Conscious and Unconscious: Michael Krassner’s Boxhead Ensemble
For anyone in thrall to the avalanche of experimental rock bands that upended American music around the turn of the millennium, Michael Krassner’s Boxhead Ensemble is a hidden grail. Here’s a partial list of the musicians who have played in the Ensemble over its 25 years of existence: Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy), Jim O’Rourke, Ken Vandermark (1999 MacArthur Fellow), Doug McCombs (Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day), David Grubbs (Squirrel Bait, Gastr Del Sol), Edith Frost, Scott Tuma (Souled American), Jessica Billey and Ryan Hembrey (Pinetop Seven), Jim White and Mick Turner (Dirty Three), Tim Rutili (Califone), and Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche (Wilco). Yet when I talk with friends who adore any of the above-listed bands and I mention Boxhead Ensemble, the response I tend to get is, “Who?”
The question is reasonable. Boxhead Ensemble never got famous like Wilco or Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Even their most popular records have sold only a few thousand copies. That’s understandable because the Ensemble don’t play “songs” per se. Often recorded live and largely improvised, Boxhead recordings are widescreen sound paintings, and the instruments function as brushstrokes. Drones roll through the landscape, sometimes searing and sometimes frigid. Guitar and string melodies streak across the sky like sharp sunlight, cirrus clouds, dust, or raindrops. The music often holds at a whisper, but it also drifts, lopes, mourns, swells, and roars. These compositions, if you could call them that, are odysseys of chance and ambiance — not jazz, but not entirely separate from the impulses of jazz either. If Talk Talk hadn’t broken up after recording Laughing Stock but instead had moved to the American Southwest and continued recording, maybe their music would have sounded like this. But even that analogy breaks down because Talk Talk spent months tinkering with their albums, and Krassner has finished Boxhead recordings in a matter of hours. It’s much easier to use visual reference points than to make comparisons with other musicians. When I close my eyes and listen, I see stretches of desert land, sand dunes, massive rock formations of umber and mauve and ochre, or sometimes the ocean at night.
A series of chance encounters, an unconventional tour through Europe, astonishing collaborations with first-rate musicians, a long disillusionment with the music industry, the recent reemergence of the Ensemble in an even more prolific form than before — all of these figure in Michael Krassner’s story as the Ensemble’s founder and leader. At the center is a singular, riveting, and now rapidly growing body of music. In the last few years Krassner, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his family and runs a restaurant in town, has fired up the project again after a long quiet. Now in his forties, he says that only recently has he begun to figure out his identity as a musician. He’s released two albums under the Boxhead name since 2014, and by the end of 2017 he’ll have put out at least three more: a solo record called Electric Guitar that sounds like a western version of Loren Connors’ Airs (out now from Jealous Butcher), a double LP called Here: Chicago Sessions (also available from Jealous Butcher), and a forthcoming album called Ancient Music..
This article doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive history of the Ensemble. Dozens of musicians have been involved over the years, and doing justice to their stories about the Ensemble would require a book. Instead, this tells the Ensemble’s ongoing story from the perspective of its central member. Over the phone and in person, Krassner painted a generously detailed portrait of the Ensemble, weaving back and forth across the quarter-century it’s been around. With his permission, I’ve arranged his recollections into a linear narrative, starting in the early 90s with the first soundtrack he ever recorded.
‘Dutch Harbor’ (Atavistic, 1997)
The first Boxhead Ensemble record came out in 1997. It was a soundtrack for the documentary Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back. But Krassner had started using the Boxhead name half a decade earlier, when he was living in Los Angeles and filmmaker Braden King had asked him to score a short film called The Original Pantry Café. Krassner and King have collaborated on and off ever since.
I was really enamored with John Lurie and The Lounge Lizards. There’s a TV show called Night Music, which was on once a week, and it’s mindblowing how much great music was on this TV show. I think it lasted for a couple years. The idea of the show was they had all these really interesting musicians that would all sit in — they had Sonny Rollins on; I remember on the same episode was Leonard Cohen — and then they had them playing together. And that was the first time I heard all these musicians. I’d never heard of Leonard Cohen, Sonny Rollins, Bill Frisell. Every week was somebody really fantastic. They also had groups like Sonic Youth, punk rock bands — really anything goes. That opened my mind to a lot of interesting things. And the one band that impressed me the most was The Lounge Lizards. It just blew my mind.
So when we did The Original Pantry Café in 1992, I was really influenced from them. There was piano, and it probably had a fake jazz thing going on, and I remember just trying to get that feel for it — off-kilter. And I think it really worked well for that one. I never really thought about it, but watching that show really influenced Boxhead more than I realized. Because a big part of it is just putting these different people together. It’s almost like a chemistry experiment a lot of times.
Krassner moved to Chicago in 1994. Not long after, King and fellow filmmaker Laura Moya began work on a feature-length film about the inhabitants of Dutch Harbor, a town in Alaska and the westernmost point of the United States. Krassner took on soundtrack duty.
It was a documentary, black and white. Really stark. I just honestly couldn’t really figure out what I was going to do. I was working at a record store called Second Hand Tunes with this guy Scott Rutherford. We were working one day, and he put on a Gastr Del Sol record, and the record was Upgrade & Afterlife. It had just come out, and I hadn’t heard Gastr Del Sol at the time. I’d never heard music put together that way before. That was right at the beginning of this really amazing period in that city, where Chicago became a center of music for a good four or five years. Bands like Tortoise and Sea and Cake, and Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs and Ken Vandermark had all this interesting stuff going on. And that was my first window into this music that was happening in the city. I was pretty new to that job, and when I heard that record I knew instantly, “This is the sound of that movie. I can’t believe I’m hearing this music.” A lot of times it didn’t have rhythm. A lot more focus on timbre and other things above maybe melodic ideas and rhythmic ideas. So I just got the idea that I would call those guys to help with this soundtrack.
We had just built a studio in a loft on the south side of Chicago, off Michigan Ave. When we had this studio it was called Truckstop. I think it’s called the Chop Shop now. We’d moved into this old building, and I had the idea that we were going to record the soundtrack in this studio. I had a friend at the time who had a record label called Atavistic. Kurt Kellison. He put out a number of Boxhead CDs. He was putting out Ken Vandermark. He was working with Glenn Branca and a lot of these New York people. I had a conversation with Kurt, who knew David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke and Ken Vandermark, and I asked him, “Do you know these people? Can you put me in touch with some of these people?”
I guess I was just naive and kinda young. He gave me some numbers and I just literally called these guys. I called Ken Vandermark, I called David Grubbs, I called Jim O’Rourke, and then I called another band that was on Atavistic called Eleventh Dream Day. Luckily for me, it was pretty early on in this scene then, and I think it was a really interesting opportunity for a lot of these musicians. Everybody was on board. I remember Charles Kim was there, this guy David Pakovic, who was this really great drummer who lived in the building. David Grubbs, Jim O’Rourke, Ken Vandermark, Doug McCombs. I think Jim O’Rourke has the biggest influence on that first record.
The one-day recording session defined the framework Boxhead Ensemble has followed ever since: the matching of musicians with distinct and complimentary playing styles, a reliance on spontaneity, a focus on atmosphere and timbre over melody and song structure. None of the musicians involved had experienced anything quite like it.
I had met Ken Vandermark, Charles Kim, and David Pakovic prior, but the other guys, like Grubbs and O’Rourke, I’d met that day. They were just gracious enough to come over. Most of those people had never played together before. Rick Rizzo had never played with Grubbs or Jim O’Rourke or any of these guys. It was the first time for [Vandermark] to play with any of the guys on that session. The thing I like about Boxhead, when it works, is when you get those disparate people. Mick Turner might not be the most technical guitar player, but he’s a real expressionistic guitar player. So when you put him with someone like Ken Vandermark, who’s probably used to playing with really high-skilled jazz guys, it really gets people out of their box. You get some really interesting results.
The film wasn’t totally edited yet, but I did have some scenes. We kinda knew what the film felt like. I had sound and dialogue and interviews. The important thing was I knew the sound that we needed, those colors. The film itself is pretty austere. It’s all interviews. You don’t see any of the people being interviewed. It’s just shots on boats, in churches, landscape. And then you’re hearing the story as voiceovers, but there’s a disconnect. Even though the story’s very human, there’s something otherworldly about that film.
Anything that sounded like a melody wasn’t working. It was just rejected. I tried acoustic guitars, folky stuff. I tried a lot of different things. The only thing that worked was sound. What really struck me about hearing Upgrade & Afterlife for the first time was the timbre and the space. I wasn’t really that familiar with drone music at the time, these extended notes and dissonance, these really close harmonies where you hear these beats. And there was something really beautiful and something very cold about that music. I remember I had photos up. I had anything that I possibly could have to convey this feeling. I don’t find it very easy to convey these feelings, so I remember using whatever I had. And I think the musicians understood that. Just choosing that group of musicians was ninety percent of the battle for that one. Pretty much almost all the music that was recorded was on the soundtrack or made the movie, so there was very little that really wasn’t working. It just seemed to flow, and I think we were done by like five o’clock, before dinner time. That whole film was scored in one afternoon. It’s pretty low budget.
Will Oldham was on the soundtrack. That was really early on, with Palace Music and all that stuff. I think at that point he had maybe one record or one single on Drag City. Braden asked him to do a song for the closing credits, and at some point in the discussion Jim O’Rourke’s name came up, and we had the idea that Jim would collaborate with Will. [Will] actually recorded two songs for the film, and he sent us a cassette tape of him playing into a boom box. So we gave them to Jim, and he put them into a computer to overdub. The first song, Jim erased. It’s gone. But the second song, Jim just put a bunch of hurdy-gurdies over it. And that’s the song at the end of the film. That’s how Will initially got involved in the project.
There was a documentary where they interviewed all the musicians about that record. The one thing that blew my mind when I was watching these interviews with these musicians was Jim O’Rourke had been in professional studios where you go spend a lot of money, but this was the first time he was in like someone’s loft where these dudes built a studio and were doing stuff on their own. It never occurred to him that you can do that. It really changed how he worked, too.
I’ve had several people recently who’ve talked to me about that record. It got out there in its own weird way. It’s hard for me to listen to. I’m embarrassed that I was so naïve as to even ask them to record this stuff. I’m grateful for it, and I made a lot of friendships, and I think I learned a lot from it. But when I think back on it, it’s just like, “What was I thinking?”
‘The Last Place to Go’ (Atavistic, 1998)
After the recording of the ‘Dutch Harbor’ soundtrack, word about the Ensemble began to spread. It helped that more and more people outside Chicago were hearing about the burgeoning and forward-thinking music scenes in the city. Several of the Boxhead players were developing international reputations, and the increasing momentum led to a European tour at the end of 1997, during which Braden King would screen ‘Dutch Harbor’ and the Ensemble would perform.
I don’t know whose idea it was, or how it got set up, but there was the idea to go show the film in Europe, and do these performances before or after the show. So we were playing all these interesting spaces, where they would have a movie theater or a big theater where they would put up a screen. And they would show the movie, and after we would do a set. It wasn’t just another rock band from the United States of America coming over. We were going to places like Belgium and Germany where they have a lot more money for cultural events. Chicago had a legitimate thing going on that was getting recognized around the world. I remember the first performance was at VPRO, a radio station in Amsterdam. It’s like the BBC. Just doing that probably covered our plane tickets. We got off the plane and drove straight to the studio. If you listen to the LP, with the very first track, for five minutes there’s no drums, and then all of sudden the drums pop back up at the end. And the reason is Jim White, the drummer, fell asleep and then woke up right at the end. That’s how tired we were.
For the tour, a couple things really changed. One, Jim [O’Rourke] wasn’t involved. The addition of the cello [played by Fred Lonberg-Holm]. The Dirty Three guys moved to Chicago, so we had Mick Turner and Jim White involved. Scott Tuma, who’s the greatest genius of everybody. In Chicago, he’s a sage or something. Nobody knows him outside of Chicago. Really mysterious guy. I always had a day job in Chicago, and I was just come home after work and record records. I didn’t care, I would do it for free or whatever. I just loved being involved. So I was meeting a lot of people.
The tour started with the performance and screening being two separate parts of each evening, but over time they merged, and the Ensemble’s performances took on an even more cinematic sensibility.
I would do a small group with a duo or trio, and after there would be a different group — changing it up every night. We actually started playing to the film. We were in Zurich, and it was a festival. All these other shows were a movie and then the Boxhead Ensemble, so we could take as much time as we wanted. But in this one case, they were like, “We only have time for the movie.” The film was pretty quiet and sparse as it is. And so the idea was Braden had a sound mixer; wherever there wasn’t music, he was just going to put up sound, and when there was music in the soundtrack he would pull the sound down and we would just start playing. So it wasn’t a perfect thing, but there was enough space and people were getting enough dialogue where it was kinda workable. So we did it that night. All the musicians went up onstage, and we just improvised. And it was really great, that first performance. It just kinda worked. And so from there on, that was exactly what we did. We would just perform to the film.
And there’s something different about performing live to the film, as opposed to recording in the studio. There’s a much more human aspect to it. I don’t know why. It just naturally became more like folk music, I guess. I don’t know if we were literally just viewing it differently. It was huge and projected, and we were sitting right in front of it, and the film was going through us, projecting on us. But it became more melodic, for lack of better terms. It would have been a mistake to try to get Mick Turner and Scott Tuma and those guys to try to sound like the soundtrack. They’re just different. I put a lot of thought into who is going to be involved with a different project. It’s much more interesting and it’s better if you can let people just do what they do.
Will was awesome. He was on that tour. I remember he really enjoyed himself because he was enjoying just being in the band and not having to worry about all the other nonsense about touring. Wherever you go, there are going to be people who just really want his time, and he’s kind of a shy guy, so I think he was just enjoying being in the background.
During the tour, Krassner developed a stronger intuition for leading groups of improvisers. Ken Vandermark, who received a MacArthur Fellowship not long after the tour, left an especially strong mark on Krassner’s approach to the Ensemble.
I think a lot of people are just — I don’t want to say full of shit, that sounds kind of harsh, but I think a lot of people put on a good act, and a lot of people are just kinda of winging it. It’s probably what everyone goes through: young actors, young writers, they might feel insecure but they can put on a facade that they really know what they’re doing. Ken Vandermark really struck me as a dude who just knows what he’s doing. He has an incredible work ethic. The guy’s playing constantly, and he’s just a master. He has a reason for everything, and is incredibly open minded but has a real, firm direction.
I think everybody realized how much of a genius that guy was. We had a bus, so we would be driving to the next city, we would get to the city, we’d set up, and then for the most part everybody was drinking beer, drinking wine, and having a really good time. We’d play the show, and then we would be drinking more after the show. And Vandermark was practicing. No matter where we were or what time of day, he was always looking for a quiet space where he could go practice. When I first met Ken I was working in this classical music store, and I got him this book [of] every possible scale. I remember he had it on that tour, and he was studying this stuff.
The thing that I learned back then that I’ve kept with me all these years is: if someone called me tomorrow and was like, “Hey, show up on stage tomorrow. There’s going to be a bassoon player that you’ve never met with and a violin player and some guy who plays tablas,” I’ll just go do it. I do get stage fright for no reason still, but in terms of just having the courage to go do stuff, it’s no problem for me to take the challenge. That was the biggest takeaway from those early days. I don’t really get fazed. You just figure shit out. Nothing terrible’s going to happen. I’m pretty good at knowing when something is a bad idea, and I’ll definitely try to avoid it if possible.
‘Two Brothers’ (Atavistic, 2001)
The tour was over and there was no film to score, but Krassner was performing and recording more than ever, buoyed by an increasingly vibrant music scene in Chicago and a new host of collaborators. He had begun writing and recording songs, both under his own name and with his band The Lofty Pillars. And he decided to make a new, even more aesthetically ambitious Boxhead Ensemble record. Where cold climates inspired previous Boxhead music, ‘Two Brothers’ felt distinctly warm and vast, like the soundtrack for an imaginary revisionist Western.
It was the first record where I was making music just to make music. There was no film. Even though some of those pieces ended up in films, people licensed them or something like that. I’m not really quite sure why I decided to make a record. I guess I just enjoyed making music, so I didn’t really see any reason why we shouldn’t just keep going and keep that formula, just finding interesting different people and making music.
If you wanted to be a part of the music community in Chicago back then, you had to do something different. You had to be interesting if you wanted to get a gig at The Lounge Ax or The Impala or any of these places. There was music everywhere. In bookstores, in the basements of places, in the back of restaurants, you name it. There were so many great, little spots. In any little room, there was probably some [avant-garde performance], and then you had crazy no-wave, U.S. Maple and all these bands. Every night of the week, you’re seeing this music. A lot of this was really being in the right place at the right time. I was still pretty young at the time, and I just wanted to learn, and I had a lot to learn.
I didn’t relate as much to other musicians, but I’d relate more to visual arts. The first record, there are these painters like Mark Rothko or the abstract expressionists. I viewed the music more in those terms. With The Last Place to Go, Two Brothers, Quartets, and Nocturnes, I was wanting a little more Paul Klee or Matisse. Maybe it’s not as abstract. Maybe there’s a story happening, even though it might still be otherworldly. It’s not quite as soft-focus. I naturally went in that direction.
Krassner had become friends with Glenn Kotche, Wilco’s new drummer. At the time, Wilco had begun the long and tumultuous process of making ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,’ and Kotche brought Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy to one of the recording sessions for ‘Two Brothers.’
I was playing with Edith Frost, and Jim O’Rourke was too, and Glenn Kotche was the drummer. He was awesome. He’s just the sweetest guy, and he’s a really great drummer. Everything you’d want in a musician.
[Jim O’Rourke, Jeff Tweedy, and Glenn] did this record called Loose Fur. They made this record, and I remember listening to it, and there’s all this crazy, avant, great guitar playing. I said something about Jim O’Rourke, like I assumed it was just Jim. And Glenn was like, “No. That’s Jeff.” Either Jeff wanted to come play or Glenn thought he would really enjoy doing stuff like this, improvising. I booked that session, and I had Glenn, and then we had Jessica Billey as violin player, and then Fred [Lonberg-Holm], and myself, and Jeff. It was the same studio where we did the soundtrack, Truckstop. We’d had a little studio that looks like a recording studio, and then we had this big, open space. There was a pool table, and we used to have shows in there. That’s how big it was. I remember we recorded most of that out into that space. It almost does sound like it’s outside, and there probably were windows open. It was very noisy. It was summer and it was hot.
There’s a song called “Two Brothers” that’s like an old Civil War song. I had this idea for Fred, and I showed him the melody, and I was like, “I think we should just start this idea and you should play the melody, and we’ll just come in and see where it goes.” A lot of these pieces, that’s exactly how they start. Let’s do this and see what happens. So he starts with the melody. All that great guitar stuff, that’s Jeff Tweedy. He’s playing out of an amp that almost looks like a transistor radio. It’s tiny. It could fit in your hand. And what happens is — it’s a long piece, like eighteen minutes — halfway through that piece, the battery starts dying. I guess he does that on purpose because then it starts starving this little transistor amp he has, and that’s where you start getting that deconstructed sound. I remember being totally blown away. I haven’t listened to a lot of stuff in a long time, but whenever I hear that piece, I’m struck by how Jeff just takes charge.
That’s all done live. I don’t think there’s any overdubbing on any of these records. That piece, we recorded and I had it mixed an hour later. I didn’t do anything to it. I remember that piece very specifically. I remember where I was sitting. I remember where everybody was sitting. The rest of the session I can’t really remember, but recording that piece, I remember what the lights looked like in the apartment, what it smelled like, everything.
I heard this from Glenn — I don’t know if this is true or not, I’d like to think it’s true. I guess Jeff was going through a big transition at that time. It was in the middle of that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stuff. I think he really got his confidence, he felt like he could just do it. It was probably just one of several things, but I know it contributed to him feeling like, “I don’t need another guitar player. I’ll just do this stuff myself.” I like the idea that, out of that session, it maybe boosted his confidence that he didn’t need to lean on a lead guitar player.
‘Quartets’ (Atavistic, 2003)
The Ensemble’s sound solidified further with 2003’s ‘Quartets,’ a more restrained and enigmatic record than Two Brothers. I asked Krassner how the Ensemble had developed such a strong, distinct sound, especially given the amount of improvisation and the variety of players.
I don’t know why they come out sounding like that. I’m just mixing what’s there. I remember having a conversation with this guy Andy Hopkins. He had this band called Flap. No one’s heard of them really. They’re from Atlanta, Georgia, and this guy was an incredible guitar player, and he wrote these crazy songs. They’re so distinct, the style of writing — like if you’re not paying attention it would seem almost goofy, but if you’re really paying attention you realize it’s pure genius. I remember talking to him one night about it, and he said, “I don’t know, man. Every time I sit down and try to make a beautiful, simple song, and they just come out like this.” And it was almost like he was super frustrated. He couldn’t help himself.
Quartets, that’s a weird record. For some reason, that record I have very little recollection of. I can’t remember anything about it. Ironically, though, it was the one that got the most attention. I’m not sure why. There’s a piece on here called “Three” I really remember enjoying. It’s a Scott Tuma piece. It’s a little folk tune.
I also asked him about the relationship between his work with Boxhead and his more song-oriented work around that time.
With Boxhead, I had to be in a very specific frame of mind to work on those records. I still write songs. I don’t record them anymore, but I have loads of them, and maybe once or twice a year I’ll perform some of them. But my brain is in a different space completely, and I don’t find any connection between those two. It’s almost as stark as being conscious and unconscious. Lately I’ve been kind of busy with it, and I’m enjoying it a lot, but there was a long period where I wasn’t in that state of mind. When I’m editing it and working on it and listening to it, it really puts me in a different headspace.
It’s kind of difficult. I own a restaurant, and I have two kids and I’m married, and it’s really hard when I’m really deep into it to go to work and deal with people. It makes me really introverted. And I’ll reject pop music and even jazz, and I’m just listening to a lot of Bach and a lot of classical music, music without words. I usually get a little moody, and I’m just deep into it. And then one day I’ll put on a Neil Young record or something, and it snaps me out of it. And then it’s the last thing I want to do, to work on that music. And it really shifts me. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not something I live with all the time. Maybe it’s forcing me to go inward, and that stresses me out. So that work usually comes in fits.
‘Nocturnes’ (Atavistic, 2006)
After the release of ‘Quartets’ in 2003, Boxhead Ensemble began to go quiet. ‘Nocturnes’ saw a highly subdued release in 2006, and then there was no record for eight more years. Part of the slowdown had to do with the life changes that came with starting a family, but there was another reason. After several years living in Chicago and running his Truckstop studio, Krassner had moved to Los Angeles around 2000 to pursue a professional career recording music. Over time, that career threatened to ruin his love of recording.
I used to make records in like two days or three days. There’s a label, Secretly Canadian, that puts out a lot of big stuff now, but back in the day I was recording bands from Bloomington, Indiana. I did a Songs: Ohia record. We would record the basic tracks on day one, day two we would do all the overdubs, and day three we’d mix and maybe overdub just a couple things. And they were good records, too. I listen back to them, and they had a good spirit. They weren’t made for the radio. Later on, I ended up moving back to Los Angeles and was making major label records where we were spending like six months on these records, and I can’t listen to those records, they’re so terrible. So I do have fond memories of those days. Even though I’ve been out of Chicago — I moved out of there in 2000 or 2001 maybe, so it’s been about sixteen years — that period of my life shaped my aesthetics from an artistic standpoint.
When I moved to LA and I was recording those records, I just got brainwashed. All of a sudden, things started to sound like mistakes. Things that had character started sounding wrong. It’s just a different game. It was awful, and I didn’t realize it. And then the industry bottomed out. That’s why I ended up moving to Arizona with my wife. My family lives here, and my wife’s family. It was years before I could record again. It was an awful experience. I would try to record music, and it was just not fun. I hated it. And then I eventually started enjoying it again. Now I like it very much, but I’ll only record live.
The most exciting music to me is music that sounds like it’s being created spontaneously. The great bands figured that out. You listen to The Stones’ Exile on Main St, it sounds like it’s being created, like it’s being born right there. It’s a magic trick — they worked on that stuff for days, probably — but it’s just that feeling. To me, that’s music. I have a hard time with a lot of modern music. For the most part, music that I’m drawn to is music full of surprises. Setting the mood and the concept and having a point of view is important. Right now I’m getting ready to record a solo guitar record, and I’m putting a lot of thought into the point of view. I’ll probably think about it a lot, and once I figure it out I’ll just do it.
Despite its lower profile compared to some of the other Boxhead releases, ‘Nocturnes’ is one of Krassner’s favorite Boxhead records so far.
Nocturnes I can listen to straight from beginning to end and I really enjoy it. There’s nothing on that record I listen to and think, “Augh, this it awful.” There’s a little processing on that record, which I’d never really done up to that point, I think. It has a consistent feel to it. It feels like one continuous piece of music, even though there are a couple pieces that are really processed. It’s a really balanced record for me. It’s a little busy in certain spots, but it’s more focused. It’s a weird little record. There’s a piece I really liked on Nocturnes. “Number Eight,” which is the most processed sounding. It’s got this prepared piano thing going on, and a cello loop.
‘The Unseen Hand’ (Hired Hand, 2014)
Krassner continued to play and record music in the years following Nocturnes, developing a close artistic relationship with the film director John Hyams. It wasn’t until 2014, though, that the record label Jealous Butcher released a new Boxhead record. Recorded as the soundtrack for a documentary, it was the first Boxhead release featuring Tim Rutili, the leader of Califone and previously the frontman for Red Red Meat.
Tim Rutili calls me “the unseen hand.” He gave that to me when I was working on a Califone record. He realized at some point that I’d say very little, and I’d feel like I don’t seem to be directing very much, but at the same time I’m getting exactly the results I’m looking for. I don’t want to call them tricks, but I’ve developed ways to subtly keep the boat moving in the right direction, in as minimal a way as I possibly can. I’m certainly not a micromanager, by any stretch of the imagination.
The one thing I can remember around the record Quartets is a lot of that music ended up in this documentary called The Smashing Machine that [Hyams] did for HBO. He ended up using a lot of that music in that film. I’m getting ready to work on another film, and that will be six or seven I’ve worked on with this guy. He had seen Dutch Harbor. That’s how I’d met him. He’d seen the film twelve or thirteen years after the movie came out, and he’d seen it totally by accident. Here’s a guy who was living in New York at the time, went to see a movie on the wrong night, and ended up seeing Dutch Harbor, which for whatever reason was being shown at this theater in New York, I don’t even know where, who had just been working on this documentary and was having a hard time finding proper music. And he saw this movie, and something really resonated, and that’s when he randomly contacted me. And here we are, like seven movies later.
I have to give a lot of credit to Rob Jones, who puts out music on Jealous Butcher. He was putting out the Red Red Meat reissues and working on some other things with Tim. Rob was familiar with the Boxhead stuff, so he wrote me and asked me if I had anything. He’s been really supportive. Just the fact that there was another record, that he was willing to do that.
The Unseen Hand is actually a film soundtrack. Funnily enough, I couldn’t put the title of the film on there. I didn’t sign a contract, but I didn’t want to get anybody in trouble. Is somebody from HBO or whatever going to listen and realize? Maybe I don’t even own this music anymore. So I was 99% sure that wasn’t going to be an issue, but I wanted to be extra safe. So that’s why it says “Music for Documentary” or something like that.
‘La Hora Magica’ (Astral Spirits/Monofonus Press, 2015)
Following shortly on the heels of ‘The Unseen Hand’ was the Ensemble’s first album on cassette, released on the improv-oriented experimental label Astral Spirits.
I don’t know if tapes are a thing. I think there’s a whole culture I didn’t even know about. Nick Cross who puts out Astral Spirits asked me if I had anything, and I had a bunch of stuff, so I’d send it to him, and that guy made a little tape. It’s crazy, but it’s awesome.
I live out West, and I’ve been here for a long time. I lived in California on and off about ten years. If I could name one thing that had the most influence on the music, it’s light. California has a very specific light to it. Northern California has one of the most beautiful lights in the world. Italy has incredible lighting. Arizona has an unbelievable light to it. That’s something I’m sensitive about and something that works its way into the music. That tape, with the name that means “the magic hour,” I think that’s the Spanish, they call that dusk. There’s an openness to the West, too. The sky, the landscape. All that stuff works its way into the music, there’s no doubt.
In contrast to the larger-scale Ensemble configurations on earlier records, the newer releases show Krassner making a definitive move toward smaller groups of players. Joining Krassner on ‘La Hora Magica’ were three other musicians: Adam Busch, Laraine Kaizer, and Wil Hendricks.
Three musicians to me is perfect. Maybe a quartet. But whenever you’re getting more than a quartet, especially when there’s not a lot of time to rehearse, it’s just too many people. It could become a clusterfuck. It’s not a very nimble ensemble at that point, either. I love duos. A trio is perfect. So when shows come up, that’s what I’m fighting now. There’s an idea that more is better. That’s one of the things I’ve really learned over the years, probably because I’ve grown a lot as a musician, and my ideas are a little more cohesive, and I have a lot better idea of what I want. Two or three people, it’s just more focused. From a spectator standpoint, there’s no fat. You’re not waiting for a bunch of excess information.
‘Ancient Music’ (Forthcoming, 2017)
The Ensemble is now more active than ever. Krassner is gearing up for shows and two more records, and all this is on top of 2017’s ‘Ancient Music,’ which he compares to ‘Dutch Harbor’ and 20th century classical compositions.
It’s a different record from anything I’ve done before. I have some other musicians: I have a string player and this prepared piano, and Tim Rutili’s on this one, too. I labored over this stuff for years. It’s meticulously put together. Even though it feels very similar to those other records — where recording a lot of material and finding the material that works best together is the trick on those records, just finding the pieces and sequencing them the way that makes sense — this one is something where I would work with the string player for hours on one section to get it just right. I’m pretty proud of it, but it’s more austere.
I’m 45 years old now, and I just feel now like I’m starting to figure shit out. It just feels like it’s taken a long time, and I know that’s true for a lot of people, but now as an artist and as a musician, I have a lot of confidence, but it’s just taken me a long time and a lot of work. I’m just feeling comfortable now. I have a bunch of performances coming up, and the Boxhead thing coming up next year, and we’re going to have a bunch of projects where I kind of feel like I know what I’m doing and I’m comfortable with it. Who I am, what I’m good at, what I’m not good at, what I just need to avoid. I’m ready again. There was a lot going on in my life, and I started a family, and now the kids are a little older. I’m finding time to be playing music every single day now. I feel reenergized. It’s been great. We’ll see where it goes from here.
[Header photo taken by the author, Califone live at The Chapel in San Francisco with Michael Krassner playing guitar on the right. Homepage photo is via Hayden Jackson.]