Thomas DiMuzio interviewed by Jack Hertz
Above, a tape released on the Generations Unlimited cassette label.
Below, CD and tape covers from various releases.
Some performance shots of Thomas Dimuzio. In action with Chris Cutler and Fred Frith above. Below, a solo concert performance.
Below, more CD covers from various releases. First, with Chris Cutler “Dust”, and then, “Headlock”, his debut LP.
Thomas DiMuzio interviewed by Jack Hertz.
How and when did your involvement with the tape scene begin?
In 1987 I came across a radio show on WZBC in Boston. It was their No Commercial Potential show, and I was hearing music being played that was in the same spirit as my own. After calling the station they referred me to Dave Prescott, who was a DJ on Wednesday nights. I sent Dave a tape to WZBC and he wrote back to me right away. It turned out that he lived right up the street and ran an underground record label called Generations Unlimited. He invited me over and I was immediately struck by this vast collection of modular synths lining his apartment walls, not to mention all of the cassettes and LPs stacked around the place. Conrad Schnitzler was one of the label’s main artists and I remember Dave playing me a surround piece by Conrad across three boom boxes. Quite innovative and DIY for the time. I was fortunate to have found Dave and GU when I did as they released my first cassette and then later my debut LP Headlock.
Were you recording your own music before you heard about the tape trading scene?
Yes, I have some tapes that go back to 1979. Growing up as a kid I had found a portable reel-to–reel in the neighbor’s trash. It didn’t work so well, but I was intrigued by it. I eventually replaced it with a portable cassette recorder and remember recording all kinds of things on that as a kid. In high school music became a more serious endeavor with original rock and progressive bands and even as a founding member of an audio-only comedy troupe. In college I decided to pursue music and later transferred to a music school in Boston. After leaving music school I decided to stay in Boston and at this point I was entrenched in making abstract electronic music. After working a few years independently and just giving tapes to my friends, I was still largely unaware of what was happening with Cassette culture, even though I was the epitome of the home taper. It was my contact with Dave Prescott that brought my work to a wider audience.
What excited you about the early days in the underground music scene?
The DIY aspect of it all. Especially the networking, which was all accomplished through the mail and telephone. I was part of a thrash band called 99¢ in Pittsburgh in 1984 and it was good exposure to the punk ethos. When I eventually came into the underground electronic music scene through Generations Unlimited I couldn’t help but be impressed with the worldwide networking. The punk thing was mainly domestic here in the States, but Cassette culture was global. Generations Unlimited was sending blank tape and cassettes to artists in Eastern bloc countries so that they could produce more work. Back then blank tape was a precious commodity in places like East Berlin. Records were also selling through a tight-knit network of distributors. You could press 500 copies and they could all be accounted for through independent record stores and distribution. I was amazed when my debut LP on GU sold out only a month or so after its release.
You have a unique approach that works with live sampling and processing. Can you describe your approach and how it came about?
It’s all pretty much a natural progression since my introduction to the Electro Harmonix 16 second digital delay, which I acquired in early 1984. I’ve always claimed how that little box, the “Fripp-in-a box”, as it was dubbed, changed my life. The Electro Harmonix looper was a digital sampler before sampling was accessible. It was also a lesson in music theory in that anything could be construed as music through the sheer process of repetition. It didn’t matter how atonal, noisy, or arrhythmic the material was – it all became musical by repetition. When I could finally afford a sampler, which was the Roland S-50 in 1987, all I wanted to do was to save the loops from the 16 second delay into the sampler so that I could transpose them polyphonically across the keyboard. I had no desire to playback orchestral or emulative sounds, only these textured loops and noises I had been creating and working with. It was effectively a musique concrete-based approach to sampling. Adding effects processing into the fold allowed me to animate these otherwise static digital samples through MIDI-control and other real-time performance techniques. This breathed life into an otherwise unchanging digital sample. Digital audio technology in 1987 was still in its infancy, and quite stifling in many respects, yet it pointed to an incredible world of possibilities. I moved to a Kurzweil K2000 in 1994 where the distinctions between sampling, synthesis, and processing became more blurred, especially as the Kurzweil product line evolved. After a while the pre-production aspect of sampling was becoming more of a burden to me. The act of recording, editing, looping, and key-mapping a sound before delving into synthesis and processing was a significant time-suck. I was longing for an environment where I could mix sounds into this engine to transform them in real-time. In the late 1990’s Kurzweil came out with an effects add-on board for their K2500 sampler. This KDFX board is what facilitated live sampling for me, even though it wasn’t specifically designed for this purpose. The Kurzweil’s architecture was so open-ended that it allowed me to devise an environment that was as close to a real-time musique concrete machine that I could conjure. I’ve been honing and tweaking the Kurzweil’s live sampling environment ever since.
That was quite a long time ago. Was it hard to work with a purely digital medium back then?
In the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s there were just so many limitations in the digital realm, but in retrospect those limitations were good in that they allowed the music to be realized in a relatively quick time frame. In the beginning you couldn’t help but be awe-struck and inspired by the sonic possibilities of the digital audio revolution. Today it’s about improving and honing these real-time environments by making them more interactive, intelligent, powerful, and musical. Yet even with all of these advancements it’s still a manner of working within the limitations of the medium. For example, the Kurzweil wasn’t designed for live sampling so I have to constantly jump through hoops to avoid certain issues such as unwanted glitches and pops. These limitations would be great to shatter, but at the same time they keep you on your toes as a musician. It’s similar to working with tape and encountering its physical limitations. I don’t think that I’d be so keen to exploit the digital crossfade as a compositional device if it weren’t for my experiences with splicing tape. I’ve recently been working with the Kyma system from Symbolic Sound which is a veritable super computer for audio. With the Kurzweil I feel that I’ve explored just about all that I can do and am hitting brick walls, whereas the Kyma points to open doors and is ripe with new and exciting possibilities to further push the bounds of sampling, synthesis, processing, and looping. The Kyma can be a bit daunting for me development-wise, especially compared to the Kurzweil, mainly because of my lack of programming chops, but it has the range and means to push my sonics into the future.
You also do collaborations with you live processing the others’ sounds. How does that work compared with your solo work?
I consider myself an improvising musician so playing something with the depth and nuance of a musical instrument is crucial. This simple notion has never been a viable option with electronic sample-based instruments which tend to be shallow in contrast to playing a real piano, or even a Wurlitzer electric piano. Yet the Kurzweil has brought me closer to a real musical instrument than any other electronic environment, mainly because of its playability and programmability. With that said, integrating into an ensemble or duo is much easier with a tactile musical instrument under your hands as it better facilitates the music. While I’m live sampling, I enjoy taking signal feeds from the other players; not just to throw back at them what they’re playing, but to morph their sound into something that they can play along with, and vice versa. Aside from processing other players I often find myself mixing in and out multiple sources while I’m live sampling – feedback, shortwave radio, field recordings, live microphones, etc. Mixing in multiple sources contributes to the overall timbre of a sound and how it transforms and unfolds over time. For solo shows it’s more about tapping into the music via technology as there are no other players to interact with. I can be more brash as a soloist as the music can be pushed and go any direction. Looping factors strongly into solo shows while there is little room from for looping within an ensemble. Looping can be appropriate at times with other players, especially in duo form, but not necessarily within the context of a larger ensemble where the static loops would tend to get in the way of the music. As a solo artist I like to deploy loops as a means to leave behind sonic beds of what I’ve been playing. Now when I say looping, I’m not talking about overtly repetitive loops, but rather long-form loops verging on a minute or greater in length and with equally long crossfades, which tend to blur the beginning and end of a loop. My goal is for loops to sound as if they are not looping.
Who are some the artists you have worked with in this manner?
Dimmer, one of my current projects, is a duo with Joseph Hammer. Joseph also “live samples” but in the analog domain via a 1950’s-era Ampex Model 600 mono reel-to-reel tape recorder. Dimmer’s specialty is building recursive feedback loops between our two systems. Chris Cutler and I have also played concerts and released a good number of recordings. Taking feeds from Chris’ piezo-infused electrified drum kit adds a unique dimension and synergy to our playing. Dan Burke from Illusion of Safety and I also have on ongoing project of sorts where our live shows often have a spark pushing us both into performance realms that neither of us typically encounter on our own. I was also part of an ongoing project with Nick Didkovsky and the Arte Saxophone Quartet where live sampling was written into an hour long piece with individual feeds from the entire ensemble routed to my live sampling rig. The CD is called Ice Cream Time and was released on New World Records in 2007. There are also more local and frequent collaborators including Wobbly and Scott Arford, as well as some intermittent projects with Matmos. Plus performances with Elliott Sharp, Twig Harper, Martin Schmidt, Michael Thomas Jackson, Don Joyce, Paulina Valezquez, Scott Amendola, Larry Thrasher, Moe! Staiano, Kanoko Nishi, Ava Mendoza, and many others.
You are a regular performer around the San Francisco Noise scene. Can you talk a little bit about the ethos of the noise scene?
It’s akin to a punk rock ethos with networking across North America, Europe, and Japan for small shows and events. Usually with lots of support, but with little money. It’s evolved throughout the decades but always flourishes outside of the mainstream. The venues are typically warehouses, art spaces, and living rooms, and largely dictate the scene, and whether any shows are happening, or not. These days most of the action has moved from San Francisco to Oakland. There’s always been a lot going on in Oakland, but it dawned on me recently as I was playing a show there that right down the street Fred Frith was playing at 21 Grand, and down the street in the opposite direction was a warehouse show organized by Robert Price at The First Church of the Buzzard featuring 40 bands. I was impressed that all of this was happening on just another Saturday in July.
What excites you to create music then and now?
Music itself has always been a motivating force. Being inspired by other artists, plus strong roots in the music that I grew up listening to – Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Henry Cow, Captain Beefheart. I thrive on technology and how it ultimately renders new musical territories. The notion of being able to further your instrument or creative vision through technology has always been a driving force. It’s been a slow evolution, but can also be seen as dedication, much like playing a traditional musical instrument. As technology matures, the artist and musician become less dependent on commercial software and some manufacturer’s vision of what music should or shouldn’t be, and more dependent on their own devices and aspirations. It’s again the DIY aspect of technology, and the fact that you don’t have to be a computer scientist or an electrical engineer anymore to realize your dreams. It’s liberation and mass democratization of the digital revolution with the tools and environments becoming more powerful and open-ended with each passing year. If you have the idea, the chances are likely that you’ll be able to realize it.
Were you involved in mail art scene?
No, but I did work with Chuck Welsh aka The Crackerjack Kid on a mail art project called Art Strike Mantra that we had compiled back in the early 1990’s. It was intriguing to compile a piece from so many disparate artists and sound sources received from all over the world.
Can you tell us about some of the home tapers you have worked with.
Back in the early days it was recording projects and mainly live shows with David Prescott, David Lee Myers (Arcane Device), Michael T. Jackson (Xkurshen Sound, Cephalic Index), Al Margolis (If, Bwana), Dan Burke (Illusion of Safety), and Gen Ken Montgomery. It was at my first show in NYC in 1990 that I met you and Treiops Treyfid, with you eventually releasing a cassette of mine on your 1zer0 label. More recently I’ve worked with a few home tapers again – Zan Hoffman, John Wiggins, and Ron Lessard, in fact we’re all working together on a new Due Process LP.
What are some the favorite releases you have done?
Many of the live releases come to mind because they were so immediate. The work with Chris Cutler on Dust, Upcoming Events with Dan Burke, and Dimmer’s Remissions. It was great fun working in the studio with Mark Hosler on Negativland’s Thigmotactic; a chance to stretch out a little and work on musical arrangements. Same with Poptastic: The Teen Pop Noise Virus with Chris Fitzpatrick, that project was just absurd at points and it was a blast destroying so many tracks. One of my favorite solo releases is the Sonicism double CD, issued by RRRecords, but that was a lot of hard work and over the course of a number of years. It was inspiring working on Headlock way back in the day, especially knowing that a label was waiting to press an LP out of whatever I came up with.
What gear and or technology do you miss from the old days?
I’m actually still using some of it. Especially the Lexicon PCM70 which has been a mainstay since 1987. I’ve used it at practically every live show that I’ve played. It’s a MIDI-controlled effects processor that I deploy as an oscillator and feedback generator. It’s like a feedback synthesizer and has become my primary source for live sampling. One of the things I love about it is how the feedback has a life of its own and how its timbre unfolds as I’m live sampling it. It’s quite compelling how it transforms sonically through the sampler.
Although I’ve long since abandoned analog tape, I miss its linearity and the fact that you’re ultimately committing to whatever you’re recording to it. Tape is a linear and finite medium and it’s a beautiful thing. I love the flexibility of digital editing, yet I might not have developed some of my personal approaches to editing and composition if I hadn’t had the experience of working with tape and encountering its limitations. Of course shattering those boundaries has always been most appealing to me. I’m still striving to build and customize performance environments that were inspired decades ago. In certain respects it’s a matter of waiting for technology to catch up to some of these ideas.
How does that compare to what you are using now?
The stage and studio are two separate worlds for me. One is tactile and real-time, while the other affords the opportunity to step back and think about the music in a different light. For the stage the equipment has been the Kurzweil K2600 for live sampling and the Looperlative LP1 for live looping. Both facilitate a performance environment required to improvise and build something out of nothing. My current live rig is more integrated and powerful compared to the boxes of gear strung together for my first live solo show in 1990. In the studio I’m using a Pro Tools HD|7 rig with a slew of inputs and outputs to connect and interface with all of the gear in my studio. There’s also a massive amount of plug-ins for processing plus a 24 channel control surface and mixing console. Most of the time I’m treating Pro Tools as a live mixing desk in tandem with the Kurzweil and Kyma for live sampling and processing. I love the high ceilings of Pro Tools’192 tracks, 63 DSPs, and more than 100 channels of inputs and outputs. The flexibility is staggering and it transcends the old days of outboard gear and tape. Pro Tools also serves as a massive patchbay and mixer with everything in the studio connected, including all of my outboard processors. It’s an amazing luxury routing any device to anywhere else: analog to digital; -10 dBV to +4 dBu; hardware processors to software plug-ins; and vice versa. It’s a routing matrix made in heaven, and all without ever having to touch a patch cord.
What impact has the internet had on you compared with the community in the cassette heyday?
The internet as a knowledge-base seems faster than real-time. You can dig up information about anything and everything and practically know an artist’s history in the time that it took in the past to call a radio station to find out what band they were playing. It fascinates me how when growing up music came to us slowly, you’d hear about an artist from a friend or on the radio, and then you’d seek them out, maybe even order a record if it wasn’t in stock, and anxiously wait as you slowly grow your record collection and musical knowledge. The internet has already made the CD obsolete, and it’s practically made music obsolete in terms of sales, but at the same time it’s been liberating for me as an artist to be able to bypass normal distribution channels while getting my work to an even broader audience. An artist’s website is a means to immediately release music worldwide without ever producing any physical media. Quite a powerful mechanism, yet there are few filters and you have to know what you’re looking for out there in the morass of it all.
Do you think there is any lasting legacy of Cassette Culture besides some interesting music?
I’ve just finished a cassette release for Banned Productions, and there is another coming out on Danvers State Recordings, so Cassette culture is still alive and well in 2010. Actually these days music is in a slump and CDs aren’t selling, so it’s not surprising that many labels and artists have migrated back to cassette and vinyl. There is no sense of the art object with digital downloads. Especially when you can rip a CD complete with names and artwork in just a couple minutes and post it all to a blog. The digital medium continues to devalue music by making it so accessible and abundant. Whereas you can’t “rip” a cassette or LP because you have to record it in real-time and pay careful attention to the recording levels, not to mention writing down all of the titles after making the copy, and preferably with multi-colored ink. It’s the aspect of the art object and that extra level of care and pride that still carry on from Cassette culture.
Can you give us your take on what’s wrong or right with today’s current music industry / non-industry?
How about music as an industry? American Idol, Auto-tune, click tracks, loudness wars, it is all mass-sterilization and on a grand scale. Modern music has been picked apart in the digital domain and stitched back together again. It’s not just drum machines anymore that are quantized to a grid, now it’s the entire band, and with pitch quantized to a diatonic grid as well. It’s always been the push and pull of music and its beautiful imperfections that have excited me. Cold and sterile perfection can certainly be intriguing, but it needs to be balanced with the dirt and the grit. Just like how too much of anything can never be a good thing.
Seeing music devalued across the board is also disconcerting. An artist’s entire catalog can typically be downloaded in a matter of minutes. It’s far too convenient to beg, borrow, and steal whatever music you’re even remotely curious about, but the key is to somehow give back to the artist, especially if you listen to their music. Perhaps Radiohead got it right with their donation model. The reselling of used CDs is another part of the problem. Record stores benefit from the profits by selling used CDs, yet the artist never sees any type of return. To top it off, most record stores will not purchase an artist’s new record, and instead will only consign new product, yet they regularly purchase used CDs from their customers, again bypassing any payment to the artist. Someone buys a used CD, rips it, and then sells it back to another record store, if not the same record store, and the process continues. I try to justify all of this as a form of “free” advertising and as a way to attract more people to my home page.
What do you have planned for the near future?
There are a good number of projects in the works. At some point I’m hoping to get some new solo studio records out. One is guitar-centric material, and the other a general collection of new works. The new LP with Due Process with John Wiggins, Ron Lessard, and Zan Hoffman is nearly complete. Dimmer is working on some new and highly detailed studio recordings, and there are also new live recordings in the queue with Dan Burke. Voice Of Eye and I have just completed a new studio album, and there’s another project with Anla Courtis that’s just getting underway. There is also a new solo track for Zephabet, a live cassette on Banned Productions, and another cassette for Danvers State Recordings with Rings of Smoke Through the Trees with Andre Custodio and Mark Wilson/Conure. A trio with Scott Amendola and Chris Lopes should also soon get off the ground. There’s an exciting project called the $100 Guitar Project of which I’m happy to be a part of. Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’meara bought a relic of an odd ‘70’s no named guitar and are sending it around to 40 or so guitar players for each to record a piece. Among the participants are Keith Rowe, Elliott Sharp, Mike Keneally, and Fred Frith, so the pressure is on!