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Q&A: Grasshopper's Josh Millrod And Jesse DeRosa On The Electric Valve Instrument, Working In Advertising, And Improvisation

Q&A: Grasshopper's Josh Millrod And Jesse DeRosa On The Electric Valve Instrument, Working In Advertising, And Improvisation

Every Grasshopper jam starts with a great big nothing sound, on or near the cusp of silence, so soft and unassuming that it almost isn't there. Then, ever-so-glacially, the frame fills with sound: Josh Millrod's penetrative trumpeting fed through the maw of Jesse DeRosa's distortion-hemorrhaging Electric Valve Instrument, the two elements weaving and warping to an extent that it can be next to impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. And just like that, it's as if the divining song they've summoned into being—be it low-level, keening drone or a no-holds-barred FX freakout—has always been there, waiting for you to finally find it. The NYC-based duo strikes odd balances between playfulness and dolor, noise and New Age; they take a stimulating yet calming approach to "out jazz," one that feels both idiosyncratic and vital.

In advance of Grasshopper's appearance at this weekend's Ende Tymes Fest, SOTC exchanged emails with Millrod and DeRosa about the nature of their sound, Stephen King, and the value of high-school music education.

How did Grasshopper come to be? Had you guys known each other for a while before you started playing together?

Josh Millrod: Grasshopper is the culmination of 14 years of friendship and bandmate-dom. Jesse and I met at a summer performing arts program where we were both working hard on our trumpet nerd-dom. I can't remember if it was me or Jesse who wore an Operation Ivy t-shirt, but that shirt brought us together and led us deep down the rabbit-hole of ska together.

At some point, we decided we were going to start a band. After much deliberation, we settled on the name Tuesday Night's Leftovers. I had only been playing trumpet for two years at that point, so I ended up singing. Jesse was the main songwriting force and was surprisingly good at it. We touched on some serious issues, ranging from how cool it would be to be 18 to how cool it would be to be Bill Clinton since he was getting BJs on the regular to getting diarrhea from a visit to Mexico.

Toward the end of high school/early college, we both started getting into weirder music and founded the original Grasshopper, which was a pretty awesome post-rock band with me on keys, Jesse on guitar, my cousin on flute, and the drummer from our ska band playing like he was in Pink Floyd.

Throughout college—we both studied trumpet at conservatories—we both got more and more dissatisfied with playing classical/bebop trumpet and started listening to weirder and weirder music. In my senior year, I saw a band called Werewolf Unit who played trombone and electronics and went out and bought some pedals; Jesse already had some pedals. Not long after, we started noise jamming.

You guys should slip some Op Ivy covers into your Grasshopper sets.

Millrod: On our last tour, we listened to Operation Ivy's "Energy" every day. "Junkie's Running Dry" for life!

Jesse DeRosa: I think it's safe to say that our ska band was held together by a wing and a prayer. Though we managed to play shows on the regular and all, it was always frantic, and pretty much ready to fall apart at a moment's notice. Together with a few other folks and perhaps the most warped trombonist to live on Long Island, Kevin Jackson, we kinda pushed together a very left-footed attempt at what would be considered a band "on paper" but certainly in hindsight should've been a red-flag that something wasn't quite right under the hood.

It eventually collapsed on itself. A few projects spewed from it, and following some earlier experiments in using drum machines with the band, Josh and I ventured out into strange one-off projects that eventually evolved itself into Grasshopper (around 2002), as we started merging our jazz tendencies with circuit bending, turntable experiments, and four-tracking.

 

From listening to live radio sessions to albums proper, it appears that you've found an idiosyncratic sound: There's no one else out there that sounds quite like Grasshopper. Your music always makes me think of heavenly fanfare turned sinister, mournful, lysergic, or some combination of the three.

Millrod: Radness. I like all of those words. We have a pretty eclectic range of influences and a sort of telepathy that we've cultivated over the years that's let us really craft our sound. When we first started, we weren't playing trumpets and sounded a lot like a lot of other noise bands. Once we got over the baggage of musical school and started playing trumpet again, we started to sound like the band we are today. Then, Jesse got his EVI and shit got really real. There are very few people in the world playing that instrument, which has really helped us cultivate a unique sound. Aside from Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Jesse is probably the only dude in the world playing weirdo music on that beast.

DeRosa: I would say one thing that certainly sets us apart from most of our contemporaries is just that we totally came up more classical, good or bad. We toured all over Europe and Africa with ensembles during high school and went on to music conservatories where we spent pretty much all of our time playing with various orchestras, wind ensembles, chamber ensembles, and combos.

For me, Ives and Partch played a huge role in my development. As trumpet players, Mahler, Stravinsky and Shostakovich were our heavy jammers. Going to concerts showcasing the music of Cage and Zappa exposed me to entirely new definitions of what I thought music was. I was listening to Ives long before i knew who Merzbow was or what an LFO did. I think these shine through most in our music. At the end of the day, we like to think some high school band directors might be able to get down with what we're doing—kinda Holst for heads, I suppose. Our approach to building and layering textures, harmonies and counterpoint owes a great deal to the hours spent immersed in it.

Despite the fact that everything is 100 percent improvised, the outcome tends to follow these narrative arcs that have become so second nature. After sitting in chamber music ensembles for what probably adds up to years of your life, you start to build a mental telepathy as Josh mentioned. You put trust in the other players around you and you learn to listen and anticipate; you notice gestures or breathing, and you react accordingly, rather than just play what's on the paper in front of you—which is, after all, just a guideline for making music, not the music itself.

What is an EVI, and how does it work?

DeRosa: Often mistaken in reviews as our "keyboard", the EVI (electric valve instrument) is a wind-controlled analog synthesizer built in the late '70s/early '80s by the brilliant Nyle Steiner. The interface is much like that of the trumpet, with the standard three "valve" buttons and a canister for flipping through the trumpet partials; it responds to the pressure and force of my breath. It's probably one of the most expressive synths I've ever encountered, and is killer for ripping bluesy post-age space brass Vangelis tones. Guess I'm letting the secret out.

It's similar to modern day EWIs (electronic wind instruments), but these are often MIDI and more sax-interfacing. The EVI is straight analog brains, with a pretty famous filter path.

 

There's always talk of high school music budgets being slashed as school boards—like everyone else in government these days—try to cut costs. As beneficiaries of a diverse musical education and the accompanying telepathy, does this ever bother you? The generations to come might not have that sort of indoctrination.

DeRosa: It's certainly bothersome; a lot of my best friends from college who went on to become teachers have so many uphill battles daily to keep their jobs or retain their programs and budgets. Unlike Josh, I owe a lot to a strong school music program. I was lucky enough to live in a district with an amazing set of teachers that gave me my own reigns to kinda do as I pleased.

Millrod: It does bother me to some degree, but I have really mixed feelings in general about music education. For me, my grade school music education wasn't about learning music through instruction. It was about surrounding myself with musicians and having an excuse to cut class to practice, as well as a sandbox to try things. I'd learn the music quickly in my private lessons and then get in trouble all the time for fucking with the harmonies or playing my own counterpoint during band practice.

I found that the actual music education was largely useless and taught people the exact wrong approach. There was nothing left to the ear and you could get by without really knowing how to read music, improvise or even understand what you were playing, because the band director would just spoon-feed the parts to you. You don't learn how to find your voice or get inside the music. The band director just sings the part and you, using the notes on the page as a guide for what buttons to press, play it back. It's like reading a phrase book for a foreign language instead of actually learning the language.

I guess it's valuable in that it's the catalyst for playing a non-guitar instrument, but it's pretty useless if you don't have the motivation to find your own way. I'd hate to see it go, but I do think that it needs a radical shaking up and refocusing on the personal journey of music, rather than the current "teach to the concert" version.

Have you ever heard the Hong Kong group named Grasshopper? They're pretty much the polar opposite of the music you make. I love the idea of some who's a fan of that band inadvertently discovering you guys by accident, or the other way around, and stumbling into this huge world of unfamiliar sound.

DeRosa: Of course! There was also both a sweet 1990s dad rock band from Long Island and an old Doo-Wop group from 1970s Detroit going by Grasshoppers.

A while back there was some weird flaming back and forth over at last.fm. I have no idea who was editing it, but someone replaced the bio and picture for the other Grasshopper with ours, but since our music is predominately in analog, non-internet friendly formats—tapes and records and such—all of the music they offer to stream is straight J-pop. So there's definitely some crossover contamination potential.

 

Calling All Creeps stands apart from other entries in your catalogue in that it feels more overtly noise: more malevolent and ruthless than Wretched Blood Wraith or your My Castle of Quiet set. Namely it's that the LP opens with this piss-curdling scree, but even though the trumpet drifts in later it's never the traditional drifting vibe. It felt more fucked with, twisted. Can you tell me about how Creeps was conceived?

Millrod: I don't know that we really conceived of anything. We've been playing together for so long and have thousands of hours of solo/ensemble practice under our belts, which has lead to a very ad hoc improvised approach. When we rehearse, record, or play live, we just start playing and see what happens. Just about everything is 100 percent improvised with little to no discussion beforehand, which means our music changes pretty radically depending on our mental state and external stimuli.

I can't remember what was happening when we recorded Calling All Creeps, but there must have been some physical or psychic turmoil. The other music from that time, which is largely unreleased, is very harsh. It's much more electronics-centric than we had ever been before. There's a sort of reckless abandon that led to these awesome walls of sound, which we hadn't really done before.

We didn't intend to do it; it sorta just happened.

Lately, our music has been going back into this harsher, noisier territory. Our latest tape, The Day America Forgot on Sic Sic, is pretty gnarly, but has a bleak sparseness in contrast to the walls of sound in Calling All Creeps. I feel like each time we come back to harsher sounds, we take some of prettier, more delicate stuff with us. The Sic Sic tape feels like a good mixture of the electronic mire from Calling All Creeps and the flowing melodies and harmonies of Goodnight Sweet Prince.

We're working on our next LP right now and so far it's pretty bleak and hopeless sounding, in the raddest way possible.

DeRosa: The Day America Forgot is our first concept record. Not sure if it's worth getting into completely, but try to imagine an alternate narrative that ran completely parallel to our post 9/11 society. One that didn't get caught in the dervish that swept through this country. One that wasn't desensitized by the one year period of corruption, hidden agendas, silent shareholders, fine print and blatant McCarthyism that had the country so wrapped up in pandemonium that it was completely ignorant to the biggest sleight-of-hand trick ever pulled.

Now imagine watching our post-9/11 arc from these unbiased eyes. Watching as we drive ourselves into the ground for an unknown agenda under the guise of patriotism. Somewhere in there we worked a Grasshopper soundtrack.

 

Side B of Wretched Blood Wraith is titled "The Langoliers." Did you ever see that movie? It had Bronson Pinchot from Perfect Strangers in it.

DeRosa: Of course! The whole shape of the piece is kinda analogous to that scene at the end of the film when they're outside the airport and we see the Langoliers coming from the far distance, erasing all of the trees and reality as they swept through and creeping closer and closer until it's right up on them.

Stephen King is the undisputed master of modern horror, isn't he? And not just creature-feature scare horror, but pomo existential horror.

Millrod: He's pretty rad. I'd say we're both bigger fans of John Carpenter. Rad jams and rad films. They Live is particularly poignant for both of us.

DeRosa: I'm not too big on King, actually. He's got some great hits no doubt, but going back and publishing a sequel to The Shining is kind of bad taste. Something that screams Star Wars prequels all over again. Maybe he needed a new summer beach house or something, so who am I to judge? I'm sure the movie rights are already secured.

As far as horror goes, Josh and I are really more connoisseurs of D-list crap, zombie movies being our bread and butter. Carpenter is a huge inspiration, needless to say, as a man fully immersed in his vision: from writing, to directing, to scoring. Same with David Lynch, the ending of whose Eraserhead we recently re-scored at the 92YTribeca. Otherwise I would say it's all about Nazi zombies or lesbian vampire movies.

The second half of The Day America Forgot is really thoughtful at the beginning, almost ambient. And then during the last six or seven minutes it's like the two of you are blasting through some sort of dimensional barrier. It's noise, but it's deeply mesmerizing and transportive.

DeRosa: Lately, a lot of our sessions have been scaling back some of the bone-crushing sonic debris and honing in on relaying the same uneasiness harmonically. Sometimes you've just gotta let shit rip though. Millrod: We've been trying really hard to find new sounds and largely they have been pretty gnarly. That record came out of some serious psychic turmoil. I'd say it's some of our tightest, most focused music. Instead of achieving heaviness through dense walls of sound, we opted for fewer, more creepy and dark sounds.

Is playing in Grasshopper a cathartic experience?

Millrod: It's very cathartic, but we don't necessarily intend for it to be that way. We aren't terribly dark people and when people meet us for the first time they are usually surprised. Wm Berger at WFMU couldn't get over the fact that we're two super goofy dudes when we played on My Castle of Quiet. He kept saying he expected gnarly noise dudes with long greasy hair and leather trench coats. I think I was wearing a sweatshirt with balloons and ribbons on it.

When we play, we don't come to it with an intended goal. One of us plays the first note and then we just go. It's unavoidable that we let ourselves out and that usually means the darker shit is getting set free. We do play pretty stuff sometimes. It just manifests as giant walls of sound, instead of songs about girls and the beach. After our sets, I feel really drained, but I'm usually in surprisingly good spirits, which surprises a lot of people.

DeRosa: I don't think we set out to unburden ourselves, but I think it's a byproduct for sure. Like any creative outlet, I think whatever we bring to the table consciously or unconsciously seems to find its way of bubbling to the surface, especially as we approach playing from a clean slate and kinda let whatever happens go.

We play off of the room and the audience as much as each other. We play off of the conversations we had with strangers while setting up as much as the cops we saw harass someone on the subway home that night. In that regard, we have a hard time "getting" a set list. It feels too removed from the ever-evolving present. And there's certainly something genuine to that, which I feel is conveyed. I think we'd both go insane if we had to beat the same dead horse into the ground for weeks on end and it would certainly lose its convictions on stage.

 

What do the two of your do for day jobs?

Millrod: We're both work jerks at ad agencies. I swear that it's not as nefarious as most people believe. We work so that we can make heavy jams. There's not much more to say about it.

DeRosa: We both work in the advertising industry, specifically in the digital realm. Seconding Josh's "I swear that it's not as nefarious as most people believe. We work so that we can make heavy jams." I will add that I'm 100 percent confident saying you've seen or interacted with both of our work without knowing it. We'll leave it at that.

What are the biggest misconceptions the general public has about advertising work and the advertising world generally?

Millrod: I'd say that the biggest misconception is that we are bad people trying to dupe people. Without going too deep, there's a movement within advertising that's been spurred by digital and social media to completely re-evaluate what ads are and how they function. People can completely ignore standard ads, so we spend more time thinking about creating value and utility. Stuff that people want, rather than more clutter. Also, Mad Men is really not an accurate portrait of how things work at real agencies.

Noise bands are kind of like that, too: creating value and utility for people whose idea of dinner music is more Michael Gira than Lady Gaga.

Millrod: We definitely approach it that way. We want to take people to weird worlds. My favorite shows are the ones largely made up of non-noisers who have no frame of reference for what we do. They can't do anything other than take it in, since they don't even know what good or bad is for a not-quite-jazz, not-quite-noise, definitely-not-rock-trumpet duo.

We played this one psych rock show in Amherst, Massachussetts, where everyone had come for this pretty tame "psych-rock" band that played before us. Right as we started playing, they all started freaking out and the lights went out. Things got crazy and afterward we found out all of these college kids had done acid during the other band and we had broken their brains. Those kinds of shows and the ones where random people come in off the street because they see a bunch of people going to a "party" are my favorites. I live for giving people that first glimpse into strangeness.

Grasshopper perform at Secret Project Robot as part of the Ende Tymes Festival on Saturday, May 20.

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