Thursday, 31 May 2007
Entering the double CD sound world of Nova Psychedelia is a daunting experience. Compiling the recorded output of Todd Tamanend Clark between 1975 and 1985, it’s a dense miasma of psychedelic emanations from Clark’s mind that takes in 1960s garage rock, the fluorescent pop art explosions of early Marvel comic books, and the brain wavering possibilities of the synthesizer and guitar. Clark’s lyrics are just as likely to take their cue from the B-movies that soaked his childhood, dystopian science-fiction, and his political convictions and Native American heritage. Like errant super-villains, William S. Burroughs and Cheetah Chrome make surprise guest appearances; but what makes the collection truly impressive is that, at two CDs, it’s still only a snapshot of Clark’s musical output, and in 2006, he’s still creating his own unique sound. I tracked him down and put some questions to him…
RH: What do you think kick-started your interest in rock and roll and music in general? The covers of Paul Revere And The Raiders and The Electric Prunes would suggest that early garage and psych might have provided a fertile hotbed for your imagination?!
TTC: I started out listening to my mother's Yma Sumac records as a child in the 1950s. (I was born in 1952.) Some of my early favorite singles were "Who Do You Love" by Bo Diddley and "I Put A Spell On You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. I also liked movies with spooky theremins in their soundtracks and avant-garde jazz. Then in 1961, the song "Runaway" by Del Shannon just knocked me out with its proto-synthesizer solo. Both my maternal grandmother and a beautiful Mexican neighbor lady gave me free keyboard lessons, but it wasn't until Bob Dylan took psychedelic substances and went electric in 1965 that I went from just liking music to totally loving music. 1966 through 1968 were my major formative musical years.
RH: I’ve always thought there was a very close link between rock and roll and comic books - the costumes, sound effects, theatrical nature, team ups, heroes and villains. The liner notes to Nova Psychedelia make reference to your soundtrack and appearance at a comic convention as Brainiac 5… Just how much has comic book culture influenced your work? And what/who is your favourite comic/hero/artist ?
TTC: I started walking on my own to get comic books at the local confectionery store in my hometown of Greensboro, Pennsylvania, when I was six years old and in first grade in early 1959. The first books I started buying had Batman stories drawn by Dick Sprang, some with Green Arrow back-ups. Then I started to get into the Carmine Infantino characters like The Flash and Adam Strange and the Kirby monsters and the post-Kirby Challengers Of The Unknown. (I later obtained the early Kirby Challengers issues that I had missed.) I bought Fantastic Four number one on my ninth birthday on August 10, 1961, so I was pretty much there for the birth of the silver age of comic books. Like Jimi Hendrix, one of my favorite comic books was Turok, Son Of Stone, and I've been a long time collector of Doctor Strange ever since his first appearance in Strange Tales in 1963 and of The Doom Patrol since their first appearance in My Greatest Adventure that same year. In the modern age, some of my favorite comic books are Animal Man, Aztec Ace, Coyote, Green Arrow, Love And Rockets, Scout, and Swamp Thing. My all-time favorite artists are Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, and Timothy Truman. I buy a lot of the hardbound reprint editions in the Marvel Masterworks and DC Archives series, as well as the EC hardcovers.
RH: On the subject of heroes, it must have been quite nerve-wracking to meet and collaborate with William Burroughs. How did this come about?
TTC: Cheetah Chrome (the lead guitarist for The Dead Boys) obtained William Burroughs' phone number for me from Anita Pallenberg in early 1980. I eventually got up the nerve to dial it, and Bill was very courteous even though he was not much of a phone person. We began corresponding in writing with each other, and two years later I had a long song cycle published that included a passage from Burroughs' novel Nova Express with his permission. Eventually, these songs evolved into the lyrics for my 1984 album Into The Vision. While I was in the process of recording the album, Burroughs reminded me that he had already recorded that section during a spoken word project and said that he would be more than happy to let me overdub music to accompany it on my album. The original plan was for me to recite that passage myself along with my other vocals. It goes without saying that I was ecstatic to have Bill on my record.
RH: Again, the liner notes to Nova Psychedelia make reference to early inspirations: Micky Dolenz of The Monkees playing a Moog and The United States Of America’s first album. I was wondering what you found so attractive about these sounds as there is a very impressive list of synthesizers (ARPs and Moogs) that you have used in your recordings!
TTC: I'm a major collector of classic American synthesizers. Not just Moogs and ARPs, but also Oberheims, Prophets, E-mus, and Ensoniqs. I've been an endorsement artist for Moog for a while now. I also play their Etherwave Theremin, and I use their Ring Modulator on some of my guitar solos. All my vocoder vocals from the 1980s were done on a Moog. Certain great synthesizer sounds just give my mind an intense shamanic eargasm.
RH: Do you build/modify your own sound devices and synthesizers? If so, what kind of sounds are you trying to achieve that shop bought synthesizers can’t?
TTC: I don't physically build them, but I definitely modify their programming extensively. I erase many of their Eurocentric factory presets and replace them with Native American sounds, both traditional acoustic instruments and electronic representations of entheogenic experiences. Even my Johnson Millennium and Rocktron Taboo guitar amplifiers are programmable and have a hundred patches each that I designed.
RH: I’ve often found that science fiction enables me to take a good hard look at the actual world around me… actually pulling me out of my reality and then providing me with scenarios (however fantastical) that let me look at important questions and themes that I can take back with me when my feet touch the ground… I was wondering what your take on sci-fi was as you mix it up with very real political concerns in some of your tracks (I’m thinking of the references to Mumia Abu-Jamal and your Native American roots here ).
TTC: The science fiction author whose work I read the most often is Harlan Ellison. His infamous 1967 short story "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said The Ticktockman" serves well as the classic example of combining speculative fiction with social concerns. Some critics view certain novels by William Burroughs as an extreme branch of science fiction. I loved the early 1970s Dennis O'Neil relevance stories where Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Black Canary go off to search for the real America underneath the surface spin. The older I get, the more I find that I definitely have a preference for science fiction that is set in my North American homeland rather than in outer space.
RH: The press release for the compilation makes reference to "lost music" and the underground. I was wondering what your thoughts were on this… whether you considered your music too difficult for the "mainstream" to swallow, and whether there was any bitterness (if that’s the right word) that your work hasn’t had more recognition?
TTC: Well, some days I'm more bitter than others, and I'm not going to pretend otherwise. I never expected to be as big as The Beach Boys or The Lovin' Spoonful, but I sincerely hoped to function on a level similar to that of Sun Ra or Frank Zappa. I've seen some progress towards that goal, especially in the last year, but here I am in my fifties just now getting to where I should have been in my twenties. Yes, my music is complex, dissonant, and difficult, and most decidedly noncommercial, but there is still surely some audience for it, had I been given better distribution and advertising in earlier decades.
RH: Classic science-fiction and horror films also seem to have had some influence on your subject matter and sounds, I was wondering if there were any specific films that you remember really impressing your young mind? What’s your opinion of the current state of the industry? There seems to be an upsurge in science fiction and horror films, but I’m hard pushed to name one that has really blown me away of late…
TTC: My favorite science fiction films from my childhood are Creature From The Black Lagoon, Forbidden Planet, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space, Kronos, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and The Flame Barrier. I also watched The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits religiously. Today, I'm mostly into cinema that includes Native American content.
RH: I always think that the parts of our culture that are often regarded as "trashy" and disposable (comics, b-movies, rock and roll) reveal just as much, if not more, about us than "high brow art". What’s your take on this? I know I’d much rather live in a world populated by Batman and The Thirteenth Floor Elevators…
TTC: Rock and roll and comic books are each the black sheep of their respective fields of endeavor. Personally, I take great delight in erasing the demarcation lines between high brow and low brow art forms. I'm equally at home with an orchestral composition by Silvestre Revueltas and a garage psych song by The Music Machine. I can enjoy a cutting edge work of cinematic art by David Lynch or a low-budget science fiction film by Roger Corman. I can go from pouring over an involved philosophical treatise by Henry David Thoreau to scanning a quirky little Ant-Man story by Stan Lee without batting an eye.
RH: You’ve obviously been very prolific since the period encapsulated in Nova Psychedelia. As a newcomer to your work, what albums would you recommend that I start with?
TTC: The four discs of my three instrumental albums form an unconventional but interlocking dark electronic symphony. Owls In Obsidian (2000) looks at the pre-material world spiritual template of Turtle Island (North America) as a giant medicine wheel into which one enters in the south and travels clockwise around the sacred circle encountering spiritual concepts from various autochthonal cultures, each represented by a species of owl indigenous to that bioregion. Staff, Mask, Rattle (2002: two discs) begins with the big bang creating the material universe and then proceeds to tell the Native American history of the northeastern woodlands up to and including the death of the great Onodowaga orator Sagoyewatha (Red Jacket) in 1830. Monongahela Riverrun (2004) begins at the source of the Monongahela River in Fairmont, West Virginia, and travels one hundred twenty-nine miles through towns that the colonial invaders built, feeling the melancholy displacement of the indigenous inhabitants, until reaching the end of the river in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
RH: Your forthcoming Dancing Through The Side Worlds is also a massive 4CDs long! What does this release hold in store for listeners, and is there some sort of concept running through the album?
TTC: It's an autobiography of my life so far, but it's told in poetry and song instead of prose. It begins somewhat before my birth, showing what the practice of manifest destiny by the occupying colonial regime had done to the aboriginal American cultures by the middle of the twentieth century. Then I tell the major events of my life: unexpected conception (My mother was severely epileptic and never supposed to have children.), caesarean birth, precocious childhood development, repressive public school experiences, the death of my maternal grandparents who practically raised me, moving to San Francisco and later Cleveland, my marriages and divorces, the births of my six progeny, my native rights activism, etc. The lyrics are extremely surrealistic and psychedelic, as is the music. Some of the songs are radically different rewrites of earlier material and are finally placed in their proper overall context and have much better production.
But Dancing Through The Side Worlds won't be released until 2008 , and right now, I'm working on a new double disc concept album entitled Iron Alphabet for late 2006 release. It contains twenty-six original poems synchronized to electronic/industrial music. There is a poem for each letter of the dominant Eurocentric alphabet. The poems all fit together into one surrealistic narrative that first laments the imprisonment of the Native American mind by means of colonially forced English linguistics that severely limit the ability to think in indigenous concepts and then celebrates the deprogramming and subsequent liberation that cultural preservationists eventually achieve.
RH: What would you like to achieve with your music in the future? Do you think that this renewed interest in your work will drive you to create more and wilder visions?
TTC: All of my twenty-first century albums on Primal Pulse fit together into one overall conceptual project in the order of release. My twentieth century music that's collected on Nova Psychedelia was released by Karl Ikola on Anopheles as an effort at historical preservation, which is the mission of his label. It's an interesting development that the recordings I made during the 1970s and 1980s are now receiving significant internet and college radio airplay. I was already planning on resuming the making of music with vocals anyway, so it seems that things have come full circle. And, yes, I will continue to push the cutting edge envelope as hard as I possibly can.