Sunday, May 31, 2015

Robert Millis 13 Questions

Robert Millis, a.k.a. Cecil B. DeMillis is an artist whose work traverses across many different disciplines. He is a member of the long-running and influential musical outfit Climax Golden Twins, which began life in 1993 as a collaboration between Millis and Jeffery Taylor. He has also recorded as a solo artist under the name of R Millis and with a group called AFCGT, and a frequent contributor to the Sublime Frequencies label.

In addition, Robert is the man behind a unique body of personal and visionary filmwork: he has scored long and short films, created sound installations, produced and designed audio projects for a variety of labels, released many LPs and CDs, and published the book Victrola Favorites in 2008 with Climax Golden Twins.

His work veers haphazardly between sound art, music concrete, instrumental, improv, field recording, song and collage. Robert has a deep interest in folk and traditional music, so imagine Pete Seeger trying to cover Revolution 9 by the Beatles. During 2012 and 2013 he was a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar in India studying Indian music, sound art and the early recording industry.

Climax Golden Twins

"I have a golden childhood memory of an attic in a very old house. Crawling through the dark, creaking front part of the attic I found a room bathed in sunlight, with a pile of forgotten books.  On top of this book throne sat an old wind-up gramophone. This memory informs my work:  the sense of exploration, the secrets old books and 78rpm records hold in their designs, the scars of their age, their receding sounds and stories."

"I come from a family of readers, where words are king… but sound goes where words do not. I have a distinct memory of an old house and a creepy attic; if you went through the creepy part, the attic had a front room, bathed in sunlight. I remember that room having a pile of dusty books on top of which, like a king, sat a portable wind-up gramophone. Old 78rpm records were among the first tangible expressions of what is ephemeral and these “talking machines” that played them still seem magical to me. I am interested in how sounds are mediated through the equipment used to record them and the material on which they are recorded, almost as a composition is mediated through a performer. As a child I loved the foley in old movies and episodes of Batman."

"I loved echoes. Odd radio transmissions. Footsteps in the distance, rustling through leaves. Lines smacking against flagpoles or masts in harbors. Crickets. Water through the pebbles on a beach. The sound in my head while chewing. The rhythms of car tires on uneven pavement. I don’t think I even understood that to most people these noises were different than “music.” To me they were all part of one big sound world: the emotion in a singer’s voice, a guitar, the disquieting squeak of a chair, conversation in a theatre before the movie starts, someone hollering. It all connects. I tried to foist my collage and found sound proclivities on rock bands I was in, figuring that it was all the same, that everyone thought like I did. Eventually Climax Golden Twins emerged from this primordial swamp and growing lungs from gills shambled onto the musical landscape of late 20th century America…CGT has been described in print somewhere as “effusively eclectic”, though I can’t remember by whom. Well, there you go. They would know."

Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money?

The first... Destroyer by KISS, not an actual record though. It was a cassette. But when I got it home, it turned out to not actually be Kiss on the cassette. It was Billy Joel or something. An accident in the cassette duplication plant. So my big memory of that is returning the cassette to the shop. This little kid, barely able to see over the counter: "I don't think this is right. This isn't music to spit blood to." They had no more cassettes so I upgraded to an LP. My parents were not supposed to know I had even bought a Kiss recording, of course. Now that I am older and wiser, listening to Kiss makes me want to spit blood, not out of some solidarity with Gene, but more due to nausea. Somehow they have become an institution. The worst of all aspects of music and the music industry and capitalism and America combined under one roof...yet, like one's morning evacuation into the toilet, it is hard to not be slightly intrigued. Especially when Paul Stanley's paintings are put into the mix.

As of this writing, the most recent record I have purchased was a 78rpm mandolin record by one Joseph Davidenko from the Ukraine. I don't know much about it, though two seconds of research just now has revealed it to be from 1931. It is pretty great. Found it in an antique mall in Sacramento, CA, for a dollar, along with an LP called Kasongo! Modern Music of the Belgian Congo from the late 1950s. An early collection of rhumba inspired Congoloese folk and pop music. The back of the LP has this line: “...the music which may make the Belgian Congo of the 1950s one of the world's great tourist attractions of the 1980s!" Well, by 1960 it was free from Belgium and entering a period of turmoil, corruption, sexual violence and civil war, so the tourism thing has not quite worked out. But such great music. Coincidently, Kiss went through a period of turmoil, corruption, sexual violence and civil war as well.

One more thing: I will actually give Kiss a slight bit of credit. Detroit Rock City which (I think) opens Destroyer begins with a little sound collage of someone listening to the radio, getting car keys, shuffling around and eventually driving off...this intrigued me at that young and impressionable age, as did the odd voices and textures in their God of Thunder. The use of field recordings, found sounds and other "non musical" sounds on what was supposed to be a "music" recording caught my attention right away and as other examples piled up before me from other records it became an obvious influence in my own work.

What's the relevance of technique in music, in your opinion?

Technique can shape the player as much as the player shapes the technique. The chicken or the egg. Which came first? You practice speed and scales over and over and that is almost certainly going to determine the type of music you make. Indian classical music, which I have been listening to a lot lately demands monumental technique. Years of training. Yet even in my limited experience with this music I can hear when people are simply going through the motions. They have learned to make their fingers, their voices, do amazing things but there is minimal actual creativity behind it. In the Western classical traditions this is accepted and encouraged--a composer may need an extraordinary violin player with the ability to realize the notes on the page, but would certainly not want this player to impose too much of himself on what the composer has created.

For many people it is easier to judge the quality of a piece of sound or music by technique. It is sort of scientific and measurable. Easy. The same sickness spills over into production: “well it sounds good, so it must therefore be good.” But music is not sports. Emotion and energy can make people uncomfortable, especially when they are unquantifiable, out of control, or new...we don’t know what to do with it, where to file it, how to experience it is easier to “understand” a piece of music by admiring how well it is played. Sometimes this is enough, but ultimately not for me. I love and admire classical music but my ear leans more toward punk and folk and garage rock and so called primitive music...where emotion and energy become more important than ability or as in the case of much non-Western music the techniques and abilities are unknown to me, unrecognizable as such. At least at first.They then become sonic experiences, beyond the reach of the brain. But technique is even more complicated I suspect then these musings--was it Captain Beefheart’s technique that he could wrangle the Magic Band to do his bidding? Was that a technique? Did he practice it? I have developed my own what I suppose must be called techniques for sound manipulation...but they constantly change and develop, constantly are “in progress” depending on what I need or what I am using. So we are back to the chicken and the egg. Perhaps the chicken ate the egg?

What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?

The same challenges that have always faced the music industry. When there is a “solution” there will then appear new problems, media, players, services, etc. Recording began with much the same noise: famous stars did not want to record, it stole their voice, ruined their money making abilities. There were nearly instantaneous format wars between different size cylinders, spindle holes, records vs. cylinders. Lateral vs. vertical grooves. Remember that one? Lawsuits, patents. Then some genius put songs on BOTH sides of the record. Oh my god! How do we deal with THAT? Radio arrived and was supposed to kill the record industry, but funnily enough it actually helped it. Then vinyl appeared, long playing records, reel to reels, cassettes, home taping killed music in the 70s, then CDs destroyed the world, and now cassettes are back, but everyone just listens to Youtube anyway. What happened to cassingles? It is human nature--though mostly driven by market forces--to create, develop, innovate...and then claim your version is better and sue everyone else. I just want sound delivered to me.

I like 78s, I like vinyl, but certain things just sound better on CD, etc. It will go on, and we will be buried under mountains of plastic and clogged with too many digital formats like cholesterol in our hearts. Then we will die and the battle or the journey will continue as it always has. In many ways I do not think we have even begun to understand what happened when sound recording was realized in 1877, how much it has changed mankind.  

Marshall McLuhan said “…[I]f a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.” (The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, 1962).

Depict the sound you're still looking for, or the sound you'd like to hear.

The first sound. That is to say, the first RECORDED sound, heard as if I had never heard such a thing before, which is taping into the wonder I felt as a child with my first experiences with tape recorders and headphones used as microphones. Imagine Edison in his studio in 1877 hearing his own voice for the first time. He is reported to have said "I was never so taken aback in my life." Of course, this can never be re-captured...but we can dream the impossible dream...or seek that sound elsewhere, but it will be something we are surprised by, nothing we can imagine. I hope.

What’s your craziest project about?

For some reason I got it into my head that I wanted to spend some time in India with Indian 78rpm record collectors and see what happened. It did not disappoint.

I have long been interested in the early days of recording. Edison, the first producers, acoustic recording... I have always been somewhat restless, I like to travel and experience...and always brought a recorder to unearth sounds and music: from the earliest days as Climax Golden
Twins to my work with Sublime Frequencies. So I started wondering about the earliest such endeavors to record music outside of the West, outside of a studio--this lead me to Frederick Gaisberg's historic trip to India and the Far East in 1902-3, during which the first commercial recordings of Indian (as well as Japanese, Chinese and Burmese) music were made.

There seemed to be a vague connection to my travels and work with Sublime Frequencies. There seemed to be something to learn about the evolution of recording and the global music industry. About how the act of recording effected the music. About the music itself. About this age of information and storage and archiving we now find ourselves in. I wanted to learn more about Indian classical music, too, it had long been “calling” to me. And what better way than to travel around the country and spend time with the people who knew? So, anyway, I ended up with a research grant (a Fulbright) and spent 9 months in India doing just that. What I learned--about sound, travel, myself, etc, etc is nearly inexpressible. But I have managed to make a book, out soon on Sublime Frequencies, from this experience: 244 pages of photographs, a little writing and 2 CDs of music from the 78rpm era in India. It is called Indian Talking Machine. Look for it in a record store near you soon! Some images from that experience (though not those in the book) can be found here.

A lot more came from that time in India than this book. A large scale installation in Santander, Spain at Fundacion Botin, various pieces of writing, recording, etc etc. So it is worth it to follow crazy ideas to fruition.

Can you describe a sound experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a musician?

I grew up on the tip of Long Island, which is near New York City in the USA. It is more or less a sailing town, very old, very small, right on the water, with a long history of whaling, shipping, probably slave-trading, and early American settlers destroying native cultures. All that good stuff that made America grand.

It was and is a quiet, sleepy place and from a very young age I loved the sound that sailboats make while at anchor in the harbor. The stays and lines used to raise the sails and secure the masts on the boats would whistle and vibrate in the wind, slapping against the wooden or aluminum masts of the boats creating lovely poly-rhythmic wind chime, almost gamelan like sounds.


What do you recall about your playing learning process?

Trumpet lessons with Mr. Winslow in the basement of a music shop on Long Island. He would invariably have a danish which he would chew and then take my trumpet to demonstrate some phrase I had messed up or a scale I needed to learn. For some reason I thought a lot about the bits of danish flying through my trumpet, and related it to the Enterprise on Star Trek flying through the wormholes of space. None of this seemed like the same universe of sound and pop music and The Beatles and guitar I secretly wanted to inhabit but had not quite admitted to. However at about the same time (5th grade?) there was already the magic of records and a fascination with sounds such as the foley heard on TV shows and the echoes in empty buildings and hallways that was beginning to manifest.

Tell me one musical work which has provoked a change in your music.

I'm going to quote here from the liner notes I did for Scattered Melodies An LP of traditional Korean music I produced for Sublime Frequencies:

My first exposure to traditional Korean Kayagum Sanjo was via weathered 78rpm records. I had never heard anything like it: some sort of visceral, angular stringed instrument accompanied by a single drum and odd nearly inaudible shouts of encouragement. The sounds seemed to be fighting their way out of darkness; it was as if I had tuned into a radio station late at night, a station from 1000 years ago. The music sounded as relevant and as abstract as the contemporary chamber music to which I had been listening, yet felt unfathomably ancient. Shostakovich, Scelsi, Schnitke, Cage, bands like Sun City Girls, were what I was listening to--yet this Korean music felt like what I had always been seeking in music. It felt improvisational, a little raw; it didn’t sound difficult or “classical” or advanced. It felt experimental but wasn’t experimental at all.

These were 78rpm recordings, and to my virgin ears the surface noise created such an ambiance. It was not a distraction to me but an integral part of the whole. A production technique, if you will. You want that heavy rock sound? Hire Butch Vig or Jack Endino with their layering tricks and their tube amps. You want that ethereal reverb fluff? Get Daniel Lanois and record in a church for 1000 dollars a minute. Go to Sun Studios, stand on Elvis’ brylcreme stains and pretend you are part of history. Put it on cassette and sell it to some dude with a beard. Fine. But I want an older and less self-conscious sound, something grown up through the compost like an impossible tree. Something fighting to survive. Those Korean records had that sound. They were “produced” by the master for me: the secretions of tiny scale insects that had been scraped off of trees in South Asia to create a hard resin called shellac (millions of insects gave their lives for my listening pleasure). That’s vintage gear.

Originally, sound reproduction was acoustic. You had to have something pretty heavy pressing a needle hard into sturdy grooves to create enough sound to actually hear. Shellac provided this hard surface. Consequently, mixed with the sounds that had been recorded—music, voices, whatever—there was the rub of friction, the sound of the shellac itself, a death chorus from the tiny insects. Modern recording is often about the “air” or ambiance around the sound—the room where it was recorded, the breath of the instrument and the character this imparts.

Recording at 78rpm, however, is about the actual material holding the sounds. The material that captured the music like the volcano figures from Pompeii, trapping the winding grooves and driving the needle. An unreachable memory; a distant dream of sound, hollow, a voice from a place you can’t see but somehow know, the way the bottom of the ocean is present even though you can’t see down to it: mysterious and dark, covered in sunken ships and strange fish with headlights for eyes…I am getting carried away, as usual, but hearing this Korean music was the precise moment that I fell down the abyss of 78rpm record fascination that will be my doom. In rapid succession there followed the original Victrola Favorites cassettes (and years later a Victrola Favorites book), years wasted in thrift stores, shellac splinters, the purchase of Talking Machines and so on into oblivion...and I owe it all to Korean Kayagum Sanjo.

Liner notes for Scattered Melodies: Korean Kayagum Sanjo from 78rpm Records.

While some musicians might have suffered due to the limitations of the early recording devices, many I think actually benefited—to my ears those early country blues artists, Blind Willie Davis for example, just sounded so mysterious and other worldly sunken into 78rpm grooves—the roughness accentuating the darkness of the music… Further, 78rpm records have an immediacy. There were no real studios in the early days, in fact there were barely what we would call microphones-- so there is very little in between you and the musician except shellac. And one more thing--the design from the 78rpm era--the beautiful sleeves and labels, the hand lettering, the typefaces, the illustrations. Very influential to me.

Now, this is not to say that I am some sort of revivalist--that I think only music recorded before 1935 is valid, that I only want to play old songs in an old style. Not at all. My interest in 78rpm recording is not some revivalist template--but an inspiration for the possibilities of recording, for imagination and for the effects of the medium on the material. It provided me a new bedrock from which to branch out, not to mention laying at my feet a dark and earthy sound world that was full of possibility.

What is your relationship with other art disciplines?

Collaboration is irritating but can be rewarding, especially when the collaborators do exactly what I tell them.
There is a track on Relief (a recent LP of mine on Helen Scarsdale) called Relief. The painting on the cover is by a great painter--a friend of mine named Marefumi Komura. He and I have worked on some music together and I really wanted him to do the cover for that LP, when I saw that piece it made perfect sense and then I ended up naming the last track and then the whole LP after the painting. That last track was originally created as an immersive sound installation (part of a larger installation by Seattle sculptor June Sekiguchi). Seeing Marefumi’s painting helped me refine and edit the music into the album track. I have worked with other painters and artists on various projects including Steve Roden (on his lovely “...i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces” book), Jesse Paul Miller (a great Seattle artist and musician), even Jeffery Taylor--the other half of Climax Golden Twins--started life a a visual artist before succumbing to his true love, music. I even collaborate with myself, but only in private.

And then of course I have composed music for film and theatre and dance. I have learned to appreciate the power of design, typeface, and imagery by working with designers and artists on various projects such as John Hubbard who is designing the Indian Talking Machine book for me.

In other words I think, for me, all these disciplines are interconnected, nothing lives in a vacuum, and I learn from it all. Not sure what I learn, mostly how not to kill your collaborator. But even that is something, and while on the subject, I prefer to listen to music that is tangential to what I create. Not always, but mostly. I draw more inspiration from other disciplines, from film, literature, from the various non-Western musical traditions I listen to (especially Asian music) and the music I collect on 78rpm records--from the 1920s and 30s and earlier. This is not to say I am uninterested in contemporary sounds, or in the work of my "compatriots", it is just that there aren't enough hours in the day.

Where are your roots? What are your secret influences?

Thats a broad question. But to pick one thing I might have to say food and alcohol. OK, that’s two things. But life is impossible to enjoy without them. When I travel if I am not seeking sounds, I am seeking something interesting to eat. Cooking is like collage, sometimes, and I approach a lot of music that way, as collage...

What would you enjoy most in an art work?

It is best not to know the answer to such a question. Even when you think you know, the surprise, like in Zen (the “zen slap”--when monks are smacked suddenly, unexpectedly, during meditation to create that lightening bolt of realization) or like Lou Reed's guitar solo in I Heard Her Call My Name, these are the avenues to your soul, rather than expectation.

A year or so ago in Madrid I saw Goya’s Black Paintings at the Prado. I knew what to expect, I had seen reproductions in books, but the actual objects, the light, the surfaces, the nuance...the depth...the energy in the room. You can’t prepare for that and you shouldn't. It is perhaps obvious to say but life is about experience and you have to leave yourself open and unready. So perhaps the answer to your question is the element of surprise.

Jeph Jerman's small sound orchestra with Dave Knott, Mike Shannon, Jeffery Taylor, Robert Millis and Marina Granger.

What quality do you most empathize with in a musician?


What instruments and tools do you use?

At the moment I use a Harmony H38 Hollywood. It is a hollow body, arch-top guitar, with a great old “gold foil” pick up. For me, a guitar is a resonating object, a wooden structure (like an old Gramophone or Victrola) with a pick up. You can play things through the pick ups (prepared tapes, electronics, toys, music boxes) that interact with the strings and the feedback and the natural resonance of wood in magical ways; you can work the strings, wobble the neck, whack on the body, sing into the pick up and run it all through effects to an amplifier. It is a genius invention full of great possibility. The wonder of amplification, of vibration.


And this might reference your question about technique, but music and by extension self-expression should not be constrained by the physical workings of the instrument. No matter what the instrument is...fingers...voice...but perhaps this is obvious here on a blog about prepared guitar. I also use computer, found sounds, field recordings and so on to create a lot of my recorded work. It is good to have some sort of limitation to overcome.

I am enamored with the resonance of objects-- literally in how sounds "sound" when played back through unusual materials or devices. Part of my interest in the 78rpm era is focused on this-- the effects of using shellac as the material from which old records are made and the surface noise this creates.

Daegeum Solo (Peaceful Times)Victrola Favourites

I have a perverse desire to get inside the sounds I pull from various sources--guitars, recordings or old 78s. It is the desire of the "tinkerer" who has to take apart his new radio to see how it works. I like to pull the sounds apart and stretch them out and try and understand what fascinates me about them. Like my Dad with old cars in the driveway, I can never put them back together properly, however.


Published CDs, LPs, cassettes and books as a solo artist, composer, producer or collaborator.
The Travelling Archive  
Folk Music From Bengal 
LP Sublime Frequencies, 2014

LP Helen Scarsdale Agency, 2013

Cassette, Alterity 101, 2013

 The Crying Princess  
78rpm Records from Burma 
LP, Sublime Frequencies, 2013

 Scattered Melodies 
 Korean Kayagum Sanjo from 78rpm Records 
LP, Sublime Frequencies, 2013

Steve Roden
…i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces 
Book/double CD, Dust-to-Digital, 2011
Produced, edited, and assisted with design on vernacular photo/music book by artist Steve Roden.


LP with bonus 7 inch, Subpop Records, Seattle, 2010

Messenger Girls Trio 

Excelsior Salon Trio 
LP with bonus 7 inch, Uzu Audio, Canada, 2010 
collaboration between Sir Richard Bishop, Climax Golden Twins and David Knott

My Friend Rain
Documentary, DVD on Sublime Frequencies, 2010
Camera, editing, production, sound design on documentary collage about Southeast Asian music.

Climax Golden Twins 
Wire Tapper 22, The Wire 308, UK, 2009 

Climax Golden Twins. EF 
LP, Etude Records, Toronto, 2009
 Reissue of cassette from 1993


Robert Millis
CD, Etude Records, Toronto, 2009

Puget Power 5, 7 inch, Regal Select, 2009

 Marefumi Komura 

Early Works 1993-1996 
Hamlet Publishing, Tokyo, Japan, 2009. Mastering and editing

 Bats In The Temple
CDr, Ltd, Comp, Fire Breathing Turtle 2009


LP, Uzu Audio, Canada, 2008


10 inch LP, Dirty Knobby Recordings, Seattle, 2008

Climax Golden Twins 
 Journal of Popular Noise 
EP, NY, 2008

 Musical Brotherhoods of the Trans-Saharan Highway
Documentary, DVD on Sublime Frequencies 2007
Editing, post-production, sound design on feature length documentary

Victrola Favorites 
Book/double CD, Dust to Digital, Atlanta, GA, 2008


Climax Golden Twins 
 Five Cents A Piece 
LP, Abduction Records, Seattle, WA, 2007

Climax Golden Twins. 
LP, Conspiracy Records, Belgium, 2006 

 Phi Ta Khon: Ghosts of Isan
Documentary, DVD on Sublime Frequencies, 2006
Director, camera, editing, sound design and production for Thai festival documentary.


 Harmika Yab Yum  
Folk Sounds from Nepal 
CD, Sublime Frequencies, 2005
Recording, editing and production on compilation of music and ambiance from the top of the world.

 Climax Golden Twins 
 B Side 
three inch CD, Testing Ground, Spain, 2005

Leaf Music Drunks Distant Drums 
Recordings from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar 
CD, Anomalous Records/Sublime Frequencies, 2004
 Recording, editing, production on compilation of music and ambiance from SE Asia.


Climax Golden Twins
 Highly Bred and Sweetly Tempered 
CD, NEI Recordings, 2004

 The Phonographer’s Union  
Live on Sonarchy Radio 
CD, Accretions, 2004

Climax Golden Twins 

Xing Wu Records, Singapore, 2004 Compilation track

Climax Golden Twins
Live in the 21st Century 
CDR, Kabukikore Records, UK, 2004

 Nat Pwe: Burma’s Carnival of Spirit Soul Documentary, Sublime Frequencies 2003
Camera and editing for feature length documentary on Burmese religious festival.

Cassette, Since 1972 Recordings, 2003

 Victrola Favorites 
series of ten cassettes, Fire Breathing Turtle, 1996-2001

 Climax Golden Twins 
Lovely (CD, Anomalous Records, 2002) 

Messenger Girls Trio 
LP, Anomalous Records, 2002 
collaboration between Sir Richard Bishop, Climax Golden Twins and David Knott.
Climax Golden Twins 
Session 9 
CD, Milan International/USA Films, 2001 

Climax Golden Twins 
CD and LP, Fire Breathing Turtle Records, Since 1972, 2001


Climax Golden Twins 
Dream Cut Short in the Mysterious Clouds 
CD/LP, Meme, Japan, 2000
Climax Golden Twins 
Live 4 LP set, volumes I-IV 
LPs, Anomalous Records 1999-2000

 Climax Golden Twins 
CD, Fire Breathing Turtle Records, 1998


Jesse Paul Miller
Secret Records 
7 inch, Fire Breathing Turtle Records, 1997
Produced and assisted with design on special edition or artist records.


Climax Golden Twins
7 inch, RoadCone Records, 1996

Climax Golden Twins
 Imperial Household Orchestra 
CD, Scratch Records, 1996
Climax Golden Twins
three inch CD, Fire Breathing Turtle Records, 1995
 Climax Golden Twins
2 x 7 inch, Fire Breathing Turtle Records, 1994

Here a complete Curriculum