Under Another Umbrella

24 May

Richard Derrick has cut as singular a sonic swath through SoCal’s independent music scene as anyone you could name in the post-punk era, and smart money says you’ve never even heard of him. I hadn’t either, actually – up until a few years ago, when I caught wind that he’d once backed D. Boon on a number of home/live recordings in the mid-80s. Since then I’ve come to learn that this MINUTEMEN spinoff was but the tip of a much larger musical iceberg. All along, Richard’s primary vehicle had been the space guitar ambient loop music of ANOTHER UMBRELLA.

From primitive, multi-tracked gtr/keyboard tangles at the dawn of the 80′s through expansive, blissed-out sound floatations in the late 80′s/early 90′s, ANOTHER UMBRELLA was dedicated to unflagging exploration of zero-gravity musical terrain of all colours, shapes, and sizes. Richard’s subtle playing brought an attractive restraint to the proceedings, acting as a sort of quiet, prog rock foil to all those raging LA stringslingers who tended to nab the spotlight back then. Few if any recordings leaked out during their heyday, but the vein Richard tapped was rich, indeed! In recent years, he’s made nearly a dozen albums of old recordings available via I-Tunes for those who missed out the first time around.

For what it’s worth, I reckon At Cloud Level (channelling BRAINTICKET in smoggy downtown Long Beach) and Offering (Richard at his most sublimely yogic) are my personal faves right now, though I should probably withhold giving out top honours – I’m still digesting the sum total of his massive output. But while rooting around in this on-line recorded legacy recently, I made contact with Richard himself via e-mail. He turned out to be an upstanding gentleman with a keen sense of humour, and nice guy that he is, he’s kindly answered a few of my questions about his vast body of work. Do read on.

1) I first became aware of your music entirely retrospectively, by way of mid-80′s recordings of you playing drums on the D. Boon & Friends CD (Box-O-Plenty, 2003). For the benefit of us SST/New Alliance freaks, could you talk a bit about about that CD and the other San Pedro-based music projects you were involved with in the late 70′s/early 80′s?

The D. Boon cd came about almost as an afterthought. I had begun an archive project, digitizing my old cassettes and open-reel tapes for posterity. There were several hours of tapes from jams I did with D. and Crane, and although most of it was pretty rough, I had a sense that they could become listenable with some judicious editing. To give you an idea of how much culling had to take place, the 35 minutes or so of jams on the album is taken from about two-and-a-half hours of original recordings.

I contacted D. Boon’s dad by e-mail, and sent him the unedited tapes. Now, picture this: it’s about 15 years after he loses his son, and out of the blue he gets about five hours of home recordings he didn’t even know existed! When I later suggested releasing them to the public, he’d given his approval, although sadly he didn’t live to see the finished product.

When I contacted his wife (D.’s stepmom), she told me that she was quite familiar with those tapes, as he used to play them all the time at home! They were still in the unedited stage, and some of those jams were pretty interminable, so I wouldn’t have foisted them on the public in that condition. But from his point of view, none of that mattered – this was his boy, and that was him playing! She told me that those tapes brought him a lot of joy those last few years. I’m glad he got to hear them in any state at all, really. That alone makes the whole thing worth doing.

D. used to jam with me and Crane a fair bit, and he even recruited me do a one-off Minutemen gig sitting in for George, but there was never any question about him joining up with us on a permanent basis. It was just for fun on the side, a break from his “day job” with his regular band.

I finally got some audio editing software in 2002, and it was a snap to piece the better bits from those jams together and string them together into a natural flow. The tricky part was in sequencing the album. I had about 83 minutes of finished edits to pick from, and when I first made a final sequence, it totaled 74 minutes, but that just proved too exhausting for the listener. I brought it down to 61 minutes, and that seemed to work better. I put the remaining 22 minutes onto a CDR, which I include as a free bonus to anyone who orders the CD directly from box-o-plenty.com.

As for my own history… let’s see… I first began playing music with other people in high school, around 1976. Began playing piano at four, guitar at 10, never made a lot of progress on either, other than developing a sense of chord theory. Moved on to both drums and bass at age 15, both of which seemed more to my abilities.

A non-musician friend of ours owned an old Sony stereo open-reel machine, and he eventually got a stereo cassette, so we’d tinker around with very basic overdubbing. It wasn’t a regular multi-track with punch-in capability, you’d just run the one tape straight through, re-record it into the second tape deck while you play along, and hope for the best. No mixer, no EQ, no room for mistakes, no nothing. It was pretty primitive, and so were we, but everyone has to start somewhere. I eventually got two TEAC open-reels in 1979, one four-track and one stereo, plus a mixer and a ten-band EQ, and away I went.

In the mid-’80s Crane and I did a few improv gigs with people like Joe Baiza, who was quite the improviser himself. It wasn’t easy back then finding people who wanted to make music like that, or venues to play it in even if you did. One person we worked with often was Mike Ezzo, a unique and brilliant drummer who ended up playing with Lynn Johnston in Cruel Frederick. And I also played bass in The Rick Lawndale Band for a few months in 1997-1998. That was a lot of fun!

2) You’ve described ANOTHER UMBRELLA elsewhere as “space guitar ambient loop music” which is certainly apropos. Who inspired this project, and how does a man go from aggro MINUTEMEN clatter to sustained ENOesque introspection so sucessfully?

Well, to start, of course I was a huge fan of Fripp & Eno, especially the unreleased Paris Olympia concert from 1975. Except I played nothing like Robert Fripp and knew better than to try! I tried doing the loop thing when I first got a four-track, but TEACs don’t have the same head configuration as Revox decks, so there went that, at least until digital delays came on the scene. It’s just a sound I’ve always liked.

To answer the question of the name: in 1985-1986 I was doing a lot of musical projects with Crane. To us, it was one big project, but we soon realized there were so many different strains going on that didn’t blend into a unified whole, but seemed to form their own identities: rock songs with singing, instrumental lounge music, early experiments in space drones using keyboards and effects and tapes. We also made a few attempts at finding other people to play with so we could do gigs, none of which led anywhere. Lots of band names were bandied around – Cosmic Joke, Kangaroo Court, Omnitalk, Carnival Jones, probably a few others I don’t remember.

One of us said something about how we needed an another umbrella name to tie them all together, like how the Elephant 6 collective eventually did. The words “another umbrella” instantly struck us both at the same time, and it seemed at least as good a name as anything else, so there it was.

After realizing things weren’t happening with my high school friends in terms of getting the show on the road, the first band I started working with was in 1982, who used to rehearse in a garage in Laurel Canyon. The drummer was M. Segal, who ended up starting Paper Bag and playing in Sativa Luv Box with Patrik Mata, and is still a good friend of mine.

We jammed twice per week for eight months, working up a few songs along the way, then decided to do club gigs, because that’s apparently what you were supposed to do. We called ourselves Middle Sleep, we played in clubs for four months, and whatever energy kept the band going at first when we were just jamming, well, it just fizzled out when we got mired in the sludge of trying to Be A Band in 1983. We didn’t record every jam/practice session, sorry to say, but we got a few, and as much as I like the way they came out, it’s obvious why something like this wouldn’t get anywhere in Hollywood in 1983. We should’ve just rented studio time and jammed for a few hours every week, become a recording collective and not even bother thinking about gigs, but that’s easy to say now.

As for the difference between ambient space and loud rock, I was never fully in one camp or the other. Hearing the Minutemen, or punk rock in general, wasn’t my big cue to discard all my old albums. I mean, the best of punk was great, but as with any genre, there was enough unimaginative crap that… well, it didn’t exactly convince me to toss my old records that were clearly better anyway! I was already a fan of Eno, the whole Canterbury Scene, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Nick Drake, Leo Kottke, Zappa, Beefheart, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, John Cale, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Van Der Graaf Generator, things like that. Most of them are still among my favorite musical acts. I didn’t see any reason to pretend that stuff wasn’t any good just so the cool kids would like me. And I never thought of the Minutemen or Meat Puppets as “punk bands” anyway, I just thought they were great, like anything else I liked.

When I used to play in Middle Sleep, we made some of the harshest, most relentness music you could imagine, even though it was more psych than punk. But we weren’t just bashing away, there was listening going on. And there was plenty of dynamics, it wasn’t all relentless in-your-face barrage of volume. But when I’d be driving home after those loud intense practice sessions, I’d listen to things like Plateaux Of Mirror by Brian Eno and Harold Budd. Everything has its place.

I met Crane at a Minutemen gig in 1985, and we were playing music within weeks. He’d visit when I was living at D. Boon’s place with a few other people, and it was fun for all three of us to have these spontaneous jams, but the Minutemen thing took precedence over spare time, so before long it was down to Crane and me. After a year and a half of seeking out a new guitarist (I was on drums at the time), I finally relented by becoming guitarist and drummer-on-tape. A two-member trio, you might say.

In late 1986 Crane bought a Stratocaster which he then sold to me, plus I bought a few digital delays and other sound processers around that time. Practiced at home alone for about three months, then we did our first club gig in March 1987. Crane did quite a few shows with me at first, but eventually it became just me plus whomever I’d get to join me if I wanted. It was a lot of fun, and it managed to last ten years, but eventually it just ran its course.

3) I’m curious about the technology you used to build the ANOTHER UMBRELLA recordings. Was the looping process difficult? I can imagine it must have created some challenges in live settings.

I don’t remember the model numbers to lot of this stuff, but I’ll do what I can. I used a Fender Stratocaster. No volume pedal, I’d just use the volume knob to serve the same function. Various chorus units at different times – a ’70s Roland pedal, a Boss BF-2 flanger, and the chorus effect on one of my main delay units. Ibanez tube screamer distortion pedal. A Boss micro-rack unit that had (a) a 0.8 second loop delay, (b) a pitch shifter that I usually avoided because it sounded too cartoonish, and (c) a sampler that created the “live backward note” effect. It had an interesting effect in that, rather than attenuate each echo as most delays do, it actually fed back on itself. If you weren’t careful, it would just make a mess, but by turning it way down in the mix, it created some interesting and subtle timbres.

An Ibanez 1.8-second digital delay foot pedal, which had such a sweet warm tone that people often asked me if it was analog. Used for both “pseudo-reverb” slapback and short loops. I think that pedal was truly my secret weapon. Finally, two Digitech rack-mount delays, 3.6-second and 7.6-second loops. Recorded via direct input, which is why you don’t hear audience sound on the live performances.

Except for when I’d pre-record my drum parts, or Crane would do some multitrack vocals to mix in, it was basically live with no overdubs, All the guitar loops and guitar solo parts were recorded on one track in glorious mono. It was pretty tricky, trying to play continuous 45-minute sets and sustain the mood, while mixing it live, and not muck it up. It was pretty easy after a while, mainly through trial and error, but you still had to pay attention. And also be ready to trouble-shoot in case one of the input connections came loose, and you had to go through the chain of wires to figure out which one was causing the problem!

On the album with Emily Hay, At Cloud Level, that was four-track. Track 1 was my guitar and effects, Track 2 was her voice, flute and her own effects. Track 3 was being fed in from the other four-track, which had various guitar and synth tracks on tape. And Track 4 had Emily’s voice again, only this time pre-recorded, run through both her and my effects and played back in reverse. It made for quite a sound, even after we faded the tapes out and just played live!

4) Speaking of live settings, a number of your best recordings stem from KXLU radio sessions. Did ANOTHER UMBRELLA play out live much, and if so with who?

Well, some of our best shows also took place in downtown Long Beach, before that part of town really took off and became the hot spot it is today. It was a place on 3rd and Pine called System M, and three albums in this initial series of releases took place there: Offering (solo guitar), At Cloud Level (with Emily), and Arrival (with Paul Roessler).

Some of the other people who played with us over the years were saxophonist Lynn Johnston, drummer Mike Ezzo, M. Segal on percussion. We had Greg Segal, Paper Bag’s guitarist, play drums a couple times. Bob Lee played drums on one of the later shows. Dirk Vandenburg of Tragicomedy sat in on a song once, playing lap steel, but something happened to the tape deck and his track didn’t get recorded. I just wish I knew a tabla player back then, that would have been perfect!

A few other recordings were done at home or other friends’ houses. I also did two concerts at The Museum Of Comtemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown L.A., two gigs as part of Nels Cline’s Monday night residency at The Alligator Lounge, a couple secret gigs in the Santa Monica mountains where someone brought a generator, a few radio shows out of town, rock clubs like Raji’s and Spaceland, coffee houses like The Onyx, a few private parties, and a few art galleries and book stores. So we managed to get a few in. 55 gigs in ten years.

With club gigs, we mostly played on bills with friends of ours. Or we’d perform alone at art galleries. The coffeehouse scene was just starting to gain momentum, so by 1989 or 1990 finding gigs was a lot easier. I could have done more, but I chose to take my time and wait until each show was more of a novelty, at least to me, and I felt inspired enough to do it. Once I ran out of variations on the ideas, I figured it was time to hang it up. It had been ten years, which is a good run, and I was just about to start doing shows with Bob Lee in Solo Career anyway.

5) Crane (MINUTEMEN trumpeter) Paul Roessler (ex-SCREAMERS, TWISTED ROOTS, DC3 etc.) and Emily Hay (MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD and 5UU’s) all contributed nicely to various recordings of yours. How did they mesh with the seemingly private sonic world of ANOTHER UMBRELLA?

Crane and I started it together, so that was a natural. Paul just happened to show up to a radio gig to say hi, stopping by from his band practice, so his keyboard was still in his truck. I was just about to start, so I told him to bring his keyboard up and join me. I had two rack-mount delays, and I gave him one to play through. It fell together right away. One of the pieces appears on the Arrival album as Frozen Moment. At times it’s hard to tell which instrument is creating which sounds, which I really like. He ended up doing six or seven shows with me between 1988 and 1991, and that first one ranks among the best. Things like that happen if you’re lucky.

6) I also gather from your other Box-O-Plenty releases that you have an affinity for wildly idiosyncratic, 70′s prog gtr players. Who would win in a fight: Kevin Ayers, Richard Sinclair or Todd Rundgren?

None of them would bother. Kevin would cook up a fish dinner and break out some quality wine, the other two would get out the acoustic guitars, and good times would ensue.

7) My belief is that instrumental music like yours – whether its harsh or quiet, experimental or tuneful – touches people at a deep level, encouraging closer listening, and hence contemplation. Did you have specific intentions when making this music?

I’m not sure how to answer that. I just tried to make music I wanted to hear, and with luck other people enjoy it too. People often came up to me after live performances to say how much they enjoyed it, but it’s not exactly the sort of music that gets people jumping up and down and raving about it to everyone they know. Another Umbrella seems to work best in a home environment, I think. Not the ideal thing to sit through for 45 minutes without a break.

8) Finally: how does music fit into your life today, and can expect any more releases from Box-O-Plenty?

Well, for starters, I have had Parkinson’s disease for a few years, and it’s damaged my left hand to the point where I can’t really play anymore. (Typing is different: your other hand can compensate, and you can proofread all you want after the fact.) So ain’t gonna be no touring or anything.

But of all the Another Umbrella recordings I have in my archive, I have maybe another four or five hours’ worth that I’d love to release one day. Most of it is missing something or other – some needs a choir of female voices, some needs tablas or percussion of some sort, maybe some bass, maybe someone else adding some lead guitar over the drones. But it’s all got a strong enough root that there’s something there I wouldn’t mind sharing with the world, once I figure out where it’s going.

The biggest irony to me is that, when I first set out to do this music in the ’80s, there was no scene for it, and even though people always seemed to enjoy it, it was obvious to me that I was only doing it for its own sake, and not think of it as a career move or anything like that. Twenty-some years later, it seems that musical tastes have caught up, or come around, and people have more of a point of reference with it. I do realize that a lot of it moves pretty slowly, which isn’t exactly in keeping with today’s short-attention-span world, but I’ve never worried too much about that sort of thing anyway. You want to create music, you just do what’s in your heart. The results are their own reward, having other people enjoy it is just a bonus.

5 Responses to “Under Another Umbrella”

  1. Mark May 24, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    MEGA-kudos, Row! Another delicious secret history examined. Add the L.A. cast! Oh, my how inspiring it is. I think I’ll be raining a few bucks onto Another Umbrella as this summer unfolds.
    Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11

  2. D May 25, 2010 at 1:06 am #

    Great interview! I’d never heard of Another Umbrella before, and the connection to the Minutemen is totally fascinating. The talk of Crane reminds me: Are there any recordings out there of Symbolic Romance? (Crane’s rock trio.)

    Keep up the good work!

  3. lessonsthatrock May 26, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

    I’ve never heard of them either, but it always great to learn about new music. Exciting!

  4. nazz nomad June 2, 2010 at 4:38 am #

    that d boon story with his dad got me all teary.

  5. Dave Lang June 10, 2010 at 1:56 pm #

    Great article! You’ve certainly done your homework here. Glad someone is doing it.

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