October 30, 2006
Alec K Redfearn
The music of Alec K. Redfearn is as varied as it is enjoyable. The man has been making music for nearly twenty years, and the eclectic nature can be heard simply by visiting his website. It seems wrong to say, "Redfearn's music sounds like ____," because his music doesn't work that way, and pigeonholing him like that would be wrong. His latest record, The Smother Party is a wonderfully enjoyable record; it's dark, it's occasionally sad, and it's almost always good. Talking to him was fascinating, and he strikes me as a brother-in-arms, because I just totally agree with almost everything that he says. But if you're looking for haunting music for haunting your Halloween, then his music is just for you. Not heavily serious, nor annoyingly whimsical, there's just a touch of humor and death to what he does that makes it hauntingly wonderful.
I'm curious about the nature of your music. We were talking yesterday about modern technology and modern society, but when I listen to your music, it's very classical in the sense that it's not modern. Is this one of the driving motivations behind the music you make with the Eyesores—making music that's more traditionally based, as a response to modern society?
Yeah, I definitely think that's a component. I certainly do feel part of the struggle is to find a kind of a root in an older tradition. I'm not drawing on any specific tradition; I draw a lot on the music I find appealing. I do listen to certain modern music, but I am definitely trying to draw on something that's a little older and a little bit more of a part of the ancestral memory of the 20th Century than previous centuries. It seems like the music that has appealed to me over the years is music that has a certain urgency and a certain root to something that's a little closer to real.
An organic experience rather than a mechanical one…
Exactly. It's the human experience, the human kind of music that comes directly from the soul. On the other hand, there is a certain mechanical element to it as well, because music has a mathematical scheme built into it. It's part of the beauty of it, and even the most primal sounding music has that element built into it.
A question I always like to ask of people who perform with an accordion in their music: what drew you to it, and when you started writing music, was it on accordion?
I was a bass player first. I came out of the late 80s post-hardcore scene. That's what I grew up on—that, and I listened to a lot of metal and classic rock. When I was a teenager in the mid-80s, it was kind of a time when people began to discover punk and hardcore thanks to bands like Metallica and Slayer. Those bands really made inroads for people who grew up on suburban metal, and as a result I became interested in hardcore, and through that I became interested in music made by artists like the Minutemen, Meat Puppets and the Butthole Surfers—bands who were coming from a background of hardcore, but pushed forward musically yet were drawing not only on older influences, like folk and jazz, but also on more modern elements like free jazz.
Artists making an experimental hybrid of traditional rock and roll…
I'm of a very unpopular opinion that the mid- to late-1980s were a really creative time musically, and that the music of the early 90s was merely revisionist. The "punk" explosion of that time, I think it was very conservative musically. It was when the serpent first started to eat its tail, when music started relying on going back to the early days, back to the Stooges and Sex Pistols. I thought it was interesting, but I thought it had been done already. You can blame it on post-modernism, to some extent. My take on postmodernism – and I do consider what I do to be postmodernism—is that you're taking from a lot of different sources and making something new. The good side is that I'm creating something out of all these pieces of things floating around. The bad side of it is when someone decides to do this and they wind up co-opting an earlier musical style. It's a lot of what's happening with the lamer aspects of today's freak folk, New Weird America stuff. I mean, I like some of those bands quite a bit. A lot of it I find…
Makes you want to listen to Donovan records instead?
Yeah, exactly! Why would I want to listen to this modern revisionist version style, one that's more like a Civil War reenactment, when I could just go back to the original source and get more of the real effect, one where there's a different kind of urgency to the music. There's just not a lot of urgency to music right now. I've become very discouraged with what's happening musically now. I think my turning to the accordion was a reaction against the music of the early 90s. It was, like, "I'm going to go do something that so doesn't resemble rock music at all." I started listening to Eastern European music a lot, Scottish music a lot, Irish music, and listening to music that was very Weimar Republic/Kurt Weill inspired, as well as 20th Century classical music. I got really into Erik Satie. Then later, I started getting back into rock music. I'd say the early glimmerings of the noise explosion in Providence made me say, I could take the music I'm doing now, which was, at the time, was a mix of circus-y music and all of the folk music I'd been listening to, and then combine it with punk and make it aggressive in the same way those noise bands are and play to the same audiences. I certainly met with some indifference, though not as much now. I feel like people have grown more and more indifferent because music has become less and less interesting and people have less and less patience for it. So they wait until they're fed. (Sigh) People are either fed by MTV or major labels, or by the hipster crowds, being fed by bloggers or the Thurston Moores and the Byron Coleys of the world, and looking to them to filter their "experimental" music. The main problem is that there's not a lot of urgency to the music; a lot of it seems very fake and contrived. People are putting musical styles on like it's a mask, rather than doing stuff that's from the very core of their being. This isn't universal, but it is unfortunately the dominant paradigm.
There's obviously a keen sense of humor at play on The Smother Party, even though it's also terribly dark. Do you find that when you write on an accordion, that it's hard to write really dark material?
I don't really have that problem. The novelty of the accordion has worn off for me, because I've been playing for so long, and I sort of don't think along those lines anymore. It isn't—at least to me—any longer an instrument that's associated with dance music and more festive things. But I feel there are people who came before me who kept smashing and dismantling those sorts of traditions. I think a lot of the lightness is more of a reflection of my sense of humor. I have a naturally dark sense of humor anyways. There is a serious element to what I do, though. There are certain things I believe, like I do believe that we are living in end times, that the world has gone completely crazy. The World's overpopulated and we are destroying ourselves. On the other hand, I feel like that's the natural course of things, and I feel like it's something that's happened with humanity before and will continue to happen until the planet is uninhabitable and evolution won't let us keep up with the atmosphere.
I described your music this way: "Party music while the Titanic goes down."
(Laughs) Yes, exactly! I feel like some of the best music is like that. I think the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill influence comes from that. There's a feeling in Brecht's lyrics—they have a kind of sneer to them, and there's a harshness to them, but it's like putting on a protective layer, like dancing in the face of total destruction.
A distraction from your impending and inevitable doom…
Yeah, I do feel that sense of impending doom, and have felt that way since my mother first explained to me what nuclear war meant when I was ten years old. That sense that everything could blow at any time has really existed in my consciousness ever since she told me that, and I think I've built defense mechanisms against that fear, just so I could go on with my life. One of those was to build a sense a humor about it all, to feel like we're looking at everything could be done for. But then again, all of that is just a process of life, I think.
So ultimately, there is a celebration of life, even among the gloom and doom.
I think humor is an aspect of spirituality in that sense, that it's a part of the human spirit.
Plus, you're able to be more honest and get people to listen to you if you present it in a humorous way, more so than if you were to preach gloom and doom.
Our violinist and I had this conversation when we were in the Netherlands. We were making some really, really horrible jokes about something and she felt kind of uncomfortable and a little offended. I said something to her that I think sums up a lot of my thinking: "Olivia, sometimes the darkest, most horrible places are where the biggest laughs are." I've always thought along those lines, that sometimes the most awful things can be incredibly funny, or can have this built-in humor to them. I kind of live in that world in some ways, and enjoy that kind of thinking, because I think it's healthy. Or at least it's healthy for me! (Laughs)
Are audiences in Europe a lot more receptive to your music because you're playing music that's European in nature?
European audiences are a lot more respectful in general. It's more of a tradition that when they go out to hear music, they go out to listen, as opposed to, say, going out to pick up girls. I suppose there's an element of that too, but when the music plays, people tend to listen.
Do you think the audiences are more critical of what you do because you're playing music that's associated with them? Like, if you're playing Country in the South—audiences are more attune to picking up on whether or not what you're doing is "real" or if it's merely shtick?
A lot of what I do is very European in style, but if you examine it closely, it's not "traditional." (Laughs) I'm constantly derailing and subverting and using that music in an abstract way, making references to other things. There's no clear-cut definition—I try to keep it ambiguous. Some people have called my music "gypsy music," which I think is preposterous. It's not really gypsy music at all! I'm not a gypsy and I don't have that kind of blood. It's because I use minor scales (laughs). That's not an insult, though. I like a lot of that kind of music, but if you want to break it down, it's not really an imitation. I try to keep it elusive, what I'm drawing on. It might seem like I'm drawing on gypsy music, but I might be drawing on Slayer. I feel like their stuff is like this kind of chromaticism. I've been listening to heavy metal and their music for years and years and years now; it's probably more in my DNA than anything else. It's the music I listened to the longest at the most formative time.
I think that if you make any kind of music and you've ever heard Reign in Blood, that it will influence you somehow. (Laughs) It's one of those records that stay with you for life.
Oh yeah! (Laughs) It's definitely one of the top five rock records of all time, and I'll admit there are times when I will call it my favorite record of all time. It's a record that always sounds fresh and engaging. I say the same thing of Trout Mask Replica. Those are records that are very challenging, but are always engaging.
So, are you working on anything new?
Yeah! I've got a couple of things going on right now. I wrote a song cycle for a kind of a big band. It's fairly dark and layered, and it has a lot of singing on it. (Laughs) I'm not sure how articulate that description is. We've been having some technical problems, and we actually have to rerecord a number of songs because they got lost in a hard-drive crash. I'm also trying to write an album-length piece, and I'm also working on some solo and duo things that I'm wanting to record in the fall. I’m doing a duo tour with a stringed bass player this fall around the Northeast, and some in the East and South. Don't think I'll make it to Texas, though. I'm having trouble finding venues. It's real hard; I feel it's a constant uphill battle trying to book shows. One of the big sticking points for me is trying to survive the muck and mire in a world that's just too dim on events. The good stuff gets buried as a result of just sheer output, and if your music requires any listener patience, then you're really doomed. (Laughs)
Ultimately, I think the one who is doomed is the listener. If you can't stand to listen to anything that doesn't strike you after two or three seconds, you're already lost.
You're right about that. The mind-numbing spread of pop culture makes it very easy to get music, listen for ten seconds of something and deciding whether or not you like it or hate it. Like flipping channels.
"Here we are now, entertain us," indeed!
Alec K. Redfearn's latest record, The Smother Party, is available on North East Indie