Text & Interview: Andy Fenwick
Cover Photo: Landon Nordeman
Photo: Lisa Corson
One challenge to writing about Man Forever, the collaborative band-project by Kid Millions (secret identity: John Colpitts) is to limit the highlights of everything else Colpitts does, for brevity’s sake (and fail): a 2014 live-record collaboration with J Spaceman; a startling remix of Harry Taussig’s 40-year-old alt-folk; teaching composition ; writing for Rolling Stone; playing with Steven Malkmus, Yo La Tengo, Phillip Glass, etc. and so on; 20 years of music with Oneida, arguably the greatest rock band in New York City right now (oh, and Oneida offshoot People of the North).
The challenge to writing about Man Forever’s new album Play What They Want is the same: to resist writing about each tiny sound and touch and arresting moment. The album title works either as a joke, in that Colpitts has obviously played whatever he’s wanted and still does, or it speaks to the fact that this album, unlike most of his solo work, almost adheres to song structure, eschewing the long form compositions of prior Kid Millions albums. Play What They Want definitely avoids the more abrasive guitar/organ of much of his Oneida and Kid Millions albums (like the monumental Jim Sauter collaboration Fountains), although you’ve probably guessed that doesn’t mean Auto-tune is used.
A word on Oneida: Back when the 21st Century was dawning, Oneida appeared and twisted postpunk with a daring few of their contempos (with maybe the exception of Liars, or Chavez) dared attempt; a knotty, organ-driven sound switching from the free-jazz stew of tracks like “Still Remembering Hidin in the Stones” to the creepy, chant-like “Almagest.” They also could drop the half-nearly pop of “All Arounder” like it was nothing, although it wasn’t. Colpitts’s drumming was never less than sweet-spot complex, and if you were lucky to witness them live (and you still can!) you realized right away he was a lead musician, and one of the best drummers you’d seen or would see. And he was playing what he wanted.
Play What They Want offers songs about Gordian knots, catenaries; debt, and greed. “You Were Never Here” can be diagrammed like a sentence: launching with a Son-like cowbell, snare, and standup bass, it features Yo La Tengo’s three voices swirling apart and recombining like a vocal helix while a lone-note organ tone exhales underneath. At 3:15, the track halts with a chime, and then the original instruments resume, and for the next two minutes, a rolling, untethered piano freestyles over intermittent harp, the dense rhythm of the beginning abandoned entirely to wordless soprano vocals. At five minutes, what was beautiful shades ominous, vocals beneath the overall tone, there but not, until everything soon pulls together to a head-nodding collapse.
Colpitts’s singing is careful, measured, and that works well, notably on “Catenary Smile,” where tone of fragility and thoughtfulness adds to the observation of mathematical perfection in a smile. Imagine Popol Vuh in a field with taiko drummers. “Twin Torches,” a collaboration with Laurie Anderson, pitches a thunderous barrage of percussion and organ at Anderson’s haunting poetry and violin. “Ten Thousand Things” might be straight-up tropicalia, with cowbell and saw blade. “Debt and Greed” is the only place where guitar moves up in the mix, with Trans Am’s Phil Manley painting the song with a sparkling lead.
Ok, maybe there isn’t much challenge to writing about an album this good. So, we asked Colpitts to talk about it all.
What’s the most unusual drum or instrument, overall, used on the record?
Though it’s not *that* strange we used a couple of harps on “You Were Never Here.” That’s a little unusual for a percussion record maybe? On “Twin Torches” there are some crunching explosive sounds. Those are contact mics applied to bells, vibes and cymbals and sent through reverb and distortion.
On “Ten Thousand Things” Matt is playing a saw blade. That’s the dominant pulse throughout the entire piece. It’s a nice weird tone.
What kinds of things did Tigue hit?
Tigue played a drum set, cowbells, shakers, toms, snares, vibes (though I don’t think those made the final record), saw blades, wood blocks, gongs, bells. I think that’s it!
I could be wrong: do I hear an organ drone somewhere, sometimes? A keyboard of some sort?
Sure – it’s on the credits! There’s some organ. There’s also violins, guitar and harmonium droning on a number of tracks.
Jazz musicians have always investigated, for lack of a better description, ecstatic music. But rock musicians never seemed to dabble in it as consistently (with exception maybe of Krautrock & some psych) until maybe the last 20 years, via drone or rhythm, and even in genres like metal. Why do you think that is?
Huh – I don’t know if I agree. I guess it depends on your definition of ecstatic. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison is pretty ecstatic. Bob Dylan’s Visions of Johanna is pretty ecstatic (and Mr. Tambourine Man if you check the lyrics). The Doors – though I’m not that into them … you gotta give Morrison ecstasy at least. And of course Jimi Hendrix … do I need to go on? The 60s is basically all about it – especially in the pop realm.
I think rock music by definition is ecstatic music. It’s ritualized music.
AC/DC is ecstatic music. . .
The late Jaki Liebezeit changed rock and roll, of course (as did Can). Do you hear Liebezeit’s influence in anything that surprises you?
Well it was interesting to hear “Vitamin C” playing as a “funky” soundtrack to Netflix series The Get Down. When the graffiti-laden subway cars rolled by the soundtrack would play Can. Of course this is a series made by an Australian dude about the Bronx. It’s kind of a dumb series.
I think it’s pretty awesome when Bernard Purdie says to Jaki in an interview (I think in a Red Bull book), “I have great respect for you, I’ve known about you for most of my life.”
All those parts are done with multiple drummers. They were played live on the recordings - no overdubs. It sounds very complex but it's mostly just the way the parts work together that makes it sound so crazy.
How did Yo La Tengo come to sing for you, and how did you stop them at singing (unless they do more than that?)
I was listening to “You Were Never Here” and trying to figure out what it needed. My voice just wasn’t sounding awesome. Then I just heard their 3 voices together on it. So I asked them and they said yes! I just asked them to sing … and that’s all they did. They really elevated the song though. I loved how Georgia just took my melody and transcended it. She asked me if she could do her own thing and of course I said yes. They made the song I think.
How did you end up collaborating with Laurie Anderson on “Twin Torches?
Well. . .it’s a long story. I’ve been playing with Laurie on and off for a few years now. It’s sporadic and it’s always a lot of fun – really interesting. The same thing happened on “Twin Torches” that happened on “You Were Never Here.” I had done a vocal that didn’t work. I kept listening and working on the song. . .thinking about the song and I finally just realized that I heard her voice on it. But I also had a concept for her. I would listen to the songs for hours and just kind of ruminate and see where the muse took me. For a while I was going down this path related to Greek myths. . .the concept of protective spells, protectors etc. I imagined the voice of a protector intoning words over a sleeping city. Plus, I had an idea for the words – they would use the oldest words in English that are still in use today. I got a list of the words and had all the materials ready. I even wrote some lyrics that were not great.
I pitched the idea to Laurie and she was curious – and I just kept discussing it with her over a number of months until she had some time to do some recording. That was exciting. . .
We sat down together and she wrote out the lyrics in about ten minutes. There’s only one line that we kept from my original lyrics. . .but at least there’s that!
Then when we were recording her vocals she also pulled out her violin! I wasn’t expecting that. Amazing!
How long did that track take to perfect, from recording to final mix?
Ha-ha … well I recorded the drums in Sept 2015 … and then I think I signed off on the mix a few days before we mastered … which was like Jan 2017. So, a long ass time.
Press materials mention “Twin Torches” as being some of the more complex drumming you’ve performed, but “Catenary Smile” sounds harder. Why was “Twin Torches” difficult? Which was more enjoyable to play?
Oh? Well. . .Twin Torches isn’t *that* hard for me. Catenary Smile was just kind of riffing. I had a pattern that I kind of pulled out of my ass. . .I think it’s in 5/4. All those parts are done with multiple drummers. They were played live on the recordings – no overdubs. It sounds very complex but it’s mostly just the way the parts work together that makes it sound so crazy. To play the parts correctly I need trained drummers. . .not any hacker will do. That’s not to say that hackers aren’t awesome – just not for this phase of Man Forever.
But at the same time – the parts aren’t hard for me. I tend to develop parts that I can play – for better and for worse for sure.
Some of the tones you create with wordless vocals are spectacular; “Catenary Smile” reminds me of Popol Vuh, especially tone. How important was reverb and tone during the recording?
Cool! Well. . .all praise on that track should go to Nick Hallett. I think I just told him to go for it – I might have told him the kind of vibe I was looking for – and he supplied the great singing! I love Popol Vuh. I believe you when you say you’re hearing that! I didn’t think of them during this record but I love them. Makes perfect sense.
In terms of reverb and tone. . .during the recording I think Nick sang with some reverb in his headphones – though not what we added to the final mix. That was just Colin Marston and I playing around with different reverb options. To be fair it was Colin with me behind his shoulder saying, “Yes. . .” or “No …”
Do you plan to/will you be able to recreate any of this live?
I’m working on a couple of North American tours that I will be announcing soon. . .Oneida has a new album coming out next spring and there’s a ton of projects brewing currently. Right now, I just want people to listen to this new album because I put everything I had into it and I’m kind of wrung out. It’s all there.