Post-millennial swing

By JIM MACNIE  |  August 4, 2010

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR USE OF GUITAR. "FERROMAGNETIC" HAS WHAT COULD BE CALLED A METALLICA OPENING. I READ IN ONE INTERVIEW THAT YOU LOVE JOHN MCLAUGHLIN'S AGGRESSIVE WORK ON MILES'S JACK JOHNSON ALBUM. "Ferromagnetic" is a pretty explicit attempt to grapple with Black Sabbath. The title is a reference to "Iron Man." Those early Sabbath records have some of the most amazing rhythm section interplay of all time. Our drummer, Jon Wikan, is a huge Sabbath fan, and that helps in terms of having that intensity yet looseness, you know? That's something I think got lost in metal in the '80s; it got a bit too precision-oriented. In the '70s there's a give and take, a humanity to it. Later on there's almost a desire to purge that, make it more precise. That's not what I love. I love Paranoid. I cringe when someone puts a distorted guitar on jazz or classical records and a) the vocabulary doesn't make sense, and b) the sound stinks. It sounds like they've never really heard a rock record. They've gone and bought a fuzz pedal from Guitar Center and stomped on it with default settings. I'm fortunate to have Sebastian Noelle in the band, who understands guitar from a lot of perspectives. [In the studio] it was great to know that we're actually going to take a 1965 Fender Twin amp, turn up to 10, and get that sound of an overdriven tube. For Secret Society it's really used as unpretentiously as possible. Let whatever elements I'm bringing in be what they want to be, speak for themselves.

AT A RECENT GIG YOU DEDICATED "FLUX" TO DAVID FOSTER WALLACE. WHAT'S THE CONNECTION? I read Infinite Jest when I was an undergrad, and I knew I wanted to do something inspired that book. I was looking around for a long time to find the verbosity and the complexity, but also the visceral thrill of that prose. It's so densely packed with ideas, but there's also such an emotional chord to it and conversationality that gives it a spark that's not there in other authors who mine the same territory. You can always feel Wallace reaching out to the reader, regardless of how thorny or convoluted or deliberately perverse it gets. You can hear the active communication; he checks in with the reader at various points of the story and says, "Okay, I know things are getting weird here, but I you're still with me, right?" And that impulse is something I've tried to internalize in my work.

NOW THAT YOU'VE GOT THE BIG BAND BUG, COULD YOU EVER GO BACK TO WRITING FOR A QUARTET AND BE HAPPY? Well, not with me playing on it, because my piano chops are shot to hell. I still practice every day, but I have no desire to perform in public. At my NEC graduate recital I played half with a quintet and half with a big band I was conducting. That was kind of the end of the line as far as small group goes. Also, trying to grapple with being an instrumentalist at that level and get cocktail piano gigs in New York would require another lifetime. I had to be honest with myself to find where my voice was coming out most clearly, and it was definitely in the large group composition rather than trying to say something personal on the piano over "Have You Met Miss Jones?" Practicing bebop and standards is still enjoyable, but there's no need for me to actually play that. It's almost more enjoyable when divorced of the requirement that I try to do something different with it. It becomes more of like, "Okay, I can just kind of do my best and channel a third-rate Wynton Kelly and be happy with that."

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