17 August 2010

10 Questions with...Moraine

If there’s one thing I am thankful to NEARfest for, it is this: every year a band is signed that I have never heard of before, and seeing them live causes me to walk away shaking my head, shocked that I’d never come across them before, and wondering how that could be possible. The list of bands almost seems like a who’s who, when I think about it…

2002: Gerard
2003: Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
2004: Metamorfosi
2005: Kenso
2006: KBB
2007: NeBeLNeST
2008: Koenji Hyakkei
2009: Cabezas de Cera

2010 brought me Moraine.

Moraine hails from Cascadia…that’s the Pacific Northwest, for those not in the know. A quintet signed to MoonJune Records, their debut release Manifest DeNsity is an impressive collection of instrumentals that embrace the dualities of light and shade, tunefulness and dissonance. Not at all an avant garde band (but labelled as such by some), theirs is a difficult but ultimately satisfying brand of music that bears repeated listening incredibly well.

I reached out to Kevin Millard following NEARfest to offer up copies of the photos I had taken of their performance. As BPB was awakening from its slumbers at the same time, I asked if he’d be interested in answering a few questions to offer added insight into Moraine. He came back with a better offer…what if the entire band took a look at the questions, and each person got a chance to answer ones that they had particular insight into. Who was I to refuse such an offer? I quickly accepted, and the end result you’ll find below.

Once you’re done reading, why not pop over to MoonJune Records website (which I’ve conveniently provided a link to below) and pick up a copy of Manifest DeNsity. Your ears will thank you later!

1. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started in music?

[DENNIS REA] Moraine grew out of informal improvised duets between me and cellist Ruth Davidson, who has since left the group to pursue a career in mathematics. Eventually the two of us began working on compositions and felt the need to expand our palette by bringing in additional players. I had worked with violinist Alicia Allen (now Alicia DeJoie) in singer-songwriter Eric Apoe’s group and knew she would blend in perfectly with the guitar and cello. At the same time we brought in drummer Jay Jaskot, with whom I'd previously worked in Seattle bands Axolotl and Iron Kim Style. After trying out a couple of bassists, we settled on our longtime associate Kevin Millard, who proved ideal for the role. This lineup remained stable until Ruth departed for graduate school. By this time we’d acquired a reputation as a ‘string-quartet-plus-drums,’ so we considered replacing her with another cellist, but weren’t aware of one in Seattle who could really fill her shoes. Instead, we recruited Alicia’s partner (now husband), the gifted woodwind player James DeJoie, who's worked out splendidly. Jay Jaskot eventually relocated to NYC and was very ably replaced by Stephen Thomas Cavit (also an Emmy Award–winning film composer). The tunes themselves are adaptable to different instrumentation; it’s the musical personalities that really count.

2. Moraine is a fairly new group, really, with one release under its belt. How did the group initially come together?

[KEVIN MILLARD] The band started as a duo, a collaboration between Dennis and Ruth (Davidson, on cello), who introduced herself to Dennis on a smoke break at a well-used Seattle rehearsal space. This was about 2005-2006. Kevin and Ruth had met and played together in Minneapolis in 1996 and both ended up moving to Seattle, where Kevin introduced her to some of his favorite local bands, including LAND featuring Dennis. Ruth and Dennis started playing shows together and soon added drums, bass and violin (Alicia). The line-up went through a couple bass players before Kevin joined, and original drummer Jay Jaskot moved to Brooklyn (shortly after Manifest Density was recorded), opening the way for Stephen to join. When Ruth moved away for mathematics graduate studies in the summer of 2009, we decided not to try to replace her very unique voice with another cellist. Jim (Alicia's boyfriend at the time, now husband) was already a Moraine fan - in fact, we were rehearsing at their house - and his amazing baritone sax playing and use of effects seemed like a very natural fit.

3. Manifest DeNsity came out on Moonjune Records. How did you hook up with that label?

[DENNIS REA] Interestingly, we never actually solicited MoonJune, but the relationship developed very organically. I had been aware of MoonJune and its founder, Leonardo Pavkovic, for years due to my longstanding enthusiasm for Soft Machine, many of whose members have releases on the label. When MoonJune released the archival live Soft Machine CD Drop in 2009, I placed an order for a copy on the MoonJune website. Shortly thereafter I received an email message from Leonardo explaining that the disc was on back order. I wrote back to thank him for the personal attention and commend him on his excellent label. He grew curious about me and clicked the link to my website in my email signature. I soon heard back from him that he'd perused my site and was particularly interested in my tales of playing music in China - I lived in China and Taiwan from 1989-93 and have done a number of concert tours there, as detailed in my book Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan. Leonardo had traveled extensively in China himself, so I offered to send him a copy of my book, which he read and enjoyed. Up to that point there still hadn't been any discussion of my music, but the book piqued his interest and he asked me to send some samples.

At the time, we had just finished recording what would become manifest deNsity, so I sent it to him along with a few of my other projects; again, I was not soliciting a record deal but simply sharing the music. Right after he heard the Moraine session he offered to put it out on MoonJune, and the band of course was delighted to accept. It was the best possible outcome for us - MoonJune has been extremely supportive of Moraine, and as a respected presence on the international progressive jazz/rock scene, gave us an instant entree to the wider world of progressive music enthusiasts. Thanks to our association with such a highly regarded label, our CD has garnered close to 100 reviews in more than 20 countries to date, and the band came to the attention of NEARfest, the greatest opportunity we could ever have hoped for.

4. The band is often labeled as avant-garde. Do you feel this is an accurate label, or one you 'reject'?

[DENNIS REA] I'd like to know who often labels us as avant-garde ;) We've never identified ourselves as avant-garde and were rather surprised to find ourselves classified that way in the NEARfest publicity. I don't believe it's an accurate label at all, and I should know, as I've been a passionate follower of avant-garde, experimental music for decades. Compared to truly avant-garde musicians - say, Iannis Xenakis or Derek Bailey - Moraine isn't avant-garde at all. While we do have our hairier moments, we're rather too tuneful for that tag to fit. We embrace beauty and melody as well as our darker, more dissonant and noisier side, and that's part of what I believe sets us apart from many bands of a more explicitly experimental bent.

It came to our attention that some NEARfest attendees were actually put off by the 'avant-garde' billing in advance of our show, and it may well have kept some audience members away from our set, though we were very pleased that many of those who did take in our set were pleasantly surprised to find that we weren't so scary and forbidding after all.

5. What do you think Moraine brings to the table that sets the band apart from other groups out there?

[KEVIN MILLARD] I'm honestly not sure about this! We have never set out to sound like anyone else, or for that matter to differentiate ourselves from anyone else. This is a determinedly 'unstudied' band: We play whatever and however we like, and until we got onto MoonJune, we never even really talked about what genre we were. So this question might be better answered by the music press, fans and critics. I will say it's been very interesting to watch the reviews of our first CD (and our NEARfest appearance) roll in!

6. Moraine recently opened day two of NEARfest. How was that experience for the band?

[ALICIA DeJOIE] NEARfest was a fabulous experience for Moraine – the venue was outstanding, the crew was professional, highly capable, awesome people, and the equipment was absolutely top notch. We were fortunate enough to have the crew set us up on stage the night before so that when we arrived there in the morning, it was a quick monitor mix and then we were ready to go. The sound on stage during the show was stellar – everyone could hear everyone else in the band, the sound was clear, and the instruments were easily distinguishable. So often we’ve played clubs where we all basically heard a mush of sound on stage! In this respect, NEARfest was a very refreshing musical experience for us. Signing autographs after the show was a wonderful way to connect with our audience in a more personal way as well – we met some very enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and appreciative people in the world of prog rock! The town of Bethlehem was also charming – we had fun getting to know some of the small town nuances from the locals, and making a trek to the local brewery to sample the famous NEARfest beer when the festival was over. Overall, NEARfest was an exciting opportunity for us, one we hope will launch us into other festivals in the US and abroad.

7. Each of Moraine's members have had very active lives musically outside of the band. Has that made work with Moraine any more difficult?

[KEVIN MILLARD] In the sense that we all have diverse experiences to bring to the band, I'm sure that's only helped us. I can't imagine a more diverse bunch of people in terms of the kinds of gigs we've played, the kinds of music we've made and enjoy. In the sense that we all have busy lives outside the band, of course that brings with it certain challenges in scheduling gigs and rehearsals. We only rehearse once a week, but keeping even that regular can be a trick sometimes. It would be a serious challenge just to tally up all the other bands/recording projects/ensembles, etc. that we're all involved with! Jazz, classical, film scoring, pop, avant-garde, choral work, folk, even stoner rock ... but I get the sense that Moraine is a real priority for everyone. We all love playing this material, plus we all get along famously, so we love the chance just to hang out together, too.

8. Most (if not all) of Moraine's members have played on Dennis Rea's albums. What do you think sets Moraine music apart from Rea's solo efforts?

[DENNIS REA] Actually, I have only one 'solo' album available - the just-released Views From Chicheng Precipice, a radical reimagining of East Asian traditional music - apart from the long-lost album I recorded for the state-owned China Record Company 20 years ago. But all of the members of Moraine's previous lineup, which included cellist Ruth Davidson and drummer Jay Jaskot (who have both since moved on), did make wonderful contributions to certain tracks on Views. And Jay also appears on the entirely improvsied outing Iron Kim Style (also on MoonJune), but that's a collective effort rather than a DR project. At any rate, what sets Moraine apart from either of those records is 1) they're in completely different musical idioms - in the case of Views, an experimental take on world music, and in the case of Iron Kim Style, spontaneous fee jazz; and 2) the members of Moraine contribute their own compositions and ideas to the band's music. While much of Moraine's repertoire is tightly composed, there is always room for the other musicians to inject their own musical personailities into the pieces.

9. What can listeners expect in the future from Moraine?

[KEVIN MILLARD] More music! We're entering a period of writing new music, and the new contributions are coming from all sides, including a composer outside the band - something we're all very excited about. We have always been very democratic about the band, and everyone is encouraged to contribute new tunes. I would like to think that trend is continuing and getting stronger. I don't know what more diverse contributions is going to do to our "sound," but I think so far our music shows a cohesion despite the diverse writers and influences. Apart from that, the opportunities brought to us by being part of MoonJune Records and (thanks to MoonJune) being welcomed into the NEARfest family may very well bear other interesting fruit. We will never get tired of performing Seattle club gigs, but we're looking forward to more opportunities to bring our live music to new audiences nationally, and hopefully internationally as well. Also, we're excited to make a new album, which may include live material from the NEARfest performance - stand by for news!

10. Do you have any final words for the readers out there?

[DENNIS REA] The most important thing we have say is a heartfelt 'thank you!' to all of the people who've come to embrace our music, either through hearing our CD, seeing our set at NEARfest, or catching a show in the Seattle area. We're now hard at work on our second CD, featuring the same lineup that appeared at NEARfest, with woodwind player extraordinaire James DeJoie and drum maestro Stephen Thomas Cavit; when finished, the CD will also be released on MoonJune, possibly as part of a package including a DVD of our NEARfest performance. And we're hoping to parlay all of the new friendships we made at NEARfest into more opportunities to play farther afield, in other areas of the U.S., in Europe, or... We're just extremely gratified and humbled to have gained the attention of sympathetic listeners worldwide. Thanks for giving us an opportunity to speak!

Find out more here:

(Album cover: manifest deNsity by Moraine. Concert photo: Moraine live at NEARfest 2010 by Bill Knispel.)