Rotcod Zzaj (Review/Interview)

by Jerry Kranitz

From Aural Innovations #11 (July 2000)

Mark Kissinger & Rotcod Zzaj - "Free Spirit Suites"
(Zzaj Productions 2000)

Rotcod Zzaj (aka Dick Metcalf) returns with yet another collaboration with Pennsylvania-based guitarist Mark Kissinger. Though the two have joined forces numerous times over the years this was my first experience hearing Kissinger's playing. The Zzaj man had been raving about him and I can now hear what his excitement has been about. Kissinger's guitar style blends jazz and rock forms, but his licks have a great soaring quality that give the jazz elements a cosmic edge. And the sound itself is just as uniquely his, and difficult to describe, as Rotcod Zzaj's keyboards are.

"Whirling Dervish", "Moths Dancing In The Flames", and "Wanderer's Wisdom" are great examples of free-wheeling Zzajy keyboard jams and Kissinger's trippy but equally jazzy guitar style, and Moths Dancing has an especially cool groove. And speaking of groove... "Rhythm Rider" is as perfect as song titles get! I was ridin' the rhythm the whole time!

"Fragile Glass Unicorns" is an absorbing ambient tune that jams. Atmospheric, ambient, jazzy. The keyboards dance and the guitar kicks out gorgeous wailing licks. "Gypsy Improv" is a bit more on the freaky side with keyboards that have a wild carnival organ sound, which is especially cool as they produce trippy grooves, and the guitar is playing quirky and slightly dissonant solos. "Speakez" is cool funky rockin' track and "Parade Of Elephance" is a freaky bluesy piece.

In summary, "Free Spirit Suites" is great set of jamming guitar and keyboard grooves that will appeal to spacers that are open to jazz. Mucho cosmic. Zzaj and Kissinger complement each other wonderfully to produce a uniquely cosmic jazz sound that trips the stars fantastic. And they've got a sound that doesn't easily speak to specific influences.

Now that we've heard a few releases from Rotcod Zzaj, we decided it was time to throw a few questions at him to get a closer peak into his world.

AI: It's standard to ask people about their influences but in your case I'm even more interested because of the music I've heard I wouldn't know who to compare you to.

Rotcod Zzaj: I would say most of it just goes with the time frame. Like Zappa. And of course the old standard jazz players. And then also Hendrix. And all the players around the mid to late 60's. But I had already burnt out on listening to standard jazz forms. That's when I started listening to Zappa, Hendrix, the whole range of rock and psych things. And I'm sure good blends of Hashish had a lot to do with it cause I was in Europe at the time.

AI: Well that makes sense because aside from being rock based, Zappa was certainly a jazz and classical fan.

RZ: Right. And I really liked the idea that a person could take either standards or their own compositions and just make something that was different, and that was my whole idea. I think one of the other strong influences also was that I grew up in a really religious environment. So I was already inundated with "form", and wanted the opportunity to take a simple boogie and play that against a church tune and just mess it all up. [laughs]

AI: There's certainly a psychedelic element to some of the music of yours I've heard.

RZ: I think that's especially true over the last eight years or so. I quit doing all the substance things that I'd been doing for 15 or 20 years. Partly because I realized that the music I was making was not necessarily what I wanted to make. It sounded better when I was doing all that stuff. But I just finally realized that's not what I wanted to do and once I stop doing that then the things I was doing were more natural and more me.

AI: So not using drugs was a step ahead for your with your music it sounds like.

RZ: No question about it. Once I left that stuff behind I began to hook up with all kinds of people, mostly around the Olympia, Washington area, who realized the value of what I was trying to do, and encouraged it even though I was telling them I wasn't going to partake of their mushrooms and all that.

AI: Did you spend the free-wheeling part of the 60's overseas?

RZ: Yeah, I was in Germany from '65 to '68, then in Thailand from '70 to '71. All told about 18 out of the country during 24 years in the army. So that gave me some other jaded perspectives, not only on music but on the country as a whole... where I didn't want my music to be the same as everyone else's was. And I don't think it is.

AI: Do you feel like you still experienced the 60's not being in America?

RZ: Oh definitely. It was a different perspective of course. But it was closer to the source as far as folks like Hendrix and offshoot bands coming out of Britain. I got to run around Frankfurt Germany with them, and ride the trains up to Denmark, and all over Europe. But it was a different perspective. I got back right when Woodstock was happening. So I got to catch the end of it, or the zenith of it.

AI: Poetry is a big part of your music. Do you consider yourself a musician first, a wordsmith first, or can the two not really be excluded from one another?

RZ: I probably consider myself a musician first. I think one reason why the poetry comes so strongly into play for it is because when I first started to play publicly in about '78/'79 I had a terrible time doing that because I was really nervous about playing in front of people. So rather than play what I started to do was write a lot of poetry and read it in public performance, and that kind of eased me into being able to actually play the keyboards in front of people.

AI: When you're recording do you do the music and spoken word parts together or separately?

RZ: Since most of it is 4-track stuff, I usually do the music tracks first and leave one open for another track if I want it. I'm thinking about the "Psychedelic Landscapes" CD that you reviewed. That's probably one of the best examples of how that happens for me. I had already laid down some instruments on the last track, and I went back through and listened to them and thought that's not what I want. I didn't really think about performing a spoken word piece, and I left that track alone for almost two weeks, and then came back without even thinking of putting any words to it, and just sat down at the mike and did it. And for me, especially with spoken word, that's the best kind you can get. If it just comes like you're not trying to get it. It just comes out.

AI: It just rolled out improvised for those lengthy tracks?

RZ: [laughs] Yeah, it did. And of course the reason that the spoken word and the singing that was going on on that particular piece had to go on for so long is cause the music was already that long.

AI: How did you get into being a homemade musician? Did you start out doing the standard route playing in bands?

RZ: No. And that's because of the type of music that I was doing all the way from the late 70's all the way up through now. That's not stuff that was accessible to a whole lot of people. So most of the time except in these strange coffee houses they wouldn't have wanted to listen to it anyway. And then the other part of becoming a homemade musician is because I went to Korea in '85 and didn't come back till '95. So I was over there for ten years straight. And that's really the reason why my magazine started [Improvijazzation Nation]. It's because I couldn't find the kind of music I wanted over there. So a way to get new and cutting edge kind of stuff was through the tape underground, and of course an offshoot of that was the magazine. If I was going to get all these tapes from people like Doug Walker and all the old timers in the tape underground network, then I was going to have to offer them something in return. But it just seemed natural once Gajoob magazine and several of the other ones in that time period had started up. I was also hooked up closely with David Sefardini of Sound Choice, which was an offshoot of the old Op magazine. So I had strong ties to both the editors and publishers of those magazines, as well as writing my own, and of course that whole thing of just getting really tied down in the network scene. And also out of reviewing music I began to collaborate with a lot of them and that's why I wound up with about 75 tapes out of that ten year period.

AI: Tell me about networking prior to the internet. Was it through the magazines that you and others in the underground found each other?

RZ: Oh yeah, definitely. Myself and lots of other people would get those magazines and mark off all the ones we thought we might be interested either in writing reviews of or collaborating with. Of course once you're in that circuit you're getting more magazines and more tapes. It really was a strong network, mostly based on letters and 4-track stuff.

AI: Are a lot of the people you even collaborate with now people that were part of that?

RZ: Oh, no question. In fact, [Mark] Kissinger was the first one that I collaborated with on tape through the mail. And his came out of either Sound Choice or Fact Sheet Five, I can't remember which. I just wrote him and said I'm over here in Korea, I like to do collaborations, let's get together. He wrote back in a week or so, and we did it in about a month and a half with tape exchange through the mail, and came out with the very first tape, which is now a CD by the way. There was also Hal McGee who came out with another magazine called Electronic Cottage that only lasted for about a year and a half. But it's all tied together because Hal McGee was good friends with Doug Walker, the whole Alien Planetscapes thing, also he was very close with Al Margolis... so it didn't matter where you were at, you could do it through letters and tapes. And of course the internet was just another kind of better way to do that until the commercial hogs got ahold of it.

AI: Do you think the internet has been a big step forward in terms of networking or not really?

RZ: I really do think it's helped in many ways. And I also think that it's beginning to change the formats that the music is going to be produced in and offered in. But of course the thing that can get lost through the internet is that personal touch that a letter offers. And the other thing I think you kind of lose is that the instant communication by email, chat groups, and all the rest of that, kind of takes away from the networking experience. It's almost like when people get hooked on the internet they're just interested in instant gratification and I think art demands more than that. The danger is internet addiction. Where the internet begins to ride over your artistic concerns and abilities if you don't watch out for it.

AI: You had mentioned that you've never met a lot of the musicians you've collaborated with. Do one or the other of you record entire tracks and send it to the other, or is there a lot of back and forth through the mail before you get a finished product?

RZ: There's lots of people who are doing the 4-track thing who do spend an awful lot of time, as much as a year or two, producing a final tape and then maybe a CD out of that. In my case, I guess it's because of the improvised format that I just so much enjoy that I don't like the idea of having to take a long time. The other part of that is because I'm really not a composer. My stuff is all spontaneous and I just enjoy that much better. So most of the stuff I've done all the way from when I started in the 70's and particularly in the mid 80's is no more than a month turnaround and usually more like a week and a half. I just finished one with Thom the World Poet by the way.

AI: That happened quick! [Dick had met Thom at Quarkstock 2000 on May 27th and this interview was conducted June 19th]

RZ: Yeah, that's a good illustration. You know when I met him. And we talked by email two or three times. He sent me up a tape that following weekend. I went right back over it and we've got a CD called "Fantasy In Disguise".

AI: When did you start publishing Improvijazzation Nation?

RZ: It started in '88. And that was when I went back in final on my contract with a contractor in Korea. I had just gotten out of the army in Summer '88 and the job that I went into as a contractor offered a lot more free time than my time in the military had, and like I said I couldn't find the kind of music that I wanted over there so I had already done some investigation through Hal McGee and several other of the magazine editors and I started getting just a ton of tape material coming in to be reviewed. So I just started it up one month in '88. It started off with 12 pages. Soon grew to 20. I often threatened to make it more slick and glossy, but part of it was being in Korea we didn't have the production facilities. It was too expensive to get stuff reproduced. So I kept that thing in print and increasing the number of reviews every month. I'd started off with maybe 15-18 reviews, and some of the later issues had like 40 reviews in it. Nowadays since I went to the web-based one, I actually get a lot more material but a lot of it is from promotion companies. So it's not nearly as underground oriented as it was when I started.

AI: Do you feel like it was more valuable as a networking tool or do you feel you've reached a lot of people who are interested in the music as listeners, that were picking it up as a result of your magazine?

RZ: Actually the paper stuff, I think it was more valuable as a networking tool. I don't think we really reached a whole lot of consumers. I think the internet has had more value in the last 3 or 4 years for that kind of thing. Particularly through publications like Gajoob, Bryan Baker's magazine. A lot of people may not realize it even yet, but Bryan has just thousands of tapes, and of course now CD's, that are almost all from independent artists. And that was really my other reason for wanting to have the magazine as a forum for independent artists. People who had never been heard of before. And my web site, and particularly Bryan's web site, has I think really grown that exposure to the consumer or the average Joe that you were talking about. And I think that's just a really wonderful thing. The reason I do is because my reason for reviewing any CD or tape that I get, my criteria is that it has to have a high energy level. I really don't care what genre it is. I just think that it's really important for a homemade musician to have really high energy and commitment coming through in their music. If they do that then it's going to be more accessible, even if it's noise, or straight psych. And I feel like I've really got to the point where I can sense that.

AI: So maybe the internet has been a step backwards in terms of grassroots networking but you're reaching potential listeners more.

RZ: No question about it. So from that standpoint it is a good thing. But the thing that young artists have to realize is that it's still important to slow down and actually talk to the other artists that they're working with whether that be by email, it would be crazy not to talk by email cause the tool is there, but to just make sure you don't let it get diluted to the point where your contact with that other artist is diluted, and your energy is diluted. So that's where the internet is valuable as long as the artist realizes that it's just another tool. And it certainly provides much better and faster ways of communicating. I think one of the best examples of that is Ernesto Diaz-Infante that I've collaborated with over the last two years. He and I have very effectively used the internet to communicate. We only write letters when we're sending tapes to each other. But we've produced something like 16 CD's in the last two years. So our artistic output has been really focused, and not just on the same old thing. Every CD that he and I have produced has been a step in another direction. And not necessarily the one we thought we were going to go in. But when you tie that with the use of the internet to communicate... about the tape, or the CD, or about the covers... that's the good part about the internet. It's quick, instant, as long as you don't get hooked on the tool then you'll be able to expand your horizons.

AI: Did your catalog , where you started to be a distributor yourself, did that start parallel with Improvijazzation Nation or did that come later?

RZ: Actually it came when I moved back to Olympia in '95 from Korea. I had about 4 or 5 artists that I had played with around Olympia for almost 20 years. And when I started the online catalog my whole interest was, once again, in making a page that was not specific to a genre, but that would offer very high energy in different genres so that when people hit that page they would know that if they like this genre, whatever they saw in there even if it was somebody they didn't know, it was going to be high energy.

AI: Tell me about the experimental music festivals you were involved with in Olympia.

RZ: I had hooked up, while I was in Korea, with a guy named Arrington De Dionysos. I can't remember what his real name is. But he had sent me several tapes off of his label. And he was a DJ at KAOS radio station at the Evergreen State College. And he and one of his partners had decided just before I got back in '95 that they're going to run this experimental music festival. Their idea of experimental was punk and noise. Well... here I come marching in, or course knowing Arrington already I said Hey, wait a minute man, jazz is experimental too, or it can be. And not only that but you've got folk artists who are experimental. So for that first year in '95 they already had all the acts lined up. But for the second through the fifth year I was there, and I was directly associated with... mostly making sure there was a web page up for it, keeping the schedules posted. And that's the standpoint from which we grew the experimental festival to be more than what it was when it started. And it was a nice natural slow progression of growth. And it's really shaping up nicely for this year too. The sixth festival is being run by a guy named Eric MacIntosh, who also calls himself Agent Duckhugger. And he's done a really good job of publicizing this.

AI: What kind of support have you gotten in terms of local media and attendance.

RZ: It was about the third year when myself and my long-time playing partner Harlan Mark Vale got really involved with the organization of that year's festival, and we went out and pounded the streets and got all kinds of ads solicited. And in that same year we got two or three people from Tacoma, WA and one writer from Seattle to actually write up articles either based on past festivals or we gave them free tickets and they came down and wrote a review of the acts they had seen. And it's grown from there. We also got a lot of support from a couple of college radio stations in Seattle. Of particular note is Jack Straw Studios. A guy named Doug Hare. And then the other publication was a net-based publication that was a local rag called The Tentacle. Just a calender of events out of Seattle. Their whole philosophy is improv or nothing. It has to be absolutely whacked out music or they don't cover it. And so of course we got a lot of support from them. And that web site,, has turned into a very valuable tool for, not just crazy musicians, but all different types of musicians that are playing things that are challenging in Seattle.

AI: So this new CD with Mark Kissinger is out, you've got the one with Thom the World Poet coming, any other projects we should know about?

RZ: There's one coming up that's going to be Ernesto [Diaz-Infante] and myself and Kissinger together. And I did that one a little bit different this time in that I got Kissinger's tape from him and sent it out to Ernesto to have him do his tracks first, and then he'll run it back down to 2-track and send it back to me for the overlay. I felt that was important. You've heard Mark's music now, and it really fits better with another guitar player. He and I have done some great things together. But I thought it would be real interesting to see how the two guitars came together first. And then I'm going to go over the top of that, probably with some really spacey kind of organ sounds. That one's going to be really interesting.

AI: Thanks!

CLICK HERE to read the reviews of earlier Zzaj releases in Aural Innovations #9.
For more information you can visit the Zzaj Productions web site where you can also read Improvijazzation Nation.
Via snail mail contact Zzaj Productions, 532 Yorkshire #66, Rochester Hills, MI 48307

Click your browser's BACK button to return to the previous page.