frank pahl – remove the cork
release date : 1997
label : demosaurus

frank pahl is a fantastic musician, and “remove the cork” proves it once again. he’s a one man band, also know as a member of only a mother, playing a raw music on acoustic instruments (we can hear ukuleles, prepared piano, clarinets, euphonium). beautiful melodies seem to come out from nowhere… following the excellent “the romantic side of schizophrenia” (tec tones) and his contributions to the doctor nerve projects, and after his contribution to elliot sharp’s state of the union, remove the cork brings you to the unknown world of inventive folklore. a masterpiece produced by david fenech for his demosaurus micro label.

with brian poole (renaldo and the loaf),
dennis palmer (shaking ray levi),
nick didkovsky (dr. nerve , fred frith guitar quartet)
doug gourlay, tim holmes and eugene chadbourne.

interview with Frank Pahl

February 1998

Questions sent by mail by David Fenech

On your last record, you play more than 40 different instruments (from prepared piano to toys, from charango to bike horns) ... How did you come to be a one-man-band ? Are there still instruments that you never played ? The impetus for my one man band was fear. In 1988 I had some west coast solo gigs lined up and I was concerned about being visually static, so I started practicing with the kick snare and home made hi-hat combination which fit nicely into my accordion case. After a couple of local Detroit gigs I discovered that audiences forgave imprecise rhythms in the one man band mode more easily than they would a sloppy drummer in a group. This phenomena worked in my favor. You also build automatons (like the treadle-driven marimba). Do you consider them as "sculptures that make sound" or as "devices to support your music" ? Can you describe these machines ? The automatons are the result of returning to school to pursue an MFA in Art and Design. As an art major lacking technical skills in traditional media I felt I had to create objects since everyone else in my program was. Since my background was considerably more aural than visual I made objects that both created sound and supported my music. Taking my cue from Pierre Bastien I started buying secondhand Erector sets (he prefers Meccano), Tinker Toys, rotisserie motors, etc. If they are at all autodestructive it is not because I emulate Jean Tinquely; it's because I'm a mediocre engineer. You play "home-made banjo"... it seems that you also built some instruments. which ones ? Do you use electronics ? My home made banjo I bought for a dollar at a church sale. It's a lovely fretless plywood mess. I tend to modify instruments more than build my own. Give me a couple of door stops, plastic knives and some toys to dissect and I'm prepared to prepare. As far as electronics go I'm a bit shy. I just started building microcontrollers to trigger my automatons though I don't like to rely on electronics to originate the sound unless the electronics are very low tech (variometers, sirens, cheap sampling boxes, etc.). In your one-man-band, you play all these instruments at the same time .. but in the studio you seem to prefer the accumulation of the same instrument (cf. "ODE TO ..." ) Do you work at home in your own studio ? How does it influence the creation process ? I record almost exclusively in my home studio. For years I used an Otari 8-track reel-to-reel. Recently I switched to an 8-track ADAT. My approach to composition is a direct result of owning multi-track equipment. I tend to come up with an initial track and overdub as quickly as possible to keep it fresh. Briefly Doug Gourlay and I ran the studio as a business recording bands in search of the perfect pop song. Their meticulous anal tinkering convinced me early on that there had to be a better way. I suppose my approach is somewhat of a reaction to wannabe pop stars. Eugene Chadbourne was also recording at my studio whenever he was in town and his approach was record everything as quick as possible. Did the fact that you play one-man band change the way that you play with Only A Mother ? My experience with Only a Mother began at approximately the same time as I began the one man band gigs (87 or 88?). Bobbi, the bass player from Only a Mother bought me a Spike Jones washboard-style one man band that I briefly played with Only a Mother. The washboard one man band appears on the two Ode to Rack numbers from The Romantic Warped, but I consider the two experiences separate. The obsessive multi-imstrumental approach was probably the result of composing in the studio and working with Marko Novachcoff, who's quite a collector/player. How would you analyze the way you compose ? What is the process that creates these incredible melodies ? And how would you describe your music to people who don't know you ? I often try to find chord sequences that have one or two notes in common. I also build chords on top of chords. Any tunes that begin with the title, "The Romantic Side of ..." were written on the piano with the left hand playing different chords than the right hand. This creates an ambiguous impressionistic tonal base. Then I either improvise a melody or take the notes that are most common in the progression and build a melody from those notes. The result tends to be simple melodies. This is the process for "The Romantic ..." series only. The Warpeds, Odes and Disciples all have their own process. I'm not very good at describing my music to the unfamiliar and I would discourage anyone from trusting descriptions of bands written by band members. Musicians tend to be well versed in creative license with facts. Are you involved in improvisation ? Personally, I think I'm a tentative improvisor though I enjoy playing with improvisors. Boss Witch by The Shaking Ray Levis have a couple of improvised numbers that Mary Richards and I play on and there's a degree of improvisation on most of my solo releases. You also appeared as a Dancer in some projects ... How do consider the relationship between music and dance ? Music is dance. Many of your compositions are named "The romantic side of ..." Do you consider yourself as a romantic or is it a joke ? Since my CDs are mostly short instrumentals I often find myself in the awkward position of grasping for names. I sometimes group pieces by process and then name them according to the group name. In the case of the romantic series the last word is usually somehow significant to the piece. For instance, "The Romantic Side of Masking Tape," features a piano prepared with masking tape. Prepared piano pieces are usually named after biblical disciples. "The Romantic Side of Masking Tape" fell into both process groups so I had to flip a coin... o well. Yes, I sometimes fall prey to romanticism and yes it is a joke. I try to take very little seriously. Serious people scare me. You often collaborate with many american musicians like Eugene Chadbourne, Amy Demio or The Shaking Ray Levi... do you have other projects in the USA ? Is there a real musical network in North America ? The musical network in the USA isn't as strong as it once was. In the mid to late '80s I sent out tapes of my music and I wrote letters to people whose music I admired. I was a reluctant promoter at the time so I would also set up shows for people who were passing through Detroit. I think, in some small way, I helped Detroit become a city where improvising musicians could perform. However to create a scene in the US, you almost need a network of volunteers and non-profit status to sustain interest... the way The Shaking Ray Levis have operated in Chattanooga. How were you involved in the "Nerve Events" organized by Nick Didkovski's Doctor Nerve ? In the '80s I wrote Nick and we started swapping recordings. Our approaches were very different. In fact most algorhythmic composition leaves me cold, however Nick's got a great twist on it. For the Nerve Events he probably wanted a wide variety of approaches since the project limited the source material. Nick has a talent for pulling off unlikely projects. How did you meet Brian Poole (from Renaldo & The Loaf) ? I thought he had stopped playing... Do you know if he plans to release something soon ? Tom Timony from TEC Tones sent a copy of Only a Mother's "Feral Chickens" to Brian Poole who told Tom that he liked our version of "Mahogony Wood." I wrote Brian and another correspondence began. When touring Europe with Only a Mother I had a week off between our tour and Solofest so I asked Brian if he'd like to work on something together. The timing was perfect for a weekend in Portsmouth. Even though Renaldo and the Loaf are no more, Brian still records his own material. Tom was interested in another release from Brian however that was before TEC became so tentative. Who knows... Demosaurus ? You also appeared in a compilation called "Eyesore: A Tribute to the Residents". Don't you think it's a great idea to release covers of he Residents (who are specialized in covers) ? Did you "Meet the residents" ? I met The Residents when I didn't know it was The Residents. Now that I know their true identites are Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey I refuse to answer their phone calls. There was a record called HAIKUS URBAINS that came out recently on the Cave 12 label (with miniatures from Fred Frith, Iva Bitova, Pierre Bastien, Ottomo Yoshihide... ) What was your contribution to this project ? Can you compare it with Eliott Sharp's STATE OF THE UNION (where you also appeared) ? There are four brilliant releases that come to mind: Haikus Urbains, State of the Union, Miniatures and The Resident's Commercial Album. They all celebrate brevity and remind us that less can be more. In the various commissions I've received, I've been forced to work with very specific lengths. Some musicians might find it limiting to say something in a minute however I consider it somewhat liberating to have one of the parameters of composition forced on me. I composed, multi-tracked and mixed down the Haiku Urbain contribution in a day because I was leaving town the next day but I don't think the result suffers from my constraints. One may as well befriend the clock. I also heard about a concert of boats in a Harbour (during Sound Symposium 1992 - St. John's, Newfoundland). Can you describe this project ? The Harbour Symphonies have been taking place since the beginning of the Sound Symposium. Each morning of the Symposium a different composer gets a shot at composing for six boats in the harbour at the invitation of Don Wherry, the festival organizer. The composer is only dealing with rhythm and note durations. He or she can not pick which notes are played or what the tempo will be. The boats are all on shortwave together and the tempo is determined by the clock. The score consists of a line for each boat with a box per second so one either fills in the box or doesn't. The kick is that the piece is being heard throughout the harbour with an incredible natural reverb. Since it is so site specific, documentation can be difficult. For pure decibels, none of the other boats could compete with the U.S. Coast Guard. Surprise, what can one do about microphone placement... o well. Do you have any new projects on going for 1998 ? Who would you like to work with ? Currently I'm finishing up my MFA in Art and I'm building automatons that I'm synching up with microcontrollers for my thesis show. I'd like to record these pieces and put out a release of the results. Pierre Bastien would be great to work with as long as our pets got along and I hope to do something with the Shaking Ray Levis this year though we have nothing firm planned yet... and Only a Mother should have another release this year but mostly I'm looking forward to collaborating with my garden on a few vegetables.