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H.R. of Bad Brains is Not Crazy, Insists Jamie Saft

Jamie Saft: Jewish Heavy Metal Mountain Man
Jamie Saft: Jewish Heavy Metal Mountain Man
Photo by Scott Irvine, c. 2011

With a monstrous, flowing, godlike beard, multi-instrumental guru Jamie Saft resembles a Hasidic mountain man who should be jamming on meaty blues licks with his beloved ZZ Top instead of the downtown avant-gardist and John Zorn ensemble vet he is reputed to be. The catch is, dude actually makes his home upstate, living a lone wolf existence on top of a mountain upstate in the middle of fuckin' nowhere.

See also: Next Up on the Bad Brains Canonization Brigade: Shepard Fairey

It's there in relative seclusion where Saft hones his weapon of choice (as keys-master), operates his own record label (Veal Records) and obliterates a ridiculous number of stylistic musical shifts via his tons of daring projects, many of which embody his longtime bud Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series vision via his Tzadik imprint.

April marks the first month of residencies at Zorn's Avenue C artist-friendly music hub The Stone and the jazz visionary tapped Saft to fill six nights; the bearded wonder naturally had a host of groups to pick 'n' choose from. While there won't be a performance of utterly devastating "Jewish Heavy Metal" in the form of Black Shabbis or triptastic improv space jazz with The Spanish Donkey, there will be apocalyptic psych-blues from Slobber Pup (who are celebrating a scorching new record, Black Aces), a Saft solo show under his Burning Genitals moniker and a duo collab with legendary drummer Jerry Granelli.

But the most anticipated gigs may be Saturday's record release shows for New Zion Trio's Chaliwa, the follow-up to 2011's stellar Fight Against Babylon. NZT (Saft on keys, acoustic bass-man Brad Jones and drummer Craig Santiago) shell out Heeb-flavored dub and reggae grooves and joining the festivities--like he did on Chaliwa--will be legendary Bad Brains' vocalist H.R. Saft played on Bad Brains' 2007 LP, Build A Nation, and now H.R. is returning the favor. Saft insists H.R.--maligned by erratic behavior at Bad Brains shows in recent years--is far from crazy. In fact, as Saft puts it, he's quite brilliant and will indeed show up to The Stone.

We caught up with Saft via e-mail at his reclusive Kingston abode to get the skinny on Zorn, H.R. and Bad Brains, Slobber Pup and the downtown scene.

Jamie Saft's Stone Residency begins tonight at The Stone and runs through Sunday, April 21. Slobber Pup plays two sets tonight, at 8 and 10. New Zion Trio's Chaliwa record release show with special guest H.R. happens on Saturday, April 20, with sets at 8 and 10 p.m.

How did you hook up with Zorn? You have tons of records on Tzadik and have played in many of his ensembles. I was born in Flushing, Queens, in what was then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. John Zorn and I came from the very same area of Flushing, just blocks from each other. He is of course almost 20 years my senior, so I did not know him in my youth. I grew up in NYC and New Haven, Conn., and went to New England Conservatory and Tufts in Boston. During my time at NEC, I studied extensively with the great master Joe Maneri. Many years of intense study with Joe changed the way I approached music completely. On moving back to New York City in 1993, I made a record as a co-leader with Cuong Vu called Ragged Jack. The writer Harvey Pekar was at the time a great champion of Joe Maneri's music and work. Harvey had asked Joe if there was any new music he should investigate and Joe told Harvey about our record. Harvey called me up and asked me to FedEx him a copy. So I went right to FedEx and sent him off a copy of Ragged Jack. The next day I get a message from John Zorn saying, "Harvey Pekar tells me you have an amazing record I need to check out. Can you please FedEx me a copy?" So of course, back I went to mail John a copy of the album. Twenty-four hours later, I get another phone message from John stating, "Saft, thanks for the beautiful record. Check is in the mail, the album will be out in two months. Call Ikue to sort the cover art."

And thus began my work with John Zorn. Soon after he began calling me for session work on his records, as well as a number of film scores and music for television. I've been working extensively with John since 1993 as a member of Electric Masada, The Dreamers, as well as an "A-Team" Cobra member.

So, although you live upstate now, you were part of the "downtown scene? I, of course, played extensively at the Knitting Factory (old and Leonard Street new), The Cooler, and the mighty Tonic. I lived in Brooklyn from 1993 to 2007, and in 2007 I moved up to the Catskills near Kingston. So, yes, you could say I was part of the "downtown Scene," if you must ...

You've had a lot of records released by Tzadik as part of the "Radical Jewish Culture" series. What was your upbringing and how did you arrive at those sounds? I was raised a Conservative Jew in the New York area. Any Jewish overtones in my music are just a direct reflection of my experience growing up Jewish in the modern world of NYC and beyond. I don't suppress that influence in my music, nor do I overtly choose to feature it. It's a natural part of my experience, just as Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, ZZ Top, Black Sabbath and AC/DC were a crucial part of my musical world. All of these influences can be seen in my work. I was not raised on traditional Klezmer music, I was raised on R&B, reggae, rock, and heavy metal. All this music is what shaped my experience of growing up in New York and thus became part of my vocabulary.

 

Black Shabbis is one of the best band names of all time, and the only Jewish heavy metal groups I know of. How did that come about? Black Shabbis was a name Zorn and I came up with joking around one day in the mid-'90s. I immediately grabbed it to use for an upcoming project. It took me 10 years to actually realize that concept as Black Shabbis. Originally I had enlisted Dave Lombardo from Slayer to play drums on the album. (Trevor Dunn and Dave were bandmates in Fantomas and Trevor and I were lucky to go and hang backstage with Dave at a number of Slayer shows. Dunn and I watched Sabbath with Ozzy at Ozzfest from the friends and family section on the stage at Jones Beach with Dave also some years back. Lombardo spent the whole set bugging out on Bill Ward, who sounded INCREDIBLE) Then two weeks before the Black Shabbis sessions I was in a car accident in the back of a yellow cab coming from JFK back home to Brooklyn and broke my clavicle! So the session got postponed. By the time I was well enough to sling a guitar again and do the album, Dave was back with Slayer and not available. Fortunately, two great young drummers were available to me to fill his slot--Mike Pride and Dmitry Shnaydman.

Did you get backlash from the Jewish community about doing "Jewish heavy metal" and naming a band Black Shabbis? I never got any backlash from the Jewish community at all for Black Shabbis. In fact, the record is not Jewish heavy metal. The album deals with the Blood Libel, the libelous accusation that Jews sacrifice Christian children, drink their blood, and use their blood as sacrament by baking it into our Matzohs. The album traces the thread of the Blood Libel through thousands of years of world history and into the modern era. The Blood Libel has been used to foment hatred against the Jews for centuries and still rears its ugly head today. So Black Shabbis really is dealing with this material through the lens of dark Metal music. The most backlash I've had has been from Christian organizations and people who don't like the critique of the church and institutionalized anti-Semitism.

New Zion Trio is another of your bands that uses Jewish music, but with them you add dub and reggae. The new album, Chaliwa, is about to be released. How did the three of you in the band come together? New Zion Trio came together in the summer of 2011 here in the Catskills. I met my drummer in NZT (Craig Santiago) that summer--we live in the same town. Santi is a master of roots reggae and dub styles. I had never met a drummer (except for a brief meeting with Sly Dunbar) who made available that level of discipline with the language of reggae before. Luckily, Santi lives close by and we were able to make a number of studio tracks that laid the foundation for New Zion Trio at my studio in the Catskills Potterville International Sound. After working with Santi in the studio, I quickly saw the possibility to marry the spiritual jazz approach of artists like Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and Lonnie Liston Smith with the roots reggae and dub styles of Burning Spear, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and King Tubby. We were fortunate enough to have Larry Grenadier, another master of his instrument, play the acoustic bass for us on the first album, Fight Against Babylon.

How is the new record different from Fight Against Babylon? Chaliwa is in a similar vein as the first album but goes deeper into the roots reggae zone with less soloist moments. On Chaliwa, we are extremely lucky to have another master of the acoustic bass, Brad Jones. Brad brings a depth of knowledge of the reggae canon that takes us deeper into the roots and dub world while supporting the path of the free jazz approach.

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How did H.R. become involved on Chaliwa? The addition of H.R. of Bad Brains on "Chant It Down" was a fortuitous situation for New Zion. I, of course, came up listening to Bad Brains and was deeply influenced by their connection between Thrash and Hardcore styles with Reggae and Dub. I was fortunate enough to get to play keyboards on Build a Nation through Adam Yauch (R.I.P.) of the Beastie Boys. A good friend of mine, Matt Marinelli, had built Adam's new studio on Canal Street and was engineering the Bad Brains record that Adam was producing and facilitating. Adam brought me in to play all the reggae keyboards on that album through Matt. This was a HUGE honor for me--to be on a Bad Brains record, to work with Adam Yauch and the Brains (so many of my childhood heroes), and to be a part of such a GREAT Bad Brains record with all original members. At around the same time, Santi had developed a relationship with some of the Bad Brains guys here in the Catskills (Dr. Know and Darryl Jenifer both live here in the Hudson Valley). Santi also hung with H.R. when he would come to town to play and developed a personal relationship with him.

All these factors brought us to asking H.R. to contribute vocals to a track on the upcoming New Zion album. He performed on the absolute highest level in the studio. H.R. brought the same mastery to his vocals that New Zion Trio requires of all its players. New Zion Trio is an exercise in restraint--it's all about what you don't play. The trance-like states we achieve are only possible through selfless teamwork from everyone. Improvisers must sublimate the natural instinct to play whatever it is that comes to your mind in the world of New Zion. It's really about creating a space as a team--it's a selfless endeavor. Any deviation from the path puts an obstacle in the way of creating this trance-like state. H.R. is one of the few vocalists who could deal on this level and create something that compliments the music.

A couple of the Bad Brains live in your community upstate. Do you hang out and jam with those dudes? Santi and I have another roots reggae project called Kingston Yard. We have a full-length album we did trio with (bassist) Darryl Jenifer that we are finishing up, as well as a huge pile of tracks Santi and I put together as a duo. This first Kingston Yard release should be out late summer [or] early fall.

Slobber Pup is another new band of yours, with Joe Morris, Trevor Dunn, and Balazs Pandi. You've played with all those guys before in other projects. Did you know going in what the Slobber Pup sound was going to be? Slobber Pup is a new band I put together featuring some of my favorite musicians in the world. Joe Morris and I worked together a bit at the end of my student years in Boston. We had not seen each other for almost twenty years, but kept tabs on each other's work and occasional hangs at festivals around the world would materialize. I wanted to feature Joe's absolutely stunning guitar mastery, one that is so wholly unique to Joe, in more electric and rock based contexts. The first album we put together was The Spanish Donkey's XYX (Northern Spy). This was a trio with younger generation drummer Mike Pride, a friend who I had put together some other crazy bands with (Whoopie Pie, Angel OV Death). The freedom we found in this band was truly inspired. The next logical step for me was to put Joe's guitar in an even more overtly metal/hardcore context. Thus, Balazs Pandi, thrash-master from Budapest, and Trevor Dunn (Melvins Lite and Tomahawk) were an obvious choice for rhythm section. Hearing Joe's guitar with punishing grindcore underpinnings with crushing organ pads to me is ecstatic! Slobber Pup is completely improvised, with nothing predetermined. But the sound of Slobber Pup was very much in my mind before we ever convened. The music wrote itself--it was more a matter of capturing it on a recording. The sound is so wide and of great girth-translating that to the recording was the challenge. This is so often the trouble with recording improvised music--it is very difficult to capture something so of the moment. The approach to recording and combining the individual elements becomes crucially important. This is one of my main areas of inquiry--in life!

How did you decide on which bands were going to play your residency at The Stone? Most of the decisions on which bands should be a part of my residency was based on whether it was "new" music. I had little interest in rehashing my careers work at my Stone residency. This was a rare opportunity for me to bring a large amount of gear down to one club and create new sounds with it for a whole week--12 sets of all new music. Each night I'll feature all different iterations of my music. Slobber Pup, Gerald Fletcher Memorial Grindcore Explosion (with Balazs Pandi, and Dylan Walker of Full of Hell) and Burning Genitals (my solo electric project) are all completely new and have never been heard. We're recording the GFMGE album this weekend!

I'm also honored to have the amazing Jerry Granelli flying down from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to play a duo show with me. Jerry is a master in the truest sense of the word--he was very close with Trungpa Rinpoche, toured with Lenny Bruce, and was a core member of the Vince Guaraldi Trio. He brings a depth of conviction to improvised music that is truly rare these days. It's been almost ten years since we've played together and I'm thrilled to have with me. Then three nights with New Zion Trio with special guest H.R. to finish out the week. Featuring tons of new music from the New Zion book as well as some of the Kingston Yard material on those nights and some additional special guests (including Ras T. and Delroy Culture on Sunday, April 21).

On Facebook, you post clips of Dylan and ZZ Top all the time, and you did an album of Dylan covers that was released on Tzadik. What's with your Dylan fascination? I've been a lifetime fan of both Bob Dylan and ZZ Top. Along with the roots reggae path, these two artists have been my main musical nourishment throughout my life. I've seen both Dylan and ZZ Top dozens of times each.

Have you met Dylan? I've not met Bob but I've hung out a bunch with his band through mutual friends, and Bob has a copy of Trouble--The Jamie Saft Trio plays Bob Dylan. I'm sure Bob just threw it in the garbage but he did receive it. And it doesn't really matter what he thinks of it; it's what I made, and that's that.

What about the ZZ Top obsession? All I can say is very few bands can consistently churn out quality albums over decades of work and keep the level as high and as real as ZZ Top. Three absolute masters of their respective instruments: The Reverend Willy G. is the direct line from Jimmy Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, BB King, Albert Collins, Freddie King, and beyond. ZZ Top is real American music. Their past few albums, some 40+ years from their first release, have been tremendous and completely vibrant. Excellence!

What's coming up with Zorn? I'm happy to be a part of a number of the "Zorn at 60" shows this year. We'll be performing all over the world, including shows in San Sebastian, Paris, Ghent, Marciac, Lisbon, London, Warsaw, Victoriaville, Moers Festival, and a number in New York City. I'm thrilled to be part of such a momentous time in John's work.

What about your own record label. When did you start Veal Records? I started Veal in 2007 as a vehicle to forward a number of albums I had in the works that couldn't find a proper home at other labels. We've got eight physical releases and a bunch more available as digital downloads. Our ninth and newest release, New Zion Trio's Chaliwa, drops on May 21. Many have asked me why I named my label Veal. The idea of veal is a controversial topic. Like the meat, the music on Veal can be viewed as controversial. But like food, difficult music can be handled responsibly, ethically, sustainably. This was the path I envisioned for Veal Records.

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