The Degenerate Art Ensemble formed in the early 90s with founding members conductor Joshua Kohl, his wife, vocalist/dancer Haruko Nishimura, and trumpet and etc. player Josh Stewart, as the Young Composers Collective. Many other musicians and co-writers have come and gone since then, including modern music mavericks Tim Young and current bass player Jherek Bischoff.
The YCC was still being called that when they released their self-titled 1995 debut, the instrumental shrieks on an out-of-control rollercoaster full of orchestral musicians on mushrooms careening off track into a deep blue pool of alien blood. Since then, they've released several albums, including a score for the movie Metropolis, the first as DAE Razor Stitch, a somehow turbulently ambient score for Haruko's dance based on cruel laboratory experimentation, and up to the new The Bastress, their most accessible and yet still intoxicatingly disturbing album to date (on Tellous Records, you can order right here).
It's the follow-up to 2003's European-toured Look-Away Popeye, both being created by a "ten piece big band garage orchestra," fusing multi-language punk with jazz and managed sound-chaos, all fairly traditionally scored beforehand, and augmented by Haruko's almost trance-like butoh dancing.
"My voice doesn't project," Nishimura says, as I notice the red light not flashing on the side of my tape recorder.
TIG: I guess we could strap a microphone to your face, as you do when you perform.
Haruko Nishimura: Oh God no! That thing hurts, because of the glue.
TIG: But it is useful though so you can do your dancing, right?
Joshua Kohl: We got it for that Moore Theatre show last year.
HN: Yes, I kept hitting myself with a regular microphone.
TIG: It must be hard to blend the butoh-dancing with the rocking out.
JK: That's been one of our biggest challenges for us, because we're doing club shows and dance theatre projects, but we don't really want them to be separate. Because there's already such a huge dividing wall between those two different types of performance. You know, the venues are different, the audiences are often very different, the whole industry is totally separate. And we're trying to do something as one. And so we're constantly trying to push our dance shows towards music, and push our music shows towards dance. And hopefully, eventually, we can combine them as equals, in an ideal venue or whatever. Sure, we could do the music in dance theatres, and more art house theatres, but there's an important part of us that's about playing in clubs. That's what we do.
Josh Stewart: All of our first shows were in clubs.
HN: Yes, our first five shows were there. We had like a seventeen piece orchestra, at the OK Hotel, in the early 90s.
JK: We usually found these musicians through auditions, through whatever musicians we knew, getting the word out to other musicians, and we'd audition people.
HN: We even had a karaoke singer as part of DAE. We had a habit of going to weird places and finding all kinds of different people to take part. We went to this one place and saw this person, and we asked, 'Would you perform with our thirteen piece orchestra?' and she was like, 'Why not?' She said she really wanted to, it was like a dream.
JK: We had her do an old Japanese 50s-era song, which is schmaltzy kind of folk songs set to happy pop music, kind of a vaudeville thing. The singing style is almost Japanese folk singing.
TIG: It sounds like the new album is the most accessible they've done so far.
JK: The current line-up that we've had may be more 'pop' than anything we did before.
JS: But we're not exactly battling Britney Spears on the charts. But we've had a lot of people in our band that are in a lot of other bands now. I was at Bumbershoot, seeing lots of our previous members and collaborators all over the place.
JS: I remember going to see Tim Young and Paul Moore's orchestra show at On The Boards, I don't know if you saw that. At least half the people in that forty piece orchestra had played with us at some time or another.
HN: And Tim's a genius. When he describes what he wants to his musicians, he goes, 'And I want the trumpet screaming, LIKE THIS!' And then he'll scream, "YAAAAAAAAAA!" His work is so communicative in its own beautiful language.
JK: It's like in the work 'Fanfare of the Gibbon King,' it's all scored out, but he drew the score as all these little stick figures throwing things at each other.
TIG: Haruko, you've played New York recently both with your other, all-female band The Buttersprites, as well as just recently with DAE at the revered avant-garde music venue The Stone.
HN: I've been doing the Buttersprites for about a year and a half. I'm the lead singer, and I wear a really cute costume! We've done one show at CMJ in New York.
TIG: How did it go in NYC for DAE?
JK: It was awesome. We totally packed out the Stone, which is a really important place to play.
HN: It was so hot! I was about to pass out. You would look down and your costume would be sticking to you, completely soaked. When I tried to dance, I was in a puddle.
JS: You could see our skins beneath our costumes, as they were sticking to us so much.
JN: And those costumes weighed a ton after the show. They have to be dry cleaned. On our last tour, it wasn't too bad. I don't know what it is, maybe when you play music you sweat clean or something, I don't know. But it didn't get too stinky.
HN: But we had a friend who did a print for each of us to wear, and it stank so bad.
JS: Because we were doing forty shows in a row in December 2003, and after the show they all get packed in one suitcase.
HN: After a while, we couldn't stand to be in the same room with them.
JK: We were using the same line-up of musicians that we're using now, for The Bastress.
TIG: Jherek is leaving. How long has he been in the band?
JK: Four years. I got an e-mail from him actually, I got this funny e-mail and I remember coming to the band and saying, 'Hey, guys, I think we have a pretty cool candidate for bass,' because in his e-mail he said he played it and loved African music and that he 'had this instrument I'm trying to work on, a garbage can lid with a kick-drum peddle on it that's amplified, and I can't wait to try it out.'
JS: When we met him we knew he was perfect because he was tall and really skinny and at the time he had this really spiky tall hair. We went, 'Wow who is this guy,' and then he started playing and it was wild.
JK: The collective started when I met Haruko at the New England Conservatory, where I was studying classical guitar and she was studying classical piano, and then we met Josh when we were all going to Cornish.
JS: I was studying jazz trumpet.
HN: I don't want to talk about piano though! Because I played it half of my life, and i
t kind of ruined my life. Half of my life was taken up by it.
JK: When we tried him out, we gave Josh the music for the hardest tune we had, and he sight read it, and we thought that was great. . You were asking about scoring, and we almost always are working from a score. For example, on The Bastress it is all stuff that was composed first. It was all pre-composed, then brought into the group at the rehearsal space to play it. There was kind of a long gestation period of 'This is what we wrote on the paper, now what do we have to do with it to make it work?' You sort of have to MAKE IT work. A lot of times, when we were playing early on, we were trained to play people's scores, and were told, 'Play this score, and this is it.' Just perform it or whatever. But then after a certain amount of time it was like, everyone in the band has had so much musical experience, that we can just jump into it and play it and feel it, as if we were playing a folk song or something. You know, not be heady about it, but actually feel the music, and there seems to be like this need to work with the music and evolve it, and re-write it, and let other people add to it, revising, adding ideas into the score.
HN: And other people have totally different ideas, it's amazing because sometimes they have their own language, like with pure improvisers, how do we put this together?
JK: And so when we listen to our work, that's the end we result we want when we work on a piece of music. It may be experimental; experimental is kind of a stupid word in a way, it's like you're afraid to try it out and you don't know what the end result is going to be. For us, it's like, 'Let's experiment,' but when we really experiment, let's reflect on that, and turn that experiment either into garbage that we throw away, or turn it into something that we really love playing. And that's why I like this long-term relationship, long-term relationships to me have been kind of the key to doing that, because it's certainly like a lot of delicate work together to be able to say, 'It ain't working, what you just wrote, maybe what if we did this instead.' It's kind of hard to develop a relationship where you can actually be outside of it, and judge it as, 'Is this something I want to listen to?' Maybe this was a great idea, but maybe it's not something that anyone's going to want to hear.
TIG: I love how your shows are not only adventurous, but honestly entertaining.
JS: It's all in the editing.
JK: Yeah, we just go through a lot of editing. We once did a dance performance that Haruko wanted us to do based entirely on improvisation.
HN: We had some scoring, but in the structure, we were using instruments we'd found or made ourselves.
JK: But we were recording everything, and videotaping everything, so that we could capture those magic things that come out in improvisation, 'Okay this is magic, let's take it,' there are certain things about it that Haruko would change to make it into something. If you did this as a tool to find new material, you find that once the performance happens, like the one you saw, or one of the dance performance, there's a dance improvisation going on that's all pre-determined.
TIG: It seems that some people who come to your shows are freaking out because they're not used to what this thing is. It doesn't fit an easy category for them, even in terms of 'experimental music.' Are you aware of this strange energy from your audiences at all?
HN: Yeah! Even in dance, we get angry people who stand up and leave.
TIG: And that doesn't bother you though?
HN: No! If you're trying to do anything original, it's bound to happen. When people respond like that to dance moves, I feel happy that they get angry and upset, that they're affected. I want to affect them in any way, to make them think about it, talk about it, any kind of visceral response. But we have standing ovations also, we have people filming, I think that the responses have been a good thing essentially.
TIG: Is there a difference between the Stone audience and the Chop Suey one you played?
JK: That one guy at the Chop Suey was something that I can't recall ever happening before. I know that there have been people who have snuck out, but I've never before witnessed somebody just yelling at us.
TIG: Yeah, I pointed at him and told him to shut the fuck up.
HN: Yeah, but you know, there are just some weirdos that show up .
HN: But you're just going to get that, anything, from a crowd situation. And if they respond like that, I'm just, 'Okay! Bring it on, fuckers!' (Laughter.) It could be a good thing. .
HN: Once we did a benefit for the Secluded Alley Works, it was at a jazz speakeasy in Georgetown, things were happening at the show and people were excited, but the police shut it down. We were completely in costume and make-up and nowhere to go. It was like one AM in the morning, and I was like, 'Fuck it! Let's just go march on Broadway.' And you can imagine Broadway in the middle of the night, where all the frat kids are partying, and are drunk and ready to fight you. We'd had a Georgetown march too, in the same month, and it was really interesting, because it started raining. We were barefoot on gravel ground.
JS: We marched into a gallery opening, there was a bunch of artists there.
JK: It was still exciting, because it was unexpected. People were like, 'Wow, there's this thing happening!' We started appearing out the window towards this art gallery, coming down the alley way in the rain.
The butoh march is really slow, and we had drums and make-up — and after we had gotten shut down in Georgetown at the jazz club, we drove up to Cornish. It actually took us more than two hours to do that march. We started at Cornish, and made it to the Post Office on Broadway. We had been working on this piece for a theatre piece that we were doing, each beat is like a drumbeat, slowed down to a point in which each beat is slowed to a minute or thirty seconds apart from each other. So it's like this thing where people are frozen, and altogether they hit, and then move, move, move.
HN: We were wearing these costumes with huge collars, people were hitting us with slingshots. I was at the center of the march, and this frat kid kept yelling, 'Yoko Ono!' 'Yoko Ono!' It was freaking me out.
JK: Fortunately, one guy was right in my way for the next beat, and he ran in front of me, and it was just perfect for me to hit him and do my next beat — I smacked him on the arm and he went, 'Hey, everybody, did you see that?'
JS: 'He hurt me,' he squealed.
JK: The cool thing about it for me, it was a beautiful experience because everyone had no idea what to think of it. There was like this homeless girl who kept asking, 'What are you guys doing? What does this MEAN?' And there was this photographer there who was like, 'This is art, honey.'
HN: He was telling her to just lay back, and enjoy what we were doing.
JK: And so then she was like, 'I get it! I GET IT!' And here we are, trying to stay in character, and doing our thing, while all this was going on around us. But in the middle of it there was this strange protection that we had, that we were not people you could just kick their ass. People were shooting rocks at us but there was nobody coming up and punching us .
JS: It wasn't scary at all, really.
HN: People wouldn't touch us, they wouldn't get too close.
JS: We had a friend in a van who was waiting for us, and we marched right down Broadway and right into the van.
HN: The whole time people were throwing rocks, and going, 'Who are you guys, who are you guys?'
JK: And the whole way we didn't speak to anyone. There's a sort of ceremony to what we did, a sort of thing. This is coming from me personally, this is nothing we ever talked about, that I feel like there's a kind of magic that I would like to be part of, that is the original reason of being an artist or a performer was, that I think is really deep in a human being, that we are (and I mean us, our people, our friends, people we know) are very, very out of touch with. It's the original purpose of dance or music or any kind of performance. Because it's become such a political thing, a power struggle, everyone's trying to make it, and there's all this commercialism, and these things are between the striving to be a success. But at the core of it there's a kind of a purpose for music or art in a human society. And to me, that's what attracts me towards doing theatre; the costume, the performance, that people aren't just coming to judge, they're actually coming to become part of some kind of ceremony that's happening. It's going to affect them. As opposed to like, 'Alright, let's come and check out what these guys are all about.' You know?
TIG: I can feel that in your shows, about ceremony — that your work comes from some kind of a sacred place.
JK: It seems that if we need to do it, it's a sacred thing then really. It is sacred in that we're living in a time where everything is regarded as a commodity pretty much, and it's just 'How can you do what you're doing within that and not be treated as a commodity?' It's a daily struggle to not shift into that commodity mode with what we're doing. At the same time, we're trying to sell stuff.
TIG: At the Chop Suey show, you came on after three bands of pure masculine noise. I wondered if the more feminine anarchy of what you were doing was upsetting to them in some way. As if experimental music has to be macho-sounding, or it's too disturbing.
JK: It is, because if you take even just our nine-piece band, and our four piece band — the four piece band, the music we wrote for it, I don't know why, this stuff just comes out how it does, it came out a lot softer, a lot more introspective and delicate and quiet.
HN: I know! When we performing as a nine-piece, I would look back at us, and go, 'Wow, look at all the guys!' And there were titles for songs like 'Can't Wait To Masturbate' (on their previous record, Look-Away Popeye and it seemed really macho.
JK: And the music, basically the whole goal with that band, let's make a really hardcore, hard rocking thing, and then play it.
HN: It was frightening, because our drummer was dry-humping our other drummer, and I was like, 'Oh my God .' But it was great to be playing stuff with more testosterone too, WAAAAAA .
JK: What I was thinking, in relation to male-female energy, our nine-piece band, on The Bastress, it was a unified nine people, just pumping out music in that period.
HN: Plus, there are a couple things that are more recent.
JK: On October 1st, almost all those people from the album will be playing songs off it. So that's going to be fun, we asked them to come sit in and play their numbers.
TIG: This show is a benefit for your Moore Theatre show next March, for which you've been learning acrobatics, and what else is being prepared?
HN: Animation, a whole bunch of stuff. We've been training a whole lot.
JK: Everything we know how to do, and a whole bunch of stuff that we don't know how to do yet. Right now we're trying to put together different ideas that we have somehow come up with, that are kind of intangible, and we're right now trying to work those threads together, to find out what it's really about.
TIG: The concept is about a bird that places its own bird in a nest of another mother?
HN: It's evil! Well, no, I don't think it's evil, but it's really interesting, this parasitic bird how it survives.
JK: That question of evil, or what we perceive as evil, is like there really is no way to understand everything. There really is no way to have a position on everything.
HN: It's not black and white. And I think people get confused when they think that way. Something can be beautiful if it struggles to keep something going. It's like that parasite that goes into the fish's mouth and becomes a tongue for the fish, eating all the things that the fish would eat. When that fish opens its mouth it looks like there's a tongue there, but it actually has eyes.
JK: A tongue with eyeballs, that's disgusting. But then you think of the liver fluke, and you think what it must be like to finally get into the liver of an animal and move in. It's quite a voyage. You get your way somehow through the abdominal fluids to find the liver. Like how could this thing that has no brains, how can it find the liver?
HN: Does it eat up the whole liver?
JK: It just slowly chomps away at your liver, and just eats off it forever. It can live off your liver for twenty years. But I was just thinking of that feeling, what that feels to eat the liver if you're a liver fluke.