Interview- DENNIS DUCK (for The Wire)

Was there/is there an overall LAFMS aesthetic? Is it possible to describe it?
Yes, I would say there was an overall aesthetic, but it was implicit rather than explicit. It seemed that everyone involved at the beginning and those that got involved over time all had an interest in music and sound that would challenge what was currently considered the accepted ways of doing modern music – whether that meant electronic, jazz, free improvisation, composition – even song structures. Although many of us were fascinated with the modern avant garde composers, we also loved the experimental rock bands coming out of Europe, as well as punk and new wave bands from the U.S. and the UK. If I had to distill the aesthetic down to one idea, I might say that the artists involved with LAFMS had abandoned the idea of being thought of as “respectable” and sought to create in ways that might even offend what was, at the time, the avant garde establishment.
What was the LA of the early-70s like? How did it contribute to the birth and affect the development of the LAFMS?

There was a growing punk scene in L.A. in the 70s with so many exciting new bands and clubs popping up. I think we all felt that energy and in different ways for each person, it did infuse what came out of the LAFMS artists. I remember a particular Devo performance – before they released their first album – at a local gallery. It was as much performance art as it was a musical event. Those of us that saw that show came away with a new understanding of what could be done within the context of “pop” and “rock” music. The Screamers were another band that pushed the limits –refusing even to release a “record” because their performances were so visual, they were holding out until they could release a video – something that wasn’t really done at that time. They were years ahead.

Tell me a little about Poo-Bah Records – can you recall your first meeting with Tom there? What sort of records was he turning people onto?
Poo-Bah Records in Pasadena was in many ways the heart of LAFMS. I would spend hours there nearly every day picking through the used albums, going through the imports, talking to Tom to find out what was new and interesting. For me, Tom Recchion was the catalyst that inspired so many of us to be adventurous and curious and excited about new music. I remember so clearly my first meeting with Tom. I had seen a Pink Floyd special on PBS during their Ummagumma/Atom Heart Mother period. I wasn’t really familiar with them yet, and wanted to buy everything I could find by them. Tom showed me their section in the store and suggested that, if I liked Pink Floyd, I might also like “Song of the Youths” by Stockhausen and “The Delusion of the Fury” by Harry Partch. Tom and I had become instant friends. I could tell he was a musical soul mate, and I purchased both of those albums on his recommendation. That was a turning point for me musically. I had never heard anything like those albums and from that point on I began a journey of discovery into avant garde music and, more importantly, a life-long friendship with Tom. It would be impossible to name all the wonderful music Tom introduced us to – everything from Can to Captain Beefheart, John Cage, Henry Cow, Iannis Xenakis, Roxy Music and Brian Eno, Derek Bailey, Lamonte Young, The Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix – an incredibly diverse array of wonderful, challenging music spanning all genres. Even before LAFMS “officially” began, many of us would gather in a back room at Poo-Bah after closing to play music long into the night. For me, and I think for many, Poo-Bah was a second home, and Tom was the sage waiting to introduce us to something utterly new and wonderful.
Did the LAFMS inherit anything from the LA freakscene around Zappa, Wild Man Fischer, Beefheart et al?
Yes, we definitely drew inspiration from them and loved their irreverent approach to music. Beefheart and Zappa in particular were touchstones for us. They both challenged the musical status quo, bringing their own incredible vision to the blues, jazz, rock, serious 20th century composition, etc. I don’t think anyone in LAFMS would argue with me if I say they were heroes and mentors for us. Both working in a “rock” context, but bringing so much more to the mix. Their music shook the world, and we wanted to do the same.
How about improvisation – how aware were you of improvising as a form of musical practice, i.e. coming out of jazz, free jazz etc – or was it much more instinctive than that?

I was attracted to jazz, free jazz and improvisation right away. In one of the houses that Smegma shared, I had my drums set up in my bedroom and would put on “Science Fiction” by Ornette Coleman and try to play along. I would practice to Tony Williams and Max Roach records, just in awe of how beautiful and fluid their playing was. Later, when Tom introduced me to the European improvisers – Derek Bailey, Han Bennink, Tony Oxley, etc. I was stunned by the creativity and daring of their playing.

Did you feel a connection to rock music, did you feel you were furthering modes/ideas/styles that came out of the late 60s rock revolution or did you feel more like overthrowing it altogether? Was there any relationship between late 60s head culture and your own experiments in community?

I’ve always felt a connection to rock, and I think most of the LAFMS folks would agree. I would say there is an influence from the sixties, because of the groundbreaking music of people like Hendrix, in particular. I would also cite punk rock as a major influence on LAFMS in the early days. Punk and so-called New Wave bands were putting out some of the most challenging and engaging music we’d ever heard.

Why the need for a ‘Society’? What was the role of the LAFMS? Was it a strength in numbers thing, a co-operative publishing house, a hot-house for brainstorming ideas, a roll-call of weirdo musicians that you could all draw on?

All of the above, I would say. It was, and still is, the most un-organized organization you can imagine – held together by a common interest and desire to explore alternative music of all different forms.

As for the reason for calling it a “society”, this is probably a question better answered by Joe Potts or Rick Potts, as they coined the name “Los Angeles Free Music Society”. They will correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I believe that the word “society’ as part of the name was intended to be ironic – a little poke at mainstream avant-garde establishment.

Who named LAFMS and what was the concept of ‘free music’?
Le Forte Four, which initially consisted of Rick Potts, Joe Potts, Tom Potts and Chip Chapman coined the name to accompany music they were submitting to a “serious” music completion. (see Rick’s History of the LAFMS).
There seems to be a ‘scientific American’/hobbyist ethos with the LAFMS, making your own instruments etc… do you see any connections between what you do and the musician-inventors like Harry Partch, Harry Bertoia et al? It also seems to tie-in with garage band traditions but also classic 50s/60s garage hobbies, building your own monster kits, your own hot rods…
Yes, there is very much a home-made ethic at work. You see that in Tom Recchion’s early homemade instruments, such as the “strungophone” and Joe Pott’s “chopped optigon” and Fredrik Nilsen’s “cross string guitar”. It’s interesting that you mentioned Partch, because his beautiful instruments and exotic music were a definite touchstone for many of us.
Ju Suk Reete Meate maintained that Smegma were more of a rock band whereas the rest of the LAFMS were more arthouse – how accurate do you think that is?

Boy, that’s a tough one. Although I never really thought of Smegma as a “rock band” I think I know what Ju Suk is talking about. Le Forte Four and The DooDooEttes were comprised of people who either came out of art school or were closely associated with the art scene – whereas Smegma was almost more of a raw, rustic folk band – people getting together in an attic studio who had never played “proper” music before. We would do extended vocal improvisations that were as much Firesign Theater as John Cage. I don’t want to speak for Rick, but I think he may be saying that the other LAFMS groups were more rooted in art and sound composition, while Smegma was in some way a free-form rock folk group – somewhat along the line of The Fugs, for example.

How important was the concept of ‘unmusicianship’ of music made by non-musicians – how was this liberating and how central is it to the sound of the LAFMS? Were there particular inspirations for this approach, these were lean years before punk huh? Or is that a myth?

I would say the concept of “unmusicianship” was a central one to LAFMS. In some ways, that was the glue that held a very disparate group of people together. You really see that in some of the compilation albums that were produced, beginning with Joe Pott’s “ID Art” and continuing with Chip Chapman’s “Blub Krad” and later “Darker Skratcher”.

How do you feel now that the LAFMS ethos had percolated so far and so deep into the contemporary underground, did you ever think you would see that?
I’m always surprised to find out how many people from all over the world know about LAFMS. It’s very gratifying to know that we’ve had a positive effect on so many artists, musicians and performers. I don’t think any of us would have guessed that at the beginning. We had no delusions or pretentions of self-importance. We just wanted to create interesting sound.
Tell me about growing up, what music were you digging, what was your first introduction to weirdo music?

I grew listening to pop songs on the radio. I think hearing the early Beatles songs was a turning point for me. It’s probably hard to understand for some people now, but at the time, pop music was so restrained and conservative, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sounded sexy and edgy and exotic. After that, the idea that I might one day want to be in a band started to grow in my mind, but it always seemed like an impossible dream. As I’ve mentioned previously, my first introduction to “weirdo” music was through Tom Recchion and Poo-Bah Records. That opened me up to the possibility of playing both rock and improvised music.
Rick has spoken of the 1975 gig in the ballroom above Poo-Bah as the birthday of the LAFMS, can you recall the specifics of the show, who came, what was the reaction on the night, did it feel instantly significant?
I do remember that show, although not really many of the specifics. The bill was Le Forte Four, DooDooEttes and Ace and Duce. I played in both the DooDooEttes and Ace and Duce. We played in an abandoned part of the building above Poo-Bah – I think it may have been a small warehouse at one time. Others can probably supply more details about the show. What I do remember is that I was “playing” whatever happened to be in the room, which in this case was giant metal ducting. At one point, I must have been kicking a duct unit with my foot and sprained my toe pretty badly. But I played on through the pain. Not sure if I could do that now, 40 years later.
What was your first encounter with the Doodooettes? How were they regarded locally? How about Smegma? Ace and Deuce?

My memory of that is a little vague. What I do remember is that shortly after meeting Tom, he told me that he knew some guys who had a band called Le Forte Four and they had a studio in Pasadena and were releasing their own albums and had formed something called the Los Angeles Free Music Society. Tom and his friend Hal (or Harold) had formed a band called The Two Who Do Duets (later changed to The DooDooEttes when the band expanded) and that Chip Chapman and the guys from Le Forte Four had asked Tom and Hal to join the LAFMS and wanted to know if I was interested. I remember Tom taking me up to the Le Forte Four studio in the Raymond Building for the first time to meet them. I think I remember covers for their first album, Bikini Tennis Shoes, strewn about the studio. They were very friendly and welcoming and I knew instantly that I wanted to be part of whatever they were doing.

As for meeting Smegma, I originally met Rick (Ju Suk Reet Meate) through a mutual friend, Brad Hostetler, who would eventually become Chucko Fatts in Smegma. Rick had a friend, Dana, who was looking for some people to share a large house in Pasadena. That was where Rick and I started playing together. He had bought an electric bass and amp, and I had just bought my first drum kit, which I still have. We set up in the living room and tried to play “Brontosaurus” by The Move – a band we both loved.  That was the beginning of our musical association. After that, we moved into another house with a group of friends and that is where Smegma was born. The member at that time were (apologies if I have left anyone out) Ju Suk, Brad Hostetler (Chucko Fatts), Allan Lloyd, Ace, myself, Mike Lastra (Dr. Id), Amy De Wolfe. We would jam almost every day and then do special performances in the house for friends from time to time. Our first live gig was a birthday party opening for an oldies band Snotty Scotty and the Hankies. Not surprisingly, we were booed offstage.

As for Ace and Duce, I had seen Ace and Robert (Duce) often at Poo-Bah Records. They were frequent customers and hanger-outers. They were always dressed in an outrageous manner, and I remember being a little intimidated by them but also fascinated and curious about them. I think Tom must have introduced me to Ace initially. We became friends and eventually he asked me to join the band, which then also included Rick Snyder, who would later play bass with Captain Beefheart. While we all love Beefheart, Ace was known around Poo-Bah to be the hardcore Beefheart fanatic and the music we played at that time reflected that.

So who all lived in the Raymond Building? What was the atmosphere like there?

The Raymond Building was essentially an abandoned office building, but the management still rented office spaces. I had to check with Tom on this, but apparently only Chip Chapman ever actually “lived” in the Raymond building. Le Forte Four had a studio there and I believe that’s where Chip resided for a while. Tom also had an art and music studio there, where The DooDooEttes rehearsed and recorded. Ace and Duce also had a studio there. The atmosphere was a bit strange, but perfect for LAFMS at the time. The place was mostly empty and somewhat in a state of disrepair. The halls and stairways were dark, and the elevator seemed like it might break down at any moment. It probably sounds corny, but I kind of had the feeling of being part of a guerilla operation when we were there. As if we were commanding an outpost of subversive art secretly in the middle of an unsuspecting city.

Do you see the groups as having very separate identities or as blurring the lines as members came and went? For example, were some groups more about tape composition, some more about electronics and post-production, some more about the live jam? What was what and who was who?
Yes, I definitely feel that each group had its own identity. Le Forte Four were about sound collage, sampling bits of pop culture and mixing them with improvised music using toys and primitive electronic instruments. There was a lot of humor in their music. To me, they embody the essence of LAFMS. The DooDooEttes were more focused on improvisation and spontaneous sound composition – more along the lines of the European improvisers and contemporary composers. Ace and Duce went through different phases over the years – from free-form ensemble to a tightly arranged rock-format. Of course, Ace has always been the heart and soul of the band and, in my opinion, his love of Captain Beefheart was the primary inspiration for most of what we did. We even did a fairly decent cover of  Beefheart’s “Click Clack” at one point. Smegma had already been playing music for some time when the Raymond Building scene began, but at that time, Smegma as a group was becoming disenchanted with the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles and had decided to migrate north to Oregon – eventually ending up in Portland. I had initially planned to move with them, but decided to remain in Pasadena to play with The DooDooEttes.
Can you recall the circumstances of the pyramid headphone gig?

That was something that I think was primarily set up by Le Forte Four. They managed to convince the Brand Library to let us do a night there. I don’t think the Brand really knew what they were getting in to. Le Forte Four came up with the idea to make individual pyramid headphones for each audience member, which meant making a lot of them, although I couldn’t tell you now how many we actually made. We set up a production line at the Le Forte Four studio in the Raymond Building to build these. We all worked on them according to a design by Chip Chapman, I think.  The idea was that the audience members would sit on the floor wearing the pyramid headphone and hear the music individually. It may also have been that some of the mixes were different for some people – I’m not sure now. Joe or Rick or Tom would probably be able to give a lot more detail about this.

What brought the whole downtown Pasadena scene to an end?

That’s hard to pinpoint. Poo-Bah Records moved to a new location in town, so we lost that common meeting place. Also, the owners of the Raymond Building decided to restore it to a working office building and kicked out all the artists who had studios there. After that, many of us kept playing together, but in different formats. I can only really tell my own story and let others tell theirs. Juan Gomez and I both loved what was coming out of the punk scene and wanted to start a band. We first formed The Monitors (not to be confused with the other “Monitor”) which was followed by a band called “Paul Is Dead” which kind of morphed into Human Hands. These rock bands were not necessarily associated with LAFMS, but The Monitors did play at the first LAFMS Telethons Returns event, created by Joe Potts. Tom and Fredrik joined Alex Gibson’s band BPeople, which played the usual L.A. area venues, often doing show with Human Hands.

I don’t think I’m really giving you a good answer to the question of how the scene ended. I’m not really sure it did completely end. We have all stayed friends over the years and continued to work together on various projects.

Can you recall the circumstances of the recording of Airway’s Live at Lace?

I played alto saxophone and wore an orange jump suit, which I got from Tom when we worked as a parking attendant at the Music Center. I dare not start trying to name everyone that played in that show because I will undoubtedly leave someone out. This is definitely a question for Joe and possibly Tom. I have a vague memory of being attacked by an audience member during the performance, but I’m not sure why. Someone else may have a better memory of that.

What was the inspiration behind Dennis Duck Goes Disco? Were you into concrete music? Do you see anything in common between what you were doing and experimenters like Christian Marclay and John Oswald?

As I’ve said many time here already, Tom introduced me to composers such as Cage, Stockhausen, Partch, Xenakis, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, etc. – so I definitely had those as a reference point. What actually inspired the project is a little less glamorous. When Smegma migrated north to Oregon, I moved out the last of three Smegma houses (The Oakland House, The Adena House and Bub Manor) and into an apartment by myself. This was a great shock for me, since I had lived with the group for years and had never had a place of my own. Sitting alone in that apartment, I could feel the loneliness and sadness at missing my friends starting to form. I knew I had to do something to keep busy. I needed a project. I had a turntable and a two-track tape recorder and just started playing around with the turntable as an instrument – trying to see what I could do that was outside its normal function. The turning point was the discovery that I could adjust the anti-skate setting, which normally put pressure on the tone arm to move toward the center of the record, to have it reversed, so that it pushed the tone arm to the outside of the record when started in the middle next to the label. Further adjustments allowed the tone arm to jump around from groove to groove, creating a shifting skip effect. The recording of that album was really a process of discovery for me. Just setting up a process and letting it run and recording the results. It was fascinating. The name Dennis Duck Goes Disco comes from the fact that at that time, disco music was becoming popular and it seemed that artists that normally would not do that sort of music had to release a dance or disco track to sell records. It was kind of a joke – we would say “So and so went disco”. It was Bowie, The Kinks, Rod Stewart – nearly everyone it seemed suddenly had a 12” disco record. So this was my little dig at all that. A pun on the word “disco” since I was using “discs” to make music. When it was finished, I played it for Tom sitting in his car in a parking lot. I think he was pretty impressed. I made 20 copies of the cassette and distributed them among my friends. I honestly never thought it would go beyond that. As for Christian Marclay and John Oswald, I had never heard of them at the time. Probably the one composer I felt a connection with on that project was Phillip Glass. I loved the repetition and rhythms of his music, and felt that occasionally my turntable pieces produced similar results, although obviously through a completely different process.

What happened to the LAFMS in the end, did it fizzle out, deliberately terminate, what?
I don’t think it ever fizzled out or terminated, really. Friendships and artistic endeavors and associations continued over the years. Although everyone had their own separate projects, we continued to do the occasional Airway show, as well as other events.

Can you tell me a little about the birth and arrival of Smegma? How did they fit into the LAFMS?
This was mostly covered in previous answers. Even though most of the members of Smegma moved to Portland about the time that LAFMS was forming, they continued to be involved and connected. Musically and philosophically, Smegma was a perfect fit for LAFMS, embodying an aesthetic of non-musicianship and experimentation and free-form improvisation.
You began to pull in collaborators and fans from outside of the scene, for instance how did John Duncan get involved?
I met John through Tom Recchion, so this is probably a question best answered by Tom.
Can you recall the details of the 1977 LAFMS telethon? How did it work, who did it attract, were there particular stand-out callers?

Joe Potts was the mastermind behind the telethon. There were too many participants to recall at this point. The band I was playing in with Juan Gomez at the time, The Monitors, did a set, as well as L.A. punk band The Screamers. Unfortunately, it was so many years ago I don’t remember  many details, but I’m sure there were many worth recounting. Hopefully Joe and some of the others have a better recollection than I.

Can you recount any particular key performances?
For me, it was amazing having The Screamers play. They were a band we all loved and one of the most daring of the L.A. punk bands.
What in your mind are the quintessential LAFMS documents?

So many. “Bikini Tennis Shoes” by Le Forte Four, because it was the first LAFMS release. “ID Art”, the compilation created by Joe Potts, because it was the first of several compilations using the concept of having the artist pay to have their contribution included, then receiving a certain number of copies of the album as compensation. That formula was used several on other projects, including the albums “Blub Krad” and “Darker Skratcher”, cassette editions “Light Bulb Christmas Cassette” and “Emergency Cassette”, as well as printed editions, such as Light Bulb magazines and coloring book. Of course, I would also cite the “Airway” single and album as a touchstone. So hard to pick certain items. “Darker Skratcher” was a milestone, in that it was the most “professional” looking release to date, had a few big names, and actually got fairly serious distribution, even being released in Holland by a Dutch label.

How do you feel about the upcoming retrospective festival? Do you see it as a reformation or more like a continuation of what you were doing? Some non LAFMS groups are also playing, do you feel they have much in common with your aesthetic, for instance the Japanese noise groups Hijokaidan and Incapacitants?

Personally, I’m thrilled at the opportunity to bring LAFMS to London. Yes, in a way it is a reformation and I also like calling it a retrospective, because there are so many aspects of this group of artists that deserve a fresh look. And I think it’s wonderful that other groups that share our musical and artistic point of view are included. We’ve had a long running admiration for some of the Japanese noise bands. One project that Joe and I began working on years ago, which sadly never reached completion, was an LAFMS Japanese noise compilation. Through a mutual friend in Japan, we received dozens of submissions. I was very disappointed when that project fell through.

Can you tell me a little about how you came to play in The Dream Syndicate? Is it true you suggested the name? How did your bandmates react to your LAFMS music? Do you see your LAFMS ‘career’ as parallel or complimentary to you ‘rock’ career?

Not long after Human Hands broke up in 1981, one of our biggest fans, Kendra Smith, approached me to say that she had been playing with a couple of guitar players and that they needed a drummer (and a band name). The breakup of Human Hands had been very difficult for me, and I had really decided I did not want to be in another band. I told Kendra this, and we left it at that. About a month later, In December of 1982, during one of the worst rainstorms in L.A. history, my phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “Hey, this is Steve. I’m a friend of Kendra’s. I was wondering if you’d want to come out and jam with us.” At first I politely said “No”, but Steve was very persuasive, and eventually I was packing up my drums and heading out to their little basement rehearsal studio in West L.A. After one night of playing Steve’s songs with Karl and Kendra, I knew immediately that this was something special. The music was unlike anything being done at that time. Driving home in the car that night, I knew this was something I wanted to do. From the start, I was not only a member of the band – I was a fan.

But the band didn’t have a name, and Steve asked me if I had any ideas. I went home and started looking through my record collection for inspiration. One day, I came across an album by Tony Conrad called “Outside the Dream Syndicate”. Just seeing those words “The Dream Syndicate” in print clicked in my mind. I had wanted a name for the band that would capture the evocative, strange beauty of the music and The Dream Syndicate just fit perfectly. When I suggested that name at our next meeting, everyone loved it immediately and that was that.

As for my bandmates reaction to LAFMS music, other than perhaps Kendra, I don’t think they were really aware of LAFMS. Steve was familiar with Human Hands – he even saw one of our shows when we opened for The Feelies at The Whiskey-A-Go-Go – and I think he was maybe vaguely aware of LAFMS simply because he worked for years at Rhino records and when you work in a local record store you find out about most of what’s happening locally.

I absolutely see my rock career as complimentary to my LAFMS experience. With Human Hands, even though we were working in a sort of pop framework, we were always trying to do something creative and different from what was already standard in punk and new wave music at the time. Even with Dream Syndicate, there was a bit of an avant garde connection for me. I’ve told Steve this, and have said this many times in interviews, one of the things that attracted me to the band’s music was the long, trans-like song forms. I know in Steve and Karl’s minds, they were playing Credence and The Fall and maybe The Velvets, but in my mind, since I came from a background of European electronic music, the music had the feeling of bands like Neu or Can or Cluster – those trans-like Krautrock bands. For me, this was the opposite of Human Hands were every song was busy and very composed and full of changes and I had to be thinking and changing rhythms all the time. Playing those Dream Syndicate songs, nice and long and dreamy, I could just fall into the groove and really have a kind of out of body experience where I was listening to the beauty of the two guitars crashing and dancing together. It was a musical high for me as good as anything I’d experienced in LAFMS.

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