An Interview with Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet fame:
VM: Hi Gayle and welcome to ProgressoR, 'the Battle Station of the Virtual Rock Front' supporting the Progressive Rock movement already for more than five years. My first question concerns your musical tastes out of the context of Djam Karet. In other words, what are the kinds of music you give preference to in general and prefer listening to in particular? Do you have any favorite bands and performers?
GE: I like a wide range of music from: Heavy Metal to Jazz, Country & Western to Techno & Electronic, Ambient to Progressive, etc. Groups I like are: Porcupine Tree, Ozric Tentacles, Opeth (my favorite, right now), OSI, Metallica, all John McLaughlin CDs, Allman Brothers, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Dixie Dregs, Gunesh, Punjabi MC, Medesky Martin & Wood, Meshuggah, Ramstien, Steve Roach, Brian Eno, King Crimson, Anglagard, Air, No Man, Art Zoid, Univers Zero, Magma (Christian Vander is GOD, all bow down and worship the Master!), and others. We feel that virtually all of these groups are much better then we are at making great records.
VM: Did you play in any other bands before Djam Karet?
GE: Yes, I played in many others groups before we formed Djam Karet on 1984. By then I had already been performing live with groups for 11 years. I started playing on stage when I was 13 years old in 1973. So I was in about 10 different groups before Djam Karet. Sometimes I played in 3 different groups at a time: some with vocals, some without; some where I played keyboards, and others where I just played Electric Guitar. Now I've been playing guitar for 30 years.
VM: Please tell me about Happy Cancer, your meeting with members of that precursor of Djam Karet, and the following events, as a result of which one of the best Progressive Rock bands in the history of the genre was born.
GE: Thank you for the very nice compliment! When Happy Cancer formed about around 1980, I knew the guys in that group, they were my friends: Mike Henderson, Chuck Oken, Henry Osborne, John Glass, Ted Ellenhorn, and Andy Frankel. And even while Happy Cancer was alive, Mike Henderson, and Chuck Oken also played in another group that I was in called Still Life (a very un-original name!), which was a vocal based group. So before Djam Karet, we played together and were friends. But we formed Djam Karet to play totally improvised music with no predetermined structure, and for the first 2 years, all our rehearsals and shows were totally improvised. That really helped us learn to listen (the most important thing a musician can learn) and also how to play as a cohesive group. We still start out every rehearsal with an improvisational jam that usually lasts between 45 minutes and an hour, and we record them digitally. Sometimes there are good ideas there that can later be built up and expanded upon. And it is also really fun!
VM: Whose idea was it to name the band with a Balinese phrase, Djam Karet, which means "elastic time" (great name for a Prog band, by the way)?
GE: Chuck Oken came up with that after having read that phrase in a book by Harlan Ellison. It was his idea. And we don't play mainstream music, so we didn't need a mainstream name. Actually, everyone in the group pronounces it differently, so I'm not even sure how to say it correctly. And some of our music has a "foreign feel", so it is a good name, I think.
VM: Why is there no "Kafka's Breakfast" album in the band's discography since it features not only Happy Cancer's recordings, but also those by Djam Karet?
GE: Happy Cancer's album called "McMusic For The McMasses" was out-of-print and not available. And we had some extra music from our live album "The Ritual Continues" left over, and the English company AUDION wanted to release some music of ours, so we combined a few of the tunes from "McMusic For The McMasses" with a long jam recorded by Djam Karet, and "Kafka's Breakfast" was born. So, yes, it is a bit confusing!
VM: Here is a question from ignoramus:-). Is there any difference between the band's first album, "No Commercial Potential", and "Still No Commercial Potential" released in 1998?
GE: Yes, "No Commercial Potential" was our first release. We recorded 9 long jams and put the 3 best on that cassette-only release, and it has been out of print for many years. Then years later, we recorded another album of jams called "Still No Commercial Potential" where we taped about 10 hours of jams direct to a digital tape recorder, and put the best hour onto that limited edition CD. "Still No Commercial Potential" was recorded with a single stereo microphone located in the center of our room, while we jammed away. It is actually a rather great record, I think. "No Commercial Potential" was recorded in a multi-track studio and digitally mixed without over-dubbing. In a few months we will re-release our first release as a double CD, with an extra disc of new jams called "No Commercial Potential, And Still Getting The Ladies". This double CD of jams, old and new, sounds quite good, and we are very happy with it. Aaron plays on some of the 2nd disc, and there are parts that are very electronic and keyboard-based that later evolve into sections that really rock hard. All music was totally improvised with no predetermined structure; we just tuned up and started jamming. The album will be released soon, probably by ourselves, and not on Cuneiform.
VM: Now, please let me digress from the theme of Djam Karet and return to it a bit later, as I'd like to touch on the most obscure part of your activity as composer and musician, which is your solo creation, of course. You have one album released under your own name: "Winds of War" (2002). Please tell me about your work on it. What is the album about musically?
GE: "Winds Of War" is a very avant-garde album, almost not even music. I took recordings I made in Morocco and filtered them through my analog synthesizer creating weird, altered, modulated sounds based on recordings of cites and mosques. It is an anti-war album. It is an anti-American-Imperialism statement, though that is probably not clear to people. But I was mangling the sounds of an Islamic culture through an American synthesizer, and bending and distorting their world to my liking.
VM: Why do the other two albums: "Heaven Machine" (2000) and "The 4th Wave" (2001), all the contents of which you have composed and performed alone, go under the name of The Maskit Chamber project, and not your own?
GE: Just for fun. In Djam Karet we usually don't show our faces, we hide behind masks, we do not care about being famous or well known. And I wanted to obscure my involvement, for others to later discover on their own. The Maskit Chamber is a solo project of mine and has 2 CDs released, one with a single 50 minute track called "The 4th Wave" which is an electronic/looping type album that contains some short sections of melodies on acoustic guitar and Mellotron over beds of looping guitar and synths; and another album with 10 tracks of Progressive music called "Heaven Machine" that focuses on the Moog Synth that I have, and analog keyboards in general.
VM: Are there any stylistic or other differences between these two and "Winds of War"?
GE: The Maskit Chamber music is based on 1970's progressive music, and "Winds Of War" is very experimental and odd and features no instruments! On "The 4th Wave" I play about 20 different instruments like: Mellotron, wooden slit drum, bazuki, 12 string guitar, synths, bass, congas and talking drums, wooden flutes, Gimbri, and also it has recordings from outside my house like owls and coyotes, garden birds in Marrakech, etc.
VM: And what can you tell about your collaboration with Gardner Graber and the "Music for Televisions" album (1993)?
GE: That CD contains music he and I wrote and sold to numerous TV shows, some called "Surfer" and "Powder" a skiing show. They would tell me they had surfing in Jamaica and needed some high energy Reggae music, so we'd make them some. So that CD is filled with music we wrote and was used on TV shows here in America on ESPN-TV.
VM: Are you going to continue walking a solo path (alongside with that of Djam Karet) in the future?
GE: Probably, here and there. Sometimes when I'm not working on Djam Karet music I work on my own projects. Some of these are commercial projects for clients, and I will not release them as solo CDs. Often I compose and perform traditional Folk music from other countries such as: China, Japan, India, Greece, Romania, Peru, Ireland, Mexico, Panama, Bali, etc and sell it to TV shows and producers of music libraries, using ethnic instruments. It is a fun challenge to learn music in the style of countries that are very different than the USA, and to learn new instruments.
VM: I know that you're a real multi-instrumentalist, though, above all, you're a guitarist and keyboard player. Do you prefer any special models of guitars, keyboards, and sound processors (sometimes called just pedals) or it's out of great importance to you?
GE: I am primarily a guitar player as you said, and I prefer stringed instruments and wind instruments more then I like keyboards. Keyboards have a huge selection of sounds and tones, but they do not have any real personality or soul, and are difficult to play expressively. So I like them all, but stringed and wind based instruments (flutes) I like the best. I really enjoy getting odd sounds from a guitar, and I am sponsored by E-bow, a company that makes a small battery powered device that bows the string of a guitar by creating an electro-magnetic field, but does not actually touch the string. This produces endless sustain and a sort of keyboard-like sound. I have many wah-wah pedals, echo units and loopers, talk-box, and other devices I like using. I mostly play through a modified Mesa Boogie tube amplifier with my Hamer guitar or my Gibson Les Paul, or sometimes my Stratocaster or my Ibanez 7-string electric guitar. All of my guitars have been modified to have a greater range of sound then they did originally. Often I add a mid or high frequency pre-amplifier into the guitar. When it is off, the guitar sounds standard and un-modified. But when you turn it on it gets louder and has a different tone and more sustain.
VM: Back to Djam Karet. I'd like to draw your attention to one fact, even though it only marginally concerns the band's creation. In many of the recent Djam Karet-related reviews I've read, the band's music is defined as a blend of Progressive Rock and Ambient, with which I can't agree in many respects. Most of all however, I 'protest' against Ambient. I think that non-progressive (at best, proto-progressive) direction of music hardly concerns Djam Karet, and in my view, the constituent of the band's style that may resemble Ambient is just a unique manifestation of Space Rock. And what is your vision of these things?
GE: I do not really know what type of music that we play. It seems to be a mix of musical styles based in 1970's Progressive music, but with many other influences as well such as Jazz, Heavy Metal, World Music, and Electronic / Ambient. We have 2 CDs that are very electronic: "Suspension & Displacement" and also "Collaborator" (with Steve Roach, Kit Watkins, Jeff Greinke, and others). And some other CDs of ours have shorter Ambient / Electronic sections on them - like the album New Dark Age. Mostly, I think we play what is called Art Rock. Art Rock is not really a style or sound, but rather refers to our intentions to make Rock-based music as an art form, not as a commercial product for sale. We are very self-indulgent musicians, and Djam Karet exists as a vehicle for us to realize our dreams and purge our thoughts of these obsessive musical ideas that roam around in our heads. Sometimes I think I would go crazy were in not for Djam Karet, because it allows me to clear out my head of these constant musical ideas that distract me, when I record and play them only then can I keep my mind uncluttered. So Djam Karet is a very therapeutic and self-indulgent group that, fortunately for us, seems to make a style of music that some people enjoy. But if no one ever bought our CDs, we would still record them and be a group, we would just not sell them to anyone. We do not exist to make CDs for sale, but instead for the huge personal satisfaction we get from making these recordings the best we can.
VM: Can you tell me about the band's collaboration with Cuneiform Records? How did it all begin and are you satisfied with their subsequent promotion?
GE: Cuneiform also owns a CD distribution catalog called Wayside. And Wayside had been buying and re-selling Djam Karet CDs for many years. Then, Steve Figenbaum asked us if we would like him to release some future Djam Karet CDs on his label Cuneiform Records. So we said "yes". We already knew and trusted him, so it has worked out quite well for us. We are free to give him a new CD, or not to, it is our choice, we are not obligated to work with him, but we like to. Recently, we recorded 2 related CDs: "New Dark Age" and also "Ascension". He released "New Dark Age", and we manufactured and released "Ascension". He sold more CDs of "New Dark Age" then we did of "Ascension", so he did a better job of moving them then we can do ourselves. It is a good relationship. He has many groups, but I think we are one of the most popular of his groups, and get more and better reviews then many of his other groups. This is not because we are better, but because he releases some very great, but extremely challenging music by groups I love like Univers Zero and Present, two great groups from Belgium.
VM: Some of Djam Karet's CDs were never released or reissued by Cuneiform. Why?
GE: Sometimes we choose to release them ourselves. We sell fewer of them, but make more money per each CD sold.
VM: Is HC Productions the name of the band's own label? Do you have any special distribution for the CDs you release through it?
GE: Yes, HC Productions is our own company, and stands for Happy Cancer! Even though it was not created for Happy Cancer, we just used those initials to refer to our group's history. We do not have any good distribution deals, but anything we make, Steve will try to sell thru Wayside. He does have some good distribution deals for the Cuneiform Records he makes. He, because he has 60 groups and 200 albums, can get us into large CD stores here and throughout the world. So he helps us go places we can't go ourselves.
VM: : One of the band's CDs, "Ascension", released practically simultaneously with "New Dark Age", is subtitled as "New Dark Age, Vol. 2". Were you originally intended to release these as a double CD album?
GE: No, our goal was to have one released on Cuneiform, and the other on our label HC Productions. And it worked out well. They were recorded at the same time, and are similar, except "Ascension" is more acoustic and mellower and more beautiful then our other CDs, so we decided to make the next album, "A Night For Baku" more aggressive and stronger, as a variation to "Ascension". We like to change our direction to keep it fresh and to keep us interested in Djam Karet. We like challenges: it's fun!
VM: Please tell me briefly about the CD-R's featured in Djam Karet's discography (perhaps, unofficial discography). Do all of them, including a 'live' recording "Afghan", consist exclusively of the songs that aren't present on any of the band's ten studio CDs? If so, they should be of great interest to all the Djam Karet fans, at least. Then why didn't you release them on CD?
GE: No, some of the tunes are released on other CDs. On "Afghan" that is a Live CD-R of a show in New York City at the Knitting Factory (where they used to make afghans and sweaters), so that has Live versions of classic Djam Karet tunes. CD-R #1 is a long jam, and #2 is from a show we did at a radio station: KCRW-fm in Santa Monica, and are probably of more interest to our fans, then Afghan. I think parts can be listened to on our Website.
VM: There are few bands in the history of Rock music, the lineups of which would be as stable during many years as that of Djam Karet. Nevertheless, once the band was on the verge of break-up. Sorry if I am mistaken, but I've heard that both Mike Henderson and Chuck Oken left Djam Karet just before the band was about to start working on the follow-up to "Suspension and Displacement", and yet, I see Mike, along with Henry Osborne and you, in the line-up on "Collaborator". Could you shed some light on the situation in the band at that time?
GE: Yes, for a while both Mike Henderson and Chuck Oken became tired of playing with us: it was too much work. But later they rejoined us. They got "burned out", but are now back in and are happy. We are all friends, but there can be a lot of stress in any musical group, and we sometimes do have our fights about what to do and what direction to take.
VM: You have recently engaged another bassist, Aaron Kenyon, who played on most of the tracks on "A Night for Baku". Why? I think that Henry has for some time been out the band during the Baku sessions, no?
GE: Henry is often too busy to go on tour with us, and he has a small child at home. So for gigs / performances we started using our good friend and master bassist Aaron Kenyon. Then we thought it would only be fair to Aaron to offer for him to be on our next CD, which was A Night For Baku. He is now really a full member of the group, as Henry is also. So we use them both to record, and they have different styles, but only Aaron does shows with us. Aaron is a very high-energy guy, and it is fun to perform with him. I have very bad stage fright, I get quite scared performing live, and I really don't like it, I get too nervous. But Aaron is so dynamic and fun, he helps me relax and have a good time. It is a real joy and privilege to perform and record with such great musicians as Mike, Chuck, Henry, and Aaron. I am a lucky man!
VM: Well, it's great that all of Djam Karet's original members remain in the band, which, though, is a quintet now. The situation with two bass players reminds me of that in King Crimson in the 1990s, so I think it will not last long - unless one of them switches over to Stick or Baritone / Warr guitar, which, I believe, is within the grasp of each bassist. Then there wouldn't be a necessity to divide tracks among them, and the sound would be richer. Well, it seems I interfere in other people's affair. Sorry if it looks so, and nevertheless, any comments?
GE: I would like to compose more music in the future where both bassists play on the same song. I have some CDs by Bill Laswell where there are 3 bassists, like Middle Passage by Ginger Baker.that is a great record, and it works well I think. We are not limited to a traditional band structure, we are truly free to do what we want, so I think in the future, there will be more with both, and more bass solos, etc.
VM: The music of Djam Karet is purely instrumental and is very imaginative without any singing, but I wonder if you ever had an idea to release at least one album with vocals?
GE: I would love to make a CD with some vocalists, maybe a few different ones. I would like to also do a CD of other people's music with a vocalist. Maybe someday we will. Without a vocalist, we are free to be busier, and the bass and drums are more up-front and busy. With a vocalist, it is better to be a "back-up" band and support the vocalist by being quieter and mellower. But without a vocalist, we are more like a Jazz band, even though we sound like Rock. We use many techniques and tricks from the world of Jazz and put them into a Rock format, such as improvisation and extended solos and busy / complex rhythm sections.
VM: Another somewhat abstract question, if you don't mind. Whom you would prefer to see as a vocalist for Djam Karet if the band would embark on adventures with a song-based album? Or maybe some of the band's members would be able to take the duties of singer, too?
GE: No one in Djam Karet can sing very well. I think that in many groups the weakest member is the singer, but I am biased because I prefer instrumental music. To me, music with singing is like a movie with narration: it is not needed usually. If we could get Peter Gabriel to sing with us that would be a dream come true! Or David Bowie, but that will never happen. I don't know who, among the people that would consider it, who we would like to have join us on a CD. I would like to use poetry from master poets of years ago, instead of writing new dumb lyrics about love songs. Edgar Allen Poe, or Shakespeare, or others might make for good lyrics, I think. It is not a new idea, but I think it is a good one. I also really like the idea of merging two bands together for a CD. It would be great fun to make a CD together with Porcupine Tree, or Magma, or Ozric Tentacles, or Univers Zero. Maybe someday we can realize that dream! Like Collaborator, but a Rock version.
VM: May I ask a somewhat personal question? Do you and your mates have a daytime job or you're of those few lucky progressive musicians who're able to be occupied only with music and have enough money to provide for their families?
GE: We are not a big enough group to live on Djam Karet. Chuck runs a few CD stores and helps me find new music to listen to! Henry is a school teacher, Mike works for the City of Claremont, and Aaron works at a store. I try to get by making commercial music for clients and libraries, but it is extremely difficult, and I am probably not very good at it.
VM: In the first quarter of 2004, you are going to release a double CD output, which, in fact, features two different albums: another edition of "No Commercial Potential" (1985) and "Still Getting the Ladies" (2002), which consists of the materials so far unknown to anybody. Please tell a little about this project. What music should we expect to hear on the latter album?
GE: 100% totally improvised music is what you're going to get. As I said before, we recorded a lot more then we used on the CDs, and that's good, because the music on the CDs is strong and cool. On the 2nd disc, there are 3 tracks. Two are long jams that are both spacey / electronic and also later shred aggressively, and a shorter one. With improvised music parts will be terrible and some parts will come out great, you never really know how it will turn out, and it is risky. But we put the best parts onto these discs. It is the jazzier side of Djam Karet, and is a side of the group that is not often heard, yet was the original idea behind forming the group in the first place: to play totally improvised music. A few years later we started adding: structure, keyboards and taped effects, and here we are today with a mix of the two styles.
VM: Finally, what are the other plans on your agenda in 2004 and when can we expect a new studio CD by Djam Karet, at least approximately?
GE: We are working on an Electronic based CD driven by Chuck Oken. That will either be a Chuck "solo" CD (with members of Djam Karet) or it might turn into a regular Djam Karet CD. It's mostly based on synths and sounds effects, with very few solos or drums. So far it sounds great! Then later we'll start work on a new super aggressive CD that will make "A Night For Baku" look weak by comparison. No title for that one yet.
VM: Thank you very much for doing this interview Gayle. From the bottom of my heart, I wish you health and happiness and that Djam Karet to carry on making us fans happy with its music for years to come.
GE: Thank you Vitaly for giving me the opportunity to talk about my group! Many thanks.