Following a glowing review of Instant Drone Factory‘s 2012 album “Ho Avuto Paura del Mare”, Ian Girle recently caught up with mainman Frank Gingeleit to find out more about the band and Frank’s work as a music producer.
How did Instant Drone Factory come together as a group – I believe there are several nationalities involved?
The point is that we’re not really a “band” in the general meaning of that term. We’re a rather loosely connected flock of people from all over the world who met on several occasions but were always perceived as a band. We noticed this in hotel conversations when visitors to a show were talking about us and discussing whether the fact that we only met in person on the day of our show could be true at all – “they played songs, even with vocals, can’t imagine that this can be done without rehearsals…”.
In the early years of this century I was a well known figure in the international musical underground and received a lot of music for reviewing or as trades for my own home recorded CDs. It was a time when not so very many people had broadband Internet and the CD-R was still “the” medium for us. Among them were quite a few compilation CDs and every now and then I felt that I’d like to hear a song several times before I continued to listen to the programme. In one case it was the Italian post rock band Elton Junk with a tune that reminded me a bit of the UK’s Punishment Of Luxury (always a lot more than punk where they were usually filed when their original albums were released in the late 70s) and a tune of a German improvising post Krautrock band called Space Debris. In both cases I wanted to get in touch with the bands’ respective leaders in order to get more of their music and maybe to write about them. It took me quite a while in both cases, but a good personal relationship developed soon after.
When I was asked whether I would like to perform at the 2005 Schiphorst avant-garde festival I wrote two emails, described my situation as a solo artist without a regular band and asked whether they would join me on stage in a one-time event based on the idea of “instant composing” that Ex-Can singer Damo Suzuki had invented for his solo shows, with ever-changing line ups of musicians: no rehearsals, nothing pre-composed, everything composed by all musicians in the moment of the performance. Space Debris had no regular bass player at that time but their guitarist would play bass in another band. So, we exchanged some music, talked about everything via email and met personally on the day of our very first show. My first choice on bass would have been Rie Miyazaki of the Japanese psychedelic rock band Marble Sheep as she had taken part in a project with musicians and non-musicians (Circle Triangle Square). When she was touring Europe I asked her whether she’d like to be part of the next Instant Drone Factory and she recommended a drummer from Japan whom I knew coincidentally. So, this is the way how it has worked so far: interest, ability and availability are the basic criteria for a musician to become a member of the Instant Drone Factory “family”, so to speak.
Talk me through the Instant Drone Factory creative process.
Everything depends on the people that are around for a show or during a recording session. The Austrian psychologist Paul Watzlawick once wrote that it’s impossible not to communicate, one of the “axioms” of his interactional view on human communication. The principles of “human interaction” in order to achieve a collaborative and participative result ( as you put it in your review of “Ho Avuto Paura del Mare”), is the “motor” of the creative process. This is almost “everything”. New musicians are asked to act and interact as if they were on a public talk show – with the sole difference that they would use their musical instruments as their means of communication. As the musicians that take part in Instant Drone Factory sessions usually have different musical abilities and backgrounds, everybody is asked not to be “brilliant” in a way that he or she would stand out from the rest of the ensemble, and also to be “tolerant” in the broadest meaning of this term.
The band’s influences appear to be many and varied. Certainly Can and Faust can be detected, along with Captain Beefheart. From your perspective, who would you acknowledge as your primary influences?
Well, there are virtually no “influences” in the way that someone would stand up and say “let’s sound like… (fill in a name)”. In my personal CD collection there’s just one CD of Can (“Tago Mago”) and one of Captain Beefheart (“Trout Mask Replica”). You cannot deny that our male singer Andrea Tabacco sounds a bit like (or better, uses his voice in the way of) something between Damo Suzuki and Don Van Vliet. But it was never our goal to sound like them. As for Can and quite a few musicians in the early Seventies you can say that a certain attitude toward music leads to musical results that sound a bit “alike” although the musicians taking part have completely different musical backgrounds.
Rather unconsciously, and only to be attributed in a retrospective view on our music, you can name the “Rock in Opposition” (“RIO”) concept: you can take musical ideas and attitudes from any musical genre, you can melt together rock vocals with theatre declamation, you don’t necessarily have to sing in English, use instruments in the way they were used in the “Fluxus” movement, you don’t have to play “scholarly”; and a general “political” attitude in the way that there once was a “rock age” with political and societal implications. For me personally, it was the idea of transposing the ideas of Space Jazz, usually associated with names like Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, into the rock idiom. A band that has followed this idea for years – and long before the Instant Drone Factory project started – is Escapade from NYC. But, again, it’s rather the attitude than sounding like them. On one of their CDs – I just picked it off my CD shelf for the purpose of this interview – you can read: “All Escapade music is composed spontaneously and collectively. In order to maintain the music’s organic integrity and maximize the bliss of your audio experience, no overdubs were utilized.” Replace “Escapade” with “Instant Drone Factory” and this sentence could appear on any of our CD covers.
One of my personal examples, but again not with the idea of sounding like her, is Jennifer Batten’s Tribal Rage. And this is mostly due to her guitar/guitar synth setup that’s quite like the setup that I use. And there’s a band from the UK that the boss of the label that released most of our CDs so far sees in a musical relation to us, Dead Meadow. I think that he’s not completely wrong, but their music is recorded in different studios, has a whole lot of overdubs and can be categorized in the tradition of British psychedelic rock, which is something that you’d rather not attribute to us. So, anyway it’s not easy to file or characterize our music in a way that everybody says: “Wow, this fits”. On the other hand our music is not so completely new that you can’t compare it to anybody else. My personal hope is that listeners would rather hear “unlikely marriages” than “eclectic mishmash”. This means that our music can be tracked-back to some kind of forerunners but who have not necessarily influenced us in a way that we want to sound like them.
Is there a danger with improvising that you might lose your way or diverge as a group? How do you maintain cohesion?
To improvise is always risky or dangerous as you don’t know in advance where you will end up. On the other hand we’re not an improvising band in the way that there would be musical “themes” that we play “straight” first and then start to play around them – this would be too scholarly a look at music. Instead our music is based on “invention from the scratch”, following the concept of “instant composing” that I mentioned in the answer to your introductory question. No pre-composed tunes, no rehearsals, everything is “composed spontaneously and collectively” to quote the compositional ethics of Escapade one more time. Especially in studio sessions with no time pressure the band sometimes does diverge or loses cohesion. Not everything that is recorded will be released on an album. Sometimes it’s just boring or is lacking expression. Then we simply leave it out, or start something new. There are very few cases that a member introduces a musical idea by saying “this is what I’m going to play”. And there are cases when the band tries out studio opportunities that they wouldn’t have in their home recording setups. This is certainly “allowed” but it usually won’t make it onto an album. In the past (and the near future as our next album is already recorded) we always had enough “cohesive” stuff that fits on an album.
As well as Instant Drone Factory you’ve also released a solo album (“Lost in the Deep Blue”). How would you characterise your solo work as opposed to what you create with the band?
To be able to explain this I have to go a bit back in the history of my musical development. I started to make music in a serious way after I turned forty. Back then I made a dream of my youth come true and bought an electric guitar, but with the realistic expectation that I’d bought some “dust collector” and I chose the guitar in a shape that matched the furniture of my living room at the time… After a short while I recorded rhythm tracks on an ordinary tape deck in order to be able to accompany myself. A friend noticed this and let me use his old four track cassette recorder in order to find out whether home recording would be something for me. What came next was quite a few years (and albums per year) where I was just learning to play in the genres that I liked as a listener – Blues, Rock, Jazz, Funk – and learning basic analogue recording techniques.
In the beginning I used an alias band name for my solo work and what appeared on my CDs during those years was exclusively important for me and the few people in my inner circle who were curious about the growing musical equipment, and what I was doing in the time that I was no longer spending with them. Next was a period where I used my real name on my CDs but still considered myself an amateur home recording artist. This was the time when the “scene” of the tape based DIY underground began to mix up with people who had far better and mostly digital equipment. “Lost in the Deep Blue” was the first of my self-released CD-R productions that received broader attention and was reviewed by internet and printed magazines. A friend of mine who runs a small but “official” label noticed this and offered a re-publication on his label. This made me a label mate of people like Guru Guru, Kraan, Brainticket, Escapade, Acid Mothers Temple, Damo’s Network (at that time) and a few more “celebrities”.
All my solo albums were conceived in order to learn and get acquainted with new instruments and recording techniques. With “Lost in the Deep Blue” it was my goal to let a guitar synthesizer based setup sound like a real band. Quite a few people listened to it and I was asked whether I’d like to play live. As I would not have liked to go onstage as a solo artist accompanied by a pre-recorded or sampled backing band I asked some musicians that I knew whether they would like to perform with me according to the concept described above (instant composing, no rehearsal, being equal, independent of one’s musical abilities). This is how the Instant Drone Factory started. So, call it a band camp or a boot camp – my “official” solo CD brought me into the position of being a member of a band, even as some kind of a band leader. After this I never returned to any solo projects with the exception of assignments for the music production classes that I took in the beginning of building up my music production company.
You run your own production company (Living Tunes) which you started using your own savings. For many of us that’s a pretty inspirational move – someone having a vision literally “putting your money where your mouth is”. How did you arrive at the decision to do it?
When I started to think about this move, it was a time, back in 2005, when the economy over here in Germany was restructured quite a bit and it was not yet foreseeable that this was the starting point for the economic problems of Continental Europe with its worst developments currently in Greece, Spain and Portugal. At that time it seemed to be a good opportunity, with my private savings as a base for studies (I took classes in music production at the Berklee College of Music before founding my company officially), and founding companies related to culture and creativity was partly supported by public money and programs. At that time it made sense (and for some makes it still today) to make something completely on your own. But, seen from today’s perspective, there is not so very much inspiration left over. At least, anybody in a situation like this should be aware that there is no longer any romanticism of being a founder, being your own boss and the like. I’m still in the market and will probably be there for quite a while, but if a younger colleague would make a decision like this, it’s working hard and working harder at what he has to find inspirational.
Prog rock and progressive music generally is big news these days and while your music can certainly be described as “progressive”, one might think that improvisation has more in common with jazz. Do you feel an affinity with either of those genres?
I grew up at a time (the late 60s and early 70s) when sounding progressive was kind of required, even by musicians who would have played the 5 o’clock tea at the Ritz in other times in order to be successful. Many younger people today may not be able to believe that there once was a time when really difficult and demanding music (and, by the way, books including philosophy, maths and economics) were bestsellers and something on which you could base your business and long-term economical welfare. For me personally, progressiveness is rather an attitude, independent of genres, be it in music, painting or literature. When the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer died in early December, this was widely covered by the media over here. One TV station featured an interview with a Brazilian singer/composer (not sure whether it was Gilberto Gil or Jorge Ben) who sang – or more accurately was improvising with the help of his voice – to a sketch of a building of Niemeyer as if it was written music. For me personally this was progressive in a way that there were no differences between different genres of art, they could be transformed into each other with the goal to achieve kind of a better world. To keep this kind of naivety, together with progressive governance once it’s about nations and economy, is a central part of progressivism as an overall societal concept, rather than a label that’s put on music.
Some weeks ago I read an interview with Alicia Keys where she said that her current album would contain the most “progressive” tunes that she’d ever written. Besides the term becoming meaningless in this way, quite a lot of today’s progressive music is very much about musical virtuosity and not so much “looking for the truth to be found in a chord”, to quote Lou Reed if I remember correctly. So, I personally see no contradiction in taking musical ideas of one genre – Jazz – into another genre – Rock – in order to achieve musical progress.
As well as being a musician you’re also involved with production and mixing. Are there any records you’ve been involved with that you’re particularly proud of?
Concerning my own work I’m especially proud of the latest Instant Drone Factory release “Ho Avuto Paura del Mare”, because I obviously achieved my goal to let music of this kind sound as if a major company would have released it. Quite a bit of contemporary indie or underground music doesn’t sound as good as it could. There’s a difference between indie “charm” or lo-fi and not being capable of achieving what you are going for – to give music the best suitable sound, neither over- nor under-produced. During my work on “Ho Avuto…” I learned how difficult it is to translate something heartfelt like music into a medium related to the physics of sound waves and the biology of the human inner ear. To have at your fingertips what until not long ago was only available in million dollars professional studios – how most producers of digital audio work stations advertise their products – is misleading in a way that having 64 audio tracks at your fingertips doesn’t mean that you are able to work with them professionally (or just acceptably if it’s a hobby). I learned the hard way, so to speak, that you’re still not done with the completion of college courses and a certificate.
To mention a specific work for a client might be unjust to those clients that I don’t mention. But there was one mastering job where I was asked to let a production sound “smoky” – a compilation CD of live recordings made under really horrible technical conditions. Not only was the producer of that CD happy with what he received from me, I think that I was able to capture the charm of a smoky music bar, and I was really proud to be able to reproduce this almost “historic” scenery with respect to current anti smoker laws…
You’re clearly a very busy man – what plans do you have for the future?
A new Instant Drone Factory CD is already recorded and I’m putting the final touches for release. I’m having some new ideas for digital release, in a similar direction to how indie e-books are sold to consumers, and I’m working on a concept of teaching classes that is different from other correspondence courses in the field of mixing music. Modern mastering is able to do a lot to improve mixes and to bring a good mix to the next level concerning commercial competiveness. But there are quite a few cases when the mix should have to be improved before the mastering job starts. I had to learn that some musicians mistake advice with respect to their mixes for not liking their music, which it definitely does not mean. In some cases I recommended courses but found out that this would be far too time consuming for musicians that just want a better sound for their band, not become professional mixing engineers. In correspondence courses you usually have to learn a lot more than you need for just getting the mix of your band’s music into an acceptable shape, and one obvious benefit is that you can work on them anytime that’s suitable for you (but which quite frequently turns out to become one of its biggest shortcomings, as you simply don’t work on it because you seemingly having the rest of your life in order to complete it – usually not the best way to get a demo, as your sonic business card, up on YouTube, MySpace or SoundCloud or even finish a CD production!). I can’t say too much at this moment, but I think that I have some good ideas on this and I’m working on a business platform that makes it affordable and reliable for prospective clients.