Greg Fox – Free form drummer ventures forth with Gradual Progression (interview)
Interview by Simon Christensen.
The recent solo efforts mark “the end of the beginning” for musician and improvisor Greg Fox. Although still partly recognized as a metal drummer from the hard-hitting band Liturgy, he is influenced even more so by free jazz, computers and sound itself. Greg Fox has been involved in an exciting series of projects ranging from electronic music with Hieroglyphic Being and Ben Frost, experimentalists like Zs, Kid Millions and Colin Stetson (as part of Ex Eye and Sorrow), and as well as playing with Marshall Allen and Milford Graves. The latter, who he considers his mentor, inspired the recording of the truly drawing solo LP Mitral Transmission from 2014, which was made as a purely digital concept.
Even though his ambitious new solo album The Gradual Progression isn’t his debut as main composer after several releases as Greg Fox, GDFX and Guardian Alien, he is standing on a threshold to a new territory, Greg Fox explains on a phone line from his native New York to Passive/Aggressive in this interview.
“Beyond the making of this album in itself, I have learned a lot about my own creativity and the other outlets of my expression I have, as well. There are ways, in which this triggered a phase that feels like the end of one chapter of my life as a musician and a beginning of a new section. To have a record out and to be touring as a solo musician, changes the perceivable legitimacy of what you are actually trying to do. It’s almost enough to be a drummer and do a solo project in another way than if you are a guitarist playing a solo show. It is not that unique to be a solo drummer, but it opens up a new territory and it is also a real representation of what I want to do as an artist. At least, this record is the best representation of me so far. Getting that into in the world and pursuing the opportunities, doors opening out there, will lead to more of the things I want to be doing, also collaboratively.
It’s a relief to be communicating music as myself and not as part of a band. I still have a reputation of being a metal drummer, but I think anyone who knows me would say, I am not a metal drummer. I can physically do that stuff, but at a certain point you will realize that since this is not a metal record, what are you gonna call me now?”
The Gradual Progression, which is released by experimental label RVNG Intl., is made with Sensory Percussion, which is a setup with magnets (as shown on the picture above) on the drum set that is mapped and transferred to a digital signal, which can then be programmed and manipulated into any sound imaginable. And the new album very much reflects that method of work as it utilizes that free-setting quality. The end result sounds more like slow progression- and minimalist-inspired sound art than a free jazz solo drum record.
“This album really came from the technology sensory percussion, and when I started working with that as an extension of my instrument, that was when this music really started to take shape. The first thing I had to do, and this happened during a residency at Pioneer Works, where I spend my time building the architecture, was virtual scaffolding that I could use to write this music. It took me weeks to develop that. The music itself is definitely not through-composed but it is not fully improvisational either. There is a balance there, and the best way I can describe it is that I am writing ‘environmentally’. To me it feels like the way that people create virtual reality, if you draw a yard or a space inside a computer game, you know? I really do feel like I am composing in virtual reality, in 3D, as objects, instead of thinking of it as sheet music or linear compositions. It feels like the technology I am activating is a map, and the pieces I play are exploring that map. The details and characteristics of these environments define the personality and temperature of the specific piece.”
P/A: So when you are actually playing the piece in the moment, is it improvised?
“Yeah, but it is actually more like having a map with it’s own characteristics and sounds for each piece, and when I go into that map, I can go and explore that map. I might be stretching that metaphor, but it does really feel that way to me, when I write and record – and when I am gonna replay that music in a live context. It’s like a video game and you can go back and tweak it on a macro level and adjust the parameters here and there, so it does evolve.”
Although this is the first released material of Greg Fox’ extended drum kit and the sensory percussion method, he is also using it in the bands Guardian Alien and Zs already. On the upcoming solo tour he travels only with the sensors and an interface, which he programs according to the local house kit of the venues to play within the same range as The Gradual Progression.
“It marks my progression as a musician. Playing music has been the main thing, I’ve been doing with my life through ten years. I am at the end of the beginning of my career, do you know, what I mean? I have been doing this for a long time, but in other ways I am brand new in this field. This record is the beginning for my ability to explore musical and creative territory and it is helping me. Using sensory percussion is amazing to me, because it allows to explore my creativity in a way that I haven’t done before. I am very excited about it, and this record for me, is a point, where I could express myself with this technology without any roadblocks.”
P/A: In one sense percussion music, the voice and ambient sounds of the nature represents the oldest and most primitive kind of music in the world. To what extent are these sources an influence for your music, and do you ever think about going back in time in the way you use percussion?
“I believe they are an influence. I am really drawn to the sound of pitched percussion. And I think there is something about pitched percussion instruments that connects the primal music and the systems we have in music theory and composed music, as far as the ability to relate the intervals of notes and scales. That’s certainly a part of my work,” he adds.
“I am going forward and backwards at the same time. I am such a nerd and into technology, new music gear, computers and science fiction that brings out my inner child. But with music it does feel like something that stretches backwards. I think a lot about my family and ancestry that brought me here in the first place. I would say I am seeking in both directions in search of inspiration, justification and answers to questions that would later lead to new questions for me, too.”
P/A: In the accompanying notes from RVNG Intl. it is stated that the music activates spiritual states. Can you reflect on the terms ‘spiritual states’, ‘gradual progression’, the virtual environment and what they mean to you?
“I am not sure I would use the word spiritual necessarily, although I am also interested in that matter. There are a lot of connotations of spirituality, and I am not sure that spirit is the feeling, we are dealing with here. Spirituality is more a question to me than something I have the answer to. It also goes for the title The Gradual Progression that for me has a lot of different meanings on a personal level, but it speaks to something that maybe everyone can relate to. It is slow progress, improvements, patience, something you build, maybe faith, and things working out in the natural way, they will.
I am not trying to convey a specific meaning to people listening to the music, and people can form their own meaning of that in a ‘dreamscape’ kind of way, but for example “My House of Equalizing Predecessors” comes from a dream I had about my paternal grandparents, who have a long story going back. I was in their house, but everything inside was covered with crystal, floors and walls with very organic growing, and it was this house in an idyllic setting with rolling hills and sunshine outside, and every time the dream came to an end, my grandparents and all that crystal disappeared and it was just back to a regular house. And that was it. So that piece is flashing back and forth between states of being. It is evocatively very close to my memories of that dream and of moving through that liminal space.”
Info: “The Gradual Progression” is out on RVNG Intl. on September 8th. The album includes contributions from musicians Curtis Santiago, Michael Beharie, Maria Kim Grand, and Justin Frye. Greg Fox embarks on a European solo tour in September. Read the second part of this interview in the Passive/Aggressive ZINE coming out later this year.