Greg Fox, drummer extraordinaire for the sonic-spiritualist psychers Guardian Alien, is chowing down on grub at Cong Ly on Hester Street, and with the exception of a small dose of displeasure regarding the econo cuisine (“Weird. I feel like they used different noodles today or something”), the vibes emanating from him are truly copacetic.
Guardian Alien—the band Fox anchors with Liturgy guitarist Bernard Gann, vocalist/synthtress Alex Drewchin, shahai baaja-ist Turner Williams Jr. and bassist Eli Winograd—just released See the World Given to a One Love Entity (Thrill Jockey), a 40-minute Herculean composition bursting with rapturous skronk chaos, righteously percussive pulverization, soothing angelic voices and gorgeous synth swells from the otherworld. The album is up there with Black Dice’s 2002 apotheosis Beaches and Canyons in the annals of mind-frying spiritual sound deconstruction.
Fox’s forever grateful and positive aura manifests itself in multiple ways: on the epic See the World…, in the meditation practices that helped spawn the record, and in his deep association with Kid Millions in Man Forever. Sound of the City sat down with Fox to talk Guardian, meditation, Liturgy, peace and love, and how his parents were stoked on his being named “best drummer in New York” by the Voice—although in true Fox fashion, he happily demurred, giving that honor to his percussionist peers.
I saw you playing with Man Forever recently at Issue Project Room.
That was such a good show; it felt amazing. I love doing Man Forever. I did one tour way back; it was short, it was like two or three shows and it was when everybody was playing full kit. When I started doing MF, it was this piece where everybody was playing a drum set, so there were six or seven drum sets on stage.
Do you prefer that setup more than now?
No, actually. I like the current one a little better, even though that one was a lot more physical. I find that when I do this [version of Man Forever], it’s objectively some of the best exercise I ever get, regarding both drumming and also internal, meditation-related practices. I find I’m able to adapt whatever different practices I’ve been doing, and apply them while we’re playing the music. In Man Forever I’m focusing deeply on my hands and my feet, and that focus allows for marked improvement, which I notice after almost every performance. It has helped me to realize certain aspects of technique because of the repetition and focus. I don’t usually practice drumming that way on my own, so it allows me to realize things about what my hands do or don’t do right, and make corrections.
You look like you are totally in a zone when playing a Man Forever show.
I love it. I absolutely love it. Those guys—Kid and the people that he invites to do it, their approach to playing music and being musicians, I really respect, so I feel like I learn a lot from them.
What came first: Man Forever or Guardian Alien?
I think I was doing Guardian Alien shows before I did my first Man Forever show, but to be honest I can’t remember. Guardian started off basically just being me inviting different people to play when I’d get booked to do my solo stuff (GDFX).
In the Voice‘s oral history of Man Forever with Kid, you spoke about being at the Boredoms’ Boadrum show and sitting near Kid and how that changed your trajectory completely.
The Boredoms’ 777 Boadrum blew my mind, and I was sitting directly behind Kid during the performance. That show was major, because all I ever wanted was to be a musician. I grew up in New York City, so I’d been exposed to all these people and this music. To find myself years later playing in their company, it’s just super affirming. Imagine anything you ever wanted to do and people you look up to who do that patting you on your back and being like “Word. Hang with us.”
Was Guardian Alien getting on Thrill Jockey because of your association with Man Forever?
I think that had something to do with that and also definitely the Liturgy record—that came out on Thrill Jockey, too. I got to know the [Thrill Jockey] folks mainly because we did the Liturgy record with them. But I also have a lot of friends and acquaintances who have been on that label for a minute, like Dustin Wong, Future Islands, Zomes, Double Dagger… it just always seemed to me a friendly label to work with.
Is the meditation you are involved in reflected in what you do in both Guardian Alien and Man Forever?
I think they definitely inform each other. I’d resist to being too overt about my meditation or related practice in an interview… I’m open to talking about it, and it’s something I take a lot of pleasure in and get a lot out of. But I’m wary of sounding off about it.
With Man Forever and Guardian Alien, there is, for lack of a better word, a “hippie” type of aura that seems to be exuded in the music and philosophy.
You know, I think I’ve resisted that term for a while. I mean, I guess I accept that. There are definitely shared aspects… with Man Forever and Guardian, there’s a similarity of personality, I think, to a certain degree. I think it’s a certain quality of musicianship: being laid back, having excitement about playing, and taking joy in the music and the performance.
So it’s devoid of pretentiousness, basically.
It’s just about remembering how awesome it is to be a musician, and reveling in the kinship we share as musicians. All the folks who play in Man Forever exude that so strongly.
I noticed that when I was at the Man Forever show at Issue Project Room recently. I’ve seen the MF ensemble gathering and hugging each other before and after a show.
Yeah, man, we like, love each other, you know… This brings up something I’ve been thinking about related to this Hippie thing. I think it was a major success of “The Man” or however you say to make hippies and peace, love etc. have negative connotations somehow. How that could become something to cringe at, where did that happen? I don’t know.
Was there any kind of that stuff in Liturgy?
What kind of stuff?
Togetherness? Good feelings?
Uh… I think there was, sometimes…
The cover of the Guardian record was drawn by…
And it extends somewhat on that hippie kind of vibe.
It’s definitely psychedelic. I mean, it’s blatantly a painting of a Rastafarian Grey, holding the record, with the Droste effect going on…animals, the sun and moon… and so on. “Hippie vibe” might be an understatement…
And the painting is based on an experience you had?
Yeah, it is. When Liturgy was on tour in Europe—I think it might have been the second tour of Europe we did, I’m not sure. It happened while were in the van, when we were driving I would sit in the back of the van and meditate, basically sort of turning off, you know, different circuits of sensory input, one at a time…tuning some things out.
You’re able to do that while traveling in a van with a band?
Yeah. It just involves breathing and counting the breaths and getting to a point where the only thing you are aware of is the breath. I’ve been doing it for a long time; the longer you do it the easier it is to “drop in”, so to speak…
So I was doing this in the van regularly, to kill time and calm my nerves or whatever. On that tour I started having these experiences while in meditation that I had not had before, where different folks would come and talk to me and take me to places, show me things, etc. It just kept happening, in different ways, with different things coming to me, always super strange and unexpected. The one that stuck out most in my mind was when we were driving to Belgium, I don’t remember where from…
What year was this?
I’m not positive. I tried to figure that out the other day. I think 2010. Guardian Alien had already started in some way, but it was still very un-established. I was meditating this particular time and found myself in a field. As has happened in dreams that I’ve had, a totally stereotypical UFO, spaceship, flying saucer or what have you, with flashing lights and everything—flew into view and landed on the edge of this hill and, you know, like in The Day The Earth Stood Still. The doors opened and I saw somebody get out of the ship. I was sitting in this field and this whoever, person, this being, I don’t know what, is walking towards me. As it gets closer, I can see it’s the textbook alien… gray, you know, like X-Files or whatever dude, with the big eyes and everything. But he’s wearing a fucking yellow Adidas track suit, he has dreadlocks and a Rasta cap and he’s carrying a guitar over his shoulder. So he walks up to me and he’s like “Hey Greg. What’s up?” It’s very familiar, like he’s my older brother or something, [then he says] “I brought you the new Guardian Alien record. Here it is.” And he straight up hands me the record—with the words up, the back cover up—and it says the title of the record: “See The World Given To A One Love Entity.” I’m like, that’s a killer album title. Then I flip [the record] over and it’s him handing me the record. And that was it, and then he’s like “All right. Cool. I just came here to bring you that. See ya later.” And he went away, and I opened my eyes and was back in the van. Then I had the “holy shit” moment. I immediately wrote it all down, everything that happened, starting with the album title.
(The interview is kindly interrupted by a tourist.)
Tourist: My daughter is wondering… what is this t-shirt?
Oh, well. Do you know Daniel Johnston? Daniel Johnston is a musician and my friend has a band and they are making fun of a Daniel Johnston shirt. Daniel Johnston’s shirt says “Hi. How are you?” and this one says “How High Are You?” They’re called Bad Drugs, with Kyle Reynolds, the drummer from Cacaw. They’re rad.
Anyway, back to the story behind the cover of the record.
That’s a weird story to tell because, for me, it’s such an intense experience and when I try to relate it to people, many people are like “So you were dreaming and you fell asleep while you were meditating.” I definitely wasn’t asleep when it happened, I was fully aware that I was sitting in the van, but I was also in the field, having this interaction. That’s the thing: different people have different takes on these kinds of recounting and react very differently to it. Some people take it seriously, some people scoff at it. A psychic told me that it was one of my spirit guides appearing in the form of a Rasta alien. I mean, a straight up alien is kind of scary, but not when it’s wearing an Adidas track suit and carrying a gig bag. I’m happy not to decide what happened and just accept it holistically.
When you do look at the cover and read the title, there is a spiritual vibe to it. Do you write all the lyrics?
What’s published in the jacket is some of what I wrote. But then in the actual lyrics that Alex sings, it’s slightly different. Alex had the words I wrote and used them as a jumping off point, which is kind of how Guardian Alien works, in general. People get a sort of basic, couple of pieces of information, some guidelines, and then they take that and go with it.
Even in the lyrics, there’s literally, I think a like a line somewhere along the lines of “Peace, love, compassion throughout the universe… something along those lines. I think it’s interesting, and here’s that thing, that somehow if you say, like, “Peace and Love,” somehow there’s a negative connotation in there, or people can pick up on that and can brand that as being “hippie”, and that’s something to shun. I don’t exactly know where that comes from, because there’s absolutely no sense to it… if you pull it out, peace and love, it’s what everybody wants. Maybe not fascists, but fuck them anyway. But somehow, if I say “peace, love and happiness” and I go like this (giving the peace sign), some people will respond negatively, as a knee-jerk reaction. Some aspect of our culture is teaching this by example, and I’m definitely curious about that.
You must be stoked about the record.
I’m happy that it’s out. I’ve had this big vision and I’m taking hold of it. It’s a real thing and my friends helped me make it a real thing. I’m so psyched about that, I’ve gotten positive feedback from other people about the music, the art and the whole thing. My mom likes it, and usually I think my music is a little to out there for her liking. I’m psyched about that. I’m really curious to see that if somebody doesn’t like it, I want to hear what they don’t like about it.
A music critic or a regular listener?
Anybody. I’m open to people not liking it. I think the thing somebody would attack about it might be that vibe we were talking about—that “hippie thing.” I can see somebody being like “Oh, they’re doing this quasi-spiritual, hippie thing or whatever” or “You’ll only like this if you like smoking tons of weed.” It’s definitely good to get some criticism, whether it says something about you and your work, or about the critic.
Have you ever gotten pushback or negativity from your meditation practices?
Generally, I think it’s best not to talk about it and just have it be personal. It is pertinent as far as talking about where the record art came from and how it relates to playing in Man Forever, and the certain headspace that Guardian Alien works with. As far as my personal practice and my esoteric interests go, I’m happy to talk about them to anybody who wants to talk about it.
However, it sounds like meditation plays a major part in the music you’re making.
It plays a major part in my life. I get a lot of creative inspiration from that world and it makes me feel good…
Meditation seems to be who you are, so to speak.
It is in some sense. I’m interested in cultivating myself as a musician and as a person, and my practice, meditation and otherwise, play a part of that. It feeds the music and it feeds my thinking. It’s part of the give and take. To go back to what you were saying, as far as people’s reaction to that, I haven’t really gotten a lot of negative reaction to my general way. I get along pretty well with most people. Even when I was in Liturgy and we would play all these metal shows and festivals, those folks weren’t like “Hey, get out of here, you hippie,” or something like that. Most people just respond positively.
In Liturgy, you weren’t the focus. In Guardian Alien, you are sorta more under the microscope as somewhat of the main dude. People seem to think of it as your band.
What Guardian Alien is about for me is being able to express myself and make music from a place of intention that’s based on my interests. It allows me to be in a space where I can have an alien vision or whatever and make it the piece. I see it from a more jazz perspective, where this is my ensemble and other folks help me realize my ideas, and in other situations I play in other folks’ ensembles, where it is about their ideas that I help bring to fruition.
People seem to get the impression that Guardian Alien is your vision and not an actual “band” situation.
There’s definitely a lot of give and take of ideas. Ultimately, it’s accepted amongst the collaborators that I’m trusting my musical intuition, and they are supporting that and helping me realize that, but we all talk about things, about trying different things or doing things, and I think a lot of the sentiment and intention are very much shared, and I feel strongly about everyone involved being psyched about what is going on.
Do you write everything for Guardian?
I arrange things. So with the record that we did, it wasn’t really an improvisation, there were certain events that happened and then there were certain guidelines to follow between those events. I don’t write all that stuff but I think I am arranging it and kinda riding it along, making adjustments, overseeing the feedback loop amongst the players.
Was any of the 40-minute piece improvised?
Oh, yeah. I didn’t like write what Turner plays on the shahai baaja or what Bernard plays on the guitar or the way Alex’s melodies are or the way she took the lyrics I wrote and added different things and changed some of it around. There are basic rules: this is what I’m gonna do for this part, this is what the feel should be and this is the note language for you to play or for this part use this texture more. But then once that information is given, other things happen based on what those people do with it. And they are not writing parts so much as discovering things and revisiting those discoveries.
Was your vision one 40-minute composition?
I don’t know; it just happened.
It kinda resembles Man Forever’s Pansophical Cataract—not musically but in a spiritual sense.
Kid’s confidence in doing that that way, I think that I was definitely influenced by that. The thought process was basically, “Well, this seems like the piece is 40 minutes long, let’s just play it so that we can record it for two sides of a record.” That is what actually solidified See The World Given To A One Love Entity. So now we have this piece of music that we are getting better and better at playing.
Did you cringe when the Voice called you “the best drummer in New York”?
Yeah. I don’t know who they’re talking about, but it’s definitely not me. That was a funny thing. First of all, I’m not the best drummer in New York by any means, by any stretch of the imagination. I think, if anything, it was a test. “Here ya go. You’re the best drummer in New York.” Dude, no way. Absolutely not true. You have to drop that immediately, if you start believing something like that then you’re finished. It was also weird because my folks started introducing me to their friends [saying] “He’s the best drummer in New York!”
It’s cool that your folks were psyched about it.
You know what? I have to say that was one of the cool things about it, for my family. They were very psyched.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from New York City. I grew up here. It’s definitely cool for my family because for them, anytime I get press, it validates the life choices that I’ve made. I think they were pretty worried [about me] for a while there.
What went into recording See The World Given To A One Love Entity? I would think recording one 40-minute piece would be quite the undertaking.
We did it at Shea Stadium, during the day. My cousin Adam Reich started Shea. It’s a real family establishment. Max Hodes recorded us. He also engineered the last theusaisamonster record. So, he brought all his mics and his recording rig to Shea and we just set up in the room and used couches as baffles. We recorded something like three hours-worth of material. We recorded these parts that we’d been doing and then while I was editing the shit, there would be things that would happen where I would just like take a big chunk of a recording and drag it on top of something else, things tended to fit together well and quickly. I didn’t have to a ton of fine tune editing because things happened with a lot of serendipity. It was more a matter of finding it than crafting it. So, yeah, I did the A side and the B side, played it and everybody was stoked on it, then we took it to Eli’s studio and Alex recorded her vocals there and I recorded throat singing, and then we were done, basically.
Would you have this Guardian Alien record if you were still the drummer in Liturgy?
Yeah, I don’t think that really would have had an effect on making the record or not… but I would say I would have a lot less mental energy to spend on it. I found Liturgy to be extremely draining on my psyche; physically it was awesome. It was so good physically. I was very energized by the playing. But I’ve felt, since leaving Liturgy, my ability to pursue my true interests and feel like I’m in the flow with things has heightened greatly.
Is pursuing your own interests the reason why you left Liturgy?
Generally speaking, yes, that is one of the reasons.
To focus on your own stuff?
To focus on my own stuff, to be more open, to be able to walk the path and feel good about myself and what I spend my time working on. I left because I had to—because I really had to.
So no regrets in leaving?
No. Bernard and I were playing music together years before Liturgy and I got a lot out of it then, and we still play music together and I get a lot out of it now. I definitely miss playing music with Tyler. He’s a killer player and one of my best friends, I miss hanging out with him all the time, even though in those days is was often under duress. The thing is, it was a heavy test. “Alright, you finally made it. Band is doing really well commercially. Top ten year-end lists all over the place. Major good press for you as a drummer.” But I had to step away. I really had to step away. If I didn’t [step away], I don’t know… Sometimes I think I should have left sooner. In weaker moments, sometimes I do regret it, yeah, when I hear about big shows they are playing or whatever, but the majority of the time I know better. It hasn’t even been a whole year since the last show I played with them.
That’s fucked up.
It is. It’s fucked up because especially now that the Guardian record comes out, now I feel like I’m getting asked about [Liturgy] a lot, and so now I’m reliving a lot of it now. I’m resisting the urge to say “Oh, I don’t want to talk about it.” It’s real and it happened. But it’s only been like…the last gig I played with Liturgy was in October [of 2011]. Guardian Alien is definitely something that I’ve given a lot of attention to since getting out of that band. I really love it and I’m really psyched about the record and really psyched about the people I’m playing music with. I’m also just elated about being open to doing all these different things: doing Man Forever, and I’ve been recording with a lot of different people on records that are gonna come out—a lot of cool stuff that I’m really excited about, collaborations that I can’t wait to get out of the gate with. I think as a musician in New York City, and definitely as a drummer, there exists the opportunity to play with all these different people, and the more different people you play with, the more well-rounded I think you become. I’m just interested in that: being a better player and being open.
Guardian Alien plays its album release show with Rhyton at Shea Stadium on Saturday.