The genesis of every person that ends up involved in music is, in one way or another, that of a kid obsessed with an abstract idea of what it means to make or receive music. Nevermind that some of their tasks involve thinking, acting, and quickly resolving situations in scenarios that would make most people shit their pants.
Craig Leon participated in many albums that almost certainly had more than their fair share of those moments. From seeing Alan Vega swirling around a chain before the audience to working with Pavarotti, Leon wrote music with a style of his own.
I wanna know everything you can tell me about the first suicide record. How did you became a part of that project? How was the atmosphere in the studio and what was your specific work and point of view during the recording?
Suicide was actually the first of the 70s downtown New York scene bands I saw when I first moved to the city. They were amazing on the night that I first saw them. Alan was doing this whole James Brown thing and whipping people with chains. They really were completely uncommercial, but something special and new. At the same time, they went back to what rock’n’roll was about. They had an attitude similar to The Ramones, this attitude which was not what was prevalent at the time. Y’know, there was all that slick musicianship and Steely Dan-type stuff – they were the opposite of all that. The general premise of their sound was always the same thing. Marty Rev had it pretty much down from the very beginning: wiring everything through a radio amp and using the little rhythm box and distorting it.
I tried to generate record company interest in them especially when I started working for a record company but as you can imagine no one took the bait. It was only through the relentless efforts of their manager , Marty Thau, that the band actually recorded an album. He had to form his own label to make that happen.
When they finally had the very small budget together for the recording Marty asked me to come on board and produce. When he asked me I thought it would be an adventure at the very least. I had an affinity for the early 1970s German bands, Can and Kraftwerk, and there was a degree of that in Suicide, that kind of pre-techno techno, so I knew it wasn’t impossible. They were pretty intense in the studio. I mean, they weren’t running around hitting people with chains like in the live performance, but they were very serious about their work. On the other hand they were very humorous guys as well – but they didn’t kid around.
The album is pretty much a capture of a live performance. The reverbs, though, were something that I brought to the party that were a great level up from the the rudimentary tape slaps that they had been using in live shows. I had just been in Jamaica, working with Lee Perry and Bob Marley on a record, and I was just getting into dub. So between that and the old Jack Clement Sun Records thing, I wanted all these repeat echoes on everything. One of my favourite albums was Can’s “Monster Movie Made In A Castle” with its relentless drum beats and iconic lead singer.
That was part of the role model, plus this Jamaican dub, plus rockabilly echo, and pitch feedback, sending in microphonic EQ to the echo on the reverb sounds, and then bringing them all back. That process is what you get on “Frankie Teardrop” – a lot.
On that track Alan did his screams and I would just generate a bunch of feedback, him screaming to himself, and send it to the other tracks on the multi track. So, it’s greatly enhanced. I mean, like one scream sounds humungous in there. But again, he did it live.
In any case when the album came out there was no reaction to it at all in the States and quite a mixed reception in Europe and other territories.
Marty Thau had a relationship with a disco label, Prelude, and they were distributing the Suicide album. The guy behind the label was the guy who signed The Shirelles and been in the business since the 1950s. He really had no idea what Suicide was about. Regardless Marty Thau would always be out touting Suicide as the greatest band that was going to come out of anywhere. He thought Suicide could be commercially huge, and he was trying to tell that to these guys at this disco label which was pretty hysterical. Having said that, Suicide probably ended up influencing more future musicians than a lot of the others that were on that label.
So many records you worked on are considered classics now, how did you get to work on this succession of albums – Ramones-Suicide-Blondie-Richa
I worked on those records because they were the local artists who appealed to my personal taste at the time. I had no idea that any of them would be remembered or lionized so many years later. You have to remember that the entire rock genre was pretty young at that time and except in the minds of a couple of prescient journalists there was no real sense of rock history.
I think that the adulation given to those artists is deserved. I’d like to see that happen with other more modern day artists but the genre pretty much keeps folding in on itself as a result of the vast amount of material that is now available on the internet. It’s easier to champion something that everyone else is championing rather than champion something that is outside the box.
In any case, I consider myself lucky that those works still generate some small interest in me and create a bit of interest in my own work now.
I think Nommos is a very interesting record, how did you arrive to the final idea of it? I mean because it has feedback, delay, a mixture of atmosphere and rythims, did you performed it live? What music where you listening at the time?
The idea came from seeing an exhibition of the art of an obscure tribe from an isolated region of Mali, the Dogon, in NY, in the ‘70s. When I saw the exhibition I was taken by the fact that a large percentage of the art of the Dogon people ,over long stretches of time, relates totally to events in their early history that portray dialogues with beings from a far away star system as a central premise in their mythology, or religion . They don’t think it’s a mythology, they think it’s real so for them it is real. And they have a theory that extra terrestrial beings from another planet came and pretty much did the same task that angels in our Western Christian culture did but the angels came and taught them how to create civilisation and organise their religion.
The Dogon were very specific about a lot of thing relating to these angels who they called “Nommos”. They knew how they looked, they knew how they functioned on the Earth, differently than the way people did, but more interesting, they had a very complicated philosophical system that they said this was somehow told to them by these other beings.
The interesting thing is they also were told in their story where the angels came from, and they said this is where they came from and they described a double star planet system (Sirius) that revolves around itself, that has planet and that this one is a dead planet and that one is alive. It takes about four Earth years for one to go around the other; and they knew that planets go around the Sun, that’s old stuff that’s not so modern, it was forgotten for a thousand years or so, but the ancient Dogon guys knew that.
The elders of the tribe memorised this information, transmitted it to younger generations and it becomes sort of the roots of the Egyptian religion.Egypt is very close geographically to the Dogon area-at least by African standards where distances are huge. The the two systems are very similar.
The Dogon were very specific and there is a star system that does that and it is in the place where they said the angels came from, so it’s kind of a good coincidence. Maybe they were correct, maybe this is true, so let’s make a kind of a speculative fiction piece of music about it which was not so much making the music of the Dogon, but to make a piece of music which would be the music of the people from the other planet; what their folk music would be on their planet.
When Cassell and I made the album we were not trying to emulate the folk music of the Dogon but were consciously trying to to make music of the “Nommos” aliens, or at least a science-fiction story of music of aliens.
We have performed Nommos live quite a bit and we will be performing the new album “The Canon” live. Sometimes we use other musicians in addition to us but in the most “stripped down” version it’s just the two of us with various loops and triggered sounds.
The original loops were not sequenced in a traditional sense. They are played in live in analogue tape loops and then strung together in the recording. There are variations in each one that are intentional. I tend to write out ideas first and then play them rather than extemporise.
You have recordings with Arthur brown, did your previous experience in the studio helps you deal with musicians? When did you first became aware of his work?
I first saw and met Arthur Brown in 1968. He was mightily impressive. Of course I knew the album with “Fire” on it. Later on I mastered the American releases of his “Kingdom Come” albums for a sister label of the label I worked for .
We went down to Texas to record the original “Nommos” since we had access to one of Cassell’s friend’s studio that he was no longer using there. One day we saw Arthur, who was living down there, at the window of our studio listening intensely to our drum patterns. He came around to the front and said “ I could sing over that”. I said “Sure. Go ahead”. so we made an album in one weekend. That album is as close as I’ve ever gotten to working intuitively rather than structured on something of my own.
When did you transition from pop rock techno records to classical music and what was the difference between the two worlds?
I started off studying “classical” piano when I was very young and then branched off into composition and other studies. I always worked with the two mediums.
For me the difference between the two “worlds” is that pop music is usually created intuitively- by instinct, not in a learned way. “Classical” music starts from the same source in someone’s brain but the it is manipulated and shaped using studied methods.
I have heard “Standing Crosswise in the Square” and I am curious about the percussive elements in the song, does it reference a particular type of music?
Yes. As opposed to Nommos where I was trying to create an alien musical system the new album “The Canon” takes the premise of humans adapting the artistic , religious and philosophical beliefs that the Dogon learned from the Nommos, and adapting them into their burgeoning culture in primive times.
To me the drum figures that are featured in the first couple of tracks on The Canon are more of a personalized representation of Northern and Western African rhythms than anything on Nommos. Again they are not verbatim recitations of “World Music” but music created to fit my speculative fictional story that starts in Nommos and is continued in The Canon.
Do you think in the new record you mix both your classic and avant street punk formation? Is there a concept to the tracks?
(Continuing from the last answer…)
In The Canon I am presenting a musical impression of the body of thought that the Nommos presented to the Dogon.
As I said before there was a very, very complex religious and philosophical mindset that the Dogon claim was given to them by the visitors from another solar system. This mindset enters into Western civilization through Egypt and across the Mediterranean to ancient Greece and Sicily which was part of Greece in ancient times.
The Dogon had a very specific mathematical system which they said was the key to the creation of civilization and was part of their religion. It provided mathematical structures that could be used as the underlying formula for art, architecture, music,religion and philosophy i.e. civilization.
In The Canon I explore the possibility of these claims being true. This is not to be taken as absolute fact but as speculative fiction.
The album follows a human traveller from the Dogon area who travels across the sea to Greece and explains the concepts to the local inhabitants there. Once this is established I use their mathematical premises to explore a more inward discovery and an eventual reuniting with the original foundation of the Dogon/Nommos mindset.
One of the inspirations for The Canon is the book that it is named after. In 1897 an architect wrote and published an obscure and difficult to read book about the correlation between mathematics, music, art, science, architecture, religion and so on. In other words the same concept as that of the Dogon in my story.
This book was published but never really “caught on” with the public. Luckily I found an original copy in a second hand book shop many years ago and it has remained in my library ever since.