Thrilled beyond belief I think to publish our Q&A with Allen Ravenstine, the original keyboard eschewing (it's true!) synthesizer player in Cleveland's almightily influential and wildly entertaining Pere Ubu.
Most recently Allen has been working with SmogVeil records to release his long lost electronic sonata, Terminal Drive. Allen's also put out City Desk and Farm Report, collaborations with his successor at the dials in Pere Ubu, Robert Wheeler. There's also the remarkable Pharoah's Bee which you can hear here, on Spotify.
Anyway this is a straight Q&A with Allen, so that we we don't fuck with his answers.
OUTSIDELEFT: Can we begin with Terminal Drive, since that’s what brought me here. The original Terminal Drive recording predates Pere Ubu?
Allen Ravenstine: TD predates Ubu. I played it for Peter Laughner in 1975 shortly after it was finished. He liked it and I was asked to participate in the making of the first Ubu single which was 30 Seconds Over Tokyo made later that year or early the next.
OL: Is that Music? Is Terminal Drive music? It's like an aural sculpture or something, carved into the air. Like those 3-D Frank Stella items... I saw you described your pieces as Tone Poems…
AR: To some it is music, to some I’m sure it’s only noise. I’m a primitive, not trained in any art form. The things I do are improvisational, one layer at a time. One sound suggests another. TD is an abstract work. I have described what I do as tone poems. I have also described them as sonic paintings.
As Duke Ellington said. “If it sounds good it is good.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
OL: Was there anything you could listen to ever back then and say " I wanna sound like that?" I read somewhere you were influenced by the French Musiqué concrete movement, I don't know about that, your recordings seem to be of a different frequency altogether?
AR: I have not been influenced by Musiqué Concrete. To my knowledge I have never heard any. My mother played the piano and liked classical music. My father listened to jazz. There was always music in the house when I was growing up. I have not tried to sound like anyone else. I make what comes to me.
OL: Terminal Drive was 'lost' for the longest time... Are you able to talk about that a little about how it was recovered?
AR: Some time ago a couple of folks contacted me wanting to know if I had the work. I didn’t think I did but, I made an effort to find it. I went so far as to take some old reels of tape to a studio to have a listen. It turned out that I didn’t keep the original tapes or a copy. We’re talking about something I made more than forty years ago. I was just experimenting, making things, fooling around with sound and a tape recorder. I made a number of compositions in those days that I gave away. The thought that I might be making something that had historic value didn’t occur to me.
Frank Mauceri of SmogVeil records with the help of Nick Blakey persisted in an effort find a copy of the work. Eventually he did. I was asked to identify the piece and when I was sure that he had it, we came to an agreement about releasing it. I have communicated with the person who had the tape. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t remember how he came to have it.
OL: You're associated I guess with EML synthesizers, and they had a reputation for being 'indestructible' that would have been important right, for early synthesizers, I mean they could be frustrating and might get subject to harm.
AR: My understanding is that EML was contracted by the state of Connecticut to build a synthesizer that could be used to teach grade school kids the rudiments of “electron music” as it was called at the time. The contract required that the units be durable. Your question implies that in a fit of frustration I might be inclined to punish the instrument. That’s not me, I don’t get angry and break things.
OL: At first you didn't want to join Pere Ubu's live shows I wondered if that was because synths could be unreliable. There's a lot to go wrong…
AR: I wasn’t interested in doing live shows for two reasons as I recall, the first was that I didn’t see how my approach to the instrument could be adapted to live performance. Changing the patches was time consuming. The second was that I didn’t see myself as a stage performer. I liked working in a studio environment.
I went to all of the shows they did without me and came to understand how I could make it work, and decided that I would rather be involved than be left out but, I never enjoyed being on stage.
OL: Recently in what seems like a huge burst of activity, you've put out three albums on the Smog Veil Record label... The Pharoah's Bee, and then with Robert Wheeler City Desk and Farm Report, can you talk at all about these, this activity, Smog Veil label?
AR: I hadn’t given any thought to making music for many years, and then one day Wheeler called and said some folks making a documentary about modular analog synthesizers and the people who played them wanted to contact me about being in the movie. He was asking if he could give them my number. He and I were friendly but, not close, at the time. I asked if the film makers were interested in him too. He said they were and I said I’d participate if he was planning to. We ended up going to Toronto and then to the Grant Avenue studio in Hamilton. I had asked if EMLs would be available and told they would be. And I had said if it were possible for Robert and I to play together, I would be interested in doing that. Involved in the event was a man named William Blakeney, he was a facilitator and oversaw logistics. He is also a founder of the Electronic Music Foundation, and trained as an audio engineer among other things. Robert and I had a chance to play and without us knowing it, the studio was recording. We played for something over two hours without being aware of the time that passed. City Desk and Farm Report came from that session. The movie that was being made is “I Dream of Wires” and some of the session was filmed for it. Bill Blakeney decided we should take the session and put it out on CD. He produced it. The recording was done in February of 2012. At Christmas time, Bill gifted me with a Moog Theremini. I decided that the best way to thank him was to make something with it. I made some GarageBand recordings and he was very receptive and offered a lot of encouragement. I haven’t stopped working since. As you point out, there are three CDs out now, and there is enough material for three more. One that Bill is participating in and producing that we hope to release in the Spring is “Waiting for the Bomb.”
Since the making of the film, Robert and I have become close. We communicate regularly and I have been to visit him on his farm in western Ohio.
Frank Mauceri at SmogVeil is connected to Hearpen and Ubu Projex. David Thomas was happy to see that I was working again and was quick to say yes to distributing Pharaoh’s Bee. Frank also agreed and has since been willing to distribute City Desk and Farm Report. Chris Cutler at Recommended Records is also a supporter, and he released a limited CD edition of Pharaoh’s Bee. Another Englishman named Paul Smith is planning to release Bee on vinyl in the spring of 2018 on his Moog Recordings Library label.
OL: What does it do for you, being regarded as the Jimi Hendrix of the synthesizer? Legendary, influential, unique sonic force and still alive?
AR: I’m not aware of ever having been called that, and don’t know why I would be. Funny story about Hendrix though; when I first moved into the apartment in Manhattan that my wife and I have had now for more than twenty years, one of my neighbors said there was something about it that I might like to know. She said that years ago it was owned by a fashion designer whose clothes Hendrix liked and that he was a frequent visitor.
OL: If there was one Allen Ravenstine track everyone should listen to that I can link to here, what would it be? Where should we start?
AR: I can’t really come up with a single track that best represents all that I do. Each record is different. The one I am working on now is a departure from the things I have done in the past. Here's a link to a track called “Dry Bones” from “The Pharaoh’s Bee.”
OL: I am trying not to say anything about Pere Ubu and just how exciting that music and the whole Pere Ubu thing is for me. Anything to say about that?
AR: I am very lucky to have been in that place and time. It was truly kismet. To have been a young man in the inner city and connected to those people, was an unlikely scenario. Nothing in my life to that point would have led one to think such a thing would happen. It was a gift. I got to do wonderful things and see wonderful places and meet people who are still a part of my life. It wasn’t always easy, or fun, at times it was very painful but, it was remarkable and I am very grateful for the experience.
OL: Finally, I read somewhere and am excited to know that you have an unpublished novel... Will it ever be?
AR: I did write a novel and it was rejected by a number of people. It was written on a word processor and the original text was lost in a hard drive crash. No paper copies exist. It wasn’t any good anyway. I did write some short stories that survive. They covered a fairly broad range of topics. One about being in a rock band is called “Music Lessons.” It was translated into French and Italian for publications in those countries, and an English version of it is in the Penguin Book of Rock and Roll Writing.
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