Founded in 1993, the constantly evolving music collective called the Degenerate Art Ensemble has performed as anything from a six-member free-jazz team to a forty-five-piece orchestra. The Seattle-based group has self-released the majority of its records (on label Degenerate Recordings); its most recent album, 2005’s The Bastress, released via Seattle’s Tellous, is only its second on an outside label. Known mostly in its Seattle base for music that combines the melancholic with the frantic and tradition with innovation, the band is a living melting pot of experimental jazz, cabaret, punk aggression, and Japanese influence. And with “Cuckoo Crow,” their major show earlier in March at Seattle’s Moore Theatre, the members also gave their audience a taste of dance and performance art revolving around the mythical resurrection of a baby cuckoo.
Prior to “Cuckoo Crow,” which the band spent the last year preparing for, I asked conductor Joshua Kohl a few questions about the Degenerate Art Ensemble, hoping to give non-Seattle residents a bit of insight into the band — and perhaps to encourage a mass movement to the north.
Where and how did the original Degenerate Art Ensemble lineup get its start?
The original lineup was based here in Seattle. Some of us were students at the Cornish College of the Arts. We were taking wild music and performance art into rock clubs even at that time. We just didn’t have any interest in being connected to academia. We wanted out — to get on with this crazy thing called creative life. And that’s how things got rolling. The audiences were there like gang busters right from the start. We’d have a crazy show at the OK Hotel in Seattle, doing orchestral thrash, big-band insanity; we’d have a Japanese folk singer in full traditional dress sing with the orchestra; Haruko [Nishimura] was starting her crazy performance art; and so on. And we’d sell the place out. I think people are really hungry for something different, especially something passionate. That is the key to us — to make something that we feel passionate about. That is the main guiding force.
Degenerate Art Ensemble’s gone through a number of lineup changes over the past decade. How has morphing the band so frequently affected the group’s dynamic and music?
The size and form of the band has changed a lot. Even the approach to deciding what the lineup will be has changed. When we first started out, we had a much more shifting lineup based on the music we [the composers in the group] were writing. So if somebody needed a tuba, we’d get a tuba player. But as time went on, we realized that a lot of the time, the chemistry of the particular players in the group and the energy that people brought to it tended to have a bigger impact on our music than particular instruments we had. When we had a steady seventeen people in the band and needed [for example] to have four violinists at all times, we found that more often than not, we’d really like making music and hanging out with one of them, but the other three were a pain to work with or weren’t quite up to snuff. So we started to base our lineup on people we love, who are super creative and inventive and bring new ideas and energy to the group. This made for some strange instrumental combinations — sometimes in a good way. But the overall effect has been great. Sometimes we feel the need to go back to a huge group, like we did last March with the forty-five-piece orchestra, and there is absolutely nothing like a huge group — the excitement and mass of sound and energy.
Have any band members in particular drastically affected the group’s sound?
Yeah, there have been lots of individuals who have come through the group and had big impacts. When we started out, [it was] Eyvind Kang and Tim Young, who were both in the first group and are totally free — totally insane artists. They would come into rehearsal full of ideas and schemes. Tim with his disturbing librettos: “Ouch! My Ass! My bowels are chalk full of secrets!” followed by a big band/swing number. And the shifting stylistic choices Eyvind would bring into the mix — like an Ennio Morricone western turning into a fiery atonal string quartet — stretched our ability to make any type of sound, or basically play anything. That was really early on. More recently, Sam [Mickens] and Jherek [Bischoff] of the Dead Science brought a lot into the mix. Our newest album, out later this year, will be co-produced by Jherek and Robb Kunz. Jherek’s taste for heavy compression and the sheer power of sound and impact are favored over cleanliness in a recording. This kind of approach was a real eye-opener.
Have you had a favorite lineup thus far, whether related to a favorite style of music the group produced or pure dynamic?
When I am at our merch table and people ask me for my favorite album of ours, I can’t answer. All the times we have had have been revelation and joy and pain and suffering and beautiful to me. I love all of the lineups and albums and projects for their challenges and their results. I feel very fortunate to actually love all of them. But I am too close to them to be able to judge them. I don’t think it is my place to do so.
Have band members at any point had side jobs/careers that influenced the band’s ability or creativity? Were there any severe time restrictions or creative projects independent of Degenerate Art Ensemble that unexpectedly impacted its music?
For sure. Most of us — and all of us, currently — do everything possible to eat, live, survive. You take what you can get to stay alive, then you get back to your creative work. I think it is a trade-off, really. I think a really common misunderstanding that people have is that they are always looking for the perfect moment to start working on their art. I just need to save up this much money I just need to get this equipment I just need to work at this job for a while but you can’t wait for anything. You just have to go and go and go and go. The years can go by so fast, and all you have is money to show for it. There will never be “the right moment.”
Making a life out of being any kind of artist is always “the wrong moment.” But the upside is that [being an artist] is a really good life made out of many wrong moments. I can’t imagine things going smoothly in an artist’s life. But these “side jobs” are just a little trade with society. And I have learned a lot working with people in other fields. Even working for a small businessperson — which I have done for years now — gives me a huge respect for people making their own way in this corporate world. It’s much the same as our life in art. An uphill climb. But I feel very lucky. I have met a lot of dancers from Japan who work full-time jobs, twelve hours per day, and the minute they get off work, they head for the dance studio, rehearse until they collapse, then head back to work the next day. And they are doing totally incredible work.
If experimental music was less “acceptable” when the band began in the early 1990s, what encouraged the band to start and continue for as long as it has?
I think we have always, in every incarnation, been a group of people that is hungry for trying out all of the strange ideas we have floating around in our heads. Those are the type of people we choose to have in our fold. Even though we have always had a very amazing audience response, we always went with the idea that “experimental” music is unacceptable. But it is dangerous to get too much of a victim mentality about it. If you think, Well, what I do is great, but nobody is going to like it because they just aren’t smart enough to get it,” then you are just a snob. We are not trying to be smarter than anybody. And how do I know that they won’t like it?
Now our mentality is to keep doing crazy shit and have the guts to put it out there in front of anyone who has the guts to listen to it. We have been surprised by the reaction. Radio response to our last album, The Bastress, has been incredible. For such a strange-ass group to be hitting number 125 on the CMJ [Top 200] chart is pretty unusual. It’s partly the time, like you are suggesting. Elements of experimental music are turning up everywhere. The new indie-rock aesthetic embraces all kinds of new sounds and unique voices. People like Joanna Newsom and Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu would not necessarily have been as easily understood ten years ago. And if you look at the evolution of Deerhoof, you see a band that started out purely as a noise outfit and turned into a full-on rock band. But their secret weapon is all the magic potions they learned back in their much more insane days. It is not really a change but an evolution. You move into new interests as time goes by, but you bring all of what you learned with you. If you don’t change as an artist, as they all say, you die.
What abilities and ideas do the lineup’s current members individually bring to the band? And who has the most say in what is created?
We operate as a collective with directors. Haruko, Josh [Stewart] and I have worked together for over a decade, so we tend to be the center of the brain. Our job is to keep an eye on the big picture. Haruko and I are “artistic directors” and Josh is “technical director,” although his role is mostly artistic as well. Titles are titles, but things are much more fluid than that. You could say that the three of us are the core directing artists. But our goal with our creative process is to make an environment that allows everyone to be a creator. As many people as possible are composing, throwing around ideas, brainstorming. Often one person will come in with a score, and we’ll all work on making it come to life together. Depending on each project, the structure changes a bit. But we have found, with experience, that although it is key to have everyone involved with the creative process and everyone involved in making decisions, there is a certain point when directors need to guide things along and make the tough calls. This keeps the work productive and keeps a strong sense of aesthetic. It avoids the too-many-cooks syndrome. It can be really challenging at times — especially with new people who are trying to figure out where the boundaries are. We try to keep it as open as possible, but at the same time we try to keep things really tight and focused and unified. That is actually a pretty huge challenge.
You and Haruko are married. Did you two meet before or after joining the band? And has your relationship had any effect on the way Degenerate Art Ensemble interacts as a group?
We met at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Haruko and I are married, but when it comes to the group, we are collaborators. We have kept that totally separate. In fact, for the first several years [of being in the band], we didn’t tell anyone we were a couple, let alone married. It really gets in the way. And as a woman, she has found that the title of being “married” carries a stigma with it, as if she is not a complete person on her own. So even with interviews we prefer to de-emphasize that part. It isn’t really relevant that we are married, in terms of Degenerate Art Ensemble. But what is most relevant is that we have worked with each other so long that we read each other’s minds. I think it is also true for both of us with Josh Stewart. It seems sometimes that the three of us have an artistic marriage of sorts. The three of us don’t really need to talk all that much.
Do you think the band would function differently if Haruko were male and/or the entire group was solely platonic with one another?
The male/female dynamic is really interesting. At one time, when we had a seventeen-piece band, we had more females than males. And it seemed that naturally, the women immediately felt free to speak their minds. When the band shifted to be [of a] male majority, that became an issue. We had to really make sure to keep the macho thing in check. Guys don’t even realize that they are doing it, but they talk all over each other. And when women are in the mix, unless they are extra vocal, they really get overshadowed. So we have to always keep that in mind.
Haruko has dealt with being the one woman in a band of ten really strong-minded men, and she does really well with it. But it is a constant issue. The balance has gone back and forth. Now it is four dudes and two girls. A third girl, it looks like, will be joining soon. Then it will be three versus four. It’s really good to have male and female energy. Those energies are reflected in the music as well. In The Bastress, you can really see those two energies at play — the really heavy, hard-hitting stuff in direct contrast and conflict with the beautiful and lyrical stuff. I’m not saying that girls are not heavy and hard hitting and guys not into lyricism and sweetness, but it kind of played itself out that way in the case of our album.
How does venue size and atmosphere affect your live shows and what you include in a set?
We love intimacy in a performance. So, of course, having a room jam-packed, full of forty people who are hanging on your every sound and movement, is as good as anything. When we approach a huge venue — like the Moore in Seattle, where Cuckoo Crow [was held] — we try with all of our might to bring the same exact feeling. We still want the intimacy. We still want things to fall into the audience’s lap. We still want to rub elbows and share sweat drops with the crowd. We still want it to feel like we are not in a theater at all but in some strange, other world, and to forget everything that exists outside of it. And, of course, the bigger the venue and the more tech ability it has, we want to make more of an environment for the work to live in. At the Moore we have sculptures and sets hanging from the ceiling, people walking up and down the walls, beautiful lighting effects. We always want to surround the audience with the unfamiliar and the inspiring, the crazy and the imaginary.
Since Degenerate Art Ensemble combines performance art with a number of musical styles and might not necessarily attract people outside of a specific, open-minded audience, are there any venues/artists/acts/scenes that you would suggest to someone who wanted to discover art related to the band’s style? A sort of icebreaker?
There is a little family of groups that comes to mind. Degenerate Art Ensemble and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum have some overlapping projects. Some of each group are also members of InkBoat. It is run by one of my favorite humans on earth, Shinichi Momo Koga. He is one of the world’s most amazing dancers and a fantastic director of craziness. Haruko dances with them, I do music for them, and other musicians in Degenerate Art Ensemble are the members of Sleepytime.
A project coming up next year will involve Josh Stewart; it is another Butoh dance-physical theater-live music group and is super-amazing. Exciting, ground-breaking work. There is also a group out of the Czech Republic called Uz Jme Doma. They have live painting on stage. Another great Seattle-based artist is D.K. Pan, the leader of Pan — a Butoh dancer and performance-art visionary. He has appeared in several of our dance works, and his work appears in all kinds of venues, fashion shows, street happenings, theaters, et cetera.
We also have relationships with lots of Japanese expats living in Berlin, some of the world’s leading Butoh artists. Folks like Yuko Kaseki, Yumika Yoshioka. I’ve been really excited by a group out of San Francisco called Nanos Opperetta. They are mean-ass contemporary classical musicians who do lots of work with crazy Butoh people and multi-media stuff.