Bill Brovold has been a fixture on the avant garde scene since the early 1980s as a member of groundbreaking no wave groups like Rhys Chatham Ensemble, East Village Orchestra, Fast Forward and the Zen Vikings. Today he heads up Larval, an ever-changing ensemble of musicians who break down the boundaries between rock, jazz, classical and many other types of music in an instantly accessible yet challenging mix. We talked to Brovold recently about his most recent album, his approach to writing and performing music, and his career at the forefront of musical and artistic experimentation.
Splendid: When people talk about your work, they don't seem to be able to decide exactly what it is -- whether it's rock or jazz or classical or something else entirely. How do you describe what you do?
Bill Brovold: Well...I don't. I think other people don't know how to describe it because I haven't given it a description. I don't stick to any genre of music.
Splendid: But clearly you take some things from all three of those genres and maybe some others that I'm not familiar with.
Bill Brovold: There's some country music in some of my work.
Splendid: Really? Where is that? I have to listen for it.
Bill Brovold: Do you have any of my other CDs?
Splendid: No, I just have the one, but I may have to do a little shopping.
Bill Brovold: Childish Delusions (Brovold's 2000 solo album) has a song called "The Night Tammy Wynette Died". And "Majestic West" is almost orchestral country sound, almost like a Western movie. But yeah, I tend not to listen to a lot of music. At the same time, I'm always ... for example, I was working upstairs and there was an oldies station on, some Van Morrison. It's like the mind is a sponge.
Splendid: Yeah, it's interesting how sometimes that will happen -- you're in the grocery store or something and one of these old songs you haven't heard for ages comes on, and it's not all crap.
Bill Brovold: On one of the songs on Larval 2... I had never heard a Blue Oyster Cult song in my life, but at the end of one of the songs, there's a (sings a phrase), and I asked somebody, "What's that?" and they said, that's "Godzilla" from Blue Oyster Cult, and it was. I had heard it somewhere, and I really loved that riff and sort of went "pop", plopped it in in the last two measures of the song, something from Blue Oyster Cult. And on the Knitting Factory record, there's a Sinatra song.
Splendid: Huh. So, do you try to protect yourself from all this musical influence, or do you seek it out, or does it just come to you?
Bill Brovold: It comes to me. I don't seek it out. I don't really seek anything out. I have a recording studio, so people always bring me things. I grew up liking country music. As a kid...
Splendid: Did you grow up in Detroit?
Bill Brovold: No. I travelled all over. My dad was in the military. I ended up in Washington State.
AUDIO: Last Ditch
Splendid: How did you get interested in country and who were some of the singers that you liked?
Bill Brovold: Well, where I grew up was out in the country and a lot of people played it. In the early 1970s. It was almost more bluegrass than country. It's always had a meaningfulness. And some of the old country, like Hank Williams and some of the more traditional players, make a really rich, meaningful sound.
Splendid: I've had people say that to me, that I can't give up on country until I listen to Hank Williams, but I think that having heard so much of the commercial country that I just have never made the effort.
Bill Brovold: Oh, I never listen to that.
Splendid: But it's like any genre, I guess, that the stuff that's on the radio is the absolute worst of its type.
Bill Brovold: It's not unlike -- someone I know is a Baroque musician who, because I am a rock musician, will actually speak of me in the same sentence as he describes Britney Spears. That's rock music. Me and Britney Spears.
Splendid: And this is a friend of yours?
Bill Brovold: It's an acquaintance. He has never heard my music.
Splendid: I have this friend who is an incredible violinist and plays with St. Luke's and Orpheus, and she's always getting asked to play on things with pop musicians. And she'll say, "Who is David Byrne? Who is Lou Reed?" She's completely isolated from it, but she does these jobs.
Let's talk about how you write your songs. They seem very structured, but they also seem like there is probably some room for improvisation in them as well.
Bill Brovold: Well, yeah, I guess there is. There's not as much improvisation as one would think. I really write the stuff and come up with ideas and it's based on improvisation. I'll improvise over it, then I'll come back and build something on that, but I personally have a problem playing stuff like that. I get lost and the structure falls apart too often. I'm a fan of improvisational music, but with a big band it often doesn't work. It becomes a show boat. Someone has really got the desire to be a star -- if there's a cute girl looking on, he's like, wow, I've got to show every technical trick in the book.
Splendid: (cracking up) Is that what it's all about?
Bill Brovold: I think so.
Splendid: So are the pieces that you do pretty much the same from one performance to the next?
Bill Brovold: No. No way does it sound at all really like, well, like the recordings. It's structured -- note for note it's the same. But since we're not exactly the Beatles, we don't play in the biggest halls with our own sound man and sound systems. We'll play in a bar sometimes and get up on stage, which is torture, especially if you're playing rather tight stuff in a little space and the drums are right next to you, so the guy hits the cymbal and it's like sticking a knitting needle in my ear.
Splendid: Yeah, I've been to shows like that where the music was a little too complicated for the venue.
Bill Brovold: And the band is always really tight, so we can always pull it off. But it's an interesting exercise because you end up playing to everyone else's sound. Usually you can hear everyone else but yourself. You know, I'll be standing there with the guitar amp sticking up between my legs, and I can't hear anything, but everyone else can.
Splendid: So it's hard to stay together?
Bill Brovold: Yeah, but as I say, the band is pretty tight so we don't fall apart. Where there is improvisation as a group, it runs for a certain length of time and then someone will come in. When that individual comes in, on a beat or measure, that signals a change in structure. When the improvisation ends, you're ready. So there are a lot of signals. When a guy has a guitar straight up in the air, it means that at the end of this measure of 7/4, everyone changes to a different time.
Splendid: Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about the people who are on the current record, Obedience. It looks like it's a totally different crew from your last record.
Bill Brovold: Yeah, it's always different. There's almost no experimental music in Detroit, so everyone leaves.
Splendid: So how do you put the band together every time? Is it just whoever's in town, or are you looking for specific things?
Bill Brovold: I lot of what I've done is to go down to Ann Arbor, which is a college town, although that's starting to diminish more and more. It's the tail end of this real exciting music scene. Now you have a bunch of guys playing jazz, it almost sounds like they all have the same "How to Play Jazz" books.
Splendid: I should get one of those.
Bill Brovold: Yeah.
Splendid: That's all you need to know, right?
Bill Brovold: Yeah. I was working with a band late last night, and they sound like every college age improvisational jazz band. They've got the Jim Black drumming down, and the guy's kind of got the Jaco Pastorius bass player thing -- you know, Jimi Hendrix with four fat strings. It's a little more, you know, meaty, but they don't know how to stop or slow down. Anyway... The band changes periodically. I get people in the group for a stretch or time. Some of the guys who are either married or ensconced in businesses and jobs here came for longer periods of time. It's part of their life stage. They move their spouse and children.
Splendid: So how much of what you hear on the record happens all at the same time, and how much is layering things on in the studio?
Bill Brovold: Let me see. I did that -- I have almost three albums done right now. I have to think about how we recorded Obedience. On a lot of the stuff, it starts out just me and Toby (Summerfield, the other guitarist).
Splendid: And the rest of the stuff -- the violins and things -- comes in later.
Bill Brovold: Yes, the rest of the stuff gets added later. And on the second song, "Something Terrible", it was me, the drummer and Toby, who now lives in Chicago.
Splendid: And he's worked with you before?
Bill Brovold: Yeah, Toby's been with me since he was 19.
Splendid: How old is he now?
Bill Brovold: 25, something like that.
Splendid: I wanted to ask you about the titles of the five tracks on Obedience. It's almost like a story, you know. "Something Terrible's about to Happen", and then "When the Bullet Meets Flesh", and then "Her Last Good Day" and "And One I Just Kept on Walking". It's almost like a film score. Is there supposed to be a narrative? Is there a story going on?
Bill Brovold: Oh, well, for one thing, I draw storyboards for films.
Splendid: Yeah, I know you've been involved in writing film music.
Bill Brovold: I don't draw them for films. I draw them for my own stuff and then I don't make the movies. I just do the storyboards.
Splendid: But you also do some music for films?
Bill Brovold: I've done some writing for films. But there is a definite story and timed sequences, and in some of the songs, things happen in odd lengths of time because that's how long that part takes in my mind.
Splendid: So does this ever get realized, this storyboard? Do you ever do accompanying visuals?
Bill Brovold: The records are out.
Splendid: I guess when I hear the term "storyboard", I think of the kind of thing you'd create for a movie, where you'd have the characters doing this or that.
Bill Brovold: Well, the storyboard is the part where you're coming up with the concept and the ideas, and then you make the film. I'm just a little short of a camera and film.
Splendid: I see. That's interesting.
Bill Brovold: But there's almost a real literal time sequence to how things work.
AUDIO: When Bullet Meets Flesh
Splendid: Can you tell me about that, about how you create that?
Bill Brovold: Well, here's something that was brought up to me, and I had thought about it, but I hadn't actually put it in words before. You know how you watch a video, like a rock video on MTV, and it's, like, a whole story? It's three minutes and a week's worth of action. The guy goes out and meets a girl and they're driving in a car, or whatever they do. Mine are almost a reverse of that, where I take moments in time, like instants -- a couple of seconds of action -- and then look at it frame by frame.
Splendid: So it's more of a state of mind than an event?
Bill Brovold: Yeah. Or have you ever seen a photograph where a bullet goes through an apple? There is this incredible amount of action happening in a thousandth of a second. So I'm approaching it, you know -- "When the Bullet Meets the Flesh" is from that concept. That one hundred thousandth of a second of action and expansion and growth, which is the end of the passage.
Splendid: Interesting. I also noticed that you tend to have a middle passage that's calmer and more lyrical. That happens on "Last Ditch" and "Something Terrible"; you have a build-up where you add more and more instruments and then everything sort of stops. Does that have to do with something that's happening in the storyboard?
Bill Brovold: Yeah. When I'm in the frame of mind of writing things, I really get into it, and these things start getting heavy and dark, and then I consciously say, "Okay, time to back off." So I'll back off and work on it. Then I'll go, "It's too much nice."
Splendid: (laughs) Too much nice.
Bill Brovold: It's like life. Things get out of control, and then you need to get them under control pretty soon. If they're under control in the first place, they're going spin right back out of control.
Splendid: I wanted to ask you about the electric guitar. It's hard to play an electric guitar so it doesn't sound like rock, isn't it?
Bill Brovold: Oh, yeah.
Splendid: But does the way you play sound like rock because that's what you're going for, or is just the way the instrument sounds?
Bill Brovold: Well, how do I answer that? I think I'm trying to make it sound more rock and roll. There's an excitement level in rock guitar, for everybody from Robert Fripp, Glenn Branca in the avante-garde world to the Beatles. The rock guitar, the electric guitar, has an extreme range of sound capabilities, compared to the classical guitar or acoustic guitar.
Read the rest of the Splendid article at http://www.splendidezine.com/features/larval/