Modality bridges the gap between rock and early electronic
The first time I listened to Under The Shadow of This Red Rock reminded me why I love Bands whose genre is hard to define. Not-quite-rock, not-quite ambient, not-quite-komische music, Modality's latest double LP is difficult to adequately describe. Let's just say it's weird, forward-thinking and fucking awesome!
Although they live in three cities (Missoula, Butte, and Blacksburg) in two states (Montana and Virginia), the four members of the band Modality practice and perform shows over the internet every week. Before they hit the studio to record some new tracks, I had a chance to chat with Modality via email about the band's origins and the transformation of their sound. Modality is: [Jay] percussion, electronics, art and visuals, [Ben] synthesizers, vocals and production, [Clark] guitar, keyboards and production, [Charles] violin, bass and electronics.
Hey Jay. Three members of Modality live in Missoula, and the other two live in Butte (Montana) and Blacksburg (Virginia), right? How (if at all) does where you guys live influence your creativity and your music?
[Jay] We started in a garage, then a series of basements. We now exist on the internet and when possible, in person. These constraints shape our songwriting and approach to composition. We are more ambitious and comfortable in songwriting than we have been before.
We started the band with just Clark and I, then Ben wanted in, then Charles wanted in. Patrick, a fantastic sax player, was with us for a year or so and moved on. We need to update the website. As of 2017, Modality is four musicians in three cities and two states.
[Clark] Charles has outfitted us with equipment that allows us to have meaningful rehearsals every week, and that has kept our creative process going. I definitely prefer the energy of being in the room together, laughing and sharing stories and musical ideas, but on the weeks when the technology (JamLink) doesn’t get in the way of our process, the distance between us really disappears and we’re able to be in a band just as we’ve always been. I’m grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded to us with Charles working at Virginia Tech, mainly our performance in the Cube, which was an honor and an eye-opening experience.
[Ben] Missoula is a pretty cool city. It is only about 70,000 people, but it is the biggest city for over 200 miles in any direction. There is a high concentration of creativity here. There is a local music scene that ebbs and flows in size but is very supportive. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say there is a Montana sound, there is space and openness in our music and ideas that I think at least subconsciously reflects the vastness of our surroundings. As a transportation planner, place - its construction and how we move through it - has been a major lens through which I view the world, and hear music. The stereo field is an endlessly fascinating space to play in. Particle City is an audio map of an imaginary place, showing only liminal spaces. Under the Shadow is also very imaginary-place-based, though with perhaps greater influence of our immediate physical environment. Butte played a big role in the recording and mixing of the album for me.
[Charles] Moving from Montana to Virginia, the music of Appalachia has started to seep into my composition and performance on electric violin, complementing my musical upbringing in Iowa and eleven years in Montana.
Modality started with you (Jay Bruns) and Clark, right? Tell me a bit more about your backgrounds and how how did you all meet.
[Clark] Jay and I met on Craigslist in Missoula, MT, which sounds strange, but I had just moved to Montana from Arkansas and couldn’t bring all my music gear with me, so I was looking for a speaker cabinet to go with an amp I had brought up. I went to Jay’s house to buy the thing, and after a couple hours of chatting about circuit bending, preamps, and keyboards, I ended up leaving with the speaker cabinet without paying. Shortly after that, he picked me up to go garage sailing (our way of finding gems like the Yamaha SY-2) and he backed into my truck in front of my house (maybe we were even then). We became good friends, and Jay has become like family to me. I have always said that Modality is 90% friends and 10% bandmates, and that is true not only with Jay, as it was in the beginning, but now with our other bandmates as well, and in different ways.
[Charles] The guys thanked me in the Particle City liner notes (since they’d taken a couple of my Music Technology classes at the University of Montana), and brought me a copy, so I asked if we could listen to it together. I liked it right away, so asked if I could sit in on a rehearsal. Our first rehearsal clicked, so I’ve been in the band, since. It’s my most joyful musical experience in 45 years as a violinist, and has become my weekly church. The guys are family.
[Ben] I grew up with music all around me: My dad runs a jazz label; my stepmother sings early choral music; my uncle is a singer/songwriter; another uncle was the faculty advisor of a college radio station for 30+ years; my brother has been in bands since high school. I have been a non-commercial radio DJ for 18 years. I was managing KBGA, the University of Montana’s college station, when Clark walked in with a ton of enthusiasm and energy to volunteer. I was a big fan of his guitar playing, and we became friends pretty quickly through radio. After I made a bunch of unsolicited production suggestions for the initial Particle City recordings, Clark and Jay kind of snapped at me “do you want to be in the band, or something?” I did.
We were playing a lot of shows as a trio back in 2011 and 2012 and inviting a lot of people to sit in. We played some great sets with expanded lineups that included other local weirdos and touring bands. Charles was complimentary when we played him Particle City, so we invited him to play a show with us. He said he should practice with us first and I was reluctant. I wanted an improvised, one-time only thing. But, that first practice felt real good (you can hear some of it on Notes from the Sue Terrain) and he said he was going to keep coming until we told him not to. After a month we had to ask him what the fuck he was still doing here, since he is a well-trained, highly-skilled composer and performer and we were some schmoes. He thought we were treading some meditative middle ground between the rock of his youth and the abstract compositions of his academic peers.
Was there a specific “Aha!” moment when you knew that you’d pursue a career in music, or did you consider other options?
[Clark] I have never been career-minded, and don’t consider music to be my career. It’s a necessary meditation for me to meet with my trusted musical friends weekly and try new things, record what we can, and curate releases for others to hear. To derive monetary support from these efforts is an unexpected and unsolicited benefit of a personal outlet that keeps me sane and healthy. I work for a non-profit and do community service through radio; music is a vital component of broadcasting, but creating music is not a conscious career choice for me.
[Jay] I can't sit still, and I tend to start a large amount of projects and take small bites out of them daily. Music and art does not pay the bills. Luckily, many non-musical projects pay the bills, so I approach the band as an idea playground for myself and I am constantly surprised with what the rest of the band brings. Music helps me focus, it is meditative. I make sounds I want to hear. I like what I hear from the rest of Modality. Do the thing, see what happens next. Repeat.
[Ben] I have sometimes made money through music, either playing it or promoting it on air. Clark and I also record and produce other bands with some increasing frequency, and we are venturing into label territory with a couple of non-Modality releases this year. I can’t imagine not working to advance my understanding and others’ enjoyment of the sonic arts. But, like Jay, no aspect of the music industry is paying my bills.
At this point in your career, considering the opportunities you’ve had so far, do you feel creatively satisfied?
[Ben] There was a short while, right when we knew we were finished with Under the Shadow, that I thought, “if for whatever reason we never do anything again, I would be satisfied.” But, that was some bullshit pride and it pretty quickly dawned on me that improvising, writing, recording, and playing with these guys regularly is what sustains me.
[Jay] I have been very fortunate in opportunities that have come my way. I am satisfied, in retrospect, with what we have accomplished as a band. I also always feel like whatever we are working on at the moment is the best thing we've done yet. I want to keep exploring new processes, venues and recording techniques.
[Charles] I’m in a particularly productive time of my life, and credit the band for my current creative flow. Playing with them for the past five years has opened me to new possibilities in my other composition projects, that include acoustic and electroacoustic concert music, collaborative multimedia, and structured improvisation. Also, Jay and I are working on a side project, performing electric violin, drum machines, computers, and processed video.
[Clark] Modality has consistently been a source of satisfaction for me. It has afforded me numerous opportunities to perform and compose music, and to release two vinyl records. Our 2016 performance at Virginia Tech’s Cube Fest was mind-blowing, and really boosted my confidence and commitment to making music over the course of my life.
What's the next big milestone you're hoping to achieve as a band?
[Charles] A Summer 2018 tour of North America in support of our new album Megacycles.
[Clark] What Charles said. For real.
[Jay] Yes, what Charles said. And more weird good releases and side projects for all of us.
What’s the story behind your latest album Under the Shadow of This Red Rock? I noticed it takes some cues from psychedelic rock, ambient and German krautrock from the 70s.
[Ben] When I joined the band we developed a mantra of “‘cept longer.” As a duo, Clark and Jay had been writing these looped, electronic, almost pop songs; I always detected the kraut and kosmische strands lurking behind them and tried bringing them to the foreground after I bullied my way into the band.
The three of us took a trip to Butte in 2012 (years before Clark moved there), holed up in a two-story ballroom above a distillery, and freaked out for a week. The city of Butte has a vibe. “The Richest Hill on Earth,” the whole city is built on top of 10,000 miles of underground mining tunnels. Open pit mining engulfed a quarter of the once booming city. Now that pit is the most polluted site in the US. Though there is still one mine (and it is huge), it employs only a fraction of the people the industry used to sustain. With less than ⅕ of its heyday population, it’s now a living ghost town. Faded advertisements for old stores are visible on the sides of brick buildings that haven’t yet crumbled. Traffic signals turn green in every direction at empty intersections. It is one of the only places in the country where you can legally drink in the street. It’s situated at the top of the continental divide. It is a magical place. Several of the pieces on the album are directly inspired by our time there.
Curtis’ Music Hall, for example, is a beautiful Queen Anne commercial building in uptown Butte. Now home to a greasy restaurant at ground level, the practice rooms are vacant but visible up on the mezzanine, where it was said in the early 20th century you could hear every instrument of the orchestra, not playing together. The ghost sign on the side of the building says “Cures the Blues.” So, I tried to capture a hazy sense of history of the building with different instruments coming and going in the mix. By placing the song after “Bullfrog Boyman,” it acts as a palliative cure for the fucked blues before it.
What are your other interests when you're not composing music?
[Clark] I’ve been involved in non-commercial radio in several capacities for the last 8 years, first as a volunteer for KBGA college radio at the University of Montana, and then as Production Assistant at Montana Public Radio, the NPR member station for western Montana. What took me from Missoula (where I would practice in person with the other guys in the band) to Butte, Montana, was our effort to construct a new, independent community radio station called KBMF 102.5FM. www.butteamericaradio.org When I’m not working on music recording for our band or other projects, I’m at the radio station.
[Jay] I make digital art daily. It is a consuming activity that has changed my perspective of other creative endeavors. I try to collaborate with as many other artists as I can over the internet. After making analog still art and playing analog percussion for my entire life, the last few years has been a shift to making digital still and motion art, and embracing digital instruments like drum machines, synths, iPad apps and noisemakers. Not only is there an unusual creative freedom in the digital medium, there are also newfound opportunities in discovery, replication, distribution and collaboration.
I like making good things happen with technology, whether it is a creative endeavor or necessity to pay the bills.
I really, really like old 80s steel bicycles, hoarding domain names and starting new side projects.
I have a weekly radio show on the local college radio station, KBGA.
[Ben] I play synth, congas, harmonica, and sing backup in Glass Spiders, an 11-piece David Bowie tribute. I also am a member of the Avant-Garde Alliance, a group that has scored several experimental films. Our most recent performance accompanied the 1960’s film of Oskar Schlemmer’s Das Triadische Ballett, which Jay then manipulated live with video synthesizers. Jay and I also play live from time to time as Philip Glasshole, making improvised avant dance music based on repeated figures and variations.
My wife and I begin a new radio show this week on KFGM, a new community station in Missoula. We also try to spend a fair amount time outdoors, skiing in the winter and whitewater rafting in the summer. I work as a transportation planner in the city’s Bicycle Pedestrian Office.
[Charles] After teaching Composition and Music Technology for eleven years at the University of Montana, I now teach Composition and Creative Technologies at Virginia Tech, where I also research, compose, and perform in the 138.5 speaker 3D spatial audio system of the Cube in the Moss Arts Center.
What do you usually listen to in your free time?
[Clark] Radio Survivor podcast (industry thangs), Steely Dan, Tinariwen, Sarathy Korwar, Bert Jansch, and all sorts of new stuff coming to the radio station (KBMF).
[Charles] I’m listening to a lot of vintage vinyl, from the 70s and 80s, mostly prog rock, fusion jazz, and early electronic music.
[Jay] DJ Shadow, Bibio, Prefuse 73, Flying Lotus. The bandcamp weekly podcast. Anything Clark and Ben are crowing about. I have a lucid dreaming app that I will play on weekends with a drum machine for hours. I try to listen back to anything I've recorded over the week, whether it is found sounds or bits of songs. Lately I've been listening to tons of old Modality.
[Ben] Radio, podcasts, music that sounds like what the next band we are recording wants to sound like, nothing.
Any artists or bands that have caught your attention recently?
[Clark] Acid Arab’s Musique de France, Mickey Hart’s reissue of Planet Drum, William Tyler’s Modern Country, this new Reggie Young record on Whaling City Sound I got a sneak peak of.
[Ben] Still digesting some albums I received around the holidays: Gong Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy, Glacial On Jones Beach, Tim Maia Nobody Can Live Forever, William Onyeabor’s discography. A couple releases on my dad’s label have floored me recently: Gerry Gibbs’ Thrasher People Weather Or Not and Rale Micic Night Music.
[Jay] Shlohmo. Izaak Opatz’s Mariachi Static. Laura Marchi is constantly putting out excellent art work. Austin Slominski and Chris Powell recently had a lovely sound installation in Missoula. Justin Matousek is doing some sublimely comfortable gifs from a four lens 35mm camera. Kenaim keeps getting better and better, somehow.
Do you guys have any gigs coming up or working on a new album at all?
[Jay] We spent some time recording new material in early 2017, so we will be working on that group of songs for the next year. Hopefully we will get together in person a few more times to record some additional songs in person in 2017. Look for another album from us by the name of Megacycles in 2018.
[Ben] We are also planning some Bandcamp releases, under the Modality name and others.
Photo credits: Modality
Posted by: Miguel Ferreira
Founder & Selector at That Special Record. Miguel loves writing stories about outsider electronic music & vinyl culture.