New York’s RVNG label was never exactly a straightforward proposition. At first, it served as a clearing house for limited-edition mixes — pressed on CD-R and housed in elaborate, silkscreened fold-out packaging — from oddball curators like Mike Simonetti, Dan Selzer and Tim Sweeney. Diabolic and Julian S. Process’s RVNG mixtape began with the Butthole Surfers and ended with Deee-Lite; Sweeney’s tapped Can, Throbbing Gristle, Aphex Twin and Cat Power, because why not? There followed a series of esoteric disco releases from artists like Betty Botox, Jacques Renault and Greg Wilson, all part of a 12-inch series called Rvng of the Nrds; by 2009, the label began working with local avant-rock bands like Pink Skull and Excepter. It was a Chris & Cosey remix commissioned for Excepter, says RVNG’s Matt Werth, that instigated the idea for FRKWYS, an ongoing series that pairs contemporary musicians with their experimental forebears.
“When I got the Chris & Cosey remix back,” remembers Werth, “I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is so above and beyond what I thought a Chris & Cosey remix could be. Why not delve a little further into these artists from former generations, but with new experiments and new processes?’ That’s kind of where the intergenerational idea stemmed from. There wasn’t really a serial concept in mind yet; it was this really natural revelation of one piece of work being outstanding, and inspiring the next.”
It was the packaging Werth chose for the Excepter release, with two-color adhesive-wrap sleeves and, for the really limited edition, leatherette jackets, that suggested the new series’ name: FRKWYS, a tribute to Moses Asch’s iconic Folkways Records label. Founded in 1948 (and absorbed by the Smithsonian in 1987, after Asch’s death), Folkways assiduously documented the breadth of the American experience in sound, from rural blues to Woody Guthrie‘s Talking Dust Bowl to the early electronic music captured on 1957′s Sounds of New Music. (And let us not forget Sounds of North American Frogs.)
In its serial logic and its documentary impulse, FRKWYS is a little like a contemporary Folkways, but (per the name) freakier. However, stresses Werth, “Folkways was such an international resource and archive, versus what FRKWYS is, which is more generational — a time archive.” It’s not just an archive, but an instigator. How else would contemporary composer Julianna Barwick and electronic improv pioneer Ikue Mori end up working together? Or freeform noise rockers Blues Control with New Age outlier Laraaji? Or, for that matter, psychedelic journeyman Sun Araw with the Congos, one of Jamaica’s most treasured vocal groups?
The best thing is, it works. However good the collaborations look on paper, they sound even better vibrating in the air, and almost certainly not as you imagined they would. At their most humdrum, they’re thought-provoking; at their best, they’re brain-bending and spine-tingling. A FRKWYS release will always leave you feeling some (freaky) type of way.
eMusic’s Philip Sherburne talked with Werth about FRKWYS’ accidental origins and spiritual dimensions.
With Chris & Cosey, I felt such a stylistic resemblance and kinship to Excepter. It was just kind of immediate. I envisioned their programming sensibility knocking heads with Excepter's and forming a rigidity against Excepter's wild, off-beat approach. When I started to speak with [Excepter's] John Fell Ryan, he was like, "Yeah, huge Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey fans, that makes total sense," so that was something I pursued.
I love the Chris & Cosey catalog, the way they were sequencing everything that wasn't sequenced in Throbbing Gristle. It was making a more 4/4 dance version, highly experimental at times, and sometimes highly pop-driven. I felt, at the time, they were maybe ready to come out and say, "Yeah, this is what's up." With that remix, I felt like it was a return [for them], in some way. Not like they were prompted by that remix, but it was just kind of time for them to return and unleash the fucking incredible music that they had continued to work on. It's been amazing to see their trajectory since then.
Alexis [Georgopolous] brought Anthony Moore into the equation. He was a big fan of Anthony's Pieces from the Cloudland Ballroom. That was a work I was totally unfamiliar with until Alexis brought it up. As soon as he shared that music, the connection was so evident between Anthony's music and Alexis' music. Then, when they actually went into the studio, they made something that didn't resemble that at all, or didn't resemble Alexis's prior work. It was the first in-person collaboration of the series. We made a concerted effort to actually bring Anthony from Geneva to New York and put him in the studio with Alexis and an ensemble to create that album.
I was so happy that Alexis actually performed vocally on the album. That was a sort of awkward conversation that we had before we went into that session. I really wanted to hear vocals, and I brought it up before the session, and they were like, "Are you asking for vocals to make it a more commercial thing?" I was like, "No, no, no, no, I just would love to hear either of you guys sing because I know you both have incredible voices." I think they surprised me at the end by adding the Slapp Happy song ["Slow Moon's Rose"] that showcases Alexis's vocals. I love ARP's [new] record, he's totally outdone himself. I think that's always been in his DNA, that kind of Chelsea reverie.
Definitely a pretty odd amalgamation. That was obviously not a thematically binding album, but I do feel like it spans these interesting generations of experimental music. Tres from Psychic Ills and I had a conversation and talked about wanting to cover the techno spectrum [in the choice of collaborators]; Juan Atkins wasn't the original Detroit producer that we were going to work with, but the road led to him, and I'm glad it did. Then, obviously, there's Krautrock's influence on early Detroit electro, maybe in its more pop forms, so that connection was made bringing [Faust's] Hans-Joakim [Irmler] in for that remix. That was also a relationship that Psychic Ills had previously. And actually I don't know where Gibby Haynes fits into that lineage, but maybe the post effects of Krautrock and techno — honestly, it was kind of an ode to Psychic Ills' Texas roots. There's actually a full album that they made with him. It was finished and we were going to release it a couple years ago, and they decided not to. They've kind of moved on stylistically. So the remix that Gibby ended up making for the FRKWYS 12-inch kind of maintains the techno elements and definitely some of the shambolic Kraut craziness as well, maybe some industrial vibes too. There's a lot more of that material. I hope to share it someday. There's quite a bit of vocal experimentation and processing over these loopy Psychic Ills jams that they recorded over two days of studio time. It's pretty great.
Mirror Mirror are, by my estimation, this criminally overlooked New York band that comes from the same scene as Psychic Ills and Excepter and some of the other FRKWYS participants. Maybe they don't have as much of a release profile, but they've constantly innovated really amazing, dark, synthesized-orchestral pop music. They have this incredible footing in the avant-garde, in their own amazing way, which is very reliant on theatrics and their own kind of illusionary world. Just from being a part of the New York culture, we got to talking, and I invited them to do some FRKWYS collaborations ahead of an album that I put out for them in 2010, called Interiors. Those collaborations kind of came together — well, I don't know. I kind of wanted to do an '80s avant-pop inspired FRKWYS, because I thought that was the lineage they were coming from — maybe examining Syd Barrett's effect on the avant-pop of the UK and the US from that period in the early '80s, post-punk. That's where those collaborators came from.
I would feel incredibly guilty if there wasn't an acknowledgement on the FRKWYS sleeve, but Dan Selzer was a huge help and resource in connecting me to a lot of those collaborators. Family Fodder, for instance. For me, they've made some incredibly inspired, psychedelic pop music — angular, sort of spiritual, fucked-up music. It really felt like a pretty natural extension to have them work with Mirror Mirror.
This began as an installation at White Columns Gallery in New York. Matthew Higgs, who has always been a longtime supporter of RVNG, gave us a room to do whatever we wanted in during one of their shows. In the spirit of the label and the series, we felt that a live collaboration would be perfect for that. We utilized the space to create this cubicle for two people to sit in, and not see each other but hear each other, with cameras and video of their counterparts processed and projected above their heads. They were able to see the other person improvising via the video, but were not able to physically interact. So we decided to put Juliana and Ikue into that environment, and they performed on the opening night of this group installation. We recorded that as a multi-tracked recording, and we also had a vinyl lathe on premise to capture the actual performance as it was going down. They performed four pieces, all between about 12 and 15 minutes, and there are four different lathe cuts of those live performances in addition to the standard FRKWYS volume that was released, which contains pieces from that night.
Then Julianna and Ikue visited the gallery after the installation and performed again without the barriers. So the release is kind of a juxtaposition of those two recording environments and situations. The environment was certainly a little more sedate and serene the second time around — it wasn't this claustrophobic public performance, and you absolutely hear that serenity on some of the pieces that ended up on the album. When the environment shifted, their improvisation shifted a bit. And I'm sure some familiarity that informed the second recording that isn't there on the first. But the disorienting effect…looking back, it's a little bit torturous that we made them do that.
Daniel [Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never] and I started talking about [making a record in the] FRKWYS [series]. I think we were mutually enamored of each other — or maybe me more so with him. We started, we got the idea down that, yes, we're going to do a FRKWYS, and almost simultaneously, we both put David Borden in the ring. It was a very synergistic, serendipitous decision: "Yes, David Borden makes complete sense for this." Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co., those albums, for me, in terms of getting into minimal-maximalist music, especially synth-driven composition, those records are so highly cherished. I think Daniel loved David's process maybe more than the records, or his compositional techniques, so that made a lot of sense. Especially where Daniel was at that point — he was still making super synthesizer-based music.
He thought that in his mind, the picture of two dudes sitting at their keyboards, facing each other, was a little boring. Which I totally sympathize with; there might be something too contrived about that. So he started to add people. "Why don't we expand the ensemble? How about Laurel Halo?" I was like, "Of course, that's killer." Then James Ferraro. Then David just showed up the day of the studio sessions with his stepson, Samuel Godin, and he's like, "Sam's going to play on this too." So it really took on this free-ensemble format. I guess I could imagine it as some sort of jazz ensemble, but they were all wielding synths instead. It was this huge accumulation of gear in this beautiful studio with this amazing Manhattan skyline. It was the same studio that ARP and Anthony Moore recorded in, and we've done quite a bit of FRKWYS stuff there. It had this very free…I don't really want to corner it into a jazz exercise, but it did have those qualities to it. A bunch of improvisers coming in with their weapons of choice and really maxing out hours of jams. That album is edited down from a huge group of material. The spirit guiding that album — it has some playful moments, it has some very dense moments, but it feels like everyone is working it out and then hitting these big strides.
Laraaji is one of my favorite people. It's been such a joy having him around. He performed at our wedding, actually, a couple months ago. I was obviously was a huge fan going into that collaboration. With Blues Control, we knocked around so many names, and that can be a process if the idea isn't immediately there. We eventually honed in on Laraaji, and he was super down for the ride. That was a record they made in just a couple short days, and then Russ and Lea spent an incredible amount of time honing the mix and the edit from these big clouds of material that they produced over a couple days. I love it. I think it's such a transcendent album. It really feels like the players have been playing together forever. It kind of has this infinite quality. I love how it walks all over the place on that record. I love, too — obviously there have been performative elements throughout the series, from Anthony and Alexis performing the album at LPR to Ikue and Julianna performing at White Columns, but Blues Control, Laraaji and Arji [Cakouros], they've gone on to perform that collaboration over and over. They toured in Europe, they played Deerhunter's recent ATP. I love the idea of the eternal manifestation of these collaborations. Because a lot of these albums are made in an improvisational way, it's the beginning, not the end. It's a document, and an early document. Then it's kind of up to the artists to take it from there and let the spirit guide them.
It was wild, man. I know I sound like a hippie, but there were so many cosmic forces at play behind that album. And they're still behind that collaboration, guiding it to new universes. I'm so thankful and grateful for those forces. I always felt that Cameron, Sun Araw, had these dubby undertones in his music, and I always wanted to hear that paired with some sort of Jamaican vocal group. The Congos' The Heart of the Congos is one of my three favorite albums. It was kind of this immediate challenge to ask the Congos.
To find them wasn't that hard, to be honest. To find all these collaborators really hasn't been that hard. Everyone had a MySpace then, or you can find them. The Congos included, although they were introduced by a friend who had had a cameo in a film he made in Jamaica. Once I learned they were still active, I got in touch with the Congos, and I said, I've got this L.A. artist I would love to bring to Jamaica, what do you think?" They were like, "No problem, man, bring him down." Cameron invited Geddes, who he felt was a little more informed in dub technique, to travel with him to Jamaica. They essentially came armed with a little bit more than half a dozen rhythms for the Congos to experiment with vocally.
I joined them on that trip. We were there for a couple weeks, and brought a couple filmmakers down with me to document the process and the environments around the process. It was just far out. So much has been said about that trip and that album. Certainly, there were the inherent challenges of just getting to know each other. And then once those challenges were solved, and once there was a level playing field, there was truly one of the most ecstatic, joyous, creative experiences I've ever witnessed, between all the musicians involved, and the filmmakers too. Once it was apparent what our intentions were for distributing this music and for the spirit of the collaboration — and of course, once they heard the music and heard how fucked up it was — they were like, "Yeah, this is some different shit. These aren't some kids coming in here with Sunsplash reggae beats trying to get us to channel the spirit of Marley or something. These dudes are onto some different shit." They were very stoked about that. That's been such a beautiful sharing experience with them. We've taken that collaboration to so many different venues and cities and been able to really evolve what the meaning of that collaboration is, because it's a different thing. It's not a commercial endeavor, not some exploitative project. It's a pretty spiritual thing.
There are several layers to this collaboration. It's another endeavor with White Columns Gallery. They asked us to install a project as part of a group exhibition, and we chose to use the blank bulletin-board canvas that they gave us as a percussive sounding board for David Van Tieghem to play. The objects that were contributed and physically mounted to the bulletin board were each contributed by the 10 artists represented. David played the bulletin board on the opening night, as a kind of ceremonial performance. We captured everything in high-definition, multi-tracked three or four improvisations that he did, and gave those files back to the 10 artists that contributed the percussive objects to interpret on their own. Some of those were very ambient pieces; some were rhythmically charged, based around David's drumming, very percussive takes. And then David kind of meticulously strung all that together.
I think it's a very sculptural FRKWYS. It has these different formations on both sides. Ultimately, the collages are the result of several layers. That it turned out so cohesively, I'm fucking shocked. Again, it's one of those situations where it's like, "OK, I know that David Van Tieghem played with Steve Reich, I know he collaborated with Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson and has all these amazing, quirky, electro-acoustic records from the '80s, but what is he doing now, besides sound designing Broadway productions?" But he came back and he fucking crushed it, you know? Of course! At that point you've mastered your craft. Especially that he's cross-pollinated into sound design for live performance and Broadway production…it makes total sense. It has a very grand, grandiose feel to it. There's quite a narrative to his collages, I think. He made total sense of some very disparate materials. And then the Maxmillion Dunbar remix is the icing on the tape, for sure. I really wanted him to be involved, to do a remix of the entire remix. I love what he put together. It totally pops, in a great way.