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Left Field: 75 Dollar Bill’s Folk Without Folk, Plus Improv Drone, Operatic Rock, and More

Spin’s ‘Left Field’ column focuses on the latest in experimental music each month, featuring interviews with and capsule reviews of artists at the fringes of genre, sensibility, and commercial appeal. 

Rick Brown, percussionist of the difficult-to-classify New York City duo 75 Dollar Bill, first met his future bandmate Che Chen sometime in the mid-2000s, at a show he heard about through Myspace. (It was a different time.) Brown, who had been active in New York’s underground rock scene since the late ‘70s, became a fan of Chen’s noise-improv outfit True Primes after first hearing them on the social media site, and eventually asked him if he’d like to jam together. When it finally happened, in 2012, both men chose an unexpected instrument. Chen, whom Brown had known as a player of “percussion, weird stringed instruments, electronic stuff, bass clarinet,” showed up with an electric guitar. Brown went to a shelf and pulled down a plywood crate that he’d repurposed as an instrument. “He hit the side of it,” Chen recalls on a Sunday afternoon in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the neighborhood that serves as 75 Dollar Bill’s home base. “And I was immediately like, that’s the drum sound I want.” 

The pair is huddled over a small table at an old-fashioned Polish cafe: Chen wiry and thoughtful in a tropical-print button-up, Brown cheery and avuncular in a faded t-shirt with a kitten on it. There is an almost familial fondness between them, evident in the tight hug they exchanged when Brown arrived, in the brick-sized hunk of strawberry cake they share with a single fork, and in the way they gently correct each other’s occasional moments of self-deprecation. Both are expansive talkers, with big ideas about 75 Dollar Bill and music in general. They recently released I Was Real, their third album of hypnotic and immersive guitar-and-crate-based instrumentals, and the fullest recorded expression of their idiosyncratic vision so far. Across two LPs, it whipsaws from hard-charging boogie to sun-baked drone to mutant folk dance, assisted by an ad hoc ensemble of wind and string players who enrich but never overwhelm the raw sound of the core duo.

Chen’s tightly wound guitar playing is informed by various global folk and classical traditions, as well as American blues and minimalism and his own interest in nonstandard tuning systems. Just over a year after he and Brown started playing together, Chen received a fellowship to study in Mauritania, where he apprenticed with a master musician named Jeiche Ould Chighal, but was also “schooled by 12-year-olds, like, routinely,” he says. Mauritanian guitarists often customize their instruments to make an additional pitch available between each of the 12 notes of the Western scale. “He came back with that weird guitar, and it was fine,” Brown says. “It was just the two of us, so there wasn’t any problem with being in tune.” 

Brown tends to play in long slow cycles, beating out rhythms that seem simple until you attempt to tap along to them and find yourself adrift, unable to locate the downbeat of his subtly complex meters. He was always an unorthodox drummer, but he used a more traditional kit in earlier bands, until a mild stroke left him temporarily unable to play in 2001. “It never felt good playing a drum kit again, and it still feels weird,” he says. “This box, which I just found on the street, was perfect for a shift to playing something really simple, repetitive, groove-oriented.”

I Was Real’s most audacious piece is its title track, which develops and intensifies a single phrase for 17 minutes, an effect like watching a single raindrop grow into a fearsome thunderstorm. More than any particular genre, 75 Dollar Bill’s allegiance is to the magic of repetition, to the power of music as a social phenomenon, and to the alchemical combination of the two. They don’t often play in traditional rock clubs, favoring smaller spaces where they have the freedom to perform the long sets they favor, and where they’re forced into close contact with their audience. Once a year, they perform a weeklong residency at a tiny bar near their practice space, and they frequently invite friends to join the band for a jam or two. Sometimes, these friends are fringe free improvisers; sometimes, they’re indie rock celebrities.

“It’s never the same for the audience and the performer,” Chen says. “But I think when you are playing these repetitive things, maybe it’s a little closer. You’re both experiencing this repetition. Maybe it works on the performers and the audience differently, but it feels more like a shared experience.” 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

SPIN: Did you have an idea of what the sonic vocabulary of 75 Dollar Bill would be like from the get-go? 

Che Chen: Kind of. The idea of stripping things away. I was interested in a kind of music that was just melody and rhythm. I’ve never been into chord changes, or playing songs, so much. Most of my listening to recorded music was from other cultures, where there are these incredibly rich traditions of just a melody instrument and percussion instruments. Indian music, Arabic music. Not just the classical traditions, but the folk traditions. Basically anywhere, there’s gonna be music where it’s just drums and somebody playing flute, or some stringed instrument, or a horn. That kind of sensibility really appealed to me. And finding the right percussion player, and instrument, really seemed crucial to completing the idea.

Rick, where were you coming from, with these DIY instruments?

Rick Brown: That’s the beginning of my playing. I started with banging on some junk I found in the room that I happened to be in, and these two friends of mine had guitars. I never approached it like, “I’m gonna learn how to play the drums.” I had a stick and some stuff to hit, and then I got a drum, and then I got another drum, and then I got a thing I could stick a cymbal on.

Chen: It wasn’t a cymbal stand, by the way.

Brown: It was a dressmaker’s dummy. I’m describing my first band, which was Blinding Headache. We played in the basement of the dorm that I lived in. I eventually got to be a drummer. I played a drum kit. It was always a weird drum kit, even at its most rock band stage. I never played a hi-hat, for instance. I didn’t know or care about a lot of the standard drum stuff. I made up my own stuff. Eventually I played in a drum trio with two amazing drummers, and they kicked my ass. Guigou Chenevier, who was the inventor of that band, and Charles Hayward, drummer for This Heat. The three of us had a band called Les Batteries. Playing with them, and some others, turned me into a pretty good drummer, I think.

But then I had some health problems. I had a mild stroke in 2001, and that had a dramatic effect on my playing. In the short term, I was completely unable to get it together on a drum kit. It took me a while to get back to playing rhythmically and feeling ok about it. But it never felt good playing a drum kit again, and it still feels weird. I do it sometimes, because it’s fun. But I stripped down to really simple stuff. And this box, which I just found on the street, was perfect for a shift of playing to something really simple, repetitive, groove-oriented.

What attracts you guys to the sort of repetition you use in your music?

Chen: What’s not to like!

Brown: That’s my reaction, too. There’s some music I enjoy that is short, little songs that don’t repeat. Like Burt Bacharach. I love those songs. They’re beautifully melodic, deceptively complicated. I love that. But I can’t do that! And I can play slow 7/4 for 29 minutes. 

Chen: A really well-crafted pop song—I consider that composer music. Everything is in the place it’s supposed to be. I appreciate a lot of music like that, but I’ve never really been interested in composing music like that. I’m interested in music that’s immersive, more about experiencing something over a long period of time, something that’s maybe not strictly musical, also. A lot of the things that I was interested in coming up have a sort of trance element. 

Repetition can work in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s just a social thing. If you listen to salsa, those jams just go on forever. And there are composed parts, but a lot of it is just providing this groove for a room. Or, in a totally different way, Indian classical music is these very long unfoldings of a single mode or raga. That’s another way to just be really inside the music, and the sound. 

It’s never the same for the audience and the performer. But I think when you are playing these repetitive things, maybe it’s a little closer. You’re both experiencing this repetition. Maybe it works on the performers and the audience differently, but it feels more like a shared experience. Whereas when you’re playing really complicated stuff, or stuff that changes a lot, maybe it’s impressive or enjoyable to the audience, but to play it, it’s just hard!

There seems to be an affinity for the idea of folk music in 75 Dollar Bill, even if it doesn’t sound anything like what most Americans would think of when they hear that phrase. You often play with ad hoc groupings of friends. You treat your own music as a living canon, revisiting and continuing to develop songs after you’ve recorded them. You play in these spaces that are a little more social than traditional rock venues. Was that affinity a conscious decision?

Chen: I don’t know if we necessarily talked about it that way, but we did have conversations very early on that were like, ‘What’s the right way to do this?’ Part of our feeling was, this doesn’t really make sense to do for 25 minutes on a bill with 4 other bands. We knew we wanted to play for longer. We were both interested in playing multiple sets in a night, if we could. We had to find somewhere that would allow such a thing to happen. We wanted to have a different relationship to the audience, in terms of how to be in the room with an audience. We avoided being on a stage for a pretty long time at the start.

I do think of this band as folk music. It’s not a sound really, but a position. We have played at rock clubs, festivals, and it does work. But we try to have as much as that spirit as we can.

Che, can you talk about your time in Mauritania? The press about 75 Dollar Bill frequently talks about the Mauritanian influence on your music. Is it ever overstated?

Chen: It’s important. It’s not the only thing, by any means. And I definitely don’t think we’re playing desert rock. I was there for 2 weeks. I got a grant to go there, and I made arrangements to meet this phenomenal guitar player Jeiche Ould Chighaly. He and his wife, an incredible singer, have a band. Her name is Noura Mint Seymali and the band is under her name. I basically had a crash course in their modal system. Lessons all day, going to their gigs at night, which were always weddings. 

I was already interested in a lot of the things that I got deeper into there. Microtonal modes, a certain rhythmic sensibility, and also going back to that social function of music. It’s one thing to abstractly understand that music is just a part of daily life in a lot of other places, in ways that it isn’t here. But it’s another to be there. You’re at a wedding, and the P.A. is like, as many speakers as they can find, just chained together in a circle, and there’s a guy with a guitar with the frets ripped out of the heel of the neck and reinserted on the other side, playing through a phaser pedal, as loud as it will go, and this is wedding music, and it goes on for 6 hours, and this is what people do every weekend. Just seeing that was really eye-opening and incredible, seeing that in action where it lives.

Brown: It’s important to say that we had been playing for at least a year before Che went. So some of the material that we’re still playing had its germs before Che had that experience. But he came back with that weird guitar, and it was fine. It was just the two of us so there wasn’t any problem with being in tune. 

One aspect of any comparisons that I think Che would probably feel uncomfortable about, as I do, is that Jeiche and Noura are from families of musicians, and they have status in their culture of griot. This concept of a class of people who are master musicians, and in that role because of a family tradition. That’s so far from our expectation or experience or anything. We’re much more like folk musicians. That’s another way in which the title of “folk musicians” really seems appropriate for us. I’m not gonna make this claim for Che, but for me, I’m not doing anything that’s that hard! It’s just not that difficult. 

Chen: I think you’re being a little modest. Having had to learn to play some of the rhythms he’s come up with, I can say it’s very hard for me, to learn “I Was Real,” or something. It’s not what you would call typically virtuosic playing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult.

Brown: It takes time, is all I’m saying. It takes time to get comfortable with it. But that’s part of the beauty of repetition, again. You’re playing that thing, you screw it up, you get back. That happens to us both over the course of a 20-minute attempt at some of these things. We will get lost and have to recover. And you just try to do that as best as you can. 

Chen: To go back to the folk thing, and this relates to Jeiche and Noura and the Mauritanian thing too: In a way, I think of our music as folk music without any folk. You know what I mean? It’s a very small-scale sort of folk tradition that is only seven years old. But a community can start around anything. It can start with two people, and that’s it’s own community. 

Brown: That’s cool, because it allows and explains our small group of friends that we play with, and how we can ask a few of them to join us a week from now with very little rehearsal. They’ve played some of the stuff for a couple years with us. It’s not old Appalachian fiddle tunes that everybody and their family knows—

Chen: “Turkey in the Straw!” Let’s do it!

Brown: —but there is a connection that that. Because all of our friends know how to play “WZN 3.” 

Chen: And we mean all of them.

New releases

Countless experimental releases arrive each month, on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, as self-released cassettes and LPs, and on any number of small labels. Here are a few of the most noteworthy and exciting from June and July. 

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Tracing Back The Radiance

With each new album, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma explores new aspects of his expansive approach to ambient. Last year’s Limpid As The Solitudes, a collaboration with fellow sound artist Felicia Atkinson, saw Cantu-Ledesma operating within a highly conceptual space, taking inspiration from the written works of Deleuze, Plath, and André Breton, as well as films like The Sacrifice and Last Year at Marienbad. Tracing Back The Radiance is less a departure than an evolution—from referentiality into abstraction, and from thematic angularity into a kind of continual bliss. It’s aqueous, shimmering ambient, with instrumental contributions from the likes of Mary Lattimore, Gregg Kowalsky, and Chuck Johnson, whose eternally underrated album Balsams feels like a stylistic reference point here. “Joy” is a gorgeous 5-minute slice of smoky sax and submerged arpeggios, and a perfect statuette between the album’s twin pillars, “Palace of Time” and “Tracing Back The Radiance.” They prioritize stillness, with “Palace of Time” dealing in jazzy minor chords and brushed snares, and the title track centering around bells and sustained guitar. These are diaphanous, intensely listenable pieces with a New Age bent—a highlight in Cantu-Ledesma’s recent discography.—WILL GOTTSEGEN

Oli XL – Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer

Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer delivers on the promise of Oli XL’s few official one-offs, released on compilations from PAN, Posh Isolation, and the now-defunct W-I over the past couple years. “Heretic,” which appeared on PAN’s terrific Mono No Aware, was a clear harbinger of things to come—pulsing, alien, vaguely organic—a showcase for Oli XL’s technical ability and relentless originality. On Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer, the Stockholm-based producer’s experiments in ambient, glitch, and club music are compact and pristine. These are slick, chrome-plated constructions, with an almost ironic approach to futurity in the robotic voices that float across the tracklist. The squeaking, hypnotic “Clumsy” borrows from Beck: “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me.” On the mostly-beatless “DnL,” another mechanical mantra: “Boringgg. Lameee!” The closer, “Sniper Baby,” walks the thin line between comedy and nihilism: “I don’t go outside / I’m losing my friends / How you gonna fill the void / and make it end.” Stumbling towards self-consciousness on the digital dancefloor, Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer is as cynical as it is addictive.—W.G.

Lea Bertucci – Resonant Field

Lea Bertucci’s Resonant Field is among the most potent entries in this year’s crop of minimalist drone recordings. Recorded in the concrete husk of an abandoned grain elevator in Buffalo, NY, the album folds saxophone, flute, and double bass into drones that shiver and creek, inheriting something of the structure’s cavernous precarity. The tensile longtones of “Wind Piece” seem to expand and contract over time, while the cloudy abstraction of the title track is marked by dynamic fluctuation. In organic, improvisatory drones, Bertucci fosters a conversation between instruments and environments.—W.G.

Lingua Ignota – CALIGULA

Kristin Hayter’s second album as Lingua Ignota is a primal reckoning with the reality of abuse, and the reality of violence against women. A deeply personal record and a piercing expression of trauma, CALIGULA deals with that violence by meting out its own violent injections of noise, post-rock, and opera across 11 brutal vignettes. Hayter treats revenge as an imperative, and the death of her abusers as an inevitability. “Kill them all, Kill them all, Kill them all” she intones on “SPITE ALONE HOLDS ME ALOFT,” in a stunning choral arrangement that feels like a twisted reprieve after six minutes of vicious, periodic black metal. “IF THE POISON WON’T TAKE YOU MY DOGS WILL” begins with a Kyrie and a caustic invocation of Aileen Wuornos, murderer of rapists, whom Hayter has
sampled on past projects. Elsewhere, she sings about the weakness of her enemies—the softness of their throats, and of their skulls—with a relish that inscribes the shape of her vengeful, anarchic spirit on each charred corpse. Hayter has cited Wagner (Das Rheingold, in particular) as an inspiration, and in the sheer depth of feeling it evokes, CALIGULA does feel Wagnerian. It’s an ambitious coup—a cosmic turning of the tables, with power and sublimity in punishment.—W.G.

Oren Ambarchi – Simian Angel

Oren Ambarchi’s last solo effort, Hubris, was a decidedly kinetic affair. Working with artists as diverse as Jim O’Rourke and Ricardo Villalobos, Ambarchi crafted a hectic tableau of beats and rhythms in three distinct parts. Things are calmer on Simian Angel, which harkens back to the unadorned naturalism of an album like 2004’s Grapes from the Estate, but with a vibrant new instrumental palette. The first five minutes of “Palm Sugar Candy” are as mesmeric as anything in Ambarchi’s extensive catalogue, with a single muted tone meandering over subtle drums from Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. Hushed vocal expressions and misty motes of guitar sustain the spell before receding into the more melodic title track. Playing around with berimbau, maracas, piano, and an intriguingly distorted approach to guitar, Ambarchi and Baptista find a joyful synchronicity in experimentation.—W.G.