INTERVIEW: JC Denison Talks His New Label auralgamiSOUNDS, Living in Chicago, and Music That Would Make Tipper Gore Cry!

Pictured Above: Matt Dodds (left) and JC Denison (right) contemplate the ending of Alf.

Easily one of the most talented musicians I know, JC Denison has dedicated his life not just to making music, but to appreciating it. I know that’s a bold statement to make: who doesn’t love music? (spoiler: Hitler… maybe Dracula… just villains though) To qualify that though, Denison has schooled himself on music both with firsthand experience as a performer, and through school. He has played in a number of bands from his early work with Haywire Act or Kayfabe, to Lucky Pineapple, The Defenders, and Another Seven Astronauts, Denison has a resume that transcends genres. His most recent work, his solo project Dominic Republic, only further exemplifies his many talents, this time in the form of electronic maximalist composition. On top of that, Denison and former bandmate Matt Dodds are teaming up to form auralgamiSOUNDS, which just released their first cassette tape, Dominic Republic’s Black Blizzard EP. To celebrate this, the two are DJing with Aaron Chadwell and Sam Sneed at Seidenfaden’s on Saturday Nov. 15th as part of their Stop, Drink, and Listen series. There will be some giveaways, and they hope be able to play some of the tracks from the new album.

Never Nervous: You recently lived in Chicago. What was that experience like? How was Chicago?

JC Denison: Yes, I spent two years there.  Chicago is beautiful and vibrant and full of cultures and ethnicities of countless varieties.  This means you can eat what you want when you want and hear all types of music on the streets and the subway.  And yes there’s a lot of segregation in Chicago.  I lived in Logan Square and worked in Pilsen and Wicker Park, so I was able to experience a good variety of culture and ride the train quite a bit.  And we got to see some amazing shows like Oneohtrix Point Never in Millennium Park, OOIOO, Janell Monae, The Knife, So Percussion w/ Man Forever, Bjork, Bitchin’ Bajas performing “In C“, and on and on.

NN: How did living in Chicago impact your music? What’s the scene like there?

JCD: Strangely, I played almost no music in Chicago, at least with other humans.  I spent most of my time looking for work or bar tending, so music unfortunately took a back seat.  I say this is strange because the prime motivator for me moving there, other than my girlfriend going to school up there, was my adoration for Chicago music, especially a lot of the Thrill Jockey stuff.  When I could find the time and motivation to materialize some projects or just jam, the handful of people I knew would always seem to be busy with other endeavors, but that really is a symptom of such an active city. Frankly I wish I’d tried harder up there, which is why I hope to never take the music scene here for granted again.  I’d say the biggest impact, then, was affirming my desire to make music.

NN: What inspired Dominic Republic? How did that start?

JCD: It started with me being unemployed last winter, which, as you may have heard or even felt a little, was one of the coldest winters on record in Chicago.  I spent several months cooped up in our apartment in Logan Square itching to make some sounds and started to really dig in to Logic, the recording program I use to write music.  I was creating a sampler instrument by recording different tones from my steel drum.  As I started messing with the sounds I realized it didn’t sound like anything I had ever written or would ever necessarily write as A7A, so I looked at my (always growing) list of potential band names and landed on Dominic Republic.  The name obviously evokes some tropical connotations and I thought the music did too.  Perhaps the sub-zero temperatures sub-consciously created a desire for tropical allusions.  I recorded the “Black Blizzard” EP later that day while Vanessa, my girlfriend, was away at her internship, with the goal in mind to have a finished piece of work written before she came home.  I usually work best within some limited framework, and time here really was the perfect motivator.

NN: Given that it has been a solo project, how might that change in a group dynamic?

JCD: I honestly cannot wait for it to change.  It’s been relegated thus far to my limited abilities with synthesizers, percussion, and composition.  Ideally, the ensemble I’m putting together will just use the Dominic Republic music that already exists as an aesthetic framework to live inside of. I really am trying to get together a group of people that are willing to bring their own ideas to the table.  This project could probably exist as a couple of people just staring at laptops and triggering loops, but I want it to be so much more than that.  I want costumes and choreography and sweat, a real band dynamic.  We’ll see….

NN: For that matter, how do you compose? Do you prefer collaboration, or do you do your own thing?

JCD: I typically sit down at the computer and just start plucking away at the keyboard.  Either that or I’ll think of a concept for a piece that I’ll want to explore further, and things like instrumentation will develop as I find out which musicians are willing to participate.  For instance, several A7A pieces, including one I’ve just started working on for a show in January, are based on the idea of a piece taking place over a particular amount of time (’36 Minutes’, ’42 Minutes’, ‘12.13.14’), and we use stopwatches. The idea here is to feel the passing of time through music.  ’42 Minutes’ was actually quite pastoral; I discovered online that it would take 42 minutes to fall through a hole dug through the diameter of the Earth, so the performance was meant to serve as a soundtrack for that.
I love collaboration, but typically work alone, mainly because of time constraints and logistics. Honestly I have a feeling I’m kinda hard to work with.  Sometimes I force myself to work with someone else just to get out of my own head.  Dan Moore was quite the writing partner when it came to many A7A pieces.  And working one on one with this new band with Matt Dodds (Denison/Dodds) really forces me to be open to anything and everything.   I think we’ve decided there will be no “no’s” (except that one).

NN: To my knowledge you started off as a drummer/percussionist. How has your relationship with drums (of all varieties) changed over the years? What is your instrument of choice musically now?

JCD: Honestly, I got really bored with playing drums a couple years ago.  Only in hindsight can I say that it was my fault, not the drums’!  I just don’t think I was practicing the way I should have been and playing enough live music.  I really do love playing and rekindled my love affair with drums during that cold harsh winter previously mentioned.  I started practicing rudiments and playing everyday, the former something I’d never really done.  I feel like I’m only now starting to get back to being the kind of drummer I want to and should be.  I’ll always figure out ways to TRY and make weird and beautiful sounds with other things, though, because quite honestly a lot of my favorite music has no drum set at all.

NN: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned performing/composing solo?

JCD: Well I never perform solo, although I’d like to at some point, just to alleviate some of the planning that goes into live performance.  As far as writing music solo goes, the thing that surprises me is how easy it is for ideas to come to me, but how incredibly difficult it is for me to edit and organize these ideas.  I’d always just rather move on to the next brainstorming session because new possibilities are always more exciting than picking apart old ones.  In fact, I’m currently working on a project for A7A, probably a recording that will be out in a few months, in which I’m trying to figure out how to tie together all my brainstorm/demo ideas in a listenable fashion because I know for a fact I’ll never get to editing most of them.

NN: Tell us about auralgamiSOUNDS. How did that come together? Have you ever been involved with a record label before?

Pictured Above: Matt Dodds has never seen a cellphone!

JCD: Until recently, auralgamiSOUNDS was just an imprint I attached to any of my music I put out because as an avid music listener, I’m used to seeing some label name on every release.  Made up or not, it just looks more official.  My brother Sam is an origami genius (no hyperbole here, trust me), and I’d mix music over at my dad and stepmom’s house years ago and he’d always interrupt me to present me with some insane folded creation he’d invented.  That was definitely the inspiration for the name.

Being back in Louisville amongst friends and allies and used to labels and blogs rejecting most things I send them, I saw no reason not to at least try and turn it into a proper label.  I wouldn’t have wanted to do it had Matt Dodds not agreed to partner up with me because failure and success are both so much more thrilling when someone else is along for the ride.  Neither of us have any experience running a label.  But we’ve both been in bands longer than I’d care to mention.  We’ve been in the studios, written the emails, dealt with the venues, drawn and made posters, assembled 7 inch packages, distributed handmade CD’s, begged for press, shamelessly handed out flyers, and all the other grunt work that you just assume is part of being in an independently minded band and now label.  We’re excited to learn the rest as we go.

NN: How do you see the label operating in the internet age?

JCD: I’ve just used band camp up this point and it’s been quite successful for me and a pleasure to use. However, we have a website in the works that will be equipped with a store.  The biggest obstacle is navigating through countless blogs and review sites and figuring out how to get people who would truly love the music we are going to put out to have the opportunity to hear it.  And we have no delusions of grandeur.  We’re starting very small and have no problems with staying that way until we’re ready to grow.

NN: What do you think the last VHS tape to be produced was? Be prepared to defend your answer.

JCD: Probably a box-set of “Highway to Heaven” or perhaps “Little House on the Prairie“; definitely something with Michael Landon.  It’s definitely not porn; they’re always way ahead of the pack.

NN: In the mid-80’s Tipper Gore co-founded the PMRC, which if you didn’t already know was an anti-freedom of speech movement led by people with shitty haircuts and slacks or pants suits, with the idea being that there was some music “to offensive” for kids or whatever. With that in mind, what is your top five albums that would make Tipper Gore cry? Like not-necessarily offensive just for the sake of being so, but that fail to a give a shit regardless.

JCD: I’m curious why you asked me this, like is it a trap? Hmmmm, a bit tough, but here goes:

  • WeenPure Guava” “Oh sweet mind fuck lady/ Please love me like you do/ Plagued by an image of days long gone/ Flies on my dick” But even if there were no words, the music here would definitely chase her away.
  • Coco RosieNoah’s Ark” There’s little or no cursing here, but had Tipper heard this in her heyday, she may have petitioned to ban horse noises from music without a proper warning. Ban of Horses….
  • DJ AssaultJefferson Ave” Obvious.  This one even makes me blush a little.
  • Venetian SnaresWinter in the Belly of a Snake” This makes me cry, but not in the gushy way, more like a “the world’s melting and I need a hug” kind of way.  And there are no lyrics.
  • Ween (again) “Chocolate and Cheese” Because she’d inevitably take offense to “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)” and “The HIV Song

NN: What non-musical things have got you interested lately? Read, watched, drank, or ate anything worth mentioning recently?

JCD: I’ve been obsessed with Marc Maron and his podcast WTF for the last 8 months or so.  It really helped get me through what I think was a pretty deep bout of depression in Chicago as well as just really kept me tuned in and aware of the basic human struggles we all share on a daily basis.  I feel like he’s my best friend and I’ll probably never meet him.  Also it’s funny as hell, and Marc is a wonderful well of comedic and musical knowledge.

I’ve really been digging “@Midnight” as far as television goes.  It’s a gameshow about the internet, but all the contestants are comedians!  You can watch Weird Al compete against Todd Barry and Scott Aukerman at the same time.  Very funny and very smart.  And speaking of Scott Aukerman, Comedy Bang! Bang!, in TV and podcast form, has been a staple around our place for awhile.  And damnit, the new season of SNL is really on a roll.

Under the Skin” was probably the last great movie I saw in theaters.  We watched so many in Chicago, but I’m forgetting a lot of them right now.  I really wish I could’ve seen that Philip Glass/ Godfrey Reggio film “Visitors.”

The last great book I read was “The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy“, and before that it was “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live“, but these were some months ago.  I feel awful I’ve not dug into some proper fiction in the past year.  I need to rectify this soon.

I drank a really delicious Negroni that had been aged in Bourbon Barrels for several months at a bar called the Lackman in Cincinnati last night.  Easily the best drink I’ve had in some time.
I work at Gralehaus so I’m always around really delicious foods and drinks.

NN: Last but never least, what have you been listening to recently, and why should we?

JCD: Lately it’s been:

  • Chicago Underground Quartet: S/T (Got me into jazz and I still can’t get enough; so beautiful)
  • Deerhoof: Breakup Song  (So catchy and frantic at the same time, and kinda beautiful; and one of my favorite drummers)
  • Flying Lotus: You’re Dead (Still processing this one; if you dug Cosmogramma you’ll enjoy this)
  • Moonface: Dreamland EP-Marimba and Shit Drums (one epic song with nothing but vocals, marimba, and yep, shitty, electronic drums.  this guy is really great with titles)
  • The National: Trouble Will Find Me (I want to hate the National so bad, but this album has damn near brought me to tears; imagine listening to this if you already like the National!)
  • OOIOO: Gamel (prior OOIOO songs redone with a gamelan orchestra; enough said)
  • Portishead: 3rd (just recently got this, and it may be my favorite of theirs.  Great use of repetition, forceful drumming, and dark, haunting synths)
  • Roberto Cacciapaglia: The Ann Steel Album (Vanessa just got me into this; I know nothing about it other than it’s electronic music from 1979 with lovely female vocals.  Fans of Stereolab or Broadcast or Walter/Wendy Carlos will dig)
  • Vincent Gallo: Recordings of Music for Film (Got this yesterday and made for a great soundtrack driving back from Cincinnati.  I love his music from Buffalo 66; this collection from WARP puts this and much earlier, experimental stuff into one nice package.  Beautiful.)
  • Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest (I’m listening to this on headphones while I complete this interview, so I better mention it.  Luuuuusssssshhhhhh.  Dark.  Warm.  Weird.)
  • Anything by Sebastien Tellier ( I can’t pick a favorite.  “Sexuality” has been in heavy rotation lately though)
  • Cher Von: Gol (If you haven’t seen her live yet, please do so before she takes over the world.  Percussive and vocal loops that I could listen to forever, but then also just sparse, atmospheric, delicious sound)