From Aural Innovations #21 (October 2002)
I discovered Paper Bag sometime in the late 1980's when a description of their Ticket To Trauma LP in a Wayside catalog sparked my interest. Fast forward to the late 1990's when a period of financial crises forced me to sell much of my vinyl collection on Ebay, I received an email from guitarist Greg Segal who was curious what my auctioned copy of Ticket To Trauma would bring in. Well... I never even got one bidder. And I thank my cosmic stars to this day that it didn't.
Paper Bag was formed in 1983 by brothers Greg and Mark Segal with a view toward a strict methodology of improvisation. The band went through a number of members (detailed on their web site) until 1985 when the quartet of Greg Segal on guitar, Mark Segal on drums, percussion and vocals, Kenny Ryman on keyboards, tape loops, vocals and percussion, and George Radai on bass solidified. This is the lineup that recorded four albums on the SST label and numerous radio sets, these being recorded sets of music made especially for specific radio stations around the world.
As an improvisational rock band one might assume that Paper Bag's albums consist of lengthy jams, which couldn't be further from the case. According to the bands rules for improvisation, members would take turns being the "composer" or "conductor" of pieces that averaged between 2-7 minutes in length. (8:27 is the longest on any of their four albums and that's unusually long.) The conductor would initiate a piece by expressing an idea or giving a basic musical direction. All eyes are on the conductor throughout the piece, who is also responsible for directing solos, various changes and bringing the piece to a close. Throughout a piece the musicians will rotate direction from one to the next, and here I will quote from Mark Segal's "A Crash Course in the Paper Bag: Theory of Spontaneous Composing and Controlled Chaos":
As the next musician takes his turn in the rotation, an important rule must be kept in mind: his concept must be completely different, a total one-eighty from what came before it. This part of the Paper Bag: Theory is the 'roller-coaster effect', and is essential throughout the set in order to ensure variation.
The longer it takes to relay your ideas to the other players during live performance, the more slipshod and haphazard it appears. Get the concept out articulately but quickly. If you can't, move to a back-up idea or pass the torch to the next player. Eye contact is really important. That is to say, eye contact is particularly important. Oh, perhaps I forgot to mention: WITHOUT EYE CONTACT THE 'PAPER BAG: THEORY' WILL NOT FUNCTION.
This is a basic description and interested practitioners and fans of improvisation are encouraged to visit the Paper Bag web site where they'll find detailed articles describing the Paper Bag methodology, including commentary from various band members throughout their history (don't miss George Radai's insightful "Theory of Bag Adjuncts" article).
Paper Bag emphasize that they never played the same piece of music twice. In one 1989 article drummer Mark Segal is quoted as saying you'd have a better chance of winning the lottery than hearing the same Paper Bag tune played twice. And in an article laying out Paper Bag's improvisational Procedures, Rules and Objectives, Greg Segal notes one of the band's favorite jokes was when a soundperson would say at soundcheck, "OK guys, let's hear your first song."
The result of all these rules was an exciting body of music that covered a variety of styles including progressive rock, jazz, ethnic influences, poetry, and plenty of undefinable freeform and less than conventional fun. And the adherence to their methodology produced music that in most cases sounded more composed than improvised. So now we'll dive directly into the music by doing an overview of the four SST albums, followed by a discussion of the current incarnation of the band... Bag: Theory.
Ticket To Trauma (SST 1987, SST 076)
Recorded late 1985 - early 1986, Paper Bag was planning to have Ticket To Trauma pressed and distributed themselves. But after being scammed by the manufacturer, SST came to the rescue and it ultimately became the bands first album on that label. Paper Bag covers a lot of stylistic ground, with King Crimson's improvisational work being much in evidence, as is Jazz Fusion. Having heard quite a bit of Greg Segal's solo music I find that his style on the tracks that draw Crimson analogies to be similar to Robert Fripp's guitarscapes and razors edge rock guitar, but having a more vocal melodic quality than the stoical Fripp.
Tracks like "Through Your Eyes" have a bit of that King Crimson sound, though Kenny Ryman's loops contribute to the musics distinctiveness, along with the rhythm section that creates the repetitive, slowly developing foundation under which the music evolves. "Garberville" is somewhat similar to a Thrakattack-like King Crimson improv but also a has 60's Bluesy power psych-rock sound. "Closed City" features highly intense progressive rock that walks a fine line between King Crimson and Jazz while stamping it indelibly with Paper Bag's personal touch. In fact, the jazzy parts of Paper Bag often remind me of current San Francisco jazz-psych maestros Mushroom.
"Rain On Benares" and "The Niles Cries" are among the albums more ambient tracks, the latter communicating an image inducing soundtrack feel along with lots of fun freaky sounds. Getting into more Jazz based territory is "Crankman", though it also has a controlled jamming rock quality propelled by Mark Segal's aggressive yet determined percussion and semi-acidic licks from Greg. "Monkey Jack" is another jazzy tune but more in rocking fusion territory, the songs character coming from what sounds like turntable scratching (the resulting effect is similar) giving the music a left field funky sound. Vocals crop up occasionally in the form of poetry. On "What More Do You Want?", poetry is recited in an angry "street" style similar to many Rap artists but also with a Beat feel and backed by avant free-improv music. "Ambient Languages" features poetry backed by Greg's trademark guitarscapes. And "Think For Myself" is recited in a more ranting punk style.
Among my personal favorites on the album is "The Ballad Of Ed Gein", one the albums more purely Rock pieces. There's a free-wheeling jamming quality to the music that I like, yet there's still an evident linear King Crimson styled path the band follows as well as some kick ass aggressive freakout soloing from Greg. The music transitions a number of times returning to Jazz, though always including unique and difficult to describe elements. "The Devil's Cha-Cha" is a quirky avant-prog tune that reminds me a bit of Etron Fou LeLoublon (must be the keyboards) but also has more fiery guitar from Greg. And "Priests on Drugs" is a jazzy piece that crosses late 60's/early 70's trippy electric fusion with an avant-lounge atmosphere.
A Land Without Fences (SST 1987, SST 170)
Recorded and released in 1987, A Land Without Fences includes some of Paper Bag's most purely intense ROCK tunes. Opening with the New Wav-ish Tehran Taxi Bomb" with it's killer guitar and quirky Can-like rhythms, it's clear that we're about to be treated to a glom of interests and influences that coexist and cooperate more than they fuse. "Jonestown Punch" is a standout tune with its fun freaky organ, tribal percussion, and blistering guitar from Greg. Listening to songs like this I have to force myself to remember that it's all improvised as the structure and feel is so composed. Clearly these musicians are in comfortable communication with each other. "Compulsion To Fret" features avant-progressive rock with a jazz fusion edge. The guitar fires off intense and often blistering licks as the bass and drums blaze away, front and center as solo instruments in their own right along with smattering bits from Ryman's keys. "Faith Opaque" is a short tune that combines the ambient portions of Space Ritual Hawkwind with free-improv avant-percussion bits. "Action! Thrills! Adventure!" is a BLAZING Rock/Punk/New Wave/Prog tune, though the Prog influences ultimately reign supreme. Like so much of Paper Bag there's this melding of genres and styles that makes their music so difficult to describe.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is "Mr. Moto Takes A Ride". The music is chaotic yet totally controlled. It's spacey, jazzy, ethnic, and I think I even hear a dash of Beefheart. Way too short... I wish it developed a bit more. The closing track, "Ground Zero", is another highlight and is also one of the most freaked out mindfucked rock pieces on any of the Paper Bag albums. "Vinyl Walls", "Windows", "Their Fault" and "Dachau" are the poetry rant pieces of the album, poetry being important parts of the Paper Bag experience. I love the intense spacey and noisy rumblings that backed the words on "Vinyl Walls", and the intense Beat style and trippy space guitar of "Windows", as well as the potent spacey Crimson-ish Rock and poetic rant of "Dachau". Definitely one of the hottest of the Paper Bag albums.
Music To Trash (SST 1988, SST-CD-200)
Released in Summer 1988, Music To Trash was the only Paper Bag album to be released on CD. The disc consists of 25 tracks covering a diversity of styles. "Norman's Dance Party" is a highlight track which features a surreal carnival scene with intense and almost theatrical guitar work. The bass and drums keep a driving beat, occupying distinct corners of their musical universe from the keyboards and guitar. There's lots of space and psych influences to be heard too.
"The Last Factory" is a spacey sci fi soundtrack piece. "Ninety In Reverse" is a cool early 70's styled psych rock tune with dirty wah guitar. The music soon transitions to a quirky rocker before settling into a jamming Neil Young "Down By The River" sound. "A Raft On The Sansar" is a psych rocker with Indian influences. "Crank Attack" is very short but the shimmering space guitar, bits of rockin Link Wray, and manic bongos really grabbed me. I really dig the freaky UFO synths on "Memory-Chip Jungle", the whole tune being a wild ride as the synths either take front and center stage doing their freakout thing or loom in the background while the band does a funky jazz jam. More cool space synths are to be heard on "New", along with a deeeeeep old time John Wetton bass and a Beefheart styled poetry rant.
In addition to the fun space and psych sounds, Paper Bag cover all kinds of adventurous prog rock territory too. "Because I Care" is a hot track and is the longest song of the set. It's tribal, ambient, has touches of King Crimson and excellent efx. About halfway through it goes a bit wild taking on a Magma sound but includes ripping guitar. "Decisions, Decisions" is another song that brought Magma to mind, particularly due to the bass sound, but with blistering guitar and funky keys. Songs like this illustrate what a truly impressive ROCK band Paper Bag could be! They rock hard but like the best progressive bands the musicians are each occupying their own world yet coming together as a tight sonic whole. "Splattmandoo" is another one of my favorites being a rockin fusion tune with bits of jazzy King Crimson. Finally, "Just Another Day" sounds like David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" and may be the only Paper Bag song (of the four albums) with actual singing and background vocals. An excellent rocking set that's loaded with variety and covering a gamut of space, psych and progressive explorations.
Improvised My Ass (SST 1989, SST 229)
Released in 1989, Improvised My Ass was Paper Bag's fourth and final release. Being improvised, all Paper Bag music is essentially live, but Improvised My Ass is different as it was taken from an actual Paper Bag performance. Consisting of some of Paper Bag's hardest old time prog sounds, the album documents what an impressive live unit the band was, once again leaving my jaw hanging to think that these songs were composed as they were played.
The set opens with "Mr. Id", an intense prog rock tune with a jazzy Soft Machine feel, particularly due to Kenny Ryman's excellent keyboards, but also a fiery rock intensity from the rhythm section and Greg's blazing acidic guitar. "Origin" is one of the most gorgeously mellow and passionate songs on any of the four albums. Its slow but passionate atmospheric guitar licks and lounge jazzy piano set a drifting course that sweeps the listener along. Of course the intensity level builds and recedes, but never really breaking from the caressing nature of the music. "I Live In L.A." starts off as a poetry rant but soon turns into a thudding jam that's similar to much of avant-space/Krautrockers Escapade's work (who Paper Bag pre-dates), but also like an acidic funky kind of Red Hot Chile Peppers. Honestly, these guys are tough to describe but that's the beauty of the Bag.
"B.B.Q" is an excellent prog/psych-fusion excursion and once again Escapade comes to mind. "Beany Boy's Polka" is an aptly titled oddball tune. "Mantell's Last Flight" is a standout track among all the Paper Bag albums. It begins with spacey Hawkwind guitar, ghostly space whispers and bleeping UFO synths. But the increasingly steady drumming hints that things are about to take off and indeed they do. The guitar goes acid Frippoid ballistic and the synths continue their cosmic freakout. But the pace shifts continually, moving through a jazzier segment though the music never really stops rocking. Just fantastic. And "Studio Hell" is a killer combination of quirky rock á la Etron Fou LeLoublon and 70's heavy prog (DIG those keys!!).
Being on a label that had a certain level of distribution, searching out these four albums are most people's best bet for hearing the music of this talented band. (Those who prowl the caverns of Ebay will find them turning up from time to time.) But they are just a small drop in the larger Paper Bag bucket. The band estimates that they have about 400 hours of unreleased recordings. Anyone who has immersed themselves in these four albums will surely drool at the prospect of the band dusting off these tapes.
In early 1989 Kenny Ryman left the band and was replaced by, not another keyboard player, but vocalist David McIntire, and this lineup lasted until 1991.
In early 2000 Mark Segal was asked if Paper Bag would be interested in reforming to participate in a benefit concert organized for an ailing Zoogs Rift. However logistics, schedules, and the fact that noone had heard from Kenny Ryman in years made this impossible. Determined to forge ahead, Mark decided to form a band that would be completely different from Paper Bag but still based on its rules of improvisation.
Mark approached guitarist Anthony Cossa who he had worked with in an earlier project called Fried To A Crisp, and the two formed the core of Bag: Theory. Despite Mark's desire to break with the past, both George Radai and David McIntire from Paper Bag were involved. And while a couple of live CDR's Mark shared with me indicate varying participants, the standard Bag:Theory lineup seems to be Mark Segal, Anthony Cossa, George Radai, and Marc Mylar on saxophone and clarinet.
Bag:Theory - "A Good Ass-Kicking Wears Many Faces" (Homeless Publishing 2001, CD)
Released in 2001, Bag: Theory's A Good Ass-Kicking Wears Many Faces succeeds in it's attempt to follow the Paper Bag spirit while being something totally new. One element in common with the past is the composed feel of the music, despite its being completely improvised.
"Orgy Of The Elements" opens the set, beginning as a slow fusion piece with spacey ambient keys. It soon launches into a hot rocker with manic guitar but this is brief as the band settle back into a trippy space fusion groove to bring the song to a close. "Water Walls Don't Budge" features killer guitar from Anthony Cossa and I love additional member Matt Brown's keyboard sound on this off-kilter rocker that blends too many influences to describe, though I hear bits of King Crimson, MX-80, and a touch of Greek dance.
Tracks like "Dissed In New Orleans" stand out for their excellent combination of diverse styles. "Worms, Flies, Spiders" is a great free-improv rockin chaotic tune with a multitude of styles that blend into a tightly organized whole. "The Fake Voodoo Doll That Turned Out To Be Real" is everywhere at once including bits of Sun Ra, beatnik lounge jazz, Hawaiian themes, free-jazz, and plenty more. I love the deep bass on the spacey, jazzy, King Crimson-ish "DeQuincey Dreams Again". Each note is a full statement that I could feel rumbling in my chest.
Among my favorite tracks is "Last Scream Of The Missing Surfer". After a brief punked out free-jazz intro the band settles into a cool rockin surf groove with lots of big nasty mindfucked waves that'll knock even the most accomplished surfer off his board. I can't believe this stuff is improvised. Another one of my favorites is "Solid Gone", an excellent fusion tune with Matt Brown's ass kickinest keyboards of any track. Screamin shit. Cossa takes his turn in the rotation and knocks out a blazing solo that shreds but communicates passion and style. Ditto for Tom Shannon's bass. Did I say I can't believe this shit is improvised?!! "Mesozoic Stomp" is an intense powerhouse metallic prog rocker. And "Shark Attack" is an intense heavy prog rocking freakout track, again with a metallic feel but also has a funky groove and high octane intensity that closes out the song with a bang.
Phewwww... give this sucker a close headphones listen and you'll be tired but deliciously satisfied. Like the best instrumental progressive rock and fusion, Bag:Theory will reward your attention with a challenging variety and blend of styles and structures and provide you with an entertaining hour of free-wheeling rockin fun. Kudos to Mark Segal for taking the Paper Bag experience to new and even more exciting levels. And it seems that this ensemble will continue as the band is playing shows regularly in the Los Angeles area.
For detailed information on both Paper Bag and Bag: Theory you can visit:
CLICK HERE to read the retrospective of Paper Bag guitarist Greg Segal's solo work, also in this issue.