The Farfisa organ was also part of the setup (where it remained and became my main instrument for years), running through Electro Harmonix phaser and delay, but the K2000 was eventually retired because manually playing back all the samples was too much like DJing– and not enough like playing an instrument. The other guy in the band, Jim, played mostly bass and tweaked loops that I’d programmed on his Roland drum machine.
When Mike from the Electrical Spectacle started playing drums with us, things really started to change into something that worked better as a live concept; I’d figured out it was better to loop synths as patterns in the Roland which freed me up to play guitar again. I’d taken a long break from playing guitar and found a way of approaching it that could avoid the clichés. Mostly, I stopped concentrating on chords (especially those I already knew) and started concentrating on notes, especially long, single tones and the harmonic relationship between them; not in any kind of intellectual way but in a purely intuitive way.
Of course I could have sat down with a music theory book, or even some simple Mel Bay scale books, but I was afraid of being led into playing scales that I didn’t really want to play, and my ear not being trained enough to know which ones I liked, I had no tools in my arsenal except the blues scales and the C major scale; which I avoided like the plague.
After playing many, many bad notes I realized I liked playing certain scales which sounded vaguely Arabic and surfy. That led to a fascination with music from that part of the world; really everywhere from Spain and Morocco, through the Mediterranean (Greece, Turkey) through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and of course India.
Many people who’d left the indie/pop world to focus on other aspects called their music, or had their music called “post-rock.” Tortoise, at least in our minds was the pinnacle of these bands, and almost all of them seemed to be in Chicago. We had many people tell us we needed to move to Chicago. Staying in New Orleans was certainly a bridge to nowhere. The live shows were fun, we had 40-200 people depending on the venue and the other acts, but we’d already hit the ceiling in New Orleans. That was OK with me. I didn’t want to tour; the live shows were fun but they were also stressful because of the complexity of the gear setup, and the unpredictable explosions that could be involved, and I wanted to focus on the recordings in the studio.
My friend potpie recommended that we try out his friend Chris on drums and he became our drummer for several years; my friend Bryan joined us on samplers and his very sweet custom-modded Pro-1 synth freeing me up to do more guitar work. The album We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire was culled from a series of mostly live improvisational recordings from this period; only three tracks were specifically tracked for the album. We did some live shows with both Chris and Mike on drums; the epic “Gilgamesh” was always a highlight for me as they played off each other brilliantly as Jim played the dubby bass line and I played my neo-Babylonian scales on the electric sitar.
Dan from godheadSilo, a good friend from work who was my partner in the electronica duo Time Promises Power, joined us after Katrina to fill in for Bryan on the Moog; a 6/6/6 tribute show to Black Sabbath conceived by potpie resulted in Dan getting behind the kit . Needless to say, if you know Dan and drums, you won’t be surprised to hear that he never left!
That show was also a turning point for me in that I felt I had achieved enough stylistic confidence in myself as a guitar player to no longer have to obsess about avoiding clichés. I had enough tools in my arsenal to pick the one that was appropriate and sometimes, when you’re playing psychedelic guitar, that’s going to be something very like a blues scale. I’ve never been a metalhead but I’ve loved early Sabbath since I was a kid. I could hear what was great about Tony Iommi’s guitar style without being led down the path of excess. As always, the subtlety, the tone, and the minimalism speaks far louder than a million Steve Vai notes per second.
With Dan in the band, there was enough collective concentration and patience to make a whole album’s (The Answer’s In Forgetting) worth of compositions that were based on more concrete ideas. The improvisational element was still heavy in some songs, but it was nice to build an album track-by-track, consciously, instead of waiting for the Muse and always having to have mics set up and the tape recorder ready-to-go whenever inspiration struck. It also enabled us to make some thoughtful chord changes (see the track “Exit the Thief” for example) in the arrangement; which in the past would have been against the rules for our minimalist drone outfit.
As before, with the track “Io” that ended We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire, we added a long ambient drone track, “Farewell Callisto.” I’ve been questioned before on the inclusion of such tracks, even by some drone afficianados, because the idea is that people who want to listen to such tracks want to listen to only them and those who don’t, don’t. That may be so, but I can think of at least one exception: me. I have found (thanks to the Internet mostly) that most of my geeky and obscure obsessions aren’t nearly as unusual as I thought they were, so someone else out there must also like the long ambient tracks?