Their music isn’t in car commercials. You won’t find them in hipsters’ iTunes playlists. You’ll probably never hear them at a Clear Channel-operated venue or radio station. But if you’re one of that growing segment of music fans who find themselves disenchanted with the constant indie-rock regurgitation cycle, the members of Upsilon Acrux welcome you with open arms and a whole lot of guitar tapping.
Building on the inventions of defiantly non-commercial acts of yore such as Magma and Henry Cow, this Los Angeles four-piece creates a dizzyingly complex variant of instrumental prog-rock, heavy on polyphony, dissonance and unexpected time and tempo changes. As difficult as the music can be, Upsilon Acrux is going places: The band recently attracted the attention of Cuneiform Records, perhaps the most important haven for contemporary progressive music. We sat down with Upsilon Acrux guitarist Paul Lai to discuss the band’s new direction, the promotional benefits of YouTube, and what he learned from the Cure.
Upsilon Acrux has played in a lot of different configurations since 1997. Who’s in the current one?
Jesse (Applehans, drums) and I are the only original members. Eric Kiersnowski (bass) was in Godzik Pink and was in our last incarnation. Brady Miller (guitar) is also in Bad Dudes and was in Miracle Chosuke. We met Brady through my roommate Dan Gerchik, who’s also in Bad Dudes. Brady was one of the few people who could keep up with us.
You used to have a second drummer and a keyboardist. Did you always have an idea of what you wanted out of the next phase of Upsilon Acrux, a la King Crimson?
I think the two-drummer thing was an experiment, a reaction to a King Crimson show I saw. They were playing with a double trio, and even though I kinda enjoyed the record and enjoyed the live show, I was disappointed that a lot of stuff I wanted to see happen just didn’t happen. I wanted to hear 7/4 going against 5/4, and they didn’t really do that. So when we met a drummer and a bass player and keyboard player that we liked a lot, we kinda just integrated them and took full advantage of the possibilities. To me, we outdid King Crimson with our polyrhythms. Maybe it wasn’t deliberate. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true — we went out of our way to map out rhythms and counter-rhythms. And it was a real serious labor of love. There was no natural jamming of any kind. I think that was people’s favorite configuration, just because it was physically so imposing. Like even if we failed at a show, we failed spectacularly. Imagine, two drummers doing two completely separate things. It was so much sound that you just couldn’t turn your head away.
How did you settle on the current four-piece lineup?
We were gonna continue that same path, and Brady was going to be our new drummer, but our keyboard player just flaked out. We had to reconfigure about three weeks before we went on tour on the East Coast. And we learned all the songs with two guitars. It’s taken us a year to get new material together that stands up to the old stuff. But all the stuff we’re playing now is new material. It’s all written for two guitars, and everyone in the band has written stuff for it.
Beyond the lineup change, what new stuff are you doing with your next album?
It’s a return to two guitar players, a more natural rock band. The album’s a reflection of the people in the band, the only consistencies being me and Jesse. The people involved have a lot of say — they write their parts most of the time — so it’s as much me and Jesse as it is Eric and Brady. This is my favorite version of Upsilon Acrux. Of course, it’s always my favorite version, because if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t keep doing it. So I don’t know if I’m telling myself little white lies, but it feels easy now, it feels natural to do a lot of difficult stuff, there’s a lot of nice countermelodies that make it sound less obscure, thanks to Brady. I think it’s our best chance at getting a larger amount of people to listen to us. I hope.
Tell me about the new label you’re working with.
I’m pretty sure it’s gonna come out on Cuneiform. We’ve spoken with (label founder) Steve Feigenbaum, and he seemed really excited. The funniest part is that he signed us off of YouTube. He saw a YouTube performance(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2OWITz3Ldo) and got in contact with me the next day. We’ve known about Cuneiform for a while, ’cause we’re into all that stuff — Henry Cow, Univers Zero, Fred Frith. The association is great — it kinda legitimizes us. We’ve been doing this thing for a long time — the faster modern prog stuff as long as anybody other than Ruins. Before the Flying Luttenbachers, before Sleeping People, before Orthrelm.
Do you plan on taking your new material on a tour outside L.A.?
We plan on going to Europe and Japan next summer, maybe an East Coast thing. At least one time in our fuckin’ lives, we should give it a real shot, play for as many people as will have it.
Do you have other side projects you’re involved in?
Jesse’s in Goliath Birdeater with Bobb Bruno (guitarist for Polar Goldie Cats). Me, Jesse and Bobb are starting a Neu tribute band called Hallo Gallo, and Brady’s gonna do that as well. Me and Chris Hathwell, the drummer from Moving Units, are starting an improv band called Epic. I think Jesse’s gonna do that, and Peter K, the guitarist from Open City — a two drummers, two guitar players kinda thing. But that’s it. Mostly I just do Upsilon. I don’t have enough material to give to other people.
Does it take a lot of time and practice to get your material show-ready?
People would be a little surprised by how little we actually practice. We practice once a week for two and a half hours. We’re all fast learners; we all understand each other’s styles, so we just do our homework. We’re not like Black Flag, practicing eight hours a day, twenty days a week.
Your music has the complexity of the average modern classical piece. Has your memory gotten better since you’ve been working with Upsilon?
I guess we have some abrupt changes, some things that don’t make sense to others. But they make perfect sense to us. Maybe the first time one of us will get kinda freaked out, but with practice we get to a comfortable level where nobody’s lagging. Part of the criteria of being in this band is being able to memorize shit, being able to count like crazy, and do it in a way that’s not unnatural. You’ll rarely see us mouthing stuff or giving obvious cues.
You guys internalize it all?
Yeah, it’s gotta be easy. We feel 7/4 the way that most people feel a 4/4 pocket. It’s just a downbeat — it’s like you wanna rock, but so much shit is rocked in 4. And it’s rad. But I can’t do that shit again — I’d like to hear something else. That’s why I like Meshuggah and other bands that step out of the standard time signatures. It’s not just to be odd; it’s just to do something a little different and see if it can still be interpreted as rock.
A band like Soundgarden achieved massive commercial success, and they had a couple hits in 5/4 and 7/8.
And nobody questioned Soundgarden, saying like “Why are you being so obscure?” It’s personal preference.
What would you say to someone who said your music was pretentious or too deliberately difficult?
I still say we are a rock band, we just try not to do typical things. We listen to enough music, we’re big enough music geeks, that we wouldn’t want to play something cool that had already been done by ten thousand bands. It works in music and it works in art: If you have something to say, then say it in your own way. If you don’t have anything to say, shut the fuck up, go home and be a consumer. There are so many bands that clearly don’ t have anything to say. Most bands these days sound like they’re working at Kinko’s, just carbon copies of other bands. “This works, so let’s do this.” There aren’t many personal choices being made other than, “How tight should my vest be,” or “How black should these jeans be?”
So who do you think in music today is truly trying something new?
Nels Cline — anything he does is totally amazing. Mick Barr from Orthrelm and Octiis. The Flying Luttenbachers are amazing; Meshuggah is really amazing. I’m sure there are a lot of others I’m leaving out.
Tell me some guitarists who’ve shaped your style.
Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Fred Frith (Henry Cow/Naked City), Nels Cline, John Fahey, Derek Bailey, Fredrik Thordendal (Meshuggah), Eddie Van Halen, Bill Orcutt from Harry Pussy — one of my all-time favorite bands. Neil Young was also huge for me, and the guys that played guitar for Captain Beefheart — every one of those guys is an influence. Oh, and I was a big Cure fan, so my first guitar teacher was Robert Smith. He didn’t play blues, he didn’t play reggae. He had his own style, which he excelled at. He didn’t really push that style much, but maybe in a way it taught me to figure out what you’re good at, continue doing that, as long as you have an identity. Not that I don’t always try to improve, but I think the idea is to make it as singular as possible, get further and further away from my influences.
Every Upsilon Acrux review I’ve read talks about Coltrane and free jazz. I don’t hear much improvisation in your later records or live shows. Where does that influence come in??
Well, I think on the first album we did some free jazz stuff, and on the second album, Last Train Out, eighty percent of it is improv. We went as far as we could with that at the time. But it’s mainly the spirit of those people that means a lot to us. As far as bands that are more evident in our style, obviously there’s Henry Cow, This Heat, King Crimson, that kinda stuff. And Magma — how can I forget? My and Jesse’s all-time favorite band.
How about your professed love of metal? Occasionally there’s intense blast-beats, but you guys don’t have distorted, down-tuned guitars or anything.
We love death metal, and you’re gonna hear traces of it, but it’s gonna be submerged — maybe in the drums, with something else over the top of it. Those really obvious genre trappings, signature stuff from any genre — that’s something I always wanted to stay away from. I want to sound like me, or to have a clean guitar sound, rather than a signature guitar sound such that you’ll know, “Woah check it out, it’s the metal part, it’s the jazz part.” When I first heard John Zorn’s Naked City (a band known for rapid-fire stylistic changes) doing it, I was impressed with how absurd it was. But after a while, I decided it was a disservice to all the genres that they were parlaying into five-second parts. I thought those genres were worth more than five seconds. And I’m sure Zorn feels the same way, but to teenagers, that impatience is what you’re gonna get across. I love Eddie Van Halen, so I use tapping, but I don’t use it with tons of distortion and compression and a phaser. I like all these different techniques, and I want to utilize them, but I don’t want to lift or sample. I’d rather it be unfamiliar territory. Ultimately, I’m looking for singularity. We strive for unprecedented music. It’s not to impress or to associate, really just to make unprecedented music. I hope that at some point we’ll come upon it.
You’ve used the term “maximalist” to describe your music. What does that mean?
It was a dumb thing that I said when I was twenty-five. At the time, minimalism was picking up, and where we were in San Diego everyone wanted to do was the minimalist thing. We saw so many bands talk about the same shit we were into at the time, but then they’d just go out there and sound like Slint. It goes back to Brian Eno’s idea: If you start thinking about your laundry while you’re playing, it’s time to do something else. That’s basically our motto, our calling card. When you come into Upsilon Acrux, you can’t denounce a part that someone brings in based on the fact that it’s too hard or that it’s gonna take too much work to do. If you do that, you’re outta the fucking band. That’s it. The “maximalist” thing means that we don’t want to be held back by laziness.
That’s illuminating, because I interpreted “maximalism” as a deliberate effort to take up space, to do amazing things that will hit you over the head. Is that part of it too?
Well, we are striving to impress in some ways. Part of making unprecedented music is giving the listeners something they haven’t heard, and in that way we’re trying to impress. But I’m not sitting at home with a 4/4 part, turning it into a 7/4 part or an 11/4 part. Mostly, I’m trying to flip out my bandmates — something we haven’t done, something that’s gonna sound rad, something I can’t wait to put in their hands to see what they would do with it. I think all bands are just a big inside joke anyway. That’s what it is — constantly challenging each other, constantly pushing each other.
In that regard, where does Krautrock come in, which seems to be the opposite of that “maximalist” aesthetic?
People are attracted to things that they are not. And bands like Neu are the polar opposite of what we are: a super-busy band with tons of notes. But we don’t think of Krautrock any less because of that. It’s so strong conceptually, and what you get from it seems to be endless. We’ve loved Neu and Faust for a long time and will continue to forever. Plus, I think Faust, especially, is one of the most creative bands ever: You can’t really pinpoint what they exactly do. That’s what all bands should strive for, creativity above genres or styles. It should be about trying to be as creative possible. That’s what art is supposed to be, right? Personal expression and/or creativity? If you’re not reaching out to someone, creating a personal bridge with lyrics and vocals, like saying, “You feel this way, I feel the same way,” then you should be insanely creative in a completely different way.
You’ve touched on that theme in previous interviews, by saying that “progressive rock” is less a style than an ambition.
I still feel the same way. When you read pretty much any magazine that talks about progressive rock, it talks about it as a style. They talk about it as overblown, pretentious, basically like garbage. This lame genre that came along and blew everything out of the water — thank god that punk came around and corrected the path. But I feel the opposite. I feel like progressive really went out on a limb, tried to push rock further. Rock started out as blues, which is cool, but after ten years, this is supposed to be a new genre, not just a continuation. Those guys tried to tackle some ambitious stuff. Sometimes they failed, sometimes they succeeded, but at least they were willing to try.
A lot of people maligned ’70s prog rock as a style because it seemed like almost elitist music — it seemed like the intellectual vibe of it went against the spirit of rock. When it comes to Upsilon, do you consider yourselves an intellectual band?
We are, but we don’t strive to be. At least lately with this band, we’re actually trying to build a bridge. We are trying to be a rock band, but we do it our own way. I want to do difficult stuff — I wanna do something that doesn’t bore me. But at the same time, I would like anyone who’s at the show to enjoy it, be able to hum something walking away from that. And I think that’d be something new. It’d be easy for us to go the way of the Flying Luttenbachers, who basically say, “Fuck rock music, fuck melody and harmony.” But you know, we like Led Zeppelin, some of us like the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, the Beach Boys. Not that that’s reflected in the music so much, but it is. It isn’t obvious, but it’s there. We have nice harmonies, we try to have nice melodies here and there, we try to put more into it rather than be one hundred percent obscure all the time.
You’ve played with the Flying Luttenbachers before, right?
We played with them around eight times. A lot of the bands they’re associated with are all friends. We all support each other. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve been in contact with bands that we really admire. I don’t know if it’s a mutual admiration or pity for each other, but we understand each other’s situation. We’re all much older, none of us are in it to sell a million records, we’re all in it for the music. And in that, there’s a common bond. We’re all lifers. We’re gonna be doing this for a long time, so we better get used to seeing each other around, helping each other out.
Can you foresee prog music being as important or relevant as it was in the ’70s?
If Mars Volta or Radiohead and so-called art-rock bands break through and dominate the airwaves, maybe we’d see some kind of trickledown effect. But they would have to dominate like Pearl Jam or Nirvana did.
We talked a lot about progressivism as an ambition. Where is there room for songwriters and musicians to go? What issues should they be working on?
I guess just personal stuff, personal ambitions and feelings — to each their own. I would like to see more ambition above anything else; it’s lacking. If you look at all the great artists that ever lived, not one of them was short on ambition. Not one went out of his way to clone someone else. Not one of them followed the direct path to success. Our whole culture is based on counter-culture. If you have a mohawk and a tattoo then you’re a maverick, but you’re really not. You’re just a picture of a maverick in a men’s magazine.
So the only place to go is to be true to yourself.
Yeah! Be true to yourself, and if you want to do something creative or do something public, try to be singular, try to do something nobody else has done. If that betrays who you are, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it publicly. If you’re just a coffee-shop singer, then remember: There’s at least seven thousand of them in Los Angeles. So maybe you should move to a different town, or maybe you just shouldn’t do it. Would you just start working at McDonald’s? I wouldn’t. There are already enough people to work there, so there’s no point. If that’s your ambition that’s cool, but otherwise leave it to someone else.
Upsilon Acrux is scheduled to play with Crime in Choir, Starlite Desperation and This Blush on October 21 at Spaceland in Los Angeles.