Absorbing Percy Howard's music has always been a fully immersive experience. You don't listen to his music; you can't be that static with the heady exotic mysticism which is his voice. You can't be that separate from the dense atmospheres of his music. You lose yourself because you realize--immediately--that he has done the same in bringing the music to you. He refers to inseparable dyads in the course of discussion about his music and brings to light the largest dyad: that between the song--the singer, the music--and the listener.
In the beginning, there was Nûs. The Sub Rosa label in Belgium released two albums, All the Vertical Angels in 1996 and Inside is the Only Way Out in 1997, which introduced the public to the intricate richness of Percy's lyrics and voice. He participated in the Hashisheen spoken word project early this year and, shortly before that, released the first disc in an ongoing project which sees him teaming up with a wide range of artists: the Meridiem albums. Amidst all that, he has found the time to put together Incidental Seductions, the first album to be presented as simply a "Percy Howard album." Released in October of 1999 on the Materiali Sonori label, Incidental Seductions is a collection of...you know, I never even asked about the context of the name.
You'll see how it happens. I came to swallow Percy's music and got swallowed in return.
Percy Howard: I got your quote. That's interesting. Who said that?
Percy: It is an interesting quote. I don't remember it from reading the book.
I was thinking that I was going to throw this out at some point during the interview, but I wanted to make sure I could find it. It wasn't exactly the way I remember it. Naturally. When you're younger and in college and finally getting this stuff, it becomes much more imaginative as time goes on...
Percy: There you go. I'm not one to shy from over the top Romanticism, so it works for me.
What I was thinking of focusing on was more the songs than a straight historical narrative--more of a Rorschach test--I'll throw out a song title and get your reaction--either why you wrote it, what was going on when you wrote it, or what it reminds you of.
Percy: Actually, I like that approach. Because quite often people--with my stuff--they tend to focus on the cool, famous people that I've played with ad nauseum. "What was it like to be around Bill Laswell?"
Oh, I'll sneak in those too.
Percy: (laughing) That's okay. That's fine. Just as long as it isn't the major focus.
I honestly went to the Meridiem show because, you know, of the other three guys...And by the end of the show I--and nearly everyone else--was going: "Who's this Howard guy? He really rocked."
Percy: I'm glad to hear that reaction. I knew most people were going to be like: "Who the hell is this guy up there with them?" And I feel really fortunate because that whole experience has turned out well. A lot of people have given me that feedback. "Hey, we really appreciate what you do." I wasn't just this guy who hired some famous musicians to play for him. If you really know about these kinds of guys--Frith and Laswell--you know they're not amenable to this anyway. They deal with this stuff on a peer level--very much--and they're the kind of musicians that only do the stuff that they're into. It's a Catch-22 because the expectations are there. It was a good experience.
In retrospect, you realize that it was Percy Howard backed by Massacre.
Percy: (laughing) We laughed about that. That's exactly what it is. That's the interesting juxtaposition because you have what I do, which is fairly lyrical and melodic, but what I do is not typically within the realm of avant-garde. But that was the challenge. Where do you find the little strains of melody and where do you insert a more traditional approach to song and lyricism in the real avant-garde musical textures and flavors? Even though most of the melodic--the basic melodic ideas--are what I came up with, it was really a challenge surfing along with Fred. But I think that's what made Meridiem interesting. It was more interesting live than it was in the recording. The recording I would do differently. In fact, I'm probably going to remix it.
Percy: Yeah. This next year. When we did the recording we did it at Laswell's new studio [Orange Music Sound]. I love Bill. We're friends and he's kind of a mentor, but we have differing approaches to sound. A lot of his stuff has a lot of reverb on it, a ton of reverb. Even though I technically produced it, it was still kind of formed by the fact we were in his studio. It was my first project at this level and there were some things I would have done differently, but I kind of kept my mouth shut about them at the time. I think it would have been more interesting to dry up the mix and bring out the bass tones more and use Fred's playing more of as an effect, like ping-pong things around and fragment things--take a decidedly more experimental approach.
There was one song in the show which I've never been quite able to place that Bill's bass had a much more watery effect like ocean waves.
Percy: Probably "Lunarsa." I betcha.
Frith's guitar was much more of a ping.
Percy: Right. That's just it. Those guys have an unlimited palette of sounds. We had such a limited amount of time to make a recording that we just went with what happened. I came in with some musical templates and then it was just pure improvisation. Some stuff it was 100% improvisation on the spot, kind of the same thing with the shows. We'd start off with these templates and have no idea what was going to happen from moment to moment. We just did it.
That's got to be fun though.
Percy: It was great fun. It was really fun. The record I just finished up with Vernon Reid and Trey Gunn was a completely different experience than Meridiem because the songs are much more constructed. You're talking 90% composition, 10% improvisation versus 30% composition and 70% improvisation. I took many more months constructing melodies, thinking about what I wanted to do with parts and overdubs and stuff. I think the songs are warmer and more intentional. I was writing more specific incident-related things instead of snatches of emotion. Meridiem is much more just feeling and sound portraits--lyrical approximations versus real stories.
Meridiem does come across as more abrupt, more fiery.
Percy: Yeah, a lot more fiery.
Incidental Seductions, on the other hand, really worms its way into your head.
Percy: It's more language. One comment I'm getting from a lot of people is that it grows on you. And I'm glad. The intent of the record was to make one that would grow on you. And you can attach to this record in a variety of ways. You can have it on and if you don't want to deal with it intensely, maybe you don't. But when you do want to deal with it intensely, there's a lot there. I think there's a lot of emotion. The writing has more of a universal quality to it than some of the other stuff I've done, qualities that people can attach to with a little bit more personal warmth than they could with some of the songs on Meridiem like "Lunarsa" which is essentially this fable about the Moon Goddess. This is more personal stuff.
I have a quote to throw out at you. "...how they [the artist] function within a context of a musical industry which may have little to do with supporting them as an artist."
You remember this line?
Percy: Yeah. It sounds like Fripp.
Percy: Oh, I'm really interested because it is basically the story of my life, professionally. It's funny that you throw that out there because, in the last week, my relationship with Materiali Sonori (the label for Incidental Seductions and Meridiem) has come to an end. Which is okay because I've started up this new relationship with Outer Music in Santa Cruz. We're going to do a record this winter with Jarboe and Bill Rieflin.
A little closer to home this time?
Percy: Yeah, a little closer. Which is good. But the reason that my relationship with Materiali Sonori met a demise is that we came to this crossroads that artists and companies always come to. The company has their vested self interest--which they're going to because they are, bottom line, a corporation--but your needs as an artist juxtaposed against that are always going to lose. My whole thing was that they can't just make my records and pump me up and say, "Look, he's playing with these really important people." You can't just put that on a press kit form and send it to people and expect them to do something. I was trying to explain to them the machinations of the United States marketplace. Yeah, you got to put a little bit of money into that publicist. You got to get those people going. Because you have to understand that the US is a huge market; we are literally bombarded with a plethora of products and information, et cetera, et cetera. You have to learn how to play the game. And they were like: "No, no, no. We're just going to hang on to it and do it our way." I've been giving them records fairly cheaply and doing everything I could to try to work it. They were different than a lot of labels in that they recognized my artistry and didn't try to get involved in that. But you will never see eye-to-eye with a record label because the bottom line will prevail no matter how much they love you or say they love you. It's a very excruciating process.