FIVE QUESTIONS WITH 17 PYGMIES
Most groups still active after three decades are either cash-grabbing via endless oldies tours or mired in acrimonious lawsuits between warring members. The rare exception to the rule is 17 Pygmies, a band born in 1982 yet still creating vital new music, as evidenced by its recent Celestina trilogy and its latest Isabel, itself the first part in a planned second trilogy. Though the group understandably has experienced personnel changes over the years (and even witnessed a seventeen-year break between releases), Jackson Del Rey (aka Philip Drucker) has been there since the beginning and currently is joined by vocalist Meg Maryatt, guitarist Jeff Brenneman, and drummer Dirk Doucette. Stylistically the band's sound has evolved over the years into an arresting melange of prog and pop that manages to be experimental yet accessible, too—not an easy balance to achieve. While 17 Pygmies' presentation of itself is irreverent (band interests are listed as “chocolate [and] sock monkeys,” for example), the group is dead serious about its products, as each release, typically distinguished by elaborate packaging, is presented with great care. Recently the group explained how it's possible for a group to last for thirty years and still produce work of above-average imagination and creativity.
1. My first question is a simple one to ask though maybe not as simple to answer: how does a group not only manage the feat of existing for over thirty years but doing so with its artistic integrity intact, given that, with its Celestina trilogy and now Isabel project, 17 Pygmies seems to be today in an especially creative place? In short, how do you explain such endurance and creative vitality?
I could probably try to answer this question with some varying degree of success, but I think I'll just borrow a famous quote and leave it at that: “Put yourself into life and never lose your openness, your childish enthusiasm throughout the journey that is life, and things will come your way.” (Federico Fellini)
2. When the Celestina trilogy concluded in 2012 with CIII: Even Celestina Gets The Blues (A Tale of Love and Quantum Physics), one part of me expected your next recording would take a dramatic left turn, something on the order of 2009's collection of post-civil war folk-blues settings The Outlaw J.D. Ray. Instead, you've chosen to follow Celestina with Isabel, the first chapter in another three-part concept CD. What prompted the move to immediately follow the previous trilogy with another? Relatedly, as you've sometimes issued DVD releases, specifically 2009's Georges Melies and Tarzan of the Apes projects, I'm wondering if any more such film-related projects are on the horizon.
The Celestina trilogy is in actuality the first third of a pre-planned 100-song suite. The second third will be the Isabel trilogy, and the last third will be a trilogy dedicated to Dr. Velasquez. The Outlaw J.D. Ray was an unexpected excursion into pre-war blues that I guess you might say “interrupted” the Celestina / Isabel / Velasquez project. The Outlaw J.D. Ray came about as a result of so many reviewers remarking on how the first Celestina CD sounded like Pink Floyd. Not that this was a bad thing (I really like Pink Floyd), but it got me to thinking about how Pink Floyd got the inspiration for their sound, and I started listening to Pink Anderson and Floyd Counsel. Well, that just opened up the floodgates, and I became obsessed with pre-war acoustic blues. Since obsessions tend to be good places to begin a new project, the result was The Outlaw J.D. Ray. I also think it fair to say the blues influenced the trilogy recordings going forward. In fact, if I recall correctly, isn't CIII titled Even Celestina Gets The Blues? Why, yes, I believe it is. As for film/visual related projects, we are making a twenty-two-page Celestina comic book and hope to end up with a full 100-page graphic novel that we can hopefully turn into a movie some day. There is always the possibility of adding music to pre-existing visuals, but I think we are rather keen this time on having a hand in creating the visuals. Film-makers as potential collaborators, please take note...
3. Such trilogy projects invite being described as prog rock, yet Isabel eschews the bombast, compositional complexity, and epic song lengths oft associated with prog rock and instead features twelve concise song settings, many of them serene in tone and understated in their arrangements and compositional form. To what degree is the character of a given project predetermined by you, or does its tone more define itself as you're working on it?
With most of my music, I imagine the best way to “explain” my personal basic philosophy is that, (and given my druthers) I'd rather be Miles Davis (the cool kat) than Dizzy Gillespie (blow, man, blow!). Of course if I end up being Thelonious Monk (pure unadulterated genius), that would be just fine. As for the trilogy of trilogies, the musical tones correspond to specific passages in the short stories. The consecutive numbering is not arbitrary; it follows the events on paper as they occur. You might notice a slightly more “eerie” ambient quality to some of the tracks on Isabel. That's because part of the story takes place below the Earth's surface in the catacombs. Those tracks reflect Isabel's location, predicament, and emotional reactions. There is one other rather odd overall consideration to Isabel. We decided to add R&B backing vocals to Isabel because Celestina's emotional maturity level is now that of a teenager and every teenager likes Motown, right?
4. Of all the musical “touchstones” you identified for Isabel (including Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Harold Budd, Brian Eno, John Foxx, The Incredible String Band, Samuel Barber, Arvo Part, Jerry Goldsmith, and Christopher Young), the one that most caught my eye was Genesis circa The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, given that right away one could see obvious parallels between Genesis's saga and Celestina and Isabel. I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind elaborating on how exactly those acts influenced Isabel as a creative entity?
This may sound a bit odd, but I associate all of the bands/artists listed above with a strong “visual” component to their music, whether visuals actually accompany the music or not. When I listen to Dark Side of the Moon, I “see” images of subway trains, old men dying slowly, as well as the lunatic sitting on the grass. When I hear Christopher Young, I see “Pinhead,” Jerry Goldsmith, the Enterprise, or perhaps Charleston Heston in Planet of the Apes. With Harold Budd I always visualize some aspect of the desert (there's this one cheeky lizard sitting on a rock that is always staring me down...). I don't think it would come as a surprise that I would hope our sound would inspire such connections with the visual world as well.
5. Isabel is being released at the same time as a double-CD retrospective featuring three remastered versions of your early works Hatikva (1983), Jedda By The Sea (1984), and Captured in Ice (1985). I'm curious about how those early recordings sound to you today? Do you hear a connecting line between them and who you are today, or do the early recordings sound like the work of a different outfit altogether?
Generally, it was a very interesting experience hearing those all of the songs again. I'm not one to listen to my own work so I hadn't heard many of those tracks in well over a decade. That said, I actually find myself liking them more than I thought I would, particularly Captured In Ice. I must admit I did not have a “warm and fuzzy” feeling for that record. It always struck me as too “Indie” for its own good (even though when we made it there was no “Indie” or “Alternative” Rock—it was called College Rock.) However, upon listening to it again, I guess we just wanted to “fit in” a little, and I suppose there is really nothing wrong with that. Hatikva is OK. Kind of silly. Jedda is fine. Kind of charming in its understated pomposity. I would like to compliment James at LTM for doing such a wonderful job of remastering twenty-five-plus-year-old Ampex 456 tape that was quite literally just sitting in my garage in a cardboard box marked “tapes.” All in all, just like old friends you see from time to time, I'm glad they're back and doing well.