The following is a previously unpublished interview I had conducted with
Ashley Paul and Eli Keszler from early last year, which was a continuation
of a feature I had originally done on Keszler for Foxy Digitalis.
Both artists, of course, have gone on to produce some of their most accomplished and
well-received works since this interview was completed, with Paul's Line the Clouds
being one of this year's standout releases thus far. Check out their Rel Records website
for more information.
Partners and frequent collaborators, Ashley Paul and Eli Keszler, have been producing a steady stream of fascinating experimental sounds over the past few years through their various solo, duo, and other collaborative efforts that have appeared on their own tastefully curated REL imprint, as well as on such labels as ESP-Disk, Type, Orange Milk, and PAN. Both Paul and Keszler investigate acoustic-based sound from a multitude of angles that draws from elements of free jazz, modern composition, sound art, and even abstract songcraft. We had a chance to ask Ashley and Eli some questions about their individual musical and artistic development and how they feel they have been influenced be each other's work.
When did you pick up playing the saxophone? Was this the first instrument that you took an interest in?
I have been playing the saxophone since I was 10. I started piano at 3 and continued to study that pretty seriously through high school, but saxophone became my main instrument the second I picked it up...maybe even before…
I know that you had studied at the New England Conservatory in Boston. What were your specific interests that led you into that setting? How did your time there shape the music that you are making now, both as a performer and as a composer?
I had been living in New York for several years and really needed time to just write and play and think through what was in my head. It was to difficult to do that with life happening. I needed to go back to school to get all that in order...to be challenged and pushed and to play music all day. NEC allowed me to do all those things. I also met both Anthony Coleman and Eli Keszler there, two if my favorite people, both of whom totally changed my life in various ways, so that's not bad either.
How does your approach differ from your solo work to say what you do in Aster or Paul and Maurey?
Well, they are totally different - but not that different at all, really. I have to think a lot less with my solo work. I try to follow my instincts as much as possible and when I collaborate with other people there is much more advanced preparation. I have to collect the right words to communicate my ideas and that is often a major challenge. I don’t think about music in words, it is kind of sounds...and feelings. To try and describe, in language, what I hear in my mind is so hard. That’s why I play all the instruments on my solo records, I just want to get it done and out there. Playing with other people forces me to give up the reigns. Its fun and hard and frustrating and really satisfying when you realize you've made something together you could have never done on your own.
What went into the recording of your new Slow Boat album, maybe in comparison to your To Much Togethers release?
Slow Boat feels like a big change. I don't really know why. Leave Mine may have alluded to its coming — Eli tells me it's not so different. Things just felt more settled on Slow Boat. It is much more lyrical and has less (hardly any) saxophone and clarinet and a lot more voice. I didn't really plan it that way, it just sort of fell together. I think of each album as one complete piece. I often record much more material than what actually ends up on the record, saving tracks for later…or never…but put together the album as one work. I’m not crazy about albums that have a little of everything, they lose there intensity. I like them to flow and have a singular concept. In that sense, both albums are the same.
Given how closely you have worked together over the past few years on several collaborations, I’m just wondering how Eli’s music and approach has influenced your own work?
Eli and I could not have more different work styles. It is funny, really. We are polar opposites. I admire his work ethic immensely. I think the thing I take the most from him is that he just keeps going. He is always plowing away at something. He is a fountain of ideas. I watch him and can't help be inspired. I, on the other hand, often wait for inspiration and then become completely manic and work like crazy, can't think about anything else until it’s done. Watching Eli definitely keeps me going.
REL releases all come in these beautiful handmade, silkscreened editions, many of which I know that you’ve had a hand in. Has visual art been something that you had training in over the years or was this something that you picked on your own along the way?
I have been making art for as long as I can remember. My mother is a painter and showed me things from a very young age. I began art taking classes early and studied different mediums through my twenties. I love making things and find it really important to have music packaging be as detailed as the music itself. Its one unit to me. When Eli and I met we had that in common and almost from day one, started making packaging together. He had just started REL so I just hopped on board and helped.
What’s the status of your own Wagtail Records?
Over the summer Wagtail started doing limited edition screen printed bags and shirts. I am asking different artist to submit work and I print them. The first round was by Eli Keszler and they are amazing! I have couple releases coming up too. First ever Wagtail 7" by Reuben Son. It's really good, I'm super excited about it. Just waiting (and waiting and waiting) for them to get pressed and I'll be releasing a new solo something...cassette maybe…too, in late March.
When did you pick up playing the drums? Was this the first instrument that you took an interest in?
The first instrument I ever played was the piano and then I briefly switched to cello. When I was a kid it was pretty tough for me to read music and commit to learning an instrument like that. But I grew up in a really musical home. My father played a lot of instruments and there was always tons of guitars around – he was in the Peace Corps in Brazil and brought back lots of percussion - and had accordions and violins and all sorts of stuff lying around, so I used to mess around with this and that. But the drums were the first instrument that I ever really took to, I think because I was really an energetic kid and was into running around and all that so it clicked. That was around when I was 8 or 9.
I know that you had studied at the New England Conservatory, so I was wondering if it was during your time spent there that you began to look at a ‘drum kit’ beyond the typical rhythmic capabilities and towards something that you could use to create various textures and actually compose with?
Well, I never really hit on anything, let’s say, until I was there, but it was something I was working on beforehand. I grew up in Brookline, really close to Boston, so I could go into the city whenever I wanted and I used to go see a lot of experimental shows and noise shows – there’s just a lot of concerts going on there – and so I used to just go and check out a lot of things. Even though I wasn’t actively participating in it – I was thinking a lot about it – and I was playing at the time in all different types of bands and more conventional things. At the same time, I was really discovering all of this experimental music, both from concerts and going to the library and meeting people and listening to records. So by the time I got to NEC, I was trying to sort out all of these different things, like how do I balance the sort of energy that I really admire in rock and punk and all these things that I grew up with, with some of the more sonic and sparse elements of other types of music that I was starting to check out. And at NEC there is a lot of contemporary music being played - like Xenakis and things like that - and I used to go see those and it opened up my mind.
I was really working with the resources I had, so I started thinking more about the drums as a way of communicating my ideas versus just as backing. I think as I get more resources and can work with more and more, I’ll continue developing other areas, but the drums are like a home base for me. When I’m composing, I rarely think about “the drums.” When I’m making a record it’s about the music as a whole. Generally, the drums play a big part in that, but that’s only circumstantial and could easily change depending on what I’m interested in accomplishing.
How does your approach differ from your solo work to say what you do in Red Horse or Aster? Are these collaborative efforts generally more improvised than your solo material?
I would say that they’re not. Both of those projects are very collaborative, especially Aster is particularly collaborative because Ashley and I are working on it. I mean, I think there are a lot of connections, but I think there are some real big differences too. There is a little bit more nuance involved in putting the material together of Aster in a way that feels right to both of us. With Red Horse, we can generally work on the set-up and kind of agree on what the layout of the piece is going to be and then just do it. I think it gets a little bit trickier, especially with the new material that Aster is working on, combining some of this more aggressive, almost high-pitched experimental sound with more song-like structures that we’re doing. It can be a bit more complicated.
As far as improvising, there are elements of all parts that are opened, but in both of those groups, and definitely my solo group, I just don’t think that improvisation is exactly the word to describe it. It’s very much dealing with what’s going to happen and what’s going to happen next and what material will get the idea across in the most fluid way. We are planning from left to right always, and trying to develop something new. So much of what I do comes from speaking, and analyzing what’s happening around the music. I think it feels very natural when working on projects to do the same. Generally, improvisation is a funny thing for me. I love a lot of improvised music, but it seems to me like a lot of the great improvisers are much more like composers than they realize. So it’s a little bit tricky. I think that both groups deal with composition. With my own work, I notate and I keep tons of journals and sometimes if it’s the right musicians, I’ll just give them the score, if that’s the right way to work with them. If I had an idea with Aster, that just wouldn’t work. We work so closely together and the ideas just all build up organically together. With Red Horse also, it’s kind of the same thing. The nature of the presentation and material changes because of working with another person, but as far as the level of improvisation, I think it’s not so dissimilar in a lot of ways honestly.
I was really impressed by your partner and collaborator Ashley Paul’s To Much Togethers album from last year. To my ears, this is just a major work in so many ways. I’m just wondering how has Ashley’s music and approach influenced your own work?
It’s pretty hard for me to articulate Ashley’s influence on what I do, since she has really been around nearly from the beginning of what I’ve been working on. Her incredible ability to work with such little material and produce such strong results. I admire her ability to work with seemingly basic means and produce such powerful results; a little sound can produce an entire song or spring a whole melody form for her. A lot of things I love so much in her music are almost non-existent in what I do.
Also, on another level, her attention to detail has been such a big part of making REL’s designs possible, since she has awesome skills at printing, and crafts in general. A lot of the finer REL artwork is led by her. A lot of the printing, at this point, is done by her, while I organize the materials and all of that.
Musically, or creatively, I always shoot what I’m working on off of her and she’ll listen, say a strong word or two and leave, and I take the work off into the direction that it needs to go, really completing the process for me and making it what it is. She is always involved as a second set of ears and eyes for my projects.
When did you and Ashley actually start playing together as Aster? Was this sort of an outlet to put into practice some of the ideas and approaches you were both developing at NEC?
Ashley and I started playing together as soon as we began hanging out. I wouldn't say that our sound was formed in school, but we picked up a lot of new information and had some really supportive professors while we were there. We did take a lot in from different angles and tried to put it together, including everything that interested us rather then rejecting because they didn't fit in on first glance, or because other people weren't trying to do it. I think for both of us it was a relief that we could do what we wanted to do in a group, and not feel that we needed to take some specific approach just because 'that’s the way it is.'
I’m curious how the crotales become such an integral part of your sound?
One of the best things at NEC, which is really underused is the instrument library. You can go into the library and check out virtually any instrument from any where in the world you could possibly imagine. I had stopped playing the drums for about 6 months, experimenting with tons of ideas, trying to come up with something I felt good about. I was trying out a lot of different techniques and I stumbled upon the crotales. They immediately became an essential part of my music. They have incredible sustain and volume, and can be played flipped over to get a variety of clean pitches, in addition to being able to be bowed to create sustain. It extended the sound I was imagining coming from my playing, but couldn't sort out how to get there. They also solved a crucial volume problem for me. Because of their register and acoustic strength, they allow me to clear electric instruments in terms of volume while playing acoustically. Oddly enough, Ashley started using them at the same time before we started playing together.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that musically you are interested in acoustic-based sound or in working with the rawness of natural materials. It seems like you have similar interests in terms of the artwork that you create for REL; there is a very organic quality to your visual art that seems to be inspired by nature or your natural surroundings. Would you characterize your artwork work along these lines?
I would say yes to this. But, similar to my music even though I engage with natural materials and am interested in natural patterns, I don't reject technology as some sort of unnatural phenomenon. I try to look at things in a way so that the work forms its own type of criticism. I try to take in little details that are sitting on the surface. Also from a distance there overall quality. These ideas formed simultaneously in my music and visual work. You can't call yourself an environmentalist or say your interested in nature to me without taking seriously the possibility that all the trash and culture is the environment. Real things interest me, and I can't help but get frustrated at the way we tend to engage. I'm very critical of the way we engage with technology. Electronic sounds just don't hit my body the same way, thats why I use acoustic material. I try in my work to approach this in a non idealized way, that doesn't deny the way things are but attempts a different type of connection with materials.