Robert Poss

When distortion is truth

interview by Michele Saran

Hi Robert, thanks for your presence in our webzine. Do you like, in general, rock critic?


I don't always or even often agree with rock critics, but I think they are important to helping spread the word about cool new music, and occasionally, less known, obscure or underappreciated bands. The Internet has made things easier to find without the help of music scribes, but there is still a place for them. I came of age in the time of hand-printed tiny-circulation music fanzines, and I am old enough to remember when they were written on large stone tablets, using a hammer and chisel. (Well, maybe not really....)



Your very beginning. Which mates do you reference as your model? What do you think they transmitted to you above all?


I grew up during the 1960s and I was exposed to the amazing confluence of all sorts of new, innovative revolutionary musical forms, subcultures and technology. I had an early (childhood) interest in the Beatles, the Kinks, Motown, the Rolling Stones (pre-1974), and early psychedelia and I developed a serious interest in different forms of Blues music, and later more experimental "serious" musical forms such as electronic music, experimental music, and minimalism.  I never was seriously into Jazz or Classical.  I loved a lot of the sound and fury of punk in 1977 - The Clash and the Sex Pistols, and also things like the Undertones, The Real Kids, and the JamTelevision/Tom Verlaine, Iggy, Bowie, The Fall, were also inspiring. I would say 90 per cent of the music that has formed me was heard on vinyl. I come from the LP era.



So, could you be defined as a disciple of the electric guitar minimalism movement? How do you position about, say, other noise-rock pioneers like Sonic Youth and its former members Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo?


Age-wise, I am more or less a contemporary of Thurston and Lee.  Band Of Susans, of course, was on the same U.K. record label as Sonic Youth, Big Black, Rapeman, Butthole Surfers and Dinosaur Jr.  But I was not influenced by any of those bands, or by Wire, which I discovered very late -- only in 1987 or so.  I was influenced by working with Rhys Chatham in the early 1980s, and in general by the work of people like Alvin Lucier, LaMonte Young, Nicolas Collins and exposure through Susan Stenger to the music of the mid-20th century avant-garde in general....  As a guitarist, I was an early follower of Keith Richard; I started using his 5-string open-tuning on some material in 1972. I loved the playing of Johnny Thunders, Albert King, Mike Bloomfield, Jeff  Beck, Roy Buchanan, Tom Verlaine, Mick Ronson -- which were things I got interested in  the 1970's. So, I forged my own parallel path, and was not, for instance, influenced by Sonic Youth or Glenn Branca, both bands/persons I respect. But I think stylistically, I can be seen in the tradition of more known noisy-rock pioneers. I have always been an intuitive minimalist, meaning that I subscribe to the less-is-more philosophy of artistic expression when it comes to music and the visual arts. I'm not impressed by zillions of notes or zillions of ideas collaged together.



Listening to Sometimes and Inverse Guitar, you first collaborative cassettes, one can enjoy your will to make a sense in the chaos, to extract a sort of form of melisma off the noise. Harmony and noise: what do they represent to you? Are they opposite terms of a perfect equation with no incognita?


I have never been all that interested in melody. I'm obsessed by the textures and architecture of sound. Of repetition, layering and space, and the density of distortion. I like carefully combining simple elements to make a more complete whole. I like the interaction of timbres and lines that generate phantom, subliminal melodies and sounds. I like mysterious, buried motifs, and I like sounds fighting with each other to be heard, as opposed to the standard drums/and-vocals-with-everything- else-subordinated-to-them that typifies most rock, even noisy rock. "The Word And The Flesh" sounds like one has stuck one's head directly in front of a guitar amp's speaker, for instance. My Bloody Valentine never did something like that.... On the other hand, I take great care in writing lyrics - an often overlooked aspect of my work. And I can certainly appreciate the melodic artistry of others -- like The Kinks' Ray Davies or David Bowie. I also like the way Steve Albini or Andy Gill or bruce Gilbert can make a single staccato guitar line sonically magnetic.



The Band Of Susans and its birth. A quasi-déjà vu question: do you choose the name after the incoming of various "Susans"-named musicians, or, on the other hand, is it your precise wanting (I mean, to voluntarily seek some "Susans"-named musicians)?


The band was formed by me with the idea of creating something new and different from scratch, and to play some version of the material that I had developed on my Sometimes cassette. That involved using digital delays to layer a drone, a riff, and rhythm guitar parts. I didn't need or want experienced, jaded, proficient musicians. So I asked my friends to participate. Three of them happened to be named Susan, and the provisional name That Band Of Susans became the official name. (Which was probably a big mistake, career-wise.  It didn't sound as serious and intense as the music was, and placed too much emphasis on the "concept" of three women in the band -- which was no concept at all -- rather than the actual musical motivations and goals.  Oh well.... )  Susan Stenger was an accomplished musician - classically trained, and experience in performing everything from back to John Cage -- but on flute, not bass. She had never played bass when she joined the band, and Susan Lyall had never played guitar. There was a fair amount of teaching involved in the early band, but that kept things minimal and fresh.



With the so-constructed band, did you want to extend your experiments, to place your first kind of music onto another dimension?


Yes, Band Of Susans was an attempt to create music with only the elements I liked.  I had no expectation of success other than creative satisfaction.



So, are you the Glenn Branca of the Band Of Susans microcosmo?


I am the Jodie Foster of my world. Part thirteen-year-old hooker, part auteur.



Which tasks, which roles did you pretend in musicians involved in your magnificent debut Ep Blessing And Curse?


Not sure what you mean by pretend.... But in the earliest incarnations of the group, the music was rather precisely orchestrated, with persons playing defined parts, composed by me. The parts were learned and then perfected. Thus, initially, I was the composer and the band was my orchestra.



In Hope Against Hope, your proper debut album, one can hear, layered in aerial, ethereal, magmatic, earth-shaking distortions, stylistic quotations (rockabilly, hard-rock, heavy metal and the likes) which you adapt contest-sensitive. Do you consider that as a natural evolution of your beginnings? An augmented contrast (louder the distortion, more determinate the quotations)?


"Aerial, ethereal, magmatic, earth-shaking distortions, stylistic quotations (rockabilly, hard-rock, heavy metal and the likes) which you adapt contest-sensitive" just about covers it. I guess I subconsciously re-contextualized some of my blues and rock roots, which means that I incorporated the best of everything I knew and loved into the music.



Love Agenda. An album that brings to perfection the contrast felt by now, with an even bigger quantity of chaos. If (involuntary and random) chaos is often part of rock masterpieces, is your chaos (if possible) strongly dominated by your artistic persona?


Love Agenda continues the themes and explorations of Hope Against Hope, only louder and harder, with more input from Susan Stenger, who had begun to take a co-leadership role in the band.  Even though the music is composed, there are always elements of quasi-randomness -- the way something feeds back, the way certain overtones are reinforced, the way things clash and combine to form something greater than the sum of the parts, the way a solo line spontaneously combusts. I think of it a bit like atom-smashing. I should add that along with Susan Stenger, we had some very dedicated musicians who worked on all the later records. Karen Haglof and Page Hamilton (pre-Helmet) played on Love Agenda, and starting with The Word And The Flesh - Anne Husick and Mark Lonergan on guitar. Anne and Mark played on all of the records from Flesh on. Ron Spitzer was there from the beginning, when I asked him to overdub some real drums on the drum machine parts I had done for the songs on Blessing And Curse in 1986. There were sometimes substitutes on tours when members could not make them - Libby Flynt, Jay Braun, Kelly Burns, Joey Kaye....



In Band Of Susans' following records, you had mastered the expressive and semantic possibilities of the distortion. In particular "Tilt", off of The Word And The Flesh, is a shocking piece that lead to surprising uses of volume and dynamics. Tell us something about its making.


"Tilt" is comprised primarily of a four-track cassette demo I did, dumped to 24-track and with added vocals by Susan Stenger, who adapted my lyrics. I recorded the guitar feedback intro part (I think) at Nicolas Collins' loft. I used two distorted electric basses and crude drum machine. It's one of my favorite tracks.




In Veil e Here Comes Success, your last two albums, Band Of Susans brings the question to extreme consequences. The music is littered with all sort of contamination, and the distortion tries to trick out, and, of course, to distort, the typical signs and symbols of rock music. Could we consider that as a sort of return to your personal avantgarde roots?


With B.O.S., we never tried to make the same record twice. I think Veil and Here Comes Success show how the Poss-Stenger collaboration had matured, and we thought we could push a bit further into both Rock ("Pearls Of Wisdom," for instance), and more "serious" instrumental music ("In The Eye Of The Beholder," for example) while still working on making new hybrids through musical cross-pollination. I think Susan and I were generally interested in broadening out the band's vocabulary a bit.  The interesting thing it that our interest in composers like Phill Niblock, Alvin Lucier, John Cage and Christian Wolff was ridiculed by our contemporaries in the late 1980's, and only became "trendy" years later.



Band Of Susand became myth. And so you did, by your temporary retiring from the rock scene. You became a guru, or, better, a rock music ascetic. So, what kind of (stylistic, personal, existential) elements do separate the last Band Of Susans' record and your Distortion Is Truth and Crossing Casco Bay twin albums?


I've never been called a guru or rock music ascetic before, but I'm happy to accept the appellations. I may have to re-think what I wear around the house. After the end of Band Of Susans in 1995, I did a few collaboration with Susan Stenger and Wire's Bruce Gilbert, worked with Phill Niblock , and played a bit with Rhys Chatham . I also did work with David Dramm and Ben Neill; I produced or co-produced/engineered a few CDs for others  --  Tone , Seth Josel ,  the Negatones , Skulpey, Combine, etc. (If any of these names are unfamiliar to your readers, I urge them to look them up on the internet.) I took time to explore both a more improvisational approach to guitar music, and got back into analog synthesizer electronics, something I had briefly explored while at University in the late 1970s. I missed having a band to perform my music, but did not miss the endless responsibilities, conflicts, logistics and interpersonal dynamics of having a touring, recording band. I contributed to a few television commercials. I worked with visual artist Margret Wibmer  I did a few solo guitar-and-electronics performances, some of which made their way on to Distortion Is Truth. The inner booklet notes for that CD give a musical autobiography, and I consider that CD along with Crossing Casco Bay as a summation of my 1995 - 2001 musical work, work that was often less structured and more abstract than my Band Of Susans compositions.



Distortion Is Truth, in particular, seems to me (starting with the title) the most veritable of the two. How distortion, no matter how transfigured, contaminated with electronics and stylistic shocks (including droning Terry Riley-ian minimalism), is truth?


I wrote an article for the Leonardo Music Journal entitled "Distortion Is Truth" about the use of distortion in the popular music of my lifetime.  The phrase came to me spontaneously when I ran into Live Skull's drummer James Lo on the F Train. And we started talking about what we were each doing.  To me, the purest sounds are often the least interesting, just the way lots of great music exists in between the black keys and white keys of a piano. A sawtooth wave attracts me more than a sine wave, and thus a cello or a bassoon is more interesting to me than, say, a flute. (Sorry, Susan.) It's about the interplay of overtones, and timbral density.



Another notable hiatus separates these two albums from your own "rentrée", "Settings", again for Trace Elements. Before the artistic specific of the single pieces, let me notice one thing: a diverse artistic persona, maybe a mature composer, in the vein of the classical music masters, with a more profound touch for the composition as far as it goes. Do you agree?


Well... life, work, finances, family all tend to intervene more as one gets older.  I was dismayed by the long interval between my two solo CDs and Settings, especially since I had had so many plans to release a Band of Susans-eque solo guitar record and another serious electronic music record to follow up on them much sooner. The good thing is that through Phill Niblock, I started working with Sally Gross , and then with Alexandra Beller  and Gerald Casel , three very distinctive, talented choreographers, doing music for dance.  I also finally became somewhat adept at using midi and samples and the computer.  Coming from a purist electric guitar background, and having worked primary in the analog domain with magnetic tape, it was not an easy transition for me to learn how to work with music software.



"Settings" collects pieces for choreographic showcases. It includes industrial ballets (such as ""Inverness"), electronic-distorted labyrinths ("Border Crossing March"), and even some "visual" versions of your feedback-driven rock. All in all, what do you want to transmit to the listener who can't watch those former dance pieces?


The music written for dance is meant to be able to stand on its own, and I think it does. I guess I'm primarily interested in evoking a mood or sensibility, even if it is ambiguous. In the era before music videos, each of us would construct our own fantasies and personal narratives about what a song meant, or was about, and the music became internalized. I like that. Its satisfying to see how dancers work with and respond to my music. The choreographers I work with have very strong artistic visions, and I feel my role is to support that vision.



It also includes a song titled Tourniquet Revisited (a vast synth-strings disquisition at a walzer tempo that turns always to itself, and, by the way, carries on an almost ambient suggestion). What is the link between this Tourniquet and the Tourniquet included in Love Agenda (22 years ago)?


Tourniquet Revisited is actually an extended orchestration of the song Tourniquet that I originally worked on for Alexandra Beller. It was my very first attempt at orchestrating anything.  The bass line and chord progression of the original was used as a point of departure.



To complete the whole vision, I have noticed a stronger timbres playing, just to confirm the profound elasticity of your art. Is timbre your favorite musical dimension?


Timbre and juxtaposition.



How do you think this evolution could go on? Do we have to wait another time for new disorienting recordings?


I'm planning to get something else out in about a year, and I hope (against hope) to begin a new collaborative project (recording and performance) with Susan Stenger, who lives in London and the west coast of Ireland these days. I hope to do some more playing with Kato Hideki  as well.



Which are your actual musical or extra-musical activities?


I make a living doing sound engineering - mostly location sound work - for television. I'm the guy with the microphone at the end of a long pole. I work primarily for northern European networks . New York City is a very expensive city in which to reside, so I take as much work as I can.... That leaves less time for music, I'm sorry to say.  I did the tour sound by Suicide   last year.  That was very cool! I spend too much time on the computer. I follow politics the way others follow sports. Even though there are a million things to do and see and hear in New York, I don't go out much.



An usual question: how do you see the actual rock (or avant-rock, or noise-rock, or post-rock) scene? Is there, by your thought, a bunch of bands or artists whom are directly or indirectly influenced by your sound?


The thing I notice now (at least in the small corner of the music subculture in which I operate) is that the scene is much more eclectic and open-minded than it was in the late 1980s and 1990s. There are many more women involved. There are more persons who seem to be content to be true to their obscure little bit of the subculture without resorting to overhyped, cartoonish, cliched Rock/Pop personas. Audiences are more willing to be challenged by the unusual. Intellectual depth is not considered uncool. Minimalism is more accepted; noise is more appreciated. Bands like Pan Sonic have a good following.  More young people know who Phill Niblock, Rhys Chatham, LaMonte Young, David Tudor, and Alvin Lucier are, or at least have heard the names.  Labels like Table Of The Elements and Blast First Petite cover a lot of ground and bridge many gaps. In New York City, Roulette, Issue Project Room, Experimental Intermedia and Le Poisson Rouge all do innovative musical programming.  There's a big experimental scene in Brooklyn. Nicolas Collins has encouraged a new generation of musical hardware hackers.  Sonic Youth is still out there and more people re discovering Band Of Susans for the first time.  Susan Stenger and I are told from time-to-time by younger musicians (mostly at gigs or via the internet) that they were influenced by a show we played in Iowa City in the late 1980's or that seeing us in Hamburg, Germany or at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark made them want to form a band. That's always nice to hear.



Thanks a lot for the time you have so preciously donate to us! Let's keep in touch!


Thanks.  I'm currently deep in rehearsals for an Alexandra Beller  performance in July at the Institute Of Contemporary Art in Boston.


Sometimes (cassetta) (Trace Elements, 1986)
Inverse Guitar (cassetta) (Trace Elements, 1988)
Distortion Is Truth (Trace Elements, 2002)
Crossing Casco Bay (Trace Elements, 2002)
Settings (Trace Elements, 2010)
Frozen Flowers Curse The Day (Trace Elements, 2018)
Droneuary XXXI - Frozen Flowers Drone (Silber, 2019)
Drones Songs And Fairy Dust(Trace Elements, 2023)
Blessing And Curse (Ep, Trace Elements, 1987)
Hope Against Hope (Furthur, 1988)
Love Agenda (Blast First, 1989)
The Word And The Flesh (Rough Trade, 1991)
Veil (Restless, 1993)
Here Comes Success (Restless, 1995)
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