DJAM KARET: 30 Years of No Commercial Potential

Djam Karet

Virtually beyond category, southern California based band Djam Karet (meaning elastic time in the Indonesian language) has been creating unconventional tripped out music with a Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde frame of mind for 30 years which culminated with the most recent Regenerator 3017 album released in February 2014 with the original lineup still intact. Recently, multi-instrumentalist Gayle Ellett was kind enough to answer 30 questions about the inner workings of the band over 30 years, for Prog Sphere.

Prog Sphere:

First off, congratulations on 30 years of  music that has always been unpredictable, abnormal and over the edge and thanks for the taking the time to answer these questions on the auspicious occasion of Djam Karet’s 30th year.

Gayle Ellett:

You are super welcome and I appreciate the chance to talk about our music. I can talk about music all day long! I’m a music freak. That’s all I care about.

Djam Karet has it’s origins on a live tape, entitled Happy Cancer McMusic For The McMasses back in 1982 followed by another one, No Commercial Potential in ’85 (which adopted the Djam Karet designation) which pretty much encapsulates the band’s doctrine. I guess that it helped that you were all attending a liberal arts school at the time so you all came from the same mindset and didn’t really care about commercial prosperity. The formation of the band was obviously not an outlet from your academic cirriculum but rather an extension of it if I am not mistaken. Could you comment on this deliberate aversion to playing anything remotely fashionable that has endured for 30 years.

Gayle EllettFashion is a word we don’t know how to spell. Fitting in is not our goal. Being liked is for other people. Djam Karet is about music, it’s a setup for us to use, to explore music and our own understanding of it and what it can do. Djam Karet was created for US, not for you or our “fans”. It’s a totally self-indulgent proposition. Period. Chuck and I went to the same college, Pitzer College, and Henry and Mike Henderson were “townies”, guys from Claremont. We had all played together, in different combinations, even before the band Happy Cancer was formed (which I was not a member of). So we all already knew each other, and had been in bands together, so we knew what each others’ styles and skills were like. We formed the band in opposition to playing organized music, as we had in the past.

In the early days of Djam Karet one can hear a lot of Grateful Dead-like jamming that gradually gave way to more compositionally structured pieces but still allowing for a lot of room for improvisational brainstorming especially when the songs are played live. Did Djam Karet start out playing say, cover versions of Pink Floyd or King Crimson or was playing with abandon part of the agenda from square one?

Playing totally improvised music, with NO predetermined key, tempo, style. With none of that. That was the goal. Just tune up and play. “Jam Bands” jam over a pre-dertermined structure. But we play(ed) totally improvised music, and there is a really big difference between the two, that is not apparent to the average listener. With truly improvised music, it’s about creating compositions, not about soloing over chord changes, and it’s very hit and miss. It’s very risky, because you often fall flat on your face. But at other times, it just comes alive, like a nuclear reaction, it jumps into a new hyper-state. And when that happens, it’s amazing! For a few years ALL of our rehearsals and performances were totally improvised. Sometimes we even had cooks making food on stage, we gave away free beer, had a painter behind us painting, etc. Sometimes it was quite the 5-senses experience!

We have no real influence from the Grateful Dead, I was never really a big fan of them (but I’m a HUGE Allman Brothers fan). Anyway, we’ve never played covers of anyone’s music EVER, except a Richard Pinhas/Heldon tune that we covered once (from a CD where Cuneiform artists that covered each others’ tunes). So really, the goal was just to stop playing the music we had all played before in other groups, and try to do the impossible: play music when you don’t really know what is happening! And so Djam Karet was born.

Many reviews have noted Pink Floyd, King Crimson and even Tangerine Dream as direct influences. You’ve also been compared to Ozric Tentacles. There’s much more to Djam Karet than just this and as Edward Macan observes in his book Rocking The Classics there’s a dichotomy that exists in Djam Karet between a heavier post rock style and a sophisticated electronic/ambient approach. The latter can be heard to great effect on albums like Suspension and Displacement or Ascension that are very primordial and mystical. Sometimes future meets primitive occurs on tracks like Fall of the Monkey Walk or east meets west like on the earlier The Ritual Continues. Then you have the fire-breathing creatures Burning The Hard City and The Devouring that also include ambient elements. Every album is not quite the same and the latest album is a sure indication that you’re far from done. If one listens to the previous The Trip album and this year’s Regenerator 3017 back to back it’s pretty much impossible to detect any similarities in style. Did the band’s alternating personality instinctively develop?

Yes, that is all true and we are totally guilty as charged! We ONLY make music for ourselves, everyone else can go kiss off. The making of the album itself is the goal. I aspire to someday be the peer of my idols, not to sound like them, but to hopefully one day, be as good and visionary as they were. So, we record. That’s the goal, the recording itself. If enough people are interested in what we do (somehow), then we’ll press up 1,000 CDs and start selling them. And we are lucky people buy our CDs, and that lets us buy some gear, and press up more CDs. So we make totally non-commercial music, but we rely on our fans to help us release it commercially. But without them, we’d still record, it would just not ever leave the studio. Like everyone else, we all enjoy a wide range of musical styles, we love heavy AND spacey music and everything in between (well, almost!). Our group is totally free to do what we want. We do not need to repeat past success. For that to happen, we’d have to actually be successful! So, to keep from going crazy and killing each other, we mix it up from album to album, going in different directions from CD to CD. And we’re lucky that we can do that. We love beautiful music and we love brutal music, and these elements are present in many of our albums, although the two most recent: The Trip and Regenerator 3017 are both quite mellow.

Djam Karet

Compositionally Djam Karet’s music is sectional if I can say that. I kind of wonder when people refer to Djam Karet as a jam band because it is structured in sections more along the lines of the kind of music Yes or Genesis were writing back in their early days even though you don’t assign parts or names to the individual segments to break them up for the listener. When the band is creating a piece do you start with a theme or blueprint and then collect musical ideas from a studio jam fragment library and insert them or do the ideas just flow naturally? How does a Djam Karet track take form? Does Djam Karet sit around a table rack your brains and share ideas then go into the studio? Obviously there’s no rush for a new Djam Karet record with Mr. Record Executive breathing down your backs. After all, it took eight years for The Trip to materialize.

Can instrumental music be anything other then abstract? Many say no, but I say YES! Some of our music is exactly, literally like what a dream looks like. Different, seemingly unrelated scenes, sudden changes, hallucinations and monsters morphing, etc. And improvised music is all about “theme and variation”, the evolution from one sound/section to the next. It’s hard to explain, but Classical music, and Improvised Jazz have a huge amount in common. They are all about evolution, and that’s what life is about – change. OK, that was all probably WAY too out-there! Sometimes people just bring in ideas or even complete songs too, and then we all chime in and offer our ideas about how they can be improved, changed. Usually always we are all in agreement about what is best, so that’s a good thing! Other times, we record our improvised jams that we start each rehearsal off with, and from these recordings. Ideas can be pulled out for later polishing. So we either write ideas at home individually and bring them in, or we listen to our previous jams, to see if there are any good ideas lurking there (and usually there are)!

Just about every Djam Karet song title and concept is very abstract and devoid of (normal) vocals, even though some pieces offer obvious musical suggestions, do you expect the listener to be some sort of clairvoyant and get what the band is trying to say instantly with each piece, or do you want them to create his or her own cinematographic image of what’s going on in the music, the music in their heads? Do you intentionally try to confound the listener?

We don’t really care about the listener. We care about ourselves and if WE like the music. WE understand what we are trying to do, and we’re not concerned about conveying that to others. So I can see why it’s confusing to people. When you write music with no lyrics/words, then what is your music about? What are you trying to do, or explore? Well, we’re just trying to make great albums. We try. It’s hard to do. Many times our titles are probably confusing, and for us sometimes the absolute hardest part of what we do is coming up with titles, titles that we can all (or most of us) agree on! It’s really all about the music. Not the titles, not the sales, not making friends or impressing people. It’s just the music all by itself, sitting there all alone. We HOPE that the music hangs there all by itself, but we then TRY to add some commercial-ness to it by adding song titles, and a nice cover, all packaged in a high-quality CD. We make non-commercial music, but we try to “package” it in a commercial way. Does that make sense?

Could you offer an explanation for the following 3 very different compositions and how the music applies to the titles and how they came about to perhaps illustrate in general how the band creates ideas for it’s music.

Consider Figure Three, originally from Suspension and Displacement (1991) and then reworked on The Heavy Soul Sessions (2010) seems to conjure an image of a instructor in a lecture hall standing at a podium or in front of a diagram on a blackboard in a medical school giving an oration on the digestive system in invertebrates starting with the duodenum and then moving through the digestive tract and it’s related organs and skeletal structures. I hope I’m not reading too much into this. It’s one of the most unusual concepts for a piece of music. How did you guys come up with this one and why was it redone in 2010?

From the trash can. That’s where Mike found a double-LP of a medical lecture, complete with diagrams! He brought it to rehearsal one day and played it for us. We all really liked it and how totally weird it was. Then we thought HEY we could use that as the basis for a new composition, and so that tune was born! This was before “sampling” even existed (as it does today). So that title is very relevant, he is at one point is talking about “Figure Three”. In 2009 we headlined a 3-day progressive festival held on the beach in France. That was a fun gig! After, when we got back home, we re-recorded the whole show live-in-studio, without overdubs and that CD was called The Heavy Soul Sessions. It’s quite heavy and bombastic. So to give our show some balance, we included Consider Figure Three, and we put it on the album too. I’m very happy with how it came out! Our rehearsals are often 8 hours long, and sometimes we work on just one tune all day. To keep from going crazy (crazier?) we sometimes take breaks, where we just improvise for fun, and to clear our heads. It was from these recordings that The Trip was born. Recorded at the same time as our THSS, we made about 10 hours of recordings of these relaxed jams, and then we put the best 47 minutes onto The Trip. I was still mixing The Trip, when we had already started recording Regenerator 3017. So there’s some weird over-lap. Other times (in the past) there were years between recording sessions. We just do whatever we feel like doing.

Djam Karet - The Heavy Soul Sessions

Lights Over Roswell from The Devouring (1997) seems to be commenting on the alleged alien spacecraft crash in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. It can also come off as an electrical storm developing in the distance viewed from a vantage point on a ridge or something like that. Is the piece about UFOs or is it just simply just imagery that doesn’t really mean anything?

Well, it’s mostly just the mini-movies that our music can make appear in your mind. It’s how you, yourself, see it. That’s the goal. But also, my family has a cattle ranch very near Roswell. It’s in the high-mountain country, and from up there in the mountains you can look down on to the flats, the prairie, and you can see Roswell from there. I don’t believe in that incident, and I personally know some people involved with it, who are not honest. So I think it’s probably not real. Anyway, we were more interested in trying to create a vibe and feel, more then a literal story.

Arose From The Ashes/Licking The Skull - The first thing I noticed about this intro piece from Ascension (2001) was that it starts out with a cool Led Zeppelin III hippie-like acoustic sound and then morphs itself into this weird ambient creature with effects, ethnic percusives. I think I even hear an Australian Didgeridoo in there and a dentist’s electric drill? The whole album seems to be exploring, musically, a rebirth and transformation of something really strange and primordial that has come back to life after a long non-appearance and then becomes extinct again. Actually, could you just give a brief synopsis of the album itself.

It sounds like you are describing us, ourselves, as people! Yes, that’s Mike on acoustic guitar and Henry playing the didgeridoo, he’d just got back from a trip to Australia. And I think that’s a drill we were using to fix some gear in the studio. Anyway, we often have way more recorded music then we need to fill a CD. That’s the smart way to do it, record more music then you need, mix it all the best you can and then decide what group of tunes would make the best/cohesive album, and put the rest somewhere else. And then we think, heck, we should do something with that other music too. And sometimes it just ends up as individual tunes on some compilation somewhere (we’ve been on about 22), but at other times, we’ll record a few more tunes in the same style, and that will become a whole nother album. And Ascension is the second half, of the album New Dark Age. As Suspension & Displacement is the second half of Burning The Hard City. Not “out-takes”, but the music that stylistically didn’t fit on the first album.

What if a listener doesn’t get to the level of understanding towards any profound meaning that Djam Karet was attempting to convey in a particular composition or album but just thinks it’s freaked out cool stuff with weird titles? Is that enough for you? Or would there be disappointment? Is a Djam Karet album or composition cut and dry? Is it a fair assumption to say that this is what Djam Karet is saying with it’s music: here it is go nuts with it we loved creating it for ourselves?

Yes, it’s not a problem if people get something from our music that is different then what we were thinking about. First of all, we are professional musicians, so I know for a fact that I see music differently then non-musicians do. Also, one of the saddest things about being a composer is: You can never hear your own music objectively, you never really know how your music sounds, compared to everyone else’s. That’s because we made it, it’s a part of us, and we can not stand back FAR ENOUGH to see it as others do. It’s just something you, as a composer, have to get used to. That’s why I love music critics so much! Critics help you see where your music stands, in relation to other music. Fortunately for Djam Karet, the critics seem to absolutely love our music, so we’re all happy! Basically, we make recorded music to please ourselves. That’s about it.

The band has a unique luxury in the fact that all members are multi-instrumentalists. It more or less started out with yourself and Mike Henderson being the guitarists, Chuck Oken on drums and Henry Osborne on bass. Throughout the thirty years unusual instrumentation has given Djam Karet so many of it’s wonderful dimensions. Now it seems that you are the keyboardist/guitarist, Mike Henderson and Mike Murray are the guitarists, Henry Osborne is the bassist and Chuck Oken Jr is the drummer. Throughout 30 years there have been traditional instruments, an array of synths, programming and most interestingly field recordings as well as guest artists. How do you work all this in to a piece? If a field recording is required do you go out and record what you need or have a library of field recordings to draw from? I mean, you can’t exactly bring a fire truck into the studio and say to the fireman OK now hit the siren while we’re playing this. Djam Karet is as far away as you can get from a guitar drums & bass band. How are all the instruments, effects and freak knows what else come together?

Gayle Ellett

Gayle Ellett

I also wanted to say that Aaron Kenyon is still in our band as well. He played bass on The Trip, The Heavy Soul Sessions, and also on other CDs too. Anyway, getting back to what you were saying, yes it’s a bit of a trick to get all of the components of the music working together well. With instrumental music, there is no narration, no clear concept for the listener to grab onto. So, therefore tone and sound-quality become very important. Using field recordings helps us get a more expanded sound pallet. Sometimes when we are mixing the music down to stereo, we’ll think that a certain section needs more work, more “oomph”, and so we’ll think about maybe adding in a found-sound from outside the studio. But other times, we’ll be mixing, and while the music is playing, I’ll hear a fire truck, or birds, etc, outside, and those noises SOMETIMES blend in with the music really well. So then we’ll set about trying to recapture that sound. Often, I have mics set up outside my house (if it’s not raining), recording sounds all day long, and into the night too if I’m trying to capture coyotes and owls. Then I’ll scan those recordings to see what we caught. I live about 10 blocks from the fire station, so it only took a couple of days before I was able to get a good recording of the sirens as they drove off through the canyons where I live. I’ve even built special bird houses attached to my house, so that when Spring comes, birds will move in and build a nest there. Then later there will be baby birds too. I then (6 months from when I started) set up my mics and begin recording all day. If you take the sound of baby birds being fed, then slow it down to about 5% of normal speed, it makes the birds sound like HUGE scary cave animals, it’s really all quite creepy! And our band is a good home for such strange sounds!

The use of the mellotron was substituted for an orchestra back in the late sixties/early seventies. I think the Beatles or The Moody Blues were one of the first bands to utilize the concept of an orchestra with a rock band. How has this instrument figured in Djam Karet’s music? Did you just use it because maybe you got a good deal on one at the local pawn shop?

They are always expensive! Always! Unless it is broken!! The Mellotron is unique, it has its own sound. Now, there are many much better sounding ways to replicate an orchestra, like with digital samples. But the Mellotron has its own special quality. Along with the Solina and other keyboards like the Minimoog, Rhodes and Hammond, it gives your music a classic 60′s-70′s vibe. The Mellotron has got a sort of creepy sound to it, a bit like an old horror movie sound track. And that is, of course, because it was actually used in so many old horror movie soundtracks!! Heck, I was watching an old Godzilla movie the other day (dubbed into Spanish!) and you could hear that much of the music was played on a Mellotron. So we like using it!

Cover art has always attracted me to albums back when I was haunting music stores back in the 1970s (when there were music stores) if the cover looked weird then I would grab it and hope for the best. Could you comment on Djam Karet album art. Does it come before or after you have a set of recordings that you are ready to call an album?

It’s something that we always hope will be a good fit for the album. Usually always, the artwork gets done after the CD is about finished. Usually, the record label (we were on Cuneiform for many years) gets the artist for us, and we work with him to pick the ideas that we both like. I myself did the artwork for The Heavy Soul Sessions, using images from a “photo library”. But since we’re had Mike Murray in our band, he has down the last 2 album covers. He’s’ GREAT! Not surprisingly, he’s a graphic artist by trade, that’s what he does. So we’re really lucky to have him on-board! He also did the covers for my band Hillmen, and the Ukab Maerd album.

Ukab Maerd - The Waiting Room

Canadian songstress Alanis Morisette said this about the internet : “The internet is what it is and I think that’s a good thing actually. Before the internet we could basically manipulate the media. Only put out the pictures which made us look perfect, videos that were perfectly edited and interviews where we sounded like geniuses. But the internet and it’s free-for-allness doesn’t allow you to be a perfectionist. You’re captured in all your glory good and bad.

What sort of impact has the internet had on the band? I’ll have to confess that Djam Karet was flying under my radar for many years and if it weren’t for the internet I would have never discovered Djam Karet.

Well, I always thought that she was a few fries short of a Happy Meal (sorry Canada!), so I don’t agree with her at all. You can control what you put out there. Maybe if I had been a huge Pop star, my fame would have bothered me too. But I don’t believe that the Internet is to blame because there are some bad photos of you lurking around. The big problem with the Internet is that it has destroyed the middle-class of musicians, studio owners and producers and engineers, and small music stores, etc. Only the huge have survived, because the Internet has allowed so many new businesses to get into the game and compete. And the way that they compete is with lower prices, MUCH lower prices. So I see it as a bad thing. But, in a way, it’s not the Internet’s fault. It just seems like our society now prefers quantity over quality. People want 1,000 songs on their Walkman, and they don’t care if they are MP3s (which contain only 5% of the data of the CD-quality version). And now that stealing music has become the norm, everyone wants their music for free! DANG! On the other hand, it’s a great system that you can use to your advantage, if you try. And I use it a lot to promote our band, my commercial work, and also to learn more about music and recording. What I like best about the Internet is that it’s such a good educational tool (for those who are actually interested in learning). I’m a better musician and producer because of it.

All of you have other projects or endeavours outside the realm of Djam Karet. It would be difficult to etch out a living just by playing in a band as “out there” as Djam Karet unless you wanted to barely subsist on peanut butter sandwiches and kool aid and live under a bridge. Yourself, you have contributed a substantial amount of music to numerous films, TV shows, commercials and other projects and this would be your bread & butter. It would seem that Djam Karet, philosophically and musically functions as an independent unit and has nothing to do with anything external. It’s a mindset within itself. Hypothetically, what if one member came in at rehearsal and said hey man, I found this really cool Earth mother female vocalist with a six octave range who has all kinds of cool visionary lyrics. She’s the next poet laureate, etc etc etc. Would you ask him what kind of drugs he’s been experimenting with? Have you ever considered lyrical or wordless vocals as part of a Djam Karet composition? Or would that sort of ruin the consolidated unity that has been established within the band over the years? That Djam Karet is a musical collective within itself, would that be a correct evaluation?

Yes, I agree with what you are saying. We live in our own musical world, by ourselves. But, actually, we are so very free to do what we want to, regardless of what our fan(s?) might think, that we would be open to using vocalist, if we found one we really liked. In our band, nothing is really off the table. If it was too commercial, maybe we would just release it under a different name, but we would still do it, if we believed in it. There is no real zone that the band needs to remain inside, so it is a very free environment. I also like doing music for TV and film, and what I do there is totally different from Djam Karet. There’s no comparison, really. They are as separate as Progressive music and traditional Chinese music. That’s because I actually play and record traditional Chinese music (that is in the Public Domain), on real instruments. And sometimes I compose new music, in the exact same style as traditional Chinese music. All of it is challenging, but rewarding too.

Djam Karet - Collaborator

Many guest musicians have nevertheless made contributions on Djam Karet recordings. How does this occur? Are the guest artists invited for one reason or another or does it just happen? How was the Collaborator album conceived? You’ve got some scary stuff on there. There’s some weird instruments too baby toys, rain stick, Tibetan glass crucibles, electric door alarm and ocean drum plus the one that confuses me the most: lawn. Lawn ? How do you play the lawn?

I brought some of my lawn to the studio one day. At that time, the studio we used was about an hour drive from my house, so to keep it fresh, I had it in a baggie with some ice. You take a blade of grass, hold it between your two hands in a certain way, between your two thumbs, and then blow hard thru it, and it makes a scary dying bird-sound. Eventually, the grass “reed” breaks, and then you grab another one from the ice baggie and try it again.

We work with friends, mostly. People who we think – “heck, he’d be great contributing on this tune.” With Collaborator we based the whole concept on collaboration (duh!). The musicians we asked are all great, and we said something like “send us an UNFINISHED piece of music. It could be just a rhythm, or melody, or some chords, but not all three components together” (because then there would be no room for our band to contribute to it). We had no idea what people would send us. Each week, new DAT tapes would come into the studio, and we’d all sit around excitedly waiting to hear what we were sent. Sometimes we’d think how the heck are we going to add, help this tune along. And other times it was easier. But, of course, some of the best pieces we finished, were difficult when we started off. And the musicians, they all let us add and mix the result however we wanted to, with no veto-power. That’s how we wanted to do it, and everyone agreed to it! So it was a really fun project/album.

Firepool Records was recently formed a few years back. Could you explain the specific reason for the band creating it’s own label? Was it principally to better promote Djam Karet and it’s related projects? How did you get involved with Mark Cook and Herd of Instinct and his more recent Spoke of Shadows collaboration with Bill Bachman ? What kind of future releases can we expect from the label?

We created it mostly to promote non-Djam Karet music by our side groups, or other bands we love. It was a way to create a separate identity for projects that were not really Djam Karet. I’d known the guys in Herd Of Instinct for many years, mostly thru Dave Streett. Dave and I had worked together years before on some of his compositions. Thru Dave I met Mark Cook. They asked me to play some keyboards and help out with their first CD, so they flew me down to Texas, were we did some recording for a week or so. Chuck and I loved their work, so we offered to release it for them. Then we did their second album too. And now we are releasing Mark’s new project: Spoke Of Shadows, with Bill Bachman on drums. It’s great, aggressive, and interesting music! So stay tuned. Who knows what we’ll release next!

The band rarely plays live. Do you think that makes Djam Karet what it is? The Heavy Soul Sessions or Live at the Orion, they were sort of live albums with no audience present. Most of Djam Karet’s music is recorded “straight “ with no compression. When you’re in the studio do you find that you don’t have the pressure of an audience and can focus on the music more when you’re laying something down straight with no overdubs? I noticed that Mike Henderson didn’t really like facing the audience in the video from The 2009 Crescendo Festival in Saint-Palais-Sur-Mare, France performance. Could you comment on Djam Karet performing live. Would you rather do it in front of actual humans or prefer to have your audience sitting at home with the headphones on listening to a simulated live performance or, if you like, a live in-studio performance?

Los Angeles is a terrible place to play live. Most all of the clubs here want you to PAY THEM! That’s stupid, and we won’t do it. When we do gig here, we have usually rented our own location to use. Sometimes we’ve used our old college auditorium, because as alums, they’ll let us use it for free (practically). But I have really bad stage fright too. And I also have NO invested in being an entertainer. That’s for other folks to do. I just love music. And having all of those people staring at you, it freaks me out. Also, our music is very hard to play. Usually, I play 4 different keyboards on every tune, sometimes two at a time. When I’m just playing a melody with one hand (say on the Minimoog), my other hand has to re-program another keyboard into its new sound/setting. So it’s quite hard for me. I have to read charts so I don’t get lost. And I think that Mike feels the same way. I’ve done gigs where I was off-stage the whole time, with a long guitar cable running to my amp on stage. My favorite way to play live, is at radio station gigs. No one is looking at you, the radio station studio is nice and the mics are good, and 10,000 people get to hear you play for an hour or two. So that’s the best for me. I actually like doing that. Live At Orion was in front of an audience, but we had those mics were turned down. The Ritual Continues was also live in front of a crowd, as well as Live At NEARfest. The Heavy Soul Sessions was, as you said, live-in-studio. And also No Commercial Potential, and also Still No Commercial Potential were done that way too.

How did Djam Karet come to perform at the 2009 Crescendo Festival In France and how did you come up with a setlist? Certainly a most prestigious event as far as progressive music in concerned.

Sébastien Monteaud is one of the founders of this great event, and he’s also a big fan of our music. He’s the one who made that all happen! He had been trying to get us to come play there for a few years actually. First he was a little low on money for our airfare, then I really didn’t want to perform live. But then, with lots of hard work by Sebastien, everything worked out really well. We head-lined the gig, and played for about two hours, or maybe two and a half. The festival is held on the beach, near Bordeaux, it’s free and you can camp there! We wanted to perform tunes that were not on any of our previous live albums, so that played a role in selecting tunes to play. Fortunately, we have so many albums, that there was a lot for us to choose from! At that festival, every band was from a different country, it was really cool. We met tons of great musicians from around the world, and we all drank a lot of wine. It was fun! Our hotel was at a topless beach, the food everywhere was great, the weather was perfect (OK, it was a little too hot). I’d like to perform overseas again someday.

Now on to the more recent recordings. A good 5 years or so elapsed between Recollection Harvest / Indian Summer and The Heavy Soul Sessions which was a live in studio of mostly reworked previous material with the exception of Dedicated to KC (from Richard Pinhas’ 1982 album l’Ethnique) which I think is the only cover version that the band has ever recorded. Why did you pick this particular work?

Years ago, the label that we were on then, Cuneiform Records, that was the same label that Richard was on too. Are we are huge fans of his! So in 1993 the label decided to make a compilation of Cuneiform groups playing covers of other Cuneiform artists, called: Unsettled Scores. Not surprisingly, no one wanted to play any of our music. Oh well. Anyway, we asked to play one of his tunes, and we picked a tune where he is playing in the style of/dedicated to King Crimson. So, it’s a few generations: us playing Pinhas playing Crimson. It was fun! We changed the tune around to a different arrangement.

When you decided to do The Trip did you guys sit down and say “we’re going to do a 47 minute mind exploration through time and space” or was it the result of a carefully thought out musical strategy? The drums don’t come in until a bit after 18 minutes in which blew my mind. At the beginning just after the bouzouki intro you have some cool field effects. I would have expected some recording ripped from mission control talking to the astronauts in the capsule just before lift off. But you introduced the piece in a more subtle way that leaves more to the listener’s imagination. A Greek bouzouki? The whole piece can be both calming and frightening. It’s like Cluster meets Tangerine Dream. Would you say that The Trip has a science of the mind disposition that you would find in many Tangerine Dream recordings from the early to mid seventies?

We worked for a few months recording The Heavy Soul Sessions. And each session was often about 8 hours long, as all of our rehearsals are (give or take an hour or two). And I live an hour away, near the beach, so I like to get a lot done when I am out there with the guys, and I like to work long hours anyway (when it comes to music). Each day was sometimes filled with working on just one tune, all day long. So to keep from going crazy, we’d take a break, and just jam to relax and chill out. And after awhile, we had about 10 hours of these rambling recordings. Then we picked the best 47 minutes and created The Trip. It was all totally improvised, and done without overdubs (except for 90 seconds, where I overdubbed some Greek bouzouki and flute). I thought the whole thing had a really dreamy, spacey vibe to it, so we went with that feeling, and we ended up with what we have now. A really spacey album! The album was almost created by accident. It’s like we didn’t even know that we were making that record when we made it, because we were just relaxing, chilling and fooling around in the studio. But I am super happy with how it came out. It’s a statement. You gotta be crazy to make an album like that, crazy like Djam Karet! And yes, what you are saying about Tangerine Dream is true. We are all big T-Dream fans. And our drummer Chuck is probably the biggest!

Djam Karet - Regenerator 3017

Regenerator 3017 reminded me a bit of some of the recordings that can be found on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. It’s certainly the most “jazzy” Djam Karet albums wouldn’t you say? One of my favourite Djam Karet pieces is the concluding track, On the Edge of the Moon. It has a classical colouration which is established by the opening piano melody from which it develops and then you have layers of Moogs, mellotrons and electric guitars.

I was surprised by the fact that Regenerator 3017 ran only 41 minutes which was not unusual for some progressive rock albums back in the seventies because of the space limitations of vinyl, Pink Floyd’s Animals for example. Honestly I was expecting a real mother of a blowout for this one. A summary of the band’s whole catologue revisiting and encompassing everything that Djam Karet had ever done and to tell the truth I was a bit disappointed on first listen especially when the Moog solo fades out on the opening cut Prince of the Island Empire. It took me a few listens to really start to get into the album perhaps because I was expecting something else. Why only 41 minutes? Did you have other material that you deemed either too worthless or that just wouldn’t fit in stylistically with the “jazzy” approach?

We had more music, like we always do. And it’s all good, mixed and completed, and in the right style too. But I felt that it was a stronger album, and one that would leave you wanting more, if we made it at the length of traditional LPs, about 40 minutes. I don’t want people to feel like we ripped them off, but I also think that this focused approach makes for a better collection, a better album. And I never felt like the classic old LPs were too short. On some of our past albums, if we could put 70 minutes of music on there, we would. And back then I thought that if a jam sounded good for one minute, then it would sound TEN TIMES BETTER if it went on for 10 minutes. Know what I mean? But I’m older and wiser now. We are the old bulls that casually walk on down to the cows, we don’t run. And yes, we are all huge fans of everything ECM. Everything. Really! The intro/outro to the tune Empty House has a strong Terje Rypdal vibe, and I love that guy’s music! Henry wrote the last tune: On The Edge Of The Moon, on piano. It’s a great piece of music and a great album closer. The whole album is much more Jazzy then any of our previous albums, and I wrote most of the tunes (with the other guys helping me) and I’d been listening to a ton of National Health and Hatfield And The North, etc. And I’d been playing my old Rhodes a ton as well, I love that thing! It sits in the middle of my living room, so you can’t really pass on by without playing it. And Chuck Oken is a West Coast dealer for Moog synths, so a few years ago I had bought my Minimoog thru him. And, on this album, it all seemed to come into place.

The title of the album could suggest a comeback album to someone not familiar with the band. I noticed that the postage stamp on the artwork for The Trip has the number 29 on it which I am sure is a reference to the band’s 29th year. Could you comment on how you arrived at the title Regenerator 3017 which signifies 30 years & 17 albums? Were there other names for it being tossed around?

Well, the 30 and the 17 seemed like good ideas! And the other stuff was hard to come up with. We thought about “Hey, We’re Not Dead Yet” and “We’re Not Dead, We Just Smell Funny” and stuff like that. Really, without lyrics, it’s quite hard to come up with song titles, and album titles. It’s a pain! It’s one of the hardest things to do. So, once we hit on “Regenerator”, it seemed like a good fit.

Will any of the music from Regenerator 3017 ever make it on to a live stage? As you mentioned earlier any Djam Karet music is not easy to play and I agree. I remember Rick Wakeman of Yes recalling the difficulties associated with the creation of the music for Close To The Edge and other Yes music. After all the bickering, whining and arguing over which key should change into what key, tempos, and time signatures was over, they were faced with another problem. They had to learn how to play the freaking thing. Did you ever face a similar problem with Djam Karet?

Yes, it is totally like that! Except that we don’t argue. But we do, for fun, and to improve the tune we do often come up with newer arrangements. And also, the limitations of the band live dictate that some changes should be made to the arrangement to best exploit the line-up. And then we have to learn how to play it! In general, we only meet to record. So we are not up on how to play any of our tunes! Once we know there is going to be a gig, then we meet just to reherse the tunes that we’ve all agreed on to play. I have to make charts of every tune, for every section, or I get lost.

Does gear really matter to the band? I think I read somewhere that some of the instruments that you are using to this day, you were using back in the early days of the band. Could you talk a bit about the many instruments that you guys use both modern, traditional and archaic? Also, do any of you guys have any brand loyalties or will a $200 Korean Fender Strat knockoff do the job?

Mike Henderson and I are still playing the guitars that we got in 1976. His is a ’76 Fender Stratacaster, and mine is a ’71 Gibson Les Paul. We all have other guitars as well, we usually don’t sell our old gear, we just keep it hanging around the studio. With instrumental music, tone becomes very important. And it is easier to get awesome tone from awesome instruments! But you can also do a lot with a crappy guitar too, if you have a great tube amp to play it through. So at least some of your gear needs to be quite high-quality.

Has the band ever had any Spinal Tap moments?

When we played in France a few years ago, we had to switch planes in Holland, and half of the band missed the connecting flight! They were left in Holland, while the rest of us (The Smart Ones) continued on with our journey. Now when we travel, I keep all of the guys leashed together like small children (or dogs) so they won’t get lost again. But other then that, we’re pretty good at avoiding calamity.

Back in the early days of the band you released your music on cassette tape then progressed to vinyl for only two albums (The Ritual Continues and Reflections From the Firepool) I believe then to CD and then to other mediums. The band started recording when the days of analog recording techniques were ancient history (I mean by 1980). Yet, I find that you guys have a certain determination to present your music in a natural form even though state-of -the art methods are included in the production of your music. There are always reminders on the liner notes such as this “In order to capture a more lively and dynamic sound, no compression was used in the making of this CD.” Do you sometimes do you wish you could climb into a time machine and go back to say, 1973, record an album using contemporary 1973 technology and then return back to the present and release it?

No. I like the digital era that we live in now. My friend, the late Wayne Yentis told me “People who are crazy about old gear are crazy!” And I think there is some merit to what he said. Digital recording seems to capture the sound more accurately then analog does. We like the clarity of digital, without trying to be too modern in production, meaning we try to avoid excessive effects and automation tricks that could not be done in an old analog studio. So we try to use the clarity of the modern studio, but with the old-school philosophy of restraint and focus, when it comes to effects, etc. It’s the clean, modern studio improvements, with an old-school philosophy. Yes, we do add effects like delay and reverb to our tracks, but not 8 different effects on each instrument, which is easy to do in the digital world.

I know that you can’t speak for the other members of the band but is there one particular album or composition that stands out for all the guys in the band? A trademark piece? Or to put it more simply are there favourite pieces? If you were a touring band what would you save for an encore?

I have no idea. We have so many albums, it’s kinda hard to decide! But I think that The Trip was a bold and crazy move, and I very much love it. And I also think that the new album, Regenerator 3017 came out really, really well. Those two albums stand out a lot for me personally.

Now, I have to ask about the band name. How long was it until you guys decided that you were going to have to call yourselves something more convincing than Happy Cancer? How important has the name of the band been over the years? I believe it came out of the blue and you used it just because it sounded cool? It actually sounds like something that has just been made up like Ozric Tentacles but it really means something in the Indonesian language which coincidentally describes what the band is all about. Why did you stick with the name?

Well, Happy Cancer was a group of guys (I wasn’t in the group) who all played cool music. But then we stole them, and we created Djam Karet in order to play totally improvised music (as I do now in my band Hillmen, with DK member Mike Murray). Near the beginning, Chuck was reading a book by Harlan Ellison that mentioned the phrase: Djam Karet. It refers to how your sense of time changes, when you are having fun time goes by quickly. Often we jam for an hour or so, but it seems like only 20 minutes have gone by. And it also means “I’ll get there, whenever I actually get there“. We figured that if we picked that name no one else would ever try to use it too. So we were good to go. Also our music is quite non-commercial, so we intentionally picked an odd and non-commercial name. Heck, we can’t even pronounce it correctly! Everyone in the band says it differently. It’s a good fit for our little weird universe that we live in/created.

Is the future of the band linear? By this I mean how far into the unknown are you looking because Djam Karet is not a band that follows or predicts popular trends and doesn’t really care. From what I can tell Djam Karet will just keep doing what they have been doing with or without including any of the fear and paranoia that exists in the world it just makes music. There are many images in Djam Karet’s music over the years which could be construed as apocalyptic sonic visions in works such as Burning Hard The City, New Dark Age and Reflections From the Firepool. Can we expect more of this or has the band mellowed with age?

We make each album different, to maintain our interest. So, since the the last two albums were quite mellow, the next one might be way more wailing, but I’m not sure. We are getting more mellow as we age (like fine cheese left out in the sun), but we also like kicking ass. So I’m not sure. While we were making Burning The Hard City, we were at war in the Middle East (as usual). So it has a war-like theme and vibe. Sometimes our music is a bit “informed” by our world, but sometimes it’s an escape from our world. Sometimes we’re just trying to create entirely new worlds, for us to live in. So who knows? I have no idea, really.

Djam Karet at Crescendo Festival

I should ask where the artistic inspirations for the band come from outside of music. Are they purely musical or are they visual as well? Mike Murray is a graphic artist by profession, for example, and has produced the artwork for The Trip and Regenerator 3017. It’s not like you guys just listened to a lot of psyched out music and that’s your sole influence. There is something very visual about Djam Karet music. It has that sort of impact. It paints pictures, images, skyscapes and landscapes. Can you comment on these influences? What other art forms attract the individual members of the band?

Film and TV are big influences for me personally. Also I make music for TV and film, as my day job. So I tend to think and write music in a rather sound-tracky style. If your music has no vocals/lyrics, then you want to put other qualities into your music, and being able to make “mini-movies in your mind” is a good skill to have. So we use that a lot. Most all music by other folks is all about showing off. It’s just a set-up for the vocalist or soloist to show off and look good. The “music” behind them almost doesn’t matter. It’s all about the singer or soloist standing in front of the music and looking good. But our music is actually all about the music itself. And the difference is actually quite huge, between these approaches. We try to play in the music, not over it. I also read a lot of physics books, so I am very influenced by Complexity Theory in particular. It’s helped me make better music and be a safer pilot (back when I was flying hang gliders) and helped me not loose money in the stock market. It’s very interesting stuff, actually. Complex systems live in the phase transition between order and chaos, between theme with no variation (ordered music like Pop music) and totally random music (like chaotic experimental music). It exists where the two states meet. If you look at improvised music as a “system” with different “agents” creating activity, it’s a nonlinear dynamic system. And it’s the same system that we see in ecosystems like the Amazon river basin, the stock market, individual human behavior, etc. All of these different agents interacting, spontaneously creating complex structures, without the hand of God to guide them. And in this way, instrumental music can actually be representational of the world we live in. Exactly like a landscape painting. I used to think that all instrumental music was abstract. But now I don’t believe that is true. Also, we live in sunny Southern California! I live two miles from the beach, and the other day when I was driving down PCH in Malibu on my way to the market, I saw a whale swimming by. And there are a lot of big mountains here, and every Western movie ever made was filmed near my house, it’s like living in a movie, because so many movies have been filmed around where I live. It’s kinda weird. In an old TV show like Lost In Space they always use lots of Joshua Trees, because they look so weird. But when I go camping and motorcycle riding out in the desert, there are Joshua Trees everywhere, and you feel like you are in outer space! It’s like living in a movie set. So, really, many things influence us.

What kind of music do members of Djam Karet listen to on their car stereos or ipods on the way to a Djam Karet rehearsal? Do any of the guys have guilty pleasures such as Celine Dion or Perry Como? Or is that a forbidden question?

I’ve heard of iPods and cell phones, but I don’t own any of that stuff. I’m a bit of a Luddite, I’m probably the only one here in LA that doesn’t have a cell phone. Personally I really like Opeth, Tinariwen, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mysteries Of The Revolution, Baraka, Baby Metal, Jean Pascal Boffo, stuff like that. We all like Electronic music too (the old style), Hard Rock, Fusion & Jazz, Folk and acoustic music. Our tastes in music are all quite similar.

Well I guess it’s been a wee bit more than 30 questions. Is there anything you would like to add? Personally, I hope the Djam Karet TRIP lasts for another 30 years and more. Prog Sphere sincerely thanks you.

I want to encourage all musicians to crank out more albums. You can learn a lot.

Visit Djam Karet online at: Buy their albums on Bandcamp.

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