Shifting Continuums and Paradigmatic Soundscapes: A Talk With Ferrara Brain Pan (Forms of Things Unknown)

30.12.2003  :: АрхивАрхив интервью Автор: Chris Alfano

At the risk of sounding arrogant, I must express my dismay at the number of mediocre band interviews that zine editors are willing to print these days. What s worse is that few (if any) seem concerned about the endless string of mundane, noncommital answers that run continuously from one interview to the next. It s only when they are confronted with a truly demanding set of questions that bands are forced to come out of their shell and start talking in earnest. However, there exists an exceptional minority of musicians who don t require a highly provocative, in-your-face set of queries in order to get the ball rolling. We are glad to report that Ferrara Brain Pan is one such musician. For the appropriate background info, be sure to check out our review of Brain Pan s latest project (Forms Of Things Unknown) and check out his website (http://www.formsofthingsunknown.com). Furthermore, it might help some of you to check out the New Gibralter Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock (http://www.gepr.net) for relevant info on some of the more esoteric musical movements that Ferrara refers to throughout the interview.

1. People have probably been asking you this question for years, but curiosity is killing me, so here goes: how did you conceive the name Ferrara Brain Pan? Does it have a specific meaning to you?

One day I was sitting in rehab eating a piece of candy, and it occurred to me that Ferrara Pan would be a great name for a guitar god in a metal band (like, what ever happened to Mars Bonfire??). I don t play guitar, and the name seemed rather too flamboyant to take upon myself. But some weeks later, the turn of phrase brain pan came to me in a flash: Ferrara Brain Pan. After a considerable period of deliberation I decided to go with it. The name has not one specific meaning but rather a variety of differing levels of association. Of course, there is the goat god Pan (from whence springs panic ), but apart from that I was primarily thinking of the implications of the Latinate English prefix pan- , which means across and all-inclusive of the word and idea it modifies, in whatever particular instance ( pan-American or pan-cultural , for example). Furthermore, there is the notion of the verb to pan as it is used in the procedures of cinematography and stereophonic sound recording: to move across the (visible or audible) horizontal field in a range of focus or emphasis. Taken together with brain in the phrase brain pan , it suggests the idea of making a shift in a CONTINUUM between the brain s left hemisphere with its assigned functions of logical analysis and deduction and the right-brain areas of intuition and creativity, at the same time attacking a binary either-or point of view and notions of cerebral exclusivity. And on a more irreverent note, back in the 70s there was a series of anti-drug ‘public service announcement’ television spots, one of which featured an image of an egg sizzling in a frying pan with a stern voiceover admonishment: This is your brain on drugs . Ferrara is related to the Latin word for iron , so you end up with a cast-iron skillet to fry your brains in.

2. In my review of Cross Purposes , I noted that the album almost seems conceptual. For instance, there is an apparent religious dichotomy going on with Black Candles… and Mariam Matrem . Was this intentional on your part?

Yes, it was entirely deliberate, and implied as such in the title Cross Purposes (I didn t discover until later that Black Sabbath had previously done a record of the same name). I am very interested in developing a tension through conflict and contradiction. Ambivalence and equivocation are effective techniques for creating a sense of intrigue ( Is that person a man or a woman? ), in that once you know (or THINK you know) where something/someone is coming from, it becomes much easier (in fact, it is the usual matter of course) to simply dismiss it and move on to the next thing. (Although sometimes — with lazy-minded folk — you get the obverse result: I can t pigeonhole it, it doesn t compute, so I ll just walk away from it). With Black Candles and Mariam Matrem I am clearly presenting opposite ends of the same spectrum. In the Howard Devoto cover of Stupid Blood , I am dealing more with ambivalence and moral ambiguity: I m afraid and I m not afraid or My prick, my very spirit (equating the vulgar with the sublime). I m not too interested in presenting conclusions for the listener (at this point, anyway) inquiry and uncertainty are in and of themselves rewarding states of mind and endeavour.

3. One of the devices you used on the album is called a kang ling, which (as you explain on the FoTU website) is a Tibetan wind instrument that is constructed from a human thighbone. How did you acquire such an odd artifact? Are there any other recordings you know of which feature kang lings?

It took a bit of searching. An inquiry at the Tibet Shop in San Francisco led me to a collector who sold me a genuine kang ling which was formerly in the possession of a yogi in Darjeeling back in the 1950s. (I later acquired another kang ling of dubious authenticity from Lark in the Morning, a mail-order musical instrument retailer). The bone itself may be much older than that one can only speculate as to from whose skeleton it may have been derived, although I am led to believe that for purposes of ritual potency kang lings were often created from the thighbones of rapists, murderers, and other violent criminals.

The kang ling (often referred to as thighbone trumpet ) has a quite specific and restricted usage in Tibetan Buddhist practice. There is an advanced rite known as chod , in which the lama or devotee is to sit outdoors in a charnel yard amid rotting corpses in the dead of night (eat your heart out, black metal fans!), chanting in prayer and blowing on the kang ling to summon forth hungry ghosts in order to make beneficent offerings of appeasement to them, all of this in accordance with the general Buddhist goal of transcending all fears and desires (far from the morbid or demonic sorcery it might appear to be in the eyes of those who profess a one-sided morality of denial). The gentleman who sold me the kang ling warned me against casual usage of the instrument (this is not like a harmonica to be tooted on the street corner whilst waiting for the bus). He was very explicit in stressing that certain precautions should be taken before blowing through it if you are going to call forth hungry ghosts you had better be prepared to feed them: an offering should be made (this is usually as simple as a chant or prayer) and then you must have a means of banishing or dispersing them at the rite s conclusion. I once made the mistake of permitting a stranger to blow the kang ling at a party (he was a trombone player and wanted to give it a shot). For several nights thereafter, I was awoken in the dead of night by a rapidly scuttling sound which circled around the perimeter of the room at irregular intervals: rats in the walls. There had never been a rodent infestation in the house during the time that I was living there (my cats would never have tolerated such a thing). The next time I played my kang ling I observed the customary rituals and made the usual gestures of dispersement, and the scuttling in the walls never again recurred.

There are no recordings I am aware of which feature the kang ling in its traditional setting. Unlike the other horns, drums and cymbals which are typically employed in Tibetan Buddhist ceremony and devotional practice, the kang ling is used exclusively in the chod rites, a private and solitary practice to which anthropologists with tape recorders are apparently not invited. The kang ling attained a modern notoriety some twenty-odd years ago when the instrument was used (some might say abused ) by Psychic TV on their early records (listen to the Themes LP and Dreams Less Sweet ) Apart from PTV, I am told 23 Skidoo s first record features an early recording of David Tibet on thighbone trumpet (though I must confess I ve never heard it).

4. Your musical history includes sessions with the legendary German band Faust. After hearing the albums So Far and their 1971 debut release, I quickly came to the conclusion that these are two of the weirdest, most outlandish recordings ever committed to vinyl. Which albums did you appear on?

I am in complete agreement with your assessment (though I would go further to include The Faust Tapes and Faust IV as equivalent landmarks of perverse inventiveness). The original Faust (which existed from 1971 to 75) created a singular and bewilderingly imaginative body of work which stood far beyond and apart from everything else in progressive rock and the classical avant-garde up to that point. Those records don t sound the least bit dated thirty years later Faust were as divorced from past and current trends in music as were Captain Beefheart s Magic Band circa Trout Mask Replica .

I made my sole appearance with Faust on Rien , the comeback’ album which Jim O Rourke produced in 1994.

5. What do you remember of those sessions with Faust?

Here s what actually went down… Faust (a new line-up with two of the original members) did their first-ever American performances in May of 1994: a seven-date tour organized by the record label Table of the Elements. The San Francisco concert (which I attended) was followed by another performance ( event or manifestation might be a more apt description of the occurrence) later the same week in the desert location of Death Valley, California, on the portentous date of Friday the 13th. I traveled down there with a small entourage of devotees in Brent Pusser s van (Brent of Three Day Stubble). It had been a very traumatic week for me (owing to personal reasons I needn t discuss here), and, for better or worse, I brought along a bag of mushrooms for the trip. We got there, it was predictably hot, I stripped down to a loincloth and hiked up to a small ridgetop to watch the sunset. Dusk was falling when the mushrooms started to take effect Keiji Haino was scrabbling around the rocks below in his trademark black attire and sunglasses and making a clang and clatter with a pair of large hand cymbals, a didgeridoo was playing in the distance. I had my zurna with me (the zurna is a Turkish double-reed instrument, made from pear wood, with a cylindrical bore and flared bell, similar to the Indian shenai, what is generally referred to as a shawm ), and I started blowing these Arabic modal improvisations which (given my crude abilities on the instrument) sounded like some deranged Islamic call to prayer. After a spell of this I wandered back down to find out when Faust might be going on… Fast forward to several weeks later, when the long-awaited Rien album is released. I buy the CD and take it home, put it on in the dark and lie back to listen. Track Four ( Long Distance Calls in the Desert ) starts out with a field recording of wind blowing, footfalls crunching the crusty sand, faint mutterings, a didgeridoo in the distance the next thing I hear is the sound of some badly out-of-tune reed instrument: it s me! Faust had recorded the event and put it out on their record. I felt a mixture of elation and embarrassment (flattered to be on a record with my all-time favorite band, yet embarrassed by my less than stellar instrumental abilities on this difficult instrument). When my performance ends on the record, Jean-Herve Peron (Faust s bass player who in this case was the one operating the tape recorder) says You can t beat the silence (perhaps this was a comment on my playing).

In any event, my appearance on the record is anonymous (I received no credit) and entirely fortuitous. But the fact is uncontestable: I played on a record by Faust.

6. What about the project you worked on with the infamous Boyd Rice? I know it was never released, but can you tell us what the music was like?

I became friends with Boyd not long after moving to San Diego to attend college in 1976-77 (he answered a classified ad I had placed with the intention of putting together a Dada zine). In the course of producing my zine Cabaret Voltaire (named after the Dada performance collective of Zurich 1916, from which the British industrial group also took their name), I became involved in Mail Art, and began corresponding with creative people from around the world, including Genesis and Cosey of Throbbing Gristle, Richard H Kirk and Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire, and many others (I even got a letter from Lynette Squeaky Fromme of the Manson family who was in prison at the time for her attempted assassination of President Ford). As an avid Mail Artist, I received many invitations to submit work for Mail Art exhibitions in America, Europe and elsewhere. One of these was for a show of Audio Art in Lucerne, Switzerland. Boyd and I collaborated on a cassette recording for the gallery presentation, which we entitled This Priceless Recording . It was comprised of mostly crude experiments with radio static, abused phonograph records and such (including a duet for two amplified metal combs). There is only one track on the cassette (a long piece which takes up all 45 minutes of Side Two) which merits repeated listening: it is a broken record piece which juxtaposes repetition with unpredictable permutations to rather hypnotic effect.

7. There is a website called Hatewatch.org, which contains an archive of information on neo-Nazi rock musicians. I was surprised to see Boyd Rice’s name listed in the National Socialist Experimental section. I’ve only heard a few of his records, but I never got the idea that he was a Fascist. Do you know why he was listed as such? Misinformation, maybe?

Such rumors have long been in circulation, and Boyd Rice is a master at cultivating this sort of notoriety. I haven t had contact with Boyd in a great many years, but Boyd has always taken pleasure in keeping people guessing, wondering, suspecting Aside from having dropped the name of Adolf Hitler in a praiseworthy light, he has apparently had some contact with Skinheads and various extreme-right characters who might be accurately described as neo-Nazis. I don t have an adequate understanding of the ideology of Fascism, and I am certainly not in a position to speak for Boyd or label him as such (Nazi or Fascist). Boyd has described himself as a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope and has promoted a personal philosophy largely derived from Social Darwinism as well as Satanism. One may easily find points of agreement between things he has professed and such reprehensible ideologies as the White Supremacy movement, and Boyd is no doubt chuckling at such accusations and suspicions. During the time that he and I were friends, he was an agreeable, generous and trustworthy associate. But as Boyd Rice himself has said: People Change

8. Were you born into a family of musicians?

Certainly not. My father was an accomplished athlete and bodybuilder, my mother a homemaker. My Dad was a great fan of swing-era jazz, though, and he did encourage my musical interests. As a minor below the legal drinking age, I would have been unable to gain admittance to some of the notable jazz clubs in Boston such as Paul s Mall and the Jazz Workshop. With his accompaniment, however, I got to enjoy such greats as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sun Ra, Sam Rivers, Pharoah Sanders, and many others.

9. What was the first instrument you learned to play?

Flute. I never played in band in high school (I was too much of an outcast), but I took private lessons as a teenager. I was a great fan of Jethro Tull, of course.

10. At what age did you become interested in less conventional forms of music? Which bands/musicians inspired you the most?

The great awakening for me was at the age of twelve in 1970. Growing up on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts, I had the privilege of being in the broadcast range of WBCN, which at the time was one of the groundbreaking free-form or underground radio stations in the country. (This was before the mass-homogenization of commercial rock radio in the mid- to late-70s). In a single hour-long set one could hear a range of artists from Robert Johnson to Lothar and the Hand People to Ornette Coleman to Dmitri Shostakovich, and I was an avid listener. One dark and rainy Sunday my Dad took me along for a drive up to Nashua, New Hampshire, where he was competing in a bodybuilding contest. Along the way I took ill, and ended up spending the afternoon in a fevered delirium in my Dad s Ford Falcon outside in the parking lot, listening to WBCN on the car radio. At some point during the broadcast this deranged, dischordant music came on that shook me out of my senses: a collision of orchestral fanfares, TV-theme jazz, demented Dixieland, sound effects, voices speaking nonsense slowed down or sped up on tape to bestial effect. The DJ identified the record as Lumpy Gravy by Frank Zappa. I special-ordered the record at a local department store and it finally arrived about six months later. In the meantime I bought Weasels Ripped My Flesh , the latest record by the Mothers of Invention, at the Turning Point (a local head shop / record store), and started collecting everything I could by Zappa. I read interviews with him in which he spoke of Cage, Varese, Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor, which led me to the frontiers of free jazz and the classical avant-garde. Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground further expanded my awareness.

The next major revelation for me was hearing Side One of the first Faust record in 1973 on a tiny college station out of Providence, Rhode Island. I found a mail-order supplier of import records and ordered everything by Faust. (I had an after-school job which earned me enough money initially to support my advancing vinyl addiction, though it soon proved inadequate and I had to resort to shoplifting). Further investigations led me to Krautrock and the whole European art rock scene: bands which never registered in the States such as Can, Amon Duul, Kluster, Neu!, ZNR, Heldon, Etron Fou Leloublan, Sammla Sammas Manna, Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, Henry Cow, Comus, Hatfield and the North, and so many others. While most of my friends in high school were grooving on Yes and ELP I was tuning in to the darker prog of King Crimson and esoterica such as Gong and Lol Coxhill. The next wave of music to inspire me was (inevitably) Punk, New Wave, and the nascent Industrial Music scene: Pere Ubu, Suicide, Throbbing Gristle, SPK, the Pop Group, etc… In between Prog and Punk I was of course enamored of the arty representatives of Glam Rock: Roxy Music, Eno, and Cockney Rebel.

11. What do you listen to when you have time to sit down and enjoy it?

The Well-Tuned Piano by LaMonte Young

12. What are your five favorite albums?

Sing Me a Song of Songmy — Freddie Hubbard (composed by Ilhan Mimaroglu) Faust Faust (their first record, the clear one), Force the Hand of Chance Psychic TV, Beauty Reaps the Blood of Solitude Nature and Organisation, Uncle Meat the Mothers of Invention. I guess limiting it to five means I’m not permitted to mention my many other favorites by artists such as Lou Reed ( Berlin and Metal Machine Music ), Nico ( The Marble Index ), John Cale ( Paris 1919 , «Music for a New Society»), Leonard Cohen ( Songs of Love and Hate ), Nurse With Wound ( Thunder Perfect Mind , Soliliquy for Lilith ), Robert Wyatt ( Rock Bottom , Old Rottenhat ), Scott Walker ( Tilt ), Wim Mertens ( Maximizing the Audience ), Tony Conrad with Faust («Outside the Dream Syndicate»), Angelo Badalamenti («Twin Peaks» and other soundtracks), and all the others I fail to recollect at the moment

13. What can we expect from FoTUM in the future? Are you planning a second release?

Well, my manager wants me to do an album of POWER BALLADS ( Be good fa ya kah-ree-ah, kid ) I said Sure, I ll sing a duet with Melissa Etheridge if you set it up We ll do a smokin’ remake of Sister Christian !»

But seriously, I am most definitely planning a follow-up to Cross Purposes . Material is in early stages of conception or development, though there is no projected release date as yet. I just finished mixing a new FoTU piece entitled Interrupted by Interior Design (an homage to Marcel Duchamp and Parker Posey) it s going to be issued on a compilation CD put out by Psychochrist Productions, which should be available in February 2004 look for updates at www.formsofthingsunknown.com. Apart from Forms of Things Unknown, I am mixing a new track by Darmstadt Pharmacy, a ‘dark ambient’ project I play in comprised of myself and Ure Thrall of Asia Nova.

14. Do you plan on touring (for either Cross Purposes or a future release)?

A tour is something that might happen at some hazy point in the future certainly, there are no plans at present. I just recently bought some new gear so that I could put together a live FX rack with the objective of eventually doing one-off occasional performances in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. I still have to work out an effective approach for the FoTU Live experience (since the CD was highly dependent on strictly studio techniques like multi-tracking and intensive editing). It will probably involve live looping, ambient atmospherics, and extensive improvisation as opposed to live performance of previously composed pieces I m not about to get up there and play a flute solo with reverb over the top of some prerecorded backing tracks in a slavish attempt to recreate the album tracks

15. You’ve reached the end of this interview. Any closing comments?

I will simply encourage readers to check out the FoTU website at http://www.formsofthingsunknown.com. Listen to the mp3s (and buy the CD! so I can afford to put out another one), explore some of the fascinating resources on my Links page, and get in touch by writing to enantiodromia23@yahoo.com for more information or to be placed on a mailing list. And in the words of one Noel Scott Engel:

Let the great constellation of flickering ashes be heard

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