Tag Archives: Experimental

An ESP-Disk’ Primer


There’s a motto on the cover of every ESP-Disk’ album: “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk’.” Coming from most record companies, that might sound dubious. But listen to any given ESP-Disk’ release, and you’d be hard pressed to argue. What profit-oriented businessperson would ever choose music this uncommercial, adventurous, and rebellious?

Bernard Stollman was not a businessperson when he started ESP-Disk’ in New York in 1963. He was barely scraping by as a lawyer, and had to borrow money from his mother to continue his label after its first release (a record about how to sing in Esperanto, the language that inspired the label name). Why take this chance? Because of Albert Ayler.

One night in 1963, blown away by an Ayler performance in Harlem, Stollman immediately offered to put out the saxophonist’s music. Soon, he found himself saying the same thing to dozens of free jazz musicians in New York. “I just plowed blindly ahead, without giving a great amount of thought to how it could be sustained,” he explained in 2012. “It took over from my law practice very quickly, because it was closer to my heart.”

Quickly is right: In September 1965, ESP-Disk’ released its second album, Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, alongside 11 other full-lengths from jazz artists including Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, and Ornette Coleman. Over the next 18 months Stollman put out 45 records—many by players who were appearing as bandleaders for the first time—and helped launch careers that continued for decades. Disputes over royalties complicated that legacy, but being on ESP-Disk’ added immeasurably to the stature of these musicians among free jazz aficionados.

The music these artists made for ESP-Disk’ still sounds bracingly original 50 years later. It’s mostly outward-bound free jazz, but the label also supported boldly experimental rock and folk. Many similar imprints emerged not long after ESP-Disk’ began—BYG-Actuel in France, ECM in Germany, and Emanem in England—that were just as innovative. But ESP-Disk’ was there first, and remains the prime model for independent avant-garde sounds.

Stollman folded his label in 1975, after which its catalog re-emerged periodically via official reissues and unauthorized bootlegs. He re-launched ESP-Disk’ in 2005, and though he passed away in 2015 at age 85, it continues today with his original vision intact. “I approached music with the tacit question ‘Is this art?’,” he once said. “Entertainment is something else.”

To welcome ESP-Disk’ to Bandcamp, here’s a guide to some of the best releases from the label’s early years.

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Xiu Xiu Inverts the Pop Machine on “Forget”

Xiu Xiu. Photo by by Alex Brown.

Xiu Xiu. Photo by by Alex Brown.

When experimental rock band Xiu Xiu released Angel Guts Red Classroom in 2014, Tiny Mix Tapes called it “the most Xiu Xiu idea of all time and, logically, that makes it the most Xiu Xiu album ever released.” Presumably, this means that the album was somehow darker and more twisted than the band’s previous work, which includes songs with titles like “Guantanamo Canto” and “I Luv Abortion.” The sonic palette on Angel Guts Red Classroom was stripped down, throwing Xiu Xiu’s provocative melodrama into extreme relief: analog synth, drum machines, and a real live drum kit only. Frontman Jamie Stewart found it liberating to work under these constraints, and he wanted to carry that through to the album’s successor.

But when it came time to write said follow-up album, things got tricky. After recording around 30 songs that Stewart dismisses as “dumb,” he took a lengthy break from writing.  He examined the structures of pop songs from a wide range of artists, and that research informed the songs that made it that made it to the group’s latest, Forget. Stewart worked closely with longtime collaborator Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) to shape the instrumentation and production on Forget,  also bringing in two of his personal icons whom he’s newer to working with, performance artist Vaginal Davis and minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine. The results: an inverted album of sticky pop confections with Xiu Xiu’s characteristic subversive core. We spoke with Stewart about pop machine inspiration, his collaborators, and how he feels when people leave their shows partway through.

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Montreal’s Duchess Says Explore the True Meaning of “Cult Following”

Duchesse Says. Photo by Philippe Beauséjour.

Duchesse Says. Photo by Philippe Beauséjour.

It wasn’t long into Duchess Says‘ first few shows, way back into the early ’00s, that frontwoman Annie-Claude Deschênes’ fearless face-offs with her audience began. It wasn’t an antagonistic choice so much as artistic one: Deschênes realized that unless she pushed the limits of live performances, shoving her way into the crowd, “trying different things” each night, the Montreal synth-punk band’s singer would “get bored.”  “I prefer to be close to people because there’s more energ,”Deschênes says. Of course, that kind of risk-taking often has physical consequences.

“One night in Quebec City, I was battling the crowd with some newspapers,” she says with a pained laugh. “I fell on the floor and a girl jumped on me. I broke my wrist and asked the crowd if there was a doctor there or someone who could help me. They started chanting ‘Is there a doctor? Wooo!’ Then they started passing me along over their heads, let me fall on the floor, and I got a concussion. I ended up in the hospital. That night was depressing.”

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The Half-Century Road to Michael Chapman’s “50”

Michael Chapman

Photos by Constance Mensh.

“I’ve never been a folk singer, ever,” Michael Chapman insists. “People call me that because I play acoustic guitar, but it’s nowhere near the truth.” Chapman’s avoidance of the “f” word didn’t stop him from taking his rightful place among the late-‘60s/early-‘70s vanguard of acoustic-guitar-wielding British singer-songwriters, though—and the peerage of Bert Jansch, John Martyn, and Nick Drake isn’t exactly shabby company.

While Chapman’s work hasn’t given him as high a profile as his peers, his perseverance as an artist has paid its own dividends. His music has been having something of a renaissance over the last several years, via a series of reissues and new releases. His latest, 50, commemorates his half-century as a touring musician, featuring vital new versions of older tunes as well as some striking new songs, with the accompaniment of a new generation of Chapman acolytes. Five decades down the road, Jansch, Martyn, and Drake have all left us, but at 75, Chapman remains a force to be reckoned with.

The Yorkshireman’s entrée into the music world was an inauspicious one. “I couldn’t stand my history teacher in high school,” he recalls, “so I conned my mother into buying me a guitar, and I used to sit in the back of the classroom playing the guitar to annoy him. Not the best reason, I know.” Whatever his impetus, Chapman eventually came to realize he’d found his calling, and he started soaking up the influences of blues and jazz guitar greats. “Big Bill Broonzy was a huge influence,” he states, “and after that, I got into a lot of the blues guys. Then, when I got into jazz I was a Django Reinhardt fanatic. I used to learn all the Reinhardt solos, and pretend they were mine. I gradually progressed into Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery and Grant Green and people like that. I’m still looking for guitar players to listen to. I find them endlessly fascinating.”

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BATTERY’s Jacob Richards Builds a Whole Band With Code & A Drum Kit


It’s not unusual to feel somewhat underwhelmed after a first casual listen to BATTERY. In fact, that’s kind of the point. Though it scans at first as a two-piece, ramshackle, synth-and-drums outfit, BATTERY is actually the work of one man: Los Angeles-based drummer/coder/composer Jacob Richards. Richards is something of a career musician—his resume includes stints in no fewer than 10 bands, including percussion for New Zealand-by-way-of-LA twee-pop band Shunkan and studies with luminaries like Rakalam Bob Moses. With BATTERY, Richards employs Nintendo-esque synth textures and lockstep drum patterns to create songs that are deceptively simple in sound but incredibly complex in composition.

He accomplishes this through a programming language called ChucK. ChucK allows Richards to create sequences of notes that he activates by hitting one of his drums. In his programs, he has additional code that allows those sequences to be accessed by the drums in different ways. For example: on his latest album, bloom, Richards rigged his drum triggers to change the song’s note sequence any time he hits the tom. This allows him to spin the song off in countless different ways with a simple flick of his wrist. It’s like he’s splitting himself up into several different pieces and then jamming with them in real time.

And while the final song sounds impressively streamlined, what’s happening behind the scenes is almost brain-breaking in its intricacy: Richards writes the melodic sequences, figures out how they relate to one another, determines which drum accesses which sequence, and then arranges the sequences while he’s drumming to create the final composition. Richards is exploring new means of composing and “actualizing” music, bridging the gap between the banality of pre-recorded electronics and the braininess of improvised free jazz. His goal is to explore new methods of experimental composition, making them more inspiring for the artist and more accessible to the audience.

We talked with him about the theories undergirding his work, and the way he implements them in his music.

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