Ragazzi Interview with Dave Kerman September 2005

Prog is dead

David Kerman ist einer der Musiker, die mich neugierig machen. Wie ist er dahin gekommen, wo er heute ist? Welche musikalischen Kreuzungen hat er genommen? Dave spielt(e) in einigen der großartigsten Avant Prog Bands: Motor Totemist Guild, 5uu's, U Totem, Thinking Plague, Present, Ahvak, Blast. Einige Male traf ich ihn in Würzburg zu diversen Konzerten und Freakshows, aber nie war genug Muße, ausführlich mit ihm zu reden. Nachdem er im letzten Jahr im Exposé Magazin einen Artikel mit dem Titel "Prog is dead" veröffentlicht hat, steigerte sich das Interesse noch einmal. Was genau meinte er damit? Auf dem diesjährigen Freakshow Art Rock Festival in Würzburg gab er mir seine aktuelle Email-Adresse und versprach brav, auf alle meine Fragen zu antworten. Schließlich kamen 8 voll gepackte DIN-A 4 Seiten mit Antworten zurück. Hier seine Statements:

ragazzi: "Hi Dave, do you feel well? How was the US concerts with Present this summer?"
Dave: "Fine, thanks. The Present tour was nice. We played gigs in France, Belgium and Germany, and managed to sneak in a few days of recording for the band's next album. Then made our way to the East Coast for more rehearsals to arrange the new material, so we could add it to the set for the USA leg of the tour. We played some nice venues booked by some great people, including NEARfest, then had our final concert of Summer 2005 in Montreal with Miriodor. All in all we did well considering the size of the touring band, and the time & expense needed to make it all happen."
ragazzi: "Please talk about your personal development as a musician. When and how began your interest in music? Which music have had you heard as a teenager and how has changed it in the years?"
Dave: "I started playing drums as a child, at the insistence of a neighbour (the late Keith Godchaux of The Grateful Dead). Music was always my #1 passion, especially drums. As a kid, all of my heroes were drummers, so naturally I wanted to be like them, and follow in their footsteps. I played in school orchestras, community marching bands, garage bands, bar-mitzvah bands….any gig I could get, and by age 13 was a sort of neighbourhood legend as a bad kid, skipping school to hang out with older musicians in order to play in their Rock n' Roll bands.

As a 12 or 13 year-old I was introduced to what was then "Progressive Rock". I loved, Supersister, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Yes and all sorts of obscure, European bands whose albums were only available in import bins. As young teens, my pals and I set out to beat each others' record collections as far as finding esoteric titles, and via this process I came across Henry Cow, in or around 1975. From there I actually went looking backwards to find great stuff I'd missed in the 60's: Beefheart, Nico, Van Dyke Parks, lots of art-rock and experimental music, like Bailey's Music Improvisation Company. I started college in 1977 and was really into electronic and modern classical stuff, as well as Zazou & Racaille's ZNR, and the few titles Recommended Records were selling by mail-order at the time. Over the years I've also gone thru phases of exclusively listening to one sort of world music or another. The longest of these stints was in the late 90's when I discovered Rembetika, which was the music of the Greek underworld from the beginning of the last century. It was about the most truly progressive music I'd ever heard, considering that it condoned both drug use and violence at least one half century prior to the Summer of Love or the subsequent Punk era."
ragazzi: "You play drums. Another instruments too?"
Dave: "By comparison, a bit of keyboards and guitars, which are the instruments I compose on. I've been forced to play bass as well on a few of my tunes. And, come to think of it, I played all of the instruments on my latest recording for Cuneiform, "Abandonship"."
ragazzi: "When and with which idea you have developed this extreme complex drumming technique? Do you have models? Who has influenced your drumming?"
Dave: "I'm not convinced that my style is so very complex. Often in drumming less is more - not in the way commercial music might require that a drummer "keep the beat" so that people may dance; Rather that drums should "fit" the music or composition as an integral part.

I suppose my influences are those who have managed to do something great within the scope of the music. Drumbo, from the Magic Band, was as unique as he was outstanding, and pioneered a sort of polyrhythmic "pattern" playing that many drummers, myself included, have incorporated. His influence is apparent in Daniel Denis' great playing, and also the guy from Devo (whose name escapes me just now). The French drummers Guigou Chenevier and Claude Marcoeur sort of perfected that style; both pushed that way of playing into a more melodic sense, which is not something one usually equates with drumming. And the Czech drummer Pavel Kudelka shows the influence as well, but in a marvellously minimalist way.

I also admire drummers with great technical skill, though I'm not so likely to be able to play that way. Christian Vander can be super-human at times; Lenny White was a monster, as was Tony Williams. Probably the most intense drummer I've seen with regards to virtuosity was Buddy Rich, though Louis Bellson could gave him a run for the money. I spent an afternoon with Bellson at Disneyland years ago, and found him to be a most gracious and humble man, and a rock of integrity, so I've been just crazy about the guy ever since.

But the drumming I like the most is the kind that both annihilates boundaries and stands on its own as an artful statement. Chris Cutler comes to mind immediately in this respect, and, as well, his drumming has been versatile enough to include him in numerous bands over the years, from quasi-art-no wavers Pere Ubu to the classical world of the Bulgarian composer, Iancu Dumitrescu. Chris' style always changes, and perhaps the only tell-tale sign that you are hearing him play drums on a recording is the sound of his drums themselves. And he's a trip to watch, too."
ragazzi: "What a drum set do you play?"
Dave: "I keep a set of electric Yamaha's here in my office to practise on. For European concerts weI usually request a basic backline. I'm not interested in any company's sponsorship, so I couldn't care less what brand or size of drums I'm afforded for live shows. Another drummer who seems to feel the same way is Marylise Frecheville, from the French group, Vialka. Her technical rider simply says something like, "We're probably going to arrive at your venue on a train or bus, so please have some drums and cymbals ready for me to play". And it must be said that she is one of the most formidable talents out on the road just now.

For me it's quite nice to play on different sets all the time, as the sound of different drums themselves can influence the way I play, and I like to mix it up as much as possible. If I feel the need for creature comforts, I usually ask the bass player of Present, Keith Macksoud, to bring along his mix & match kit. He usually doesn't mind if I pull a Keith Moon, and thrash his drums onstage."
ragazzi: "Do you need special technical equipment?"
Dave: "I've been known to bash out a rhythm using everything from Barbie dolls to kitchen utensils. I've even practised my golf swing with a 9-iron against the cymbals here and there. I amplify wind-up toys, scratch out dub beats on washboards…hell, I don't care, as long as it's a bit different every night."
ragazzi: "Do you play percussion, vibraphone and marimba too?"
Dave: "Mallet instruments, not so much, though being a drummer allows me to fake it on occasion. It seems that the human ear quite often respects cadence and meter more than noteworthy, melodic sense. Percussion, sure, all the time, on whatever can be mustered up. Again, I'm not particular."
ragazzi: "Please talk about your first days as a musician, before you was part of bands like Motor Totemist Guild and 5uu's - what has you done before? Normal rock music?"
Dave: "After the school orchestras and marching bands were a slew of Rock n Roll cover bands, playing Hendrix, Montrose and Zeppelin - that sort of stuff. Then came a period of New Wave bands. The most important of these to me was Curt Wilson's "Maps to The Stars' Homes", as it was the germination of 5uu's. Curt and I cut our teeth up and down the Sunset Strip during those days, playing the Troubadour, FM Station, the Whiskey, Madame Wong's and probably every other club in Hollywood, trying to get a record deal in the hope of becoming Rock Stars. But Hollywood is a bogus business, so it wasn't too long before I had conscientiously made the decision to steer the band away from both the glamorous ignominies of fame, and the fatalistic, squat-culture of Punk, which would have been another option because we were pals with the Black Flag guys. Alas, instead, we went the "Rock In Opposition" way, and ended up in the fatalistic, squat culture of Punk surroundings, anyway. Until, of course, the internet brought back some interest in the 70's recordings of dinosaurs like Yes and Genesis, and furthered it by bringing to fruition a whole line of younger bands who poorly imitate them. From there, our school of music got thrown to the dogs by being labelled "Prog", thus killing any chance of us becoming Rock n' Roll stars and attracting the ubiquitous, hormonal attributes of gorgeous, young groupies."
ragazzi: "Secret and interesting projects, of which lay hot records forgotten at dusty lofts?"
Dave: "There are some un-released things from every period of my career. But in some cases, surely, it's better that things stay in the vaults. We're presently working on recording a band I was in during the late '70's, immediately preceding Maps to the Stars' Homes. Some of the material ended up on 5uu's albums in a rearranged sense. But the majority was never recorded, so when the guitarist, Joe Herpin, contacted me after 25 years, we got together as quickly as possible to finally capture this stuff on tape, but with the perspicacity and musically-forward leanings that we now possess many years later. We have no idea where the original bass player ended up, so Dave Willey of Hamster Theatre and Thinking Plague showed up in the studio, and kicked out the jams in record time. We'll finish it soon, and it will probably come out on my record label."
ragazzi: "How was getting the contact to Motor Totemist Guild and the avant-garde scene?"
Dave: "In 1984 there was a small Avant-Rock scene in Los Angeles. Some of us had gotten together and started an organisation called the California Outside Music Association, or COMA, for short. We had a member named Titus Levi (who played cello with Lynn Johnston, Emily Hay, David Crisman and me in a band called "You'll Go Blind"). Titus was instrumental in getting the organisation the funding needed for our bands to rehearse and perform, sometimes alongside very unlikely bedmates - like the time we played with a handful of octogenarian Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese instrumentalists.

In the beginning there were 10 bands in this organisation, and all of them were committed to an alliance that would help promote and distribute each others' recordings. Of course, we had a record label, James Grigbsy's Rotary Totem Records, but we knew little about the practical distribution of product on a worldwide scale. So, like anything else on an amateurish level trying to compete with consummate professionals (in this case the big Hollywood record labels), the organisation faded away. But before doing so, it managed to produce albums by Motor Totemist Guild, 5uu's, Steaming Coils, Kubist Tier, Cruel Frederick, and a few others. As well it tried it's best to distribute a sampler of the 10 original groups, and to promote radio specials and live concerts. One of the most successful - ask anyone who was there- was a Motor Totemist Guild concert at Safari Sam's in Orange County in 1985. I'd never seen them live before, and they were spectacular. To this day I'd say it was one of the very best concerts I've ever seen. Another successful spot would have to be the bill of U-Totem and Thinking Plague at L.A.C.E. (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibits), though it was a nightmare of musical rote for me, as I had to play drums for both groups."
ragazzi: "What a flair was being there? Do you was only the drummer or do you have had a musical input?"
Dave: "In the Motor Totemist Guild, I was solely the drummer. James Grigsby was the composer. But I was the main composer for 5uu's, and when we truncated and combined the two bands into U-Totem to play at the Frankfurt Artrock Festival, the two of us became partners in crime. Also, Sanjay Kumar embarked upon the dubious and difficult job of composing for this configuration. After the festival the band continued, made two cd's and played more concerts and festivals in Europe, Canada and the USA., for a few years. It was a musically fruitful time for us, but one which was bankrolled by all of our own day jobs."
ragazzi: "You are/was the drummer in some of the most interesting prog bands: Present, Thinking Plague, 5uu's, Ahvak..."
Dave: "See, there you go using the "P" word! None of these bands are Prog, by my estimate."
ragazzi: "How is getting your work with Present?"
Dave: "Daniel Denis wanted to quit Present to reform Univers Zero, but promised to stay on until Roger and the rest of the band could find a replacement for him. They all showed up at a concert that U-Totem played at the University of Brussels in 1993, and afterwards approached me with the proposition to take Daniel's place. Univers Zero and Present were two of my favourite bands at the time, so I had no problem saying, "Yes, by all means, please count me in.""
ragazzi: "How was getting the contact to Mike Johnson and Thinking Plague?"
Dave: "Eden Ben Epstein, a mail-order distributor who freelanced as a DJ at KCRW played Thinking Plague's "In This Life" on his radio show one night as U-Totem were setting up to play a live broadcast. He mentioned to me that this band sounded a lot like 5uu's. I didn't agree SO much, but I found the music interesting and it was quite obvious that they were really talented musicians. Next thing I knew, the bassist from Plague, Bob Drake, had moved to LA to work as a sound engineer, and after we met, he asked me to join Plague. It wasn't until we were all in one rehearsal room in Shane Hotle's (the keyboardist) basement that I was made quite aware of just how hot their band was. We became rather like an incestuous family….I played in Thinking Plague from 1989 until I relocated to Israel 11 years later, and at one point or another Bob, Mike and Susanne Lewis played or recorded with 5uu's. As well, Sanjay was in Plague for a while. And now, it seems, James, Bob and myself have a new "sick-commercial' band together, called "Nimby"."
ragazzi: "Do you work with 5uu's anymore?"
Dave: "It's a studio work nowadays,, and pretty much like a solo project. The extreme responsibilities placed on any leader of a band can really take their toll after a while. So it's almost easier to have every man fend for him/her self. And aside from Present and Blast (a Dutch band I've played with) the others are going about it in pretty much the same way. Well, Ahvak, the Israeli band you mentioned, is still pretty much a band effort still."
ragazzi: "What do you feel about the development of the second prog and avant-garde music scene (after the seventies) in the nineties to today?"
Dave: "It's no secret that I'm not too fond of the music in general, nor do I feel any allegiance to the scene. The bands I play with have more in common with old-style Punk than Progressive Rock, though many of our fans refuse to see it. I think Prog has become musically "comfortable" and unobtrusive; a sentimental type of music for people who wear their heart on their sleeve. None of the bands I've played with were ever interested in that direction, instead playing music that came from a less uplifting or spiritually resounding place. We endeavoured to examine despair, humility, and anguish, like real life - not happiness and unrelenting joy, like fantasy."
ragazzi: "Which of the lot of albums you have played with you like today anymore? "
Dave: "Well, since I usually have a hand in an album's production, I've heard them many times before the final mix, or the actual release date. So I can't really enjoy anything after such tedious work. I haven't heard my own records with 5uu's, U-totem or Thinking Plague in years. Ahvak is still kind of fresh, perhaps, and I heard it a lot in a few days' period before the band played at the Tritonale Festival in Paris this past summer."
ragazzi: "Which musicians and which music do you like and prefer today? "
Dave: "I'm a big fan of Lutoslawski, the Russian composer Sophia Gubaidulina, and the Serbian Erno Kiraly. Rembetika music is still a fave. Some heavy stuff, like Mudvayne and Helmet. Musique Concrete, especially Tod Dockstader, who is one of my few "heroes" these days. I love Latin Big-Band music, like Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz. I go back to The Beatles, Faust, Art Bears and This Heat often. I like electroacoustic musicians like Thom Dimuzio, Lutz Glandien , Kiko Esseiva, and Michael Vogt. I love the piano music of Percy Grainger and Conlon Nancarrow, and the violin music of Jon Rose. For me, Magma's "Mekanik Destruktiv Kommandoh" and Beefheart's "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" are timeless, rock masterpieces. Lately I've been smitten by a Swedish band called "Fortrangt Hushallsarbete", whose album, "Offret Om At Alska", I've listened to every day without exception for weeks now."
ragazzi: "Which kind of music you don't like?"
Dave: "While I'd like to think that I enjoy most types of music despite any stylistic misgivings, I'm not too crazy about most Country-Western. I do find the Carter Family a good listen now and then. And Tennessee Ernie Ford was great, especially "Shotgun Boogie" and "Sixteen Tons", the latter of which is a tune I'd like to cover some day, if someone doesn't beat me to making an avant garde version of it. And Jimmie Rodgers surely turned the country on its ear with his yodelling whilst fully polluted with tuberculosis. But stylistically, Country & Western has not advanced much in the almost 100 years since its first commercial recordings appeared. Probably the most important period was a century and a half ago, when the Hutchinson Family were the first successful protest singers in the USA. They became famous, American superstars in the mid-1800's by protesting slavery. Their tradition maybe precedes Country/Western music proper; But their sort of approach, to use strictly American vernacular and song topics within a handed-down tradition of European musical modes was the beginning of popular American Folk and Protest Music. So, even within the parameters of styles that I'm not too forgiving about, I try to find something positive. However, I admit to being quite unforgiving about the current scene of Progressive rock."
ragazzi: "You were writing an article with the title "Prog is dead". What would you say with this article? Can you give us a little outline?"
Dave: "It was published as an editorial for Expose' Magazine in 5 segments, like the 5 stages of grieving, metaphorically mourning the loss of experimentation that allowed popular music to grow and stylistically thrive in the 50's, 60's and 70's. By its very nature and definition, "Progressive" should encapsulate an ideology comprised of innovation, advancement and an outright rooting in principles that command a unique approach. But today we sadly allow "Progressive" to mean, "Sounds a bit like Pink Floyd or Genesis", or "Ooooohhh, listen to that Mellotron". To me that outlook is wholly ignorant, and not worthy of the terminology, "Progressive". The fans of this sort of music often fancy their aesthetic tastes to be "beyond" that of common music consumers, when in fact their biases are very much the same. To boot, the accomplishments that they would list as high water marks (Brain Salad Surgery, Close To The Edge, Thick As A Brick etc.) were completely commercial endeavours in their own time, selling many millions to common teenagers & young adults, and were almost completely devoid of musical experimentation when compared to their predecessors' efforts.

Truth be told, this penchant to not thoroughly examine artistic merit in modern terms is a predominantly American phenomenon; one which I personally accredit to the advent of the country's conservative era, circa 1980, though I've seen it rear its hideous head as far away as Israel to a some extent: Musically delusional, obsessive young fan-boys, often disgruntled musicians themselves, applaud the reactionary responses of new bands that re-create a style of Rock music from decades past, and refer to it as "progression"; I find this ludicrous. Therefore I say, "Prog is Dead". If and when something comes about which is truly progressive, I'll be happy to say "Long Live Prog", or something to that extent."
ragazzi: "You run ReR USA. How do it run?"
Dave: "It's coming along quite nicely, and we're happy to be offering lots music that will appeal to a select few now, in the hope that more people will be introduced to it, and like it. We also have a new label, Ad Hoc Records, which we hope will appeal to those with similarly contrary tastes. We're doing business out of Denver, Colorado."
ragazzi: "Can you live with it?"
Dave: "We are managing, although some months we're fat, and others we're lean."
ragazzi: "With which bands you play actually?"
Dave: "Right now I only play concerts with Present. A call could come at any moment from others, I suppose. But I'm getting old and hoary, and I'm less likely to rush away from home and the business to travel in a tour bus than I was 10-20 years ago. Plus I feel the need to be of service to the music, and more and more this entails working with the distribution side of things, though I still do record and play concerts…when the conditions and planning seem efficacious."
ragazzi: "With which band you want to play?"
Dave: "I'd like to be the drummer for "The Black Sheep" from Holland. In theory, at least, I'm already their drummer, but organising a tour has become problematic. This is something we'd like to change, though."
ragazzi: "What are your future plans?"
Dave: "I'd like to continue to stay extremely busy, playing, organising, writing, recording, promoting and distributing what I feel is interesting music. That concept has always been the bottom line for me."