Dave Shuford has been ingrained in the New York City soundscape for decades as part of the experimentalist collective mutants No Neck Blues Band, which ruled both downtown’s now-departed avant-garde roost The Cooler and their Harlem practice pad the Hint House.
In recent years, less activity on the NNCK front resulted in members splintering to form or join likeminded improv shape-shifters such as Excepter, Test and White Out. But Shuford has arguably been the eclectic dynamo of the lot, exploring Greek music (in his D. Charles Speer guise) and folksy twang-heavy outlaw country (in D. Charles Speer and the Helix). Now he’s emerged from a smoky haze to form Rhyton, his epically trippy, all-instrumental psychedelia-heavy jamz group with bassist Jimy SeiTang (formerly of Psychic Ills) and drummer Spencer Herbst. Rhyton’s slinky low end repetition, majestic guitar soloisms and noisy avant-noodling gives cred to the much maligned jam-band term and the five massive space-jazz improv tunes on the band’s eponymous LP are angelic, yet damaged freak outs.
Sound of the City spoke to Shuford to talk NNCK, the Speer and Rhyton.
Is No Neck done?
It’s still going on; it’s not just very active. One of the members [MICO] is Japanese, and ever since the earthquake last year she has spent a lot of time in Japan.
Is MICO okay?
Yeah, she’s okay, but her family was kind of from that area. So she’s just been spending time [there]. That sort of cramped our scheduling of a couple of attempted shows. That’s been one factor, and then also people [in the band] just have things going on. I think we’re gonna try to get a show together in the summertime. We’re still active as a releasing outfit because Pat [Murano] has been mixing new material we recorded a couple of years back, when we were on a European tour. The releasing part of the project has been in good shape recently; we just gotta get some live shows together. It’s been difficult because we lost our practice space a couple years ago and people are more scattered over the city so it wasn’t like we had another centralized location [to practice]. Things like that are the factors that have made us take a lower profile recently.
Was that the practice space in Harlem No Neck had for many years?
Yeah, we used to call it the Hint House.
How did you guys lose the space?
Columbia University owned the land after they bought it out from the previous owners and what they’re doing is making a secondary campus up in that area. They already tore down the building and it’s slated to be, a park bench or something, an outdoor area is like what they’re gonna transform it into. It was this eminent domain maneuver. Some of us—the artists up there and the music people—attended some of the community board meetings and we were trying to fight the situation. But Columbia had already bought everything and they could do whatever they want to at that point. I think they were gonna tear down some of the high rise housing projects and relocate people and that was a big controversy. So, we tried to fight it for a while but it was too far gone.
Besides that, everyone in No Neck seems to have tons of projects going on.
Yeah, that’s another thing. People have their own various interests and projects that take up a lot of time. Rarely is it like “Oh, there’s a No Neck Show and oh, we can’t do it because so and so is doing something else.” It’s not really scheduling problems; it’s when we try to do No Neck, we can’t all get it ready together.
Do you live up there?
I used to live up there. I live in Brooklyn now. I didn’t live at the practice space. I lived about three blocks and away and three avenues over.
How long was No Neck at the Hint House?
We had the place for probably eleven years—I think it was ’98 to 2009. I lived in Harlem for ten years.
What do you recall about No Neck and playing in New York back in the ’90s?
We played at The Cooler and CB’s Gallery, the thing next to CB’s itself. We used to do a lot of stuff at The Cooler as the free improvising ensemble when they had a jazz ensemble. We played a gig with Milford Graves at Tonic. How times have changed: we played another gig at Tonic that Animal Collective opened up for us. That was a long time ago. [Laughing]
How did you go from the spaces where No Neck would play to where D. Charles Speer and the Helix would play?
It’s little tricky with the Speer, because it’s such a radically different type of music than No Neck. It’s more traditional songwriting stuff, even though we sorta have open-ended, improvisational structures at the end of songs and stuff like that but usually that’s in a key and what not and in a tempo. Most of my connections were in a noise realm and it was a process of playing more regular rock clubs for a while and building up connections in that realm. It was fine for a while but it became a little odd to be playing all these shows with the Skaters and other bands that were like totally free form and we’d show up as a rock band. It was a little awkward but sometimes it felt great. We ended up playing whatever—a lot of gigs, just pickup gigs. We used to play Glasslands quite a bit when we could book a show there easily. Now they are more like, “We are a bigger industry type of space at this point.” No Neck had been playing a lot of our shows out in Brooklyn but then we did regular loft or DIY space gigs. It was a continuation of that with the Speer, but more and more gigs playing in Brooklyn instead of doing the Manhattan rat race. We play some occasional stuff [in the city]—Cake Shop, Mercury and spots like that. We don’t try to run the circuit too much in Manhattan.
What about going from No Neck’s free-improv experimentalism to Speer’s outlaw type country?
During No Neck when we had about four or five years where we were just completely we focused on free improv stuff and even if we had side projects, everybody was still in that bag—maybe it was a little more jazz influenced or electronic or something. But then me, Keith [Connolly], Jason [Meagher] and Dave Nuss [who was in and out of No Neck] all started playing in a band called The Suntanama, which was much more in the songwriting bag. It was Keith and a friend of his from high school, this guy Darren. And we were sorta in this ’70s sort of country rock type of stuff. But it didn’t really come out that way pretty much. It was more on the rock side. A lot of the things we were listening to were cutout records—hole-punch shit from the ’70s. My little joke about The Suntanama is that we did exactly what we wanted to do: we turned ourselves into an overlooked bargain-bin—because those records didn’t sell, and they went to the bargain bin. [Laughing]. Sort of a perfect historical resonance there. But that was sorta the beginning of my experience of playing with a more conventional sounding band in New York.
The Suntanama had a good label—we were on Drag City and we did some good gigs with Will Oldham’s brother Ned. We were doing stuff with Neil Hagerty every time he came to town and he produced the first record. That was an nice experience but then it got bogged down with sort of songwriting impasses and people doing their own thing and other people felt—not really squelched—but they wanted to have their own voice. So Jason split out and did his Coach Fingers project and I was beginning to conceive the Speer as a project, too. But really the Speer was just a home recording project simultaneous to playing in The Suntanama and No Neck. Then it was like “I’ve been doing [the Speer] for a couple years and it sounds pretty good and I almost have an album together, I just need a couple more and I’ll put a live band together.” It sort just went like that.
Did alt-country and the No Depression movements have any influence on you as the Speer?
It didn’t really impact my songwriting or listening that much at all. I was taking my cues from older, ’70s outlaw country like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson sorta stuff and older stuff like Bill Monroe, Charlie Poole and Jimmy Rodgers—a real country continuum, and going into a little bit of The Band sorta feeling country rock and the Flying Burrito Brothers sorta stuff. I never listened to Uncle Tupelo or Wilco. I wasn’t even exposed to that music much at all. But a lot of people say my singing sorta sounds like Dave Berman and that was another band I was oblivious to. I never listened to Silver Jews, really. I got probably more exposed to them once [The Suntanama] were on Drag City. I actually hung out with [Berman] one night and I then listened to some [Silver Jews] stuff online. We sort of kinda get lumped in with that since our music is not really indie rock and it’s not obviously modern country. So, it sort of of falls into the alt.country bin just by default but we don’t really think of ourselves that way. I think of ourselves as a sort of modern honkytonk band, more than anything.
Were you into outlaw country even during the ’90s No Neck period?
A little bit. That was probably more of exploring progressive rock from the ’70s and psych stuff but also classic bands like the Rolling Stones and Flaming Groovies. I bought a mandolin in about 1999 so I went crazy for Bill Monroe and that led me into a progression of Buck Owens in the 60’s and getting into Waylon and Willie in the 70’s. Since about 2000, I was in that listening habit. In the early days of No Neck, we were listening to more of Kraut rock and free jazz pretty nonstop and other weird art rock records and stuff like that—Destroy All Monsters, the Dead C, Shadow Ring, Harry Pussy.
What’s your take on playing country music in New York clubs and the reaction it sometimes gets?
It is an atypical sort of thing. There is a large Brooklyn country scene, but I also I feel like we don’t fit into that because we’re not like a revival or a culture offshoot. Our attitude and vibe is a lot different. But it is an unusual thing writing country music and lyrically. There are sort of rural narratives that fit traditionally. There is though a large listenership for it but it’s not like we built up a huge dearth of people to come see us. But this is a big city and there are subcultures for almost every type of music in New York so it’s kind of amazing for that.
How did you morph from the Speer’s country to Rhtyon’s psych jammage?
I feel like it was sort of a natural ebb and flow about things where my roots with No Neck were playing improvised music, playing a lot of sort of modal work and Eastern sounding scales. I had improved my knowledge of those sort of modalities through working on my Greek solo record over the last couple of years. I had developed that language a little further, and at the same time No Neck had been driven into less activity stages. We hadn’t toured as frequently in Europe like we had every year for a little while. So where previously I had the Speer as a valve into a more traditional thing away from No Neck, then I found myself dealing with mainly Speer activity.” I was like “I need to open it up again.” It was sort of a development. The structures (of Rhyton) are more traditional rock situations than a No Neck set. For me, it was returning to that feeling of openness and exploration and just really heavy listening between the band members and starting to create your own psychic, instant dialogue. It was time to let the freakiness out again in another form. I like to be a well rounded player and have different outlets for different moods and I wanted to expand the outlet again.
Are the songs on the Rhyton album all improvised?
Well, not really. Most of them are. The last song [“Shank Raids”] is tighter and you can tell there was something going on there. It’s mainly just the head arrangement: there’s a riff at the beginning and then we take the riff to a higher register and then it’s the layering of the effects and trying to carve out a development space through that. The other songs were basically like we had practiced them and we had a feeling for them in terms of we were just very loose. There wasn’t like we had a melody line or recurring theme. But in in the process of playing them in a studio, I feel like we were reaching a coherency that it takes almost an instant composition feeling rather than just like an improvisation that is just completely following a logic that doesn’t pull back on itself. I feel like (with Rhyton) there is a traditional sort of song development even though we are just making it up on the spot. There’s a build and a shifting resolve and I feel like a couple of the songs have a nice, natural flow like that.
When Rhyton plays live, do you have a set list or is it all improvised?
We have been doing just completely improvising up until when the record came out. Occasionally, we play “Shank Raids” at a gig and there are a couple of others we’d play around with sometimes. But mainly we were just going for it on the spot. Since the record came out, we had a couple of shows and we to try to connect with the listener a little more. We’ve tried to recreate “Stone Colored,” the first thing we did the video for. I just thought it would be good for the listener to give them something they’re familiar with and give them a lot of exploration for the other half of the set.
How did you hook up with the other band members in Rhyton, like Jimy SeiTang [ex-Psychic Ills] and Spencer Herbst?
Spencer [the drummer] used to practice with his old band Matta Llama at the Hint House every Sunday night forever, for like eight years or so. I knew Spencer from downtown, too. He used to live with a guy I ended up living with, this guy Bryan, who now runs Mast Books on Avenue A. He used to live on 13th Street—that was like middle ’90s. But we never really played in a band together. The bass player, Jimy, wasn’t playing in Psychic Ills anymore so he was looking for an outlet. Spencer was like “I don’t have a band to play drums with,” and Jimy hadn’t played bass in a while. So, basically it was like “Oh, we could have an awesome like ethnic, world rock power trio if we wanted to.” It started out as just idle talk then we turned it over into an actual project so that was a nice development.
Do you mind not having to sing in Rhyton like you do in the Speer?
I do some vocals but they’re very processed, through this delay oscillator so it’s much more like a robot sort of feeling. It’s not lyrically driven, that’s for sure. [laughing] It’s a sound vocally instead of a lyric project. I’m happy to have sort of a non-verbal singing approach with it. I also am just concentrating on the instrumentality. I used to do some vocals in No Neck occasionally but it wasn’t my main focus, for sure. It was really intensive listening and trying to carve out something together.
Rhyton, “Stone Colored”
Do you look at the Speer as your commercial band and Rhyton as your experimental project?
Some people can think of it that way, but probably both are equally commercially successful and neither one isn’t really tearing up the charts. But the Rhtyon [record] has actually sold pretty well. I certainly didn’t think of the Speer as like “Oh, I’ve been playing all this improvised music for years and now maybe I can make some money off of it.” I never thought of it as a cash cow or an attempt at being more commercial. It is more digestible because of the situation. But for me, I wasn’t thinking of it as a way to be more accessible; I was just thinking of it as I have this compulsion where I want to write some songs for whatever reason. The Speer is in a good position. I think we’ve worked hard just to get on a good label and been opening up for some larger bands. But I don’t think of [the Speer] as commercial thrust. [Laughing] We’re just trying to make music the best we can, which is in a different form.
Do you have to be in a different mind-set when playing with Rhyton as opposed to the Speer?
It’s a little bit of a different mind-set. I feel like there’s a slightly different attitude… no, not really, the attitude is pretty similar. It’s pretty stark and a cynical outlook on the world. You get it more in the lyrical part of the Speer and you get it more in the vibe of Rhtyon, which has more of a starkness, I think. The feeling of being in Rhyton is a little more serious, whatever that means, sort of a grave issue at hand. The Speer is a little bit more like a good time experience, kicking back, drinking some and letting the boogie happen. We still take it seriously, though.
Since you already had a relationship with Thrill Jockey being in the Speer, was Rhyton an automatic that they would put out the record?
It certainly wasn’t automatic. We asked around a little bit with some people and asked the question amongst ourselves “Who would be good?” Then I was just thinking there was a natural connection to that formula of the Greek solo record I had put out with [Thrill Jockey] last year. It felt like [Rhyton] was an outgrowth from that material. I was practicing a song that was on the solo record with the band at the beginning just to have material to work on. So, there was an aesthetic connection for me. Then Thrill Jockey has been doing a lot of smaller, vinyl-only releases. S, I was like, “We want it to be on vinyl so we should just try to do it with them.” The label actually talked us into doing a tiny CD edition just to have extra stuff to sell. The CD came out nice, with slightly different artwork and stuff. Once I took the tape to Bettina [Richards] at Thrill Jockey, it was very natural and the good experience I’ve always had with them.
Rhyton plays Death by Audio with Arbouretum and PG Six on Saturday.