Plotkin/Wyskida: Life After Deaf
When NYC's Khanate dissolved last year, they left an enigma-sized chasm in the 'new heavy music' scene. Other "extreme doom" bands stopped at drop-tuned guitars and crawling tempos, but the closest that avant-metal ever had to a supergroup seemed to tap planetary forces in their depiction of absolute desolation. Their final EP for Hydrahead records, Capture and Release, suggested new and darker dimensions with stark, nearly improvisatory structures, marked by interludes of amorphous dark ambiance. Amid the ruin, Vokillist Alan Dubin's fractured lyrical psychodramas continued to evoke a peculiar air of personal, human vulnerability, especially unsettling as rendered through his pan-seared larynx.
Then, like the sudden end of some cold, five-year solar eclipse, it was over. "The lack of commitment of certain members," according to James Plotkin's website announcement, had eroded the group's solidarity beyond a tolerable level for Plotkin. The bassist bailed in September of 2006, announcing plans to collaborate further with drummer Tim Wyskida on a variety of projects.
The first of those projects surfaced with 8 Improvisations, a collection of guitar and drum duets recorded in January of 2006 and released on Plotkin's Archive label. The record documents the first interactions of Wyskida's jazz-informed dynamics with Plotkin's penchant for droning tone clusters and prickly, off-kilter lines reminiscent of Tom Waits-era Marc Ribot. For all of the occasional collision, the improvisations are often surprisingly measured and melodic, more akin to spontaneous "free-rock" songs than free-jazz/noise freakouts. The shift toward even more open forms is a logical one, given late-period Khanate's explorations.
"It's not intentional," says Plotkin of the duo's approach, prior to a recent show in the small performance area at Kiva Han café in
Pittsburgh, just between the campuses of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. "it's just been an interest of ours in music to begin with, which is one of the reasons that Khanate was minimalist in general. It's hard to sustain your interest in music that's too dense over a long period of time. The less you do the more impact it has. But with us, it changes on a weekly basis. We get bored really easily, I guess."
"As time goes on it's become even more minimal," offers Wyskida.
"Like at yesterday's show: less drumming, more restraint, bigger gaps of silence and choppiness." "The main reason Tim and I began this project," says Plotkin, "is that I had done so much composition, programming and production work over the last five, six years - it had been so long since I had actually played the guitar. I just wasn't interested in composing, and at the moment I'm still not interested. Improvising is a much more 'pure' way of playing as opposed to composing and following established arrangements"
Wyskida continues, "Even playing structured music, I've never been into playing a song the same way twice. As [this project] develops, there's more of an abandonment of musicianship in the playing, more of a childlike approach. I think our approach is actually more thoughtless; as soon as we start thinking about it, that's where it feels wrong and starts sounding like shit to us."
"And it has nothing to do with 'showing off our chops'," Plotkin says. "As soon as someone starts wanking, that's where it has to end. It has to have a valid direction; if it doesn't it's useless."
Among musicians and fans thereof, progression and maturation can become a contentious issue. Some can get whipped into a passionate frenzy about "why X doesn't sound like X anymore". Others can chalk it up to an artist's desire for growth, and simply respect their process and enjoy the ride—or pass on the record.
For what that's worth, change, progression and re-invention have been about the only identifiable constants in Plotkin's story so far. A native of Bergen County, New Jersey, 35-year-old Plotkin started at a young age on piano and woodwinds. At age 12, there was the guitar gifted to him from his father. The teenage fascination with SF Bay Area and German thrash metal that followed led to the formation of his first bands with future Khanate conspirator Dubin: Regurgitation and Old Lady Drivers (later simply OLD). OLD's absence of a steady rhythm section over their Earache records career (which once included bassist Jason Everman, formerly of Nirvana and Soundgarden, in one of the avant-metal underground's weirder footnotes) perhaps pushed Plotkin in new sonic directions. Arrangements became obtuse and heady as compared to the prevailing rumble of their labelmates, but no less caustic a listen thanks to Plotkin's jackhammer drum programming and
effect-saturated guitar. The duo's work evidently warranted attention from like-minded maverick John Zorn, who is credited with "turbo sax" on OLD's 1991 "Lo Flux Tube" album. Another album, "The Musical Dimensions of Sleastak", saw Plotkin's turn from metal guitar convention in favor of even more radical signal processing and looping. It fit even a bit less squarely with Earache's industrial metal oeuvre of the day before in Plotkin's estimation, "things just sort of went awry." OLD's final work for Earache, "Formula," represented a complete change in direction from four years prior, comprising intricate electro-pop with Dubin's contributions vocoded than his usual cord-rending shriek. Following Dubin's departure from OLD, Plotkin continued the prog-pop arc with "Protoplasmic" under the Flux moniker on Release records, and in 1996 released his "Joy of Disease" album on Zorn's Avant label. The next few years he logged collaborative appearances live and on record with Mick Harris, Mark Spyby, KK Null, Scorn, and as a stand-in for Fred Frith in Death Ambient.
Just prior to getting back to a band setting with Khanate in 2000, Plotkin edged back into grindcore territory with Atomsmasher (now Phantomsmasher, due to legal threats from an alt-rocker band of the same name). The project found him, through the modern miracle of hard-disk editing, galvanizing his guitar-based soundscape and skronk with the precision violence of Dave Witte's (of formerly of Human Remains and Discordance Axis, Municipal Waste) and the vocals of UK's DJ Speedranch, processed beyond recognition with the Audiomulch application.
Trained in jazz and music theory, 35-year-old Wyskida (of Wappinger's Falls, N.Y.) emancipated himself from "crappy rock band" obscurity in the late 1990s to record his own compositions at home. A serendipitous encounter in 2000 with both the nascent Khanate membership and NYC instrumental hardcore/dub mainstays Blind Idiot God, who were seeking a replacement for departed drummer Ted Epstein, led to the pair of gigs he'd been looking for. With those came concurrent opportunities to hone disparate areas of his playing – Blind Idiot God's frenetic thrash and Khanate's Spartan accommodations. "I can't imagine playing with just one band anymore; it'd just be too one-sided," he admits now.
These days, he divides his attention between his duo work with Plotkin, Blind Idiot God and Downriver, a band that comprises BIG's Andy Hawkins and Gabe Katz along with Gerald Menke on pedal steel guitar and dobro. Wyskida describes the dreamy, modal Americana of Downriver as "kind of monotonous, melodic looping guitar and bass lines, with sort of improvised pedal steel and drums." The band has recorded an album with Bill Laswell and is currently label-shopping. Likewise, Blind Idiot God plans to record another album of newly composed material with Laswell—their first since 1992's "Cyclotron"—as soon as they can find a label to put up enough money to make it possible. "It's been extremely slow-going as far as that," says Wyskida, but he's hopeful that an offer and subsequent touring lies ahead.
Toward Khanate's end, Plotkin collaborated with former Thorr's Hammer vocalist Runhild Gammelsaeter for Khlyst's "Chaos is my Name" album, a transmission from some blackened Lovecraftian void. The sputtering low end of Plotkin's scrabbling riffing, roughly themed around an odd, recurring damaged blues-lick, is nearly an afterthought to Gammelsaeter's child-demon glossolalia.
"It's a really difficult listen, probably one of the most 'out' pieces of music I've ever made," says Plotkin. "I had been friends with Runhild for a while through Khanate and when she was in town I played her the about 15 minutes' worth of stuff I had recorded. Then we recorded, and it was sort of obvious that it was something that had to be developed."
The music, too, was of curious origin. "The 'theme' was actually made in an attempt to annoy Anton Fier – he and I had a duo going for a little under a year. We recorded a couple of sessions, and I started playing some annoying harsh guitar just to see how he'd react. There's definitely similarity to stuff like John Mclaughlin when he was playing with Miles Davis, just more angular, grossly fuzzed, a spastic bastardization. 'Abruptum meets Blue Cheer,' sort of fits," he muses.
Lest every bit of recent output was to plumb the depths, Plotkin's recent solo effort for the Utech label, 2005's Kurtlanmak/Damascus revisited a less cacophonous clime. Over two long improvisations, Plotkin switch-hits between Mac Powerbook, drum kit, prepared guitar, trumpet and gongs, evoking drifting whale choruses, sounds of flowing water, even stereo test-tone sinewaves, variously complemented with interludes of backward guitar and shimmering open chordings. Utech plans an August 18 release date for Indirmek, a second CD of two improvised solo live sets.
In addition to making ends meet through production and mastering services—he's assisting with production of Orthrelm/Octis/Ocrilim data-stream guitarist Mick Barr's forthcoming double CD for Hydra Head, for one— Plotkin has expanded his Archive label into DVD production.
Collaborating with partner Scott Slimm, Plotkin plans to release this August a DVD/CD edition of a September, 2001 Osaka performance from Japan's Kousokuya. "They were of the same school as Haino Keiji and Fushitsusha, one of the first back in the '70s to play disgusting, blackened psych. The aim is to document modern music that we like," says Plotkin. Also in the pipeline for August is a DVD document of recent stateside solo performances from members of Japan's LSD March. Early fall should see the release of a two-DVD set of live performances of the various projects of Barr, which Plotkin promises will be a "marathon."
And it's Barr—in the flesh, this time—who figures into a forthcoming project of Plotkin and Wyskida's.
"We're going to start working on something with Mick," Plotkin explains. "We had a bunch of stuff that we were composing for the fourth Khanate record, which obviously isn't going to happen now.
Instead of just throwing all that away, we figured that we could work it into the same framework as what Mick does. It's an extremely contrasting set of angles that I can't even really elaborate on because we haven't tried it yet."
But for now, there's the task of getting back to basics with their ongoing improvisation at hand. Having incorporated electronics by way of Plotkin's Powerbook and an arsenal of audio applications, the duo's vernacular has expanded. As was the case at a March, 2007 laptop/drum kit performance in Brooklyn, Wyskida is sometimes left to improvise along to the program output, while the algorithms loop and decay the original sample beyond recognition, with not more than a few keystrokes' intervention from Plotkin.
Plotkin offers: "We both have an affinity for some of the most obnoxious animal-type sounds that we can come up with. So far we've got a donkey ('being sawn in half', Wyskida adds), there's Chewbacca sounds, a baby crying. It's improvisational music, so there's this stigma of just 'seriousness' and 'art'. People don't catch the sense of humor. Some of the sounds that we make, for someone to sit there and take it serious in a musical type of way, it's just absolutely ridiculous. It's fun to throw a couple of curves."
"And to keep ourselves stimulated," adds Wyksida. "There's really no other reason to play this music other than for the music."
By Adam MacGregor