Recently, prevalent notions of creative society as expressed in mournful entries, smacking blog comments and sudden revelations of conflict have often been that of an argument between art and finance. These include caricatures depicting those who endeavor to achieve something which may have no definitive end but has an inspired beginning, or point to the idea that if money was not a stone wall, then we could do anything, or if people would listen, (for what it’s worth), there would be no communication barricade. It’s like saying if fireworks weren’t so expensive, we would make them fly from our eyes into the recesses of that which makes us turn a corner and experience profound surprise. Some individuals, likewise, can produce a venerable following with nothing but their voice, others temperately and patiently wait for the momentum to catch; These are questions of brilliance and timing, but mostly of dedication.
There are many obstacles to such talent, however, one of the largest being financial stability that allows it to be focused. Unfortunately, the forms of financial stability sometimes serve to stifle the artists they should support: this can be as simple as a controlling label or as convoluted as a prolonged tour. In this interview we meet a group, So Percussion, who have so far managed to avoid all of these trappings, due to their erudite and curious culture.
There have always been well-known cases of musical creative outburst that succeed even when initially controlled. The Secret Machines parted with their original label after successfully brandishing their language, Babyshambles named a hit single “Fuck Forever,” of course knowing the song would never be played on the radio. A lot of this tends to feel like an ulcer operation disguising an awesome habit, the recovery from the habit, or a trip to Bangalore with a newly-found habit. Such are enticing inspirational moments forcing participants to make something of a conflict that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Once in debt to anyone but your audience, the audience gets nothing but percentages.
The Brooklyn-based group So Percussion balances the lever between the force of the audience and their market needs in a clever way, avoiding the pre-requisite option of starting their own record label (and thereby perhaps diluting our attention yet again), but always participating in partnerships. Instead, they are building a pop band without any of the usual trappings.
The reason is partly due to So Percussion’s dedication to their art and the unique blend of modern they’ve achieved, or perhaps it’s simply the fact that they’ve been well prompted by the wave of surrounding circumstances. During a particular period of their lives, immediately after music school and when the members were still living in close proximity, they were all working jobs, yet would get together for a 7am practice before going their respective ways. Later, though living apart in three different states, they would drive and meet to practice on the weekends. It is partly the management of passion that’s made So Percussion’s organic growth possible.
The current band members met together in Yale University’s music program. Though that in itself may constitute the basis of an argument against taking them seriously as musicians, (yet most of such commentary is made by people whose only primal response is that of someone who wishes they had an inkling of that as well). Jealousy plays a large part in organizing the wrong types of communal links, the purpose of which serves nothing to serve to the creative. In other words, it’s a stand-in for finance.
So Percussion’s four musicians (Josh Quillen, Jason Treuting, Adam Sliwinski and Eric Beach) have shown their skill and ingenuity by both passing the extensive hierarchical structures of the academic world and utilizing the available public funding, a practice that still serves them as a mature, independent band. They’ve even been commissioned to work with modernist composer Steve Reich, and have become almost a force constantly reinventing modernist music from the mid-20th century onto the next. The band are sometimes joined by local orchestras or other experimental musicians during live shows, and when touring, are often supported by video and audio work from Beth Myers, (who also happens to be member Jason Treuting’s wife). They continually examine every possible way of recreating sounds of the masters of the experimental genre, from John Cage to Steve Reich, and alongside their experiments, they manage to bring a sense of humor that transcends styles and instruments, to speak of the overall concept of music. I recently met with Jason Treuting, whom I originally approached after catching So Percussion’s ear-opening CMJ performance at Brooklyn’s Glasslands.
Are you a super pop band from Yale, since you met in the same music class?
Maybe, sort of, yeah, we’ve all studied there at one time or another, the band had changed, but the four of us are the core and we are from there.
What are some of your favorite places around Williamsburg?
My wife and I have been living here for five years, and we have a few spots that we like to go to; we don’t really spend time checking out other spots. I’m a fan of the Diner, I really like Chai on N. 6th. Have you been to Aurora? It’s more expensive than I would normally pay but it’s worth it.
Yes, and I’ve been a big fan of Zebulon, they put on a lot of worthwhile shows.
They have great shows. Do you know the band Me Body? They are from Los Angeles: sax trumpet, keyboards. They normally play a show in town and then they will play a show at Zebulon the day after.
[Jason asks] Where are you from originally?
I’m from Russia.
We did two tours in Russia, one in Moscow; it was about two years ago and we played at Dom, an art gallery there. We stayed at Hotel Beta. There were casinos there, bars, restaurants, everything, you’d never have to leave.
I remember there was a time when Mike Tyson disappeared there after a match and his security could not find him until finally he turned up in one of those bars with strippers or a strip club with a bar.
It was an interesting experience. After Dom, we played the Moscow Conservatory, so for the art scene, we did what we did in Glasslands. We do things with video… but funny how you ask if we are a pop band out of Yale, because we come out of a very classical experience, we try to be chameleons and the pieces are quite different when we play in a classical hall.
We did that, and then the U.S. Embassy put a little money in to play there. It was, you know, symbolic, Americans and Russians coming together and playing together. We are sound checking and the first voice we hear bellows, ‘Hey there fellas, we are having deviled eggs tonight! Holy shit boys! We are having deviled eggs,’ with a Texas accent. We think, ‘please don’t let that be the American ambassador, please.’ Thankfully it wasn’t, it was the media director, he was very cavalier. Meeting the ambassador was amazing though. It took about three minutes into the conversation before it became clear it was him. He has a very old-style diplomat way of carrying himself… It was a scary and kind of weird scene.
Then we played Petrozavodsk, in Karelia, by the lake, lots of factories. It was an armament town for the Great Northern War. We played at the Media Center, a 200-seat hall, a cool crew of people. This was the second time we played there, the first time we played at a small jazz club and we sold out, no one knew who we were, we were billed only as “So Percussion, American Experimental Music.” I got the feeling that St. Petersburg and Moscow has a Los Angeles/New York type of rivalry.
What are your upcoming plans?
Something new we are doing is a Music Institute at Princeton, starting this summer. We are out there for the summer, and basically the idea was to figure out how to be there for the [whole] summer. We had the idea for this festival, and we have been working with a lot of people from Princeton. Polansky [Larry Polansky] wrote us a pretty solid piece that we’ve been playing, and he teaches down there. And the head of the school, Steve Mackey, who plays guitar, is writing a piece for us for next year. We’ve been hooked into the scene for a while. We floated the idea and they were totally into it, they offered us the logistics behind it. The theater, the space! It’s crazy–all these schools, like the Princeton tennis camp, the Princeton math club camp and they have the dorms there, so basically, the student pays to come and stay at the dorms and talk about music. Nobody is getting rich over this.
Are you going to commute down there?
No, we’re going to live down there, for two weeks [laughs]. I mean, we are so institutionalized, but it’s just two weeks. We were thinking of doing a retreat in the woods, but this is just as good. Come on down July 25th – August 15th.
It’s going to be hot down there.
Yes [laughs], one of our biggest decisions has been whether to get dorms with air conditioning or not. But, yes, it will be cool, there is a history behind what we do, a lot of what we have been doing is our stuff and new stuff that people are writing for us, but there is a long line of contemporary percussion music.
I’ve only been to one of your shows so far, and a very important question is ‘why aren’t people dancing?’
[Laughs] What piece were you dancing to?
Something towards the end of the performance.
Yes, that was a piece by Steve Reich, yes.
It had serious tribal undertones.
Well, we try to be loose enough so that people can do whatever they want, but it’s a pretty cerebral crowd I guess, right?
I talked to a friend of mine about your band, (he’s heard you play on NPR), and his response was a token one: ‘Well, it’s New York, what do you expect?’ But I’ve been noticing New York loosen up, especially to some of the smart, good, pop British bands. Do you notice a difference with the audiences depending on which venues you play?
If we play a classical hall in New York, and even if people really dig the concert… it’s the standing ovation which is the thing, or the encore vibe. Encores are weird because people really have to hear more of us. Here in New York people say, ‘we really like what you’re doing but there are a lot of people around here too,’ as opposed to the smaller towns where the more excited people are, or college towns. We did a red state tour a couple of years ago, Arkansas, Tennessee… and the response was phenomenal.
We’ve been doing an ongoing project with Matmos and we have a project together and the closest it gets to people dancing is when we play with them. They like playing with us because they’ve been burned out by the concert scene. We play a lot more alternative art spaces [with them] and they have some tunes that are straight disco.
It’s difficult because our roots are partially in classical performance, and nothing is steady enough.–Tim Nestor