Electro-acoustic composer Jason Lescalleet uses reel-to-reel machines, tape loops, and old keyboards to construct a palette that ranges from the blown and aggressive to the hypnotically rhythmic. He makes music that, if you're not careful, will have you staring at the speaker with your head bobbing to a fragment of what sounds like a beat, totally forgetting that there's even a world outside this racket. Despite the occasionally recognizable sample on an album like 2012's Big Black-referencing Songs about Nothing, in many ways, Lescalleet's music is about as far as you can get from pop music, but the excitement comes from just that distance, because it makes it almost impossible to predict what's going to come next. Lescalleet is playing tonight in Bloomington at Rachael's Café with Radio Astronomy and Assimilation.
NUVO: With music like this, it seems a bit different from just picking up a guitar and starting a rock band. What lead you in to it?
Jason Lescalleet: I could go all the way back to my childhood. I've always had a fascination with tape recorders and cassette decks. I've always been playing with tape, discovering the differences in audio fidelity between different kinds of tape and tape players, between different kinds of microphones and all that.
And my brother and I always played around with these cassette decks that my dad had. He had a pretty big record collection of odd records and we would play things like sound effects records and things like that, and we would do little radio plays and make our own stories. So going back all the way to then is when I got the bug.
And then I was much more involved in conventional music. I was in a rock band in the '80s, so I was in to performing and the live experience and recording. I also did a fair amount of mixing, producing, and engineering rock bands. I was a sound man for a while at a club, so that just lead me in to wanting to be in that arena. But my interest outgrew my ability to play that kind of music pretty quickly, so I started looking for weirder more avant-garde music, not really knowing where to go but always looking.
So, in the late '90s I came across a record store in Lowell [Massachusetts] called Triple R records, RRRecords. The owner there, who was named Ron, he introduced me to noise music and it blew my mind. I wasn't prepared for that. I thought I had an understanding of how far music could go, based on the weird stuff like Frank Zappa and The Mothers, Captain Beefheart, Faust, Can, you know things like that, even Negativland and some of that kind of stuff. I'd never heard noise music before so that really took me by surprise.
And coincidentally, at the time I was really in to King Crimson, and Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, and the tape loops, and Frippertronics and all that. And so friend of mine taught me how the tape loops were made. He actually gave me a reel-to-reel tape deck and taught me how to splice tape and said, "Go knock yourself out." Then I just started doing it. My first performance was at an art gallery where I had created a bunch of tapes with a four track recorder and I put them in boom boxes all around the perimeter of this art gallery. I had a chart with a score and each of the tapes had their own role to play in this arrangement, so I ran around the room turning the volume up and down and turning tapes on and off. Then I went on to add the tape loops to that and I really was excited about the results. From there I just slowly collected more and more tape decks so that I could play tape loops on more and more of them and phase out the boom boxes. That was back in 1997.
NUVO: A big part of music like this is the gear you end up using. I'm curious about how you've gone about amassing the gear that you use over the years, where do you look and what do you look for?
Lescalleet: It's not as fun as it used to be. In the '90s and early 2000s I used to just get them [reel-to-reel tape machines] at yard sales. I could get them cheap, real cheap. People thought they were junk. They were just getting rid of them. I'd get them for five bucks. I tried to never pay more than $20.
NUVO: Like for one reel-to-reel machine?
Lescalleet: Yeah. Now they're hundreds of dollars. They've become collectibles, with people putting them on Ebay. They're vintage and they're boutique and they're antique. It's a challenge now. I do have a very very large collection I don't honestly know how many I have, I don't have an inventory, I'd have to sit here and run through them in my head. I know I have more than 20, but not all of them work. I had a basement flood a few years ago and I lost a fair number of them that were on the floor at the time. I'm definitely aware of having eight functioning decks, though. Eight is what I try to maintain, because I like to work in quads when I'm recording at home. I also have some that are stereo and some that are mono, I have a set of four stereo and a set of four mono that I maintain.
NUVO: I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about your performance process, and about what the balance between composition and free-improv is like for you.
Lescalleet:The balance could be represented on a timeline, where the further back you go the more improv, and now I'm more composed.
NUVO: You mean like in terms of your development as an artist?
Lescalleet: Yeah, that's exactly what I mean. You know, though, I just contradicted myself, I said that and I realized that my first record Electronic Music was extremely composed. The dichotomy is that the compositions were made from recordings that were improvised, so I was improvising while I was recording, but then I collected these improvised recordings, and I composed pieces with the bits I had collected.
NUVO: How does that work for your live performances? Are they typically pretty composed ahead of time?
Lescalleet: Yes, it's one piece in three movements. It's always different because of the different environments I'm in, the different rooms I'm in. Things like the limitations of the PA, the audience, how they might react. I might stretch something out longer if people are really getting in to it. There are a lot of variables but there's a structures.
NUVO: How does the different gear you use end up influencing your live performances, maybe in the form of different approach to improvisation?
Lescalleet: The gear that I bring is brought to achieve the goal of the composition that I plan to play. It's not the other way around. I'm not looking at four decks thinking, "Okay what am I going to do with these?" I brought them because they will let me achieve what I'm working on.
NUVO: Songs About Nothing is a pretty clear reference to Big Black's Songs about Fucking. I wondered if you might talk a bit about what, if there are any, are the conceptual connections are between the albums from your perspective.
Lescalleet: The title, Songs About Nothing actually pre-dated the project of the record, I thought of the title first. And then I was like , "How do I make this record? I love this title, how do I approach making this record?" And I had no connection to the Big Black record when I thought of that title. So that was a title in and of itself that I planned to explore. While I was doing that it dawned on me the similarity to the Big Black title. I was like, "Look at that, Songs about Nothing, Songs about Fucking." I thought, it might make for good cover art, I'd just take away the fucking part on the Big Black one, and there's my cover. And that was the extent of it, it was just my cover art and the title. But the more I thought about it, the more it fit the scheme of "songs about nothing." If I take songs that are about something and work with them, am I taking away the value of the message? If there was one, is it still there? There's more to it that, but that's the basic idea.