Trance and transcendence
Named after a borough named after a girl, Chicago band Zelienople is comprised of Matt Christensen, Mike Weis, Brian Harding and more recently Donn Ha. Famed for making calmed and pulsing drone-inspired whirlpools of sound, Zelienople fails to slip easily into any definitive genre. With percussionist Weis casting spells with his beats as singer Christensen's whispered vocals take us further under, Zelienople seems to have found a home at Type Records for now but keep your ear to the ground it's a busy year for the gang, together and as solo artists. With a Zelienople/Mako Sica split 12" due out on Slow Knife Records, Harding, Weis and Christensen all have solo albums due out later in the year on Constellation Tatsu, Barge Recordings and Under the Spire respectively.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
Mike: As long as I can remember I’ve always been attracted to the drums. Before I could write, I used to cut out pictures of drum sets from the Sears catalogue and paste them to my Christmas list every year. My parents didn’t have much money, so every Christmas morning was slightly disappointing but my expectations faded with every year so I got creative. I made drum sets out of metal coffee cans and boxes. I finally earned enough money as a corn detassler, construction labourer, gas station attendant and a janitor’s assistant to buy my first drum set at the age of 18. I was surprised that I didn’t like the sound of it in its conventional form so I instinctively started moving things around like putting a tom where the snare should be, getting rid of the hi-hats, etc. and that continues to this day.
My attempts to create original music didn’t begin until college when I met up with like-minded friends to form the band Between Animals and Angels. I still remember the creation of those first couple of songs and the elated feeling that followed. I still feel that same sensation these days after a particularly good practice, recording or performance, I suppose that's why I continue doing it. I’ve always had an interest in music that, for a lack of a better description, induces a trance-like or dream-like state. When I met Matt and Brian in Chicago around ’96, I found that we all shared this specific attraction to music.
Matt: I first started writing music on a little Casiotone keyboard when I was about 9, and the first thing that I learned to play was the Duke's theme from Escape From New York. I remember the synth sounds of the 80's really getting into my head. I got into Peter Gabriel and King Crimson around that same time, too. I was also into hip-hop. My friend and I would make loops out of the drum breaks from Public Enemy songs, and he would rap over them. I think that I'm more of a natural with programming music, and while I couldn't afford my own gear, I was pretty good at using other people's to come up with ideas. I didn't start playing a stringed instrument (bass) until I was 20.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
Mike: 1. Moving to Chicago where I began dedicating most of my time and thoughts to music. At this point, I met my friend Liza whom with Matt we made a lot of creative discoveries together and subsequently met Brian, where Zelienople eventually coalesced into its present form although we’ve recently added Donn Ha to the cult
2. Learning how to improvise and stepping out of my comfort zone by means of collaboration which began with Scott Tuma, then Xela and most recently with Kwaidan, an improvising trio with Andre Foisy (Locrian) and Neil Jendon
3. Finally taking the leap to compose and perform solo material.
Matt: I think that there are very few "a-ha" moments. It may feel like there were breakthroughs, but when I look back, I see that they were the results of effort. I think that the best stuff happens when you stop thinking and let your skills help your brain say what it wants to say.
What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?
Matt: Managing to stay out of my own way and not work harder than I need to.
What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
Matt: Lately, an African desert blues-style guitar line. But there really is no usual starting point.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Mike: Improvisation can be like a possession of creativity. When it’s successful, your mind and body is on autopilot, completely in the moment and time feels like it's proceeding at an unnatural pace. During the early days of Zelienople, we spent a lot of time improvising in our practice space which allowed us to feel more comfortable with playing; leading to new techniques and more ideas but mostly it taught us how to listen to each other.
We still improvise at practice; it leads to songs that can’t be cooked up by the analytical method of writing or conceptualizing. Our new material is more of a focus on interlocking rhythmic patterns, which requires dedicated concentration that eventually gives way to another kind of automatic music that seems to be related with trance states of mind.
Matt: I don't. I just think of composing as being able to do something more than once.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
Matt: When you say space, do you mean physical space? If so, I'd say that I see them as all related, and your performances need to take all the factors into consideration. Also, I don't understand the question. Duh…
Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
Matt: I don't really include the audience in that part of the music. I hope that emotions come across as I intended.
In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
Mike: Answering this question will inevitably lead to generalizations, so apologies in advance. I've played with a drum ensemble from Ghana in the '90's and more recently, with a traditional Korean Pungmul group and based on these two experiences I would say the creative decisions are paradoxically different and the same as how we create. The original intention for the existence of both of these traditional forms of music is for ritual and healing purposes like Shamanistic cleansing of the dead, prayers to the Earth for a bountiful harvest, the ridding of mental illness, to cite a couple examples from both cultures. Whereas in the West, in general, our catalyst is art or entertainment but art is a nebulous term and the purpose of creating art varies with the individual.
Personally, my reason for creating art, at its root, can also be considered a type of personal healing - I can’t believe I just typed that! - transcendence and a more direct insight into personal experience. I'm not differentiating the words “music” and “sound” intentionally because sound is on equal ground when it comes to talking about both of these traditions of music as well as my own. There isn't the usual separation of the “THIS is music and THIS is just sound.” The sounds are the vehicle for the music and thus for the experience.
Matt: That's really hard to answer, and if I tried, I'd just be making things up. There are too many factors that may contribute to what a person takes away from any art.