Sunday, 22 February 2009

Spirits Burning - Don Falcone Interview

This interview with Spirits Burning’s Don Falcone appeared in the Finnish magazine Colossus last year to celebrate the release of the Earth Born and Alien Injection CDs; with Don know having also released an album of Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix demos and having come to an agreement for distribution with Rob Ayling’s Voiceprint Records in the UK, it seemed an ideal moment to make this interview available in English for the first time.

Don, your Spirit’s Burning ensemble celebrates the boundless possibilities of space-rock. Who originally sparked your interest in the genre?

Hawkwind’s Space Ritual was first, though it took some time for me to get comfortable with the music. It was darker and more intense than other things I was listening to. Hearing Hall of the Mountain Grill sealed the deal. I had been a big fan of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, and was also into Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. Hawkwind represented a place where all those sounds and ideas came together.

Back then, Nektar’s Remember the Future was my favourite concept album, Floating Anarchy my favourite plate of Gong. Can’s Landed was perhaps the most experimental of the space-rock albums I was listening to. That album’s use of electronics remains timeless. And, the Holger Czukay solo material that followed is still a handbook for using found sounds.

Most importantly, these bands and artists continued to do new things that I enjoyed and admired. Hawkwind developed lyrical when Bob Calvert took over as lead vocalist and then became more power prog during Ginger Baker’s brief stint and then took on a new flavour when Harvey Bainbridge moved to keyboards. I recently saw the Live Legends video with Bridget, Alan, Richard, Simon, and Harvey. I had forgotten how good this line-up was. Plus, there was a personal “wow” moment. It hit me that I had done songs with everyone onstage except for Dave Brock and the fire-breathers!

Tell us something of the different bands you’ve played with over the years…

First band of note was Thessalonians. I played synth. It was one of many bands I was in with Kim Cascone, on his Silent Records label. Larry Thrasher, later of Psychic TV and Thee Majesty was also in Thessalonians. It was a great breeding ground for thinking about an instrument’s sound capabilities and pushing it to new places. Plus, it was my introduction into sampling and using real-world sounds. One of my first songs with Silent Records was for the Fifty Years of Sunshine compilation. While we were working on our track, I successfully got in touch with [Hawkwind’s] Alan Davey and Harvey Bainbridge, and was able to get their tracks on the compilation. My baptism into the world of networking, I guess.

Around the same time, I was part of the original Melting Euphoria. It was 3-piece space-rock outfit, with me doing keys and vocals. I was filling the roles of both Bob Calvert and Simon House. After I quit, they became more of a space-rock/psych band. They achieved enough of a name that Mellow Records has decided to re-release their first CD this year. This was the only Melting Euphoria album I was on, and a lot of people probably aren’t aware of it.

After Melting Euphoria, I started a solo project called Spaceship Eyes. Following a synthy self-released CD, I signed to LA’s Hypnotic Records. They asked me to do drum ‘n’ bass and I responded with some very kinetic, experimental dance music. Not everyone’s cup of tea! Harvey Bainbridge was part of one track. And a couple other tracks were used in the Better Living Through Circuitry rave film.

In the 21st century, we’ve got Spirits Burning going strong. And, I’m the keyboardist and producer for three others. Quiet Celebration, an ambient, jazz project. Weird Biscuit Teatime, a space-rock quartet with Daevid Allen. And, Grindlestone, an experimental ambient duo.

What does space-rock mean to you … there is the heavy-rock wing, the jazz-fusion side of it …

It’s funny that you chose those two disparate varieties of the genre. One of my least favourite Hawkwind periods was their mid-80s heavy rock. And, my least favourite Gong period was the jazzy Pierre Moerlen Gongs. These versions of the bands started to sound like other bands of the time, their uniqueness, what first attracted me to their sound, had been lost.

So, where do your own preferences lies?

The best space-rock keeps in mind past highlights, but moves into new territories. It’s the genre with the best potential to absorb change, since much of the audience is already onboard and willing to follow the sonic trip, no matter where the musicians lead them to. Plus, space-rock has never really become part of the public consciousness, at least not in America. So, there really should be fewer barriers as to what could be attempted.

Many who are involved in space-rock, whether as performers or followers of the music, have an interest in Science Fiction in general. Do you share this?

My interest in science fiction dates back to my discovery of Marvel Comics, then in my teens, I became interested in Sci-Fi books, particularly those by Michael Moorcock. I remember those first readings of Behold the Man and The Black Corridor. Great ideas. Great execution. Then, I moved on to his sword and sorcery tales, like Corum, and of course Elric. And, eventually found a totally new sensibility in the more fantasy-based Alien Heat and Gloriana tales. I also read stuff by John Brunner and J. G. Ballard. As I moved through school, I started to move away from sci-fi, and read people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and James Joyce. I was also reading a lot of poetry by the time I got to college.

I guess the same qualities of pluralism that I like with space-rock is what I was finding in Marvel Comics, the works of Moorcock, and the best of James Joyce. When I was getting my Masters degree in English at San Francisco State, my adviser was Frances Mayes (the writer of the Tuscan books). I’ll never forget when she told the class it was important to find their “voices.” It’s that plurality that’s important to me as a musician.

You’ve been enormously successful in recruiting leading members of the space-rock community to the various Spirits Burning projects. Can you tell us something of how the Spirits Burning concept originally came together?

I was already inviting guests to my Spaceship Eyes project, and had done a Spaceship Eyes live ensemble that had a flexible line-up. I thought it was a good time to start a real space-rock band, but one not constrained by a consistent lineup. I was also getting used to working with people long distance, so I knew that this band could be a more global one. I had a couple of reference points. I really liked what Eno had done on his early albums – putting together unexpected lineups. People from Hawkwind playing alongside King Crimson members! I also knew about Pigface, a collective of musicians connected to the Industrial scene. Why not a space-rock collective?

With Spirits Burning I brought all of this together with like-minded musicians who believed in the power of space-rock and would be willing to try something new with it. They would have to put a lot of trust in me. And, maybe, if I got some legends of the genre interested, that would help peak their interest.

The Internet must be a key factor?

Definitely. When Spirits Burning first started, the Internet was more about networking -- finding people, and then keeping in touch with them. In those days, the actual music files were sent via snail mail on CDRs, DATS, and even cassette. Nowadays, we can send files to one another over the Internet. The speed and bandwidth of DSLs has made this practice more realistic, less painful, and programs like YouSendIt make it possible for musicians to share files over the Internet for free.

Of course, besides the Internet you still need a “home” to bring all the music together. For Spirits Burning, the music’s real home is Pro Tools. That’s the software application where I do the track mixing and local recording.

The other thing about the net is that musicians now have websites, like Myspace, where they can promote their music for free. There are some crewmembers I never would have got in touch with if not for their on-line presence.

One of the most fruitful and long-lasting associations that you’ve made has been with Gong’s Daevid Allen. What special thing does he bring to the collaboration?

More than I ever could have imagined, he’s really got a great vibe. He’s a master at improvisation. He can listen to a piece once and then bring something new and important to it.

He’s really got a nice variety of guitar techniques that keeps things interesting. Most obvious is his glissando guitar – where he takes his whammy bar and creates some of the most ethereal space sounds you will ever hear. And many Spirits Burning pieces feature his expressive leads or rhythm parts.

Vocally, he always has his notebook of lyrics handy during our sessions. But, some of my favorite recordings of past were when he improvised poetry lines from my college thesis, or created “wordless” vocals. Brilliant!

He also was the first recognizable person in the band. With him onboard, many others have been enticed to join.

Something that impresses me is that Spirit’s Burning albums have a wonderful range in tone…

I tend to work on 3 or more Spirits Burning CDs at a time, so there are weeks where I can be all over the map. While doing Alien Injection, which is heavier for the most part, I was also working on a Quiet Celebration ambient CD, a more experimental Grindlestone CD, and again a couple of other Spirits Burning CDs.

Are these varying textures deliberate on your part or informed by the musicians you have available for specific projects?

Depending on who starts a piece, it may have a heavier or lighter flavor, but more commonly I’ll make decisions upfront, like “this Spirits Burning CD will be all instrumental,” “this one will be all vocal,” or “that one will be a mix of both.”

You’ve worked with a few labels, mainly in Continental Europe, what were your experiences like with them?

The first two Spirits Burning CDs were on Gazul, a sublabel of Musea who were well respected in the prog scene, so it helped establish some credibility in that area. Last year, well after my time on the label, I actually met Bernard, who runs the label. It was at the NearFest festival in Pennsylvania when Hawkwind and Magma played. We went out to dinner with the Expose magazine editors and had a great time. I’ll always be thankful to Musea. Without them, Spirits Burning might not have been on the map.

The third CD Found in Nature was picked up by Mellow Records of Italy. That was all instrumental and I thought it was a perfect fit for that label. Mellow has meant a lot more for me, as they also released the second Quiet Celebration CD, and are about to re-release the aforementioned Melting Euphoria CD. Plus, they put out a lot of compilations. This has provided an outlet to do additional Spirits Burning tracks. There’s a version of Santana’s ‘Soul Sacrifice’ coming on a Santana tribute soon. And, I’m currently mixing a track about Luana Borgia for a Mellow concept album.

There was kind of a Spirits Burning “best of” released on Voiceprint a couple of years ago. It was billed as Daevid Allen & Don Falcone Glissando Grooves.

The latest Spirits Burning album, Alien Injection, is released on Black Widow Records. I’m always impressed with the quality of their product (particularly their commitment to Vinyl). Was this one of the factors that attracted you to them?

My real introduction to Black Widow was when they put out the vinyl version of a Hawkwind tribute CD. This featured the Spirits Burning version of ‘High Rise’. I had heard through a grapevine that they had interest in Melting Euphoria at one time and so as Alien Injection was starting to come together, I put them on my short list of probable labels. It just seemed like the new material would be something that they would be interested in.

As I got to know Massimo at Black Widow, it became abundantly clear that they have a wonderful appreciation of space-rock – past, present and future. I’m impressed with their quality and dedication to doing things well. Plus, I’m really happy Alien Injection is also coming out as a double LP. This was really unexpected and very cool.

Let’s talk about Alien Injection. Is there a specific concept in mind on this one?

I had made a decision early on that this would be the first almost all-vocal Spirits Burning CD, as it followed completion of the all-instrumental Found in Nature CD.

The song “Alien Injection” is about how the world needs an infusion of something new. We’ve got a lot of problems, and the old formulas don’t seem to be working. There are a number of pieces on the CD that represent panaceas or places of inspiration, which lead to new ways of doing things. Maybe that’s the theme of all the Spirits Burning CDs. Sometimes, it’s the meaning within the lyrics, and sometimes it’s in the simple act of creating new line-ups. Sometimes it’s the enjoyment from listening. Sometimes it’s the recording process itself. Will this be a song based on an audio recording of a performance, or will this be a MIDI-based tune, or a loop-based one, or some combination?

There’s also newness in recreating or reincarnating the past. For example, take Michael Moorcock’s old “Deep Fix” sessions for ‘The Entropy Tango’ and ‘Gloriana’. We restored five tracks from those sessions, then added new musicians to create entirely new pieces.

I even played a new instrument on Alien Injection. After Black Widow heard the initial demo of the project, they suggested I use mellotron in as many pieces as possible. Ironically, around the same time, I had a talk with a friend at work who owns one and kept it in a closet there. We set up a session and I ended up playing my parts in the hallway, outside my office door … since we couldn’t get the keyboard through the door. There was a steep learning curve. You can’t play the mellotron fast; you have to allow time for the keys to engage and disengage the tapes. But, I got the hang of it pretty quickly. And, I kind of had a small audience. It was after work hours, but a number of testers were still working. They got to hear and see a mellotron for the first time in their lives. Think lots of wows!

The end-result is a real tour-de-force for which you’ve assembled an impressive array of contributors…

Even though I had managed to get three Spirits Burning CDs released, I knew I needed to up the ante if it was to survive. More than ever before, there needed to be some new well-known crewmembers. So, I worked hard to get additional members of space-rock past to join Daevid and the rest of our crew. In came Adrian Shaw, Bridget Wishart, and even Michael Moorcock.

Getting Moorcock involved was a real achievement!

His influence can be seen in my titles. The first Spirits Burning CD was called New Worlds By Design. The first two words are a direct nod to Moorcock. And, a future Spirits Burning CD will be called Behold The Action Man, an obvious nod. I even had an experimental project once upon a time called Alien Heat.

As to how his involvement came about… I’ve been in email dialogue with Roger Neville-Neil for quite some time, and he had suggested I get in touch with Mike. When Mike came to the bay area for a book signing, I went, bought a book or two of his that I wanted to read, and then got his signature. There was a bit of a line, and I really didn’t think it was the proper place to invite him to Spirits Burning. So, instead I moved along, but didn’t leave. I decided to talk to his wife, and introduce myself as a friend of Roger’s. And explain that Roger was part of this wonderful collective. Maybe Mike would be interested too. I think Roger was the difference, as they do look fondly upon him and his missives. Eventually, when I was in direct contact with Mike and his archivist (John Davey), it turned out that there were these session tracks that they would be fine with me using.

Moorcock’s New World’s Fair album is comparable with your endeavors, in that it brought together disparate musicians in the cause of his musical vision…

I recently told Roger that I saw New World’s Fair as comparable to the Spirits Burning & Bridget Wishart Earth Born CD, but for a totally different reason. For me, space-rock can also be defined as music done by people who represent space-rock. I see the Moorcock/Deep Fix CDs, the Earth Born songs, and some Bob Calvert material (say the Lucky Leif LP) as being of this ilk, at least musically. They really don’t consistently sound like your garden variety of space-rock. But, all these records do have some space-rock musicians, such that at their soul…. they can, and should be classified as space-rock.

Well, mentioning Hawkwind’s Bridget Wishart should bring us around to the other new Spirits Burning CD Earth Born. You know, I’m so pleased that you’ve coaxed Bridget back into the recording arena and opened up a new index of possibilities for Spirits Burning…

It’s been a breath of fresh air, and an unexpected opportunity for music and for friendship.

I’m often amazed at the domino effect of the decisions we make in life. Bridget had done an interview for David Law’s Hawkwind Museum website. I saw it and was in the process of preparing the crew for Alien Injection and thought that she would be an interesting candidate. I emailed David, he passed on my message to Bridget, and I eventually got the vocals for what became ‘It’s Another World’. From there, I charted out some music to accompany the piece, performed the initial keys and passed it on to others. That easily could have been the end of a nice enough story. When I completed the CD, or what I thought was the final version, Black Widow asked me to drop 4 tracks and replace them with new ones. Two other caveats: Get Bridget on another track, and add mellotron to the CD. Bridget was probably a bit surprised, but gave me another piece. This was ‘Salome’, and as she would attest, this piece was even better.

I’d already thought about doing an all-vocal Spirits Burning CD that was more singer/songwriter oriented. This was partly because I had written a number of tunes before Thessalonians days that were more in the vein of Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. At some point, I asked Bridget if she’d like to do this… I really don’t remember if she had already brought up working on a full album or not, but that’s what we then ventured out to do. We started with a couple of old songs by each, totally redid them (I often never heard the original versions of her pieces), and we created new ones too.

On Earth Born, not only did I get to work with a singer/songwriter on an almost daily basis, but she also helped shape the sound by bringing in new crew members that were previously out of my reach. Many from the Hawkwind family… Simon House, Alan Davey, Richard Chadwick, Steve Swindells. What was all the more exciting was that they were open to doing pieces that weren’t necessarily in the Hawkwind mode. For example, getting Alan to play double bass on the tender ‘Candles’ piece was very special.

Earth Born is the first Spirits Burning & Bridget Wishart CD. We’re currently working on Bloodlines, which finds us using kings and queens of history as our lyrical starting point.

What’s your impression of the European and US space-rock scene at the moment? Who really impresses you?

Most of the bands that I’ve been most impressed with lately aren’t really space-rock. Bands like Universal Totem Orchestra and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. And while working on Earth Born, I listened to and enjoyed a lot of Massive Attack. I do like some of the new Alan Davey material, especially the tracks with Simon House that were debuted on Alan’s myspace page.

I tend to think that some newer space-rock bands take the easy way out and just do a jam with synths and call it a space-rock day. I can see where being part of that band can be fun, but it would be a little limiting for me.

I still like The Orb and F.S.O.L, lots of trance music, and dub stuff by African Head Charge. At what point can you call this space-rock-based? Same with space music, say like the Hearts of Space national radio show here, which has long played everything from Tangerine Dream to world music.

I obviously call Spirits Burning a space-rock collective. But, I really do want it be able to incorporate all types of space music. Whether that helps rebuild the genre, or continue to blur it… we’ll see.

Where do you think the genre is going? For years we had just a plethora of bands wanting to be Hawkwind – now it seems that the scene is out-growing them a bit whilst still remaining respectful to them?

Hmm. The one song on Alien Injection that I sing, it’s called ‘The Hawk’. It has some cool violin by Graham Clark, and the chorus line of “The Hawk in my room, won’t leave me alone…” I used to have this drawing of a hawk, done for a college article of mine about Hawkwind. And, for a long time, I had the original line drawing hanging on my bedroom wall. So, yeah, they do kind of have a way of getting to you.

I think the secret formula is to have new, younger musicians experience the space-rock past, take it as one ingredient, and move it into all the other ingredients we have available. To survive as space-rock, though, the term probably needs to get new wings. If an alternative band made it big and said they were influenced by Hawkwind and that they were a space-rock/alternative rock band, that would be the ticket.

Otherwise, there do seem to be some good space-rock radio shows popping up, like Dave Adams’ Sunday Space-rock show. These definitely help spread the word.

I know you’ve plans for a concept album with writer Roger Neville-Neil, how is that progressing and what’s behind the ideas for that one?

A space-rock take on film noir. Roger and I will round up the usual suspects… and a few surprise ones and put an end to space-rock crime as we know it.

Roger’s wrote the lyrics for ‘Upturned Dolphin’, on Alien Injection. He also has an ongoing Action Man series in the Aural Innovations online space-rock zine. He basically goes to rock shows in his trench coat, armed with his camera, and proceeds to build a case for a noir review of the show. I do tend to like to have a central direction for Spirits Burning CDs, and I asked Roger what he thought about doing a CD based around his doppelganger. Plus, it was an opportunity for me to resurrect some additional songs of mine that had darker lyrics or motifs. In a way, it was the opposite of what I was doing with Bridget. Both are vocal-based, but Bridget’s CD has more of a softer ‘mother earth’ side to it. There’s a feminine side to the lyrics throughout Earth Born, even with the lyrics from me. On Behold The Action Man, well, it’s a bit more of a masculine take on things, even on the tracks that have a female singer. But, that’s kind of what noir does, doesn’t it?

Musically, it’s going splendidly. Already onboard are Paul Hayles (who I saw playing keyboards first time I saw Hawkwind with Bob Calvert). His .wav files came in just a few weeks ago. There’s also performances by those usual suspects: Daevid, (and Michael and Trey from our Weird Biscuit Teatime project). Alan Davey, Bridget. Melodic Energy Commission. New this time is Alan Bouchard. And, I’m really excited that Mike Moorcock is recording some new vocalizations.

Are there particular musician’s that you’ve not yet been able to recruit to the Spirits Burning cause that you’d particularly like to get on-board?

Arthur Brown. He’d be perfect for the Action Man CD. I’ve sent two invites in his direction, but I don’t think they ever made it to him.

Simon King would be interesting to have start a track. I’ve always wanted to get Paul Rudolph and John Gustafson onboard. And, there’s always Pat Thrall – he was in the live version of Go, a space-rock super group if ever there was one. I’m probably overdue to get someone from Ozrics.

And Didier Malherbe. He’s played with Pierre Bensusan. My brother Dave, who plays acoustic guitar live in the Philadelphia area, has opened for Bensusan. So, it would be pretty neat to have a track with Didier, my brother, and others.

Michael Clare (of University of Errors, and Weird Biscuit Teatime too) has talked to me about some possibilities with more members from the Gong family. I’m probably overdue to get into recruiting mood. I’ve kind of been on a recording and mixing road, and need to take a pit stop.

You’re in the enviable position of having two albums on sale in the same month from different labels … what else is in the pipeline?

Having the two releases out concurrently has surprisingly been ok. They seem to be pushing each other in a positive way.

A Grindlestone CD is finished and will probably come out on my Noh Poetry label, unless someone sneaks in at the 11th hour and wants to put it out. In July of 2008, our Noh Poetry is putting out the complete, restored Michael Moorcock & The Deep Fix The Entropy Tango & Gloriana Demo Sessions. Quite a mouthful, that title.

In terms of things that are in progress. There’s a second Weird Biscuit Teatime CD that should be done by the end of 2008. But most of the work is space-rock and Spirits Burning. There is a space-rock in opposition Spirits Burning CD, called Crazy FluidTM that’s more than half done. And, I’m just about to start another all-instrumental Spirits Burning CD.

In terms of Spirits Burning, the hope is that everyone who listens experiences something new.

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