FORMA consist of improvisational synth explorers Mark Dwinell, John Also Bennett and George Bennett. The Brooklyn-based experimental group released two full-length records on Spectrum Spools (2011-2012). This year they found a new home on Kranky and in September they returned with their long-awaited third album ‘Physicalist’. We spoke to the guys about the new record, their background and inspiration, side projects, rotting tomatoes and much more. They also made a mind-blowing guest mix that sure is going to take you to places you never expected to visit. This mix was recorded live, late at night, from two turntables at their home and studio in Brooklyn, the Schoolhouse.
It’s been five years since your self-titled debut. Let’s start with a little time travel: when and how did you meet and decided you wanted to do something together that ended up being FORMA?
MD: Sophie and I started dating in 2008, and think it was about six months into our relationship that we started playing music, I had a couple electric organs at my loft that I had been using on my own; a Farfisa and a Crumar, some delay pedals and a couple hand made electric monochords for drones. So we pretty much played completely free without any expectations on ourselves, but I diligently recorded everything so we could get some grasp of what was going on, and maybe where it wanted to go. Heading into 2009 I started buying synths and thinking in terms of rhythm. I came from a guitar band background, so a drummer was a natural choice. George was suggested to us through a friend of Sophie’s. He dragged his full kit over and we just started recording everything. None of us had any idea at that point that George would abandon the drum kit for a Roland TR-707 drum machine within the year.
GB: The creation of FORMA was a reflection of our approach to music-making: Unpremeditated, organic, improvised, emergent. And a constant evolution. In our early days, we experimented with multiple approaches, paid a lot of attention to what was happening, and honed our focus around what we found interesting and exciting. This is what we continue to do at all levels of our creative process.
There’s a myriad of different sounds and moods that define FORMA’s signature sound, but I would imagine that all of you are coming from different music backgrounds. What was your first contact with music and how did you end up where you are today?
MD: There were four of us kids growing up in a small house. My two older brothers each had stereos and record collections. I was splitting a bunk bed with one of them so there was no room for my own stereo. For most of my early childhood listening to music was this externalized experience – something that would happen to me more than something that I had any control over. When they weren’t looking I would sneak in the closet, stare at and get lost in the artwork of all these LP covers; Frank Zappa, the Beatles, Jethro Tull, Steely Dan, and have no idea what the music actually sounded like. Through some marijuana – aided internal explorations in my 20’s I discovered that I had some kind of deep connection to ‘Come Together’ by the Beatles, something about that opening bass line riff and tom roll evoked a kind of primordial terror, l pretty much had a panic attack just thinking about it, my hand clutching my chest and taking two steps back. Like ‘oh yeah the bogeyman was totally real, not a thing hiding in the closet but a deep, alien and totally unsettling feeling.’ Kinda funny how from deep places and dark recesses music can come out to fuck with you sometimes. My sister played an instrument – alto saxophone. She took private lessons with a local jazz bandleader and freelance arranger. So when I was old enough I followed in her footsteps. A lot happened between then and now.
JAB: I can’t easily summarize my musical journey from where I started to where I’m at today. But I can tell you that I grew up in a household where music of every culture was played. One big influence was my father’s collection – he has accumulated a vast amount of music that essentially spans the globe, from 20th century avant-garde composition, traditional Latin American music (he’s got a PhD in Latin American literature and speaks fluent Spanish), Gregorian chant, Indian music, Balinese gamelan music, classical, and of course a bit of punk and rock n’ roll, that part mostly on vinyl. We’re talking 4,000 CDs, at least 1,000 LPs (though he’s been trying to thin it out). I still feel like I graduate up a level in taste each time I visit. At 13 I was borrowing B-52s, the Clash and Butthole Surfers records, then moved onto exploring some of the jazz / fusion collection as I got older, then reached out to various world musics, and now I tend to dig through the avant-garde zone, as well as trying to explore more world stuff. I did find a Klaus Schulze CD last time I visited, but electronic music was one of the few genre rarities in his collection, so it’s interesting that I ended up so deeply in that realm. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons in itself, actually! Another big moment for me was seeing the Philip Glass Ensemble perform the live score for Koyaanisqatsi when I was about 14, though I wouldn’t realize the importance of that moment until some time later.
GB: When I was 10 years old, I attended a performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird. I was awestruck by the timpanist, who was playing with extreme intensity, and obviously having a cathartic experience. I wanted that for myself, and started playing drums the same year. My upbringing as an instrumentalist runs through prog and jazz, and I have marching band to thank for my chops. My move toward drum machines was initially about tapping into the possibilities of MIDI without going too far down the rabbit hole of computer music. The constraints of analog synthesis and step-sequencing actually helped me push my drumming beyond the compositional frameworks I was used to, taking me deeper into repetition and minimalism. Still, I feel that physicality is crucial to rhythmic performance, which is why hand-played percussion is increasingly present in my work with FORMA.
This is the first full-length record where John has replaced Sophie and also the first one that was not released on Spectrum Pools but found a new home on Kranky. What triggered these changes and how does it all feel after having released the new album?
JAB: I can tell you that it feels great to finally have this full length statement out in the world. Kranky is a great home for this music and I’m happy to be a part of the legacy of that label.
MD: Simple enough – Sophie and I broke up. George and I got together and talked about our options, one of which was dissolving the group, and we decided that we wanted to continue and find a new member.
MD: Finally releasing our first [full length] record with John feels really great, we worked hard to get to this point, and being on Kranky is like a dream. I’ve been following Kranky’s releases out of the corner of my eye for pretty much my whole adult musical life.
It’s always a delicate situation when someone leaves a group and someone else comes into the picture. John, how would you describe your experiences when you’ve joined FORMA? Did you experience any unexpected difficulties or you could all feel that it was sort of ‘meant to be’?
MD: That was definitely a very difficult time for me. FORMA had to start all over again from the beginning, and it wasn’t just a simple matter of replacing Sophie, because we’re not the kind of band that you can just tell someone “play it like this.” FORMA as a true group improvisation is dependent on the emotional as well as musical input of every member, so that our individual personalities are inseparable from the collective music we make. Sophie leaving was a big loss. But John made it easy with his pretty much boundless enthusiasm for making music and exploring new ground. And yeah through the haze of a lot of different emotions I think it did feel like it was all meant to be.
JAB: I didn’t realize Sophie had left FORMA when I first started jamming with Mark, he didn’t even tell me until after at least three sessions. Then he invited George over – the first time the three of us played together it felt super natural, and it’s felt that way since. Like Mark said, for me it was never about doing what Sophie did, but creating something with the new dynamic between the three of us. To put it simply, I have definitely never felt any Jason Newsted vibes since joining FORMA.
Christina Vantzou mentioned a while back that she would like to read an interview with Seabat on Sounds Of A Tired City. To partially grant her wish, could you tell us what are your plans with your other project nowadays? You’ve had two releases last year and worked parallel both with FORMA and Seabat. Sounds like a rather busy period!
JAB: I’m glad you asked about Seabat, as it’s a project that’s very close to my heart that I’m very proud of, but often seems to get overlooked. Seabat started as a solo project, but quickly became a duo once my childhood friend and former high-school garage band-mate Forest Christenson heard my first recordings and asked to join. He became an integral part of the project and I now don’t consider it to be a solo endeavor, but a duo. About a year ago Forest moved from NYC to LA to pursue his (quite successful) career in Hollywood film mixing, which led to Seabat going into a bit of a hibernation, especially while I started focusing more on FORMA. I’ve also been working a bit scoring several projects by the animator Peter Burr, among other things, which means that there’s not been a lot of time to allow Seabat to flourish. That said, Seabat is by no means dead, but only laying dormant for the time being. I look forward to sharing what’s next for Seabat when the time is right. There are bubbles beginning to appear in that water.
This is your first album to have more acoustic instrumentation. You’ve been working in symbiosis with synths up until now, how come you have decided to broaden the spectrum a bit? Did it feel like you had to compromise or it was just all natural?
MD: As noted above, FORMA actually started out on electric organs and acoustic drums, so it feels very natural to come back around again.
JAB: It felt like the natural step forward. Why should FORMA continue doing the same thing it’s already mastered? We make music because it’s exciting to us, and for this album, we were excited about flexing our muscles in a different position. Also we’re all trained players to some extent on these acoustic instruments, so it’s actually a bit of a return to form.
GB: From a rhythm perspective, it’s been less about a move to acoustic instruments but a move toward more hand-playing, some of which is on acoustic percussion, some of which is on trigger pads. I’m excited about the results I’m getting by combining grid-based and hand-played patterns. More subtlety, more polyrhythm.
‘Physicalism’ feels extremely precise and well-calculated, although you’re improvising a lot. What’s the trick when you’re improvising, how can you hold it all together so masterfully?
MD: My favorite technique is the Miles Davis prescription “if you make a mistake while improvising, make sure you repeat it.” You flip the idea around and regard a “mistake” not as an error but as a new point of departure. And a further embellishment on this method in a group context is to not be thrown off your focus when another member makes their “mistake.” Pretty simple and really effective.
JAB: When I first joined FORMA Mark told me one of the guiding principles of the band had been for each member to play whatever it is they’d been playing for a little bit longer than they initially feel they should, before switching to something different. This definitely helps keep things coherent, in that we’re all very focused and aware of what we’re doing, and not necessarily in a rush to move onto the next thing. Lots of practice playing together helps, too.
GB: It’s all about listening, and knowing each other as players.
How does a regular day look like in the FORMA studio?
JAB: There used to be a lot of chain smoking cigarettes, but not so much anymore! Mark quit smoking, and I’m a pretty casual / rare smoker, so we’re a little healthier now. Still plenty of wires, synthesizers, and electromagnetic frequencies though.
GB: We rehearse in a huge old schoolhouse in Bushwick with very high, vaulted ceilings and lots of light, which lend an epic air to our sessions, even when we’re just goofing around. The acoustics are great too. Because other people live in the schoolhouse as well, we often have an impromptu audience. We don’t usually talk much about what we’re going to do before a session, and instead just go with the flow, but we do spend a lot of time afterwards trying to decipher what happened, what was working and what wasn’t. If we’ve recently played a gig and our gear is all packed up, we devote a whole studio session just to reconstructing our playing environment. It can be creatively draining just to get everything up and running, so we try to separate those processes.
Tell us a bit about the album title. It refers to the universe being created from physical interactions. How did you pick it and how can we relate it to the sounds?
JAB: This has been mentioned before plenty of times in other interviews, and in the liner notes to the record, but I’ll restate. Physicalism posits that the universe is entirely created through physical / material interactions, and therefore everything that happens could theoretically be predicted if the rules of those material interactions were laid out. To be clear, we don’t endorse this belief necessarily, but used it as a jumping off point for the conceptual framework of the album, since our music is often the result of a set of rules playing itself out. At this point I definitely feel I’m departing from that, I’ve recently begun to think of the universal timeline as more multidimensional / infinite, rather than linear. I’m interested in the idea that there are infinite timelines simultaneously playing out in parallel universes, each slightly different results of the same set of circumstances. I’ve been thinking recently it might be interesting (theoretically, but probably not in practice) to make several different versions of the same album, each slightly different, to show that there are actually an infinite number of variations in the way a certain set of rules can play out. There’s certainly a lot of unpredictability in our current reality!
GB: In one sense, we liken Physicalism to philosophical determinism, a concept that is squarely at odds with improvisation, which is really just another word for choice-making. We find that tension interesting.
I really love the cover, whose work it is and how did you end up with it?
JAB: Robert Beatty. I know Robert from my days in the mid 2000’s midwest ‘noise’ scene (he’s a member of the amazing band Hair Police, as well as his solo project Three Legged Race), but he’s lately become better known as a visual artist. We worked through many variations of this cover with Robert, drawing from a deep set of references that included imagery from Mark’s recent visit to Tibet, as well as dreams. We specifically asked for a rotting tomato with an eyeball for the back cover. Robert did a great job.
GB: Mark called me one night to tell me about a dream he had. It was long and complex, but the one thing that stuck with me was this part where a child handed him a tomato. Mark initially just glossed over that bit, but eventually we went crazy over the symbolic significance. The tomato was once thought to be poisonous, but it also signifies the nourishing abundance of nature. We got a few motifs for the record cover out of that.
GUEST MIX by FORMA
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