Neil Feather: Inventor of Instruments
Upon seeing a Neil Feather concert, audience members tend to rigidly divide into people who are blindsided by his originality and the depth of development of his outrageous musical ideas--and those who are irritated that his music pays so little respect to anything they have heard before even in the avant-garde, finding it opaque and threatening. His music is rich, thick and powerful, but never "lands," not even in the remote sense that freely improvised music usually does. One of the most original musical minds on the East Coast and elsewhere, Sound Mechanic Neil Feather has spent over twenty years building an extremely INTEGRAL orchestra of eccentric and refined instruments, and conceiving the original idiom of music to be played on them. His solo concerts, longtime duo with John Berndt ("THUS") and the quintet Aerotrain (with Berndt, Catherine Pancake, Andy Hayleck and Eric Franklin) all show different sides of one of the stranger musical minds of the century. No foreigner to improvised music (he is also an ardent social player), Feather's true brilliance comes out when his music is purified and allowed to assert its own freestanding, weightless, and troublingly bizarre logic.
Interview by John Berndt 5/30/01
John Berndt: It seems as if there are a number of extra-human, nonmusical influences on your music. Can you give us a sampling?
Neil Feather: [very fast] Sounds of monster movie sound effects, motorcycle riding, Doppler effects, architectural acoustics, explosions, collisions, friction, and sex. I also find the sounds of machinery very interesting, because they involve Doppler effects and motion, particularly rotary motion. The act of riding a motorcycle creates a very individual and relative sense of "presence"--where the drone of the motorcycle engine and the wind are obviously connected to speed and danger and a lateral acceleration. I tend to think of BOTH pitch AND rhythm as "speed" rather than being any part of a larger stepped structure... that pitch or speed is a matter of slowing down or speeding up or turning--what I mean by lateral acceleration. The sound of the string going through different part of the instrument is similar to the sound of the motorcycle's engine bouncing off buildings as you pass between them...
John Berndt: Your music is very strongly "genre" music, in that it creates its own genre, with a clearly felt aesthetic and performative logic. Are there genre's of music that particularly affected you growing up, and if so, what were the aspects of them that appealed to you?
Neil Feather: I've been very influenced by the Blues, for its fluidity, emotion, and (aesthetic) economy. Blues-based rock, for its strong, fat bass hooks and the improvisational territory, not to mention the gratuitous guitar wanking. Scored film music (particularly Morricone) for its drama, narrative structure, and orchestration. I was inspired by the iconoclasts--Partch, Cage, and Beefheart; and to some extent Alvin Lucier--by their risk-taking, problem solving, and their thoroughness. Their thoroughness was probably the most important thing. They were creating a new structural baseline, and all the rest of it is wonderfully coherent to the original vision--that is the part I resonate with. On another level, there are a lot of individual pieces or composers that I admire within genres--usually the ones that redeem genres that are otherwise questionable--like Barber's "Adagio for Strings," or Johnny Cash's "Because Your Mine, I walk The Line." Last but not least, any "Train Music" (any music involving trains) is a major influence on me.
John Berndt: One of the striking aspects of your music is the mating of extreme solemnity and extreme goofiness. Would you agree, and what do you think this means?
Neil Feather: Uh... sex and death. Love and fear. Tension and moisture. I find complex and/or conflicting emotions richer and more real... to me, reductionist purity is a useful cerebral device, but the unity of disparities is pretty dang cool.
John Berndt: In general, how do your instruments come into being? Do you get ideas all at once, or do they come out of working with materials, or both?
Neil Feather: There is much continuity and diversity among the instruments. They either get simpler or more complex... they MUST be functional. They MUST be ergonomic and have a large range of sounds and not break. This is probably the most difficult question you could ask, because it is very hard for me to be objective about my own creative process. I think about building instruments all the time, but the ideas always come in an instant, in a flash. Part of the process is just basic engineering and problem solving. The other part of the process is making music, which is huge and completely nonverbal and nonobjective.
John Berndt: In recent years, you've spent quite a bit of time teaching your instruments and music to other people (as in Aerotrain). Has this affected your music in any way?
Neil Feather: The teaching has prompted me to clarify my concepts and to consider broader parameters of techniques for the instruments. It has also made possible many more combinations of sounds, I'm not limited by what I can do myself at one time. It has also required some ego modification, but at this point I can see the instruments apart from myself much more than before, and I want lots of people to play them. I'm actually working on a production model of the classic "Former Guitar" now to sell to the general public.
John Berndt: Over the years you've had many bands and collaborations that have been rather different in character. Can you name them, and give a few adjectives to define each?
Neil Feather: Going backwards through time: The aforementioned Aerotrain quintet, which is my compositions on my instruments, all very structured and a lot of Neil Feather with much much help from devoted comrades.THUS--which is you and me on self-built instruments for the last seven years or so, which is a very fruitful collaboration with chemistry galore. Elephant Titans, with Andy Hayleck, Eric Franklin and Dan Breen--morphing into "power improv" with unusual instrumentation. Stewart Mostofsky's Broydelic Sidecar "I"--which is an histrionic undercover band, each performance is based tightly on an existing work that remains an absolute secret up until performance time and often well into the performance. Girls Night Out was a short-lived collaboration with Isaac Ramos which brought free music into the realm of vaudeville or the Hee-HawCornfield. THE OFFICIAL PROJECT, co-founded by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE and myself used the "C.A.M.U.S." system ("Cue Activated Modular Units") to develop an elaborate protocol of aleatoric novelty music. The roster of the Official band, which changed its name for every performance, was really large. Then there was Something That Dissolved The Shadow of Something That Was Next To Something That Burned Twice Once, which included tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE, John Sheehan, you and me--it just occurs to me that there was, like, way too much brainpower in that band--we definitely knew how to stretch a tangent. Before that I was in Denver, with Big If III, Big If II, Big If and Circus Nondo - which were collaborations with the ungovernable mad scientist John Sheehan and some more conventional professional musicians who we coaxed out of their jobs, playing "free music" before I knew it was called that. My absolute first band wasTanadril Oxyphenbutazone NF Giegy which was blues-based improvisation with unusual instruments when I was 16, back in 1970.
John Berndt: If time and budget weren't an issue, are there any immediate projects of large scale on your mind?
Neil Feather: There are three parts to the answer to this question. First, I would do a lot more of what I already do--there would be a lot more instruments built and a lot more bands. The other different is that I would probably publish a lot of the CDs that are in the can and tour a lot more. The third part, I'd build instruments that involved internal combustion motors or "engines."
John Berndt: What do you think of the concept of being "visionary?" Are some people just born full of weird, wonderful ideas? And if so, what advice can you give them to make their way in this big, bad world?
Neil Feather: First, if somebody calls me a visionary, I take it as a complement. If I feel like a visionary, it is because I feel like I have something really important to do, that can't be done by anybody else. I used to be a little more compassionate and would tell anybody that if they can avoid being a visionary, they should avoid it and get a real job. But now I would encourage people who have them to take their ideas as far and as far out as they can and don't stop, and get all the help you can get. And to be grateful.
Neil Feather's web site is at http://www.neilfeather.org
Sound files: [Real Media] Nondo Solo
[LP] Funny Music, Neil feather, John Sheehan and Patrick Bowers (Wax Tracks, 1983)
MANY cassette releases on Widémouth tapes in various contexts
[LP] The Official Wafer Face Record, The Official Project
[CD-R] Revelation of An Anaplumb, solo Anaplumb (Field Recordings, 1999)
[CD-R] The Hermenutic Ubermenschen ... Sing!--Former Guitar Duo, THUS [duo with John Berndt] (Field Recordings, 1999)
Upcoming CD Release Projects:
Folk Music Without People, 2 CD set with THUS
No Delays, CD premier of Aerotrain
Film Appearances of Note (as ham actor):
The Official John Lennon's Erection As Blocking Our View Homage and Cheese Sandwich, tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE
Klumpke-Heart-Wonderful, Catherine Pancake
10 Sentences for The So-Called Normal, Catherine Pancake
The Suit, Catherine Pancake
Eel and The Haunted Ice Box, Sleaze Steele