CABEZA DE VACA ARCESTRA: EVERYTHING VIBRATES, YOU KNOW?
Jimi Cabeza De Vaca is the man who climbs the holy mountains in between playing with bands like dios (malos) and Red Cortez. On Sunday, he will conduct his visionary Cabeza De Vaca Arcestra, performing an original live score to the classic Murnau silent Faust at Cinefamily. This interview by Tom Child.
Why don’t you tell me a little bit about how the Arcestra came about?
Two years ago I saw that Glenn Branca 100 Guitar thing at the Disney Music Hall and I thought that was really great, but it made me think what I would do with all those guitars. And then I did a 20 guitar thing… just working with large people and large bodies of sound, shaping sound and seeing what I would do with that many good musicians and that was it. If other people could do it, I’d like to try it. Usually all the other things I’ve done have been really big productions, but it’s all productions like where we layer keyboards and layer guitars, but trying it live… there’s a difference between hearing six guitar players and six amps coming at you as opposed to six amps that are recorded onto one track coming out of two speakers. There’s a different sonic world that you just have to experience. It’s a whole other side to what’s going on. What I learned from that Glenn Branca thing was, ‘This is what eighty guitar players and twenty bass players sound like when you’re in a room with them.’ That was the only time that I’d ever experienced that and I don’t know if I ever will again. It’s just about that experience of being surrounded by so much sound.
Other than Branca, has there been anyone else doing that sort of thing who has influenced you?
In terms of numbers? No. No, at least not Western pop or classical music. I’ve been working with an orchestra a lot. I’ve written and conducted some pieces for an orchestra and that’s a completely different world but it’s still using large masses of sound. When you’re conducting those large groups of people and you’re right in the middle, it’s another sound experience. But no, it was just really the Glenn Branca experience. It made me think more about live sound and things like that.
How did you find the members of the Arcestra?
There are two sides to it. There are the people I’ve been playing with for a while like Rich Polysorbate. He’s from that generation of musicians who have those great last names. And I’m from the generation of people who have names of animals in their last names. I was playing with Rich through the Cacophony Society. I met him when I was pretty young and he was doing some really weird things—these Cacophony Society events—and I’d play along with him and people associated with him. He plays with Nora [Keyes]. And I’d been watching the Centimeters, I’d always liked her voice. It’s really kind of magical. It’s really hard to describe her voice, it’s really one of a kind and so there’s that side… people I’ve been playing with in that world. Then there are people who I’ve met at Cal Arts. People who are really great musicians and they have this really great training but they’re there at Cal Arts because they want to try new things. They think they’ve reached the peak of anything you could do on their instruments and they don’t want to play any of the things that other people are playing so they’re always on the look out. They just like to experiment, you know. So they were really open to doing things and they’re all amazing musicians. So it’s a good attitude and really good musicianship. You combine that with the other side, like Rich and Nora and all the things they’re in to, their really specific talents… it just kind of mixes well together and it’s cool. But It’s not just those two sides, people that I work with in their musical projects get recruited to participate in my events. Leviathan brother Sean [O’Connell] is a good example of that. And then there are other people I’ve met and the more I do it, I seem to pick up people who see the shows and are moved by what’s going on and they want to participate and I just find ways to work everything in. Like Kim, the dancer, she saw the seance we did and was really interested in that side of music, in the whole ritual that we put on, and I wanted to do an exorcism so we did a sonic exorcism with her. And I let things happen naturally too. Let them go where they’re supposed to go and just gently guide them.
How does the ritual aspect work with what you’re doing?
I did a show at Cal Arts where before anyone walked they were anointed with Dorado Azul, which opens up your pineal gland… I think that whole experience where you walk in and it’s dark and we do things with lighting, too… I think it’s just to create a mood and gently ease everybody into the same head space and then take it from there once everyone’s on the same page. Everything vibrates, you know? Everything resonates and all your organs…it gets kind of complicated but it’s like sound baths? I don’t know if you’ve ever had a sound bath… they use those crystal bowls. Each of your organs resonates at a certain frequency and if you play that frequency your organs will vibrate and you get this massage. Your organs are massaged… and your chakras…. my goal is to do a thing with each piece of the music in the key of very specific things, whether it’s an organ or a mountain… or a large group of people. That’s kind of where it comes from, just to get the room and everyone to resonate… to use the whole Arcestra, because everything is in a certain key, to play to the room and to the people who are in the room… for everybody to be on the same frequency. That’s a big goal and I don’t know if it’s ever going to work right, but that’s the direction I want to go… to do these things with sound. A lot of times you can get away with not doing so much with melody or harmony… just a lot of repetition and eventually just forget your body maybe?
You mentioned the Branca performance, but have there been any other rock or pop shows you’ve attended where you came out and thought that there was really something more going on than you just enjoying the show through your ears?
I think to do that, it helps if that’s your intention. I’ve been studying a lot of Indian music and the way the music and the religion is tied together, I think that works. I think it has to be there from the beginning, has to be part of the intention.
As you’re playing the music, are you getting the kind of response in yourself that you want the audience to experience? Are you feeling it too, basically?
When we get together and we all do it outside of a show context, when I’m not thinking about anything, yeah, I think we all get on that same page and we can all reach that point. But it’s hard to do that in an environment when you walk into a a room and it’s half us and half them. I think the next time we do it, which might make it easier, is if we… I think the next thing we do is going to be with the dancer, but there’s going to be twelve of us in a circle and she’ll be in the middle and it’ll be set up with people around us so that we create the circle that people have to look in on. It’s kind of weird but I’ll try it out and if it works it works, and if not there are other directions to take it. I think every time we play it’s going to be a different experience, depending on where we play and what’s going on.
Do you have any intent to do any recording with this or this is primarily a live performance piece?
I think we’re going to record an album at the Integratron over the summer. It’s this building out in Joshua Tree. It’s just made of wood, there’s no metal in it at all. Acoustically, it’s like being inside the body of a cello. The way it’s built, it’s got these great sound pockets. They give sound baths up there. The people who own practice sound healing. It was built by this ex-Air Force general who met some aliens who gave him plans to build the Integratron. The dimensions of it, all the specifics of the building were given to him by aliens. It was supposed to eventually fly and take off but he died before it was 100% completed and all his papers went missing and it never reached that point. There’s a conspiracy theory behind that. He got a lot of people to fund it, a lot of big names paid money to have it built. He was a legit dude, he just had this crazy story. You should look it up.
I know that you incorporate a lot of elements of the esoteric and the occult in your performances. Can you talk about how these things caught your interest?
I’d been playing music forever, but my rebirth, musical and otherwise, came after my hip replacement. Before that, it was all touring. I think touring really made me have to get the hip replacement at such a young age, kind of wore me down. And then going through not being able to walk for a while and taking all that medication just to make it through the day, and then finally having the hip replacement, going through all of that….it took me on a journey and led me to that point where I wanted to search through music for things. I like playing with bands. I still work with a lot of people I used to work with and even more. But I wanted my own personal music experience to be less about that element of it. It made me do a lot of searching and led me to another side of the world, you know? The way music exists outside of Western popular music. I’ve always been in a band, but there are a billion other ways music exists and happens and I’m interested in all of them.
How is alchemy incorporated into your work on the Faust film?
The movie is about an alchemist. I’ve been…I wouldn’t say ‘studying’ alchemy, but there’s a lecture series at the Philosophical Research Society over there on Griffith Park Boulevard every other Saturday by Maja D’Aoust. It’s been a ten-lecture series and it’s on alchemy. That’s been a great learning experience for me. So I’d say brush up on alchemy before coming to watch this show and maybe you’ll learn how to make gold.
Have you seen the Hermetic Museum book? My knowledge of all that stuff is so limited and based purely on the aesthetics of the imagery. I have no idea what’s going on, but I just love looking at those pictures.
Well, that’s because there’s so much to it. You see it and you acknowledge that there’s something there and I think you will absolutely unlock those secrets eventually. I think that’s why those pieces of art are made with all those symbols, to pass on information through time. It’s there for you when you’re ready. Rich and Nora… this whole Arcestra is sort of built around things I’d been doing with Rich for a long time and he brought Nora in… but talking to them is really great. They have these really well informed, strong opinions about our world. They go to the P.R.S. too.. .and Dana, the flute player goes to the P.R.S. as well. So some people have come from that world and i believe you can hear it in our music. Especially since Nora is channel singing, she puts a lot into the music. It’s a big part of the music.
Outside of music, have you had any experiences that you’d categorize as unexplainable or supernatural, for lack of a better word? Things that can’t be categorized in the Western scientific tradition?
Yeah, yeah…well, that’s…um, I have magic hands, you know? I’ve been through a lot, physically, experiencing insane amounts of pain…and I think that takes you to a really far out place. It brings you a huge amount of empathy as well. It’s taken my magic to a different level. There’s so much to talk about with that. It’s a whole other conversation.
Talk a little bit about the lineup of who’s playing the Faust score with you.
Well, Nora’s going to be the voice of Faust, which is great because like I said her voice is amazing. We’ve got a Theremin player, two percussion players, three guitar players, upright bass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, two throat singers. We added those for the dancer and that was really great, when those voices are amplified, it’s a huge sound …they’re the voice of God and they’re there to support Nora too. Piano—Leviathan Brother Sean’s going to be playing piano…and what else? Uh, you know, string players are kind of hard to work with but there might be a couple string players. The good ones are hard to get a hold of. To be that good, they’ve been playing for a very long time, they’re very serious about what they do and they’re very precise people, so maybe they’re not flaky, maybe it’s just me. But they’re the opposite of band people, but that’s been good. I think I’m right in the middle. I’m able to work with band people and classical people, like a translator between the two worlds. A lot of classical people, you have to be really exact with musical direction with them or else they get kind of lost. And band dudes like to improvise. It works out though. The best thing is that everyone from the get go knows what’s going on. They’ve seen it and they like what’s happening and they want to participate…it’s not like, ‘Woah, what the fuck are you guys doing? You guys didn’t tell me you were going to be doing this weird shit.’ You know, it’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s a seance in D minor.’
How did you go about composing the score to the film? Were you able to watch Faust and come up with ideas from there? Did you improvise live while it was playing with the band?
A little bit of both. There are themes for certain characters. All the players are really good. I’ve worked with them before with other things, so asking them to play, I know what I’m getting and they know what they’re getting. So I’ll say, ‘Well, ok, here’s the theme for the devil,’ and I’ll play it on my guitar and then I’ll say, ‘Ok, when these things happen, play the theme,’ but when I say ‘Play the theme,’ they know I’m not just saying play it exactly like I play it. That theme is shared by three guitar players who listen to each other and work well with each other and at times will be sharing that theme or variations of it and then people catch on to that. Or I’ll set up keys for different scenes or I’ll give certain scenes to a player. There’s a scene where Faust is being chased by the devil and that’s like, well, ok, this is Nora who will be singing because it’s Faust and then the theremin will be playing…and they’ve played together before too so the way they play together is really good. So, it’s kind of structured improvisation, but it’s broken up so it’s not just chaos the whole time and everyone’s playing. Everyone knows when to come in, knows when to be quiet, knows when everyone’s playing and then there’s builds and things drop out. Everyone gets their time to do their thing and it connects with the movie. There’s a carpet ride scene and in that scene it’s piano and flute. And I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen between the two of them but there’s enough structure for everybody to work it out. And because they’re all good musicians, it gives everybody room to breathe and room to play and to let things unfold and work it out.
THE CABEZA DE VACA ARCESTRA PERFORMS A LIVE SCORE TO FAUST ON SUN., APR, 12, AT THE SILENT MOVIE THEATRE, 611 N. FAIRFAX AVE., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM / $14 / ALL AGES. CINEFAMILY.ORG.