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Empty House Cooperative - Interview with David Michael Curry

  by John Clarkson

published: 21 / 2 / 2002

Empty House Cooperative - Interview with David Michael Curry


Improvisational consortium, the Empty House Cooperative have recently released their debut album on the hinah label. With other albums in the pipeline, the group's leader David Curry talks about what promises to be an exciting year for the Boston projec

David Michael Curry is the regular viola player in the Boston alternative rock consortium, the Willard Grant Conspiracy.  A self-taught multi-instrumentalist, Curry joined the Willard Grant Conspiracy in 1997 and has appeared on the band's last three albums, 'Flying Low' (1998), 'Mojave' (1999) and 'Everything's Fine' (2000). He has also played on various of the group's live CDs and worked on the band's new mini-album, recorded over a two day session last year, with the Dutch electronic band Telefunk.  It was  released in January as part of the Konkurrent label's occasional ‘In the Fishtank' series. As well as being a member of the Willard Grant Conspiracy, Curry also works regularly as a session musician and is actively involved with several other musical projects. He played the viola and the trumpet on the former Come star Thalia Zedek's debut solo album 'Been Here and Gone' (2001), and is an occasional member of the Chicago improvisational act, Boxhead Ensemble. He has  toured also with that group and worked  on its second album,  'Two Brothers' ( 2001). After becoming interested in experimental music in general, and the ways in which different players interpret music, Curry formed his own improvisational project, the Empty House Cooperative in 1997. The band began casually, over a series of brunch and music sessions in Curry' apartment, with the idea of exploring improvised music in general, and had no initial formula, but has since evolved to encompass  together elements of jazz, chamber music and avant-garde noise rock.  Curry, who describes himself as the Empty House Cooperative's coordinator, plays viola, guitar, horn, loop samples, and piano in the project, and is its only permanent member. Other members of the line-up fluctuate, depending on who is available, but regularly include from Boston:  Zedek (clarinet), Chris Brokaw (guitar), and Brian Corr (fretless bass, euphonium);  from New York: Jonah Sacks (cello), and Nick Patterson (turkish saz, piano, banjo);  and from Montreal: Thierry Amar (upright bass),  Scott Chernoff (percussion, guitar and banjo) and Sean 'Fluffy' McDonald (scrap metal, singing saw). The Empty House Cooperative released its debut album, the limited edition 'Improvisational Music', a recording of a set played at Massachusetts Institute of Technology radio station WMBR in August 2000, on the French micro-label hinah at the end of last year. It also contributed a track 'Lilac' to the new Spanish Acuarela label compilation, 'Acuarela Songs', and recorded another three albums worth of material over a two day session at the Higher Power Recording Studio in New York State last May. Curry hopes to release some of this material later this year, and also to tour in  both America and Europe with  the band. In an interview with Pennyblackmusic, his first, he talked about  his ambitions for the group; its history and its development, and his work  both with the Willard Grant Conspiracy and also in other projects. PB: You’re a multi-instrumentalist? Which instruments do you play? DMC: I used to write songs on guitar. My main instruments are the viola and guitar. I can also play a little bit of trumpet, and various other things too like the cello. I played drums for a little while, but I like to forget that, as I’m not  that great a drummer. I pick things up and make a noise with them. If I like the noise, I keep playing those things, and if I don’t, I leave it aside. I’ve got a large collection of instruments in my house. PB: One of the things you list on the WGC website as an influence was a spoof group from your days at art college called the Bob Jones Experience. You have said that this group made you decide you wanted a career in music ? Who were they? DMC: That was a band that friends of mine had in art school. It was really kind of liberating to watch these people play music who really couldn’t play music at all. They were about freedom and self-expression. Their attitude was not to worry about what other people were thinking, and they were really great fun to watch.  I started playing guitar as a result at about the same time in 1986. PB:  Why did you decide to call your own project the Empty House Cooperative? DMC: It’s not a jazz project, although it's a jazz type of name. For me, it’s more about the vibe that the music has… a bit lonely, but put together by a group in an unspoken way. PB:  One of the implications of the name "Empty House" is that here is something  that you could fill with anything you like. Was that part o the idea  behind the name as well ? DMC: Yes, definitely! PB: The project began very casually. At what point did you decide to make a go of it, and to give it more of a structure? DMC: I was having a lot of fun doing it and didn't want to let go of it. From it being a casual sort of thing to something more solid, therefore, didn’t take that much of a leap. I'm looking forward to the time now when I can put more energy still into it, which I hope will be this year, and to getting some of these recordings out which I  have. PB:  You recently recorded three albums worth of material at the Higher Power Studio in New York State. Why did you decide to go there to do these recordings ? DMC: It's a really a beautiful place. It was originally a church, but it was sold and converted into a studio. The acoustics are amazing, and the sound engineer, Bryce Goggin, who owns it, is just great. He recorded Thalia Zedek’s record in the same place, and I discovered Higher  Power while working on that. I was really impressed with it, and I talked to Bryce then about the possibility of recording the Empty House Cooperative  there sometime. He does a lot of rock band work, but he is also interested in anything left of centre, and it just went from there really. PB: It's a wooden church. How much of an effect do you think that had, if anything,  on the recording's sound ? DMC: I think the whole atmosphere of the place affected the recording. It was a really relaxing place to record in, and is very spacious. People sat in a big  circle, and really  paid attention to what everyone else was  playing. It is really easy to get comfortable there. When you're in a really beautiful place, and you have such great acoustics, it really inspires you to give as great a performance as you can. PB:  What do you hope to do with these three albums and sequences worth of material ? DMC: One of the three sequences, 'Full Length for Fancy', will be released on a small label from Montreal called Fancy, which is where Molasses release their own  recordings. Some of the folks from Molasses came to record on some of the Empty House Cooperative's stuff. There is a kind of musical exchange going on at the moment betwee our little Boston and Montreal scenes, which has been great, so it’s going to be released there.  I don't know what I will do with the other tw sequence yet . I might self-release one, but I'm not really sure. PB :  You've also got  some  live recordings that you hope to release. You've recently released 'Improvisational Music', a recording of a show that you did on the WMBR  radio station,  on hinah. What else are you hoping to put out ? DMC: I have a home recording from one of the brunches that I would like to put out, and that's about it at really. At some point also I'd like to release the WMBR  stuff on a larger label. hinah have been  really great and are very  supportive. Their aim is to get people to value music and they are great fun to work with, but unfortunately they only have very limite resources. A hinah internet-only release is a home-made limited editio of 50 copies. I’m very happy with the website work they’ve done for EHC, Willard Grant Conspiracy, and others… PB: You have said on the WGC web site that you're interested in the ways in which different players interpret music. Was that the reason why you decided to  revolve the Empty House Cooperative with a floating line-up ? DMC: It is one reason for sure. The other reason though is to give me and the other people in the group the chance to  play with people who might otherwise not be available. It is all about being flexible really. Jonah Sacks, the cello player, recently moved to Brooklyn, so I don’t get to play with him as often as I would like, but it means I am still able to work with him. It has also been really great as well to include people from Montreal and to have that cultural exchange. It is like an extended family really PB: The Empty House Cooperative originally started with no formula. Since then it has developed a sound that has elements of jazz,  chamber music and also  avant-garde noise-rock. Do you see it as having developed a formula now ? DMC: I don’t like to see it as a formula, but I think that you’re right to say  it has its own sound. My goal now is to keep building and expanding on that sound.  I really like the vibe the group has.  As I have been away touring quite a lot recently, I haven't had the chance to get together with the other musicians in the band to play with them in some time, so I don't have any radical ideas  for  doing anything  terribly different sounding right now. PB: When the Empty House Cooperative is about to record or to play a piece do you have any kind of criteria  which you work with? Do you make any kind of decision  to start it  or end it in any particular way, or  to make it a particular length, or anything like that ? DMC: We try to try out different ideas. We have a couple of pieces that we have developed over time, and which  have become loose compositions. The people who already have played it play what they know, and the people who haven’t played on it before add to it. We also do something that I call the 'Show and Tell' series (from the children’s game), in which one person from the group starts a piece and  leads it, and then the other people in the band follow. I might say "Scott, this one is yours", or "Chris, you start this one" and then we all add  to what  that person was creating. PB: You play a lot of what you describe as “dinner music”? What does that involve ? DMC: That’s more an environmental thing. We sit in a little restaurant and play music. We had a regular gig for a long time at the Middle East (a restaurant and music venue and we would play while people were eating. Sometimes I would try to get my friends to come and see it. A lot of the time they would, but most of the people who were hanging around there weren’t there for the music, so I started calling it dinner music, as a way to laugh about it, and as  a nickname for a gig that was by no means  ideal, but which was interesting in its own way. PB: Another of the group’s achievements has been to participate in the national Jack Kerouac Festival in his home town of Lowell, Massachusetts. You provided then an ambient score to a seven hour reading of his book ‘Big Sur’. How many members of the Empty House Cooperative were involved in this, and how did you enjoy that experience ? DMC:  It was a really hot day, a ninety-degree Fahrenheit heat.  We hadaround fifteen people on stage. The Montreal people came down from Canada, because they are fans of Kerouac and they wanted a road trip. The New York people also came, and some friends from a band called Tiger Saw, of Newburyport, Massachusetts. We left the line-up really loose. Sometimes people would take a walk or a break, so it kind of rotated through the day. It was exhausting, but a lot of fun. PB: You’ve also been a regular member of the Willard Grant Conspiracy for several years. When did you first meet with Robert Fisher and Paul Austin (the group’s co-founders-Ed), and when did you first start working with them? DMC: I had met them on the Boston scene before then, but I was officially introduced to them by James Apt (former guitarist and bassist with the band-Ed), who I had gone to school with. I had just started teaching myself to play the violin, and he said “I know this band who are looking for a violin player”, and that  was the Willard Grant Conspiracy. Shortly after I became involved with them, I found a really inexpensive viola cheap in a store. I don’t have a lot of money, but I was able to get a really good deal on it. I wanted to get more into a deeper sound and that worked well with the Willard Grant. I have been with them since the ‘Flying Low’ record. If you listen to the stuff I played on that, and you compare it to the stuff I have played on their recent records, there is a big difference. I was early in my learning then. PB: The WGC, like the Empty House Cooperative, has a floating line-up, but it works to a more regular structure, with Robert Fisher, and until recently Paul Austin (who has recently left the band-Ed), writing the majority of the songs, before bringing them to the band. How much room is there for improvisation there ? DMC: There’s a lot of room for improvisation there, and it’s actually really free. The easy part of that is that there are song structures to lean on, which makes playing  easier than whipping something up out of the blue. Robert’s also really careful about who he chooses to play with. He tends to choose people who  are really good at listening and responding to whatever the other players are doing. PB: You also play in the Boxhead Ensemble, which is coordinated by Michael Krassner. How did you become involved in that project? DMC: I was aware of ‘Dutch Harbour’, their first album, when it came out, and I  really liked it. I thought that it was beautiful. They came to play in Boston, and I went and said hello, and brought a demo tape of my own music, because they seemed like the kind of group that might be open to new players. About two years later I got an e-mail from Michael Krassner asking if I might be able to meet with them and maybe get together and do some music. The timing was perfect, because I was on tour with Willard Grant Conspiracy, and we happened to be going to Chicago at the same time he wanted me to meet with them. I was able to have a recording day the with Boxhead Ensemble, and  some of that ended up on the ‘Two Brothers’ record. PB:  Last few questions. You’ve mentioned Molasses a few times. Who are they ? DMC : Molasses! They’re another large, loose collective, specializing in ghostly, Western-sounding dirges. One of their records CDs has an awesome 14-minute version of '“Amazing Grace'. They’re part of that kind of thing that I was talking about earlier, that cross-cultural thing. Some of them come down to play with the Empty House Cooperative and some of us, like me & Chris Brokaw, and Thalia Zedek, have been playing with them as well. The five hour drive makes it happen less often than I'd like. Thalia and I went to Montreal for four days in late December to record on the Molasses new album, and Chris went in February to lay down some guitar. It should be out this summer or fall. PB: On top of that you have recently managed to play some shows in Ireland with Will Oldham as well? How did you become involved with him? DMC: That’s sort of a similar story to the Boxhead Ensemble. When he came to play in Boston, a few years ago, in about  1997, or perhaps even a little earlier, I introduced myself to him and gave him a stack of recordings. About a year later I received a postcard. It worked out that I got to play viola with him for a few shows in 1998, and then  last year I got to play with him again in Ireland. It was really fun. PB: Are you a full time musician? DMC:  I wish I could say that I am, but I paint walls between touring to pay the rent. PB:   What can we expect from you over the course of the next year? DMC:  I am going to paint a lot of walls, and I really want to develop the Empty House Cooperative and definitely try to get the recordings out. We might also be involved in doing some live theatre sound stuff. PB: Will you be continuing to work with the WGC and in other projects as well ? DMC: Yes, definitely. PB:  Thank you DMC: Thank you

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Empty House Cooperative - Interview with David Michael Curry

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Improvisional Music (2001)
The Empty House Cooperative is the musical project of David Michael Curry,a classically trained viola player who is best known for his work as a regular recording and touring member of the Boston alt

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