Rich Pike is a music business veteran, severe music fanatic, and fabulous guy who ran a webzine called None For You Dear in the early 2000′s. He covered me in one of NFYD’s “Indie Spotlight” columns; it was the first real interview I ever did, about half a year after Disruption Theory was released.
Working in various capacities with guitar legend Steve Vai for several years now, my PO box is often crammed full of CDs and tapes from aspiring guitarists from all around the world, eager to display their talents and share their music. Ranging from fully produced CDs rivaling major releases to homemade cassettes with handwritten labels, some are stunningly good, and of course many are still early in their development and a little before their time. In more than five years, exactly one such recording has made me stop whatever I was doing and just stare in awe and disbelief at my speakers, simply absorbing its sounds and shapes as they tumble forward, and loving every minute of it, until the end of the last song.
That record was Andre LaFosse’s Disruption Theory. Fearlessly colorful and inventive, it stirs together elements of rock, jazz, electronica and jungle rhythms into a thoroughly listenable package that gets more interesting with every new listen. When I found out that every sound on the disc, other than the rhythm programming and a sole Mellotron sample, was created on an electric guitar, and indeed that every sound was created by Andre alone, I was again awestruck. I’d just been handed one of the greatest guitar records I’ve ever heard, and it’s recorded by someone in his 20s, living right here in Los Angeles.
Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce you to Andre LaFosse.
Remember the name. Buy his record. Thank me later.
Tell us about your decision to release Disruption Theory on your own label, Altruist Music.
There were a number of factors involved, but it all boils down to the fact that at this point in time, if you’re an unsigned artist who wants to get your music released, you basically need to do it yourself. It’s not just the fact that it’s reasonably viable for an “unknown” band or artist to go to an independent CD duplication house and press up some albums on their own. It’s also the fact that, even if you’re trying to get picked up by an outside label down the line, it’s pretty much expected of a new artist these days to be getting things rolling on their own. The whole routine of making “a demo” and then “shopping” that, in order to get “picked up,” so you can then record “the real album,” is an increasingly outdated model. These days, a label is going to be looking for bands that are building a fan base, selling CDs and making a name for themselves — in other words, people who are being proactive in their own careers, and not sitting around waiting for someone else to anoint them with the blessing of getting signed.
Besides, there’s never been a time when there have been as many possible outlets for an independent musician to get themselves heard as there are now. It’s no surprise that more and more celebrity acts are coming out of the woodwork and expressing their dissatisfaction with the major label business model.
Having gone through the process of starting your own label and using it as the vehicle through which you make your music available, would you recommend the DIY approach to other musicians? And what have been the ups and downs of doing it yourself?
First off, I should say that I definitely consider the album and label to be works in progress, in the sense that I’m still in the middle of trying to build more awareness of the CD (and trying to figure out how to do that as well). So I wouldn’t feel too comfortable trying to give a lot of advice in terms of “This is how it should be done.”
I’d also have to say that this particular moment in time is a very strange and uncertain one as far as the whole issue of how music can and should be released to the public at large, what with the whole Napster controversy and the emerging issue of how (or even if) artists can, or should, be earning money by selling recordings of their music.
Right now, there are people arguing that file-sharing and free music are such great and/or inevitable things that musicians are going to have to get used to giving their music away, and will have to find alternative sources of income. Well, I presently own a 25 MHz computer which can’t even play or encode mp3 or RealAudio files, and I’m trying to make some money (or at least get out of debt) by selling CDs of my music. So I’m not exactly a big fan of the idea that all recorded music should be free. I know that the compact disc as a format is still very viable; I love making recordings, and I’m definitely not looking for the quick and easy cash-in (as anyone who hears what I do can hopefully figure out). But the basic reality is that pressing up and promoting even a small batch of CDs is a considerable investment of time and money.
So, in answer to whether I would recommend the same approach to other artists, at this point I’d have to say that if a person just wants to share their music with the world and get it heard by people, without any concern for getting any sort of financial return on it, I don’t think it’s necessary (or even advisable) to press up a batch of CDs and start a business to try and sell them. I would instead recommend that those sorts of people take advantage of all of the various “new artist exposure”/free music download sites like mp3.com, iuma, riffage.com, garageband.com, or what have you, and upload their music to the net.
It would be easy to think, “Why would anybody mass-produce a lot of CDs when they can do it this way?”, but from my point of view, there are a few specific reasons. First and foremost, I am trying to build some sort of career here, and a number of distributors and media outlets will only stock/sell/review albums that meet certain standards of “professional product” (i.e. mass-replicated, shrink-wrapped discs). Furthermore, for better or worse, some people take a professionally mass-produced CD that’s available at a major retailer and reviewed in a large-scale magazine more seriously than a CD-R, either as music itself or as product they might pay money for. I don’t particularly share these beliefs, but I can understand why people might feel this way.
There’s also the factor that an artist could very well be more inclined to seriously push for getting their music heard if they’ve got boxes full of hundreds of copies of an album sitting there staring at them. I once heard someone say that the best way to “break into” the music industry is to place yourself in a position where you have to start earning money through music. Necessity is often the mother of invention, as they say.
One only needs to hear your record to know that your musical education, from a schooling standpoint anyway, is already quite developed. What schooling have you had, and how beneficial has that process been for you?
Well, both of my parents are professional classical violinists and my very first word was “gig,” so I’ve basically been surrounded by formalized music since day one. I took piano lessons on and off throughout my life from an early age, and that was very useful as far as getting used to the basic building blocks of music, as well as reading music and building my ear. I also studied cello for about five years, and played it in several school orchestras and ensembles.
My guitar playing was largely self-taught, at least at the beginning, because there’s not a whole lot out there in terms of serious formal instruction for the electric guitar, especially for a 14-year-old in Iowa City in 1988. I took some private lessons on and off for the first few years that I played, but I didn’t really get consistent, serious formal training until I went to CalArts in 1994 to major in guitar with Miroslav Tadic, by which point I’d been playing for about six years.
At CalArts, the main thing that I was encouraged to really focus on was the issue of trying to find something unique and relevant to be saying through music. That was probably the most consistent thing I was told: the idea that technique and knowledge are valuable and useful tools to learn and have at your disposal — but that’s all they are: they’re tools. What are you going to say with those tools? CalArts was great as far as providing an environment to really start addressing that issue, and for really trying to build myself up as a musician. It’s definitely not a standard “conservatory” type education, and it’s not the sort of atmosphere you’d find at Berklee or Musician’s Institute, where the emphasis is more on nuts-and-bolts, professional musician issues. CalArts is, as the name implies, an art institute, and its orientation is very much along those lines.
The “problem” (for lack of a better word) is that there’s not a lot of emphasis within the CalArts curriculum with regards to how a person might go about turning all of those creative, artistic considerations into some sort of livelihood once they get out of school. I’ve seen some fabulous musicians graduate from CalArts and then find themselves unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the “real world,” especially in terms of making a living and getting one’s music heard outside the confines of a private art college.
Unlike a lot of guitarists, you don’t wear your influences on your sleeve. Who are your influences and how have they shaped who you are now?
Well, I try to avoid getting wrapped up in any particular player or style to the point of excluding anyone else. I do spend a lot of time listening to specific artists; when I make a new discovery and am really interested in someone’s work, I can be downright obsessive when it comes to getting inside of what they do. But once I feel like I’ve gotten my fill of a particular artist, then I tend to move on and find new and different things to listen to.
I don’t know how much of an influence any of them have been, but the people I’ve listened to the most over the years have included (in roughly chronological order) Pink Floyd, Skinny Puppy, New Order, Yes, Rush, King’s X, Public Enemy, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, N.W.A., Pat Metheny, Miles Davis, Ice Cube, Allan Holdsworth, Ornette Coleman, King Crimson, Miroslav Tadic, Jimi Hendrix, David Torn, Ani DiFranco, Underworld, Squarepusher…
Another thing I’d say is that when I do find my own playing or music to be really wrapped up in the influence of a particular artist, I tend to take specific and deliberate steps to counteract that influence. At one point, I was really emulating people like Holdsworth and Metheny, not just in terms of their playing, but also their emphasis on harmony and complex chord changes and
modulations. So after a while, I started deliberately trying to write and play tunes that *didn’t* have very much in the way of harmonic content, because it forced me to think about playing and writing in a different way, and helped the previous influences “settle in”.
Later on, I found that I was getting really dependent on the whammy bar. I was playing along the lines of guys like Holdsworth and Torn, and I was doing a lot of things with the bar that sounded extremely derivative of the kinds of phrasing that those two are known for. So I basically stopped using the whammy bar, which forced me to start getting into different kinds of left-hand bending and vibrato techniques. As it happens, there isn’t any whammy bar at all on Disruption Theory.
Then I got very heavily into real-time looping and sampling using an Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro, and was listening to a lot of what people like Torn or Robert Fripp had done in that field. I was also subscribed to the Looper’s Delight Internet mailing list, which helped me realize that there is definitely an “ambient guitar looping” musical subgenre, with some fairly stock stylistic moves and conventions — lots of ambient, rubato, reverb-drenched, droney e-bowed lines, often with similarly languid lead guitar solos on top of them. So I deliberately tried to stay away from the floaty e-bow moves, and delved into some of the more sophisticated editing features on the Echoplex to try and produce loops that had a less ambient, more fragmented and rhythmic quality to them.
As an album in general, Disruption Theory is a very deliberate exercise in trying to fragment and re-order linear, narrative flow. One reason I took this approach was because I knew going in that it was going to be an instrumental guitar-based project, and I wanted to make sure that it didn’t end up sounding like a carbon copy of a Satriani or Vai album. For guitarists who came of age when I did (in the late ’80s/early ’90s) and were following the mainstream guitar scene at the time, those guys cast a very big shadow. Joe’s sound in particular is very much about presenting the guitar in the context of conventional song structures and arrangements, and that can be a tough mold to break out of. So in a lot of ways, Disruption Theory is me taking the notion of a “guitar album” and filtering it through abstract, non-linear sensibilities, as a direct reaction against the way that those late ’80s guitar albums tended to be made.
How is it that you came to tour in Russia almost immediately after you finished your schooling?
During my last year at CalArts, I met a fellow by the name of Vasily Shumov, who at the time was a student in the school’s New Media program. Vasily also happens to be a fairly famous figure in the Russian rock underground; he was the leader of a group called Center, which was one of the key bands in the Moscow scene during the ’80s. Incidentally, that particular scene faced a pretty inhospitable environment to be trying to make music in; Communism was not exactly enamored of underground rock, and at one point Center was officially banned from playing, performing, or recording by the Soviet Ministry of Culture.
Back to CalArts and 1996: Vasily found out that I played guitar, so he invited me into the studio to do some playing on some tracks he was recording. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was also Vasily’s way of auditioning me for a tour; at the end of the second session I did, he asked if I’d be interested in going to Moscow with him at the end of that school year to do some playing. That semester was my last one at CalArts, so I finished the term, got my degree, stayed in LA for a week, and then flew to Moscow for two weeks of shows.
One of the websites I manage is that of guitarist Steve Vai, so I’ve read thousands of e-mails from musicians in other countries like Russia, Poland, Croatia, Egypt, India — living in America it’s easy to forget how different other parts of the world can be. What was it like to see Russia for the first time, first hand, as a touring musician?
Wow, where to begin? I think the most overwhelming thing about being there was realizing how much of my day-to-day life I had been taking for granted, if only in terms of basic creature comforts. For example, we did some shows at a venue called Central House of Artists, which is a well-known cultural center with all sorts of different elements to it: there were galleries with paintings and sculptures, film theaters for independent and experimental cinema, and a stage for live presentations and performances, which is where we played. To be doing a show at Central House of Artists was a pretty significant thing.
The only men’s room I could find had knobs on the sinks for cold water only; there were no provisions for towels or drying one’s hands, and there was no toilet paper in the stalls. The day after our first show there, we did a broadcast at a radio station, which was actually something of a step up in terms of creature comforts: rather than paper, their bathroom stalls had canisters mounted on the walls, inside of which were tiny pieces of torn-up newspaper.
A somewhat more generalized problem was the fact that, about one week after we arrived in Moscow, the entire city shut off its hot water supply for the summer, in order to perform scheduled maintainance. This was apparently a routine thing done every summer, as the city (which
numbers in excess of 10 million people) only has a few centralized sources for water flow.
We were there in 1997, which happened to be the 850th anniversary of the city of Moscow — there were signs everywhere commemorating the
event. Having been born and raised in a country that’s a bit over two centuries old, it’s just mind-boggling to think of a city that has that much history. Another thing that sticks in my mind is the general cultural and social upheaval that was prevelant as the country was coming to terms with its newfound democracy. There were signs of “Americanization” everywhere, from billboards to nightclubs to American pop music, which was almost as ubiquitous there as it is here.
On one occasion, we were walking through a stretch of downtown Moscow when we passed by a man who was pointing around and talking loudly. He also happened to have an AK-47 machine gun strapped across his back in plain sight. I asked the friend of Vasily’s who was guiding us through town what the gun-toting guy was doing. The guide replied, “I don’t know… but keep walking.”
So being exposed to all of this was a very sobering and eye-opening experience, especially for a 22-year-old American who was just starting to build a life after college. Whenever I find myself getting frustrated at various aspects of day-to-day life or building a career as a musician, it’s good to remind myself that I have the luxury of taking things like hot running water and toilet paper for granted.
What are you listening to now?
My biggest discovery over the last year has been the series of reissues by Fela Kuti, who was a Nigerian musician and bandleader who passed away in 1997. The best way I can describe Fela’s music is as an African cross between Bob Marley and James Brown, with some Sun Ra and ’70s Miles Davis thrown in as well. The best of the material I’ve heard is just ridiculously great. I’ve never run across another artist that people get turned on to so quickly or universally — everyone I’ve played his music for is just knocked out by it.
I’ve also been checking out Magma, the French prog-rock band. Magma, at least for me, requires a certain suspension of disbelief, as there are quite a few elements of the band’s aesthetic (like sci-fi storylines, operatic vocals, sprawling 40-minute Wagnerian epics, and a fictitious made-up language in which the band’s lyrics are sung) that are potentially intimidating (or, to put it less charitably, just plain goofy), but if you can stomach it, their stuff is pretty mindblowing.
What else… Swans is a very cool recent discovery. They were contemporaries of Sonic Youth back in the early-’80s New York experimental/Glenn Branca-related community, and their early material is probably the ugliest music I’ve ever heard in my life; I mean that in a very compelling, fascinating way (the best description I’ve heard of early Swans is: “If there is music in hell, this is what it sounds like.”) They didn’t always sound that harsh and confrontational, but they were consistently challenging and individualistic. Probably the most direct descendants of the early Velvet Underground that I’ve heard, in terms of unflinchingly exploring the darkest regions of the human experience.
I also just got a copy of the new album by a group called The Dagons, who are friends of mine from CalArts who make very eerie, intense music in sort of a psych/garage/punk vein, though that description doesn’t really do them justice. There’s a real rawness and edge to their sound, but underneath that is some stunningly arranged and performed songwriting with a truly haunting quality to it.
In Los Angeles, it seems like a lot of today’s well-knowns were yesterday’s music store employees. What impression did working retail at a record store leave with you?
The main impression it left on me was, “This is NOT what I am going to do with my life!” But I had deliberately been thinking about working in a record store when it came to the issue of getting a day job after CalArts — not because that was the optimum use for my Bachelor’s degree in guitar performance, but because I was really interested in getting a sense of just how a record store operates. That’s something that a lot of people, including a lot of musicians with aspirations of releasing albums, don’t really understand: the basic mechanics of exactly how an album gets from the label to the store. And you’re right, there were a lot of musicians there. One of my old managers is now playing guitar on this summer’s Warped tour.
It was also very, very sobering to be in that sort of environment: In the space of a few months I went from playing King Crimson and Frank Zappa tunes in my graduation recital to ringing up CDs for rich Valley housewives for whom Yanni was an avante-garde experience. It was “Art School Detox” in a serious way, and was good to go through in terms of getting me focused on some of the more mundane aspects of the real world.
It was also pretty depressing in a lot of cases, seeing what did and did not sell, and seeing the huge number of albums that get ignored — tons of records, on labels both large and small, that never get heard simply because they don’t get adequately promoted. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum: the albums that sell lots of copies and then get sold back to used shops after they’re no longer the popular favorites. You can go into practically any mainstream used CD store here in L.A., and you’ll see that the bins are literally overflowing with discount-stickered copies of yesterday’s blockbuster albums that nobody wants anymore. The ’90s were definitely not a good era for producing long-term career artists.
Are you working on any new projects now?
Doing some live playing is definitely the main objective right now. I’d been hoping to assemble some sort of band to try and translate some of the ideas on Disruption Theory into a live context, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to make the connection with people who are both willing and able to get something happening. And I don’t think I could walk on stage and play lead guitar lines over pre-recorded or sequenced backing tracks. I’ve tried doing that sort of thing in the past and it just comes across like a bad mixture of ingredients. A bit too close to Karaoke for my taste.
So it’s going to be a solo show, using some real-time looping and sampling, without any pre-recorded backing tracks. It’s not going to be a strict case of “Andre plays lots of tunes from his album” — it’s looking more like it’ll be an improvisational, abstract approach that’s more connected to the album in spirit and process, rather than in actual material. I’m borrowing a line of thinking from the DJ realm, where you might go to see someone spin tunes without necessarily hearing them play tracks off their new album of original material.
I’ve been doing some remix work, both for my own material and for outside artists, which I’ve enjoyed a lot. It’s much more liberating for me to work with other people’s material, and some of the remixes I’ve produced are very far removed from anything I might allow myself to do if it were my music. I’d definitely like to do some more of that sort of thing, as well as more straightforward production work with other people. I’d also really like to get more into teaching and freelance playing.
As far as new recorded material goes, I have quite a few ideas floating around as far as things I’d like to do, although there’s still a lot to be done in terms of pushing and promoting Disruption Theory before I can start seriously thinking about a follow-up CD. Then there’s the whole issue of releasing an album in the post-Napster climate; I must admit I’m a bit reluctant to spend a lot of time working on a recording if I’m going to be expected to just give it away on the internet once I’m done with it. At the very least, I want to wait and see what happens in terms of various factions (Napster, the RIAA, and artists in general) trying to reach an agreement over the next several months before I start seriously thinking about a follow-up album.
So we’ll have to see what transpires. I definitely have some clear objectives and ideas, but exactly what those will lead to is anyone’s guess at this point. Never a dull moment…