Serving the San Francisco Bay Area New Music Community

Jim Ryan

Gino Robair Interview from March 99 Outside Magazine
Date of Interview/Article:5/16/1999
Gino Robair Interview (appeared in March 99 OUTSIDE #8)

OUTSIDE - Gino, how did you get into music and the drums?

Gino - Since I was a toddler, I always pulled pots and pans out of the cupboard and played on them. When I was about seven, my folks bought me a drum and I began taking lessons. I ended up playing in the jr. high and high school marching bands and orchestras. The band director at Riverside Polytechnic in Southern California was a percussionist, so I learned how to play the entire family of percussion instruments.

During high school, I was also playing professionally in community symphonies and as a pit-drummer for local theatre presentations and musicals. My piano teacher at the time got me a gig playing drums for the local First Baptist Church, which included the gospel choirs, orchestra, and page turning for the organist. I played just about any instrument they put in front of me, including vibraphone, timpani, xylophone, chimes, piano, and occasionally electric guitar and bass!

For reasons I didn’t understand, I wanted to be a professional musician. I liked playing gigs, and I really looked forward to making records. I always wanted to do that. I got my first chance to do it at the age of 16 playing percussion on a church release.

When I was 17, I entered the University of Redlands as a music major. I wanted to be a composer, but ended up doing a double major and getting two degrees; one in composition and one in percussion performance. I graduated in 1981. In my senior year, I applied to an exclusive university graduate program in the midwest, where they only take one or two graduate percussionists each year. I didn’t get in. So I decided to take a break from the university world and get out of the US.

While attending Redlands, I’d discovered free improvisation, and helped form the Anything Goes Orchestra with a bunch of players who were in the university New Music Ensemble. The AGO was lucky enough to get its own radio show at the university station - we had a 6 hour show each week to do with as we pleased. It was from midnight to 6 am, Saturday mornings. So, we just went wild playing records and improvising over them, or doing theme-shows like spoken word or tape music. There were eight players involved and it opened up a world of music without boundries. That was from 1979 to 1981. The clarinetist in the band turned me onto AMM, a British creative music ensemble, and suggested I go to England to meet and study with their drummer, Eddie Prevost.

So, when I got rejected from the graduate degree program, I sold my drums and moved to London. I was able to get a job through a work permit program for recent college grads. So I had a day job, and I went to improv or new music shows in the evening. Afterward, I’d have a couple of pints with the musicians and ask questions. I learned a lot. However, I didn’t play drums the entire time I was there, with one exception. I took part in a Channel 4 filming of a Cardew piece called The Great Learning which required me to bang stones together and hit pillows with wands - that sort of thing. That was the only percussion I played the entire time I was in Great Britian . . . you could say it was a year-long Zen excercise listening to free improvisors with no hands clapping.

I was fortunate enough to hear Anthony Braxton’s quartet in London in 1985 (the same concert that ended up on Leo records). I loved Anthony’s playing. I was a big fan of his Arista releases, but I couldn’t even “hear” his quartet music at that time. All I saw were these young folks trying to read this music and not doing a very good job of it. I learned later that they were attempting to sight-reading the impossible: stuff composed right there on the bandstand. And I also learned later what that was like, first hand, when I recorded with Braxton. [Recorded 1987 reissued as Anthony Braxton/Gino Robair DUETS on Music & Arts CD-1026, originally issued on Rastacan Records]. I went backstage to meet Anthony, and he was nice enough to suggest I check out the Mills College program where he was teaching at the time. So, when I returned to the U.S. six months later, I
did just that. It looked like a place where I could do the kind of things I wanted to do, which included exploring the regions between composed and improvised music. I started at Mills in the fall of 1986.

OUTSIDE - How did you come to record with Braxton?

Gino - One day after his ensemble class, Anthony said “Mr. Robair, we should make a record!”. I said “how ‘bout Thursday!” That caught him a bit off guard because I don’t think he expected me to come up with a definite date. But he thought about it a bit and said “how about two weeks. That way I can come up with some music for it.” So, we had a date and did a session.. Unfortunately, due to matters beyond our control, the tapes were distorted, had bleed through, and were generally unusable. He kindly agreed to do a second date, which became the LP I put out on Rastascan. It turned
out that the first session had some pieces that didn’t turn out so bad. When Music and Arts agreed to reissue the recording on CD, they wanted the disc to be an hour long, so I went back to the masters from the first session and found an extra 15 minutes to complement the LP material. I felt
pretty lucky. Actually, I still do. It’s one of those things where I wish I had the chops I have now for a session of that magnitude!

OUTSIDE - Earlier, you mentioned the difficulty of sight reading . . .

Gino - Yeah, the sight reading thing! I had already been playing in Anthony’s morning ensemble three days a week for several months, so I knew how to approach his music. And, we were endlessly sight reading, which is a great skill to develop. Much of the music we did for the recording session
was also sight read (both his and my music), so the right amount of “tension” was in the air. We did some extra takes of the most complex unison lines, but for the most part it was “jump or die” as he used to say.

OUTSIDE - So Braxton was your main influence there, at Mills?

Gino - Well, besides Braxton and his ensemble, I was led to several interesting musical approaches at the time. I got into Javanese gamelan music rather seriously, and explored microtonal tuning. I studied with Lou Harrison, Larry Polansky, and Jody Diamond. Before I knew it, I had
completed two Master’s degrees at Mills: one in ‘Composition’ and one in ‘Recording and Electronic Media.’

OUTSIDE - We’ve never seen you doing any electronic music on gigs, though, of course there’s your label, Rastascan Records . . .

Gino - Well, getting that degree taught me why I dislike most of what’s been done in the electronic media for the past 15-20 years.

OUTSIDE - Would you care to expand on that? Too authoritarian? . . codefied?

Gino - Yeah, too rigid.

OUTSIDE - How did you get involved in the Bay Area creative music scene outside of the academic environment at Mills?

Gino - William Winant (who teaches percussion at Mills) asked me to take part in a performance of John Zorn’s Cobra with Zorn, ROVA, and a bunch of other local players, including Myles Boisen (guitar and recording/mastering
guru). It was after this gig (around 1987) that Splatter Trio was formed. I met Dave Barrett (reeds) at the show, and he suggested that the three of us get together and and do some playing. I was also invited to join the Club Foot Orchestra after that gig, because they were venturing into doing silent movie soundtracks and wanted a percussionist. Suddenly, I was busy in a scene that I had no previous knowledge of!

OUTSIDE - You said you found both the avant garde and the jazz establishment to be too rigid. Could you reflect a bit on Freedom & Music?

Gino - Every jazz experience I had had up till my move to the Bay Area involved “institutionalized jazz.” Older “cats” telling me that I have to play things a certain way in order to fit into the Jazz Canon. I had never heard jazz that I enjoyed, and the stuff we were playing was big band shit
that was heavy on horn playing, but boring in the rhythm section - unless you like going “dingdinga ding” all day. So, jazz left a bad taste in my mouth. Besides, I liked rock. Especially prog and complex rock. I was also listening to the Residents, Capt. Beefheart, and Cage when I was in high school. Compared to this Manard Ferguson and Spyro Gyra seemed a bit bogus.

In college, I got a radio show doing jazz!! Thankfully, the station had Sun Ra’s Angels and Demons at Play, Art Ensemble records, Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor, and more. Suddenly, here was a “jazz” that I could relate to. Unfortunately, the jazz band there wasn’t as progressive as the radio
station, so I was still being forced to play Stan Kenton arrangements.

OUTSIDE - what led you away from rock?

Gino - Nothing! I still like some of it. Though, the rock I like doesn’t get played on commercial stations.

OUTSIDE - I don’t hear much rock in your music . . . am I missing it?

Gino - You can hear it on some of the Splatter recordings, and during Splatter gigs. But, I am more into disassembling the drums and playing them as unconventionally as humanly possible. For my last two gigs, I left the drumset home and just brought things to bow: styrofoam, a dust pan,
CDs, and metal things.

OUTSIDE - On the record with Braxton, I hear a good deal of contemporary classic technique. How long did you hold to that line . . . when did you break from it, and how and why if you did . . . or did you incorporate it in your own concept?

Gino - I’ve been “unlearning” my drumming technique for about 10 years now. Eventually, I won’t remember how to hold the sticks or do a roll. It took a lot of effort to be able to play sloppy and not try to show the audience that “hey, I’m really a drummer!”. Now I’m at the point where I can leave most of my drums at home and play on stuff I find in the hall. I’m free needing to convince anyone that I really can play the drums. When I travel to Europe, I just bring a suitcase with junk (motors, broken mallets, sticks, towels, sucker balls, metal things), and hope that the venue will provide something to play on as they agreed. Often they give me something really strange, usually with the excuse that all the drummers in town were busy and couldn’t spare any gear. I kind of enjoy this: I end up having to do a solo performance on things I have no prior knowledge of and no control over. It’s a far cry from the normal drummer who is so precious about every piece of gear. And, if something’s not quite right, they can’t play. I’ve been trying to get to the point where I can do a solo concert on anything, anywhere, in any situation. I feel like I’m almost there. Granted, it’s not always musically successful, but that’s the thrill of free improv, isn’t it? Sometimes, we crash and burn. Other times, we disappear into the aether. The most extreme gigs have included a radio performance using only a zipper and a coke can, and a gig in Oakland where the audience brought things for me to play which included a condom, jello, a pickup and amplifier, water, and some junk metal. I don’t even know if it was good.
It doesn’t matter.

OUTSIDE- Your thoughts, reflections on the Bay Area scene . . . also some of the most influencial players/composers for you in the area . . .

Gino - Much of my own playing as an improvisor is shaped by experimental guitarists. The most influential of these on me have been AMM’s Keith Rowe, Fred Frith, and Myles Boisen. Playing in a band (Splatter) with Myles for 11 years has been a tremendous learning experience. His approach to the
guitar is light years beyond other guitarists around here.

OUTSIDE - Could you tell us a bit about Rastascan Records, some of the main recordings you have done?

Gino - I have always wanted to make records. So, when I had an idea of something I wanted to put out, I decided I would do it myself. I had read about Harry Partch doing it himself, and I had corresponded with the Resident’s label, Ralph. Punk rockers proved it could be done. It seemed possible to start my own improv label, so why not! After awhile, it occured to me that I could ask other people to make a record for me. The first person I really wanted a record from was Hans Reichel, because I loved his work, but it was almost completely unknown in the US. To my
utter amazement, he agreed - and I had a master tape from him in a mere six weeks! So, now I had to put it out, get it heard, and take care of business. Now, Rastascan has over 40 titles in the catalog, including cassettes, vinyl and CDs. Since the record biz hit a rough patch last year, it’s been difficult to sell even my more well known titles (such as the
Brotzmann trio, Evan Parker trio, and the Reichel). Every improv label I know is feeling it. We’re actually like a small community, the folks that run the labels are kind of like a “meta-scene”. Since were not really competing with each other (the fans buy what they buy), and because we’re
not in it for the money (no one sells enough discs to cover any serious expenses), we share info, swap for each others discs, and colaborate on projects, web pages, festivals, etc. Anyone crazy enough to begin a label is usually a big fan of the music, so it’s fun to get to know them. Nowadays, I tell folks to put it out themselves. Buy a CD burner and follow John Shiurba’s lead. Make your own discs, and sell them at gigs. You will sell more CDs at gigs than you will in a Tower store in another part of the country where they’ve never heard of you. Radio play won’t matter. Reviews in Down Beat won’t matter. But when people see you play live, and if you’re on, you’ll probably sell some discs. And there’s no middle man in that sale. Some of the Rastascan artists sell more of their discs at their own gigs than I do all year through distribution. That’s the way it is with a niche market like improvised music. There’s only so many fans, and you’ll see them at the gigs.

OUTSIDE - Approximately how many titles are available on Rastascan?

Gino - Rastascan has about 40 releases (vinyl, cd, tape). All are available at Amoeba Music, they can also be purchased directly from me. Some of my favorites on the label include: Wavelength Infinity: Sun Ra
Tribute (dbl CD), Hans Reichel Lower Lurum, Gianni Gebbia H Portraits, Eugene Chadbourne Solo Acoustic Guitar Vol 2, Masaoka/Nunn/Robair Crepuscular Music, John Butcher London & Cologne, Splatter Trio Hi-Fi Junk Note, Club Foot Orchestra, Wild Beasts, Kidnapped and More, and of course my own, Singular Pleasures and Other Destinations.

OUTSIDE - I’m not familar with Hans Reichel . . .

Gino - He builds and plays his own instruments. One of them is a double-neck guitar-like instrument. Another is a set of wooden sticks that he bows. He calls them “daxophones.” He was one of the first artists on the FMP label (he’s German), but he’s made very few records compared with
other improvisors, so his work has been hard to get until recently.

OUTSIDE - I listened to the recent (May 15, 1998) Italian recording Fringes you made with Giuseppe Ielasi guitar & other strings, Renato Rinaldi harmonium strings amplified objects, Domenico Sciajno double bass & live electronics, as well as yourself on skin wood metal plastic hair. To me it sounded like meditative machines at slow labor in an otherworldly factory. Do you have any comments on the asethetic of this work?

Gino - Part of the aesthetic is to create an overall texture that is greater than the sum of the parts. In addition, we strive to make our instruments sound unlike they are normally expected to sound. In other words: it’s great when you can’t tell which player is making which sound. That’s one of the things that I try and do in most of my music these days ... sound as unlike a percussionist/drummer as possible.

OUTSIDE - Could you you go into the “Italian Connection” a bit , and where is Monza (where the recording was made)?

Gino - I met them on the Internet. When I was about to go to Bologna and play the Angelica festival in 1998, Giuseppe Ielasi, the guitarist, asked if I wanted to do a gig and a recording in nearby Milan (Monza is near Milan). I said yes. I’d already heard his band’s release on Leo, and liked it a lot.

OUTSIDE - I like the Gianni Gebbi solo album you did on Rastascan. How’d you meet Gianni?

Gino - I met him at his first Beanbenders show. I couldn’t believe my ears - the shit he was doing was really unique. His scalar approach really resonated with me. So, I told Myles that night: “We have to get Gebbia into the studio tomorrow!” So, we made H Portraits. Since then, we’ve
kept in touch by e-mail, and in late ‘98 he invited five of us from the Bay Area to Palermo for the “Dreamin’ California” festival. [see OUTSIDE #6 January ‘99 for the Palermo festival - ed.]

OUTSIDE - Gianni will be in the Bay Area in early April for a series of gigs and a CD Trio release on Rastascan Records.

Gino - Right, Gianni on sax, Garth Powell percussion and Damon Smith on contrabass. It’s called People In Motion Rastascan Records (BDR-4).

OUTSIDE - So what else is coming up in 1999?

Gino - I’m doing final editing on some of my own stuff and other things for Rastascan release. My duo/trio CD, Buddy Systems, should be out in April on Meniscus. It includes performances with Oluyemi Thomas, Dan Plonsey, LaDonna Smith, John Butcher, Tim Perkis, Splatter, Carla Kihlstedt and Matthew Sperry . . . I’ve been waiting for a long time for this to come out. It’s one of my favorite discs!