From Aural Innovations #8 (October 1999)
I've always been intrigued by improvisation. Maybe because there's something so pure about it. Just do it and see what happens. And that's it... it's a one time experience and will never happen again. One take and we're done. And the result either works or it doesn't. With musical improvisation there is of course some meaning when a group of musicians get together and somehow gel. I've always been interested in questioning musicians about improvisation, but Escapade provided a interesting opportunity due to their pointed statements on each CD, "all music is composed spontaneously and collectively".
For spacerock fans into exploratory instrumental music 'a la Amon Düül II or any number of Krautrock and electronic bands, Escapade offers an exciting journey into the cosmos. But Escapade differs from these earlier pioneers in that the music has a composed feel, sense of direction. The musicians by all means explore, and to say the music is freeform would be an understatement. But the music rarely meanders and the band doesn't really jam, a conscious effort on their part as we'll see in the interview below. The members have diverse backgrounds, covering all forms of music both improvisational and commercial. And it may well be this eclectic mix that gives Escapade its edge and appeal. I spoke with drummer Hadley Kahn and keyboard player Paul Hilzinger one evening who indulged my questions about all things Escapade.
AI: Your CD's are very clear that all the music is improvised. What led to Escapade's formation as a band with improvisation as its focus?
HK: I'd been playing in more conventionally styled bands since '79. And initially I was trying to pursue a career in music. Not to say I was playing music that I hated, but it was more conventional. And after years of doing this with various bands I got tired of the whole thing. The last two bands I was in prior to forming Escapade, however, dealt with improvisation on different levels. One of them used improvisation as a means of writing new material. We would just make stuff up and then when we hit on something that we liked, even if it was just a five second phrase, we would use that to form a whole new song out of. And then the next band I was in had songs which, under the right circumstances, had sections that could be developed into improvisation. We would sometimes just do improvisation for improvisation's sake as well. And I found that playing in that manner was really the most musically satisfying for me. There's also the disgust I had developed for the record industry. You see, my previous two bands had albums released (one had a release on an independent label funded by BMG, and the other band had a song released on a soundtrack which was released on A&M). Also, one of these bands had a crooked "L.A." manager (yes, he really was from Los Angeles), so as you can see, I came in direct contact with some of the types of situations that others hear about all the time. And yes, the horror stories are true. This was another very important motivational factor in my turning my back on "conventional" music. Yet another reason for forming the band was that I was fed up with rehearsing and performing songs over & over!
AI: Do the various members have different musical backgrounds and Escapade is an outlet for this creative aspect of each of you?
PH: Probably yes and no. I think there is some common ground. Everybody is into whatever it is that they're into and we meet on the common ground that basically we do want to improvise and to do it fairly well. That's been the focus. So whatever we do have in common we use I suppose, but everybody ultimately is in their own area musically.
HK: I can speak for Paul Casanova, the guitarist, in saying that he hasn't been exposed to a lot of the same kinds of music John Ortega or I have. John and I were very much into Krautrock and various forms of psychedelic music, and to varying degrees industrial, post-industrial, even noise. Paul Casanova does like progressive, which is another thing John and I really like... as well as Paul [Hilzinger]. But he was more exposed to mainstream progressive like Genesis and Yes, whereas John and I were really into a lot of the more obscure progressive bands from all around the world. Paul Casanova tends to also be into a lot of commercial music, but he brings something anyway because he's very good at intuitively creating, and/or going along with the musical dialogs that the other musicians are creating. And Joey, who is no longer our bass player, I would say he had pretty much no knowledge whatsoever of the types of music I've mentioned. He's pretty just into modern commerical or, as they call it, alternative music. Now our current bass player Russell Giffin is much more in tune with the progressive, psychedelic, etc types of music. And pretty much everything he's ever done musically to my knowledge has been improvisational.
AI: It's interesting what you're saying about some members not being into the same music you are. It's clear where a lot of your music would certainly appeal to the spacerock crowd, but there's certainly a lot more going on as well. Was this element of your music a conscious thing from the beginning or did it develop on its own?
HK: Oh, it definitely developed on its own. When I formed the band there was really no intention of being a specific genre of music whatsoever. As a matter of fact, I didn't even recognize it as spacerock. People would ask me, what kind of music do you play? And I couldn't explain it. I couldn't categorize it. I only decided it must be spacerock because once the reviews started coming in, most of them pointed to spacerock as the type of music. But the intention always was just to make the music up, though with the obvious intention of doing it coherently and doing it together as opposed to making it sound like everyone's doing whatever the hell they want at the same time. I didn't want a band that "jammed" in the normal manner (i.e., solos, bass playing repetitive riffs,etc). I definitely wanted more of an original formula that was more concerned with sounds, musical textures, experimentation and above all, the way the result FEELS.
AI: The music really does have a composed feel to it.
HK: Well that may be because... I have a feeling everybody sort of has an intuition. Any member at any given time can latch on to some element that's going on around them whether it be a sound, or maybe a musical riff. Just latching on to some element and pushing it further, or building on it, or replacing it, to just using it as an inspiration.
PH: I'd like to go back to the spacerock thing. I didn't even know about this genre until I got into this band. I had been listening to this music in another form or under another name since the 70's. The outer edges of rock at that time were whatever might have been going on... Fripp and Eno, or Vangelis... and at that time it was called electronic music. And now electronica is something completely different I guess. I'm not even sure what it is but...
HK: Electronica does tend to be a more modern version of what used to go on in the 70's. In my opinion it's a more commercially refined version. We were talking earlier about some of the members not being into different kinds of music such as spacerock or not knowing about it. Actually, I have played tapes of some of this music to Paul [Casanova] and Joey. And they've actually liked the music. So I guess it's a good idea to mention that they're open to this type of music, but they just really haven't been exposed to a lot of it.
AI: You mean a lot of the old Krautrock you had mentioned?
HK: Yeah, I played Krautrock for them. I played electronic music like early Cluster. Along with the Krautrock stuff I played Heldon, Gentle Giant, The Hafler Trio, Zoviet France, Geinohyamashirogumi, Clearlight Symphony, Conrad Schnitzler, Controlled Bleeding, etc. As you can see, a diverse bunch! Even some fusion. I'm pretty much into jazz fusion from the 70's as well. And Paul [Casanova] of course is into jazz as well. You can probably hear it in his playing.
AI: Is there any such thing as real practice sessions or do you mostly just 'go for it' with performances or recording sessions?
HK: Exactly. We just, as you say, 'go for it'. Rehearsals are only called that because that's an accepted term and...
PH: We just call it a 'meeting'. Because we might talk a little bit and then just start playing.
HK: Really the only difference between a rehearsal and live performance is that in rehearsal it's just in a room, mostly ourselves and maybe one or two friends along to listen. And yeah, we have breaks where we talk, and breathe for twenty minutes before we play some more. But the music that's created is entirely unique each time we get together. We don't really rehearse all that often. In the beginning we did a little more frequently. But the reason for that was really just to get used to playing with each other and to get a feel for what we were doing. However, we never really set up a lot of ground rules verbally. It pretty much was still 'let's just play and see what happens', and then it was a matter of refining what was coming out of us. But it wasn't a rehearsal in the conscious sense. It wasn't a matter of, 'ok this is what we just did. Now how can we make it more like this or more like that'. That's never happened. And sometimes we've rehearsed with the specific intention of somebody trying out a new piece of equipment for example.
PH: Basically it's dry runs really, trying out new people or new equipment. They're not rehearsals as such. We don't play Honkey Tonk Woman or anything like that. We begin to play and while we're playing we're assessing the musician or the equipment in question, and decide whether or not we're going to employ that person or that device into the mix.
HK: And once in a while in rehearsals somebody may come up with an idea on how to start a piece or a certain sound to begin with. Little things like that... that's really the extent to which any piece of music is discussed beforehand.
PH: You know what a good example of that is? On the double album [Citrus Cloud Cover], the first track begins with a count. And that's one piece that may sound like we worked the whole thing out. But what actually happened was we began to play and for whatever reason, it somehow didn't seem right, I don't really remember why. But we stopped, and we said 'that wasn't really so bad, let's try it again'. And Hadley perhaps counted it off so we could all begin together because the tempo had been established. So the track counts off conventionally but where it goes from there was just not addressed.
HK: If I remember correctly, the track that we wound up with actually turned out sounding pretty different from the one that we had stopped playing. Probably, the original piece we were doing was stopped because our engineer, Charles, was getting sounds or setting up and we weren't even sure the tape was rolling yet, and that might be why we stopped it. Sometimes that happens.
AI: It would seem that for you these pieces make their statement and then they're gone. But for me as a listener it often takes multiple listens to appreciate a certain track. Do you ever go back to a finished track or is it just done and gone?
PH: Oh no. It's done and gone really. It's an improvisation. We know that from the start. I guess I would have to go with Fripp's definition of an event that just happens and then it's over. Hadley, I know that you listen to these things cause you do the mixing so you sometimes listen to them over and over again...
HK: Yes, to point of getting sick of it while I'm working on it...
PH: Exactly, yeah. You'll just go through that traditional attempt of looking under a magnifying glass session. But I'm saving some time to go back and revisit some of the things that we've done. It does take some involvement and I can understand somebody not willing to put that time in.
HK: In fact, that's one of the criticisms we get. Usually by reviewers who write for, quote-unquote, "alternative" magazines. Some writers dismiss us as being tedious. And another thing I've noticed that these same reviewers have in common is that when they see the word improvisation they figure, 'Oh, they're going to jam. This is going to be like the Grateful Dead or it's going to be like the Allman Brothers'. And then when they listen to it and we don't meet those preconceived expectations they come to the conclusion that we're not good at what we do... 'possibly they can't even play their instruments'. These are some things that have been said about us.
AI: Did you say you don't perform live much?
HK: Right. Very rarely as a matter of fact.
AI: Do you get varied audiences? For example do you get these so-called alternative, or just general crowds that don't know what to make of you? Or do you go for performances that will get you more of a target audience? Orion being an example? [referring to the Orion Spacerock Festival in Baltimore.]
HK: Yes, we do try to accept shows that are geared towards that type of audience that would be more likely to be open to what we do as opposed to just taking any old show we can get just for the sake of playing. Having said that, there really aren't a lot of shows available for us anyway. Even if we did want to play just whatever show that came our way locally here in New York for example, we really wouldn't have that many opportunities anyway because of the fact that we fall into the cracks category wise.
PH: I can add to that by saying Orion is probably one of the very good venues to play because the ears are receptive. One of the oddball gigs we had was at Webster Hall. Kind of one of these dance clubs. I was suspicious of this gig but as it turned out... the room we were playing at was a side room to the main large space... but what happened as we were playing outside people began to filter in and did fill the room, and we got a pretty good reception. I don't know if it was because we were perhaps playing maybe a bit louder that night. We had to carry our stuff up three flights of stairs. I would not want to go back and play a gig like that, but it actually all in all was probably one of the more successful ones... in a very odd locale.
HK: Now that you've reminded me about that show, I do remember somebody telling me that while we were playing there were people coming in from the dance room next door just to see what sounds they were hearing emanating through the door and they were asking, who is this band, what is this that they're doing, what kind of music is this? And apparently people were... curious at the least I suppose.
PH: And another part of that is we can't in any way shape or form feed ourselves on [laughs] what we're doing in music. In this case everybody has day jobs. It's difficult to physically get together for a gig. And we might be hurting ourselves by not accepting more and trying to play more. But we're doing the best that we can and normally these things don't really even pay that well. Sometimes our expenses aren't even covered.
HK: And some of the other members have other bands as well. That they are pursuing for more commercial reasons, or whatever. And one thing I wanted to add about gigging is that there are certain conditions under which I'm not willing to accept certain gigs. For example, there's going to be six or seven bands in an evening, and maybe that sounds strange to you but here in New York it's very common to cram in as many bands as possible so they can have as many of the various bands' friends come down and buy beers. But on a night like that where there's so many bands I will not accept an opening or a closing slot, because that's a guarantee to play for no audience.
PH: And it's unfortunate because every potential show has a potential recordable excerpt or piece in its entirety that will only come out at that time. So we're not only losing the gig we're losing one of the few vehicles we have to get this music out to other people.
AI: Now can I assume when you say you're refusing gigs is it because you know you're getting lumped in with stylistically unrelated bands?
HK: Yeah, that does happen. But like I was saying before there really are not a lot of gigs for us in the first place. So it's not like we're turning down shows left and right. We're really not being offered a lot in the first place.
PH: And nothing has really come up that paired us with the Spice Girls or something. The musicians involved have been more or less in the same ball park.
HK: I think Webster Hall was probably the real exception. Because usually when we're on a bill to begin with, most of the time it's because somebody with a sympathetic mind is putting the show together in the first place. Which means there will be more attention to the type of music that's on the bill in general.
AI: I must be naive. I've always had this idea of New York as being a place that had an audience for everybody. I'm hearing that's not the case.
HK: Ha, ha, ha... in theory yes. In reality no. The fact of the matter is that there are a million bands here. And there are a lot of clubs. But there are in fact too many clubs and too many bands, and most of these bands are trying to do music that's going to succeed commercially which results in way too much music with way too little diversity. And now, most of the time if you go see a band that's advertised in the Village Voice, their audience is really going to consist of their friends. In a lot of cases bands are only given shows based on how many of their friends are willing to come see them. And this really says nothing for the quality of the music.
AI: That's too bad because what you do is so amenable to live performance. Even if you want to talk straight jazz, much of jazz is improvisational and they seem to get audiences.
HK: Well I have to be honest and say I can't speak for jazz music so much since I've never really been into very much straight jazz. I don't really know what the club scene or the live music scene is as it regards to jazz music.
PH: Well I'll speak for the jazz front. In answer to your question, we tried to make an inroad at the Knitting Factory which is the place here that features music that is improvisational or experimental and on the fringes of the avant jazz thing that's been going on. You'd think it would be the perfect place to showcase this sort of a thing but it just did not work out. It was just a disappointment to us.
HK: I believe the reason for that is because the Knitting Factory is a lot larger than it was. In the beginning, it was meant to be a forum for musicians that just didn't have any other places to play. But unfortunately what's happened is that the various forms of music that they present there have really become very hip and cool over the years. And now it's really just an elitist club. If the musicians or acts involved are not in one way or another connected with that clique scene they get ignored. It's my opinion that they've pretty much turned into exactly what they were trying to fight in the beginning.
AI: I see where your contribution to the "Turn Century Turn" compilation was from a Knitting Factory performance.
HK: In fact it was, ironically enough.
AI: And it looks like that was only a week or ten days before your Orion performance that's on "Citrus Cloud Cover".
HK: That's right, it is. And the real funny thing about that show is that it was easily the worst performance we ever had.
AI: The Knitting Factory one?
HK: Yeah. It was definitely the worst performance. We started off by making sounds in order to get a feel for the room, and then the sounds, as they usually do, started to pull us into a piece of music. However, once it was obvious that we were no longer merely testing out the ambience of the room, whoever was in charge of the lights didn't realize this or didn't care because they left the room lights on for the whole performance. And I specifically remember that I could see all the faces in the audience, and therefore became very self-conscious and just could not concentrate on the music. I'm sure the others felt the same. Additionally because of this, there was just no atmosphere for any of us to feed off of; it almost felt to me as if we were in an operating room! And the result was a very weak performance.The excerpt that was used on the compilation is in my opinion the only five minutes of a thirty minute performance that was salvagable at all.
AI: I guess you've answered my question then why you included that on the Turn Century Turn compilation.
HK: In fact, now you know why I titled it "Under An Intrusive Glare".
AI: Do you wish you could do more live performances? Does it seem better to just get together and choose the best material for recordings?
HK: Well it's funny that you mention that because the other reason that we don't perform very often, and I realize now that we haven't touched upon this so far, is we didn't want to feel like our music was getting stale to ourselves. We want to be able to keep the inspiration alive and feel that we're creating something new every time we play. Now of course it can only be just so new because we're not playing a different genre of music every time we're getting together. But still, we like the feeling that what we just played had enough new elements about it that we feel we discovered something.
PH: It could be if we would have played more that the band might have ended by now. You really are touching on almost a very early issue among us as to how long can this last. How long can we improvise freely and come up with stuff that we like. And I think this group really does shine under the lights of the stage. I think it's a really good live band. But it is possible that there would have been a Catch 22 had we gigged more, and maybe we might not even still be together.
HK: I know that even as infrequently as we play, there have still been periods where I have started questioning whether we've run out of ideas, or run out of discoveries for ourselves. Or whether we can continue moving onward without retreading the same ground.
PH: We probably wouldn't be able to go out on a conventional tour and do this sort of thing if it's going to last two months or something. I think the whole thing might just run out of steam.
HK: So I think the best way to summarize is that yes, we would like to play more often than we have. But if we did have a chance at playing regularly, like once every week for example, we still would not play that much.
AI: Are any of you schooled musicans?
HK: Paul Casanova the guitarist is. I believe he is a graduate of Berklee. None of the rest of us are. I'm totally self taught. I tried taking lessons when I was thirteen and I quickly got disgusted. And I stopped the lessons and just was absolutely intent on learning it all on my own. Paul is self taught aren't you?
PH: Yeah, I started about the same time...
HK: The funny thing is, Paul is a drummer. Tell them about that.
PH: Well that's what I began as. I love the drums. They're my main instrument really. But early on I sort of digressed from the drums because I wanted to go more into notes and chords and, regardless of what some of the old jazz drummers say, you can only get so many notes out of a drum set. You can definitely get some, but you can't play a tune with half steps and so forth. You really have to go elsewhere. So at that point I was really fascinated with the keyboards and synthesizers, especially the early ones...
HK: Which is still the favorite among all of us by the way, the old analogs...
PH: Yeah, the older the better really...
HK: Even though digitals have their place, especially when someone, like John for example, knows what they're doing with it. But still, we all have a soft spot for analogs.
PH: And along the way I picked up a bit of guitar and bass. But my real love is basically drumming and keyboards. And it's been kind of a pleasure to just put the drums aside and explore that other type. This band's been a real good opportunity for me to do that.
HK: When I originally put the band together it was just going to be John Ortega, Joey on the bass, and me. That was it. Just the three of us. And I remember inviting Paul [Hilzinger] down to listen. You see, at first, I only thought of him as another drummer. But then I remembered that he did all sorts of experimentation, having heard some of his private tapes a few years earlier. And I realized, wait a second, why don't we have him come down with a Moog? At first he was like... 'well I don't really know. I definitely want to come down and hear it, but I might just wait and decide if I really want to play'. But as it turned out inspiration struck him and he came down with the Moog and the rest is history.
AI: Do you indulge this first love of drumming, Paul, in other projects?
PH: Yeah, I'm always doing something percussive in one form or another. Either private tapes at home or playing in various bands. And I've played with them all. I've done everything from wedding gigs to jamming in Southern rock bands. I've learned something from every group of people that I've been with. This group, however, allows me to do whatever I want. I would try to run to the nearest guitar or synthesizer in some of these other groups and I would get... well here he goes again. And it would sort of be frowned upon. I would not feel very free to do that. With this group right from the word go it was not only asked for but actively encouraged. So yeah, most of us are not formally schooled. I don't believe John has any formal training. He's just carved a niche for himself and he does things that sound to me that no one else can do.
AI: Paul, you had mentioned home taping. Is this drums and keyboard/synth stuff you do on your own?
PH: Yeah, I'm actually grounded right now. I had been using just an old TEAC or TASCAM 4-track which has finally busted. But I have a lot of material to record, in some cases to re-record, or to just mix, and I think at some point during this Autumn I'm going to be getting going on that. My friend Joe Aslaender who did the cover for "Citrus Cloud Cover" and "Inner Translucence", he's sort of my musical alter-ego in a way. He began life as a keyboard player and now he's drumming and playing in a jazz Be-bop group. We've been talking about getting some of these unheard things together. And who knows. Maybe it might even see the light of day on a public release but at the moment it's more or less a personal project.
HK: Another thing is that Paul and I are probably within the next few months going to go into the studio to do, I guess what you would call a side project, it's going to be similar to Escapade but different at the same time. What we're planning is to base it on improvised basic tracks, but then to much more fully explore the studio as an instrument. Y'know, overdubs, manipulating the sounds once they're on tape, all sorts of things. Paul will probably play lots of instruments. I've dabbled on synths so there will probably be some of that and God knows what else we get our hands on.
AI: I did notice on the Mother West web page that a new CD is due in the Fall.
HK: We don't really know for sure when it's coming out although it's just about ready to be mastered. But the thing is that there's an outside chance that a label in England may be releasing it instead of Mother West. We're waiting to see what's going to happen with it. It's not like we're looking to jump ship off of our label. It's just that a possible opportunity has come up that may be beneficial for everybody involved. The title, by the way, is "Due To A Faulty Premonition".
AI: I'm curious where all-instrumental bands, and especially in your case where it's all improvisation, come up with titles. You have some interesting song titles. Is it just something that you come up with or is the title actually influenced by the resulting music?
HK: Sometimes it is influenced by the music and sometimes it's just inspiration that hits me in the middle of the night or whatever. A lot of the titles don't really mean anything, although some of them do. For example, every title on the first CD, "Searching For The Elusive Rainbow", did have a meaning, but a very personal meaning that nobody else but me would really know. As time went on I would just go with whatever would hit me. Something I might come across somewhere, or putting words together that just felt good.
AI: Well what I got out of that is that it is something that you actually labor over to some extent.
HK: Oh yes. And another thing is that a lot of these tracks have gone through various titles before I've settled into one and feel absolutely comfortable with it.
AI: I notice that on the CD's you have various guest players. You've got a flute player on one track, cello on another track... do you do that more often than we could conclude from the CD's? Do you often bring in people to jam with you?
HK: Yeah, what happened was that we did have those people come in for the recording with no rehearsal or any type of real prior preparation. Robb the flute player had seen us because we were on the bill with one of his other bands once. And Jane Scarpantoni [cello], I had seen her play in an improvisational format. She's a regular member of the Lounge Lizards and appears on If, Bwana's "Breathing" CD. She actually makes her living doing all sorts of sessions. She's on albums by R.E.M. and the Beastie Boys, etc, etc. But she told me that she loves doing experimental music, it's just that she can't do it for a living.
PH: We did not have any rehearsals with her at all. She came down literally for the recording session. And it worked.
HK: Right. As did Robb for that matter. I think the only person that ever came down officially as a guest that is not documented on any release... there was this percussion player. I don't even remember his name. But he was a friend of the bass player we were working with at the time. So he invited him down and in my opinion it really didn't work because this guy was coming much more from a free jazz mindset.
PH: Well that was back in the days when we were actually getting together to assess personnel.
HK: Oh yes. As a matter of fact, back then I'm not sure we had a real stable lineup yet at that point either. Christian [Doscher], who was on the first CD, the guitarist, had only joined us in March of '96. He was a friend of Joey's. We recorded the album in May of '96, and then the last time we played with him was July '96, and then he was gone. So he was literally only with us for a few months. But something that I haven't mentioned yet is that in the very beginning Escapade was really meant to be more of a concept than an actual band. In fact, my original idea was that there would be a fluid lineup so as to facilitate a constant changing of the sound. But ironically, we have been fairly stable as a regular band in spite of what I originally planned. And that's been fine. I think it may have worked out for the best.
AI: Given your comment earlier about possibly at some point only being able to take it so far would this be a nice way to keep it going? Turn it back to the original idea of being fluid and bringing in other people?
HK: I have been thinking about that as a matter of fact. But usually when I come to some type of decision on how I'd like to proceed next, things usually end up happening in a way that you can't necessarily control thoroughly. Just like the music takes on a life of its own once it gets going, so do most of the aspects pertaining to the band. So although I have been thinking about the possibility of deliberately changing the lineup a little more frequently and bringing in more guest musicians than we have, there's no telling whether it will really work out that way or not.
AI: Any words on what we might expect from the new CD?
HK: There's some things on it that are possibly stranger than what we've done so far. But again, it's all subjective. Recently, I told a friend that the next Escapade CD's gonna be pretty strange. She says, 'oh like your other CD's weren't?' I do think, however, that there's a thread that runs through the music that connects it with the others.
AI: Anything else we should know about?
HK: As far as albums we actually have pretty much in the can another CD full of some of what I feel were the most satisfying excerpts of various rehearsals.
AI: Another "Obscured Dialogues"?
HK: It may not be as limited a release as that one. It's actually been ready for almost a year now, but we've been sitting on it because something else always comes up. And of course hopefully the collaboration between Paul and me will yield worthwhile music. And if so that will be released.
You can visit Escapade at their web site.