SATAN ROSENBLOOM CHATS WITH JAMES PLOTKIN FROM JODIS
James Plotkin is that rare extreme music creator that denies no creative impulse. His back catalog matches the industrial sonic terrorism of OLD with the hollowed-out doom of Khanate, the Lotus Eaters’ cavernous, electro-acoustic drones with Phantomsmasher’s calculated digital brutality. Not to mention his dozens of solo guitar and ambient releases. The thin grey thread that runs through all of Plotkin’s projects? Restless experimentation, a trait that’s found him dissolving and expanding the boundaries of extreme music for two decades. Experimentation is at the heart of Plotkin’s newest group Jodis, an open-ended collaboration with vocalist Aaron Turner (Isis/Old Man Gloom) and drummer Tim Wyskida (Khanate/Khlyst). Plotkin recently sat down with MetalSucks to talk about Jodis’s new Hydra Head release Secret House. As you’ll read, his reflections on his own creative process are just as wide-ranging and thoughtful as his discography.
I wanted to ask some basic stuff. How did Jodis get together?
It was pretty non-eventful, I guess. Me and Tim are always working on stuff, and we came up with a bunch of recordings that we thought were good but sort of needed a third element. I wanted to work with Aaron on something substantial for awhile now, and we decided that vocals were really what the music needed. I figured it would be a really good project to work with him on. We thought about different vocalists that might fit with something like that, and it wasn’t really so easy. There is a distinct lack of vocalists that are willing to experiment these days. We mulled over a few different ideas and then passed the tracks onto him to see if he was interested, and he was. He worked on the tracks from there. It was a pretty casual forming of a band.
Was there always an idea of the style of vocals you wanted or was that pretty much up to Aaron?
Yeah, that was up to him. We had ideas of what would work. A lot of music that I’ve done in the past was completely up to me to dictate what direction it’s going to go in. This is something that I wanted it to be a bunch of different perspectives combined as opposed to me mapping out what I wanted for the project. We gave him full license to do whatever he wanted to do. We were pretty amazed with the diversity of the vocals that he put down. You could definitely tell he put in a lot of effort and approached it with a pretty open mind which is exactly what I was hoping for.
I was looking at your discography, and it’s pretty evenly separated between solo works and collaborations with other people. Do you prefer one or the other or are you usually going for completely different dynamics depending on what the project is?
Yeah, it’s definitely up to each individual project. I see the advantages and disadvantages of working in the 2 ways. I’m always more interested to see what other people are going to bring to a project. Of course, if you’re a control freak, that could present some kind of problem [laughs]. I guess I have been lucky enough in the past whatever collaborations or bands that I’ve been in, it’s always been really sort of rewarding to have other people involved and bringing their perspective to what’s going on. Solo work is rewarding in a sense that you can just get on with it and not have to worry about anybody else’s agenda or schedule or opinion really [laughs]. There are obvious positive points to each method. Personally I enjoy working with other people that I can respect and sort of admire. That’s rewarding in itself. Sometimes you just need to get something down and get it down, which case working alone is the most problem free way of going about doing something like that.
So this would seem to be a completely different kind of solitary work than you’re average black metal auteur doing everything himself because he’s socially awkward or misanthropic?
[Laughs] I suppose so. I only started doing solo work out of necessity, but if I’m working with someone or in a band with someone it’s obviously because I want to work with that person. It’s not like I’m forced to deal with someone else’s style or perspective or anything. It’s something that I obviously got myself into. I definitely prefer the outcome of something like that. It’s really impossible to look at something objectively when it’s entirely your creation. I can’t really enjoy solo work that I’ve done. I can sort of dissect it and decide whether it’s worthwhile or worth releasing or came out the way it’s supposed to. I hate to think of music as a social experiment, but if you’re in a band, it basically is. Like I’ve said, I’ve been lucky enough to have good results in that way of working in the past.
You’ve worked with so many phenomenal musicians as collaborators from across the genre spectrum. You’ve worked with grindcore gods like Mick Harris and Dave Witte, then more experimental musicians like John Zorn and Ikue Mori. How does collaborating with Aaron and Tim feel different than some of those past experiences?
I don’t know if it does really. The content is obviously different as opposed to working with people from like the downtown New York City jazz; they’re all pretty much fascists when it comes to their musical idea [laughs]. If you’re not doing something right, then they’ll let you know about it. Working with Aaron is obviously a much more relaxed experience. There’s really not that much of a difference. I hate to contradict myself like that, but I guess I’ve known Aaron long enough that we sort of get along well enough that I respect him enough to let him get on with it. Working with some of the musicians that you’ve mentioned is kind of like a call and response thing where they’re quicker to sort of initiate a direction and I’m the one responding to that, whereas working with Aaron and Tim, I’m usually the one that’s throwing out the starting point and they respond to that. So the roles are a bit different in that aspect. Collaborations in general you just sort of have to give up a certain amount of control and see what happens.
It’s interesting to me, just on a side note; I know Mick Harris and John Zorn have that Painkiller project together, right?
And Dave Witte did Phantomsmasher… it’s like you have these people who seem to be great musicians but are in a more fertile, artistic mindset to begin with.
Dave Lombardo, I guess, is the same way. He’s done a lot of projects too. So let’s turn back to the album a little bit. First, what’s behind the name Jodis and also Secret House?
Secret House is Aaron’s trip. I guess he approached the lyrics from a pretty personal standpoint. I really don’t have much to do with that – I never have with lyricists in the past. I really don’t even care to sort of indulge in what they’re going on about. The name Jodis is a type of moth. To be honest, coming up with band names these days . . . you can’t really consider concept all that much because just about ever name out there has been taken. You really just have to come up with something that hasn’t been used and that you don’t mind at this point. We went through numerous names only to find out that they had been taken, and we didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes. I’ve been sued twice in the past for using names that had already been taken.
I wasn’t about to take that chance again. There’s really not much of a concept going on. If there is, it really is Aaron’s trip and you need to ask him about it. As far as conceptual music and art, I really don’t have much to do with that. I’m more about the sound and the actual music itself as opposed to any meaning behind it. I think if you start to get into concept too much, you can actually turn people off as opposed to get them more involved as far as politics, ideology, lyrics and music and whatnot. I’m not interested in it that much.
With that said, do you have a sense of what Aaron was going for lyrically? I can make out the lyrics for one song.
Right, right. It has a lot to do with his personal life and the more oppressive and depressing nature of life in general and maybe things he had going on in his life at the time. So, like I said, it’s almost like it’s none of my business [laughs]. I’m using them as lyrics for music that’s being released for public consumption, so he’s obviously putting it out there for people. I might have an idea of what it’s about, but it’s not of too much interest to me [laughs]. It’s kind of weird saying that about something that has my name on it. As far as I’m concerned, the music I listen to doesn’t even need lyrics. Vocals are one thing – an instrument, it’s a sound. With Khanate, Alan was such a great lyricist that it was a real bonus. It obviously added a great deal to what we were doing, but lyrics in general are something that I’ve never really been interested in and actually kind of turn me off sometimes if I hear something that I don’t necessarily believe or agree with or find aesthetically distasteful. It’s obviously going to take away from the music, so I never really paid much attention to it.
Let’s turn to the music then. In terms of how you structure the album or the compositions, how much of Secret House is improvised verses structured?
In the beginning it’s basically all improvised. As far as the writing process goes, I just come up with something and go over it a few times and wait for Tim to come up with something that either compliments or contrasts it and take it from there. It’s all basically being recorded as it is being flushed out. In that aspect, the music is 100% improvised. As it is being worked on in sort of real time, it’s sort of becoming a structure. I guess you could say it’s probably the quickest composition process that you can do. I have a pretty short string of patience when it comes to actually working on music. I usually sort of have things worked out in my head to the point where I sort of expect everybody else to have it worked out the same way. It’s kind of unreasonable, but I like to play with people who can actually catch on to something really quickly and not think about things too much or over think anything. You start to over analyze stuff like that then it becomes a lot less natural and a lot more forced sounding. I want to be in the space where – it might sound kind of cheesy or ridiculous, but you are sort of in the moment where your style is really coming out. It’s not something that is forced. It’s really the art of improvisation, I guess, and what you’re bringing into it. As soon as something starts to feel contrived in any way, then I’m not really interested [laughs].
It’s funny that you mentioned that you have a very short attention span when it comes to preparing music. This is profoundly patient music that you make.
Yeah, yeah. My attention span is actually pretty solid. I can latch onto something and really jump into it for any amount of time. It’s just sort of my patience with people. These days I really can’t comprehend how people can rehearse the same songs over and over again or how they can work on composing a track over a couple of months. It’s completely foreign idea to me. I don’t know how people have the patience for it. When something is in my head, it’s there and I don’t really need to compose it into the ground. Obviously the songs on the album are so minimal and there’s really not that much movement. It’s more detail and texture orientated than anything else, but if we were to work on those tracks, the only thing that would have happened would be that they would be way too mechanical, the beat would probably suffer. You wouldn’t have these subtle shifts and nuance and texture that actually make it interesting. It then actually becomes contrived of itself almost. You will start to add these things that don’t need to be there. I think sometimes in certain types of music, composition can actually hurt the final piece and this was one of those types of music that it was more about atmosphere, detail and tonality and texture. It’s definitely better the first time than composing and repeating. It wouldn’t make sense to do that.
Would that imply that you are not too jazzed to play live with Jodis or are you open to it?
I think it’s a completely different aspect of the band really. The tracks are already there. If we can approach a live show in the same sort of open manner that we approached recording the songs, then I think it would be fun. I’m not really a fan of rehearsing so if we can get a general idea of what we’re going to do in a live situation and let it just sort of happen every night the way it’s going to happen, then I think that’ll be fine. I think a live situation would be a pretty could context for this material anyway because the instrumentation is minimal but the sound is quite dense. It’s probably pretty good for a live setting.
Secret House sounds like a more meditative Khanate to me, and I know you’ve probably heard that before.
Did you and Tim feel like you had more to say along those lines when Khanate broke up or did you conceive of this as a wholly different endeavor?
Tim and I were working on material for a fourth Khanate album when we decided to split up. This isn’t any of that material. We actually have some recordings of that material that might be used for something in the future – we’re not sure about that. It’s definitely a different endeavor altogether. There are bits and pieces of Khanate and a few other things that I do, but I think it’s more that I like to use ideas. If there’s something that I come up with that I think that it’s worthwhile then I’ll use it in something else. I’m not just going to discard it because of one particular band no longer being together. I definitely agree with the sort of notion that Jodis is very similar to Khanate as far as the pace and the sort of overall movement of the tracks, but at the same time it’s really just my interpretation. I’ve heard some other interpretations of what people think Jodis is like. I think that they’re all pretty much valid, but I have my own ideas. Sorry if this is the most uninspired interview you’ve ever done [laughs].
No not at all – third most uninspired.
There is no conscious effort made to sort of continue the spirit of Khanate or anything like that.
I think that this applies more to classical or minimalist avant-garde composers and musicians, there’s often this sense of an idea or a musical problem that you are working on, and it could be throughout your career. You’re not attacking melody, harmony, and rhythm in conventional ways. As you’ve said, Jodis is exploring more textures and moods. Are you sort of uninterested in those more conventional musical tropes?
I get a lot of enjoyment out of that side of music just like everybody else. The stuff I listen to in my personal life is across the spectrum. I listen to a lot of conventional music myself. In order to keep myself interested in what I’m doing, it has to be something either beyond that or on a different influential plane. It’s great to get instant gratification out of music if that’s what you need at that point and time, but whenever I’m actually working, the last thing I need is instant gratification. I’d rather spend time constructing something a bit different and maybe slightly challenging – at least more challenging than say the conventional meter and four bar blues progressions and stuff like that. I’m definitely not interested in conventional music, but as far as my own preferences in creation and work involved, I need a lot more than that to keep myself interested.
I would go even further than calling what you do challenging, at least with Khanate and Jodis and say that there are times during the album where it seems almost deliberately uncomfortable. In a good way because it seems open and vulnerable. We’re not used to vulnerable music especially that has something that has ties to metal. There are those uncomfortable moments when there are these really wide, spacious chords and Aaron is screaming over it.
Yeah. I definitely appreciate that. It’s difficult music, and you really have to sort of want to be challenged . . . well I don’t know about challenged. I’d rather make someone feel uncomfortable than make them feel sort of content. I don’t know. If someone feels uncomfortable it’s obviously because they’re confused or they’re conflicted or something like that. If you can do that with your art then you’re probably striking some interesting chords anyway.
Do you think that it’s important for you that your art comes from a place of vulnerability or is it just a byproduct of how you make music?
It’s definitely not conscious, but it’s probably why. When we’re making music it’s not so much a direct influence of other music. It’s really just a combination of life experiences and stuff. If it wasn’t uncomfortable or challenging than it wouldn’t really reflect what we go through in life. I don’t like to get too in depth of emotion and stuff like that in music. It exists, but it’s not really something that I need to dissect. If I can make something that’s going to actually provoke that sort of response from someone, then I guess it’s just a much more honest type of music I think.
There’s this stillness at the chorus of Secret House that I almost think of it as this monastery of sounds. Aaron’s vocals even sound like the modal chanting that you would have heard in medieval chant music. Is that music inspiring to you at all?
Yeah. Whether or not I listen to it is beside the point. The fact that it exists in the way that it does – yeah it’s definitely an inspiration and Aaron brings a lot of that to the record with what he’s doing with the vocals, so you might want to him about it. There is a certain meditational aspect to what we’re doing. Once again, it’s not really deliberate but there’s a certain way that you can get lost in something like that or time gets suspended in a certain way that that’s really sort of attractive to me and music in general. It’s not so much drone music, but something that can envelope you and helps you block out everything that’s going on around you. That’s something that’s very appealing to me in music. If I can sort of live my entire existence in that type of vacuum, I would probably be a much happier person [laughs].
Well you’ve had a lot of music that doesn’t just have that enveloping vacuum feel. Your stuff with Phantomsmash is all about high speeds and density, but with Khanate and Jodis it’s slow, spacious, and almost feels more organic. What’s your fascination with those 2 pulls or extremes?
I guess it’s just a healthy interest in extremes in general really or just pushing things. I’ve never been interested in just making a standard record or something that people can listen to passively. I want to be able to listen to something that I’ve done and be able to understand how it could either – not offend somebody but sort of impossible to ignore. I just hate any sort of passive nature. I want to be poked and prodded. It’s sort of why I make music to jab somebody with a sharp object or something for a reaction – any kind of reaction. Negative reactions are just as valid as positive ones. With Khanate, for example, we all sort of got off on negative reactions from people more so than the positive reactions. It’s such a cliché that you want to maybe offend people with your art or you want to be shocking or something. It’s not really the shock value or the offensive nature of it that does it for me. Any sort of reaction is welcome.
Tell me a little bit about the electronic processing that you use in this. There’s plenty of it, but it’s used in a much different way than say what you brought to OLD or Khlyst. Was the sound design aspect of creating Secret House just as important to you as the actual playing?
Can you even separate the two?
With Jodis it was more of just having an atmosphere and having everything being clear enough that you can create that sort of space. There really wasn’t that much, outside of the vocals, processing going on. Aaron did a lot of the voice collage and the voice processing himself. My main goal was to fit everything into the mix and have it all come together. For the guitar, the only thing that was added was maybe a little reverb or echo. Outside of that, maybe just some long delays to create a drone or some sort of loop. I say that Jodis is much sparser with the use of electronics than anything that I’ve done in the past. OLD was all about effects. Phantomsmasher is incredibly effect laden and heavy with the editing. Khanate I was using a lot of voice processing on my own to use Alan’s voice as a secondary sort of sound source. Jodis is much more natural sounding in that arena. It’s something that I’d rather have or remain organic as opposed to introducing too many processors and stuff like that. That would deaden the sound to be honest.
Clearly there is very little that could be considered metal about the Jodis release, but it is still floating around the peripheries. Do you feel yourself a natural affinity or connection between ambient music and heavy metal?
No more than any other two genres I guess. For the majority of my life, those were probably my two main interests really. I grew up with metal, industrial music and experimental music. I guess ambient falls somewhere in there. It’s always been a driving influence in my life. For me personally, I sort of incorporated the genres into a lot of what I’ve done, so I guess there would be some sort of connection. I don’t really think there is a natural connection between the two more than any other two types of genres. There are other types of music that go together with a lot less effort than those two types of music. Really, I guess if you could sort of use both in the same form, then I guess you’re doing a pretty good job because they are heavily contrasted types of music.
Okay, last question. Do you think at all about the visual realm when you’re creating music for Jodis or your other projects?
No, never really. It’s strange because I’m a very visually orientated person. I’m obsessed with details, and it’s strange that I never really do that actually.
So there’s been no real attempt to collaborate with film makers in the past or score anything?
No. It’s always something I’ve been interested in doing. I’ve never really connected the two. From an outside standpoint by watching films and whatnot, it’s really easy to sort of imagine what should be happening in the audio. It’s not something that I’ve ever done personally in my career. I’ve never scored a film. I’ve never imagined a space while composing music and I’ve never done my own artwork for a release. I just sort of leave that up to the people that have the talent to do that in that area. Luckily, most of the bands that I’ve been in have had somebody that was a design artist or an artist in general. I’ve been lucky enough to know plenty of amazing artists to sort of take care of that side of what I’m doing.
I’m guessing Aaron probably did the art for the Jodis album.
Yeah, he did. O’Malley always took care of Khanate, and I know people like Seldon Hunt and Stephen Kasner that are always willing to collaborate on releases and whatnot. So I’m more blessed than most people I know with loads of visual artists to work with.
You’re a charmed man, Mr. Plotkin.