In 2010, shortly after moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I ran into Peter Mezensky, organizer of the Albuquerque Experimental Music Festival. He was in the process of organizing the next festival, which was then less than two months away, and he asked if I would be interested in performing. I responded that I didn’t really want to play solo and wondered if he had a suggestion of someone I should play with, and he immediately leaned back, pointed to the person sitting next to him, and said, “you should play with Raven Chacon.” We played together for the first time at the festival, and we have continued to work together over the last couple of years, often in collaboration with pianist Thollem McDonas.
Raven’s work is very difficult to pin down (editor’s note: from chamber music to speed metal and folk or experimental noise), and I won’t even try to list all of the projects he’s involved in. If there is a thread that flows through much of his work, for me it must be patience, and by patience I don’t mean passive waiting. Raven’s patience is disorienting in its intensity, especially to someone who is as high-strung as I tend to be. The spaces in his work tend to bear the same weight as the sounds do, and I’ve found that his music has made me think very differently about my own relationship to the sounds that I make. In a way, I feel like he is both more detached from and more committed to the sounds he makes, and I find it very inspiring. Many thanks to Raven for taking the time out and humoring me, and thanks also to Olivié for asking me to be involved in Amour and Discipline.
As I finish transcribing this interview, Raven is in Arizona on the Navajo reservation installing 4 sound sculptures which are powered by wind and sun (see photo). For more information on Raven’s myriad projects, go to the end of the interview for links, discography, etc. The recording of our first meeting is now out as part of Deathbombarc’s Digital Series Club.
You grew up in Arizona, right?
My family grew up in Arizona in a town called Chinle, which is near Canyon de Chelly. My father’s from New Mexico, so we’d go back and forth, and then eventually we ended up moving here to Albuquerque when I was about 10 years old. Some of my family’s from up near Mora. There’s a town called Chacon up there too, so I think a lot of my family’s from up there. We lived in the north valley part of Albuquerque.
Was there music around growing up?
The only musician I know in my family is my grandfather who just always sings Navajo songs. He knows probably thousands of songs. That’s the only musician that I knew growing up who was older that had any kind of talent or anything. He played other instruments, like trumpet and accordion, piano probably.
So, what’s your earliest musical memory?
Out on the reservation, and it still doesn’t seem like it’s changed – it seems like it’s still the 80s out there – it was just metal. Tons of different kinds of metal. My uncles would be listening to Iron Maiden or Judas Priest. That was when I became conscious of technical ability or a band playing together.
I read an interview with you online about how something drew you to the idea of broken instruments?
I think that’s something that happened later on, in high school. Growing up, I was always trying to form bands, any kind of heavy band, not necessarily metal. I was always trying to get some kind of band together, and I could never find people with any technical ability, for one, and also good instruments. Any kind of professional instruments, even instruments with enough strings on them. So, that was just something I used. I never understood why, after playing in situations like that, somebody would want this crisp tone with all these effects, when there’s this other interesting tonality that can happen with really bad instruments or broken speakers.
Right. It’s just what some random person decided is “good”.
Yeah, and maybe it’s something where I didn’t even know what I wanted until I was put in that position of not having a choice, and so that was a sound I preferred. When it comes to the technical proficiency of the people I was surrounded by, or lack of it, the blurring of things like rhythm or pitch became interesting too, because it wasn’t precise or technical metal or whatever else. That blur was what got me interested in what I do today but also in realizing I could do all that stuff myself. I could make a blurry mess all by myself.
Right, through that experience of playing with other people, you could see it happening, whether you knew at the time that that was what you wanted or not, and then you could figure out later how to recreate it.
Right, but the way it happened was my father was a teacher out on the reservation, and he used to bring artists to teach out there and to come visit, and he was friends with this woman named Bonnie Jo Hunt, who was a Sioux Lakota opera singer, and, when she found out we were moving to Albuquerque, she knew of this woman who was moving out here from England named Dawn Chambers. When we moved here, this woman gave me and my sisters piano lessons for free. I was about ten years old or so, so that was my first instrument. I was learning to play piano classically, how to read music and even start writing music. I would have never taken piano lessons any other way.
What were the lessons like?
She would have a song, and I’d learn it, and then eventually we got into more complicated pieces for that level. And I didn’t think anything of the lessons for a year or so. I mean, I did the work, but… What happened, though, and this is funny, is she said “you know, I’m having a concert. You should come see me play.” So, my parents took us over here to the college, and the event was this annual composer’s symposium that happens there. This was back in 1989 or something. Anyway, she comes out in a bathrobe, sits down at the piano, puts all these toys and rubber duckies on the piano, then slams the lid shut and walks offstage, and I was like, “what the fuck was that?” I didn’t think anything of it. After the concert, she introduced us to this old guy. She said “these are my piano students.” I shook this dude’s hand. It was John Cage. That was the year he was invited to that symposium. I still didn’t think nothing of it. I started thinking she was a cooler lady after that experience. I think I heard his name a few years later when I started getting really interested in music, wanting to find out everything I could about music, and then I realized that was that guy and started researching all I could about the history of what people were doing.
You brought up Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and I was just thinking about metal. I got really into metal when I was ten or something like that, and I was into it for a long time, and I got more and more into it, speed metal, etc. At a certain point, I think I distanced myself from it because there was a certain theatrical or camp element that I felt weird about. I was embarrassed about it maybe. One thing I think is interesting about some metal is it seems directed towards kids or some childlike element in us, but then there’s also this sometimes this very dark adult side of it, which I think also appeals to kids. I just wonder what it is about metal that people connect to? It seems like it’s cross-cultural. It’s huge all over the world.
There’s probably a generation where you and I grew up where music seemed to be at the peak of technical proficiency, at least from a young persons perspective. Maybe there was a time before that in the 70s with prog that was even more technically demanding, but I don’t know if that was ever as fun as metal.
Right, exactly. It seems like it was intentionally trying to not be fun. It was trying to be serious.
Yeah, and it was trying to be like classical music or something. And I think metal takes the best parts of classical music, and it makes it fun. I think maybe that’s the difference. Maybe some kind of shift happened where people didn’t care for fantasy at a certain point and wanted some other realism to happen around the time when metal was becoming less popular. I understand what you’re saying. I don’t think it’s the fault of the audience. I think the bands kind of ran out of ideas at a certain point somewhere in the 90s, and a lot of people lost interest in it. Or maybe they took themselves too seriously, and that was the problem. I think the mythology that bands can create around themselves sometimes gets ignored, and I think metal bands exploit that, and that’s what I like about it. But also, another thing I think about with the stuff we do in Tenderizor is all of the historical references, like when you think of Maiden…
Yeah, right. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner…
Yeah! There’s not much music that does that, that’s like a history lesson in itself, and I like that idea of it. And then you have somebody like Judas Priest talking about the future all the time. You have these parallel events in history that these bands were talking about all the time, instead of just one song. It might be a whole album based around some concept of an imagined past or future that doesn’t exist. I think that’s why it resonates with people in rural areas. There are these fluctuations of interpretations of history or future histories. Also, I think that technical proficiency in those bands is something that all musicians strive towards. Maybe not that style, but for a lot of people, that’s the only window into somebody spending that amount of time on their instrument. Of course, there’s a lot of other musicians who work hard on their instruments, but for a lot of young people who only have access to a few radio stations, that’s it. And I think the other part of it, too, is the live situation, how that thing translates live with metal. It’s a style that can sound totally different live, so you kind of get 2-for-1 in that regard, where you’re hearing a more massive, distorted version of the song when it’s done live.
I was listening to the Tenderizor stuff, and one thing that occurred to me was that I really liked these bursts of harmonized melodies that you guys would do, and it made me think that you were taking elements from this tradition and taking it wherever you want to take it, and it made me think that metal is maybe a great language to imprint your ideas on.
Yeah, so all of us in that band come from that, that’s our main influence for the first 10 or 15 years of our lives. That was the major influence, thrash metal. We all got to this point where we were interested in all kinds of other things, like noise. I think those of us in Tenderizor are more open-minded than your average metal-head as far as listening to and giving other music a chance. So, when we formed this group, that was the reason, to superimpose these ideas that we have in these other projects onto the metal idiom. And some of them translate very well. All of those things you can’t do in a noise situation you can exploit when you use 3 guitars or something like that. In the past, that’d be a taboo to have 3 guitars playing at once because it’s supposed to show how much one guy can do. So, we were like fuck it, let’s have 3 people playing guitar at once and see what kind of interesting harmonic things can happen with that. We were talking about why people lost interest in metal. For instance, you have somebody like Slayer or Metallica, and they slowed down in tempo, and they didn’t go far enough. Imagine if they’d slowed down super, super slow, and then that would have kept my attention forever, but they only slowed it down by 20%. But, imagine if they had slowed it down 90%, you know? And bands did that. I mean, it wouldn’t be for everybody… I’m not trying to generalize about all metal bands that were around back then, but they just didn’t experiment enough. They were so close-minded, and maybe it’s because it reached its commercial peak that everybody felt they had to do a certain thing, but it was very hard to find experimental metal at a certain time back then, even if you were looking.
So, taking a step back, what impact has music made for you on your life?
That’s a hard one to answer. I mean, everybody loves music. There’s not a single person who doesn’t like music. There’s a lot of people who don’t like paintings or theater or dance, and there’s people who don’t like films or television. I’ve thought that maybe it’s this obvious place that language will end up. Maybe in a thousand years, our voices will become like singing, and there are some indigenous languages where it sounds like they’re singing. I was just in Australia, and I was speaking with some aboriginal people, and they would tail off the end of their sentences and keep on going like they’re singing. Maybe that’s what all humans feel they need to do is get to that point where speech can be like that. Maybe, because a lot of our speech isn’t like that, and maybe it was at some in the past, we feel need to listen, and our ear is always attracted when that happens. A big part of the world speaks English, and maybe it’s that maybe a very long time ago, everybody used to speak like that, but for whatever reasons, our language and most of the more used languages in the world have lost the part that we all used to have, and there’s still indigenous peoples whose languages are still like that. We’re striving to get back to that. That would be the only thing I can think of, other than something more spiritual than I have the capacity to talk about.
How have your ideas about music changed since you were a kid? Is there something that has remained constant?
I think my whole idea of music has gotten a lot simpler. Like I was saying, when I was growing up, my first exposure to people playing together was this display of virtuosity, and even now, when I hear my grandfather singing, there’s some serious complexity there, and of course the metal was probably intimidating for a long time. Over time, I started realizing how simple music can be, that it’s not about complexity or virtuosity or planned or rehearsed. It’s just something that happens. It gets either pulled together or interpreted by the listener as what it is.
So, if you’re not thinking about that, what are you thinking about, when you’re composing or playing by yourself, or you’re in an improvising situation. What kinds of things do you focus on?
For myself, I start trying to think in terms of shapes of either sound or of the form that I’m involved in. So, for instance, you, me and Thollem are playing, and there might be a certain shape that’s happening, or patterns, and that’s another thing to focus on rather than ways of responding to it.
I had another question which was related to that, and you kind of already answered it. When you’re improvising, there are a lot of different ways to think, and there’s a lot to think about, and people have all kinds of different philosophies. You can come in with a game plan or project what’s going to happen, or listen and repond or not respond or think about shapes or whatever.
I don’t think there should be a plan, because it’s always great to just immediately play with somebody unplanned, go to somebody’s house and then start playing, and so I don’t want to say that people should have a rule towards improvising, but what I do like to do is to know who I’m playing with, if I have a chance to, and know how they sound and what they do and just research the decisions that they make by seeing them live or listening to recordings. So, it’s good to find out who it is that you’re playing with, and that might be enough to start with and go from there, at least for myself. I think beginning musicians might benefit from other kinds of processes or strategies or ways of approaching it. For more experienced musicians, maybe they should be willing to reciprocate and be available to play with less experienced people so those less experienced can learn these processes.
You were talking about things that you could possibly think about when improvising, and one thing I sensed when we have played together was a feeling that you don’t just hear something and respond to it. There would be a feeling that you’re occupying a strong idea, and you would have this almost oppositional kind of feeling. You weren’t being swayed by whatever argument was being presented, and I really love that. It’s something I look for in people I play with. There’s interaction, and there are also times where different kinds of relationships are possible.
Yeah, some of that’s based on the comfort of playing with people multiple times. That probably happened in the last few times we’ve played. You can always just respond to people, but anyone can figure out that that’s what’s happening pretty quickly. I do like to have faith in the strength of the form that’s being created, whether consciously or unconsciously, and find ways of supporting that structure. Sometimes things that don’t seem to fit with the immediate content that might be happening – something as simple as place-markers that happen at intervals, but really just a way to support the overall strength of what’s happening. Maybe it still is a response, but on a larger form, instead of the immediate defense.
It’s something I value because it’s something I have a hard time with. I’m sort of a nervous person, maybe, and I often struggle with that feeling of “God, what’s happening? Nothing’s happening! Nothing’s happening!” I wanted to ask you about teaching. How did you get started doing that?
I’ve done some teaching in different places. I’ve taught in New York, Long Island University, and here at the University of New Mexico, but the main project I have is called the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project (NACAP), which is a program that was started in 2000. It’s part of the larger event, the Grand Canyon Music Festival, where they have a month-long series of concerts at the Grand Canyon. Around 2000, the festival started this program where they could have these kids from the reservation near the grand canyon participate in writing some music for string quartet. So, it started off as a small program where they had maybe 5 to 10 students from one or two of those schools on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, writing 3 minute long string quartets, and having a quartet play them at that festival. They had gone through a few different composers as teachers there, and I was approached in 2004 to start teaching, and it was great, because it’s definitely something I love. I love that medium. I love all of the different ways you can experiment with it. I think guitar players can relate to the language of chamber strings and how to write for them. That was one interest for sure, but I’m from that area, too, and I still have family out there, and I grew up in the area that is being serviced. We’ve been able to expand that program to where we have 30 or 35 students writing music for quartet, and the quartet we work with, called Ethel, is based out of New York City, and they don’t even consider themselves a string quartet, because that’s maybe too narrow of a description of the type of music that they play. It’s not necessarily classical repertoire that they play. They’re improvisers and composers themselves. So, it’s great, because they definitely can recognize some of the really awesome work that the kids are doing, and they’ll play those pieces all over the world when they tour.
For me also, the goal is to expose the students to the languages of chamber music and all the rules for writing for those kinds of instruments, as there are rules that need to be followed in learning that language and communicating with whoever they’re collaborating with. But at the same time, it’s not encouraged that they write classical sounding music. They’re open to write whatever kind of music they choose to write. And, like we were talking about earlier, in rural communities, and especially on the reservations, metal is still a huge influence. Time has stood still out there. And again, that’s something I can relate to, and I can see the lineage of influences of the students because it’s the same as mine. So, I think it’s been a successful collaboration. I’m able to learn a lot of things from the students. Some of these concepts that are classical in nature — vibrato might be an example – can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. A person from China might interpret vibrato in a very different way than a person from Africa.
Celeste Landing (NACAP Student) – Pink Thunder (Right Click/Save As)
One way of looking at art or certain ways of doing art, especially music, is that you’re in this in-between space between things that are understandable. You’re in this weird gray space. What is it like to switch modes and be in a position where there are some people who want to learn and want you to teach them, and you’re in a position of deciding what to teach them. You can’t just be like “anything goes.”
It should be weird. There are some definite rules for the lessons. These rules are the limitations of the instruments themselves and explaining what those are and also what the instruments can do. So, after getting those rules out of the way, it’s up to the student to present some musical ideas to me, which would be the initial work on their composition, and then it becomes a one-on-one lesson situation, and I’m able to at least advise them on some different possibilities of where their music can go. I’m not sure if music composition is something that can be taught in a group situation. So, aside from the technical rules and other kinds of language lessons of those instruments, I think the rest has to be done one-on-one. At the same time, it is challenging to teach music more than some of the other arts, because some of these terms are hard to describe. There are words for certain musical parameters or musical ideas or shapes or forms, but other than that, to describe a sound is still going to have to relate back to the technical ways that you pull it off on the instrument. So, it can be a hard medium to articulate verbally, and especially with younger students who are quiet in the first place or in some situations where English isn’t even their first language, there are a lot of different obstacles. At the same time, the music speaks for itself more than something like, say, a painting.
Could you talk about how the group Postcommodity got started?
There is a small world when it comes to the American Indian arts scene, if there is such a thing, and our exposure to it here in the Southwest and probably a lot of the people in the world’s exposure to it is through Santa Fe, for instance, which is this sort of arts and crafts scene, but there is contemporary work that’s being made and has been made, but I had never related to any of it. Some of it seemed very responsive to certain issues that are more complex than were being answered by these works. So, the group Postcommodity was formed in 2007 by Kade Twist and Stephen Yazzie and Nathan Young, and they had been doing work for a couple of years, and they invited me to join. I was busy doing other kinds of work and touring, and I eventually met Nathan, who also has a noise project called Ajilvsga out of Oklahoma. They had come to see me on tour in Tulsa, and we got to talking more, and that was the first time I met them in person, and I finally did join up with them in 2009 and was immediately interested in what they were doing. The first project I did with them was one where we cut a hole out of the floor of a museum in Phoenix to expose the earth underneath; that kind of conceptual work was very interesting to me. It became another vehicle for me to express some of these ideas I wasn’t fully able to articulate musically in other situations, even in teaching. So, that was my main motivation for working with them, and I’m glad I hooked up with them.
How do you decide on what project you’re going to do next?
We all live in different cities. Nathan now is living near Austin, and two of the other guys are living in Phoenix, and I’m here in Albuquerque. A lot of it will stem from an idea that one or two of us will have, and then we’ll just get to discussing that by email or on the phone or conference calls or whatever. Just working more around the concept of what we’re trying to do and all of the technical ways of being able to pull it off. I’m not going to say that we necessarily have a unified concept in mind when we’re making these works. I think that’s what’s interesting about it. A person can’t pinpoint all of the stances that we’re taking in some of this work, and I think that’s a good thing.
Relating to what you just said, on the Postcommodity site, the words “lens” and “voice” are brought up as metaphors, and you talk about wanting to forge new metaphors. This is more of a comment than a question, but it seems like what is so interesting about this project is that you guys are saying something, and it might be a lot of different things, but you have at least a field of things that you’re addressing. A lot of artists, especially musicians, are often very coy about what they’re actually trying to say. Sometimes you hide your intentions. You don’t want to influence the listener. With this group, you manage to do the impossible, in that you have intentions, and there is a magical combination where you aren’t telling the audience what to feel or think. You’re opening a discussion in a very open-ended way.
That is a hard field to navigate, where any artist might be expected to have a strong comment on what they’re doing or have a reason for any note they play, any kind of reason other than to make art, and so I think that’s what I like about collaborations in general. There’s always going to be more ways that things can be interpreted because there are all these different people involved, even if we’re not there making ourselves visible as characters at all. There are all these points of view from which we’re approaching it, and it can’t help but be interpreted in a number of different ways. I think the best of collaborations in any medium are like that. Also, I think the format of how we’re doing this is different than, say, other Native American artists have approached this in that they have felt the need to either be constantly on the defense or even in some ways on the offense of confronting certain issues, and our approach has been more to be a filter for the ideas or issues that are currently circulating out there and letting them pass through this lens and letting it spread out from that lens to these other ways of being interpreted.
I think lens is a great metaphor. It might as well be the hubble space telescope, because a lot of these issues are simply invisible to most of this country, let alone internationally.
Well the lens also implies reflection, a mirror that might be happening in these communities. Whether something’s happening regionally or nationally or internationally, our job is to reflect these ideas back onto themselves, not that we’re necessarily taking a stance of, say, us against the non-Native world, but all of us being involved in what Postcommodity refers to as “the market”. It’s important to us that we’re not here to provide an answer. All we can do is reflect how we are incorporated in this larger society and how we would respond to any of these as being active participants in the same larger situation that we’re all involved in.
To me, there’s something really great about the open-endedness of what this group does in that it strikes me a lot like dreaming or daydreaming. That is, a lot of times, when we dream about something, there is a visual component, possibly a narrative or physical component. There may be music, there may be talking, but all of it is subsumed by some bigger idea, especially in dreams, where you sense that your mind is trying to tell you something. Is that something that drew you to this format? Does that relate?
That’s interesting. We’ve never talked about inspirations like that. We just haven’t had that discussion, maybe because we’re all just trying to do other kinds of work (laughs), but it does ring a bell for me. A lot of what I do, whether with Postcommodity or my music, has been in a space between dreams and awakeness. I think that’s an important thing to realize, that a person can try to explain the world with their art or they can try to complicate it. I think what’s been interesting about our situation in Postcommodity, being representatives of Native Americans, is that some of these ideas should be complicated and should not be explained away so easily, so when I think about dreams, they might explain something by way of complicating it more. That is an inspiration to me. I appreciate the ability of dreams to do that.
It also just occurred to me that another connection is that we live in a society where a lot of us don’t want to be told what to do. We all want to think that we’re in charge of ourselves, and we don’t answer to someone else. In dreams, the part of us that is experiencing the dream gives authority to a creative aspect of ourselves. There’s a voice with authority that we’re willing to listen to in a way that we often don’t listen to ourselves or other people in real life. You know what I mean?
Yeah, I’ve felt that way before, that no matter how creative you can be when you’re awake, there’s always another part of you that can remind you that an idea you have is really good or bad. There’s another voice, I’m not even sure it’s ourselves. Maybe it’s some shared being, but it’s always nice to be thrown off guard, no matter how long you’ve being doing art, reminded that you don’t really know what you’re doing, to be interrupted. Like you were saying earlier about improvisation, to play with people who may throw you off, but it still connects to what you’re doing. I think that dreaming situation you’re talking about is an even more powerful way of experiencing that, if one chooses to listen.
There is something about music which is the fact that it’s an abstraction. It’s not tied to the world by anything other than its performance, and especially with instrumental music, its meaning may have more to do with the contexts we associate it with than the music itself. We ascribe meaning to it that maybe doesn’t have to do with the music itself. With Postcommodity, it seems like you can tie the music into something without pinning it down and reducing it. By combining these elements, you are able to get at something bigger. Throughout history, music has served the purpose of something that essentially heightens other experiences, be they religious or ceremonial or whatever. It hasn’t always been an end in itself. Do you see Postcommodity in that light, or is there any relation there? I’m just wondering how you approach the musical component of postcommodity? Is its role to heighten the piece or comment on it or…
The music attempts to represent who we are as American Indian people, as individuals, and as listeners and fans of different types of music. Part of the practice also is a recognition of the tools that we use in the rest of our work, and it’s something that’s a big part of my solo work, where there is this mixture of lo-fi technology and electronics mixed with other kinds of natural objects: antlers or wood or bone, or glass. So, mixing those things together is not necessarily a metaphor pertaining to any of the other topics that we deal with in Postcommodity. Put it this way: if an artist can’t escape putting themselves in their own work, that’s our solution to trying to skirt around that dilemma. We try not to have ourselves as artists be a part of the content of the work, but I’m not sure that it’s always possible to do that. So, it’s by way of this music practice that we address that question. Again, we’re all listeners and fans of many different kinds of music, so it’s just another mode of expression for us. We’ve also built instruments or written software and found it might have some use in one of our sound installations. At the same time though, there’s also the frustration where you do a work, and it’s kind of a static piece that exists aside from you, and you kind of let it go, you sit back from it, and you feel this need to be more active than that after building such an instrument, and our music practice allows us to exercise that energy.
So, you’re playing along with the installation?
They’re separate from the installation, but it’s just another common interest that also has its benefits in redirecting other energies we feel are also contained in this collaboration. To also answer your question, with this lens, there’s always going to be an opportunity to comment on further topics with the music. Also, though there’s no vocals in our music, there’s always an opportunity to comment with other mediums (such as packaging) on what we might be thinking.
How long have you been involved in bringing in concerts and putting on concerts in Albuquerque?
A long time. I was doing that a little bit in the late 90s. People might argue otherwise, but I don’t remember any kind of experimental music happening in Albuquerque back then. There were some things happening with the university and the Outpost, and they always were bringing great jazz artists and improvisers, but that was a different scene. That wasn’t a warehouse or a small artist-run space or a house or anything like that. So, I was hosting people at my house or out in the desert, putting on concerts, and 5 people would show up or whatever. That lack of a scene here was why I moved to LA (other than to go to CalArts), but I just had to get out of here cause it sucked. I started coming back because I was teaching at UNM, and when I started coming back, I started seeing there were a lot more things happening. So, since about 2005 or so, I’ve been booking shows. We’ve had spaces throughout the past decade that I’ve been involved in. That church you guys played in, that was a place I had previously done with some other local musicians. It’s something I really like doing because there are always musicians coming through. Since the 50s or even before, Route 66 and all that, since the interstates were built, there have always been people coming through Albuquerque and playing, and in the past, people who lived here had this idea that you had to go play in a bar and you had to have so many songs, and you had to play once or twice a week, and they had all these rules about what they had to do to make it or whatever they thought they were doing, and you had to sound like The Strokes or some shit. So anything that can be done to open people’s minds to what’s happening and bring in great musicians from all over, I’m happy to help do that.
So, for Small Engine specifically, do you have specific goals for it?
Small Engine is still fairly young and we’re funding it ourselves with shows and just out of pocket. There are three of us involved in that space, and we’ve been interspersing our exhibitions with music shows and trying to balance the two. More recently, we’ve had more art exhibitions, which has been great, because it is also to function as a gallery. Also, it’s a space we can work out of and rehearse and do other kinds of projects in. So it’s kind of an open space for this community of artists to use, and we’re happy to host various events and projects that probably wouldn’t get hosted anywhere else. We have had this interesting series develop that I hope we can continue where people who are known as musicians but might have a practice in visual art might do exhibitions there, so we’re hoping to get Mat Brinkman down from Denver and we had Bob Bellerue show some work a few months back. Mark Beyer is going to show some work, too. I don’t know what’s going on. I hope it’s still there. I’ve been out of town a lot.
Your label, Sicksicksick. How did it get started?
Back in the late 90s or 2000, I was performing a lot and doing a lot of different musical projects, but there was a very small audience here for any of that, and there was still this idea here that you had to go through certain avenues to be heard or get your music out there, and I just thought that was bullshit, that you had to play an hour long set in a bar once or twice a week, and somebody would sign you to a label or something. I saw no reason why I couldn’t make cassettes of work and record it and that would be it. I knew people up in Denver and in California who were doing that, so I would trade with other people that I would find out about. That’s how it started, and I’d just make these things as I recorded them. So the first five were releases of my projects, all under different names, just to give people the false hope that there was a record label here in town (laughs). Eventually I started meeting different people, like Kenny (Alchemical Burn), so I put out their music on cassette and Cdr. I started finding more and more people in that way to put out their music, and it has focused on the Southwest region, which includes Colorado all the way to California. So that’s what I focus on, with the majority coming out of Albuquerque itself, and so it’s up to 55 releases so far. I don’t know what the future of physical recorded media is, but at least the past decade, that first decade of the 2000s was the perfect time to do something like that with the internet, because you could find people so much easier and make orders and it used to be where you’d be sending cash through the mail and that last decade made it a lot easier with paypal and just finding who’s out there and advertising it and you didn’t have to make any paper or zines or anyting like that. I was always a fan of that kind of aesthetic, too, like Relapse records, these metal mail order catalogues, but it too was a way for me to experiment and get out of my system any kind of craft or packaging, which I like very much, and so that’s a big part of it, too, is myself designing the packaging or collaborating with the artist to make some kind of irrational packaging.
One of a kind irrational packaging. That’s how you can bill it.
Yeah, irrational packaging!
The last time I went to Small Engine, there was a show of a couple of bands on your label. There was one guy doing tape loops of Navajo singing.
His name is Ryan Denison. He’s a young guy, 19 years old, out of Gallup. We just put out a 3-inch release of his recording from that show. They’re all gone now, but they were just Polaroid pictures he took of his family, and he stuck a 3-inch on there. He’s funny, because I don’t know how we came across him. He knows my sister, but he had been a collector of some of these Sicksicksick objects, and he would order them and I encouraged him to play some shows, and he was good, so we made a release out of it.
Yeah, he was great, and it’s the kind of thing that you’re only going to see here. It seems like there’s a strong underground of people. People are doing something because they need to, and there’s part of me, reading about the history of New Mexico, which makes me wonder how much of the character of the music community it is tied to the history of this place.
Yeah, it’s a funny place. It can be thought of as an island, in some ways. You won’t find anything but sand for an hour out of here unless you go up or down the river, but you couldn’t really escape it if you were trapped here without gasoline or whatever. So, it is an island, but there are these arteries that go through, the highways, people not intending to stop here. They just travel through, might end up staying here for work or whatever reason or get stuck here, but at the same time, I think it’s used to that. It’s used to being an island. It’s always been an island.
That’s kind of what I mean.
I think that stands out more in this era of the internet and how things can be spread more easily. I think there maybe even is a reaction. Sure, there’s always people who want to be the next Shins or something, but I think there’s a reaction that people feel that what is going on here should be experienced. So, there is this regionalism where I think it’s okay that it’s somewhat insular. I think some people do recognize that everything you need can happen right here, and so I think people are beginning to recognize what’s happening here and acknowledge that it’s not necessary to move or even spread it around or not necessarily feeling the need to import other things to make this into some other kind of city or other kind of hub of culture, because all of that’s already here in it’s own unique way. I think maybe people are realizing that more if they weren’t before because it’s a reaction to everything being available anywhere anyway in this virtual digital realm that everyone can get on and experience an art exhibition that’s happening in…
Yeah, Adelaide. And so yeah, there’s a tight community of people who make things happen because things don’t happen otherwise. It’s not a huge city. A place like Phoenix could have been like this but it didn’t choose to be. It chose to be a large center on this international level of what cities strive to be, and if Phoenix can do that, I don’t see why Albuquerque didn’t have a crossroads where they could have chosen to become that, as well, and it chose not to. Rio Rancho, on the other hand! (laughs). I don’t know what happened there . . . Santa Fe, too. Santa Fe, when you think about it is only 150,000 people. I think about half the addresses there are only lived in in the summer, but that’s another kind of interesting place that’s like a ghost town in some ways, but it’s like a market. That city, when the Spanish were coming up from Mexico, they believed that it was made of gold and they got there and were disappointed but still set up shop anyway. The church and everybody just set down there and it became one of the oldest cities in the Americas, but I don’t think that reputation has escaped it yet. I think people go there because there’s this market of arts and crafts and this kind of mystique about the place. That’ll always be there, but I’m not going to say it’s an empty city, and I’m not going to say it’s a disappointment, but it’s still kind of a battlefield, an unresolved place, whereas Albuquerque is maybe the remnants of that, and that’s why it’s larger than Santa Fe is.
What do you mean by remnants?
If Santa Fe is the fantasy, then Albuquerque is the reality. This is the response to that, and maybe it always has been. There’s hardly a music scene in Santa Fe. People from Santa Fe will disagree, but they don’t come down here.
Like you, I travel around a lot playing shows and things, and the thing that struck me since moving here is how this is one of these incredibly rare places that still has a relationship with its past, and I’m sure it’s changed a lot even in the last 10 years, but… It actually looks and feels different from the rest of the US.
Yeah, you’re right. It’s a funny place with its history. It’s changed hands more than a lot of places. First it was indigenous, then Spanish, then mexico, then a territory and then a state. So, it was under all these different flags, more than many of the other states and all that time, people have just stayed in the region and had different foster parents coming in. I think it will always be like that. It’ll always be ambiguous as to what’s going on, and I think people are okay with that. They’re all connected in some way. There will never be a majority, there’s just always these small bands of people all over the state. It’s cool. I like it like that.
Raven Chacon, John Dieterich & Thollem – Improvisation mars 2011 (Right Click/Save As)
Raven Chacon – Neeznau (with mask) (Raven Chacon – Neeznau (with mask))
Raven Chacon – Teasing Game (Right Click/Save As)
Raven Chacon-related links:
(w/ Summer Assassins) Creeping Of The Foul (Deathbombarc Digital Series Club, 2012)
(w/ Postcommodity) Your New Age Dream Contains More Blood Than You Can Imagine 12″LP (Anarchymoon, 2011)
(w/ Bob Bellerue) Kitchen Sorcery (Prison Tatt Records, 2011)
At The Point Where The Rivers Crossed, We Drew Our Knives 12″LP (Anarchymoon, 2010)
Black Streaked Hum (Lightning Speak/Featherspines, 2009) sold out
Overheard Songs (Innova, 2006)
(split w/ Torturing Nurse) The Incredible 17000 KM Split (8K Mob, 2006) sold out
(w/ Jeff Gburek) Jesus Was A Wino (Herbal Records, 2005) sold out
Still/life (Sicksicksick, 2004) sold out
(as The Kleptones) Meet the Beatless, (Sicksicksick, 2003) sold out, download for a free donation here.