One of the younger modern guitar maestros, Anthony Pirog knows nothing of stylistic limitations—his music is beyond category, embracing not only jazz, but avant-garde and indie rock, free improvisation, electronic sound, and ambient soundscapes.
Pirog has himself established with his work as one-half of the duo Janel & Anthony, the electric jazz improvisational Five Times Surprise, the classic DC-scene twang inspired Music From The Anacostia Delta, and the exciting trio Messthetics, with Brendan Canty and Joe Lally, the rhythmic section from Fugazi.
His new solo record, Pocket Poem, features the same musicians as 2015’s Palo Colorado Dream: acoustic bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Ches Smith. For this trio record Pirog wanted to layer the compositions with sounds created using modern technology and vintage guitar synthesizers. All of which and more we discuss here.
Eric Clapton’s playing on the Bluesbreakers record changed my life. This was a guitar tone unlike any other previously. Fat, sustaining, it recalled the violin on which I had begun playing music. So, of course, I bought the next Bluesbreakers record, this time featuring Peter Green, who died this week.
Sarah Lipstate has become something of a modern guitar superstar. Between opening for major acts, demoing the coolest products at NAMM, and her raft of distinctive ambient records as Noveller, she has proved a master (mistress?) of the looper. Her records reveal a serious composer, and through her Instagram page has proved she can geek out about gear with the best of them. Here she talks about how she made the excellent Arrow, which you should pick up immediately at Bandcamp.
One day, I came across Keisuke Matsuno on Don Mount’s YouTube channel. Suddenly it was going, “Who is this guy? This is a kind of guitar I love: exactly the way he does what he does, in the context in which he does it.” Certainly, there are other guitar players playing modern guitar sounds within the context of already outside, noisy, or fully electronic music, like Matsuno’s work with Hans Tammen. Rarer is the ability to inject these elements into a largely consonant context, like Nels Cline with Wilco, Ethan Ballinger’s work with country star Lee Ann Womack, or the subversive playing Matsuno himself does in saxophonist Timo Vollbrecht’s Fly Magic ensemble.
Noise music has its own set of rules, But the best of it requires many of the same skills as more mainstream music: a strong sense of tension and release, command of the sounds coming off your instrument, and a sense of musical direction. Chris LiButti is aware of these requirements and has thrown himself into the international community, where he will get to display the skills he has and further develop them. He is also, through curating shows, helping to grow and enhance that community.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I started playing guitar when I was about 14 so my tastes were fairly basic. I liked rock music. I learned a lot of Green Day and Nirvana songs initially before branching out to some trickier classic rock stuff and eventually to weirder indie/experimental rock and post-punk.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
I went on a pretty standard path of Nirvana to Pixies to Sonic Youth to more abstract sounds but it took me a while to really get into straight noise and sound art. I loved noise-rock and some of the weirder jazz and electronic I’d heard, but I used to rely on hearing those extreme sounds within some kind of structure I could still recognize as a song. I’d say my band mate, Steve Doles, was pretty integral in pushing me to embrace and appreciate noise and drone, etc. He’s a few years older and was always sending me and my friends new weird music he had discovered.
Once I got into it, my knowledge and love of it expanded naturally over time but I still didn’t know much about making it. When I’d try, it would be for a section within something a bit more rock-ish. I had been interested in doing strictly sound pieces for awhile but needed some kind of last push to make me go for it. I hadn’t ever really recorded any of my music or tried to play shows in spite of playing and writing songs pretty much daily. I was still trying to figure out which creative path I wanted to go down. For a while, I was set on writing short stories and poetry. I would still like to get back to that at some point, but I was unfocused and undisciplined.
Eventually the push I needed to shift from concentrating primarily on writing to music came when Steve started experimenting with electronic music and we finally got our shit together to start collaborating. We had mentioned doing so as far back as 2007 and would often joke with one another that we were “in a band” but Steve wan’t playing anything or at least not regularly and I was still floating around writing rock songs for no one and dicking around the city (I dropped out of college and moved from Rochester to Brooklyn in 2010).
When Steve and I first started making music together in a project we eventually named Red Channel, I owned no pedals so I had to look for other ways to generate noise. I started rubbing scissors on my strings, playing field recordings from my cell phone through the pickups on my guitar, and experimenting with alternative tunings. I landed upon the tunings in a very unmusical way. I would just turn the pegs until a thought emerged such as: “That should sound nice!” But I would only end up repeating the ones that had something to their sound. Eventually I got a few pedals, a distortion first, then another distortion and a delay but I still employ those early techniques.
Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.
Aaron Dilloway and Jason Crumer both continually floor me with their ability to sonically compose. Phill Niblock and Éliane Radigue are probably my two favorite drone artists, which is a big part of my world/sound. I love a lot of Japanoise like Incapacitants, Merzbow, and Masonna. The work of Steve Reich, John Cage, and La Monte Young has informed so much of the music I devour.
As for guitarists, Thurston Moore and Lou Reed are two of the main reasons I wound up making these kinds of sounds in the first place. Some others I love: Bill Nace, Otomo Yoshihide, Tashi Dorji, Brian McBride, Adam Wiltzie, Arto Lindsay, Jason Pierce, Bill Orcutt, Fred Frith, Lee Ranaldo, Norman Westberg, Michael Gira, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Marc Ribot.
How did you get better at your current style?
It sounds like a cop out but honestly the best answer I can give is by practicing. By repeating experimental techniques over and over again you learn how to better control the types of sounds you can make, to make them do and say what you want them to, the same way you learn to structure a chord progression or melody. There is a language to it, even if it’s a radically different one.
Playing live helps a lot too. Bouncing ideas off of an audience and becoming more comfortable with who you are as an artist and in showing that to other people. Hopefully I’m still improving.
What are you trying convey with your music?
I am rarely, if ever, focused on one specific thing I want to say when performing/composing. It’s almost all intuition. Certainly, I know what my world view is, what the things I care about are, and the types of ideas I find important to express but I am not usually concentrating on any of them while playing; I trust they will come through on their own.
If I had to put names to some of the ideas/feelings my music delves into they’d probably be profound confusion, alienation, and anxiety, equal parts misanthropy and humanity, lamenting the void, celebrating the void, fear of meaninglessness, helplessness, and death.and attempting to peel back the mundane and ordinary to reveal the absurdity lurking beneath.
Sometimes it’s as simple as just wanting to create a sonic landscape to get lost in, or to pit unusual sounds against one another and try and make them meaningful somehow. I always try to imbue my pieces and performances with some sense of narrative. Not in any traditional sense, just in creating something that grows and shifts and tells a story even if the precise meaning is elusive.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and WHY?
My basic set up these days is my Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster into a Korg Pitchback Mini Tuner Pedal, through an MXR La Machine Octave Fuzz, into an Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff Distortion, through a Boss DF-2 Super Feedbacker and Distortion, and then into a Moog Minifooger Ring Mod, a Boss TR-2 Tremolo, and a Line 6 Echo Park Delay, into a Red Panda Particle Granular Delay an Electro-Harmonix Freeze Pedal, into a Boss RC-1 Loop Station, amplified by a Peavy Bandit 212 (at my studio and on the rare occasion I have to lug it somewhere. Otherwise I will use whatever amp is available at the venue or the P.A. if I have to).
In addition to the pedals, I bring a bunch of little trinkets to manipulate my instrument such as: an EBow, a violin bow, scissors, a Korg Monotron Delay Analogue Ribbon Synthesizer, cell phones with hours of field recordings on the hard drives, paper (to wedge between the strings), and tin foil. I have also recently taped up a contact mic with a separate input underneath the bridge of my guitar. I will switch the cable from the guitar input to the mic input at opportune times to generate different sounds.
My set up will grow and shrink depending on where I’m at with my music. For instance I have recently nixed an MXR Phaser from my chain because I thought it was mostly a cheesy sound that I only enjoyed in conjunction with other pedals at the right settings. On the flip side, I’m currently looking to get a volume pedal.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
Having only been in a proper studio once, most of my recording is pretty DIY so I will have to compare playing live with that experience. Playing live is definitely more instantaneously rewarding if you’ve had a good set, but I find both can be equally cathartic. It’s great to share your music with other people but playing alone in an empty room is often deeply therapeutic and, in my experience, where the biggest breakthroughs and new developments to your sound happen. It’s good to harvest something new and exciting in solitude before sharing it with others. Playing live and doing it well is a pretty massive high, but so is releasing something you’re proud of.
I could go back and forth endlessly. I guess I’d say the actual process of performing live is better since most of what I’ve been referring to as recording is pretty free and practice-based and not really paying mind to the hard work of multiple takes and editing and re-editing your tracks to perfection that actually setting out to record finished pieces requires, which I find very tedious.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
Through playing shows whenever I can and meeting good, supportive people. I had the luck of having a monthly series fall into my lap recently and that has helped a lot. Jeremy Hurewitz, who records under the name Rootless, reached out to me to play a residency he was doing at Muchmore’s in Williamsburg. Shortly after my show with him, he told me he was planning to stop doing the monthly slot and wanted a group of people to take over and take turns curating the night. I told him I would do a month here and there but was hesitant to take it on fully. Ultimately, no one else came forward. I was tossing around the idea of taking the slot completely, but couldn’t see myself finding a good show to put on every month with my limited connections. I was talking to my friend, Weston Czerkies, the brilliant noise artist, who goes by Sunken Cheek. He runs the inimitable Prime Ruin tape label. The label has released two tapes of the music Steve and I make as Red Channel —another way my audience has grown. (Thanks, Weston!). He finally convinced me to just go for it. I believe he said something like “Just take it. If you have a show, people will play.” So I did, and they have. The series is called Limited Resources. It takes place the first Wednesday of every month at Muchmore’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at 9 pm. I don’t play every time but those are the only shows I have lined up for NY the next couple of months. I’m sure more will pop up here and there. I’m in the middle of gearing up for a visit to Japan where I will be playing a string of shows, some solo and some alongside my friends Gaiamamoo.
It also helps that my first solo performance a little over a year ago was part of the Work Series at The Sump in Ridgewood, Queens. The series was founded by David Watson (another incredible musician) and, after some personnel changes, is curated by him and Ian Douglas-Moore (also great). They do a good job of creating a sense of community while continuously putting on top notch shows.They also have a close friend/collaborator, David Weinstein, who records pretty much every show they put on and then plays the live sets on his weekly WFMU show, Ridgewood Radio. He has been kind enough to play three of my sets. The last episode I appeared on features a recording of the first time I performed a big drone piece using one bass, two guitars, and three amps. My set is at about 43 minutes.
I don’t know that it has directly helped build my audience but I did notice a spike in plays on my Soundcloud page shortly after being played featured on it the first time.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
Pretty much anyone I mentioned in the inspiring artists section still living. I would love to be a live cog in a Niblock drone experience. I would probably jump out of my skin if I ever got the chance to wrangle terrible sounds out of my guitar alongside Thurston Moore or Bill Nace or any of the Japanoise artists I listed.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
The last thing I have released was the second Red Channel tape, Decoy Son. I’ve sold out of my physical copies, but people can download it from Bandcamp.
I’m planning to self release a solo tape culled from the endless hours of unused recordings I have and possibly a Red Channel single within the next month or two, so I can have something to take with me to sell in Japan. U.S. copies will probably mostly be sold at shows or otherwise ordered through Bandcamp.