Antigravity Interview with Alec and Dan of Backporch Revolution
by Jason Songe,
After a year of obstacles, Backporch Revolution’s Proud to Swim Home compilation has finally been released. The local collective/record label will be presenting, through international distribution, a snapshot of the local experimental electronic scene that includes drone, ambient, noise, and more. No offense to the comp’s creators, Alec Vance and Dan Haugh, but I was surprised when the CD was wrapped and mastered with professional artwork and band descriptions. I expected something more simple and thrown together from an underground organization known for their DIY ethos, but their hard work is exactly why the CD may yet have national legs. Artists on the disc include Chef Menteur, the Buttons, Potpie, the Uptown Cajun All-Stars, Archipelago, Liteworks and Anton Vs. Nature.
The idea of the disc came to Vance and Haugh during their evacuation in Memphis. After Haugh thought of the “Proud to Swim Home” phrase and turned it into a bumper sticker, the two figured it’d be a good title for something they’d always wanted to do, something that could bring needed attention to their (favorite style of) music–a compilation. After they received money from the MusicCares foundation, they decided they’d give back to the organization by streaming all proceeds from Proud straight into the MusicCares bank account. I sat down with the duo at Vance’s Uptown home in late August as Vance’s cats scurried, the couple next door loudly argued, and the sun set without warning or worry. We smoked, drank and tried to get to the heart of their passion.
ANTIGRAVITY: Is it difficult to build a collective because there are fewer people in this city who play or follow this type of music (that’s featured on Proud to Swim Home)?
Alec Vance: You’re right in the sense that New Orleans has a small group of musicians that are doing these kinds of music, and therefore...
Dan Haugh: The electronic experimental scene is really minimal in New Orleans. Austin is taking off. Two or three hundred people are showing up to see some dude do noise. In New Orleans there’s like 5 or 10 people that show up, and I think that’s going to change eventually.
AG: Why do you feel that way?
DH: I don’t know, I think it’s starting to get some attention finally and before long there’s going to be five more people that go to the next show. Three of those are going to hate it...
AG: But they might tell their friends that they hate it, and their friends are going to go, “Well, let me see if I hate it.”
DH: Exactly, and there will be two people that might like it, and they’ll tell their friends it’s awesome, and hopefully it’ll be a chain reaction of people liking it here and there. I don’t see it being to the extent that some guy with a sine wave generator is going to sell out the the Howlin’ Wolf, but (he) may get a full audience at the Circle Bar.
AG: Why do you feel like it’s turning around? Is it certain events that have happened, or is it because of the compilation, or...
DH: It’s just because we’re all putting so much energy into it right now. We’ve got so much stuff going on. The compilation is a big step forward. McKeown’s Books is doing monthly shows. The more this stuff happens, the more it’s going to catch on. I think it’ll take off, but it’s not going to sell out Tipitina’s.
AV: At the same time, New Orleans is a smaller city, and even if it weren’t it would still be a small city. It’s never going to be a Chicago or a San Francisco, New York, Austin.
DH: We’re dominated by the Nevilles and that type of music, but look at Salt Lake City, Utah. There are more Slayer records sold per capita in Salt Lake City, Utah, so maybe that same kind of backlash will happen here, where people will get into noise.
AG: Or they get tired—see, this is what I hate, because I actually love going out and seeing certain live jazz and funk bands, so I don’t want to put it down, but at the same time I could see how people would get tired of it so much that they just totally...
DH: I don’t have a problem with that type of music.
AV: Me either. The only problem I have with New Orleans music is it tends to be dominated by a certain retro nostalgia kind of thing. What we’re doing is not about the kind of nostalgia that people in New Orleans would be attracted to, especially tourists. There’s a certain focus in New Orleans music–people from out of town will go, “I’m coming to New Orleans, I want to see some jazz.” Well, they’ll see some great jazz players, but they’re probably going to see some jazz players playing tunes that have been played a million times over the past fifty years. That’s great if that’s what they’re looking for. It’s like going to Disneyland and riding Space Mountain. Great, you had a great time, but we’re from the perspective of the ride attendant at Space Mountain, you know? Not so exciting (if that’s the only thing you’re doing). We want to do something new, and we happen to live in New Orleans...
AG: Do you happen to live in New Orleans, or is this just where you belong?
AV: Both. We happen to live here, but the improvisational quotient that’s a big part of almost all New Orleans’ traditional styles of music is also a big part of almost all of the acts that perform with Backporch Revolution. Nobody does the same song structure every time. Every song has a couple minutes of improv, and it’s not just a guitar solo. It’s like a complete noise freak out, an acid freak out, or minimalist drones, or whatever. Potpie never plays the same show twice. Chef Menteur never plays the same show twice. That’s the cool thing about doing electronic music, and when I say “electronic music,” I don’t mean dance music. I mean music made with the equipment you’re using and you’re fulfilling the role of the performer and the mixer. We’re looping our own stuff while we have a guitar or keyboard in hand and we’re increasing the feedback or changing the delay times. Or changing different things on the modular synthesizer. It’s always a little bit of a surprise what’s going to happen on analog equipment, which can be a cool thing. It’s the fun of it. It’s like, I guess, when a jazz musician starts freaking out on the saxophone and he just lets his mind go crazy and he doesn’t really know what notes are going to come out.
AG: Where do you think the meeting point is for all the different sub-genres you put under your umbrella? What does everybody who’s in the collective agree upon?
AV: Everybody has similar ideas of it not being about how many notes you play but the sounds you make. Everybody’s trying to explore what can be made with their instrument and focus more on different textures. Trying to do something new with the instrument. There’s still melody, along with noise, but at the same time, even the really melodic stuff has a certain kind of...
DH: For example, one night after our practice room flooded, Alec and I were practicing in the living room, and all we were doing was fucking around on the Farfisa (organ), hitting some notes and then putting a microphone into a bunch of effects, and the microphone had an on and off switch. And just turning it on and off, on and off, on and off, and we put it through a delay pedal. It was like (makes chugging sound). And then I started to beatbox into that and it sounded fucking awesome, and that’s half of it right there.
AG: What do you think predisposes you to put so much energy into and make this kind of music, as opposed to any other kind of music that you like? Is it just because you like this music a little bit more?
DH: That’s a really good question. Heck if I know.
AV: There are lots of types of music I like but don’t know how to play...
DH: And don’t want to play.
AV: There are types of music that I know how to play but I don’t feel–like bluegrass or honky tonk or 12 bar blues or garage rock. It would just feel insincere to me, or it just feels too rote. I used to play in a punk rock band. I was the singer-songwriter in a band in the mid-’90s, and I got tired of the whole indie rock vocal- guitar solo-put your heart on your sleeve-being ironic thing. I got tired of hearing my voice.
AG: I get the feeling that people that do this type of music have already gone through their other cycles. They’ve already played everything else, so there’s nothing left to push that boundary and they find this type of music.
AV: I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered or grown tired of everything else. There are lots of types of music I really enjoy, like Indian classical music, which if I tried to play I would sound like a complete amateur. For me there’s still a lot of growth potential.
DH: I don’t know what it is I like about it. When I moved back to New Orleans, I saw Potpie play at McKeown’s with his sine wave generator, and I was like, “That’s really fuckin’ cool.” A guy by himself and it’s music. It’s one simple electronic instrument. I thought that was really interesting. That same night Anton did his thing on the Moog, and again, that was really cool–sounds I’m not used to hearing. It wasn’t structured. It was very refreshing.
AV: The other thing that’s cool about being in New Orleans is that we’re almost doing what we’re doing in spite of New Orleans, and in a weird way that makes it easier.
AG: You don’t have to rely on anything, and you don’t feel like anyone has to give you anything.
AV: Right. We feel like, as a group we’re creating something put of nothing. Potpie is the best example of this. If only five people listen to him and twenty people walk out, he feels like it was a success because it’s New Orleans. With Chef Menteur, it’s the same thing. We know from the beginning that people in New Orleans in general aren’t drawn to it, and that just makes it more challenging and interesting.
For more information on Backporch Revolution and to buy a copy of Proud to Swim Home, go to www.backporchrevolution.com.