Interview: ND Magazine Issue #19

“Sonic Forecast”

Jeff Greinke has been a growing name in the electronic and experimental music scene for a decade, from his early dark ambient works of Cities in Fog and Places of Motility to more volatile excursions like his live album with Rob Angus, Crossing Ngoli. What sets him apart from other artists is his unique manner in manipulating sounds and his own personal vocabulary. For me, it was hearing Timbral Planes back in the late ’80s that awoke me from my “metal daze” and pulled me out of the mainstream into a much more exciting aural world, where musical boundaries were broken and more possibilities for expression existed. Recently I was able to see him perform live in Lowell, MA, and see another facet of the artist, both visually and aurally. Not only has his work been a major cornerstone for the current ambient craze, but his new works are more rhythmic and raw, keeping him ahead of many artists who are just now discovering a sound that some musicians and listeners have been aware of for a long time now. With the release of his latest CD Big Weather, Greinke stands to expand his audience further.

ND:
Big Weather is far more rhythmically-oriented than your last couple of outings. It echoes much of the work on Timbral Planes, which was recently reissued. Was this a conscious choice to veer away from the ambient worlds of In Another Place and Lost Terrain?

Jeff Greinke:
It was a conscious choice to develop my skills at creating stronger rhythms in my music, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time focusing on this, particularly in terms of layering. In fact, I’m still very much in that process and am veering further away from more atmospheric pieces.

ND:
What are your main musical influences?

Greinke:
I’d say my main influence was Rob Angus, a long-time friend and frequent music-partner. We met in 1980 at Penn State University. He was in the music department and I was studying meteorology. I had been very active in radio and concert production at school and by that time had begun thinking about how I might be able to make music also. Meeting Rob and being encouraged to join him in the electronic music studio was all I needed. He also opened me up to a visual and aural world that I had until then taken for granted. It was a time of great change and discovery for me. I began to hear and see things, mundane things, in new ways. I later became interested in incorporating these sounds and visuals into my music. At about the same time I heard an album by David Moss called Terrains that was unlike anything I had ever heard, both in terms of the kinds of sounds he created with his voice and the way he layered those sounds to create these beautiful rivers of texture and motion and space. This got me listening to and thinking about music in a more visual way. And I realized that I didn’t need to learn how to play a more conventional instrument to begin making sounds, that my voice could be a great instrumental tool for expressing myself. When I heard Eno’s On Land, I was further inspired, particularly by its subtlety. For quite some time I continued to hear new things in the music. I had always been weary of music that struck me strongly upon first hearing it, as too often it lost its appeal shortly thereafter. So for me it became important to make music that had sounds and elements that weren’t so apparent at first, to make music rich enough to maintain interest over a long period of time.

ND:
How did your recent US tour go and where did you play?

Greinke:
This spring I did two tours, one included Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona; the other was a bit more extensive, covering the Northeast and Midwest, in big cities like New York and Chicago and smaller places like Lowell, MA, Charleston, WV, and Toledo, OH. They went well. I played in a wide variety of places: performance galleries, auditoriums, cafes, record stores, a dance studio, a living room in a loft, etc. I liked the variety. It was also great meeting people I had been corresponding with for years. The most challenging show was in El Paso in a little bar. The show was booked a month or so prior to my arrival by someone other than myself. When I arrived the folks working the bar were unaware that anything at all was supposed to go on that evening. The owner was across the border and had apparently forgotten about me. I set myself up on a small stage lit by a black light with a velvet Elvis hanging to my right. Behind me was a crudely painted desert landscape. By about 10 that evening there were 20 or so locals doing their bar thing – pretty much getting smashed and listening to groups like Led Zeppelin on the house stereo. I’m sure they had no idea who I was or what I did. I was a little nervous in a different sort of way. So I went up and did my thing. I played a more up-tempo and rowdier set considering the circumstances. The response was curious – mixed, but to my surprise, nobody left. I also found it interesting that some people reacted as though what I was doing was no different from the Led Zeppelin they were listening to beforehand. It was funny – after one piece, nobody applauded (a first for me). Yet when I announced I was finished, there were shouts for an encore. I don’t regret that evening in the least. However, I’m not really interested in doing that again, either.

ND:
Do you enjoy performing live? How do you approach playing electronic music for an audience as opposed to constructing an album?

Greinke:
I enjoy it a lot. It’s a very different world from making music in the studio so my approach is different. I’m very much concerned with the performance of the music and in keeping it live. So I set up situations that require me to be fully involved. It’s must more enjoyable for me this way, and, I can only hope, for the audience also. I don’t use any prerecorded tapes or preprogrammed sequencing. But I am interested in performing music that is multi-layered much like that of my studio work. So I tend to get a lot going on at once between my sampler, synth and other acoustic elements like trombone, small percussion, and voice. Things can get pretty precarious at times and I like that. It keeps me very active on stage – I’m dancing, really – and there’s a tension for me which I hope translates to the audience. This is important for me. And I leave a lot of room to improvise, change things on the spot, make quick decisions, etc. I want to have fun up there.

ND:
Your live material is very active, almost hyper in some instances as compared with much of your studio work. Is this done to offer your audience something new or are your current musical explorations headed more in this direction?

Greinke:
My current explorations are headed more in that direction, but it’s mostly that way to offer a wide variety, particularly for my own interest. There’s a wilder side to me that comes out in performance. Often, in the middle of my set, I will abandon the electronic part of my show and do a free vocal/trombone improvisation and dance. It’s very different from my other work, but provides a nice contrast, I think, and it harkens back to my roots as a musician and improviser. I haven’t lost interest in making more quiet music, either. But my focus has shifted. Recently I received a grant to write music to be performed by a chamber ensemble. For years I’ve wanted to do this. With some funding I can now make it happen. In many ways it will be similar to my recorded works – textural, multi-layered, slow moving, rather quiet – but it will be created entirely by acoustic means. The instruments will include piano, trombone, French horn, a trumpet, b-flat and bass clarinets, tenor and baritone saxophones, and cello. It’s an exciting project for me.

ND:
There is a stronger inclusion of vocals in your live work, but as on your studio albums, they are not easily defined. Where do your ideas for vocals come from?

Greinke:
Well, initially from my early experiences hearing Moss’s music, but more recently from my travels throughout Southeast Asia, where I attended a lot of shadowplay and other puppet performances. I loved the expressive vocalizations that accompanied those events. Many who are more familiar with my recorded works are surprised by how much I vocalize in performance. I think for the kind of vocals I do, a live setting is much more appropriate. It comes off better. Plus, there’s the visual connection of watching me. Apparently, I do some pretty odd things with my face and body when I sing.

ND:
I saw you perform in the living room of RRRecords’ label chief Ron Lessard. What was that like compared with your other dates?

Greinke:
Compared to my other dates it was just another different sort of setting. But I liked it a lot. It was very friendly and relaxed. I met more people than usual. There were a lot of musicians and sound artists there and it was good meeting others working in similar realms. And there wasn’t much of a performer/audience boundary. I was grateful for the opportunity to play there.

ND:
Could you tell us about your new band and the direction that will be taking you in?

Greinke:
My group is called LAND and is primarily a quarter composed of: Dennis Rea, guitar; Lesli Dalaba, trumpet; Ed Pias, drummer/percussionist; and I play keyboards and vocalize. Occasionally other players and instruments are involved, such as acoustic bass and tenor saxophone. The music is similar in some ways to my solo work; it’s highly textural, can be atmospheric and moody and also quite varied – sometimes quiet, other times intense. The other players all have their influences in the music. I’m very interested in this and leave a lot of room for their input. I like how their sensibilities help inform the music. They bring in other forms to draw from, such as ethnic musics (particularly from the drummer) and jazz. They’re all studied and accomplished musicians, unlike myself, so there are things happening that one doesn’t hear in my solo works. This is exciting for me as I’ve spent so much time working as a solo artist. It’s very much a live band.

ND:
Do you have any plans to tour with this new group if you release an album?

Greinke:
I’m just now in the process of talking with some labels about getting this music out on CD. No touring plans yet, although I’m interested.

ND:
The ambient industrial quality of your early works has become much more fashionable in recent months. How do you feel that you fit into the scheme of the ambient movement which has suddenly become popular in the US? And how do you feel about the newer musicians in this area that are appearing? Do you have any favorites?

Greinke:
Well, I don’t know, I’m not all that familiar with what has been going on in this area of late. I mean, I’m certainly aware of the hype and have read about some of these artists in various magazines, but I haven’t actually heard much. All I’ve heard is the CD by The Orb, and one of Laswell’s Ambient Dub releases, which reminded me in some ways of my earlier work. But what I’ve been doing over the past few years is quite different and I don’t think it falls into this area. Angus and I have begun working together again since he has returned to Seattle after three years abroad. My guess is that what he and I are doing is closer. We’re working with grooves – slow grooves mostly, and more up-front effects, and throwing found sounds around in the mix. We hope to have a new recording out some time in ’95.

ND:
Timbral Planes finally made it onto CD earlier this year, thanks to Linden. Do you think any of your other out-of-print albums and cassettes will see the light of day on CD sometime soon?

Greinke:
Yes. Linden is going to re-release my first LP Cities in Fog in January ’95 and hopefully Places of Motility later that year. I’ve also been talking with someone about releasing my cassettes Over Ruins and Moving Climates on a CD, but that’s still up in the air.

ND:
Before you were involved in music, you studied meteorology. Has your experience in that field influenced the way you approach and perceive sound and music?

Greinke:
I’d say so. I learned while I was studying meteorology at school that my interest in it was not academic but intuitive and experiential, and visual. As far back as I can remember I’ve loved watching the weather. My parents used to make fun of me for how much time I spent looking out the window when the weather was interesting or the prospects for unusual phenomena were evident. It’s an innate sort of thing, I suspect. How this has worked its way into my music is hard to say. It’s never been a conscious effort on my part, despite all the references in my titles. The correlations are more apparent to me in retrospect.

ND:
Your photography graces all your album covers. Is photography a hobby of yours or are you actively involved in it?

Greinke:
I’m less active than I used to be. It’s pretty much a hobby, I suppose. I did a couple of shows several years ago but have never really pursued it. If I had more time I would involve myself more with visual arts. I draw and paint some and do some video also. I’m particularly interested in collaborating with video artists in creating soundtracks for their work. I’ve done a fair amount of that over the years and hope to increase that activity in the future.


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