It doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that Greg Fox is a seriously fucking versatile musician: check the earth-shattering intensity of Ben Frost and Liturgy; the avant-garde tendencies of Colin Stetson and Zs; the absract zone-outs of GDFX and Guardian Alien; and that’s but a few of the projects his lends his propulsive, fearless and downright spiritual drumming to.
As a man who derives seemingly infinite pleasure out of the possibilities realised by alloying to others, or even using sampling to expand the physical limitations of the self, when it came to devising which iteration of Greg Fox would appear in his In Stereo performance, we thought we would return to basics: just plain ol’ Greg. Suffice to say, it’s a stunner, flowing free for sixteen minutes.
While in his native Brooklyn earlier this year, we tapped the Ganesh-like maestro for a chat, winding up with a winding chat that was more entertaining than it really had any right to be.
GABRIEL SZATAN: Given all your aliases and projects, how do you approach the process of making music? Do you start out with an idea and then decide that might fit better for the compositional side of your brain or the more electronic side of your brain? Where’s the genesis?
GREG FOX: Well, this shoot is just me, Greg, solo. GDFX is like a particular kind of beat oriented stuff that I make, whereas Mitral Transmission was more sort of ‘composerly’ – but I don’t use the word lightly! That record last year was based out of work I did with Milford Graves and so it started in a very different place and a large part of that music was written with the intention of someday executing it with all live instrumentation. The GDFX stuff is very much based on sampling, so when I sit down and start messing around with that stuff, I know from the very beginning that will fall into the GDFX category. I mean, of course there’s some elemental crossover for sure.
My first introduction to you were the two-part “Legend of GDFX” tracks, which were very distinct. 20m low drones don’t really fit the template of almost anything else you do.
Sure, GDFX takes on experimentation sometimes. I don’t think about it too much in the execution, but when I’m asked to play a show solo I have to ask the person who’s promoting it, “What are you actually asking me to do?” And oftentimes the answer is thankfully: “well, whatever you want.” It’s an evolving thing, I guess.
When it comes to physically preparing for these performances, do you cycle through different mindsets or warm up routines dependent on whether you’re playing as Greg Fox or GDFX, or any of the supporting roles you do for Liturgy, Ben Frost, Dan Deacon or whoever?
When I’m doing electronic stuff, I build or fine tune the palate I’m going to be playing with live, setting up for improvisation. If I’m doing drumming I just try to warm up and physically get myself ready for the endurance ahead.
Seeing raw power deployed in people’s kitchens – I mean, I just did not know that was a thing.
In terms of technique, have you abandoned anything outright in the past four or five years? It sounds like you have less freakouts on records nowadays, but I don’t know whether that translates to you altering your style as such.
Uh, that’s an interesting question. It’s not something I could really consciously say I’m aware of, but you pick up new little ideas here and there, playing with different people in different circumstances and contexts, and these things make their way into your general approach to playing. It’s definitely a cumulative effect as far as evolving what I’ve been doing. I guess it feels like a rounded expansion.
Did you go into 2015 thinking that you’d like to put more impetus on your solo concerns, or had you mapped a year of collaborations out?
It usually falls in the middle. I am definitely focusing more on my own work this year: a couple of new solo records, probably a new GDFX and a sort of proper LP to follow up to Mitral Transmission; also, plans to do at least one record with Guardian Alien if not two. Some recordings I did last year with Colin Stetson are seeing release soon, and there’s more on the cards with him. Plus there’s the new Zs record, the new Liturgy and probably some others that I don’t remember. Back in January 2014 I had a totally open schedule…but ended up touring for the better part of ten months. [Laughs]
I honestly don’t feel a big rush to climb the ladder, because right now I can both pay my bills and fulfil myself artistically, so I’m not too worried. I feel like I do have a voice that sort of speaks within the context of any project that I do. I try to keep in mind having a gradual progress, but I’m in it for the long-haul.
Do you reckon there’s always been something embedded in your personality that signposted that polymath tendency from an early age?
It’s funny – this is sort of related to the question and it’s sort of not – but I used to do a lot of comedy, acting, painting, sports and really a bit of everything when I was a kid. Along the way I’ve been really inspired by people like [Lightning Bolt drummer] Brian Chippendale, who’s makes comics and art alongside music; you know, the feeling that you can kind of just be a creative person and find ways to make various efforts work. But equally I really like being in a supporting role, adding my ideas to what others want to do.
Lately I’ve been feeling this strong urge to re-broaden what became quite a narrow focus of music once I left school. That’s a trap in a lot of ways though, because if you try to burn the candle at both ends, and squeeze as much out of yourself as you can before you turn 30, you’re kind of asking for a burnout. But then, look at guys like Milford or Marshall Allen, who’s like 92, and how much they accomplish and grow day by day. So yeah, that’s the goal: be at the top of my game by the time I’m 99!
Oh and also: I would love to get back into videogame music one day. I enjoyed that so much. I say this at every public opportunity I have. [Laughs]
Any flashpoint moments when you were younger recognising the capability of drumming that steered you down that path?
It’s awkward because I talk Brian up a lot, and over the years have come to see him as a friend, but watching Lightning Bolt for the first time in the 9th or 10th grade had a really strong effect on me. I’ve probably already crossed the line of feeling a little sycophantic before, but when I discovered their The Power of Salad, I could not detach myself from that DVD. I didn’t really grow up experiencing punk as a thriving, living scene, and so seeing that raw power deployed in people’s kitchens – I mean, I just did not know that was a thing. Especially set against Classic Drum Solos and all those sort of videos stocked in the mom & pop kinda drum store I worked before college.
Friends of mine at high school would come over to my house and we’d watch vintage drum videos; explosive solos on TV in the jazz era where drummers like Louie Bellson first became celebrated in that way. Even though I was the only drummer in the room, everybody was checking it out, genuinely digging it and talking about it later. Everybody was into it, thankfully.
Well, fingers crossed your In Stereo winds up having similar influence to some kid somewhere in turn. Was it difficult to encapsulate the raw passion and spirituality of your performance style without any crowd to feed off of?
I did a shoot for a coffee table book of drummers and funnily enough, we worked in the same basement room you guys at Boiler Room wound up using. Even when alone I like to push myself, so I had to hope it translated in pictures, let alone video. I mean, I’ve even had people ask to interview me while drumming! It’s admittedly really awkward, but as soon as I close my eyes and start playing, I’m just doing the thing that I do. So, I’ve learned over the years that no matter how much I might be self-critical or only able to focus on the fuck-ups in those closed environments, I’m usually the only person who’s thinking that.
I guess wouldn’t reflect very well on you as a person if you were just a flippant careerist who paid it no mind.
This is a weird comparison to make, and I don’t see myself as being any sort of equivalent, but I was listening to an interview with John McEnroe and he was talking about when he was a kid the only reason why he ended up taking tennis seriously was because he was told he was good at it by so many people around him. Like, he didn’t inherently know that he was cut out to be a pro. That resonated with me a lot because I had a similar experience; I never particularly thought, “wow! I’m an awesome drummer!” or anything like that. I’m way faster to see shortcomings but in being approached by people asking to film you play drums in your basement, you have to take it, and put your faith in that.
I don’t have the Apple Watch, but getting to use a machine that translates the electrical impulses in my skin into MIDI signal was also cool.
Given the approach on Mitral Transmission of translating your natural body rhythms into sound, I was interested to know your opinion about wearable technology.
There’s so much to that, and it’s definitely an exponentially growing field. I recently saw a TED Talk involving a guy who’s colourblind, and so he had some sort of insane light receptor technology implanted into his brain. I don’t really understand how it works but he looks like kind of a Snork, that old cartoon about underwater people with these tendrils coming up off their heads.
I know who you’re talking about – he has a really 80s style garish pink suit, right?
Yeah, that guy! So the implant coming up the back of his head translates colour into sound, which is so crazy. It’s hard to know what to even feel about it, but there’s so much possibility in hand. It strikes me that right now we’re at this interesting time in history where technological advances are available to both the consumer world and the performance art world; so much of what we see is so interesting, but then at the same time in reading about it or seeing it, you feel it’s very primitive compared to the potential of what that technology could become. Having grown up in the 80s and 90s, experiencing video games as the pinnacle of ‘technology’, and then all of a sudden people are wearing these crazy wristwatch things that track their sleep, and what they eat, and how many times they take a shit every day, and I don’t even know what else; and then knowing this dude has a thing implanted in his head that makes him fucking hear colour – I’m so into it! I don’t have the watch, but getting to use a machine that translates the electrical impulses in my skin into MIDI signal was also cool. [Laughs]
I haven’t actually released any of the music I made with that machine, but Milford recording my heartbeat into MIDI was similar. I guess what it all boils down to is bio feedback, y’know? It seems to me that separate and apart from the potential that those technologies bring to art and music making, they bring a lot of potential to increasing the self-awareness for people. I feel that’s a very hopeful thing: you start collecting data representing the music of your own body, then perhaps that of something you’re looking at, and it could serve to increase empathy in some way.
At heart I’m a big nerd…I feel like we’re kind of living in a video game.
People can lambast this all as holistic, ‘listen to the rhythm of your body’ kind of wishy-washy New Age babble, but it is slowly shifting from this great unknown to something tangible.
I mean, imagine being in a situation where you have a tough relationship with somebody in your family and then there’s a technology you can use that allows you to plug them into a machine and access their biorhythms. I just imagine those kinds of things create opportunities to understand each other and themselves a little better. In places where words fall short of being able to bridge those gaps, maybe there’s something there at a base level being able to sense things through sound or colour.
To go back to the applications of those kind of things in art and music, it’s so exciting. Take Milford: this is part of what he’s researching and working on developing, a sort of instant rhythmic translation system process. You could have somebody come up on stage who doesn’t know how to play any instruments, and plug them into a machine that would then translate what’s going on physically for them into sound that other musicians could play with. It just opens up all these possibilities.
It could be the next wave of DIY music. Like, literally: Do It Yourself.
Combine that with Oculus Rift and so many other applications around and it’s hard not to feel really excited by it all. At heart I’m a big nerd. I’ve always been into gadgets, computers and video games, and I feel like we’re kind of living in a video game. Or even weirder – I feel like we kind of live ‘in the future’. It’s such a goofy, redundant thing to say though. [Laughs]
I think I’m going to go lie down and stare at the ceiling for a while.
Yeah, me too.
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