Ever wondered what goes on in the heads of people who play improvised music? Here at (((o))) we did, so we asked Brighton noise peddlars Kellar to open themselves up to a Vulcan mind meld so we could see for ourselves. Come and have a look what we found.
(((o))): Can you tell us who’s in Kellar and what you do in the band?
Dan: Kellar is Andy Pyne on drums, and me, Dan Cross, on Guitar, Bass and whatever else is on hand at the time.
(((o))): What is your interest in Harry Kellar? Are any of you magicians?
Dan: Neither of us are magicians, I’m sorry to say. I’d love to give you a deep, romantic response to this, but honestly, it was a case of name first, interest later. I was aware of Harry Kellar having read about him before, as I have a small interest in stage magic as a phenomenon (not enough to ever learn any tricks.) I gathered a bunch of names together and we eliminated the majority of them pretty rapidly. It was between Kellar and something else, I can’t remember what, though. After deciding to go with the name Kellar, I began to read more about him and found him fascinating. We named the majority of the tracks on the first album, “Beloved Dean of Magic”, after his illusions, as they had a certain ring to them. That’s really about as far as the Kellar thing goes.
(((o))): Broadly your music is improvised experimental noise. How long have you been interested in looking for alternatives to traditional rock instruments used in the normal way?
Dan: Always. Before I even began playing guitar, I used to rub my hands along the fret board of my dad’s old acoustic, enjoying the shimmering, scratching noises that it created. Or banging on objects that would reverberate. I think we both have a desire to take the familiar and morph it and contort it until it makes the sound we want, whatever that sound may be. It’s only once the sound has been made that we realise whether or not it was what we wanted to hear.
I use a lot of effects when playing, so my sound is very rarely ‘clean’ – there’s always something layered above or beneath it, or wrapped all the way around it, to add another texture, to give an alternative sound. With just two of us in the band, there’s a lot of room to create extra layers and sounds that fill some of the gaps in the overall sound. That said, I’m learning to embrace the gaps.
Andy: Right from when I first started playing (about 24 years ago). I was listening to stuff like early Sonic Youth, Captain Beefheart, The Fall, Minutemen etc and this made you realise that drums don’t have to be just a backbeat and songs don’t have to be V/C/V/C/M8/C/C . Then a couple of years later discovering those krautrock bands, Glen Branca, free jazz, jungle etc, and the idea of sticking to the standard rock band formula starts to seem pretty dull. And I’ve never felt like a ‘proper’ musician anyway, it was the post-punk DIY ‘anyone can have a go’ attitude that actually made me think I could make music in the first place, school had put me off.
(((o))): To what degree are your songs mapped out and how much of them is improvisation?
Dan: All the recordings of all of our tracks are improvised. Even on the rare occasion that we try a piece again, we don’t apply any structure or force some sort of shape around the music. We just play it again and try to nail the same mood, but we don’t map anything out – there’s never been a discussion around a track to try and put sound A here, or beat B there. We never sit together and write anything. The beauty of improvising is that you catch sounds and moments that you can’t plan out and get right with each re-play of the piece, whether that be a gnarly growl or a harmonic that just happened at the right time.
When we’re recording, I’ll come to the session with a few riff ideas in mind, or a few settings for effects that I’ve found when tweaking at home, but these are never communicated. If an idea works, it works, and if the moment’s right for it, it can be a very intense experience.
Andy: I swear a lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them the stuff is improvised. I’m not sure why more people aren’t doing things this way. Come on in, the water’s lovely!
(((o))): When you are performing improv, how do you know what the other guy is doing so you know what sounds will compliment them? Does one lead and the other follow? How do you know when to stop?
Dan: That’s a good question that I don’t really know the answer to. We don’t communicate much when we play, either live or in the studio, if at all. It just happens naturally. Our pieces tend to end naturally around the 8 minute mark (typically) and we both seem to be able to say ‘I’m done’ with either a change in beat or riff, or a change in pace. We’re both able to pick these up and work with it. Of course, that doesn’t always work and things can often be a mess. You don’t get to hear the bits that don’t work.
We’ve been quite lucky with it at times, but I think we’ve reached a point where we just kind of know where we’re going and when we’re there. There’s no nod or wink to flag what we’re about to do, we just reach an end point. The real trick is to then make the ending sound like an ending, rather than a track burning out. That works too, though, sometimes.
Our approach has always been to record absolutely everything. Every note we’ve played in the studio is in a file somewhere, apart from the shows we’ve done live. This gives us the option of being able to pick through things that work and things that don’t.
Andy: I think my greatest musical ability is knowing when to stop. I think if you’ve played a lot of music, and a broad range of music, you do naturally develop a sense of structure. Playing composed music does actually help you become a better improviser I reckon.
(((o))): Why don’t you write and play normal rock?
Dan: What’s ‘normal’ rock?
There’s something about improvisation that just works for us. When you get on a roll and it works, it’s unbeatable. Andy’s very good at steering the tempo and structure with the drums without overtly saying anything and I try to follow that whilst shifting the guitar sound to somewhere else. It’s a challenge, and I think that’s one of the best things in improvising. It’s as much a challenge to play as it is to listen to.
You could, almost accidentally, come up with something incredibly structured and that sounds like a ‘normal rock song’, without making any concious decision to do so. There’s a few tracks on the new album that definitely followed this route. Or you might come up with something without any structure, cadence or timbre, but it still works as a musical piece. That makes the whole process quite exciting, as the uncertainty can take the music to places it wouldn’t have gone to had it been heavily written and practised.
Being tied into rigid structures can often make it difficult to express anything other than the mood at the time of writing. Improvisation lets you create new music every time you play, even if you chuck in some ideas that have been recorded before. This is more likely to happen live and it gives the audience a frame of reference to things we’ve recorded, even if it’s played completely differently.
Andy: I’ve played with straight-ahead song bands, bands that were semi-improvised, I’ve made dance tracks by programming beats and looping samples, but I’ve just found that free improvisation is the method that works best for making the music I want to make. I have actually been playing completely structured songs again with Shrag over the last few years, and in a lot of ways I find it harder to do, having to play the same structures exactly right over and over. I do have respect for the craft of doing that well, and Shrag have great songs, but it has re-enforced the feeling that improvisation is the method that suits me.
(((o))): Are you essentially a bit hyperactive – easily bored?
Dan: No, not at all. We just like to try and do something new each and every time. I don’t think we could be accused of creating pieces that sound the same, which is an unspoken intention. We want to give the listener new sounds and moods with every track, which I think we’ve achieved. I don’t think that’s a result of boredom with what’s come before, though. It’s just that we want to throw a new challenge out to the audience every time.
Andy: I am self-conscious about repeating myself too much, although it does inevitably happen. And stuff does have to excite me, or it’s just a waste of time.
(((o))): You’ve recorded and released a couple of albums and an EP, although at around 36 minutes “Smokescreen” was hardly short. Each of these records has similarities but also significant differences from each other. Do you see this as a reflection of an evolving style, or is it more like a series of projects with new ideas? How would you characterise the similarities and differences?
Dan: With the first album, we were literally throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck. We’d never played together and weren’t really familiar with each other’s styles of play. We recorded the majority of the first album in the first four or five sessions of playing together. Further to that, most of the first album was culled from a single 45 minute jam piece, which Andy edited down to tracks.
“Smokescreen”, the second release, was culled from, essentially, leftovers from the first release. “The Levitation of Princess Karnak” was recorded in our second session! It had a feel that worked with the other two tracks and I thought it would be a shame for it to never see the light of day, so we put the three tracks out as a digital download exclusive.
By the time we’d reached the second album sessions (probably 4 months later), we’d found our feet together and had really worked out where each of us stood within the sound. As there was so little time between the first and second release, I guess it would be fair to say that we were still trying to make that dynamic work. There’s a definite change in the sound for Cell Divides though, as we introduced new sounds – new effects that we’d picked up, or new instruments. Dave brought synths into the sound, and stepped back from the guitar. I suppose this was an evolution of sorts.
(((o))): Naturally you have another album due soon. What can we expect?
Dan: It’s a massive change in sound, I feel. Hopefully for the better! The new album, “Fulminant”, is essentially a fresh start for Kellar, and draws a line under the 3 piece era. When Dave decided to move on from Kellar, we had to find new ways to fill out the sound, which I think we’ve achieved. Rather than two guitars duelling for the lead over the drums, there’s now just drums and guitar. This has allowed Andy and I to bounce off each other more naturally, without any element of the two guitars clashing. In the earlier material, there are times where the two guitars fighting against each other works really well, and times where it… doesn’t work as well.
When there’s just two of you, it’s a lot easier to steer things in a single direction, even without any planning or writing of a track. There’s no room for one sound, texture or mood to continue when the other changes. I think this has given the new material a more ‘musical’ feel. And by that, I just mean that there’s been more natural, organic structure to the music, which has been a happy accident more than anything.
With that said, there’s still some of the stuff you may have come to expect from Kellar – 10 minute ambient pieces, out and out noise rock assaults, that sort of thing. In contrast to this, there’s some very straightforward tracks that have a loose, but present, structure. I’d go as far as to say there’s a couple of tracks on the album that could be described as pop.
(((o))): What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened at one of your gigs?
Dan: Back in the 3 piece days, I remember thinking the sound on stage had suddenly gone a bit… weird. I was fully head down in the moment, staring at the light shining off of one Andy’s cymbals, then looked up, to see Dave was standing in the audience. He’d put his guitar down and left the stage to have a listen to us. Maybe that was an early sign that the line-up was going to change. I think that was at our second gig.
(((o))): What’s something about Kellar we won’t find on the intergoogle?
Dan: That depends on how far you’re willing to poke around the internet, really. We’ve only been playing together for about 18 months, so there’s not an awful lot of dark secrets to discover at this point.
Andy: Poke around on the intergoogle and you’ll probably find a few things even we don’t know about. Best leave well alone I reckon.
(((o))): Thanks for your time and for making great music.
Dan: You’re welcome. Thanks for listening.