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Tautologic - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 9 / 2 / 2018

Tautologic - Interview


Ethan Sellers, Chicago-based, co-founder of Chicago prog rock group Tautologic, elaborates with Lisa Torem on the making of new album, ‘Re:Psychle’, on which often-marginalised people are given a voice.

Ethan Sellers is the label owner, publisher and artists manager of Chicago-based set up Turtle Down Music. In addition, he is the co-founder of Tautologic, which recently released their third album, ‘Re:Psychle’. In his first interview with Pennyblackmusic Ethan chronicles the history of this colourful band’s formation, the meaning behind the sophisticated cover illustration, and how exploring the diverse themes that thread through ‘Re:Psychle’ have sensitized the players to disconcerting urban issues as well as the resilience of their fellow man. PB: ‘Re:Psychle’, Tautologic’s new release is about ‘problems of the spirit that keep coming back’. Can you elaborate on that statement? ES: There's an expression – ‘hurt people hurt people’ - the damage that is done to us by others ends up getting reflected back to the world in the things that we do in response. No matter what technological advances we make, the human race repeatedly fails to solve the real underlying problems that create our various miseries. We don't take care of each other (and the planet), and that failure always comes back to haunt us. Sometimes these problems come back to haunt us in the form of people whose mental health and addiction problems make us feel uncomfortable when we encounter them on the street, as in many of the characters in Re:Psychle. Other times it comes back as war, famine, and social upheaval. The oil painting I created for the cover art depicts a high-wheeler bicycle (known as a Penny Farthing in the UK – Ed) - an expensive purchase back in the Gilded Age - with a phrenology diagram in its larger wheel. Phrenology is a now-discredited pseudoscience related to behaviour and the brain. This imagery is meant to reflect that an old and flawed concept is used as the primary intellectual support for an old and inefficient system. Perhaps it's time for a re-think? PB: The band was formed in the late 1990’s by you and Pat Buzby, but began incorporating line-up changes in 2000. Can you please summarize the story of how the band came together and whether the subsequent lineup changes greatly affected the overall sound and focus of the band thereafter? ES: I began the process of forming Tautologic after completing my degree at the University of Chicago in 1996. Original Tautologic bassist Daniel Veidlinger and I became friends, roommates, and collaborators after Dan caught a set by my college band. On the basis of a MIDI-sequencer demo cassette containing the composition that would become ‘The Professor,’ drummer Pat Buzby drove out to audition in 1997 after completing his degree at Oberlin College in Ohio. Among other pieces, the band jammed on ‘Starship Trooper’ by Yes and ‘Starless’ by King Crimson. By late 1997, the band had put together its original line-up, which featured Pat, Dan, me, acoustic guitarist Mick Hirsch, cellist Ken Arai, violinist Henry Bigelow and violist Kristin Davis Edmundson. Kristin soon bowed out and was replaced by Jennifer Justice. In time, the balance of the line-up - save for me and Pat - departed and was replaced with players of varying tenures until reaching the line-up that recorded ‘Re:Psychle’. Given the lengthy gap between recording and release, the band's line-up changed once more and now features Emily Albright on violin/vocals (for departed Jeff Yang, who joined the touring band for Mannheim Steamroller and Il Divo) and Jay Montana on guitar (replacing Aaron Weistrop). The most significant changes to Tautologic's sound came when we introduced electric guitar into the mix and when we started working with saxophonist Chris Greene. Chris leads a wonderful jazz quartet of his own (Chris Greene Quartet), and his impact will be heard to a greater degree on the recording we are readying as a follow-up to Re:Psychle. Electric guitar obviously adds more of a rock edge and Pat's and my taste in guitarists tends towards rock-friendly players with strong jazz backgrounds - which both Aaron Weistrop (electric guitar on Re:Psychle) and Jay Montana (current electric guitarist, featured on our next release). Likewise, Chris's improvisational chops have given us even more flexibility onstage, in addition to another tone colour. Otherwise, the concept and focus of the band have remained consistent. We've done some experimentation along the way - long-form, open-ended group improvisation, roots/folk-rock side projects, in-studio experimentation as on some tracks from BSV.1, and chamber music-style line-ups - but 'Re:Psychle' is essentially a continuation and improvement on the concept behind our first album. PB: Who are the band’s prog rock heroes? How has Tautologic expanded on this popular genre? ES: Genesis and Peter Gabriel's solo career are my biggest prog-rock influences. Although I love to hear great players, I've always been most interested in great, adventurous songwriting. Genesis and its members have typically positioned themselves as songwriters first and foremost. Likewise, Gabriel's experimental approach and collaboration with world musicians speaks right to me. King Crimson and Robert Fripp are also pretty sizable influences. I'm partial to the Lark's ‘Tongue in Aspic’ period and the ‘Discipline’-era band. I've always enjoyed Fripp's online diaries and philosophical leanings. I don't know if you'd actually hear King Crimson influence in our music, but he's always given us something to think about. Pink Floyd is one of those bands that people spend eons arguing over whether they're prog-rock or not. I would say that ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ is a touchstone in its psychedelic confrontation of Syd Barrett's fragmented mental state, but the Roger Waters-era concept albums were a more substantial influence. Although there are a ton of progressive rock acts that I enjoy and I could go on for pages, it's far from the only music to which I listen. I feel that the ethos of the first wave of prog-rock was based on mixing different styles rather than working from any one template. I'm always listening for good ideas to steal and combine with other music I like. PB: ‘Re:Psychle’ is unique in that there is an in depth focus on tough topics such as mental illness, urban isolation and drug addiction. Was this album more of a challenge lyrically and/or psychologically for the band than debut ‘West Is North, East Is South’ and ‘Basement Sessions, Volume1’ because of the intense topics at hand? ES: In some ways, the directness of ‘Re:Psychle’s’ lyrics and intentions are more of a challenge than our previous work. ‘West is North, East is South’ teases some darkness around the edges, but we didn't really play that up when talking about it. ‘Basement Sessions, Volume1’ was mostly just fun, silly songs. Perhaps as a consequence of the acting classes I took in college, the actual lyric-writing process was not significantly more difficult - I put myself into the characters and wrote from inside for several songs. For others, I maintained a sort of clinical distance because I wanted the listener to reflect on the content for themselves. In general, I’m more interested in asking questions than telling the audience the answers. The most difficult lyric to write was ‘The Gospel Lady,’ for which I used my observations of local Christian proselytizers as a way to frame my disenchantment with the all-too-human nature of religious institutions. As an agnostic-but—sympathetic, somewhat-lapsed Christian, I want to be respectful while questioning the role of religious institutions in society. For what it's worth, ‘Osaka Garden’ actually gives the strongest indication of my preferred spiritual mode - contemplating my role in the universe amidst nature. I get more out of a silent walk in the woods than I do from more talk. It's easier to get perspective when you filter out the noise and agendas of humanity. PB: One of the individuals the band met in Chicago, where Tautologic is based, inspired ‘The Whistler’. I am guessing that this veteran rides the trains and is probably seen by hundreds of people per day who may not pay him much attention. What motivated you to get to know this stranger’s story? And at what point did you feel that his story could develop into an enjoyable piece of music as well as a vehicle for empathy? ES: I collect song ideas constantly, although sometimes it takes me years to actually write the song - so sometimes I'll have a bit of music that sounds promising and I'll go through my list and see what themes and imagery might make the best pairing. ‘The Whistler’ is a neighbourhood fixture in Hyde Park, although I don't see him as much as I did when I wrote the song in the early 2000s. In those days, one didn't have a cell phone to stare at all the time, so I spoke with people I met. It sounds silly to say it, but other people are fascinating in person - more entertaining than endlessly scrolling through your social media feed and acting as a voluntary participant in a giant data mining operation. PB: For ‘Loud Shoes,’ you interviewed and wrote a song about a female who had a history of addictive behaviours. Why did you ultimately focus on her obsession for shoes? ES: The inspiration for the title is actually fairly pedestrian and only tangentially related to the subject of the song. Several of us used to rent a house in Hyde Park and we rehearsed in the basement. Two of our female bandmates were the last to arrive and I remember hearing their heels so loud on the floor above the rehearsal space - or at least it seemed loud because the house rule was to take your shoes off when coming inside. To me, high-heeled shoes symbolize the victory of fashion and image over practicality and comfort. They're harder to walk in and they hurt your back. Whenever I wear men's shoes with heels, my back hurts - I can't imagine spending hours in women's high heels. It seems like they were invented by a sadist. Although I can appreciate that clothes can be a legitimate mode of personal expression (buy Tautologic t-shirts and tell everyone what great taste you have!), some aspects of the fashion industry seem to me like a big con to drive consumption, by convincing people that they are inadequate as a result of what they own or how they look. The woman in ‘Loud Shoes’ is an insecure person to me, and so her wardrobe is a sort of armour to protect her inner emptiness. I don't view the character with scorn - I find her 'fashion victim' status tragic. PB: Please tell us about the special guests that performed on the album, including members of Liquid Soul. ES: Johnny ‘Showtime’ Janowiak (trombone, ‘On Your Left’) was a member of Liquid Soul, whose Grammy-nominated CD was produced by Rick Barnes (Rax Trax Recording), who mixed the album. I was familiar with Showtime from the local scene and I think that he was the first trombonist to come to mind when saxophonist Chris Greene and I assembled the horn section for ‘On Your Left.’ Eric Koppa played baritone sax and the late Micah Frazier played trumpet. The horn parts were recorded by Rick at Rax Trax, with whom I'd previously worked on projects I produced for other artists. Nick Photinos (cello) and Michael Maccaferri (clarinets) are both members of Eighth Blackbird, a multiple Grammy award-winning chamber group based in Chicago. Pat Buzby (drums) and Aaron Weistrop (electric guitar) both knew all of the Eighth Blackbird crew from their days at Oberlin, where they all went to college. Nick played on nine out of the ten songs on ‘Re:Psychle’, which is a function of the fact that many of the arrangements dated to a period when Tautologic had a resident cellist. They're both amazing players, their band is outstanding, and they're just wonderful people. I met Diana Lawrence (operatic soprano vocals on the bridge of ‘Coltrane Supermarket’) at a party at Nick's house. She was fresh out of music school and doing some work with Eighth Blackbird. Nowadays, she leads her own band Diana and the Dishes and music directs for various theatre productions. Jennifer Justice was an early member of Tautologic who played viola and sang on ‘West Is North, East Is South.’ She was in town from her current home in Brooklyn, New York City for a couple days, so I asked her to double Diana’s parts on ‘Coltrane Supermarket’. Jennifer Reddick (flute on ‘The Whistler’ and ‘The Professor’) is a flutist/piccolist who used to play with the Elgin Symphony (near Chicago), but now resides in Texas with her husband, who was the best man at my wedding. She primarily works in the classical world, so she was a good sport to go along with my request to do a little bit of an Ian Anderson impression on ‘The Whistler’. Aron Topielski (bass), Jeff Yang (violin, viola), and Aaron Weistrop (electric guitar) were all band members of Tautologic at the time of the recording, but have since moved on to other projects or out of the Chicago area entirely. Aaron Weistrop has become a very in-demand guitarist on the blues, gospel, and R&B working musician scene in Chicago. Aron Topielski moved to New Jersey and directs a high school orchestra. Jeff Yang left Tautologic to play violin in the touring edition of Mannheim Steamroller and to act as concert master for the Il Divo (Simon Cowell's operatic ‘band’) tour. It seems strange to talk this much about special guests and former band members - yet so little about the people on the album who are still in the band, so... Pat Buzby (drums) is Tautologic's co-founder, secondary songwriter, business partner in Turtle Down Music, and general sounding board/editor. He also plays with me in my Cajun/Zydeco and Irish/Scottish/Celtic bands, because - at this point - the way we play together is almost completely unconscious. Nathan Britsch (bass) started with us before he could legally enter the bars we were playing, while he was still in college. He's bright, capable, pleasant, and generally makes gigs happen when I'm sort of overloaded with various details and need to get my head in the game as a frontman. Chris Greene (sax) and I had a long courtship dance, because I could sense that he was a kindred spirit, albeit operating primarily in jazz and soul music. I first met him when he was playing in Kevin O’Donnell's Quality Six, which also featured famous indie rock violinist Andrew Bird. I've done some artwork for Chris Greene Quartet's albums and am always impressed with that band. He came into the picture late in the process of recording this album, but I wanted to get him on a few things. Post – ‘Re:Psychle’ recruits Jay Montana (guitar) and Emily Albright (fiddle, vocals) are great additions to the band and I look forward to people hearing their contributions on the next record. PB: Can you describe the process of orchestrating these original songs for woodwinds and strings? For example, are the arrangements written out or learned by ear. ES: The process of orchestrating Tautologic songs is reasonably straightforward, in that most of the songs are completely notated by their respective authors - which, on this album is ninety percent me (Ethan). Of course, there's a lot of thought that goes into that sole author compositional process - but it's not sociologically complicated. We used to write parts out longhand, but I've been a Finale (music notation software) user for quite some time. Nowadays I just e-mail PDFs of everyone's parts out to them before rehearsal, so that we can just focus on ensemble playing in our limited rehearsal time. There are some exceptions to this general operating procedure: Although I might scat-sing or provide other direction, I generally do not write out drum parts and most of the guitar/sax solos are improvised. The bass lines on ‘On Your Left’ and ‘Gospel Lady’ weren't notated, either - Nathan and I just talked about the groove/feel and he had the changes in front of him. In general, I avoid notating anything boilerplate or that a sensitive and well-rounded player would intuitively generate on their own. I also don't notate parts when I don't have a good idea or want to be surprised. In a perhaps painful bit of irony, my favourite parts of any of Tautologic’s albums are where the players surprised me with their own ideas - probably because I'm not all that impressed with myself in general. PB: The Tautologic follow-up album is eighty percent finished? We’re curious. Will your next album contain a strong social component, too? ES: The next Tautologic album is somewhere around eighty percent finished. I’m planning on a few overdubs (keyboards, vocals, horns) for about half the songs, but otherwise it should be ready to mix/master as soon as our budget is in place. Hopefully sales of ‘Re:Psychle’ will help us raise the money for it! As for social consciousness in the lyrics for the next one… a few of the songs have those resonances, but I would say that the next album's lyrics draw more heavily on stories and observations from my own life. Neither Pat nor I are Mr. Serious Guy 24/7, so our songwriting output tends to reflect our varied moods and the albums often are collections of songs that seem to go together well thematically and/or musically. There are other really political songs in the queue. I sometimes fear that an issue-based song will take too long from the time I write it to the time it's released, and its immediacy will be diminished for the listener. Then again, if Peter Gabriel can still sing ‘Biko’ (about murdered South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko) and have that specific story resonate with the plight of present-day prisoners of conscience, I suppose the only real question is whether the song is good enough. PB: Thank you.

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Re: Psychle (2018)
Long-awaited second album from socially concscious prog rock Chicago-based band Tautologic

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