An interview with Jim Coleman
Earlier this year Jim Coleman released Trees a beautifully crafted Neo Classical work, far removed from what we had previously heard by him. So the time seemed right to ask Jim a few questions about both Trees and the other musical projects he's been involved with over the years, from Cop Shoot Cop onwards. The email interview below was done by David Bourgoin.
PR: Can we start from the beginning and get a little bit of background on how you got into music, what were your early influences and what were the first musical projects you got involved with?
JC: When I was just a wee lad, my parents took me to see The Beatles movie, The Yellow Submarine. I had listened to the radio and enjoyed music prior to this, but seeing this movie hit a switch in me. From that point on, I wanted to be making music.
So The Beatles were a big early influence to me. Not their earlier work, but the later more psychedelic stuff. The Yellow Submarine was my first LP. Kraftwerkís Autobahn was my second LP, and they remained an influence through the years. Other music I was listening to through my early childhood: Lou Reed, Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin. Kind of standard fare for a suburban kid growing up in America, really.
Prior to playing with Cop Shoot Cop, I was a DJ (for example, mixing in a schizophrenic style, layering Run DMCís Sucker MC Beats with the broadcast of The Hindenburg Disaster). I was also working a lot on my own, making strange songs and mash ups of fragmented late night talk radio, working on a 4 track cassette deck. I was working with an old Mirage sampler at that time. I had tried to get a band together a couple of times. Once with Clay Ketter (now a Visual artist based in Sweden), and Andy Berenyi (who went on to form Underneath What in the UK, now living in LA).
PR: How did you get to become part of Cop Shoot Cop?
JC: I had heard a cassette of some rough demos Cop had done (pre Headkick Facsimile) and was smitten. After trying to get together a band for some time, I heard this tape and heard the music that I had in my mind for so long, the music that I was trying to manifest myself. I was friends with Jez Aspinall, who was dating Tod A. Without any ulterior thoughts about joining the band, I asked
Cop to play a house warming party I was throwing, along with The Unsane.
Hundreds of people ended up showing up, and it ended up being a huge glorious mess. Which I woke up in the middle of the morning after, with my head and body in much pain. A few days later, I got a call from Tod asking if I might like to join the band, as Dave Oimet (who had been playing keys & sampler) was taking a break to work on a film. This was all about 6 months after they had initially formed. Dave came back for a couple of months a bit later, at which point we had 2 basses, 2 samplers and percussion.
PR: With all the current interest from people like ATP in getting seminal bands from the 1990s to reform would you ever consider being part of a reunion of Cop Shoot Cop or have you moved too far away from that area of music for it to be a proposition that would interest you?
JC: Itís a strange thing even thinking about that. I guess there are a lot of ghosts there. On one hand, it would be really fun. At times I miss the aggressiveness and power that we had at times. And I miss the live shows. But I think that all the ex members of CSC are too far apart, not only geographically but emotionally. I want to keep moving forward in life and in creativity, and the amount of effort, focus, time and money that it would take to do this the right way seems big, especially to revisit the past. Iíve been hearing that Cop has had an influence on a number of bands that are currently out there, and that truly warms my heart (especially given that the records arenít that readily available. If anything, I could see making the recordings more available. I do really like what Michael Gira has done with Swans. He resurrected the spirit and approach of the old Swans, but itís all new. Heís not retreading old material. Heís not out there to make a buck. Heís evolving continuously, pushing forward and outward. And heís got a bigger audience than ever. So if Cop Shoot Cop ever did get together, I think that for me, it would have to be in this spirit. Not to rehearse and rehash old material so much, but to take that original spirit and push it forward.
PR: When Cop Shoot Cop finished did you want to do something very different? As whilst I can see how you can get to Trees from Phylr getting to Phylr from Cop Shoot Cop is quite a big jump.
JC: The first thing I did post Cop was kind of like Cop. I put together a handful of songs, pulled together a band, and played some shows. But I quickly put it to rest because it felt forced. It was too reminiscent of Cop. I had great players in the band, but I had written all the material, so it wasnít that open and fluid. I was also progressively getting more and more in to electronic music.
So it felt like a natural next step to start working on the music that became Contra la Puerta (the first Phylr album). I had also started to score more indie films, and this also bled in to the Phylr music. This was definitely distinct, defined, and different than Cop, though some of the energy at times was similar. I carved out my sound, or my niche, as Phylr. And Iíve stayed in there for some years, growing and evolving. Iím continuing to make music as Phylr, it feels natural to continue this.
Trees was also a conscious decision to radically change sound and change my approach to creating music. I set out to make a sonic environment that can take you over, that you can relax in to, You donít really listen to it. You feel it, experience it.
PR: I believe you have also been involved in writing music for TV and film. How did you get into that and is that still something youíre doing now and are there any TV programs or films coming up that we should be looking out for your music on?
JC: I went through film school. While I was in there, I was focused on making experimental films. Just recently, Iíve been getting back in to working in video. The creative process for me is very similar to music. I was also doing sound recording for other peopleís films. So I worked with, and was friends with a good number of other students, and we all went out and started working on films or making them ourselves.
I was a good friend with Hal Hartley, and he used a track of mine for the opening credits to The Unbelievable Truth. Since then, I have worked on a number of projects with Hal. Other directors and filmmakers that I have worked with include Beth B, Todd Phillips, Richard Kern, and Danny Leiner.
Iíve also done a good amount of composing for TV, particularly true crime TV. Right now things are relatively quiet on both fronts (film and TV), which has allowed me to re-focus on my own work. I have been working on one project by Beth B, which is a documentary about extreme performance art coming out of NYC.
PR: Do you find making music for TV/films very different to making something like your Phylr releases or Trees? Presumably having certain elements of visual things having to be reflected in the music at very specific time slots must be quite a challenge?
JC: Yes, composing to picture is very different from just working on my own music. I do think that the one common thread through all my work is that it is cinematic. But those processes are quite different.
In addition to the technical/creative challenges that you mentioned, one thing that makes a huge difference in the process is deadlines. Also, in films and television, I need to please a committee, not just myself, or even myself and the director.
But I love it all. In film and TV, the music is one element in this whole world that is being created. Everything has to work in harmony (or disharmony at times). All the various elements have to coexist in a balanced state. Itís kind of like a band in that way.
You mentioned the timing aspect in regards to scoring to picture. I love these kind of technical and creative challenges. They make me think in different, ďnon-linearí ways.
PR: When did you first start to think about Trees and start to work out what you wanted to do?
JC: It must have been 2 to 3 years ago that I started work on Trees. The album has actually been done for a while, but has taken a bit of time to get released. I knew I wanted to approach music in a different way than I was used to. I wanted to break the patterns that I had created. And I wanted specifically to make a deep ambient album. I was after a personal antidote to the stresses and anxiety that I make for myself and that the world throws at me.
PR: How much direction did you give the other musicians on Trees? Did you allow them to put as much of themselves as they wanted into the pieces or did you have in mind a particular way you wanted their parts to sound/be played?
JC: My basic approach was to just let the different musicians play. I would do several passes of each track, giving notes and discussing tone and feeling with the musician as we went. And we would try different things. Then, when I got back in my studio, I would selectively edit, and sometimes transform the recordings.
Also, some of the recordings existed prior to me making Trees. Both Dawn and Ellen I had recorded previously. As I was in the process of forming particular tracks, these recordings became integrated.
PR: Having Ellen Fullman play on Trees must have been quite something how did you meet her and how did she come to be on Trees?
JC: I met Ellen while I was in Austin, composing music for a dance performance. At that time, Ellen had a semi permanent installation of her long stringed instrument in a building there. I fell in love immediately; the sounds this made were so beautiful and haunting! I was fortunate enough to work with Ellen, and we spent a good amount of time in the space recording.
PR: I believe her long string instrument is tuned in ďjust intonationĒ did this make it more difficult to fit into Trees?
JC: Somehow the tuning of the long stringed instrument worked perfectly. I donít know if it was just luck, but the recordings I did with Ellen just dropped in seamlessly.
PR: How do you go about composing your music is it computer/synth based to start off or do you use more traditional instrumentation and/or improvisation with other musicians?
JC: It varies. Most of Trees started out on the computer, working with a variety of field/sound recordings, manipulated samples and synths. I would come up with a basic arc or landscape that I was happy with, then go out and record the instruments before the track became overly defined. Some of the instruments were recorded in my studio, and some were done remotely. As mentioned, I recorded Ellen in Austin. Dawn McCarthy was recorded in my old apartment in Brooklyn. Kirsten was recorded in her apartment. Pretty much everything else was recorded in my studio.
Each track opened up so much once I took it out of the computer realm. For one, the various musicians all think, feel and play in different ways, so this opened it up. But sonically too, it just came to life in a whole new way.
PR: How long a period of time was Trees record over? Presumably with someone like Ellen it wouldnít be easy to transport her instrument to a studio so was a lot of travel involved in the recording of the other musicians on the album?
JC: Trees took about 12 to 18 months from inception to completion. I was also doing a variety of other things through that time: a number of Phylr remixes and original tracks, some experimental video work, but also holding down my larger life: family, sporadic day job etc.
PR: Are there any plans to play Trees live?
JC: I hadnít really thought about it so much. I will be doing a live radio show on WFMU on December 17th at around 9:30 PM. Iím open to playing more live shows, but right now itís not a huge priority. If the right gigs were offered, I would do them. But itís rare in life to just have things fall in your lap. Usually you need to go out and search out those opportunities. And my focus right now is on the next record.
PR: Trees seems to fit into a couple of genres. Neo classical and perhaps ambient where would you see it yourself as fitting in?
JC: American Adult Contemporary. Itís a weird time, where the boundaries of genres are really getting smeared. Should Trees get filed under electronic or ambient or contemporary classical? I donít really know. Iíve never been too interested in fitting in to pre-existing categories. And sometimes thatís a problem: I donít fit in. I was always the awkward kid at school who never fitted in to any cliqueÖ
PR: You released Trees on your own label Wax and Wane. I would have thought with your history getting a label to release Trees wouldnít have been an issue . Do you prefer the total control having your own label brings?
JC: Actually, Expanding Records (based in the UK) were poised to release Trees. But they lost the plot. One of the owners of the label was building a house, which understandably took most of his focus, time and energy. I waited quite a while for them to get it together, but finally got to the point where I took it in to my own hands. And it feels great to do this on my own, to realize I donít have to be dependent on a label to get my music released. Of course, the expenses are all mine, and I donít have any illusions about making those expenses back anytime soon. The hope is to eventually build up a platform that can sustain future output.
PR: Are there likely to be anything other artists on Wax and Wane?
JC: I would definitely be interested in doing that in a limited way. But I see how that can be a very demanding and draining pursuit. Currently I donít have the spare bandwidth or resources to realize that. My focus remains on my own work. But if by some miracle, that self-sustaining platform I mentioned ever did become a reality, I would welcome the opportunity to work with other artists.
PR: Have you started on a follow up to Trees or are you looking at pursuing a different direction next?
JC: I originally was only working on a series of tracks that were based on peoples near death experiences. I have several of those up and running, and they are really working. But I started getting submerged in this dark state. While these tracks will be part of the next record, they wonít be all of it.
So far, the tracks that Iím working with could be seen as a follow up to Trees. But an evolution, a bit more rhythmical, without there really being overt beats or breaks. The balancing point of what Iím after became very clear just recently. Itís not an easy thing to achieve, but I have the balance point defined, as far as the type of sound I am after, which is great.
PR: What does the rest of this year and the beginning of next year see you doing?
JC: Iíll be continuing to work on the new material. There are a few opportunities I have for the experimental video work Iím doing, so weíll see what actually becomes real. I mentioned the WFMU show in December. Iíll be wrapping up the soundtrack work Iím doing for Beth Bís film on extreme performance work. I will continue writing in my blog (http://jimcolemanmusic.wordpress.com) and may do some writing for the online magazine Paraphilia (http://www.paraphiliamagazine.com/magazine/2012.html) which is a very cool online magazine. And Iíll be making espressos daily.
Our thanks go to Jim for doing the interview and to Nita at GoldStar PR for arranging it. If you want to find out more about what Jim is up to then visit his wordpress site.