Interview with Karthik Kakarala

Karthik Kakarala, currently a Carbondale-based student and musician, will be this week’s live guest on “It’s Too Damn Early.” Naturally, I’m encouraging everyone to tune in. In the meantime, here’s a short e-mail interview in which Kakarala spills the beans about the habits of underground artists, the relationship of noise to Peking opera, and future recordings.

STARTLING MONIKER: How do you approach explaining noise to an interested (but otherwise uninvolved) party?

KARTHIK KAKARALA: This is the ongoing trick, isn’t it? Well, I’m not going to trivialize it by suggesting I’ve solved how to do so, nor insist that it’s impossible due to how many different ways there need to be in order to fit with the types of listeners that exist. Of course, these explanations depend entirely upon the listening experiences of the individual(s) in the conversation, and that must be determined first.

Rock ‘n roll: I’d say this is perhaps easiest, in terms of an inherent thirst for excitement that is obviously there, even in the oldest fossil who’s still into rock music. Old-school rock music (the popular edge of which is actually far less controlled in sheer percentages due to the advent of sophisticated compressors that can, with a couple of clicks, successfully steal all heart out of a track now) flagrantly is reachable via blues, and in any case blatantly points to Hendrix. Anyone worth their salt knows that it’s more than the basic “note” sounds that make him so damned interesting in his time, and focusing the person’s attention on the compositional possibilities of those non-note sounds for expressing fuzzier, more abstract concepts. I go back that far because not everyone gets into Radiohead (as a band that has almost always required multiple listens to form an opinion of, whether or not the particular album was up to snuff), not everyone ends up listening to the ambitious steps of The Who or Pink Floyd, and most people don’t hear Sonic Youth’s “Confusion is Sex” when they’re eleven years old, even though the latter’s not the end-all reason as to why I’m here typing this.

Blues/folk: These recordings are often crackly and fuzzy as hell, and at the very least, a certain respectful understanding can be derived from explaining how the nature o f those can be appealing.

Classical: Beethoven, Stravinsky, etc., etc.. There’s plenty of dissonance that gets thrown in when a classical composer starts stretching the wings, and that implementation of tension is shown to obviously not need electricity to derive.

Various Eastern music types: Drone. Also, Peking opera has some of the best traditions of abrasive sounds to draw attention at the right times and wake up the tryptophan-addled viewer that decided to have Peking duck before the hours-long performance.

Electronic(s): I suppose this really depends on how long a line of reasoning one wants to draw. Synthesizer music nuts will eventually see why making insane sounds on a Moog requires intention and skill. Analog electronics goons will easily see why Peter J. Woods is losing his mind during Anthony Ptak’s NoiseFeSTL ’06 theremin performance:

And so on? Basically, I posit that, the more time there is to make a proper explanation, and the more sonic history you have splashing about in your noggin’, the easier noise is to explain to someone. It’s best to not even USE “noise” in any manner within the first 3-4 sentences, and if you can pull off using the word “experimental” without sounding wishy-washy, all the better.

SM: You’re all over the place, and I’ve heard it said that there might be more than one Karthik to handle the load. I’m betting you have a good bird’s-eye view of the Midwestern noise and experimental scene. Are there any cohesive qualities to our region that you’ve noticed?

KK: I laughed so hard that I might have woken someone up when reading this. If I have a bird’s-eye view, it’s probably because of my impressive height.

Chicago and St. Louis are more prone to having instrumentalists (read: jazz and classical musicians) employing skillfully combinations of “wrong” tones. While other Midwest cities have good instrumentalists doing so, the former two are mentioned for stronger jazz traditions that extend before any of these post-industrial attacks became treated like a new kind of Punk Rock.

Every single college town has at least two noise musicians. There is a high possibility that they, even in this information age, might not even have the slightest idea that they are tapping into any of it. Their beer-drinking, pot smoking friends will be “open” to their amp-loops, pedal-generated fuzz explosions, and occasionally will be quiet long enough to hear the scratchy attacks on an unsuspecting instrument. At least once in every 5 of these, no matter how many, one will stumble upon the idea of circuit bending (whether due to a strange relationship with electronics or perusing the Internet). If there are only two, it is most likely that they will never be friends, by the very propensity toward reclusiveness that some of this confers. If they become friends, there’s an even lower chance that they’re collaborate beyond the occasional experimental jam during a kegger. If there are performances, they will occur in art galleries or basements most of the time, and it should be assured that they will usually be in the background, rather than foreground. Only by being in the background of something will such audio experimentalists ever play a bar more than once, and even that may never happen.

Ex-pats of slightly rough-edged bands end up making good converts in this situation: Finally, ¡they get to do what they want! While there are individuals striving towards an intentionality in their work, they are few and far between (a.k.a. people who have even SOME idea of what they’re doing, so that it’s not a complete improv). There are very few conservatives in the ranks, an even lower percentage than in overall rock music. Noise is the new punk, for now and having been increasing to this point for 35+ years, with even less specific action all too often, although there are many that seek such employ to shatter the few restrictions left in their original focus. There are almost (I cannot cite any, personally) noise/experimental artists/musicians who did not try to learn a conventional instrument at least once before in life.

It’s a good thing you didn’t ask whether I was a noise artist (as opposed to experimental) specifically, because I wouldn’t really know what to tell you, there.

SM: Musically speaking, what do you hope to accomplish in the next year?

KK: At present, an overdue scale-down has occurred in order to sharpen and attempt to more frequently realize my visions. It’s the limits that make a piece, and having “endless freedom” to “jam” does not result in anything new, as nearly every jam band will demonstrate. I am writing down (as in, typing AND writing to paper) work to be played with other individuals (long overdue as well), adjusting the 4-movement piece that I first debuted in full when opening for Rhys Chatham, and finishing a quartet piece. I actually have other projects which are serving as pressure release valves:

My “noise” project is different than the material under my own name mostly due to its near-total rejection of the guitar, and currently is obsessed with a typewriter. This may also be where I incorporate the violin that I’ve been building. I intend on having two pieces out in the fall for that. My singer-songwriter identity allows for short bursts of hooks and, occasionally, catchy rhythms.

All of this comprises my solo work.

By the end of this calendar year, I will have a recording of my 4-movement work of pride, and will be working closely with Benelli. I will also hopefully have finished writing my 51-guitar piece as well, and as those matters are wrapping up, I will be consistently playing shows with ensembles and bandmates again.

Don’t miss Karthik Kakarala this Saturday, April 26th on “It’s Too Damn Early!”

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7 Responses to “Interview with Karthik Kakarala”

  1. kingo Says:

    Well that’s some good interviewin’. And good responsing, too, especially in the case of that whole section starting with “Every single college town has at least two noise musicians. There is a high possibility that they, even in this information age, might not even have the slightest idea that they are tapping into any of it.”

    good stuff. Right on top of all that other good stuff, those recent reviews are very well put together. Been enjoying the posts a lot lately, even if I find very little room to throw a comment in. Keep ’em up!

  2. James McKain Says:

    Good interview, but I’m a little taken aback by Karthik’s disparaging comments about “jamming”. If his knowledge of improvised music is limited to so-called “jam bands” — the concept of which is, in fact, the biggest sham in the history of improvised music since most of that bullshit is rehearsed beforehand (with the exception of The Grateful Dead and perhaps a select other few) — then I sincerely wish that he consider delving deeper into the genre of jazz (a genre that I find infinitely more innovative and daring than most forms of noise musics). For example, do you think that Coltrane’s “Ascension” should not be considered a “piece” because it is essentially free improvisation? Should half of Don Cherry’s late 60s / 70s work be devoid of artistic merit because many of the pieces are not, well, “closed”?

    I’m a little taken aback. Then again, I think the twenty improvised minutes of Can’s “Yoo Doo Rite” is better than the entire recorded output of Sonic Youth’s output.

  3. startlingmoniker Says:

    James– I can’t speak for Kakarala, obviously, but I think this was simply an unfortunate phrasing. We traded some music recently, and he had nothing but good to say about an Albert Ayler ESP box set… obviously lots of improvisation going on there!

  4. Karthik Says:

    For my part, it WAS an unfortunate phrasing, but Dave has accurately stated the evidence that points to it being only that. Furthermore, there are blatant limits physically going on with the performers, and an expansive knowledge that was constantly challenged in experimentation to derive different shades of sound. There’s a significant amount of attention to each other that I am implying with my differentiation between improvisation and jamming. The context was noise, which I insisted on paying more attention to, and I think Dave has seen more than a few noise jams gone… well… nowhere, otherwise known as a bunch of solo artists playing at once.

    “’Trane was the Father…Pharoah was the son…I am the Holy Ghost.” -Albert Ayler

    (just so we have some context to connect Albert to your reference, among other bits of history that I will spare everyone from.)

    There’s a difference between Coltrane’s Ascension and some 21+ year old intoxicated to the point where it’s no longer him playing the music, so much as foreign substances playing half-blues solos and convincing himself that he’s adding to the other musicians.

    Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio is a jam, but people are paying more attention to each other (or at least Rhys), maximizing the effect of the minimalism. It’s not a wanker piece, to dumb the gist of the above far, far down. I could mention a number of other works, but this is getting long.

    On a random note, I’ve been celebrating “Sun Ra Sundays” for a while now (more and more as I have finally obtained personal copies at audio qualities I can tolerate).

    Finally, I find it quite interesting that a certain chip on the shoulder has come with James’ reading, so that he omits various words that would contradict.

    Let’s consider where I mentioned the word “Jam,” since the context of a word is of significant importance.

    Jazz: McKain has blatantly ignored my mention of this in relation to St. Louis and Chicago. Obviously I was just saying this idly, and have not delved into the fertile scenes of either, if we are to believe James.

    Dave X clearly noted the noise and experimental scene, and was asking about some tendencies. I noted “jamming” in relation noise musicians, not free-jazzers. I mentioned “jam” in relation to “kegger,” i.e. a situation with a mostly (key word) indifferent, blitzed, likely hostile audience making it particularly difficult from our plucky adventurers to feel out each other’s space.

    Coltrane knew what the hell the traditions were, the majority of the individuals I have mentioned do not. I was disparaging people who have no (key word that I suppose can be randomly deleted) idea what sounds their “instrument” (quotes to allow for the cable-connected assemblage of boxes to become an instrument can make before engaging someone else.

    I referred to “jamming” in relation to people who didn’t want to be on the same page as me, despite all the openings I gave for such matters at significant stretches in the midst of an overall composed work.

    Of course, if you want to single out that sentence and not regard any of the contextual statements before that burst of bitterness in relation to musicians that I played with (the question was about MY music, after I spent significant time talking about other people’s music), you’re going to be offended. Perhaps that fits perfectly in line with many people encountering experimental music with a set of stringent guidelines, though, which has been one of many reasons why I will not take offense to your misreading of a burst of rash grammar in the midst of a longer, unedited (sans one word insertion to make a sentence make sense to maybe three other people) interview response: People will find something to be offended if that’s what they prefer (as opposed to meeting the speaker halfway in the underlying implication woven by the overall body of assertions), whether the communication is with an instrument or conversation.

  5. Karthik Says:

    On a much beloved sidenote in relation to improvisation and jazz, a short video made when the Benelli members were updating a video blog for their film company (incidentally, I just heard a day or two ago that they’re keeping the same membership, but writing music in a new direction and changing the name).

  6. Liveblogging! Commentary for “ITDE” 5/3/08 « Startling Moniker Says:

    […] Maggotapplewonderland, has come to hang out here in the Hi-Life Room. And let’s not neglect Karthik, now the proud owner of yet more amperage to wield in his sets. Anyhow, getting acquainted has […]

  7. 1st Annual Southern IlliNOISE Summit « Startling Moniker Says:

    […] Kakarala – Definitely a shining light in the Southern Illinois music scene. Kakarala has distinguished himself as an avid experimentalist, juggling more interesting projects than most folks would […]

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