Interview - Visiting Craig Leon: New York stories and alien electronica

Interview - Visiting Craig Leon: New York stories and alien electronica

February 26, 2015

Written by:

Simona Mantarlian

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An incidental appearance

When CTM Festival announced Craig Leon as part of their 16th edition line up, I saved the date as an instant highlight on the list of performances I couldn’t miss. The album Nommos was one of the best avant-garde reissues of 2014 and there was so much going on in it.

Craig Leon has been tirelessly involved with the New York music scene of the ‘70s, discovering bands like Suicide, Blondie, The Ramones or Talking Heads and playing a crucial part in launching their careers. But apart from his impressive achievements as a record producer, Leon identifies as an innovative force in electronic music, pushing it to levels far beyond Earth’s stratosphere and way before traceable music history. His works are an alternate anthology aiming at the origins of music in its most primordial, abstract and totemic sense, all bearing a very specific musicological groundwork, with just enough hints at the magical thinking allowed by the context, keeping this realm ambiguous and unearthly.

The freezing weather in Berlin during the CTM Festival, although proverbial, was a thing no one warned me about. When I met Craig Leon for the interview, a couple of days after he performed Nommos, at HAU1, the temperatures were below freezing point, and I had one single sweater with me that could live up to those rather glacial conditions. It had a pattern made up of aliens all over it. One could have thought it was all premeditated, considering the supposedly extraterrestrial origin of the modal system heard throughout Nommos and its connection to the music and philosophy of the Dogon people, who, as most scenarios speculate (be they folk legends as well as - like to admit it or not – science), had early access to the secret teaching of all ages straight from a source civilisation that came from outer space. Thus, the Dogon described outer space in minute detail long before modern astrology got to catch up with it and thought those cultural heroes and enlighteners which they called Nommo, came from a place which corresponds uncannily to everything we know about Sirius at the moment. And of course, we don’t now all about it.

Since my incidental appearance screamed alien nerd alert so blatantly, I almost added that I did not come there as a delegate of the Raelian Journal. But I didn’t really have to, because aliens are, after all, the most appropriate trigger for taking a bold leap into the world of Nommos.

Music of Aliens

Simona: Let’s start by saying “Nommos” is a fascinating piece in the sense of exploring in a very futuristic way the earliest modal chords of the planet. So considering the origin of this attempt, the music of the dogon people is even more fascinating because they might have been extraterrestrials. So, the album gives that out-of-space yet totemic feeling. So was this insight also your initial intention?

Craig Leon: Yeah, well, the idea wasn’t so much to make the music of the dogon, ‘cause it isn’t, it was a thing that came from seeing an exhibition of the art of the dogon, in NY, in the ‘70s. And the art of the dogon people relates totally to their mythology, or religion or whatever you want to call it. They don’t think it’s a mythology, they think it’s real so for them it is real. And they have a theory that extraterrestrial beings from another planet came and pretty much did the same task that angels in our culture did (catholic culture, protestant culture or whatever) but the angels came and taught them how to have civilisation and all of this and they were very specific about a lot of things, about these angels. They knew how they looked, they knew how they functioned on the Earth, differently than the way people did, but more interesting, they had a very complicated philosophical system that they said this was talked to them by these other beings. And they wrote all of this down and it becomes sort of the roots of the Egyptian religion, which is very close to the dogon area, and it’s very similar, it’s the ancestor of it. But in any case the interesting thing is they also were told in their story where the angels came from, and they said this is where they came from and they described a double star planet system (a. n. Sirius) that revolves around itself, that has planet and that this one is a dead planet and that one is alive. It takes about four Earth years for one to go around the other; and they knew that planets go around the Sun, that’s old stuff that’s not so modern, it was forgotten for a thousand years or so, but the ancient guys knew that.

So in any case, they were very specific and there is a star system that does that and it is in the place where they said the angels came from, so it’s kind of a good coincidence. In any case, maybe they were correct, maybe this is true, so let’s make a kind of a speculative fiction piece of music about it which was not so much making the music of the dogon, but to make a piece of music which would be the music of the people from the other planet; what their folk music would be on their planet.

We would go back and I would say, if the dogon were taught things like how to catch a fish and all this kind of stuff, then let’s look at the earliest music from that area. So I took and made a completely made up system - it’s not trying to be true - but I made a system of very simple rhythmic patterns that are like what you would find in North Africa, the three beats against two or four all the time, and then the other thing would be a five notes musical scale for each piece like the earliest pentatonic music. I didn’t want to use the real pentatonic scales; I made new ones because it was coming from another place (or maybe older ones) and then I made it with a sound that’s very different, because their hearing was obviously different.

You see, when I went to this art exhibition, we saw the pictures of the dogon that they made - the dogon made these angels which they called Nommos - and the pictures of the Nommos were all very tall, very thin looking creatures that could also live in the water and on the Earth, so obviously their ear hearing would be different and all the pictures from the dogon and their whole civilisation, the only art that they have is a representation of what the nommos look like. So you go in a room where they say: from 400 years ago - here’s a nommos, 600 years ago - here’s a nommos, they were obviously very intense. It’s like in our art, all you’ll see in the time of the Renaissance or in Pre-renaissance art, all you see are millions of pictures of Jesus and Mary, or Jesus as a baby, so that’s the same thing - they never got out of that stage, maybe they are now but were really hung up on what these things looked like. I tried to make up what their music would be, so I was consciously trying to do that, to make music of aliens, or at least a science-fiction story of music of aliens.

S: And somehow that sounds like folk-music from Sirius.

C: Exactly! That was the idea. If you were to go to Sirius, like, we’re talking about Romania and Enescu; look at all the folk music from Romania, somebody on Sirius is collecting the folk music of Sirius and maybe it sounds like what I’m making. I don’t know, it could be completely different in reality. Or it could be nothing, it could be no one there, but it’s kind of funny how they had all of these theories. Later, people come along and say “oh, a priest taught them this in 1920” or something like this, and taught them about where the stars are but then why would they be making something 4000 years ago of what these things look like. That statue is 4000 years old, not 40, or under. So it can be as true or not as our own stories, so why not?

S: Also I think it’s such a good moment in our pop-culture to re-release this album right now. I mean, with all these messages from outer space being received and lots of discoveries being disclosed. For example there are these Paracas skulls in Peru, whose DNA is proven to be not of human origin, and they also look a bit like totemic skulls.

C: Like Easter Island statues looked like. It’s a kind of a coincidental thing and unfortunately, about 40 or 50 years ago a guy wrote many books about this, Erich von Daniken was his name, and he was not really a scientist. He made a story “Chariots of the Gods and it was all wrong, no facts and nothing. It gave a very bad idea in people’s minds about aliens and such but I’m just looking at it realistically, and I’m not going to say I know the aliens personally or anything, because I don’t, but there must be some culture out there, and probably they came and visited us. With all the planets in the world we would have to have very, very big thoughts about ourselves to say that we’re the only beings that exist in the whole universe, it’s kind of crazy just to think that, you’d have to think “I’m very special”.

S: Yeah, that’s why I think it’s an album of these times so much. So how did you get the idea to re-release it now? How did the circumstances concur to this?

C: It came by itself. I was actually doing some re-recording on it, couple of times, in 1995 and also in 2008 and I’ve always had the original patches written down of what it was, and the original drum patterns that I used and I was always trying to improve it. The thing is that I was trying to do this for many years and I made two albums around the same time, Nommos and another one called Visiting and because vinyl didn’t have a lot of time on it and there wasn’t a lot of money, we had to do them one and then the other and they were always supposed to be the same album. About 1995 I thought I’d make them the same album and I re-recorded some of it to be part of a television show which you can still see, I did it for Discovery Television. It was the 40th anniversary of man going to the Moon in 1969 and 2009 and I put some of Nommos in it as the score for this, so it came out because of that. I never had the time to do it because I do a lot of other things, but then I heard that people were interested in it and it was originally going to be a ballet for a company in New York who did do it, in 1991. Then in 2013 a lady named Karole Armitage who was the dancer of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, a very famous troupe in New York - she has her own troupe now - she did some of it in a ballet. People started talking about it so I said, now I better put it out, because there have been some bootlegs that came out, and a version of it that I didn’t like and all of these kind of stuff and I said: look, I’m getting older and if a don’t put out a version of it, I have so much other work that is available that I better put out the old stuff. So I put it out, luckily, with my colleagues at the French label and also this limited edition vinyl from the US put it out as well. It’s the same album on both things, but two different names. The funny thing is that the vinyl one is called Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music; we’ll get into why that is - that was originally the title of it actually.

S: Oh, I see. And it came to be the name of this re-issue.

C: Yeah, the re-package or whatever you want to call it. Part of it is the original and part of it isn’t.

S: Did you change much from the original Takoma Records issue?

C: Not really, it’s just played with better resolution and we play it live, you saw it live, it was originally written out like a score so people can play it, I played it with a string quartet, I played it with a full orchestra also, and it doesn’t change. I mean I could jam on it if I wanted to but it’s the same thing every time so it’s supposed to be that piece, it’s not improv. It’s written like that.

S: It’s very coherent.

C: When you look at it, it’s written logically.

S: Exactly. Especially because you use scales that you made up.

C: Yeah, the method is very real; I mean, you can make a theory of composition of the Nommos on this album if you want to.


S: That’s a good idea!

C: Would be a cool book!


photo credits: Jacopo Werther - Paracas skulls at the National Museum of Achaeology, Anthropology, and History in Lima

Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music

S: Yes. And also I think it’s really cool that you got to release it on John Fahey’s label at first, and you’re part of this pretty legendary league. How did the first release go and how was it received back then?

C: I went to John’s manager, and I knew John as well, of course, but his manager was a very good friend of mine and still is, Danny Bruce, and he ran the label, and they had plans to make a synthesizer record. They had done several, this isn’t the only one - although John was a guitar player - they did do synth records, they had a couple. Bernie Krause was from a duo called Beaver & Krause that were one of the first synth groups was on Takoma and Joseph Byrd from a band called United States of America, made a synth record, and they had a place for it. Danny was a manager of a film composer, an arranger and a producer (who was also a friend of mine, a great guy named Jack Nietzsche). He was going to make this record but he didn’t end up wanting to do a synth record for Takoma, because there’s no money in it or anything - he was a big Hollywood film composer - so Danny was mentioning that they wanted a synthesizer record and Jack didn’t want to do it and I said, ’well I’ll do it, I have this idea, so let’s go talk to John about it’. We went and I said - and here’s where the story will get long about the name (it was a good joke):

In the 1950s in America, when they were first starting to make LPs instead of the old 78, one of the first folk music records that came out was a 4 record vinyl set of the collection of folk music that this very wonderful crazy guy had these old records and he took what he thought was the best of them and it showed that everybody came from the same place, that there would never be any reason for anybody to hate anyone in the world if he made the right record of all the folk music from anyone in America reflecting where they came from – if they came from Europe, if they came from Africa or Asia, if they were Christians if they were Voodoo, all this kind of stuff, he wrote all of these things and it was a very eastern unified way of thinking. And his name was Harry Smith and he made a record called The Anthology of American Folk Music 1,2,3 & 4. In 1951 he made this and he said, ''if I get this record done, there’ll be no more people hating any other people, you’ll see that in 50 years from my record we’ll have a black president of The United States'' and, of course, we do have one. Not that that’s a big deal, who cares, if somebody’s black or purple, doesn’t matter, but that’s what he thought was important. So I was talking about this with John, because John was influenced by this record, all the American folk artists learnt the American folk songs from this first album - Joan Baez, even Bob Dylan who won’t admit it, but he did, and a lot of these people, and it started people thinking about the peace movement and all of these kind of stuff and anti-racist and all of these kind of things. So I said to John, look, here’s this music of another planet and I’ll make volume 1 of the interplanetary folk music so maybe in 50 years we’ll have an alien president of the US. That’s the best story anybody told me of making a record. Danny then said ‘go make the record’.


S: I look forward to that.

More laughter.

The path to an own sound - '70s in New York

S: When you were telling about this crazy guy who collected all these songs I thought it must be either Harry Smith or Alan Lomax.

C: It wasn’t Alan Lomax, it was Harry. And Harry produced a lot of bands in New York. A lot of folk music, but he did a lot more than just folk music. He was an expert in Indian lore and he made very early video on film, studies in magic, he was a total all-around intelligent guy.

S: You’re also the sound designer behind very unique and groundbreaking bands like The Ramones, Blondie or Suicide, so can you tell us please about working with each? They all have very well defined tonal identities and they were pioneering in one of its kind new musical territories. Us, music geeks know what an important part sound design plays in achieving this effect. How did each of the bands challenge your experience?

C.: On a less of a joke level on what it is, there are different kinds of music and how you make it. Luckily I learned from very, very good teachers and very known ones, how to make music in a constructive way, and then there’s a thing called intuitive music, which is more like folk music and just something where somebody says “I hear a good melody, I’ll make a song!” and that’s really what folk music is, that saying to one person and that person responding and maybe making their own song that they give to someone else.

When I first was in New York there was this kind of scene in NY where all of these artists were and there were really artists and writers and painters and such as well as being musicians. It wasn’t just bands, these people you’ve just mentioned were all multi-talented artists. They all had ideas that were pretty similar to what I’ve just said and going back, there’s a tradition of that in NY - let’s say - 10 years before I’ve met these other artists. When we talk about Harry Smith, he lived in NY around that time, even when I was there, I’ve met him quite a few times actually. He was also producing the poetry bands of the early 1960s, like the Fugs. He produced their first album; The Holy Modal Rounders were also his friends, Peter Stampfel was also part of the Fugs. The bands you’ve just mentioned here, that I worked with, were like the children of these bands, and around the same time The Velvet Underground and a couple of other bands you wouldn’t know probably, Pearls Before Swine, and Lothar and The Hand People – haha - which had one of the firsts synthesizers. They had a theremin in the band, named Lothar and they played the theremin with the hand and they were produced by a friend of mine, named Robert Margouleff, a film producer involved with Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground; he produced Ciao!Manhattan, an Edie Sedgwick movie, but he was also a sound engineer for The Velvet Underground live. He was one of the first synthesizer artists, that’s where I first saw a Moog synthesizer, it was from him. He later went to produce Stevie Wonder and one of these other artists with Moog synthesizers and that was the scene that all of these bands came out of.

Part of what I was trying to do, because they were all individual, and what I always thought, producing is helping artists who are intuitive to get their point onto a piece of media for someone to be able to hear it. It is a very long process to actually record something from when the song is invented.

So, when I would meet each of these bands (who were also my friends), I would try to help that they would all have their own sound for their record, and they would grow with that, later on their career. None of those bands sound the same; they all have the same kind of idea; of being very minimal, very much in the urban spirit of New York at the time, which is very edgy and very dangerous. To get back to the early spirit of rock and roll which a lot of pop music in America of that time had lost. In retrospect, what was happening wasn’t bad at that time; it just wasn’t rock and roll. It was like a…very soft…beautiful kind of songs, pop songs from California or synthesizers played very technically, drum solos for 16 hours. These guys wanted to communicate, they wanted to do their poetry done with music, they wanted to do something. To grab people’s attention. So I tried to help each band that I worked with to get its own sound.

Bach and classical music influence

S: You are also known for having a strong classical music background. What do you think it is that the electronic music from nowadays can learn from the big composers? Which are the ones who inspire you most?

C: I think electronic music, as a genre now, started more like a combination of the ancestors of the scene. Here in Germany is where it all was, I was influenced by non classical composers; people like Faust, Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, this kind of stuff. You know the café which is in the HAU 2?

S: Yes.

C: That used to be the club where all those bands played. That was the early prog rock synth place.

Johann Bach is a big influence. I will make two new albums; one is a kind of, another one like Nommos with orchestra and synths. And I’m also making an album with Moog music for their 58 anniversary. It’s coming out on Sony in May and it is basically an album on the music of Bach, because it very much lends itself to sequential music. Also, Wagner influenced me, to some extent, because he has the biggest drones and Nommos was influenced by it to some extent. Wagner was studying folk music very much and eastern music. And Debussy, Satie, and, in more modern classical times, contemporary to me, Penderecki from Poland; he’s very important to me as a composer. Anybody who is from a folk tradition, which is the same thing that I’m doing – a lot of my work which is electronic has been taking folk music – because I lived in America – and putting in a new way for a singer and an orchestra to do. And because I have a French background in my family, ancient French music done on orchestra with vocalists, anything like that is equally important.

S: I’m asking this because there was - I think - a breaking point that divided rock and roll, and classical music, as being somewhat in opposition. For example, there is an interview done by a snobby music critic called Hans Keller with Pink Floyd, in ’67, when he says he’s “a bit too much of a musician to fully appreciate them” and they retort that they “didn’t grow up in a string quartet’’. I thought specifically of that during the Nommos performance and seeing a string quartet sound very heavy and electronic. I found it like reconciliation.

C: It’s funny, the real and definitive version of Nommos, that we’re recording this summer, will be played in Krakow, at the Unsound festival in October, is the Nommos with the synths and the voice of Cassell (a.n. Webb), and 44 piece orchestra and 5 percussionists, live. That one is powerful. I hope that will be the one people will remember, it’s the same music, just different instruments. But we’ll record that in January. That’s part of the next album that I’m doing.

The album that’s coming out earlier is not really my own music; it’s the music of Bach. 50 years ago there was an album called Switched on Bach; it was Bach played on a synthesizer. At that time, everybody was like ‘wow, what’s this instrument?’ After 50 years, I thought they’d make and album where the Moog synth, the very first one, would be put into an orchestral situation. So I recorded an album with it playing Bach and a violin soloist in an orchestra, all process into Moog and put it into a new album. That’s the one that comes out in May on Sony Classics. And like I said, it’s not my own music, it’s the music of Bach played by me and an orchestra of Krakovia; Penderecki’s orchestra actually. He trained them into school. I feel very much this idea of synthesizer and orchestra which makes a very powerful combination, but not like one playing with the other, but making a big sound of all of it; like we did with the Nommos, with the quartet.

Synthesiserz, visuals and film scores

S: What about your work in film music? How did this go and how can it challenge you as a sound artist?

C: I haven’t done that many film scores, what is done is mostly film composers taking pieces of my music and music that I’ve arranged and put it in their films. I’ve done a couple of film scores. But mainly, they found a piece that I’ve done, that suits a mood. I’ve produced a lot of film scores of other composers’ music. But I’ve always wanted to get that combination of visual and music. And this comes also back from the New York scene, like Talking Heads who were visual artists, as well as writers of music.

S: No-wave cinema was also connected to music.

C: Yes, very much connected all at the same time, yes.

S: What synthesizers did you use in your live performance?

C: The other night?

S: Yes

C: I cheated. I used a digital sample of many-many analogue synths, because I couldn’t bring them, but they were the same patches as the originals. The originals that I used… I used Roland modular, a JP4 (Jupiter 4), on 4 voice, Oberheim 8 voice, Arp 2600, Moog 15. On the Bach record I am using a Moog 55, the big one, they loaned this very expensive piece of machine to me, to make that album. No one can afford it. The 15 I’ve used before, which I actually prefer because it’s so easy to carry. I used a prototype of a LinnDrum to do the percussion patterns. On stage, I was using a digital system that actually sampled all of that. I brought one of my Roland analogue synths with me, in the show, and I didn’t really use it for what I wanted to do. I put a bunch of sequencers in it, which were not from Nommos, but were a kind of imitation of the music of Tangerine Dream, because the guy who originally did that died last week. Edgar. And I wanted to make a little bit of homage to him. And only a couple of times I put in a couple of sequences from Tangerine Dream.

S: Like a subliminal tribute.

C: That’s exactly what I mean. I didn’t need to do it, I brought a second synth that had a sequencer in it that did some of that.

S: The visuals were very immersive and fractal, and it made you think of the circumferences of the brain and cryptic writing. From time to time you would have those totemic Nommos representations, which were so psychedelic.

C: Those are pictures that Cassell, my partner, treaded from the original exhibition. Those are real Dogon pieces that we’ve made in silk screen. The other material was done by this fellow Remco Schuurbiers, a photographer from Holland, one of the curators of CTM. He did that. We talked to him about it, and we said we really wanted to see exactly what you saw - some fractals that drew you in and made you think of an alien writing or alien brainwave, or something like that. And I think he did a very good job. We’re going to use that one again; it’s very big, he made a very large video, it was really cool. That’s my favorite of the three videos that we’ve had. We had a different one in Krakow, more earthly, and then we had a different one before, in other performances in America and Russia and other places, that was…more like Harry Smith.

Late night Suicide tale

S: Now, as a closing, could you tell me one of your favorite stories of the ‘70s? The people you’ve been around or the things you’ve worked on..

C: Well…There’s so many good stories…Well, I’ll tell you a story; and this might be a hint about whom I might be doing some work with. When I was first in New York, I was going to work for a record company; somebody dropped me up from my studio in Florida to come, and he knew me as a player. And he said ‘you can come work for me in New York’. So I went to New York. I was going to talk about doing a job and he said, ‘ok, let’s do it. Come here on Monday’. It was a Friday. ‘We’ll give you an offer for a job and you can work for us.’

But on that Friday I knew another guy from another record company. And he said ‘go see this guys’ – third record company – and said - ‘they are looking for someone and you might want a job there because they will pay better and it’s a bigger label. Sire Records, where I was going to work at that time was very small. This was a big major label. So I went to the guys there and I said ‘look, I’m going to work for Sire from Monday, but if you want to hire me, make an offer now’. He said ‘we want to know more about what you would do, we’re interested, and if you’re in town this weekend, go see some bands, and come see us Monday morning before you talk to Sire. Tell us what your philosophy would be on the bands you saw and which one you would like to sign, if any, and maybe we’ll give you a job and you would not have to take the job on Sire'. Some people took me to see a …band. They were like ‘this is a cool band, you can make a report on this band’. And I hated it. It was kind of a bad glam rock band. This was 1971-1972. ’72 I think it was; I’m bad at years, it might even be ’73.

But in any case, the opening act blew me away. I thought it was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. It was Suicide. And it had Alan Vega and Martin Rev. Alan was hitting the audience with chains, in the tables, in club, and Martin was like a big statue…pulsating…with everything about rock and roll, and modernist music and La Monte Young, everything all at once. And everybody hated it. The ten people in the audience, they hated it. It was pretty much one of their earliest shows. And I wrote everything down; I went to see these guys on Monday morning. And I said ‘well, there was this band called'- something something - I can’t even remember the name and I hated them because the singer wasn’t as good as Brian Ferry. ‘But there is this great band and I’d signed them tomorrow and they will be a big hit for you, it’s called Suicide.’ And they said ‘ok, thank you very much, you don’t have the job’. (laughing) I got fired before I could even start. And then I went in that afternoon and took the job on Sire.

I have millions of these kind of stories, but that’s the one I’ve been thinking of recently. In those days, the record companies there were very serious, people were wearing suits. Sire was a really good place, because there were really good people. Real music people. The education I got from the people there…you know.. what the record business really does, how to get music out to people…it was amazing. I don’t think anybody else would have signed The Ramones, back then. Nor Talking Heads. Nobody wanted them. Nobody wanted Blondie, for sure. So, I guess…that’s it.


*main photo credits: Amelia Troubridge for The New York Times
*other photo credits: Craig Leon's website & Amelia Troubridge

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