Saturday, January 10, 2015

Robert Poss 13 questions

ROBERT POSS has performed and recorded with Rhys Chatham, Nicolas Collins, Ben Neill, Phill Niblock, David Dramm, Susan Stenger and Bruce Gilbert. In 1986, he formed the wall-of-guitars group Band Of Susans, which Rolling Stone Magazine described as "adamantly arty, brainy, visceral and bracing." BOS released two EPs and five full-length CDs (all produced by Poss) before disbanding in 1995. In 2002 Poss, whom Steve Albini once called "an enormously underrated guitar theorist," released two companion solo CDs Distortion Is Truth and Crossing Casco Bay on Trace Elements Records. At the time, Tape Op Magazine described him as a “guitar genius, drone meister …the master of treated and manipulated guitars.”

Since his 2002 releases, Poss has composed and performed music for choreographers Sally Gross, Alexandra Beller and Gerald Casel, has worked with ex-Band Of Susans member Susan Stenger on a 96-day musical installation for the Musée d’art Contemporain in Lyon, France, performed at the premier of composer Phill Niblock’s piece "Stosspeng" in Krems, Austria and contributed music to an Albert Maysles/Kristen Nutile documentary, Sally Gross: The Pleasure Of Stillness.

With Ron Spitzer and Andrew Halbriech.  

In 2009 he performed with Rhys Chatham and Robert Longo at a Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective and participated in Chatham’s Crimson Grail project for 200 guitars at Lincoln Center. He has also collaborated with Austrian visual artist Margret Wibmer and filmmaker Cat Tyc, and has written guitar-centric articles for The Leonardo Music Journal and The Tone Quest Report. He resides in New York City and continues to perform his guitar and electronics pieces in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe.

Which was the most joyful musical moment do you remember?

It’s hard to narrow that one down.  Possibly listening to the playback of one of the Band Of Susans mixes in the studio for the first time or hearing John Peel announce one of our tracks on the BBC in his most mellifluous voice or getting on stage at midnight at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 1989 and realizing that the crowd that had just heard My Bloody Valentine open for us were primed and ready for us or maybe just some moment when my guitar was feeding back and I was able to control the overtones and pitch shifts purely my moving my body position ever so slightly – magical radar. As a fan, hearing the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who in their 1970s primes was wonderful; the New York Dolls in 1973, The Clash in 1979 at The Palladium; Iggy in 1979; the Heartbreakers at Max’s in 1978…. Seeing Muddy Waters live. Seeing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley live in the early 1970s…. all different, all joyful.

Why did you choose to play the guitar?

I was originally an electric bass player, and my area of expertise and interest was Chicago-style blues and British rock. At age 12, I thought the electric bass looked cool, sounded cool and was cool, and I was right. I gravitated to guitar after teaching myself a few things and learning guitar solos off the radio, and ultimately finding that in the bands I was playing in, those skills were helpful and/or needed.

How would you define "noise"?

Noise is the netherworld of our sensory imagination. Phantom sounds, some like spirits, others like edifices, rise and fall, are enveloped or exposed, shrouded, buried, half-heard in a sonic dream state. Noise is everything and it is nothing. We hear what we choose to hear, music or machine, narrative or abstraction. It is never the same way twice. It can never be heard again. I enjoy the tambura-like drone of vacuum cleaners and air compressors that others find annoying. I enjoy finding the music in noise. I like Alvin Lucier’s approaches to finding the inherent music of architectural spaces.

Which work of your own are you most proud of?

Another of those “which child is your favorite?” questions that is difficult to answer.  I think Love Agenda and Veil are my two favorite Band Of Susans records, and the ones of which I am most proud, though Hope Against Hope was the fountainhead in many ways. They are distillations of everything I know and believe about the electric guitar and rock music, and how that intersects with minimalism and mysticism and those occasional transcendent moments of pure musical joy. And there are great moments on these records of blissful symbiotic collaboration with Susan Stenger.

What's the role of practice in art, in your opinion?

When I was a young teen I obsessively practiced, or rather, I obsessively tried to learn songs by ear off records and the radio. I’ve only had about three guitar lessons in my life. (That explains a lot, I guess.) While other kids were out playing sports I was alone in my room learning how to play, hour after hour. This caused my parents for a time to imagine that I was headed for a life of sexual deviance, cult membership and tenure as a ticket taker at an amusement park rather than the career in law, journalism or academia they imagined for me. I learned Mick Taylor, Keith Richard, Albert King and Eric Clapton riffs. I learned the “tricks” of lead guitar and slide guitar and I learned a lot about tone. Later in life I obsessively worked on my distortion sound, until I found “my” tone. I stripped my technique down to what I thought was essential and worked from the assumption that less is more. During the Band Of Susans years I wrote and orchestrated virtually all the guitar parts and many of the drum and bass parts for the band. That required a great deal of time learning, practicing and teaching. These days I almost never “practice,” and I play far too little for my own pleasure. But I do a lot of mental composition prior to recording. I wish I played more.

One thing you have learned with effort through the guitar

I have learned that I am a musician not an athlete and speed, dexterity and conventional virtuosity are best left to others who are impressed by or obsessed with athleticism. Or do you mean something that took great effort to learn? It took effort to master one of Rhys Chatham’s mid-period pieces that required reading a complex score, since I have precious little ability in reading conventional notation, and rather, memorized the part, using the score as a rough guide. This caused problems in live performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when I got flustered and was also extremely hungover. Note to self: when playing from a score, really know how to read notation.

"The Last Temptation of Susan" from the 1993 Veil album. Directed by Leah Singer.

What's the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar?

A good guitar can be intonated properly (if desired) and inspires me on some level. It could be a 2 X 4 with strings or a master luthier’s handmade masterpiece. A bad guitar is a Stratocaster and/or a guitar that lacks those qualities. I do not like Stratocasters.

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

The benefit is access and the challenge is access. The recording studio is now available to everyone in the developed world – anyone that has a computer and/or access to a few hundred dollars for a multi-track recorder. This means much more great music is being recorded and disseminated through the internet; and much more terrible music is being recorded and disseminated through the internet. The lack of limitations – the number of tracks or the microscopic changes that can be made and re-made offers the same blessing and curse. The limits of the 22-minute LP side, the 24 track recorder, the need to wait for the tape to rewind and the limits of how much and how precisely a recording could be edited in the purely analog domain were limitations that had certain benefits. I’m a big believer in the profoundly positive aspects of imperfection and limitation in the creative process.

What are your preferred devices in the sound chain?

The G&L SC-1 is my favorite guitar and the one for which I am known. When Band Of Susans visited the G&L factory in 1989, there was a Band Of Susans poster on the wall. Leo Fender and Dale Hyatt took us out to lunch, and made me three one-of-kind G&L SC-1 reissues. (Lots of stuff about this on the internet; the recent G&L Fallout was inspired in part by my modifications to my guitars.) I prefer the G&L Magnetic Field Design pickup, but at high levels of gain and distortion in places in which the wiring is dubious and the lighting dimmers are immoderate, I use humbuckers like the DiMarzio DP156. I have used and/or still use Fender Jazzmaster, Gretsch, Yamaha and Gibson hollow bodies (like the ES-135 heard on “The Last Temptation Of Susan”), Schecter, Tokai Talbos and Gibson Les Paul Deluxes and Les Paul Junior non-double cutwaway models. (I’ve been at this a long time).

With Susan Stenger, Rhys Chatham, Ernie Brooks, Karen Haglof, Moni Kellermann and Mitch Salmen.

I like the ProCo Rat and the Ibanez Tube Screamer, Marshall and Park tube amplifiers run clean with lots of headroom. But I like and use small combo amps by Fender, Frenzel, Decware, ZT Amplifiers, VaIvetech. I like pedals by MI Audio, Digitech Hardwire, Source Audio, Boss, Barber… etc. etc. etc.   I like the sound of ribbon microphones like the Coles 4038 on electric guitar. I like Neve and API consoles, Studer mutlitracks, Logic software, the Shure SM-7, the Sennheiser 441 and MKH50. I like API and Purple Audio electronics. I like PSP plug-ins. See also: and

Why and how do you use extended techniques in guitar?

I have played electric guitars with forks and knives. I have added metal koto-style wedge bridges mounted on the neck of an electric 12-string (the only Stratocaster I have ever owned), playing it hammer dulcimer style with the plastic cores from fax paper rolls. I often use an EL-34 tube as a slide (I think I’m the only one who does this) when playing with an eBow. I use a variety of tunings that I invented. I have run strings through metal washers to get a sort of tambourine tambura effect as the washers vibrate. I have routed a guitar though multiple Doepfer synthesizer modules to process it. I often pound the guitar with my thumb to ring out precise overtones. But I also enjoy limiting myself to the conventional and still making unconventional music. The theater or theatricality of extended technique does not interest me. (“Wow! Look at that! He’s playing the guitar with a chainsaw!”)

What is your relationship with other disciplines such as painting, literature, dance, theater ...?

In another life I would have been a writer.  Literature has informed and inspired quite a bit of my lyrical work, and you’ll find literary references in song titles and elsewhere – Joyce, Melville, George Gissing … I have certainly been inspired by painters such as Clyfford Still, Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, etc. in terms of abstraction, texture and color as applied to thinking about music and composition. Over the past eight or so years, I have worked with three great choreographers – Sally Gross, Gerald Casel, and most continuously and in greatest depth, Alexandra Beller. Providing music for modern dance has been a wonderful outlet for me. I have contributed a bit of music to television documentaries and even a few commercials. And I have provided music for some installations by the great Austrian visual artist Margret Wibmer. Collaboration with artists in areas other than music is something I continue to seek out. I find it rewarding, enriching, and great fun.

What dead artist would you like to have collaborated with?

This is similar to one of those who would you like to have at dinner questions. Merce Cunningham comes to mind. Stan Brakhage. Marcel Duchamp. Ford Maddox Ford. Hollis Frampton. Joseph Conrad. Philip K. Dick. Samuel Beckett. Malcolm Lowry. Virginia Woolf. Possibly some great Indian poet whose name I do not know.

What's your next project about?

After years focusing on music for modern dance and also working with modular analog electronics, I’m hoping to get back to a more Band Of Susans-esque layered guitar-based project. Susan Stenger and I have plans to finally do our long-delayed new collaboration that will probably involve some live remixing of previously recorded tracks augmented by guitar and bass. She lives in London and Ireland, and I live in New York, so such a project might have to begin on Skype. We get together a few times a year. But it would be great to record and tour with her again.

Thunder Gods at 8 B.C. (1987), Catherine Ceresole, Ben Neill, Rhys Chatham, Robert Poss, Tim Holmes



Sometimes (1986) (Trace Elements Records)
Inverse Guitar (with Nicolas Collins) (1988) (Trace Elements Records)
Distortion is Truth (2002) (Trace Elements Records)
Crossing Casco Bay (2002) (Trace Elements Records)


Going Out With Slow Smoke
(Nicolas Collins) (1982) (Lovely Music)
Let the State Make the Selection
(Nicolas Collins) (1984) (Trace Elements Records)
Western Eyes
(Western Eyes) (1984) (Trace Elements Records)
Die Donnergotter
(Rhys Chatham) (1987) (Dossier) (1989) (Homestead Records)
El Mundo de Vapor y Valentia
(OLD VIENNA) (Shapir O'Rama) (1995) (Mind of a Child Records)
(Ben Neill) (1988) (Dossier/Ear Rational)


(When People Were Shorter And Lived Near The Water) (1989) (Shimmy Disc)
100 of the Worlds Most Beautiful Melodies
(Nicolas Collins) (1989) (Trace Elements Records)
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
(Nicolas Collins) (1992) (Trace Elements Records)
G2, 44+ / x2
(Phill Niblock) (2001) (Moikai)
(with Susan Stenger) (1994) (Blast First/Disobey)
(with Bruce Gilbert and Susan Stenger) (2000) (WMO)
An Angel Moves Too Fast to See: Selected Works 1971-1989
(Rhys Chatham) 2003 (Table of The Elements)

Touch Strings
 (Phill Niblock) 2009 (Touch) 
Touch Five
 (Phill Niblock) 2013 (Touch)

Hope Against Hope 1988 (Furthur, Blast First)
Love Agenda 1989 (Blast First)
The Word And The Flesh 1991 (Rough Trade, World Service)
Veil 1993 (Restless Records)
Here Comes Success 1995 (Restless Records)


Pure and Painless Pleasures (1988) (John Doe Recordings)
Bring the Noise (1989) (Lowlife)
Eclectic Guitars (1996) (Unknown Public) ("Nagasaki Bells")
For all the URLs I've Loved (1997) (Escargot)

With Susan Stenger, Anne Husick, Ron Spitzer and Mark Lonergan