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Experimental Guitarist Brandon Seabrook Explores Dark Side Of Drums On New Album

Menacing voices, sizzling electric-guitar clusters, Theremin-like electronic swooshes, vicious counterpoint and two drummers bashing the hell out of toms and snares.

The sound world of "Die Trommel Fatale," the new album by guitarist Brandon Seabrook (to released on June 16), is anything but plaintive, the jump-cut product of a restless, thrill-seeking musical mind, like hitting "scan" on your car's FM radio if all the stations were slightly out of range and also operated by Satan.

For years, Seabrook has been a steady presence in New York City's various experimental and avant-garde music scenes. He's worked with Anthony Braxton, Gerald Cleaver and Elliott Sharp; led or co-led smaller groups, including Seabrook Power Plant and Needle Driver; and even found new gears of solo-banjo shred on "Sylphid Vitalizers," a 2014 album. "Die Trommel Fatale," recorded last summer, finds Seabrook moving confidently into large-group work, steering two drummers, two bassists, a cellist and a vocalist through brutal — and sometimes beautiful — musical landscapes.

Seabrook brings his "Trommel" septet (drummers Dave Treut and Sam Ospovat, cellist Marika Hughes, bassists Eivind Opsvik and Henry Fraser, and vocalist/electronics manipulator Chuck Bettis) to Firehouse 12 in New Haven on June 2. He spoke about the new album and what it means to lead a seven-piece ensemble.

Q: Has this ensemble performed together in front of audiences recently?

A: We've just been rehearsing. We started this about a year and a half ago, doing a couple of workshops and performances leading up to the recording. We did some gigs around town, but I wasn't really pushing them. It's difficult putting all these people together. We're finally getting out now. We recorded last summer. That helped us develop it. By the time we get to New Haven, I think we'll be more of a cohesive unit.

Q: Why these players?

A: Seven people who come from slightly different backgrounds: That was the point. I didn't want to have a group of totally insane shredders, totally insane personalities all the time. I have a few insane personalities and a few ensemble players who can improvise, too.

Putting seven people together: At first, I thought it was going to be easy. We're all good, everybody can play, everyone's versatile in an array of styles. People can have a noise vocabulary. People can read in 9/8, then switch to 4/4. Everybody can do all of those things, but everybody has a different intensity about those things. Some are more extreme. I wanted to have a group like that, because all of my other albums are completely insane. Everybody's going really fast and shredding, and it's really dense. I wanted a density, but a different kind of density.

Having this instrumentation forced me to think about dynamics more, how to bring these different elements out, how to put together a set, how to put together an album. I always think about an album when I put a band together, even though no one really listens to albums anymore. I still think about Side One and Side Two: What else do we need on this album? But I'm really lucky. All of the musicians are into it. Anytime that happens, I'm always flattered, and also, I don't know how to handle it.

Q: When you're surrounded by six players, as opposed to a smaller group or playing solo, how does your role change? What happens to your own voice, so to speak?

A: Every time I've led my own project, I'm not at 100 percent of my playing. You have all of these other things to think about. With this band, there's a lot more cueing. I always like really drastic changes. I'm very mercurial. I like things to happen and for textures to change very fast, for things to go all over the place. I'm playing as an ensemble player more, because I'm inside the ensemble more, blending with different instruments, blending with bass and cello, going from a quiet cluster sound to a shredding sound to playing a tune.

The drummers are who I'm most specific with. We're not using any crash or ride cymbals, which drummers play a lot. There are only hi-hats, which can be muted. Instead of reaching a stick over to smash a ride cymbal, they're hitting drums. I didn't want to cramp their styles by saying, "No cymbals here or here, but you can play cymbals here." So instead, I just said, "No cymbals." They were really responsive. Drummers are left out of a lot of decisions in bands: "You're the drummer, come up with a part." They said, "Yeah, I love this. It's a concept. I don't do this normally." They really loved that.

My own playing is a little less prominent, but sometimes, in a way, that gets you excited. It makes you feel like the first time you ever played. As a sideman, all you're doing is playing. Here, there are so many other things, but it makes you dive in and come up with ideas that are different. It takes you somewhere else. For me, I always feel like I don't play as well, but musicians are crazy.

Q: Conceptually, why center an album around the drums?

A: I just love drums. I've heard a lot of albums with two drummers. This is a terrible answer, but I wanted a really specific type of drum sound. I wrote a lot of the parts out and I have them doing specific things. I wanted to have that polytonality that only comes with two drums. It's brutal. I picked two drummers who have two different styles.

Q: The mercurial thing: Where does that impulse come from?

A: I think it comes from the challenge of pulling it off. I love jump-cut films and fast changes in sound and pictures. It's a challenge to me, to make that happen in a way that's musical. It's a histrionic performance thing. It's kind of ridiculous: Let's see if we can make music out of this. It's just the way I hear it. I love when things are constantly changing. There's drama to it. It's attention-seeking behavior, in a way. I'm pretty shy outside of music, but you're going to get a reaction. I think about not giving into the audience. You need to pummel them over the head. Give them what you're going to do. It's musical, and also a performance tool.

Q: Speaking of audiences: Firehouse 12 is a very listening-centered space. You've also played in DIY punk spaces. Does good music come out of both situations?

A: Logistically, I prefer a space like Firehouse 12 for this band, because of the sound. This band has played DIY spaces too. It helps you figure things out in terms of presentation. In the development of a band, at least with my nmusic, you eed to be able to go into any space, set up in 20 minutes and figure out a way to make it sound good, even if you can't hear the cello or the guitar is too loud. But we don't change anything we do in any space we play in. We're not going to change anything we do. I've been in bands that change for different venues, but I don't think that really works. Going into a DIY space, you have to realize, "OK, I'm going to get drowned out 60 percent of this performance, but 40 percent of it, I'm going to be really in it." I've got people in this band that know how to deal with that. You can show up to a huge jazz festival in Europe, as I've done as a sideman, and have a 5-minute sound check with a terrible monitor mix. You can't hear anything. That happens a lot: you're playing for 7,000 people, but you just get a line check.

Q: Do you perform the material in order?

A: Yeah, it's pretty much the order of the album. I like to go Broadway when I play out. I like to present the same order, same set, same arc every time, though some of the arrangements change from night to night. Some of the sections are extended or shortened or reworked. It's always a work in progress. As we learn this music, we get better at it. I'm trying to get more improvisation into the live set. But I like to keep the order as close to the same thing as possible. You learn it as a piece. It's a performance, like "Phantom of the Opera."

Q: To play this kind of music, you need incredible technique, but maybe not in the traditional sense. Is that fair to say?

A: You have to get outside. You have to get into the gestural world. It's a physical thing. It's also a confidence thing, to be able to say, "I'm going to commit to this idea." It's hard. The chops and the practice help you do it, but it's the other. It's intuition, what you want to get across, which for me isn't always about the notes. It's the gesture, the emotion, the vibrations of the air.

BRANDON SEABROOK performs at Firehouse 12 in New Haven on June 2 at 8:30 p.m. ($20) and 10 p.m. ($15). firehouse12.com

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