A Revealing Look At Moraine's Dennis Rea

Posted September 27, 2011

Interviewed by Michel Delville (Foreword below by John M.)

Ever the creative mind, MoonJune's Leonardo Pavkovic had the cerebral wheels cranking while brainstorming about how to promote the upcoming MoonJune Records' releases of Moraine's long-awaited follow up to their well-received first album, 2009's manifest deNsity (MJR028), and the initial offering from guitarist extraordinaire Michel Delville's new trio, Machine Mass Trio.

Considering the fact that Michel and Moraine's Dennis Rea are both published authors, accomplished guitarists, and brilliant, scholarly individuals, why not have them interview one another?

Needless to say, it was a great idea.

Having made the acquaintance of both of these fine gentlemen (indeed, a privilege and an honor), I was looking forward -- very much -- to reading both interviews. I had read a previous interview with Dennis in which he touched upon his experiences in Asia, and found myself even more intrigued after listening to his recent solo debut for MJR -- last year's brilliant and ambitious Views from Chicheng Precipice (MJR034). Knowing, also, the recent changes in personnel for Moraine, I knew there would be much to talk about.

Being a fellow guitarist, myself, I surmised that there would be some very insightful questions posed by Mr. Delville -- questions born from a perspective that, undoubtedly, the average interviewing journalist could never possibly attain. Perhaps I'm a bit strange (or maybe I just don't get out enough), but I had been eagerly anticipating this interview since LP first proposed it.

Being familiar with the depth of intellect of Dennis, but also his humble spirit, I knew that there would be some intriguing, articulate answers to the questions posed.

Not unlike both gentlemen's playing style, the interview has twists and turns you never anticipate but ultimately leaves you both satisifed and still wanting more. Kudos to both Dennis and Michel, for another fine performance!

In the very near future, this website will be publishing Dennis' interview of Michel. It, too, has the makings of being a real gem. Indeed, for "MonnJunistas" there is much at present to savor -- but also much to look forward to!!

And now, without further ado ...

Image: Dennis Rea, of Moraine
  Dennis Rea

Q: Your compositions are more often than not highly-structured and yet the need to preserve and boost their expressive, lyrical and “atmospheric” potential is never neglected. This is quite unusual in a scene which often seems dominated by cold, cerebral neo-fusion-jazz-rock or symph prog models. How do you combine the methodological necessities of composition with the urge to abandon yourself to the joys of improvisation?

I’ve always been a ‘bipolar’ musician in that I find through-composed music as satisfying as unfettered improvisation. For the most part I pursue these two interests separately, though I always allow room for improvisation even in my most tightly arranged works. Moraine, for example, combines rigorously composed ensemble passages with ample stretches of individual and group improvisation, which I suppose tilts us closer to jazz than your typical prog-rock band.

Unlike many latter-day fusioneers, the more technocratic of the progsters, and other purveyors of what I call ‘sports music,’ I’m not interested in technique for its own sake but only as a means to express musical, rather than mechanical, ideas. Some musicians – and this is where I have a bit of a problem with bebop, heavy metal, and much jazz-rock fusion – seem to view music-making more as a competitive athletic contest, and a lot of their music sounds to me like etudes on steroids. The whole “Guitar Hero” phenomenon is the perfect embodiment of this mindset. Speed is certainly a useful asset when deployed judiciously in the service of the music, but there are tradeoffs in terms of tone and expressivity. I’d much rather listen to a thoughtful guitarist who can make notes ‘sing,’ such as Terje Rypdal or David Gilmour, than guys who can play a million notes a minute, what I call ‘diarrhea of the guitar.’

I’m much more drawn to music that is cooperative rather than competitive – no ‘cutting contests’ for me – and the music must have emotional as well as intellectual depth. Among the qualities I strive to achieve in Moraine and other projects are beauty, warmth, and open-heartedness, hence the lyricism you identified, which I realize is rather unfashionable in ‘avant’ circles. While Moraine does have its manic and abrasive numbers, they’re always offset by our more tuneful pieces.

Outside of Moraine, I often exercise my improvisational proclivities in free-improv sessions with all manner of instrumentalists; we’re fortunate to have a large pool of very intuitive and accomplished improvisers here in Seattle. The results can range from a sort of freebop to noise and atmospherics, which is the whole point of free improvisation – the music can go anywhere.

Q: “Views from Chicheng Precipice” is a very unlikely and totally unexpected record, to say the least! How did it come about and, more generally, what is the influence of world music on your work? I’d also like you to comment on your experience of Chinese and Taiwanese culture and the “musical activism” documented in your book Live at the Forbidden City.

Together with my book, Views from Chicheng Precipice is the natural outcome of the four-plus years I spent living, traveling, and playing music in China and Taiwan in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. I relocated to China’s Sichuan Province in 1989 to join my then fiancée (now wife) Anne Joiner, a China Studies graduate who had accepted a teaching position in the provincial capital of Chengdu in order to immerse herself in the culture. I had no particular interest in China at the time but felt it would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to broaden my worldview, so I gladly took up the teaching gig Anne arranged for me.

My one reservation at the time was that it would likely be an interruption of my musical activities, as it seemed very unlikely that there would be opportunities for me to perform the types of instrumental music I favor in that famously repressive and authoritarian country. But in this I was happily mistaken, as I found myself drawn into a series of increasingly surreal performance situations: playing in sports arenas with a Chinese pop icon; appearing on TV and radio broadcasts viewed or heard by hundreds of millions of people; recording a solo album for state-owned China Records that sold a surprising 40,000 copies; and, collaborating with some of the most pivotal figures in the nascent Chinese rock insurgency. Along the way it was my great privilege to give numerous Chinese listeners their first taste of modern jazz, adventurous rock, and other types of creative music to which they hadn’t previously been exposed.

From there, Anne and I went on to live across the Formosa Strait in Taiwan for three years, which was a study in contrasts between the two poles of contemporary Chinese culture. I formed a series of wildly eclectic progressive rock bands during those years and later toured mainland China three times with various aggregates of international musicians. These tours were some of the earliest ever undertaken in China by progressive Western musicians. All of these adventures are recounted in detail in Live at the Forbidden City.

During my stay in China and Taiwan I became deeply enamored of the traditional music of the Chinese and of neighboring East Asian countries. By trial and error I managed to assemble a respectable collection of traditional instrumental recordings and endeavored to adapt some of the pieces for electric guitar, partly as a challenge to myself and partly as a gesture of respect for my host culture. This proved to be an effective icebreaker with audiences and ‘softened them up’ for the unfamiliar material that followed. Over time the idea of creating a more fully realized ‘tribute’ to this music took shape, and eventually resulted in Views from Chicheng Precipice. It was not my intention to pay reverent homage to my sources but rather to bring my own musical and philosophical sensibilities to bear on the source material without resorting to cheap ‘East-West fusion’ gimmicks. The CD is easily the most ambitious and elaborate recording project I’ve undertaken to date.

(Spacer)Picture: Marcello Giannini, of Slivovitz
Dennis and Identity Crisis, in Beijing, 1991 -- performing with the father of Chinese rock, Cui Jian.

Q: In the sarcastically-named Iron Kim Style, the general sense of cohesiveness is so strong and the transitions so smooth that one finds it hard to believe that it’s an improvised recording. The MoonJune blurb cites “Olivier Messiaen, electric-period Miles Davis, Terje Rypdal, John Abercrombie, heavy rock, and North Korean martial music” as potential or real influences. According to my online dictionary, the word moraine refers to “an accumulation of boulders, stones, or other debris carried and deposited by a glacier” – is this an apt metaphor for your eclectic, maximalist aesthetics? And to what extent does it also reflect your interest in the materiality of sound?

I do think that, in its original meaning, the term ‘moraine’ aptly characterizes my musical output, in the sense that my music is ultimately an accretion of all the music that has deeply inspired and influenced me over my lifetime. But the name wasn’t chosen consciously for that reason. Ruth Davidson suggested it for reasons unknown to me, and I immediately embraced it because I have a keen interest in geology and am a bit of a mountaineer, and because it’s relevant to the Pacific Northwest region where we live, which contains roughly 90 percent of the glaciers found in the U.S. south of Canada.

In general, my greatest non-musical inspiration is the natural world – landscapes, topography, wildlife, etc. – and that surely surfaces in my music, though I don’t intentionally try to evoke those things through programmatic or impressionistic means.

By the way, the citation of ‘North Korean martial music’ as an influence on Iron Kim was a gag. Amazingly, some reviewers actually took it seriously.

Q: Moraine is perhaps the MoonJune band that I feel the closest to. Your compositions and arrangements are always very impressive in their complexity and diversity. Despite the aforementioned influences, your music seems to defy genre-categorization -- even within the realm of prog and avant-rock. This being said, are there any “schools” of progressive rock which you feel had a significant impact on your compositions? ... I am thinking not only of the (post-) Canterbury Scene – which MoonJune has been promoting for the last decade – but also of chamber rock and RIO-affiliated bands such as Univers Zero or the Thinking Plague -- whose penchant for complex, contrapuntal, repetition-with-variation compositional models can sometimes be heard in Moraine’s music, especially in Ruth Davidson’s compositions.

The whole debate about whether Moraine is or isn’t a prog-rock band has been a source of endless amusement for us. Prior to releasing Manifest Density, we never considered our music to be progressive rock; that label was only applied by reviewers after the fact. Of the five band members, I’m the only one who has a background in progressive rock; most of the others have little familiarity with the genre. I’d just say that Moraine is simply a wide-ranging instrumental rock band informed by modern jazz, world (particularly East Asian) music, and experimental music. Stylistically and philosophically, I’d place us closer to the Downtown NYC/Brooklyn avant-jazz-rock camp.

As the only prog-rock partisan in Moraine, my abiding influences in that genre are Crimson (especially Lizard), Soft Machine, Gentle Giant, Henry Cow, and a few others, though their impact may not be very apparent in my music. The German kosmische musik scene of the ‘70s is also an important reference point. A number of reviewers have likened us to the so-called Canterbury bands, but I don’t really see the connection, apart from a general propensity for tunefulness. Of all the Canterbury groups, I was most taken with Soft Machine and Matching Mole, but I don’t hear much if any commonality between Moraine and those two groups. I never really clicked with other Canterbury artists like National Health and Caravan, though I respect and admire their musicianship. As for RIO, the aforementioned Henry Cow were definitely an influence, and I’ve long been an enthusiast of Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, and other fellow travelers, though I never set out consciously to emulate them. But Univers Zero are certainly an inspiration to Ruth Davidson and to our bassist Kevin Millard, who’s also very keen on Present.

Personally, I’m at least as influenced, if not more, by Mahavishnu-era fusion, the entire ECM catalogue, and experimental classical music à la Ligeti than I am by progressive rock.

Another thing that distances Moraine from prog-rock orthodoxy is the brevity of most of our pieces – many of our tunes are a mere 4-5 minutes long, albeit packed with detail. We’ve actually been scolded by some reviewers for this, as though composing labyrinthine, epic-length suites were some kind of measure of musical manhood. My attitude is, say what you have to say and then get on with it. Listeners devote less and less time to music in this age of attention deficit anyway, so you might as well make your point before their focus wanders.

I do feel a special kinship with many of the artists on the MoonJune roster, and of course with Leonardo, himself. We all obviously share a lot of the same musical sensibilities, influences, and priorities, as well as a resistance to degrading commercialization. I couldn’t have found a better home for my music, and I’m extremely proud to find myself in the company of such inspiring artists as yourself, Tohpati, Boris Savoldelli, Slivovitz, and all the others. In his inimitable way, Leonardo has created a sort of ecosystem where we all can thrive.

Q: The combined sounds of the guitar, the violin and the cello create a very interesting palette of “colors” which, to me, is partly responsible for the idiosyncratic sound of Moraine. Why did you decide to include three strings instruments in the line-up? Is it a deliberate choice or did you just happen to find the right musicians to play your music, regardless of the instruments they play?

Moraine actually began as a casual improvising duo between me and Ruth Davidson. At first Ruth played guitar, but when I learned that she was also an accomplished cellist, I thought it would be interesting to explore that combination. We had no agenda initially beyond just playing informally. Eventually I foisted some of my compositions on Ruth, she contributed some of her own, and the focus gradually shifted to composed pieces leavened with improvisation. Over time we brought in other players to bring out the full potential of the material, beginning with violinist Alicia DeJoie, with whom I’d previously worked in singer-songwriter Eric Apoe’s band. I not only loved Alicia’s playing but wanted to investigate the possibilities of an all-strings configuration, hence the ‘string quartet plus drums’ lineup represented on Manifest Density.

  Image: MonnJune Records' recording artists, Iron Kim Style
Publicity Photo of the North Korean martial-musically-influenced MoonJune Records' artists, Iron Kim Style

A couple of years into the project, both Ruth and drummer Jay Jaskot relocated to the East Coast to pursue other aims. We considered replacing Ruth with another cellist but weren’t aware of another in Seattle who had the desired sensibility, so we brought Alicia’s husband, the phenomenal saxophonist James DeJoie, on board instead. It was an ideal fit, since Jim was already intimate with our repertoire and highly motivated. He also ups the sonic ante through his inspired use of electronic processing on his woodwind instruments, and has contributed some dynamite compositions. Our current drummer, Stephen Cavit (also an award-winning film composer), also proved to be a perfect match -- bringing a more structural approach to our tightly arranged songbook than the more free-flowing Mr. Jaskot.

The lineup change has made a huge difference in Moraine’s sound, and those who’ve only heard Manifest Density are in for a big surprise when they hear our new release Metamorphic Rock: Live at NEARfest. With all due respect to the original lineup, the new configuration has taken Moraine to a different plane. I couldn’t be happier with the band and the new record. Equally important, we’re all close friends and get on extremely well with one another, which I feel is essential for a successful musical collaboration.

Q: Manifest Density is a neo-prog CD of the highest order. In an ideal world, it would be hailed as an instrumental prog classic by the mainstream music press. (Of course, in an "ideal world", the established music press would have an interest in progressive music…) Instrumental music is notoriously hard to sell in most rock venues. Have you ever been tempted to use vocals in one of your projects?

Not only have I been involved in projects with vocals, but sometimes I was the singer! ;) I’ve been in a few bands that used vocals down the years, but about 95 percent of my musical output has been instrumental, which is my preference.

I sang in my earliest high-school bands and in a couple of outfits in China and Taiwan, where I was safely out of earshot of English-speaking listeners. I actually wasn’t half-bad in a sort of understated, Chet Bakerish way, but the ravages of time have decimated my throat and range, so it’s not likely to happen again.

You’re absolutely correct that it’s a steep challenge trying to interest people in music without vocals. For most people, singing is music, so I take full responsibility for eliminating most of my potential audience with my decision to concentrate on instrumental music. This is no doubt the main reason why I’m still supporting myself with a day job.

Some people have jumped to the conclusion that since I make exclusively instrumental music (with the exception of the decidedly avant-garde vocalizing on one track on Views), I don’t like vocal music, but that’s definitely not the case. My problem is more with the content of most vocal music than the actual singing. What irks me about most singer-songwriters today is that (1) they pay too little attention to the instrumental accompaniment and are content to endlessly recycle banal, shopworn chord progressions, and (2) most of their lyrics revolve around a single subject: ‘me.’ I’m so weary of all these singers whingeing self-pityingly about their messed-up relationships and other conditions that are universal ... tell me something I don’t already know, pal. That’s why I’ve always gravitated toward vocalists who explore imaginative and provocative themes and whose music is as compelling as their singing and words, such as Annette Peacock, Scott Walker, Robert Wyatt, Milton Nascimento, Norma Winstone, Nick Drake…

Q: Can you say a few words about your collaboration with the late Hector Zazou on Strong Currents?

Through much of the 1990s I played in a Seattle-based group called LAND led by electronic musician and composer Jeff Greinke. The final incarnation of the group included Bill Rieflin, an outstanding drummer and all-around musician who’s worked with the likes of Robert Fripp, REM, Ministry, Swans, Nine Inch Nails, and a slew of others. Bill befriended Hector Zazou in the '90s and made key contributions to a number of his albums.

One night when LAND played a show in a grimy bar in Olympia, Washington, I noticed an older fellow hanging around our sound check looking rather out of place. Bill introduced him simply as ‘Hector.’ Aware of Bill’s recent collaboration, I exclaimed “Hector Zazou?!”; I could scarcely believe that this august personage had turned up at our gig in, of all places, a beery rock-and-roll shithole in Olympia. It turned out that he had come to Seattle to record tracks for an upcoming CD with Bill and others. I’d been aware of Zazou for many years, going all the way back to his ZNR days. We shared a meal before the gig and hit it off well. He was evidently well-pleased with the gig and liked my playing, for after the show he invited me to join him in a Seattle studio the following day to lay down some guitar tracks for the record. Needless to say, I was stunned at my good fortune.

Strong Currents was to be similar to his previous release, the hugely successful Songs from the Cold Seas, in that each track would feature a different distinguished (in this case female) vocalist, including Lori Anderson, Jane Birkin, Lisa Germano, Peter Gabriel’s daughter Melanie, and other luminaries. The song I contributed to featured Lori Carson of Golden Palominos fame; she had not yet recorded her tracks, but I had Zazou’s backing tracks for guidance. Before we rolled tape, I found myself talking to Hector about John McLaughlin’s playing on the Tony Williams Lifetime records – he was a huge fan, as am I. We were both very taken with the dirty, almost brutal tone favored by McLaughlin in those days, and Hector suggested that as a direction for me to explore in the song we were about to record. I tried a few things along those lines before hitting on a simple, rather eerie arpeggio that Hector liked. We recorded that and a few squiggly guitar sound effects, and it was years before I finally heard the result after stumbling across the track listing on the Internet. Much to my surprise, I found that he’d made my moody arpeggio the backbone of the song “In the Middle of the Night,” and had woven my sound effects skillfully into the mix. Though there is nothing remarkable about my understated contribution, I’m very proud of the result -- which bears testimony to Zazou’s immense gifts as a composer, arranger, and connoisseur of musical talent. I was deeply honored that he included me on the record, and was shocked and very saddened to learn of his premature death just a few years later.

(Spacer)Picture: MoonJune Records' recording artists, Slivovitz, performing live in Europe.
MoonJune Records' recording artists, Moraine, performing live at NEARfest 2010 Photo Courtesy of Joe del Tufo / Studio M

Q: How was it to play with Trey Gunn? How did that happen and are there any recordings available?

I don’t want to overstate my fleeting musical relationship with Trey, though I suppose that’s what I get for shamelessly dropping his name on my musical CV! ;) This collaboration also came about through Bill Rieflin, who released an album with Fripp and Trey [The Repercussions of Angelic Behavior (First World Music)] and continues to work with him from time to time. LAND had ‘landed’ a plum gig at a major local arts festival, but our regular bassist, the fabulous Fred Chalenor (Curlew, Hughscore, Pigpen, etc.), was unable to make the date. Since Trey lived in Seattle and was a friend of the band, he stepped in for Fred at that gig. I was very impressed by how quickly he picked up the material and how strong his presence was. Unfortunately, the gig wasn’t recorded. I run into Trey around town here and there and would certainly love to play with him again.

Q: What are your plans for the near or far future, besides the new soon-to-be-released Moraine album, Metaphoric Rock: Live at NEARfest?

Various scenarios are in play for future Moraine tours -- in support of the new album, which I think our fans will love and will hopefully open up avenues to more new listeners -- including hopeful visits to Brazil and Korea in 2012. We’d also love to make it over to Europe if funding can be found. I’m optimistic that the new CD will turn some heads and result in increased opportunities for the band ... we're very pleased with it.

Iron Kim Style is dormant at the moment, but was never conceived as a regular ‘band’ in the first place – our CD was culled from some particularly inspired informal improvised sessions, and we had no intention of even releasing it outside our circle of friends until Leonardo insisted on making it a MoonJune release. We are, of course, extremely gratified at the good notices the album has received in various parts of the world.

I’ve just started a new Seattle-based trio with two excellent, highly-attuned players: drummer Tom Zgonc, and acoustic bassist John Seman. We’ll be developing some of my tunes that aren’t a good fit for Moraine, interspersed with generous amounts of improvisation. Other involvements include my longstanding processed thumb-piano trio Tempered Steel, which has a record in the can. I also appear on a forthcoming CD by the Jim Cutler Jazz Orchestra, which really stretched me out as I had never before worked in a jazz big band context. And Leonardo has suggested a trio with ex-Moraine/Iron Kim drummer Jay Jaskot and NYC bassist Clint Bahr, who previously recorded for MoonJune with the band Tripod. I’m very intrigued at the prospect, and we might just do a Rypdal cover.

Q: Lastly, a guitarist’s question: what gear are you using and in what order?

I’m currently playing a Godin LGXT guitar and it’s my favorite of all the many guitars I’ve owned over the years. I was inspired to check out the Godin models after seeing my old friend Elliott Sharp play one at a concert in Seattle. What really sends me about my model is the ability to blend the normal pickups with the remarkably authentic ‘acoustic’ sound of the bridge piezo pickups – I can now have it both ways: a rich, full-bodied, creamy tone with the added sharpness and definition of the piezos. I also have a Gibson ES-335 that is ideal for certain situations, plus an old Gibson acoustic and a Dean resonator guitar. I’m playing through a Rivera Clubster amp and am very pleased with its ability to be beefy and crisp at the same time.

I use fewer effects nowadays than in the past, mostly relying on a basic palette of clean, slightly distorted, and highly distorted tones, typically with a modest amount of delay or reverb blended in. I do make use of ring modulation, harmonizers, and other effects when the music calls for it, or when exploring the farther reaches of improv. I’ve been using a Zoom G7.1ut multi-effects floor console (with tube) for years now and am well satisfied with its tones and durability, and its ability to assign an expression pedal to any number of parameters. I also use physical preparations at times, such as materials woven between the strings and some personalized whammy-bar techniques.

Many thanks for your stimulating questions, Michel – It’s been delightful exchanging ideas with a fellow MoonJune artist and guitarist whose work I admire so much!


MORAINE: manifest deNsity  (MJR028)

IRON KIM STYLE: Iron Kim Style  (MJR031)

DENNIS REA: Views From Chicheng Precipice  (MJR034)

MORAINE: Metamorphic Rock  (MJR040)