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Something to Do, Something that Needs to be Done

Interview with Matthew Byars of Attorneys General and Essential Tremors

Toward the end of September an interesting message turned up in the BRUISER submissions: an invitation to check out a couple of upcoming performances by Baltimore-based improvisational sound project Attorneys General. We here at BRUISER spend plenty of time in and around Baltimore’s vibrant experimental music scene (and aim to publish more local event coverage in the near future), but these particular shows piqued our interest—because they were to take place in the pendulum room of the historic Emerson Bromo-Seltzer Tower. A few emails later and we’d connected with Attorneys General leader Matthew Byars—also of the Washington, DC band The Caribbean and WYPR radio show Essential Tremors—and made plans to go on the record with BRUISER after the first performance.

Each Attorneys General performance is a one-off collaboration between Byars and a curated selection of improvisers. For the first Bromo performance on October 14th, Byars tapped longtime Caribbean bandmate Dave Jones and Terence Hannum of Locrian and Axebreaker. For the followup on November 4th, Byars will bring jazz bassist Luke Stewart into the pendulum room.

On Friday, October 14th we climbed into the Bromo Tower’s clanky elevator (recently serviced, we were assured) and rode it to the 15th floor, where we clambered up a set of steep metal stairs into the big, blue-lit cube that houses the Tower’s iconic clock faces and gargantuan time-keeping mechanism. Our Attorneys General for the night—Byars, Jones, and Hannum—had tucked into a few feet of open floor near the center of the room with their keyboard stands and road cases, and before long started vibrating the room.

Over a breezy half hour, Attorneys General took us through multiple movements of abstract sound, arpeggiated synthesizer and blasts of noise, washing and looping through moments of minimal quietude and ribcage-rattling crescendos. Hannum used a Soma Labs Ether to bring the clock machinery’s electromagnetic interference into the music, adding site-specific texture to his and Jones’ more traditional synthesizer noise, arpeggios, and drones, with Byars manipulating their outputs with an assortment of loopers and delays. The collaboration made for a unique, powerful performance that left us excited to find out what the experience will be like with a different configuration of musicians.

A few days after the show, BRUISER caught up with Matt Byars to talk about his experiences in and around the various DMV music scenes, the inner workings of Attorneys General, and his NPR-distributed, music-focused interview show, Essential Tremors.

BRUISER: How did you get into the music scene in DC?

Matthew Byars: I started out when I moved to DC in 1990, getting an internship at Inner Ear.

Whoa.

Yeah. Where the Dischord stuff happened. It didn’t go super far. Don Zientara was great and it was just so cool being around that stuff. That was about the time where [Fugazi’s] Repeater had come out and it was just amazing. I wanted to be a producer, so Don said get a band and bring them in. I was working at this horrible Office Space-type job and I had a friend there with similar musical tastes and he connected me with a friend of his who was into the same kind of stuff I was. They threw something together as a band and we did some songs at Inner Ear as my internship production project—nothing really came of that so much. But we connected, myself and Michael Kentoff, and we’re still working together.

We formed a band called Townies, which was probably Yo La Tengo-inspired, like Fakebook. And then I saw Codeine in like 1992 at the Black Cat and it just changed everything. I started drumming like Doug Scharin, and we became kind of a slowcore band. Anyway, distant past, but Michael Kentoff and I are still in a band together, The Caribbean—with Dave Jones, who was actually playing when you saw us. I was always just doing things from a distance from Baltimore to DC, but since connecting with Lee [Gardner] and doing the Essential Tremors stuff, I’ve gotten sort of a foothold in the Baltimore situation.

So how plugged in to the DC and Baltimore music scenes are you currently? Anything you’re excited about?

It’s an interesting question. I don’t want to be that guy in 1994 at your show wearing a Uriah Heep shirt. You know what I mean? But at the same time, you don’t want to be that guy who’s there wearing the most recent t-shirt unless you really are that guy. You know, it doesn’t make any sense.

Oh, at 34 I’m there also.

So it’s a complicated question. Like, well, here’s a means of explanation. We put on a festival every year in DC at Rhizome called Seventh Stanine. We actually did one in Milwaukee this year, and we’re probably going to do another one there next year and one in Columbus. I started it out as an extension of the Caribbean just to keep connections and curate something cool. And we’ve been doing that for like five years now in DC. Your question makes me think of how I curate things—like, you want to have somebody a little younger and you want to have somebody who’s not just cisgender. And you want to have people of color. You want to have women. And not just grabbing people for the sake of grabbing people, but keeping that in mind as you curate something that you would be excited to see. So I do try to keep up with that. That being said, when you get older and you’re sort of an emeritus member of the scene, you’ve heard a lot of stuff, right? I mean, I’m not currently really interested in a lot of new rock music. That’s not putting it down or saying it’s bad—I’ve just been there for a long, long time. And part of the reason I’m interested in doing Attorneys General or people who are into that same kind of thing is I just want to hear sounds I haven’t heard before, you know?

Baltimore and DC have a couple of different experimental and noise or ambient scenes. Like there’s the High Zero / Red Room crowd in Baltimore. Rhizome does a lot of that stuff in DC. Baltimore has a kind of multifaceted noise crowd and I’ve always found myself drawn to this more peripheral, less harsh, kind of shambolic noise and ambient stuff—Mold Omen, Tim Wisniewski (Comfort Link, sPLeeNCoFFiN), Liz Meredith. Have you played shows within these communities or does it tend to be more of a standalone project?

Well, when I play shows out of town, they’re definitely shows, like multiple artist bills. But having spent 30 years trying to help my indie rock band break through—even though that’s an exaggeration because we’ve always done what we wanted—with Attorneys General I just don’t give a shit about releasing records or what people think of it, it’s just something I do, something that needs to be done by me, and I try to keep that as streamlined as possible. I want to create something in the moment. And I want it just to be an impulse that happens, almost like a three- or four-year-old, like, I’m going to make this noise, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

How long have you been doing Attorneys General and how did it come together? You’ve talked about your goals with it, but I’m curious about the background.

Maybe 2018, 2017. When you get older everything moves a lot faster and it’s hard to remember. But I think that was probably it. I was really inspired by the live Mission of Burma record, The Horrible Truth About Burma. I used to buy Boston Rock, this magazine from our local record store in Lexington, Kentucky—and I would read all these Boston-centric reviews. So that’s how I found out about Mission of Burma. And I bought that record. Martin Swope was the original soundman for them, who would take a reel to reel tape recorder and do their sound, but also capture sounds from channels and replay them. It’s the exact same thing I try to do. It’s still some of my favorite stuff. Like they do a cover of Pere Ubu’s Heart of Darkness” on that record. I don’t love that song and I don’t love Pere Ubu, quite frankly, but the end of that is like the whole thing for me. The song ends and everybody’s applauding and Swope just keeps playing this line that he captured from Roger Miller’s vocal. Just darkness—dark—dark—heart of dark—darkness,” out of nowhere. There’s another 10 seconds, then darkness,” and then it ends. 14-year-old me, who was just into like—and I’m not dismissing this—U2 and whatever sort of new wave shit was going on at the time, that stuck with me, that repetition, decontextualized stuff. And I don’t know, man, it’s deep in me. That just came to the fore and I guess it’d always been lying there dormant and kind of came out, and I conceptualized it and went from there. I’d actually love to have a band say to me like, Hey, come in and do that for us,” but it’s hard to convince people of that because of their ideas about what they want their stuff to sound like. I think about Mission of Burma being so trusting and free and like, Yeah, do whatever man.”

Did you ever see them with Martin on the boards?

No. The closest I came was when I lived in Boston in the summer of 1989, and I was interning at Boston Rock, this magazine that I’d read at home in Kentucky for so many years. And they were gone at that point, of course, like by 84. But Roger Miller had Bird Songs of the Mesozoic, which was a piano thing that was kind of quiet because of his tinnitus, and I think Martin Swope was involved in that. And interestingly, I put this Martin Swope stuff in my bio or whatever as Attorneys General, and Martin must have been searching his own name at some point because he emailed me out of the blue—like, I don’t know, six months, a year ago or something. It didn’t say anything, just like, What’s up?” I think he lives in Hawaii. I responded like, Oh my God,” you know? And he never responded to me.

That’s really interesting because I heard he’d really kind of fallen off the map.

Yeah. And you know, again, at my age, I kind of relate. Like I can understand, I think about this all the time. My life would be way easier if I didn’t want to do this stuff. Like, I’m coming home from work. I’m exhausted, I’m a middle school teacher and I’m absolutely cashed. I have to come home and get all this shit together and loaded into my car. And then I have to go upstairs [in the Bromo Tower] and I don’t know how any of this is going to go. And my wife is kind enough to come along and, like, we have to go to the grocery store. We don’t have to, but we get some food. I’ve come to learn this term, Type 2 fun.” Have you heard this before?

No, I don’t think so.

Well, it’s interesting. It’s the notion of doing something in the moment and not really enjoying it. And after the fact, you enjoy it. It’s kind of like, I’m glad I did that. That was fun.”

I think that’s the only kind of fun I have.

Oh, really? You know, I can relate to that because outside of childhood, it’s rare that I could be like, This is great!”

Speaking of getting to the gig, you mentioned you’ve performed at Rhizome. Obviously, you did this set at the Bromo Tower. The pendulum room was such a great location and really added so much to that performance. Is that something that you’ve been able to explore before?

No, I haven’t really. It’s the first time I’ve really played with place. I got this creativity grant from the Maryland State Arts Council. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but it’s an awesome deal. I applied and they gave me $3,000 just to do this. You can put on a show anywhere, you can do it at somebody’s house. And I love doing house shows and that kind of thing, but if I have this money to spend, I want to do something kind of interesting and large, you know? It’s probably going to be sparsely attended regardless, so you might as well just go for it. It’s so rare to have money to do something. So I was thinking of weird places and reached out to Bromo. And honestly, when I first saw it I thought, Oh, I don’t know if this is going to work at all.” So we all discovered together, yeah, this can work.

You know Dave Jones from playing in The Caribbean with him. How did you connect with Terence Hannum?

We were Facebook friends and we’ve since recorded an Essential Tremors interview—but I asked him to play Seventh Stanine. So he played his Axebreaker set last at Seventh Stanine and there were only a few people at that point, it was kind of dark, we were going too late, but it was awesome. I absolutely loved it. I hadn’t met him until then, and I really enjoyed him and really enjoyed talking to him. And he’s just game for doing stuff, you know?

On November 4th you’re performing with Luke Stewart. How did you link up with him?

Luke’s really connected with Rhizome, and he’s played at least once, maybe twice at Seventh Stanine. And then we had him play an Essential Tremors Presents show at Current Space. He played his solo bass thing, which is stand-up bass amplified and it was amazing. Using feedback and vibration—it was really cool. When I got this grant money and could say, I can pay you because I have the money,” it was nice to be able to offer that to him. With Luke, it’s going to be a little bit different in the sense that I’m not going to be the sole source of his sound—like I’m not going to ask him just to plug in to me, because what he does requires feedback and all sorts of things. So I’m just going to ask for an additional channel to sort of accessorize or supplement what he’s doing, capture some of what he’s doing, but let him do his thing. And I think it’s going to be really cool up there. I really can’t recommend it enough. What he does is really, really interesting.

There’s an inherent riskiness to improvised performances like this. You know, Mission of Burma was kind of notoriously messy live. A more ambient performance is a little bit safer, but have you had any go off the rails, and were you able to pull them back together once they drifted away from your control?

Early ones. Like some of them were not good and I don’t even judge them. I mean, I do in my head a little bit, like I really like that one.” But I try to release all that. It just exists, you know, like I sneezed. That being said, I can think of one. I was still learning. I knew I had to jump in and just start doing shit. And I did this one with four players and there were technical problems, that’s part of it though. The payoff can be great. It’s just like jazz, like, let’s go. We’ll see what happens. Sometimes it’s transcendent, sometimes it’s not. But that’s part of the calculation. And being okay with that is part of the calculation too. I also don’t want to ever steer people too much. Then it becomes a composition and it’s just not interesting. I want weird shit to happen because I wasn’t expecting it. And at least to me as a performer, that’s always going to be more interesting. I know what I sound like. I know what I will produce if I’m left to my own devices and I want to be left to other devices.

I want to close with talking about Essential Tremors a little bit. It’s a WYPR show and podcast that’s brought you into conversation with a lot of really cool musicians. Can you tell me a little bit about how that show came together?

I contributed to The Signal on WYPR. Aaron Henkin did that, it was a Maryland arts and culture show. He wasn’t just focused on music, but he did a great piece with Daniel Higgs—which is a rare thing to get—and a feature on a label I was doing at the time. And then I did five or six different pieces for the show before it went off the air. And then I met Lee Gardner through social media, we sort of DM’d each other and didn’t live too far apart. Anyway, I came up with an idea, I wanted to pitch a show to Aaron. Lee had this prompt—he’s been writing about music for 30 years—he was interested in what three songs were formative to you. It’s just a workaround for your influences, which nobody ever can answer in an interesting way. And it brings in biography, like people are talking about their situations at the time they heard it, and that’s what gets interesting. So we pitched that to WYPR through Aaron, and they were just starting this podcast thing so our timing was really good.

How do you get connected with the artists that appear on it?

What’s interesting being on WYPR and being one of their podcasts—suddenly we are on the NPR site, we’re on NPR One, their app. I lead with that when I hit people up. And those three letters opened doors and now we’ve had Bob Mould and Juan Molina and Richard Thompson and Suzanne Vega. It’s become a thing where people know who we are, so it’s not even this uphill battle. And now we’re affiliated with Big Ears, so we’re doing a run up to the festival in late March, early April, where every month we’re doing one episode featuring somebody who’s going to be at the festival this year.

Are there any particularly fun episodes you think folks should check out?

Fun. That’s an interesting word.

Okay. Yeah. Type 2 fun.

That reminds me—and I’m not like pushing back on this—but there’s a funny quote from Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu—

A notably not fun band.

Exactly. One of his quotes is like, fun is for assholes,” which I think I don’t really agree with. I kind of also understand where he’s coming from and part of me agrees. But anyway, how about episodes that I think are really, really stellar? Richard Thompson, I think is like a high watermark in terms of what he said, but also the sound design, the recording, how things worked out. I love the one with Stephen Morris from New Order. I thought that was inspirational, but almost every one of them has something inspirational on it. And it’s thanks to Lee’s prompt because you’re asking people something really personal about their lives, which is what makes it interesting. And if you’re just like who are your influences?” we’d have a 14 second, boring show. Jana Hunter was the first episode. Unbelievable. That’s one of my favorites. It’s really emotional and really cool. And also Wendell Patrick, who’s a Baltimore dude, I don’t know if you know him or not, but his is fascinating.

Thanks so much for doing this. This has been really interesting.

Yeah, I really enjoyed this. This is great. Thanks for taking the time and glad you’re doing BRUISER. I think it’s really cool.

Attorneys General will return to the Bromo-Seltzer Tower’s pendulum room on Friday, November 4 with jazz bassist Luke Stewart. Tickets available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/attorneys-general-bromo-series-wluke-stewart-tickets-429360838827

Interview by Mark Wadley

Twitter: @markplasma
IG: @markplasma

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