Interview with Randy Greif
To start off, let me get the definitive pronounciation…“Greef” or “Gr-eye-f”?
It’s pronounced Gr-eye-f.
Why Swinging Axe? To lop off expectations? What year did Swinging Axe start?
Well, the easy part of that question first… Swinging Axe started in 1983. As to why…I had been creating and compiling my own electronic and concrete music since the mid 1970’s.
The mysterious electronic soundscapes of Randy Greif on some early tapes. Above, “The Shadow Traders” from 1988 and below, “Lost Contact” from 1984, a personal favorite. The skeleton face below is actually a cut out piece of transparency laid over the top of the cover.
I became aware through OP magazine and maybe a couple of other smaller zines that people were just starting to put together labels that catered to “outside” music on cassettes as very much of a DIY cottage business. I thought it a good way to get what I had done out into the world and connect to like-minded individual. I thought that having other releases than my own would make it sound like a more “legitimate” label, so I divided my music up to a number of different AKA’s. They were Screaming Dukduks, The Love Stumps, Max and Mel, Face Cancer, The Seizure Boys, as well as my own name. So Swinging Axe was born with the release of 4 cassettes featuring these different groups, but all me. Fairly soon, I had made a number of contacts with other labels and musicians/noisemakers and I began adding their cassettes to the label.
Did you have a philosophy or general sound you were trying to put out there?
I didn’t have a philosophy per se, only that I was interested in releasing and distributing things that were unique and represented a personal voice and aesthetic that were not commonly found in more mainstream releases. These tended to be electronic music, audio collage, processed field recordings, etc.
Two Lps by Randy Greif. Above, Static Effect, “Certain Random Firings” ( 1990 with Mikhail Bonhonus. with silk screened, handmade cover) and below, “Bacteria And Gravity” from 1987, on RRRecords. Sorry, could not get the full album, on my scanner plate.
In addition to cassettes you also released LPs. One of my favorites is “Bacteria And Gravity” This was actually on RRRecords. Did Ron Lessard approach you to do this album? It seems influenced by late period Miles Davis, electronic improvisation, ethnic music and more. Do you remember your intentions when recording this album?
I don’t recall whether Ron approached me to do the LP or whether I sent him the material asking for RRR to release it. But Ron had used a number of my tracks… the first of my music to get onto vinyl… on his God Bless America vinyl boxset. I had not listened to much Miles Davis at that time and though I was interested in electronic improvisation by groups such as AMM, this LP had not much improvisation on it. It definitely was influenced by various ethnic musics, though. I had been traveling to some exotic locations such as Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and the Amazon and making field recordings. Some of those field recordings became part of the LP after having been electronically processed and modified. The second side of Bacteria and Gravity is one long piece and I was trying to give the feel of a sort of tribal ritual mixed with sounds from a more industrialized society that would build in intensity.
You also released projects on other labels. Once again, did they come to you or did you already have material to offer?
Generally labels didn’t contact me to release a future project of mine. There were several labels that were interested in what I was doing, but I always created the material, sent it to one of them and asked if they would like to release it. I never really wanted to release much on my own label by the time I was finished with the cassette phase around 1990. I was just interested in creating, not in the business aspect of it. So, aside from a Static Effect LP, and a couple of joint releases on CDs with the Complacency, and Freedom in A Vacuum labels, Swinging Axe released just cassettes. But by the late 80’s, I was also distributing a couple hundred other releases on cassette, vinyl, CD and video.
Static Effect was also another project. Can you talk about that for a second? I believe there was an audio tape released in a video box.
Static Effect was a collaborative project between Mikhail Bohunus (Warworld)and myself. Mikhail had released an LP on RRR at the same time I had. He was also living in LA, contacted me and we became friends and collaborators. We put out a number of cassettes, an LP, and a video. Packaging was always important to us, and we decided to go for something different rather than the standard cases. All the cassettes were released in oversized vinyl packages, and the LP cover was hand silk-screened with a marbling effect so that each cover is unique.
Did Swinging Axe put out any releases that you weren’t featured on? I believe there was a compilation called “The Magnetic Spine Review”. This was a call in telephone message tape wasn’t it?
Yes. Swinging Axe released cassettes by Merzbow, Controlled Bleeding, Art Simon, Illusion Of Safety and Big City Orchestra, among others. The Magnetic Spine Review was the reverse side of the cassette from The Wireless Spine Review, which was the telephone-involved recording. The Magnetic Spine Review was an audio collage of various source material I had and spliced together onto my 4 track Teac reel-to-reel deck. The Wireless Spine review was created by sending an invitation to dozens of recording artists around the world to call my phone number during an 8 hour period of time and leave an audio sample of 30 seconds on my answering machine. I wired the answering machine to a PA system in the yard where the sound being left would be amplified to an audience. It was a backyard party with live entertainment blown in from around the world! We would be hanging out, drinking, eating, talking… when the phone would be pumped through the PA and we’d all stop and listen for 30 seconds at various times throughout the day. The complete tape was tape was released as The Wireless Spine review.
To me, you always seemed like a master of the new sampling technology. In fact, when Eric Muhs and I played a gig in Santa Cruz where you also appeared ( Big City Orch as well, 1990), I was blown away by your full,engaging and immersive sound. Did the new technology free you in some way?
Thanks. Yes! I was thrilled when samplers hit the scene. I felt like they were created just for me. It was what I had dreamed about, and there they were. A sound that would have taken me hours to create could now be done in seconds… and to have access to a bank of different sounds that could be spread across a keyboard and played live, was amazing.
What was your reaction when you had the ability to go digital and record your first CD?
I was extremely happy to have gotten Staalplaat interested in releasing my first CD recording. As so many strange things, my first CD was actually a series of 5 CDs, later re-released as a boxset by Soleilmoon. I’d sent Staalplaat in the Netherlands a tape of recordings I’d hoped they’d want to put out on CD. The back of the tape had an unfinished project I’d been working on which I didn’t even think they’d listen to. I’m not even sure if I knew it was there. But as it turned out, they did listen and liked it enough to want to put out the entire project as a series. I guess in regards to your earlier question, this was an incidence of a label offering to release my work even before it’s complete. So, since the entire project is 6 hours long, Staalplaat released each of the 5 CD segments over a few years, each as they were completed.
Did you ever tour Europe or out of the USA?
I toured the USA and Canada with Mikhail as Static Effect. We toured with Illusion Of Safety, which was great as Dan Burke (from IOS) and I were friends as well as musical collaborators. I’d always wanted to tour Europe but I never actively pursued it and the opportunity never arose.
Talk about your interaction with the underground music community of the time. I would imagine you made long term relationships that spawned not only personal friendships but were fruitful musically. Do you think there was a deeper sense of community then?
There were so many people at the time that I kept in regular contact with. These were days before the internet so getting letters and packages in the mail, as opposed to emails and sound files via the computer, was a very exciting and bonding experience. There definitely seemed to be a sense of community… like we were all part of some underground society, but of course we never mentioned anything like that. We were just very mutually supportive of each other, and of course long-term friendships were made. Yes, there were a lot of collaborations as well, and I’ve always enjoyed collaborating, as it brings me to places I never would have explored on my own.
Over the years I’ve been able to collaborate with Mikhail Bohonus (Warworld), Dan Burke (Illusion Of Safety), Kenji Siratori (writer), Robin Storey (Rapoon/Zoviet France), Nigel Ayers (Nocturnal Emissions) Anna Homler, Brad Cooper (Brain Garden), Atom Smith (The Mutaytor), Robert Gero (visual artist) among others.
In the “Grindstone Redux” film by Andrew Szava-Kovats, you expressed yourself most articulately I think and put it all in perspective. Do you think cassette culture has any lasting legacy?
Oh, absolutely it does. Well, we wouldn’t be talking about it here, 20 years after the fact, if it didn’t. This movement was of a particular set of circumstances at a particular point in time. People all over the world were working in relative isolation and doing the same sorts of things. Some of the factors I think that contributed to this sense of collective interest and inspiration was the transition from punk to post punk aesthetics, the availability and affordability of the cassette recording medium, the recently popularized copy machines for affordable printed zines and cassette covers, and the DIY attitude that was spawned by the punk movement.
Your new projects are as exciting as ever to me. What gives you inspiration now?
The same things that have always given me inspiration gives me inspiration now. When I read a great book, see a fantastic film or listen to other amazing music, I’m inspired. Also just new experiences such as traveling, or even such an ethereal thing as a dream.
A more recent project ( called Drift that features Randy on electronics, guitar and sampling, Anna Homler on vocals, Atom Smith on bass and Brad Cooper on synth.
What about the group, “Drift” with Anna Homler. Was this done live in the studio?
The music was done as a collaboration with Brad Cooper, Atom Smith and myself. Then Anna came in to the studio and did the vocals and added her unique sound of small toys and mysterious objects. There was a lot of improvisation in her vocals, but then we got into the studio and sliced, diced and otherwise moved the vocals around as we saw fit.
In your recent group effort, Shadowbug 4, there seems to be more of a dub influence. Was this because of the bass player?
I made a conscious effort to explore a different type of sound with the Shadowbug 4 releases, however these were not a group effort… these are a solo project of my own, just under a different name. So there are now 3 releases under the name of Shadowbug 4
Above, a split tape with one side being a blended composite of material sent to him and on side two, a telephone answering machine collection of pieces limited to 30 seconds.
Below, two more cassettes from Swinging Axe, Randy’s label in southern California.
The music and art of Randy Greif always has a high quality feeling and is presented with art gallery finesse and sharpness. His electronic soundscapes are dreamy, dark and alluring with high fidelity and state of the art sound. One of the masters of sampled and manipulated sound of this era. His first released tape “It’s In A Box” (1983) is pictured above and points the direction for his future projects with eerie, alien landscapes of hallucinatory electronics.
Your latest release, “Oedipus Brain Foil” is a 3 CD set with two other musicians. How did this come about?
Well first I want to clarify that Oedipus Brain Foil is not my latest release. It’s just that my website is hopelessly out-of-date. I’ve had several CD releases, and a feature film, completed since that one. Those are The Drift CD “Bypass Through The Sky”, “Narcoleptic Cells” (the collaboration with Kenji Siratori, The Shadowbug 4 CD called “A Thousand Hits Later” and the film entitled “The Three Trials”.
So, getting back to your question, Robin Storey and I had talked about doing a collaboration for release on the Soleilmoon label. Robin was also planning a collaboration with Nigel Ayers of Nocturnal Emissions. I believe it was Charles Powne’s (at Soleilmoon) idea to complete the triangular collaborative process by having Nigel and I do a collaboration as well, and then release all three as a boxset. The three of us decided to run with this idea by adding another element: on each CD one of us would supply the source material for the other to work with. So I sent Robin material for our CD, Robin sent material to Nigel, and Nigel sent material to me. Each title of the 3 separate CDs is an anagram of the mainset title of Oedipus Brain Foil. So, those are Perfidious Albion, Build a Poison Fire, and Nail Of Pious Bride. The three faces on the cover of the boxset are mash-ups of our three faces.
Talk about the effect of the internet for a minute. The ease and speed of communication is obvious. The ability to know what’s going on in far away locales is great. But is there a downside? Your take?
Well as I alluded to before, it’s just a bit less personal than the hand-written letter and “care packages” we received in the days before the internet. Would I choose to go back if there were a choice… absolutely not. The downside is far less than the upside to instant communication and file sharing. But, you know, there always seems to be a small sense of nostalgia for the “simpler days”, more personal days.
Thanks Randy, I appreciate your time.
Randy is featured in the film “Grindstone Redux” produced by Andrew Szavfa-Kovats about the underground/home recording network of the 1980s. You can see a trailer here.