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Max Dax talks to Sun Ra Arkestra’s Craig Holiday Haynes

Craig Holiday Haynes (his middle name refers to Billie Holiday) is the son of legendary jazz drummer Roy Hanyes and the Sun Ra Arkestra‘s newly-former drummer—and at 59 years, was the youngest member of one of the most important, groundbreaking and active jazz bands in the world. Sun Ra, who was one of the true prophets of electronic music, died in 1993, but his legacy is so strong that we interviewed not only Arkestra director Marshall Allen for the recent issue of Electronic Beats Magazine in Philadelphia, but also Haynes—the man who made the interview with Allen possible. Living in Queens, New York, Max Dax met Haynes in Manhattan’s famous Old Town Bar on 45 East Street in October 2013. Photo: Luci Lux

You live in New York City—but aren’t you supposed to rehearse with the Sun Ra Arkestra on a weekly basis in Philadelphia?

I’m not the only Sun Ra member here in New York, but I rehearse every possible moment with them. I played with Sun Ra from 1980. I left college to join them, and actually right after I joined Sun Ra I had the offer to play with James Brown—a man whose music I love, and who I grew up listening to! But I joined Sun Ra and I was learning so much from him, because he was a genius. He was a master in words, a master in philosophy, in numbers and—more than anything else—a master in music. You know, I’ve seen him change intricate lines, I’ve seen him play Rachmaninov for the elite and just blow everybody away. That’s a small thing compared to the things I’ve seen him do, too.

You weren’t tempted to join James Brown?

I was, but I wanted to play jazz. I didn’t want to play anything commercial, and despite the fact that I looked up to James Brown, he was still doing commercial music. Playing with Sun Ra, I knew that my name would be in the paper and everything. As a member of James Brown’s band, you are just a face in the crowd. So that made my decision. But the main reason that I stayed with Ra instead of taking the James Brown offer was that I wanted to maintain the spiritual consciousness path, as opposed to the commercialism of Mr. Brown at that time. Yes, the Down Beat magazine poll made a huge impact (with the band being over the Basie band and Buddy Rich band) and Sun Ra in four different categories, but the spirituality and cosmic consciousness was the overriding factor in that decision.

I think it’s a great decision. Even though not everybody knows the Sun Ra Arkestra, those I talk to— musicians, DJs,  journalists, women who like to dance—they know it. One thing we recently discussed is if you can call the Arkestra a ‘big band’?

You can actually call it a big band, and we do call it as such. But professionally the Sun Ra Arkestra had many names: it was the Intergalactic Arkestra, the Space Age Arkestra, the Techno Arkestra or the Jet-Set Arkestra. Ra used a lot of different names, it was never the same name except for that it was always the Arkestra. Sometimes the band varied, too.

I have to ask because I never had the chance to meet him personally: Sun Ra died, but the Arkestra is still named after him. So by what means is his spirit still alive in the band?

Mainly just through the music and the concept. From time to time we still have dancers, we speak some of his words, we do some of the chants that he did…usually going off the stage. You know, I sort of feel bad for people that appreciate the Arkestra but never saw Sun Ra in person. Because first of all, he came up during the Vaudeville era, so he had the Vaudeville concept of entertaining—but he was very knowledgeable about a lot of different subjects, and he was well versed in each one. Music first, but also the written and the spoken word, numbers, astrology, numerology, philosophy, religion and science. He was one of the first people to talk about the space age, long before NASA. In the fifties he was talking about the environment and saving the planet long before the environmental boards.

So he had a vision?

He definitely had a great vision; an unbelievable vision. He used to claim that he was from Saturn. That was maybe show business, but he believed that we are not just who we are on this planet. He insisted that we are spirits from another source, a higher source than just this planet. Only today people are starting to realize that who we are looking at is not really who we are. As Sun Ra would say, we are spiritual beings in physical bodies. It’s funny…when I was about nine or ten years old I used to go a place called St. Peter’s Lutheran Church here in Manhattan. You know the place? It’s in the same complex as the city court building. On Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. Underneath there’s two whole blocks of one of the biggest silver and gold vaults in the world. Most people don’t know that.

That’s amazing. How did you know?

I saw it, but that’s a whole other story. Somebody took me down there. Underneath those buildings there are trucks and forklifts, picking up silver and gold bullions and driving it around. It’s unbelievable, as if there’s a whole city existing underneath us like some secret metropolis from a James Bond movie.

But how come you were allowed to see all that silver and gold?

You know, I found something and returned it to the owner. He wanted to meet me to thank me for my honesty and said: “Look, I want you to come downstairs, let me show you what I do.” He was the foreman of this vault. He said, “This is silver and gold, come and pick it up!” I picked up a piece of bullion and it was so heavy that I had to take both of my hands. What’s funny about all this is that when I was going to this church when I was a kid, the pastor—Pastor John Garcia Gensel, may he rest in peace—once asked me, “Craig, what do you think about Sun Ra?” and I answered “I don’t know anything about Sun Ra.”

So you feel the spirit of Sun Ra, and that’s why Marshall Allen and the rest of the Arkestra carry the torch. Would you call him a go-between in the real sense of the word?

Marshall was around Sun Ra more than any of us. He was in the original band, so he knew Sun Ra and his concept very well. He doesn’t just copy and paste the old because he is not Sun Ra. As I said before, Ra was really a master at each and any of those categories that I mentioned. There aren’t many people that are masters at even one of those categories! They say there is a thin line between genius and insanity, and Sun Ra was like point zero on that scale—he was right on the line! He was a genius and insane. Some people are insane and have that tiny touch of genius, but he had everything…he had it all. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Zawinul a couple of times, and we became friends. He played with Miles Davis and with Wayne Shorter, and he repeatedly told me that jazz was supposed to be dead. If he’s right, how can you carry the torch? How can you transfer your art into the new millennium?

I don’t know if I’d agree just because people like Miles Davis or Sun Ra were masters of it all, and they are for sure missing. I think we are continuing something here—both musically and show business-wise, in the sense that we have the costumes, we do some of the theatrics, we try to keep the spirit.

Without risking becoming a novelty act.

Right. Sun Ra was very adamant about creating. Just creating, period. He said everybody should be creating something everyday. If you don’t create something then something is wrong. Then what are you here for?

Somebody told me the other day that the meaning of life is: do the things that you do, but do them with the most possible awareness, commitment and mindfulness. That’s the meaning of life. It totally convinced me.

Yeah, doing something for the universe, making something better. That’s important. I think we have to create. Sun Ra always said: “Everybody can play what they know. Can you play something you don’t know?”

How would you describe your working routines? Have they changed over the years? Do you jam? Do you compose?

Well, Marshall composes. He’s actually been composing some great stuff lately in the same genre and way that Sun Ra would. He’ll compose a piece and expand on it. Hopefully he keeps the composing up—I mean, he’s 89 years old by now, so he’s doing a great job composing. But nobody is composing as much as Sun Ra was.

And in terms of rehearsing? You live in New York and the commune house is in Philly.

I don’t get down to Philadelphia that much. But when we rehearsed last week for our gig at the Lincoln Jazz Center, we did it just like we would have done it with Sun Ra—which means that we wouldn’t play any of what we’d rehearsed at all.

Bob Dylan does the same and he always references Miles Davis for having been his inspiration in that regard. It’s all about to go on stage and to forget what you’ve rehearsed—which, of course can be confrontational for the audience.

Somebody once asked Miles: “Why don’t you play some of the old stuff you made?”, and he answered: “Well, that stuff is old.” It’s like, if you already know it, what are you creating? Art Blakey, the drummer, a good friend of mine, used to say “Jazz is the only music that comes straight from the creator, the musician, to the people simultaneously.” Classical music is great, but it’s not improvised. It’s all written. So they’re playing exactly what’s written, and there’s no room for creativity.

You could extend that to the usual fed-up band on tour that plays the same thing night after night.

There are all these bands around that play exactly the same thing every night, and I think that’s part of what’s wrong with the world today. It’s stifling creativity. When you are stifling creativity you are stifling a part of life that is life itself: creation. So when we played the other night at Lincoln Center, we played some stuff we didn’t know—with Marshall directing. On stage, we had no idea what we were going to play.

So how does he direct you?

With his hand gestures. He might say “do this” or “do that”. Sun Ra was a master at it, but Marshall is doing a pretty good job at it as well. I actually thought that the Lincoln Center Jazz audience would be very . . . , well not snobbish, but more of the traditional elitist type. But after we stopped playing, I looked at these people and they were people I would have never imagined to be so happy with what we did. But they were. One guy came and said: “My life has changed! I’ll never be the same!” That’s what it is all about in the end: make people think, change or expand your mind. I highlight this as usually people are so conditioned, being fed all this pre-programmed music, pre-programmed everything. It’s so nice for them to see something creative live, and it’s a give and take between us and the audience as well—there are energies being transferred. It’s just like Art Blakey said: straight from the creator to the people! But it comes back as well, it goes back and forth.

If Marshall is capable of giving you directions, and you are able to react to it unrehearsed, what is it about the band members that music functions like that? Is it because you’ve been doing it for decades?

Probably it’s because we’ve done it for so long. You asked before how much of Sun Ra is still there—that’s where he comes into play. People always say “Sun Ra was here tonight when you played.” They say that they felt his spirit. Very few bands that you see do the kind of creative thing that we do. When we rehearse at the commune house in Philadelphia it kind of rubs off on us, even on the ones that have never met Ra—I guess by osmosis. They hear records, see recordings, and now you can go on YouTube and see the concerts and also see him and the band. Some of my greatest moments in life were playing with Sun Ra, and under those kind of conditions. Sometimes it would just be me and him playing. There was a feeling that he had, along with that you could sense the knowledge and depth of his intellect. He believed that rhythms are an integral part of our world, and if we are hearing all these wrong rhythms all the time…

Four to the floor?

Four to the floor can be okay! But it has to have something else. Nuances. Colors. If there is no variation or dynamics then it’s not music! If it’s just four to the floor it becomes nullifying. It’s just sound. If you look at DNA on a screen, when you break it down, everything is just zeros and ones. But there are patterns that dictate what is. Rhythms dictate what is going on in the world. In Sun Ra’s and other people’s theories when we listen to wrong rhythms, people go crazy, insane, or some people just start to think straight like robots. I believe disco music created a lot of those robots.

As opposed to that, dynamic music frees people?

Yeah, but even some real music might make you crazy. I remember one time I was playing a tape of Sun Ra and John Gilmore and the band, and John started playing the high frequency notes on the saxophone and my cat just went crazy! I saw it happen again. As soon as those notes were played, she ran and went crazy.~

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André Vida and Max Dax talk to Marshall Allen of The Sun Ra Arkestra

All photos except header by Luci Lux.

Meeting the Sun Ra Arkestra’s director Marshall Allen at the group commune in Philadelphia wasn’t quite space travel, but it was a kind of time travel. The eighty-nine year-old alto sax and woodwinds maestro was eager to discuss the teachings and creative punishments of former bandleader Sun Ra, one the most singular figures in modern jazz. Indeed, Ra was amongst the first to experiment extensively with elements of electronic music, anticipating what would become the musical language of the 21st century. 

 

Mr. Allen, it’s a great pleasure to meet you here in this particular house, where you and Sun Ra used to rehearse with the Arkestra.

Yeah, this house has seen and heard a lot in the past decades. Actually, I just woke up from a nap, I heard melodies playing in my dream. It was a late night out yesterday.

You went clubbing?

No, just some overdubs in the studio. But even today, recordings are best done during the late hours.

Are you recording new music for the Sun Ra Arkestra?

No, last night I was with a friend of mine, a poet, who needed some background music for his poems. He asked me, so I did it for him. I came back early this morning and then I needed some sleep.

So, that’s what you do at night in Philadelphia?

I’m in this house all the time—that is, when I’m in town. I am away so often, I never stay home here much. We just played at Lincoln Center in New York on Saturday. And the week before that we played in Switzerland. And prior to that I was in Italy and London. I travel a lot.

I want to pick up a trail from a previous issue of Electronic Beats in which Bobby Gillespie mentioned that he invited you to record with his band Primal Scream in London to kill some time while you were forced to stay during the volcanic eruptions in Iceland in 2010. 

I remember. We were supposed to leave Europe the day it started. But we couldn’t get out because our flights got cancelled. So we had to stay a few more days in London. I figure we’d add an extra night and play another concert. And yes, we jammed with… what was their name again?

Primal Scream. How were the sessions?

Good, I guess. There have been so many sessions in my life. I start to mix up names and places. I might have received a complimentary copy of their finished album and have put it on one of the many stacks that you can see here in my house. I actually play with a lot of young folks. I see the whole thing as an adventure, as I like all kinds of music. I am not just doing one thing, I am doing anything if I find a good thing in it. Recording with Primal Scream seemed natural to me because it meant we didn’t have to hang around outside under the grey London skies.

Would you say traveling is an integral aspect of your lifestyle?

Yes, and it’s been like that since 1942. You know, I was in the US army and I fought in France. After the war, I just kept on staying in Paris where I also went to music school until 1949, which is when I left France for Chicago. But after a while the musicians from Chicago were starting to move to New York. So we got in the migration run and stayed in New York for a decade. But the last forty years we all stayed in Philadelphia, which is where I inherited my father’s house. Sun Ra needed a place to rehearse—for his band, for us—so I convinced him to take the house for free and live in it.

The neighbors never complained?

No, no, we got some good neighbors here. The Ra house is good for the neighborhood—Germantown is pretty nice but sometimes at night it can get kind of scary. But we’ve been here since 1969 and we practice all night, all day.

The neighbors like music?

The police once knocked on our door, and Sun Ra told them he was playing a joyful noise. But other than that, no complaints.

You still use this house for rehearsals?

We lived here and we rehearsed all day. We’d take a break and then practice half the night, right in this room here. But we also record here. And the nucleus of the band still lives here: I got to have people around me to keep the music going. You know, all the original instruments are still here. Sun Ra used to play on them.

So this is a very special house not only for the Arkestra but also for American history.

It’s a commune. All the musicians living here would have other skills as well. One could fix doors, another one could cook, others were good painters. In the commune, we were doing everything ourselves. We wouldn’t need outside help, we were truly independent from the outside world. In this house, Ra was telling us that we had to do our own everything. We even sewed our own costumes. We had our needles and thread and a sewing machine and designed and tailored our own show uniforms. We didn’t have no money, so what could we do? We then learned to manage ourselves; we learned to read contracts, because if you don’t learn that, it’s always the middle men who’d rip you off. So we made our albums, made our music, made our covers, made our own designs. We even had a vinyl press for some years and we glued the label on the LP’s ourselves. Over the decades we eventually manufactured some 500,000 records in this house.

Do you still have copies of these handmade records for sale?

I think they’re all sold by now.

 

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Above: Danny Ray Thompson has played flute and saxophone on and off in the Sun Ra Arkestra since 1967. Rejoining the band in 2002, he also runs a private airport shuttle service and has worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

 

Have the routines of rehearsing changed since Sun Ra’s passing?

No, it’s the same routine we’ve always had: no women or drugs or anything like that are allowed in these walls. It’s important that the musicians have a place where they can practice twenty-four hours a day. It gets difficult if you don’t have a place like that. But contrary to Sun Ra, who basically practiced all the time and couldn’t even get out the house, I turned it down to three days a week. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

In New York I talked to the Arkestra’s drummer Craig Haynes who explained to me how you were prepping for the Lincoln Center gig. He said you were rehearsing a lot, but when you actually went on stage you hardly played anything of what you’d rehearsed.

We never do. I learned this from Sun Ra: you rehearse here for a month for a gig but you wouldn’t play any of the tunes. This way everybody was sharp and on edge. It’s actually a perfect way to keep musicians mentally aware.

Nowadays when you watch a band you can be quite sure that they’ve rehearsed everything. Nothing could go wrong. Your concept on the other hand allows for some great inspirational moments that might result from accidents or coincidences.

Well, that’s the idea behind it. Music is alive and it’s always about the musicians, the sound of the room and the audience. And this means that everything can change at any time because you are well prepared for change. You have to adapt to the idea that everything changes all the time simply because the vibrations of the day are different compared to yesterday. That obliges you to change something. If you are really strict and repeat the rehearsed music perfectly then it won’t work because it doesn’t take into account the vibrations.

And you have the necessary antennas to feel these vibrations?

Sure.

It’s not academic.

That’s right. It’s nothing you plan, but thanks to rehearsing so intensely we got the arrangements and all the melodies and all the difficult music and all of the intricacies in our hearts. We can still play loose, free from the academic spirit. Ra told us to have our memory tight to remember things he’d play to us because he’d not play them again after we’d memorized them, you see? He’d play something different instead. Sun Ra had three, four or even five arrangements on any tune. And according to where we were, one of them would probably fit.

But how did or do you memorize all these various versions of different tunes?

The memory… You have to know your book! Sun Ra would surprise us at any time. He’d play four bars on you and if he realized that you ain’t got your music on you, he’d change the song right in the middle of the introduction.

Just to get this straight: Did he notate or did he not? Do you rehearse and play on notation or not?

Everyone has a different way to memorize. We got scribble-scrabbles all over the page. We all have our own code to remember something once we are one stage. But yes, Ra always did notate.

Have you ever considered putting together Sun Ra’s notations in a book?

Well, a lot of people are doing that. But we don’t need that book. The sheets are everywhere—in this house, in other places. Ra did it purposely, he spread the music everywhere, and the idea is everything everywhere. It was like the big giveaway, Lord, the big giveaway. You see, that was his way of doing it and less expensive than a book. If you want to get your ideas out there, just put them out there. Spread the music around.

But didn’t you make your own book of melodies?

Yeah, I’m always writing my melodies down. I bring them to the copyright office, and by now I got a whole book of melodies. I don’t know what I will do with them, but I got them well collected. Unlike me, Sun Ra has written thousands of tunes. You may wonder how he had all the time to do that, but he was just consistent. In his writing, his ideas and his music his great discipline surfaced. Put something in it and you get something out.

 

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Above: At fifty-six, Craig Holiday Haynes, son of the legendary jazz drummer Roy Haynes, is the youngest member of the Sun Ra Arkestra. 

 

So in live situations you’re directing the band. How do you do that?

I’d come down with a chord, open it up, and they don’t know anything, so they’re watching me. And that way I can guide them along. It’s a method to make them pay attention. That’s the way you do music when it’s not being read. We have to all come into one and then we take it from there—anywhere it goes. And honestly, there is no other way to do it. If you don’t play the music, it will disappear. As a matter of fact, you have to know the musicians you are working with. It’s like tailoring the arrangements for the musicians while performing. That’s the reason why you have to live together and bind and co-ordinate.

You are essentially describing a living organism, right? A living musical organism.

That’s true. Sun Ra knew he could count on us. He didn’t come in knowing anything. He’d come to find out what’s going on, what you have to do, if you’re listening to each other.

And how important are recordings in that regard? They could serve as a memory as well.

I’ve only done a few since Sun Ra passed, but he did 500, 600, maybe a thousand. He had so much music and he wrote music everyday. As a band, we haven’t played all this music yet. So why record?

So you’re in a sense like a living archive?

He left a treasure house of music, and I got the original notations. I got most of all of the music he wrote, and I even remember the combinations of what goes with what. But then, as time goes by, you lose some combinations of different melodies he had mixed together, you just forget them. And if that happens, then I’ll just make a new recipe with the known melodies. And put my own things in there. It’s the same thing with Sun Ra’s music because if he wrote a tune: it’s music, it’s notes up and down, but he has a secret way of phrasing he had to show you—otherwise you wouldn’t get it. Like a good chef knows how to read a recipe and how to tweak it, he’d show us how to turn the music alive, in the same way a chef has a secret formula. Ra got a little something in there that made the food better.

You also eat here?

If one of us can cook, that’s what we eat. If you can’t cook you go to the restaurant and eat there. At the end of the day everything is about discipline. You know that you’re doing a job and you know that you’re doing what you want to do and you do it in good spirit.

Let’s talk about Sun Ra’s recipe for moon stew.

Yeah, he had a recipe. He put everything in it and all of it was healthy. But the way he mixed it and made it taste—that was the secret. In that sense, he thought like a chef.

Miles Davis, they say, was a good cook as well. 

Sun Ra had all these recipes that he’d cook for us. I tried making the moon stew myself. I used all the same ingredients like him, but it didn’t taste like his. These days I’m teaching guys how to phrase a passage the Sun Ra way, but I couldn’t tell them how to cook.

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Above: The practice space of the Sun Ra Arkestra, located on the house’s ground floor, has seen more than four decades of continuous musical exploration.

 

When you first met Sun Ra, the story goes that you went to his place and played what he told you to, but he was somehow disappointed with everything you played correctly.

He was disappointed because I played it too accordingly. He obviously noted that I got a beautiful tone, but that’s not what he wanted in the first place. He wanted someone who was willing to go beyond what’s notated or what he asked for. For me, this was irritating. I remember it made me nervous that he always said: “That’s good, that’s right—but it’s just not what I want.”

How did you come up with this crazy saxophone approach of yours. It’s so unique.

Well, that’s what I was telling you: I was playing nice a smooth and pretty saxophone with beautiful tone and sound and execution, but Sun Ra would always say: “It’s good—nothing wrong with it—but it’s not what I want!” So I started to do what they call “anything”, and that’s slang for: everything wrong. And he liked it! I learned from him that to do skillfully wrong is still doing something but it’s not doing it in the sense of calculated thinking. It’s just “doing”, and that was the key to all the spiritual things that Ra tried to address with his music. From then on we got along very well.

By doing the wrong thing.

Ra used to always make observations about the question of doing something right or doing it wrong. He’d always say: make a mistake!

And then after that, another mistake?

Yes! If you make a mistake or do something wrong, then make another mistake and another one and eventually this will lead you to something right.

And how would he communicate to you what he really wanted?

He’d always sing it to you: dah dah dah dah dee dah dah dee… His way of doing it was a way of phrasing just before the beat. Like syncopated, like swing. Just before, not on. He had some odd ways of teaching us!

That’s what computers will never learn.

For sure they’ll never learn to swing. In the beginning I’d bend certain notes and play a passage, and it was always the same music. But when Ra would take the lead, it would sound completely different. He had a unique flow and like with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, this flow would infect how we’d play the music and thus distinguish our band from any other band. You could say the same thing about the Miles Davis band. Duke and Sun Ra and Miles, they were all bandleaders, as opposed to just good musicians playing. Not everybody is born a bandleader. Everybody can have a big band, but being a leader is about being a leader. It’s the same thing in life and in war. You get some good ones and you get some, well, not so good ones.

 

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Above: Every corner of the house contains pictures and memorabilia serving as a reminder of Sun Ra’s role as the group’s founder and patron saint.

 

Swing tunes have always played a significant role in the Arkestra, especially when you play live. You reference genres and ideas inherited in jazz from decades ago, but by playing them today and in your style, it’s not a retro thing at all. You basically remind people that there is something from the past that can be brought to life again.

Sun Ra told me once there’s a thousand ways to play one note. So, there’s always just another way to play the same note, and you have to remember them all. Because when you are out there on stage and performing, you’re going to need to remember. As I said before, we play the tunes without charts. That’s the old swing way to do it. Duke Ellington’s big band didn’t need charts, just their memory, to be tight and precise. I play a whole gig without charts, too. And that’s what defines swing, really.

Do you think today’s generation of musicians would be able to do that? To function as a band like the organism you’ve described before and to memorize all these complicated arrangements?

If you want to play swing, you can’t just duplicate a paragon. You have to rely on your own personality and your own way of speaking. Louis Armstrong once said: “You play what you is!” And there are all these colors in the sound, and all these individual ideas flowing through Duke Ellington’s band. And you could tell the difference between Duke and Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford because each of them had their own particular style that they developed, even the little bands. You see, Sun Ra had his own way of coloring sounds. Unlike Duke Ellington or Count Basie, he used some dark colors. Ra was masterful in terms of design, he was fully aware that the coloring made the band sound in a unique way.

Is this common, to think in colors as a musician?

Sure! He would write the notations in dark colors to stress that—all in his kind of thick, kind of heavy handwriting. And you don’t necessarily have to have a whole room full of musicians to get that heavy, thick sound, because the way he voices the music, his voicing of a chord, using under and overtones, gave the whole thing a very individual color.

When is a band considered a big band? Is it ten, twenty people or thirty?

It doesn’t matter as you are always dealing with sound, a sound that can make you happy or that can make you cry or that can heal you. So, as a musician, you’re dealing with sound first to enlighten yourself. Then you give it to others. Because when you’re not playing music for money or show or fame, you’re playing it for what it is, and that’s to heal. So, first comes the music, the sound body, the sound mind. We all know that music can heal as well as music can kill. Music can do all these different things, according to the way you play it. They invented a sound gun that can destroy thirteen-inch reinforced concrete: pow! They got a sound gun, the war people.

That’s what they call sonic warfare.

The masters of war got all that for killing. But I’m using sound for healing and your well-being and your enlightenment.

What about the phrase that’s often printed on Sun Ra Arkestra’s record sleeves: “As all marines are rifle men, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists.” Why do you draw that analogy to war here?

Well, we always played for the people, not in competition with other bands. Enlightening people, healing them—that always was our purpose. But I’ve seen music being played and audiences throwing bottles at the musicians. I’ve seen this happen in France and Italy to Jerry Lee Lewis and his band. We were playing right after him along with the Mexican Ballet, and, man, I was scared. But you have to go on stage because as a musician you are a soldier. And so we went out there and we played a different type of thing and the French all quieted down. The soldier’s ethic is a good ethic as it means discipline. I bet you will find a lot of philosophy books that will prove this thesis right. But talking of the Arkestra we have the self-understanding of a show band. And for that reason we dress up in costumes and bright colors. It’s not just us musicians sitting up there and playing.

Were there other soldier ethics in the Sun Ra Arkestra?

You put on your costume like you put on a uniform and suddenly the vibrations and thoughts change.

Why didn’t he call it the Sun Ra Army then?

Well, they got guns and we only got saxophones and flutes and piccolos. Then again, musicians call their horns axes. It’s slang. But having said that, different musicians got different ideas of what they want to do. Every musician has his own style and his own type of music. So, if you’re open to that—that’s good. If you want to play straight jazz, you’ll play straight jazz. And if you want to be in a band, you’ll play in a band and become a part of that band. In that sense, I never wanted to be myself, an individual playing music. I always wanted to be with others, I always wanted to be a part of a band, a part of an organism. That’s what it is and that’s why my life is being a part of a big band. To be together on the same vibration and to build a thing—that’s the discipline and precision I’m talking about. A man cannot learn without discipline. It’s a soldier’s code. Discipline is the key to everything. It’s the essence of any army or any band or whatever you are part of.

Didn’t Sun Ra have his own jail for musicians who were lacking that ethos? 

He called it his “Ra jail”: If you messed up his music then you were going in the Ra jail. He wasn’t any different in this regard to all the other masters that I’ve met in my life, where if you mess up their music they become another person. Charlie Mingus would literally throw something at you, and Sun Ra would cuss you out on stage. He actually had a lot of things he would end up doing to you. But the worst thing for sure was the Ra jail, because the Ra jail was live on stage. You couldn’t leave the stage, you couldn’t go nowhere, you couldn’t do nothing about it. You had to sit right there in front of the audience and take it. And he’d get up and announce you and point his finger at you: “This is so and so, a nice sax player, but there’s one thing he hasn’t got: discipline. I don’t care how good you are. You have no discipline and therefore you sit and watch the band and learn.” That was the Ra jail. The music continued, but without one of us contributing. He’d just give another musician in the Arkestra his part. He got it covered as the concert went on. So, for instance, if the trumpet was out all he needed was me in there with the alto sax to sound like a trumpet. In such moments of punishment, I was always the substitute.

When you were playing with Sun Ra how did it work with other music? Were you checking out records of other big bands?

We listened to everybody. See, that’s the thing they didn’t know about Sun Ra. He listened to everybody. He wasn’t prejudiced towards one type of thing.

Do you recall some examples of music he was listening to that surprised you?

Well, he was always surprising me. That’s why I stayed so long and why I continue this endeavor to this day. That was the mastery of all these things. He taught us how to balance thought with the spirit. As a musician, you can damage people if you’re not sincere and have no discipline.

 

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Above: On the house’s second floor, Marshall Allen improvises on a small harp.

 

You played with Sun Ra for almost four decades. After he passed you then became the director of the Sun Ra Arkestra. How do you fill this role with legitimacy?

I’m carrying the name because I was there all the time and because it was Sun Ra who taught me how to play his music and what his music means. But more than anything else, all this is also about keepin’ on keepin’ on. If you want a better world, you have to create better music. It’s as simple as that. We’re in a lot of trouble. We need musicians that heal people.

The Sun Ra Arkestra is often referred to as imagining the future. The phrase “space is the place” is telling. But also you freed jazz from many of its limitations. 

At the end of the day it’s always about being open. When jazz freed itself and became free jazz, not everybody in the audiences would get it. Some might have thought that the band was still warming up. They probably thought that the music they were listening to was just noise. People had this preconception in their minds how jazz had to sound in their ears. Sun Ra always used to say that we were playing the music for the twenty-first century, and he said that way back in the fifties. At the same time he wanted to be successful, but he always stressed the fact that we’d have to wait until the twenty-first century! And I said: But that’s about another forty-seven years from here. And he’d be telling me I have to go through this scramble for fifty-seven years before I could be successful.

Sun Ra was also experimental when it came to electronic music.

Sun Ra was the first to use electronic keyboards in jazz because he was mentally living far in the future. He began to mix all these things together that he was hearing in his head. And it’s all out there in the universe anyways. Even today you could listen to the music of the twenty-second century in your head. He started to use electronic sounds at the time when I joined the band. Ra said about electronic music that it was to come in the future and that it would be like a universal language that anticipated the future and that could be understood by everybody on the planet. He would draw his own conclusions from having foreseen the future. He’d say: “Now you drummers should have some more discipline and do what I tell you to do because in the future they gonna have electronic drums and then they won’t need you anymore.” He wizened us up by telling us that the electronic age was coming. He already knew that. He and Miles Davis, probably.

Do you listen to contemporary electronic music?

I listen to everything. You turn the music on and I’ll listen. That’s what Bobby Gillespie did with us. He played music to us. And remember, when the Moog synthesizer came along, one of them was built for Sun Ra especially. And before that we were going around to the universities and into the universities’ electronic sound departments developing different sounds for them. So we could duplicate sounds there, and they added their own sounds. Nowadays you got everything in the machines you can buy. You just have to push a button to get everything now. But we’ve been hearing these sounds all our life. I’ve been living in the twenty-first century for more than fifty years now.

So after all these years, you are now living in the present instead of the future.

The present is in the present. I’m eighty-nine now. I am enjoying the present like a memory of the past.

According to you, the sheet music that Sun Ra left behind can be understood as predictions of the future, which essentially means of current times, right?

Absolutely. Ra could foresee these things like other men in the world foresee some scientific things in the future—and win Nobel prizes for it. Ra too was like some scientist who understood the future. You just had to wait your turn and you see. And to this day he’s proven right most everything he had been saying.

And how do you store or archive his sheet music and notation? I mean: Have you ever made copies? There could be a fire that destroys everything.

Actually, no! There are no copies, only original notations. You know, I play all night and I play something different each time, and that’s what I teach the other musicians. That’s the gift Sun Ra left for the musicians to carry on with the idea of bringing out the music from the notes: it’s about the spirit, not the sheets. So just like I could take the band and go play a gig without written arrangements, I’d still know how to phrase it. It’s like poetry. I know a lot of ways how to create something from nothing. It’s like none of us will forget the lyrics to “Nuclear War”—which is, by the way, still a scary song to sing.

Why?

Because it’s still so true, you know? To sing, “It’s a motherfucker don’t you know / push that button your ass gotta go” in public is still a bold statement. But it’s true. It’s as true as dropping a bomb on real people. Yeah, it’s that true. ~

 

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Above: An alien casually hangs out in the house’s first floor reminding us of the meaning of jazz. What’s that you ask? Space travel, of course.

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Live for the Applause: William Bennett and Lisa Blanning on Lady Gaga’s <i>ARTPOP</i>

The pop star’s third album sees her drawing Jeff Koons and Sun Ra into her orbit. Electronic Beats’ online editor Lisa Blanning and musician/producer William Bennett—of the pioneering noise band Whitehouse and the African rhythm and voudou-inspired Cut Hands—contemplate the record together.

 

Lisa Blanning: First off, let’s be honest with each other about what our previous engagement with Lady Gaga has been. I have to admit that I’ve never really engaged with her before this. After going through her discography, I realized that there were only two or three songs I’d even heard and registered before. What about you?

William Bennett: I remember—and it’s not a program I watch, believe me—Jonathan Ross had her on, and I quite enjoyed how confrontational and provocative she was with him. She did a live performance on the show, “Poker Face” or something, and I was intrigued to see that she didn’t do it in a normal, big-production dance style. It was a very “basic rock” kind of approach. Around the same time, I remember reading a review in The Guardian where she’d played for an hour or so in London. Now this was before she had her big explosion with fame. So they were complaining that she performed these songs, which were already hits, in this kind of rock style rather than what the kids—if we can call them that—were expecting. Ever since, I’ve thought that musically she’s quite interesting because I think the big dance, big production thing isn’t really her. I did some research about her pre-Gaga years, and it’s so different! It seems much more her, funnily enough. She’s playing keyboard, and she has these weird, rather inaccessible lyrics, but it’s just a basic rock band. They’re called the SGBand, the Stefani Germanotta Band, and how rock can you get?

LB: That’s a good point, for two reasons. When you listen to all of her albums, there’s a consistency to the songwriting, no matter how it’s produced. That implies that she has a lot to do with her own songwriting, as opposed to relying on a stable of writers. The other thing is that—and I think that this is the case through all the records, but I feel like it’s the strongest in the newest record—to me, listening to the songs themselves, they sound like rock opera music theater. I actually thought to myself about The Who’s Tommy and Hedwig and The Angry Inch. The theatricality of her persona as well as the actual music itself really does remind me of something like that.

WB: I always have difficulty listening to music and not thinking about production technique. As a general comment about all three of her albums, especially this last one, it sounds to me like the original songs would be something you’d expect on an album by Heart or Cher or Stevie Nicks. But she’s given it to these young whiz kid producers, and they’ve basically just gone crazy with their remixes. You can still hear that kind of eighties, AOR-style underneath it. Even the way she sings reminds me of that. It’s almost like she hands her songs over to these new producers to do whatever they want.

LB: I totally get that vibe. What this ultimately means to me, though, is that you have to divorce Lady Gaga the entertainer from the music. I think that this is really evident in the same way that although I had never really engaged with her music, I knew quite a lot about her as a personality. This, to me, is almost more significant than the music. I guess that’s something a musician would hate to hear about themselves.

WB: I think that, underneath all the hype and the presentation, and you really notice this when you see videos of the SGBand, you can see that she loves singing and playing the keyboard, and it’s pretty impressive. It reminded me of the Queen songs when Freddie Mercury would get behind the piano and start singing. She seems to really enjoy that the most. But since then, of course, all of her fame has really depended on these big-production electronic dance songs. There’s a tension between the two things.

LB: I agree that she’s gone further along that route with this last record. Basically there are maybe three songs on the new record that couldn’t be classified as EDM—and those are actually my three favorite songs on the record. To be perfectly honest, they’re the only songs I actually like on the record.

WB: There are three or four of the electronic songs on the record which I think are absolutely outstanding. “G.U.Y.” I think is a great dance pop song, and “Swine” is absolutely brilliant. The way it marries the lyrics to the bass synth and the harmonies works incredibly well. It’s a much more focused song than others on the record as well. I remember Skrillex did a brilliant remix of “Bad Romance”. He did a remix of “Alejandro” as well. I thought that was really a defining moment for her. There was no turning back. For the sake of her career, the best thing she could do would be to have Skrillex produce her new record. What’s interesting is that he’s nowhere to be seen on ARTPOP, but it’s almost as if she said to all her enlisted production team, “Listen to this remix Skrillex did and please emulate that.” But, not for want of trying, none of them have his genius.

LB: Skrillex is definitely really important to American pop music because he’s the artist that really signifies a change in terms of popular music there. He was the turning point for EDM that made it massive. Now there are lots of artists who make EDM, but he’s the one who took it to the charts. I think your point applies to the broader pop landscape of America as a whole as opposed to just Gaga. I do think that she actually does sometimes write interesting music, but I think that it’s the whole theatricality of it all—to be cynical, you could call it marketing—that has made her the pop star she is today. She’s not just in the charts. She doesn’t have the longevity to yet compare her to Michael Jackson or Madonna, but the fact is that in terms of sheer numbers she’s approaching their territory. We’re not talking star, we’re talking mega-star, someone who for several years has been one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.

For me… my favorite song on the record is “Fashion!” because it’s a pop version of a classic disco number, which by the second half becomes almost a different song. I wish that they’d gone back to the lyrics and the chorus, as opposed to making it a different song. Another thought I had about this record is that it’s so full-on on so many levels. I think the Queen reference is incredibly apt because there’s this very prog element to her songwriting. Even though there was a time when prog was popular, as pop music is was short-lived, and even as underground music it has an aura of being shunned in a lot of circles and by myself as well. I’m not into prog, which is why I don’t like a lot of what this record is about. It’s so thunderous and overbearing, and prog in the sense that there’s a lot going on.

WB: The funny thing is that it’s proggy, yet the songs are so short. There are enough ideas and content in, for example, “Aura” and “Venus”, the two opening songs, that could be eight to ten minute prog epics.

LB:  So these ideas are compacted into pop song length.

WB: Absolutely! They’re packed with hooks and choruses. It’s a bit overwhelming at times. “Aura” ends before you’ve even appreciated that it’s begun, before you’ve got your head around what the song involves in terms of chorus and structure. One thing I actually appreciate, one small detail, is the intent of the album to sequence an overall narrative; in other words to encourage you to listen from beginning to end. A lot of music in the current iPod era is designed for people to have on shuffle, or to pick their favorite songs from the whole.

LB: I actually noticed the same thing. That’s what reinforced the whole idea of Lady Gaga as rock opera. It does feel like there’s a narrative arc. In terms of production, The tracks I liked stood out because they’re different. “Jewels N’Drugs”, for example, is basically a trap/rap production…

WB: I think that was a bit of a mistake. It’s the one song on the album—and I’m including other songs I don’t like—where she loses her identity. All the other songs make you think immediately, “Oh, this is a Gaga song,” which I think is a great compliment. You couldn’t say that about Katy Perry’s album, for example. It could be anyone, it’s incredibly generic. Whereas Lady Gaga, love her or hate her, has a real individualism to her. Whereas “Jewels N’Drugs” sounds to me generic, not her.

LB: You have a point, but one of the things I like about it is—besides the fact that I like trap and do not like EDM—while Gaga doesn’t full-on rap, you get the hint that she could. Another thing I like about Gaga as a whole, and in this record particularly is that she has different voices. If you listen to M.I.A. or someone like, I don’t know, Vybz Kartel, for example, those two seem to have one voice that they use for almost every song. It’s very boring listening to an entire album of that one thing. Whereas Gaga, and this is partly due to the recording process as well as other factors, but her voices doesn’t sound the same in every song. I do think you’re right about her being very individual. For me, I really like “Jewels N’Drugs” because I like trap and I liked “Do What U Want” because of R. Kelley being featured, and I liked “Fashion!”

WB: In terms of the sequencing narrative, she’s got “Donatella”, then follows up with “Fashion!”, and she also married the two drug songs “Mary Jane Holland” and “Dope”.

LB: I like “Dope” because it stands out; it’s a piano ballad. But it’s a rock piano ballad.

WB: To me that’s the real Lady Gaga. I’m sure if she were left to her own devices, she would love to make albums like that. She’s probably not quite good enough to sell, to be honest. This was the same with the SGBand; you watch it and you think, “My god, this girl is talented, she’s got so much stage charisma.” However the songs just aren’t good enough.

LB: Let’s talk about the art element. Obviously the record is called ARTPOP, and this brings me back to what I think Gaga is truly brilliant at, which is marketing flamboyance and theatricality. She perhaps raises it to an art form itself. This collaboration with Jeff Koons on the cover art… on the one hand, the cynic in me wants to think that Koons is a starfucker and that he’s raising his own profile, while Gaga is trying to gain credibility by collaborating with this established, respected artist. But I really like the cover art, and I really like that sculpture. It makes me think that she actually has taste in that she could have gone for a more famous but more shit artist. Koons is famous, but I don’t think the average Gaga fan would necessarily know who he is. Maybe that’s not giving credit to people, because he is famous; but if you don’t already have an interest in art, maybe you wouldn’t know who he is.

WB: I don’t like him personally, but he’s certainly a shrewd choice on her part, if we’re judging her by her choices rather than her productions. I read somewhere that she was already familiar with his work before she met him at some event. It certainly didn’t come across that he came to her first.

LB: I wouldn’t have envisioned that. But he said yes, as opposed to turning her down. We don’t know anything about him; maybe he’s a big Lady Gaga fan. But one presumes that he did it because she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world. But there used to be an element of scandal to what he does, and where he’s gone from that fits very well into the pop sphere. If you don’t like his work, what were your thoughts on the sculpture and cover art?

WB: I think it’s a good cover, as album covers go. It’s interesting how it’s merged with the Botticelli. I read that the idea behind that was so Gaga wouldn’t be lonely, so that she would have some company. I think that’s a curious comment. I have no idea what her life is like outside of music, but I see her as a lonely sort of character.

LB: Maybe fame makes you lonely. But we can assume that Gaga is invested in art because of all these collaborations she’s priding herself on…

WB: It’s interesting to note this collaboration with Marina Abramovic where she went to her exhibition The Artist Is Present and sat opposite Abramovic. She’s obviously into art on some level. However, that aside, there’s remarkably little art reference in the lyrics and music itself. I can’t find anything, really.

LB: There’s only one, in “Venus” where she’s talking about seashell bikinis and imagining herself as the Venus on the half-shell.

WB: That’s pretty much lifted from the Sun Ra song, isn’t it?

LB: Lady Gaga listens to Sun Ra?

WB: He’s credited on the track. They’re his lyrics. The connections are very tenuous; Venus doesn’t have much to do with the painting, in my opinion. The song, I think, focuses more on Venus the planet as opposed to the painting. You could argue that it’s the same metaphor, but I think it’s more like a space disco thing going on there.

LB: To me, it’s both. There’s the reference to Venus on the half-shell, and obviously she’s the goddess of love. I didn’t even pick up on the Sun Ra reference.

WB: Apparently, Sun Ra was reinterpreted by this electronic French band Zombie Zombie, who do these sort of John Carpenter-style songs, and if you listen to their version you can tell it’s where she got the idea from—the chorus from her version is basically lifted from theirs. To go back to the original point, all this leaves us with really is the title track, “Artpop”—and it’s remarkably bland.

LB: “Artpop” is one I forgot to mention as liking specifically because it stood out from the EDM-ness of the album. The production sounds more futuristic, less of the bombastic rock dynamic of EDM. Do you find it bland in contrast to the rest of the album?

WB: As the title track, you expect it to be more dynamic; this is your manifesto that identifies the album. “Free my mind, ARTPOP/You make my heart stop.” To me this is one of those classic rhyming dictionary moments: “Wow, heart stops rhymes with ARTPOP!” and you build your song around a corny rhyme rather than representing anything more meaningful. It gets even blander in the chorus: “We could, we could belong together.” That’s repeated four or five times. It’s a remarkable vacuum of ideas. Though there’s one line in it that’s notable, I suppose, in this context: “ARTPOP could mean anything.”

LB: Yes, though I would say more that that’s just the standards of pop music in general. I remember I once had a conversation with an A&R guy from a major label, and he was talking about how pop music needs to have lyrics that are easy enough for people around the world to understand while still conveying something.

WB: I think that’s interesting, because if you read it as opposed to listen to it, it reads like one of those J-Pop or K-Pop songs where they do it in English even though it’s not for English speakers—it’s for a home market who enjoy these snippets of English thrown in.

LB: I worry that we’re saying the kinds of things that two people who aren’t very invested in pop music would say.

WB: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. Were ARTPOP ten songs long as opposed to fifteen, it could be a great album that would be fun to come back to. There are just too many duds for my liking. The problem with Lady Gaga is that when she’s great, she’s really special. “G.U.Y.” and “Swine” are both incredible, and “Applause” is a great song too. The problem with the songs you don’t like is that you don’t like them so much that they actually spoil the other songs. They’re not just bland, like with the Katy Perry album. Those you can just ignore. On ARTPOP, the bad songs really grate on you, and they spoil everything.

LB: It does actually make listening to the record a bit of a chore.

WB: One thing I saw somewhere was, a Gaga Theory of Art, I’m not even sure who wrote it. It’s got these six rules, and the first one is, “You have to live for criticism. Every time you release something, someone will say it’s awful, or not original, or too long, or too weird. Instead of shying away from this, being an artist means you welcome feedback, await it, even, with a smirk on your face.” When I read that, Gaga actually made a lot more sense to me. In one sense, if we follow rule number two: “You must love being famous,”—assuming that the tenet she’s following is art for fame’s sake—that as much as she tries to be vacuous she’s giving meaning to art, despite herself! That’s what makes her more intriguing than many other pop artists.

LB: In a way that’s a real sort of meta-level; fame for the sake of art, art for the sake of fame or fame as art. Which goes back to what I was saying, her theatricality as art. Then the part about art having no meaning, which would be an existential explanation for fame. Swap out the two words: if art is fame, then fame has no meaning.

WB: Yes! That’s the interesting thing; because if she’s made some Faustian pact, she herself is betraying that pact. ~

Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP is out now via Interscope Records.

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