Monday, January 14, 2008

Dave Chokroun: the Olympics, The Sorrow and the Pity

Photo by Femke van Delft

Dave Chokroun, pictured on the right playing a Fake Jazz Wednesday with Han Bennink and Eugene Chadbourne (not pictured) at the Cobalt prior to the last jazz festival, is a member of the 1067 collective, a double-bassist-about-town, the front man for the Sorrow and the Pity and a member of Robots on Fire. As part of an article I’m doing for a music magazine, I got to talk to Dave about his history and his feelings about the changes he’s seen taking place in Vancouver. Thanks to Femke van Delft for the picture, as always, and to Dave for being so articulate...

A: So you started out on the Toronto scene. What differences have you noticed between there and Vancouver?
D: Toronto, well, it’s interesting, because I get the sense that it’s changed a lot since I was there – in the last seven years – because Toronto has kind of grown toward what Vancouver is like now. Which is to say that people who are involved in straight ahead jazz, and contemporary classical music, and the noise scene, and the non-jazz improv scene, that kind of microsound improv – everybody actually works together quite a lot. It’s very fluid, how people move around like that, and TO is a little more like that than it used to be. When I was there, I remember it being a little like – the guys who came out of jazz would be in one corner, the guys who came out of industrial, punk or noise would be in one corner, the non-jazz improvisers would be in one corner, and they never quite mixed it up. As far as I can tell – I’ve kind of observed this at a distance and from what my friends back there tell me – a lot of this is the result of just a few people who made a really concerted effort to build bridges in that scene. My buddy Mike Friedman, who’s in New York now, I think, takes a lot of credit for that. He started a few bands where he pulled people together and they found that they really liked working with each other. But, uh – that’s the impression I get. I’m not there, but that’s what it sounds like from a distance. Which is very cool.
A: And then you moved to Victoria?
D: The great thing about Victoria is that it’s a college town, and there’s always a transient, arty population, which means you can put on a show, and people do, of the most out-there, bizarre stuff, and you can consistently get about a dozen people out. The problem is, if someone like Jean Derome comes to Victoria, he also gets about a dozen people out.
A: What punk bands were you in Toronto?
D: The one that played the most is kinda called Morning Glory, a sort of pop-punk-emo kind of band. Maybe I shouldn’t say emo. This is like, emo of the early-mid 90’s; it’s different from emo today.
A: And did you start out with that, or bass, or...?
D: I started playing bass seriously having fucked around with guitar and drums and electric bass – I got drawn to the double bass in about ‘94 or ‘5 or ‘6. I started playing kind of late. I didn’t own a bass until I was 21, but by about ‘96 or ‘7, that was turning into my main instrument. And I actually went back to music school. I did two years of music school at York university in Toronto thinking that I would go and study jazz there. Because I’m sort of contrary, I realized once I was there that I didn’t really want to study mainstream jazz, and came out of there as a classical bass and composition student, which is what I pursued when I moved to Victoria when I moved there to finish the degree.
A: So you’re primarily a bassist?
D: The drums were a primary instrument for a window of three or four years. I was in a bunch of bands with great names that never played very much. There’s Rosemary’s Babies – played one gig. Bald Evil only ever played in the basement. The other thing I was doing all through my early 20’s, which I don’t really do anymore, I did like tons and tons of home recording. I’ve got hours of home recording where I did the kinda Ween one-man-band thing. One of the sort of progenitors of the Sorrow and the Pity is this cassette under the name Naipaul Death. It’s kind of a one-liner. I was heavily under the influence of Naked City, and it was 30-second kind of genre cut-ups. That’s sort of a thread that continues down into a lot of projects I do now – that sort of parody and deconstruction.
A: Do you have a bone to pick with Naipaul?
D: No, I like VS Naipaul actually, and as a person of colour and a postcolonial person, I’m interested in issues of representation and hybridity and shit like that.
A: You’re of Algerian-hyphen-what background?
D: I’m Algerian-Japanese.
A: Wow. How did that come about?
D: It was the ‘60s. I don’t really know.
A: And that comes into your work? Hybridity?
D: Not really in any choate form. Some of the sort of “serious” music I compose, I’ve worked with texts that address stuff like atomic bomb victims, but... the question of identity is in a way at the heart of a lot of things I do, in ways that aren’t specifically connected to being half-Japanese or not-half-Japanese or whatever. It’s more about questions of representation and how people derive meaning from how they represent themselves. The problem of being of a completely uncategorizable ethnicity, as I am, is that you don’t necessarily belong to anybody. You have no automatic affiliations. Which is bad and good. It doesn't apply so much with the Sorrow and the Pity, but when me and Darren Williams started playing the project that turned into Robots on Fire, which is almost ten years ago, we were almost, well, looking at archetypes of melody and form. You can find an Albert Ayler head that is sort of really pared down and sounds not unlike “Blue Monday” by New Order. So if you play the melody from “Blue Monday” in the Albert Ayler style, what are you doing? What are you confusing people with when you do that?
A: Right.
D: Unfortunately, in the last ten years, it’s kind of like the “new standard” thing has taken the wind out of the sails of any sort of serious critique you can do – stuff like the Bad Plus, or shitty bands like that. The thing about the new standards, as jazz people like to call it – it’s like, Brad Meldau plays Radiohead and Mats Gustaffson has his sorta punk cover band, and – the Bad Plus is a band who I really wanted to like, but they don’t do it for me. I wanted to like them in concept, but I don’t find them that good... but that’s historically how jazz works. It’s essentially a hybrid music, it’s always taking stuff that has currency out of the popular field, so I don’t know – I think it’s kind of a red herring to look at that... I’m rambling. Ask me something.
A: I’m trying to understand – you’re interested in exploring hybridity in a critical way, but it’s become so frivolous that there’s no place for it?
D: Well, let me rephrase that... The problem with jazz and improvisation generally, I mean, like – Ornette’s first records are 50 years old. Brotzmann’s Machine Gun is 40 years old this year. '68, right? What does it mean to be playing in the style of Ornette or Brotzmann, and not using that as a starting point, but really kind of grabbing on to the things they sonically signify, the sound of those groups? What does it mean to be playing that 40 years later, almost in a conservatory model? When I get hired to play jazz bass on a straight-ahead standards gig – and I find it appalling to say something that Wynton Marsalis would also say, probably, but – I know that I’m playing a classical music, in the sense that jazz as we practice it is a historical music. It’s not current, it’s codified, it’s standardized. And so to kind of bring it back to what I do, the Sorrow and the Pity is one of the ways I’m kind of happiest bringing aspects of that that I like back up to 2008, and sort of every influence that I have from hardcore through to free improvisation is there, but in a way that is not identifiably either hardcore or jazz or improv or anything. I think that’s what sort of keeps me really interested in it. The sort of general question of treating that thing of representation and adaptation frivolously – that’s not exactly the way I’d put it, but it’d be more like, there's a lack of criticality. I don’t see a lot of groups – and I’m saying this about people whose music I really, really like – that are breaking critically from the model of free jazz in the 1960’s or Euro improv in the '70s and '80s. So what are you doing? What are you doing when you’re doing this? It’s a question that I ask myself constantly.
A: It's a good question.
D: If you want a good quote... there’s a lot of stuff like, the Bad Plus are not even really worth picking on, because they’re major-label in a non-major-label situation, or whatever the hell’s going on with them – but stuff like those beautifully packaged Winter and Winter CDs, where people like Uri Caine does his Goldberg Variations record and stuff like that, I listen to that, and I know people who really like it, but that kind of updating and genre mishmash and populist kind of work, it grabs me for a little bit, but this is kind of like the Creed Taylor of the thousands, this is like the Claude Bolling of the 2000s. I’m not sure there’s going to be a lot of staying power. I think it’s going to date and sound like mood music, a lot of that stuff.
A: The elevator music of the future.
D: The elevator music of the future. What we aspire to.
A: Okay, well, let’s talk about the Sorrow and the Pity, then – there’s a playful, novelty-music element to it, but also a serious edge.
D: It’s about 80% extremely serious, but it also has what I have to describe as utterly stupid joke songs. I have to admit, I like utterly stupid joke songs. But you know, there’s some bands that kind of work that balance really well. The Minutemen, you know, who I love, are a kind of influence on the Sorrow and the Pity, in the writing especially. So many of their songs are written in the first person, in this kind of na├»ve but sort of savant kind of voice that’s telling you something very direct. Or I think of Sore Throat – you know this band, probably?
A: I don’t know Sore Throat.
D: Sore Throat is a late 80s, early 90’s UK grindcore band and they were not quite a joke band. Well, they were sort of a joke band. But that was a band that would use humour and parody without being a joke band in the way that, like, Anal Cunt is. For example, Sore Throat’s DRI song – they’re all, like, 10 seconds long (adopts accent): “Who are we? DRI! What label are we on? EMI!” That’s the song. The humour is always pointed – like the fuckin’ “Rice Cooker” song, although the secret to that – maybe you shouldn’t put this in print – is that it’s sort of intertext to ____________________. (The first person to correctly guess Dave’s secret wins a free rice cooker! Offer does not apply to Dave Chokroun or his friends and affiliates, and expires January 31st, 2008).
A: (laughs)
D: I mean, the Sorrow and the Pity has this really portentous name for a reason. I mean, it is named after the documentary, which I love, which I’ve seen like half a dozen times. And the part of the songwriting that is serious in it is kind of inspired by the questions that come out of that film. A lot of the writing has to do with problems of violence and coercion and complicity, and what’s the kind of emotional or visceral reaction to that. So a song like “Eating Shit,” which kind of a big hit for some reason. The problem of eating shit is a metaphor for any sort of coercion in any way. But it also channels for me de Sade and Abner Louima and Abu Ghraib and so on and so on....
A: That makes sense.
D: ANother thing to mention that the text, as well as the music, has a sort of skeleton, but it’s always improvised; it’s always largely improvised at the gig. Sometimes the songs are more verbose and overtly connected to something in the world, and sometimes they’re not. I think one of the devices in the Sorrow and the Pity that I think, on a good day works kind of successfully for me, is that the emotive and the performative part of it kinda tells you as much as the words to any piece. We really wanted it to be an over-the-top extreme aesthetic, with the sort of cushion of it being a little bit self-referential and funny. But the moments when we’re both freaking out and losing it are real, at least for me.
A: Really? It’s – you don’t retain an ironic distance? You seem like you’re kind of smirking through even the most spastic assault on the drums.
D: I do? Oh shit!
A, D: (laughter)
D: Well, it also depends how drunk I am at any given show. Sometimes its gone into utter fuckin’ caveman mode, and sometimes it’s a little more controlled.
A: But there’s such a prankster element to your personality with that band...
D: There definitely is. That’s in a lot of projects that I do, though. It’s part of the way how I frame how I work with music, which is, uh... (Thinks). Let’s not say that it’s about fucking with people, or fucking with the other musicians, or whatever, but it’s about pushing in a constructive way, I hope. And sometimes its really obvious, if you watch the Sorrow and the Pity onstage, that me and Darren are sort of trying to fake each other out.
A: Yeah, yeah. There’s a bit of a tug of war.
D: There totally is. Though any time anyone plays with him, it’s a little like that. He’s like a monster truck on the saxophone.
A: (laughs). Yeah. Some questions about coercion and eating shit, then. Talking about Vancouver, any rants you want to go on about the Olympics, poverty, homelessness, addiction, or the state of our government?
D: Oh. I mean, where to start with that? I mean, the Olympics thing, like... Jesus. There’s actually a line in a song that you didn’t hear on Wednesday, called “The Support System,” which, a little more explicitly than you heard, is sort of about compromising yourself for a job or for whatever. The line is like, “All I ever wanted to do was make a movie about the Olympics, and I thought, ‘When is this ever going to happen again?’ But I don’t know, where do you start with it? In the circle of professional musicians and career musicians that I’m sort of on the fringes of, as a working double bassist, in my serious music career, there are people who are either well-established or who are jobbers, who are saying, ‘God, 2010 - there’s going to be all these gigs, there’s going to be live music, tourism is going to go amazingly well and there’s going to be hotel gigs and convention gigs and this and that, and there is public money being marked for stuff in the arts and that, but it’s like – come on, it’s not going to be new money. Corporate money coming from that, I don’t see how it’s ever going to be new money. It’s only ever going to be redirected from somewhere else.
A: It seems that way.

Dave goes on to explain a little bit about his own feelings about working the Olympics - he doesn't plan to. I plan to quote this in this piece I'm writing, so you'll have to get along without it. Jump to a somewhat related bit:

D: Do you want to hear a story?
A: Go.
D: I live on East Broadway, pretty much across a main road from the Fortune Happiness restaurant, which was the site of an actually kind of John Woo film style, one assumes gang-related, shooting this summer. The police presence in the neighbourhood is always constant, because it’s a poor neighbourhood that’s on its way up – Fraser and Broadway – and is kind of getting continually gentrified all the time and filling up with little rural-house condos and so on and so on; but the police presence after this shooting incident was, you know – there’d be unmarked cars going by every fifteen minutes, all night. Anyhow, I’m taking a video back to the video store, and I walk down the back alley, not the main road, and the unmarked car goes by at the end of the alley and the guy sees me, stops, backs up, shines the light and says, “Where are you coming from?” And I say, “I’m coming from my house.” And the cop says, “Where are you going?” “I’m going to the video store,” and I hold up the video. He says, “Why are you walking in the alley?” And I said, “I’m walking in the alley ‘cause it’s shorter.” And I’m putting this kind of “I’m-not-taking-shit” attitude in my voice because, come on, I’m walking in the alley behind my building. And the cop, who is very young, kind of looks at me and pauses, and he says, “So are you a bad guy?” And I say, “No, I’m not a bad guy! Goodnight!” And I keep walking. But I actually had a moment where I almost shit my pants, because I thought, “This is a fucking dangerous moment,” because – okay, I’ve psyched out the cop, so I’m cool; but that’s a weird thing to say, and I can only conclude the cop is nervous; and if the cop is nervous, that’s very dangerous, because in Vancouver and the lower mainland, we seem to have this problem where the police are incapable of subduing people without killing them, you know...
A: Yeah. The powers that be seem a little jumpy lately.
D: A friend of a friend of mine was sent home from school for wearing a shirt that said, “Taser me, I don’t speak English.” And the vice principal phones the mom and says, “This is inappropriate,” and the mom to her credit says, “Fuck off. It’s funny. What, you don’t want the kids to think? I think it’s a great shirt. It’s real. So fuck off.”
A: Right.
D: I don’t know if she actually said ‘Fuck off,’ but that’s the jist of it.

1 comment:

Don said...

Hello,

May I suggest a link related to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games?

Our site:

URL: http://www.2008chinaolympics.com
Title: Beijing Olympics

Please let me know if you want a link back.
Many thanks for your reply.

Best Regards,

Don
chinaolympics8@gmail.com