIE-ON-DAY, for the record) has, for the past 9 years, been actively performing and composing, developing his own artistic vision inside a multitude of contexts from his roots in the Middletown, CT new music scene. Current groups/recent projects include Battles featuring Ian Williams (Don Caballero/Storm and Stress), Jon Stanier (Helmet/Tomahawk) and Dave Konopka (Lynx), the 2 guitar/drums art rock trio Antenna Terra, “Excavating Kaw” (a composition for 6 4-tracks), as well as the multimedia project “N.E.A.R” (for 10-piece band, 2 choirs, strings, 3 movie projectors and theatrics). His solo music consists of building “orchestrated loops” with voice, guitar and found objects in real time and manipulating them with guitar pedals, in essence creating a self-contained ensemble. Braxton has received commissions from Yale University for a multimedia music/live-painting showcase as well as from Alan Good’s internationally known Goodances troop writing music to accompany his dance troop at St. Marks Theater in NYC. He has shared the stage with the likes of Thurston Moore, Jim O’Rourke, DJ Trio (Christian Marclay, DJ Olive, Toshio Kajiwara) Oval, Lightning Bolt, Les Savy Fav, and Ween. He has performed with numerous musicians/composers, including with Alan Sparhawk from Low as well as in Glenn Branca’s “Hallucination City” at the World Trade Center. Braxton currently resides in NYC.

How did you first get into music?

I was playing in a band in high school and I kind of came out of the whole mainstream grunge movement, y u could say. I was infatuated with Nirvana when they first came out- that was when I got the bug. From that sort of time in mainstream rock in the early 90’s, I started a band in high school and was enthralled with it, totally in love with it. And then it ended. It was devastating, so I started to take that method of playing in band and try to apply it to playing by myself.

What did you play with your high school band--mainstream, grunge-y kind of stuff?

Oh, yeah. It was early high school. It was like, Yes meets Nirvana. We were trying to be complex and raw at the same time.

How did you come up with this approach? Was it something that you developed over a long period of time?

It was a slow process. First, I had a simple, 2-second delay pedal [imitates a guitar playing through delay] and I would sort of develop counterpoint to it- just totally fucking around in my room. Then, when the band ended, I was messing around with it and started taking it a little more seriously- “Oh, this is kind of fun. Blah blah blah I got another pedal” You know, a distortion pedal or something. I started to kind of come around with it until it started to turn into something where I could kind of say, “Hey, maybe I could really develop something here”. As I needed new sounds and more options, I would get new pedals and just try different things out until I got my rig set up.

Do you mind if I ask you something about your father [pioneering multi-reedist and jazz composer, Anthony Braxton]?

No problem.

How much of an effect did he have on you, musically speaking?

As a kid, when your father is someone who- in general, I mean you’re inspired by your folks, but he was always very encouraging as far as approaching music. And I saw how much fun he was having with it and how dedicated and serious he was with it and how amazing he was. I was already playing music for a while when I was a kid and I was enthralled with it and it was cool, but I had to find my own way, you know? Which is why, as far as the rock band stuff goes, that’s what really touched me ‘cause that’s more of my generation as opposed to his. So, that’s kind of what took me in, but of course he was the foundation as far as my influences go.

Have you thought about collaborating with him at some point?

Maybe in the future. We’ll see what happens, you know what I mean? At this point, we’re kind of both separate entities. Further down the road in our careers- or my career, at least- we’ll see.

Tell me a bit about some of the projects you’re involved with.

Right now I’m in a band called Battles with Ian [Williams, former guitarist with Don Caballero and Storm & Stress], John [Stanier, former drummer with Helmet and currently in Tomahawk], and Dave [Konopka of the Boston/Chicago phenomenon Lynx] and it’s a great band. It’s allowing me to…it’s kind of cool, actually. I kind of wrote off being in band after early experiences, wanting to concentrate on emulating what it means to be in a band solo. Now taking that philosophy and going backwards- back into a band- is interesting. So, Battles is great for me and they’re amazing players, so with that project I’m having a good time. Pretty much it’s that and I just finished a poetry book that’s coming out maybe in a month or so with this fella- Matthew Wascovich from Cleveland. We’re doing a split book. So, that’s coming out. I just finished a project for a large rock band- guitar, choir, strings and stuff. Just so I’m not only doing the loop thing. Even though the loop compositions are kind of my home base, I’m trying to keep it varied, trying to do different things. But mainly, to be honest, it’s my solo stuff and Battles.

Are you classically trained?

Yeah, I studied composition at the Hartt School of Music, which is part of the University of Hartford in Connecticut, and I also took classes at Wesleyan with my father.

What have been some sources of inspiration?

Well, coming from the mainstream rock world, which was kind of my gateway drug into the indie rock, underground kind of stuff. And, ironically enough, back into modern composition, which is, as far as what was played a lot around the house when I was younger, I went my own way only to come right back into that world, which is interesting- I think it’s funny. A couple of guys influencing me heavily these days- well, first of all, I love the Brooklyn scene. The whole vibe in Brooklyn is really enthralling to me, a lot of great bands down there- everyone from Animal Collective to Black Dice to Parts & Labor, Z’s, a lot of interesting music is coming out of that scene right now and it’s all definitely great to play off of. One guy who’s always been a big influence- two guys actually- is Christian Marclay, who’s a visual artist as well as- he works with turntables-

You worked with him at one point, too, right?

Yeah. We played a show together- I opened for him- but I actually worked with him before, too. Glenn Branca’s another huge influence. Huge guitar compositions. I had the pleasure of playing with him at the World Trade Center right before it collapsed. Sonic Youth…all the usual suspects.

What about things outside of music?

Actually, it’s funny, man. Just kind of being in the scene in New York right now- for better or for worse- for better in the sense that there’s a great scene, lots of different people, lots of different things happening- I just went to the Whitney for the Whitney Biennial, which is kind of a yearly thing where they showcase new artists and some people are doing some fucking amazing things. So, that always kills me- people working in a specific craft that’s not necessarily what I’m doing that I could draw from. So, as great as it is to be able to kind of get lost in the place that you’re in- like, I’m in New York so I’m around all these New York people- but as far as visual art in general, unfortunately I’m naive to a lot of it. I need to get out there and see what else is going on. That and reading. I like reading a lot. I’m going to go finish my copy of “My Life”, Bill Clinton’s autobiography.

How is that?

It’s…it’s good. [Both laugh]

How does working with different types of media (paintings, dance,
video, etc.) affect the way you construct or perform a song?

It’s great in the sense that, kind of like I said, just being exposed to different media you kind of take away something different. It was actually Chris Cornell from Soundgarden- I remember him saying this when I was younger- he said, “the worst rock music I’ve ever heard was rock music inspired by rock music”. So, you’ve got to have your own kind of palette. You have to kind of expand and explore what else is going on out there. My point is exposing yourself to different forms of art, you take away different things you wouldn’t have ordinarily thought of. It’s like getting a fresh perspective. Even though you might know a little of it on the surface, if you don’t know much of it you kind put yourself in a position where you have to work with this media that’s foreign to you. It could produce different results from your own work. It’s a great catalyst to work with things you’re not used to.

Your site says that you worked with a few visual artists on some projects. Did you perform your own material or did you work with these other artists to create something entirely new?

Well, as far as the dance troupe stuff, those were all my compositions. But with- I played with Alan Sparhawk from Low and we did Low songs- but with Ian and Battles and myself, it’s a co-op, so we all collaborate.

How do your compositions usually come together?

Through the painful, painful suffering of bashing my head against the wall.

[Both laugh]

I would not consider myself a prolific person by any means. I’m very meticulous. I hate everything I make except for one nugget of something that I’ll just try to draw it out. I mean, I really take my time with loops and sometimes if I have an idea, I’ll record it on to a four-track right off of my amp. I’ll sit with it and if it stands the test of time, I’ll try to develop it. I’ll listen to the development; if the development stands the test of time, then I’ll go on to the next thing. If not, I’ll scrap it and go back to the drawing board.

Your bio states that your roots lie in the “Middletown, CT new music scene”. Could you describe the scene and explain its impact on your music?

Well, again, I had to go off and go to college and find my own route from Middletown because the Middletown scene is influenced heavily by my father and also from other composers in Wesleyan. Wesleyan has a great program- Alvin Lucier and such so. After going to school, I came back into that scene and started working with my dad’s students. It’s a small scene, but it’s definitely very vital over there. It definitely influenced me, to see other people my age trying to put something together.

How apt are you to embracing new technology when it comes to your music?

I’m all for it. Unfortunately, I’m not a rich guy. I’d love to get whole bunch of stuff together. Aesthetically, as far as computers and stuff are concerned, in my solo stuff I tend to stay away from that- at least in the solo loop context. I mean, I’m not opposed to doing computer music in a different way. Yeah, I think technology’s great. There are pluses to limitations- like there’s a plus to banging your head against a wall because you can’t afford a drum machine, so you have to find a different way to do things. Having said that, there are also advantages to having technology, which can broaden your spectrum of compositional ideas.

What’s going through your head as you perform?

It’s a mix of process and trying to be expressive through the technique. As you see, I’m playing something, then I’ll twist some knobs, then I’ll do this and that. It’s all very composed, so it’s all very process-oriented. The key is to find a way of being expressive inside of the process and trying to draw emotion as opposed to having it be cold, like “I’ll twist some knobs, then I’ll play guitar, etc.” Within my compositions, there’s an emotion I want to express within it and I try to put myself there. After a while, with rehearsing and stuff, you get comfortable enough with your set-up that it’s second nature, so you have the liberty of being able to be more expressive and putting yourself in that frame of mind to take the pieces where you need to take them.

One last question: I noticed a strong, almost hip-hop quality in some of the newer songs you played tonight and I was just curious if you ever considered going down the avenue of hip-hop production?

Hell yeah. I’d love to. More than the other records I’ve worked on- like I said, a lot of the stuff is newer and there are some tracks I didn’t get to play- I’m definitely going for more of a hip-hop vibe on this next CD than some of the ones in the past. It’s going to be like modern composition rock meets more of a hip-hop kind of element. I would really love to do some production at some point.

--Jonathan Pfeffer

Artist Website: http://tyondai.jmzrecords.com/
Artist Website: http://www.bttls.com/

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