In Conversation with Moppa Elliott from Mostly Other People Do the Killing

In Conversation with Moppa Elliott from Mostly Other People Do the Killing

May 9, 2014

Written by:

The Attic

Edited by:

Dragoș Rusu

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Something arbitrary, meaningless and ironic

Mostly Other People Do the Killing is a jazz quartet based in New York City, including trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist Moppa Elliott and drummer Kevin Shea. The group formed in 2003 and has released five albums to date, on Elliott's Hot Cup label, including an eponymous debut.

We met Moppa Elliot right after their concert in Bucharest, on a rainy night and had a very pleasant discussion, (almost) one-hour long.

Dragoș: You mentioned a few times, during your concert, about the titles of the compositions, being named after small towns of Pennsylvania. What’s up with Pennsylvania?

Moppa: People write jazz tunes and there are no words, right? Not really about anything, ever. And if they are, nobody could tell us and it doesn’t matter. So I was thinking that titles are really stupid and I didn’t want trying to think of titles, because whenever one tells us ‘this song is called..’ I don’t know…

Bogdan Scoromide: Lost in myself

Moppa: Yeah! Nobody gives a shit, at all. So I just wanted something arbitrary, meaningless and ironic. I’m from Pennsylvania and the state has lots of funny names. They have absolutely no relationship to the songs themselves.

Dragoș: Is the environment influencing you ?

Moppa: Playing live shows is what we do. The only reason to make an album is so that people who aren’t seeing you live, can hear your music. It’s impossible to play out for everybody in the world. That’s what we would like to do. So you have to make recordings. And recordings are always kind of really short snapshots, like one little frozen second, which is always kind of strange, especially with a band in these days, because I’m travelling constantly. So the album gives you a wide perspective, and so because of the albums, we make alterations with the live performances. What we did tonight, going from one song to the next song, to the next song, to the next song…you can’t really do that in the studio. And we don’t. In the studio we just play one song, from start. And some crazy things happen in the middle, but it’s the same song. Whereas when we play live, we’ll start with one song and then turning it to another song and then we’ll turning it into a bunch of shit, and then we stop. Or not. Whatever.

Laura: Do you know when to stop?

Moppa: Do I know when to stop? (laughing) I think that’s a question you can answer more than I can.

Laura: How do you know when to stop?

Moppa: I think that’s like a skill musicians developed over time. Ok, so tonight you probably heard a couple of times, where it gets to a stopping point. And sometimes we all stop and one person just keeps going. That happened on the first tune, three of us stopped and Peter just kept playing. And we have a way of playing where that happens a lot, sometimes by choice, sometimes by accident. And we all know that if the entire band drops up behind you, just do your thing, and maybe the band will come back in, or maybe it won’t, but we all have to trust each other that we’ll make accurate music decisions. And yeah, sometimes it’s a total disaster and sometimes it’s not, but if you’re not taking those risks, really cool shit doesn’t happen. Because then everything would be organized, planned and rehearsed and that sucks.

Bogdan: I can’t remember the person who said ‘you can’t improvise with an asshole, you have to like the guy’.

Moppa: It’s definitely true. And, in addition to liking the guy, there are plenty of people that we like, that don’t work in this band. Just because there’s a very specific way of playing that this band does, and there are a handful of other people that we know they can do it, return like a handful. So we have a piano player friend and a trombone player friend and another saxophone player friend and a guitar player banjo guy; those are the only people we’ve met, that understand what we are doing into a deeper level and fit in.

Bogdan: Who was the guitar player banjo guy?

Moppa: Brandon Seabrook. Check it out! He’s on the seven LP’s album we did and he has his own stuff and songs.

A really bizarre jazz world

Dragoș: Mostly Other People Do The Killing worked only with Hot Cup Records, your label. Is it better nowadays, for an American jazz quartet, to work only with one label?

Moppa: The jazz world is really bizarre right now; nobody is making any money, making records, anywhere. And at this point, there’s very little advantage to be on an established record label, but making more money or getting more visibility it’s just kind of silly at this point. But I guess people have reasons to do it, but not really the good ones. So when we started out, I just put out the first record myself, just because we wanted to do it, and we did it; it’s super cheap now, you can do it whenever you want, and put it on the Internet. We approached some labels, over the years and it never really made sense and I’m glad we just keep put it ourselves, because that’s why we are able to do exactly what we want to do, nobody is telling us what to do, which is best.

Bogdan: How did you approach the labels? Sent any demos?

Moppa: Yeah, we made a demo and email people. People we’re getting back and saying that’s interesting, but not really. You produce an entire record by yourself and you’re giving it to a label, and they are like ‘thanks!’. Why the fuck are doing that for? You made the record, put that shit out yourself and that’s fine. Everybody is buying shit on the Internet, downloading, anyway.

Dragoș: Did any label approach you?

Moppa: No. Nobody really cares, that’s an important thing.

Bogdan: This is just the right time to introduce Diana; she’s a young violin player. She needs a lot of advice about approaching labels and stuff like that.

Moppa: Hello Diana! Ok. Nothing really begins if you’re not doing it yourself. And this is where there’s a big break down between Americans and Europeans. I don’t know about Romania. Actually I’ll assume it’s not Romania. But places like Scandinavia, Germany, France, where there’s huge state support, especially France, where you play a certain number of gigs a year. In Europe it is really easy, in a certain sense. To us, there are a lot of European great musicians that we know, but there are a lot more kind of not very good European recordings made, you’ve probably noticed. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s no risk, you know what I mean? It’s like, ‘well, I write this, I get this money, I make this record and I’ll see you next year, do it again’. And because that’s so easy, I feel like people don’t think hard enough about what they’re actually going to do. So you make this record, what it this record? Is this going to be like another free bop record? Do we really need one of those? Is your free bop record going to sound any different from the 4000 I already have?

In America, we have no money and nobody is going to give us any money, anyway. Though we all just make exactly the music we want to make and fuck everybody else.

Bogdan: Fuck all y’all!

Moppa: Yeah, fuck all y’all! And I think that’s really good for the music. It’s obviously bad economically, we would all be a lot more confortable if we didn’t have to worry about money, constantly. But the good side of that is that we have a lot more freedom and there’s a lot more of yourself invested in what you’re doing. So I know all of us, anyway. Made like constant decisions to just make exactly the music we wanted to make and not pay any attention to what anybody else told us ever, and put it out. I always think, when we started out, we were playing in a shitty basement, for ten of our friends in New York and nobody cared. The music was really fun and really good. And for a while, it didn’t really peak up very fast, and luckily all of a sudden lots of people like it and we kind of get to play here for you guys, and that’s great. But we never changed what we were doing to trying getting this. Even if nobody gave a shit, I would still be like riding the same tunes I ride now and like if I would still playing for like ten of my friends in a basement, I’d be playing for ten of my friends in the basement. The music would be exactly the same. I am really happy that other people like the music that I write and the way it is played, but that wasn’t the goal. We didn’t sit down and be like ‘oh man, how do we make some crazy free jazz and everybody is really going to love and travel’. It was like ‘here’s theses songs I wrote, let’s play them and have fun’. We’re just doing the thing that we do, so we are kind of really lucky that other people like it.

Peter plays a lot of solo music, solo improvisations. He just started playing solo concert wherever he could do them, in empty churches, shitty people’s lofts, squats, abandoned buildings, whatever. He made a recording and sent it to Evan Parker. And Evan Parker was like, ‘hey, this is really good, I’ll put it out’.

Diana: He’s Santa Claus.

Moppa: Yeah, to Peter is. That was really great, yeah. So Peter developed a way of playing the trumpet and it’s awesome that other people really like it, he’s an amazing trumpet player and so that works. But we are just like going exactly what we want to do. A lot of times is hard to figure that out; thinking a lot what you want to do is pretty challenging. But I mean, part of it is being really self aware and listening all the other music is happening and thinking really hard about why you’re doing what you’re doing. You know? Which I think most of the people don’t do.

Every time I buy a record by a bunch of …like… doesn’t matter who they are, it could be really famous, or really good or really not and it’s a bunch of songs rehearsed in the studio and recorded, I’m just like…’why would you do that?’ This is nothing. And I think that happens a lot, you know? The really good music that I hear now is all from people who have really thought hard about what exactly they’re going to do and they just did it.

Don’t worry about what anybody else thinks. It almost doesn’t matter what you’re doing; if you’re doing it with total conviction and it’s honest, it will probably be good. I feel like a lot of musicians in music school, get all these skills, they could play giant steps and on toes or whatever, but nobody really cares about it. It doesn’t matter at all. Then, they have all these skills and they don’t know what to do with them. They’re like ‘oh, I’m really good at playing over chord changes, I’m just gonna play over chord changes.’ Everybody can play over chord changes! How you’re going to do that? Make it interesting!

Bogdan: There’s no creativity.

Moppa: Right. But that’s not just like creativity; it’s just like …awareness. It’s like ‘oh right! Everybody plays over chord changes, ‘how could I do that differently? I could play weird over chord changes’. Cool! Do that! Get into really complicated harmonies and play over that, like some people do; and there’s some great music made that way. Or really simple chord changes with crazy meters. Fine. Go really deep into that. Or you don’t really like to play over chord changes, and you just want to play hour-long drones with overtones on the top of it. Cool! Do that!

Thinking about how it fits into the big picture, I think this is important and I don’t think people do that. That’s a really rumble answer to a question I don’t remember.

Bogdan: So you think that, the way is in Europe right now, for example.. First you have a door opening for you and then you have to create. It’s not really encouraging your creativity, right?

Diana: It can be a restriction.

Moppa: Right. And to my ears it is. Just because in any given year, the music that I really liked, tends to be made by obscure Americans, or really crazy Europeans, like The Thing, or whatever. Or, I guess like other Evan Parker people, like Axel Dorner, you know him?

Bogdan: He played here.

Moppa: Right. His trumpets are like choouuuuuu, like white noise to the trumpet for an hour. Now we’re talking. That is a thing. So I feel like that’s the stuff that it really catches my attention. Is that making sense?
Mostly Other People Do The Killing
Mostly Other People Do The Killing

Fun is totally serious

Diana: Absolutely. You’ve always been connected to the concept of fun, while making music.

Moppa: This is me, though. Not everybody has to be fun.

Diana: Have you ever made some serious ?…

Moppa: Fun is totally serious! I’m totally serious. But there’s a difference between serious and somber, or dark. And yeah, I make some dark creepy noises, I did some of that in my solo thing (earlier), but when I play solo, I tend to make creepy noises, but that’s not this band, that’s another thing. This band is just like ‘baaahh!’, you know?

Diana: Yeah, the solo was very different.

Moppa: Yeah. So this band doesn’t do that. And that was a realization I had pretty early, when Peter and I were in school together, we put together a band, he was like maybe 19 and I was 20 or 21 years old. It was the first band we did together, it was all fast and crazy.

Bogdan: What was the name of it? Did you have a name?

Moppa: Kimmy Gibbler. It was a character from an American sitcom comedy, it was terrible. Yeah. It was called ‘Full House’.

Bogdan: We’ve all seen ‘Full House’.

Moppa: Oh yeah, Kimmy Gibbler is like their best friend. Anyway. So, we played a concert and one of our professors in the school said exactly that: ‘this is really like crazy upbeat, but I didn’t hear darkness or sadness.’ And the saxophone player was like ‘well, yeah, I’m about to play a sonata at the conservatory tomorrow, if you want to hear some of that, come and see that, but that’s not what this band is.’ We try not to do that, so shut up. I feel like that kind of thinking gets you stuck. It doesn’t have to be anything.

Dragoș: Is the shooter logo a music statement?

Moppa: It’s just ridiculous irony. We get a lot of that when we come to Europe tough, ‘cause America is all violent, we have guns, and it’s like totally fucked up, but it doesn’t have to do anything with it. It’s just a jazz band, with a logo with a guy shooting the other guy. It’s funny.

Dragoș: I was thinking that you plan on shooting the conventional canons of jazz music.

Moppa: No, you’re thinking more than we are. It has nothing to do with that. (laughing) But the first time we came to Europe, we did a thing in Germany with some high school kids and they had to do research on us and write a paper. So this kid was doing a presentation of the band, we’ve been playing for like six years at that point. So he did a slideshow, going through the history of the band and this huge logo up on the screen and in this German school. So they were like ‘soooo, what’s with that? Is this like a commentary on school shootings in America?’ No man, it’s just a joke. But you probably don’t mess with that in Germany.
Mostly Other People Do The Killing
Mostly Other People Do The Killing

'That' is going to happen, sometimes

Dragoș: What about the most unusual experience you had while on stage?

Moppa: Most unusual? Neaahh.. I mean… Kevin sometimes crawls over the drum set, throws things and he’s crazy.

Dragoș: I saw some recordings on youtube.

Moppa: Yeah. But it’s not our own stuff. There was one concert we did where he took a drum solo and knocked the entire drum set over and then, the rest of the solo was him, trying to pick the entire drum set up and carry it. So he finally got all the pieces on top, and then he was standing on the front of the stage, all drums and shit, and then he picked up one foot and stood there for like 30 seconds, and after that fell over.

The shows themselves are different, sometimes there are really weird, sometimes not, this one in Bucharest was not a very weird one. We play other shows, where, for whatever reason, no two people want to play the same song, so it’s just like a weird wondering mess for a long time, where two people play one song and two people play another song and they won’t ever line up, it will be like one person for a while, everyone will stop, and it’s quiet, and someone else will start. It’s like that’s going to happen, sometimes.

We have an album coming out in the fall, there was one of those sets that got recorded, where for this whole set, nothing ever locks up. One person is always playing a different tempo, or in a different key, it is a really strange record, I’m glad this recording is coming up; it’s totally different from all the other stuff we’ve put out. But that kind of happens a lot. We’ve done a lot of shows like that, where it gets super weird.

Dragoș: Have you ever thought about collaborating with vocalists?

Moppa: No. I’m like a hater of jazz singing; I really don’t like jazz singing ever; very rarely. We did a record with a singer, a friend of ours, who can’t sing actually, he just kind of …yells, so there were some standards.

Bogdan: You like that.

Moppa: Yeah.

Bogdan: Like Sonny Sharrock, ‘Black Woman’, his wife Linda, when she’s screaming.

Moppa: Yeah, she’s screaming and there’s some kind of political thing, there. Right. That’s like a transcendent, cathartic, intense thing. I like that, but I’m not the guy who does that, I’m not a transcended cathartic dude. There’s this guy BJ Rubin, there was a band called Puttin on the Ritz, a duo, Kevin and this singer, and we did a record. I play a lot of gigs with singers and I feel like a lot of it is very predictable. There were great singers out there, don’t get me wrong, I’m just not interested in making any music with them.
Mostly Other People Do The Killing
Mostly Other People Do The Killing

The Importance of Humour

Bogdan: Diana here, she has very few options to play with.

Moppa: Play solo.

Bogdan: There is only one guy who can play the guitar with…

Moppa: Play duo

Bogdan: But they get to fight very often…

Moppa: That could be cool.

Bogdan: Can you give her some advice? Play solo?

Moppa: Play solo always. It’s just you up there for the entire set. On one hand, collaborating with others is good, because you learn different things from different people, but I feel like a lot of people, myself included sometimes, are scared to play solo. But you really learn a lot about yourself and about your music by doing it, because it forces you to create the structure yourself. And it forces you to find limits in your range. I think most people would benefit from playing more solo stuff. Figure out how to make that interesting and work. Because it is really hard. A lot of times its a total failure. But that’s important, because then you become aware of what works and what doesn’t in a very small sense, so you can apply that. Check out the solo option for a while.

Diana: Since your solo was so different, I was thinking that the main thing that connects you and the band is the same type of humor, right?

Moppa: It is one of them, yeah. It’s not all humorous though. You get the humor, its musical humor; there’s not like ‘ha ha, punch line’, you know what I mean?

Diana: It’s a serious humour.

Moppa: When you put all these things together, layer them, it is funny. Another thing that connects all of us is that we all play a wide variety of stuff, like classical music, jazz music, new music, rock, pop, all together. And that’s really important, because we need a lot of people who have a jazz language but can’t really improvise free and a lot of free musicians who can’t really play chords changes. And for us, in this band, is really important to be able to do both things really well. Because sometimes it’s totally free and sometimes it’s not. And it has to be right. So there’s a lot of free jazz musicians that couldn’t play in this, because they don’t play enough straight ahead and a lot of straight ahead musician that don’t play well in this because they don’t play enough jazz. I guess there’s some humorous overlap there, but that’s the main thing. The humor is definitely important.
Mostly Other People Do The Killing
Mostly Other People Do The Killing

What Do You Listen To?

Dragoș: What other music do you follow, besides jazz?

Moppa: I try to follow as much music as I possible can. I listen to lots of hip hop, lots of nu-music, some world music, experimental electronic music, white noise, stuff like that. I tend to not listen to pop music or dance music because it tends to become repetitive and not very interesting. Country music, pretty much everything I get my hands on. I have like 10.000 or 15.000 records, all kind of stuff. I’m one of those guys.

I teach a lot and I ask the students ‘what you listen to?’ and they are like "I listen to everything", "no, you don’t, that’s bullshit, you listen to pop music". Maybe some rock, or rap, or electronic, but that’s nothing. Oh, you listen to everything; who’s your favourite Country singer? Oh yeah, cool. Who’s your favourite Blues singer? Oh, great. Who’s your favourite composer from the Baroque era? Oh, shut up, you don’t listen to everything! Who’s your favourite Renaissance Polyphony composer? Got some Palestrina? Give me a break.

So, I feel like most people say they are listening to a wide variety of music, but they don’t. So I try, as hard as I can, to actually listen to as much as I can, because I think that’s really important. And I think being able to hear what makes a good country singer a good country singer and what makes a good rapper a good rapper, and what makes a good….you know… renaissance magical…or classical symphony, and what makes a good free improvise duo, being able to tell, that’s really important; at least to me. And I think that a lot can be learnt by listening to all these different genres, because there’s a combinability that runs through it, and that’s like honesty and conviction. You listen to some… I don’t know… Notorious BIG… or late Beethoven or …late Palestrina… or Merle Haggard, or Sam Cooke, or whatever, and it all have this genuine aspect to it. I always mistrusted people who say ‘I don’t like country music’ or ‘I don’t like rap’. Have you actually listened to any of it? You know what you’re talking about? Almost definitely not. So I feel like that’s an important thing.

America, Bush and Hitler

A few minutes later, there is a debate upon America.

Moppa: America kind of sucks right now. It’s fun to visit, but you shouldn’t go there, you’re not missing anything. We have a lot of problems; we just had president Bush for eight fucking years. That’s pretty dark. (laughing)

Diana: Have you seen his paintings?

Moppa: That’s the best thing he’s ever done in his life. That dude could paint all he wants. Jesus, that guy!…

Laura: I wish Hitler did that.

Moppa: He was! He should have been a painter!

Diana: I think he actually was.

Moppa: Have you seen this short film called ‘Punching Hitler?’ Oh, when you get home, you have to check this, it’s hilarious, really amazing. Three drinking buddies get hold of a time machine and decide to go back in time to punch Adolf Hitler every single day of his life.
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