October 7, 2005
The Psychedelic Minimalist
90 Day Men bassist Robert Lowe finds music where the algae meet the fungi.
When Robert Lowe unveiled his one-man improv band, Lichens, at the Empty
Bottle last August, Kranky Records co-owner Bruce Adams wasn't expecting to
find his next signing. But soon after Lowe started playing, fingerpicking
acoustic guitar and layering eerie wordless wails with a sampler pedal, he
was hooked. "I was standing there with Tom and Christina Carter from
Charalambides watching Rob, and it's one of those sort of moments where you
look at each other and go, 'Did you just see what I saw?'" Adams says. "I
was completely knocked out."
To Adams's ears, Lowe's expansive vocals and precise playing echoed the
work of modern avant-folk acts like Charalambides and Fursaxa, but he was
also drawing on styles pioneered by a previous generation: the otherworldly
incantations of Meredith Monk and Demetrio Stratos, the meditative
compositions of the late Stuart Dempster, the "deep listening" explorations
of Pauline Oliveros, and the complex harmonic work of David Hyke. "He's
taking two strange musics and putting them together and finding the
commonality in both of them," Adams says. "There's combustion when the two
are put together."
Adams brought his label partner, Joel Leoschke, to a Lowe gig a few weeks
later. They soon hashed out a deal to release Lichens' debut album, The
Psychic Nature of Being, which came out last month. The album is a huge
departure from Lowe's work as a bassist in the 90 Day Men. But since the
band went on hiatus in March, Lowe's eagerly embraced the opportunity to
work on a host of new projects -- he serves as an occasional studio hand in
TV on the Radio and has as many as five new albums in the works.
Lowe, who grew up in Kansas City, joined the 90 Day Men in 1996, shortly
before they moved from Saint Louis to Chicago. During the next decade the
group would morph from a dark postpunk combo into an ambitious indie-prog
outfit. But following a European tour in the spring of 2004 to support
their most recent album, Panda Park, they decided to slow down. "We'd been
touring perpetually, and it got to the point where we really wanted to stop
and reassess things," Lowe says. "So we just decided to go on an indefinite
hiatus. It gave me the opportunity to really start working on ideas I had
in my head for quite a while."
Lowe had long thought about playing some kind of minimalist live improv
music -- he sold CD-Rs of his home recordings at 90 Day Men shows and
finished the first track for Lichens' debut in early 2004 -- but he wasn't
able to find the time to finish the record until this past March. Recording
at Soma Electronic Music Studios and the now defunct Humboldt Park arts
space Camp Gay, Lowe brought in a variety of instruments -- including
acoustic and electric guitar, fife, and bells -- and experimented with
different mike setups to capture his ethereal vocalization.
"I think people generally misunderstand the term improvisation," Lowe says.
"Some people think, 'Oh, I'll just bang on a pot, that's improvising.' But
it's not that simple. It's a much more cohesive process -- there's a
skeletal framework for everything I did on the record. That being said, the
whole idea of happy accidents is something I'm really keen on. That's the
whole impetus for what I'm doing. It's taking a very simple idea and
watching it evolve in front of you."
The three songs on The Psychic Nature of Being -- "Kirlian Auras,"
"Shoreline Scoring," and the 20-minute "You Are Excrement, You Can Turn
Yourself Into Gold" -- are rooted in drone, psych, and ambient music, but
there are flickers of Morricone twang, Fahey-style fingerpicking, and Far
Eastern folk. "I've been listening to a fair amount of heavier music, metal
and hardcore, which is kinda funny considering where I'm at right now," he
says. "But I always listen to 20th-century classical, free jazz, folk,
soul, and psych. I listen to all sorts of shit. And maybe that's why
everything is coming out the way it is."
As Lichens, Lowe has played solo, with a drummer, with a viola player, and
occasionally with no instruments at all: when he performed at New York
City's Knitting Factory in early January he sang a cappella. "It's always
different, mainly because I want to make sure that I'm not treading over
the same ground," he says.
To that end, Lowe is involved in a raft of other projects. He's been
collaborating with Jeremy Lemos and Matt Clark of the local psych-drone act
White/Light for another improv project, White/Lichens, which headlines the
Empty Bottle on Monday; the trio recently recorded material for an album
slated to come out next year. At last month's Adventures in Modern Music
festival Lowe debuted an unnamed trio with ex-Black Dice drummer Hisham
Bharoocha and Battles multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton; they plan to
write and record this winter. And already in the can is a drone album by
Dream Weapon, a group featuring Lowe, percussionist Michael Zerang, and
members of local free-folk outfit Town and Country. Lowe sings and plays
tamboura in the group, which also includes violin, viola, harmonium, and
hand drums; the combo takes its name from the Dreamachine, a whirring,
illuminated contraption invented by Beat-era artist Brion Gysin, which the
band uses as part of its performance.
Lowe's cohorts in the 90 Day Men have also moved on to other projects.
Guitarist Brian Case joined the Ponys and has a solo act, Parish School;
keyboardist Andy Lansangan plays with Sterling; and Cayce Key plays drums
in Half Cut. But Lowe says the 90 Day Men are still a going concern. "We're
all doing things really steadily," he says. "But we're definitely still a
band." He notes that the group's committed to playing a festival in Austria
in April, "under the constraints that we actually have [new] music written
by then, which shouldn't be a problem."
In the meantimeLowe has more Lichens work to keep him busy. In November
he'll tour with Bharoocha's new group, Soft Circle, and the Brooklyn outfit
Grizzly Bear. The next Lichens release will be a limited-edition seven-inch
single that includes a book featuring works contributed by 15 artists,
including Justin Schaefer, Becca Mann, and Devendra Banhart.
Lowe admits his packed schedule has him feeling harried, but he's quick to
add that the work is keeping him fulfilled creatively. "Sometimes it's a
little hard to keep everything straight," he says. "Sometimes it gets a
little jumbled. But I manage. Mainly I'm doing what I want, and that's the
most important thing."
White/Lichens, Number None, Zoo Wheel, Maths Balance Volumes
When Mon 10/10, 9:30 PM
Where Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Info 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401
- Wow; when I first saw the subject, I thought Carl was getting starved
for conversation partners.
On Friday, October 7, 2005, at 03:49 PM, Carl Zimring wrote:
> October 7, 2005
> The Psychedelic Minimalist
> 90 Day Men bassist Robert Lowe finds music where the algae meet the
- The other lichens actually get mentioned around the house as there are some
pretty ones in NZ. I'm not going to subject you all to those conversations!
--On Friday, October 7, 2005 6:03 PM -0400 "Kevin J. Hosey"
> Wow; when I first saw the subject, I thought Carl was getting starved
> for conversation partners.
> On Friday, October 7, 2005, at 03:49 PM, Carl Zimring wrote:
>> October 7, 2005
>> The Psychedelic Minimalist
>> 90 Day Men bassist Robert Lowe finds music where the algae meet the
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