Although New York is one of the biggest cities in the world with over 8 million people, there times when it can feel like one of the smallest cities you’ve ever been in – especially when you run in certain circles.
i was first introduced to Little Band of Sailors’ Rachel Mason and Dmitriy Ivolgen through White Mystery’s Alex White. Interestingly, it was also the first time I had met my colleague and friend Amy Grimm of Whatever Blog – as it tuned out, the show which featured Little Band Sailors and White Mystery at Rock Shop was Grimm’s birthday celebration. If I remember it correctly, there was some major subway track work in that part of town, and I had no idea how I was going to get back to Queens. As it turned out, Alex knew that Mason and Ivolgen lived in Queens, and they offered me a ride back to Queens (which was very convenient, i must add).
During the short ride back, I had a rather interesting conversation with the very charming Mason and Ivolgen about blogging and we had been in touch ever since.
Mason is probably one of the most accomplished artists I’ve met. As a performance artist, Mason’s work has been praised by the likes of the Los Angeles Times and Artforum.Mason’s musical project, the Little Band of Sailors sonically owes a debt to prog rock – in particular I think of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, and countless others.
In this emailed Q&A, i spoke to Mason and Ivolgen, who jumped into the session about the band’s long-awaited debut effort, Woman with a Suitcase which was recently released independently; how Mason’s background as a performance artist influences their live shows; the band’s rather intricate creative process and much more. i think from this interview, you’ll find both Mason and Ivolgen to be uncompromisingly honest and endearingly humbling. Check it out below.
WRH: You’re among a group of fairly accomplished musicians I’ve encountered over the years. As a performance artist, your work has been praised by the likes of the Los Angeles Times and Art Forum. Your musical project, Little Band of Sailors has been around for a bit. You’ve opened for friends of this site, White Mystery and others, and have played a number of art gallery shows across town. How did Little Band of Sailors get it’s start? And when did you start feeling that it was something creatively viable, instead of a one off thing?
Rachel Mason: Little Band of Sailors started out in the summer of 2011. I wasn’t trying to come up with a band, I just thought it would be good to have a name for the rotating cast of musicians, dancers, and artists that I collaborate with for shows- and as you have seen- a lot of live performances were called Little Band of Sailors- referring to the assembly that formed for each particular performance. But eventually Dmitriy and I started playing more shows to rock audiences primarily- and in 2012 I think, the band became more of a “band” and our sound became more clear as well.
Our musical beginnings: Dmitriy had just bought a bass and had played a riff that I was really excited about – it was just two notes— and the words, “Oh my little band of sailors” just emerged from my mouth- and I wouldn’t have thought anything of it until we were discussing our set one day in front of a friend- Fernando Aguilar who also used to be in the music business- and he suddenly jumped up when we said that song name- and said- that’s awesome! He pretty much convinced us that it was a great name- so I started using it for my performance ensembles… And as a band it’s served us well- because just last week we were on a show devoted entirely to Water! (The radio show is Whatever Floats Your Boat on WUSB. There isn’t much of a website (http://www.wusb.fm/node/103), but here’s the playlist: http://www.wusb.fm/node/20237.)
Our first show was at a live TV taping for ESP TV – it was a night of artists performing live- and we really weren’t even sure that we were a band- it was also their first ever show and an experiment for them as well and ESP TV have continued on to a glorious track record of shows which is a good sign for us I believe!
I met Alex White- of White Mystery at a show in Chicago- on our first tour when we played at this really amazing exhibit organized by Jason Lazarus– Joan of Arc played the intro riff of Queen’s “Under Pressure” for about an hour- and we played next– Alex thought we were badass and handed me her card- and later a friend from Chicago said, “Woah! Alex White gave you her card????"
That’s’ so wild that you consider me accomplished- I feel like I couldn’t be further from such a word! When I think of some of the bands I’ve shared bills with in the early stages some of them have gone on to have incredibly successful music careers— Light Asylum, Prince Rama, Mirror Mirror to name a few.
WRH: What are your influences?
RM: As a band, our influences include the music that Dmitriy [Ivolgin] listens to – which is quite different from me– and as he writes the foundation of a lot of the songs on his bass. He’s heavily influenced by progressive rock and bands from the former Soviet Union that probably not many Americans have heard of. I myself have a huge range, and I love "world music” as they say– an unfortunately named “genre” of music– because I know that it includes Native American music, which is from the same part of the world as I come from– and I love the music of various First Nation tribes, as well as Indian music from India. I love lots of Slavic folk music as well. I really like gypsy music.
We have been called a hybrid of Jefferson Airplane and Black Sabbath so often by so many people that I happen to think the consensus must be partially true- because we are both really influenced by both bands and even though both were before our time. The bands that influenced me in high school were the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, PJ Harvey and I also like the music of my friends– a few of whom are also well known and beloved– like Josephine Foster, one of my dearest friends who was one of the first people to ever encourage my music making. I am a big fan of her music- but what I particularly love is her openness to experimenting. I really appreciate that in artists that I love.
WRH: Who are you listening to now?
RM: I think the above answers this question…. 🙂
WRH: I’ve always wanted to ask you this: how did you come up with the band’s name?
Dmitriy Ivolgin: The lyrics to the Little Band of Sailors were improvised by Rachel, and they exist in pretty much that original state. One day we were having breakfast with a friend, and were writing out a set list, which only involved two or three LBOS songs at the time. He suggested that Little Band of Sailors would be a great stage name for Rachel. We tried it out, but it didn’t take and morphed into a band name instead.
There are a number of musicians on your new album including the stereotypical rock instruments – guitar, electric bass and drums. But there is so baritone clarinet and others. How did you wind up meeting all of these collaborators?
Basically we met Mara Meyer one day out on the beach at Far Rockaway- we were opening for Wild Yaks I think- and it was a kind of blowout summer show/ mini festival event- and the sound system was having all kinds of issues .. it was turning out to be a minor disaster for because as it started to turn dark we couldn’t find the sound person and some of our equipment– and right as we are about to start playing, I see a woman with a large instrument walk towards us- a shadow emerging from the dark— and she’s starts wailing in perfect rhythm and matching the songs virtuosically— and then I started dancing with her- and that was how we met Mara Meyer. Our dreamy Bass Clarinetist, who I think truly completes the band.
Mara comes out of the classical music world but has an incredible range of influences. She plays with a full Gamelan orchestra and also plays and organizes shows in the experimental jazz and noise scene. She wrote a piece for a bass clarinet quintet which was performed in a gallery performance of mine a few years ago.
WRH: I’ve seen you perform a couple of times with Little Band of Sailors in different permutations of the project. Some degree of visual art and/or performance art is usually employed during your sets. How much of your background as a performance artist influences and informs your live sets?
RM: I integrate the two constantly. As you saw with the performance I was referring to which happened at Vogt Gallery- it was a piece with an element of music that I wrote, Mara’s orchestrated piece, costumes by Heather Quesada, performances by Joan Jonas and Shana Moulton, and projections by Michael Bilsborough. It was integrated into a short musical play- and I am working on another project which will take the form of a video playlist and a set which I’m building in CSAA – a gallery inside of Silent Barn.
With songwriting I often sink into a pure unconscious state– until I finalize a song and then it becomes a matter of sorting it out and the hard part is getting it to structurally work. It’s awesome when things happen seamlessly. I’m not afraid to have a total disaster and I have a lot of failed efforts – as much as successes– in terms of songs and performances, and artworks. I have the try everything approach. I don’t ENJOY failing- but I know that it is such a huge part of the process that I just embrace it. Dmitriy is kind of the opposite- and it could be why we collaborate well (even though it is often a HUGE struggle). He avoids that which he thinks has the potential to fail and is highly methodical and a perfectionist –he is an engineer by training and I think his musical process reflects that. He is not ok with settling for anything until it “works.” (My theory about his process is that his is like programming code– it either works or it doesn’t. Whereas with me, I have a more painterly approach– you have things that sort-of work, and some that are just utter knockouts, and there’s no explanation– and in some ways its a game of chance). I’m ok with trying something, moving on, trying another thing, and continuing on– and then picking out the best work from a huge scrap heap.
WRH: Although the material on your new album Woman with a Suitcase may initially feel episodic, after repeated listens the album feels as though it tells a rather complex story – each episode actually advances the story along. Could you briefly elaborate on the album’s narrative arc? Interestingly, if someone were to rearrange the track order on the album, it wouldn’t make much sense. Was this intentional? And how difficult was it to figure out the exact sequence of the songs on the album?
RM: I would be lying to you if I said there was a story worked out ahead of time. There are stories in each song- however— like “One Day I’ll Be” (whose tonic riff I actually wrote 10 years ago– and it took me this long to structure it!)– its a song from the point of view of a pilot who nose dives his airplane into the sea, and is discovered in a new form of existence millennia later.
“Sunken Chest” is a song about a sculpture I saw at the Visionaire museum in Baltimore. it is a sculpture made by a man who had a chest deformity, and he was clinically depressed. He spent the time he was at the hospital carving this sculpture out of a tree- and when it was finished, the hospital staff found him hanging from that exact tree from which he carved his portrait. That story moved me so much.
“Woman with a Suitcase” was inspired by the image that was given to me by John Baldessari- my teacher and also incidentally one of the greatest living American artists (he is considered by many to be the “father of conceptual art”). Some time ago I told him about the fact that I was making an album and asked him if he’d make a cover image for it- and this is the image he made for it! As soon as I saw it- the lyrics of the song came to me, “Woman with a suitcase, carrying the moon. Watch the sky because she’s coming soon. Woman in the stars you’re destined to rise, Laugh at the night when the lightning dies!”
The song “Rebel Angels” is actually a song from my rock opera feature film, “The Lives of Hamilton Fish.” In the song, one of the main characters in my film- a woman who is dead and who lives in a spirit world discovers a girl who was murdered.
Dmitriy really structured the songs in the order that they exist on the album after we had all of the songs. Here is his response:
DI: The opening track was always obvious. Each song after that was selected because of how it felt next to the song before. The last three songs, on which we did not collaborate, naturally came at the end. And there is something epic and conclusive about the final track.
WRH: When do you know that you have a fully-fleshed out song?
DI: chiming in referring to Rachel- When you are happy with lyrics 🙂
Rachel responds: Yes— I am often fixing and adjusting the lyrics until I’m in the recording studio- and even then I sometimes change them…. I will sometimes get the right word for a song years later… so in some ways, I have to just stop myself- in order to just get it done- even if I don’t feel done yet.
WRH: BMI Music invited me to the launch of their BMI Creators program and it included an interview session with Paolo De Gregario, the Editor-in-Chief at the Deli NYC and Vanessa Bley of Beast Patrol. And in the interview, De Gregario asked Bley an intriguing question – one that for some reason I had never considered before. He asked Bley if she had the choice between having the services of a PR person or a booking agent for free, which would she choose. So with that in mind if you had the choice between the services of a PR person or a booking agent for free. which would you choose? Why?
Wow— I honestly have NO idea how to answer this… I really haven’t been at this long enough to know – and I’m actually not as much of a “business person” as I think I probably should be in order to know my way around the music industry… In truth- I have to say- I am very much starting out!
WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves?
RM: This may be the blind leading the blind here if I try to answer this…because I feel like there isn’t a soul alive who would want to emulate my path… I’ve just stuck it out and done my work and met people like you through the process of performing on bills! I just kind of stumble along blindly because I’m myopically focused on the work I want/ need to make. I could certainly use a skillful “manager” who has a better sense of all these things!