From Aural Innovations #5 (January 1999)
Often called America's oldest spacerock band, Alien Planetscapes has been challenging listeners and band members alike since 1980 with solo and duo electronic experimentations in the early years, evolving into a heavier full band sound in the later. The band's membership has rarely been stable for long, but it's instigator and visionary since the beginning has been Doug Walker (A.K.A. Dr. Synth) whose musical journey since the 1960's has been one of expanding the boundaries of rock music.
Like many people I didn't discover Alien Planetscapes until 1997 when a friend turned me on to their first CD, "Life On Earth". This collection of instrumentals combines rocking, spaced out free jazz influences á la Soft Machine and Gong, and a sometimes punkish attitude, with the electronic explorations that have been Walker's passion for years. The wailing saxes and flute flow beautifully with the crunching guitars and electronic effects to produce an exciting brand of spacerock that draws from numerous influences.
After digesting this gem, I discovered that "Life On Earth" was far from being the band's only recording. Alien Planetscapes has been aggressively active in the cassette networking underground since the beginning with over one hundred releases to their name. I began exploring some of these earlier tapes and throughout it is clear that this is music that would easily appeal to hardcore spacerockers, free jazz fans with an interest in rock music, and progressive rockers with more adventurous tastes.
This all occurred in early 1998 when I began publishing Aural Innovations and as word got around about the magazine I was contacted by Doug Walker offering to write for us. Doug's analytical articles on Miles Davis and the current Lard Free/Heldon series, and having seen their blistering performance at the Strange Daze '98 Spacerock Festival even further sparked my interest in what lay behind Alien Planetscapes' music so I decided it was time to dive in.
Though Alien Planetscapes officially began on May 26, 1980, it's history really begins in the Summer of 1967 when the Walker family attended the World's Fair in Montreal. Recalling a demonstration of the Moog synthesizer in the U.S. pavilion Walker says, "I remember walking in and seeing this thing and falling in love with it immediately because it made sounds that I couldn't make on conventional instruments. I had been studying flute since I was seven, and the clarinet, then saxophone in Junior High School, and I couldn't make those sounds. Plus it was new technology and everything. I grew up in, and am of an age, and live in a country that worships new technology. So this was all spaceage to me."
Originally trained as a jazz musician, but immersing himself in the progressive rock of the time, Walker played in a band that explored the music they were digesting. The goal was to get away from blues-rock and move toward music like Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Soft Machine, and Hawkwind were playing. Walker says, "One of the things I was into at the time was investing weekly in a paper called Melody Maker which seemed to talk about this music. So I would run down and get the Melody Maker and find out who they were talking about that sounded like they were not playing blues-rock, and then go out and check their music out. And Hawkwind were so alternative. There were the elements of free jazz and these different things that I was interested in." This band lasted from 1970-1977, and in the later 70's Walker was a member of The Electric Cecil Taylor Band, which found itself playing live alongside the likes of Television and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers whose fans didn't know quite what to make of this music that was so outside of what the New Wavers were doing.
Walker had long been interested in electronic music, but It was while playing with this band that he began to experiment with solo electronic music rather than within a group where the focus wasn't on the "floating electronics" that he wanted to explore and this is how Alien Planetscapes began. For the first two years Alien Planetscapes was a solo project. "It was just me spinning loops and making tapes and generally getting into the idea that maybe you could do this music without having a strong emphasis on traditional rhythms. It was free music so you're going to inject a certain amount of structure and rhythms and this kind of stuff intuitively without even thinking about it even though you're free improvising. And I wanted to kind of get away from that."
In 1982 Walker met a kindred spirit in the form of fellow electronic musician Louis Boone (currently with spacerockers BORN To GO). Walker and Boone worked together from 1982-1984 with their focus being on free improvisation with their electronic instruments. A key to understanding both the floating electronics and full band periods in the band's history is improvisation and the free jazz movement. As Walker says, "I felt at the time electronic music was getting away from one of the elements which had helped it grow so well which was the free jazz movement and it's conceptions in terms of free improvisation. We tried to bring that approach to electronic music so almost all the music was improvised."
Through word of mouth and networking Walker met up with various other electronic musicians in the New York area and in 1986 Carl Howard joined Alien Planetscapes. Howard had been publishing a magazine of avant garde music called Artitude, and to this day has been heavily involved in the cassette networking underground through his own Audiophile Tapes distribution. Walker considers this a productive period for Alien Planetscapes in which they released nearly fifty cassettes and performed live all over the New York area.
Walker even organized a performance series in his apartment which attracted not only other electronic musicians but various other music types as well. At the same time he became heavily involved in the cassette culture and the resultant networking lead to contacts with bands like F/i and Architectural Metaphor, two other long running American spacerock bands. However, it was also becoming apparent that the floating electronic music could only go so far and the journey toward a full band with expanded instrumentation had begun.
A number of factors lead to Alien Planetscapes becoming a full band. Besides what Walker saw as limitations with the floating electronic music he also notes, "the lacking of the rhythms, and rhythm is very important to me. I started hearing those basic rhythms again." Also, a move to a private house provided new opportunities for full band rehearsal. Walker additionally sees Hawkwind's first performances in the U.S. in eleven years in 1989, and the enthusiastic turnouts they received, as evidence of possibilities for an American spacerock scene.
So 1989 and 1990 was spent auditioning musicians until September 1990 when Alien Planetscapes found stability as a six piece band. In this time they also managed to release three cassettes. Of the dozen or so Alien Planetscapes tapes I've heard, "Mysterious Black Dots", recorded in June/July of 1989, is interesting from a historical perspective as an early version of Alien Planetscapes experimenting as a five piece of synthesizers, guitar, bass, drums, flute, and sax. The genesis of the Alien Planetscapes sound is here, but is rawer and has a heavier acid jam quality than subsequent recordings. It's also interesting in that this is a sound I hear from some of today's spacerock bands. The 2-cassette "Lost Missile Outtakes" collection also has some very good earlier works. A 1987 recording sees an even earlier attempt at expanding the band with three synthesizers plus bass and guitar. The music strikes me as sort of like Meddle-era Pink Floyd, but obviously more synth exploratory. The floating electronics are still there but we now have a bass player holding down a beat providing a bit of that rhythm that Walker says was missing from the music. Yet another standout set is an October 1991 performance with the band still a six piece. The free jazz ethic and King Crimson influences are apparent, as well as elements of the earlier progressive rock that influenced Walker. The music is fast and furious with guitar, violin, and synths at the forefront.
From September 1990 through the Spring of 1993, Alien Planetscapes existed in various forms with musicians coming and going, and at one point becoming a nine piece lineup. But the band ethic of all improvised music prevailed with the motto being "let's make shit up". Auditions have been a frequent necessity with guitarists seeming to be the hardest to hold. In June 1993 the first true mainstay came in the form of drummer Matthew Block, with bassist Chris Altenhoff coming in the Summer of 1995. The sound that culminated in the "Life On Earth" CD is apparent in recordings from this period. The rocking parts are heavier, as are the Crimson and Soft Machine influences integrated into Alien Planetscapes' distinct identity. Also in the Summer of 1995 Cleopatra Records asked Alien Planetscapes to contribute to a spacerock compilation. The band played shows when they could, continually plagued by what seems like something of a guitarist syndrome, the one instrument that seems to come and go the most in the Alien Planetscapes lineup. To illustrate the difficulties of finding like minded musicians Walker points out that since 1989 only about a dozen musicians out of 261 that have been auditioned have really worked well within the band.
Doug and I spoke at length one Sunday evening on a variety of topics from types of music, to the music industry, to his own experiences as a musician in New York. Here are some excerpts from our discussion:
AI: Y'know, listening to all these tapes, and especially the full band ones, the two bands that come through the most [as influences] to me are Soft Machine and King Crimson. Does that sound accurate to you?
DW: That's pretty accurate. When "In The Court Of The Crimson King" came out that was like a heavy experience because the time it came out all this other music was happening but there was absolutely nothing like this. I was a sophomore in high school, and I was into Electric Ladyland, Stand Up, In The Court Of The Crimson King, and Let It Bleed by the Stones. This was still at the time when you could break up a party by bringing in Jimi Hendrix and sitting down in the middle of the floor and rolling a joint. But this was stuff that really meant a lot to me because I could hear different elements of things that I was learning about. And the principle soloist was the horn player. On that first album he takes what might be called a free jazz solo every time the horn solos. And that was important... all the electronics and everything. Plus, like I said... here's a guy in the middle of a heavy rock song taking a flute solo. That's why I like Traffic too. I was a big Traffic fan because of that. And they were still flower power hippies... it didn't seem like King Crimson was so much flower power hippies. There was a different vibe to the music. It seemed more revolutionary, which I was into at the time. (laughs) Politically, y'know? So that was kind of shaking things up. Ian Anderson was a real big influence at that time too. Cause I was flute player. Here's a guy who's playing flute, and the flute is taking the place of the electric guitar.
AI: Tell me a little more about the music you were playing at this time.
DW: Originally I had a band that was formed in 1970 with some high school friends. We were interested in exploring this new kind of music that we were getting into and moving away from the blues-rock thing and more toward bands like Genesis or Van Der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant, early Yes. The Soft Machine and that whole camp of people. One of the big influences that I had in the early 70's was hearing Hawkwind. I fell for them really hard because they had exactly the kind of elements that I was looking for in rock music. There were the electronics, there was the concept of weaving science fiction themes into the music. There were the drugs. All those elements that I was looking for at the time in music were provided by Hawkwind, so I got right into that. And that lead of course to understanding a whole lot more about lots of other European rock music. So you get into Hawkwind and then you see printed on the inside sleeve of the record... records by bands like Can, and Amon Düül and these other bands and you say, hmmm.... these sound interesting. And you'd go down to the store and buy their records and check them out. And that also shifted us more away from the traditional progressive rock bands. I was a big King Crimson freak from the very beginning. I thought they were great.
AI: What was the scene like in New York at this time?
DW: What we had in New York was horrible. I was in the progressive rock band I was telling you about and that lasted from '70 until '77. And between that band and the second band I was in, which was in the late 70's, The Electric Cecil Taylor Band. We got to play on stages alongside bands like Television, and the Shirts... we knew these people well... Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers. And I was always appalled because these bands were terrible. I mean, I'm not the greatest musician in the world by any means, but we were playing songs that had more to do with Van der Graaf Generator than they did with Television and The Ramones and stuff. But we were playing the same stages so you got to see these bands firsthand.
AI: It sounds like you were well positioned, though, to really see what was a pretty big scene.
DW: At the time in New York there was a lot a good music going on. And it was a very vibrant scene. A lot of that had to do with the real estate also because at that time everyone was convinced that New York was gonna die so real estate prices were extremely cheap. So musicians could go get lofts in downtown Manhattan and do their thing. And you could actually have affordable access to that kind of music because you would go to the Tin Palace, or you would go to Stanley Crouch's house, and you would go to Jazzmania, and you would see some great musicians who were doing a different sort of approach as part of the everyday milieu of the city. So that had a lot of influence on us too in terms of being part of that vibrant cultural scene. I guess it would come out that you were less judgmental about the guys that couldn't play because of the vibrant scene around then... where you could actually get some really serious music if you just wanted to go down the street.
AI: Do you struggle or desire to bring these various elements into your music.
DW: Well I take a political stance about a lot of things and one of them is music. And I think that it's widely forgotten or obscured purposely... that we forget that so many of the innovators in the music that we call spacerock, or electronic music or whatever, so many of them were either influenced by or had to deal with African-American music. When you're dealing with African-American classical music, or jazz if you want to call it... you're dealing with extremely sophisticated music. And I think that sometimes gets lost because so many of the ideas about improvisation, and harmony, and the use of different kinds of rhythm, the use of ethnic music, and Occidental music, and modality, and all these things were developed by jazz musicians. I mean, when you get right down to it the very first guy to go out on the stage and play electric keyboards on their own without having the support of more traditional types of keyboards was Sun Ra. I saw Ra play 50 times between 1970 and 1980. And at one point right after I bought my synthesizer I walked up to Ra at a concert and said, Mr Ra... I feel like I'm your disciple. I play the synthesizer. I'd like to come and study with you. Ra took me by the hand, looked in my face... I was tripping my brains out at the time... and said, Son... don't call me Mr Ra. Call me Mr Mystery. And I just go Arrrrhhgghh! (laughing). I mean, Ra had his Shtick, but when you peeled away all of this other stuff and you put together how he used the keyboards, this guy was an innovator of the highest standard. And specifically on the electronic instruments. I think it deals a lot with both the conservatism of the jazz community, and racism in the mostly white, let's face it, electronic music community that Ra didn't start getting his due until he died. But I became a big fan of the Who, and the Yardbirds, and the Kinks cause this was all tougher music. As well as the soul stuff. At that time I was playing clarinet, and had just started the saxophone and the flute so, y'know, the local neighborhood bands you played in when you were 11 or 12 were all soul bands. But I was interested in the Kinks, the Who, the Yardbirds, and that whole thing. And from there, of course, rock music progressed and you could see the progression with it where you could start throwing in all these other elements.
AI: So Alien Planetscapes has been your vision since the beginning?
DW: Well yeah. I mean its a shared thing with all the people who've been in the band. They all have come in and stayed their time out of a desire to do something in that direction. Obviously the direction changed somewhere in there. For the first two years or so it was basically a solo project. I was in the midst of serious education in terms of the history and development of electronic music. Kind of according to the theoretical aspects of learning what the instruments did, how they worked, and then went back into the history of the music in terms of learning about music concrete and this kind of thing.
AI: When you say history do you mean your own explorations with the instruments or actual research?
DW: Oh no... real research and real development of the theory and techniques of electronic music. It was a matter of going and learning about how to cut tape, and learning the action of a transistor, or dealing with the elements of music concrete, or dealing with the elements of the post 12-tone music milieu of the 20's and 30's to try to get it to where electronic music was by the 1980's. I was lucky to get myself a really good grounding in it cause I had access to the recordings and access to literature, and had been influenced in the 70's by friends who were active in electronic music more than I was so that also helped. But basically it was a lot of sitting down with the instrument and just learning how to play it, and learning what it does and really getting used to the idea that I was no longer dealing with having to cut my reeds properly or... I used to be a vibraphonist as well so dealing with the mallets and all that stuff. But its a completely different approach to how to make music.
AI: Was cassette networking the key to hooking up with bands that were in other geographical areas like F/i and Architectural Metaphor?
DW: Oh sure, absolutely. In the case of F/i I had seen the reviews that they were getting in places like Factsheet Five, and Option magazine, or Sound Choice. Y'know, we were all getting reviews of our cassettes. And I kept seeing mentions of Hawkwind and Tangerine Dream in things like F/i so said I've gotta write to these guys. So we kind of hooked up and found that we had mutual interests in that whole spacerock/Krautrock/experimental-electronic music. There was a need to exert a certain musicality and certain professionalism in terms of technique on the instruments that I didn't find with a lot of the cassette artists at the time. And that caused a great deal of trouble for us because I was very public in my statements about raising the level of musical ability and all this other stuff. It seems I ran afoul of the current prevailing political trends where that music was concerned and people didn't like it. I guess in that sense I'm a traditional musician in that I feel if you're going to do anything in music one of the first things to do is sit down and become intimate with your instrument, and work your technique to the highest possible playing level that you can. And that seemed to be not the aesthetic that was being preached at the time. I find it very upsetting that there's still the "we don't know how to play and we're proud of it" aesthetic in so much of contemporary music. And people had a problem with that. It didn't stop us from meeting a lot of good people though. That was the major thing.
AI: You mentioned Hawkwind and King Crimson. The early years of Alien Planetscapes were the electronic experimentations. Was it the influence of these bands that ultimately led Alien Planetscapes to expand into a full band lineup with more instrumentation?
DW: Well part of that also came from the free jazz influence. One of my biggest influences in music was Sun Ra. When Alien Planetscapes' music finally got stale in the late 80's I was looking around for different models to emulate. I think that when people go to develop new ideas they always go back to their old ones and just update them. So here was the specter of Ra that had to be dealt with and I started thinking, why don't I try to do that with rock instruments coming out of the progressive rock tradition that I had originally. Y'know, mix that with the free jazz component of all improvisation and see what would happen. So the first series of Alien Planetscapes as regular bands were kind of in that direction, which is kind of different from what we're doing now. I mean, now we have structured intricate compositions and this kind of stuff mixed with the free improvisation, as opposed to having the free improvisation to create structures.
AI: Was all this networking and having these events at your house what lead you to finding like minded musicians that play other instruments to join up?
DW: See I moved in the Fall of '88, and my wife was pregnant with our son. So that was a matter of reorienting the band and getting the new studio in shape. At the same time I had met an electronic music composer named L.G. Mair who was involved in playing the bass. So for the entire year of '89 I experimented with first finding a rhythm section, then finding guitar players and saxophone players and so forth and so on. And that took a year. So between '89 and '90 we experimented with a lot of different things and managed to issue three cassettes that marked profound changes in the band. And it brought us to a new awareness in a lot of areas and got us a lot of criticism in the older electronic music areas. We were even rejected from an electronic music recording because the guy who was doing it decided that we were too much like regular music and not enough like electronic music because we had guitars and basses and drums and such in a traditional rock type format. And y'know, one of the things that also spurred the whole business along was that in the Fall of '89 Dave Brock managed to get over here with Hawkwind, which was the first time in eleven years. And the turnout was so enthusiastic it convinced me that there might be some interest in this spacerock thing finally happening in this country where it had been dead for so long. And it was phenomenal. They came in to New York City and it was the first time that I had spoken with Brock in eleven years face to face. And it was just a really exhilarating experience. I don't know if you're familiar with Studio 54...
AI: Yeah, I remember it from when I lived in Atlanta.
DW: Right, ok. Well at that time they were having regular rock venues. It wasn't a disco or anything. In New York it's one of the bigger venues. And to find 2000-3000 people who are into Hawkwind and who are willing to sit and listen to this hard rocking space music convinced us that maybe we could do that here too. Previous to that I only thought that the people who knew about Hawkwind were the people that I knew. So that was a big revelation. It was like, hey maybe we can find musicians who do this kind of stuff. Essentially in New York you have two kinds of musicians. You have either rock musicians who don't know how to play their instruments very well... and kind of take the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Lou Reed approach to rock music. Then you have jazz musicians who don't want to have anything to do with rock music. So to find people who are interested in playing spacerock and this kind of stuff up to that point really seemed to be a challenge. So anyway we went to see Hawkwind and it was fabulous... glorious. We had had a mail relationship since 1978 so it was really a change to meet Harvey, and meet Alan, and meet guys that weren't in the band the last time I saw Hawkwind... and be able to sit down and talk to Dave again... and chronicle the changes that band had went through. It was very inspirational to what we did in terms of giving us the idea that we could actually go forward with this spacerock thing in New York.
AI: You mentioned when you got Matthew Block and Chris Altenhoff, and you had auditioned all these people and finally got people that could really play. Did these people turn out to have the same interests as you... or were they just really adventurous and you turned them on to the music?
DW: A little bit of both actually. Matthew came to us with the distinct idea that he was tired of playing rock music and wanted to play something that was more substantial in terms of its conception. He had started playing the drums when he was like seven years old, and by his early 20's was a professional drummer playing in all types of rock n roll bands in Brooklyn where he's from. But most of those bands were your basic boogie, bluesy sort of rock bands. And he had become fed up with that. Chris came similarly, where the guy knew he didn't want to play in Nirvana cover bands or whatever it was. And at the same time was a full time music student. But they all came with a certain knowledge and then we managed to broaden their knowledge a lot by exposing them to different kinds of music and different approaches to music making. Matthew and I would sit down and talk about drummers. Same thing with Chris. He came with a pretty strong understanding of the Miles Davis thing. With him it was more like we would sit here and listen to bass players and get an idea of what to do with the electric bass. We listened to a lot of Hugh Hopper, and a lot of Soft Machine to get the idea of how the bass should hold down the bassline. So we talked about that a lot. Y'know, how to play the bassline, how to make it so that the bassline changed rhythmically and harmonically over the course of a piece, but still maintain the ostinato patterns that the bass should be playing. So each one of these guys came with something and then we developed something out of what they came with. And that's been a dynamic always in the band.
AI: I'm thinking of the ad [for a new guitarist] that we ran in the last issue, and you're being very specific about what you're looking for, yet at the same time describing a lot of different influences. You mention Hawkwind, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Ozrics, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Derek Bailey, and so on. What kind of musician zeros in on an ad like that?
DW: Well, what happens is that people come sometimes because they see some musicians that they're familiar with and say, gee there's nobody doing that in the area. Or sometimes people come with no conception at all of any of these musicians, but know that they want to play something different. If you come with your mind open... we can go in any direction you choose to go in. But these are the things that I'm listening to so I'm gonna turn you on to them if you're into it.
AI: With all these influences and experiences, yet at the same time being a fan of King Crimson and all these progressive rock bands, do you think you bring something unique to this music? Some kind of synthesis that we don't see with other bands?
DW: Well, my experiences as an American are different than a lot of my contemporaries. Race obviously plays a factor in that. But I don't think it necessarily just has to be about that. There are very few Black men who are visible in this music. I can't account for that, and I don't know if I want to. I feel like I have the ability to draw on different things musically that are more natural to me culturally than somebody from some other place.
AI: So when all is said and done you've got... the music.
DW: Well yeah. The music is a reflection of the people involved in playing it. That's always gonna be true. But at the same time, to deny the fact of the various economic and social roots that make up different types of Americans... we're not all one kind of people y'know? So my experiences are in there and I bring that to the music... I don't know if that's so unique... except when you take it out of the context of the kind of place that we live in. Once you take it out of that context it becomes something people carry in their minds. I think it's good, but I wouldn't want them to get distracted by that.
AI: Do you think playing purely instrumental music... is the music still political? I'm hearing a lot of political background and influences here.
DW: Oh sure, of course. The music is political because it challenges the status quo. And also there's the desire for me to find a place in rock music where certain values are emphasized. To get to more deeper musical values because its the only music in the 20th century that hasn't done that. Jazz went from a music that was popular music to a very deeply influential music and, to a certain degree, so did Blues... y'know, become more and more instrumentally sophisticated. But rock is one of the only musics that hasn't. That doesn't mean it hasn't changed. But the actual ability of the players, especially in this era of conformity, has gone down. And we want to hold it up a little more. And I think there's a lot of reasons for that. One of the reasons is that if you have an intelligent population, they're not gonna fall for just anything.
AI: That brings me to the challenges of being an independent artist. I guess you really rely to a large extent on tape distribution, and people like Jim Lascko putting on festivals. Are these really the key to the whole thing?
DW: Well, it's funny. Five years ago you couldn't fill a room with a hundred people who were deeply interested in spacerock. Now you can fill a festival site. So things have changed a lot. And there's a lot of younger people getting involved just out of frustration... y'know, of not being able to hear something that's more complex, or a little more heavy, or takes your imagination further. Now guys like Jim Lascko are really important no matter what differences or criticisms we might have with them. They're the kind of guys who manage to bring everything together, and are willing to take up the responsibility of trying to get that kind of thing together. They may not do it the best, but they're willing to put themselves out there and work hard at it. And that is something that should really be applauded. One of the factors that I thought was good was that you have... not only have you had an increase in interest in the music as a form... there's a lot of new bands. And that really helped it along too. Because up until 1993 let's say, there was just Alien Planetscapes, Architectural Metaphor, and F/i. And that was it. There weren't any other spacerock bands that you could say were really active in trying to push their music out there. So being independent everybody went the only outlet that independents could have, which was via the underground.
AI: So what's changed in five years?
DW: Like I said, there's a certain amount of people who have come up who are a little younger who are a little more frustrated with the state of commercial rock music. You have another group that are in my age range that are financially able to support the music now. And in general I think one of the things that helped us along was everybody's association with Hawkwind... who kind of went through a revival, which initially started in Great Britain and started because of the techno thing. And plus there's a tradition there of having spacerock bands that made new bands over there able to survive and come up. And once things start coming up over there it usually draws some interest over here. The Ozric Tentacles was a big help. I met them the same way actually. We met through the cassette underground. I started writing to them in the mid-80's and trading tapes with them y'know... because here's another band doing spacerock. So I think it's those combinations of things. And also the fact that you have a good economy for people... I mean my economy is lousy, but everybody else seems to be doing pretty good. (laughs) But people are willing to go out there and take a little more chances if they're frustrated with the pop music they're getting.
AI: Are you an optimist?
DW: Am I an optimist? Noooo. I think that spacerock is rapidly reaching saturation here. And none of us are gonna being able to grow until we can attract some real label support. I know that some of the bands have gotten hooked up with Black Widow and some of these other little labels. But until a label like Cleopatra, let's say, really decides, we're gonna sign these bands and we're gonna promote them, can we really break out to larger audiences.
AI: So what do you see in your future? In the ad you're now looking for "two" guitarists.
DW: Well we had a session yesterday. Currently we have Matthew's cousin playing with us again. And then Chris met another guy who answered one of the ads... this kid goes to his school... and plays the guitar like Bill Frisell. But yesterday we had both of them here together and we managed to make the kid sound like John McLaughlin. So we had Josh, who's basically a rock guitar player, and a jazz guitar player, and y'know... I'm sure that Miles was up in the heavens smiling down on us.
AI: So can we communicate to our readers that there's exciting things in the future for Alien Planetscapes?
DW: Well yeah, if we could just get the two permanent guitar players.
AI: Now why two? Are you looking for a heavier sound than you had before?
DW: To get a thicker texture. Also, we have worked... how can I describe this... we wanted to get a heavier texture. We wanted to also be able to do it in a way that might be more accessible for the average listener. We also felt that a guitar player would be more familiar with this music than a saxophone player. Cause the saxophone players that we get in the band... what we usually have to do is teach them, and make a big deal out of telling them and instructing them how not to play jazz here. I don't want them to come in and play what you would play on a bebop tune. That's not the direction we want to see the instruments go in. And to find a horn player who knows something about the Soft Machine, or David Jackson, or even for that matter Miles in the electronic period is very rare. It means even more working with the guy and teaching the person how to use the electronics and all that stuff, where guitar players more or less deal with that stuff.
AI: So its probably impossible at this point to think in terms of recording or playing out...
DW: Well we have two things on the plate this Winter, which is to get our second CD recorded and issued. A lot of the material that we played at Strange Daze will be on the new one. And to fully integrate two new musicians into the band. The goal is to get the two guitar players and then work that. Plus we need to be seriously engaged in writing new material. We've been doing a lot of experiments with... using some of Stockhausen's concepts in terms of playing improvised electronic music with a group. We took a couple bites of that technique at Strange Daze and it came out better than we expected it to, but we want to go even further in that direction.
AI: Do you combine set ideas of where you'd like the music to go with whatever musicians you have in the band at a given time?
DW: For the last year we've actually been working on pieces with real arrangements that any capable musician can play. The first five tunes we played at Strange Daze were all tunes that come out of that vein, and had less to do with improvisation. So we decided that we would do what traditionally somebody in those other bands do not because we want to sell out to the audience but we didn't want to lose them. And it was felt that without having more recognizable compositions... y'know, if you went out and did an hour's set of improvisation it would sound really good, but people would have trouble relating to it because I always think that the audience is not quite as sophisticated as the musicians might be.
AI: How many of the band members you have right now are from the "Life On Earth" CD?
DW: Oh, well Matthew and Chris are still here. They're more or less equal partners in the business end of the band as well. That's one of the things that makes Alien Planetscapes such a tortured situation... like I don't consider it my band anymore. Really what we try to do is make decisions on the basis of a group democracy.
AI: So was "Life On Earth" a completely self-released, self-distributed thing?
DW: We handled every aspect of it. And we approached the distributors to get it distributed. We did all the legwork on it, nobody helped us, but its selling. And I think that it would do any company that we could find... I'm not saying that it would make them millionaires or anything but I think that we would certainly be able to sell some records if we had enough of a backing to get us over the hump of dealing with advertising the damn thing cause that's where all your money goes.
AI: Well you've had all these cassette releases behind you and you've got the CD that seems to be doing pretty good. Has this been just a whole leap beyond anything you'd ever experienced with promoting the cassettes.
DW: Oh sure, absolutely. Because we knew that the cassettes were not able to get to the widest number of listeners. For a lot of reasons. Distributors don't want to stock them because they're hard to move. The sound quality really suffers. There's the package. There's a whole lot of negatives with the cassettes. Now there are different negatives with CD's. But there is no perfect medium. If I could I'd much rather put out records than anything else because you can really do more... with the packaging and so forth and so on. But part of what I'd like to really break out of is seeing the music industry just dominated by the music-industrial complex. And I think you can do that, I think that artists can do that. You couldn't collapse them, but you can learn to become a force where they have to deal with you. What I would really like to see is groups of the bands getting together and kind of taking the bull by the horns and putting out our own records on some sort of domestic spacerock sort of label. Because everything I hear about some of the other labels leads me to believe that they're pretty smarmy. Cause I like to know what's happening y'know? I mean, we didn't know what was happening with Cleopatra for the longest time. Like between the time we gave them the track for Spacebox and the time that it came out was a full year. And we didn't hear anything that was happening from them. So in general, even though they're a sympathetic company, I mean I'm on their label and... we're glad to be there and everything, it just seemed like there wasn't the same kind of connection you would get if it was more like an artist run thing. I don't know exactly how you would do it. One of the reasons being that this is a very big country and its very hard to get the groups of musicians together. I don't know if the will is there on the part of the other musicians to do it. Y'know, I just think that it would be a way of countering the music-industrial complex.
AI: Well as kind of a wrap-up, any final words on the future, or where you're at now?
DW: Yeah, I wanna see people doing more. I wanna see people who are willing to travel from Texas or New York or California or Michigan or wherever to a farm in Ohio... get together in their own cities and develop a scene so that bands can come and play. Network man! That's the last word I would say. Network! Network! Network!
For more information on Alien Planetscapes, click here to contact Doug Walker.