Grappling with Guardian Alien
ABOVE: GUARDIAN ALIEN. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHERYL GEORGETTE ARENT
Though the Queens-based musical polymath Greg Fox has categorically rejected The Village Voice’s dubious distinction of “The Best Drummer in New York City” since they first bestowed it upon him at the tail end of 2011, his work in the intervening years has done nothing to shirk the label. Whether with ambient overlord Ben Frost, the freak-jazz weirdos in Zs, or in tandem with Oneida’s Kid Millions, Fox has only further established his name as a veteran collaborator—a distinct flavor sought after amongst many in the grimy underground of experimental music. But as refreshing as his contributions to the work of others has been, it is with Guardian Alien, the Thrill Jockey-signed psychedelic band that Fox leads, that he has found his most consistently engaging artistic output.
Whether on 2012’s See the World Given to a One Love Entity or in the ensemble’s many live shows, Fox and co. conjure a technically profound mysticism—led by Fox’s deliriously complex drum parts, which drive these often expansive pieces to their spacebound conclusions. While that last record’s genesis was the result of a creative flash in the midst of deep mediation (Fox experienced a vision of a dreadlocked alien delivering him a copy of an LP with the words “See the World Given to a One Love Entity” emblazoned upon it), the band’s forthcoming Thrill Jockey effort, Spiritual Emergency was the result of a more typical process. Built around the title track, an expansive bit of kaleidoscopic experimentation that takes up the whole second side of the record, Fox developed the ideas that built up this record over a much longer time span. Over the phone from his Queens home, Fox spoke excitedly about the new record, outlining its more involved ideological basis, and describing the creative appeal of his own projects versus his collaborative work.
COLIN JOYCE: It seems like you’re on tour quite a bit, you probably don’t get much time to sit back and relax.
GREG FOX: Yeah, I’ve spent the majority of the past year on the road or away from home doing music stuff, so it’s really nice being home. But you know, there’s always work to do. All that time on the road isn’t with one project it’s a lot of them. I try to relax a bit, but I also have to be mindful of putting effort and energy into my own music.
JOYCE: It’s been almost a year and a half since the last Guardian Alien record came out, and you’ve been playing shows and touring with a number of projects since then. When did you find the time to work on this new record?
FOX: It happened pretty organically. The basic, most tiny seed, was when I was home for a little bit of time in the rehearsal studio playing drums. I was just messing around with this rhythm and this new thing happened that I’d never played or heard before. Something new happened while I was practicing. There were a couple of times in rehearsals or at shows where I started playing it with the group and it just went from there. It happened pretty gradually. We’d play with it and identify things that were blossoming out of it and designate those as parts.
JOYCE: This is the rhythm that makes up “Spiritual Emergency,” right? Do you have any idea how long ago it was that you first got that idea?
FOX: The first time we ever did it was whenever the Maze festival happened in New York at Secret Project Robot. That was the first time I played that beat in front of an audience, at least with this band. It was maybe a little over a year ago.
JOYCE: I read the story about how the last record sort of came to you while you were meditating, and based on the fact that it sounds like you’ve been workshopping at least the final piece for some time, it sounds like you didn’t have a similar experience on this one.
FOX: There wasn’t so much a flash of inspiration or this revealing of something. While Guardian Alien was on tour, I had to do a drive for 12 hours to Kansas City. While we were driving, I had this book on tape or lecture by Stan Grof. I basically listened to him talk about how he developed his practice, and when he started talking about the idea of “Spiritual Emergency,” I resonated a lot with that and with the idea of giving credence to what would normally be written off as someone being pathological or out of control or crazy. There’s an extendable metaphor there to the condition of a musician. There’s points of crisis that can either be seen as total breakdown or they can be seen as an opportunity to go through to whatever’s next. They can be a healing opportunity, or a door. I resonated with that pretty strongly and listening to it I knew we had a name for the piece that we’ve been playing.
JOYCE: Is that idea of “Spiritual Emergency” something you only connect with metaphorically, or do you relate to it on a more personal level as well?
FOX: Yeah, I do. So, the reason he went into doing all that stuff to begin with is because he was a psychedelics researcher. He was having major breakthroughs treating people using, you know, psychoactive drugs that are illegal. In the US, it’s basically illegal still to do LSD testing on people or to use it clinically at all. When that became outlawed, he developed new methods for treating his patients that had similar effects. He started focusing on breath work and he was able to have a lot of success. As a figure, I admire his work and I think that there’s a lot of potential.
I guess in the path I’ve taken away from consensus reality over the years growing up, I’ve had points where I question what I’m doing with my life and my thoughts and my beliefs—I think everybody does. You can feel a weight of all the questions of existence—what your place is in it. It’s hard to word. It can make people nuts. If one is going through something difficult and the people around that person just say, “There you go, they’ve finally lost it.” I’ve had times in my life where I really felt like I didn’t know which way is up. By sticking with it instead of retreating, I’ve come to new discoveries and figured out new things.
JOYCE: I think I read that the shorter pieces on the first half of the record were improvised; did you go into the two days in the studio with any sort of framework of ideas for those?
FOX: I knew that I wanted to do something along the lines of the first piece on the record [“Tranquilizer”], because I have a set of tabla and I wanted to play them. That’s basically it though. The answer is really “No.” We knew we were going to record “Spiritual Emergency” and then some other stuff. That other stuff wasn’t stuff we’d been playing live; it was an immediate thing.
JOYCE: So by the time you got to the studio, was “Spiritual Emergency” more fixed in its structure, or was there still room to breathe on that one as well?
FOX: Well, it had sort of gone into a fixed structure, but “fixed” is a relative term, really. It had some parts that followed each other. When we sat down to record it, I wrote out a little map of what we’d been doing at the time so we could follow it. The idea was for it to fit on one side of a record, so we had to think about the timing of it. That was basically the reasoning for writing out a plot. It’s even changed in how we’re playing it live since we recorded it. It was more a document of what we were doing at that time.
JOYCE: This record was recorded before Turner Williams and Eli Winograd left the band, right? Is it presenting any problems translating this new stuff to the stage with just a three-piece?
FOX: If anything, it’s actually a little easier. I very much enjoyed playing music with Turner and Eli and they both brought a lot to the band, but I think, to a certain degree, less is more. A lot of great stuff that people were doing in the band wasn’t getting the sort of sound space that it deserved, because there was so much going on at once. I think a lot of stuff got buried. It was more of a sum of its parts. Not that it isn’t that still now, but you can hear the parts a lot better. I’ve been enjoying it a lot because it’s a lot easier to hear what everybody else is doing.
JOYCE: It seems like paring down would lend itself well to opening up new space for ideas. Is that something that’s exciting to you going forward?
FOX: It’s exciting to me because now that there’s a smaller group of people in the band, it’s a little bit easier to resonate with each other. It’s easier for three people to get on the same page than for five people to get on the same page. It makes it easier to think about and discuss ideas. With three people, everybody is immediately accountable for the other two people. It’s a purely geometric thing. If you’re a point on a triangle, you’re directly next to the other two points. Everything that happens you’re directly connected to. With a group of five, those points aren’t directly connected all the time.
JOYCE: That makes sense musically and socially.
FOX: I think it’s a matter of social dynamics more than anything else. I lead Guardian Alien, that’s my band. I do the managerial work and I lead with my sensibilities artistically, but I also don’t dictate what people are going to play. It’s important that people can move around within the space and find things of their own.
JOYCE: I’m curious what it is that makes Guardian Alien so creatively fruitful to you, since you’re involved with so many other bands and you have the solo project as well.
FOX: There’s just a lot of potential. There’s always different directions it could go. In other situations I’m involved with, I’m the “drummer.” I like that, I like being the drummer. I see it as a craft and a trade and as an art. I’m invited to play with different people, and I’m not being invited to come in and play a backbeat. I’m invited to contribute creatively on the drums, which I love doing. I put a lot of value in that creatively and professionally. It’s satisfying, but Guardian is the whole other space of thinking about writing and arranging. This is my space where I can implement my ideas and suggest them to other people. I’ve always been purely in a collaborative space, but this is the place where I’m the bandleader. I think having that space is really educational. I learn so much about what kind of musician I want to be and what kind of music I want to play through supporting others’ musical ideas and having my own band and having other people support my ideas. Having both happen is what’s really exciting and challenging for me. I’m always learning something new about some aspect of it.
SPIRITUAL EMERGENCY IS OUT TOMORROW, JANUARY 28. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS FACEBOOK PAGE.