INTERVIEW: mAAs Talks About Riding Bikes and Writing Music!

(Pictured above: Connor Bell in charge of bleeps w/Tim Barnes in charge of blops!)

Comprised of two of Louisville’s finest avant-garde musicians, the newly formed mAAs combines the talents of frequent Lee Renaldo collaborator Tim Barnes, and Shedding helmsman Connor Bell. Together the two focus their talents so far specifically on modular synth compositions meant to invoke a particular theme or motif, which as I understand it are often interpretations or responses to preexisting musical pieces. Even in the context that both artists have a long and storied history of creating music that explores the margins of popular music, mAAs promises to challenge the listener by inducing an environment rife with possibility, not so much to subvert convention, but to embrace different approaches to creating music. The duo will be playing tonight at a film/music event that features the music of Dane Waters, mAAs, and Aaron Rosenblum alongside video collaborators Letitia Quesenberry, Joen Pallesen, and Ryan Daley at the Dreamland Theater. I sat down to talk to them about improv, writing music, and riding bikes.

Never Nervous: How did mAAs come together? I’m told there was a lot of bike riding that happened earlier this year. Did that have a part in the formation of this collaboration?

Connor Bell: We’ve talked on and off over the past year, almost, about doing music together after meeting at the Louisville Experimental Festival last year.  The original conversations revolved around Tim drumming on my pop songs perhaps or doing some largely improvised synth duo sets but it didn’t seem right largely because Tim was staying so busy.  At a certain point, his schedule opened up and we just kept talking about music while doing a lot of bike riding in May and early June.  I was out of town most of June and we talked a lot during that time.  When I came home we got to it pretty intensely.  We’re both total nerds and pretty committed to the cause of ‘out’ music so it felt great right from the start.  Unfortunately, we haven’t been on our bikes since we’ve started and we’re super focused on the mAAs, but there’s talk of a ride while the weather is nice.

Tim Barnes: When I moved here six years ago from NYC, I was pretty burned out musically. I was more focused on my family, and enjoying all the amazing trails that Louisville has. I probably played about once a year for a while, sometimes in town, but also abroad. I think when Connor and I started riding together, the conversations were getting better and better in terms of music interests that we shared. It felt so great to be truly excited about making music.

NN: Where do you all like to ride? What about bike riding inspires music? 

CB: Well, we haven’t ridden since we’ve started really.  Both of us have gotten a lot busier and the priority when we hang has, for better or for worse, been mAAs over riding.  For me though, bike riding is just one of those invigorating experiences, the sound and feeling of the wind, feeling every bump in the road, the rush of having traffic fly by you.  I finish every ride just feeling a bit more alive.  

TB: I certainly like riding Cherokee Park– less cars. However, I like getting out in the mix and have a longer destination. I think physical exercise is great for brain activity . . . lots of oxygen moving around. Riding in particular is an extremely efficient way to move, so talking with a friend is pretty easy, thus music discussions unfold. When I first started getting back into physical activity, my favorite place to conceptualize and write music was while running on a treadmill.
NN: Speaking of, what’s important about collaboration? How do you all parse your roles in the project?

TB: As long as Connor does what I tell him, I am cool.  Yeaaah, that is not really true at all. We just have a natural interest in what each other thinks, in terms of how we are approaching our parts, and what not. I feel we are always kind of checking in with one another. The idea of mAAs focusing on composition type work was the result of collaboration, and it has put us in a place that I think we have both had a desire to be for a long time, but didn’t have that other person to help push the idea off the cliff.

CB: Just sharing the creative spark with someone else means a lot to me.  There’s nothing more magical than that feeling of creating something with someone and connecting on an artistic level.  It’s pretty spiritual.  Tim is very enthusiastic and has been a great musical partner.  I think we play off and balance each other really well.  He’s super-posi, offers many big ideas, and is incredibly enthusiastic.  I’m more reserved, pragmatic, and wanting to take things one step at a time so his energy lifts me up and I hopefully help keep us focused on the day to day / detail work.

NN: Tell us about your compositional process.

CB: The magic word is ‘intuitive’.  It’s what we keep going back to.  Otherwise, at least initially, we’re interested in exploring compositions at least partially inspired or composed by others.  So far we settle on what our composition/inspiration will be, explore instrumentation, and then tinker/record/listen/critique until we sharpen it to satisfaction.

TB: Yes . . . what he said.

NN: Does mAAs’ compose differently than any of either of your previous projects? Is there a specific aesthetic that you all seek to capture? 

CB: Well, it’s ever evolving and has since your first round of questions.  Our newest (3rd) tune, is much more ‘our own’ though still somewhat inspired by other artists in very loose ways.  It started with a basic idea of sub-bass and grew from there in a much looser way.  I wouldn’t say it’s radically different now than Shedding.  The new song is much more organic like most bands I’ve been involved with.

TB: Concept . . . tinker . . . expand . . . tinker . . . record . . . tinker . . .concept . . . record . . . tinker . . . present.

CB: …and listen and talk about it a lot in that recipe too!
NN: What’s the instrumentation like in mAAs? Do you all see that growing or expanding? Could that expand beyond the confines of a two-piece?

TB: I just think of mAAs as the two of us. I am not really thinking about who would come in and collaborate with mAAs. I really enjoy our process, and instrumentation. We are hardly in a place to have those thoughts. We haven’t even played out that much! That said, I do like thinking of the general trajectory of mAAs.

CB: It has mostly been electronic or electro-acoustic in nature.  We tinkered a bit with harmonium for our next show, but the risk of feedback was too big of a concern.  There’s a lot to mine with that, but I don’t think either of us are closed to broadening the possibilities if we ever feel it’s necessary or appropriate.  We’ve also talked about inviting other folks into the fold.  I think my reservations revolve around the logistics (spatial concerns and scheduling concerns).

NN: Talking about your concerns with feedback, how important is it to be able to control your environment when you play? 

CB: Well, it’s tricky to be super picky because there are limited venues in town and I do think there’s a lot of fun to be had in having the space shape/influence your performance.  It’s important not to be too rigid about presentation ultimately.  To some degree, it’s important to approach things from a Bruce Lee ‘be like water’ philosophy, but with music.

TB: this why Connor and I play together . . . we access the same material ‘be like water’!! However, my version of water has edges, too.
NN: Relative to that, will mAAs ever explore pop formats of music? If so, in what ways? If not, why?

CB: Sure, it’s a possibility, but highly unlikely.  I don’t like to ever create hardline rules though. I like that this itches something I don’t necessarily do in Shedding typically too.

TB: I got a hardline rule . . . NO WAY!! It would be fun, i think, to play drums on some of Connor’s Shedding songs. For me, it’s nice to just have the two exist in two separate rooms. All that said, I would like to do a composed piece with a mAAs setup that would have a Kraftwerk vibe to it- all precise, and shiney.

NN: Individually, what other projects are the two of you working on? Specific to Connor, what’s on the horizon for Shedding? As to Tim, what types of things have you been working on?

CB: Shedding has been pretty active playing shows out of town over the summer and I need to get to recording some.  There is a lot of material that needs to be documented and released hopefully.  The challenge now that mAAs is taking off is that switching between the two can be a bit of a chore.  I’m also hoping to spend the fall watching a lot of soccer and baseball with my modular in front of me.  I’ve hardly scratched the surface and I think I’ll spend a lot of time with it when I can.

TB: I have this ongoing project with Lee Ranaldo, Alan Licht, and composer Ulrich Krieger called Text of Light. We play improvised music while Stan Brakhage films are rolling. We were in Australia last fall. We play almost once a year. The big project I have right now is relaunching my record label Quakebasket. It existed from ‘99-2007, and released mostly all improvised music of varying aesthetics. The big seller at the time were the three releases I did by Angus MacLise– the complete mac-daddy of psychedelia destruction! But plenty of amazing contemporary players like Sean Meehan, Toshi Nakamura, Rhodri Davies, Mark Wastell, Tomas Korber, Glenn Kotche, Darin Gray, and the guys who inspired the label in the first place, japanese duo Minamo– who are playing Louisville on October 5th. This next wave of Quakebasket will focus on living composers, and include the Chicago duo Coppice, Louisville native Nick Hennies, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Werner Dafeldecker, Seattle composers Nat Evans and John Teske, and just added today . . . the much respected percussionist Will Guthrie. Digging into archives is something I enjoy doing, and it is always a part of Quakebasket. The first of the Archive Series will be The Black Artists Group, a St. Louis jazz group from the early ‘70s that was truly like no other. The recording are from their ‘73 tour of France. Yeah, it is smokin’! If you like that sort of thing.

NN: For Connor, I know you have a lot of interesting toys to play with, and can appreciate your desire to really dig deep into your knowledge of your gear. That said, what is the balance that you’ve struck between continuing to learn a new(er) piece of gear, or just getting something new and interesting?

For Tim, how does Text of Light function? I imagine you all live in different places, so how do you find the time to get together, or is it just during performance time? As to Quakebasket, how do you intend to promote your label? What’s the role of the record label in a culture so focused on digital formats for music? 

CB: I’m really not sure what the balance is to be honest.  Walking that middle path involves veering in either direction more often than walking the line.  I went a LONG time without any really new toys and now I’ve had a stretch where I’ve really enjoyed diving into new stuff and tinkering.  The modular synthesizer is definitely a dangerous black hole, but I’ve been enjoying having some limitations with it.  As I’ve been finalizing my modular case, I work with it in mAAs and just sitting around ‘practicing’ as if it were a guitar and I’ve really gotten connected on a deeper level.  Lately, I’ve been very happy and not been craving much new stuff.  This is good because I am incredibly broke.  

TB: Text of Light gets together when gigs are offered . . . usually once a year. Because it is basically an improv group, we basically leave it like that. We have been doing it for over 10 years now, so everyone is pretty comfortable with it. Lee, Alan, and Ulrich are always in top form, so when someone starts pushing in a different direction, we quickly adapt ways to react. It has been such an amazing experience working with those guys, as well as Christian Marclay and DJ Olive.  They have taken me to some very special places.
Quakebasket is going to be a bigger focus for me this time around. From 1999- 2007, I balanced label activity with an intense job, and lots of gigs and putting on shows in NYC. Digital downloads will definitely play a role in what we sell. If people are poaching it, well what can you do. I think labels in general need to step up their game in terms of engaging their base, and also try to broaden that base. Of course there are several ways of doing that. You could also ask your artists to step up their game, too. I am not saying change into something they are not, but ask them to spend just a little more time thinking about their music. Do something that people will care about. Just giving people a reason is all it takes. There are a lot of people out there who love music. The people that go deeper have a better chance at selling more records, I think. This is certainly going to be an interesting ride- more lessons to learn, indeed. That’s what will make it fun.

NN: Off subject, but how do you see punk/indie/weirdo-music expanding and growing? Do you think that either of you are influenced by that evolution to subvert or reflect expectations?

TB: Anything shy of a Revolution will still be a really good time.

CB: I’m not sure it ever really will expand/grow significantly.  It just ebbs and flows.  As kids discover it, older people flame out and exit the punk lifestyle.  I definitely think we’re both influenced by it and we’re pretty actively trying to play a role within the Louisville music community that summons what the core of punk music is (to me): challenging expectations, bending ears, and making people think and listen more actively.

NN: How important is it to make something wholly original, and why?

TB: That is a big statement for anyone to make- “wholly original”. When I lived in New York I was friends with poet and photographer Ira Cohen. He wanted me to play a gig with him, and was suggesting things that I could do musically, and I made some comment like “that’s already been done.” He paused . . . then said, “I am glad they don’t say that about sex!” So I think such a small percentage of people step so far out beyond the norm to discover that “wholly original” thing. I enjoy traveling that line, certainly, so it is important to me, but it doesn’t dictate my next move.

CB: I think it’s one of my primary, but perhaps unattainable, goals as a musician.  I generally want to feel like I’m contributing something unique on some level or at least breaking grounds within my own personal growth.

NN: Is there anyone out there that either of you believe is charting unknown musical territory now?  

CB:  I’m probably most consistently impressed with Autechre and Jan St. Werner’s projects like Lithops and Mouse on Mars.  Coppice, which I mentioned earlier is also engaging in some really interesting explorations.  The newest Rashad Becker album is pretty sick too.  I’m not convinced there are bands that fully chart unknown territory, it’s just a process of pushing at the outer edges and I think those groups/people have been doing it in interesting ways.

TB: Thousands of bands are charting unknown areas every week. It just matters if anyone is around to hear it.
NN: What defines a good venue and why?

CB: Well, for mAAs, I think relative silence is important as thus far we’ve been been exploring pretty quiet territory.  At some point Tim jokingly told a story about Axel Dörner making some weird requests for silence at a show, and strangely when I played with him at the Rudyard Kipling he spent a lot of time isolating the buzz in the overhead lights and demanding they be fixed.  We’re kind of in that zone while still trying to be flexible and understanding that part of the fun may be rolling with less than ideal spaces.

TB: It is such an amazing thing to cause people to gather in one place to collectively enjoy music. I think what mAAs is trying to encourage is the Live Listening aspect of the event. To shut down, and actively engage with the event. Once it is done, then flip on the booty shakin’ music, and satisfy another part of you!

NN: What non-musical influences inspire either of you?

TB: I am a runner, and I like running through the woods, and listening! I listen to me feet, my breath, the creek, the owl, the coyote, the rustle, and the near quietude.

CB: I’m a teacher so the kids can inspire me, or a good day connecting with them about important historical moments/concepts.  Otherwise, food, sports, the sun, friends, TV/movies, and <Tim nudged me> “and bike riding.”

NN: What have you all been listening to and why should we?

CB: I’ve been busy trying to digest the newest Boards of Canada album.  Otherwise, digging into Dieb13 (crispy Viennese electronicist) and his collaborations with eRikm (French improviser), Matt Carlson (analog synth madness), Ben Vida (analog synth madness), Af Ursin, In Camera (both create strange and sleepy electro-acoustic drones), and Coppice (Tim can explain more – but electro-acoustic experiments with a harmonium are right up my alley).

TB: Yeah . . . Coppice has just taken me by storm! No one sounds like them. They are “wholly original”. They compose music for archaic instruments, and make it beautiful and faceless and emotional and daunting, but always purposeful. Imagine the collision of a proto-industrial steam huffing start-up and the electromagnetic-sizzle&fry of modern western civ.