Themselves they think 75 Dollar Bill is about “Tent music for tent people — for your weddings, dances, processions, funerals, protests or pleasurements”. Which we think is a great way of describing their music.
We had a chat with Che Chen, who I met a couple of years while having a break from the Belgian scene — residing a couple of months in New York. Besides taking care of the complex guitar riffing in 75 Dollar Bill, he is a master in subtile acoustic improvisation, and has collaborated with people like Tetuz Akiyame, Robbie Lee and Chie Mukai.
Your last record has a description that says: “Tent Music for Tent People”. Where did that come from?
This is a bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s a riff on a phrase that appears on some of Sun Ra’s old posters and handbills, “Beta Music for Beta People”. Sometimes it also appears as “Beta Music for Beta People for a Beta World”. So there’s the implication that the music is meant for a certain community, that is somehow apart, and also the pun of reading “Beta” as “Better”. At some point it occurred to me to make a calling card for 75 Dollar Bill so I modeled it after one of Sun Ra’s business cards that bears that inscription. In 2013 we made a huge 45’ x 21’ tent canopy with our friend, Talice Lee, who does amazing work with textiles. The way it’s patterned corresponds to the rhythm we use in one of our songs, “I Was Real”. The song is in one of Rick’s “compound meters” which is a 21-beat cycle, so the tent pattern is kind of a visual representation of all the different subdivisions of 21 that occur in the song. Then we played a concert at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn where the band and the audience were all under this huge patterned tent. It had such a positive presence and really did something to the space. It kind of brought everyone under the same “roof” and softened, not just the architecture but I think the social situation as well. So this is a feeling that we’re in some ways in pursuit of. When we started making this music it became clear to us that it might work best in situations that deviated from the normal rock club, concert hall or art gallery settings, so making this tent was one kind of intervention. It’s social music in a way. To bring it back to Mr. Ra, I just looked up the origins of the Greek letter Beta and it comes from the Semitic word bayt, which means “house”, so this has an interesting relationship to the idea of the “tent” too!
In the description of 75 Dollar Bill on Bandcamp I read that you met on myspace and started the band approximately 8 years later. What took so long to make this click? (Or: the music is quite intuitive I’d say / is there a parallel with how and why you started playing together?)
I’m not sure why it took so long for us to start playing together, I guess things just happen when it makes sense for them to...Rick discovered the myspace page of my old band, True Primes, so that’s initially how we met. We were friendly for a long time and would see each other a lot at shows and stuff. Eventually, Rick and his wife Sue (Garner) started hosting this loose percussion based jam called Love Layers at their studio and they invited me to come. It took a little while before I actually made it there but I really liked Rick’s sensibility and that’s when I first heard the wooden box that he now plays in 75 Dollar Bill. I had been working on these rhythmic guitar lines at home and knew I wanted to try them with a percussionist, but I wasn’t so interested in playing with a drum set. So hearing the sounds Rick was getting out of the box was really inspiring. It’s almost like the third member of the band in some ways!
Do you see each others solo or other musical projects as rather totally different, or very similar to what happens in 75 Dollar Bill?
Having played music (mostly in bands) for over 35 years, I do recognize certain threads that have been more or less consistent, in part because I’m self-taught and not especially adept technically. But each project or band is ultimately unique because any combination of people will always have a certain alchemy that doesn’t happen the same way with a different combination of individuals. 75 Dollar Bill fits that pattern perfectly, even though our collaboration was one of the quickest and easiest I’ve experienced, getting to something unique and fun nearly immediately after we started (admittedly 8 years after we met...).
In the summer of 2011 Brian Sullivan invited me to come and see his new project United Waters at Shea Stadium in Brooklyn. The same night also Magic Markers and Burning Star Core played a set. It had been 107°F and very humid out all day, so the balcony was a bare necessity in between shows. That’s where I met you, Che, and Spencer Yeh for the first time. Besides the ‘the heat and the stupidity’ jokes, I remember we spent most of the night comparing the experimental improv underground scene of Belgium/Europe and Brooklyn, and gossiping about people we happened to all know in this small universe. Has Brooklyn shifted a lot meanwhile?
I remember that night, it was sweltering! It was a funny scene with that big empty room and everyone crammed outside on the balcony. In 5 years I suppose Brooklyn has changed a little bit, but mostly I think it’s cool to see the same people staying at it and getting deeper into what they’re doing. Rick’s been in New York for more than 35 years so he’s certainly seen a lot more change.
As a printer I’m intrigued by the fact you (at least as far as i know this goes for Che) also design nearly all of your own releases. Are music & sleeves a bit like siamese twins, or not necessarily?
I’ve more or less always been making music and art in parallel, but the emphasis has shifted over time. When I was younger, even though I was also dabbling in music, I thought of myself more as a visual person and I was painting and drawing a lot more. After moving to New York that kind flipped the other way around, and now I spend most of my free time making music and the visual stuff is usually in support of the music (flyers, album art, etc.). I love both but I find it hard to be equally invested in them at the same time. I also generally find the art world pretty horrifying so I don’t have much interest in pursuing visual art in that sense.
What does it mean to you to also run a record label besides making music?
Well, it may be a bit grandiose to even call it a record label given how seldom I release things, but I’ll say a couple of things about Black Pollen Press. I’ve always liked the idea of artist run labels and I think right now, especially for more obscure kinds of music, it makes more sense than ever for artists to release their own records if they have the means. So some of the things I release are projects of my own, usually collaborations. Occasionally I’ll work on a release that has more to do with a set of ideas I’m really interested in like the Attention Patterns compilation, where I got to work with Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Yoshi Wada and Sun Circle. This has more to do with supporting a certain kind of work and also being able to do a lot of research and have a release come out of that. Attention Patterns came with a book full of interviews, scores, essays and photos that sort of frame the music. It was a tremendous amount of work, so I don’t undertake projects like this very often. Selling the records once they are made is a whole other effort one has to make too. I’m working on another record in the Attention Patterns vein, which is a solo album by Catherine Lamb called shade/gradient. Catherine is a composer/violist whose music is coming out of a similar approach to sound, but who also has been very influenced by North Indian Dhrupad music. That should be out in the early summer.
Could you unravel a little mystery for me, Che? The album “Begin and Continue!” which is a duo with you and Robbie Lee, was released recently, in 2015. although you gave me a copy of this album five years ago. What happened? (Feels a bit back to the future somehow)
Ah, it actually wasn’t re-released per se, I just had a couple of boxes of them sitting in my closet and finally decided to put them online! I think maybe Robbie put a few through his distribution channels too. We did make a follow up record actually called “The Spectrum Does” which is also a little long in the tooth now too, but it’s looking like it may be released on a certain Belgian label very soon…
Had you heard of the KRAAK festival before? And is there anything you are looking forward to in this edition?
I’d heard of Kraak before, yes, and had hoped that eventually we’d be invited! I’m quite curious to see Lino Capra Vaccina but honestly, we don’t know a lot of the acts in the lineup so I’m excited to discover some new music. I was really excited about the Hermann Nitsch organ piece but sadly we can’t stay for it because we have to be in London that day. I love his harmonium home recordings so it’s a hard one for me to miss.
Is there any musicians that caught your attention lately and you would add to the line up if you could?
We played with Josh Abrams Natural Information Society last year and were totally blown away by them. The Baltimore just intonation party band, Horse Lords, would be amazing too.
In terms of music, what are you looking forward to in 2016 / any special plans?
We have a new record coming out in early Summer on Thin Wrist, so we’re looking forward to having people hear that and doing some touring around it. We’ve also got tons of other recording projects in the works.
And last but not least... On Rick’s Twitter page I read: French speaker (mais pas très bien!) Do you guys have a message for Brussels (anything, can be very silly or random)?
Est-il quatre fois vingt plus dix plus sept ou nonante-sept?