UPSILON ACRUX: Degree of Discomfort

Upsilon Acrux

Los Angeles based instrumental avant/experimental rock outfit Upsilon Acrux have gone through several incarnations over the years. Their current line-up features two drummers- something the band already experienced with the release of 2004’s “Volucris Avis Dirae-Arum.”

Led by guitarist Paul Lai, and with a two-drums set-up this year brings the release of the New Atlantis Records’ debut titled “Sun Square Dialect.” A 9-track experimentation was recorded at Infrasonic Sound and the Record Plant, and was mixed and mastered again by Pete Lyman (Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Ben Harper, The Decemberists, Rival Sons).

Prog Sphere talked with Lai about the band’s most recent record and more.

Your new album titled “Sun Square Dialect” was released last month. Tell me about the creative process that informed the record.

This was a long process and there was more experimenting than usual, originally I had wanted there to be no bass just duelling duos (guitar/drums) and we did that for 2 years, but it was going by people too quickly; there wasn’t enough low end or warmth in our sound and the music was too disorientating, so we corrected that and as fast as the changes are coming for this material it’s grounded now and warmer, more human and easier to follow. So, most of the time it’s either 2.5 vs 2.5, or 3 vs 2, but every once in a while it’s 3 vs 1 vs 1, or 2 vs 2 vs 1. It gave us tiers of formatting sections of rhythm and deciding which would be the lead rhythm, in this format we were able to make the rhythm sections modular and if nothing else that was something new accomplished.

Describe the approach to recording “Sun Square Dialect.”

We recorded all the songs live in two day sessions at the original Infrasonic, then was fortunate enough to have a friend Daniel Zaidenstadt offer us an enormous amount of help and the best engineering and studio (Record Plant) to finish everything else. We added Rhodes to a few songs and did some guitar overdubs and corrections and added the drowning cymbal stuff as well. Probably the first time we had time to fill in the blanks with overdubs. I think it’s the reason this album sounds so much better than others we’ve done. Well, part of it at least. Pete Lyman cleared out the rest of the excess when he mixed the record with us and then mastered it. We had worked with him before, so he knew it would be dense and I trust him completely, so that was another stroke of fine luck and great intention realized.

Upsilon Acrux - Sun Square DialectHow did you document the music while being formulated?

I didn’t at all, I never write anything down. Everything goes by memory and if a better part can be had it will because one of our goals we go by is simple, nothing is precious, if there’s a better way – fuckin’ do it. Ego doesn’t get in the way of the thing which matters most, which is always the song.

What’s the meaning behind the album’s title?

It can mean whatever anyone would like it to mean; for me it represents something I’ve been searching for since I started playing music – my own dialect. In a way every band, every group of people that strive to complete something artistic is a gang, a tribe, so while I may never reinvent the wheel, I’d like very much to have it roll a certain way. That’s the most important thing to me, not even to achieve singularity but to strive for it without end.

Where does the new album stand compared with your previous works?

I always think the next thing I write is the best thing I will write so the newest album is always the best. I feel so fortunate to have made this together with these guys who are probably the most aggressive; self motivated bunch of break neck musicians I’ve ever worked with. Every part of every song is collaborative, while I may be the initiator the credit and blame should be shouldered equally.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when working on the album?

Definitely the breaks between activity. Dylan Fujioka is also in Chelsea Wolfe who are amazing band that does tour the world and make albums constantly, so we had to take several 2-3 month breaks and that was difficult but necessary.

Sun Square Dialect” is your first album on New Atlantis Records. Are you satisfied with the deal they offered for the release of the album?

Yes, New Atlantis is an amazing label with amazing artists and bands on it, it makes me so proud to be a part of what NA is bringing to the world. Ed Recart is a brother that I haven’t yet met in person, but we had several offers on the table and we rolled with Ed because of their roster and fairness of his offer.

Upsilon Acrux changed quite a few labels over the years. Is that something to do with the band’s ideology?

No, not ideology. I think the first couple were friends and admirers. Of those only really Cuneiform is a professional label and I loved being on Cuneiform but it was probably time for a change.

Paul Lai

Speaking of challenges, is there a creative challenge to deal with in that the band members occupy similar sonic spectrums?

Yeah, we spent a long time figuring that out, in a live situation we do still step on each other’s foot here and there but on the record, thanks to Daniel and Pete they cleaned it up. I mean it doesn’t sound like Simon and Garfunkel but there’s more balance there than we’ve ever had.

Provide some insight into the group’s chemistry that allows this music to emerge.

I’ve been fortunate to have these guys come into this with a few principles intact from previous versions of the band. Which are “nothing can be rejected based on it, being too difficult to play” and “everything can be improved, nothing is sacred, nothing is precious, the only thing that matters is the song.” With these two simple notions and the best drummers (Mark/Dylan), best guitarist (Noah) and most versatile musician (Patrick) in Los Angeles it was pretty simple.

Plus it helps that we get along and can have interesting conversations not relating to music. But if you form a bond based on the work, the friendship usually follows, though the other way around usually doesn’t, at least for me.

What non-musical entities and ideas have an impact on your music?

Everything has impact on the music I write. I can’t speak for everyone but for me anything from movies (Miike, Takeshi, Von Trier, etc.) to fashion (Rick Owens, BBS, CCP, etc.) to just basic surroundings and personal interaction has an effect on the writing and to a lesser degree the performance of the music. I find the longer I go on playing and those of my friends that have been doing music or other art forms for a majority of their lives, it just becomes not only an essential part of you; it is just you – whole. The way I play, the way I like to arrange phrases are the same ways I speak the way I think, so everything that I am comes through in that because it’s my experience and thought patterns that fill the spaces where the riffs end up and how the riffs are played or not played.

Upsilon Acrux live

With Upsilon Acrux you went from the quartet down to trio, and then to the quintet format. Is the current line-up with two drummers where the band feels most comfortable?

Comfort says habitual to me, I like a certain degree of discomfort in art and even in the process so the art we make stays uncomfortable and not habitual which can be settling quite often. I won’t settle…

Can we expect that you introduce another drum setup in the coming period? Perhaps something similar to the current King Crimson incarnation.

It’s hard to say what or if there will be a new Upsilon Acrux in the near or distant future, I always go about this like it’s my one and only shot at doing this right, but if there is I’m sure there will be some change somehow, gotta stay uncomfortable somewhat.

What kind of gear did you use for recording songs from “Sun Square Dialect”?

Noah and I both use Bailey aluminum necks that were hand molded by a Corvette restorer based on my preference from owning hundreds of guitars, though I use a Les Paul aluminum body and Noah uses a Fender Custom shop Jazzmaster body. Patrick plays an old Fender Rhodes, I believe 76-79 model, and Mark and Dylan play Spaun Acrylic drumsets that Mark may or may not have made but definitely designed. Noah and I both use Hiwatts and Patrick uses a Fender Twin with MV, I believe also around 76-78.

What is your view on technology in music?

Nothing in and of itself is bad, to blame the tools is to admit that you are a bad carpenter. Any tool is great in the hands of an able creator, I would say because of the high costs of these new tools and low return and interest for actual art in music, the good tools are out of the hands of capable creators and more and more in the hands of amateurs with the only goal of basking in financial success with no bearing on the rest. The rest would be “good” music or “interesting” music of which very little is arrived by modern technology.

Do you see the band’s music as serving a purpose beyond music?

Music is communication, it’s a diary, it’s the way someone lives, the way someone thinks, it can be the blinding sun in eternal darkness, when done right it can be absolute, the answer to everything. The people I admire most do this for me, I hope a fraction of it can be passed on but our purpose together is not beyond the music, it is only to serve the music. To speak the truth that only we understand.

What are your plans for the future?

We hope to tour parts of the US this year and will be in Europe next year, and hopefully play for as many people as will have us.

Upsilon Acrux in 2015 are:

Mark Kimbrell – drums
Dylan Fujioka – drums
Noah Guevara – guitar
Paul Lai – guitar
Patrick Shiroishi – Rhodes

Follow Upsilon Acrux on Facebook. Get their new album “Sun Square Dialect” from New Atlantis Records.

Cover photo by Ebrahim Saleh

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