The Serendipitous Sojourn of Michel Delville
Posted November 13, 2011
Interviewed by Dennis Rea (Foreword below by John M.)
As mentioned previously in the Dennis Rea interview, MoonJune's Leonardo Pavkovic came up with a truly great concept for marketing the two current newest MoonJune releases -- Machine Mass Trio's As Real As Thinking (MJR041) and Moraine's Metamorphic Rock: Live at NEARfest (MJR040) -- by having the band's gifted guitarists interview one another.
Q: ‘Serendipity’ is a word that comes to mind when I hear people’s stories about how they linked up with Leonardo Pavkovic and MoonJune Records. How did your own relationship with MoonJune come about?
“Serendipity”, yes! I think you’ve put your finger on a crucial aspect of the development of my relationship with MoonJune. What turns out to be a very happy accident was actually the result of tragic circumstances. My first serious contact with Leonardo Pavkovic came shortly after Elton Dean passed away. At the time, Elton and The Wrong Object had just started a collaboration and had booked some European gigs (some early dates had to be canceled due to Elton’s poor health). We were supposed to go into the studio and record some new material. At some stage though Elton called me and said something along the lines of “Michel, save your money - let’s play some gigs first. We’ll get a good a live recording and we’ll take it from there“. We played the Glaz’art in Paris in late 2005 but the venue had no multi-track facilities and we left with a stereo live mix which was subsequently mastered in Brussels. Fortunately the balance was right and it didn’t need any serious tweaking to get it to what we wanted: a document of the musicians’ ability to communicate and collaborate with each other … and a tribute to Elton’s extraordinary improvising skills, even in the direst of situations. We listened to it in the car while driving back to Elton’s and Marino’s flat, and I still remember the glee in Elton’s eyes. He was pretty happy with the performance - he had played extremely well and he knew it. Elton was instrumental in establishing a connection between the band and MoonJune. Sadly, he passed away about three months later and Leo, who had already heard the unmastered recording, said he liked it and decided to release it.
Q: Please fill us in on your latest MoonJune release, Machine Mass Trio. Who are your collaborators on this project, and how does it differ from your previous MoonJune releases? Also, what’s the story behind the unusual name?
Machine Mass started as a duo record project Tony Bianco and I decided to do during one of his trips to Belgium. After comparing notes and reading each other’s charts we decided to involve a guest musician and quickly hired Jordi Grognard, whose contributions immediately earned him the status of a full band member. The day after the recording, Tony came up with the name and it sounded good to us. I suggested adding the word “trio” because I thought that some people might get the wrong idea and mistake us for a heavy-metal band! I don’t think it was a conscious reference to the Soft Machine, although reviewers will probably find points of comparison with the Softs. I like to think of “Machine Mass” as a metaphor conveying the physical volume and sheer density of the sounds produced by the trio, the ratio of force and acceleration of its “musical objects” as it manifests itself through the use of computer-generated loops and live electronics. But then again I may be wrong and the name may connect the band to a more spiritual source. As we know, the pun is more important than the meaning ...
Making this record was a very liberating experience for me, not least because it made me want to experiment further with computer-generated sounds and samples, which is something that is going to be central to my future projects. It also veers in the direction of a “world” sound (for want of a better word), especially with the use of instruments such as the bouzouki, the bansuri and the tempura.
Q: douBt’s Never Pet a Burning Dog (great title!) includes what is probably the first cover version of a Terje Rypdal composition (“Over Birkerot”) that I’ve ever encountered. Rypdal seems to be something of a patron saint for many MoonJune Records artists – he certainly is for me, and for Leonardo. Can you talk about your impressions of Rypdal’s music? Do you consider him a direct influence on your approach to playing the guitar?
I don’t know if “Over Birkerot” is the first Rypdal cover. If it is, it would be amazing and, to some extent, unfair given Rypdal’s impact on a wide range of jazz and rock musicians. He certainly is a major direct influence on my guitar playing style, perhaps more than any other guitarist besides Zappa. This being said, I have always been more influenced by non-guitaristic models (sax players, especially, but also Messiaen and other contemporary orchestral composers), especially as far as my solos are concerned. Rypdal’s attention to sound textures was extremely formative for me. He was initially a self-taught guitar-player whose first instruments were the piano and the trumpet. Maybe this accounts for his idiosyncratic phrasings, which resemble no one else’s. His style is alternately fierce and spacy, dense and spare, and never shows the slightest sign of self-indulgence.
Q: What a privilege it must have been to collaborate with the inimitable Elton Dean in your group The Wrong Object. How did you first come into contact with Elton, and what was it like working with him?
As I said before, without Elton, The Wrong Object, for all its merits, may never have gotten a record deal with MoonJune and would definitely not have received the same attention from the press, at least during that period. Also, our collaboration with Elton made us confident and visible enough to create other forms of collaborations with other extraordinary guests such as Harry Beckett, Annie Whitehead and Alex Maguire, all of whom had already toured and recorded with Elton in the past. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous when I first met Elton because he is one of my great musical heroes and I did not want to disappoint him. I soon discovered that he was very easy to work with and that he liked the idea of working with a rock-oriented band. Perhaps more than anything else, his determination to do his own thing, regardless of any outside pressure or commercial imperatives, and his apparent fearlessness towards life and music was a vehicle that sent a message which continues to inspire me to this day.
Q: Some reviewers have likened your work to the so-called ‘Canterbury School’ of progressive rock, no doubt owing to your association with Elton Dean. Others have linked you to fellow Belgians Univers Zero, Present, and other members of the Rock in Opposition (RIO) movement. Are the comparisons apt? Do you feel you have anything in common with either camp, musically or philosophically?
My main Canterbury School models are The Soft Machine and Hatfield and the North, an association which continues to this day since douBt toured and recorded with Richard Sinclair in 2009 and 2010. My only official collaborative connection to the Belgian RIO scene is Guy Segers, with whom I have worked in a band called The Moving Tones. Guy also introduced me to Geoff Leigh - another MoonJune artist - with whom we played an incendiary gig in Brussels a couple of years ago! I also own the whole Henry Cow catalogue and several Univers Zero CDs. Since 2010 I have been playing with Comicoperando, a band which performs the music of Robert Wyatt and comprises former Henry Cow members Chris Cutler and Dagmar Krause. I don’t think avant-rock or chamber rock in general have significantly affected my musical production but I’ve been exposed to it from an early age and influences can sometimes work in very oblique and mysterious ways. Like most experimental artists I am constantly reminded of the now famous RIO motto “music the record companies don’t want you to hear” … with the exception of MoonJune Records, of course!
Q: Please tell us a bit about the music scene in your native Belgium. Are you a part of a community of like-minded musicians, or are you working in relative isolation? Is there an audience in Belgium for the type of music you make?
I have struggled a lot to find musicians who were willing and able to play the kind of music I have had in my head since I was a teenager but I’ve feel much less isolated in the last 10 years or so. In fact, I have had to decline many invitations to take part in worthwhile projects initiated in Belgium or elsewhere and now feel to need to focus on a more limited number of musical ventures at a time. There is an audience for the kind of music we make but, hey, Belgium is a small country and we’ve played more often abroad than in these here parts. The Wrong Object alone has performed in more than fifteen different countries, and I’m hoping that douBt and MMT will also appeal to foreign audiences.
Q: If you could choose three adjectives to characterize the qualities you strive to achieve in your playing, what would they be?
That’s a tough one – I suppose I could settle for “hypnotic” , “whimsical”, and “constructivist“.
Q: I suppose that a question about your musical influences is inescapable. Who are your primary inspirations as a musician in general, and as a guitarist specifically?
I have been associated with Zappa’s music for so long that I suppose that I should start from there. I am flattered when critics compare me with the likes of Robert Fripp, Phil Miller, David Torn and Terje Rypdal – they have been as influential as Stravinsky, Trane, Mingus, Threadgill, Pärt or Squarepusher in teaching me how a musical piece or solo can manage to “tell an interesting story” and capture an audience’s imagination.
Q: What was your earliest music project?
There are many unknown and undocumented projects I could cite. Most of them were short-lived. As far as I can remember my first structured combo was called the “Mad Queen Simulated Trauma” and it involved Andrew Norris as a guitar player and Poet-in-Residence, a long time before he joined the very first avatar of the Wrong Object in 2001.
Q: Looking at your discography over the years, I see that you’re one of the relatively few musicians who are equally comfortable working in the context of both free improvisation and highly structured jazz-rock. Can you comment about how you approach each of these very different playing situations?
I like to combine both approaches within the same band, sometimes even within the same musical piece. I mean, I do not think of myself as a free improviser in certain contexts and a structured composer in other situations, although sometimes circumstances dictate one or the other, especially when I’m playing other people’s music. My compositional methods often consist in working with pre-written modules or fragments towards a final composition which eventually emerges after several stages of testing, readjustments, combinations and permutations. Sometimes it happens at home, sometimes the decisions are made during rehearsals. It’s very close to collage, really – maybe because Belgium has been one of the mainstays of surrealism since the early 1920s. Anyway, I don’t think a composition is ever really “finished”, right?
Q: Between Machine Mass Trio, douBt, and The Wrong Object, your project menu appears to be very full indeed. Are you engaged in other musical involvements as well? What do you have planned for the near future?
I am very excited by the new douBt album, which we will mix this Fall, and Tony Bianco and I will soon finalize a new, electronically inclined and equally exciting recording featuring Saba Tewelde, an incredibly gifted singer whose styles range from soul to funk, jazz and world music.
Q: What type of gear are you using?
The typical gear I am using both live and in the studio is a Brunetti Overtone2, a Vox wah-wah, a Boss loop station, a Line6 Echo Park, and my old Roland GR-09. My main guitar is a fully refurbished Ibanez Raodstar Series II fitted with three mini Seymour Duncan humbuckers.
Thanks for your time and thoughtful questions, Dennis!
MOONJUNE RECORDS DISCOGRAPHY FEATURING MICHEL DELVILLE