From Aural Innovations #16 (June 2001)
AI: Tell me about your record labels. From reading your web site is sounds like InstrumenTales is just one of a string of labels you've had over the years, some of which I saw a reference to having been in other countries.
Bret Hart: I lived in Korea for 4 years. I was a Korean translator. I spent a year and a half doing nothing but 100% immersion in Korean culture and language before I went there which was out in California around 1983/84. And this is where I met my first group of improvisors with whom I established some kind of a kinship. It's what broke me away from jazz and progressive things, and the acoustic things I'd been doing in the late 70s. All of a sudden I met some of these really interesting people. People like Jerry Ford. He used to book [Fred] Frith and [Henry] Kaiser gigs out in Santa Cruz. And did these really cool Bent Music workshops as he called them where people would get together and there would be a theme. Y'know, like everybody bring a homemade instrument tonight. And people were encouraging me to improvise. Quit falling back on cliches and things you're comfortable playing. "Do some more of that horn sounding guitar", was some of the things people used to say to me back then and it really spurred me on. And I realized that the way I play guitar is based on the fact that I started off in music on the trombone, and I really think like a horn player. At this point I know that, but back then I couldn't figure out why people had trouble learning my songs. And it's because some of the structures are melodically and harmonically really suited more for a brass section. You'll hear a lot of trombone-like things occurring, even in my acoustic music. I've been accused of playing slide when I'm not playing slide, when in fact I may be using a fretless instrument.
AI: What was the earliest label you had and how did you distribute the music at that time?
BH: Back in those days it was the cassette culture years. Dick Metcalf calls me a grandfather of the DIY movement, and actually I'm more like an older uncle because it was going on before I got there. But my first label started out in 1983 and it was called Kamsa Tapes. And that was the first moniker under which I was putting my stuff out, and at the time I was doing this really dense, harsh guitar layering music. And people were saying my name and [Al] Margolis' name in the same breath back then, and if you've heard some of his stuff you know it's really sharp. He was doing chainsaw music. But I was doing extremely harsh music back then. Like the first Asteroid Schoolhouse, Blame Your Parents... it was kind of like that. I did that for a little while and then I re-thought it all and it became O-Right Records. And that was more harsh music of that sort. At the time I was only putting my own stuff out, but there was some collaboration creeping in. There's a guy who lives down in New Mexico or Arizona. His name is Chris Venturi, but he calls himself the Frank O. Pollizzi Band. And if you go acidplanet.com, which is kind of an Mp3.com place, and search on Frank O. Pollizzi you'll find sound files out the whazoo. I met Metcalf when I was living in Korea. He called me on the phone one time. I was working in a secure space and this guy calls me. Said he was a keyboard played, lived about 40 miles away and wanted to get together. He came down that weekend and we started exchanging some tapes and have been friends ever since. Blind Pineapple Phillips did some vinyl on O-Right Records.
So I got out of the service and moved to Massachusetts. I was working as a commercial artist in Boston and doing printing and things like that, and started up a new label called Hipworks Records. And Hipworks was the label that was putting out the group Hipbone. And then when I got on the internet, which was about 1996, we changed that to Hipworks Productions because I was also doing poster art for bands in the area and other commercial art stuff and it was all under one big banner. Right around then I got approval from the Massachusetts local cultural arts council for an arts grant to put a CD out that met the criteria of the grant, which basically meant that I was going to use Wooster, MA musicians, was going to record in a Wooster studio, and I was going to record songs that were written in Wooster. So they gave me money and that's how I put my first CD "No More Bandages" out. Then in 1998 my wife and I moved down here to North Carolina and that's when InstrumenTales came about. And I'm going to stick with that for as long as I live in North Carolina.
AI: You also sent me this newspaper article which describes the fund raising you're doing for your school with the Delicate Furies compilation CD. I think it's pretty cool you're doing that with experimental music.
BH: Thanks. I've also run a couple of electives at school. One of them was I put together a percussion ensemble of non-musicians, and I taught them how to play tunes like Jingle Bells on big orchestral drums and kettle drums and things like that. These are kids 6th-8th grade. And then another semester I took a group of kids and every Wednesday we'd get together and jam. And I'd always roll tape while I was there. I took bits of these recordings and put them all together in a kind of collage way and created this lengthy recording, and over it is a reading of this African myth of where drums came from. I also taught a college course here locally on do-it-yourself music marketing. Delicate Furies will be available, I hope, around September. Everybody that's involved with it is doing so on a voluntary basis and I'm waiting for the art, and I'm not going to push. It sucks when you rag on a volunteer.
AI: Did you get much interest in the DIY college course you offered?
BH: I had a class of about 6 folks, and taught it during the summer. We met at a public school in a classroom where I had brought my entire studio. We met once a week and by the end of the summer I had produced for each of the people in the class, with their involvement, a studio recording of one of the tunes they had written. They got a glimpse of multi-track recording and I talked to them about marketing your own stuff. I showed them that most of what you need, you already have access to it, and that you can exercise control over your own product. That's always been my thing is that I like maintaining creative control over as much of what I put out there as possible. And when I do hand off songs to people to produce it's because I trust them. And I don't live or die by whether my CDS move very much. I'm a teacher. And that's what I do for a living. And that's what pays my bills. And that's really what permits me to have the kind of freedom that I have in the arts.
AI: That's what makes it easier to stick to your ideals I imagine.
BH: It does. And also the whole paradigm of my relationship with people when it relates to music can be more of a friendship one than a dollar sign one. So that's the way I like it. And I don't know what I would do if it got really big. Teaching is really important to me. There's such a collapse of the family these days. I know that for many of the kids I teach I'm about as much of a dad as they're ever going to have. So I really feel that despite a lot of the flak that some schools get, and probably some schools deserve, my classroom is a sanctuary. And it's be a place where you can learn something that'll help you to not be a jackass for the rest of your life. So I like doing that and I'm not going to stop it.
AI: Hipbone is actually the first of your music I had heard prior to this batch of CDS you sent.
BH: And it's pretty poppy stuff really. It's pretty radio friendly music when you think about it. Hipbone is something that has very little to do with me actually. Except that I sing the main vocal and some occasional harmony. Because some of the things I come up with other people find hard to harmonize with. But I do mostly just vocals and guitars, and the occasional midi instrument. And it's always produced by someone else. So the arrangements are not something I have much to do with. I write the songs, I play the guitars, and then I back off. Hipbone formed in late 1992. And we were what you might call a power trio. Kind of like Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. We were like a 3-piece rock band that sang and took these big improvisational excursions in the midst of songs. And we really did take Cream and Red-era King Crimson as our working model. We were coming up with things that would hopefully target those kinds of folks. And we did really well. We put out a bunch of records, and we were very well received in central Massachusetts. Hipbone dissolved as a performing unit in 1996, but goes on recording. So since that time we've produced two, very distinct from one another, records of which Decopage is one. The other one is called is Cho-Rok, which is the Korean word for green. It sounds like if Peter Gabriel wrote for The Byrds. That's what people have said.
AI: So on the one hand you've got the kind of music that Hipbone plays, but on the other hand you've got the music heard on the Duets series. Is the more experimental music what you're more into playing?
BH: Yeah, recording-wise it is. I don't know how far back you go with independent publishing prior to the web publication, but Factsheet Five, Option, Sound Choice... I wrote for all of them. I still do the occasional review. Like if I hear something I think people really ought to be listening to I'll just write a review and send it to everybody that publishes. But I used to receive big boxes full of independently... and by independently I mean it was no more mainstream than Homestead, SST, or Touch n Go. And most of what I got was stuff produced in quantities of maybe 10, by people at home. I was getting some stuff people had heard of. Things like the Residents, Eugene Chadbourne, John Zorn, the whole well known improviser stuff. But I was also receiving an enormous amount of really really out there stuff from people that no one knew of. And there was some incredible shit coming in. People like Al Margolis. And Jeff Greinke who's kind of a soundscape artist that started off doing cassettes of extremely high aesthetic and intelligent quality. Ground breaking stuff. And guys like Dick Metcalf, whom you know. And I was getting all this really cool stuff and got very heavily networked. And in fact I'm only just now reestablishing some of the lines of that network which disappeared when everybody went digital and had moved. Anyway, I used to write for these guys and they would write about me because I was doing music. I was submitting and reviewing at the same time, which may seem like a conflict of interest in the eyes of some. But I actually create a lot of pseudonyms and release music by them in order to circumvent expectations. Get a real clean take from somebody on what I'm doing. I teach English. I can't help but have an appreciation for why Mark Twain was Mark Twain instead of Samuel Clemens, as a writer. And sometimes there's a need for a certain amount of wall. I like to create mythologies.
AI: I've received a lot of Automatic Music CDs from Szum Records that I've been enjoying and understand that you're a core member.
BH: Automatic Music is a group with a revolving membership around a core of 4 people. Fred Hall (Gentlemaniac), Ed Shepherd (East October), Scotty Irving, who played drums for Eugene Chadbourne and has a one man performance art thing call Klang Quartet, and then me. But we have other people. We did a session last Sunday down at Fred's house. He's got a really nice little studio in his house that he calls the Toilet Bowl. And we had this really good drummer named Gurney Brown with an electric drum kit. And the guy is really good. But every Automatic Music record is completely different. Ed did the mixing for Carnival Of Light. Everybody takes turns. InstrumenTales is about to release an Automatic Music record. It'll be called For Your Information and it's gonna make people's brains melt. But Automatic Music is an improv group that just gets together and rolls tape, and the coherence occurs during the mixdown.
AI: You mentioned some Automatic Music shows. Do you get to perform live much?
BH: I'd say Automatic Music plays out about 4 times a year. When we do we really prepare for it. The last time we played was at a place right here in my little town called The Daily Grind. We had a TV crew up from Winston-Salem filming it. We were part of a 3-part feature they were doing on unique area music. It's was funny. Of the other 2 bands that they picked, one of them was one of those post-Grateful Dead jam bands where everybody sits up there and plays the same chord. And the other was a couple of twin brothers that liked to do old Jack Pierce cowboy tunes. And then there's us. It was a crazy night on the news, lemme tell ya.
AI: From the variety I've heard on the Automatic Music CDS, I'd guess what you hear in performance would draw from some stylistic element depending on who the musicians are at any given performance.
BH: Actually some of what's on the CDS is from live performances. Fred, I think, is just really good in the studio. And he really puts his stamp on stuff. He can take something that was either recorded in his studio under fairly controlled ambient noise situations, or in a coffeehouse with the espresso machine squealing 8 feet away and still make it sound good. So Automatic Music, some of it comes from live source material. But a very large part of what I would call the compositional process occurs in the studio. I knew I was going to get along playing with Fred right off the bat because I reviewed Gentlemaniac stuff long ago, before I ever met the guy. And as soon as we hooked up I took a look at his record collection and saw that it was more similar to my record collection than anything I have ever seen in my life. The paradigm by which Automatic Music produces music is really different I think from most people because the studio is such a large part of the compositional process. I don't hear anything like Automatic Music coming out of anybody. [Ed. note - See this issue's General Reviews section for reviews of new Automatic Music releases.]
AI: You had mentioned writing for Op and Sound Choice. I guess you're talking about the whole cassette DIY scene during the 80s...
BH: As Robin James called it, it was the Cassette Mythos. He published a book by that name. But yeah, I was very involved in that back then. I've got photocopies of the reviews I had written up. I've probably got 70 different releases that got reviewed in all those different places. And I probably reviewed several hundred people over the years. It was fun. It was really fertile. A lot of things were happening. People were getting along and being supportive of one another. I try to keep going with the inclusivity thing but I don't find a lot of allies anymore.
AI: Does the ease of communication on the internet have anything to do with these changes you're talking about?
BH: Well I think the ability for people to shoot their ideas back and forth on the internet is a wonderful thing. I used to do it all by telephone and mail. And it was very time consuming. Of course those media provide longer periods of reflection about what you're doing, which is something that may be lost on the internet because it's so instantaneous. Everybody's real concerned about their time. So I think some of the time for reflection upon what people are doing perhaps is lost. So the internet is a mixed bag. Every time I check my email I get sales pitches and spam crap that I can't stand. "The Information You Requested"... no I didn't! And then it says reply to this address and we'll remove you. You go there and it doesn't exist. But the speed is good. Case in point. Back around late 96 I was yakking with this guy who moderates a discussion group concerned with the group the Residents and associated things that came out of Ralph Records. It's called Smelly Tongues. Kim Andrews is a professor down in Houston who runs the whole show, and I suggested we do an in-house gathering of covers of Residents tunes from people on this discussion group. And we got this enormous response. I was initially doing this thing on the internet. Well what happened? My computer died. And I was in this tight financial situation at the time and I couldn't replace it. I had to relinquish the project because I couldn't do it without the internet. So it's like the internet is a crutch that could very easily be kicked out from one. But I know a lot of people who make their living off of the internet and that's a good thing, particularly if you're doing something of value or merit.
AI: Tell me about your homemade instruments.
BH: I've made so many instruments over the years. A couple of them have survived. And a couple have only survived as recordings because they broke. I've given them to people. Like Scotty Irving. I made the electric salad bowl for him. And it was just this cheesy plastic salad bowl with a contact microphone attached to it and it went through a phase shifter. He played it till it broke. It was part of his Clang Quartet thing. I walked up to Bob Jordan with a thing that I used to have called Joe. It was a block of wood, and it had a bridge on both ends of it, and 2 strings went across it, and in the middle of it there was a big huge Dimarzio humbucker. And you could tune the 2 strings to whatever pitch you wanted and you played it with a stick. It was kind of like the idiot's hammer dulcimer.
AI: The Duets CD with you and Ernesto Diaz-Infante stands out because it seems to list the most varied instruments and homemade instruments from you. But it lists Can-jo here. Is that what you're referring to?
BH: I didn't invent the Can-jo. My folks gave it to me as a Christmas present a couple years ago. Everybody's got their eyes out for weird instruments for me. And the Can-jo was a native North Carolinian invention, and what it is is a piece of wood that's like one half by one inch by two feet long. And on one end of it is attached a Dr. Pepper can with the top cut out. It's the sound body of the instrument, and through it passes one single string for a guitar which goes up to a tuner at the other end, and it's got about 9 frets on it. That's the Can-jo. But what you're hearing on that record is the Can-jo with one of those... have you ever seen those contact mics that people use with tuners that have a suction cup on them? They have an electric tuner and it's got an in-jack. And you plug in this little contact mic and then there's about 5 feet of wire, and then there's the contact mic and it's like a little disc with a little suction cup on one side and you stick it on your violin or upright bass or guitar or whatever. It'll go to the tuner and you get a direct line rather than playing into a contact microphone with people talking in the room. You can amplify anything with them. You can stick it into a little Walkman as the mic input, stick the suction cup on your porch light up on the ceiling, and then stand inside while it records and click it on and off, and you'll get the sound of a lightbulb turning on. These microphones are fabulous. If you use them intelligently with compression, and you try to EQ it to maximize the signal, you can record anything you can stick it on. I've stuck it on the refrigerator just before the kids come home from school and just made a tape of the door opening and closing as they go in there for snacks. I use a whole lot of sounds that weren't produced with musical instruments. Sometimes I'll pull out a chunk of it and loop it. It'll sound like a deliberate drum thing but really it's the lid of the toilet.
AI: On that note, listening particularly to the Duets CDS, in the reviews I struggled to talk about all these sounds that are apparent throughout.
BH: I like sound. I like to try to be painterly with it, and do things that the market doesn't necessarily dictate as wise choices. But it's the stuff that cracks the mold that you remember. Particularly the stuff that deceives you at first into thinking that it is not what it is. And then all of a sudden it dawns on you... holy shit this is really good! And for a moment you really thought it was something that you were familiar with. On the Mark Kissinger [Duets] disc there's one song of his where I play nothing but hairbrushes and combs. But they've been octaved way down. And there's one tune where I use the pages of a book and I'm flipping them rhythmically to the music. But rather than pages of paper they sound like sheets of plywood falling down.
I have a number of Asian instruments because when I lived over there I toured around a lot and collected things. I went to Buddhist stores and bought up all kinds of percussion things that they use in prayer and meditation and so forth. The Kweng was a gift from an army dentist friend of mine who went to Taiwan. It's like an Asian harmonica of sorts. In the middle of it is a large potato sized round lozenge of wood, and passing through it are different lengths of bamboo with about a half inch diameter and I think there are about 10 or 12 types going through it, and on each of these bamboo sound tubes that go through it there's a hole drilled which you cover in order to make its sound. You put the palm of your hand on the potato sized thing and your fingers extend up the bamboo and you play it like that. You blow into one side of that potato. And that's what the Kweng is. My baby daughter got ahold of it so it's gone. She's the master of disassembly.