Death Blues: Ensemble


For over twenty-five years, drummer-percussionist Jon Mueller has been presenting solo concerts throughout the world and issuing material on labels such as Crouton, Table of the Elements, Type Recordings, Hometapes, Important Records, Taiga, and others. He's been an integral part of the bands Volcano Choir and Collections of Colonies of Bees and appeared on recordings with Rhys Chatham, Asmus Tietchens, Z'EV, and Jason Kahn, among others. But arguably the most important project in his life at the moment is Death Blues, whose recent Ensemble is the first release on his new Rhythmplex imprint (a wonderful resource for Mueller-related material, the Rhythmplex site provides access to the full Death Blues manifesto among other things). Though other Death Blues albums have been issued, Ensemble is special for being a collaboration involving Mueller and the immensely talented William Ryan Fritch, as well as for being a project that combines visual imagery, essays (specifically written for the project), and, of course, music. Presented in a large-format book-album design, Ensemble (reviewed here) impresses as a remarkable achievement and one of the year's standout releases.

1. On the back cover of Ensemble, you offer thanks to “all who are willing to consider this project and its aim.” Though the essence of that aim can be gleaned from the “Introduction” that precedes the writers' texts, I'm wondering if you also might clarify what you see as the project's aim.

(Jon Mueller) The aim of the project is to consider presence in each moment. By doing so, a variety of perspectives can change—not sweating the small stuff, contributing more positive elements to any situation, etc. This is further elaborated upon and explained within the Death Blues manifesto, which appears on the back of the first LP, and is also posted online at the Rhythmplex site. In essence, knowing that life is finite can make our focus a bit less clouded by unnecessary things. It's a sentiment that I feel deserves frequent reminding.

2. You've worked with a huge range of artists over the course of your career, among them Rhys Chatham, James Plotkin, Asmus Tietchens, and Jason Kahn. How did your association with William Ryan Fritch come about, and did working with him differ in any way from the projects with which you've been involved in the past? And how did his involvement affect the kind of music you created under the Death Blues name?

A few years ago, I bought a record on a whim from the online shop Experimedia, a project called Vieo Abiungo. I listened to the audio sample and liking what I heard picked it up without knowing much more about it. When the record arrived,and I listened in full, it instantly became my current favourite, and I listened to it repeatedly over the following days. I quickly wondered if there were more recordings available, so I did a search, discovered the label Lost Tribe Sound, who put out other work by Vieo Abiungo (who I then realized was the solo project of William Ryan Fritch), and bought the other CD available at the time. After a shipping charge glitch, I contacted the guy that runs the label. After a brief chat about my new obsession with Will's work, he suggested making an introduction. Soon after, I scheduled a phone call with Will. We talked about working on something together, but weren't sure what, or how.

In some ways, this was a typical collaborative development, but in other ways, it still surprises me how it all came together, how random it seemed, yet in the end, has turned into a working relationship beyond my expectations and musically one of the most diverse I've been a part of. This diversity is something I originally didn't expect within the Death Blues project, but there is something about Will's approach and the work we made that rings true with the concept of the project. There's something old about the music, yet new, something multicultural, but familiar. It speaks to you on a personal level, which is really the point.

3. In the “Introduction,” you state that the basis for the music on Ensemble were the original hammered guitar recordings from the first Death Blues LP. Could you clarify in more detail exactly how those prior recordings evolved into the nine tracks presented on the album (eleven if the downloads that come with the book-LP are included)? Pedal steel guitarist Craig Feazel and woodwinds player Drew Ceccato also appear on the album. Was long-distance file-sharing involved or did they contribute to the tracks in Milwaukee as well?

After some phone calls, e-mails, and thinking, I presented the idea of Death Blues, basing a project on the guitar tracks from the initial record as a starting point. Will thought this would work well, so we proceeded from there. I sent him the tracks, and he started constructing music around them, which, even at an early stage, was already quite elaborate. Once I got those tracks back, I came up with drum and percussion parts for each of them. I rented some studio time here to record them, and Will flew here to be at the session. He and I worked together for a few days in Milwaukee, but the rest, and majority of the work, was done remotely over the course of about two years—tracking, mixing, adding, editing, etc.

Those days together helped develop the music in a stronger way than working exclusively remotely—the conversations and further ideas added so much to the work. In the end, it's all new music, but I like that it has ties to the initial sound and feel of the project, particularly because of how removed from the original music it also feels.

Craig and Drew were invited by Will to contribute parts that he needed. They weren't involved in the broader scope of the project. In fact, I've never met them!

4. It obviously would have been far less costly to release Ensemble as a digital download only, and in these times the idea of issuing a deluxe book-LP presentation is a riskier proposition than it would have been in the pre-downloads era. Given such considerations, what made you decide to commit to such a full-scale physical presentation, and how much if any trepidation did you experience in doing so?

To put it simply, the experience of this thing can only be achieved through being the thing that it is. There is a deeper interaction and capacity for personal consideration that can take place when one is involved with a physical thing that is filled throughout with its own sense of interactions and personal considerations. This object offers material to focus on and inspire ideas while hopefully triggering personal responses within each individual. In that way, it's not just a record but something more; not just music and not just a book but a way to experience the complex environment of presented ideas and one's own thoughts in a way that a digital download can't offer. That said, the record will be available digitally as well, as the music is something powerful on its own. But the full experience is only possible with the complete release.

5. Did you conceive of Ensemble from the outset as a multi-dimensional work involving music, text, and images, or did it start out as a musical project that developed into the other areas as it progressed? What, in your mind, is the ideal way to best experience the project?

I knew there would be a variety of elements, but I wasn't initially certain of what would all be involved. It started with the music and grew from there—ideas formed about what other elements the music could work in conjunction with, what purpose these additional elements would serve, and how that overall dynamic might affect someone taking it all in. The ideal way to experience the project is to simply experience it on one's own. My aim was to build enough into it so that anyone that does experience it finds something that resonates with him or her naturally, as opposed to a more singular focus that might dictate a specific response. My hope is that each person has his or her own unique experience based on the combination of material along with his or her own thinking, history, memory, ideas, etc.

6. The masks by late artist Lillian Rammel contribute a powerful visual dimension to the project. What particular meaning are the masks supposed to convey, and in what way do they relate to the texts and music?

My friend Hal Rammel lives in a converted barn, which was designed and remodeled by his mom back in the ‘50s or ‘60s. When his parents passed away, he moved back to Wisconsin and into the house. It's an incredible place, almost like a museum, filled with his wife Gina's incredible artwork, his invented instruments, and other antiques and curiosities. One wall of his living room is covered with his mother's masks. Years ago, during one of my visits, Hal explained that she had made them throughout the ‘70s and exhibited them in various art galleries in subsequent years.

When it came time to work on imagery for the Ensemble project, I thought about masks as a metaphor for perception—how we see the world, and how the world sees us, and how those two things affect our presence, and our ability to focus on what's really important to each of us. I then remembered Hal's mom's masks, and contacted him to see if it would be possible to work with these, and he agreed. I'm glad I was able to use material from a personal connection, rather than random imagery. The masks also have no specific cultural tie, which also opens up more interpretive interaction with them, as they don't imply anything specific.

7. To what degree did you influence or guide the nature of the writers' contributions to the project? How did you go about involving the seven specific writers that participated, and did you give them any particular instructions?

I've known each of the writers for years; one of them I've even known since high school. The conversations I've had with them over the years often went to a deeper place, a more personal place, which some people, even people I have a more frequent interaction with, don't generally go to. So I chose these people to write something, anything, that dealt with something they felt was a profound experience in their lives, something that affected them in a way that elevated their sense of life somehow, for better or worse. The point was to get to an essence of who they were as people via trying to understand an experience they had. The results that came back are unedited, as they were submitted, and exceeded my expectations. They are vulnerable, honest, sometimes difficult, and great examples of how people address their lives. There is a strong presence within these words, and they add a real sense of life into the project.

8. Did your involvement with Jon Mueller on the Ensemble project bring about any changes in your usual working methods? And in what ways does the music on Ensemble differ from the work you ' ve issued under your own name and as Vieo Abiungo?

(William Ryan Fritch) Though I did all of my recording and mixing in the same environment that I have done my last dozen or so recordings, the process of realizing these songs was a different animal. Just injecting the presence of another creative entity, especially someone as articulate and musical as Jon, was a truly invigorating process and a nice contrast to my usual compositional approach. Because of the immediacy and comfort level I have in my own studio and the years of relying exclusively on me multi-tracking to fully realize pieces, my writing and recording process has overlapped to the point where they are often simultaneous events. With Ensemble, just having Jon's hammered guitar pulses establish a tonal center (a low detuned C) and the core tempo/rhythm for most of the pieces flipped my habitual paradigm and, with its parameters, acted as a springboard for exploring new means of orchestration. Because of the steady and authoritative presence of Jon's rhythms, played with no swing or superfluous accentuation, I was freed to be more languid and expressive with my writing and experiment with expanding and contracting counter rhythms and melodies. I think the juxtaposition of our styles and our personalities is very evident on this record. Jon's remarkably well-spoken and deliberate demeanor mirrors the commanding presence of his drums just as my effusiveness and exuberant energy is palpable in all of my music, and having the interplay between the two has yielded a record unlike anything else either of us have done prior.

9. The second track “Participant” includes timbres and sonorities reminiscent of Chinese traditional music. Do you consciously bring into your creative work sounds from other cultural traditions or is that something that simply happens naturally as a result of your musical training and experiences?

There wasn't really a conscious decision to draw from any particular idiom, but each instrument (in this case a Pipa and erhu moving in parallel with the violins and mandola) weaved into these pieces brings with them a certain referential power that guides both the performance and the perception of them. I have always been drawn to the melismatic and evocative approach to melody that you find in folk music around the world, but I really don't have any training in that regard. I'd say more than anything, I wanted to draw from the overlapping sounds and modalities that recur in most every culture, a sort of “global blues.” Through just slight shifts in feel and timbre you can identify a pentatonic melody as a derivative dozens of radically different cultures. One of the more interesting aspects to this collaboration is our various approaches to creating otherworldliness. While my work is difficult to classify due to its bastardization of such a broad gamut of sounds, Jon (especially on his last two Death Blues records) is able to achieve a compelling universality through accentuating and intensifying a common primitivism that underlies any number of musics.

10. I'm sure I'm not the first to note how amazingly prolific you've been the past few years. How do you account for the uncanny amount of music that seems to pour out of you so effortlessly and at such an incredible rate?

Well, I'm doubtful that I'm going to have any flash-in-the-pan success in the near future that could warrant or sustain me slowing down and milking any particular record! I am completely reliant on composing and recording large amounts of music every month for my livelihood (film composition), and my productivity in terms of creating and releasing music comes at the expense of have a rather one-dimensional existence as a professional musician.

While I am totally self sufficient in my studio and can quickly with almost no overhead costs create and complete the music that I want to release, this hermetic style of music creation hasn't manifested many opportunities outside of the independent film world. Don't get me wrong…I live for creating new music and few joys in life compare the thrill I get working in the studio, but I do think the appearance of my productivity is exacerbated by the fact that I do little else besides recording!

August-September 2014