"Yes, 'we drank wine to the chime of bells' but we also did this."
On the occasion of the release of A Handful of Dust's career spanning double album "Dragging Her Wings of Rusty Knives: Selected Recordings 1994-2016" Seymour Glass speaks with Bruce Russell about the group's history, it's methods, the commanding voice of poetry and the finer aspects of being toasted.
A Handful of Dust '99 - Bruce Russell and Alastair Galbraith
A Handful of Dust '84
Are you consciously welcoming and inviting into the foreground the dirty evidence of compromised limits of technology? Or maybe you’re simply refusing to reject the grit of recording.
Our sound has a lot of grit, too. Allowing the recording to add to that is both a way to foreground the fact that it is a recording, and to enable the recording to replicate the sheer teeth-gritting intensity of our tone-wrangling, which has been known to send sensitive audience members home for a lie-down with pain-killers. Our approach to recording fidelity is a way of making the physicality of our performances translate to the “domestic” environment of listening to a record. It seems everything I do is loud at any volume, so frankly, I’m going to make lemonade.
Do you ever experience that thing where a performance at the time feels epic, but when you listen back it’s meh? Or vice versa — what felt like a mediocre performance turns out to be an insanely great recording. And another variation still: listening to a recording of yourselves after some time has passed and not recognizing it you?
All possible varieties of this are real. Sometimes the gig seems slack, but the recording is a mammoth snapping beast that pins listeners to the wall by their ears. And vice versa. I have also had the experience of listening to a recording and wondering, “Am I even audible on this? Was I even plugged in?”
That was a great anecdote in the book by the Spacemen 3 bass player, when he played the “Launching of the Dream Weapon” set, one of their greatest moments as a live act, and he’d never plugged in to the amp. I totally sympathized. I have played gigs when I have been almost that toasted. I have also played shows where I listened to the recording and cannot fathom how we made those sounds. There’s a Dead C. recording from Scotland where the whole band suddenly seems to start playing backward in mid-set, then flips back again. No idea how that could even be done, but it is on the tape.
On this record we have “Sefer Yetsirah,” a recording I rejected for the Now Gods, Stand Up For Bastards album [Corpus Hermeticum 1996]. I have no idea now why I would have omitted this quite mind-boggling performance from the original album, but I did, and as a result we have some top-shelf shit to include here, never before heard.
One of the things I love about this double album project is showing the progression over decades, or more properly, the lack of progression over decades. I thought I was a full-grown man when we started recording this stuff, now I’m actually old. It beggars belief. That’s why I included the paraphrase from the ancient Chinese poem by Li Ho on the album spine: “we tethered the sun by a long rope that youth might never pass.” This album is my personal proof (to myself, at least) that I have not wasted my life. Yes, “we drank wine to the chime of bells,” but we also did this.
With the release of Dragging Her Wings Of Rusty Knives, A Handful Of Dust apprehends, however fleetingly, even metaphorically, shadows and whispers and wavelengths not fully perceived. By referencing the forgotten and the suppressed, that which is left behind either by oversight or by malice, Alastair Galbraith and Bruce Russell uplift by perversely redefining the meaning of “triumph,” by ceremonially burying new martyrs in the sand up to their necks, by embracing the subtle grace of the gravedigger’s shovel.
The path they follow is filled with jabs that pierce a spot inside your head; once impaled you might come to regard their squeebly balloon animal noise epics as the very bucket of milk the doctor ordered. Using violin, guitar, Farfisa, Stylophone, and all the other standard-issue tools of helicopter dentistry, the duo wants you to think of them during your next personal emergency, whatever it may be. Toward that end, here are mosquito-like fragments of bzzt pupating into unsteady whines; clay blocks getting dragged across cellophane; sharp blips and grand, heaving moans; feedback bleats and tremolo gack that recall livestock get sodomized by the steering hydraulics from a junkable car. —S. Glass
Are all recordings live, with one mic? Live as in “everyone playing at the same time and place, no overdubs.” Not necessarily live as in “in front of an audience.”
I think all the recordings except for side four [“Dialogues With The Dead”] were recorded with a stereo mic, live in performance. The older ones to cassette, the younger ones are natively digital. The fourth side was recorded to four-track by Alastair, with three mics, I think. That session (in 2016) was our first “studio” recording since 1995. Everything was mastered for vinyl by Lasse Marhaug. I’m quite sure that was a digital process.
I can be quite definitive that there are no overdubs. I think the only A Handful of Dust overdubs were on the “solo” parts of the From a Soundtrack to the Anabase of St-John Perse album [Corpus Hermeticum 1995], where two analogue stereo tracks were recorded separately. Those were our most recent studio recordings prior to this. 1
On the tracks where there is an audience, coughs and applause could have been edited out quite easily. Is the notion of recordings as a warts-and-all document of what happened at a time and place important to you? Or maybe it’s of no importance whatsoever, and as such there is no reason to change it…
I like to document the fact that these are people playing in a room, in real time. The audience is part of the sound (any room sounds different with a bunch of bodies in it), and sometimes the audience makes noise, too. I used to record myself playing in a bar in Christchurch where you’d always hear the bar fridges opening and closing. That was part of the performance. Live recording has been a staple of AHoD from 1984. The mythically unavailable cassette release A Fortnight Dead (1984), which was our first album, was all live recordings from the Empire Tavern, and I’ve never seen any need to vary that approach, since real-time improvisation is completely central to our kaupapa (a useful Maori word meaning mission, raison d’être and strategy).
A couple of the titles refer to esoteric and/or mystical aspects of what we can call, for lack of a better term, or maybe it’s the exactly appropriate term, mainstream religions. Clearly this is been an area of fascination for you for many, many years, especially the literary documents that have been produced. A very American question about this would regard if and how it intersects with your daily life, in practice, and by extension, with the glorious caterwaul created by A Handful Of Dust. The response to a line of inquiry such as this should probably be “None of your damn business, Yankee.” So I’m not asking that. But I am interested in what you have to say about the various touchstones the titles of the tracks mention, Porete’s work on Christian mysticism, the earliest written work on Jewish mysticism, Lorca, etc., etc.
Here’s my chance to give the most irritating response anyone can give in this situation — “I’m glad you asked that question...” The reason I’m so glad is that it is easy to think that esoteric religion is the key reference point for AHoD, when in fact modern poetry is the prime under-valued influence…. Speaking for me, AHoD started as a sound and poetry performance enterprise, back in 1984 — the name of course does reference The Waste Land. At that time I was writing a bit of verse, and didn’t feel confident in my ability to hold an audience purely through improvisation in sound. In fact, I hardly suspected such a thing was possible. Later, in the early ’90s, I spent a few years investigating hermetic religion and science in the Renaissance, and that bled into the iconography and titling of AHoD projects. At the same time, the influence of poetry was still present, erupting in the Anabase album, where texts from the poem were juxtaposed to sound constructions.
Later on, poetry was an element in the For Patti Smith [Freewaysound 2002] and Mares’ Milk Mixed With Blood [Non Mi Piace 2003] albums. What has become the main conduit for poetry is in the use of ‘detourned’ titles for all the pieces. So in this set we have titles from Lorca (including the album title), Situationist texts, and esoteric books from various traditions, including one by Giordano Bruno who was burnt in Rome as a heretic for asserting that the planets are sentient beings — a very contemporary philosophical position!
For me, as a person of no religious belief whatsoever, these texts are interesting for the kernels of worldviews reflected in them, as well as their potential as pure poetry — inspiring and evocative combinations of words, almost regardless of their intended meaning. I love words, but on a very fundamental level, I am wary of them. Communicating with sound is in many ways for me more authentic and harder to fake, though the possibility of releasing unintended meanings from texts through editing and collage (the Burroughs / Gysin approach) also appeals to me. That’s what I was heading for with the No Mean City piece on our split LP [l’Esprit De l’Escalier 2014], and I have some ideas for a similar word-based project, which I think will be done under my own name — which coincidentally will return to The Waste Land, specifically the unedited original draft calledHe Do The Police In Different Voices. I’m interested in rejected texts, ones that are not “canonical.” All the best books of the Bible got cut pretty early on, such as the Gospel According to Thomas. That is the shit.
So if there is any aspect of this compilation that speaks to people with the commanding voice of poetry, I think it can be judged a success.