Jeff Rian is a writer and musician, an associate editor of Purple Fashion magazine, and a professor at L’Ecole Nationale Superieur d’Arts Cergy-Paris. He has written numerous essays and exhibition catalogs as well as a regular contributor to Artforum, Purple Fashion and The Purple Journal. He is the author of The Buckshot Lexicon and Purple Years, and has written monographs on artists, Richard Prince, Lewis Baltz, Philip-Lorca di Corcia, and Stéphane Dafflon. His CDs include Everglade, with Jean-Jacques Palix, and Fanfares and 8 de pique for Alexandra Roos, and Battle Songs, with his group, Rowboat. Jeff’s most recent CD project, Météo, was released as part of zing #24. The project was curated by photographer and past zingmagazine contributor Giasco Bertoli, featuring three instrumentals and four songs written with Gérard Duguet Grasser, and recorded with Bob Coke. The music itself is minimal, with fingerpicked guitar that ranges from bluesy and percussive to wobbly and romantic, accompanied by crooning vocals, and the odd tambourine. Well-crafted atmospheric music that sticks with you. Here we shed light on Jeff’s “secret” life as a sideman.
Interview by Brandon Johnson
In contemporary art circles you are most widely known as a critic. Can you tell us how you originally got involved with music and the trajectory of that path since then?
At around age ten, guitarist James Burton, sideman in Ricky Nelson’s band on the long-running television show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” struck me as a model. I wanted to be a sideman. My father bought me a Silvertone acoustic guitar at Sears, for $17, and a book of folk songs. I discovered I could play many of the songs almost immediately. Within a month I was in a folk trio. I was 12. My voice hadn’t change. But the two other boys I played, their voices had changed. So I was the girl voice. We played at parties, at the pool we belonged to, at school, and wherever else we could. By the time I was 15 the band had gone electric. My interests were now the Stones, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Cream, and a group called The Band. By the time I was 18 or 19 I was the lead guitarist in a club band in Washington, D.C., a town with excellent guitarists. Playing nightly and hanging out with musicians was excellent on-the-job training. This was before disco, when live music paid real wages. Around then my worried parents sent me to take battery of aptitude tests. The tester told me to forget everything other than music, literature, and art. “Art?” I wondered. I’d flunked art classes. I knew nothing about art. I’d been to the Smithsonian Institute twice, once with my parents and once with a friend, when we were 14. He was actually interested in art. After taking those tests, it occurred to me that art would be something to study and to satisfy my parents, and might be easier and allow me to play at night and come to school late. I enrolled in the summer session at The Corcoran School of Art (which didn’t require a portfolio). In my first drawing class there were ten girls, a Marine Corps colonel, a kind of art stud named Angel, and the girliest guy I’d ever seen or met in my life—who was an excellent artist. We became friends, and I tried to copy his drawings, and not insult him when I didn’t want to hold hands. At the Corcoran I discovered an entire population I enjoyed being with. Nightclub musicians—whom I’ve played with off and on my entire life—can be insufferable if you’re interested in anything other than your ax and getting high. Artists connect to the world differently, materially and aesthetically. They too want to spend all of their time making and thinking about art. Musicians woodshed, which is what they call practicing their ax, which is very demanding. The materials and requirements of the two are very different.
I ended up at the University of Colorado, completely by accident—hitchhiking west with an old friend, with only a week off from my current playing. But ended up staying. I needed to get away, I guess. I spent several months working as the assistant to a pot dealer, got in-state tuition, and enrolled in the summer session at CU, majoring in art. In my first year there I auditioned for a band. That band transformed into a jazz group no sooner than I was hired. So I had to spend countless hours learning scales and modes and how to play them over complicated chord patterns. Through friends of the dealer, I got us gigs at a club that featured national acts—making me the bandleader. We opened for many acts, some of whom, like Weather Report, Chick Corea’s band Return to Forever, I was responsible for getting in that room. By now, studying painting, drawing, and art history, I took classes which required students to write papers—which, to my surprise, I discovered I could write the night before and get a good grade, whereas in any class in which the professor gave multiple-guess tests, I was not very good. One of my professors told me I could write. I didn’t believe him. But I was learning to think differently, and I think music helped me to understand art in the way that it is made.
Toward the end of my five years at CU, the rhythm section of my jazz band—me on guitar, plus the drummer and bass player—were hired for a little tour, playing covers. I’d played covers for years, so it was easy. We practiced for about an hour and a half, then winged it at the gigs. The first night in the hotel room, the keyboard player, Brad Morrow (also a very good guitarist; we switched on a few songs), opened his suitcase, and to my surprise it was full of books. In my musician talk—which I still can’t shake, to the point of calling my 12-year-old daughter, “Man”—I asked him: “Man, what’s in the bag?” “Ezra Pound,” he said, demurely. That was unexpected. I didn’t have any literary friends until I met Brad Morrow. We became friends then and there. (He’s now a novelist and was the founder and editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, Conjunctions.) But I’d also had it with musicians—the lifestyle and the drugs, well most of them. I took a job cleaning the engineering building at the CU (dirty floors, not bathroom, hours to read). I read in earnest. This was my last year. For years I’d been a fan of new journalist writer Tom Wolfe. Brad turned me on to literary critic Hugh Kenner. I liked their styles. My other close friend at CU Dike Blair, who’s now an excellent artist, was unquestionably the most convincing “art type” in the entire art department. Brad and Dike didn’t know each other and we all ended up in New York in the years to come. Those friendships shifted my interests toward art and writing, though I have continued to be a sideman.
For a number of years after graduation—eventually earning a Master’s degree in art history—I devoted my time to study and reading about art, though I would fit in time to practice, simply because music is my drug. It’s also a problem, which might not seem like one, because more than one interest divides you. Writing, which I came to very late, totally replaced the woodshedding needed to play at a higher level—though I’ve been lucky to have played with some very high-level players. Eventually I turned to songwriting, and working with female singers, first in New York and then in Paris, where I live now, where I’ve played on a number of records as guitarist and composer, also with some very good musicians, and improvised for films. So I continue to play, but I mostly record. And I still prefer the art world, where I’m known as a writer, which takes up a lot of my time. Yet I can’t stop playing.
There are musician-artists, but for the most part they are nothing like dedicated musicians. The worlds of music and visual art are very different in outlook, aesthetics, and way of life. I’m probably a better musician, but I’ve had a better life working in the art world.
Despite this fundamental difference you describe between the perspectives of music and visual arts, do you find visual art, or even specific works of art, have influenced the way you approach music on a stylistic or intellectual level? Or do you continue to consider them separately?
Interesting question. I can only offer a roundabout answer. The art world changed the way I started to think about playing music, and music influenced the way I think about art. But I didn’t realize that for quite a while.
In 1985, I was hired to work on an international exhibition in Vienna as a mitarbeiter, literally coworker, a kind of coordinator. It was the occasion of the newly renovated Vienna Secession. The show was called Wien Fluss: 1986, or Vienna Canal: 1986. The title referred to the Vienna canal, seen in the film The Third Man, so the show was about foreign connections and Viennese influence. There were no Austrian artists. I worked with Americans, Vito Acconci, Richard Tuttle, and Lawrence Weiner, and a French artist, Jean Luc Vilmouth, who recently died and is the person most responsible for my move to France. The artists in the show were supposed to do the work in Vienna. I asked the curator, Huber Winter, who has a gallery in Vienna, to invite Richard Prince to participate, which he did, happily. I felt the show needed a younger American. I’d first seen Richard’s works in maybe 1981—rephotographs of black and white ads, using Ektachrome slide film, so they had a slight tint. Maybe they were hands with watches or women looking in the same direction. I didn't understand them at all. Dike knew Richard and gave me his number, so I visited him, and during that visit I discovered he collected first editions, mostly postwar American writers, in as good a condition as he could find. I too collected first editions, and he was the first non-literary-type book collector I’d ever met, my age, who had similar interests—though he had a pile of good copies of pulp fiction paperbacks. Richard had a mint copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. I had many books from the 1960s, including all of Walker Percy’s books—inscribed to me, including his first book, The Moviegoer, which Richard and I talked about. (I had to sell my books to survive when l started writing). I’d been collecting books since I met Brad Morrow, back in college, when I started reading more seriously and hanging out with literary types and going to second-hand bookshops, which were aplenty back then. I almost went into to business with Brad selling first editions. But he was better at that, and did that himself, before he started Conjunctions and writing novels. Anyway, all this related indirectly to music, which was most people’s background noise anyway. Brad also played classical guitar. Richard had been in a rock band. I’d played folk, rock, and jazz. During Richard’s visits to Vienna he and I constructed an interview—it was his idea. I came back to New York in December of 1986. Richard had given the interview to Hal Foster, then a senior editor at Art in America. They featured Richard on the cover of March 1987 issue. Our interview was the first article to feature Richard’s work in a major art magazine. Why me—an unknown—instead of a known critic? I don’t know. Ask Richard. But that’s when I started writing—first reviewing shows for Art in America, then moving on to other magazines. In the interview with Richard I brought up Marshall McLuhan and the role of electronics on sound and space and images. My idea, from the beginning, was to write about art from the perspective of touch, which I still do: how things are put together; what might influence choices of images or materials; how aesthetic issues echo the social or political environment; and how instinct and perception rule the process.
I’d given up on what was called theory in the early ’80s. Not my cup of tea. Through non-art-world friends in New York City I discovered Gregory Bateson, specifically his ideas about “patterns that connect” and logical types (the meal is a lower level of abstraction than the menu that describes it; the farther up the ladder of abstraction you go, from language and words into categories or logical types, the further away you are from the “meat” of experience). I was reading McLuhan and Walter Ong’s investigations into preliterate and print cultures and what Ong called the “secondary orality” of electronic culture—radio, cinema, and television; how advertising was contemporary folk art; and how touch and acoustics are proximity senses, a lower order of abstraction than seeing. We build a world on touch, cobbling things together, which sight, which is a distance sense, cleans up and labels in literary categories, which are very high levels of abstraction. Being a musician, and always trying to get inside music, I related to how things are built from touch. The electronic environment’s secondary orality reverts to forms of sound and touch in technologies that require the highest level of literacy bringing them to life. This, to me, was the origin of pop art—a process built from middle-class folk arts—cars, rock music, ads, etc.—from the ground up. I spent ages trying to write about art in terms that ran against literary models. It wasn’t easy. But I felt, and still do, that art is calibrated (Bateson’s word) from primary instincts. Music is very much like that, but so are things like cuisine, surfing, rock music, customizing cars. (I grew up around people who customized cars, which are extremely aesthetic, if kitschy art forms; I spent a year working as a parts man in a store called Big Ed’s Speed Shop—Robert Irwin tried to explain how hot rod cars are American folk art to an art critic from NYC, who wouldn’t have it.). Collecting is equally instinctive. Anyway, I took classes at the New School with Edmund Carpenter, who, with McLuhan, Eric Havelock, Northrop Frye, was instrumental in creating the Toronto theory of communications. McLuhan was Hugh Kenner and Walter Ong’s dissertation advisor. These were my influences. None of them, except McLuhan, were spoken about in the art world, and McLuhan wasn’t exactly an author many critics cited. They thought he was too flakey, not serious enough.
In 1988 I was asked to write an essay for Richard’s first retrospective at the Magasin, in Grenoble, and tried to write about his work in the context of electronic orality. I felt that Richard pieced together his art instinctively, based on pop art, and included his book collecting—which was a gathering of intellectual property. It was the mint dust jacket that raised the value of those first editions. Dust jackets were like album covers—artistic advertisement, very much like pop art. Richard has a masterful instinct for such connections. He played in bands, before the 1980s—when, in the art world, playing in a band was kind of taboo. But Richard could never have played in the bands I’d played in or that Brad had played in. I found that out in Vienna. Richard played me an incredible song, on my guitar—a blond Gibson 335 dot-marker, which I still have. I was very impressed. He had style but no developed skill.
Art and music were separate environments with different kinds of “sensory profiles,” to use a McLuhan/Carpenter term. They began to cross over when inexpensive home recording technology came along. Nevertheless, literary people, music people, and art people operated in different aesthetic universes, and still do. Rock music was easier for people to play and, for a while people like me who could play all the songs on the radio, made a living at it. But that was only the first step in learning to play an instrument. Folk musicians, before the sixties, were poorer than poets. Jazz musicians weren’t much better off. The success of rock music and rock festivals altered everyone’s aesthetic and sensory environment, because everyone was engaged in it. A poet like Ginsberg became visible because of his connections to Dylan and the Beatles. But writers and artists and musicians were different species. Artists didn’t suit up like drag queens or fey bikers or pirates to play on stages; they didn’t talk like musicians. Art isn’t noisy. Rock was naked. Art was nude. Musicians can’t make contemporary art. Literary types can’t either. Those differences began to blur, but only slightly with computers and home recording—and only in the 1990s with the computer technology.
I didn’t play in bands for maybe a dozen years, until the maybe the early 1990s, when my girlfriend’s coworker’s band’s guitar player got sick. I replaced him. Then we got a better band. Then I replaced the entire band. I started composing music for the singer’s lyrics—sometimes there were two female singers, which was amazing. I applied everything I learned from jazz and folk-style finger picking, separating bottom and top strings to get more dynamics. I didn’t know how to use pedals, and still don’t, so I let my fingers do that talking. It was really fun. We played the clubs.
By then I’d been writing for Flash Art and Purple. They didn’t have professional copyeditors, which allowed me to publish more and faster, but was probably a mistake because, I mean, writing is really easy for me, but I make incredible messes that need structure. Editing and rewriting are difficult in the extreme, making me wonder why I do it at all. Then, in 1995, I moved to Paris. I was working at Purple, where I had no choice but to listen to indie rock—Sonic Youth, Palace Brothers, Ween, Daniel Johnston, Cat Power, a band called Fuck, Nirvana—bands I would never have listened to earlier as I didn’t consider any of them good and all of it pop music, about style and attitude, which I didn’t care about. As a musician I wanted to listen to a good instrumentalist. But as a writer I listened differently. And after several months of immersion, I began to let go of the technique prejudice. At about that time a guy named Gerard Duguet Grasser called the magazine looking for a bass player. Elein Fleiss suggested me. I told him, and the singer he was writing lyrics for, Alexandra Roos, that I was a guitar player. That didn’t bother them. My audition consisted of playing the guitar and then being presented with some of his lyrics—my French wasn’t good at all, but I had music for two songs almost instantly. It was easy. It’s always been easy to write music for his lyrics. I don’t know why. (I worked on four albums with Alexandra on major labels.) Working at Purple and with Alexandra Roos songs started popping into my head, many of which have been recorded. I was also rehearsing with Sonny Simmons—a world-class saxophone player, and a true artist from that other world of musicians—though we never managed to form a working group.
Songwriting gave me added insight into art. I think it was Arlo Guthrie who said songs are like fishing, you just don’t want to fish downstream from Bob Dylan. Songs are like perceptions set into melodies with words. Songs write you; you don’t write them—or something like that. Songs arrive unannounced like stray animals already formed but needing care. I’ve made songs from melodies I dreamed, and from picking up the guitar and something unexpected happens with my fingers. Words follow because I’m always playing with words, idiotically for the most part. Melodies give shape to word sounds that can make sense or not. It’s a gathering of perceptions. They aren’t related to concepts—at least for me.
I don’t think I’d have had any of these thoughts had I not been a musician first. Music isn’t about material things; it’s about filling time and space. I have no materialist ambitions, except for my two kids—luckily I have a teaching job and get paid to write. The standard musician joke: What’s a musician who just lost his girlfriend? Homeless. Maybe I’d have been a more successful writer had I been able to stop playing. I couldn’t—and can’t. I’m still playing, and would like to play a lot more if the opportunity came up. I’m a divided person: writer of words, improviser of music, and songwriter.
That’s some heady stuff. Well, seems to make perfect sense that your album Météo found a home among artists (by way of photographer Giasco Bertoli) as part of zingmagazine. I’d like to speak more about Météo. If I’m not mistaken, météo is French for “weather”. Can you give insight to this title and how this album came together?
I was having dinner with Giasco Bertoli back in June of 2014. He’s my close friend, and I’ve made music for his short movies. I was talking about recording songs in French that I’d written with lyricist Gerard Duguet Grasser, for other albums. We’ve made many together. Giasco suggested Zing, so he contacted you. And y’all produced it, for which I thank you very much. That same June, 2014, I visited my friend, Bob Coke, a musician and sound and recording engineer, to ask him to do the recording. I played some pieces on his Martin acoustic guitar, which he recorded. Bob is a very busy guy. He was about to go on tour with the Black Crowes, I think, and would be gone for the summer and most of the next year. So I didn’t see him again until September. And as it seemed that you guys were in a hurry, and as Bob was very busy, we did two short sessions. We winged it. I recorded electric guitar and vocals—no click track, one piece after another. As a kind of atmosphere, I talked about the weather. Bob came up with the title Météo—which does mean weather—and the titles “Ionosphere,” a single track with a glitch from in his computer that we liked, and “Averse,” which means “downpour.” He spliced together bits of the acoustic guitars I’d recorded in June with September session, and mixed everything. A couple tracks—“Centre Commercial” and “Zone,” I think—are panned, with vocal on one side and guitar on the other, so it can be listened to differently, more vocal or more guitar. I pounded on the strings for the rhythm sound in “Centre Commercial.” Bob whacked a tambourine a couple times and sang the falsetto track on “Zone.” We had fun. Bob was my collaborator. Giasco was the curator, the organizer, and shot the cover photograph of the word Oui written on a window, and the goose standing on the pond at Versailles. Giasco always liked a CD I made in 2000 with sound engineer, Jean-Jacques Palix, called “Everglade”: 14 tracks, only guitar. He wanted to repeat that. For “Everglade” I had several themes, and Palix made loops I’d improvise over. Météo was originally going to be French songs. That changed as I played and time was tight. Had we had more time it would have been longer than seven pieces—three instrumentals and four songs.
As a non French speaker, I’m intrigued by the lyrics. Can you tell us what these songs are about?
Gerard basically writes little movies. His lyrics are very visual, like imagist poems, with a kind of dark beauty. “Pescara” and “Centre Commercial” are like traveling shots. “Pescara” is about the town in Italy. The song follows a guy on a gray night, through the town where it’s rained for a week, passing stores, weeds, trees, snails, workers, seeing the unimaginable sea between buildings, feeling in every rain drop unimaginable power, where the color becomes uniform like a marching army; his eyes fixate on a boat as he walks toward the beach when suddenly the sea appears before his eyes, the sea is there. “Centre commercial” is another traveling shot entering a town, something like in the opening of Citizen Kane, seeing signs, old plaster walls, three electric wires lining the sky, billboards, and a woman—a personage—a cashier in the shopping center, she crosses her legs as two cans crash together on the counter. In the parking lot two cops get out of the car, slamming their doors simultaneously. They walk toward the store and the cashier re-crosses her legs. That’s it. “Zone” is about a guy, a dreamer, doing nothing, watching an old film in at five in the afternoon. It’s very ironic—French ironic. Gerard doesn’t name the film (The Specialist), only the actors, Stallone, Sharon Stone, Eric Roberts. He hears a siren and sees a yellow moped. In the song’s bridge the dreamer imagines buying an old Buick, polishing the chrome, taking a break every once in a while. The refrain repeats the phrase I zone in front of the TV and count every second of my life. It’s a character type that the French imagine from American movies. “Y fait encore un peu somber “means it’s still a bit dark—a baby cries, his linen jacket itches, it’s late. The cleaning lady crosses the courtyard. He does the same. He sees what she sees, the cracks in the cement, paper wrappers, dog shit. The baby cries beautifully but the sky is menacing. The old lady stops at a door to breathe. It’s still a bit dark. Gerard and I have made many others.
Can you give us recommendations for other recordings of yours to investigate? And do you have any plans currently for new projects?
Since living in Paris, I’ve worked on four albums with a French singer, Alexandra Roos; Gerard was the lyricist. I’ve recorded a number of times with David Coulter (formerly with the Pogues and was recently Marianne Faithfull’s musical director) and also with sound-engineer/dance music composer, Jean Jacques Palix with whom I made Everglade, including a television documentary on William Styron, where I played solo guitar, as well as recordings I can’t remember. I played on the soundtrack for a movie about saxophonist Sonny Simmons. I made a CD of songs, called Battle Songs, produced by Richard Prince and Dike Blair, now available at tunecore.com., but originally included in a box of artists’ multiples, ten artists in all, called “The Rowboat Box,” produced by Galerie de Multiples, here in Paris. I’m currently working on a new project with a French singer/songwriter, Pierre Genre, of songs, with a lot of improvisation, which we hope to start recording in June.